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Writing Post-Orientalist Histories of the Third World: Perspectives from Indian Historiography

  • Gyan Prakash (a1)


To ask how the “third world writes its own history” appears, at first glance, to be exceedingly naive. At best, it reaffirms the East–West and Orient–Occident oppositions that have shaped historical writings and seems to be a simple-minded gesture of solidarity. Furthermore, in apparently privileging the writings of historians with third-world origins, this formulation renders such scholars into “native informants” whose discourse is opened up for further disquisitions on how “they” think of “their” history. In short, the notion of the third world writing its own history seems to reek of essentialism. Seen in another way, this formulation can be construed as positing that the third world has a fixed space of its own from which it can speak in a sovereign voice. For many, this notion of a separate terrain is rendered problematic by the increasing rapidity and the voracious appetite with which the postmodern culture imperializes and devours spaces.



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1 A recent example is the exchange between Frederic Jameson and Aijaz Ahmad, in which Jameson's well-intentioned but “first-world” gesture drew deserved criticism. See Jameson's, Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capital,” Social Text, 15 (Fall 1986), 6588; and Ahmad's “Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness and the 'National Allegory,’” Social Text, 17 (Fall 1987), 325; and Jameson's reply on pp. 2627.

2 Orientalism(New York: Vintage, 1979).

3 On these Orientalist writers, see Cohn, Bernard S., “Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture,” Structure and Change in Indian Society, Singer, Milton and Cohn, Bernard S., eds. (Chicago: Aldine, 1968), 7. On Halhead, see Rocher, Rosane, Orientalism, Poetry, and the Millenium: The Checkered Life of Nathaniel Brassey Hahead. (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1983). For a discussion of Persian historiography and for more on the early British treatments of how eighteenth-century British writings dealt with pre-history, see Historians of Medieval India, Hasan, Mohibbul, ed. (Meenakshi: Meerut, 1968).

4 Halfbass, Wilhelm, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 6983. Also, Inden, Ronald, “Orientalist Constructions of India,” Modern Asian Studies, 20:3 (1986), 401–46.

5 Bernal, Martin, Black Athena: Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 227–9, 330–6.

6 Mill, James, The History of British India 1817; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, (1975). On missionaries, see Embree, Ainslee Thomas, Charles Grant and British Rule in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962).

7 On how European ideas were applied to India, see Guha, Ranajit, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (Paris: Mouton, 1963); Stokes, Eric, The English Utilitarians and India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959).

8 Smith's, Richard Saumarez “Rule-by-Records and Rule-by-Reports: Complementary Aspects of the British Imperial Rule of Law,” Contributions to Indian Sociology (new series), 19:1 (1985), 153–76, is an excellent study of this process in Punjab.

9 See Inden, Ronald, “Orientalist Constructions” on the use of representation in Orientalism. Timothy Mitchell's Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) contains a fascinating interpretation of representation in British and European knowledge about Egypt.

10 Cited in Smith, “Rule-by-records,” 153.

11 Dirks's, Nicholas B.The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) is a powerful argument against this thesis. See also, Inden, Ronald, “Orientalist Constructions.”

12 Chatterjee, Compare Partha, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World-A Derivative Discourse? (London: Zed Books, 1986), 38.

13 Much of this account is based on Romila Thapar's excellent “Interpretations of Ancient Indian History,” History and Theory, 7:3 (1968), 318–35, which contains a critical discussion of these nationalist historians. For more on this phase of historiography and on individual historians, see Historians and Historiography in Modern India, Sen, S. P., ed. (Calcutta: Institute of Historical Studies, 1973).

14 Nehru's, JawaharlalThe Discovery of India (New York: John Day Company, 1946), 65.

15 Interestingly, Marx and Engels' writings in the New York Daily Tribune on the 1857 revolts were put together and published in the Soviet Union as The First Indian War of Independence 1857–1859 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959).

16 Dutt's, R. C.The Economic History of India, 2 vols. (1901, rpt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1950) is the classic of this genre. For a detailed treatment of this line of nationalist historiography, see Chandra, Bipan, The Rise and Growth of Economic Nationalism in India (Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1966). For a debate on the “deindustrialization” question, see Morris, M. D. et al., Indian Economy in the Nineteenth Century: A Symposium (Delhi: Indian Economic and Social History Association, 1969).

17 Chatterjee, , Nationalist Thought, 30, 168–9.

18 The list is huge, but for some representative examples, see Bailey, Frederick J., Caste and the Economic Frontier (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1957), and Srinivas, M. N., Social Change in Modern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).Mandelbaum, David G., Society in India, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970) summarizes and cites much of the scholarship on caste. Fine historical studies of caste include the following: Inden, Ronald B., Marriage and Rank in Bengali Culture: A History of Caste and Clan in the Middle Period Bengal Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975; Conlon, Frank F., A Caste in a Changing World: The Chitrapur Saraswat Brahmans, 1700–1935 (Delhi: Thomson Press, 1977); and Leonard, Karen I., Social History of an Indian Caste: The Kayasths of Hyderabad (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).

19 Dumont, Louis, Homo Hierarchicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Marriott, McKim, “Hindu Transactions: Diversity Without Dualism,” in Transaction and Meaning: Directions in the Anthropology of Exchange and Symbolic Behavior, Kapferer, Bruce, ed. (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1976); and Moffat, Michael, An Untouchable Community in South India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979). Although Dumont's work no longer enjoys the influence that it did in the 1970s, his formulation that ritual hierarchy defines India continues to draw adherents. For example, Brown's, Donald E.Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988) employs the Dumontian essentialization of caste and hierarchy to explain the absence of “real” historiography in India.

20 See, for example, Social Mobility in the Caste System of India, Silverberg, James, ed. (Paris: Mouton, 1968).

21 Clifford, James, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988), 117–51.

22 Dirks, Compare Nicholas, The Hollow Crown, 35. For other critiques, see Appadurai, Arjun, “Is Homo Hierarchicus?,” American Ethnologist, 13:4 (1986), 745–61; and “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology, 3:1 (1988), 3649.

23 Fabian, Johannes, Time and The Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 47.

24 The notable examples include: Joshi, P. C., ed., 1857 Rebellion (Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1957), which tried to reclaim the 1857 revolt as a moment in popular revolutionary movement; Desai, A. R., ed., Peasant Struggles in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979) interprets revolts and movements spread over two centuries as part of wider struggle of the dominated; and masterly, Irfan Habib'sThe Agrarian System of Mughal India (London: Asia Publishing House, 1963), which argues that the peasant revolts led by the local notables plunged the Mughal empire into a paralyzing crisis in the eighteenth century.

25 Kosambi's, D. D. works on ancient India mark the beginning—and remain stellar examples—of a professional Marxist historiography of this genre. See his Culture and Civilization of Ancient India In Historical Outline (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965).

26 See Sarkar, Sumit, “Rammohum Roy and the Break with the Past,” in Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India, Joshi, V. C., ed. (Delhi: Vikas, 1975), 4668; De, Barun, “The Colonial Context of the Bengal Renaissance,” in Indian Society and the Beginnings of Modernization c. 1830–1850, Philips, C. H. and Wainwright, Mary Doreen, eds. (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1976), 119–25; and Sen, Asok, lswar Chandra Vidyasagar and his Elusive Milestones (Calcutta: Rddhi-India, 1977).

27 See Gallagher, John, Johnson, Gordon and Seal, Anil, eds., Locality, Province and Nation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973); and Washbrook, David, The Emergence of Provincial Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

28 Rulers, , Townsmen, , and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the British Expansion, 17701870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

29 For example, Ludden, David, Peasant History in South India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985); and Alam, Muzaffar, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab 1707–1748 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986). For a Marxist version of this narrative, see Washbrook, David, “Progress and Problems: South Asian Economic and Social History,” Modern Asian Studies, 22:1 (1988), 5796.

30 Anderson's, Compare BenedictImagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983). The brilliance of its insights is somewhat marred by a lapse into sociological determinism and by its overemphasis on “print capitalism.”

31 Clifford, Compare James, “On Orientalism” in The Predicament of Culture, 255–76.

32 My forthcoming Bonded Histories: Genealogies of Labor Servitude in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) shows how the free-unfree opposition appropriated and reorganized different forms of labor.

33 Subaltern Studies, vols. I-V, Guha, Ranajit, ed. (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 19821985). The reference to national origins and to the “first world” site of academic training and experience is not meant to be invidious; rather, my intention is to show that national origin is not a necessary requirement for the formulation of a post-Orientalist position.

34 O'Hanlon's, RosalindRecovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies, 22:1 (1988), 189224, argues persuasively that an essentialist and teleological thinking also exists in their work. For an “against the grain” reading that attempts to capture what is novel and contestatory in the Subaltern Studies, see Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” in Subaltern Studies, vol. IV, 330–64.

35 See, in particular, his Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983).

36 Selected Subaltern Studies, Guha, Ranajit and Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, eds., with the Foreword by W, Edward. Said (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). The last section in this volume, for instance, is called “Developing Foucault.”

37 See Chatterjee, Partha, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World; Das, Veena, “Gender Studies, Cross-Cultural Comparison and the Colonial Organization of Knowledge,” Berkshire Review, no. 21 (1986), 5876; Mani, Lata, “Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India,” Cultural Critique, 7 (Fall 1987), 119–56; and Nigam, Sanjay, “The Social History of a Colonial Stereotype: The Criminal Tribes and Castes of Uttar Pradesh, 1871–1930” (Ph.D. disser., Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1987).

38 See Cohn, Bernard, An Anthropologist Among Historians and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987); and Thapar, Romila, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations (Delhi: Orient Longman, 1978).

39 Dirks, Nicholas, The Hollow Crown.

40 The South Asia Regional Studies Department, University of Pennsylvania, held a year-long seminar in 1988–1989 entitled “Orientalism and Beyond: Perspectives from South Asia.”

41 Huyssen, Andreas, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 206–16.

42 Ross, Andrew, “Introduction,” in Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism, Ross, Andrew, ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), x.

43 The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), ix.

44 Rushdie, Salman, Midnight's Children (New York: Avon Books, 1980).

45 For a recent statement of this position from a feminist perspective, see Scott, Joan Wallach, Gender and the Politics of History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). This politics of difference is called “minority discourse” by JanMohamed, Abdul and Lloyd, David in their “Introduction: Minority Discourse-What is to Be Done?,Cultural Critique, 7 (Fall 1987), 517.

46 These concerns are stated, for example, in LaCapra's, DominickRethinking Intellectual History: Texts, Contexts, Language (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), and History and Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

47 Spivak, Compare Gayatri Chakravorty, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Nelson, Cary and Grossberg, Larry, eds. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271313, in which she argues that even politically oriented Western poststructuralists, like Foucault, are marked by a certain blindness to the reality of imperialist domination.

48 See Smith's, PaulVisiting the Banana Republic,” in Universal Abandon?, 128–48.

49 Tyler's, Stephen A. “Post-Modern Ethnography: From Document of the Occult to Occult Document,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Clifford, James and Marcus, George, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 122–40, exemplifies this tendency. Note, for instance, that he conceives postmodern ethnography's task as invoking “the fantasy reality of a reality fantasy” and “the occult in the language of naive realism and of the everyday in occult language.” This invocation, according to him, “provokes a rupture with the commonsense world and evokes an aesthetic integration whose therapeutic effect is worked out in the restoration of the commonsense world” (p. 134). In this view, the offcentering of the ethnographer, as in the cover photograph of Writing Culture, becomes the purpose of postmodern ethnography.

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