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Dipesh Chakrabarty Receives Honorary Doctorate from the École normale supérieure

We are honored to count Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, among our most renowned authors. In addition to his most recent book with us The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, he is also the author of The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth and Habitations in Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies. The École normale supérieure in Paris recognized him earlier this year for “the exceptional character” of his career, which “will serve as a reference point and inspiration for young researchers beginning their intellectual life in a world that is less than self-evident.” We are proud to share below the remarkable tribute French historian François Hartog wrote in honor of the occasion.

photo of the author
Photo by Alan Thomas. Shot at Piccolo Mondo, Chicago, on occasion of Dipesh turning over his Sarkar ms.

Dear Professor Chakrabarty, Dear Dipesh,

We are honored and delighted to welcome you here to confer on you the title of Doctor honoris causa from the Ecole Normale Supérieure. It’s been a long journey from Calcutta, where you were born and raised in the 1950s and 1960s and where you began your career as a historian, to this Salle des Actes, where we are gathered tonight. Beyond us, your immediate contemporaries, you also welcomed by those, much older, who take up space on the walls of this room in recognition of what they have done for the advancement of knowledge and for their country. I am sure that they look with a curiosity full of sympathy at this savant from Bengal who “provincialized” Europe, who questioned, first on his own behalf, the intellectual traditions that made modern Europe, and who helped Europe to decenter the way it saw itself. They would understand well, as they are good readers, that, for you, it was neither a question of rejection nor of simply repeating that since 1914, Europe was already no longer the center of the world. What was at stake, as you wrote, starting from the margins of Europe and for them, was the recognition of an intellectual “debt” combining “gratitude” and an “anti-colonial spirit”.

In your book, The Calling of History (2015), a little less well known than the quickly famous Provincializing Europe (2000), but to which I attach great importance, you reflect at length on the man who, in the first half of the 20th century, was one of the founders of history in India, Sir Jadunath Sarkar. This book, which is not a biography or even a work of historiography, ends, in an apparent mixture of genres (which does not scare you off) with a fictitious conversation between him and you about what history is. Now, importantly, the conversation is supposed to take place in Sarkar’s own house in Calcutta, where the historical research center to which you then belonged was housed. Considered by your professors as the representative of a methodologically and politically outdated history, he was hardly read anymore. Here, in this room, I can imagine that you could strike up several conversations, and why not with Fustel de Coulanges, who was so close to Sir Jadunath in his obsession with a history that is a science of truth, and in his conviction that the life of a historian, that of a tireless reader of texts, must be one of daily ascesis.   

“In poetry, you only inhabit the place that you leave,” writes René Char. You are not a poet, but a historian, and a duly credentialed one at that (although you started out studying physics and management). As is the rule in the trade, you even began by doing your share of archival work. Following in the footsteps of the great British historian E. P. Thompson, whose Making of the English Working Class was the model of social history to come, and guided by Ranajit Guha, your mentor, you embarked on what was to be a history of the formation of the working class in Bengal. Historian, then, and not poet.

So why René Char? Because in 1976 you left Calcutta for Australia, and in 1995, Australia for the United States; since then, you have been an exile, a foreigner, a foreign resident, in short, a metic, as the Athenians called this category of foreigners. So leaving Calcutta was perhaps a way, yours in any case, of inhabiting it? Certainly, in times of globalization, this departure, more chosen than forced, was not without the possibility of return. Of course, one can easily go from one place to another (except, as in the last two years, in pandemic times), but I believe that something of an experience of absence and want persists. In any case, living and leaving, departure and debt, are powerful words that magnetize the course of your life, your way of thinking – of wondering and questioning – in short, your way of being in the world. Places count for a lot.  

Let’s stay a little longer in Calcutta, where your practice of distancing was already manifest. From a rather poor Brahmin family, where books have pride of place, you refuse early on to perform the gestures of respect that young people owe their elders. As a student, you become a Marxist, which is not that unusual;  more original is your involvement in the Subaltern Studies movement led by Ranajit Guha. Indeed, the very name, borrowed from Gramsci, shows a concern for distinctions that engages both Marxist theory and political action. Your subject are the subalterns, not the proletarians — not that these are excluded, but in India, no less than in China or Vietnam, they cannot occupy the place of the revolutionary subject. This role can only be played by peasants, and by peasants who are destined to remain peasants. There are not enough factories to turn them all into proletarians overnight, and even when they walk through the door of a factory in the morning, they don’t leave as proletarians in the evening. Your study of the archives of the factories around Calcutta soon convinced you of this. Your friends urged you to find an economic explanation, for example, for the frequent conflicts between Hindu and Muslim workers, but you remained more than doubtful. Hence the tough discussions! So much so that the book, which finally resulted from this inquiry, was called, not “The Making of the Bengali Working Class,” but Rethinking the History of the Working Class. The book, which is both a history of the working class and a critical history of the postulates of this history, develops on a double register.

In studying peasant revolts, Guha made the peasant a historical agent in his own right, a vector of social transformation. At the same time, unlike Eric Hobsbawm, another major British historian, he did not consider these movements as archaic forms of protest, still belonging to the pre-political sphere. No, peasants are modern historical subjects, but to accept this, we have to abandon the classical evolutionary scheme that underlies Marxism. Thus what you call “historicism,” which became a strong axis of the inquiries deployed in Provincializing Europe, and beyond. From the beginning, the question of temporalities crisscrosses your work. How can the train of History, carried by modern time and running towards progress, make room and right for heterogeneous temporalities? As we know, one of the ways for Marxists to get out of trouble was, with Lenin, to make the party the revolutionary vanguard progressively a substitute for the working class. In this way, during the 20th century, we went from one substitute to another. Which made it possible to keep the theoretical scheme and to continue believing in a modernizing time that meets with only survivals and archaisms. To stay in India: the establishment of universal suffrage in 1949 had challenged the view that the colonized must first pass through the “waiting rooms” of history. No, the peasant is a citizen in his own right, and India can enter directly into the world of modern democracies.

Your mother tongue is Bengali, but English, the imperial language, is also the one that will give you access to European thought. From this bilingualism stems, I think, your constant attention to translation. You reject “incommensurability” as well as what you call “crude” colonial translations, in favor of the recognition of “differences,” that is, of partially opaque relationships. Provincializing Europe can be read as a demanding translation exercise between the analytical categories of European thought (Marx or Thompson) on the one hand, and the cultural practices and intellectual traditions present in South Asia on the other. It is not a matter of folding the latter under the former, nor of rejecting the former in the name of the singularity of the latter, but of revealing gaps to be questioned, which are precisely histories to be constructed.

Emboldened by these first critical interrogations, you leave Calcutta in 1976 for Canberra, where you prepare your thesis, and then Melbourne, where you will teach for ten years. There, like an ethnologist but with a historian’s questions, you practice what Claude Lévi-Strauss theorized as “the distant gaze.” Distant gaze, or rather, doubly distant. From Canberra, from the West, you look at Calcutta and, in the distance thus created, features become visible, ways of doing and thinking, too familiar until now for you to question their evidence. You can become the ethnologist-historian of your own society. Thus you understand that Marx, who until then was held by you and your friends to be “a local Bengali name”, may not have been so. The idea of historicizing Marx did not occur to anyone: Marxism was a science, and its scope was universal. Now, in Canberra, you discover that there are all sorts of reading groups of Marx’s works. A new surprise, followed immediately by a keen interest.  Marx was not an Indian from Calcutta, not an Englishman from Manchester either; no, he was a German philosopher, whose thought was part of and opposed to European intellectual traditions. It is indeed from this double astonishment, linked to your quality of foreigner living between India and Australia, that you started to develop the double interrogation, again on two registers, that will lead to the construction in two parts of Provincializing Europe: what you have called “History 1” and “History 2”. On the one hand, there is the abstract, universal history, carried by the capitalist mode of production, for which the place (either the one where it was elaborated or the one where it is deployed) has no relevance; on the other hand, there is the concrete, localized history, in this case the one of the Bengali middle class, which, in an approach close to micro-history, serves you as a touchstone to measure the gaps, the re-appropriations, the misunderstandings.

The final elaboration of Provincializing Europe will be completed not in Australia but in Chicago, where you arrive in 1995, after publishing an article in the journal Representations that drew attention to your work. The major universities, which are becoming the main sites for the development of postcolonial theory, are then calling on professors who, like you, came from the formerly colonized countries. It was in this new intellectual environment that you are able to draw out the full implications of the oft-repeated formula that European thought was both “indispensable and inadequate” for understanding India’s political and historical reality. While the book earned you recognition as one of the leading theorists in postcolonial studies, it did not receive praise alone.  For some, you remained too Marxist, for others, especially in India, you were no longer Marxist enough, and along the way, you forgot about the subalterns and refocused on the middle class, your own. People, we know this, have the right to read as they wish or, more often than not, to hardly read at all; but this was to miss the point of the book, which was to put in tension but also in dialogue the two registers, the universal (or what claimed to be so) and the local, the analytical approach and the hermeneutic; or still, Marx and Heidegger. This ambition is the translation, both epistemological and political, of your position as outsider/insider.

Having exorcised the ghost of Calcutta Marxism, you could have devoted yourself to developing, with others, postcolonial theory. I am thinking of your encounters with the thought of Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Léopold Sedar Senghor or, on the side of French Theory, as it was then called, with the writings of Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. But once again, a place played a determining role. You let yourself be seized by it, in a way. This time, it was not another place but, on the contrary, the return in 2003 to a place that had become familiar to you, Canberra. There, in fact, you discovered and learned to love the open nature of the bush. But that year, a violent bushfire devastated these great spaces, destroying in passing several hundred houses.

Summoned by this desolation and seeking to understand it as a historian, you immediately start to document the history of these fires. You soon become convinced of the link between these fires and climate change produced by human activity. And, from that day until now, you have not stopped advancing the study of what was just beginning to be called the Anthropocene. The culmination of this long effort is The Climate of History in a Planetary Age, published this year, which promises, in my opinion, to occupy an analogous place to Provincializing Europe. The book, it should be noted, is dedicated “To the memory of the humans and other living beings who perished in Australia in the fires of 2019-2020 and in the cyclone that swept across the Bay of Bengal in 2020.” Between these two dates, a long time for reflection and a rapid progression of natural disasters. In 2009, a first touchstone appears, a truly seminal article that is a lucid analysis of the climate crisis and the questions it poses or should pose to historians. “The Climate of History: Four Theses” echoed widely and as should be, generated its share of misunderstanding. One detail illustrates the differences in temporality from one place to another. First written in Bengali and published in Calcutta, the article went unnoticed. By contrast, the English version published in Chicago circulated widely and quickly.  

Reading the scientists who are themselves working to alert a wider public to the climate situation, you seek to chart your own course. Not to speak like them, nor to speak in their place, but you, the historian of globalization, will make it increasingly clear that the “global” of globalization is not the same as the “global” of global warming. Once again, we find the two registers, and you in the position of in-between, seeking, as is your habit, to put them in “conversation” with each other. Conversation never means paying lip service or reaching weak compromises, but implies, on the contrary, not stopping before having identified the gaps as closely as possible, even if they are ultimately insurmountable. Thus: recognizing the Anthropocene is not the same as reintroducing a thought of the One (One Worldism), which opens the way toward a government of scientists or a defense of patriarchy. Admitting that humans, as a species, have become a geological force does not imply giving up any possibility of climate justice. What the conversation leads to, instead, is the need to hold the two registers together: that of the world or the globe and that of the planet. Since it is necessary to hold temporalities together, however incommensurable. Since, on the level of the world, we go from the nanosecond to a few millennia at the most, whereas, at the level of the planet, millions or billions of years are entirely independent of us. With the category of “sustainable”, which we have as a goal or, sometimes, just a slogan, we remain in the order of the world; whereas your proposed idea of “habitable” (acting in such a way that the Earth remains habitable, but not only for us), we can make room for the order of the planet.

To conclude, at the end of the inquiry, that we are “on the edge of the global and the planetary,” caught between the two, torn between the constraints and the risks specific to one and the other, has not led you to stop thinking or to resignation. On the contrary, it has given rise to a new philosophical anthropology to be constructed, one that is capable of thinking about this decentering of the human being, their new place “in the network of the living” and their insertion “in these different and connected histories of the globe and the planet.”

I could stop here. Everyone has grasped the extent to which your attention to place and your practice of looking at things from a distance have enabled you, I would almost say, the perpetual resident stranger, to build a strong, open, and ever-changing body of work. But I will end with an anecdote, as the proponents of New Historicism liked them, which can only be a story of places. It is directly related to those spaces that you assiduously frequent and that mean so much to you as they do to me: libraries. At the beginning of my talk, I mentioned the book you devoted to Sir Jadunath Sarkar. You are in his library, and you engage with him, in a sort of dialogue of the dead, in a conversation about history. Now this episode has a sequel. Twenty years later, and in another library, the one in Chicago: the Regenstein Library. There, you come across a book that gathers Sarkar’s texts, to which are added an appendix of 250 letters, unknown and unpublished, exchanged during fifty years between Sarkar and another historian, Sardesai, with whom he regularly worked. It is this conversation between these two men, where the almost unique subject of their exchanges is history, that finally allowed you to write your own book and to make your own conversation with him exist, at a fully recognized distance. 

To all these places that we have traveled with you and thanks to you, let us add this evening Paris and the rue d’Ulm. This is not a new site or node, since you have already been engaged in conversations here; some have been going on for a long time already, while others are sure to take place during this stay. Everything I have said so far, while oversimplifying, shows that in awarding you this honorary doctorate, the ENS, in saluting the exceptional character of your career, is convinced that your work already serves and will serve as a reference point and inspiration for young researchers beginning their intellectual life in a world that is less than self-evident. In 1957, Albert Camus invited his audience from Stockholm not so much to “remake the world” as to “prevent it from unraveling”. Today, we know, and even more so after reading you, that if the task remains, it has become singularly more complicated.

In short, dear Dipesh Chakrabarty, we are in great need of your Socratic art of conversation, and it goes without saying that you are at home here!  

François Hartog


Translated by Peter Sahlins