The Modern and the Early Modern: Thoughts on time, periodicity and temporal heterodoxies

Prathama Banerjee

This presentation explores the relationship between the early modern and the colonial modern, from perspective of a historian of modern and contemporary India. I talk briefly about a set of moves made in late 18th and early 19th centuries – such as comparison of chronologies, calendrical reform and the separation of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’ – which enabled a ‘transition’ from what is called the early to the colonial modern imaginations of time. With the above in mind, I then proceed to reflect upon the historiographical question of the relationship between the early and the colonial modern in south Asian scholarship. I ask in what ways the early modern works as a critique of the colonial modern, or whether it does so at all. Implicit in all this, of course, the question of historical periodisation, and the overarching matter of rethinking our relationship to the ancient, the middle period and indeed, the contemporary.

What does the early modern mean to a historian of colonial and postcolonial India – that is the question I would like to raise here today. To lay my cards right away on the table, I shall argue against too easy a use of the rubric of the early modern, because to my mind, it needlessly extends the jurisdiction of the modern over our thought and history.

However, let me begin by re-describing the early modern scholarship in south Asia from my particular vantage point. As we know, historians have recently shown that in south Asia, and other parts of the non-western world, the period approximately between 1500 and 1800 saw the emergence of traits that could be termed modern by definition. Clearly, this presumes that there is a general

Early Modernities (Summer. as Irfan Habib did once. New York. professional scribal cultures2.3 In other words. on the presupposition that history. 2009. pp. the possibility of indigenous capitalism in India eventually thwarted by colonialism. Vol. Christopher Minkowski and Imre Bangha. Clearly. 2003. 127. 2007 onwards.consensus on the definition of modernity. centre/periphery. 1400-1800. Oxford University Press. 1998). 2008. sought military and fiscal centralization and deployed the rhetoric of universal empire. Daedalus. it argues that pre-colonial modernity was really the product of global ‘connected’ histories. 1600-1800. Special Issue: The Eurasian Context of the Early Modern History of Mainland South East Asia. scholars have located history-writing traditions1. constituting a pre-colonial globalisation along with professional and literary cosmopolitanisms. 3. . 3 Sanjay Subramanyam “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”. public sphere. David Shulman & Sanjay Subramanyam Textures of Time: Writing History in South India. Vol. this early modern scholarship does not propose to compare European modernity with south Asian or Chinese or Arab modernities. David Washbro ok. an emergent sensibility of individual power and glory. No. (Jul. Kumkum Chatterjee The Cultures of History in Early Modern India: Persianisation and Mughal Culture in Bengal . 75-104. Indeed the argument here is not about capitalism – though global trade-networks and fiscal innovation do form the context of some of these histories – as about modernity as a social and cultural formation. pp. new state formations. only later to be recast through divisions such as coloniser/colonised. Therefore. No. Instead. individuality and cosmopolitanism are indisputably and essentially modern traits. 2 See the Oxford Early Modern South Asia Project.. the argument here is different from the earlier transition story – which sought to prove or disprove. “Hearing Voices: Vignettes of Early Modernity in South Asia. which. Raziuddin Aquil & Partha Chatterjee History in the Vernacular. 1400-1750”. the rise of public spaces/spheres constituting the political. 735-762. developed/underdeveloped and so on – divisions which emerged once modernity as a category got subsumed under (colonial/industrial) capitalism. More significantly. 1997). Otherpress LLC. 31. this scholarship argues that such traits were found in precolonial times in south Asia and therefore were not necessarily colonial imports. this 1 Velecheru Narayana Rao. though not absolutist in the Perry Anderson sense. and on the measure of what is and what is not modern. Modern Asian Studies. Delhi. the argument here is not a nationalist one as was the earlier transition debate. and indeed a growth of travel-cultures. led by Rosalind O’Hanlon. sovereign states. defying caste and community proscriptions. In other words. 3. Permanent Black. Thus.

we are in the realm of the politics of periodisation here. I am therefore more inclined to argue that both intellectually and politically it is more productive to give different periodisations to these different histories – such as the history of the self or the history of globality or the history of the state or the history of history for that matter – rather than force all these histories into the singular temporal bracket of the early modern. Not only did this kind of periodisation do gross injustice . In other words. and recover the modern from the grip of a later and contingent colonial. it becomes possible for us. We already recognise that the universal division of historical time into ancient. modern and non-modern. the real stake here is in decolonising the modern as it were. My lesson is that if phenomena such as capital and modernity can be shown up to have distinct and autonomous histories. self. Clearly. by preventing the early modern from necessarily appearing as the pre-history of the colonial. to reconstruct autonomous histories for phenomena such as state. progress and revolution. perhaps because as a historian of modern and contemporary times. leading us to search in vain for a shadow classical antiquity.historiography actually seeks to de-link capitalism and modernity. I am however uncomfortable with this great investment in the idea of the modern. by extension. medieval and modern was really a colonial imposition. early modernists argue that modernity can be thought of as a phenomenon older than what we know as colonial/capitalist/nationalist modernity. faith and so on – without having to argue that all these histories necessarily come together to constitute one thing called modernity. I cannot but acknowledge what is clearly today a crisis in the idea and regime of modernity (both of capitalism and liberal democracy) – a crisis in which I see an opening for not only decolonisation of thought but also possibilities of retheorising the question of historical transformation outside the binary of continuity and rupture. Let me hasten to clarify that I do not particularly wish to revisit the earlier debate in this regard. Therefore. The lesson that I would draw from the early modern scholarship in south Asia is then quite different. a shadow feudalism and a shadow Renaissance for ourselves. publicity.

But modernity seems to have no end. there is neither an end nor an after-life to modernity. people live in multiple times. Let me clarify right away that I am not arguing for an imagination of the postmodern. which goes beyond merely and banally stating that in real life. as a historical period coming ‘after’ the end of modernity. disables imaginations of actually temporal heterogeneity. it seems as if all times to come would be always already modern. Seen in these terms. the ancient/medieval/modern periodisation appears as a deeply asymmetrical configuration – where the terms of thought are set by the modern at the cost of both the non-modern and extra-modern. You will notice that while ancient and medieval are meant to be times with a beginning and an end. medieval Muslim and modern European periods. I am only trying to point out the skewed politics of modernity as concept. however fuzzy. the history of capital. This grip of the modern. . It seems that we are meant to make sense of all our experiences. I think that there is an impossible paradox at the very heart of our practice of historical periodisation. under the explanatory and disciplinary regime of modernity. eternally and necessarily. Modernity has a beginning – it could be the Renaissance or the Enlightenment or colonialism depending on our location. in my mind. it also forever imposed upon us a communal division of history into ancient Hindu. the history of the self.to the actual dynamics of historical change in India. This critique of course continues to be valid. Since its inauguration. Let me then restage the question of periodisation from quite another angle. we continue to think Indian history in terms of ancient/medieval/modern – both institutionally and intellectually – even though we have tried to complicate matters by invoking other times such as early medieval and early modern. In other words. But we cannot also ignore the fact that despite this powerful critique. the modern is meant to be a time that is infinite. One possible move in the direction of conceptualizing temporal heterogeneity could be to disentangle the distinct histories that appear to come together to constitute the modern – such as the history of democracy. which disallows any analytical move away from and aside of the narrative of the modern. the history of public sphere.

it was believed that. In other words. schizophrenic). enlightenment. is not for lack of theoretical rigour amongst us. Early modern scholarship. now an orientation of the self (secular. in the nature of the modernity-effect as it were. This. This is the self-perpetuating technique of the modern as idea and as performance. governmentality. We almost always work by using epochal signifiers such as modernity. capitalist democracy and so on. we imagine all these histories – of the state. now capital. Modernity. of work. and now an empty place-holder (filled with content by various peoples in various times and places). So whether we write the story of capital or of democracy or of the public sphere or of faith or of the self. the modern works precisely by subsuming all histories and all subjectivities of the present under its sign. now an epoch (with a beginning but no end). after all. however. of gods. of capital. itself a colonising concept. in that it functions simultaneously as one and many. In fact. it becomes possible for us to disarticulate time itself. Hitherto we have worked with the presumption that these different histories necessarily articulate without surplus under the name of the modern. If. capitalism and democracy interchangeably or at most through hyphenated concepts such as capitalist modernity. however has implicitly argued that modernity was always already . individual. is a unique name. and is meant to be. in colonial and postcolonial societies. this is in the nature of how modernity itself operates. of the demos. now institutions and technologies (public sphere.and so on. democracy). Till the rise of the early modern scholarship in the last two decades in south Asia. modernist. colonial modernity. progress). of the modern itself – to be distinct or sometimes even contrary histories which nevertheless can and do interesect. however. modernity produces and reproduces an irreversible disruption in relationships to the past – through what Bernard Cohn had once called the epistemic violence of colonialism. they all seem to flow into the singular and capacious story of the modern. open it up to recomposition. And yet we are not entirely clear about the nature of these articulations. Structurally. now a set of norms (equality. modernity is. rational. then. liberty. proper and common – now a set of ideas (reason. of self. secularity).

This is the reason why in the colony the ancient has won over the early modern – through a temporal twist very different from the West’s reclamation of classical antiquity through early modern mediation.familiar and recognisable to south Asia. by invoking either a pre-Aryan Dravidian or a Buddhist past. urban. unavoidably raises the question of its relationship with the colonial modern. And more significantly. formulating something by the name of early modern necessarily leads to a quandary for us – because we neither have the historicist option of a modern-early modern continuity (the original European transition narrative) nor the nationalist option of imagining a perfect break in colonialism and of peddling a wishful story of ‘our’ (disrupted) modernity. middleclass enactments of culture. the biggest problem lies in the question that the early modernist’s refuse to ask – namely. The idea of the early modern. though it was non-colonial and non-capitalist and therefore somewhat different from 19th-20th century modernity. the early modern is haunted by its proximity. In my mind. After all. indeed by its imputed historical-causal relationship. to the moment of colonial triumph. It is therefore not easy to simply wish away that dominance of the ancient which is very much a symptom of the modern. as an untimely and critical history which could loosen the grip of the colonial modern as well as the . Nevertheless. Few would disagree with the fall-out of this valorization of ancient India. It has also made possible conservative forms of post-liberalisation. therefore. at the cost of the medieval or the early modern. how can the early modern be politically and intellectually recovered and deployed in our contemporary. Early modernists would have to face this predicament squarely. in the dominant historical imagination of the colony. But the valorisation of the ancient has also allowed powerful dalit criticism of caste as nation and nation as caste. we cannot quite deny that unlike in Europe where the logic of modernity is necessarily projected backwards in time – philosophically to Aristotle and Plato and politically to the Athenian democracy – for the colonised modernity disallows a seamless recovery and deployment of pasts for the sake of the present. It has made possible militant Hinduism as a political force in modern times.

to empty the idea of modernity of all colonial-capitalist content and refill it with ‘other’ empirical content from the global south. there seems to be little sedimented ideological meanings for the term medieval itself. 2008). popular 4 See John M. To my mind. its primary role being that of connecting the two meaningful times of human history. 2005). what we need then is to rethink periodicity as a whole. classical antiquity and modernity. on the other hand. The term madhyakālin or ‘medieval’ thus has little ideological valence outside of the universities. without giving up th e ideological and philosophical investment in modernity as idea. Marx-inspired. even though many scholars of early modernity in south Asia were indeed medievalists by training. The early modernists claim. . even in film and theatre let alone historical novels. Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave. Ganim. where until recently the category of the medieval had formed a ‘critical component of modern selfdefinition’—and even now forms the ideological place of ‘escape’ from modernity and industrialism into popular culture and romantic literature and arts.ancient over our imaginations. But it seems clear to me that it is not enough to merely show empirically that early modernity was different from and autonomous of the story of colonial modernity. In that I would think the question of the medieval would become moot. pp. The only exception might be the invocation of terms like ‘feudal’ and ‘semi-feudal’ in the rural. Medeivalism and Orientalism: Three Essays on Literature. to my mind. 7-41. politics of post-Independence India. In other words. pp. 4-5. does not quite serve that purpose because it keeps intact and in fact expands the field of intelligibility of the modern. This is not the case in Europe. it is not so engaged with its other neighbouring time – the middle ages. Even recent popular discourses about the persecution of Hindus under Muslim rule do not depend on any notion of ‘medieval’ but rather of a timeless Islam. A strategy usefully explored in European history by Marcus Bull. as Sheldon Pollock states clearly.4 In South Asia. In colonial modern imagination. What is needed is the reinstatement of the possibility of temporal heterogeneity itself – the modern/early modern division. the middle ages appears in the form of a hyphen. Architecture and Cultural Identity (London: Palgrave. While early modernity defines itself vis a vis colonial modernity.

In other words. unwittingly. it is often seen to go further back into the 14th/13th centuries. because we are yet to imagine a form of engagement between the medieval and the modern. I am arguing that instead of presuming a periodisation frame. We know that modernity posits a particular way of articulating pasts to the present – which it does not only by valourising the present itself and proposing a break with the past. I am arguing that early modernity needs to be posited not in and by itself but through a whole scale rethinking of periodicity in Indian history. In this sense. future of the past. makes matters more difficult. I am personally more inclined to think of periodicity as immanent to the form or phenomenon that one studies – so one periodises the state differently from poetry rather than work with an overarching ancient-medieval-modern frame. we need to see periodisation itself as one . Pasts which refuse to fit this mode of succession are then set up as tradition. colonial-modern acts of engaging pasts and traditions came to be pitched as acts of culture and commemoration rather than acts of intellection. Alongside a rethinking of periodisation. custom. That is.invocations of the past do not coherently revolve around the medieval as a meaningful category. For what we see here is a tendency to temporally extend the early modern backwards – first early modern was the 18th century. i. but also by proposing that the present is the logical. that is as traces either of the past or of the eternal. As I already mentioned above. the medieval is far more clearly our untimely history and unlived present. The contrast with European philosophy is stark. or at least most likely. then it was 16th century onwards. where thinkers habitually engage their ancestors as intellectual contemporaries. the medieval gets veritably taken over by the story of the modern. In the colony thus the modern appeared as a time which did not and could not succeed the past. we also need.e. a rethinking of time itself.e. by way of the early modern. The early modern scholarship. and now. a rethinking of relationships with and in time. heritage or even culture – i. necessary. I think. In face of such an imputed disruption of the past-present relationship. In the process. In other words. modernity appeared as an external though inescapable contingency.

2006. These instances could roughly be seen as instances of transition from the moment of early modernity to colonial modernity. violent insurgency. The other instance I want to invoke is that of a sabha of Brahmin pundits in the second half of the 19th century in Bengal. The Santal rebellion or hul has been a celebrated event in south Asian historiography – nationalist. I am arguing that we must make periodicity itself part of our problematic. OUP.possible mode of temporalising which was historically posited by modernity and therefore validate the modern by default. However. the setting up of credit rationality around the depoliticised space of the colonial market. Familiar causalities therefore no longer operated in the present – which was what legitimised. . Marxist and subaltern histories (especially Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakravarty) had framed their arguments around this event as had left politics in Bengal at a more popular level. because the colonial present did not hold a relationship of succession with Santal past. a reconvening of time so to speak through acts of unprecedented. if we go by conventional 5 Prathama Banerjee The Politics of Time: primitives and history-writing in a colonial society ¸ Delhi. where there was an intense debate on whether one could have two distinct calendars. In other words. the circulation of labouring bodies across the nation and the globe and indeed struggles over contending epochal and calendrical imaginations. what was always missed in these historical retellings was what the Santal rebels under trial actually argued in their testimonies to the magistrate. one for spiritual and ritual life and another for transport and business – and implicitly on whether it was better to work with chronological accuracy or chronological commensurability vis a vis the question of time. They had stated clearly that time could no longer be thought of as a continuity. Let me elaborate what I mean by drawing out two very different instances from my earlier work on the politics of time in the 19th and early 20th century – where I had tried to map the production of modern temporality in Bengal through a variety of processes such as the rise of history and anthropology as disciplines.5 One is the instance of the 1855 Santal rebellion. indeed called for.

But this scholarship is yet to ask the difficult question of what it would be to imagine new relationships with heterodox pasts. fragile but politically charged suturing of fissured times. which too can be seen as an active mode of temporalisation within intellectual traditions of the time. In other words.6 To my mind. which might not be a relationship of succession or inheritance in the first place and which might not inhabit the same field of intelligibility such as of the modern. Journal of Indian Philosophy 30. In that sense. because such periodisations overwrite in an unproductive way the temporality of the very phenomenon and the very subject under study. . I am arguing that if we must activate what we call the early modern in our present. such instances of active temporalisation are inadequately understood under the sign of either the early modern or the colonial modern. the historian would have to be first to own up temporal heterodoxy. One could also bring in here Yigal Bronner’s work the mobilisation of the idea of the navya on the eve of colonialism. 6 Yigal Bronner. can we reanimate our contemporary and disrupt the alleged identity of our present with the infinite and the endless modern. and post-facto work at a laborious.periodisation norms. The early modern scholarship has already done the salutary work of exposing the colonial modern as contingent and thus released all that appear as the modern from its causal tie with the colonial. then we have to open up the question of temporality and periodicity itself. What forms would such relationships take (calling a past early modern or medieval is after all to already set up a relationship of succession by default)? Only by asking such a question and by mobilizing pasts in the mode of the untimely and the unlived. Yet what these instances also show us is that transitions also involve active and conscious modes of temporalisation on the part of historical subjects – the tortuous setting up of new relationships with and in time. 2002. ‘What is new and what is navya?: Sanskrit Poetics on the eve of colonialism’. 441–462.

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