“Habitations of Modernity” D. Chakrabarty

Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies.

Chapter 3: “Modernity and the Past: A Critical Tribute to Ashi Nandi”, pp 38-47

This chapter deals with Chakrabarty’s critical analysis of Ashis Nandy’s writngs about Subalternity, and especially the complicated relationship between the past and modernity. He begins by emphasizing traditional pratices and its political implications. The fundamental question that lies in Chakrabarty’s analysis is the position of the Indian intellectual educated in the West like him and his attitude toward tradition, which places him in a sort of ambivalence. How can we better define tradition in the academic project of subaltern studies? Should we incorporate all things past in tradition or do we have to select some elements that meet our understanding of modernity?

Chakarbarty, to my mind, is warning us against the notion of education that uncritically leads to an eurocentric meaning of the term, a rationalist worldview that is sometimes problematic. He, therefore, contrasts this “problem of the undesirable past” with the past ” as warehouse of resources in which to draw as needed” (39) if we want to better define what it means to be modern. For that, he emphasizes Nandi’s “critical traditionalism” which is totally different from “uncritical adulation of past practices”. An example he has given in this chapter is the sati phenomenon (woman self-immolation) in traditional India which has been “unresolved” in today India’s cultural life. What I found interesting in Chakrabarty’s analysis of sati traditional practice is the way it has been theorized by some Indian subalternists when they tend to “demystif(y) modernity (and) remystif(y) tradition” (40), which I consider as an uncritical traditionalism. I personally feel uncomfortable with the sati phenomenon and my concerns are the victimization of the female body and her voicelessness. I think that what was and/or is debatable in this phenomenon is the imperial role of British colonial rulers in trying to police what might be a cultural backwardness for them. The same issue has been raised by first world feminists when they want to apply a sort western worldview of how women should be treated worldwide, especially about the genital mutilation of women in some parts of Africa. That was obviously problematic, if not eurocentic in essence. But what is interesting is the fact that African women themselves ended up negatively criticizing this traditional practice whithout the western interference. This practice has been institutionally outlawed by most of African countries, if not all of them. What I am trying to argue is that indigenous people can internally have a critical disposition regarding traditional pratices without the imperial eye of the fomer colonizer.

The disposition of the subaltern subject with regards to modernity according to Chakrabarty is to be ambivalent and a critical traditionalist who does not see “modern science as alien to (critical traditionalism), even though it may see it as alienating”, ambivalently and “uncompromisingly critisiz(ing) isolation (from) and over-concern with objectivity” (40). Until page 40, Chakrabarty’s analysis of Nandy was appealing to me. But as soon as he clarifies Nandy’s decisionist choices of “myth over history, tradition over modernity, wisdom and intellect for science and objectivity” (41), I was like confused and could not decode Nandy’s decisionism any more. In the academic project of Subaltern studies, how can we schematize a manichean understaning of these seemingly contradictory forms of knowledege? I fear this disposition will not do but reproduce the binary understanding of tradition and modernity. This confusing intellectual position might be the result of the heated debate between Nandi and his opponents about woman self-immolation, when he considered his opponents as “Anglophile psychologically uprooted Indians” who retaliated by calling him “a neo-Gandhian” who uses the “rhethoric of anti-colonial indigenism” (42). I have in mind Paul Gilroy’s notion of “cultural insiderism”, even though this notion is a bit different from the sati debate.

My confusion goes deeper when Nandy argues that “every culture has a dark side” (45). I mean the argument is accurate in essence but the problem it contradicts his decisionist choices of tradition over modernity, wisdom over science and objectivity. This dark side of every culture might, in a sense, refer to Gilroy’s notion of the incompleteness of any cultural identity, hence requiring any of them to go for cultural symetrical interpenetration. Then my question is: if every culture has a dark side, how can we understand Nandy’s decisionist choices? I think this is a nowhere-leading-argument since it does not clearly define what is tradition and what is modernity.

I will end up by critisizing Charkrabarty’s notion of darkness. He argues that darkness is ” where light cannot pass; it is that which cannot be illuminated” (45). I am not sure if he uses this definition in a narrower sense. But in the general sense, darkness is not impermeable to light, and it is where light has not yet passed.

About Babacar

I am a graduate student at the Bowling Green State University (Ohio) in American Culture Studies program for a two year Master degree. Am studying the theories of race, multiculturalism and feminism and their intersectionality in the formation of Identity in the racial and postracial America.
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2 Responses to “Habitations of Modernity” D. Chakrabarty

  1. I appreciate your posts. Although I am not majoring in the topics that you wrote, I somehow enjoyed reading them.

    • Babacar says:

      Hello Helena,
      I really appreciated you read my posts. Are u a BGSU student/Faculty staff? What is your Major? Would like to know


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