Beams and Dims



Why do we need the past ? What is the category of the past offering us ? How is the past helping us to better grasp or conceptualise present and future ? If the present is understood as self-evident reality, is the past, similarly, an objective category ? Or is it an entirely ideological concept, used in support of certain forms of rhetoric ? Or perhaps, fundamentally, is the past a personal, ‘phenomenological’ quality of which the grasp can only be truly measured through an almost meditative, inner introspection ? But, then, what could mean the evocations of the past around us, today ? How are they related, how do they come to affect each other, from leading intellectual centres in the west to peripheral spaces around the globe, and vice versa ? What is at stake in the way we make sense of the past, of history, in the curriculums of educational programs, in popular culture or in our collective subconscious ? How can several pasts cohabit, not successively, but simultaneously, concurrently, competitively ? Not episodes of a past, but different ‘pasts’ in themselves : exclusively incompatible notions of the past ? How far can a  ‘new past’ develop when growing in an international intellectual climate already invested in very specific understandings of the past ? Is the past a sphere of democratic dialogue, of plurality, of disagreement, of potentialities and changes ? Can one contest a past ? Can one contest the past ?

But, first: what is, at the core, the assumption of what makes something ‘past’ ?

The past is what precedes the present. So, the past is different from the present.

This is common sense. But what are the mechanisms that make a series of historical events and periods, irremediably past, past forever ? Has our understanding of human history ever occurred at the cost of an ‘incarceration’ of particular historical developments? Can we conceive of a present without sealing the borders of the past ?

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The modern is exclusively associated with the present, and the pre-modern is exclusively associated with the past. No possible confusion. What made the pre-modern could not, deep down, be found in the present, and the features of the modern should have been absent in this revolved past. Period.

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From the shores of the (official) democratisation of knowledge through education, to those of the (officious) dissemination of information with new technologies, recurring discursive motifs do emerge. From board exams to Wikipedia entries, the popular understanding of world history has, by now, found a comfort zone with a key pair of concepts: pre-modernity and modernity. Behind these familiar, seemingly innocuous categories, resides an interesting and important set of answers to the aforementioned questions. Or rather : these answers find shelters in these opinionated views. Because such answers are not explicit, not visible whenever one looks at a historical object through the prism of the pre-modern and the modern. In fact, primordial views on what makes past and present are at the basis of these famous categories ; they constitute their DNA, their spinal cords, their guiding principles. They are the unsaid of our silent, everyday understanding of the present, that is, also, of the past. We live in the present of modernity, distinct and contrasted from the past of pre-modernity. Here are two couples of terms. They are almost synonymous, or to the least,  they are strongly enough connected to ensure a mutually exclusive association : the modern is exclusively associated with the present, and the pre-modern is exclusively associated with the past. No possible confusion. What made the pre-modern could not, deep down, be found in the present, and the features of the modern should have been absent in this revolved past. Period.

Period ?

The problem arises only once one ponders about the place of separation, the shift between these two opposite categories, the location of the schisms, the geography of the ravine. The discourse on this historical cartography is, luckily enough, not a state secret. The historical, cultural and ideological conditions of this influential interpretation are generally traced back to the early days of the European Enlightenment. The term ‘modern’ was used, in the late Renaissance, as a marker for the growing sense of a radical evolution from recent historical events, vis-à-vis earlier historical periods, visibly less ‘eventful’ or worthy of any curiosity. But it is, as is often mentioned, the works of the Lumières proper, of the ‘Enlightened’ philosophers, which truly assumed the end of a past. Confidently, Spinoza, Newton, Descartes, Kant and co. branded the human as the new reference, not only of the world, but also and especially of knowledge, via the universal faculty of reason. The confrontation was more or less overt : with reason, the new human could get rid of the arbitrary and traditional religious authority, as unique mediators of all things intellectual, political and cultural. Opening modernity : opening a new era in which the human takes her life and the fate of her community in her own hands. Modernity : dream of self-reliance, independence, reason, comfort, justice and equality.

Three centuries have passed, and our deepest wishes have hardly stepped one inch away from the initial frame. While the pompous and universalising tones of the ‘Enlightened’ has, by now, become a politically correct target of mockery, their utopian dreams of equality and fairness still live through all of us. Even reason, a universal currency for human expression, has not found any serious competitor. This does not mean that the sermon of the Enlightenment century has been religiously followed. Critical assessments, which started from the very contemporary opponents of those thinkers, only went crescendo. After all, if Kant was a critic of Descartes, Hegel was himself a critic of Kant, and Nietzsche, a critic of Hegel. The intellectual genealogies would soon percolate down to create a family tree with, finally, an unexpectedly vast width. In terms of size, the works of the Enlightenment are a drop of water in the ocean of reactions they provoked. But their program, their agenda, is still followed. No intellectual current, whether Marxist, Nietzschean, phenomenological, critical or poststructuralist, has managed to overturn a process that one must, visibly, trace back to those ‘auspicious’ days. We are still living in the aftermath, in the post-Enlightenment era, and this era has a name, a name we picked for her : modernity.

Behind it : darkness. A small glim, but already enough to blind us. These many lights, popping from all sides — heritage of the Enlightenment and its impressive symbolics. Forever after, the metaphor is consumed and digested, and if the image behind it is made blurry by the flame, we consider that the contrast speaks for the background alone.

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Today, a number of specialists on Indian historiography, for instance, have bypassed the pre-modern/modern dual-concept for all practical purposes, in their studies. Their works demonstrate how a variety of supposedly exclusive modern features were very well present in ‘ancient’ societies.

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The nine-dots puzzle. Three rows of three dots each. How to link them without lifting the pencil ? Sole solution : opening the scale of the game, thinking outside of the box and drawing behind the borders. And indeed, and fortunately, the hegemonic doctrine of the Enlightenment would have its own outside, a geographical frontier. But its agenda also reached there. Via colonisation, Enlightened perspectives could spread throughout the world, or at least through the canonical power-discourses of education, economy or politics. But these would very soon face a reality that visibly clashed with the theory prescribed by the Lumières. Today, a number of specialists on Indian historiography, for instance, have bypassed the pre-modern/modern dual-concept for all practical purposes, in their studies. Their works demonstrate how a variety of supposedly exclusive modern features were very well present in ‘ancient’ societies. Their studies imply, thus, a deeply critical attitude regarding the fruits of European Enlightenment, but they do not enter the intricacies of this underlying message. While the evidences multiply throughout such scholarships, one can observe the lack of theoretical attempts to consistently conceptualise those new perspectives. In other words, may be opening, here, a new space of criticism towards Enlightenment values, but one peculiar, and perhaps particularly relevant, precisely because of its vast distance from the historical epicentre of the original movement.

It is the ambitious blueprint of this new critique that I shall attempt to initiate in this essay. India gives us an unexpected lens through which one can re-evaluate the offspring of the Enlightenment, a lens that may, hopefully, provide unexpectedly relevant results. This exploration shall follow the geographical trajectory that it ultimately postulates, and encourages. It will start from the formulation of a new interpretation explaining the existing need of a pre-modern/modern duality in European scholarship. Will follow a spatial shift, with an attempt at formalising the views of contemporary Indian historiographers on the inapplicability of these concepts in India. And it shall be closed with a parenthesis borrowed from ancient Buddhist history, to show how it may be towards Indian culture and philosophy that we must turn, today, to hope for an actual departure from the age(s) of the Enlightenment. The unreasonable ambition of this study, the precarious conditions of its realisation, and especially, the intellectual limitations of its author, may lead to atrocious historical simplifications and obvious misinterpretations, but these shall hopefully be received with a bit of clemency by the careful reader.


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Image courtesy: Joseph Wright of Derby