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The Muddle of Modernity


Source: The American Historical Review, Vol. 116, No. 3 (JUNE 2011), pp. 663-675
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association
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AHR Roundtable

The Muddle of Modernity


An important volume of essays was published in India in 1975

centenary of the "father of modern India," Rammohun Roy (1774-1
title Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India.1 Eve
the word "modernization" created no consternation among acade
raised an eyebrow when the Indian historian Barun De remarked
is possible that some future historians . . . might put the 19th and e
[in India] at the end of a medieval period of uncertainty, instead
of the modern period, which still awaits us in the third world."2
How our tastes in words change!3 Modernity is a word that
change of fortune in the last three or four decades. A sense of
periodization based on a Eurocentric idea of modernity is now globa
has been given powerful scholarly impetus by Kathleen Davis's susta
ing examination of the category "feudal" in her 2008 book Peri
ereignty.4 My point of departure, however, is the sentiment itself t
of the hesitation on the part of contemporary historians over using
dieval," "modern," and "modernity." Words such as these imply
from which most contemporary historians want to distance themse
is "modern," then he or she is so with regard to somebody who
body" may come to be seen as "backward" or "premodern" or non-m

Thanks are due to Muzaffar Alam, Kathleen Davis, Constantin Fasolt, Jane Lyle,
Sheldon Pollock, Dwaipayan Sen, and the reviewers for the AHR.
1 V. C. Joshi, ed., Rammohun Roy and the Process of Modernization in India
2 Barun De, "The Colonial Context of the Bengal Renaissance," in C. H. Phil
Wainwright, eds., Indian Society and the Beginnings of Modernisation, c. 183
124-125. See also the discussion in my Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake
(Chicago, 2002), chap. 2.
3 Of course, I am not alone in having this experience. Lynn Thomas's essay in
us of Frederick Cooper's ironic reaction to "the modernity fad of the 1990s
generation grew up, after all, on generous doses of "modernization" theory and
4 Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and S
the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, 2008). The project has been carried forward in
Nadia Altschul, eds., Medievalisms in the Postcolonial World: The Idea of "the Middle
(Baltimore, 2009). I personally contribute to the debate in a modest way in my
Its Supplements: Notes on a Predicament Shared by Medieval and Postcolonial St
5 Richard Wolin's contribution to this forum makes a pertinent remark: "Hi
discipline, although historians who lack training in moral philosophy are often un


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664 Dipesh Chakrabarty

to be made modern, consigned, as I put it in Provincializing Europe, to the waiting

room of history."6
Modernization and modernism are also tainted words today. Eugen Weber s
observation in 1976 that modernization in rural France in the nineteenth century
involved a process akin to "internal colonization" was made without any sense of
irony. Today, however, we can read it only ironically.7 As S. N. Eisenstadt and Wolf
gang Schluchter averred in introducing an issue of Daedalus (1998) devoted to the
question of "early modernities," the idea of modernization as a process that resulted
in the economic, political, and cultural "convergence" of the world on a model that
was broadly Western would inspire "substantially less confidence" today than in the

The term "modernism" has undergone a similar shift in usage. Writing before the
age of postcolonial criticism, Marshall Berman defined "modernism" as our aesthetic
response to modernization.9 Berman took the value of the aesthetic for granted, for
his exemplar of modernism was Baudelaire. Modernism thus conceived involved
some strong judgments on aesthetic matters. Clement Greenberg, the master thinker
of modernism in painting in the 1930s and later, would insist on the distinction be
tween "art" and "kitsch," for instance.10 Satyajit Ray, the "modernist" Indian film
maker, saw his lifework predicated on a distinction between "art film" and the pop
ular mindless kitsch of "Hindi" films churned out by studios in Bombay and
Madras.11 Historians of art today, as they enlarge their scholarly canvas to include
the art of non-Western nations, cannot any longer think in such terms without en
countering political, that is to say moral, criticism.12 The distinction between judg
ment (an impersonal reasoning tied to some explicit or implicit notion of public
good) and preference (private and personal) has been increasingly eroded in these
6 Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000;
repr., Princeton, N.J., 2007), 8. These moves are reminiscent of how European colonizers justified their
domination of others by denying the colonized "coevality," as Johannes Fabian famously pointed out
in his well-known book Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York, 1983). The
Eurocentrism of European ideas of "modernity" and its connection to colonial domination is now ac
knowledged almost universally (see the contributions by Bhambra, Symes, Ross, Gluck, and Benite in
this forum). Richard Wolin's essay revisits some of the issues raised here while arguing for a complex
view of the Enlightenment.
7 Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1817-1914 (Stanford,
Calif., 1976), 478.
8 Shmuel N. Eisenstadt and Wolfgang Schluchter, "Introduction: Paths to Early ModernitiesA
Comparative View," Early Modernities, Special Issue, Daedalus 127, no. 3 (1998): 2. Sanjay Subrah
manyam's essay "Hearing Voices: Vignettes of Early Modernity in South Asia, 1400-1750," ibid., 75
104, points out (99) that Eisenstadt himself propounded the "convergence" view in his Modernization:
Protest and Change (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966).
9 Marshall Berman, Ali That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982; repr., New
York, 1988).
10 Charles Harrison, "Modernism," in Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff, eds., Critical Terms for
Art History (Chicago, 1996), 142-155.
11 Bert Cardullo, ed., Satyajit Ray: Interviews (Jackson, Miss., 2007). The fourteen interviews repro
duced here cover the period 1958-1992. I have also benefited from reading Rochona Majumdar's un
published essay "Debating Radical Cinema: A History of the Film-Society Movement in India, 1947

12 See the discussion in the first chapter of Partha Mitter's The Triumph of Modernism: Indian Artists
and the Avant-garde, 1922-1947 (London, 2007). The problem receives a penetrating discussion in an
unpublished essay by James Elkins, "Writing about Modernist Painting outside Western Europe and
North America." I am grateful to Professor Elkins for sharing this essay with me and for allowing me
to refer to it.

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The Muddle of Modernity 665

postcolonial times. Also, contemporary artistic production would not in many cases
be amenable to analyses based on the opposition between "high" and "low"or even
good and badart.13
The spirit o rebellion against modernism and modernist ideas ot modernity was
everywhere, in all areas of humanities in Anglo-American universities, by the
1990s.14 The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah included a statement in his semi
autobiographical book In My Father's House that captured the spirit of this revolt:
"the modernist characterization of modernity must be challenged."15 Similarly, his
torians, when they have not abjured the word "modernity," have been busy democ
ratizing its use, distributing the epithet over a wide period of time (thus the "early
modern" period) or between classes. Others have discovered alternative, multiple,
and vernacular modernities in an attempt to rid the idea of modernity of all exclu
sivist and judgmental pretension.16
Does democratizing a word make it more precise, however'/1 want to argue that
the democratizing gesture does not always leave us with conceptual clarity. Histo
rians need to be clearer about what is at stake for them in discussions of modernity.
Otherwise we argue past one another.

Patrick Wolfe spoke for many historians when, sweeping aside all discriminatory
divisions between the premodern and the modern, he asserted that "colonialism's
centrality to the global industrial order . .. means that the expropriated Aboriginal,
enslaved African American, or indentured Asian is as thoroughly modern as the
factory worker, bureaucrat, or flaneur of the metropolitan center."17 The sentiment
is noble, but if these disparate figures are all equally modern, and thoroughly so, then
clearly their "modernity" has little to do with differences in their levels of education,
urbanity, or any other forms of cultural capital. In what sense could they then be
equally modern? Is "modern," then, simply a synonym for the "global industrial or

13 The late anthropologist Eric Michaels once observed about Australian Aboriginal art that its pro
duction and marketing was determined by so many considerations that the question of good and bad
art could not be resolved. Michaels, Bad Aboriginal Art: Tradition, Media, and Technological Horizons
(Minneapolis, 1994).
14 My thoughts here are mainly concerned with non-Western, and in particular Asian, histories. Zvi
Ben-Dor Benite's essay in this forum argues for a pluralist understanding of modernity. Mark Roseman's
essay traces some of the ironic treatment the category "modernity" received in the hands of European
commentators once the shock of Nazism and the Holocaust was processed. This academic revisionism,
of course, does not mean that ideas about modernization have lost prestige in the world of high politics
outside the university. As many will remember, the Chinese experiment with capitalism of the last few
decades was begun under the banner of "Four Modernizations." The idea is alive and well in much social
science writing in Asia (and I assume elsewhere as well). See, for example, Yoshiie Yoda, The Foun
dations of Japan's Modernization: A Comparison with China's Path towards Modernization, trans. Kurt W.
Radtke (Leiden, 1995).
15 Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York,
1992), 144-145.
16 See, for example, Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, "On Alternative Modernities," Public Culture 11,
no. 1 (1999): 1-18; Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginarles (Durham, N.C., 2004); Sudipta Kaviraj.
"An Outline of a Revisionist Theory of Modernity," European Journal of Sociology 46, no. 3 (2005);
17 Patrick Wolfe, "Structure and Event: Settler Colonialism, Time, and the Question of Genocide,"
in A. Dirk Moses, ed., Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in
World History (New York, 2010), 110.

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666 Dipesh Chakrabarty

der, and is anybody caught up in it modern by definition? J. M. Blaut seems to share

Wolfe's sentiment in his insistence that "Africa, Asia, and Europe shared equally in
the rise of capitalism prior to 1492."18 Given the enormous internal heterogeneity
of the continents mentioned, it would not make sense to take the word "equally"
literally. Rather, it stands for a sentiment of egalitarianism.
Instructive in this regard is the case of the category "early modern," which has
become popular among historians of South Asia. My thoughts are indebted hereas
I am for the title of this article as wellto Randolph Starn's witty essay "The Early
Modern Muddle." Starn makes the perceptive suggestion that the conceptual mud
dle surrounding the category "early modern" is symptomatic of a "democratic" tem
perament that has come to pervade the discipline of history over the last several
decades.19 "Early modernity," he writes, "has become a patent remedy for the prob
lem of periodizing the time between medieval and modern history. The results can
be summed up as an imperial extension of temporal, topical, and disciplinary range,
though this is usually touted as a democratic alternative to the old high culture eras,
Renaissance to Enlightenment."20 European historians did not have the need for
such a category, for "modern history on the continent . .. was already 'early,' des
ignating a period between the Middle Ages and contemporary history . . . which in
turn begins with the French Revolution or the 'double revolutions,' political and
industrial, of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries."21 A "colonial mis
nomer" according to Starn, the "ungainly" category of early modern appears to have
been invented in the United States in the late 1940s, and it went on to attain pop
ularity in the Anglo-American academy from the 1970s.22 European historians have
also adopted the tag "early modern" in order to dilute the sense of discontinuity
between the so-called medieval and the modern, so that the "early modern" is some
times referred to as "late medieval" as well.23
Ii European historians rejected epochal divides on "high cultural" grounds, his
torians of precolonial India in the late 1980s and the 1990s began to reject descrip
tions of the eighteenth century as a period of decline or disorder in pursuit of two
historiographical objectives: rescuing the precolonial centuries in the subcontinent
from the stigma of being "premodern," and denying the colonial period any exclusive
claims on "modernity."24 South Asianists came to the term late. And one interesting
difference was that while Europeanists (as Constantin Fasolt argues) intended to
extend the historical life of what had previously been considered "medieval," his

18 Cited in John F. Richards, "Early Modern India and World History," Journal of World History 8,
no. 2 (1997): 197 n. 2, emphasis added.
19 Randolph Starn, "The Early Modern Muddle," Journal of Early Modern History 6, no. 3 (2002):
296-307. See also Jack A. Goldstone, "The Problem of the 'Early Modern' World," Journal of the Eco
nomic and Social History of the Orient 41, no. 3 (1998): 249-284.
20 Starn, "The Early Modern Muddle," 296.
21 Ibid., 297.
22 Ibid., 296-299. Referring to Erich Hassinger's Das Werden des neuzeitlichen Europa ([Braun
schweig], 1959), my colleague Constantin Fasolt has indicated points of possible disagreement with the
genealogy that Starn offers for the category "early modern." Fasolt, personal communication, March
3, 2010.
23 Constantin Fasolt, "Hegel's Ghost: Europe, the Reformation, and the Middle Ages," Viator 39,
no. 1 (2008): 353, 357.
24 See, for example, Richard B. Barnett, "Introduction," in Barnett, ed., Rethinking Early Modern
India (Delhi, 2002), 11-29.

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The Muddle of Modernity 667

torians of South Asia wanted to move in the opposite direction: they wished to give
the so-called modern period a longer and "indigenous" past extending into the cen
turies before British rule. To most South Asian historians today, Barun De's de
scription of contemporary India as "late medieval" would sound scandalous. Starn's
remark that "Early, partly, sometimes, maybe modern, early modernity is a period
for our period's discomfort about periodization" holds, ironically, in both cases.25
I will give two examples here of the use of the period "early modern" in recent
"revisionist" writings on India to show how such use often functions by under-spec
ifying the meaning of the word "modern." Let me begin with Richard Barnett, who
clearly puts himself in the camp of the "revisionists" advocating the use of the label
"early modern":

Early modern India's revisionists are not laying out a theory of Mughal decline ... They are
responding to growing evidence of continuity ..., of local and regional economic growth, of
ecological pragmatism and political realism ... , of entrepreneurial activity indigenous to
India ... The new impetus ... is free from Eurocentric,... Mughal-centric, and essentialist
viewpoints ... We revisionists are not reckoning exclusively with [Mughal] immortality.26

Barnett does not explain why all of this would constitute a form of modernity. If there
were continuities between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Indiaand
there werethe earlier developments could be called "early modern" only if one
assumed that what followed was indeed "modern." But that begs, as I said, the ques
tion of modernity itself. Continuities or discontinuities in history are not inherently
Sanjay Subrahmanyam's wide-ranging essay "Hearing Voices: Vignettes of Early
Modernity in South Asia, 1450-1700" is a well-known example of the application of
"early modern" as a periodizing device in Indian history. He offers, among other
things, a rich discussion of a play about caste that was produced in Tanjavur (Tamil
Nadu) during the rule of the Martha king Shahji Bhonsle (r. 1684-1712). The ma
terial raises many interesting questions about changing caste relations, linguistic di
versity, and other aspects of the history of the region. Subrahmanyam's discussion
succeeds in questioning the idea of an unchanging precolonial India. He shows, non
controversially, that there were ideas about the "public" in precolonial India that did
not conform to Habermas's idea of the "public sphere," and he rejectsrightlyany
preordained quest in precolonial Indian material for equivalents to European de
velopments. But his proposition that all this constituted some kind of "early mo
dernity" still leaves us in the dark about the meaning of the word "modernity" itself:

For several years now, I have tried to argue that modernity is historically a global and con
juncture phenomenon ... It is located in a series of historical processes that brought hitherto
relatively isolated societies into contact, and we must seek its roots in a set of diverse phe
nomena: the Mongol dream of world conquest, European voyages of exploration, activities
of Indian textile traders in the diaspora, the "globalization of microbes."27

And then comes his plea: "Having taken away so much from the societies ot South
Asia, it seems to be high time that social science at least gave them back what they
25 Starn, "The Early Modern Muddle," 296.
26 Barnett, "Introduction," 21-22.
27 Subrahmanyam, "Hearing Voices," 99-100, emphasis in the original.

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668 Dipesh Chakrabarty

had by the sixteenth or seventeenth centuriestheir admittedly very ambiguous

'early modernity.' "28 Subrahmanyam does not explain the nature of this ambiguity
or what causes it.

But "ambiguous" or not, why would certain institutions and periods in precolonial
India qualify for the label "early modern"? John F. Richards attempted a serious
answer in 2003 that is worth considering in some detail. In his essay "Early Modern
India and World History," Richards clarified what he meant by "early modernity":
"[Between 1500 and 1800] human societies shared in and were affected by several
worldwide processes of change unprecedented in their scope and intensity ... I call
these centuries the early modern period." As a label, it was better than "Mughal"
or "late medieval," for it made India seem less "exceptional, unique, exotic," and less
"detached from world history."29
Richards explained that "early modernity" referred to the following "global" de
velopments over the period 1500-1800: "At least six distinct but complementary
large-scale processes define[d] the early modern world." They were (1) "global sea
passages" that led to Europeans' "exploration, mapping, and reporting"; (2) "the rise
of a truly global world economy"; (3) "the growth of large, stable states . .. and other
large-scale complex organizations"; (4) "the doubling of the world population"; (5)
"the intensified use of land" involving destruction or displacement of indigenous
societies; and (6) "the diffusion of several new technologies.. . New World crops,
gunpowder, and printingand organizational responses to them throughout the
early modern world."30
Kichards's list speaks tor itself: expanded communication, growth of states and
populations, intensification of the use of land, and diffusion of new technologies. In
a word: modernization. Historians of early modern India fundamentally give mod
ernization a long and precolonialas well as globalpast. There is much of value
here. It does indeed allow us to see, to use Subrahmanyam's word, how histories were
"connected." And it does make India a long-term partner in world history. But in
what sense is modernization, that is to say "the global industrial order" (to revert
back to Wolfe's expression), the same as modernity, for the words have distinct con
notations in Eurocentric usage? A thinker such as Karl Marx would have had no
problem in answering this question. For him, "modern" would not have been merely
a synonym for industrial production or modernization. He would have had a very
specific reason for thinking of capitalism or modernization as marking an advance
in human history over what came before it, and that reason would have been part
of his philosophic vision of human emancipation. The philosophical-economic cat
egory "capital," Marx would say, had inherent in it the idea of juridical equality
(through the idea of the legal contract that wage labor entailed as well as through
the idea of abstract labor) and thus presaged the figure of the rights-bearing citizen,
a step toward his vision of freedom. And in response to today's charge of Euro
centrism, Marx would have agreed that there was indeed a certain precedence given

28 Ibid., 100.
29 Richards, "Early Modern India and World History," 197.
30 Ibid., 198-206.

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The Muddle of Modernity 669

to "bourgeois European" categories in his philosophy.31 But Marx's option is not

available to a historian who has denounced and abandoned Eurocentrism tout court.
Modernity in the West thus alludes to two separate projects that are symbiotically
connected. One refers to processes of building the institutions (from parliamentary
and legal institution to roads, capitalist businesses, and factories) that are invoked
when we speak of modernization. The other refers to the development of a degree
of reflective, judgmental thinking about these processes. The latter is what is often
invoked by the term "modernity." The distinction is, of course, only analytical, for
the development of ideas and the development of institutions are in reality inter
twined processes. But Immanuel Wallerstein has explained well this analytical dis
tinction between modernization and modernity: "The first one is the supposed
triumph of humankind over nature, through the promotion of technological inno
vations. The second one is the triumph of humankind over itself, or at least over
oppressive forms of human privilege and authority, through successful resistance to
political tyranny, clerical bigotry, and economic servitude."32 One could say that the
"libertarian" or emancipatory project constituted a certain kind of European self
reflexivity with regard to the first project, the technological project of moderniza
tion.33 European "early modernity" matters in part because seventeenth- and eigh
teenth-century debates in political philosophy are relevant to all discussions of
modernity or postmodernity today.34 Hobbes and Spinoza still remain pertinent to
arguments on democracy in a way that may not find parallels in other instances of
"early modernity."35
For India in the period 1500-1700, this self-reliexivity with regard to the process
of modernization has to be demonstrated rather than assumed.36 On-Cho Ng reports
how investigations attempting to "transpose" to China "the epochal concept of early
modernity" run into "aporia (in the Aristotelian sense of lack of adequate resources

31 See the discussion in my Rethinking Working-Class History: Bengal, 1890-1940 (1989; repr., Prince
ton, N.J., 2000), chap. 1 and Conclusion. Also "Subaltern Studies, Postcolonial Marxism and 'Finding
Your Place to Begin From': Interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty," in Maria Dimova-Cookson, Gary
Browning, and Raia Prokhovnik, eds., Contemporary Political Theory: Dialogues with Political Theorists
32 Immanuel Wallerstein cited in Alexander Woodside, Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and
the Hazards of World History (Cambridge, Mass., 2006), 18.
33 Films and film studies have for a long time looked on the question of "modern life" as precisely
a question of the historical actor's time-space experience. See Ben Singer, "Making Sense of the Mo
dernity Thesis," in Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Context (New
York, 2001), 101-130.
34 Daniel Carey and Lynn Festa, eds., Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Colonialism
and Postcolonial Theory (New York, 2009).
35 The literature on this point is vast. But readers will know the degree to which Michael Hardt and
Antonio Negri's concept of the multitude in their celebrated book Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2000)
draws on Spinozist philosophy. See also Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics, trans. Peter Snowdon
(London, 1998); and Warren Montag, Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza and His Contemporaries (London,
1999). Besides, there is nothing in South Asian history as yet that traces the beginnings of modern
disciplinary practices and political thought back to the early modern period, nothing that is comparable
to, say, Gerhard Oestreich's Neostoicism and the Early Modern State (1982; repr., Cambridge, 2008),
Philip S. Gorski's The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe
(Chicago, 2003), or John Witte, Jr.'s The Reformation of Rights: Law, Religion, and Human Rights in Early
Modern Calvinism (Cambridge, 2007).
36 In putting the question thus, I am assumingin agreement with Carol Gluck in this forumthat
for "modernity" to remain a useful concept, the diverse historical phenomena we bring under the label
"modernity" cannot be "endlessly multiple" and must have some shared characteristics.

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670 Dipesh Chakrabarty

and the difficulty of passage)."37 He further comments: "Qing China did not quite
wrestle with the question of the past in the same way that early modern Europe came
to grips with history. In China, the time-negating Way and the universality of An
tiquity were not de-authorized, as it were ... unlike early modern Europe, where the
present came to be separated from the past."38 His conclusion: "To the extent that
our comparison of the European and Chinese intellectual experiences reveals two
historical trajectories quite different from each other, it seems very difficult to dis
lodge the notion of early modernity from its European moorings and show, in global
terms, its Chinese variety."39
Sheldon Pollock arrived at a similar position at the end of his remarkable Gonda
Lecture delivered in Amsterdam in December 2004. Pollock used the labels "early
modern" and "late premodern" interchangeably, the terms themselves pointing to
the difficulty of periodizing the time before British rule in India. He acknowledged
some "long-lasting parallels" evinced by "intellectual traditions of premodern India
and Europe."

Kamalakara Bhatta and Nicholas Boileau shared a wide range of expectations about the
organization of rhetoric, the standards of representation and their relationship to the moral
order, and the sources of literary creativity ... Yet a systematic account would also point up
how dramatically the two intellectual traditions began to diverge in the late seventeenth cen
tury ... Indian political theory produced NTlakantha Bhatta and Mitra Misra but no Francisco
Suarez or Thomas Hobbes ... Indian moral theory produced Dinakara Bhatta and
Khandadeva but no Francisco de Vitorio or Hugo Grotius.40

I need to emphasize that Pollock's point is not an indictment of precolonial India.

It is indeed possible that Indian thinkers, prolific in the fields of logic, rhetoric,
religion, and statecraft, did not develop any self-reflexive (as opposed to practical)
body of thought on the institutions that Richards listed in his inventory of "early
modern" developments in the subcontinent. That, if true, would simply be a fact; it
would not point to some inherent shortcoming in Indian history. But the fact might
stop us from equating the long history of "modernization" or "material transfor
mation" in India with (early) modernity itself. Pollock made this point in an ap
preciative but critical review of an important book about eighteenth-century history
writing in India, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, 1600-1800, which
argued for the "arrival of a certain kind of [early] 'modernity' in the far south" rep
resented by a consciousness that would be historical in contemporary terms.41 Pol
lock wrote:

There is no doubt that the non-West participated in major ways in the material transformation
that marked modernity as a global phenomenon. More uncertain is what, if anything, in the
sphere of thought may have marked it as such ... [I]t seems that modernity across Asia may
37 On-Cho Ng, "The Epochal Concept of 'Early Modernity' and the Intellectual History of Late
Imperial China," Journal of World History 14, no. 1 (2003): 37.
38 Ibid., 57.
39 Ibid., 61.
40 Sheldon Pollock, The Ends of Man at the End of Premodernity (Amsterdam, 2005), 83, 84, 86.
41 Velcheru Narayana Rao, David Shulman, and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Textures of Time: Writing
History in South India, 1600-1800 (Delhi, 2001), 264, cited in Sheldon Pollock, "Pretextures of Time,"
History and Theory 46, no. 3 (October 2007): 382. Rao, Shulman, and Subrahmanyam responded to
Pollock's review in their article "A Pragmatic Response," ibid., 409-427.

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The Muddle of Modernity 671

have shown simultaneity without symmetry. But should this symmetry turn out to reveal con
tinuity and not rupture, no need to lament the fact. There is no shame in premodernity.42

C. A. Bayly's magisterial opus The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 charts
an original path in this debate, but his strategy, in my judgment, is not without prob
lems.43 The problems turn around what I have called here the modernization/mo
dernity distinction. Bayly's book concerns a period in which many people in the world
came to see themselves consciously as "modern." Bayly begins by acknowledging this
fact of self-recognition by historical actors themselves. "In the first place," he writes,
"this book accepts the idea that an essential part of being modern is thinking you
are modern."44 But Bayly is too good a historian to think that this particular defense
of his own use of the adjective "modern" would be sufficient justification for his
method. For historians, he remarks, "it is surely not quite enough to say that some
thing was the case only because people in the past thought it was. How far do re
coverable political, social, and economic trends 'out there' . . . bear out the impres
sion that something that could be designated the modern was coming into being over
this time period?" He argues that the rise of the nation-state, "massive expansion"
of global links, industrialization and urbanization, and the like signaled changes "so
rapid" that they constituted "a step-change in human social organization" and could
thus be seen as constituting "the birth of the modern world."45
But there remains a disjuncture between the two moves Bayly has made. When
Bayly's actors described themselves as "modern," they would have done so as a way
of expressing their sense of themselves and their times. They would have spoken
within normative horizons, that is, polemically and controversially, within a debate
that was really about their cultural-philosophical investments in the word "modern"
and about their experience of space and time. And they would have done so without
any reference to the full list of social changes that the historian, coming along later,
may document. (No living person can have such a list!) The later history of "mod
ernization" of institutions can be only a very rough and often misleading guide to
historical actors' experiences of becoming modern. One's sense of being modern did
not always follow the chronology of modernization. Most anticolonial nationalist
modernizers experienced European colonial rule as actually skimping and not de
livering on the promise of modernization.46 Their desire for modernity thus often
preceded the modernization programs that some of them later launched after de

42 Pollock, "Pretextures of Time," 383. Pollock has more recently revised his position into one that
emphasizes the need for further empirical research before such questions can be settled. Sheldon Pol
lock, "Introduction," in Pollock, ed., Forms of Knowledge in Early Modem Asia: Explorations in the In
tellectual History of India and Tibet, 1500-1800 (Durham, N.C., 2011), 1-16.
43 C. A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (Oxford, 2004).
44 Ibid., 10.
45 Ibid., 11.
46 For a classic statement of this position, see Aim Csaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan
Pinkham (New York, 1972), 25: "at present it is the indigenous peoples of Africa and Asia who are
demanding schools, and colonialist Europe which refuses them; ... it is the African who is asking for
ports and roads, and colonialist Europe which is niggardly on this score;... it is the colonized man who
wants to move forward, and the colonizer who holds things back."

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672 Dipesh Chakrabarty

As historians, we can think only out of the experiences and discussions of our own
times, about which we can never be as fully informed as future historians might be.
While the facts of the past areto the degree that we can be objective about them
independent of our subjective preferences, the names and labels under which we
organize these facts and plot our narratives cannot claim such objectivity. They are
indicative of the judgments we make. When we find evidence of comparable or sim
ilar material transformations in different parts of the world that may have been
connected through trade, migration, or rule, and we proceed to create the name
"early modernity" for organizing this body of evidence, we express certain values or
preferences. The gesture is expressive of our collective preference for treating dif
ferent histories equally, for not allowing the West to be the center of the world, and
so on. We treat these histories as though they were individuals who should have equal
claims to representation. We thus apply some kind of an "equal opportunity" prin
ciple to historiography in order to create a "level playing field" between histories of
different regions and peoples. The sentiment is entirely laudable, but it speaks
mainly of the moral preferences that most historians share today. But they are, after
all, preferencesaxioms of our age. Our position here is comparable to that of the
"modern" person who was modern because he or she thought himself or herself to
be modern. We have "equal" histories of the past because we would like histories
to be equal! Historiesactual events on the grounddo not necessarily become
equal even if historiography makes them look so.
This is not, however, an argument against making judgments or displaying pref
erences. Such judgments are inescapable in writing history. Mine is in fact an ar
gument for consciously recognizing our judgments as such and for not confusing
them with that which in our work represents properly reasoned forms of knowledge.
Scholars who today look for "early modern" pasts in Asia often end up accusing
Asian nationalists and modernizers (many of whom made models out of Europe) of
historical amnesia and portray them as suffering from a "colonized" consciousness.47
It is they who look to us like "mimic men." The proverbial "condescension of pos
terity" now falls on non-Western "modernizers." This is judgment. But the scholars
and reformers of the past whom we judge in this way may have had, just like us, some
serious but different issues at stake in their debates on modernity, and a clash of
preferences today does not offer us any ground for thinking that they were somehow
more misguided in their views of their own pasts than we historians are today in our
views of the same pasts. Their "amnesia" may have been as much an expression of
their prejudices (implicit and unconscious everyday judgments) as historians' "re
membering" may be of theirs. The task is to be reflexive about these preferences as
far as possible and to locate our respective preferences historically.
This is not an argument against the possibility of historical knowledge. I am not
saying that history is merely a reflection of the biases of the historian's present. This
is not a repetition of R. G. Collingwood's point that "St. Augustine looked at Roman
history from the point of view of an early Christian; Tillemont, from that of a sev
47 For example, see Woodside, Lost Modernities, 11-12, 79-81, where he discusses Asian modern
izers' language of "self-loathing" and their historical "amnesia" about their own pasts. It is not my point
that Asian modernizers did not neglect certain aspects of their heritage. But they had their reasons for
doing so, and surely their reasoning is as deserving of the historian's attention and understanding as that
of their predecessors in "early modern" times.

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The Muddle of Modernity 673

enteenth-century Frenchman; Gibbon, from that or an eighteenth-century Eng

lishman; Mommsen, from that of a nineteenth-century German. There is no point
in asking which was the right point of view. Each was the only one possible for the
man who adopted it."48 What I have said does not deny situations where historical
knowledge may have improved over time through the availability of additional re
search data, strategies, and technologies. My point is different, and let me explain
it with a quick and concluding example. For John F. Richards, the fact that the
Mughals never adopted the printing press in spite of having had it "demonstrated
by missionaries and the European companies" was simply an instance of "cultural
resistance," not a critical factor in his discussion of early modernity in India.49 Yet
for a nationalist Indian historian of an earlier generation, Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1870
1958), who pioneered detailed research in the late Mughal period and who regarded
the acquisition of "European knowledge" as fundamental to his vision of a "modern"
India, this particular fact was symptomatic of what was "rotten" at the "core" of the
Mughal regime. Sarkar's voice was harsh, judgmental, and sometimes even partisan.
He lamented the fact that in the Mughal court "no attempt was made by any Indian
noble or scholar to learn European languages."50 He wrote:

Ever since the middle of the 17th century, there had been close commercial exchange between
India and England, but our royalty and ruling classes imported only European articles of
luxury; none cared for European knowledge; no printing press, not even the cheapest and
smallest lithographic stone was installed by the Mughal Emperors or the Peshwas. They im
ported only what catered to their luxury and vice.51

Today we are rightly critical of the limitations ot Sarkar's sources, and even ot
his biases. But the debate here is not about historical objectivity per sewe can
always acknowledge the many improvements in historical knowledge that his re
search effected and where his research may today seem wanting. Sarkar's knowledge
was intricately woven through with his judgment or preference, which would have
been rooted in his present. But the gesture that simply democratizes and empties the
word "modernity" of all normative connotations in order to arrive at some "equal
opportunity" view of modernization processes in different, albeit connected, regions
of the world also reflects a presentist sentiment, that is to say, a judgment.
The point is to think about and clarity what is at stake in the judgments we actually
make as historians of modernity (since judge we must), for these stakes help explain
how we picture the normative modernity from which our judgments issue. Jadunath
Sarkar's indictment of the Mughals followed from his particular brand of modern
nationalism. Much of his lifelong absorption in Indian history was devoted to his
48 T. M. Knox, "Editor's Preface," in R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (1956; repr., Oxford,
1976), xii. William H. Dray's History as Re-enactment: R. G. Collingwood's Idea of History (Oxford, 1999),
273, points out that this passage was "taken from a letter written by Collingwood to Knox" and that the
question of Collingwood's skepticism about historical knowledge was more complicated than this and
other similar passages in his writings may suggest.
49 Richards, "Early Modern India and World History," 208.
50 Jadunath Sarkar, History ofAurangzib, 5 vols, in 4, vol. 5: The Closing Years, 1689-1707 (1924; repr.,
New Delhi, 1974), 355. Sarkar adds in a footnote that at the Mughal court "interpretation was done for
European visitors by Armenians or by Europeans who knew Persian. Only one Muhammadan (Mutamad
Khan, c. 1703) is spoken of in Aurangzib's letters as knowing the English language."
51 Jadunath Sarkar, Fall of the Mughal Empire, 4 vols., vol. 4: 1789-1803 (1950; repr., New Delhi,
1972), 345.

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674 Dipesh Chakrabarty

quest for a measure of the potential India had for creating from within herself a
united nationhood. The fall of the Mughal Empire was a tragedy for Sarkar because
in his viewand here he sounds like someone who looked for the roots of "mo
dernity" in precolonial Indiathe Mughals laid the initial groundwork needed
make India into a modern nation-state. The 1932 foreword to the first edition of the
first volume of the Fall of the Mughal Empire described that empire as having "bro
ke[n] the isolation of the provinces and the barrier between India and the outer
world, and [having] thus [taken] . . . the first step necessary for the modernization
of India and the growth of an Indian nationality in some distant future."52 Yet the
Mughals blew their chance through Aurangzeb's orthodoxy followed by a series of
inept rulers in the eighteenth century. "Our immediate historic past," wrote Sarkar,
"resembles a tragedy in its course" and was "no less potent than a true tragedy to
purge the soul by exciting pity and horror."53 India had to wait for British pax to start
again the unfinished business of becoming a nation.
hr all its faults, Sarkar's position has the merit of reminding us that claims to
modernity, in any age, are artifacts of both ideology and imagination. To be "mod
ern" is to judge one's experience of time and space and thus create new possibilities
for oneself. But it is also to take intellectual and political risks, for the very act of
judging opens us up to the criticism of others, including the criticism of those to
come. If it is true that thinkers in India in the "early modern" period engaged in
self-reflexive debates about institutions that eventually constituted our moderniza
tion, then historians ought to be able to bring to life such ancestors from precolonial
India whose reflections on their own times are worthy of our contemporary passions
and disagreements. To achieve this, however, new empirical research, while valuable
in itself, is not enough. Historians have to take responsibility for the normative
freight that the word "modernity," with all its diverse and somewhat slippery mean
ings, has carried globally since the time of European colonial expansion.54 True, the
past must be understood on its own terms, but we should also be able to say as we
encounter it what it is from the past that we do not want to keep any longer in our
own lives and what actually may enrich our thinking today. (Nationalist modernizers
in Asia and Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often did exactly that.)
And the words "we" and "our" here do not refer to any particular ethnic group in
any narrow sense. If modernization has had a global history, there is no reason why
reflections on that history should have to depend only on the intellectual resources
provided by traditions of thought generally regarded as "European" or "Western."
Turning specifically to the question of whether or not "early modern" was an apt way
of periodizing history in the Indian subcontinent, my question would be: Which In
dian or South Asian thinkers from the precolonial period, then, must we still wrestle
with in fabricating or thinking about democratic forms of public life? But historians
can ask such questions only if they clarify to themselves and their readers what is
at stake for them in debates about modernity. The word is not very useful if it is

52 Jadunath Sarkar, "Foreword," in Sarkar, Fall of the Mughal Empire, vol. 1:1739-1754 (1932; repr.,
Delhi, 1971), iii.
53 Ibid.
54 Many of the contributors to this forum agree on this point.

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The Muddle of Modernity 675

treated merely as a synonym for institutional or nfrastructural change over time

that is to say, for modernization.

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Pro

fessor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University
of Chicago. He also holds a visiting position at the Australian National Uni
versity. He is a founding member of the editorial collective of Subaltern Studies
and a co-editor of Critical Inquiry. He is currently engaged in completing two
projects: (1) tracing how ideas about "research" and "historical truth" were de
bated by historians in early-twentieth-century India, and (2) how competing
imaginations of human history inspireand are in turn challenged bythe sci
ence and politics of climate change.

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