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Escaping the Artifice of the Nation

of the Nation Prathama Banerjee simply speaking, though his argument is anything but simplistic, Sartori argues that culture appeared, by the 19th century, as the name for productive and creative human labour that promised to free humanity from the state of nature. In that, it was indeed central to the capitalist mode Currently, historians of south Asia are struggling to liberate history from the nation. This is more than an effort to escape the thrall of nationalist history and nationalist ideology. That, indeed, was an earlier attempt. Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s questioned nationalism as an ideology by foregrounding the elite class character of the nation. Subaltern studies historians of the 1980s and 1990s productively

Escaping the Artifice of the Nation

Prathama Banerjee

simply speaking, though his argument is anything but simplistic, Sartori argues that culture appeared, by the 19th century, as the name for productive and creative human labour that promised to free humanity from the state of nature. In that, it was indeed central to the capitalist mode

C
urrently, historians of south Asia are struggling to liberate history from the nation. This is more than an effort to escape the thrall of nationalist history and nationalist ideology. That, indeed, was an earlier attempt. Marxist historians of the 1960s and 1970s questioned nationalism as an ideology by foregrounding the elite class character of the nation. Subaltern studies historians of the 1980s and 1990s productively “fragmented” the nation, by letting hitherto repressed histories of peasants, dalits, Muslims and women cut across and through nationalist history. And yet the nation seemed to continue to throw its shadow over critical thought, simply because it remained the “natural” object and location of all historical analysis. Andrew Sartori’s book is an original and thoughtful attempt to move away from this historical conundrum, by which critiques of nation and nationalism get reabsorbed into the nation-form, because historical chronology, historical archive and historical location all appear as inescapably and constitutively national.

It is useful then to locate Sartori’s book in the context of other recent attempts to escape the artifice of the nation. I can think of three such significant attempts. One has been to replace the nation by “region”, whether sub-national (Malabar, Gujarat) or supra-national (Indian Ocean), via a writing of “connected” histories. Hence, the thinking together of Gujarat and Africa (commerce, imperialism and Gandhi a la Sugata Bose) or Malabar and the Gulf (migration, work and religion a la G Arunima). The other has been to write histories of the “imperial social formation”, a la Mrinalini Sinha, which see England, India and America as part of one story of social and political history rather than as discrete, national stories. Yet, another has been Dipesh Chakravarty’s project of “provincialising” Europe, which

book review

Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital by Andrew Sartori (Chicago: Chicago University Press), 2008; pp ix+286, price not stated.

suggests that it is capitalism/modernity, the framing narrative of all nationalist histories, rather than the nation in and for itself, which must become the object of our critical thought. Sartori shares a great deal with the last. Yet, he differs from the “provincialising” Europe formulation on two counts. First, he argues that apart from provincialising Europe and thus falsifying its universalistic claims, a critical historian must also be able to recognise phenomena which are actually global but draw legitimacy from the appearance of the national. And second, instead of dwelling upon the capitalism-modernity complex as Chakravarty does, he talks of capitalism per se – through an attempt at a transformed and renewed Marxism.

Liberalism vs Culturalism

Let me then briefly detail Sartori’s argument. He argues that culture – that very category which seems to found the distinctiveness of nations – is actually not a national but a global category, which arose, sometime in the 19th century, simultaneously in Europe, Russia, India, Japan and so on. This culture was neither a pure idea in abstraction nor a concrete referent to peoples or countries. It was rather a form of “semantic universality”. Sartori begins with a brief history of the culture-concept

– including its pairing as well as separation from the idea of “civilisation” – through stories of German idealism, English literary humanism, social anthropology and lastly, Marxism (Lukacs, Raymond Williams, etc). Through this, he seeks to demonstrate a direct connection between capitalist social forms and the culture-concept. Very

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of being and thinking. At the same time, culture also named that mode of human practice, which promised to undo the atomisation, reification and alienation of individual labour in capitalism. Culture thus was the rendering of human practice into a form of conscious and collective selfcultivation – culture in the verb, so to speak. In Sartori’s terms, the culture-concept histori cally embodied the problematic of autonomous, under-determined human subjectivity within capitalism.

Sartori frames his argument via what he calls the constitutive antinomy of capitalism – namely, liberalism versus culturalism. Liberalism defined human action and human subjectivity in terms of the pursuit of private interests by free individuals, before whom society stood out as either civil (i e, as a contractual or associational correlate of free exchange) or as archaic (i e, as a superstitious, corporatist, priestly structure that prevented free human action). Culturalism, on the other hand, defined human action and human subjectivity as that which created a higher subjective unity with the social whole. In that, culturalism was the other side of liberalism, seeing market and exchange not as instances of freedom and equality, but as instances of the reification and commodification of human labour, which reconstituted society as an external and alien force facing atomised, alienated individuals. In other words, culture was mobilised not as an “outside” of capitalism, but as one side of a stable, global antinomy – of liberalism versus culturalism – which as a whole was internal to capitalism. Sartori seeks to show how it was this very global antinomy of capitalism, which played out in Bengal too, as in other parts of the world, producing what he calls Bengali culturalism, following the demise of early 19th century Bengali liberalism.

Thus, Rammohan Ray was an early Bengali liberal who understood free

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BOOK REVIEW

exchange as the exemplary model of human relationship and sociality. In his imagination, it was free exchange (freedom) by commodity-owners (property) of equivalent values (equality) which achieved both private interest and greatest good/common weal. Therefore his imagination of a civil, cosmopolitan, imperial society – based on senior government positions for Indians, expanded structures of Indian representation through juries and through active parliamentarianism, respectable European colonisation of the mofussil, freedom of the native press, permanent property rights extended beyond zamindars to ordinary raiyats, and inheritance rights for women that would prevent sati and miserable widowhood. This early liberalism was made possible in Bengal, Sartori argues, by the subsumption and reconstitution of Bengal’s system of peasant household production by global capitalism by the late 18th century. After all, not only elites but even popular heterodox sects in Bengal, such as Kartabhajas and Sahebhanis, routinely used metaphors of marketplace, merchants and even the company in their imaginations of self and society.

Culture and Karma

By the mid-19th century, however, Bengali liberalism came into deep crisis. Calcutta commercial life became almost exclusively white, as Bengali capital, after the indigo crisis and the famous collapse of the Union Bank, fled to investment in land. At the same time, post-1857, the language of colonial governmentality became increasingly concerned with the question of indigenous “custom” – a la Charles Wood, Henry Maine, even John Stuart Mill – rather than with any universalistic logic of labour, property and rational interest; and this even in narrowly economic matters such as that of tenancy reform. Sartori shows that this was the time of the emergence of a critique of laissez-faire or free exchange amongst Bengalis; also of Bankimchandra’s cutting satire of Englisheducated professionals or babus, humiliated in the marketplace and the workplace; and the vacillation in spiritual thought between monism and dualism, between free subjectivity and worldly agency. In Sartori’s reading, all this

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expressed the tension within the liberal project that was produced in the colony by experiential conflict between the realm of objective necessity (market, work) and of subjective freedom (self, spirit).

Bankimchandra’s final culturalist turn invoked Hindu spirituality as critique of this already crisis-ridden exchange model. Now, culture became anusilan (the disciplined and harmonious cultivation of all human faculties, producing the ultimate, uninhibited, unimpaired man) and karma (action in and by itself, free of objective necessities and determinations). The Mahabharata’s Krishna was the embodiment of this godly yet human practice of culture, and culture was redefined as an “original” Hindu idea. In Sartori’s reading, Bankim and his contemporaries were arguing that it was only through culture as anusilan and karma that particular practices could blend with social labour in general. Only thus could individuals be liberated from the narrowness of their own labouring lives, feel themselves as constitutive part of society, realise the value of their subjective agency, and experience wholeness by mirroring the social whole within themselves. And, having thus coordinated their labours into a functional unity, they could also form a social organism powerful enough to defy the alien principles of civil society and escape the dystopia of the babu condition.

The end of the 19th century was the moment in Bengal when an organicist, substantive notion of samaj or society would be produced out of this spiritualist culturalism. Thus, Vivekananda’s militant Vedantic idealism sought to recast society as a necessary mediating entity between god and individual conscience. This, in turn, produced a notion of freedom that was less a question of the liberation of the self from social constraints and more a question of voluntary restraint and discipline of the self in the name of the social whole. By the first decade of the 20th century and with the rise of swadeshi, this culturalism even produced a critique of consumption, which would not only enable effective boycott of foreign goods but also produce capital accumulation through joint stock practices that combined small savings created out of desirelessness and self-restraint of individuals

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– accumulation, that is, through a denial of the commercial principle and an affirmation of the culturalist principle!

Expulsion and Exclusion

The failure of swadeshi, Sartori goes on to argue, once again led to a rethinking of culture in Bengal. After all, the swadeshi movement was a story of the inevitable interruption of the earlier culturalist ideal by the practices of everyday life of ordinary people, primarily the Muslim peasant, the numerical majority of undivided Bengal. In his last and, to me, the most fascinating – though too brief and sketchy

– chapter, Sartori maps this transformation of culture from krishti/anusilan (terms which had a practical and labouring connotation) into the Tagorean sanskriti (a term with a purificatory connotation). To Sartori, the term sanskriti specifically named the post-swadeshi middleclass expulsion of culture from the life of the peasant/people – i e, from lives besieged by material needs and wants. This expulsion and exclusion happened in Bengal in four different ways. The first was Tagorean aestheticism that saw in the brute, miserable, shudra life of the peasant no space for culture. The second was bhadrolok communalism that cast the Muslim (peasant) as the selfish, sectional, aggressive figure that stood opposed to the Hindu culture of desirelessness and renunciation. The third was an elite antimodernism that saw a debilitating materialism not only in the west, but also amongst the people, vying for communal representation, rural reform and similar kinds of self-aggrandising democratic practices, displacing the authentic cultural ideal of morally and spiritually superior renunciates. And the last was Marxist internationalism that produced, on behalf of the people, a critique of swadeshi idealism, on the one hand and a rhetoric of unmitigated poverty and materialism, on the other. And all this while retaining, in continuity to earlier forms of culturalism, a position of anti-formalist romanticism and sometimes even radical humanism.

As must be evident already, this is indeed a skilfully crafted, theoretically sophisticated and densely textured book. It does the difficult work of bringing materiality into the heart of a history of ideas. It

BOOK REVIEW

also successfully moves out of the historiographical double-bind of having to frame non-western ideas as either derivative/ universal or authentic/particular – i e, as either originally western or originally national. There are some points in the book that I would disagree with – for instance, Sartori’s way of seeing the question of the social in turn-of-the-century Bengal as almost entirely synonymous to the question of culture or his preferred narrative closure with Bengali Marxism, without going into the debates on popular and folk culture that would mark left politics of the 1940s and 1950s. But these do not take away from the persuasiveness of

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his general argument about the globality of the culture-concept.

What makes me a little uncomfortable, however, is Sartori’s theoretical imagination of capitalism itself. In this book, capitalism appears pre-constituted and fully stable across the century and more of the book’s study-period, at least in the way that it seems capable of perfectly enfolding the world into an uninterrupted globality. Capitalism seems like an abstracted and disembodied agent, which is so vast and general that it is capable of explaining literally everything in the world. I would rather go with the imagination of capitalism as a set of changing political and economic

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practices, with transformational and expansionist intent, which does become both centred and global but only post facto, i e, out of its many different encounters in the world. In this sense, the theoretical and historical operations that Sartori conducts upon “culture” as a concept could also be performed upon capitalism as an idea. Bengal, then, would become a moment in the global history of culture, just as it would become a particular critical moment in the global narrative of capitalism.

Prathama Banerjee (prathamabanerjee@ gmail.com) is a historian at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

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october 31, 2009 vol xliv no 44

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