Magic and the Problem of Belief in Subaltern History Synopsis

Magic and the Problem of Belief in Subaltern History Synopsis

Dipesh Chakrabarty

Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service
Professor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago

To understand Dipesh Chakrabarty’s talk is first to understand its title. Chakrabarty uses "subaltern" to refer to the peasant, a complex word that derives from interest in peasant studies that began in the 1970s. "Magic" evokes the most commonly understood referent. "Belief" is a problem to be explored through the direct examination of relevant scholarly work.

To frame his inquiry, Chakrabarty recounts a British scholarly debate about magic in India, published by the Times of India in 1934. One position held that "street magic," a practice woven into the fiber of daily events, was symptomatic of India's underdevelopment. For India to realize its full potential for "civilization" and modernization was to develop a consciousness of being tricked that would turn "street magic" into an explicitly performative "stage magic." The counterposition cited the partial nature of scientific knowledge and proposed that perhaps the Indian culture had a particular capacity to tap into parapsychological vibrations.

In spite of the seemingly irreconcilable opposition of these claims, they nevertheless share the common ground of an argument that takes as it logical center the concept of rationalism. Magic, then, is an ideal vehicle for the exploration of "rationalism," a term that is linked, in colonialist discourse, to the capacity of a nation to become "civilized" and "modern."

To explore the intersection of magic, rationalism, and nation, Chakrabarty takes as a starting point a constellation of scholars who study magic from a position of respect for its socio-historical and cultural significance: Keith Thomas, Carlo Ginzburg, and Dineshchandra Sen.

British historian Sir Keith Vivian Thomas is a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. His books include Religion and the Decline of Magic (1997 rev.), Man and the Natural World (1983), and The Oxford Book of Work(2003). Chakrabarty considers Thomas's work on the decline of religion in the English Reformation valuable because it accords magic the status of a formal sociopolitical system, thereby legitimizing its historiographical study. On the other hand, Thomas relegates the content of magic to the discipline of psychology, revealing an implicit script of the theory of modernization; namely, that the decline of magic was necessary for the emergence of a rational, modern British State.

Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, Franklin D. Murphy Professor of Italian Renaissance Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, studies Italian folklore through the lens of Inquisition proceedings with peasants. His most famous work is The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1980). Unlike Thomas, Ginzburg takes the form and content of magic together as a unified historical subject. However, Chakrabarty pointedly notes Ginzburg's insistence on maintaining a critical distance from his object of study, which Ginzburg himself defends on the grounds that such non-participation and dis-identification are essential to the historiographical enterprise and its scholarly legitimacy.

Bengali historian Dineshchandra Sen (1866-1939) spent the early years of his career collecting Bengali folktales and published them as evidence of India's cultural obstacles to full modernization, effectively advocating the rationalist argument underlying the theory of modernization (Bengali Language and Literature, Trans. Jibendranath Siddhanta, 1996). Sen levied a particularly scathing characterological attack against Manasa, snake goddess and untouchable daughter of Shiva. (The story goes that Manasa punishes the merchant Chand Saudagar for his refusal to worship her by killing his seven sons, who are, in turn, all restored to life following the plea to the gods made by Behula, the wife of the seventh, before Chand finally relents and agrees to worship Manasa.)

Shortly after the publication of Bangabh¯ash¯a o s¯ahitya (Bengali Language and Literature) in 1896, Sen fell into a deep depression which culminated in a dream. Sen dreamed that an endless stream of snakes entered his bedchamber while a voice accused him of the disloyal abuse of the goddess Manasa. On awakening, Sen smelled a fragrance that he interpreted as the goddess's presence; he deleted the critical material from his book and was cured within three days. Sen wrote a public statement shortly thereafter in which he interpreted the royalties from his popular text (20,000-22,000 copies sold) as a gift from the goddess, conceding all the while that he had "no quarrel" with those who would ridicule him from a scientific position.


It is this conversion story of Sen's that most intrigues Chakrabarty. It seems to provide a point of departure for the mapping of an epistemological difference between the positions represented by Sen and Ginzburg. Ginzburg posits a relationship of identity between peasants and their beliefs and a disidentification of the historiographical subject with respect to this peasant-belief object of study. Sen, on the other hand, proposes a mode of dealing with authority (in this case, magical/religious) which Chakrabarty characterizes as participatory "acknowledgment" that does not necessarily imply "belief" in the strict (and Western) sense of the word. That is, Ginzburg's reading of peasants' beliefs locates peasants as disciplined subjects of their own belief system, simultaneously removing himself from identification with that systemic process. Sen, on the other hand, proposes (and participates) in a model of acknowledgment and acceptance of divinity (to be understood as a form of authority) that may not constitute complete epistemological subjugation (i.e., he does not necessarily "believe in" the deity he is acknowledging, as his professed acceptance of rationalist ridicule suggests).

To approach this distinction from a different angle would be to ask what the theory of modernization would ask: can India produce Carlo Ginzburgs? To put this yet another way, is there a teleological path--of rationality--leading from a Sen to a Ginzburg? Chakrabarty says no.

Chakrabarty first of all argues that India has not taken the same kind of disciplinary turn from orality to writing that happens in the work that Ginzburg studies. In other words, Ginzburg interprets postdisciplinary peasant magic. By the time he arrives at this cultural phenomenon, it is through the documentary lens of the Inquisition, which has already pressed the day-to-day, lived practices of belief (analogous to Indian "street magic") into the translation, perhaps false, of a codified and written form of "belief." In the Western scholastic tradition, this connotes a relationship of monolithic discipline between believer and belief-as-authority.

The implication of Chakrabarty's argument is that this is the locus of a breakdown in the Western tradition that has gone unrecognized by its own scholars. Ginzburg himself does not interrogate the Inquisition process that might have resulted in the epistemological erasure, or writing over, of an everyday practice of magic among the European peasantry. Instead, he aligns himself (in resignation?) with the Inquisitors themselves, accepting a relationship of homology between the object of historiographical inquiry and Inquisitional discipline (Chakrabarty cites Ginzburg as saying, "What I am doing [as historian] is not so different from what Inquisitors were doing.").

The second difference between Sen and Ginzburg is a continuation of the first: Chakrabarty argues that this putatively "rational" transition from oral to written culture could not happen in India because the Western notion of a disciplinary authority is itself incompatible with the Indian conception of power. If, in the West, a totalizing, monolithic model of discipline has prevailed (e.g., the Foucauldian conception of a web of power relations nevertheless operating with a unity of institutional purpose), it is because the Western subject, including the scholar, accepts such a model and self-regulates accordingly.

In India, Chakrabarty asserts, power is pluralistic and fragmented, and disciplinary knowledge does not enjoy the same hegemonic status in the culture of everyday life that it does in the West. If, for example, disciplines function to help subjects internalize the sovereignty of the State (Chakrabarty here cites the final chapter of Foucault's The History of Sexuality) then, Chakrabarty warns, it must be acknowledged that in India, the State has never acquired the degree of sovereignty that it has in the West. It has not, therefore, developed a means of self-regulating that produces the same disciplinary reach of the State to the individual. Chakrabarty wonders if there is some Eurocentric violence in transporting Ginzburg's methods to the Indian context, not to mention the violence that Ginzburg's own methods would seem to do to the European context itself, as described above.

In conclusion, Chakrabarty reminds his audience of Salman Rushdie's pithy characterization of the postcolonial speaker's "forked tongue." Chakrabarty calls for a critical reevaluation of the formulation of "history from below," which he questions as a hierarchical vindication of the subaltern subject complicit with Western models of discipline. Instead, he favors of a historiographical approach, one informed by the view of India as being modern in a fundamentally different way from the West, with a different political system and a different model of power that yields multiple locations of authority and fragmented sovereignties.