Week 22: Postcolonialism and the Provincializing of Europe (summary)

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Week 22: Postcolonialism and the Provincializing of Europe (summary)

In the modern world, a contrast is commonly assumed to exist between a wealthy and modernised ‘west’ and a poor and backward remainder of the world. By ‘the west’ is meant Europe and northern America, with the addition more recently of a part of the Far East, notably Japan. As the process of modernity began in Europe, this may be seen as the history of Europe and the extension of European values throughout the world. The rest of the world is seen to exist in a sort of subordinate state. ‘Europe’ is seen to fully modern, while the remainder retains many pre-modern elements. The task of the rest is to try to catch up with the ‘Europe’ or the ‘west.’
The study of History, as it developed as a scholarly subject in Europe in the post-Enlightenment period, has tended to root itself in such a global understanding. The history of modernity that has formed the subject of this course is on the whole a very western-oriented history. The Enlightenment was primarily a European phenomenon, and the reactions to it, as with the Romantic Movement, came from there also. The eastern states of the USA were a part of this, so that modernity can be considered to have been rooted there also. As the influence of Europe and the USA expanded throughout the globe, with colonialism, conquest and through economic power, modernity became the prevalent force in the world in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It is assumed that in time the whole world will develop along lines first seen in the ‘west.’
This lecture, examines how the sort of history writing that developed in Europe during the Enlightenment came to provide the model for history writing throughout the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Such a way of understanding history prevails in the world to this day. The question will also be posed as to how we historians might try to go beyond this in their work today.

When European powers began to extend their political power all over the globe from the eighteenth century onwards, they began to write the history of the regions they colonised. These histories were from their own perspective, and they showed Europeans as fully ‘modern’ because of their supposedly more sophisticated social and political institutions, capitalist economies, and superior technologies. The people of Asia, Africa and other colonised regions were seen to be living in a state of ‘backwardness.’ They were thus historical remnants. It was the world-mission of Europeans to conquer such people, and to ‘develop’ and ‘civilize’ them. The future towards which all were meant to aspire was that of Europe.

This theme has been examined by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000. This book argues that the discipline of history, as it developed at the time of the Enlightenment, was rooted in the idea of human progress. It was a history that started with the cave man, going on to the neolithic farmer, then the ancient civilisations and their slave societies, to the great medieval civilisations of Islam and China, to the rise of Europe from the Renaissance, and then the world hegemony of Europe that was inaugurated with the Enlightenment. There were sub-themes rooted in particular national histories, often with a specific nationalist agenda. The overriding theme of such history was to show how societies had either developed, or failed to develop, in a ‘modern’ direction. This led to the development of a particular type of history-writing by the colonial rulers in the colonised regions. They wrote histories that sought to explain why particular colonised regions lacked certain critical qualities, such as a commitment to democracy, or human rights, or capitalist enterprise. The focus was not on the positive elements of these cultures, but on what they lacked. Although the colonisers produced the first of such histories, local people who had studied in the European style schools and colleges established by the colonial rulers also began to write in this way in time. In such histories, the future to which everyone was meant to aspire was that of ‘Europe’. A feature of such history writing was that historians throughout the world tended to take ‘European’ models of history-writing and themes as their guides, and that they tended to analyse the ways in which their own societies ‘lacked’ certain core features of ‘European’ societies, the assumption being that at some time in the future they would make good this ‘lack’. The unstated wish of much history writing is for European models to become generalised throughout the world.
The nationalist movements that developed in opposition to European colonial rule in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century had to fight their battle on two main fronts – the political and the ideological. One of leading figure who disputed this form of understanding was the Indian nationalist leader M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948). He argued that different cultures excel in different areas. While the west was clearly in the lead in the material and scientific spheres of life, India was superior in many other areas, such as in spiritual awareness and a closeness to nature. He sought to bring out the positive elements of Indian culture and values in the nationalist opposition to British colonial rule. He was highly critical of western-style history writing, seeing it as being informed by a valorisation of particular state formations. By failing to acknowledge this, and in claiming objectivity for their historians, western historians acted in bad faith. In his opinion, it was in no way superior to myth.
Another colonial subject who developed a powerful critique of colonialism was Franz Fanon (1925-1961). In his book Black Skins, White Masks (1952), he argued that colonised black people suffered not merely from the coercive domination of European colonial rulers but also from an indoctrination that made them believe that they were inferior to the white man. The only answer was for the black and colonised people to free themselves from the psychological control of their masters by rejecting their colonialism out of hand. This was not easy to achieve, as the colonial rulers had destroyed the wholeness of the pre-colonial past, and made their rule permeate almost every pore of life in the colonies. It was not possible to create a new unified anti-colonial system that rejected the colonial heritage outright. Rather, the pre-colonial fragments that existed had to be rearranged in creative new ways in conjunction with the colonial system of rule and culture to forge a new unity.
Although it is true there are important traditions of oppositional forms of history-writing in the west, such as such as socialist or feminist history, it can be argued that they continue to be rooted in an overall paradigm of progress and development. Thus, socialist historians still maintain a narrative of progress, the difference being that this is progress towards the working class revolution. There has been a tendency to focus on the white working class, ignoring black workers. Feminists have their own narrative of progress, towards the liberation of women from patriarchal controls. Again, feminist historians tend to construct women as white, leaving black women invisible. Once again, these are agendas that originated in the West, and in which the West is seen to be in the lead.
In fact, as Dipesh Chakrabarty argues in Provincialising Europe, the post-Enlightenment history of progress, modernity and capital is just one of many. It is, primarily, the history of modern Europe, and by extension, the history of modern North America. It is, in other words, not a universal history, but a provincial history – one particular to those specific regions.
How do we break with this European and American-centred history? How do we go about writing a history that takes into account the fact that there are many diverse histories and historical themes that owe little to western models of progress? Postmodernist theory has grappled with this issue, arguing that all reality is fragmented, incoherent and in a state of constant creation and recreation. The self is constituted by differences and dissonances. There is no coherent and whole subject, or essential thinking person, as we are influenced by many irrational beliefs and unexpected occurrences. The idea that rulers can act in a rational way to bring about a desired result, such as ‘progress,’ is a delusion. Postmodernist writing unsettles and disturbs existing representations, without trying to create a holistic theory as a replacement.
A new school of ‘postcolonial history’ has emerged that is influenced by postmodernist theory. Postcolonial historians argue that there are a vast range of histories throughout the word that resist being incorporated seamlessly within the thematics of Eurocentric history. We don’t have to accept or endorse the ethics of such histories, but we should at least acknowledge that they inform the historical imagination of many non-Europeans and non-Americans throughout the world, and that they have their own integrity and develop and evolve according to their own logic in contemporary times. Therefore, alongside the hegemonic history of progress, modernity and capitalist development, there are a multitude of alternative histories that we should take just as seriously, as they too inform our present and future.

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