S. Cohn and Indian History in the American Academy: A Brief Note
Though the concerted study of Indian history in the American academy first commenced in the early 1960s, the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism in 1978 is commonly viewed as inaugurating trends which have ever since been rather dominant, howsoever widespread the uneasiness and, indeed, resistance which Said’s ideas have increasingly generated. While the central arguments of Orientalism are too well-known to require lengthy exposition, it will not be amiss, considering the developments that followed in the wake of Orientalism, to enumerate them briefly. Said argued that, alongside their military triumphs and economic conquests of “the Orient”, Europeans created an entire body of knowledge which enabled them to represent the Orient; such representations, moreover, far from having any necessary relationship to the Orient, reveal more about Europeans than they do about the ‘natives’ and their social institutions, cultural practices, and the like. Orientalism is, in short, a style of thought, the “corporate institution for dealing with the Orient,”  and by means of Orientalism Europeans sought to categorize, analyze, dissect, measure, dominate, rule, and instruct the native. The capsule summaries of Orientalism, when undertaken in reference to the “Saidian” frameworks which have informed the study of Indian history, do not fail to mention that in Orientalism Said only very infrequently had occasion to refer to Indian history,  and that, notwithstanding Said’s enthusiastic advocacy of subaltern history nearly a decade later,  Said had only a peripheral interest in Indian history or even India. Nonetheless, Said became a figure of paramount importance for those who sought to understand British India not through military history, policy studies, and economic history, but rather through, in the language of Foucault, the ‘discursive formations’ that were put into place by the colonial regime and, subsequently, the nationalist elites.
From the standpoint of Indian
historiography, Said’s work had at least one other, usually less commonly
noted, consequence whose reverberations would eventually be felt deeply
Foucault published his Archaeology of Knowledge in 1969; the English
translation appeared in1972; and yet Cohn had published his article
in 1968. Indeed, by the time
that Orientalism appeared in 1978, Cohn had
published a substantial body of work that offered a visible demonstration
of how colonial knowledge produced a certain idea of
In thirty years, Cohn produced
nearly as many essays. The bulk
of them were collected in An Anthropologist
among the Historians (1987); a second and much smaller collection,
with a foreword by Nicholas Dirks, was published in 1996.
In the introduction to Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, Cohn described systematically
the various “modalities” by means of which the British established an
account of Indian society. The
“epistemological projects” of the state extended to the creation of
grammars and dictionaries of Indian languages, map-making and museum
displays of Indian artefacts, attempts at thorough histories of the
Indian past, the institution of the census, and the creation of such
organizations as the Archaeological Survey, the Trigonometrical Survey,
the Botanical Survey, and so on.
Many of Cohn’s insights, for which he found
the scholarly essay to be more than an adequate vehicle, were embraced
by scholars and students who worked these insights into full-length
studies, even when they did not agree with Cohn. Mathew
Edney’s Mapping an Empire is a work in this mode,
a study of the use of cartographic knowledge by the
Cohn went on to train nearly
two generations of students who have come to occupy many of the leading
positions in Indian history and anthropology.
Among his earliest students was Ronald Inden, who became Cohn’s
colleague at the
It would, in short, be difficult to overestimate the immense influence Bernard Cohn came to exercise in the world of American scholarship on Indian history and society. His work, in its various phases, has not only has remained of singular importance to two generation of students, but also became, in a manner of speaking, the medium through which subaltern studies was introduced into the American academy. In 1985, Cohn became the first American historian to write for Subaltern Studies,  a series of volumes that, since the inaugural volume of 1982, were destined to become the principal vehicle of expression of new histories of India being forged by Ranajit Guha and the younger British and Indian historians he had gathered around him, including Dipesh Chakrabarty, David Arnold, Partha Chatterjee, David Hardiman, and Gyan Pandey.  Owing to a protracted illness, Cohn’s active contributions to the study of Indian history effectively ceased around the early to mid-1990s, and he passed away in fall 2003.
(Posted in June, 2006)
See also on MANAS:
See also on MANAS:
 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979 ), p. 3.
 See, for example, Robert E. Frykenberg, “India to 1858”, in The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. V: Historiography, ed. Robin W. Winks (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 207, 211-12; Tapan Raychaudhuri, “India, 1858 to the 1930s”, in idem, p. 224; and Sumit Sarkar, “Orientalism Revisited: Saidian Frameworks in the Writings of Modern Indian History”, Oxford Literary Review 16 (1994), pp. 205-224.
 Edward Said, “Foreword” to Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York: Vintage, 1988); see also the discussion in idem, Culture and Imperialism (New York: 1994), pp. 239-61.
 Paul Rabinow, an anthropologist of great distinction, has recalled that “Bernard Cohn, a the University of Chicago, was teaching us about the relations of knowledge and power, spaces and colonies, long before I ever heard of Foucault.” See his French Modern (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), p. x.
 Said, Orientalism, pp. 92-101.
 Bernard S. Cohn, “Notes on the History of the Study of Indian Society and Culture”, in Structure and Change in Indian Society, eds. Milton Singer and Bernard S. Cohn (Chicago: Aldine Press, 1968), reprinted in Bernard S. Cohn, An Anthropologist among the Historians and Other Essays (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1988), p. 143.
 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972), p. 38. “Whenever one can describe,” wrote Foucault, “between a number of statements, such a systems of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statement, concepts , or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation -- thus avoiding words that are already overladen with conditions and consequence, and in any case inadequate to the task of designating such a dispersion, such as ‘science’, ‘ideology’, ‘theory’, or ‘domain of objectivity.’”
See Said’s keynote address
to the American Anthropological
Association in 1988, originally published in Critical
Inquiry 15 (Winter 1988), reprinted in Reflections
on Exile and Other Essays (
Bernard S. Cohn, Colonialism
and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in
The phrase “epistemological
projects” is from Vinay Lal, Committees
of Inquiry and Discourse of ‘Law and Order’ in Twentieth-Century British India (3 vols.,
Matthew H. Edney, Mapping
an Empire: The Geographical
 Richard Davis, Lives of Indian Images (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997; reprint ed., Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1999).
Ronald Inden, Imagining
Nicholas B. Dirks, Hollow
G. S. Ghurye, Caste
and Race in India (5th ed,
Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes
of Mind: Colonialism
and the Making of Modern
 Bernard S. Cohn, “The Command of Language and the Language of Command”, Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, ed. Ranajit Guha (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1985), pp. 276-329.
 For a nearly complete listing of the major writings of the practitioners of subaltern history until the end of 1994, see Vinay Lal, South Asian Cultural Studies: A Bibliography (Delhi: Manohar, 1996), pp. 198-214.
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