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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 143-145
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Introduction to "A Correspondence on Provincializing Europe"
For many of us, e-mail generally has the feel of a tidal wave—too many messages flood our electronic mailboxes and leave us feeling as if we are drowning in the very technological medium that originally promised to make life easier, more efficient, and instantaneous. The nature of e-mail efficiency has transformed the practice of letter writing. Too often we substitute the short, spontaneous, stripped-down electronic message for more deliberate, thoughtful, and (ultimately) expressive forms of interpersonal written communications. But despite the feeling of drowning in e-mails, few of us working in the academy today could accomplish our tasks without electronic communication. This dependence on cybertechnology unveils yet one more way in which institutions that at first seem shielded from capitalism and the market, including the university, actually participate in a corporatized framework that informs the everyday practices of all those who work within those institutions. We have in part integrated e-mail into our lives because it promises us greater workplace productivity, even if the constant deluge of messages that we receive on a daily basis frequently erodes that productivity.
How refreshing it was for me, then, to read the e-mail correspondence between Amitav Ghosh and Dipesh Chakrabarty. 1 In December 2000, Ghosh contacted Chakrabarty to discuss the latter's recent book Provincializing Europe, which reexamines and critiques Eurocentric models of linear, developmental, universal history as incomplete for a more complex understanding of India's cultural and political past. Ghosh, one of the preeminent contemporary Indian fiction writers in the English [End Page 143] language, initiated this correspondence with Chakrabarty, a leading expert on South Asian history and postcolonial theory, in order to share a number of questions and concerns raised by his close reading of Provincializing Europe. In its rich, open-ended, and conversational tone, their correspondence resisted the sound-bite format of the e-mails that one usually finds waiting in the in-box once the computer is turned on.
This fascinating example of cyberdialogue enabled multiple points of contact between the two authors, who were, at the time of their correspondence, living on different continents and who were professionally grounded in different fields of cultural and intellectual production. The place that Ghosh and Chakrabarty carved for themselves within cyberspace is one that bridged spatial, intellectual, and disciplinary distances in ways largely unimaginable before the advent of the Internet. In many ways, the connection between Ghosh and Chakrabarty should not surprise us, given the intellectual affinities between the two. In their writings, both Ghosh and Chakrabarty have tried to imagine postcolonial alternatives to the master narratives of South and Southeast Asian history, which have been largely produced by scholars in Europe and the United States with traditional Western ways of seeing the world. Both authors critique the naturalized political geographies imposed on the maps by Western nationalisms and colonialisms. Both describe the imaginary quality of the geographic object of their analysis.
For example, the young Indian narrator of Ghosh's The Shadow Lines criticizes his cousin for taking space, place, and geography too much for granted: "A place does not merely exist . . . it has to be invented in one's imagination." The narrator comes to this conclusion while he and his cousin live in London. The wide-eyed narrator contrasts his own exuberant response to the London Undergound with the jaded attitude of his more cosmopolitan cousin who mocks him relentlessly: "You'd think we were going on the bloody Concorde. . . . For God's sake stop carrying on like a third-world tapioca farmer—it's just the bloody Underground." The narrator points out that for his cousin, "the Undergound was merely a means of shifting venue." The cousin's practical use of space masks its essentially contingent and imagined character, but "her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart." 2 Ghosh thus describes alternative imaginings of London by two young Indian students—an urban center of commerce and...