Review: Provincializing Europe

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (hereafter PE) is an intellectual tour de force, and it takes but a few pages to recognize why it is considered a seminal work in postcolonial theory and history. What on first reading seems like an impossible undertaking for any scholar to accomplish in one book becomes a stunning achievement, all the more so because the author’s project is quite consequential. But consequential does not mean convoluted. In fact, in its most basic rendering, Chakrabarty’s project is fairly straightforward: provincializing Europe means decentering Europe from the historical narrative of non-European societies and their political modernity. This is necessary, he argues, because “the phenomenon of ‘political modernity’—namely, the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise—is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual and even theological traditions of Europe” (4, emphasis in original), and these categories and concepts are inadequate for thinking about political modernity in the non-West. However, this is only one part of the argument, and the second part is really what gives PE its analytical traction. Chakrabarty proposes that these concepts are at once inadequate and indispensable in discussing political modernity in the non-West. How can this be? As he puts it, “What historically enables a project such as that of ‘provincializing Europe’ is the experience of political modernity in a country like India. European thought has a contradictory relationship to such an instance of political modernity. It is both indispensable and inadequate in helping us to think through the various life practices that constitute the political and the historical in India” (6). Any discussion of political modernity must take place in the language of Enlightenment universals, but because of their European origin, they are insufficient for grappling with political modernities outside of Europe. In other words, we cannot talk about political modernity in non-European countries only in the language of European thought; we must discuss political modernity in the universals that originated in Europe while also heeding the particulars (historical difference) of non-European cultures.

This is quite theoretical, and, predictably, this is one of the main criticisms historians and students lodge against PE. Specifically, these readers claim that there is too much theory and not enough history. This critique, however, misunderstands the book’s purpose, which is to posit an initial theoretical framework for provincializing Europe and to demonstrate a possible usage of that framework. Furthermore, not only are theory and history built into the book’s raison d’être, but they are also built into the book’s organization. PE is divided into equal haves, with the first half devoted to theory and the second half devoted to history. This history is primarily devoted to the study of middle-class, upper-caste Hindu Bengalis in colonial India, and it is quite successful in its use of Bengali (and a few English) sources, especially if one reads it through the theoretical lens forged by Chakrabarty in the first half of the book. Yet this is perhaps where the book’s organization falls short; in splitting the book in half, with the theory coming first, Chakrabarty forces the reader to make the transition from theory to history. If the book were not organized as a dichotomy, one could argue, it would be harder to highlight. Of course, anyone who reads the book and takes its claims seriously will have to abandon the notion that the physical division of the book is a thoughtful critique, or that calling attention to an apparent imbalance in the ratio between theory and history is any more reflective. Just as one could argue that the theory-to-history format is shortsighted, one could also argue that this format challenges the reader to read disjuncture into the supposedly static categories of theory and history. The latter interpretation would mean the book’s organization is actually a physical manifestation of one of the book’s premises.

A more convincing critique of the theory-history dichotomy—if we want to stick this “problem”—is that the theory is more successful than the history. Readers of the book will no doubt have varying opinions on Chakrabarty’s writing style, but although the passion undergirding the project remains present throughout, the theoretical pieces are clearly better argued. (Chapter Two: Two Histories of Capital, what the author refers to as the “theoretical pivot” of the book, is a true feat of rhetoric.) This does not mean the theoretical pieces are completely successful, nor does it mean that the historical pieces are unsuccessful; rather, it means that an imbalance exists between the theoretical and historical that leads one to distinguish between these two aspects of the text. That Chakrabarty’s rhetoric in the theory-focused section of the book is more successful than the history-focused section may be surprising, given that the theoretical work of the Subaltern Studies collective is considered to be less successful than its practical work, but remembering the book’s thesis should remove any surprise one feels about the theory’s success. Recognizing the inadequacy of European categories of thought for understanding political modernity in non-European countries, while at the same time recognizing their indispensability, is both the central argument and the defining feature of PE. It is also the central tension of the book and, therefore, what propels it forward. Defining the book’s purpose in his own words, Chakrabarty writes, “Provincializing Europe both begins and ends by acknowledging the indispensability of European political thought to representations of non-European political modernities, and yet struggles with the problems of representation that this indispensability invariably creates” (22, emphasis mine). That is, PE begins and ends in struggle—a struggle to recognize and maneuver, both in theory and in practice, the contradictions that resulted from colonialism. This struggle is a distinct characteristic of postcolonial thought, of which this book and its author are representatives, and it is surely one reason postcolonialism remains a thriving field of study.

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