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Some Scattered and Sketchy Critical Remarks on the Theoretical Assumptions of Subaltern Studies Historiography

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If one is allowed to indulge in some bit of abstraction one could say — pace Marx’s value-theoretic approach — that the historiographical method of the Subaltern Studies fails to account for how time-as-substance — the concrete, the qualitatively different, or the singular as a phenomenological or interiorised subjective experience — is instrumentalised to be rendered the embodiment of the tendency of its own negation, which is time-as-measure. Time-as-measure being qualitative equalisation (value as congelation of human labour in the abstract) manifest in and through quantitative differentiation. The historiography of Subaltern Studies, as a result, refuses to rigorously think the dialectical asymmetry of difference (as differing away) and difference-as-identity — or, the asymmetrical dialectic of the concrete and the abstract (or, use-value and value/exchange-value). In other words, it fails to rigorously account for the dialectic between history as a genre of writing, which is meant to be a narrative representation of diverse experiences, and history as a conceptual registration of those experiences, and thus also the structure/structuring of the experiences at hand revealed by such conceptual registration. It’s precisely this dialectic that Reinhardt Koselleck, for instance, points towards when he plays on the etymological difference between the two German words for history: historie and gesischte.

The Subaltern Studies historians refuse, nay fail, to come to terms with the fact that the asymmetry between the concrete (difference as differing-away) and the abstract (difference-as-identity) — or subjective cultural resources and social relations of production respectively — that is activated only as a radical antagonism, tends to be generative of a dialectic that, thereby, distorts their radical antagonism into a mutually constitutive contradiction. This philosophical, or theoretical, inadequacy is most clearly evident in Ranajit Guha’s reading of Marx’s Grundrisse in ‘Dominance Without Hegemony’. Here Guha mobilises the determinate registration of the dynamic tendency of antagonism to, or limit of, capital in Marx’s account arguably as a sociologically static empiric of the same. Guha, therefore, repeats the same mistake that Hegel, according to Marx’s Introduction to ‘Grundrisse’, committed: conflating the object of knowledge with the concrete real world that lies outside human thought. As a result, Guha is unable to grasp, and discursively demonstrate, how the radical separation of the two temporalities of difference and difference-as-identity is tendential, or logical, while they are, chronologically speaking, coeval. Which is to say, that even as difference as differing-away is envisaged it must be simultaneously grasped as difference-as-identity that is the limit imposed on difference on account of its inescapable determinate condition. Only such an approach can generate a rigorously anticipative, prefigurative strategic manoeuvre for suspending, as opposed to merely puncturing, capital or “History I” as the horizon constitutive of the law of value.

Guha’s inability to see that the radical separation of the two temporalities of difference and difference-as-identity – or, the concrete and the abstract – is a tendential or logical one prevents him from grasping why the tendential temporality of antagonism is, at once, generative of the counter-tendential temporality of dialectical constitutivity. In fact, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s move, in ‘Provincializing Europe’, to strengthen this conception and theoretical discourse of non-dialectical difference of History II (or outside of capital) to History I (capital) continues to perpetuate Guha’s philosophical error of hypostatising the determinate registration of the dynamic tendency of antagonism into a sociologically static empiric of the same. This, in spite of Chakrabarty’s decision to follow Heidegger in his thinking of ontological difference through phenomenological reduction; or, perhaps because of it.

It’s because of this philosophical/theoretical inadequacy — something that underlies and informs the Subaltern Studies project almost in its entirety — that the historiography/historiographies inspired and/or influenced by that project are rendered incapable of reflexively accounting for the linguistic reification that historiography as a genre of writing, or narrative representation, is bound to tend towards. Not surprisingly, the politics that such historiography affirms is radical communitarian, which is situated, all said and done, within the political paradigm of liberal-republicanism as its constitutive obverse.

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