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Public Culture 12.3 (2000) 591-625

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Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History

Sheldon Pollock

Few things seem to us as natural as the multiplicity of vernacular languages that different peoples use for making sense of life through texts, that is, for making literature. And few things seem as unnatural as their abandonment and gradual disappearance in the present. In fact, literary language loss is often viewed as part of a more general reduction of cultural diversity, one considered as dangerous as the reduction of biological diversity to which it is often compared. The homogenization of culture today, of which language loss is one aspect, seems without precedent in human history, at least for the scope, speed, and manner in which changes are taking place.

This commonsense view of the world needs two important qualifications. First, the vernacular ways of being that we see vanishing everywhere were themselves created over time. These are not primeval ways of autochthons, for autochthons (like the Spartoi of Thebes, "the sown people" born from the dragon teeth planted by Cadmus) do not exist outside their own mythical self-representation. Second, by the very fact of their creation, the new vernaculars replaced a range of much older cultural practices. These earlier practices, which seemed to belong to everywhere in general and nowhere in particular, affiliated their users to a larger world rather than a smaller place. They were, in a sense to be argued out in [End Page 591] this essay, cosmopolitan practices. These great transformations in the course of the last two millennia--from the old cosmopolitan to the vernacular, and from the vernacular to the new and disquieting cosmopolitan of today--resulted from choices made by people at different times and places, for very complex reasons. Studying the history of such choices may have something important, perhaps even urgent, to tell us about choices available to us in the future.

In earlier work I have studied the period following the old cosmopolitan epoch, which I called the vernacular millennium. 1 This began in southern Asia and western Europe with remarkable simultaneity in the early second millennium, and it developed with equally striking parallels over the following five centuries. I say "began" emphatically: vernacular literary cultures were initiated by the conscious decisions of writers to reshape the boundaries of their cultural universe by renouncing the larger world for the smaller place, and they did so in full awareness of the significance of their decision. New, local ways of making culture--with their wholly historical and factitious local identities--and, concomitantly, new ways of ordering society and polity came into being, replacing the older translocalism. These developments in culture and power are historically linked, at the very least by the fact that using a new language for communicating literarily to a community of readers and listeners can consolidate if not create that very community, as both a sociotextual and a political formation.

While the literary-cultural processes of this reshaping are remarkably similar in southern Asia and western Europe, the political logics they followed appear to have differed fundamentally. In Europe, vernacularization accompanied and enabled the production of the nation-state; in India, it accompanied and enabled the production of a political form we may neutrally call the vernacular polity, in order to signal its difference. In both worlds, however, vernacularization helped initiate an early-modern era, each again marked by its specific type of modernity. And it is only now for the first time, when this epoch seems to be drawing to a close as vernacular modes of cultural and political being are everywhere coming under powerful pressures from an altogether new universalizing order of culture-power (call it globalization, or liberalization, or Americanization), that we may begin to conceive of this past history as a whole and make some sense of it for cultural and political theory.

I would like here to elaborate on these earlier arguments by situating the vernacular [End Page 592] millennium within a comparative-historical account of the cosmopolitanisms that preceded it. These, too, comprised forms of identity that reveal themselves as produced and...


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