Sumit Guha | Foto: UW |
Historians always work in evolving political contexts that influence their knowl- edge and narratives. This cultural reality provides a framework for Sumit Guha’s imaginative analysis of how the collective memories that shape human societies are contingent and fragile because they are embedded within the changing insti- tutional systems of social and political life. In History and Collective Memory in South Asia, 1200–2000, Guha analyzes the processes of remembering and forget- ting in South Asian cultures, but similar sociocultural patterns have also appeared in almost every other human society. Historical knowledge serves numerous public needs, including the need for governments and social elites to justify their power and the need for cultural communities to sustain shared collective identi- ties. Historians therefore have an essential public role for which they have often been supported in schools, religious orders, government libraries, and universi- ties, which Guha describes as the “cloistered” institutions that produce and teach historical knowledge (4). This link to institutions, however, makes historical knowledge vulnerable to changing political regimes and to popular upheavals in the social world that always surrounds the cloisters in which experts construct their historical narratives.
I. CONTEMPORARY CHALLENGES TO SCHOLARLY HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE
Although modern professional historians continue a long tradition of working in privileged cloisters, Guha argues that such experts have created only one of the cultural streams that carry historical knowledge across the generations of social life. The expertise of historical specialists has long been challenged or displaced by oral and popular histories that circulate informally in the public and private spheres of all human communities, creating alternative stories that have wide cultural influences and also affect the ideas of those who write history within even the best-supported institutional cloisters. Historical knowledge is thus inex- tricably connected to public life because it grows out of the collective identities and cultural memories that historical narratives both reflect and help to shape. The public interactions with cloistered historical knowledge, as Guha emphasizes with specific references to both India and the United States, have grown all the more visible in recent decades as diverse social groups have claimed their own historical knowledge and publicly derided the experts for writing false history. Professional historians are thus increasingly marginalized by the “knowledge” that emerges in the popular media or flows among the contemporary religious and political activists who wage transnational culture wars on websites and social media apps. Militant crowds in South Asia, Europe, and the US have been destroying monuments that represent discredited historical figures, but activists with radically diverging ideologies are also constructing new historical narra- tives that assert collective identities and political goals. These politically charged narratives have become part of wider cultural struggles to control historical memories, and they often challenge evidence-based historical accounts that were written in scholarly institutions. Guha wrote his book from a position within one of the cloistered institutions (the University of Texas) where professional experts have traditionally developed and evaluated valid historical knowledge. He therefore notes the context for his own historical project by explaining that recent public claims for the validity of nonexpert historical narratives “made me more keenly aware of how the academy exists only as part of a society” and how “public knowledge of the past” has long “been enfolded in political and economic systems” (x). Guha launches his narrative of South Asian historical knowledge with an explicit recognition that neither the political leaders nor social protest movements in our “post-truth” era are inclined to respect the carefully compiled, evidence- based research of professional historians (ix). Late twentieth-century academic historians such as Peter Novick described a declining faith in historical objectivity among scholars who worked in academic history departments, but the debates of that time were viewed mainly as internal philosophical arguments about the opposing epistemological perspectives of relativism and positivism.
The cultural stakes of these arguments have now become part of a much broader political cul- ture because the cultural-political context has changed. Scientific experts have lost public influence as people outside of the traditional, knowledge-producing clois- ters have gained access to new media and communication networks. Professional historians, like other experts in both the natural sciences and the social sciences, now have to defend the value of evidence-based knowledge in a public sphere that often disdains the whole enterprise of careful documentary research. Guha’s account of collective memories and historical narratives in South Asia over the last eight centuries thus suggests that our (noncloistered) public culture may be returning to conceptions of historical knowledge that long shaped the use and abuse of history in earlier social eras. As Guha explains with persuasive examples, historical knowledge in premodern South Asia and Europe was viewed mainly as a tool to support the political claims of governing elites or to defend the sociocultural status of social groups whose identities were affirmed through semimythical narratives about past struggles and heroism. Human beings have always defined themselves, in part, by describing their historical antecedents, so historians inside and outside of institutional cloisters have provided the requisite collective memories in their written texts and oral histories. Yet Guha repeatedly notes the fragility of collective memories, which can quickly dissipate when social, political, and cultural regimes change or collapse. Most of the once-known information about past people and events has completely disappeared because the cloisters that produced or protected this knowledge were destroyed (for example, the religious communities that protected historical memories in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia), or because later governing powers had no use for historical nar- ratives that had justified the power of previous rulers, or simply because nobody believed that the activities of common people needed to be recorded in historical narratives.
Guha thus provides humbling reminders that historical knowledge is for- ever changing or vanishing amid the constant public upheavals that transform and demolish the work of historians as well as the past achievements of every other sociocultural community. Guha’s reflections on the contingencies of now- vanished historical knowledge may remind readers of the melancholy themes in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” (1818), which famously described a traveler’s encounter with the ruins of an ancient king’s shattered statue on a lonely sandscape: “My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” No thing beside remains. Round the deca Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.
One of Guha’s themes in this book conveys a similar story about the fragility of historical knowledge and memories, which means that “the preservation of a frac- tion of the immense world of human experience in the historical record depends on choices and resources, or else it perishes irretrievably” (116). Every genera- tion, in short, must reconstruct historical memories to prevent their otherwise inevitable decay and disappearance in later human cultures.
II. EUROPE ON THE PROVINCIAL FRONTIER OF GLOBAL INTELLECTUAL HISTORY
The fragility of historical knowledge is one example of how Guha views the entanglement of collective memory, political power, and public struggles for social status. History and Collective Memory in South Asia focuses mainly on the development and loss of historical memory in India, but there are also descriptions of similar memory-producing practices in premodern Europe. These comparative perspectives contribute to a historical decentering of European cultural and political institutions that draws on Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential proposals for “provincializing Europe.” 3 Guha challenges Western narratives that portray a unique European historiographical pathway from the classical Greek works of Herodotus and Thucydides to the nineteenth-century, evidence-based archival methods of Leopold von Ranke. The uniqueness of early European historical writing mostly disappears in Guha’s comparative framework as he shows how medieval European memories and identities were constructed through genealogical research and chronological summaries that South Asian historians also developed during these same centuries. In both of these premodern cultural spheres, most historical narratives focused on local events or people; and the useful knowledge came from genealogists and court heralds who confirmed the esteemed lineage of people who held privileged social status and political power (or wanted to claim new power for themselves). Religious writers in both Europe and South Asia also offered popular narra- tives to explain why particular churches and religious shrines should be visited and why they should be supported with generous gifts. European historical writ- ing thus evolved as an unexceptional local example of the historical research that was also developing widely across Persia and India during this same era. Placed within this wider framework, European genealogists were (like their Indian coun- terparts) “bearers of socially vital histories . . . who kept records and sent out pursuivants across their jurisdictions to record and verify” (35).
Guha thus provides carefully researched examples of how historians can “pro- vincialize Europe” when they move beyond traditional Western assumptions abou European exceptionalism. At the same time, however, he adds to the expanding work in “global intellectual history” by using two important methods for analyzing the history of ideas in different cultures and for tracing transnational intellectual exchanges.
Guha first describes cross-cultural similarities in the labor of heralds and genealogists who served sociopolitical elites in England, France, and Spain, but he also shows how historical workers provided the same services for social elites in India. The social contexts differed, but historians served similar premodern public needs in both cultures. The genealogical arguments for social status, political power, and property ownership were developed with an assiduous attention to past generations and with often-needed adjustments to complex social histories; this careful work everywhere provided essential historical justifications for noble and royal claims to power. After summarizing similar cultural practices that developed independently within Europe and South Asia, Guha uses a second methodology of global intel- lectual history to analyze how ideas about historical knowledge later moved across cultural boundaries and influenced people on both sides of the colonizer/ colonized social hierarchy. The themes in Guha’s narrative thus shift from a description of cultural similarities to a description of cross-cultural exchanges and the mediation of cultural differences. During the nineteenth century, British colonial officials and educators arrived in India with new ideas about how his- torical knowledge should be based on documentary evidence, so the institutions they developed for cross-cultural instruction (including schools and universities) became sites for new cultural translations of materials they encountered in India. British educators developed a tripartite narrative that portrayed Indian history as an evolution from eras of Hindu and Muslim rule into the era of Britain’s Christian Imperial rule, which British officials portrayed as superior to the earlier Mughal Empire. Equally important, a new English-educated, South Asian intelli- gentsia gradually adopted some of the new European methods and ideas for their own anticolonial purposes. Ideas and research methods traveled across cultural boundaries, but they also changed as Indian historians used them to pursue goals that differed from the purposes and expectations of British officials. The Indian scholar Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade (1864–1926), for example, worked in this hybrid sphere of cross-cultural exchanges during the colonial era, when he joined with other intellectuals in western India to develop a Marathi perspective on British imperialism. Rajwade believed that the “latest methods of source criticism would enable India to recapture its own history” (142), so his work made creative use of some European cultural practices that helped to advance the goals of an emerging Indian nationalism. According to Guha’s account of this hybrid cultural process, “Leopold von Ranke’s doctrines may have reached him [Rajwade] by indirect routes, but he was certain that their application would vindicate both Maratha and Indian nationalism. This was the atmosphere in which the early venture for a public and documented history was launched in the Marathi-speaking world” (143). These two methodological European exceptionalism. At the same time, however, he adds to the expanding work in “global intellectual history” by using two important methods for analyzing the history of ideas in different cultures and for tracing transnational intellectual exchanges.
Guha first describes cross-cultural similarities in the labor of heralds and genealogists who served sociopolitical elites in England, France, and Spain, but he also shows how historical workers provided the same services for social elites in India. The social contexts differed, but historians served similar premodern public needs in both cultures. The genealogical arguments for social status, political power, and property ownership were developed with an assiduous attention to past generations and with often-needed adjustments to complex social histories; this careful work everywhere provided essential historical justifications for noble and royal claims to power. After summarizing similar cultural practices that developed independently within Europe and South Asia, Guha uses a second methodology of global intel- lectual history to analyze how ideas about historical knowledge later moved across cultural boundaries and influenced people on both sides of the colonizer/ colonized social hierarchy. The themes in Guha’s narrative thus shift from a description of cultural similarities to a description of cross-cultural exchanges and the mediation of cultural differences. During the nineteenth century, British colonial officials and educators arrived in India with new ideas about how his- torical knowledge should be based on documentary evidence, so the institutions they developed for cross-cultural instruction (including schools and universities) became sites for new cultural translations of materials they encountered in India. British educators developed a tripartite narrative that portrayed Indian history as an evolution from eras of Hindu and Muslim rule into the era of Britain’s Christian Imperial rule, which British officials portrayed as superior to the earlier Mughal Empire. Equally important, a new English-educated, South Asian intelli- gentsia gradually adopted some of the new European methods and ideas for their own anticolonial purposes. Ideas and research methods traveled across cultural boundaries, but they also changed as Indian historians used them to pursue goals that differed from the purposes and expectations of British officials. The Indian scholar Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade (1864–1926), for example, worked in this hybrid sphere of cross-cultural exchanges during the colonial era, when he joined with other intellectuals in western India to develop a Marathi perspective on British imperialism. Rajwade believed that the “latest methods of source criticism would enable India to recapture its own history” (142), so his work made creative use of some European cultural practices that helped to advance the goals of an emerging Indian nationalism. According to Guha’s account of this hybrid cultural process, “Leopold von Ranke’s doctrines may have reached him [Rajwade] by indirect routes, but he was certain that their application would vindicate both Maratha and Indian nationalism. This was the atmosphere in which the early venture for a public and documented history was launched in the Marathi-speaking world” (143). These two methodological realms. Oral traditions shaped the identities of local communities, asserted the significance of local religious shrines, or justified the social positions of local elites who continued to challenge the centralizing power of imperial states. All of these narratives could coexist with the historical narratives of large empires because “outside the early temple-cities and imperial capitals, . . . local and folk traditions propagated mutually contradictory but noncompetitive narratives of the past” (27). There was never just one historical narrative, and the local folk nar- ratives sometimes became more powerful and widely accepted than the official narratives that historical experts produced in the cloistered institutions of imperial capitals. In every historical period, diverging narratives claimed to provide the best accounts of recent or remote historical events.
Guha introduces early Indian historical writing by focusing on Muslim histo- rians whose Persian monotheism asserted the existence of a “universal history” that transcended the fragmented local histories of earlier South Asian states (45). Muslim historians believed that a single God oversaw every human activity because all actions took place in a “universal time” (51). This temporal perspec- tive suggested that every great or small event contributed to an overarching historical process, yet the conflicts over political power inevitably occurred in specific places and local settings that required historical attention. Genealogists and court historians thus wrote historical accounts to show the ancient lineage of newly arrived Persian rulers in the era of the Delhi Sultanate (which spanned the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries), and Persian-language narratives told official stories about heroic past achievements to justify the recent, regional expansion of Muslim power. Politicized historical narratives continued to appear during the later Mughal Empire, whose famous Emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) bolstered his centralizing aspirations by supporting new historical narratives (in Persian) and building new monuments that stressed the importance of imperial unity. Other strands of social memory nevertheless flourished outside of the official court-centered narratives that Mughal emperors promoted. Both before and during Akbar’s reign, Guha notes, “many forms of collective memory coex- isted, with the new Persian political and military histories as simply an additional branch of memory” (61). Local memories were often associated with local reli- gious shrines, and long after the Mughal conquests extended into eastern India there were still Bengali legends, lineage stories, and Hindu religious centers that defied or ignored the court-supported Mughal histories. These unofficial narra- tives sustained Bengali cultural memories, though local Buddhist memories were often lost in the competing Muslim and Hindu histories of the era.
As Mughal power declined in the late seventeenth century, the rising Marathi state in western India became a new center of historical knowledge and collective memory. Guha explains that the “Marathi-speaking gentry had long written or dictated narrative histories” for the region, but their expanding political aspirations soon generated new “macronarratives” that helped to justify the political claims and collective identity of the ambitious Marathi (Hindu) regime (107). Historical writing therefore celebrated the achievements of a Marathi elite that governed a mostly Hindu population and eventually displaced the Mughal empire in north- central India, but the Marathi historians ignored the historical achievements of their Hindu predecessors in southern India (the Vijayanagara Empire). The eighteenth-century Marathi elite thus used a narrowly defined collective memory to create an “enmeshing of history and identity [that] was unique in South Asia at the time” (109). Other social groups continued to shape collective historical memories, however, through narratives that circulated outside the Marathi literati. Workers and servants, for example, spoke in court cases that Guha cites to show how nonelite people could provide important historical information about family events and property holdings. Challenging Gayatri Spivak’s famous claim that the voices of subaltern people could never be heard or recovered, Guha refers to late seventeenth-century court testimonies in Maharashtra to argue that lower class women and men in western India “could speak and were sometimes unique sourc- es of evidence” (99).
Craftsmen, barbers, and even gardeners offered their per- spectives on past events or conflicts. Most were illiterate, yet “ordinary villagers . . . passed on key elements of local history from generation to generation” (100). Both the elite Marathi writers and subaltern speakers narrated local history in texts and court testimonies that Guha describes as more factual than the histori- cal narratives that appeared in other parts of India. The west Indian Hindu literati nevertheless resembled historians throughout South Asia in supporting their own government’s political interests and in mostly ignoring the history of previous rulers. Like other elite writers, they also faced the challenge of unofficial historical narratives that conveyed the perspectives of other social groups, including the obscure subalterns who testified (historically) in legal proceedings and family disputes. The struggle to consolidate political power was always linked to cul- tural struggles over the control of stories about the past.
III. HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE IN THE ERA OF IMPERIALISM AND POSTCOLONIAL TRANSITIONS
Historical writing in both the Marathi-speaking west and the Bengali-speaking east gradually changed after British colonial institutions became new centers of education and historical memory during the nineteenth century. Extending the cultural practices of their political predecessors, British imperialists introduced new historical narratives to increase their own prestige and stature. Guha shows that the power-enhancing uses of historical knowledge remained as prominent in the British colonial era as in the earlier periods of Indian history, but the British brought new European methods for source citations and historical writing. Their sources and narratives conveyed unexamined cultural assumptions about the superiority of Christian traditions, and they often portrayed British rule as a more enlightened imperial successor to the earlier Mughal Empire.
Although Guha explains how the British ascendancy decisively altered the political and cultural context for historical writing, he also argues that the Indian literati always found new ways to narrate their own history—in part by drawing on unofficial, popular histories that still circulated outside of British institutions.Indian writers increasingly accepted new standards of historical evidence, how- ever, which “tended to converge on demanding authentic contemporary sources” (118). The prestige of document-based historical narratives forced Indian histo- rians to recognize that “the power of Western narrative could not be denied, but chinks in it could be sought so as to turn it against the colonizer” (119). Counter- narratives thus challenged the official historical voice, which now spread a European, Christian message within and beyond the cloisters of British schools and universities. Guha gives particular attention to the hybrid historical work of western Indian writers such as the previously noted Vishwanath Kashinath Rajwade and the documentary specialist Ganesh Hari Khare (1901–1985), both of whom wrote texts that differed from the colonial historical narratives and used more factual evidence than could be found in the genealogical stories and “historical romance” of Bengali historians such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–1894) (134). Despite Guha’s recognition of the cultural value in all kinds of historical narratives—popular oral histories, genealogies, religious stories, and even fictional works—he repeatedly affirms the superiority of historical research that uses verifiable documentary sources. Adhering to the modern research meth- ods of cloistered professional historians, Guha argues that the most reliable his- torical truths appeared in evidence-based narratives that explained what actually happened rather than what later generations wanted to believe could or should have happened.
The historical resistance to British colonialism did not end when South Asians established independent nations after 1947. As Guha notes in his discussion of postcolonial cultural transitions, historians in both Pakistan and India set to work on nation-building tasks that required coherent national histories and emphasized the kind of long-term continuities that nationalists typically find or invent in their own national cultures. The enduring influence of certain colonial-era British nar- ratives helped to shape new “ethno-nationalist” accounts of Hindu history that condemned Mughal rule and the oppressive power of Muslim outsiders (132). Colonial legacies also influenced some later postcolonial historians who sup- ported an “indigenist” rejection of the evidence-based historical knowledge that British historians had advocated in English-language universities (160). To be sure, British educators had often violated their academic standards for evidence- based historical writing as they promoted their own faith-based assertions about Christian miracles, the superiority of European cultures, and the flaws of Indian religious traditions. Guha notes with dismay, however, that the postcolonial rejection of imperial institutions and ideas evolved into a growing nationalist suspicion or rejection of carefully compiled, evidence-based historical narratives. Historians who searched for indigenous alternatives to British culture drifted away from rigorous research and celebrated ancient Vedic learning in mythic narratives that no longer cited historical evidence or documentary sources.
Guha’s concluding critique of postcolonial changes in South Asian cultures therefore returns to his introductory arguments as he condemns the dangers in “post-truth” societies that reject the foundational research of reliable historical knowledge. The cloisters of professional historical work, where evidence-based research methods established the criteria for accurate (though culturally inflected) knowledge, have been threatened or displaced by the political-cultural influence of a surging Hindu nationalism that resembles similar nationalist critiques of “fake history” and “false” academic work in the US. Political groups and their affiliated media systems in India and America have launched a similar “external assault on the community of professional historians” (x), thereby forcing historical experts to defend the truth of their knowledge in a transformed public sphere. Guha sees familiar historical patterns in these recent challenges to historical knowledge because carefully constructed historical narratives were often overwhelmed and rejected in the sociopolitical upheavals of past transitional eras. Each historical era is different, of course, but Guha suggests that cloistered historians may not recognize how the scapegoating of inconvenient or unpopular knowledge never disappears. “History departments in the few but comparatively well-funded Indian universities controlled by the central government,” Guha writes in a discussion of South Asian historians who lost influence after the 1970s, “were confident, indeed complacent, in their authority. . . . The narrow circle of specialists could still, in principle, resolve disputes by reference to sources and documents, as in the standard model. This gave its members an undue sense of their own grip on the past” (173).
This cultural moment has now passed, however, and the once-cloistered historians find themselves under attack from radical Hindu nationalists, Bollywood historical movies, and so-called identity histories that dismiss or misrepresent the complexities of historical evidence. This situation is by no means unprecedented, as Guha demonstrates in his careful analysis of how collective memories changed under the influence of different governing systems over the last eight centuries. Yet the recurring political struggle for control of historical knowledge seems to be gaining renewed force in a twenty-first-century context of far-reaching social media, website communications, and highly politicized group identities.
IV. HISTORICAL KNOWLEDGE AND THE PUBLIC SPHERE IN A “POST-TRUTH” WORLD
Guha’s careful examination of South Asian historical knowledge contributes valuable perspectives for wider discussions of how collective memories help to shape political cultures and the public sphere. He explains the significance of historical narratives and monuments that sustain collective identities, but he also stresses that popular memories and oral histories have always expanded or challenged the historical perspectives of cloistered experts and state-supported narratives. Guha therefore provides a broad overview to help his readers understand how contemporary critiques of evidence-based academic scholarship may resemble disruptions that have occurred whenever political regimes have been overthrown or new social-cultural-religious groups have come to power. Historical knowledge, as Guha demonstrates throughout his book, has always been fragile and vulnerable to public upheavals.
There are nevertheless limitations in Guha’s work that raise questions for further critical analysis. His insistence on the value of evidence-based research is relevant for historical studies in every society, even though the specific modern arguments for such research emerged in European universities and then gained global influence through other institutions that governments, imperial regimes, and private groups established in other places around the world. Guha notes this complex process of cross-cultural exchange, yet he does not discuss how technological transitions are creating new challenges for document-based historical research and also transforming how historians might study cross- cultural interactions. The new technological challenges began to emerge with the computer revolution of the 1990s, and they became even more pervasive as mobile telephones replaced printed texts and older computers for many twenty- first-century communications. Documents stored on obsolete floppy disks may already be almost as inaccessible as illegible stone tablets in an ancient cave. What happens to evidence-based historical memory when most communications take place in easily deleted telephone text messages or on social media apps that are constantly evolving with the technological innovations of companies that sell mobile telephones?
Guha concludes his book with a commendable insistence on the value of carefully researched historical work and a plea “that we continue to strive for an evidence-based mode of writing it” (178). The instant communications of social media meanwhile pose a double challenge to evidence-based historical writing because sources are disappearing almost instantly, and highly motivated political or religious groups are quickly spreading false historical narratives via internet technologies that previous cloistered historical experts never had to confront. Addressing the implications of these cultural changes would take History and Collective Memory beyond its chronological limits, but historians need to address such issues as they confront the growing public influence of false history, which Guha rightly condemns in his preface, introduction, and conclusion.
Contemporary technological challenges could be explored in future studies of new social media, but a different historical problem appears in Guha’s complaint that cloistered historians have helped to undermine their own evidence-based expertise by embracing postmodern critiques of objectivity. Ironically, as Guha points out in his preface, the influential Foucauldian argument that power cre- ates knowledge seems to have been embraced by powerful governing elites who generally reject the ideas and writing styles of postmodern theorists. One of the American architects of the Iraq invasion in 2003, for example, assured a journalist that American policymakers were powerful enough to define and thereby create political realities in a distant Middle Eastern society. “Postmodern thought,” Guha notes, “had thus been captured by its inveterate critics in the power elite” (ix). This concern about public actors who now adapt theoretical critiques of empirical knowledge to justify their own claims for reality-shaping narratives leads to one of Guha’s specific warnings about the current threats to historical knowledge. Although he provincializes European claims for unique historiographical traditions and methods, he also defends the Rankean belief in the documentary foundation of fact-based historical knowledge. Guha thus views the commitment to evidence-based knowledge as an essential cultural value that should never be dismissed as simply a Eurocentric ideology. Documentary evi- dence, as he correctly insists, provides valid criteria for historical truth in South Asia and in every other society that seeks to establish reliable knowledge about its own past. This commitment to evidence-based historical knowledge, however, leads Guha to an unexpected critique of historians who draw radical relativist implications from the argument that narrative choices shape the construction of all historical knowledge.
Guha’s work carefully examines the words and narrative structures that shape human uses of the past, yet he seems to pull back from his own analytical themes at the end of his book. “We have entered a post-truth world through many paths,” he notes: “One of those brought us here by arguing that all narratives were constructed, and consequently all are equally valid” (176). This is a puz- zling statement because Guha’s book actually shows why the second clause in this sentence is not correct. It is certainly true that all narratives are constructed, but Guha skillfully shows (and almost all historians would agree) that some nar- ratives are far more truthful than others because the best historical accounts are based on documentary evidence and other verifiable sources. Guha’s analysis of South Asian historians thus uses evidence-based criteria to explain why some constructed narratives are more valid than others. His concluding lament about a misguided academic acceptance of the postmodern emphasis on the shaping power of narratives seems to be refuted by the critical assessments of different textual constructions in his own impressive book.
My questions about the impact of changing technologies and the ongoing evaluation of truth claims in historical narratives suggest some of the key issues that Guha’s book encourages readers to continue exploring in our “post-truth” historical era. Although he develops an insightful account of the ways in which historical knowledge evolved in specific South Asian cultures, Guha also shows how this long-developing cultural history challenges traditional narratives about European exceptionalism, confirms the influence of cross-cultural exchanges, demonstrates the complex hybridity of colonial and postcolonial ideologies, and exemplifies the continual intersection of historical knowledge and public conflicts. Guha’s emphasis on the contingency of historical knowledge and the vulnerability of experts also reminds professional historians that sociopolitical forces affect the narratives they write as well as the economic resources that support their privileged positions. Historians thus remain vulnerable to the revo- lutionary upheavals they like to study from the safety of their cloistered positions.
Perhaps the current vulnerability of professional historians results partly from a gradual twentieth-century scholarly withdrawal from intellectual engagements with public life and public history. Given the pressing need for historical narra- tives in public life and in the cultural defense of collective identities, there will always be (nonexpert) groups who want to fill the public historical vacuum that exists when historians argue only among themselves. The historians’ long-term retreat to university cloisters has become increasingly problematic amid the recent populist upheavals around the world, but these unsettling events may now be forcing historians to become more aware of their connections to the public sphere. This awareness could grow in all national cultures as university-based historians struggle to maintain student enrollments and financial resources—and as activist groups constantly develop self-supporting historical narratives in the popular media that flourish outside academic cloisters.
Sumit Guha’s well-argued, well-researched account of collective memory in the longue durée of South Asian history thus helps historians understand the enduring connections between historical knowledge and the struggle for power in public cultures. Cloistered historical experts who find themselves increasingly besieged by twenty-first-century culture wars and polarizing political conflicts might turn to Guha’s narrative for transcultural perspectives on their current chal- lenges. They may also draw on his perceptive analysis of South Asian historical narratives to understand more clearly why they must engage with public cultures beyond their cloisters and defend the evidence-based historical knowledge that others will denounce, distort, or ignore.
- Guha refers to key themes in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in The Complete Poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. 3, ed. Donald H. Reiman, Neil Fraistat, and Nora Crook (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 326. This reference reflects my own response to Guha’s themes; he does not mention Shelley or this poem in his book.
- Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). Guha draws on Chakrabarty for his useful distinctions between “cloistered” and “public” history as well as his broader interest in displacing Europe from its “central, normative role in world history” (Guha 5).
- For a summary of notable research methods in this field, see Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori, “Approaches to Global Intellectual History,” in Global Intellectual History, ed. Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 3-30.
- The key work for Guha is Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, ed. and transl. Lewis Coser (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
- Guha challenges the influential argument that appears, among other places, in Gayatri C. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 271-314.
Lloyd Kramer – University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
GUHA, Sumit. History and collective memory in South Asia, 1200-2000. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. Pp. xiii, 240. Resenha de: KRAMER, Lloyd.The enduring public struggle to constructo, control, and challenge historical memories. History and Theory, v.60, n.1 p.150-162, mar. 2021. Acessar publicação original [IF].