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IFRA Special Research Issue Vol. 2

Historiography and Historicality

Ismail Bala Garba

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  • * Department of English and French Bavera University. Kano

1Note portant sur l’auteur*

2Ranajit Guha, History at the Limit of World-History, New York: Columbia University Press, 2002,128 pp. ISBN 0-231-12418-X, Hardback

3Ranajit Guha’s History at the Limit of World-History fuses, as it were, both practice and theory by conceptualising “world history” (without the hyphen) in such a way as to see it critically as a problem of whether it is possible to achieve any level of speciality in an enormous field of that name. What was once regarded as world history, was now nothing more than a pattern, or even a phrase: narrative shape; a framing device. Therefore, world history is the mark of the very reductiveness of history as a whole to which Guha openly objects to.

4In 2000, Ranajit Guha, the pre-eminent chief editor of the now famous Subaltern Studies series, delivered three lectures at the Columbia University, New York. History at the Limit of World-History is the revised version of these lectures. It has five uneven chapters with an appendix containing a succinct translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Shahitye Aitihashikota, (literally translated as “Historicality in Literature”).

5The book offers some of Guha recent ideas about history; for many years now the author has been mediating on the possibilities of imagining new ways of writing Indian history free from the colonial ways of thinking and writing that have characterised it. The main thrust of the book is that what could be called the historicality of human existence is not, and could not, be the same as the humanity’s (or the humankind’s) history, which is conceived and written by the so-called professional historians within the critical idiom of historiography. For Guha, every human being and every human relationship is etched with unique qualifies that emanate in their uniqueness. And each is marked by a past that is not just spectacular but also various. This past, interspersed through as it is with different historical narratives and realities of indubitably human experience, is what Guha refers to as historicality. Such spectacularly disparate pasts largely escape histories, Indian history especially.

6A substantial part of the book contains critical discussion of Hegel’s philosophy of history. Hegel, for Guha, is the key proponent: the instigator of what could be termed “state-centred history writing”. In Hegelian thought, the possibilities of human freedom lie in the creation and sustenance of a modem state, based on the pervasive European model. And this is because the highest principles on which a state is based are not made for any particular individual. For the state is an expression, even the embodiment of what is common to, or the same for all human beings living in a society at a particular time in history. Those societies, which have not been able to imagine and create a modem state, have not, then, discovered any universalistic principles about governance. And the pasts of such societies have yet to break out of the stupor of their mythic and poetic representations. Only societies that have been able to visualise and create the state by being cognizant of the “common” and the “general” amidst their myriad pluralism have also been able to produce histories written in the hard prose of analytical insight (22-23). For Hegel, contra Guha, all such societies are indubitably European. Guha notes that through Hegel’s agency, European history, which was but a short story from the perspective of humankind’s vast and wondrous historicality, suddenly emerged as the very epic of the human history (25).

7Accordingly, world history is not, then, a shared focus: close readings avail us to a distinguishing hyphen in Guha’s title. The hyphen, he argues, does nothing more than to “emphasize [the] status’’ of world history in the book as “a concept rather than a description” (2). History at the Limit of World-History then is a reflection on the idea of world history, and its eventual evolving into a discipline, rather than as an instance of a practical example of it. The hyphenated word (World-History) portends a discursive, and epistemological relation to Hegel whose supposedly historical language (German) allows concatenated forms like “ Weltgeschichte. Guha’s relation to Hegel is, therefore, far from that of mere affiliation, but is simply antagonistc as he (Guha) goes to some roots of modem historiographical practice and theory in the late Hegel. And here, Guha brings to the fore one of those kinds of judgements, which we rightly (or wrongly) find so hard to accept, i.e. Hegel’s quip that “India [...] has ancient religious books and splendid works of poetry [...] ancient books of law [...] nevertheless, it still does not have history” (10-11, emphasis added).

8This is also a way of saying that a Society without writing is a society without history. To Guha, Hegel is wrong, factually and philosophically, for he was simply ignorant of the existence of Ramram Bosu’s Raja Prapaditya Caritra (1801). Hegel is also at fault conceptually, for, to Guha, history is a loose term, an elastic concept that can be stretched over different narrative typologies found in pre-colonial India. Likewise Hegel is also wrong ethically since world history was (and is), to large extent, tool of European domination.

9All of these aporias in Hegelian philosophy of history is explored with bravura and illustrated in a theoretically inflected discussion about how history -as both a concept and a discursive practice -is institutionalised within a specific use of language. As with all critique of Hegelian consciousness, there is a “grudging obsession” with that consciousness, since the critique can, in itself, be also a “grudging fascination”, a desire for aufhebung (or suppression) itself a quintessential Hegelian move.

10Guha’s critique is focused on the limit, and indeed the very limit of a concept like world-history, which, in a way, falls to communicate an instance of “historicality”, and also falls to be alert to “all of the world’s past; since there is hardly any discussion of non-Hindu historical practices in the book. Regarding the limit Guha finds and boldly endorses Literature, especially in Tagore’s wisdom where “the past [...] renews itself creatively in Literature, unlike in academic historiography” (101). Tagore’s wisdom, in an attractive if romanticizing vision, reminiscent of Nietzsche, is “born of the experience of living dangerously close to the limit of language as one must to be a truly creative writer. For it is the latter’s vocation to exhaust language and push it to the limit” (98). Guha’s interpretation of Tagore is that his Literature is an alternative to world history; in fact his Literature is history -but not as historians know it. And in this Guha may be a trifle generous to Tagore’s romantic individualism, and to its projection onto a communitarianism, which sounds feudal, or at best aristocratic.

11In reading History at the Limit of World-History, one cannot but get the feeling that Guha is critical of what he has criticised: the aspiration of the people (like the Indian masses) to statehood and to state-centred identifies. He seems to propose that such desire does nothing more than perpetuate a colonial way of thinking and writing history.

Endnotes

* Department of English and French Bavera University. Kano

© IFRA-Nigeria, 2006

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