Politics of Time: 'Primitives' and History-Writing in a Colonial Society

By Sugandhi, Namita Sanjay | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Politics of Time: 'Primitives' and History-Writing in a Colonial Society


Sugandhi, Namita Sanjay, Anthropological Quarterly


Prathama Banerjee, Politics of Time: 'Primitives' and History-writing in a Colonial Society. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006. 284 pp.

In Politics of Time Prathama Banerjee examines the interrelated processes of constituting the "historical," and constructing the "primitive" in colonial Bengal. Banerjee's contends that this "counterpoise" is not a simplistic oppositional set up but that it is through these two processes that the condition of colonial modernity is brought about; colonialism being, in her estimation, the only context though which the temporality of the modern is possible to articulate. Throughout the work the author highlights themes in the foundation and orientation of this colonial modernity-the expression of time in terms of spatial differentiation, the imposition of money-rationality in the production of a future-oriented sensibility, and the harnessing of time to the domain of knowledge over that of contingent practice.

Banerjee's case study draws from examples of the depiction and treatment of the "tribal" Santals, and illustrates how the Bengali middle-class (the "colonized") sought to account for the presence of the "primitive within" in constituting their own project to create a sense of history as part of the formation of an emergent national unity during the late 19th and early 20th century. As colonial/western conceptions of time as chronology began to infiltrate Bengali sensibilities of everyday experience, the colonized sought to create for themselves a historical subjectivity structured by a single, continuous temporality. This effort was fraught with difficulties and contradictions-not only in terms of rationalizing the disruption of the causal everyday through the processes of colonization, but also in the expression of an acute anxiety stemming from the simultaneous dependence on, and requisite distancing from the encounter between the anarya primitive and arya historical subject.

As detailed in Chapter One, the circumstance of colonial subordination was initially addressed by the invocation of epochal time and kaliyuga as an expression of an unprecedented and causeless present. However, this discontinuous temporal reckoning ultimately had to be abandoned in order to defy the colonial claim that the colonized lacked their own history. In countering this accusation, the Bengali historical subject was again faced with the dilemma of explaining colonization, for it was not enough to merely displace the blame onto earlier foreign invasion. Banerjee argues that a resolution was achieved via a double temporal move that first divided the always (or "always already") present nation into an eternal opposition between the "primitive" and "civilized," and secondly, spatially differentiated the contradictory times of these two groups in such a way as to draw them together into a conceptually united nation-state. This move was only possible via the principles of colonial modernity which viewed "primitive" groups as inhabiting a primal and sterile temporality that could be mutually signified as a separation in space. Concluding the chapter, Banerjee presents the textual genre of the Bengali 'dream-history' which allowed the colonized a way of recounting a history capable of integrating the contradictory times within the nation, bypassing the arbitrary rupture of colonial subordination in favor of the impossible representation of a free and ascendant mercantile nation.

Despite the formulation of such texts, the historicity, and thus modernity, of the nation remained challenged by the presence of the "primitive." In Chapter Two, Banerjee discusses the way in which the contradictory time (and space) of the nation was negotiated through the material processes of travel on the part of historical Bengali subject, and the construction of the primitive Santals as pure body-commodities. Both acts were linked to the penetration of interior lands afforded by the development of the railways, but more importantly, the latter process exposes the complicity of the Bengali in the colonial exploitation of tribal communities such as the Santals as a circulating indentured labor force. …

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Politics of Time: 'Primitives' and History-Writing in a Colonial Society
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