Journal of World History 13.2 (2002) 504-506
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Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference
Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. By DIPESH CHAKRABARTY. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. Pp. xii + 301. $16.95 (paper).
This is less a book about history in its traditional sense than a contribution to the philosophy of history—an intervention in the debate on how histories might today be written. It takes the form of a sustained reflection of history writing even as it seeks to recover the histories—in this instance—of a set of colonized peoples and practices. Which, some might say, is the only way of doing good history today.
If the idea of provincializing Europe has been available for some time, as one of the previews on the back cover of the book suggests, Chakrabarty does an outstanding job of thinking it through and teasing out its implications. His discussion of the history of the Hindu, upper-caste, male (the adjectives are all his) Bengali encounter with modernity in the nineteenth century and after is an intrinsic—and invaluable—part of the exercise.
Chakrabarty has three perverse propositions to argue, one or two of which may by now (as a result of earlier writings by Chakrabarty and others) be a little more familiar than the others: that "Europe" is not only the land mass, the continent, and the peoples classified under that label; that "history" is not a continuous, gradually unfolding story of a game played out (as it were) on a level plane; and that "time" is far more treacherous, unequal, and disjointed than we imagine. He proposes the provincialization of Europe by asking questions about the universality of its experience, or rather how (aspects of) its experience came to be represented as universal—through imperialism and through the complicity of nationalisms.
He advocates the provincialization of history by recognizing its irreducible plurality and untameability. For this, he distinguishes between two types of history that have arisen with the spread of capitalism and the emergence of the modern world: "History 1," that is, a past posited by capital as part of its precondition (p. 63), and "History (or Histories) 2," which do not belong to the life process of capital, which may [End Page 504] not be subsumed in the narrative of its progress, yet live in intimate and plural relationships with it, and which allow us to make room for human diversity and the politics of belonging (63, 66-67).
Finally, he recommends the provincialization of time. He introduces the concept of time-knots—joints of various kinds "from the complex formation of knuckles on our fingers to the joints on a bamboo-stick," which we can only try to straighten out in some part (p. 112). And he argues, with a host of examples, that the present is not contemporaneous with itself, that it is in some senses always out-of-joint, and (in that sense) that it is not only Indians who are "capable of living in several centuries at once."
In the course of this study, we are given a fascinating history of Bengali struggles with the question of how to be comfortable in a world of capitalism, imperialism, and globalization—for instance in the chapter that deals with the (upper-caste, middle-class, male) Bengali nostalgia for adda. That may, indeed, constitute the central problematic of this work: how at different times, in different places, different sections of people have struggled to accommodate themselves to the demands of modern state and society, including the language of economics and history.
This is where the particularity of different "History 2s," different inheritances and memories, and different engagements with modernity comes into play. The differences between the "European bourgeois" and the "Bengali modern" cannot be explained on the grounds of the different pace of the dissemination of reason, writes Chakrabarty. What is needed instead is that we try to tell a different history of reason (pp. 235-236). To attempt to provincialize Europe is, in this view, to see the modern as inevitably...