Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Idea of Historicizing Europe,” “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History,” and “Reason and the Critique of Historicism” from Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000).

Consider it a sign of the times that a historian of American Christianity is reading Chakrabarty. Chakrabarty notes the abiding asymmetry in the practices of academic history: renowned historians of Europe (or America… in fact, especially America) can work in near-total ignorance of non-Western histories, but non-Western historians cannot return the gesture “without taking the risk of appearing ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘outdated’” (28). This is especially the case in places where local histories might include ancestors, spirits, or magical beings; European “secular” history becomes the gold standard of true history. Academic “history” seems always to find a way of becoming the history of Europe—or, at least, of “the West.” The project of “provincializing Europe” aims to expose the processes by which this asymmetry survives, reminding Euro-America that its history isn’t the only history that matters, revealing how this vision of “history” props up the colonialist project of “political modernity.” He writes, “provincializing Europe [is] a question of how we create conjoined and disjunctive genealogies for European categories of political modernity as we contemplate the necessarily fragmentary histories of human belonging that never constitute a one or a whole” (255). In short, Chakrabarty endeavors to show both the “inadequacy” and “indispensability” of social scientific thinking (6). Marx and Heidegger represent two competing poles of this thinking that he tries to bring into balance: on the one hand, we ought to acknowledge that certain universal/analytical categories (e.g. capitalism) help us confront social injustices—Marx. On the other hand, the hermeneutic tradition encourages sympathetic, personally engaged approaches to thought—Heidegger.

Chakrabarty’s beef doesn’t concern history per se, if by history we mean thinking about the past in the present. “Historicism,” however, withers under his intense scrutiny. By “historicism,” Chakrabarty describes a way of thinking that “tells us that in order to understand the nature of anything in this world we must see it as an historically developing entity, that is, first, as an individual and unique whole… and, second, as something that develops over time” (23). Historicism wants to objectify what it studies, finding a single, unified past in each of the archive’s relics, relics over which the subject has sovereignty.  This discourages the scholar from acknowledging her or his position of engagement with the past in the present: the subject of political modernity wants to make an object of history so as to become free from history. But the present, Chakrabarty argues, entwines with the past, is “irreducibly not-one” (249). The scientist carries a lucky rabbit’s foot. He coins the phrase “timeknot” to describe “the plurality that inheres in the ‘now,’ the lack of totality, the constant fragmentariness, that constitutes one’s present” (243).