Chakrabarty, again

Yesterday I read Dipesh Chakrabarty’s key article for the umpteenth time. And I think that, while it raises some valid points, it goes too far. The point about our historical narratives always following in the footsteps of Europe is a valid concern, and one that does in fact apply to many iterations of Marxism as well in their peculiar formulations of the relationship between base and superstructure.

However, to plug everything (Gandhian peasant utopia to Marxist socialist revolution) into the same metanarrative of “Europe” as telos is intellectually dishonest, aside from flattening the myriad ways in which these projects are understood and debated by their practitioners. (Can we seriously say that the spread of Maoism in the 1960s and 70s from “east” to “west” was litte more than some privileging of “Europe” at the end of the day? That it was precisely such expansion of Maoist ideology that got some of the original Subaltern Studies folks to pursue a Gramscian understanding of peasant insurgency is overlooked by Chakrabarty.)

Moreover, if every other category of analysis which subscribes to metanarratives is “European” then that raises two questions. First, where did “Europe” get it from? Did they think these categories and narratives up on their own in a moment of original creation? No, they got it from non-”Europe” in the first place. Knowledge and categories of understanding are rarely ever univocal and uniquely endogenous, they exist as the accumulation of centuries and even millennia of epistemological exchanges and interchanges. However, as Chakrabarty points out correctly, the imposition of categories of knowledge often involves actual historical oppression, repression and violence. But this leads us to the second point.

Knowledge or epistemes do correspond to particular socio-historical moments, and where the categories that so offend Chakrabarty, (like “nation-state”) come from and why is something he leaves unexamined — rather, he attributes this to the constructed agency of something called “third world nationalism.” Certainly, the idea and the practice of the “nation-state” comes from the generalization of the “European” Westphalian system. But, there is a particularity to this generalization. Why continue to flatten “Europe”?* Certainly, the “European modern” imposed upon India back in the day was not that of the Paris Commune. It was the “European modern” of, in the first instance, mercantile capital, and then of industrial capital in the stage of imperialism. That imperialism is a class project, ultimately, is something not to be overlooked. The unitary “Europe” does not exist, except in Chakrabarty’s postcolonial imaginary of despair, one where there is no escape from “Europe”.

Indeed, there may well be an escape from “Europe” — the pertinent question is whether and under what conditions there is an escape from capital. I suggest all readers of Chakrabarty read Fanon’s conclusion in The Wretched of the Earth. Read it once a day after breakfast until such time as postcolonial studies wears off.

*Though, of course, Chakrabarty would argue something about him not flattening it, just pointing to the hyperreal category, or something.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Kavitha said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

    I almost died of laughter reading this and then subsequently sent it to all my friends. Most of us study postcolonial history and we actually agree with your critique. A better book of Chakrabarty’s is Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the wake Subaltern Studies. I would be curious to read your thoughts on some his essays in that book.

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