*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

The French feminist Luce Irigaray speaks for many intellectuals when she voices the opinion that “the dominant discipline in the human sciences is now history.”  The likes of Saul Bellow and Allan Bloom argued that the Yoruba had never produced a Beethoven, Bach, Goethe, or Shakespeare, but no insult is calculated to arouse as much anger indeed outrage as to suggest to a people that they have no history.  Eric Wolf captured this idea in his book, Europe and the People without History:  however else colonized people may have been perceived by their vanquishers, they were often rendered as people bereft of history.  India, a prominent colonial official and intellectual wrote in 1835, had a “history abounding with kings thirty feet high and reigns thirty thousand years long, and geography made of seas of treacle and seas of butter.”   If this was true of an ancient civilization, one that had even aroused the admiration of some of Europe’s most prominent intellectuals and writers, could it at all be doubted that Melanesians, Polynesians, Africans, Australian Aboriginals, and many others were a people ‘without history’?

Irigaray speaks of history becoming predominant in the present.  History had, however, become ascendant much earlier, certainly by the early part of the nineteenth century as I have already hinted.  When, to continue briefly with the case of colonial India, James Mill and Thomas Macaulay sought in the first half of the nineteenth century to demonstrate that Indians were not much given to rational thinking, they adduced as evidence the lack of interest in history among Indians and the sheer inability of Indians to deliver even simple chronologies.  Europeans marveled at the fact that the only historical work produced by pre-Islamic India, Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a 12th century chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, enumerated kings that were said to have ruled for three hundred years.  If any Indian was disinclined to believe the European charge against Indians, all that was required was to flaunt Gibbon, Hume, Macaulay and later Ranke before the skeptic and ask if any Indian text could even remotely meet the standards of historical reasoning that had become commonplace in Europe.  As I have written elsewhere at great length, in the History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India [rev. ed., Oxford UP, 2005], nationalist intellectuals took it as their brief to respond to the colonial charge.  Thus the nationalist response remained oblivious to the consideration that Indians may very well have disavowed any intellectual or social interest in history, except that they did so for very good reasons and never saw it as a lack.  I suspect that our forefathers generations ago would have been astounded by the idea that a sense of history should be construed as a sign of a people’s capacity for rational thinking or the maturity of a civilization.

The relationship between history and the nation-state has been well established.  No sooner is a nation-state born than an official version of the history of the nation in the making is authorized.  Postcolonial studies’ practitioners have sought to show how all such histories are partial, often as oppressive as the colonial histories that they seek to supplant.  One response has been to ensure that those who were written out of history – women, religious and ethnic minorities, and so on – are written back into histories.  That such enterprises may be nothing more than ‘additive histories’, barely questioning the template of dominant histories, is also well understood.  The resurgence in ‘world history’ in the United States has been another response, and its many defenders and practitioners have been fired by the noble sentiment that the history of the world should no longer be, as it has been so often, the history of the West.  They also presume that world history is the best antidote to national history (and, in the US, to proverbial American insularity), though here, as is often the case, what is good for the West is presumed to be good for the rest of the world.

There have been other, yet more sophisticated, responses to the problem of history.  Dipesh Chakrabarty has made a case for ‘provincializing Europe’, though the gist of his argument is, in many respects, encountered in Rabindranath Tagore’s Nationalism, published in 1917; he has also argued, quite rightly, that the reference point for histories, even those of India, Africa, or Latin America, somehow always remains Europe.  But Chakrabarty remains unwilling to disavow the language of history:  not only are all critiques of history made within the space of history (but such is the case for critiques of the nation or of modernity), but he views a sense of history as empowering, indeed as a necessary tool of ‘citizenship’.  The incapacity of historians to make any substantive contribution to contemporary debates, even those revolving around the question of ‘historical truth’ and questions of evidence, was driven home when, in 1992, the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque, was destroyed by Hindu extremists.

My point, then, is three-fold, suggesting in what manner we need to go well beyond the framework of postcolonial studies with respect to the question of history.  First, a more radical reading of the particular ways in which a sense of history may be unproductive or disempowering is needed.  One may have some form of historical awareness and yet not be committed at all to the sense of history: if the adage, ‘a nation that has no history is a happy nation’, is at all to be intelligible, it can only be so on the supposition that the task of forging a nation is a bloody one, and history is almost always complicit in such an enterprise.  The historian need not be pulverized by the thought that such an argument is calculated to make her or him obsolete.  Secondly, we shall have to enter into a more sustained conversation with other modes of accessing the past, among them myth.  If the choice word of abuse for the Marxist critic is ‘romantic’, for the historian it is surely ‘myth’.  And, yet, who would want to settle for the historical narrative of the origins of a city – for example, Bengaluru [Bangalore] or Mumbai — when the myth is so much more interesting or richer?  Thirdly, if a persistent case has been made for remembering, an equally persistent epistemological, cultural, and philosophical case has to be made for forgetting.  It may well be that certain forms of forgetting are yet ways to remember the past, but the postcolonial critique of history cannot be said to have even remotely ventured in this direction.

See also:  The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism:  Nine Theses (and a Prologue)

Thesis Two:  Postcolonialism has had nothing to say about the imperialism of categories


5 thoughts on “*Thesis One: Postcolonialism never mounted an effective critique of history

  1. Pingback: *The Politics of Culture and Knowledge after Postcolonialism: Nine Theses (and a Prologue) « Lal Salaam: A Blog by Vinay Lal

  2. ‘Secondly, we shall have to enter into a more sustained conversation with other modes of accessing the past, among them myth.’
    I don’t pretend to understand this- but it is suggestive. W.R.T the Babri controversy, it occurred to me that the problem might not have arisen if the structure commemorated a spiritual and tragic figure analogous to Lord Ram (scarcely a ‘Patriarchal War God, after whose younger brother, India is named’ Gayatri Spivak) such as Hazrat Ali or Hazrat Hussain.
    But, the counter-argument is that the Babri name would have justified the claiming of the Mosque by Sunnis as against the rising power of Shias in the Province.
    The language of myth is very good at integrating different religious and ethnic traditions so as to provide a modus vivendi for Civil Society.
    What was tragic was the Marxists (& now the Maoists who are calling for the Mosque to be re-built) taking sides, in a purely tactical manner, in the belief that once the Sects have slaughtered each other, they will come into the whole inheritance. But this marginalizes a politics or historiography concerned with the genuinely ‘subaltern’.
    In Economics, people like Graciella Chichilnisky have done foundational work on Development paradigms. To the best of my knowledge, Indian historians haven’t really taken these ideas on board, in the manner of Kosambi’s admittedly amateur efforts, to examine under what conditions and under what constraints things like Occupational Castes evolve and operate.
    Indological hermeneutics remains trapped in a naive historicism whose default value is the notion some powerful Priestly cabal which had absolute power over a vast region by some occult means.
    Since Indian Judicial hermeneutics is committed to this Nineteenth Century historicism and it is foundational to the notion of a Reparational State, the whole thing is a political hot potato.
    Still it would be nice if the Marxists went back to tracking things like property rights ‘in the commons’, exactly how and why the Trade Union movement was fucked up, who has been stealing all our money and stuff like that.
    Religious nut-jobs will fall out with each other quickly enough- ‘How dare you say the Rg Veda is only 4 billion years old? I have proved its 7.2 billion years old!’- this sort of ‘tu tu mein mein’ does nobody any credit and non paid up nut=job Historians should steer clear.


    • Hello Vivek,
      Many of your points are well-taken. One can, of course, debate just what is ‘genuinely’ Subaltern, and whether
      much of what is called Subaltern studies seriously engaged with the subaltern. (I took up some of these issues
      in my History of History [Oxford, 2003], in chapter IV.) But, for the present, I only wanted to say that I don’t think
      we have even remotely begun to unravel what is meant by caste, and I don’t believe present scholarship,
      whether of the liberal, postoclonial, or Marxist variety, furnishes any substantive clues on how we can move away
      from what you rightly describe as models of nineteenth century historicism in which our understanding of caste,
      caste occupations, and presumed caste immobility is deeply embedded. Even the question of what precisely
      is the relationship of caste to what is termed ‘Hinduism’ is far from resolved.


  3. Hi, I appreciate your questions about history in the last paragraph, but I dont think that these haven’t been addressed by postcolonial studies as you claim, or maybe we have different ideas of what and whom postcolonial studies refer to. For example Ranajit Guha talks about myth in his book History at the Limit of World-History after spending the first 2 chapters dismantling Hegel. For another example, Achille Mbembe talks about the time of existence as multiple temporalities (vs. History) in his classic book On the Postcolony. Give me some time and I probably can think of more examples as well.

    In any case, I’m also intrigued by your ideas about forgetting. ‘d like to hear more.


  4. must say that i thoroughly enjoyed reading your ideas in ‘A history of history’ – i read it simultaneously with Shahid Amin’s work on the cult of Ghazi Miyan where he highlights a section of north indian society’s capability to domesticate the past which did have violence/conquest and bloodshed, and locate it between ‘turkiyana’ and ‘sufiana’. a happy society is one which can retain such purposeful amnesia and domesticate the confrontational past within a pluralist present through myth making – is indeed a powerful idea, something we can learn from our ‘medieval decadent past’


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