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The Modern and the Early Modern: Thoughts on time, periodicity and temporal heterodoxies Prathama Banerjee This presentation explores the relationship between the early modern and the colonial modern, from perspective of a historian of modern and contemporary India. I talk briefly about a set of moves made in late 18th and early 19th centuries – such as comparison of chronologies, calendrical reform and the separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ – which enabled a ‘transition’ from what is called the early to the colonial modern imaginations of time. With the above in mind, I then proceed to reflect upon the historiographical question of the relationship between the early and the colonial modern in south Asian scholarship. I ask in what ways the early modern works as a critique of the colonial modern, or whether it does so at all. Implicit in all this, of course, the question of historical periodisation, and the overarching matter of rethinking our relationship to the ancient, the middle period and indeed, the contemporary. What does the early modern mean to a historian of colonial and postcolonial India – that is the question I would like to raise here today. To lay my cards right away on the table, I shall argue against too easy a use of the rubric of the early modern, because to my mind, it needlessly extends the jurisdiction of the modern over our thought and history. However, let me begin by re-describing the early modern scholarship in south Asia from my particular vantage point. As we know, historians have recently shown that in south Asia, and other parts of the non-western world, the period approximately between 1500 and 1800 saw the emergence of traits that could be termed modern by definition. Clearly, this presumes that there is a general consensus on the definition of modernity, and on the measure of what is and what is not modern. Thus, scholars have located history-writing traditions1, professional scribal cultures2, the rise of public spaces/spheres constituting the political, new state formations, which, though not absolutist in the Perry Anderson sense, sought military and fiscal centralization and deployed the rhetoric of universal empire, an emergent sensibility of individual power and glory, defying caste and community proscriptions, and indeed a growth of travel-cultures, constituting a pre-colonial globalisation along with professional and literary cosmopolitanisms.3 In other words, on the presupposition that history, public sphere, sovereign states, individuality and cosmopolitanism are indisputably and essentially modern traits, this scholarship argues that such traits were found in precolonial times in south Asia and therefore were not necessarily colonial imports. Clearly, the argument here is different from the earlier transition story – which sought to prove or disprove, as Irfan Habib did once, the possibility of indigenous capitalism in India eventually thwarted by colonialism. Indeed the argument here is not about capitalism – though global trade-networks and fiscal innovation do form the context of some of these histories – as about modernity as a social and cultural formation. More significantly, the argument here is not a nationalist one as was the earlier transition debate. Therefore, this early modern scholarship does not propose to compare European modernity with south Asian or Chinese or Arab modernities. Instead, it argues that pre-colonial modernity was really the product of global ‘connected’ histories, only later to be recast through divisions such as coloniser/colonised, centre/periphery, developed/underdeveloped and so on – divisions which emerged once modernity as a category got subsumed under (colonial/industrial) capitalism. In other words, this 1 Velecheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman & Sanjay Subramanyam Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, 1600-1800, New York, Otherpress LLC, 2003; Raziuddin Aquil & Partha Chatterjee History in the Vernacular, Delhi, Permanent Black, 2008; Kumkum Chatterjee The Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianisation and Mughal Culture in Bengal , Oxford University Press, 2009. 2 See the Oxford Early Modern South Asia Project, led by Rosalind O’Hanlon, David Washbro ok, Christopher Minkowski and Imre Bangha, 2007 onwards. 3 Sanjay Subramanyam “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 31, No. 3, Special Issue: The Eurasian Context of the Early Modern History of Mainland South East Asia, 1400-1800. (Jul., 1997), pp. 735-762; “Hearing Voices: Vignettes of Early Modernity in South Asia, 1400-1750”, Daedalus, Vol. 127, No. 3, Early Modernities (Summer, 1998), pp. 75-104. historiography actually seeks to de-link capitalism and modernity, and recover the modern from the grip of a later and contingent colonial. In other words, early modernists argue that modernity can be thought of as a phenomenon older than what we know as colonial/capitalist/nationalist modernity. Therefore, the real stake here is in decolonising the modern as it were, by preventing the early modern from necessarily appearing as the pre-history of the colonial. I am however uncomfortable with this great investment in the idea of the modern, perhaps because as a historian of modern and contemporary times, I cannot but acknowledge what is clearly today a crisis in the idea and regime of modernity (both of capitalism and liberal democracy) – a crisis in which I see an opening for not only decolonisation of thought but also possibilities of retheorising the question of historical transformation outside the binary of continuity and rupture, progress and revolution, modern and non-modern. The lesson that I would draw from the early modern scholarship in south Asia is then quite different. My lesson is that if phenomena such as capital and modernity can be shown up to have distinct and autonomous histories, it becomes possible for us, by extension, to reconstruct autonomous histories for phenomena such as state, publicity, self, faith and so on – without having to argue that all these histories necessarily come together to constitute one thing called modernity. I am therefore more inclined to argue that both intellectually and politically it is more productive to give different periodisations to these different histories – such as the history of the self or the history of globality or the history of the state or the history of history for that matter – rather than force all these histories into the singular temporal bracket of the early modern. Clearly, we are in the realm of the politics of periodisation here. Let me hasten to clarify that I do not particularly wish to revisit the earlier debate in this regard. We already recognise that the universal division of historical time into ancient, medieval and modern was really a colonial imposition, leading us to search in vain for a shadow classical antiquity, a shadow feudalism and a shadow Renaissance for ourselves. Not only did this kind of periodisation do gross injustice to the actual dynamics of historical change in India, it also forever imposed upon us a communal division of history into ancient Hindu, medieval Muslim and modern European periods. This critique of course continues to be valid. But we cannot also ignore the fact that despite this powerful critique, we continue to think Indian history in terms of ancient/medieval/modern – both institutionally and intellectually – even though we have tried to complicate matters by invoking other times such as early medieval and early modern. Let me then restage the question of periodisation from quite another angle. I think that there is an impossible paradox at the very heart of our practice of historical periodisation. You will notice that while ancient and medieval are meant to be times with a beginning and an end, however fuzzy, the modern is meant to be a time that is infinite. Modernity has a beginning – it could be the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or colonialism depending on our location. But modernity seems to have no end. Since its inauguration, it seems as if all times to come would be always already modern. In other words, there is neither an end nor an after-life to modernity. Seen in these terms, the ancient/medieval/modern periodisation appears as a deeply asymmetrical configuration – where the terms of thought are set by the modern at the cost of both the non-modern and extra-modern. Let me clarify right away that I am not arguing for an imagination of the postmodern, as a historical period coming ‘after’ the end of modernity. I am only trying to point out the skewed politics of modernity as concept, which disallows any analytical move away from and aside of the narrative of the modern. It seems that we are meant to make sense of all our experiences, eternally and necessarily, under the explanatory and disciplinary regime of modernity. This grip of the modern, in my mind, disables imaginations of actually temporal heterogeneity, which goes beyond merely and banally stating that in real life, people live in multiple times. One possible move in the direction of conceptualizing temporal heterogeneity could be to disentangle the distinct histories that appear to come together to constitute the modern – such as the history of democracy, the history of capital, the history of public sphere, the history of the self, and so on. Hitherto we have worked with the presumption that these different histories necessarily articulate without surplus under the name of the modern. And yet we are not entirely clear about the nature of these articulations. We almost always work by using epochal signifiers such as modernity, capitalism and democracy interchangeably or at most through hyphenated concepts such as capitalist modernity, colonial modernity, capitalist democracy and so on. This, however, is not for lack of theoretical rigour amongst us. In fact, this is in the nature of how modernity itself operates, in the nature of the modernity-effect as it were. Modernity, after all, is a unique name, in that it functions simultaneously as one and many, proper and common – now a set of ideas (reason, enlightenment, progress), now a set of norms (equality, liberty, secularity), now an orientation of the self (secular, rational, individual, modernist, schizophrenic), now institutions and technologies (public sphere, governmentality, democracy), now capital, now an epoch (with a beginning but no end), and now an empty place-holder (filled with content by various peoples in various times and places). In other words, the modern works precisely by subsuming all histories and all subjectivities of the present under its sign. Structurally, then, modernity is, and is meant to be, itself a colonising concept. So whether we write the story of capital or of democracy or of the public sphere or of faith or of the self, they all seem to flow into the singular and capacious story of the modern. This is the self-perpetuating technique of the modern as idea and as performance. If, however, we imagine all these histories – of the state, of the demos, of self, of capital, of gods, of work, of the modern itself – to be distinct or sometimes even contrary histories which nevertheless can and do interesect, it becomes possible for us to disarticulate time itself, open it up to recomposition. Till the rise of the early modern scholarship in the last two decades in south Asia, it was believed that, in colonial and postcolonial societies, modernity produces and reproduces an irreversible disruption in relationships to the past – through what Bernard Cohn had once called the epistemic violence of colonialism. Early modern scholarship, however has implicitly argued that modernity was always already familiar and recognisable to south Asia, though it was non-colonial and non-capitalist and therefore somewhat different from 19th-20th century modernity. Nevertheless, we cannot quite deny that unlike in Europe where the logic of modernity is necessarily projected backwards in time – philosophically to Aristotle and Plato and politically to the Athenian democracy – for the colonised modernity disallows a seamless recovery and deployment of pasts for the sake of the present. The idea of the early modern, therefore, unavoidably raises the question of its relationship with the colonial modern. After all, formulating something by the name of early modern necessarily leads to a quandary for us – because we neither have the historicist option of a modern-early modern continuity (the original European transition narrative) nor the nationalist option of imagining a perfect break in colonialism and of peddling a wishful story of ‘our’ (disrupted) modernity. And more significantly, in the dominant historical imagination of the colony, the early modern is haunted by its proximity, indeed by its imputed historical-causal relationship, to the moment of colonial triumph. This is the reason why in the colony the ancient has won over the early modern – through a temporal twist very different from the West’s reclamation of classical antiquity through early modern mediation. Few would disagree with the fall-out of this valorization of ancient India, at the cost of the medieval or the early modern. It has made possible militant Hinduism as a political force in modern times. It has also made possible conservative forms of post-liberalisation, urban, middleclass enactments of culture. But the valorisation of the ancient has also allowed powerful dalit criticism of caste as nation and nation as caste, by invoking either a pre-Aryan Dravidian or a Buddhist past. It is therefore not easy to simply wish away that dominance of the ancient which is very much a symptom of the modern. Early modernists would have to face this predicament squarely. In my mind, the biggest problem lies in the question that the early modernist’s refuse to ask – namely, how can the early modern be politically and intellectually recovered and deployed in our contemporary, as an untimely and critical history which could loosen the grip of the colonial modern as well as the ancient over our imaginations. The early modernists claim, as Sheldon Pollock states clearly, to empty the idea of modernity of all colonial-capitalist content and refill it with ‘other’ empirical content from the global south, without giving up th e ideological and philosophical investment in modernity as idea. But it seems clear to me that it is not enough to merely show empirically that early modernity was different from and autonomous of the story of colonial modernity. What is needed is the reinstatement of the possibility of temporal heterogeneity itself – the modern/early modern division, to my mind, does not quite serve that purpose because it keeps intact and in fact expands the field of intelligibility of the modern. To my mind, what we need then is to rethink periodicity as a whole. In that I would think the question of the medieval would become moot. While early modernity defines itself vis a vis colonial modernity, it is not so engaged with its other neighbouring time – the middle ages, even though many scholars of early modernity in south Asia were indeed medievalists by training. In colonial modern imagination, the middle ages appears in the form of a hyphen, its primary role being that of connecting the two meaningful times of human history, classical antiquity and modernity. The term madhyakālin or ‘medieval’ thus has little ideological valence outside of the universities. Even recent popular discourses about the persecution of Hindus under Muslim rule do not depend on any notion of ‘medieval’ but rather of a timeless Islam. In other words, there seems to be little sedimented ideological meanings for the term medieval itself. The only exception might be the invocation of terms like ‘feudal’ and ‘semi-feudal’ in the rural, Marx-inspired, politics of post-Independence India. This is not the case in Europe, where until recently the category of the medieval had formed a ‘critical component of modern selfdefinition’—and even now forms the ideological place of ‘escape’ from modernity and industrialism into popular culture and romantic literature and arts.4 In South Asia, on the other hand, even in film and theatre let alone historical novels, popular 4 See John M. Ganim, Medeivalism and Orientalism: Three Essays on Literature, Architecture and Cultural Identity (London: Palgrave, 2008), pp. 4-5. A strategy usefully explored in European history by Marcus Bull, Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 7-41. invocations of the past do not coherently revolve around the medieval as a meaningful category. In this sense, the medieval is far more clearly our untimely history and unlived present, because we are yet to imagine a form of engagement between the medieval and the modern. The early modern scholarship, unwittingly, makes matters more difficult. For what we see here is a tendency to temporally extend the early modern backwards – first early modern was the 18th century, then it was 16th century onwards, and now, it is often seen to go further back into the 14th/13th centuries. In the process, the medieval gets veritably taken over by the story of the modern, by way of the early modern. In other words, I am arguing that early modernity needs to be posited not in and by itself but through a whole scale rethinking of periodicity in Indian history. As I already mentioned above, I am personally more inclined to think of periodicity as immanent to the form or phenomenon that one studies – so one periodises the state differently from poetry rather than work with an overarching ancient-medieval-modern frame. Alongside a rethinking of periodisation, we also need, I think, a rethinking of time itself, i.e. a rethinking of relationships with and in time. We know that modernity posits a particular way of articulating pasts to the present – which it does not only by valourising the present itself and proposing a break with the past, but also by proposing that the present is the logical, necessary, or at least most likely, future of the past. Pasts which refuse to fit this mode of succession are then set up as tradition, custom, heritage or even culture – i.e. that is as traces either of the past or of the eternal. In the colony thus the modern appeared as a time which did not and could not succeed the past. That is, modernity appeared as an external though inescapable contingency. In face of such an imputed disruption of the past-present relationship, colonial-modern acts of engaging pasts and traditions came to be pitched as acts of culture and commemoration rather than acts of intellection. The contrast with European philosophy is stark, where thinkers habitually engage their ancestors as intellectual contemporaries. In other words, I am arguing that instead of presuming a periodisation frame, we need to see periodisation itself as one possible mode of temporalising which was historically posited by modernity and therefore validate the modern by default. In other words, I am arguing that we must make periodicity itself part of our problematic. Let me elaborate what I mean by drawing out two very different instances from my earlier work on the politics of time in the 19th and early 20th century – where I had tried to map the production of modern temporality in Bengal through a variety of processes such as the rise of history and anthropology as disciplines, the setting up of credit rationality around the depoliticised space of the colonial market, the circulation of labouring bodies across the nation and the globe and indeed struggles over contending epochal and calendrical imaginations.5 One is the instance of the 1855 Santal rebellion. The Santal rebellion or hul has been a celebrated event in south Asian historiography – nationalist, Marxist and subaltern histories (especially Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakravarty) had framed their arguments around this event as had left politics in Bengal at a more popular level. However, what was always missed in these historical retellings was what the Santal rebels under trial actually argued in their testimonies to the magistrate. They had stated clearly that time could no longer be thought of as a continuity, because the colonial present did not hold a relationship of succession with Santal past. Familiar causalities therefore no longer operated in the present – which was what legitimised, indeed called for, a reconvening of time so to speak through acts of unprecedented, violent insurgency. The other instance I want to invoke is that of a sabha of Brahmin pundits in the second half of the 19th century in Bengal, where there was an intense debate on whether one could have two distinct calendars, one for spiritual and ritual life and another for transport and business – and implicitly on whether it was better to work with chronological accuracy or chronological commensurability vis a vis the question of time. These instances could roughly be seen as instances of transition from the moment of early modernity to colonial modernity, if we go by conventional 5 Prathama Banerjee The Politics of Time: primitives and history-writing in a colonial society ¸ Delhi, OUP, 2006. periodisation norms. Yet what these instances also show us is that transitions also involve active and conscious modes of temporalisation on the part of historical subjects – the tortuous setting up of new relationships with and in time. One could also bring in here Yigal Bronner’s work the mobilisation of the idea of the navya on the eve of colonialism, which too can be seen as an active mode of temporalisation within intellectual traditions of the time.6 To my mind, such instances of active temporalisation are inadequately understood under the sign of either the early modern or the colonial modern, because such periodisations overwrite in an unproductive way the temporality of the very phenomenon and the very subject under study. In other words, I am arguing that if we must activate what we call the early modern in our present, then we have to open up the question of temporality and periodicity itself. The early modern scholarship has already done the salutary work of exposing the colonial modern as contingent and thus released all that appear as the modern from its causal tie with the colonial. But this scholarship is yet to ask the difficult question of what it would be to imagine new relationships with heterodox pasts, which might not be a relationship of succession or inheritance in the first place and which might not inhabit the same field of intelligibility such as of the modern. What forms would such relationships take (calling a past early modern or medieval is after all to already set up a relationship of succession by default)? Only by asking such a question and by mobilizing pasts in the mode of the untimely and the unlived, can we reanimate our contemporary and disrupt the alleged identity of our present with the infinite and the endless modern. In that sense, the historian would have to be first to own up temporal heterodoxy, and post-facto work at a laborious, fragile but politically charged suturing of fissured times. 6 Yigal Bronner, ‘What is new and what is navya?: Sanskrit Poetics on the eve of colonialism’, Journal of Indian Philosophy 30, 441–462, 2002.