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keerthik sasidharan

Textures of Time

Textures of Time

Earlier this month, Sanjay Subrahmanyam — a historian at UCLA, not to be mistaken for the great Carnatic singer — was awarded the Dan David Prize as a recognition of his “innovative and interdisciplinary research”.  He shared this award with fellow academic Kenneth Pomeranz, whose work, like Subrahmanyam’s, has spanned the archipelagoes of academic specializations.  Reading about this award, however, on wire services and newspaper and particularly the summaries of Subrahmanyam’s extensive corpus of research — a body of work that spans languages, centuries, civilizations (some more mythical than others!) — one couldn’t help but be struck by how little of ‘history’ as a formal academic discipline informs any of the reportage.  The failure to shed light on the debates within the discipline, the progression of conceptual frameworks that animate a field — one so intrinsic to public debates and self-understanding of nations and people such as history — inevitably leads to a failure to locate, and ultimately understand, not just what the research work of a scholar like Subrahmanyam means but also how to think about what ‘history’ is.  The result of this casual, perhaps willful, ignorance is an uncritical, almost mythical, belief in ‘history’ as “witness to the past, torch of truth, light of memory, teacher of life” (testis temporum, lux veritatis, vita memoriae, magistra vitae), as Cicero had described the craft of writing history.    

One way to see the complexity of what is meant by ‘history’ in our times is to try to disentangle the intellectual influences that inform the works of somebody like Sanjay Subrahmanyam. In parts, this piggybacking of sorts works as a strategy, because he has over the course of his professional life swum in the shallow and deep waters of various debates under way, as well as in India and in the North Atlantic regions.  To write this intellectual journey would require an intrepid (and perhaps a foolhardy) writer, who at the minimum knows a little about many things, for the subject of the study knows much about great many things.  To triangulate his intellectual influences would mean coming to terms with his efforts early on in his career to carve out a space for himself that challenged the dominant set of propositions (often labelled as “Aligarh school”) that influenced studies about the period following the Timurid era.  To an extent, his early training in economics and the critical influence of the economic historian the late Dharma Kumar had something to do with.  She introduced him to the great French historian Fernand Braudel and his future co-author on various projects, David Shulman.  Dharma Kumar, who waged many intellectual insurgencies against the maibaaps of Nehruvian-Marxist history establishment, may indeed have helped foster a suspicion towards extant methodological orthodoxies that imposed “systems” [mansabdari, jagirdari etc] as a means to study the histories of medieval India.  Over time this also meant recognizing the importance of other critical factors:  the formation of ‘mentalite’ (mentalities), the transmission of global ideas into local expressions, reversing the logic of influences from the “peripheries” on the “core”, and understanding what are the consequences of international exchanges and trade in the Indian ocean region on our understanding itself.  

Any effort to sketch out Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s intellectual trajectory would also mean understanding how he moved from the relatively close-knit world of scholars who studied medieval Iberian expansion and interactions in Asia to his more recent efforts that aim to pry open the almost hermetically self satisfied world of Euro-centric histories of early modernity.  The British historian Chris Bayly wrote “All historians are world historians now, though many have not yet realized it.”  Subrahmanyam, unlike many of his contemporaries, was one of the earliest to recognize this. But, what allowed him to “see” this coming wave is harder to say Perhaps the exigencies of his early research area — the Portuguese empires in medieval India — led him to engage with much wider geographic and cultural expanse.  It has also however allowed him to be at the vanguard of the ‘connected histories’ movement — a research agenda that typically does three epistemological moves:  one, it undermines more conventional archetypes of history writing where certain areas form the “cores” and the rest are part of the “rims”; two, while paying heed to the rise of nations in late 1800s onwards, it studies the emergence and flow of ideas and representation in the 1450s- 1800s period, which preceded 19th century’s colonial and racialist historiography; three, in a deft move, it takes microhistories at the margins to construct plausible macro-narratives that don’t rely on traditional Marxist-Weberian master-concepts. 

Over and beyond these intra-discipline debates, any prospective summary would also have to sketch out what influential schools within the discipline does Subrahmanyam’s research depart from.  This would, in turn, mean wading through the history of history writing in India and Europe.  Inevitably, one will come  across now well forgotten names such as Jadunath Sarkar, who wrote sweeping 19th century style epic histories, and the Marxist historian, Irfan Habib, his bête noire who dominate post-Independence Indian history writing. Alongside, in the less conspicuous grey zone between traditionalists and Marxists, we will also meet scholars like R. Champakalakshmi, who studied medieval South India.  Elsewhere in Europe, one will also learn of names like the Italian master of miniature narratives Carlo Ginzburg and the innovations he spurred in the 1960s and we’ll learn of Left historians like Geoff Eley, who in the wake of the end of USSR, brought new skepticism to global histories of neoliberal discourse by historicizing this emergent triumphalist narrative full of smoke and mirrors. .  

More fundamentally to his intellectual worldview, it would also involve asking how does a scholar profit from learning languages — if not with the eloquence of a native speaker, but at least as a diligent interpreter armed with a dictionary and iron will to tame the text — as diverse as Telugu, Persian, French, and Portuguese? [David Shulman writes: “He speaks flawlessly all the languages that were mother tongues to his sixteenth- and seventeenth-century adventurers (I once saw him learn excellent German in less than six weeks)”]. To wit, perhaps Subrahmanyam’s intellectual biography ought to be subtitled: from Tungabhadra to the Tagus] Many of his contemporaries — hobbled by their knowledge of only English, and therefore only the Anglo-Saxon historical traditions — have had little access to many European historical debates.  The result of this access has been the ability to participate in the great historical traditions and debates in particularly France, where the State has often seen itself as an embodiment of history.  This would also therefore involve checkin in on French historians who, like shrines of saints along a pilgrimage, line up on either side of the intellectual thoroughfare that eventually led to what some, tongue-in-cheek, call ‘quinze glorieuses’ (fifteen glorious years) of French history writing — from 1975-1990 — when historians (such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie) dominated French popular consciousness. This dominance of historians in public debates were in turn built upon the works of the holy trinity of the Annales school — Marc Bloch, Lucien Febvre, and Fernand Braudel — as well as many Marxist-Socialist historians.  

Arriving into the 1990s however, any narrative of intellectual lineaments would also have to take into account Subrahmanyam’s own response to sweeping criticisms from other disciplines of the then dominant Annales school and traditional Marxist-Socialist historiography — ranging from the great Braudel who, by the end of his life, was deemed a ‘conservative’ to the socialist Albert Soboul.  Linguistics, cultural histories, and philosophy led by Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Michel de Certeau, aided by at least two generations of scholars, launched a frontal attack on “traditional” historians.  This “linguistic turn” (tournant linguistique, as the French called it) brought along with it near religious faith in ideas that archival documents were, in parts, written to ‘perform’ rather than document lived realities.  The scribes and poets, the adventurers and traders who left behind documents were, according to this view, involved in construction of world views that accentuated the status quo.  Any historian was therefore also expected to play a middling psychologist and a skeptical forensic linguist.  The result of the expansion of the historian’s bailiwick was an increasing dependence on theorizing the interpretation of their suspicions — an activity that has the advantage of affording pontification and the illusion of nuance on relatively meager documentary evidence — rather than the more tedious and traditional work of finding other sources of primary documents, in an effort to triangulate and arrive at some proximate version of historical truth.  

By the time the translated and etiolated versions of these debates arrived on the shores of Indian historiography —  Subrahmanyam (by now credentialed, multi-lingual, and un-beholden to the grandees of Indian establishment) was one of the few who was able to declare that the many emperors of post-colonial psychologisms who lorded over Indian universities and op-ed spaces in newspapers had no clothes.  In their efforts to sustain a victim narrative wherein Indians had internalized British domination, the historians of the ‘subaltern’ had relied on reading the Indian colonial experience, particularly, in the 19th century, as some sort of Newtonian parlor trick.  Per many of them, the British provided the requisite action and the natives offered up a soup of internalized recalcitrance as reaction.  And it is through that give and take self-conscious history was born. According to this view, pre-colonial Indians therefor lived in a sort of happy pre-history — a people reduced to mythomania — with the Europeans acting as an historically contingent (or providential, if one is wont to think of Clive of Plassey as an avatar of historical consciousness) spur for Indians to think of their own past.  In such a view, Indians arrived into modernity — “kicking and screaming” — only thanks to the interventions of their colonial masters.  There is something seductive about this view, an assurance of omniscience, especially if one throws into the mix caste politics, new institutional economics, and proto-Maoist violence organized by the indigent.

Stepping aside from this great wave of post-colonial theorization, what Subrahmanyam showed is that most of these theorists — from Ranajit Guha on downwards, both chronologically and qualitatively —  make great sweeping claims, some dress it up in inscrutable prose, all the while obscuring their lack of their knowledge about primary source documents or worse, selectively presenting their findings to buttress ideologically convenient claims. The result is a writing of histories that is noble in instinct, ignoble in its lack of commitment to (inconvenient) truths, and ultimately eroded over time and future generations who see past their willingness to shoehorn the complexities of the past to politics of their ideologically charged present.  On various occasions, he and his coauthors (and others in projects elsewhere, like the philosopher Jonardon Ganeri) have demonstrated that pre-modern Indians were just as capable of ironic distancing, numeracy, and self-consciousness no different than their early modern contemporaries in Europe. Indians, we learn, were just as historically conscious and capable of recording their every day with perspicacity.

All of this poses difficult to pigeon hole Sanjay Subrahmanyam into a politically convenient box.  This tendency to privilege the predicaments of present day cultural wars as way to read into the past is a flaw that that animates all ends of the political landscape.  But the Indian Rightists, despite much heat and fury, have little to show in terms of a well funded, institutionalized long term pedagogical project. The result is that they have little use for Subrahmanyam’s intellectual excursions (and, he for them) given he undermines their essentialist narrative at every juncture.  But it is on the Left — with its elaborate infrastructure of pedagogy, bureaucrats, and abilities to influence careers of young academics — that his works is seen as an inconvenience.  In due course, the doctrinaire Marxists of the old have yielded space to a new generation of, who can only be called, historians of identity.  Subrahmanyam’s insistence of privileging primary archival documents over the psychologisms of internalized oppression has therefore led his work to be accused of — horror of horrors —  conservatism, especially among the “faux radicals” who thrive, particularly, in America’s well funded corporate universities.  

In his role as public commentator, there is a spirit of iconoclasm in his public writings that masks his professional life, where he is a careful builder of research agendas, his own career in the North Atlantic circuit despite having been entirely educated in India. This instinct and talent for contrarianism in his public writing comes out visibly and most amusingly in his reviews, where over the years, he has often enough used the opportunity to declare that many of the swans in our public discourse are merely crows suffering from vitiligo thanks to their own lily white sanctimonies. Reviewing Martha Nussabaum’s book full of diagnosis about the ills of Indian secularism, he noted astutely that it belonged the genre of exotic travelogue where Amartya Sen and fellow Chicago (“suburb of Kolkata”) intellectuals played the native informant.  Or on Donald Lasch’s multivolume history of Europe in Asia, an unwieldy beast of a project, he wrote that while “it makes extensive use of Portuguese sources, no effort has seemingly been spared to misspell Portuguese words and displace accents.” 

Perhaps someday, somebody will write out a well researched intellectual portrait of a scholar, who in retrospect, may be remembered for being one of the first who sought to deflate the self-congratulatory instincts of the globalizing present — often described as unprecedented (“the world is flat”) by breathless commentators in corporatist newspapers — by showing that the present is merely an iteration of the past.  What Sanjay Subrahmanyam, as a student of the history, teaches us — and not just historians — is that if are to learn to read the past with fidelity, there is no substitute for the hard work of learning foreign languages, struggling to overcome ideological pre-commitments, and trawling in archives.  We may then, if lucky, realize that the past is both alien and yet intimately familiar.


[a version of this appeared in The Hindu on February 24th, 2019]

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