Provincializing Europe While Using European Thought Instruments: Is It Possible?

Chakrabarty book is fueled with the anxieties of ethnocentrism. When we say “ethnocentrism,” it is in fact “westerncentrism,” for despite that the representative of any culture could exercise ethnocentrism, the only influential form of it is the “westerncentrism,” with all other “centrisms” falling behind as provincial, not pertinent, not powerful etc.

The problem is much deeper than just ethnocentrism, for we have the ways of thinking embedded in language and developing in the establisged theoretical context: “The phenomenon of “political modernity”–namely, the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise–is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual and even theological traditions of Europe” (4)

The power dynamics led to the uneven redistribution of mighty narratives in the world, in which some nations’ stories remain secondary, subaltern:

“Most modern third-world histories are written within problematics posed by this transition narrative, of which the overriding (if often implicit) themes are those of development, modernization, and capitalism.” (31)

“There is, then, this double bind through which the subject of “Indian” history articulates itself. On one hand, it is both the subject and the object of modernity, because it stands for an assumed unity called the “Indian people” that is always split into two–a modernizing elite and a yet-to-be modernized peasantry. As a split subject, however, it speaks from within meranarrative that celebrates the nation-state; and of this metanarrative the theoretical subject can only be a hyperreal “Europe,” a Europe constructed by the tales that both imperialism and nationalism have told the colonized.” (40)

The important moment, however, is that this (meta)narrative was not constructed for the sole consumption of the colonized, it was produced by and for the colonizers and is deeply ingrained in their minds, rendering them as well not-free subjects of the “historic will,” albeit residing on the positions of superiority. The overarching concepts in circulation that Chakrabarty names, are influential in all contexts. Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx, all mark the fundamental trajectory of thought that led to a multiplicity of economic and political outcomes which are not as contested as we would perhaps like them to be. The Hegelian idea of the division of the nations, some of which have history, and others are on the margins, despite being critiqued and even proclaimed defeated, permeates the sociopolitical discourses today.

In an attempt to dismantle the universalism of the category of “capital,” Chakrabarty outlines the notion’s history. In her reading, “Marx’ immanent critique of capital was enabled precisely by the universal characteristics he read into the category “capital” itself. Without that reading, there can only be particular critiques of capital. But a particular critique cannot by definition be a critique of “capital,” for such a critique could not take “capital” as its object.” (70)

While reading it, I imagined the theoretical possibility of the existing of the world which is overflown by the categories of Indian philosophy rather than the Western thought, where, for example, prana takes the place of money, which would construct a different, perhaps not worse functioning economy of everyday interactions. Unfortunately, those worlds remain in the realm of imagination. But Cakrabarty, as we will see further, offers the worlds free from any totalizing notions.

Speaking of the “histories of belonging,” Chakrabarty shares a wonderful insight: “The capacity to notice and document suffering (even if it be one’s own suffering) from the position of a generalized and necessarily disembodied observer is what marks the beginnings of the modern self.” (119)

There are different approaches to self in different cultures as well, and the aesthetics of art are completely different depending on what is seen as “the beginnings of the … self.”

“The person who is not an immediate sufferer but who has the capacity to become a secondary sufferer through sympathy for a generalized picture of suffering, and who documents this suffering in the interest of eventual social intervention — such a person occupies the position of the modern subject.” (119)

I think this is a very important statement. The “secondary sufferer,” even if it is an estranged version of the sufferer herself, reflecting much later on what she witnessed, is not wrenching in a kind of pain that prevents her from being articulate. She keeps her distance from what has happened, the distance perhaps inherently provided by the tools she uses (by writing itself), and thus is on the safe side of the conflict.

(On the side note, this is the precise balance of the anthropologist participating in the live of the community, and being a part of the community, to a certain extend, yet always–even if unwillingly–preserving the distance by very virtue of writing about it.)

Such concept of “general human,” the subject of human rights discourse, is also the product of the European Enlightenment. Putting reason over emotion and exhibiting the skills of the rational argumentation, is what creates the person, the actor and the subject of the modern nation state. This concept was further used as an instrument for the defragmentation and reconfiguration of the local communities from the positions of Western rationality, in particular in India in the course of social reforms (see p. 120).

Reflecting on Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” Chakrabarty suggests: “At the core of this exercise is a concern about how one might think about the past and the future in a nontotalizing manner.” (249) He argues for the necessity of disbanding historicism in its present form.

“Usually–Heidegger reminds us–we think of the possible as an unrealized actual. However, to see the present as radically not-one and thus plural is to see its “now” as a state of partial disclosedness, without the suggestion or promise of any principles–such as dharma, capital, or citizenship–that can or will override this heterogeneity and incompleteness and eventually constitute a totality.” (249)

Thinking of the bifurcating futures, into which the world, or, rather, the worlds enter at any given moment, it is possible to fantasize about the multi-centered universe where there are no “scientifically justified” hierarchies. But all fantasies are denied by the fact that for me to be able to read the book, Chakrabarty should have written it in English, fully clad in the armor of the Western philosophical and sociocultural thought. Thus the very existence of this book if not disproves than dispels the argument it is trying to make.


Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press, 2000

All Communication Is Simultaneously a Miscommunication: Is That True?

The Spanish conquest of Tagalog society posed the questions, in Rafael’s rendition, of history and translation, memory and circulation, conversion and confession.

He starts with a curious observation on the poeticizing of colonialism which was so deeply ingrained into the mind of colonizers they never relinquished it: "The Real Academia’s Diccionario de la lengua española defines conquista not only as the forcible occupation of a territory but also as the act of winning someone’s voluntary submission and consequently attaining his or her love and affection." (Rafael, ix)

In this context, translation is a means of colonization and of establishing the power narrative. Catholicism, with its "ideas of indebtedness and hierarchy" (Rafael, x), seemed to be a perfect instrument of colonization. For it to be successful, the new language had to be invented, namely "the institution of the new vocabulary for the social comprehension of death" (Rafael, xi).

The parallel to Benedict Anderson’s "fatality of linguistic diversity": "The element of fatality is essential. For whatever superhuman feats capitalism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries. Particular languages can die or be wiped out, but there was and is no possibility of humankind’s general linguistic unification." (Anderson, 1983, 56)

To juxtapose it with Rafael’s findings, one might paraphrase: "for whatever superhuman feats colonialism was capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries."

However, inasmuch as languages made it a struggle for colonizers, to subjugate people and therefore territories and resources, languages also presented a redeemable challenge. 

"Natives" employ linguistic means of resistance: "A distinctive Tagalog strategy of decontexualizing the means by which colonial authority represents itself" (Rafael, 3). But their history, in turn, is written by the superseding power. And not only the history during the colonial rule, but also the history of colonialism, is written by the colonizers and their descendants, and not by the colonized.

The spirit of "natives" is unbroken, however, which is evident in the scene when the man recognizes the dead hero of resistance in a madman enclosed in the nearing cell.* 

What makes a translation successful? How spiritual texts of Catholicism could be translated? The tremendous difficulty of the Herculean task is afforded the glimpse if we recollect Laura Bohannan’s telling piece "Shakespear in the Bush" where she described the perils of explaining the vicissitudes of Hamlet to the Tiv people in West Africa (Bohannan, 1966). By any means, to explain the Bible to Tagalog, or any other people, was no easier, especially meaning that this explanation should ultimately lead to them fighting Spanish wars, paying tribute, building churches (some of the duties named by Rafael), and otherwise serving their overlords.

So how does translation emerges in this situation and how does it function? Not only its functions are to convert, but also to build the understanding. "Siegel claims that translation arises from the need to relate one’s interest to that of others and so to encode it appropriately. Translation in this case involves not simply the ability to speak in a language other than one’s own but the capacity to reshape one’s thoughts and actions in accordance with accepted forms." (Rafael, 210)

On this path, not so much translation as mistranslation is happening: "Christian conversion and colonial rule emerged through what appeared to be a series of mistranslations. But in fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, such mistranslations were ways to render the other understandable. Each group read into the other’s language and behavior possibilities that the original speaker had not intended or foreseen." (Rafael, 211)

I think unintendedness, or unforeseenness is relative in the situation of successful colonial subjugation, and should not be overstated. The miscommunications happened, but as Wilhelm von Humboldt famously claimed, "All understanding is at the same time a misunderstanding… and all agreement of feelings and thoughts is at the same time a means for growing apart." Similarly, all communication is at the same time simultaneously a miscommunication. But the Marxist thought requires to look closely at the practice, and ask, whether the translation/communication/understanding was practically effective, or not.  

*To digress, the trope of the undying hero, escaping either to lead a new, peaceful life, or impersonated by other people, is strangely evoking, given that we have many examples of its reenactment, such as a city legend of Michael Jackson, supposedly alive. Or, if we are seeking historic parallels, the figure of Yemelyan Pugachev in the Russian history and public imagination.


Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso. 

Rafael, Vicente. (1988) Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bohannan, Laura. (1966) "Shakespeare in the Bush." Natural History. August–Semptember.

Distorted Translations

“Scholars in the philosophy of language have understood incommensurability to refer to a state in which an undistorted translation cannot be produced between two or more denotational texts.” (Povinelli, 2001, 320)

So the question would be, why do scholars think that any “undistorted translation” could be produced? It seems pretty clear that that’s beyond the realm of possibility. It is feasible that some translation have more distortions that others, and that in some cases translation is altogether inaccessible, but the translation as such is a process that consists of selections of admissible distortions in order to combine them into the unity that would still be identifiable as a source text but anyone familiar with the language in question.

“How could the Hawaiians have understood James Cook, or Cook the Hawaiians, without producing serious distortions (Sahlins 1995, Obeyesekere 1997)?” (Povinelli, 2001, 321)

The dispute on Cook’s regrettable end involved the conversation about colonial discourse, the Western inevitable enthnocentrism, the researcher’s positionality, and glocal ecologies of language and communication. Whereas translation is impossible without distortions, it functions as a distorted reflection quite effectively. And as Foucault remarked that starting from a certain point, the question of authorship is not about the author’s romantic subjectivities, but about the contexts, intentions, power dynamics, contested discourses and such, in the discussion of which the author is not a point of departure, similarly in the circulation of translated communication the question of “distortions” is not of fatal significance. Perhaps the essence of communication is happening on a less linguistic-heavy level as we came to suggest. Perhaps sub-, overly-, nearly- and paralinguistic means of communication are the gist of it, which if not nullifies the problem of distortion, then at least makes it far less ominous.

The interpretational endeavors in which we engage, is the series of “passing theories” (Davidson quoted by Povinelli), which are generated, come to appear veritable, fade out and die as communication unfolds.

The perfect illustration of the inevitable ethnocentrism is the famous Quine’s example illustrating the inaccessibility of the true meaning of the utterances based on the sounds and the connection of said sounds with the established by the anthropologist meaning. How do we know that gavagai is a rabbit and not the rabbit’s sudden appearance?

“A rabbit scurries by, the native says “Gavagai,” and our jungle linguist notes down the sentence “Rabbit” (or “Lo, a rabbit”) as tentative translation.” (Quine, 2000, 94)

Of course native people would say “lo, a rabbit.” That is just what should be expected. They might also say “lo and behold, the rabbit.” That would be more like it.

Not so much the impossibility to establish the correspondence between rabbit and the word supposedly meaning it, is the case of difficulty, as the fact that properly established rabbit is woven into the text written by the anthropologist, in all the poetics and politics of the text, reaffirming the politics of subjugation by means of studying, or enlightenment, or educating.

To return to Cook’s end conundrum, Marshall Sahlins’s piece (Sahlins, 1985) opens up not only the question “What really happened to Cook?” as the question, akin to Quine’s wonder, “How do we ever know what has ever really happened?” And although Sahlins is extremely persuasive given the intricacies of his writing style, he indulges into Roman-style mythologies only Western mind is capable of producing, and in this divide I am rather on the side of Gannanath Obeyeskere who stated: “I doubt that the natives created their European god; the Europeans created him for them.” (Obeyeskere, 3). Not to suggest that something that might be described as “the natives creating the god” did not happen, but the way it was framed and became stitched into the political imaginary, was inescapably fraught with “distortions of translation.”



Marshall Sahlins. (1985) “Captain James Cook; or, The Dying God.” in Island of History. University of Chicago Press.

Obeyesekere, Ganannath. The Apotheosis of Captain Cook. Pp.3-22.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. 2001. “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability” Annual Review of Anthropology, 30: 319-334.

Quine, Willard V.O. (2000) “Meaning and Translation” in L. Venuti (editor) “The Translation Studies Reader”

Foucault: A Randomized Collection of Quotes

Foucault, Discipline and Punish

Important quotes. (It is the task approximating impossibility, to extract important quotes from Foucault, since everything he ever wrote is a breakthrough, if applied properly, and thus is of paramount importance; albeit not deprived of admirable machismo, if I may be permitted to remark.)

“In France, the guillotine, that machine for the production of rapid and discreet death, represented a new ethic of legal death. But the Revolution had immediately endowed it with a great theatrical ritual. For years it provided a spectacle.” (15)


Mr. Guillotin,
an advocate for humanity
and a foreseer of the future,
proposed to statesmen
a vehicle for punishment,
a sleek guillotine,
concise like a grand piano,
fast like the best automobile,
and painless, like an injection of morphine,
a door and a portal to the better world,
a lift to heaven and hell.
In his private life,
he was modest and shy.
He had an emerald tortoise,
who kept him company during
morning coffee and evening tea,
but this is not
what he is universally acclaimed for,
nor respected the most.

“Regard punishment as a political tactic.” (23)

“But the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs.” (25) [and sighs?]

“We should admit rather that power produces knowledge [Marx — V.O.] (and not simply by encouraging it because it serves power or by applying it because it is useful); that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” (27)

“The body interrogated in torture constituted the point of application of the punishment and the locus of extortion of the truth.” (42)

“Besides its immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.” (47)

“The liturgy of torture and execution” (49)

“In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance.” (57) [The society of spectacle and more]

“Under the protection of imminent death, the criminal could say everything and the crowd cheered.” (60)

“…attempts were made to seize the condemned man, either to save him or to kill him more surely” (63)

“ambiguous rituals” (65)

“The offences had to be properly defined and more surely punished; out of this mass of irregularities, sometimes tolerated and sometimes punished with a severity out of all proportion to the offence, one had to determine what was an intolerable offence, and the offenders had to be apprehended and punished.” (86)

“The right to punish had been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defence of society.” (90, “Society Should Be Defended”)

“The last crime cannot but remain unpunished.” (93)

“the double taxonomy of punishments and crimes” (100)

“The art of punishing, then, must rest on a whole technology of representation.” (104)

“Mere day-dreaming? Perhaps.” (105)

“This, then, is how one must imagine the punitive city. At the crossroads, in the gardens, at the side of roads being repaired of bridges built, in workshops open to all, in the depths of mines that may be visited, will be hundreds of tiny theaters of punishment.” (113)

“The apparatus of corrective penalty acts in a quite different way. The point of application of the penalty is not the representation, but the body, time, everyday gestures and activities; the soul, too, but in so far as it is the seat of habits. The body and the soul, as principles of behavior, form the element that is now proposed for punitive intervention.” (128)

“How did the coercive, corporal, solitary, secret model of the power to punish replace the representative, scenic, signifying, public, collective model?” (131)

“Let us to take the ideal figure of the soldier as it was still seen in the early seventeenth century. To begin with, the soldier was someone who could be recognized from afar; he bore certain signs: the natural signs of his strength and courage, the marks, too, of his pride; his body was the blazon of his strength and valour; and although it is true that he had to learn the profession of arms little by little — generally in actual fighting — movements like marching and attitudes like the bearing of the head belonged for the most part to a bodily rhetoric of honour…” (135)

“Discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself.” (141)

“The organization of a serial space was one of the great technical mutations of elementary education.” (147)

“The mutual improvement school was to exploit still further this control of behaviour by the system of signals to which one had to react immediately.” (167)

“These ”observatories” had an almost ideal model: the military camp — the short-lived, artificial city, built and reshaped almost at will; the seat of a power that must be all the stronger, but also all the more discreet, all the more effective and on the alert in that it is exercised over armed men.” (171)

“The order that the disciplinary punishment must enforce is of a mixed nature: it is an ‘artifical’ order, explicitly laid down by a law, a programme, a set of regulations.” (179)

“One of the essential conditions for the epistemological ‘thaw’ of medicine at the end of the eighteenth century was the organization of the hospital as an ‘examining’ apparatus. The ritual of the visit was its most obvious form.” (185)

“As opposed to the ruined prisons, littered with mechanisms of torture, to be seen in Piranese’s engravings, the Panopticon presents a cruel, ingenious cage.” (205)

“We are much less Greeks than we believe.” (217)

“This production of delinquency and its investment by the penal apparatus must be taken for what they are: not result acquired once and for all, but tactics that shift according to how closely they reach their target.” (285)

“I am not saying that the human sciences emerged from the prison.” (305) [Oh but you do.]



Voluntary Incarceration




Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Translated by Alan Sheridan. Vintage Books New York 1995.

Writer’s Change of Language: Nabokov and Others

In order to see how bilingual and multilingual writers choose language of their primal writing, I concentrate on three prominent Russia-born writers who switched to English late in life. These writers are of dramatically different fate and level of literary prominence in their second language, but all are undeniably of a great standing in the national literature. Vladimir Nabokov is the most well-known in this respect, as well as the example of the most successful linguistic transition (I propose this term to describe the change of language). Other two writers are Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov.

My hypothesis is that all these three writers dressed Russian phrases in English attire. The structures of their English sentences are influenced by their primal language, Russian. For instance, you would not meet in Nabokov’s prose a phrase with a dangling participle. The classic in the Russian literature example of such phrase is Chekhov’s “Approaching the station and admiring the scenery, my hat blew off.” Chekhov specifically constructed this phrase in order to mock the absurd of such grammatical construction: the hat is admiring the scenery, the hat is approaching the station. The hat is the subject of the sentence. This is, arguably, an acceptable grammar form in contemporary English, albeit it has been argued that it is an example of bad writing (Pereltsvaig, 2011). In Russian the construction of this type is a rude stylistic mistake, and so there is no way Nabokov would commit it—in Russian, nor even in English. Same holds true in regard to Brodsky and Aksyonov.

I argue that for these writers the change of language was a politically motivated decision. It entailed a considerable change of identity, self-positionality, and cultural self-transmogrification.

In order to see how Nabokov’s English (not to mention his writing practices*) was influenced by T.S. Eliot, I compare the texts written on the pinnacles of the respective writing mastery of these authors, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” on one hand, and “Pale Fire,” on the other. I show that Nabokov creatively expropriates turns of phrases “unlocked” by T.S. Eliot, somewhat contradictorily to Nabokov’s professed dislike of T.S. Eliot.


*Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” and “Eugene Onegin,”** both, as is well-known, have (or partially consist of) the ample body of commentaries, incorporated into the novel and the translation, respectively. Commentary as a cultural form, circulating widely in, probably, the majority of known literatures, has a distinct source of inspiration in Nabokov’s case, namely T.S. Eliot’s multilingual commentaries to “The Waste Land.”


** I would argue that Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” should be seen as a single utterance, to use this term here in Bakhtian sense (1986). Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is only ostensibly a translation of the classical Russian literary masterpiece. It encloses “Eugene Onegin” like professor Shade’s poem is enclosed into the body of “Pale Fire.” The genre of Nabokov’s “Eugene Onegin” is hard to define. It is a linguistic treatise, a literary last will, and, ultimately, what he believed is his most strong claim of immortality apart from “Lolita.”




Bakhtin, Mikhail. (1986) “The Problem of Speech Genres.” In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Chekhov, Anton. “The Complaints Book” in The Comic Stories, translated by Harvey Pitcher.

Pereltsvaig, Asya. Dangling Participle: Grammatical Error Or Bad Writing Style? 12/11/2011, Retrieved 2/1/2016.

Baffling Disparity Between the Sound of the Word and its Surprising Meaning

“Stéphane Mallarmé, amazingly sensitive to the sound texture of language, observed in his essay Crise de vers that the word ombre is actually shady, but ténèbres (with its acute vowels) suggests no darkness, and he felt deeply deceived by the perverse attribution of the meanings ‘day’ to the word jour and ‘night’ to the word nuit in spite of the obscure timbre of the former and the light one of the latter.” (Jakobson, 1965, 34)
I surely did have this kind of wonder before, and articulated it.

Some Words

Some words mean just what
You would expect,
Like, onomatopoeia,
Struggle, breakthrough, dance, cooing,
Coconut, disguise, and latte.
They are transparent
In their look, sound, and the path of syllables alternating
Between stressed and unaccented
In an enduring rational succession;
On the chessboard of vowels and consonants
Former and latter
Measured in a reasonable balance.
Other words
Are just more elusive.
They seem to pretend to appear to be something
They are really not.
For instance, love*,
And dash`.
*evidently, «love» should mean «a sort of yellow stretchy marmalade,» based on the way it sounds and looks
°a screeching of the wheels on the sharp turn
^tin pipes of the old red-brick houses
`a small golden fish hiding under the green log in a gleaming round pond shadowed by a willow
How much this feeling is amplified when you study a language that is not your native, is hard to convey. When I started speaking English, it was a constant source of feeling deceived and cheated on. Clearly “itch,” “notch,” “luminosity,” and “glory” are on the right places; but what about “vanguard” (a heavy fog), “darkness” (whiskers), “agglomeration” (a gluten-free sweet of sorts) and other ridiculous things? One can imagine a text written in this manner, but for it to be read it should be supplied with an ample commentary produced by the author.

Saussurean guess of “arbitrariness” of assigning the meaning to sound is not of much help. How does this arbitrariness come to life? Who orchestrates it and how? Language is perfected by all its speakers day and night, now how can it have this vortexes of inexplicable disparity between the sound and its meaning?

Jakobson, Roman. (1965) “The Quest for the Essence of Language.” Diogenes. 13(51): 21-37.