"'Are We There Yet?': 'History' as a Postcolonial Dilemma"


Chun-yen Jo Chen

Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

Copyright © 2003 by Chun-yen Jo Chen, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. xii + 301 pp.

  1. Recent theorization of globalization seems to downplay the relevance of the question of history in cultural inquiries. One example is the much discussed book Empire (by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, pub. 2000), whose emphasis on the flattening of cultural difference under globalization and on spatial dimensions of social practice (including ethico-political possibilities for anti-Empire action) well illustrates globalization theory's maneuver of a paradigm shift in cultural critique away from the question of history. But is it true that history is no longer of importance in the understanding of modern world? Does globalization theory's downsizing of the centrality of the past pose a threat to postcolonial studies, whose defining characteristic is nothing less than the engagement with colonial pasts? Can postcolonial studies afford to do without a consideration of history?

  2. Dipesh Chakrabarty's Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Though and Historical Difference should be read within the context of the growing tension -- and occasionally interpenetration -- between postcolonial studies and globalization theory on the relevance of history. The basic proposition of the book is characteristically postcolonialist in that it seeks to unearth the Eurocentric underpinnings of historicism-the latter, for Chakrabarty, would include not only the concept of historical time as linear or evolutional ("the idea that to understand anything it has to be seen both as a unity and in its historical development" [6]), the discursive repetitions of this concept as an institutionalized entity, but also the justification of colonization in the name of speeding up modernization of those regions that are behind in history. Even though Chakrabarty does not dialogue directly with globalization theory, his spatialized conception of historicism -- that is, his criticism of the ideology of "Europe first, the rest of the world later" (6) in historicism -- does serve as a useful critique of globalization theory's negligence of "the deep ties that bind together historicism as a mode of thought and the formation of political modernity in the erstwhile European colonies" (7). In the face of globalization theory's hasty embrace of the disappearance of cultural difference under global capitalism, Chakrabarty suggests looking at how historicism has always posited historical time as a measure of cultural distance between the West and the non-West.

  3. Yet, to be sure, Chakrabarty does take up capital and other classical Marxian categories such as labor and commodity as the core of his inquiry. In fact, his understanding of Indian postcoloniality lies in his assumption that "subaltern history cannot be thought of outside of the global narrative of capital -- including the narrative of transition to capitalism -- though it is not grounded in this narrative" (95). This rewriting of Indian history from within the system qua capital will emerge as the major feature of Provincializing Europe. It is Chakrabarty's fundamental belief that, despite the inadequacy of Western concept of historical time, (post)colonial Indian history is inevitably already inscribed in the folds of modernity, and that some Enlightenment tenets concerning juridical freedom and citizen rights do deserve a cautious reengagement for postcolonial society. His task as a postcolonial historian, therefore, is not so much to discard Western thoughts utterly as to work out an alternative history that attends to what seems unrepresentable for historicism -- for instance, the religious, anti-historical, anti-modern, or anti-political consciousness in Indian "life-worlds," as Chakrabarty call them-while still investing in the Enlightenment ideas of the human. This central thesis is clearly laid out in Chapter 1 of Provincializing Europe, which is an abridged version of an essay Chakrabarty published in Representations back in 1992.

  4. Chapters 2 and 3 involve a positive rereading of Marx. According to Chakrabarty, Marx's concept of abstract labor invites a two-fold understanding: on the one hand, it refers to the goal of the disciplinary processes in the capitalist mode of production, such as division of labor; on the other hand, this concept echoes the notion of the universal human who bears the Enlightenment idea of freedom. In other words, abstract labor can be seen as both a description and a critique of capital. Chakrabarty, following Marx's classical model of working through inner contradictions in the system of capitalism, goes on to argue that "the labor that is abstracted in the capitalist's search for a common measure of human activity is living," and that living or life, in all its physical and conscious capabilities, will eventually emerge as an excess for capital, as something that the system needs but cannot domesticate (60). The energy of Chakrabarty's alternative history, then, would derive from this unmanageable excess. He terms the official history of capital, which is congenial to production and reproduction, as History 1, while any element that cannot be contained by History 1 goes to History 2 (or in plural form, History 2s, naturally). The latter, for Chakrabarty, indicates "affective narratives of human belonging where life forms, although porous to one another, do not seem exchangeable through a third term of equivalence such as abstract labor" (71). Up to this point, it should be noted that the core of Chakrabarty's alternative history, in fact, does not diverge much from some of the basic arguments of globalization theory like Empire. For both turn to the ontological category of "life" as a potential site of resistance, and both aspire for a historical narrative that is based on immediacy rather than mediation.

  5. History 2 is a perfect model of non-historicist history for Chakrabarty in that it consists of heterogeneous temporalities. What Chakrabarty has in mind is the kind of subaltern history pursued by his fellow Subaltern Studies historians. In Chapter 4 of Provincializing Europe, Chakrabarty reiterates the tenets of Subaltern Studies and stresses the ethics of respecting non-historical or non-secular categories in non-modern life-worlds. Here, however, Chakrabarty introduces a puzzling notion of "contemporaneity" -- by which he means an ontological "now" that straddles not only the past and the present, but possibly the future as well. Using the famous example of the Santal rebellion against British colonial rule in 1885 (where the peasant insurgents attributed their act to supernatural powers), Chakrabarty contends that a "good" subaltern history should be one that historicizes the Santal "in the interest of a history of social justice and democracy," and yet at the same time refuses to historicize the Santal while seeing the Santal as "a figure illuminating a life possibility for the present" (108). In other words, the Santal rebels should be seen as our contemporaries in the sense that we should come to ponder if their way of being is a possibility for our own lives.

  6. Chakrabarty calls such an approach to subaltern pasts as "stay[ing] with heterogeneities without seeking to reduce them to any overarching principle that speaks for an already given whole," or as "making visible [the disjuncture of the present with itself]" (107, 109). However, just as earlier Subaltern Studies suffered from an overmuch confidence in the retrievability of peasant rebels' consciousness, Chakrabarty's writing of subaltern pasts is trapped in the primacy of the cognitive or epistemological category. He argues that it is only when we realize the contemporaneity of the Santal and human beings from any other period and region can we begin to treat them as "intelligible" to us (109). The problem with this practice is that, despite the heroic gesture of the postcolonial historian, the vantage point for historical understanding is still our present, and that the boundary for such understanding is intelligibility to us. "Contemporary," thus, is better understood as "con-temporary" since the present always functions as the point of reference for any configuration of any period -- it is not that the past intervenes into our present, but rather that our present epistemology is everywhere at every historical moment from the past up to now. Chakrabarty's idea of "the disjuncture of the present with itself" echoes what Jacques Derrida's citation of Hamlet goes: "time is out of joint" -- in fact, Chakrabarty himself acknowledges this allusion to Derrida. Nevertheless, while Derrida in Specters of Marx emphasizes the radical otherness of the past as a ghost haunting our present, Chakrabarty, in championing the "plurality of times existing together" (109), ignores the fact that his seemingly disjointed present is always already worked through by the good intention of the subaltern-minded historian.

  7. Moreover, despite his valorization of subaltern pasts, the second half of Provincializing Europe (Chapters 5-8) focuses not as much on the illiterate underprivileged class as on the bourgeois constituencies. Chakrabarty meanders through various aspects of Indian society in the colonial period -- domestic politics, (literary) imagination, sociality, family, and public space -- in the light of the emergence of subjectivity in modern India. With an elaborate display of the theoretical justification for subaltern history, Provincializing Europe falls short of demonstrating "good" subaltern historical narratives. In fact, the centrality of labor in Chakrabarty's argument makes one wonder whether everybody fits into his subaltern history -- especially those who are outside the pale of use value such as the mentally ill and the homeless -- since Chakrabarty clearly states that "a madman's narrative is not history" (98). [1] And his essentialization of the subaltern as "real labor" -- and vice versa -- only reinforces the impression that he does not want to deal with anything beyond the confines of labor. In addition, as he does not want to lose the opportunity to dialogue and negotiate with bureaucracies of political modernity, which he thinks are already an integral part of postcolonial Indian reality, Chakrabarty seems unwilling to give up the "rationally defensible point of view or position from which to tell the story [of history]" (98). Once again, the counterstrike against the violence of historicism, for Chakrabarty, is nothing other than the epistemological category -- or, more precisely, the historian's epistemological understanding of the world. History 2 may collect those elements uncontainable by History 1, yet History 2 does not seem capable of recognizing that which is absolutely unrepresentable -- namely, historically/rationally unrepresentable.

  8. As mentioned earlier, Chakrabarty defines Indian postcoloniality as a "rewriting from within" -- a rewriting of postcolonial reality from within the capitalist system. This working from within characterizes not only Chakrabarty's configuration of postcolonial India, but also his own analytic method. In fact, the conflation of the "content" of his inquiry and his analytic tool traverses the entire book. For example, his interest in the Marxian concept of capital lies in his belief that capital is a "philosophical-historical category," by which he means "historical difference is not external to it [capital] but is rather constitutive of it" (70). Here, apparently Chakrabarty links the question of methodology (philosophical-historical category) with the subject of his theorization (difference is constitutive of the system qua capital). Yet, how does the analytic method translate into the fact of constitutive difference? Does the difference arise from the "philosophical" side or the "historical" side of the category?

  9. It seems that this kind of conflation has to do with Chakrabarty's ambitious scope in this book. From the first page on, Chakrabarty makes it clear that he wants to bridge different worlds. In the Introduction and the Epilogue, he emphasizes the duality of his methodology. H explains that he intends to engage two divergent theoretical models in modern European social thought: the first, represented by Marx, is the analytic tradition, which seeks to demystify ideology through abstraction and universalization; the second, represented by Heidegger, is the hermeneutic tradition, which "produces a loving grasp of detail in search of an understanding of the diversity of human life-worlds" (18). Moreover, Chakrabarty would maintain explicitly that postcolonial scholarship should be committed to engaging the universals and theory ("the need to critique historicism and to find strategies for thinking about historical difference without abandoning one's commitment to theory" [46]), yet at the same time he calls for attentiveness to cultural and historical difference at every possible moment.

  10. All these two-fork investments bespeak his self-positioning as a postcolonial thinker: he understands that neither the object of his study (Indian postcoloniality) nor his analytic language can break out of the Western heritage. The paradox is, despite his "loving grasp of detail" when it comes to Indian life-worlds, Chakrabarty relies heavily on the "philosophical" -- or what he also calls "structural" -- side of history writing; and for him, the inspiration for this kind of philosophical work is Western, naturally. Even the "historical" side of his inquiry -- which are supposedly those observations on historical difference -- has to be translated via the Heideggerian sense of time ("that which already actually is but is present only as the 'not yet' of the actual" [250]). While Chakrabarty's rendition of Western thinkers is solidly grounded, there seems to be a tendency in his work of turning postcolonial historical narratives into metanarratives about postcoloniality. This tendency, of course, can be another Heideggerian influence on Chakrabarty since the latter concludes his book by drawing on the former's insight on the relationship between thought and dwelling (i.e. existence). Yet this tendency also reminds one of a broader tendency in postcolonial theory in general -- that is, postcoloniality always comes across as a narrative; postcolonial ethics/politics also tends to base its energy on such a narrative-construction process. Chakrabarty's repetitive stress on the primacy of the philosophical part of cultural inquiry, along with his reading of all life-worlds and life-systems (capital, postcolonial cultural difference, subaltern religiosity, etc.) as narratives, certainly derives its inspiration from this narrative-based tradition in postcolonial theory.


  1. I owe this last point about the madman to Professor Timothy Watson of Princeton University, who made this valid observation in his graduate seminar "Literary and Cultural Theory: Postcolonial Theory and Globalization" at Princeton University, Fall 2001. Back

Work Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.

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