The Politics of Despair and the Calling of History

What happens to history as a set of practices and intellectual protocols when the assumed subject of our historical narratives is not a product of the European Enlightenment? Such has been the question motivating much of Dipesh Chakrabarty's work for almost thirty years. This essay offers a largely chronological account of Chakrabarty's major works. It begins with his first book, published in 1989, which provided a culturalist account of working-class history in Bengal. It then tracks his movement in the early 1990s toward a position positing radical disjuncture and even incommensurability between the worlds of Indian subalterns and Western moderns, and his subsequent attempts to soften and blur precisely this kind of disjuncture. Meditating on the problems posed by the experiences of subjects who did not live within the time of history led him to answer in the affirmative the question of whether there are experiences of the past that history could not capture. Soon thereafter, however, he drew back from the most extensive articulation of this claim, suggesting that the experiences of the non-Enlightenment subject could function as a positive resource and not merely as the source of a profound and destabilizing critique. I argue here that this solution to the problem of incommensurability is not entirely satisfactory, for it relies implicitly on precisely the kinds of argumentative asymmetries of which his earlier analysis taught us to be wary. Chakrabarty himself, meanwhile, has continued to step further away from the radicalism of the early 1990s; his most recent book may be read as a defense of rationalist history in the face of contemporary threats posed by the rise of a politics of identity in India.