Author: jhiblog

Conference Report: Mastery, Ownership, Divinity: Self And Power in Transregional and Transtemporal Perspectives

by contributing writer Philipp Sperner

While the need to study notions of power, sovereignty and rule from a global perspective has been widely acknowledged, the research is all too often limited by its strong dependence on the disciplinary framework of area studies and Eurocentrism. One of the aims of the conference, titled “Mastery, Ownership, Divinity: Self and Power in Transregional and Transtemporal perspective”, organized by Milinda Banerjee and held at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich on 18th and 19th September 2018 was to work towards developing alternative frameworks. Another aim of the conference was to emphasise the intersections of political theology and political economy and, in empirical terms, to relate focused case studies to longue durée histories and transregional developments.

One critique, shared by several of the speakers, concerned current hegemonic theories of the emergence and development of the state. The issue was approached by Robert Yelle (LMU) through an analysis of the connections between patriarchy, property, and religion. By critically revisiting the 19th-century discourse on the alleged shift from matrilineality or matriarchy to patrilineality and patriarchy as the basis for statehood, the talk emphasized the importance of religious mythology and sacrifice for the constant (re)production of patriarchal rule. Yelle further argued that the hierarchy established through these forms of “patriarchal biolopolitics” is expressed and perpetuated through the family as the central institution of absolute patriarchal sovereignty, which extends not only over women and children, but crucially also over slaves and all forms of property.

The notion of (patriarchal) sovereignty as being not merely a political but a quintessential politico-economic relationship was further developed in the talk by Devin Singh (Dartmouth College). He argued that debt slavery and patterns of debt management were intricately connected to the formation of (state) sovereignty. Since enslaved citizens could no longer be subjected to the paying of taxes, the state had a significant interest in limiting forms of private debt servitude. On the other hand, however, Singh maintained that early states also significantly depended on forms of debt slavery in order to assert direct control over labour. He then showed how debt slavery was legitimized through a political theology that portrayed god as the ultimate creditor to whom everyone is indebted and who alone has the power to forgive one’s debts.

The manifold connections between the (re)production of sovereignty and state formation were further explored in talks by Michael Kinadater (LMU), Tanuja Kothiyal (Ambedkar University Delhi) and Aditi Saraf (LMU). While Kinadeter traced connections between the politico-cultural developments in China, Korea and India and the emergence of centralized power and its ideology in Japan,  Kothiyal and Saraf examined conditions of statehood and state making in borderland regions in South Asia. On the basis of her research into the history of authority and control in the Thar desert from 1400 to 1800, Kothiyal contended that rather than understanding statehood as being predicated on a single sovereign power, it should instead be seen as constantly being re-negotiated and re-inscribed into a complex network of various forms of political, religious and economic authority. That such practices of negotiation also rely on the successful adoption of an adequate terminology became apparent in the talk by Aditi Saraf, who showed how the use of the Urdu term “hifazat”, denoting “care”, “trust”, “guardianship” and “safekeeping”, allowed the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to tie the two different discourses on protection and rule together. The state thus adopted a legal discourse on property rights that was far stricter than it would have otherwise been possible within the sphere of British imperial rule.

mastery conference image 1

Image 1:
Simon Cubelic (who chaired panel 2), Tanuja Kothiyal, Milinda Banerjee 
and Aditi Saraf.

Another topic that was taken up by several talks at the conference was the changing notion of who could become (a) sovereign. In his talk on “Divine Subalterns and Sovereign Labour“, Milinda Banerjee (LMU) argued that the idea of divinity as something pertaining to every (human) being has not only been hugely influential for popular quasi-democratic mass movements in the past but serves as an important argument for the emancipation of subaltern agents up to this day. By analysing a range of moments in 19th– and 20th-century India – from peasant revolts, labour struggles, and the movement for women’s rights to more recent movements for land rights – Banerjee demonstrated how various actors critically engaged with the nexus of divinity and state sovereignty, and succeeded in claiming their own sovereignty via the declaration of a universal divinity of many, or even all, humans.


mastery conference image 2

Image 2:
Tanuja Kothiyal (who chaired panel 4), Ananya Vajpeyi, Anastasia 
Piliavsky and Bhrigupati Singh.

A different but closely connected approach to claiming one’s right to authority and sovereignty was analysed by Ananya Vajpeyi (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi) in her talk on the history of the term “Śūdra”. The term is used to designate the lowest category of the four-tier social hierarchy most often referred to as the “caste system”. By revisiting the history of the first Maratha king Shivaji (1630-80 CE), Vajpeyi explored how someone who had nominally belonged to the lowest strata of society managed to change and transgress the order of the social hierarchy by claiming royal ancestry. While Shivaji’s successful effort to recast himself as (divinely sanctioned) king and sovereign was portrayed as a self-emancipatory act by the 19th-century social reformer Jyotiba Phule, the Dalit leader, activist and “father of the Indian constitution”, B.R. Ambedkar, was more ambivalent in his analysis of Shivaji’s rulership.

The conference also included engaging discussions on practices that helped establish and sustain hierarchies of authority and control. Rather than simply criticising the existence of such hierarchies, Anastasia Piliavsky (University of Cambridge), instead made a compelling case for trying to understand how and why hierarchy is indeed often seen as a social and political good. Piliavsky gave a vivid account of her ethnographic observations of the daily meetings of a politician with his constituents in the Indian state of Rajasthan. She argued that the hierarchies that structured these interactions did not translate into a straightforward rule or mastery of one person over the other, but instead corresponded to an intimate and comprehensive responsibility that the politician had towards his constituents. Understanding how such hierarchies are embedded into democratic systems might enable us, Piliavsky claimed, to better understand the growing demand for strong political leaders today.

A different take on practices establishing and reinforcing social hierarchies was presented by Jules Gleeson (University of Vienna and FOVOG, TU Dresden). Her talk focused on normative shaming practices at the Great Lavra monastery established by Athanasios of Athos. Gleeson argued that through deliberate stigmatization and shaming of disobedient monks Athanasios sought to establish a community based on a Christ-like humility and wilful self-humiliation conducive to a rigid hierarchy. In contrast to practices of shaming and denigration, the talk by Ceyda Karamursel (SOAS University of London) demonstrated how the deliberate use of seemingly “softer” vocabulary served to legitimize and uphold the hierarchy between slaves and masters in the late Ottoman Empire. Rather than framing the hierarchy in terms of the human/property distinction commonly drawn on before, Karamursel argued that slavery was legitimized and naturalised by being portrayed as resulting from natural weakness and thus sanctioned by god. Magnus Fiskesjö (Cornell University) argued that the pervasive surveillance and constant assessment of citizens in contemporary China is indeed a sign of a qualitatively different form of rule that might be connected to exhibitionist and quasi-confessional practices on social media.

mastery conference image 3

Image 3:
Annabel Brett (who chaired panel 5), Jules Gleeson, Simon Yarrow and 
Lorenzo Bondioli.

In her talk, Annabel Brett (University of Cambridge) focused on the notion of “use”, and especially the use of animals, in the Western natural law tradition. Beginning with Thomas Aquinas, the concept of “use” played an important role for the distinction between God and the physical world on one side and between humans and animals on the other, Brett argued. While “use” was seen as relying on a physically-embodied being and thus could not be something God “does”, it was also regarded as tied to the notion of a rational action directed at a specific goal or aim. Animals, therefore were not capable of “use”. Seen from this perspective, the very notion of what it means to have ownership of something and mastery over something is inextricably tied to the human-animal relationship.

This focus on animals as constitutive of regimes of human mastery was reinforced by Kresimir Vukovic (British School at Rome) in his analysis of different enunciations of control over, and taboos against, cattle, wolves, and dogs among Indo-European (especially Roman and Indian) cultures. Vukovic suggested that the structural similarities, such as the distinction between warriors and priests based on different forms of mastery over animals, might be seen as indicative of a shared political theology and a common framework of power relations.

The relationship between political economy and political theology was strongly foregrounded in the talks by Simon Yarrow (University of Birmingham) and Lorenzo Bondioli (Princeton University). While Yarrow explored the role of money and saints’ relics in twelfth-century Latin Christendom, Bondioli focused on the period of Fatimid state-making in tenth-century North Africa and mapped out the integral relation between taxation regimes, property rights and forms of political discourse.

A different kind of spiritual economy was analysed by Bhrigupati Singh (Brown University) in his interrogation of procedures undertaken by patients suffering from mental illness, especially in Sufi shrines in Northern India. Singh underlined the various forms of symbolic exchange and transfer of persons, goods and ‘afflictions’ between healers, treatment seekers and family members. This opened up new ways of understanding mental illness, radically different from an individualistic approach that foregrounds the role of the individual patient.

While the conference covered a broad range of time periods, regions and themes, it succeeded in bringing the speakers from various fields into an engaged conversations with each other. This became especially apparent in the responses to a question raised in the general discussion at the end of the conference, regarding the function of “sovereignty” in linking mastery, ownership and divinity. While Anastasia Pilliavsky, Annabel Brett and Ananya Vajpeyi emphatically emphasised the need to diversify the conceptual toolkit, others argued in favour of the use of “sovereignty” as a kind of placeholder that needs to be defined and described anew within every specific context. Apart from providing a stimulating atmosphere for several more fruitful discussions – such as on the competing or probably even irreconcilable relationship between transregional and transtemporal perspectives or on the productive use of a dialectic approach to visualize the complexities of political and economic theology – the conference has probably succeeded most effectively in providing a platform for truly intersectional conversations based on rigorous inquiries into situated case studies and sharp theorization.

Philipp Sperner is a PhD student at the Research Group “Globalization and Literature”, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich. He can be contacted at 

The featured image at the top of this page comes from the Conference’s poster, available at: 

“To Intervene yet again”: Theory Revolt, Live!

By contributing writer Jonathon Catlin

In May historians Ethan Kleinberg, Joan Wallach Scott, and Gary Wilder, together known as the Wild On Collective, released “Theses on Theory and History,” a widely-discussed manifesto on historical methodology. On October 8, this “cabal of rebels” made their first public appearance at the New School for Social Research, introduced by historian Oz Frankel. (Ethan Kleinberg could not attend.) A recording of the event is available below.

The “Theses on Theory and History,”  emerged, Scott reflected, out of the authors’ shared “impatience with the persistent refusal of disciplinary history to engage with long-standing critiques of its practice: critiques of its realist epistemology and empiricist methodology, its archival fetishism, its insistence on the primacy of chronological narrative, and its maintenance of reified boundaries between present and past. How had it happened, we wondered, that the critiques which had nourished our own thinking had somehow failed to transform disciplinary norms in significant ways? Why the recurrent need for critique generation after generation?”

Scott began by addressing the most obvious criticism of the manifesto: “Didn’t you do this already in the 1980s? Haven’t you fought that battle?” “Yes,” Scott answers, “we did fight that battle, but somehow we failed to transform the disciplinary norms in significant ways. What we’re witnessing is a reaction against exactly the kinds of theoretical incursions, rethinking, the epistemological transformations, that we’d hoped to be putting in place, securing. We don’t believe in linear, progressive history, but I think we hoped that somehow those battles would have established a stronghold forever. I’m constantly amazed at the extent to which I think in terms of progress, even as I am a critic of [progress] narratives.”

Of course, she notes, critiques of history and historicism were not invented in the 1980s: Theory Revolt’s roots go back to the 19th century, to Nietzsche, Simmel, and Croce; to the interwar period, to Heidegger, Bloch, Du Bois, and C.L.R. James. “It’s not as if the discipline has not had its critics time and time again,” Scott reflects, “and yet that critique never came to hold.” Hence, she explained, “What we wanted to do was figure out how we could again address the questions, the ways in which theory has become ghettoized in the domain of intellectual history, how documentary and synoptic accounts were replacing the kinds of epistemological transformations the three of us had all undergone somewhere along the way in our formation.”

The manifesto emerged as the right genre for this intervention. Kleinberg in particular was keen on nailing copies of the theses to the door of every history department in the country in the fashion of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. These Theses themselves are clearly inspired, Scott said, by manifestos from Marx, Benjamin, and Horkheimer and Adorno. Making the theses open access—at Kleinberg’s insistence—resulted in a swift and eager reception around the world, including translation into many languages. “We hit a nerve that people in many parts of the world responded to.”

Scott spoke highly of a forum of critical responses to the Theses the authors commissioned at History of the Present, where she is an editor. Andrew Zimmerman, notably, “reminds us of the need to decolonize theory” to include figures like Fanon and his encounters with Africa, and Foucault’s unacknowledged debts to the Black Panther Party in his work on prisons; in Scott’s words, “theory is bigger than the suggestions we make about what theory could be.”

“Let’s break some windows” was the attitude that brought Wilder to Theory Revolt. He critiqued the “insidious ways” that “superficial but shallow and domesticated embrace of theory” has preempted real theoretical engagement. Their target, he said, is not historians of old who think theory is “nonsense,” but rather those who say, “we already do that!” and “we read your book twenty years ago and it’s on the syllabus!” Scott added to the chorus, “it’s in my footnotes!” Theory Revolt opposes this “domestication of theory by history” and also “the ghettoization of theory in intellectual history.” The issue is not that nobody out there is doing critical history; it’s that the structures of the discipline—journals, hiring, tenure—still make doing it difficult.

The aim of the Theses, Wilder said, “is not a call for historians to write about theorists or somehow apply theory to their work.” It’s not a call to “do theory,” whatever that might mean, but rather to practice “self-reflexive critical history.” For Wilder this means “conceptualizing our material: treating as real those processes, relations, structures, that might not be… objectively verifiable. It means asking questions whose answers can never be definitively found in an archival box. It’s not a call to not do archival history; but it’s calling out this idea that any question worth answering could be answered by a document in a box somewhere.” This amounts to a plea against “conventional history,” conceived, in Dominick LaCapra’s classic formulation, as “the translation of archives into narratives.” As he glossed the manifesto, this entails “being self-reflexive about the histories, limitations, and risks of one’s own categories and frameworks. It means taking responsibility for one’s own implication in the object of study—psychic, social, political, ethical. It means the need to address ways in which the past is implicated in the present, and vice versa. And critical history means being clear about the political stakes of the work, addressing the relevance for our political present. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every work of history has to be instrumental in some immediate way, but it means that if that question isn’t being asked then we’re in scholasticism or antiquarianism and we’re not speaking to the world.” A central aim of theory is to help the historian become conscious of, if not ever fully overcome, the liberal assumptions about self and agency they bring into the archive to begin with.

“The whole point,” he said, “is to challenge the reified distinction between history and theory. If you do history, it’s got to be theorized critical history; if you’re a critical theorist, you have to be doing history, because otherwise you’re also reproducing an ideological conception of the world if you’re not relating your concepts to social arrangements and social formations.” He readily admitted that there will always be traditional empirical historians, but its more modest intervention of Theory Revolt would be to say “not that every historian should be this kind of critical theorist, but at the very least, the field has to stop pronouncing on what is and is not history.” His preoccupation in his own work, he concluded, is “to break the fantasy that professional historians somehow have a monopoly on how to think about the past.” “Just as we should never concede politics to the politicians, or ethics to the ethicists, or even philosophy to professional philosophers, there’s absolutely no reason that professional historians should own history.” As Foucault once flippantly declared, “I’m not a professional historian—but nobody’s perfect.”

New School historian Jeremy Varon, a student of Dominick LaCapra, asked why the authors bothered to try “to rattle the cages of hegemonic discourse” within the discipline instead of creating to their own critical spaces, which as Scott agreed, the authors already do.

The most most interesting exchange was between the speakers and Ann Stoler, a historian and anthropologist who is also a leading postcolonial interpreter of Foucault. Stoler argued that using the word “theory” in the title of the manifesto and movement creates a black box around what the revolters are really advocating. Instead, she argued, they were ultimately after “a politics of knowledge” and reclaiming history as a political space. History, she said, must be answerable to the classic question of David Scott, “Are these questions worth having answers to?” “I don’t think we need the word theory any more,” she said, claiming what is meant by the word theory itself “isn’t even problematized half the time.” “Theory with a capital T,” Stoler said, has become “a black box.” “We are doing a disfavor to our graduate students by constantly talking about theory and history, theory and practice. It paralyzes them.”

In place of Theory, Stoler proposed “concept work” and “conceptual labor.” Changing this language, Oz Frankel suggested, would also help the authors get away from the same old “usual suspects” of Marxism, deconstruction, etc.—of giving the impression “that theory is history’s other” and that “we always have to cross some boundary” to reach it. Wilder thought it was interesting that they were read as “reifying theory” with its own “guild mentality” when he in particular has little patience for poststructuralism and is much more of a “live” ethnographic theorist in a Marxist framework—akin to what Stoler does with Foucault. As Wilder defined it, “Theory is a practice of triangulating your material, your concepts or categories, and the world” and, conversely, “every descriptive act already prefigures an whole theory of society.” Their opposition to “empiricism” is not a critique of doing archival work, but rather an attempt to dethrone the particular historical ideology “that the observable is the real.”

A pass through the Revolters’ academic trajectories reveals that none has ever been totally at home in the historical discipline: Wilder is equally a historian and an anthropologist; Kleinberg is just as often in conversation with philosophers as historians; and Scott was employed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the School of Social Science, not the more conservative School of Historical Studies where she said has “never been welcome.”

As the discussion neared a close, Scott made a surprising admission that doesn’t come through in the boldly written manifesto: In the 1980s, she said, the feminist movement of which she was a part rejected the idea that the discipline should simply “add women and stir”—achieving sociological diversity without rethinking its work. Rather, their “great goal was to transform history.” Yet “that didn’t happen, for the most part; it was adding women.” “The dream of the 1980s that history was never going to be the same” ended in institutional resistance.

Perhaps addressing the critique of their own institutional power levied by John Handel on the JHI blog earlier that day, Wilder reflected that they wanted to use their platform to clear the ground for young graduate students to do more creative, exciting work. To have “to intervene yet again,” to use Scott’s words, might seem an exhausting task. But the energy Theory Revolt has injected into the discipline might just serve to nourish the next generation of critical historians.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Princeton University. His work focuses on intellectual responses to catastrophe, especially in German-Jewish thought and the Frankfurt School of critical theory.

Listen to the full event here.

Disappearing Spaces: Mapping Egypt’s Deserts across the Colonial Divide

by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

In October 2016, government and opposition lawyers met in one of Egypt’s highest courts to battle over the fate of two tiny Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir. When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suddenly announced the sale of the islands to Saudi Arabia earlier that year, pent-up rage toward the military regime that took power in 2013 poured out through a rare valve of permissible opposition: a legal case against the deal was allowed to proceed.

In this fight, both sides’ weapon of choice was the map. Reports circulated that state institutions had received orders to destroy maps that indicated that the islands in question were historically Egyptian. In response, the government paraded old atlases before the court proving, it argued, that the sale of the islands would only formalize the islands’ longstanding de facto Saudi ownership. Enclosed in one atlas, published by the Egyptian Geographical Society in 1928, were several maps on which the islands in question were shaded the color of Saudi Arabia. Khaled Ali, the lead opposition lawyer, pointed out that Saudi Arabia did not exist in 1928. The duel of maps continued over several sessions anyway, with Ali’s team accusing the state of intentional obstruction, obfuscation, and blatant fabrication, and the state denouncing some of Ali’s maps as inherently suspect because he had obtained them abroad.

This case drew public attention to the fraught modern history of the nation’s cartography. The Map Room of the Egyptian Survey Authority (Maslahat al-Misaha), where Ali and his associates had first gone looking for evidence, has made and sold maps of Egypt since 1898. Today it abuts the Giza Security Directorate, a mid-century fortress shielded by blocks of concrete barricades and checkpoints. Though the two may be accidental neighbors, their proximity conveys a dictum of the contemporary Egyptian state: maps are full of dangerous secrets.

How does a secret become a secret? In the case of Egypt’s maps, the answer is tangled up in the country’s protracted decolonization. An (almost) blank page tells some of that story. The map in question is of a stretch of land near Siwa Oasis on the edge of the Western Desert, far from the rocky islands of Tiran and Sanafir. Printed in 1930, it features only minor topographical contours in the lower left-hand corner. The rest is white. “Ghayr mamsūḥ,” the small Arabic print reads. “Unsurveyed.”

Siwa Map

This blank space is an artifact of the Desert Survey, a special division of the Survey Authority tasked between 1920 and 1937 with mapping Egypt’s sandy, sparsely populated expanses. (The Western Desert alone comprises more than half of Egypt’s land area beyond the Nile, but is home to a population only one-thirtieth that of greater Cairo.) The Desert Survey’s lifespan coincided almost exactly with the gradual retreat of British officials from the everyday administration of Egypt: it was born just after the 1919 revolution against British rule and dissolved a year after the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that ostensibly formalized an end to occupation. Here decolonization is thus meant not in the comprehensive sense that Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Achille Mbembe have written about, as a cultural and intellectual challenge to Western thought’s insidiously deep claims to universality, but something much more literal: the withdrawal of colonial officials from the knowledge-producing institutions they ran in the colony.

The British cartographers who led the Desert Survey were keenly aware of their impending departure. As they prepared for it, they erected a final obstacle that would leave behind a legacy of paralysis and cartographic secrecy. Repeatedly accusing Egyptians of apathy toward the desert, colonial officials parlayed nescience into ignorance. In doing so, they sowed the seeds of an enduring anxiety among Egyptians over crucial spaces that remained unmapped.

The strident whiteness of the 1930 Siwa map looked different to the receding colonial state than it did to the emergent postcolonial one. To John Ball and George Murray, the successive British directors of the Desert Survey, blank space marked an incomplete but wholly completable project. For the post-colonial Egyptian state, the same blankness was the relic of a project it could not or would not complete, the bitter hangover of projected ignorance.

The Desert Survey’s vision was already more than two decades in the making when Ball was granted his own division of the more than 4000-member Survey Department in 1920. In 1898, colonial officials had commenced the ambitious cadastral survey that would eventually produce the Great Land Map of Egypt—the subject of Timothy Mitchell’s noted essay—and Ball departed for the oases of the Western Desert with his partner, Hugh Beadnell, to search for lucrative mineral deposits. From that point forward, the Survey Department viewed each unit’s work as a step toward total knowledge of every square meter of Egypt in every form and on every scale. It was only a matter of time, officials firmly believed, until the grid they had created at the Survey’s birth was filled in.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Survey Authority’s ambitions were directed inward: its cartographers wanted to know what was inside Egypt’s borders, even as sections of those borders remained fuzzy. But the First World War crystallized a broader imperial vision that linked Egypt’s Western and Eastern deserts to Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and saw the management of smugglers, nomads, geology, and development as related challenges directly correlated to the resilience of British rule (Fletcher, British Imperialism and “the Tribal Question”: Desert Administration and Nomadic Societies in the Middle East, 1919-1936; Ellis, Desert Borderland: The Making of Modern Egypt and Libya).

From the moment of the Desert Survey’s founding in 1920, and at an accelerating pitch over the 17 years that followed, British colonial officials justified their continued control of the Desert Survey even as most other institutions changed hands. One way they did this was by depicting survey work as a vocation and not merely a job. As Desert Survey chief John Ball wrote in 1930:

I shall try to keep our little show going and my little band of British surveyors at work in the deserts, but am not sure of success, as it has been said that Egyptians could do it equally well and we are therefore superfluous… but I have used Egyptian effendis in the deserts and I know them. Here and there you can find one really interested in his work, but 999 out of 1000 think only of promotion and pay, and you can’t manage… intrigue when you are hundreds of miles out in the wilderness.

(Royal Geographical Society CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, February 28, 1930)

Not only did the Egyptian surveyors not know how to do the work the British experts were doing, Ball implied, but they did not want to know. If they did, it was for reasons that were crassly utilitarian by British standards.

Not having the proper expertise was an issue that could be resolved by more training. But by casting the fundamental issue as one of indifference—of not wanting to know, or wanting to know only for wrong, illogical reasons—officials like Ball were implying that even providing more training would not close the gap. Consequently, officials concluded, they would have to remain until they had shaded in the last empty expanses on the desert grid.

Survey authorities, in tandem with their associates in the colonial Frontier Districts Administration, thus articulated a position that held certain kinds of not-knowing to be acceptable, even desirable, and others to signal ignorance. In late 1924, Survey Director John Ball updated the members of the Cairo Scientific Society on the Survey’s progress in mapping the unknown regions of the desert. He reveled at the “gasps” his statistics elicited from an audience shocked at how much remained unknown (RGS CB9/Ball, John, letter to A.R. Hinks, December 19, 1924). Though he smugly reassured them that the unknown would soon vanish, a report published on the eve of independence in 1952 revealed that 43 percent of Egypt had by then been professionally surveyed, 24 percent was roughly known from reconnaissance, and 33 percent was still unknown. All that remained lay in the far Western Desert (George Murray, “The Work in the Desert of the Survey of Egypt,” Extrait du Bulletin de l’Institut Fouad Ier du Desert 2(2): July 1952, 133).

The desert did not disappear after 1952, of course; it came to occupy a central place in development dreams of the Nasser era, dreams that subsequent leaders have revived repeatedly. But the various incarnations of the project, aimed at facilitating the administration of economic development zones, had little in common with the colonial quantification—fetishization, even—of the unknown.

Maps articulate uncertainty more viscerally than the many other paper documents that similarly elude researchers and the public. The result is that vast spaces of the nation still reside primarily in foreign archives – the UK National Archives, the Royal Geographical Society in London, the Institut Français de l’Archéologie Orientale—where even the parties to the Tiran and Sanafir case turned for evidence. The obfuscation that drives us to these archives is not a product only of contemporary authoritarian politics, however; it, too, has a history. The projection of ignorance left a scar, an anxiety which can only be read through its shadows in colonial archives and its conspicuous absence in postcolonial archives.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at

The Pricing of Progress: Podcast interview with Eli Cook

By Contributing Editor Simon Brown

In this podcast, I’m speaking with Eli Cook, assistant professor of history at the University of Haifa, about his new book, The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life (Harvard University Press, 2017). The book has been honored with the Morris D. Forkosch Book Prize from the Journal of the History of Ideas for the best first book in intellectual history, and with the Annual Book Prize of the Society for US Intellectual History for the best book in that field.

pricing of progress

In The Pricing of Progress, Cook tells the story of how American businessmen, social reformers, politicians, and labor unions came to measure progress and advocate policy in the language of projected monetary gains at the expense of other competing standards. He begins this account with the market for land in seventeenth-century England, and moves across the Atlantic to explain how plantation slavery, westward expansion, and the Civil War helped lead Americans to conceive of their country and its people as potential investments with measurable prices even before the advent of GDP in the twentieth century. He traces an intellectual history that leads the reader through the economic theories of thinkers like William Petty, Alexander Hamilton, and Irving Fisher on the one hand, and quotidian texts like household account books, business periodicals and price indices on the other. Throughout, he shows how the rise of capitalism brought with it the monetary valuation of not only land, labor and technology, but of everyday life itself.   

Listen to the full conversation here.

Trinquier’s Dichotomy: Adding Ideology to Counterinsurgency

By guest contributor Robert Koch

After two world wars, the financial and ideological underpinnings of European colonial domination in the world were bankrupt. Yet European governments responded to aspirations for national self-determination with undefined promises of eventual decolonization. Guerrilla insurgencies backed by clandestine organizations were one result. By 1954, new nation-states in China, North Korea, and North Vietnam had adopted socialist development models, perturbing the Cold War’s balance of power. Western leaders turned to counterinsurgency (COIN) to confront national liberation movements. In doing so, they reimagined the motives that drove colonization into a defense of their domination over faraway nations.

COIN is a type of military campaign designed to maintain social control, or “the unconditional support of the people,” while destroying clandestine organizations that use the local populations as camouflage, thus sustaining political power (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 8). It is characterized by a different mission set than conventional warfare. Operations typically occur amidst civilian populations. Simply carpet bombing cities (or even rural areas as seen in the Vietnam War), at least over an extended period of time results in heavy collateral damage that strips governments of popular support and, eventually, political power. The more covert, surgical nature of COIN means that careful justifying rhetoric can still be called upon to mitigate the ensuing political damage.

Vietnam was central to the saga of decolonization. The Viet Minh, communist cadres leading peasant guerrillas, won popular support to defeat France in the First (1945-1954) and the United States in the Second Indochina Wars (1955-1975) to consolidate their nation-state. French leaders, already sour from defeat in World War II, took their loss in Indochina poorly. Some among them saw it as the onset of a global struggle against communism (Paret, French Revolutionary Warfare, 25-29; Horne, Savage War for Peace, 168; Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Part 2, 38-39). Despite Vietnam’s centrality, it was in “France,” that is, colonial French Algeria, that ideological significance was given to the tactical procedures of COIN. French Colonel Roger Trinquier, added this component while fighting for the French “forces of order” in the Algerian War (1954-1962) (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 19). Trinquier’s ideological contribution linked the West’s “civilizing mission” with enduring imperialism.

In his 1961 thesis on COIN, Modern Warfare, Trinquier offered moral justification for harsh military applications of strict social control, a job typically reserved for police, and therefore for the subsequent violence. The associated use of propaganda characterized by a dichotomizing rhetoric to mitigate political fallout proved a useful addition to the counterinsurgent’s repertoire. This book, essentially providing a modern imperialist justification for military violence, was translated into English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and remains popular among Western militaries.

Trinquier’s experiences before Algeria influenced his theorizing. In 1934, a lieutenant in Chi-Ma, Vietnam, he learned the significance of local support while pursuing opium smugglers in the region known as “One Hundred Thousand Mountains” (Bernard Fall in Trinquier, Modern Warfare, x). After the Viet Minh began their liberation struggle, Trinquier led the “Berets Rouges” Colonial Parachutists Battalion in counterguerrilla operations. He later commanded the Composite Airborne Commando Group (GCMA), executing guerrilla operations in zones under Viet Minh control. This French-led indigenous force grew to include 20,000 maquis( rural guerrillas) and had a profound impact in the war (Trinquier, Indochina Underground, 167). Though France would lose their colony, Trinquier had learned effective techniques in countering clandestine enemies.

Upon evacuating Indochina in 1954, France immediately deployed its paratroopers to fight a nationalist liberation insurgency mobilizing in Algeria. Determined to avoid another loss, Trinquier (among others) sought to apply the lessons of Indochina against the Algerian guerillas’ Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). He argued that conventional war, which emphasized controlling strategic terrain, had been supplanted. Trinquier believed adjusting to “modern warfare” required four key reconceptualizations: a new battlefield, new enemy, how to fight them, and the repercussions of failure. Trinquier contended that warfare had become “an interlocking system of action – political, economic, psychological, military,” and the people themselves were now the battleground (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 6-8).

Trinquier prioritized wining popular support, and to achieve this blurred insurgent motivations by lumping guerrillas under the umbrella term “terrorist.” Linking the FLN to a global conspiracy guided by Moscow was helpful in the Cold War, and a frequent claim in the French military, but this gimmick was actually of secondary importance to Trinquier. When he did mention communism, rather than as the guerrilla’s guiding light, it was in a sense of communist parties, many of whom publicly advocated democratic means to political power, as having been compromised. The FLN were mainly a nationalist organized that shunned communists, especially in the leadership positions, something Trinquier would have known as a military intelligence chief (Horne, Savage War for Peace, 138, 405). In Modern Warfare, although he accepted the claim that the FLN was communist, in fact he only used the word “communist” four times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 13, 24, 59, 98). The true threat were “terrorists,” a term used thirty times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 8, 14, 16-25, 27, 29, 34, 36, 43-5, 47-49, 52, 56, 62, 70, 72, 80, 100, 103-104, 109). The FLN did terrorize Muslims to compel support (Evans, Algeria: France’s Undeclared War, Part 2, 30). Yet, obscuring the FLN’s cause by labeling them terrorist complicated consideration of their more relatable aspirations for self-determination. Even “atheist communists” acted in hopes of improving the human condition. The terrorist, no civilized person could support the terrorist.

Trinquier’s careful wording reflects his strategic approach and gives COIN rhetoric greater adaptability. His problem was not any particular ideology, but “terrorists.” Conversely, he called counterinsurgents the “forces of order” twenty times (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 19, 21, 32-33, 35, 38, 44, 48, 50, 52, 58, 66, 71, 73, 87, 100). A dichotomy was created: people could choose terror or order. Having crafted an effective dichotomy, Trinquier addressed the stakes of “modern warfare.”

The counterinsurgent’s mission was no less than the defense of civilization. Failure to adapt as required, however distasteful it may feel, would mean “sacrificing defenseless populations to unscrupulous enemies” (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 5). Trinquier evoked the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 to demonstrate the consequences of such a failure. French knights were dealt crushing defeat after taking a moral stand and refusing to sink to the level of the English and their unchivalrous longbows. He concluded, if “our army refused to employ all the weaponsof modern warfare… national independence, the civilization we hold dear, our very freedom would probably perish” (Trinquier, Modern Warfare, 115). His “weapons” included torture, death squads, and the secret disposals of bodies – “dirty war” tactics that hardly represent “civilization” (Aussaresses, Battle of the Casbah, 21-22; YouTube, “Escuadrones de la muerte. La escuela francesa,” time 8:38-9:38). Trinquier was honest and consistent about this, defending dirty war tactics years afterward on public television (YouTube, “Colonel Roger Trinquier et Yacef Saadi sur la bataille d’Alger. 12 06 1970”). Momentary lapses of civility were acceptable if it meant defending civilization, whether it be adopting the enemy’s longbow or terrorist methods, to even the battlefield dynamics in “modern warfare.”

Trinquier’s true aim was preserving colonial domination, which had always been based on the possession of superior martial power. In order to blur distinctions between nationalists and communists, he linked any insurgency to a Soviet plot. Trinquier warned of the loss of individual freedom and political independence. The West, he warned, was being slowly absorbed by socialist—terrorist—insurgencies. Western Civilization would be doomed if it did not act against the monolithic threat.  His dichotomy justifies using any means to achieve the true end – sustaining local power. It is also exportable.

Trinquier’s reconfiguration of imperialist logic gave the phenomenon of imperialism new life. Its intellectual genealogy stretches back to the French mission civilisatrice. In the Age of Empire (1850-1914), European colonialism violently subjugated millions while claiming European tutelage could tame and civilize “savages” and “semi-savages.” During postwar decolonization, fresh off defeat in Indochina and facing the FLN, Trinquier modified this justification. The “civilizing” mission of “helping” became a defense of (lands taken by) the “civilized,” while insurgencies epitomized indigenous “savagery.”

The vagueness Trinquier ascribed to the “terrorist” enemy and his rearticulation of imperialist logic had unforeseeable longevity. What are “terrorists” in the postcolonial world but “savages” with modern weapons? His dichotomizing polemic continues to be useful to justify COIN, the enforcer of Western imperialism. This is evident in Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that rejected Western demands and were subsequently invaded, as well as COIN operations in the Philippines and across Africa, places more peripheral to the public’s attention. Western counterinsurgents almost invariably hunt “terrorists” in a de facto defense of the “civilized.” We must carefully consider how rhetoric is used to justify violence, and perhaps how this logic shapes the kinds of violence employed. Trinquier’s ideas and name remain in the US Army’s COIN manual, linking US efforts to the imperialist ambitions behind the mission civilisatrice (US Army, “Annotated Bibliography,” Field Manual 3-24 Counterinsurgency, 2).

Robert Koch is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of South Florida.

From our editors: What we’re reading this month (2/2)

Picasso, Femme Couchee lisant (1960)


Beyond Settler Time: Temporal Sovereignty and Indigenous Self-Determination by Mark Rifkin is a work of political and literary theory that re-interprets the axes and language of past and present as experienced by settlers and Native peoples in the Americas. Writing outside of a binary that forces a choice between casting indigenous peoples as keepers of the past or as necessarily co-eval with Europeans, Rifkin draws from philosophy, queer theory, and postcolonial theory to interpret texts and the experiences they bring to bear on a notion of “settler time”, a concept with he uses to draw out the stakes of thinking time along with politics, namely sovereignty and the temporal and spatial aspects of self-determination. I’m starting to work through this text as part of my foraging for helpful interpretations of political freedom, and it stands as another affirmation of the complicated relationship intellectual histories have to texts, which are so differently deployed in adjacent disciplines. (Rifkin is the Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program and Professor of English at  the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.)

A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism by Paul Hanebrink details the rise of a paranoia at the beginning of the twentieth century that crystallized into one facet of a deadly ideology, and remained grafted onto each vision of white supremacy that came afterwards — including the one that persists today in Europe and North America. The myth that Jewish masterminds cooked up Communism to ruin Europe and take control of the world began, in Hanebrick’s telling, in the counterrevolutionary currents of the interwar period. He draws a line through the myth’s Cold War adaptation to today’s racist hand-wringing over Islam’s so-called global designs that often co-exists with its anti-Semitic ancestor. After a string of white supremacist attacks in the past weeks, and the direct line drawn by the Pittsburgh shooter from his hatred of Jewish people to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, intellectual histories that connect the century-long entanglements of such strands seem like necessary (if also incredibly grim) reading.

On a lighter note, as I wind down my bi-annual re-read of Barbara Pym’s 1952 novel Excellent Women to the tune of some not insignificant fines from the local library, I’d also like to recommend it here. It details the life of a single woman in her thirties living in a London parish after the Second World War, and her chagrined and slightly titillated forays into the personal lives of her new neighbours, including an ex-Naval officer, a clergyman’s attractive widow, and a woman anthropologist (!). As the days become shorter and the impulse to eat dinner comes earlier and earlier during the workday, the attention to the small joys and indignities of being a person in Pym’s novels remains a welcome dose of comedy. Daniel Ortberg observes as such in his compilation of the most emotionally muted meals that appear in Excellent Women. Highly recommend. Please let’s talk about it. I’m going to have the Princeton Public Library’s copy out for another week, tops.



Certain objects seem to perform a kind of magic upon the beholder–time doubles back on itself, and past and present somehow fold into one. The most famous example, of course, is the Proustian madeleine. In The Remembrance of Things Past, a whole host of objects play this role–of both signalling a specific moment in history, and blurring the boundaries of the beholder’s present, so that multiple temporalities crowd together and become one. Fashion, for Proust, is capable of casting that particular magic. In the final volume of Remembrance, “Time Regained,” the narrator yokes the year 1916 to this specific image: “As if by the germination of a tiny quantity of yeast, apparently of spontaneous generation, young women now went about all day with tall cylindrical turbans on their heads, as a contemporary of Mme. Tallien’s might have done, and from a sense of patriotic duty wore Egyptian tunics, straight and dark and very ‘war,’ over very short skirts; they wore thonged footwear recalling the buskin as worn by Talma, or else long gaiters recalling those of our dear boys at the front…” The passage continues for a while, describing the vogue for “rings or bracelets made out of fragments of exploded shells or copper bands from 75 millimetre ammunition,” and the decision to wear bonnets of “white English crepe” in lieu of traditional mourning attire. But the narrator is not writing this in 1916. The fashion of 1916, so current in 1916, now serves also to distance the narrator’s own moment from the one where young women wore tall cylindrical turbans and spoke of “our dear boys at the front.” The clarity of the memory, the exactness of each detail,  serves to confirm the pastness of the past.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about this magical quality of fashion while scrolling through the artist Guadalupe Rosales’s two intertwined projects, Veteranas and Rucas and Map Pointz. Rosales describes these projects as “digital archives found on Instagram.” Veteranas and Rucas came first, in 2015. The New York Times described the Veteranas and Rucas digital archive as “an Instagram feed dedicated to Latina youth culture in Southern California, mainly from the ’80s and ’90s, but sometimes dating back much earlier.” Map Pointz, dedicated to the SoCal “90s party crew and rave scene,” came a little bit later, in 2016. Both archives are largely crowdsourced. These two intertwined archives serve as both autobiography and history. “I was born in California in 1980, daughter of two Mexican parents,” writes Rosales, “I grew up on Los Angeles’ Eastside and lived in a house that faced Whittier Blvd. That is when I realized how rich my culture was and was not what we see in movies or in the television.  From the age of 14-17, I was part of the party crew scene- a subculture organized by and for the youth in a time when many of my friends and relatives were in gangs. The gatherings occurred on the weekends and some weekdays in residential backyards and industrial warehouses throughout Los Angeles. Like most youth subcultures, music played a key role – we listened Techno, House and New Wave. Then on Sundays we cruised down the boulevard while bumping some oldies and freestyle. The Boulevard was a place where boys and girls met and exchanged telephone numbers.

These two digital archives came into being because Rosales was hungry for a way to connect to her history, her past: “I focused my research on the Los Angeles youth cultures in hopes of finding a deeper identity. If I Google searched my experiences as a teenager, what would I look for and how would I describe myself and those experiences? Someone who lived in Los Angeles and in the midst of gang violence, the Los Angeles riots and numerous protests. I wanted to read and look at images the brown youth on the dance floor and backyard parties, cruising the boulevard or anything that had documented the (sub)culture that existed in the midst of violence, unfortunately I wasn’t finding anything. With very little success, I started an Instagram feed, titled Veteranas and Rucas and posted photos from my own personal collection as reference. Within a week of my initial posting, people began to submit their own photos through email and messaging them through Instagram.”


The rise of material culture studies in the 1980s and 1990s helped shift our concepts of archives. Suddenly historians wanted to write about posters, or embroidery samplers, or military parkas. Any set of objects could be an archive.

The Internet opened up the archive further–more users, more stories, more material, more access, more of everything. In some ways, the internet itself is one vast archive. The power of Rosales’s crowdsourced Instagram archives lies in their ability to evoke–and capture–emotion. And they are not cordoned off from everyday life. For the moment, Instagram is a platform that is fully integrated into the fabric of quotidian life. Which also means that I cannot easily “forget” these faces, these histories. They show up on my phone screen, they speak to me, intimate as family, their images and stories cradled in my palm.



Though reading about Isaac Newton’s theological views is not exactly my idea of a good time, I recently found myself digging deep into the subject. I am working as a teaching fellow at the Yale divinity school this semester and had to give a lecture to my class on the ‘scientific revolution.’ To better explain some of the historiographical problems associated with early modern science, I was on the lookout for a case study which I could introduce towards the end of the lecture as a way of summing up some of my main arguments. While preparing the lecture, Newton came to mind. I suspected that, while the students would know quite a bit about Newton’s work on calculus and optics, his theological views, especially his ardent anti-trinitarianism, may come as a surprise.

To get a better grasp of some of Newton’s basic theological positions, I picked up Rob Iliffe’s new book Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton and it was nothing short of a revelation. Iliffe, who currently holds a chair in the history of science at Oxford, has been working on Newton’s religious views for over three decades now and the book clearly shows his impressive learning and incisive thinking on the topic (Iliffe is also the co-editor of the Newton papers project which has compiled and transcribed an astonishing number of Newton’s manuscripts which are scattered in collections across the UK and Israel).

Iliffe’s claim is simple: Newton, he argues, was a deeply devout man who took his religious thinking and theological research as seriously as his ‘scientific’ work. Though this may hardly count as a path-breaking insight on his own, it is Iliffe’s relentless quest to painstakingly document the evolution of Newton’s theological views and their impact on his scientific work that makes his book one of the most exciting that I have read in a while. In particular, I was fascinated by the chapter “Methodizing the apocalypse” which examines Newton’s obsession with prophetic images in the bible. It looks at his deep interest in eschatological thinking and explains how Newton drew upon the ideas of older thinkers such as Joseph Mede and some contemporaries such as Henry More. Iliffe is especially good at using Newton as a lens for thinking about some of the bigger issues in the history of science. For anyone interested in early modern science and theology, this book is a must read.



In the first half of the twentieth century, a handful of scholars writing mostly in England attempted to understand how capitalism worked to produce the kind of isolated and self-interested people that its defenders associated with the natural human condition. These critics included R.H Tawney, the labor activist, education reformer and early modern historian whose research on the intellectual and social history of capitalism in the seventeenth century left such a deep imprint on my own field that the period of English history he studied came to be known as “Tawney’s Century.” Tawney and the intellectuals he helped inspire are the subjects of Tim Rogan’s rich and incisive book The Moral Economists: R.H. Tawney Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and the Critique of Capitalism (PUP, 2017).

Rogan traces the development over half a century of the distinctly historical critique of a capitalist system that these three scholars saw as insufficient for human flourishing. While the three scholars were familiar with each other’s work, Rogan groups them together not because they identified each other with a common mission but rather because they shared some conception of a “moral economy” that had been suppressed over time, to varying degrees, by laissez-faire capitalism and the theologies and philosophies that had served as its handmaiden through history, whether puritanism, liberalism or utilitarianism. Rogan’s close attention to the continuities and the subtle differences in these thinkers’ narratives of history and accounts of human flourishing leads him to convincingly demonstrate how they were all talking about moral economy in distinct ways, even before Thompson popularized the term itself in a famous article from 1971. This rigorous reconstruction of the logic of their arguments also allows Rogan to end with an evaluation of those accounts which he believes offer promising paths to guide political thinking today. Rogan sees Polanyi’s framework in particular as potentially fruitful for the present. Polanyi unmoored his own critique from the specifically Christian theological conception of human nature that Tawney had expounded before him. This transition leads me to wonder whether it’s valuable to think about such a shift as a kind of “secularization” between Tawney and Polanyi, and how that rejection of theology as a guide for their politics might lead Polanyi, his contemporaries and successors to attribute a different kind of significance to theology within the histories they write.

Spectral Sovereigns and Divine Subalterns

by guest contributor Milinda Banerjee

Spectres of dead kings are haunting the world today. In a 2015 interview, Emmanuel Macron declared that since the death of Louis XVI, there has been a vacuum at the heart of French politics: an absent king. According to him, the Napoleonic and Gaullist moments were efforts to fill this vacuum. Since becoming President, Macron has been steadily emphasizing regal symbolism to represent his authority. Across the Atlantic, scholars have long observed the monarchic lineages, or even messianic roots, of the American Presidency via British-European constitutional thought. But the monarchic turn has intensified of late, as Donald Trump’s Christian supporters compare him to the Biblical monarchs David, Nebuchadnezzar, and Cyrus. Romans 13, the New Testament passage used for centuries to justify submission to rulers as supposedly ordained by God, now finds increasing traction in American discourse about Trump, especially surrounding immigration and foreign policy. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has invited comparison with Pharaohs, while academic discussions note continuities between interwar Arab monarchies and post-royal dictatorships in the region.

In India, when Narendra Modi, leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, became Prime Minister in 2014, Hindu nationalists celebrated him as the first proper Hindu ruler in Delhi in 800 years since the defeat of King Prithviraj Chauhan at the hands of Turko-Afghan invaders. Bollywood has also been making blockbuster movies, celebrating – supposedly  Hindu nationalist – kings, while the soon-to-be-tallest statue in the world is being built off Mumbai, depicting Shivaji, a seventeenth-century monarch dear to Hindu-Indian nationalism. We are clearly witnessing a global phenomenon: the return of monarchic figures in political thought, comparison, ritual, and iconography, hand in glove with the rise of strongman leaderships and nationalisms.

To explain this planetary resurgence of kingly manes, we need to draw upon lenses of global intellectual history, enriched by scholarship on earlier epochs of connected waves of monarchism and state formation, such as by Sanjay Subrahmanyam and David Cannadine. We may also take a cue from models of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, Ernst Kantorowicz, and Giorgio Agamben. In my recently-published book The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India, I try to provide a historical genealogy for this global phenomenon through a focused study of modern India. I suggest that British administrators and intellectuals, like Viceroy Lord Lytton, Viceroy Lord Curzon, and the author Rudyard Kipling,  as well as elite Indians, like the socio-religious reformer Keshub Chunder Sen, frequently justified the construction of strong imperial and/or princely sovereign state apparatuses in late nineteenth and early twentieth century South Asia by using monarchic concepts and images. Often, Christian-inspired notions of monotheistic authority anchored their visions of providentially-mandated monistic-centralized state sovereignty. For example, Lieutenant-Governor Alfred Lyall quoted Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea to relate imperial unification to the triumph of monotheism, in the Roman Empire as well as in British India. The title of my book gestures towards this sacralisation of the state, and, more specifically, towards the widespread citations of Hobbes in modern India, especially by Indian intellectuals and politicians, to debate these constructions of sovereignty (Mortal God, Introduction, Chapters 1-3).

In challenge, middle-class Indian intellectuals like Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, Nabinchandra Sen, and Mir Mosharraf Hossain created blueprints of non-colonial sovereignty, in the form of Hindu-Indian-nationalist or Islamic righteous kingdoms (in Sanskrit/Bengali, dharmarajya), which were ideologically anchored on the unity of a monotheistic divinity and/or sacred kingship. Many Indians were inspired by the monarchically-mediated nationalist unification of Italy and Germany. By the 1900s, Japanese monarchy and Shintoism offered templates of state-building to Hindu and Muslim actors. In the 1910s and early 1920s, the Ottoman Caliphate question inspired many Indians to combat colonial authority in the name of divine sovereignty: the trials of Muhammad Ali and Shaukat Ali embodied a fierce battleground. In interwar years, Indians also cited other royal models to imagine national sovereignty: Amanullah’s Afghanistan, Reza Shah Pahlavi’s Iran, Faisal I’s Iraq, Rama VII’s Siam/Thailand, and the (incipiently anti-Dutch) kingships of Java and Bali. Ultimately, an ancient Sanskrit word for kingship, sarvabhauma – literally, (lord) of all earth – offered the root word for ‘sovereignty’ in most Indian languages (Mortal God, Chapters 3 and 5).

For a proper global historical explanation of today’s monarchist resurgence, we need however to look beyond India. Hence, a book I edited with Charlotte Backerra and Cathleen Sarti draws on case studies from across Asia, Russia, Europe, North Africa, and Latin America, to conceptualize ‘royal nationhood’ as a transnationally-constructed category. My chapter uses lenses of global intellectual history, and offers various examples, including Walter Bagehot and Kakuzo Okakura, to show how actors from around the world learnt from other societies to place the figure of the (present, historical, and/or imagined) monarch as a (practical and/or symbolic) centre around which national unity and sovereignty could be built up, surpassing class and factional differences. Today, monarchic spectres are being resurrected again by sectarian nationalisms, which derive material strength from the inequality-breeding regimes of global capitalism and the grievances they invariably spawn among those left out. Ruling classes and angry populations are deploying these spectres to delineate majoritarian-national unity – a mythic unitary sovereign above classes and factions, with Caesarist and salvific promise – against vulnerable minorities, refugees, and aliens. Taking a cue from the comparison of Trump with the Biblical Nehemiah in terms of building walls – and Émile Benveniste’s discussion on the Indo-European rex/raja as a maker of boundaries between “the interior and the exterior, the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane, the national territory and foreign territory” (Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society, 312) – I would argue that sectarian nationalists today invoke regal manes to forge borders, segregation, and inequality. If sovereignty is seen as a motor of global conceptual travel, we can explain why the globalization of models of centralized and exclusionary state sovereignty over the last centuries has also propelled periodic and global waves of monarchic conceptualization, often even after the demise of real-life kingships: clear evidence how republics too are haunted by (to borrow Jacques Derrida’s words) the “patrimonial logic of the generations of ghosts” (Specters of Marx, 133). It is thus ironic, but fitting, that supporters of the defunct Italian monarchy should draw strength today from Trump’s aggressive nationalism, while reposing faith in a sovereign who would embody the nation by being super partes.

However, sovereignty is not a ‘thing’ which merely spreads top-down, via elite interventions and circulations. The mysterious pathways of sovereignty do not only translate ‘sacred’ hierarchies into human government, but also engender agonisms and dialectical transfigurations. Thus in colonial India, women like Sunity Devi, Nivedita, Sarojini Naidu, and Begum Rokeya, invoked Indian, European, Islamicate, and Chinese models of queenship, to demand women’s right to political authority. These interventions often became linked to transnational feminist and suffragette networks, and opened up spaces beyond strongman nationalism (Mortal God, Chapter 3). Simultaneously, peasant, ‘tribal’, and pastoral populations asserted royal ‘Kshatriya’ identity and divine selfhood, drawing on precolonial-origin models of community autonomy and regal theology, as well as liberal-democratic and socialist-Communist forms of association. They claimed democratic representation, dignity of labour, material betterment, and reservations in education and employment. They grounded their claims to rulership and divinity on practices like ploughing and animal husbandry, outlining ideals of nourishing and pastoral governance that bear comparison with (even as they sharply diverge from) those outlined by Michel Foucault. Politicians like Panchanan Barma in Bengal and Dasarath Deb in Tripura used Kshatriya organization to structure peasant resistance against high-caste Indian elites. Many of these ‘lower caste’ movements – and their ‘vernacular’ intellectual trajectories – remain powerful even today, rooting ideas of universal rights, equality, and democracy in the collectivization of divine and regal selfhood (Mortal God, Chapter 4).

Peasant and working-class agitation in colonial India also drew on varied messianic models, from ideas about the Mahdi’s advent and Allah’s sovereignty in relation to peasant autonomy, to the notion of ‘Gandhi Maharaj’. The Russian Revolution and Communism were sources of inspiration too. These popular utopianisms, instigated by discontent against colonial fiscal oppression and political-military brutality, fuelled grand insurrections, dismantling the British Empire in the subcontinent. Inspired by such struggles, the poet Kazi Nazrul Islam as well as Rajavamshi peasants devised sophisticated forms of materially-grounded dialectical theory, involving transition from servitude (dasatva) and heteronomy (parashasana) – when one alienated one’s self (sva-hin) – to the recovery of self and ethical-material autonomy (svaraj, atmashasana), leading finally to the anarchic cessation of all rule when one realised the fullness of divinity within oneself and others (Mortal God, Chapters 4 and 5).

These Indian cases invite wider comparisons, such as with the seventeenth-century Leveller Richard Overton’s statement about “every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet” or with Ludwig Feuerbach’s nineteenth-century conception of divinity as present in every human being. Rather than a theory of democracy predicated on an empty/disembodied centre, as in Claude Lefort, we are tempted to outline a radically novel conception of the democratic political embedded in the proliferation and multiplication of divine being. There is a barely-developed hint in Agamben’s recent opus, Karman (78-79, 83), of such a turn, drawing on ancient India, to inspire a new model of action. In our world of strongman sovereigns and unrelenting degradation of human and nonhuman actors, we need to recuperate such globally-oriented political theory and practice, while remaining critical towards, and abjuring, the chauvinistic and hierarchical elements historically present in them. If engaged with dialectical intimacy, visions which once inspired rebels to overthrow ruling classes can help us conjure today solidarities with peasants and refugees, neighbours and strangers. To see everyone as regal and divine, and act upon this, can become a lightning bolt to wield for unshackling democracies to come.

Milinda Banerjee is Research Fellow at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich from 2017 to 2019, as well as Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Presidency University (Kolkata, India). His dissertation, which offered an intellectual history of concepts and practices of rulership and sovereignty in colonial India (with a primary focus on Bengal, ca. 1858-1947), has now been published as The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (Cambridge University Press, 2018). His research project at LMU is titled ‘Sovereignty versus Natural Law? The Tokyo Trial in Global Intellectual History’. 

From our editors: What we’re reading this month (1/2)

Andrew Hines:

How to Read: Wittgenstein (2005) by Ray Monk

As someone with a background in post-Kantian European philosophy, whose interests had leaned quite heavily toward phenomenology, philosophical hermeneutics and deconstruction, I had unfairly dismissed Wittgenstein as “one of those analytic philosophers”. Recently, I’ve found my philosophical palette broadening as I’ve become increasingly concerned with understanding the broader context within which key, culture shaping ideas emerge as well as understanding why a particular thinker took the intellectual route he or she did. Ray Monk’s How to Read: Wittgenstein addresses both these interests on top of providing a lucid and authoritative introduction to Wittgenstein.

What comes through is Wittgenstein’s intellectual journey, the way that he continually reframes the problems he’s concerned with. Its evident that two of Wittgenstein’s abiding concerns are the limit and function of language. By focusing on Wittgenstein’s own biography alongside the ‘biography’ of his ideas, Monk not only provides an introduction to Wittgenstein’s main ideas, but an entire history of the development of one of Western philosophy’s key themes in the twentieth century. Not only did Wittgenstein revolt against his teacher Russell and assert that the activity of philosophy did not consist in providing a scientific like precision but in clarifying the true nature of the logic of language. He also built on Goethe and looked at the ‘morphology of expression’ and how philosophy provides the opportunity for a new perspective on a problem. Because of this, poets and musicians, Wittgenstein thought, can give us as much instruction as science.

The sheer breadth of this intellectual journey is far too often written off by students of ‘continental philosophy’ and I am perhaps the worst offender. Because of this, I would generally recommend ‘How to Read: Wittgenstein’ by Ray Monk to anyone looking to fill in the gaps of the intellectual-historical context of the early twentieth century. Particularly, however, I would recommend it for those, like myself, who had unfairly ignored Wittgenstein.



In one of my very favorite plays, Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004), one of the titular students proudly describes his attempt to impress the new teacher by referring a book he’s been reading, by one “Frederick Kneeshaw.” This beautiful malapropism, achingly relatable and touchingly human, has haunted the name “Nietzsche” for me ever since I first saw The History Boys some ten years ago. Just as in the Hebrew Bible, there is the word as pronounced, the qere (“what is read”), that may differ from the word as written, the ketiv (“what is written”)—most famously in the name of God—so I have spent a decade hearing “Kneeshaw” in my head whenever I have read (or more rarely written) the name of that great philosopher.

Yet, until this week, my knowledge of Kneeshaw’s oeuvre went no further than the handful of aphorisms that have become common currency: “God is dead.” “There are no facts, only interpretations.” “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”

Prompted by Carlo Ginzburg’s masterful History, Rhetoric, and Proof (1999), in which Nietzsche is a key interlocutor on rhetoric, I plunged a few days ago into On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). The going has been slow, more as a result of too many claims upon my time than any fault in Michael Scarpitti’s translation. Indeed, the quality of the prose has been a revelation, surpassed only by the humor. Take Nietzsche’s imagining of the moral systems of the weak (the lambs) and the strong (the eagles): “And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is most unlike a bird of prey, who is most like its opposite, a lamb – is he not good?’ then there is nothing to cavil about in the setting-up of this ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey will regard it with some measure of derision, and say to themselves, ‘We bear no ill will against these fine, goodly lambs, we even like them; nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’”

There is always the danger that mellifluous prose and trenchant wit (a particular delight of mine) misdirect attention away from the ideas Nietzsche is propounding. And for a pacifist, Jewish reader such as yours truly, these must be awkward fare. Nietzsche’s veneration of the “blonde beast” does not wear so well in the wake of the twentieth century—and did not wear much better in the nineteenth. So, too, the denigration of the Jews as “a priestly nation of resentment par excellence” and the propagators of “slave morality” rankle all the more in the light of recent tragic events in Pittsburgh. I learn from Cathy Gere’s excellent Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (2009) and other scholars that Nietzsche himself was a dedicated critic of anti-semitism and that the filiation between his works and the ideology of National Socialism was largely the creation of his vehemently anti-Semitic sister. Perhaps so, but Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche was not without material to work with in her brother’s writings.

These uncomfortable flashes of prejudice aside, the content has been striking in its familiarity—my ignorance of Nietzsche’s work notwithstanding. What I have realized is that a century and more of thought and culture steeped in Nietzsche has made his ideas ubiquitous, even banal. The suggestion that morality is the creation of power does not shock in 2018, even for those to whom it is anathema.



Just this week, I picked up a slightly older book: P. Steven Sangren’s Chinese Sociologics: An Anthropological Account of the Role of Alienation in Social Reproduction. More than a work of ethnography in China, this volume is primarily a theoretical treatise which unfolds a slightly modernized Marxian understanding of social mechanisms and patterns while drawing upon the author’s fieldwork in Taiwan for examples and illustrations. While some aspects of the work merit critique (particularly the titling of the work as “Chinese Sociologics” when the vast majority of its basis is specifically Taiwanese, and a bit of a simplistic take on “Gender and Exploitation”), its primary purpose as a cohesive and thoughtful Marxian analysis is insightfully fulfilled.  With chapters focusing on classical Marxian cultural features such as production, alienation, circularity, etc., as well as copious citations from Marx, Durkheim, and other related scholars, this work serves as an interesting insight into the Marxian tradition of social theory as well as more modern attempts to incorporate Marxian theory into modern ethnography.



This month I’ve found myself reading quite a bit about the history of gunpowder. Gunpowder was first discovered by Chinese alchemists before the 11th century. The earliest European gunpowder recipes from the 13th century were written in code because the alchemists were fearful of the compound’s power: “No clap of thunder can compare with such noises. Some of them strike such terror to the sight that the thunders and lightnings of the clouds disturb it considerably less.” (Kelly DeVries, Gunpowder and Early Gunpowder Weapons, in Gunpowder: the History of an International Technology.) States were less fearful. Centuries of experimentation used gunpowder to make fireworks, rockets, cannons, blunderbusses, rifles, and pistols. For the next six hundred years, battlefields would be covered with a black brimstone smoke.

Gunpowder is a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur. The result is a brownish, smelly powder that when exposed to flame can produce a fire so sudden that its shockwave hits the speed of sound—an explosion. Of gunpowder’s three ingredients, the most unusual and most important is saltpeter (potassium nitrate), which makes up 70% of most gunpowder recipes. There are some natural formations of saltpeter in cakes of whiteish powder forming a crust atop nitrate-rich soils. Damp caves with beds of guano or fetid houses sometimes produce a white salt on their walls—the salt of the rock (petrus). But this was not enough to meet states’ growing demand for gunpowder.

You can manufacture saltpeter as well. The big European powers employed roving armies of saltpeter men who were allowed to go into people’s dovecotes and mangers looking for guano and manure. They’d cart this ordure off to special factories, and soak it in urine (that of drunk men worked best) to leech out the saltpeter. Antoine Lavoisier, the great French chemist, searched for a way to make artificial saltpeter after the British seized the world’s great Indian saltpeter areas during the Seven Year’s War. Lavoisier’s success kept the French gunpowder barrels full over the next quarter century of war. (During the Revolution, Lavoisier’s apprentice, Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, fled to America where he set up a gunpowder mill—the birth of DuPont, the world’s biggest chemicals company.)

Saltpeter is a form of reactive nitrogen, and reactive nitrogen is one of the hidden foundations of the modern world. Nitrogen is plentiful: it makes up three quarters of the air, but this is tightly bound up in N2, hitched together with strong triple bonds. But reactive nitrogen is rare. To use nitrogen, we need to make reactive nitrogen like saltpeter and ammonia that can be used by plants and animals. Much comes from bolts of lightning turning atmospheric N2 into nitrogen oxide. Some plants (particularly legumes) have symbiotic bacteria in their roots that can make reactive nitrogen. Fertilizing crops with manure helps plants grow by giving them the reactive nitrogen bound up in our dung. Without nitrogen, no food.

In the early 20th century, German industrial chemists looking for a way to make explosives figured out how to turn atmospheric nitrogen into reactive nitrogen in a lab—the Haber-Bosch process. This is now the most important source of fertilizer on earth. Perhaps 80% of the nitrogen in your body comes from the Haber-Bosch process. All this readily-available reactive nitrogen is probably one of the reasons why we have nearly 8 billion people on earth today. Nitrogen kills: nitrogen feeds. The early alchemists treated gunpowder and other nitrates with wonder. Perhaps we should do the same.