feminist studies, history of europe, history of india, postcolonial theory, subaltern studies, world history

Book Review: Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Though and Historical Difference (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000), Pp. 301.

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Dipesh Chakrabarty’s monograph is a dense and heavily theoretical text on the history of modernity in Europe and its relation to global history. Specifically Chakrabarty uses examples of colonial contradiction in discussing the postcolonial thoughts on modernity and how this is discussed in the larger history of India’s Independence of 1947. The authors major issue is with the notion of modernity and its association with Europe. Chakrabarty’s central claim is to deconstruct Eurocentrism to expose the “imaginary figure,” specifically exhibited in  “social sciences to address questions of political modernity in South Asia” (4). Looking to modern education systems in Bengali, the author discusses the  European educational system and  suggest that the history of translation is at the center of modern manifestations.  The author starts out by looking at certain modalities of discourse and how they are historicized. To understand what Chakrabarty is trying to get at can be noted in his explanation of historicism stating, “historicism—and even the modern, European idea of history—one might say, came to non-European people in the nineteenth” (8). The author notes the epistemological side of how those who came in contact with Europeans were exposed to this notion of “modernity.” One of the most helpful examples, in this confusing monograph,  is the autobiographies of Nirad Chaudhuri and Ramabai Ranade. In these autobiographies Chakrabarty notes the history of desire to be “modern,” through music and notions of patriarchy. The example of Nirad Chaudhuri and his wedding night in which, the very notion of marriage as a “bourgeois legal fiction of citizenship,” was described as a moment in which Chaudhuri is trying to show and teach his new wife about the modern music of Beethoven” (36).  This is the central theme of the book, to show how the idea and history of modernity was a concept that not only Europeans strived for, but so did the colonized “other.” For the purposes of this essay I will try and discuss what Chakrabarty is getting at in his history on abstract ideas of subaltern, capital, class, and how South Asia is at the heart of his analysis. Chakrabarty springboards into the work of Karl Marx, looking at the critique of capital and its importance to the history of modernity and the Euro-centric notion of class. For Chakrabarty the importance of capital is more of a “philosophical-historical category;” by which the translation between cultures and peoples is rooted in some sort of notion of capital (70). South Asia’s labor system, in conjunction with the secular notions of culture, and practice are shown in this counter history in India (72). For example, the history of what constituted as a public holiday is negotiated between a South Asian and European discourse. For instance, the festival in India known as Vishvakarama and the European festival of Christmas are paralleled to illuminate the “secular narrative that would apply to any working-class religious holiday anywhere” (77). Even though there are similar class, secular, and discursive histories within the global framework of history, conversion and translation are not solely a European attribute. In the 1700s the “translation of divinities” such as Hindu gods into Islamic ones is not solely a European function of modern secular history (84). What Chakrabarty is getting at is that there is nothing intrinsically more modern about Europe than any other place, especially South Asia.

Chakrabarty’s  ontological treatment of  what he calls the “birth of the subject” is recorded in European time but also in Bengali time. For example, literature and magazines are a way in which places and times situate their history and their global position. In Calcutta the documentation of suffering in 1991 showed the ways in which widows still had not had any “historical change,” complicating the notion or narrative of progress (117). Notions of suffering also challenges the European notion of modernity. Taking the widow for example a step further, one can look at the history of sati.

Historically, sati has been a way in which female loyalty could be manifested India female culture predominately in the mid ninetieth-century. With the advent of social sciences and notions of modernity the ability to “critique” Bengali ritual as “not modern,” has become popular in Eurocentric historical narrative (118). The nuances of critique and “modern observation of suffering” allows for another way in which this notion of modern becomes sutured to the “Enlightenment thinkers of Europe” (119 &122).  European gaze become a way in which the differences can be critiqued and then reformed; thus, ultimately flattened into a single status and labeled as “modern.” The history of universality or the “universal subjects” in European Empires is essentially what Chakrabarty’s narrative is critiquing. The last example that is helpful to note in this complicated historical narrative by Chakrabarty is the example of Adda. The social practice of Adda in Calcutta represents “‘a place’” in which usually male friends would talk (181-182). Throughout the twentieth-century this tradition was said to be loosing its relevance in the advent of capitalism and ways in which intellectuals were starting to see themselves, mostly through literary apparatuses (198-199). Adda has made many different adaptations in the ways in which literature, women’s spaces, and capitalism have interacted with notions of modern and global exchanges of culture and the performance of male citizenship. For instance, in 1850 women were starting to participate in the public sphere of education, drastically changing the ways in which they were able to participate in Adda (208). Ultimately, Adda transforms into a “modern and hybrid space of Bengali” culture that becomes apart of the institution, education, and is adapted to meet the “tension brought about by the discourses of modernity and capitalism” (212). The gender aspects of Adda had to meet the capitalistic conditions. Justifying these conditions and transformations of culture and social space by the notion of “global modernity” and “progress.”  Unfortunately, by the end of the book Chakrabarty has unraveled and sabotaged his work by stating, “for at the end of European imperialism, European thought is a gift to us all” (255). This already confusing narration on the history of modernity through a postcolonial lens, was strong in its description of cultural parallelism. The monograph lost merit in falling back into narratives that stabilize the universalizing language, space, and time in Euro-centric terms.