- Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities by Siraj Ahmed
Siraj Ahmed's new book, Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities, presents a timely and necessary intervention in current discussions of the place of philology in postcolonial studies. By reframing William Jones's translations, Ahmed demonstrates how philological methods and arguments came to establish, justify, and eventually reify cultural and political practices in British India. Philology, Ahmed argues, was a tool of colonial power that etched a set of disciplinary priorities and conclusions which, while appearing to be purely textual concerns, served as the rhetorical basis for the means of colonial oppression. It underwrote Western scholarship's claims to authority over colonized languages, inscribed the radical legal and administrative restructuring of colonized societies and traditions, and erased the voices and experiences of countless colonized people who lived lives unconcerned with and untouched by textuality.
For these conclusions, Ahmed's work is especially revelatory. Seeing philology as inextricably imbricated with the colonial project is the first step towards reevaluating recent impulses to "return to philology." That move, if left unexamined, only serves to reproduce colonial practices of discursive authority and disenfranchisement. Ahmed attempts to avoid these pitfalls with his focus on Jones's work, a method that allows him to consider more extensively the larger cultural and political ramifications of the translations themselves.
Ahmed announces hints of his method in his chapter titles. Calling each a "stratum" gestures towards a critical archaeology, and marks a consciously "counterphilological approach" intended to create a space for a new type of literary study that might "disentangle the postcolonial humanities from their still-unconsidered and hence unresolved colonial legacy" (5-7). Ahmed begins with Jones's work on Persian grammar, and continues with his subsequent translations of Hafz's ghazals. By contextualizing these famed publications with lesser-known commentaries and essays by Jones, Ahmed's first chapter demonstrates how Jones foresaw that "Eastern" poetry could transform European literary culture. Jones inspired a generation of East India Company employees to write their own ghazals, a ripple of creativity that would propagate across the oceans and become Romanticism a few decades later. In [End Page 498] the "second stratum," Ahmed explores Jones's work on Arabic texts, and his translations of Shari'a law in particular. Here, Ahmed argues that the effort to codify the texts and principles necessary for effective colonial jurisprudence led to the modern philological theories of language families. This provocative claim is supported by a deft synthesis of Benedict Anderson's, Bernard Cohn's, and Edward Said's discussions of the relationships between colonial powers, disciplinary and textual practices, and the formation of national identities. To this framework, Ahmed adds the figure of William Jones the jurist, sitting on the supreme court in Bengal, and remaking native communities and legal traditions in the image of his philological understandings of their texts. In the "third stratum," Ahmed examines Jones's Sanskrit corpus, from The Laws of Manu to Sakuntala. Ahmed sees Jones's translation of The Laws of Manu as an extension of his strategy to wrest juridical authority from the hands of native clerics and place it firmly within the realm of colonial rule. Many scholars have traced this line of argument, but it is Ahmed's consideration of the Proto-Indo-European language theory that emerges as an original contribution to studies of William Jones's Sanskrit translations. That a full reckoning with the implications of the Proto-Indo-European language theory necessarily encompasses the Aryan race theory, Hindu nationalism, the modern humanities, and the "forms of life that textual culture attempted to destroy" (153) gives us a sense of the scope of Ahmed's intellectual and ethical undertaking in this book.
It is here that Archaeology of Babel takes us further than most previous work on William Jones and European Indology. Its conclusions lead us to the very heart of contemporary humanistic inquiry. In that sense, it is not unlike Martin Bernal's monumental work, Black Athena, which thoroughly...