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Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital

Bengal in Global Concept History: Culturalism in the Age of Capital

by Andrew SartoriAndrew Sartori
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Today people all over the globe invoke the concept of culture to make sense of their world, their social interactions, and themselves. But how did the culture concept become so ubiquitous? In this ambitious study, Andrew Sartori closely examines the history of political and intellectual life in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bengal to show how the concept can take on a life of its own in different contexts.
            Sartori weaves the narrative of Bengal’s embrace of culturalism into a worldwide history of the concept, from its origins in eighteenth-century Germany, through its adoption in England in the early 1800s, to its appearance in distinct local guises across the non-Western world. The impetus for the concept’s dissemination was capitalism, Sartori argues, as its spread across the globe initiated the need to celebrate the local and the communal. Therefore, Sartori concludes, the use of the culture concept in non-Western sites was driven not by slavish imitation of colonizing powers, but by the same problems that repeatedly followed the advance of modern capitalism. This remarkable interdisciplinary study will be of significant interest to historians and anthropologists, as well as scholars of South Asia and colonialism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226734941
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Series: Chicago Studies in Practices of Meaning Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Andrew Sartori is assistant professor of history at New York University and coeditor of From the Colonial to the Postcolonial: India and Pakistan in Transition.

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Bengal in Global Concept History

Culturalism in the Age of Capital

By Andrew Sartori

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-73494-1


Bengali "Culture" as a Historical Problem

IN 1952, the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray dragged his cameras into a rural landscape, known to him only through the conventions of Bengali literature, to begin pitching the lauded humanism of his famous Apu trilogy. Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959) follow the development of a young Brahman boy (Apu) from his impoverished childhood in a small village through separation from his family, school, marriage, tragic loss, and finally to maturity. Together they form an eloquent cinematic vision of the resolution of parochial tradition — the village from which Apu emerges as a small child in the first film and to which he returns to claim his abandoned son at the end of the last — into the broad framework of a cosmopolitan humanism (the trajectory first introduced by a globe that Apu is awarded at school as a small boy). But we can also already sense alongside the ideals of culture encoded in the bildungsroman structure of the Apu narrative a troubling anxiety about the aesthetic and ethical rootlessness of a materialistic modernity symbolized most strikingly by the recurrent intrusion of the locomotive, whose headlong, clamorous rush is variously awe-inspiring, threatening, oppressive, and the recurrent instrument of emotionally painful separations. Ray ascribed Nehruvian sympathies to his early work, and Nehru, the socialist advocate of industrialization and modernization, had conversely lent his personal support to the completion of the trilogy. Yet one need only notice the complete absence of the dams, irrigation projects, and machinery characteristic of the modernist aesthetic of technology so evident in contemporary postindependence Hindi cinema (for example, Mehboob Khan's 1957 film, Mother India) to recognize a distinctly "Bengali" cast both to his self-conscious humanism and to the anxieties that haunted it.

Anxieties that remained the slightest of hints in the Apu trilogy would already stand out as the central theme of his 1958 film Jalsaghar (The Music Room). Produced between the second and third installments of the trilogy and originally conceived to be a more broadly popular "musical" project, this film unexpectedly transmuted in the course of production into one of his most broodingly serious works. An aging zamindar (landlord) who has lost his fortune and his family to an immoderate passion for Hindustani classical music leads a life of isolation, enervation, and deepening insolvency, immersed in memories of the magnificent musical soirées that were once his hallmark. As he sits smoking his hookah surrounded by the crumbling relics of an increasingly anachronistic cultural prestige, we hear in the background an intrusive, irritating drone emanating from the new electrical generator of his nouveau riche neighbor. Having mounted his horse in a final desperate grasp at past glory, the zamindar falls to a death that is surely inevitable from the perspective of the feudal historical resonances that Ray seems to have intended. Yet that death is also saturated with the pathos of tragic heroism.

With Jalsaghar, Ray evinced an acute sense that the modern onslaught of materialistic vulgarity necessarily rendered aesthetic and ethical value deeply fragile. By the 1970s, this anxiety had become the dominant mood of his films. In Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1975), he gives us an unremittingly bleak portrayal of the descent of an idealistic and bright young student into total ethical collapse as, in the face of unmerited unemployment, he takes up the business of a commercial middleman (dalal) on the streets of a Calcutta reduced to sordid interests and the brute struggle for survival. And in Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World, 1984), he would directly contrast the humanistic ideals represented by the lonely voice of the enlightened and cosmopolitan zamindar, Nikhilesh, against the self-serving, chauvinistic rabble-rousing of the charismatic nationalist agitator, Sandip. The mood of these films was clearly inseparable from a more general political disillusionment: "All the political parties have been disappointing," he would comment in 1970, noting the "corruption on all levels of public and private work, and a certain laziness and lack of values and nothing to guide." Faced with this universal corruption, it was in his own artistic practice that he found redemption: "That's why I love to lose myself in my work."

Ray was as literary a filmmaker as it is perhaps possible to be, drawing heavily on classic Bengali novels and stories for many of his best-known films. In fact, Ghare-Baire was based on a 1916 novel by the Bengali Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore; and Tagore had clearly intended Nikhilesh, the doomed moral authority of Ray's film, to stand in as his own fictional alter ego in the original novel. So it is perhaps not so surprising to realize that Ray's Janus-vision of aesthetic self-cultivation and everyday corruption had deep resonances with Tagore's own sensibilities. It was indeed with much the same preoccupations in mind that Tagore, the ultimate icon of Bengali culture, had in the 1930s launched a rather extraordinary campaign to raise sanskriti, the Bengali term conventionally used today to translate culture, to its contemporary position of sole supremacy in conventional usage, and to downgrade to marginality its chief rival, krishti. Krishti (derived from cash, meaning "cultivation" in its literal sense) was tied, Tagore argued, by its Sanskrit root and usage to the practice of tilling the soil, a mundane association at profound odds with the rarified significance of culture in its higher sense. English usage might conflate the two meanings in one term, but that was no reason for Bengali to follow suit.

There exist various skills and endeavors for filling our stomachs and fulfilling the requirements of livelihood; but to fill man's emptiness and awaken the man of the mind in various ways to a variety of sensibilities, he has literature and art. How exalted and immense is this in the history of man. If it could be extinguished in some civilizational armageddon, what a vast emptiness would open out like a black desert in the history of man. Man has the field of "krishti" for his agriculture, for his offices and factories; literature is the field of his sanskriti, here occurs the sanskriti of his own self, through it he raises himself in every respect, he becomes his own self. As the Aitareya Brahmana has said, "Arts indeed are the sanskriti of the soul."

Tagore's aversion to krishti was a function of a philosophy of literature according to which, in Niharranjan Ray's words, "the creation of art and literature occurs from within a space beyond necessity and outside the limits of the requirements of human livelihood." Since agriculture was essentially an instrumental function of mundane necessity, krishti was necessarily the negation of culture. In contrast, sanskriti was understood to mean something like purification, the extraction of man's spiritual self from the phenomenal attachments of the grossly material, and as such it better expressed the spiritual striving for free autonomy that was at the very heart of man's cultural activity. The human aspiration to free self-cultivation was formed in a space sharply demarcated from the petty interests and material necessities that Tagore saw as driving the world more generally.

That alternative sanskritik space might be precariously situated in the interstices of the modern city itself, where even the most penniless of the educated could snatch beauty and meaning out of an anonymous and dehumanizing environment through the practices of reading, writing, and reciting poetry, or of singing Tagore's much loved devotional songs (rabindrasangit). "From one Calcutta sidewalk to another, from sidewalk to sidewalk / As I walk along, my life's blood feels the vapid, venomous touch / Of tram tracks stretched out beneath my feet like a pair of primordial serpent sisters," wrote the poet Jibanananda Das in a 1938 meditation on the very Calcutta streets where sixteen years later he would be run down by a tram on his evening walk. "A soft rain is falling, the wind slightly chilling. / Of what far land of green grass, rivers, fireflies am I thinking?" Jibanananda snatched transcendence from his impoverished immersion in the banalities of everyday life, but as the form of his musings here also implies, the sanskritik space of freedom could also be elsewhere in a more literal sense — out in the villages that some continued to imagine as a haven from the sullying touch of Western modernity. And more especially still, it could be in Shantiniketan (the Abode of Peace), a community whose "founding ideal" was voluntary civility and cooperative self-cultivation, where communal and caste differences were to be forgotten, and where Tagore's university, Visva-Bharati, self-consciously pitched itself as an "all-embracing institute of universal cultural exchange" that would work to subordinate to the "ever-expansive unison-fostering amity of man's mind," both the "self-protective, possessive animal passion" of our individual creaturely existence, and the "devastating possibilities of the physical dimension of life heaping up unrestrictedly in venomous animosity."

For most of the twentieth century, a problematic of culture has provided the framework both for the optimistic pride and the anxious pessimism of modern Bengali identity, as well as for Bengal's ambivalent relationship to conceptions of national and global modernity. But this Bengali peculiarity also resonates strikingly with forms of culturalism in, for example, the Indian region of Maharashtra, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Indeed, in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, culture achieved the status of a truly global concept. We find discourses of culture emerging to prominence in the German-speaking world during the second half of the eighteenth century; in the English-speaking world starting in the first half of the nineteenth century; in Eastern Europe, East Asia, and South Asia starting in the second half of the nineteenth century; and just about everywhere else in the course of the twentieth century. Culture began to circulate far beyond the European sites of its modern genesis, sometimes through the direct transfer of lexical items from Western European languages (Russian kul'tura; the use of kalcar in various South Asian languages); and more often through the construction of new translative equivalencies with preexisting words or concepts most often signifying purification, refinement, or improvement (Japanese bunka; Chinese wen-hua; Bengali, Hindi, and Marathi sanskriti; Urdu tamaddun).

This book sets out to give an account of the emergence of Bengali culturalism in a manner that can grasp at once its local specificity and the global resonance of its major themes. Even the most determinedly nationalist forms of cultural discourse, I will show, took form within the profoundly transnational context of the circulation of ideological forms. Rather than attempt to marginalize the significance of this transnational dimension of culturalist discourse, this work will instead attempt to locate Bengali culturalism within a global framework. After all, a cosmopolitan audience would enthusiastically embrace Rabindranath Tagore's poetry and Satyajit Ray's films precisely to the extent that the universalistic spirit of their humanism was embodied in the concrete exoticism of their imagery. The history of the culture concept in Bengal can be treated neither as a local deviation from nor as a late reiteration of an essentially Western intellectual form, but will rather be investigated as a spatially and temporally specific moment in the global history of the culture concept.

While this book is certainly intended primarily as an exercise in intellectual history, it will not stop at the narration of a history of ideas or the successive constellations of discourse formations. Rather, my account of Bengali culturalism will also be an attempt to account for Bengali culturalism — to understand why the logic of culturalism's most fundamental organizing categories were plausible within a particular historical milieu. In other words, I will not root Bengali culturalism in the ethnic particularity of regional culture or in the timeless "nature of things"; I will root it in the complex structure of social practices that, I argue, renders the culturalist imagination meaningful as a lens for thinking about self and society. I shall insist on seeing this constellation of social practices as constituted, in its specificity, within the global structures of capitalist society. And I shall read Bengali culturalist discourse as grounded in a systematic misrecognition of these structures. By misrecognition, I do not mean to imply that Bengalis were either stupid or duped. I mean that they mistook the forms of appearance through which these structures manifested themselves for their actuality — a mistake grounded in the very nature of modern capitalist society, which systematically presents itself in forms that cloak its deeper logic. I hope to show that, within the logic of culturalist ideology, the underlying practical structures that have constituted its historical plausibility can still be recognized — and, precisely for this reason, Bengali culturalism can be understood, with neither condescension nor credulity, as a meaningful response to the particular historical context within which it has been articulated.

The culture concept with which this study grapples is not primarily a lexical item, but rather a particular way of linking, implicitly or explicitly, the freedom of human subjectivity with practical activity — a point to which I shall return in more detail in the following chapter. In this book, I will focus primarily on the relative coherence of the conceptual logic of Bengali culturalism. This logic is certainly not given full articulation in every text or speech that has invoked it; and indeed, more often than not it is simply taken for granted. To render this logic visible then, and to distinguish it from other competing ideological structures, is the first task. In what follows, I argue that Bengali culturalism emerged in the 1880s as a reaction against a liberal ideological paradigm that had emerged to dominance in the early nineteenth century. I thus elaborate culturalism and liberalism as distinct ideological paradigms. I am aware that, in any specific context-bound textual or discursive artifact, both paradigms might be found side by side, producing either a synthesis or merely an incoherent jumble. But my aim is to take a step back from such concrete complexity to try to grasp the constellation of arguments being drawn upon in such ambiguous articulations. This in turn is to understand the rationality and plausibility of particular ideological paradigms in terms of the practical determinations of historically specific forms of subjectivity — to follow both Hegel and Marx in moving from the abstract determination to the concrete instance rather than vice versa. In doing so, I will focus overwhelmingly on some of the "great men" from the pantheon of the so-called Bengal Renaissance, the succession of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century men of letters, beginning with Rammohun Roy and culminating in Rabindranath Tagore, who developed modern Bengali linguistic and literary forms and gave the most prominent expression to Bengali visions of national renewal. But if I do this, it is certainly not because I embrace a "great man" theory of history turning on notions of influence and inheritance. It is rather because I see their iconic status as indicative of their capacity to articulate a (relatively) coherent formulation of specific modes of social reflection and ethicopolitical argument that either had emerged or would soon emerge to prominence in colonial Bengal. They are studied as voices that condense the deeply social and historical forces that gave rise to their iconicity, and not for their ineffable genius or enlightened insight.


Excerpted from Bengal in Global Concept History by Andrew Sartori. Copyright © 2008 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One   
Bengali “Culture” as a Historical Problem
Chapter Two   
Culture as a Global Concept 
Chapter Three   
Bengali Liberalism and British Empire
Chapter Four   
Hinduism as Culture
Chapter Five   
The Conceptual Structure of an Indigenist Nationalism
Chapter Six   
Reification, Rarification, and Radicalization        
Universalistic Particularisms and Parochial Cosmopolitanisms    

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