Constructivism, Historicism, and History in the Post-truth Age: Global Reflections from South Asia

AHA Session 40
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 2
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Sutton South (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
William R. Pinch, Wesleyan University
Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago
Divya Cherian, Princeton University
Sumit Guha, University of Texas at Austin
Ramya Sreenivasan, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

Thirty-two years (or seven presidential elections) ago, Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream drove the final historiographical nail into the coffin of scholarly objectivity—or so it was hoped. In hindsight we might see Novick’s 1988 book as the discipline’s way of registering, once and for all, and in its wonderfully methodical (which is to say, methodologically wonderful) way, the events of 1968 and the collapse of the post-WWII consensus. “Truth,” we were told, was dethroned, rendered partial and contingent, so as to make room for an array of new narratives around gender, race, class, and culture (religion and species were soon to follow). That Americans have, since those heady days, inhabited a “post-truth” world was underscored most recently by the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, an event accompanied by the ontological ascendancy of “fake news.” Post-modern perspectivalism finally trickled down to the masses, much like Republican wealth was supposed to do. However, “fake news” presupposes a regime of “truth”. Thus even as “alternative facts” were reshaping the body politic, the American Historical Association rededicated itself to the pursuit of truth, proclaiming that “History is a discipline that begins with questions and impartially marshals evidence before generating answers. A compelling argument requires facts presented in context.” The Trump administration’s rewriting of history failed, in the view of the AHA, to “pass historical muster.” Novick may have driven the final nail into the coffin of objectivity, but objectivity still lives.

Similar patterns may be seen beyond the shores of North America. In India, for example, the cracks in the Nehruvian consensus that shook the body politic in the late sixties and seventies were registered historiographically in the 1980s with the rise of subaltern studies and post-colonial perspectives. The post-truth (or “post-foundational”) commitments that informed historical discourse in India in the 1990s and early 2000s were paralleled by and, some would argue, inadvertently gave intellectual cover to the rise of religious nationalism, culminating in the landslide parliamentary election victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP in 2014. If there are differences, they are (first) that the state exercises far greater control over academic resources in India than in north America, and (second) that there are far fewer intellectuals on the political right in India—or such is the conventional wisdom.

Gathered to discuss these and related developments are a group of historians of South Asia ranging across generations, fields, regions, and periods. The occasion is marked by the publication of Sumit Guha’s timely book, The Social Frame of Historical Memory: South Asian Practices in Global Context, c.1200-2000 (University of Washington, 2019), which examines the social dynamics of history writing in what Dipesh Chakrabarty (in his 2015 book, The Calling of History: Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth [University of Chicago Press, 2015]) called the ever-fragile “cloister” of the academy.

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