Publication Date

April 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


In "Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts" (Perspectives, November 1997), Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that although academic “majority” history has brought “minority” histories of marginalized and oppressed peoples into the disciplinary mainstream, it has continued to ignore “subaltern pasts” with radically different principles of historical understanding. Chakrabarty illustrates his argument with reference to Ranajit Guha’s essay in Subaltern Studies II, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” which treats the Santal rising against the British in Bengal and Bihar in 1855. Guha not only unmasks the manifest bias of English reports, memoirs, and histories of the insurgency, but also criticizes sympathetic radical and Marxist historians who patronize the leaders of the rising by interpreting their assumption of divine intervention as simply effective propaganda or even as a necessary falsehood.

Chakrabarty's point is that the Santal's belief in the intervention of their god is one of those subaltern pasts "that cannot ever enter history as belonging to the historian's own position." He does not merely mean that religion should be treated more seriously as a historical phenomenon any more than the current critics of the secularization of the University wish no more than the introduction of more courses on religion. The problem is that "the historian as historian, unlike the Santal, cannot invoke the supernatural in explaining/describing an event."

Chakrabarty does not precisely say that we historians should invoke the supernatural but reminds us that "the discipline of history is only one particular way of remembering the past." It would be difficult to find a historian who denies that, but Chakrabarty goes beyond that obvious insight to ask: "Why must one privilege the ways in which the discipline of history authorizes its knowledge? . . . What has become an open question is: Are there experiences of the past that cannot be captured by the methods of the discipline?” Again it is difficult to know quite where to alight. Chakrabarty does urge us to recognize “an irreducible plurality in our own experiences of historicity” but proceeds from that rather anodyne observation to pose another question: “But the Santal statement, ‘I did as my god told me to do’ also faces us as a way of being in this world, and we could ask ourselves: Is that way of being a possibility for our own lives, and for what we define as our present?” Presumably Chakrabarty does not intend us to embrace the specific content of the Santal faith and defer to their god, Thakur, but to recognize that “we are all in principle capable of participating in supernatural events and the sense of the past they help create.”

I don't believe that Chakrabarty is simply urging us to remember that some people invoke the supernatural in explaining/describing events; he must be posing as a possibility for us historians qua historians an awareness of the working of the divine will in history.

Why should we believe him? To what claims to cognitive authority should the reader defer?

The first of these depends on the strictly secular epistemological standards of what Chakrabarty calls "good" [his quotation marks] history. As in his description of the assimilation of minority histories into the discipline's mainstream, or the documentation of the Santal insurgency derived from a reputable secondary source, he claims the authority of plausible inference from publicly accessible evidence. Presumably, it would be unseemly to raise the issue of methodological relativism in response to this phase of the argument.

Second, Chakrabarty claims the authority of the self-evident, as in his reassurance to anxious conventional historians that "the discipline is still securely tied to the positivist impulses of modern bureaucracies, judiciaries, and other instruments of government." Here normative and factual verities are simply assumed. The association of "positivist" with "bureaucracies" reinforces the unargued negative connotation of each term. The fact that some historians have applied "positivist" methods to unmask bureaucratic mendacity and obfuscation could scarcely be entered into a consideration of what is simply self-evident.

There is an appeal to authority of a different sort in Chakrabarty's selection of the Santal insurgency to illustrate those "constructions of historicity that help us see the limits to the mode of viewing embodied in the practices of the discipline of history." Chakrabarty concedes that he might have selected an example of the subaltern past of "elite and dominant groups . . . to the extent that they participate in subordinated life-worlds" but instead chose the life-world of a subaltern people. To be deaf to the "subaltern voice" of people engaged in a tragic struggle to liberate themselves from the grip of European imperialism exposes one to the charge of Orientalism. Yet, as Chakrabarty notes, the entire history down to the present day of what used to be called Western Christendom is informed with the belief in "the supernatural or divine."

Those who assumed the white man's burden of worldwide domination did not carry out their mission with a rifle in one hand and the positivist scripture of Langlois and Seignobos in the other. The scriptures held in the hand that did not hold the rifle constitute two immense readings of history as Divine Providence. And those histories contributed an integral element to the campaign to turn other peoples into subalterns.

With regard to history defined as professional practice, it is only in the last historical microsecond that the discipline has eschewed a reading of the past with reference to the working of the divine will. Leopold von Ranke, often mistakenly identified as the grandfather of mindless empiricism, could confidently affirm:

While the philosopher of history, viewing history from his vantage point, sinks infinity merely in progression, development and totality, history recognizes something infinite in every existence: in every condition, in every being, something eternal, coming from God; and this is its vital principle.1

I agree that the exclusion of "something eternal, coming from God" from the language of the discipline does not represent a system of values so universal as to be beyond debate, but do not understand how a historian, in practicing the craft, might simultaneously exclude and embrace the supernatural. Joseph de Maistre's reading of the history of the French Revolution as divine retribution for the sins of the French is not my reading; in rejecting his I necessarily "privilege" [Chakrabarty's word] mine.

Privilege—the word rings a bell. “To privilege” is what the postmodernist sensibility claims to eschew. When one comes across that word constructed as a verb, or such a phrase as “being in the world,” or frequent recourse to “historicize,” one hears the distant hum of “always already” on the rails. And, sure enough, it rumbles into Chakrabarty station: “It is because we always already have experience of that which makes the present noncontemporaneous with itself that we can actually historicize.”

Here, Chakrabarty claims the authority of a more or less esoteric language, a discursive style, a coded vocabulary. "More or less esoteric" because the language has become so familiar as to be vulnerable to parody. The authority is fortified, as it often is, with reference to the icons of the genre: Heidegger, Gadamer, and Derrida—European males who are more like field marshals than subalterns.

The fundamental issue of divine intervention in earthly affairs far transcends the discipline of history to divide all of those who will, at least on occasion, explain terrestrial events with reference to the supernatural and those who will not. The attention of this unreconstructed secularist was caught by a prediction of the god Thakur recorded in one of the documents appended to Guha's article, and mentioned by Chakrabarty without comment: ". . . and Sahibs if you fight with muskets the Sonthal will not be hit by bullets."2

We do not have to go to subaltern peoples to find an immense historical literature recounting the suspension of natural processes in behalf of a people favored by their particular deity. In relatively recent times, however, no one has documented the coming to pass of such miracles cast in the form of a prediction.

To dwell on Thakur's prediction is not to patronize the Santal, who found the desperate courage to defy the deadly authority of modern military technology, but to recognize the tragic human costs of the enforcement of imperial dominion in the only world that we are certain we inhabit.

These reflections impel me to conclude with a quotation from Patricia Nelson Limerick's essay, which appeared in the same issue of Perspectives as Chakrabarty’s essay: “. . . however differences of power, culture, income, and race may divide us, we still have one foundation for a claim of human universality, and that is our mortality.”3


1. Leopold von Ranke, “On the Relations of History and Philosophy,” in Georg G. Iggers and Konrad von Moltke eds., The Theory and Practice of History by Leopold von Ranke, trans. Wilma A. Iggers and Konrad von Moltke (Indianapolis and New York, 1973), 38.

2. Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,”Subaltern Studies II, 41.

3. Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Has ‘Minority’ History Transformed the Historical Discourse?” Perspectives (November 1997): 36.

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