Review- Chatterjee, “The Black Hole of Empire”

Partha Chatterjee, “The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power” (2012) – There’s a few layers of surprise here for me. First, I knew Partha Chatterjee because one of the professors I TAed for, a younger guy, decided it would be a good idea to lead with theory in his 100 level core history course for non-major randos. So he’s throwing Fanon and Said and Benedict Anderson and Partha Chatterjee at these finance and communications students and they’re getting all mixed up. I had one midterm tell me Benedict Anderson tried to make colonized Indians create newspapers but Chatterjee led the resistance against it, etc etc. In general, the impression I got from Chatterjee was that of the kind of thing a white writer would rightly be called racist for arguing: that India was too spiritually pure for western-style modernity and concepts like the nation-state, no matter how many people on the subcontinent willingly died for some variation on that concept. Not as much of an obvious snow job as indecipherable postcolonial theorists like Homi Bhabha but not much good outside of its cul de sac of theory-wrangling.

“The Black Hole of Empire” wasn’t really like that. It does very little theoretical hedging despite advancing relatively modest claims about how Bengali nationalism suffered from European nationalisms. Chatterjee clearly did a lot of archival research in underused Indian sources, especially early modern Indian theorizing about politics and history, that was quite interesting. The other surprise came when I expected this book to be about how the British used the example of the Black Hole of Calcutta — an incident in 1756 where a Bengali king killed a hundred or so British by cramming them in a tiny prison — as colonial propaganda. The Brits were always masters of squeezing pathos out of a few dozen dead Brits — mostly adventurers — while killing thousands or millions, mostly villagers and children. A good cultural history of that kind of propaganda would be well worth reading.

You got a little bit of that in the book — for instance, few people bothered using the Black Hole incident as propaganda until after the Indian mutiny a century later — but more you get stuff about the history of Calcutta and Bengali nationalism. It was interesting — contacts between early Indian nationalists and British liberals, stuff on the development of a secular Bengali theater — but not exactly what I signed up for. I’m not one of those YouTube-style reviewers who whine endlessly about bait-and-switches as though the whole culture owes me a refund, so I can’t complain too much, especially as I learned a fair amount about the stuff that is there. ****

Review- Chatterjee, “The Black Hole of Empire”

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