Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. By Dipesh Chakrabarty (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002) 173 pp.
Review by Vinay Lal
Habitations of Modernity serves, in some respects, as a companion volume to Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (Princeton University Press, 2000), and is animated by the same brilliance, mastery of European and Bengali sources, theoretical sophistication, and nuance of thought and feeling which characterize the earlier volume. In the wake of subaltern studies, as Chakrabarty puts it, a number of questions have crystallized around the study of Indian history, and he takes it as his charge to offer thoughtful considerations on the encroachments of modernity in India. Just what has it meant to be modern in colonial and postcolonial India? What alternative conceptions of modernity were forged in the public sphere, and what are the various ways in which modernity has come to be embedded in debates over sanitation, the khadi-clad politician, secularism, and much else?
In Part Two, Chakrabarty focuses on the practices of modernity, and the essay on the male politician clad in khadi (homespun cotton) is illustrative of his style of thinking. At one time, owing to Gandhi’s unswerving promotion of khadi, it became associated with purity, simplicity, and self-reliance; but, as Chakrabarty contends, today everyone is aware of khadi as nearly synonymous with “corruption” and “thievery” (53). So why do politicians persist with this “transparently hypocritical gesture”? (53) Chakrabarty argues that khadi can be read as the site of an “alternative modernity” (64); its disappearance, were that to happen, would signal India’s complete absorption into the global market. Khadi is the remainder, so to speak, but not merely something left behind; it operates on a semiotic register that is not entirely assimilable to modern knowledge systems.
of Gandhi and Nandy are remarkably similar, and he is insistent, rather
too insistent, in advancing the claim that both speak from within the
framework of modernity. Critiques of modernity, it is commonly argued,
can only emanate from within the space of modernity. Nandy’s notion
of “choice” and his construction of the “future”
are, Chakrabarty maintains, aspects of a “heroic self-invention”
that are characteristic of the modern in Europe (41); as for Gandhi, his
enduring interest in “public health and civic consciousness”,
not to mention his embrace of the autobiographical confession, a preeminent
vehicle of the modern subject, mark him out as “quintessentially
modern” (59). Gandhi had little if any use for discourses of history,
and Nandy has written passionately, and at length, about the oppressiveness
of history as a mode of knowledge. But though Chakrabarty is genuinely
disturbed by the surveillant power of history and the modern social sciences,
he cannot resist a rejoinder to Nandy: as he says, negotiations with “modern
bureaucracies”, and access to the benefits available through civic
and political institutions, is not possible without the mobilization of
one’s “own identity, personal or collective” (33). Whatever
epistemological arguments one might have against history, the historical
sensibility is an indispensable tool of citizenship. It is not given to
a modern subject to disown history. In the last analysis, Chakrabarty’s
own choices are clear. Whether the notion of “alternative modernity”
will have any more salience than “alternative development”
remains to be seen.
[First published in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35, no. 2 (Autumn 2004): 343-45.]
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