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Beyond Blueprints

Beyond Blueprints

between the dominant and the subaltern. Stitches on Time: Colonial Textures However, this argument hardly exhausts and Postcolonial Tangles the book. The seven essays included in it by Saurabh Dube; engage diverse horizons of our quotidian Oxford University Press, worlds and speak to numerous concerns New Delhi, 2004; of postcolonial academe. With its lyrical pp xv + 259, Rs 645 (hardbound). tenor, conversational approach and inspired indecision between the archive and the field, Stitches on Time is an irresistible BODHISATTVA KAR feast for the historical imagination. In Even a hasty reading of Stitches on Time will testify that Saurabh Dube is particularly fond of obscure

Beyond Blueprints

between the dominant and the subaltern. Stitches on Time: Colonial Textures However, this argument hardly exhaustsand Postcolonial Tangles the book. The seven essays included in it by Saurabh Dube; engage diverse horizons of our quotidian Oxford University Press, worlds and speak to numerous concerns New Delhi, 2004; of postcolonial academe. With its lyrical pp xv + 259, Rs 645 (hardbound). tenor, conversational approach and inspired

indecision between the archive and the


ven a hasty reading of Stitches on Time will testify that Saurabh Dube is particularly fond of obscure “village dramas”. Working through the engrossing details of local scandals in colonial Chhattisgarh, Dube offers splendid vignettes of – to give a random sample – unmanageable converts, retractile elopers and riotous neighbours. Far from being a programmatic micro-history of such fascinating characters or an authorised biography of a vibrant community, this book asks these figures to accompany us onto a wider dramaturgical space – the theatre of the everyday in a colonial world. In that uneven terrain of the familiar and the unperceived, Dube argues, unspectacular negotiations of “the widest questions of meaning and power” (p 34) continued, causing, among other things, critical and inconstant entanglements field, Stitches on Time is an irresistible feast for the historical imagination. In producing a history that is visibly kind to theoretical abstractions, Dube does not rehearse the sanctioned sidestepping of the minutiae. Rather, his way with the archival materials involves a critical recuperation of “details” – frequently dismissed in monumental histories as inconsequential trivia

– without folding them back into a numbing empiricism. In fact, Dube’s details do not add to, or shore up, the dominant storyline. Suggesting irreversible refractions and enacting continual dispersals of the master narrative, they remain intimately tied to an understanding of the everyday articulations of power and transgression.

Agency and Power

One can see that it is this anti-cumulative function of the details that allows Dube to reject simultaneously the fantasy of “unimpaired political visions and unhampered

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

cultural practices of social actors” as well as the paranoia of “pure power, holding sway over subjectless processes” (p 54). Always emitting an irrepressible excess to such scholarly blueprints, the details destabilise the aggrandising claims without giving up on the verities. Detailing is after all an act of affirmation in the face of pervasive vacuity. Evidently, this appeals to the situationist in Dube who, troubled by phenomenology on the one side and by structuralism on the other, relocates the study of the subaltern in the ground of the everyday. Between the Scylla of reified agency and the Charybdis of absolutised power, he proposes to cruise in the rough sea of “weak ontology”. With a pinch of postcolonial salt, Dube takes this Stephen White idea to underscore “at once the contestable, contingent character and the unavoidable, necessary nature of ‘fundamental conceptualisations of self, other, and world’” (p 21). The words “unavoidable” and “necessary” are possibly designed to remind us of Gayatri Spivak’s “strategic essentialism”, still a useful talisman against the charming injuries of unbridled post-foundationalism.

However, graphed on a history of the sophisticated post-Spivak readings of the Subaltern Studies project, Stitches on Time has other intensities to offer. For a quick recall, Dipesh Chakrabarty has reworked the limit of theory and disciplines as the locus of the intractable subaltern, positing subalternity thereby in the form of an epistemologically inaccessible outside, whereas Gyan Prakash has proposed an immanent critique in order to proclaim the impossibility of recovering the subaltern as a sovereign subject within the crease of historical discipline.1Dube appears to offer both a moment of exhaustion of the charms of the limit and an excuse to escape the temptations of the impossible. While carrying out these tasks with enviable expertise and reassuring grace, I would suggest, he also performs a serious work of mourning for the early Subaltern Studies and its foundational fantasy of an autonomous subaltern domain.

At the most obvious plane, though, the book deconstitutes the reigning binary of elite and subaltern domains without sliding into a depoliticised dialogism. The first two chapters, for example, productively complicate the customary conjoining of the purpose of evangelism and the project of empire by creatively seizing on the criticality of the labour of native catechists.

Carefully examining the translational surplus produced, paradoxically, by the catechists’ intense literalism, Dube takes translation to be symptomatic of the wider and more dispersed attempts of the colonised at rearticulating the terms of the white mission. Through a discussion of the practices around building, journey, clothes and food in the native Christian community, the author shows that what stand condemned in the standard histories as mindless mimesis are indeed instances of active translation, constituting ceaseless refractions of the colonial project “through the lens of vernacular understandings” (p 43).

Nevertheless, one suspects that giving the vernacular the privileges of an entity rather than the worries of a relation, Dube leaves the category relatively underproblematised and in some measure captivated in its self-portrait. Hardly an autochthonous given within the colonial dynamics, in many parts of the empire the vernacular was often an effect of complex colonial and evangelical labour. Without giving adequate weight to this point of mutual immanence, Dube’s splendid analysis of a vernacular Christianity runs the risk of partially rehabilitating the fantasy of an immiscible subalternity. The same can be said of his invocation of the everyday. Released from the fulcrum of canonical events and imposing profiles into an equally ideologised anonymity, “everyday life” lays claim to a privileged access to reality, implying an attractive rupture between the surface of scholarly miscognitions and the depth of subaltern survivals. But Dube only obliquely responds to such claims and at places appears to treat the quotidian (like the vernacular) as constituting in itself a safeguard against the metaphysical. In the books to come we can probably hope to see Dube explicating the connections between the subaltern studies and the studies of the everyday while actively pushing the quotidian to conduct its autocritique. Such an indication is not completely indiscernible in the last chapter of the book where he ingeniously reflects on the everyday of the academe.

‘History without Warranty’

But we must proceed to appreciate what Stitches on Time already accomplishes. The book, as we have already noted, seeks to erupt between the deconstructions of agency and those of power. It is the category of “everyday” that straddles the centreline – “life in its equivocal dissimulation”.2 What Dube attempts to think is not so much a beyond of the frozen dialectic of power and agency as a beneath of the lived dualities of the state and community. In this sense, his method transpires to be more archaeological than he would consciously allow. In his delightful discussion of popular legalities in the third and fourth chapters, Dube persuasively demonstrates how “[i]n the universe of the familiar and the everyday

– kinship and neighbourhood – colonial courts and modern law simultaneously constituted alien legalities, resources for redefining order and pathologies within the community and strategies of settlement and revenge” (p 87). In the analytic of everyday, these traces do not warrant a squaring off or for that matter, a dialectical recovery; nor do they necessarily oppose each other; and certainly they do not merge to constitute the totality of quotidian experiences. This is indeed a remarkable gain in terms of both methodological and theoretical refinement, particularly because Dube is able to dislodge bipolarities without necessarily postulating a pure presence of subaltern subjectivity or an anterior to difference. Even if the chapters on colonial history do not uniformly play this out, as indicated by our reference to his insistence on the unreconstructed category of the vernacular, the point is taken up more vigorously in the chapter which stages a nuanced rereading of the much-debated turn in the Subaltern Studies. Locating the operations of difference within power, and thus pluralising power as such (in a robustly non-empiricist way), Dube burns the last metaphysical bridge.

But, as I worry, only to build another. To be frank, fastening the concerns of strong critiques to the interests of weak affirmations seems rather counterproductive to me. Dube’s commitment to White’s “weak ontology” (in contradistinction to the Deleuzean ontology of becoming) forces him to adopt a medial language throughout the book which, I feel, does a disservice to his own idea of a “history without warranty” that perforce disputes and disrupts the self-narratives of modernity. The radical edges of this history, intensely at work in the chapter on the “fractured pasts of Ayodhya” (p 170), are somewhat blunted by the autotelic ethos of ontological affirmations. One may justifiably ask, what do we gain from

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006 ontologising subaltern nationalism or vernacular Christianity or popular legality since such ontological investments, linked as they are indissociably to the stable topology of everyday, are consistently proved defenceless in the face of metaphysical expropriations? The axiomatics of this ontopology – to use one of Derrida’s strange, irreplaceable terms3 – occasionally undercut Dube’s interventionist gestures and end up exercising the very warranty and certification of modernity – a just politics grounded on residual identity – that he wishes to exorcise. The spectre of the teflon subaltern in the figure of the unassailable vernacular is haunting Dube, despite himself.

But how cannot we not learn to live with the spectres, as Derrida himself would have argued? Is not the “desire to conjure away any and all spectrality so as to recover the full, concrete reality of the process of genesis hidden behind the specter’s mask”4 that very constitutive detail of ontology which ceaselessly subverts its claim? Stitches on Time, with its incredible sophistications, insightful analyses, and productive tensions is a work of and on such details. Like all details, it will be neither the last word nor a dispensable voice in the ongoing discussions on knowledge, power and subalternity: a situation, I have no doubt, Dube will cherish most.




1 Cf Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography’ in Ranajit Guha (ed), Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1985, 330-63. Dipesh Chakrabarty, 56-70 ‘Marx after Marxism: History, Subalternity and Difference’ in Saree Makdisi et al (eds), Marxism beyond Marxism, Routledge, New York and London, 1996 and

Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies, Permanent Black, Delhi, 2002. Gyan Prakash, ‘The Impossibility of Subaltern History’, Nepantla: Views from the South 1:2 (2000), 287-94.

2 Maurice Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech’, translated by Susan Hanson, Yale French Studies, No 73: Everyday Life (1987), 15

3 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf, Routledge, New York, 1994, 82.

4 Jacques Derrida, ‘Marx and Sons’ in Michael Sprinker (ed), Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Verso, London, 1999, 258 (emphasis in original).

Economic and Political Weekly March 4, 2006

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