Penski, Max. Three Kinds of Ruin: Heidegger, Benjamin, Sebald. Poligrafi, 2011.

Max Pensky analyzes “urbicide” of the European cities in the Second World War and the way urbicide was reflected in thinking of three key successive cultural figures: Heidegger, Benjamin, and Sebald. For Heidegger, it is a project of “re-pastoralization of Germany’s shattered cities,” Benjamin wrests “the power of the image of the ruin from the experience of the big city,” and Sebald seeks “to recuperate a discourse of the ruin as site of moral catechism.”

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