African history

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 the Archive: Images of History

by John Raimo (July 2016)

As often as historians and art historians talk past one another, they also come together before common problems, questions, and sources. Both groups recognize the sheer power of images. Such a moment has reappeared in intellectual history. The recent one hundred and fiftieth celebrations of Aby Warburg’s birth underscored how widely Warburg’s terminology could stretch between art and cultural history. Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg and Patrick Boucheron take iconography as a starting point for deeper and deeper reconstructions of political and intellectual milieus. The work of art historians such as Georges Did-Huberman and Giovanni Careri follow similar patterns shuttling between contextual and formal considerations. Anthropologists too have not been far behind, finding in images the source for new methodologies across disciplines dealing with ideas both in and of history. And many museum curators do not shy away from presenting both ethical and historiographical challenges to the public in precisely this tenor, perhaps most spectacularly in the recent Conflict, Time, Photography exhibit at the Tate Modern.

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Guerre 1939-1945. Occupation. Destruction de statues pour récupérer les métaux. La statue du marquis de Condorcet, homme politique français, par Jacques Perrin (1847-1915). Paris, 1941. JAH-REP-34-8

Four ongoing or recent exhibits in Paris also directly engage with the stakes that images—and specifically photography—hold for intellectual history today. Exhibitions dedicated to Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) at the Grand Palais, the photographers of France’s Front populaire (1936-1938) at the Hôtel de Ville, Lore Krüger (1914-2009) at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, and Josef Sudek (1896-1976) at the Jeu de Paume have this much in common: their images possess immediate documentary and historical charges, intervening histories challenge any recovery of the same, and the images themselves pose different meanings—political and otherwise—in our own time. How does one reconcile these knotty realities to one another, let alone relate them to questions of sheer aesthetic value, enduring or otherwise? Perhaps counter-intuitively, the question touches at once upon the artists themselves as much as upon each show’s respective curators. Together, they answer for the most part magnificently just how ideas and patterns of thinking flow into and out from photographs.

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Seydou Keïta, Untitled (1956-1957)

Perhaps no exhibit succeeds so brilliantly as that dedicated to the Malinese photographer Keïta. Self-taught and a portraitist by trade in Bamako, Keïta carefully arranges various customers against complex cloth backdrops in plain-light settings. Several layers of history collide in what only first appear as beautiful, if straightforward portraits. Keïta’s private practice runs from 1948 to 1962, shortly after Mali achieves independence from the French colonial empire. His customers find themselves at a crossroads: both women and men dress in traditional clothing as often as in European or American fashions, often modeling themselves upon the figures of the latest films and popular magazines. A watch ostentatiously displayed, a certain hairstyle, new western clothing, or certain postures together subtly betray consciousness of new cultural models, economic statuses, and social change ranged against Keïta’s brilliantly-patterned backgrounds. Both the circumstances of the photography session and the material object—the photo itself, as the exhibit makes clear—are intended to circulate by word of mouth and hand to hand. Yet an alchemical change also occurs. Keïta’s subjects prove subjects in every sense of the term; their glances say as much, even as they slowly come to look out upon a new country.

At the same time, a personal iconography emerges across the œuvre. Keïta’s workshop feature props (pens, glasses, flowers, and so on) that appear regularly throughout the portraits. An iconographic vocabulary similarly developed in the photographer’s carefully-choreographed poses. An uneasy sort of modernity can be teased out in the tension between these hugely personable figures, their clothing and possessions, and those objects and gestures which both they and Keïta saw fit to add to the compositions.

The art proves doubly-reflexive, looking inwards to the person and to life in Bamako as much as outwards to a rapidly changing Africa and globalization. Keïta’s own touch emerges in the gap. He arranges women into odalisque reclinings, organizes groups of civil servants into full profile portraits, and captures others at their ease wearing traditional clothing. The hindsight of a retrospective allows us to see how closely Keïta simultaneously engages European art history, the stock imagery of popular culture, and a Malinese society in transition throughout his career. The complex of ideas here reveal the subject much as the same ideas flow from the same person, the photographer himself, and finally the image in its own right.

The Front populaire exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville attains a similar achievement, albeit on a different scale. The show follows upon a burst of renewed popular and academic interest in Léon Blum’s government and the period immediately preceding WWII. What emerges in the photos of such luminaries as Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Chim (David Seymour), Robert Doisneau, and Willy Ronis among other photojournalists is little less than a unified, if contested image of a society rapidly refiguring itself. Here technology proves the first hero. The portability of cameras, wide lens and higher resolution photography, and the ability to turn shots into next day’s paper gave birth to a new documentary language. Close-ups from within a crowd, odd angles, photos taken from rooftops hold their own with group portraits of politicians at ease in saloon lounges or mid-speech before thousands.

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Bastille Day demonstrations, Vincennes 1935 (©FredStein.com)

The great range or even discrepancy of Capa and company’s interests and work suggest a whole society falling at once under the same photographic lens, even as history jostles against advertisements and film stars in the daily papers. The photos appear on equal terms. Even publicity in the sense of public relations proves nascent, if not off balance. Airs of improvisation and the same-old business surround political figures like Blum and his contemporaries. Striking workers and public amusements achieve a glamour just as photographers accord the homeless and unemployed a new dignity. And slowly certain dramatic poses and compositions take on a new regularity across the exhibit. The vocabulary hardens and situations reprise themselves. New understandings of personal and sexual relationships, masculinity and femininity, and modernity itself track across the years. (One gentle criticism should be added here: it would have done well to have included far more female photographers.) What happens, as Michel Winock and others argue, is that French society comes to understand itself in images just as photographers came to learn their full historical potential—‘History’ with a capital ‘H.’

The German photographer Lore Krüger’s work confronts many of the same issues, if more obliquely. Her career and biography stagger the mind. Krüger studies photography with Florence Henri and other Bauhaus-trained photographers while attending lectures with László Rádványi in 1930s Paris, all the while absorbing the lessons of interwar avant-garde photographers (and living in the same house as Arthur Koestler and Walter Benjamin). An exile from Nazi Germany, Krüger passes through Majorca—witnessing Franco’s troops massacre Republican forces in 1936—and mainland Spain at the height of its Civil War before making her way to New York, where she and her husband work for the exile community’s German-language press. Giving up photography after the war, Krüger eventually returns to a quiet life as a translator and author in Eastern Germany before dying in 2009.

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Lore Krüger, “Jeune Gitan, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer” (1936; © Estate of Lore Krüger)

The exhibits’ curators posthumously assemble what remained of Krüger’s photography. In their composition, lighting, and psychological reach, her work achieves a uniform excellence across still lives, landscapes, portraits of friends, and above all in her studies of interwar gypsies. The balance between all her influences is remarkable, not least as Krüger too follows in the wake of glossy magazines and photojournalism. Yet a dichotomy of sorts also arises. For every ‘political’ image or photograph taken on the street, Krüger veers to high avant-garde experimentation elsewhere. These activities both overlap and command longer periods in her work, persisting until the end of Krüger’s artistic career. Something new emerges at the same time: what might be called the private lives of an avant-garde and an artist in wartime apart from any political engagement. The exhibit’s repeated argument that Krüger’s œuvre forms a consistent whole here seems to miss a much more interesting set of questions. How do we reconstruct private intellectual life, the persistence of international movements once contacts have been severed, and the experience of artistic experimentation continued under the hardest conditions?

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Josef Sudek, “The Last Rose” (1956, Musée des Beaux-arts du Canada, Ottawa. 2010 © Estate of Josef Sudek)

All the same issues confront any attempt to wrangle the great, protean Czech photographer Josef Sudek into a coherent retrospective. The portraitist, the architecture and the landscape photographer, the artist of still lives, and the commercial man all jostle against one another over a career spanning the complicated histories of interwar and then communist-era Czechoslovakia. To reduce Sudek’s photography to any political (or apolitical) stance or simpler historical context would be a mistake on the same order of privileging one genre above the others. Yet the Jeu de Paume’s curators attempt something like this. Moving backwards from the interior studies, they claim a certain artistic unity which in turn drives the late Sudek into a sort of inner exile. An impression grows of intervening notions organizing a narrative: the late Romantic artist gradually finds himself confined to a window by the history beyond it, something like an uncritical reprise of Günter Gaus’s old notion of East Germany as a ‘niche society.’ This is not to say that the merits of Sudek’s work do not shine through the exhibit, or that the curators entirely mute his own thinking. The problem is rather that later ideas and contexts—historical or otherwise—drown out the images. As confidently as Keïta’s or as loudly as the Front populaire journalists’ pictures speak to audiences today, others such as Krüger’s and Sudek’s talk to historians, art historians, and all of us in much quieter tones.

Exhibitions reviewed: “Seydou Keïta,” Grand Palais (31 March to 11 July, 2016); “Exposition 1936 : le Front populaire en photographie,” Hôtel de Ville de Paris (19 May to 23 July, 2016); “Lore Krüger : une photographe en exil, 1934-1944,” Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (30 March to 17 July, 2016); Josef Sudek : Le monde à ma fenêtre,” Jeu de Paume (7 June to 25 September, 2016).