“Doing history ideally is like doing anthropology of people who are gone, except that you don’t have native informants, you only have these written fragmentary sources. But the same hermeneutic struggle goes on: you’re trying to understand somebody from their point of view.”
Dipesh Chakrabarty, the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of history and South Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Chicago and Distinguished Dean’s Professor at ANU’s School of Culture History and Language (College of Asia and the Pacific), sat down with our own Ian Pollock to talk about the intersections of history and anthropology, the struggle of scholars from poorer countries to understand their societies own their own terms, and the appeal of western-style academic structures, plus what it takes to do history right: the training, the judgment, and how to use theory (and not let theory use you).
Dipesh’s bio, including a (prodigious) list of his published works, can be found at U Chicago: https://history.uchicago.edu/directory/dipesh-chakrabarty. His latest book was The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth (2015), from University of Chicago Press.
Subscribe, rate, and review The Familiar Strange on Soundcloud, iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Davis, Natalie Z. (2000) Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.
Descola, Philippe, translated by Janet Lloyd (2013) Beyond Nature and Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Povinelli, Elizabeth A. (2016) Geontologies: A Requiem for Late Liberalism. Duke University Press, NC.
“Life is not always enjoyable. You have to make a story out of lived experiences to write history, and that story has to be enjoyable.”
“All disciplines basically work with implicit models. The more formal a discipline is, the more explicit the models are.”
“When you do your thesis and you defend it, you have to defend it in terms of what it contributes to the general understanding of anthropology. And that general understanding of anthropology or history is in the end more Western, even though we think of it as ‘general.’ But the ‘general’ is a Western ‘general.’ So what happens is, because of this unevenness of resources, these poorer countries actually have a tough time coming to understand themselves. Because their students get scholarships to go out and immerse themselves, like I did, into these ‘general’ discussions, but the ‘general’ discussions are Western. So I actually think sometimes that the West is producing its own intellectuals everywhere in the world.”
“What we are faced with is a predicament where, as humans, we cannot not wish other humans to have the rights that we enjoy. But at the same time, our numbers have grown, and that also has some consequences. And how to combine our thinking about those consequences and our thinking about rights without some kind of optimistic leap of faith, either in technology or just sheer faith in human ingenuity, we don’t know how to combine them.”
“If you looked at the planet without thinking about rights, without thinking about justice — because in Darwin’s book there’s no justice — if you look at the planet through that framework, you have a language for talking about other species. But you can’t bring it into the language of rights and things. And therefore it’s like the ‘truths’ of evolution, and the aspirations in political philosophy, they just stare at each other, having nothing to say to each other.”
This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the schools of Culture, History, and Language and Archaeology and Anthropology at Australian National University, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science.
Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com
Show notes by Ian Pollock
Image: Islamic Library, Delhi, India. Source: Wikimedia Commons
KEYWORDS: History, anthropology, research, academia, ethnography, human rights, colonialism, India