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The Question of Historical Perspective in World Historical Analysis


Autonomous Histories and World History

Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox


     In the years after the conclusion of World War II, decolonization movements spread across the world. They brought with them not only new nations but the need to conceive a new historiography that was appropriate for the postcolonial era. What was necessary was not just a rewriting of the colonial past, but an entirely new concept of history. For newly conceived independent nations such as India, Indonesia, or the Republic of the Congo, writing this new history was complicated by the fact that their nations only existed as such because of the vicissitudes of colonial power. Since there had been no "Indonesia" as such before the onset of the Dutch East Indies, for example, Indonesian historians were forced to reinvent their pre-colonial history to match their boundaries to the geographic space of modern Indonesia.

     After the 1940s, in these decolonized areas, historians prioritized the need to produce an independent historiography not tainted by either the worldview or the chronology of colonialism. This project took on different names depending on the historiographic tradition or Area Studies field involved. In Southeast Asian studies, these efforts were categorized as an attempt to achieve "autonomous history."1 In Chinese studies, they came to be associated with a "China-centered approach" to history, and in African studies, postcolonial historiography frequently was understood as "independent history."2 Each of these amount to slightly different variations on the same historiographic theme that was to become the rallying cry for Area Studies methodology. Historians needed to construct historical narratives of decolonized nations that were focused on the people of those nations in themselves. They needed to construct chronologies that were different from the timelines of the colonial past, but reflected shifts in local experience.

     World history, by contrast, has developed with different aims. Since the 1990s leading world historians such as Patrick Manning and Kenneth Pomerantz have invigorated the study of comparative history by focusing on integrating the study of the world with recent theories from the social sciences to produce studies that would provide arguments valid across nations and regions. Such "world-centric insights" would allow a broader geographical lens, and in turn this broader lens would reveal "long-term continuities" across regional areas.3 There are many benefits to this integrative and relational approach to history. At its best, the new world history gives students a view of the past that allows them to analyze broad themes and make valid comparisons. Yet one clear drawback is that particularity and autonomy will decline if contemporary world historians drink too deeply from the cup of "compare and contrast." Almost by definition, if a nation or a region is considered in a world history textbook as a part of a theme such as "the major religions," "trade," or "colonization," that place is being appreciated metonymically, as a part of a whole, rather than being appreciated in and of itself.

     World historians have inadvertently devalued local autonomy through their interest in recent critiques of narrating history through the lens of the nation-state. In response to these criticisms, historians frequently explore topics that allow historians to eschew boundaries altogether.4 These trends have been positive developments, not only in world history but also in history generally. Clearly, though, they have the potential to erase the contributions of early postcolonial and areas studies historiography. In an effort to compare experiences, world historians unintentionally repeat the global chronologies of the colonizers. When they do, they risk creating narratives in which colonialism is seen as a force that cannot be resisted.

     The result is a global history that differs considerably in tone from colonial histories, but mimics colonial history in its timelines and in the events it considers. The "discoveries" of Europeans in Africa and the Americas and the foundation of European empires can become key points in the narratives in world history, even as world historians transform the moral implications of these acts. Despite its laudable aspects, this integrative emphasis in contemporary world history could potentially undo a half-century of efforts to narrate the national histories of formerly colonized peoples on their own terms and with respect to events that are domestically relevant to those civilizations.

     Returning to the writing of autonomous histories in an area studies paradigm, however, is not a desirable alternative to writing world history. These histories have their drawbacks. Autonomous histories tend to overemphasize ethnic nationalism or distinctions of national character. Assuming that certain developments are indigenous and that others are foreign all too often draws a false dichotomy between events that in fact involve an inextricable interaction between local peoples and the world. Moreover, just as the current paradigm of world history seems incapable of preserving the agency that autonomous histories provide, so too do autonomous histories seem incapable of providing the larger comparative contexts that are provided by world history.

     This study seeks to draw upon literature in cultural studies and historiography to attempt to reconcile and preserve the important aspects of autonomous histories and of world history. It begins with an analysis of the claims of autonomous and world histories to develop a deeper familiarity with the aims and purposes of both historiographic traditions. Then it examines a number of theories of global contact that have the possibility of bridging the domestic/international gap that exists between world and autonomous histories.

     This study suggests four possible models for alleviating world history's autonomy problem. First, it examines hybridity, the idea that decolonization involves a process of intentionally mimicking selective aspects of the colonizer's civilization as a weapon against colonization. Secondly, it considers transculturation, a theory arising out of Latin American studies, which posits that even colonized peoples acquire agency, first in deciding what elements of a colonizer's culture to blend with their own, and secondly in influencing the culture of the colonizers themselves. Third, it considers the theory of cofiguration, which borrows from theories of translation to say that no prior national "Japanese" or "Chinese" or "Indian" culture existed before Western contact, and that these cultures were invented ex post facto in order for nationalists to argue that their countries favorably compared with Western ones. Finally, it considers the theory of localization, the idea that when there is a cultural encounter, local people will take foreign ideas, drain them of their original significance, and repackage them in ways that are more useful to them.

     Each of these four alternatives provides a potentially productive way to form a compromise between autonomous histories and world history. These methods allow world historians to narrate elements of world history according to the chronologies provided by the colonizer, thus allowing world historians to discuss European exploration and conquest in a coherent way. However, these methods also do not assume that colonized countries are mere passive victims of exploitation whose cultures are destroyed by colonization, but rather prescribe a more contingent process of cultural transformation in which the point of view of the colonized country may be preserved.

The Theory of Autonomous History and Its Critique of World History

     Let us first examine the narrative structure of autonomous postcolonial histories and world histories in more detail. Seminal texts in postcolonial historiography reflect the balkanized nature of post-World War II Area Studies scholarship, and therefore East Asian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, African, and Latin American historiographies each have different key texts declaring independence from colonial historiography traditions. To narrow this analysis, I will consider one key text in postcolonial historiography, John R.W. Smail's "On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Southeast Asia" (1961) and compare it to the major themes in recent writing on world history.

     Smail's essay delved into an existing postcolonial debate about Eurocentrism in historical writing. One of the major features of the essay was to develop an analysis of the different ways that historical writing could be "Europe-centric" or "Asia-centric." Drawing from the writings of the Dutch Indonesian historian J.C. Van Leur, Smail drew a distinction between a "Europe-centric" perspective, and a "Europe-centric" moral viewpoint. Historians who adopt a Eurocentric perspective tend to discuss the histories of non-European places (in Smail's discussion, Southeast Asia) by focusing on the European impact on these places. The inflection points of a Southeast Asian history written from a Eurocentric perspective would be those dates on a timeline in which there was an interaction brought about by European traders or colonizers. Thus, the significant events in Southeast Asian history from the colonial perspective include the Portuguese colonization of Malacca in 1511, the Spanish colonization of the Philippines later in the same century, the galleon and spice trades, the French conquest of Indochina, and so forth. In each of these cases, Southeast Asia becomes derivative of a discussion of European colonial power in the world. Historians operating in this mode run the risk of reiterating the same colonial mentality that motivated European imperialism in the first place; namely, that places like Southeast Asia are metonymically reduced to mere resources for colonial plunder. Actual Southeast Asian people are thus relegated to the background as discussions of the need for camphor and cinnamon and sandalwood and tea are brought to the foreground.

     One of Smail's key insights is that anticolonial nationalists could be just as Eurocentric as Europeans, at least when it came to the question of perspective and point of view. Although anticolonial historians might inveigh against the excesses and atrocities of colonialism, the way in which they did so would necessarily be within the confines of Eurocentric teleology. A history of Southeast Asia, for example, that is critical of the Portuguese attack on Malacca or decries French exploitation on colonial rubber plantations might be an example of an Asia-centric nationalist moral viewpoint, but still reflects a Eurocentric perspective. This is because the actors in Southeast Asian history remain Europeans, and the "natives" react or respond to European acts. All that has changed in the narrative of nationalist historians is that for them, the moral implications of the actions of European imperialists are viewed negatively, whereas colonial historians viewed them positively. The dilemma that Smail grasped then became clear: how could nationalist historians in newly independent nations criticize their colonial forbearers without remaining trapped in the same colonial chronology?

     Smail's solution to this conundrum was to draw a distinction between a Eurocentric "perspective" and a Eurocentric "moral viewpoint." Smail notes that anticolonial historians are very successful in switching the moral viewpoint of Southeast Asian history to an "Asia-centric" one through the criticism of colonialism. But in essence, the basic narrative of Southeast Asian history did not change, even in the face of withering anti-colonial criticism. This is because "anti-colonial history is anti-colonial and hence implies, or rather requires, the existence of a strong colonialism. No colony, no anti-colonial sentiment, which means in practice: the weaker or more localized or more casual the colonial rule, the less material for the anti-colonialist."5 Thus, early anticolonial histories of Southeast Asia focused on the same events as the colonial histories did, but reversed the moral judgment of these events.

     Smail's antidote for this malady was to prescribe a shifting of the historian's moral viewpoint "from Europe-centric to neutral" and of his or her perspective "from Europe-centric to Asia-centric." This shift in focus, Smail argued, would allow events that were important to indigenous groups to become the center of narratives about Southeast Asia, in place of narratives about colonization, missionary activity, or the Cold War. In addition, Smail argued that this neutral moral tone would avoid the overcorrection of overzealous anticolonial historians whose narratives still focused on colonization but whose moral evaluation simply shifted the Europeans who had been the focus of colonial historiography from "good" Europeans to bad ones. If historians failed to focus on the particularistic and more microcosmic events of Southeast Asian history, Smail argued, they would find narratives of small regions perpetually overshadowed by the larger themes that so occupy world historians today, because historiography had:

too much of the colonial relationship, too much East-West, in our thoughts about modern Southeast Asian history is very much like too much Cold War in our thoughts about the contemporary scene. There is no doubt that the Cold War is here with us in Southeast Asia and is a matter of great importance. But I am sure that most of us at one time or another have noticed how strange a caricature of events here one gets from the general press in New York or Moscow, London or Peking (and indeed in much of the local press), mainly because of the cold war perspective. An election which we saw fought out on a complex of local and national issues emerges as a simple entry for the scoreboard, so many for Left, so many for Right. The issue does not simply stand out above others, it eats them up; it chews up the complex reality, digests it and leaves us with only a couple of basic sugars.6

Any world historian would be remiss to avoid seeing in Smail's description above the outlines of the very historical narratives that frame world history texts, not to mention world history curricula, right up until the present day. Moreover, Smail's critique is broadly representative of the thinking that emerged from postcolonial historiography from the 1960s through the 1980s and served as the intellectual cornerstone for Area Studies research during that era. If there is indeed an intellectual basis for the aversion of some with Area Studies training toward the newer models offered by the development of world history in the last two decades, it might be based on an instinctual feeling that world history runs the risk of causing postcolonial countries to lose the hard-won recognition of their own historical particularity.

     For the colonial relationship, the cultural contact between East and West, and the Cold War are the bellwethers of what produces the contacts and comparisons that make world history possible. One does not have to look far to find descriptions of the postcolonial world that, in Smail's formulation, adopt an Asia-centric moral viewpoint while steadfastly maintaining a Eurocentric perspective. Consider this description from a popular world history textbook of the imposition of French colonial authority over Vietnam.

Vietnam's imperial structure was modeled on that of China, but central power was declining in the late eighteenth century. With the country wracked by rebellion, the Nguyen family, vying for control, allied with French missionaries and in 1802 established the new Nguyen dynasty, with Catholic missionaries representing French influence at the Vietnamese court. The French moved from indirect influence to direct imperial control when Emperor Napoleon III, anxious to expand his country's global empire, sent an army of occupation to Vietnam in 1858. In 1862 the Nguyen ruler ceded control of the Mekong Delta and the commercial center of Saigon to French, opened three "treaty ports" to European trade, and gave the French free passage up the Mekong River.7

     Putting aside the evidence in this passage, in this narrative, the Vietnamese people are constructed too much as only the victims of the French. Based on this narrative, one wonders why Napoleon III would have to send an army in the first place, since it appears that French control of Vietnam existed everywhere but on paper before 1862. Rather than put up a fight, Vietnam's imperial structure had "crumbled" for a hundred years, and the Nguyễn, it would seem, merely raised their hands in surrender. In this case, the details of the history of Vietnamese attitudes toward the French seems to be a casualty of the authors' efforts to convince their students to condemn imperialism as an unqualified evil—an effort which, incidentally, makes it difficult to understand Vietnamese supporters of the French efforts. Moreover, it robs Vietnamese actors of their agency in resisting colonialism and constructs Vietnam as derivative of China, and tends to see Vietnam as possessing an essentially unchanging premodern past that was interrupted by the coming of the French. This narrative condemns colonization, but like Smail's nationalist historiography, the authors continue to use Eurocentic chronologies, European actors, and European events.

     Moreover, though many monographs in world history are increasingly more sophisticated, this kind of an interpretation of the colonial context is not an isolated case but is in fact prevalent in many textbooks on world history. Consider, for example, that a passage from a general introduction to China designed to supplement readings in world history classes argues that "it was not until the nineteenth century that the Western world began to make itself felt in China to any marked degree" and that in the early nineteenth century Chinese authorities were so unfamiliar with world affairs that "the significance of the western impact was not at all evident" to them, since they "thought that the barbarians could be contained and controlled by the time-honored methods that China had long employed."8 In addition to the question of whether this is a valid reading of the facts in the face of Jesuit scientific and religious influence, the Macartney embassy, and many other events in pre-nineteenth century, this interpretation suffers from the same flaws that Smail had noted so many years before: it denies any significant premodern changes in Chinese history and subordinates Chinese agency in attempting to combat efforts at western colonization.

     What these quotations illustrate, above all else, is that in a sense histories of autonomy and interaction, or of integration and dispersion can seem like mutually exclusive, binary choices. To create a comparative study of peoples without reducing those peoples to the themes suggested by the comparisons is challenging, and it is equally difficult to create a study of the particularity or uniqueness of a people within the framework of a comparison. Just like the nationalist historians of the 1960s, World Historians risk turning formerly colonized people into nameless victims of Imperial expansion, colonialism, and environmental destruction, only accommodating occasional quotations of a peasant as the voice of a homogeneous and undifferentiated other who had been exploited by these global processes.

     Surely, however, the mere fact that Smail's critique of nationalist historians of the 1960s seems to apply equally well to some contemporary historians is an insufficient reason to adopt his suggestions, which in the main lead to an emphasis on national and regional history and a de-emphasizing of world and comparative history. There are several reasons why the critiques of postcolonial historians are an insufficient reason to reject the larger narratives of world history tout court.

     In fact, the notion of developing an autonomous or independent history for each region or nation in the world is problematic. First, the idea of studying a region in itself and for itself has its origins in Leopold Van Ranke's conception that history could and should be studied for its own purposes. In both cases, however, this line of reasoning fails to recognize that what constitutes the "in itself" must be subjectively defined. To study Southeast Asia, or East Asia, or Africa "in itself" presumes that such an independent history exists. In reality, it does not, since no region has ever developed historically in isolation from other regions. In some cases, such a history "in itself" cannot be said to exist because the regional designation is itself either capricious and arbitrary or of such recent vintage to make a premodern study anachronistic.

     For example, although many Southeast Asian nations clearly share cultural similarities, the category "Southeast Asia" only became a widely accepted description of the region with the inauguration of Lord Mountbatten's South-East Asia Command during World War II. In addition to the fact that the name has only become widely accepted relatively recently, the larger problem is that the idea of a region of Southeast Asia projects "homogeneity, unity, and boundedness onto a part of the world that is in fact heterogeneous, disunited, and hard to delimit."9 What this means for autonomous history is that to study Southeast Asia in itself is an impossibility because the region being studied is at best a product of the historian's imagination and is at worst a product of the very colonial apparatus from which Smail wished to escape. There can be no Southeast Asia in itself before the twentieth century because there was in a real sense no Southeast Asia. Most historians of Southeast Asia—not to mention any other region—are cognizant of this problem, and use the regional label as a point of entry into discussions of local cultural difference. But the mere use of the term as a basis of comparison is habit-forming, and the regional "whole" of Southeast Asia becomes something more than the sum of its subregional parts through the process of comparison with other regions.

     Second, and perhaps more importantly, the identity of regions is not produced autonomously but rather through their interactions with the rest of the world. Even as an abstract principle of logic, this point is clear. One can only assert that a region or a nation is unique through a process of comparison with somewhere else. Otherwise, it would be impossible to know whether a particular historical event or cultural form was truly unique, since without any comparison, it would be impossible to say whether the cultural practice or historical event in question had also occurred elsewhere. For example, one cannot say that the premodern tendency toward matrilineal traditions is a unique characteristic of Southeast Asian society without at least implicitly comparing it to India or China. If this is the case, then to create an "autonomous history" of Southeast Asia would involve recognizing these points of comparison and consciously deemphasizing them or pretending that one's study of an indigenous cultural formation did not begin with a comparison with somewhere else.

     Even though proponents of "China-centered," "independent," or "autonomous" histories do not advocate a removal of Europeans from the narratives of non-Western places, their methodologies would involve a picking out and preferencing of autochthonous narratives. That means that for autonomous history, the historian arrogates to himself or herself the responsibility of determining what counts as indigenous. This obviously poses considerable problems, not just of a historical nature but also of an ethical one. For example, if an historian is to write China-centered, autonomous, or independent history, he or she places on himself or herself the burden of determining what is authentically Chinese, Southeast Asian, or African. This is true even if, as Smail claims, the goal of the autonomous historian is not to eliminate foreigners from indigenous narratives but only to limit the emphasis on foreign events. Either way, it becomes necessary to draw a binary opposition between foreign and domestic, and sort out who belongs in which category. This method leads to a number of vexing problems of criteria: Are ethnic Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia part of an autonomous Southeast Asian perspective? Are Anglo-Indians in India part of a European colonial narrative, or an independent Indian one? At worst, resolving these questions requires historians to place the subjects of their histories into artificial ethnic boxes.

     It is clear, then, that while World Historians cannot simply ignore the need for particularistic and autonomous histories, it is not desirable for historians to return to a purely autonomous or independent Area Studies method either. Rather, World Historians need to find ways to address particular histories while not subsuming them only into larger themes. The key to being able to do so is to understand the way that historians designate people into categories and the way that we think about global identity and interaction. The remainder of this study will examine ways to understand interactions that do not erase the priorities of postcolonial historiography but are less problematic than autonomy.

     I will examine four ways of autonomously narrating world history, namely hybridity, transculturation, co-figuration, and localization. Each of these four methods avoids a central problem that vexes both autonomous and world historiography: the self/other distinction. In the case of autonomous history, the national self is validated, sometimes at the expense of understanding that such a self is only created in dialogue with others. In some versions of world history that privilege the finding of "connections", the self is compared to the other, but in doing so world historians run the risk of subsuming the other in the act of comparison. In contrast, these four methods all have a more complex understanding of the self/other relationship. In hybridity, the self and the other are merged with one another to create another unit; in transculturation, the self and other are not really distinct in the special realm of a contact zone; in co-figuration, a notion of self invents the other; and in localization, the other becomes the self. Having understood how these four ideas have a more sophisticated formulation of self and other, I will then return to the passage I have quoted on the imposition of French control over Vietnam and will consider how our interpretation of this event would change if each of these approaches were applied.

Alternatives to Autonomy

1. Hybridity

     A fundamental aspect of reconciling the historical particularity of autonomy with the benefits of thematic historical integration represented by methods of world history is the refiguring of the self/other distinction. World Historians have done a laudable job of including more information about civilizations in premodern Africa and Asia into their textbooks. Nevertheless, in their coverage of colonialism, the environment, and the cold war, most World Histories clearly place the colonized world in the category of the other. What has really changed, as Smail's half-century old critique made clear, is the moral implications of these events. Rather than civilizing the other, imperialists subjugated them, turning a romantic narrative a tragic one. But whether the peoples of Africa, Latin America, or Asia are seen as objects of the civilizing mission or victims of it, they are defined as the other in a way the proves problematic for granting people agency. The implication of Smail's insight is that any solution to the problem of reconciling the agency given with autonomous history and the potential for integration of world-historical narratives must provide a method of returning this agency.

     For this reason, Edward Said's acclaimed Orientalism (1979) does not provide a useful model for such reconciliation. Said does offer a trenchant critique of the ways in which armchair historians and writers of travel literature in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe invented a version of a profane Orient that needed to be saved by Western imperalism. However, Said's critique does not offer a realistic way to remove the problematic aspects of this self-other dichotomy. One of the main points of Said's work was to argue that the imperialist subtext of this enlightenment writing was a failure of humanism, and that the solution to the problem of the creation of the other was to recognize the common humanity of those from both Occident and Orient.10

     Yet Said's humanism runs contrary to the Foucauldian method of the rest of his work. Additionally, the humanism he posits as the ultimate solution to the problem of Orientalism is implicated by the same enlightenment thought that Said is critiquing. It is the very positing of a universal humanity that led these authors to assume that European experiences were universal in the first place, and to urge European nations to elevate the Orient to a European standard.11 Humanist universalism cannot be the solution to Orientalism if the particular form of universalism advocated by Said is itself Eurocentric. Finally, Said's work cannot be used to reformulate a problematic self-other dichotomy that leads either to the balkanization and compartmentalization inherent in Area Studies historiography or the consumption of individual and group identity to a larger narrative framework in world historiography. This is because ultimately Said provides no remedy for these self-other dichotomies. While his work purports to be a critique of the construction of an Occidental self and an Oriental other, Said's analysis slides back to making assumptions about the naturalness of these distinctions and does not, at the end of the work, prescribe any practical way of transcending this East/West construction. Even if he demonstrates the extent to which the Orient was an invention of Western writers, in that very formulation Said's work "relapses into the essentializing modes it attacks."12

     One potential solution to the conundrum of the self-other distinction that Said poses but does not resolve is to narrate modern world history, particularly in the context of colonialism and the cold war, as a hybrid process. In his classic 1994 work entitled The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha reformulates the problems of colonialism and postcolonialism. Drawing on Franz Fanon and others, Bhabha proposes that the most effective colonial strategy consists of adopting certain cultural and intellectual aspects of the culture of the colonizer and refiguring them in indigenous ways. Creating such a hybrid identity confuses colonial civilizing strategies by calling into question whether the colonized is truly uncivilized, since they contain elements of the colonizer's culture. In one section of his work, Bhabha provides an example of the effect of hybrid cultural processes on the colonizer through an anecdote about the role of the common Indian flatbread chapatti and its use during the Sepoy mutiny in 1857. A rumor surfaced in the aftermath of the famous discovery that the British East India Company was making rifle grease out of a combination of pork and beef tallow, thus angering both the Muslim and Hindu Indian soldiers of the company. The rumor was that chapattis were being circulated from village to village. The British were at a loss to explain the circulation of this flatbread, and interpreted it variably as a warning that the villagers were being told they needed to fight if they were to continue to be able to eat, as a superstitious way of warding off disease, or as proof that the British were trying to pollute them by mixing ground-up bone in chapatti flour.13 Ultimately, the indeterminate meaning of the distribution of the chapatti caused a generalized panic.

     Historians of the sepoy mutiny have considered this chapatti episode in some detail. World histories typically include the sepoy mutiny as well. The more recent world-historical accounts, following Indian nationalist and subaltern historiography, have reformulated it as the "Indian Rebellion," a "violent rebellion" in which "the rebels imagined that the Mughal Empire might be restored to its former power and glory."14 This interpretation seeks to provide a clear and uncomplicated view of the mutiny in which the soldiers rejected the British Empire (and mutatis mutandis the West) in favor of a traditional ruler. Yet nothing is as simple as it seems in this case. The ruler in question, Bahadur Shah, was a Muslim in a land with a majority Hindu population. He was not independent of the British but implicated in British rule through the Mughal collaboration with the East India Company. Additionally, it is important to remember that these sepoys were willing to agree to serve the British as soldiers in the first place, which makes them unlikely to be philosophically opposed to British rule, particularly when being disadvantaged in the prior Mughal society was a main reason to be attracted to the job of being a sepoy in the first place. Finally, the rebellion was not started for the restoration of an independent India, for there had never been such an "India" in the past (India as we know it today being essentially a consequence of British Imperialism), but rather as a religious protest, similar kinds of which had been lodged against the Mughal emperors many times in the past as well.

     What this analysis should show us is that there is a tendency in world history to present an analysis of particular events that fits into a universal theme. In this case, what is important is to articulate the sepoy mutiny within a larger narrative that discusses the nationalist responses to colonial aggression. First, this world-historical theme reenacts the central contradiction of nationalist historiography: in order to tell a patriotic story of national resistance, one must articulate the colonizer as the main actor in history who takes the action that the colonized must resist. Thus, seeing the sepoy mutiny as a Mughal restorationist movement provides a perfect example of Smail's critique of nationalist historiography, since it clearly reverses the moral implications of colonialism but stays within a Eurocentric teleology.

     Bhabha's critique of these narratives, however, is somewhat different than Smail's. For Bhabha, the central problem with seeing the sepoy mutiny as an unproblematic independence movement is precisely that it sorts out the British and Indian aspects of the story far too firmly. The chapatti story is absent from most world-historical considerations of the mutiny because of its confusing undecidability. There is no room in a story of nationalist heroism for an event of unclear meaning or interpretation. The sepoys themselves, with their clean-cut British uniforms, are caught in the interstices of British and Indian. One of the difficulties the Company faced in getting the sepoys to fight was that they would shed the discipline of their uniforms during the fight, making it impossible to tell the difference between a soldier and a civil insurgent.15 The circulation of the chapatti, too is an undecidable event; one cannot say what the intentions of the chapatti circulators actually were. Historians who attempt to resolve this event into a unified Indian cultural strategy to resist the British "bite the bullet and circulate the myth of the chapati" and "pass on the contagion of rumour and panic into their own serial, sensible narratives that become unsettled by the very act of repetition."16

     As Bhabha puts it:

The margin of hybridity, where cultural differences "contingently" and conflictually touch, becomes the moment of panic which reveals the borderline experience. It resists the binary opposition of racial and cultural groups, sipahis and sahibs, as homogeneous politicized cultural consciousness. The political psychosis of panic constitutes the boundary of cultural hybridity across which the Mutiny is fought. The native order of Indian symbols, their indigenous ethnic reference "inside" area, are displaced and turned inside-out; they become the circulating signs of an "English" panic, disavowed by the official discourse of imperial history, represented in the language of indeterminacy.17

In Bhabha's reformulation, the sepoy's march to Delhi was not a clear-cut attempt to support Bahadur Shah as an alternative to British rule, but was another hybrid, undecidable act whose purpose was to spread uncertainty and panic and create a psychological opening for popular action. The mutineers "contrived to bring out Bahadur Shah in a royal procession," hoping that the "spectacle" produces a "magic" through which they can use the "rumour" of extensive uprisings and distracted British troops to force the King to assume authority.18

     What Bhabha would like historians to do is to uncover these moments of uncertainty in history. Rather than resolving the actors and events involved as British or Indian, nationalist or colonialist, Bhabha would prefer a historiography that refused the urge for constant resolution. Rather, he would like us to see that, in the example of the sepoys of the British East India Company in 1857, the collaboration or loyalty of the sepoys should not suddenly and paradoxically be transformed into resistance and rebellion. Rather, the mutiny operated at the interstices of these categories, and the mutineers exploited the ambiguity of their rebellion both to draw in as many supporters with discrete aims as possible and to spread the panic that emerged from the very undecidability of their actions.

     Rather than resolving moments of undecidability through a definitive interpretation of an event, Bhabha would have historians avoid producing interpretive closure. Instead, historians could focus on opening up closed interpretations of difficult events in world history such as the sepoy mutiny in order to reveal their ambivalent, undecidable, hybrid character. The usefulness of Bhabha's method for world history is that it does have the potential of destabilizing the self-other dichotomy that plagues both world and autonomous histories. Bhabha would suggest that one of the most important aspects of the sepoy mutiny was that the sepoys were not reflective of a wholesome Indian national culture at all, but represented an undecidable cultural hybrid. Bhabha's formulation is useful for creating a world history with some level of indigenous agency, since his view of the Sepoy mutiny has British officials reacting in panic to an indigenous ambiguity, rather than the mutineers responding to British colonization with a failed and ultimately victimizing crushed rebellion. Bhabha also cites the example of the Christian missionary who inartfully explains the communion to a group of Hindu vegetarians, thus exposing Christians as a group of carnivorous vampires who regularly drink the blood and eat the flesh of their god.19

     Bhabha's method is not without its drawbacks. As Robert Young has pointed out, the concept of hybridity has its own problematic nineteenth-century origins. As a concept it was first used to describe miscegenation and an undesirable mixing of the races.20 In a sense, despite his critique of cultural essences, Bhabha's theory implies a cultural whole, since a hybrid must necessarily be a blend of two pure elements. These reservations aside, Bhabha's understanding of historical events certainly has the possibility of decentering both the chronology of world history and the self-other distinctions of autonomous history.

     To give one example of how hybridity could be applied in a world-historical context, we might consider the ways in which French-educated Vietnamese elites disturbed French notions of colonial power, by becoming very wealthy or by involving themselves in colonial development schemes through purchasing land that was assumed to be going to French companies for development, or by using the guarantees of liberty found in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen against French authorities. These moves serve to unsettle colonial authorities in precisely the way that Bhabha describes, and they provide a useful alternative for finding comparisons between colonized countries in world history.

2. Transculturation

     Transculturation provides another potential model for a resolution of the tensions between world and autonomous histories. In an anthropological context, transculturation can refer to the process of ethnoconvergence, whereby different cultures adopt selectively certain elements of each other. As the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz explained in the 1940s, over a relatively short period of time, different cultures in contact with one another selectively embrace certain elements of the other, changing both cultures in the meantime. Ortiz's descriptions explained why a new Cuban culture was forged relatively quickly from the combination of African slaves and Hispanic owners in colonial Cuba.

     Building on these insights, Mary Louise Pratt has suggested that transculturation may be a way of recovering indigenous agency. Pratt suggests that transculturation may allow "subjugated peoples" to "determine to varying extents what they absorb into their culture, and what they use it for." This transcultural process can perhaps even help colonized people affect the terms of their colonization by influencing their colonizers; Pratt suggests that we may be able to speak of transculturation from the colonies to the metropolis."21

     Applying the idea of transculturation to world history, we can see that rather than narrating a history of imperialism that constructs Europeans as pure exploiters and colonized people as passive victims, both interact in complex ways through cultural interaction in what Pratt calls a "contact zone." She describes the contact zone in the following way.

One coinage that recurs throughout the book is the term "contact zone," which I use to refer to the space of colonial encounters, the space in which people geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality, and intractable conflict..."contact zone" is an attempt to invoke the spatial and temporal copresence of subjects previously separated by geographic and historical disjunctures, and whose trajectories now intersect. By using the term "contact" I aim to foreground the interactive, improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters so easily ignored or suppressed by diffusionist account of conquest and domination. A "contact" perspective emphasizes how subjects are constituted in and by their relations to each other.22

     In other words, beyond the question of the oppression of colonial policy lies a complex set of networks in which both the colonizers and the colonized must interact. Practicality dictates that these everyday economic and social relations must not be entirely one-sided, and must involve some reasonable level of cultural understanding. For example, in his description of eighteenth-century interactions between French missionaries and trappers and Algonquians, Richard White has described how the two groups sought out a "Middle Ground":

Because the French and Algonquians were trading partners and allies, the boundaries of the Algonquian and French worlds melted at the edges and merged. Although identifiable Frenchmen and identifiable Indians obviously continued to exist, whether a particular practice or way of doing things was French or Indian was, after a time, not so clear. This was not because individual Indians became "Frenchified" or because individual Frenchman went native, although both might occur. Rather, it was because Algonquians who were perfectly comfortable with their status and practices as Indians and Frenchman, confident in the rightness of French ways, nonetheless had to deal with people who shared neither their values nor their assumptions about the appropriate way of accomplishing tasks. They had to arrive at some common conception of suitable ways of acting; they had to create what I have already referred to as a middle ground.23

     Transculturation differs from hybridity primarily in its description of the colonial process. To Homi Bhabha, when colonized people embrace ambiguous cultural forms derived from the colonizers, as when they wear European clothing or distribute chapattis, part of the desired effect of that action is to unsettle colonial authorities and confuse the purposes of the civilizing mission. The transformative potential of transculturation works differently. Whereas hybridity assumes that natives break up a hierarchical space originally dominated by colonizers, theories of transculturation assume that spaces exist outside of a firm power structure. To examine a contact zone in history does not necessarily deny the brutal power of colonial structures, but it does give agency to the interactions within the colonial space.

     In integrating Southeast Asian narratives into world-historical narratives, historians could profitably use transculturation theory to discuss a number of unique episodes such as the Burmese attempts to conquer Martaban in the 1540s, in which Portuguese mercenaries fighting for King Tabinshweti fought Portuguese soldiers defending the port city, or, as I have done, to describe the multiethnic milieu of mercenaries fighting on behalf of King Gia Long in Gia Dinh in the 1790s. Thus, to return to the Vietnamese example, a transcultural history of French imperialism in Vietnam would start with a discussion of the Vietnamese "middle ground" 1790s through the 1830s, a period during which European merchants, missionaries, and mercenaries interacted in important ways and on a more or less equal basis with Vietnamese elites and officials, to the point that several Europeans accepted official positions in the Nguyễn bureaucracy, intermarried with local Vietnamese families, and took Vietnamese names.24

3. Cofiguration

     One potential problem with both hybridity and transculturation as theories of cultural contact is that they both tend to assume that there exists a time prior to cultural contact in which there were two prior cultures. In the case of hybridity, Bhabha's transformational vision of the potential of cultural difference to unsettle colonial narratives is based on an older, biological notion of hybridity in which two supposedly pure entities are artificially merged into one, a notion inextricably connected to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century eugenic racism and social Darwinism. As Robert Young points out in his critique of Bhabha, this potential contradiction in the cultural theory of hybridity, in which its supposedly destabilizing influence rests on the presumption of two prior stable cultures, means that "we may rather be repeating the past rather than distancing ourselves from it or providing a critique of it."25 While transculturation as a term is not fraught with the same troubled past as the word "hybridity," it too indicates that two cultures can merge and blend, which presumes something that we know to be false: that we can locate in the misty past some reference point of origins in which there were two pure, hermetically sealed cultures that had not interacted and transculturated.

     One way of seeing this problem differently is to understand cultural difference as being a product of a search for particularity that results in a comparison and contrast; that is, to see cultural comparisons not as describing difference but producing it, much in the way that Mahayana texts speak about the creation of things through "interdependent origination." In this sense, "traditional" cultures are defined as traditional through a search for equivalency with the West.26 Thus, taking for example the case of Cambodian nationalism, for every purportedly beneficial element of Western modernity there must be an equally beneficial element indigenous to Cambodia; if there is none, such a tradition must be invented. Through this move, Cambodians invent a traditional Cambodia after the fact, as ideas that are not recognizably uniquely Cambodian, such as Hindu iconography, Theravada Buddhism, and the melodramatic romance become an autochthonous part of Cambodian culture. In Naoki Sakai's analysis, this creation of particularity was a fundamental part of the production of Asian modernities:

The attempt to posit the identity of one's own ethnicity or nationality in terms of the gap between it and the putative West, that is, to create the history of one's own nation through the dynamics of attraction to and repulsion from the West, has, almost without exception, been adopted as a historical mission by non-Western intellectuals. Eurocentrism, characteristic of modernity, is most powerfully manifest in narratives by non-Western intellectuals, and it is in this respect that the history of Japanese thought carries with it the seal of modernity.27

From Sakai's analysis, it is possible to see that, as an alternative to examining colonialism as a clash between East and West, world historians might profitably explore the ways in which these identities are in fact produced through a process of intellectual exchange, particularly through the exchange of different nationalist ideas.

     To return to our practical application of these concepts to how world historians might treat the French conquest of Vietnam, cofiguration suggests the ways in which colonization created new ideologies of national history. Vietnamese nationalism changed fundamentally due to colonial influences, and as the nineteenth century waned resistance to the French shifted from restorationist rebellions to a new anti-French sentiment based on loyalty to particular European ideologies. Thus, Marxist Vietnamese historians found in their past the Stalinist stages of history, just as Anarchist Vietnamese found in their past their own versions of the Paris Commune. Even conservative Vietnamese, rather than relying upon models from the Vietnamese past, found instead analogies in Vietnamese history to figures they associated with French conservatism. This trend led the satirist Vũ Trọng Phụng to give us the character of Joseph Thiết, who was such a staunch royalist that he wanted to restore not the power of the Nguyễn regime but of the House of Orléans in France.28

4. Localization

     Almost three decades ago, in his reflections on the Indianization of Southeast Asia in History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives, O.W. Wolters proposed that a better term for the processes called "Indianization" by colonial historians was "localization." In 802 AD, when Jayavarman II ascended Phnom Kulen, declared it Mount Mahendra, and used four Hindu tantric texts to create a microcosm of the heavens on earth, what he was doing was not "Indianization" per se, even if Sivakaivalya, Jayavarman II's personal priest, was a Brahmin and perhaps was even from the Indian subcontinent.29 The idea of devaraja itself, that the Kings of Cambodia had special relationships or access to particular gods, is not unknown to India but reflects much more particularly an idea found throughout Southeast Asia that rulers have a justification for their rule by virtue of being what Wolters calls "men of prowess": those with extraordinary, almost magical abilities, qualities that Southeast Asian polities looked for in a ruler "long before any question of Siva-like metaphors arose."30 To Wolters, in the process of localization, "Indian materials tended to be fractured and restated and therefore drained of their original significance." 31 What matters is not that the names of the deities—Siva, Vishnu—that are appropriated into cults in Angkor or Pagan are of South Asian origin. What is more important is how these materials are recreated in a local context: how they are appropriated as ways of expressing local forms of authority and kingship.

     As a theory of cultural contact that can be applied to world history, localization has the same advantage as cofiguration. Unlike hybridity or transculturation, it does not assume that there are two coherent, hermetically sealed cultures that exist prior to a defined point of interaction. In fact, Wolters himself perceived that unlike ideas such as "syncretism" and "synthesis," localization rejected the assumption that cultural clash or adaptation was derived from a "reconciliation of originally contradictory difference."32

     Moreover, as I have argued elsewhere, localization is as useful a concept for analyzing colonization, nationalism, or modernity as it is a means to rethink ancient cultural flows from India to Southeast Asia.33 To return to our example of French colonization in Vietnam, a localization approach might consider the ways in which originally French objects were drained of their original meaning and now serve to represent Vietnamese tradition. For example, phổ, the Vietnamese noodle soup long informally recognized as the Vietnamese national dish, may have derived its origin from a desire of a Vietnamese cook to recreate the French pot-au-feu under Vietnamese conditions. Similarly, the aó dài, the women's tunic now cited as a distinctive national dress, had its origins in efforts in the French colonial period to produce a "modern" dress that reflected French sensibilities but would also be worn by Vietnamese women.34 A world history that focused its discussion on colonialism on the question of how the cultural forms of the colonized were integrated locally would not only be instructive in understanding both societies but also would allow for a discussion of colonialism that maintained some of the uniqueness of autonomous historiography.


     The efforts of historians throughout the postcolonial world in the mid-twentieth century to produce autonomous and independent histories bore important fruit that world historians can harvest. An important goal of this work in the development of an Area Studies approach was to avoid producing a nationalist historiography that was a mere mirror image of the colonial interpretation of the past, one that covered the same ground as the colonial historians but argued that everything the colonial historians thought was progress was merely an imposition by a foreign power. Instead, autonomous historians sought to create national and regional histories based on new, indigenous chronologies, ones that found the locus for change neither in accepting European trade or colonization but in local efforts to integrate into the cultures and economies of the larger world. The area studies tradition of autonomy is far from perfect; its tendency to draw a binary opposition between the "autonomous" culture of a particular region and the "external" cultures of everywhere else may marginalize ethnic minorities and those with mixed-race backgrounds. Yet its legacy is that it has produced a chronology for the colonized world that is not based primarily on the vicissitudes of European contact.

     World historians, too, have made important contributions to the development of historiography in the postcolonial world. Were it not for the growth of readable texts in the field of world history, instruction in Western secondary schools and universities would most likely be considerably more skewed toward European and American topics. An increase in the teaching of world history has also encouraged the early development of comparative history, and this has the clear advantage of improving the analytical skills of students of history. However, because many writers of world history textbooks have sought to integrate the stories of the world into a single comprehensible narrative, they may be unintentionally undermining the efforts of autonomous historians to provide a unique and independent chronology for the history of decolonized nations and regions. World historians, in other words, face considerable hurdles whenever they attempt to compare different histories, or to integrate multiple histories in a single narrative, while still preserving perfectly the uniqueness of national and regional narratives desired by autonomous historians as a correction to the influence of colonial historiography. Equally, though, area studies specialists will find the audience for their works to be shrinking without the relevant frameworks provided by world history.

     This study has argued that it is possible to practice world history while preserving the important goals of historical distinctiveness offered by autonomous historiography. The four approaches suggested here are all ways of maintaining the chronological benchmarks of a world-historical narrative that discusses world trade and European colonization while still narrating these experiences in a way that gives those being colonized some semblance of agency in the processes of colonization and of modernization. Integrating one or all of these perspectives into studies of world history would help preserve elements of particularity and uniqueness while still maintaining a larger comparative perspective.

Wynn W. Gadkar-Wilcox is Associate Professor, Department of History and Non-Western Cultures. Western Connecticut State University. He is the author of Allegories of the Vietnamese Past (New Haven, CT: Yale Southeast Asia Studies, 2011), and the editor of Vietnam and the West: New Approaches (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2010). He can be reached at


1 John R.W. Smail, "On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia," Journal of Southeast Asian History 2:2 (July 1961): 72-102.

2 Paul Cohen, Discovering History in China: American Historical Writing on the Recent Chinese Past (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 149-198; Caroline Neale, Writing "Independent" History: African Historiography, 1960-1980. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985); Harvey Amani Whitfield and Bonny Ibhawoh, "Problems, Perspectives, and Paradigms: Colonial Africanist Historiography and the Question of Audience," Canadian Journal of African Studies 39:3 (2005), 586-7.

3 Patrick Manning, "Narrating World History: A Synopsis," World History Connected 1:1 (November 2003),

4 For critiques of the nation-state in history, see Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), and Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

5 John R.W. Smail, "On the possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia," Journal of Southeast Asian History 2:2 (July 1961): 81.

6 Smail, 95.

7 Valerie Hansen and Kenneth R. Curtis, Voyages in World History (Boston: Wadsworth, 2010), 769-70.

8 William Scott Morton and Charlton M. Lewis, China: Its History and Culture (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 148.

9 Donald Emmerson, "Southeast Asia: What's in a Name?" Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 15:1 (March 1984): 1, 7.

10 Edward Said, Orientalism. (New York: Vintage, 1979), 328.

11 See Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. (New York: Routledge, 1990), 132-3.

12 James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge: Harvard, 1988), 270-1.

13 Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture. (New York: Routledge, 1994), 200-202.

14 Robert W. Strayer, Ways of the World: A Global History with Sources (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011), 953.

15 Bhabha, 210.

16 Bhabha, 202.

17 Bhabha, 207.

18 Bhabha, 209-10.

19 Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race (New York, Routledge, 1995), 153.

20 Ibid., 8-9.

21 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 6-7

22 Ibid.

23 Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 50.

24 See Wynn Wilcox, "Transnationalism and Multiethnicity in the early Nguyễn Ánh-Gia Long Period," in Nhung Tuyet Tran and Anthony Reid (eds.), Vietnam: Borderless Histories (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), pp. 194-216.

25 Young, Colonial Desire, 25.

26 On the idea of searches for equivalency, see Joseph Richmond Levenson, Liang Ch'i Ch'ao and the Mind of Modern China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953).

27 Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On "Japan" and Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 50.

28 Vũ Trọng Phụng, Dumb Luck. Trans. Peter Zinoman and Nguyễn Nguyệt Cẩm. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 81.

29 For a narration of these events, see Louis Finot, "Notes d'epigraphie," Bulletin de l'ecole Française d'Extrême-Orient, 15 (1915), 52-56.

30 Wolters, History, Culture, and Region, p. 113. For a discussion of the Trần kings' use of prowess in Vietnam, see O. W. Wolters, "On Telling a Story about Vietnam in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 26:1 (March 1995), 67.

31 Wolters, History, Culture, and Region, 55.

32 Ibid., 56.

33 See Wynn Wilcox, "Introduction," in Wynn Wilcox (ed.), Vietnam and the West: New Approaches (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program 2010), 2-3.

34 Ann Marie Leshkowich, "The Ao Dai Goes Global: How International Influences and Female Entrepreneurs Have Shaped Vietnam's National Costume," in Re-Orienting Fashion, ed. Sandra Niessen et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2003), 79–116.


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