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Journal of World History 11.1 (2000) 57-78

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(Re)imag(in)ing Other 2ness: A Postmortem for the Postmodern in India

Richard M. Eaton

East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.

--R. Kipling, 1889

Colonialism seems to have created much of what is accepted as Indian "tradition."

--N. Dirks, 1989


This essay raises several questions on recent trends in the writing of Indian history. First, how can one account for the appearance of postmodernist thought and postcolonial criticism in Indian historiography? Second, what has been the history of this encounter? And third, how has our understanding of Indian history in the "postcolonial," the "colonial," or the "precolonial" periods been influenced by these perspectives and critiques?

The appearance of postmodernist influences in the writing of Indian history is related to the evolution of the highly influential Subaltern Studies movement, launched in Calcutta in 1982. Scholars contributing to early issues of the movement's publication, Subaltern Studies, were collectively concerned with restoring voice and agency to those classes of India's nonelite "subalterns"--peasants, industrial [End Page 57] workers, women, and tribals, among others--that had been excluded from previous historiographical traditions. The first three issues of Subaltern Studies presented several meticulously researched case studies of peasants, workers, and so forth, acting assertively, even if unsuccessfully, on behalf of liberating Indians from the social, political, and ideological snares of colonialism. Sustained by an extraordinary sense of commitment, members of the Subaltern Studies Collective revitalized the writing of Indian history as perhaps no such movement had done before. Moreover, since most of their case studies unearthed new historical materials, early contributors made enormous contributions to our knowledge of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indian history even while radically challenging earlier models of that history.

Postmodernism, of course, had very different origins. The growth of an intellectual tradition of experiential and epistemological decenteredness is at least indirectly associated with the explosion of global capitalism and transnational corporations that occurred in the 1980s. At that time, as a result of economic measures taken by European and American governments that radically loosened national controls on the export of capital, together with the collapse of the Soviet economic system and the opening of previously closed economies in China, Latin America, and India itself, capitalism became divorced from its historic origins in Europe. 1 These developments had momentous sociocultural consequences everywhere. For the "Western world," two familiar cosmological anchors were at once swept away. The first was the paradigm of a single planet divided into three territorially fixed and mutually exclusive components according to ideological or economic criteria: the First, Second, and Third World. With capital now radically transnationalized, and the Second World having disappeared altogether, the geopolitical cosmology with which several generations of Americans grew up lost its explanatory power; instead, elements of all three "worlds" were found everywhere. 2 Second, the linear story of capitalism, formerly a Euro-American narrative linked intellectually to bourgeois liberal and classical Marxist thought, and tied educationally to the growth of Western civilization courses taught in American colleges and universities from World War I onward, was seriously discredited. Yet no alternative grand narrative emerged to replace the linked doctrines of the Three Worlds, the promise of an [End Page 58] emerging Marxist utopia, or the story of Western civilization with its happy ending in the Euro-American Age of Modernity.

More generally, as Anne McClintock has argued, what collapsed in the mid-1980s was the notion of "progress" as a linear teleology that underlay both the capitalist and the socialist worldviews. 3 This collapse carried with it the long venerated tripartite periodization of European history in terms of Ancient-Medieval-Modern, such that for the first time in centuries it became conceptually impossible to theorize present or future time--except, that is, in reference to the unhinged chronological space coming after the last of these three eras. Hence, the term postmodern. It was such an origin that endowed the term with notions of decenteredness, which is but the...