- History at the Limit of World-History
This slender book grew out of a series of lectures delivered by Ranajit Guha, one of the founding members of the Subaltern Studies Collective, at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University. In this latest book he strives to show philosophy's complicity with colonialism and its forms of knowledge. For this reason he takes the German philosopher Georg Hegel and his conception of "World-History" (Weltgeschichte) to task for its elitist biases, prejudices, and complicity in European arrogance, imperialism, and colonial knowledge. For Hegel, World-History signified the teleological movement of Reason in History through a series of successive advances that culminated in God. This providential design was undoubtedly highly Eurocentric. Hegel also attributed an important role for the state in this progressive movement. Such a conception of World-History, according to Guha, became the justification for European expansion, the colonization of continents and the wholesale destruction of entire cultures. World-History became the amoral record of states and empires, great men, and clashing civilizations. This in turn rendered irrelevant and pushed to the margins the everyday experiences of ordinary people (or "historicality," as Guha terms it). Everything that lay outside the narrative of World-History was dismissed as "Prehistory." To remedy this situation, Guha endeavors to take the reader to the limit of World-History (as defined by Hegel) and give the reader a glimpse of what history practiced outside World-History would look like. This for Guha is "a creative engagement with [End Page 530] the past as a story of man's being in the everyday world. It is in short, a call for historicality to be rescued from its containment in World-History" (p. 6).
After introducing his argument in the first chapter, Guha proceeds to elaborate on it in the remaining four chapters. In chapters 2 and 3 he examines the contents of historicality and World-History. Hegel's notion of world history denied large parts of the world any agency in human history. Thus, while Hegel admired India for its religious and spiritual qualities, he felt it did not have a history because it lacked a state. Obviously, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, and Guha cites the instance of Ramram Basu, a petty official working for the East India Company, being commissioned to write a history of kings of the province of Bengal, in eastern India. Guha calls for broadening our prose of the world to include "all of man's being in time and his being with others to write itself into that prose and enter it with all the multiplicity and singularity, complexity, and simplicity, regularity and unpredictability of such being" (p. 46). He argues that historians should decenter statist concerns with public affairs in their writings and focus more attention to issues of historicality. In chapter 4 Guha examines indigenous southern Asian traditions of history (itihasa) that focus on the experience and circumstance of the narration versus the European novel, which privileges the firsthand experience of the narrator. He calls for rescuing historicality from marginalization by World-History and its emphasis on writing, the state, and notions of universal progress. He believes that this task remains to be accomplished as historians are still conceptually walled in by Hegelian notions of World-History. Our narratives need to be filled with a sense of wonder about human agency at the level of everyday life and be less concerned with the rigid formalities of representing the development of states.
In the final chapter Guha turns to literature as a way out of the clutches of World-History. He finds sustenance in the concerns the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore had for historicality—in the "weal and woe of human life which, with its everyday contentment and misery, has always been there in the peasants' fields and village festivals, manifesting their very simple and abiding humanity across all of history—sometimes under Mughal rule, sometimes under British rule" (Rabindranath Tagore cited...