global intellectual history

Global/Universal History: A Warning

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

Last week, in an essay on the state of global history, historian Jeremy Adelman asked, “In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts?” In the wake of last November’s election in the United States, and the slew of executive orders, hate crimes, and retaliatory moves by other governments that have followed, it is a fair question: have the unequivocal challenges to the project and paradigm of global integration put into jeopardy the very task of the global historian? Adelman concludes that the challenges to interdependence and “the togetherness of strangers near and far” levied by “the anti-globalism movement” must be met by historians willing to engage with disintegration as well—willing to listen to the “tribalists out there and right here.” In other words, it would not be helpful or honest to write another global history that does not account for the reasons behind the apparently widespread and domino-like backlash against sunny, cosmopolitan narratives about a world seen, as though from space, as a single swirling orb.

Global history is not necessarily the history of globalization. It is also not, as Adelman notes, “the history of everything.” It is “both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history… it is both a process and a perspective, subject matter and methodology” (Sebastian Conrad). Despite the myriad approaches to and existing volumes on this very subject, I want to return to the version of global history predicated on the interconnectedness and integration of our global present (and the anxiety around this present now quickly fading into the past). When the avowed raison d’être of a historical narrative that calls itself “global” is to explain how the world became so connected in the first place, dialogue among historians of global history has until now meant contending with the assumption that one is participating in this “moment.” The language of historiographical change is replete with the imagery of movement: the current, the turn, the shift, the trend—toward global history. Sitting still for too long isn’t great, but even worse is getting caught out of touch with the “out there.” Given the waning interest in foreign-language training and the desire to strengthen borders and drive out the “foreign,” if one had been proceeding all this time with an understanding of global history as tied to globalization – and its enduring possibilities for a new kind of humanistic citizenship, as Lynn Hunt suggested in her 2014 book—then one might imagine that a threat to that vision might mean a threat to the mission of the global historian.

What did one have to believe about the world to look around in 2014 and see a process of closer integration and interconnectedness? What did one have to ignore? In the news were rising deportations by the Obama administration, the prominence even then of an anti-globalization movement (granted, with a different character), and the success of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. These were not considered part of a single phenomenon as widely or nervously as similar, as much more large-scale events are now. Indeed, the difference seems to be regime change: anxiety about a wave of right-wing governments upending the post-war liberal project mark the advance of every major election in the wake of November’s unexpected win by President Trump. The democratically elected far-right cannot any longer be dismissed as the purview of the newcomers to the West, like Hungary and Poland, or those who lie outside its borders, like India. The jeering faces of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders loom the morning after every Trump “win”—in congratulations and promise/warning. This is a critical distinction: it is only with regime change, with the “fall” of governments to illiberalism that a trend has taken shape and been given a name in the columns of commentators. Yet the persistence and violence of border regimes, right-wing successes, and anti-globalization have been a part of the before-time just as they are a part of this epoch—post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-insert-catastrophe-here.

It is at junctures like these that it becomes most obvious that our historiographical preoccupations lie flat on top of our anxieties.

Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori have sketched an overview of the field of global history as part of their exploration of the possibility of global intellectual history. The current flowed from Hegel to Marx to the present. In Hegel we see the world-historical, the paradigmatic, the antecedent to the global history of our own time (taking some slightly unsavory detours through the “universal”). Indeed, much work on transnational connections and “connected histories” contains an explicit challenge to the Hegelian view of history and all its apparently outmoded Eurocentrism: “Hegel himself might have ended the narrative of the self-realization of ‘reason in history’ with the European state, but others carried the project forward to examine the implications for other parts of the world of the claims of European modernity to universality.”

In 2000, the philosopher and intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss wrote an essay in Critical Inquiry arguing that “Hegel and Haiti belong together.” In her essay and the book that followed, she demonstrates that Hegel and his contemporaries were aware of and critically engaged with the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution via the widely read journal Minerva. She asks why Hegel scholars, with few exceptions, have chosen to read the dialectic of master and slave in Phenomenology of Spirit as mere metaphor. She also asks, “To what degree is Hegel himself accountable for the effective silencing of the Haitian Revolution?” Buck-Morss notes that the political metaphor of slavery as the embodiment in Western political philosophy of “everything that was evil about power relations” came about at the same time as the “systematic, highly sophisticated capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labor force in the colonies.” She then wonders, why has the uncanny relationship between Hegel and Haiti been ignored so long? “Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it.”

Buck-Morss takes this simple observation—the absence, the unasked question—to untangle the meaning of universality in history. What kind of subjectivity was assumed to be held by the singular and universal protagonist of history that moves in Hegel’s work and that of his heirs? (You and I number among them, reader, if the trajectory of intellectual history proffered by Moyn and Sartori above is to be believed.) It is the same protagonist at the center of the teleology of Marxism and indeed, at the center of globalization (and the strain of global history with which it is associated). In place of this sort of universality, Buck-Morss suggests that asking the hitherto unasked question “creates the possibility for rescuing the ideal of universal human history from the uses to which white domination has put it…. If the historical facts about freedom can be ripped out of the narratives told by the victors and salvaged for our own time, then the project of universal freedom does not need to be discarded, but rather, redeemed and reconstituted on a different basis.” Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written in Provincializing Europe, without Hegelian universals like history and freedom, “there would be no social science that addresses issues of modern social justice”.

Buck-Morss shows us that inquiring after the unasked question—refusing to take it on faith that Hegel and Haiti were worlds apart—can expand the possibilities of historical inquiry. Permit me an exercise in parallelism: If the historical facts about globality can be ripped out of the narrative of globalization told by the victors and salvaged for a time in which the Western academy seems to have woken up to the fact that “globalization” is neither telos nor panacea, then the project of global history does not need to be discarded either.

In reading this version of global history through Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, I have tried to suggest that we make ourselves unhelpfully vulnerable as historians when we drive the stakes of our narratives into shifting sands. I am not suggesting here that global historians did not, or do not, see the complications or limitations of the approach. As I noted above, there are many ways to write global history, and hindsight will always see blind spots and stumbling blocks more clearly than those who were writing histories even a short while ago. I have been concerned here with a very specific feature of this field: a mission to write a story of the past shaped by an occluded and willfully blind cohesion. Orienting an historical approach around an assumption about the future “progress” of the world does little more than make us prone to hasty retreat as soon as that future is jeopardized by the caprice of the “real world.” In Buck-Morss and in Adelman’s essay, I read a warning. If a single, redeeming, and final world-historical force ever calls out to you, either plug your ears with wax or tie yourself to the mast, because there are other, more distant calls the siren song is doubtless drowning out.

Historicizing Ghosts: Reimagining Realities in Nineteenth Century Popular Bengali Fiction

by guest contributors Senjuti Jash and Shuvatri Dasgupta

ghostsIn South Asian historiography myths, local legends, chronicles, and folklores function as primary sources for the writing of “history,” or itihasa, as Romila Thapar has illustrated. Within the broad genre of fiction, historians have traditionally used social novels or short stories, and have overlooked popular fiction dealing with ghosts and spirits. Residing in an alternative society to that of the anthropocentric one, in fictionalized narratives and anecdotes, ghosts represented the “other” of the Bengali “self” during the nineteenth century. In this piece, we explore ghost stories as texts which can inform a bottom-up approach to histories of the nineteenth-century Bengali mind.

Why did the spectral community find popularity in the fictional realm of the Bengali mind during the nineteenth century? The primary reason behind this are the cholera, malaria, and plague epidemics which wreaked havoc in villages and cities, wiping out more than half of the population in Bengal during the early nineteenth century. From 1839 onwards, these epidemics spread from Bengal to other parts of India, as John Hays has shown. As the number of discarded and diseased corpses increased, ghosts found a place in the Bengali psyche facing the realities of death in their everyday worlds. In this scenario, the discourses of science and medicine produced a space at the intersections of “rationality” and “spirituality,” and engendered these accounts, which were transmitted both orally and in print.

The category of “ghost” remained fluid: in some stories they were seen, while in some their presence was only felt. In the fictional narratives, an environment of phantasm was created with omens like black cats, moonlight, and veiled silhouettes. The spaces of deserted houses and dilapidated bungalows acquired a metaphorical organic significance in these discourses. In a Bengali proverb from Comilla (Bangladesh), roughly translated as “ghosts inhabit a broken-down house,” the house signified the human body crumbling under various incurable ailments, which attracted ghosts to make the ailing human one of their own.

Local legends from Rangpur (Bangladesh) dating back to the nineteenth century described the habitats of different types of ghosts in various kinds of trees, namely Palmyra, Tamarind, and Madar. Ghosts also inhabited trees like Banyan, Sand Paper, Acacia, and Bengal Quince. The allocation of habitats in the spectral world mirrored anthropocentric normativities associated with gender roles. For example, the male Brahmin ghost, namely the Brahmadaitya, usually inhabited tall evergreen trees like Aegle Marmelos, Peepul, and Magnolia, maintaining his social superiority over others even after death. Female ghosts inhabited smaller shorter bushes and shrubs like the Streblus Asper and others. The Brahmadaitya’s habitat in comparison with the female ghosts’ habitats illustrated not only his primacy on the social ladder, but also the gender normativities permeating into the “other” world from the human world. 


An early 20th century edition of the Grandmother’s Tales. Image courtesy of GoodReads.

In a famous anthology of tales compiled in the early twentieth century titled Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s Bag of Tales), the narrator was an old woman entertaining her grandchildren, with a barely-disguised didactic tone. These tales reflected an element of moral speculation attached to the gender roles of the ghosts. Female ghosts like the widowed Petni were portrayed as attracted to fish, given the nineteenth century Indian tradition of widows living an ascetic life with dietary regulations. The construction of this ghostly image functioned on two levels: the reflection of the past married life on the widowed “self” of the narrator, and the articulation of these suppressed desires through the representations of the “other” widowed ghost. This dual self-projection of the narrator served a greater purpose, as it participated in the ongoing discourse about the issues of sati and widow remarriage, contributing to larger debates about the rights and privileges of women in nineteenth-century Bengali society.

With the colonial government’s criminalization of sati and legalization of widow remarriage, as Lata Mani has shown in her seminal article “Contentious Traditions,” women became sites of conflict for redefining “tradition.” There was a clear colonial preoccupation with the state of women as a benchmark for appraising civilizational standards. For the colonial masters, the injustice and oppression meted out to Indian women in the form of sati became a corroboration of “British modernity” and a moral platform on which their “civilizing” endeavor could be justified. The “feminine” hence provided a space for renegotiating what was “Indian” and what was “Western.” The female ghosts were clearly no different. While Indian women gradually unified over shared demands for various rights, the ghostly women from the other world expressed their solidarities for these reforms through the figure of Petni indulging in fish.

In these fictionalized narratives, living women—especially the ones who were pregnant or had long lustrous hair—were portrayed as more susceptible to ghostly encounters. Also, medical conditions such as seizures, epilepsy, multiple personality disorders, and schizophrenia in women were diagnosed by the quacks as being possessed or inhabited by evil or unholy spirits. These women then were subjected to the autonomy of the exorcists. They were sexually exploited under the pretext of exorcism and were sometimes even forced to marry the exorcist as a favor in return. Since most of the oral tales were produced by female narrators, they served as a space to articulate and in turn resist the threats women faced from the community of exorcists and failed to overcome in the human worlds.


An exorcist confronting a “possessed” woman. Illustration from Bhutude Kanda, by Rabidas Saharoy (1962). Illustrations by Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay and Debabrata Gosh.

The influence of colonial race theories was also clearly detectable in the world of horror fiction, as they emerged as a significant premise for British epistemic exercises. Significant segments of British and European intellectuals, even during the age of the Scottish Enlightenment, considered Indians to be closer to black Africans, or black Malays, than they were to white “Caucasians.” As Swarupa Gupta comments, there was “selective adaptation, internalisation and re-articulation” of the basic tenets of imperial race theory, interwoven with prevalent conceptions of Hindu caste hierarchy within the Indian milieu, after the Census of 1871 (Notions of Nationhood, 112-13). While ordinary ghosts, both male and female, were described as dark-skinned, the Brahmin male ghost was portrayed as fair-skinned, tall, exhibiting saint-like feet, and wearing sandalwood sandals. On one hand, widowed Petni was depicted as a very dark-skinned figure; on the other, the ghost of the Muslim man, known as Mamdo, was also depicted with similar adjectives. Additionally, he wore a skullcap and featured an unkempt beard. The image of the Islamic ghost succumbed to colonial stereotypes, resembled its human image and position in society.


Petni catching fish in a river. Image from Embellished Memories website.

Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s short story “Oshoriri” tells how a Bengali middle-class man from Calcutta mistook his low-caste dark-skinned Bihari servant in Ranchi for a “ghost.” The tale ends with a strong note on the social constructions of the aesthetic facade of a man in contradistinction to a ghost, and how this dichotomy was balanced on an understanding of Victorian notions of outward appearance. Hence, specific categories of low-caste ghosts were marginalized even in their death, as an expression of the powerful afterlife of the stringent specificities of “caste” and “religion” that even death could not transcend. Thus, the socioeconomic and political impact of colonial dominance was translated in the languages of the spectral world through the idioms of religious, social, and gender discrimination, and racial hierarchies.

Ghosts were not always scary or malicious. In some tales, like the Jola ar Sat Bhoot (The Muslim Weaver and Seven Ghosts), they emerged as benevolent figures helping poor peasants out of financial misery, while also representing the spirit of resistance against the oppressive British regime. However, the figure of the benevolent ghost was essentially limited to the sphere of rural narratives, since urban miseries appeared to be apparently incurable even by ghostly benevolence. In the urban narratives, the ghosts appeared more as a threat to the luxuries and comforts, such as electricity, enjoyed by the city dwellers. Socially constructed notions of hygiene associated with poverty, such as bodily stink and dirty fingernails, were regarded as threatening even to ghosts, let alone humans! The poor were outcast even in the domain of enjoying the privilege of ghostly attention in the fiction generated in elite and gentrified urban spaces.

Picking up the thread from where we began, these fictional tales hence remain an unexplored repository for the intellectual historian, portraying how the Bengali mind under colonial transitions revisualized worlds, relationships, normativities, and ideologies. These narratives, both orally transmitted in rural areas and through print in urban circles, generated alternative realities. On one hand, gender restrictions were subverted, on the other, racial hierarchies and rural-urban divisions were reiterated. Reflecting the transitions in a Bengali society caught in the middle of colonial ideologues and nationalist exceptionalisms, ghosts provided Bengalis the voice of hope, faith, and sustenance they needed at the turn of the century.

Shuvatri Dasgupta is a final-year master’s student at Presidency University. Her work revolves around locating the global in the local by analyzing the multilayered origins of cultural and political discourses—tracing their genealogies and contextualizing them in transregional frameworks.

Senjuti Jash is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Her dissertation is about the global intellectual history of caste. She is interested in overcoming the barriers of time and space to discern the intricate webs of connectivities across polities, economies, and cultures in this global age.