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Imperial Diversity and Modern Knowledge

From: Ab Imperio
pp. 17-24 | 10.1353/imp.2012.0116

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The present issue concludes the journal's thematic year on "Structures and Cultures of Imperial and Post-Imperial Diversity." It focuses on how imperial diversity was constructed, rationalized, and reworked by modern knowledge. This is not the first time Ab Imperio's editors and authors have turned to the problem of how the complex imperial space was experienced and described through formalized knowledge.1 These earlier issues of the journal highlighted the need to work against the grain of normative models of modern social sciences in order to uncover an anthropologically different reality of imperial experience and to provide an archaeology of its original categories. The impossibility of mechanically transplanting contemporary conceptions of the development of society (in particular, those that were formed by a national perspective) onto the complex and heterogeneous imperial space stimulated our interest in how representations and ideas of groupness and the temporal and spatial organization of imperial space, the very knowledge of empire, were described and expressed from inside the imperial experience. This question led to the formulation of the concept of languages of description and self-description of historical actors. Coexisting and competing with each other and challenging explanatory models imposed by modern scholars, these self-conscious or only retrospectively reconstructed languages (and the competing visions and rationalities they advance) complicate the accepted approaches to composite and multicultural societies. Taking the "languages of self-description" seriously debases claims to an interpretive monopoly by any authoritative narrative (past or present), acknowledges the intrinsic validity of alternative explanations and subjectivities, deconstructs the process of emergence of group identities in the empire (which could be connected to political claims, such as nationalism), and examines the synchronic contexts in which this process unfolded itself. Modern knowledge at once served as an important language of self-representation in modernizing empires and as a broader intellectual context in which empires themselves became objects of examination from the outside (being juxtaposed to archaic or modern polities, such as the nation-state). This explains our persistent interest in the role of modern knowledge in imperial history.

There seems to be a fundamental difficulty associated with the task of "translating" the spectrum of particularistic "languages" representing the nonsystemic, multilevel, and situational imperial heterogeneity into modern universal categories that attempt to rationalize and systematize any diversity. Still, the task is not hopeless, for we know that, historically, modern knowledge was not incompatible with modernizing empires that consciously strove to put it into their service. Moreover, they could substantiate their claim to the status of a modern state only if they passed through the tests of the newly emerged (in the wake of the Enlightenment) "objective" knowledge. In other words, an empire could appear as a modern state only if presented as a rationally organized and therefore cognizable and governable political, social, and cultural space with a prospective direction of development. This situation of an "archaic empire" attempting to reconceptualize itself as a "modern empire of nations" presents a particularly fascinating historical process and research topic. It was on behalf of the new social sciences and in the name of progressive historical and sociological ideas, for the new scientific understanding of cultural, economic, and social progress, that attempts were undertaken to objectify cultural and social distances between the metropoles and the colonies, to think of "local knowledge" as an alternative to the discursive power of empire and to cast this local knowledge as systemic and similar to the modern systems of knowledge. It was on the basis of the new scientific theories that national citizenship of the imperial metropoles was opposed to the rationally reinterpreted status of the population of the colonies or the customary law of nondominant groups was included into the pan-imperial legal discourse and ascribed a new judicial status and rationality.

In that sense, one can say that empire itself was transformed from an empirical fact into a scholarly problem – under the influence of modern knowledge – and became "visible" as a distinctive phenomenon. This trans­formation is at the center of new imperial history, which explains why one of its most productive directions was formed within the "cognitive turn" accomplished by this subfield. The cognitive turn within new imperial history implied...

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