Empire as a practice of power: empire is an inseparable part of modern political theory

By Partha Chatterjee, Ayça Çubukçu 08/24/12, 9:33 AM

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Ayça Çubukçu: How would you describe the field and the genre which The Black Hole of Empire fits, or else, wishes to inspire? What is the craft you practiced when writing The Black Hole? Is this a book in Anthropology and Asian Studies as the Princeton University Press catalogue claims?

Partha Chatterjee: This is like asking a magician to reveal his tricks. But actually that is not a good analogy, because there are no secrets behind my craft. Is this a book in Asian Studies? Yes, it is. Is this a book in Anthropology? I am not sure. But I would certainly claim that it is a book on Modern World History. In any case, I have tried to do something that is not very easily done, namely, combine within the same text a narrative history alongside a serious engagement with the history of a concept. The usual way of approaching the latter problem would have been to place the modern concept of empire within a frame of intellectual history. But I have been concerned in this book to deal with empire as a practice rather than merely as a concept. Hence, I needed to take the discussion out of a strictly intellectual history framework and instead show how conceptual changes were connected to actual practices of power in imperial settings and also of resistance to empire. I chose to do this by picking the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta as the narrative spine of the book.

In each chapter, I move away from this evolving story to pick out instances of discursive shifts as well as shifts in the techniques of imperial power, only to return to a new episode in the Black Hole story and what was happening in and around the fort in Calcutta. That is the craft. I suppose I have employed narrative techniques I have learnt from literature and the theatre, but that is the privilege one enjoys when one writes narrative history instead of theoretical social science. But I have also done something that I learnt while doing Subaltern Studies—namely, to interrogate in theoretical terms the elements of popular culture. Hence, I was able to connect the theoretical foundations of imperial policy and anti-imperial politics with the everyday forms of mass culture. No intellectual historian would consider the popular theatre or football as subjects of serious study. But I have tried to show that they were as effective historical forces as—who knows, perhaps more effective than—the writings and speeches of intellectuals and political leaders.

Çubukçu: “This book,” your preface declares, “braids two histories: a little history and a grand one.” The little history is local, tracing the career of the English East India Company’s fortified settlement in Bengal from the eighteenth century, while the grand history is global, following the phenomenon of modern empire from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. How would you characterize the “method” which governed the way you braided these two histories? How does one write a History of a Global Practice of Power, as your book’s subtitle has it?

Chatterjee: Let me elaborate on my answer to your first question. The two histories actually require two different methods. For the first, I could have written a straightforward political history of the colonial city of Calcutta, beginning with the fortified British settlement in the early eighteenth century, Siraj’s attack on the fort, the British reconquest and founding of the empire in India, the emergence of Calcutta as the capital city of the British empire and the centre of colonial capitalism, all the way to nationalism and the end of British rule. This political history has been already written by others. And as for the second, I could have done a conceptual history of modern empire—an old subject of intellectual history. But I wanted to bring them together into the same discursive space through a focus on the practices of empire. Hence the braiding of the two histories. But I had to be selective on both sides, since every switch from one register to the other required a discursive shift. To try to do both histories in the conventional way in the same book would have been utterly unmanageable—in fact, impossible. So I narrowed down the local political history to the history of the Black Hole story and Fort William. On the other side, I moved selectively through the historiography of British India, the history of Western political theory and political economy, of international law and international institutions, insofar as they had a bearing on the evolution of actual practices of empire. My attempt was to show that while many of my narratives of actual practices were local, they had a strong relationship with evolving conceptual changes in those disciplinary knowledges of power. That is my method. To a large extent, I had to invent it. Whether it works or not is for readers like you to judge.

Çubukçu: In a memorable formulation, you observe that “modern empire was not an aberrant supplement to the history of modernity but rather its constituent part,” and that “it will continue to thrive as long as the practices of the modern state-form remain unchanged.” Why is this the case? What is it about the modern state-form, which lends itself to empire?

Chatterjee: This is a claim I could only have supported by explicitly making the connection between the two histories, not otherwise. The field of imperial history (even, I would suggest, the revisionist “new imperial history”) has defined itself as a special subject separate from the history of the modern state which is a narrative supplement to the history of modern political theory—a classic field of intellectual history. I have discussed this in my book Lineages of Political Society (2011). The fundamental claim of imperial history is that the problems encountered in overseas colonies were of a special kind that required pragmatic, on-the-spot solutions that, even though they were often rationalized and packaged in theoretical terms for consumption in the metropolis, lacked a proper grounding in theoretical knowledge. In other words, what imperial historians claim is that there really can be no theoretical history of empire. The exception to this is, of course, the Marxist tradition of the history of imperialism. But that has been bound to the twentieth-century history of finance capital, which is a rather specific history if you want to think of modern empire as going back at least to the beginning of the nineteenth century, if not earlier.

So my answer was to find a way of tying modern empire as a history of actual practices to its history as a concept. I found a way of doing this through my braiding of the two histories—one a local history of imperial and anti-imperial practices and the other a conceptual history firmly located within the history of the modern state, namely, in the disciplines of political theory, political economy, international law and sometimes anthropology. I try to show that what imperial powers do in their colonies have everything to do with what they think they are as modern European nation-states. Not only that, what anti-colonial movements do against empires also have everything to do with what they think they want to create as new sovereign nation-states. Empire, as I say, is immanent in the nation-state. This is not merely a happenstance, a matter of historical chance. It is inherent in the modern conceptualization of state power. Empire is a fundamental part of modern political theory, even, as I try to show in my last chapter, in our present era when everyone wants to disavow empire.

Çubukçu: Offering a typology of European overseas empires, you distinguish between three kinds—white settler colonies, plantation colonies, and Oriental colonies—to argue that colonies of the Oriental kind posed unprecedented conceptual problems for (imperial) political thought in the late eighteenth century. What was so particular about Oriental colonies? How do the “conceptual problems” that materialized through the Haitian Revolution in a plantation colony of revolutionary France, for example, compare with those addressed by British rule in India?

Chatterjee: It is interesting that you raise the question of the Haitian Revolution in this context. The Haitian Revolution actually produced, I think, the first postcolonial condition in our contemporary sense, as my friend Michel-Rolph Trouillot (who, sadly, passed away recently) tried to suggest. Because the revolt of African slaves and freemen at the turn of the nineteenth century in a French Caribbean colony was a very different thing from the revolution of white settlers in British North America or the Creole revolutions in South America. The latter were seeking to create political conditions inspired by the most modern European political thought of the time. They had no place in their scheme of things for the political institutions or practices of Native Americans and certainly not those of their African slaves. The failure of the Haitian Revolution made the subsequent history of that country utterly marginal to the history of the Americas. But things had to unfold very differently in the European overseas empires in the East. For reasons of the sheer size, complexity and density of their presence, the institutions and practices of the defeated peoples of the Asian colonies could not be simply swept aside. They had to be incorporated within the ruling structure of the European empires in Asia and later in Africa – whether Dutch or British or French (I am leaving aside the Portuguese colonies because they present somewhat peculiar problems for the history of modern European empire). This is what I was referring to when I said that conventional imperial history wants to treat this subject as distant and more or less unrelated to the history of the modern European state, because so much of its actual material seems to be neither European nor modern. But my claim is that it is actually an inseparable part of the history of the modern state because the techniques that were developed to rule over these empires were thought out within the modern fields of disciplinary knowledge such as political theory, political economy and international law, not to speak of anthropology which, of course, became a classic colonial discipline.


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