Prasenjit Duara gave a talk yesterday at UCSC, in the sequoia-surrounded Humanities building at Cowell. It was a clear introduction to the way he thinks about the bond between modern history writing and the development of modern nations, a theme he has long explored, for instance in Rescuing history from the nation: questioning narratives of modern China (and in many other publications, such as: The global and regional in China’s nation-formation; Duara and Bose, Asia redux: conceptualising a region for our times; Decolonization: perspectives from now and then). The link is clear, and the need to criticize and overcome it urgent, especially as nation states are now up against much larger issues that they are ill equipped to tackle or control. I suppose Duara agrees with thinkers such as Manent, who see that modern nation states have quickly become very weak agents the world over and have lost their position as mediums between modern citizens and all kinds of forces exerting their influence daily on them: Metamorphoses of the city (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013). Let’s call them the lure and organizing chaos of capitalism. Duara sees local, regional, inter-regional histories as necessary counterpoint. By systematically developing these narratives and abandoning the artificial, falsely unifying supra-narrative dependent on nation states and often subservient to them, one would in fact also be resuming, reinforcing, or going back to an older tradition, still alive in pockets of culture, but displaced since the eighteenth century by histories at the service of conquering nations, their subsequent imitators, and the behind-the-scenes all-consuming capitalism. To abandon the linear history he thinks undergirds national histories would mean going back to pre-eminently cultural, infra-national accounts, leading to more open, adapting, circulating (as well as circular) and multi-focus histories.
Duara mentioned the role of transcendence in these stories at the beginning of his talk and the few sentences I’m putting together now on this topic may not do justice to what he meant. I need to do more reading of his work, and found for instance this essay by Duara, which introduces a chapter to appear in his forthcoming book on the historical field of Chinese religions. It deals with the difference between the notion of transcendence in the Abrahamic and Chinese tradition. I’ll have to return to this text in a later blog. In the talk yesterday, he made a remark in passing on the potential role of sacredness and the need to integrate it in what I take to be the new theoretical and narrativistic mediations he is calling into being. One example he gave, in relation to this notion of sacred, was of the sizable chunks of natural resources that states, as still eminent representatives of the public (of the people’s will, or also divine will?), control all over the world, something he called a form of “commons” at another point in his talk. I understand him to mean that pre-modern outlooks (still very alive of course in many regions of the world though buried under the still spreading and dominant rationalist versions of history) are predicated on a notion of transcendence that rationalist theories of politics, economics, and society have abandoned (or rather invested with new meanings invoked to their own advantage in their own secular form of it: modern ontologies naming state, nation, people, race, etc. as new grounds beyond discussion). In consequence, they have cut themselves off from theoretical possibilities and viewpoints that would be most useful when confronting such large, supranational issues as climate change. In other words, local, interlocking belief systems not only need to be taken into account when telling the story of what really unites and divides people but they are our main chance to avoid a type of history writing that has as much value and no more than the weakening national idea it has temporarily been linked to.
Nobody sees a problem, I suppose, in weakening—or showing the weakness and artificiality of—a historical framework all too often at the service of national and military power, itself at the beckon and call of capitalist instantiations. But what does it mean to appeal to other ontological ground than the “people’s will,” or “rationalism?” What does it entail to pay due attention (and return) to notions of transcendence and sacredness? Duara remarked on one of the great changes happening to large numbers of people since the eighteenth century and especially the past half century or so. Children used to begin to work and become peasants at the earliest possible time, from the age of five or thereabouts. Now, in very many places, in great part thanks to state agency, they go to school until sixteen or so. Childhood takes on a new meaning. When so many people leave behind agrarian systems in which one began to work early and enter capitalizable networks of relations, do they bring with them their own sense of mystery or transcendence and their old stories connected to that, or do they abandon them when they migrate to booming cities and when they switch to television- and internet-based story telling? What can “sacred” times and places mean for them?