Friday, May 27, 2011

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe

--I have more detailed notes and extensive quotations from the Introduction and Chapter One; ask me if you want any of those citations. I got kind of lazy after that, and skipped Part Two (Ch. 5-8) because it's pretty superfluous in terms of Theory. Unless you're really into literary modernism in the Bengali middle class...So only the summaries from Intro-Ch.4 + Epilogue are up here. Also worth reading is Zizek's (admittedly selective and polemical) summary and critique of the book: cf. Living in the End Times, pp. 280-5--
Summary: The way in which we write history, and indeed engage in social-scientific theoretical thinking on the whole, is fundamentally compromised by the silent, often unacknowledged and unavoidable referent of an imagined “Europe.” The project to provincialize this Europe is about articulating the non-unitary experience of political modernity which especially characterizes the postcolonial paradox: to be formed and to form the self as a modern political subject yet to remain in the waiting room of a history that has already been foretold (eg. in the case of India, constitutionally recognizing universal adult franchise from the nation's inception, without the prior guarantee of universal education). In order to write back a plural history of power into this unitary historicist narrative, which is inextricably linked to the idea of the political, we need first to question the universal nature of secular, homogeneous historical time, and reject the facile sociological explanation for gods and spirits as agents. Religion, to recall Mandair, mediates India's entry into political modernity; this book only partially touches on this idea, preferring to articulate alternatives in terms of the Heideggerian hermeneutic tradition, which pays close attention to the diversity of particular life-worlds, and acknowledging the indispensability of but moving beyond the Marxist analytic tradition, which deals in abstract universals.
Chapter 1: Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History
Summary: This chapter is a reworking of Chakrabarty's programmatic statement on provincializing Europe from 1992. The idea is simple enough: imperalist and third-world histories are written into a narrative of transition, which reproduces European archetypes of political modernity. Even in the case of Indian subaltern studies, the political subject is perceived in terms of lack, absence, incompleteness, which echoes an old Orientalist trope. The “Indian” subject is a paradox: split between a modern elite and to-be-educated peasantry, yet folded into a prefigured narrative of the cohesive nation-state; the violence and ambivalences which have accompanied these conflicts are too numerous in post-1947 history to recount. Rather than maintain this narrative of lack, we should attempt to read plenitude into the formation of the modern Indian subject, inasmuch as it is frequently articulated (through the quintessentially modern media of biographies, novels, etc.) in antihistorical, nonmodern ways—articulations which do not conform themselves to the metanarratives or teleologies of (European) history. A final insight of this chapter is that the project to provincialize Europe is grounded on a critique and transcendence of liberalism, which combines late Marx, poststructuralist thought, and feminist philosophy.
Chapter 2: The Two Histories of Capital
Summary: “Capital” in Marx is a philosophical-historical category, constituted by two histories. History 1 is a past posited by capital itself as its precondition, while History 2 consists of “antecedents to capital” which do not necessarily contribute to the self-reproduction of capital (63-4): in other words, the particular, diverse life-worlds of the worker. This latter history does not represent an alternative narrative to capital—that is, it does not occupy the position of a dialectical Other—but rather punctuates the totalizing thrust of History 1 (66). Through the reading of “abstract labor” in this chapter, the very category “capital” becomes a site where both the universal history of capital and the politics of human belonging are allowed to interrupt each other's narrative (70).
  • "The idea of “abstract labor” also leads us to the question of how the logic of capital relates to the issue of historical difference. As is well known, the idea of “history” was central to Marx’s philosophical understanding of “capital.” “Abstract labor” gave Marx a way of explaining how the capitalist mode of production managed to extract from peoples and histories that were all different a homogenous and common unit for measuring human activity. “Abstract labor” may thus be read as part of an account of how the logic of capital sublates into itself the differences of history. In the second part of this chapter, however, I try to develop a distinction that Marx made between two kinds of histories: histories “posited by capital” and histories that do not belong to capital’s “life process.” I call them History 1 and History 2, and I explore the distinction between them to show how Marx’s thoughts may be made to resist the idea that the logic of capital sublates differences into itself. I conclude this chapter by trying to open Marxian categories up to some Heideggerian ruminations on the politics of human diversity." (50)
Ch. 3: Translating Life-Worlds into Labor and History
Summary: The politics of translation assumes a higher third term—such as the scientific H²O between pani and water—a measure of equivalence which makes generalized exchange possible. But reading historical difference back into, say, narratives of labor—the History 2 of Chapter 2—requires the abandonment of the third term: to think of translation as a process of barter rather than exchange. This chapter examines the academic, social-scientific writing of secular history as involving translations of the first kind, which are complicated by such practices as constitute a History 2: the participation of gods and spirits in subaltern histories, in which humans are not the only meaningful agents.
The subject here is the academic discipline of history, which, as a code, “invokes a natural, homogeneous, secular, calendrical time without which the story of human evolution/civilization...cannot be told” (74). The modern social sciences share this take recourse to this idea of time as “a basic building block,” and hence belong to the Newtonian model of “a higher, overarching language...a structure of generality, an aspiration toward the scientific” (75-6). However, the realm of “the religious, the supernatural, the divine, and the ghostly” challenges the disenchanted prose which social science seems to take for granted, as though particular gods could be explained by the universal language of contexts (76). The problem of translating “specific life-worlds into universal sociological categories” (78) is a specifically postcolonial one: one embedded in the Subaltern Studies collective's engagement with the question of social justice in capitalist societies. Chakrabarty singles out for critique the academic social sciences, because they participate in “a general economy of exchange made possible through the emergence of abstract, generalizing categories,” thereby obliterating “the tensions of irreducible plurality” which may be possible in such non-secular histories of labor as those of Richard Eaton's Sufi weavers (81). In other words, the very language of social-science writing is permeated by the impulse to generalize, whereas the gods and spirits (in this case, Tio and malik devata) defy this impulse by way of their singularity (83).
At this point, Chakrabarty appeals to “models of cross-cultural and cross-categorical translations that do not take a universal middle term for granted” (83). The “implicit universals that inhere in the sociological imagination” (85) results in a historicism which carries a “modernist elitism that silently lodges itself in our everyday consciousness” (87), and displays itself in bureaucracies and institutions of all kinds; yet even if their critique has to be secular, as Chakrabarty asserts, the disenchantment inherent in such critique places limits on how we narrate the past (89). Thus part of the project to provincialize Europe, and consequently, punctuate the universalizing, homogenizing thrust of global capital, involves being aware of the “scandalous aspects of our unavoidable translations” (91).
The chapter's conclusion is a kind of self-critical attempt to write “'difference' back into Marx” (92). Chakrabarty mobilizes his earlier exegesis of Marx's concepts of real and abstract labor to show that the world of heterogeneity to which “real labor” belongs cannot be captured within a secular historical narrative of commodity production, constantly challenging the “unity and universality” of capital and commodity (93). The subaltern historian therefore holds in his/her writing the subject of this alternative narrative, this “figure of difference that governmentality...all over the world has to subjugate and civilize” (94). Subaltern histories are still Marxist histories, since they happen “within the time horizon of capital,” but they always gesture at “something which disrupts the unity of that time” (95). In this sense we can read Chakrabarty as making the subaltern the agent of history, by questioning the limits of history itself.
Chapter 4: Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts
Summary: Minority histories, or “histories from below,” are basic elements of liberal-democratic struggles for inclusion and representation (97). They don't fundamentally question the discipline of history, which does not allow for non-historicist forms of historical consciousness to affect the nature of historical discourse. This is because “good histories,” or once-oppositional narratives which are molded to participate in democratic (or nationalist, or socialist) teleologies, have to have some minimal ground in “rationality” (99). However, “minority” itself is a difficult term, since it need not be measured numerically; we should have instead to deal with “subaltern pasts”: nonmodern relationships to the past, particular life-worlds not necessarily of the “minority,” which are subordinated to the modern impulse to historicize (100-1). Exemplary is Ranajit Guha vs. the Santal Rebellion: the anthropologist recourse to respectful distance (or Marxist reasoning of false consciousness) vs. the gods and spirits as real agents (102-5). No third voice can mediate between these two; they must both be held within “the gap...that signals an irreducible plurality within our experience of historicity” (108).
Does nonmodern way of being give us life possibilities for the present? Subaltern pasts, insofar as they are always our contemporaries, make us recognize the “disjuncture of the present within itself” (109). They are “signposts of the border” between the modern and the medieval, which we at once historicize and make contemporary (110). In fact, we are allowed to historicize only because we have the experience of the present as noncontemporaneous with itself: those medieval worlds are never completely lost (112). Disenchantment is not the only way of being in the world.
Epilogue: Reason and Historicism
Summary: The rational outlook of historical or anthropological consciousness does not allow the subject to investigate him/herself. Secular, historicist narratives, infused with the progressive ideals of Enlightenment thought, have relegated the premodern to the realm of irrational superstition, overemphasizing the chasm between the modern and premodern, and basically resulting in teleological, “uneven development” accounts. This tension can be observed in the writings of postcolonials such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Appiah, and D.D. Kosambi: “They refer us to the plurality that inheres in the “now,” the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness, that constitutes one’s present” (243). Modern historical consciousness, the very condition of political modernity, speaks a desire to objectify the past as well as to be liberated from it (244). Historicism largely follows this relationship to the past: a sense of autonomy with respect to history. “Decisionism,” on the other hand, both involves freedom from history as well as respect for its constructive aspects (247). These are not mutually exclusive options. Something something Heidegger. We need to move away from vulgar historicism to the radical, irreducible, un-totalizable plurality of the “now” and of historical experience: to provincialize Europe by holding the European analytic and hermeneutic traditions together in an anticolonial gesture of gratitude (251-5). Fin.