February 29, 2020
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Review Essay

In The Waiting-Room Of History

Chakrabarty's book is not only an unusually sustained and nuanced argument against European ideas of modernity, but also an elegy for, and subtle critique of, his own intellectual formation and inheritance as a Bengali.

In The Waiting-Room Of History
Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference
By Dipesh Chakrabarty
Princeton University Press 320 pp, $19.95

I went to a Protestant school in Bombay, but the creation myth we were taught in the classroom didn't have to do with Adam and Eve. I remember a poster on the wall when I was in the Fifth Standard, a pictorial narrative of evolution. On the extreme left, crouching low, its arms hanging near its feet, was an ape; it looked intent, like an athlete waiting for the gun to go off. The next figure rose slightly, and the one after it was more upright: it was like a slow-motion sequence of a runner in the first few seconds of a race. The pistol had been fired; the race had begun. Millisecond after millisecond, that runner - now ape, now Neanderthal - rose a little higher, and its back straightened. By the time it had reached the apogee of its height and straight-backedness, and taken a stride forward, its appearance had improved noticeably; it had become a Homo sapiens, and also, coincidentally, European. The race had been won before it had properly started.

This poster captured and compressed the gradations of Darwin's parable of evolution, both arresting time and focusing on the key moments of a concatenation, in a similar way to what Walter Benjamin thought photographs did in changing our perception of human movement:

Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious; just as we discover the instinctual subconscious through psychoanalysis.

The poster in my classroom, too, revealed a movement impossible for the naked eye to perceive: from lower primate to higher, from Neanderthal to human, and - this last transition was so compressed as to be absent altogether - from the human to the European. These still figures gave us an 'optical unconscious' of a political context, the context of progress and European science and humanism. Here, too, Benjamin has something to say. In a late essay, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', he stated: 'The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time.'

'Homogeneous' and 'empty' are curious adjectives for 'time': they are more readily associated with space and spatial configuration. Certain landscapes glimpsed from a motorway, or the look of a motorway itself, might be described as dull and 'homogeneous'; streets and rooms might be 'empty'. My mentioning motorways isn't fortuitous. When Benjamin was formulating his thoughts on progress and history, and writing this essay in 1940, the year he killed himself, Hitler, besides carrying out his elaborate plans for the Jews in Germany, was implementing another huge and devastating project: the Autobahn. The project, intended both to connect one part of Germany to another and to colonise the landscape, was begun in the early 1930s; it's clear that Hitler's vision of the Autobahn is based on an idea of progress - 'progress' not only in the sense of movement between one place and another, but in the sense of science and civilisation. In India, in other parts of the so-called 'developing' world, even in present-day New York, London or Paris, it's impossible properly to experience 'homogeneous, empty time' because of the random, often maddeningly diverse allocation of space, human habitation and community. It is, however, possible to experience it on Western motorways and highways. Hitler was a literalist of this philosophy of space and movement: he wanted space to be 'homogeneous', or blond and European. Benjamin knew this first-hand; he was writing his 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' as a Jewish witness to Nazism and one of its potential victims. Hitler's anxiety and consternation at Jesse Owens's victory in the 100 metres at the Munich Olympics in 1936 came from his literalism of space, his investment in progress and linearity. That idea of space was at once reified and shattered when Owens reached the finishing line before the others.

Benjamin had been thinking of history in terms of space for a while; and, not too long before he wrote about 'homogeneous, empty time', he'd posited an alternative version of modernity and space in his descriptions of the flâneur, the Parisian arcades and 19th-century street life. The Parisian street constitutes Benjamin's critique of the Autobahn: just as the crowd, according to Benjamin, is 'present everywhere' in Baudelaire's work, and present so intrinsically that it's never directly described, the Autobahn is implicitly present, and refuted, in Benjamin's meditations on Paris. The flâneur, indeed, retards and parodies the idea of 'progress'. 'Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades,' Benjamin writes in a footnote to his 1939 essay on Baudelaire. 'The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this space. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularised the watchword "Down with dawdling!", carried the day.' The flâneur views history subversively; he - and it is usually he - deliberately relocates its meanings, its hierarchies. As far back as 1929, Benjamin had explained why the flâneur had to be situated in Paris:

The flâneur is the creation of Paris. The wonder is that it was not Rome. But perhaps in Rome even dreaming is forced to move along streets that are too well-paved. And isn't the city too full of temples, enclosed squares and national shrines to be able to enter undivided into the dreams of the passer-by, along with every shop sign, every flight of steps and every gateway? The great reminiscences, the historical frissons - these are all so much junk to the flâneur, who is happy to leave them to the tourist. And he would be happy to trade " all his knowledge of artists' quarters, birthplaces and princely palaces for the scent of a single weathered threshold or the touch of a single tile - that which any old dog carries away.

There's an implicit critique of the imperial city, and the imperialist aesthetic, in this description of Rome, with its 'great reminiscences' and 'historical frissons', and in the contrast of 'national shrines' and 'temples' with the 'touch of a single tile'. Benjamin is not alone in using these metaphors; both Ruskin and Lawrence (who probably took it from Ruskin) use Rome as a metaphor for the imperial, the finished, the perfected, as against the multifariousness of, say, the Gothic, the 'barbaric', the non-Western. Benjamin doesn't quite romanticise the primitive as Lawrence at least appears to: instead, he comes up with a particularly modern form of aleatoriness and decay in the 'weathered threshold' of a Parisian street.

Of course, the flâneur was not to be found in Paris alone. There was much wayward loitering in at least two colonial cities, Dublin and Calcutta. This - especially the emergence of the flâneur, or flâneur-like activities, in modern, turn of the century Calcutta - would have probably been difficult for Benjamin to imagine. Benjamin's figure for the flâneur was Baudelaire, and for Baudelaire - and, by extension, for the flâneur - the East was, as it was for Henri Rousseau, part dreamscape, part botanical garden, part menagerie, part paradise. Could the flâneur exist in that dreamscape?

Dipesh Chakrabarty, the author of Provincialising Europe, whose meditations on the limits of Western notions of modernity and history are impelled by Benjamin but who also has the word 'postcolonial' in his subtitle, was born in Calcutta. His inquiry is partly directed by the contingencies of being a South Asian historian in America, and also by being a founder member of the subaltern studies project, which attempted to write a South Asian or, specifically, Indian history 'from below', by bringing the 'subaltern' (Gramsci's word for the peasant or the economically dispossessed) into the territory largely occupied by nationalist history. But the inquiry is also shaped by the Calcutta Chakrabarty was born in, much as Benjamin's work is shaped by the Paris he reimagined and, to a certain extent, invented.

From the early 19th century, the growing Bengali intelligentsia in Calcutta was increasingly exercised by what 'modernity' might mean and what the experience of modernity might represent, specifically, to a subject nation, and, universally, to a human being. Chakrabarty's book is not only an unusually sustained and nuanced argument against European ideas of modernity, but also an elegy for, and subtle critique of, his own intellectual formation and inheritance as a Bengali. The kind of Bengali who was synonymous with modernity and who believed that modernity might be a universal condition - irrespective of whether you're English, Indian, Arab or African - has now passed into extinction. Chakrabarty's book is in part a discreet inquiry into why that potent Bengali dream didn't quite work - why 'modernity' remains so resolutely European.

Chakrabarty's writing is not without irony or humour; the cheeky oxymoron of the title is one example. At least a quarter of Chakrabarty's work was done, and his challenge given an idiom, when he reinvented this terrific phrase, which was probably first used with slightly more literal intent by Gadamer. According to Ranajit Guha, who is or used to be to subalternist historians roughly what Jesus was to the apostles, the 'idea of provincialising Europe' had 'been around for some time, but mostly as an insight waiting for elaboration' before Chakrabarty articulated and substantiated it so thoroughly. The 'idea' itself is set out and argued for in the introductory chapter. Chakrabarty begins with a disclaimer:

'Provincialising Europe is not a book about the region of the world we call "Europe". That Europe, one could say, has already been provincialised by history itself.'

The essay has two epigraphs: the first, from Gadamer, seems to speak of Europe as a 'region of the world'; the second, more tellingly, from Naoki Sakai, describes the 'West' as 'a name for a subject which gathers itself in discourse but is also an object constituted discursively'. What Chakrabarty wants to do with 'Europe', then, is in some ways similar to what Edward Said did with the 'Orient': to fashion a subversive genealogy. But instead of Said's relentless polemic, Chakrabarty's book features critique and self-criticism in equal measure. For me, Chakrabarty has the edge here, because for Said the Orient is a Western construct, an instrument of domination: he doesn't - and never went on to - explore the profound ways in which modern Orientals (Tagore, say) both were and were not Orientalists. Chakrabarty's work suggests, I think, that the word 'Eurocentric' is more problematic than we thought; that, if Europe is a universal paradigm for modernity, we are all, European and non-European, to a degree inescapably Eurocentric. Europe is at once a means of intellectual dominance, an obfuscatory trope and a constituent of self-knowledge, in different ways for different peoples and histories.

Said's great study takes its cue from the many-sided and endlessly absorbing Foucault, in its inexhaustible conviction and its curiosity about how a body of knowledge - in this case, Orientalism - can involve the exercise of power. Much postcolonial theory, in turn, has taken its cue from Said and this strain of Foucault. Chakrabarty's book comes along at a time when this line of inquiry, which has had its own considerable rewards and pitfalls, seems one-dimensional and exhausted. In spite of the 'postcolonial' in the subtitle, it owes little to the fecund but somewhat simplified Foucauldian paradigm. Instead, its inspiration seems post-structuralist and Derridean, and it rehearses a key moment in Derrida: the idea that it is necessary to dismantle or take on the language of 'Western metaphysics' (which for Derrida is almost everything that precedes post-structuralism and, in effect, himself), but that there is no alternative language available with which to dismantle it - so that the language must be turned on itself. For Derrida's 'Western metaphysics' Chakrabarty substitutes 'European thought' and 'social science thought':

European thought . . . is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India. Exploring - on both theoretical and factual registers - this simultaneous indispensability and inadequacy of social science thought is the task this book has set itself.

This is not very far from Derrida, who writes at an important juncture in Writing and Difference of

conserving all these old concepts within the domain of empirical discovery while here and there denouncing their limits, treating them as tools that can still be used. No longer is any truth value attributed to them: there is a readiness to abandon them, if necessary, should other instruments appear more useful. In the meantime, their relative efficacy is exploited, and they are employed to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces. This is how the language of the social sciences criticises itself.

Derrida is reflecting here on Lévi-Strauss, who when confronted with South American myths finds the tools of his trade obsolete but still indispensable. The idea of Chakrabarty registering a similarly self-reflexive moment about thirty years later, in relation to Europe, modernity and 'life practices . . . in India', is poignant and ironic: he belongs to the other side of the racial and historical divide; to a part of the world that should have been, at least in Lévi-Strauss's time, and by ordinary European estimation, the object rather than the instigator of the social scientist's discipline. It would have been next to impossible for Lévi-Strauss to foretell that something resembling his anxiety about the social sciences would one day be rehearsed in the work of a man with a name like Dipesh Chakrabarty.

And this, of course, is the crux of Chakrabarty's book. 'Historicism - and even the modern, European idea of history - one might say, came to non-European peoples in the 19th century as somebody's way of saying "not yet" to somebody else.' To illustrate what he means, he turns to John Stuart Mill's On Liberty and On Representative Government - 'both of which,' Chakrabarty says, 'proclaimed self-rule as the highest form of government and yet argued against giving Indians or Africans self-rule.'

According to Mill, Indians or Africans were not yet civilised enough to rule themselves. Some historical time of development and civilisation (colonial rule and education, to be precise) had to elapse before they could be considered prepared for such a task. Mill's historicist argument thus consigned Indians, Africans and other 'rude' nations to an imaginary waiting-room of history.

The 'imaginary waiting-room of history' is another of Chakrabarty's compressed, telling images. I don't know if he picked it up from the German playwright Heiner Müller, who uses it of the 'Third World' in a 1989 interview; but he employs it to great effect. The phrase has purgatorial resonances: you feel that those who are in the waiting-room are going to be there for some time. For modernity has already had its authentic incarnation in Europe: how then can it happen again, elsewhere? The non-West - the waiting-room - is therefore doomed either never to be quite modern, to be, in Naipaul's phrase, 'half-made'; or to possess only a semblance of modernity. This is a view of history and modernity that has, according to Chakrabarty, at once liberated, defined and shackled us in its discriminatory universalism; it is a view powerfully theological in its determinism, except that the angels, the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities.

Chakrabarty's thesis might seem obvious once stated; but the 'insight waiting for elaboration', to use Ranajit Guha's words, must find the best and, in the positive sense of the word, most opportunistic expositor. In Chakrabarty, I think it has. (The urge to provincialise Europe has, of course, a very long unofficial history. It's embodied in jokes and throwaway remarks such as the one Gandhi made when asked what he thought of Western civilisation: 'I think it would be a good idea.' Shashi Tharoor is having a dig at historicism when he says, in The Great Indian Novel, 'India is not an underdeveloped country. It is a highly developed country in an advanced state of decay.') Chakrabarty has given us a vocabulary with which to speak of matters somewhat outside the realm of the social sciences, and to move discussions on literature, cultural politics and canon formation away from the exclusively Saidian concerns of power-brokering, without entirely ignoring these concerns.

In the light of Chakrabarty's study, Naipaul's work begins to fall into place. Here is a writer who seems to have subscribed quite deeply to the sort of historicism that Chakrabarty describes. From the middle period onwards, in books such as The Mimic Men, A Bend in the River and In a Free State, Naipaul gives us a vision - unforgettable, eloquent - of the Caribbean and especially Africa as history's waiting-room. Modernity here is ramshackle, self-dismantling: it exists somewhere between the corrugated iron roof and the distant military coup, the newly deposed general. The 'not yet' with which Forster's narrator indefinitely deferred, in A Passage to India, the possibility of a lasting friendship between Fielding and Aziz are also the words that describe Naipaul's modern Africa. The opening sentence of A Bend in the River (which so exasperated Chinua Achebe) - 'The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it' - owes its tone less to religious pronouncements than to a belief in what Benjamin called 'the march of progress' in the 'homogeneous, empty time of history'. Naipaul's theology stems not so much from Hinduism, or the brahminical background he's renowned for, as from Mill. It was Mill, as Chakrabarty points out, who consigned certain nations to a purgatory, in which, in different concentric circles, they've been waiting or 'developing' ever since. In fiction, the greatest explorers of this Millian terrain have been Naipaul and Naipaul's master, Conrad.

Chakrabarty's study also helps to clarify the ways in which we discuss and think of the 'high' cultures of the so-called developing countries: not only the ancient traditions, but the modern and Modernist ones as well.

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