Sunday, September 15, 2013

Dipesh Chakrabarty's "Provincializing Europe"

Chakrabarty's project in this book is not so much to subvert the rational-secular view of history, inherited by postcolonial societies from the European enlightenment, as to see around the limitations of that view. In order to do so, one has to give up historicism, the idea of development in history, and of stages in history. Instead, one holds on to the idea of the heterogeneous present, when different world-views are not judged as pre-modern, modern, or even, post-modern (all stageist concepts) but as all life-possibilities. Only when we see the present as irreducibly plural, can we give an accurate account of the past of post-colonial societies. That is the challenge posed by subaltern studies to the dominant European paradigm. The book lays out its theoretical argument in its first part, and illustrates its argument in the second part with specific case studies about Indian widowhood, Indian nationalism, a form of Bengali sociality called adda, and salaried labor. The author freely describes his own theoretical orientation as derived from Marx but inflected by Heidegger.

In my favorite passage, Chakrabarty shows, incidentally, the relevance of his argument to so-called minority pasts in the predominant secular-rational tradition, in this case, the Christian view.

We can--and we do usually in writing history--treat the Santal [Indian peasant] of the nineteenth century to doses of historicism and anthropology. We can, in other words, treat him as a signifier of other times and societies. This gesture maintains a subject-object relationship between the historian and the evidence. In this gesture, the past remains genuinely dead; the historian brings it "alive" by telling the story. But the Santal with his statement "I did as my god told me to do" also faces us as a way of being in this world, and we could ask ourselves: Is that way of being a possibility for our own lives and for what we define as our present? Does the Santal help us to understand a principle by which we also live in certain instances? This question does not historicize or anthropologize the Santal, for the illustrative power of the Santal as an example of a present possibility does not depend on his otherness. Here the Santal stands as our contemporary and the subject-object relationship that normally defines the historian's relationship to his or her archives is dissolved in this gesture. This gesture is akin to the one Kierkegaard developed in critiquing explanations that looked on the Biblical story of Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac either as deserving an historical or psychological explanation or as a metaphor or allegory, but never as a possibility for life open today to one who had faith. "[W]hy bother to remember a past," asked Kierkegaard, "that cannot be made into a present?" 
To stay with the heterogeneity of the moment when the historian meets with the peasant is, then, to stay with the difference between these two gestures. One is that of historicizing the Santal in the interest of a history of social justice and democracy; and the other, that of refusing to historicize and of seeing the Santal as a figure illuminating a life possibility for the present. Taken together, the two gestures put us in touch with the plural ways of being that make up our own present. The archives thus help bring to view the disjointed nature of any particular "now" one may inhabit; that is the function of subaltern pasts. 

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