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  • Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital
  • Ajay Skaria
Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital. By Andrew Sartori. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 288 pp. $55.00 (cloth); $22.00 (paper).

One of the most striking developments over the last decade in historical scholarship on modern South Asia has been the growing influence of a new global history. This history has rejected the old diffusionist model in which ideas emerge first in Europe and then spread elsewhere, and has instead argued that modernity was formed in both periphery and metropole by a simultaneous and nondirectional process.

Andrew Sartori's ambitious and exceptionally thought-provoking book is an important contribution to this new global history. While many other scholars have identified a welter of factors at work in the formation of a global modernity, Sartori adopts a more systematic approach. Working specifically with the way the concepts of liberalism and culture were deployed by intellectuals in eighteenth- and [End Page 181] nineteenth-century Bengal, it places these concepts within a global history held together by what he at one point calls "the geographical non-specificity of global structures of capital" (p. 129).

Symptomatic of his break with diffusionism is his brusque dismissal of its mirror image in the former colonies: the anxiety about derivativeness, or the claim (often made through a misplaced reading of Partha Chatterjee that Sartori unfortunately seems to share) that to think of colonial intellectuals through categories such as "liberal" would be to reduce the colony's intervention to a "derivative discourse." Sartori points out quite reasonably that categories such as culture have assumed a global status to such a degree that their content can no longer be helpfully described as Western. He suggests furthermore that since there is surely no moment that is not derivative in some fundamental sense, there can be no reason to treat an act of intellectual appropriation as substantially different from an act of conceptual innovation.

In this spirit, the book traces the dynamic between two key elements in Bengal's intellectual history that would usually be treated as "Western": liberalism and culturalism. It argues, first, that the much-studied "Bengal Renaissance" of the late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century was enthusiastic not about European modernity in general, but about a "specific strand": "Western liberalism." This liberalism, it points out, was "at best ambiguously articulated in the Company's (monopolistic) political-economic agenda," and Bengal was in no sense a "full blown market society." How then did they come to this liberalism? It suggests that for these groups, "the plausibility of liberal conceptions of individuality and society were historically predicated on the role of commodity exchange as the primary medium of social interdependence" (p. 73). Thinkers like Rammohan Roy and Dwarkanath Tagore articulated a vision of "cosmopolitan empire" that seemed practical for at least Calcutta's rich and powerful in the 1830s and 1840s.

But the global financial crisis of 1847-1848 signaled the "final failure of the Calcutta mercantile world's viability as an independent center of capital accumulation and investment" (p. 95). In its wake, what emerged was an imperial economy, "with India increasingly locked into its dual role as a captive market for British manufactured imports and as a producer of primary products for export." The old liberalism did not die out, but it became more fragile, and came to be supplanted by another liberalism organized around "culture."

Sartori traces this process through a fascinating reading of the famous Bengali social critic Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Bankim, Sartori points out, articulated a liberal vision through the 1860s and [End Page 182] 1870s. Even his satirical writings on the Bengali middle class figure of the babu were not so much a critique of liberalism as of the babu's failure "to live up to the ideals of humanity that he so volubly, yet crassly, articulated."

Yet by the 1880s, Bankim had moved to "a characterization of liberal subjectivity as itself a quintessentially Western norm incongruous with being native" (p. 108). Chapter 4, where Sartori traces Bankim's "new humanism" founded on the concept of anushilan, for which Bankim's equivalent...