An Interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty and François Hartog

Interview by Nitzan Lebovic

Prologue

During the Fall of 2022 I served as the Joyce C. Greenberg Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. When I learned that Dipesh Chakrabarty and François Hartog plan to coteach a seminar, that semester, I thought that that would be an excellent opportunity not only to study with the two historians but also to interview them. During the first half of the interview I stayed in the background, as the two thinkers contemplated a series of issues concerning the history of time, the history of the Anthropocene, and their own personal relation to the two topics. I was a little more involved in the second half, when we discussed the implications of their theories on the situation in the Middle East. I recorded the conversation and edited it in the most minimal fashion. I did my best to capture the different tone of the two speakers: Hartog spoke in a deep, reflective and calm baritone. Chakrabarty, in contrast, spoke in fast, long humorous sentences. The different styles show in the changing lengths of the responses. But what feels natural within the flow of conversation may look different in writing. For obvious reason, I could not transcribe the many sounds of delighted consent and intellectual companionship that gave this interview its particular warm atmosphere. The loyal reader is invited to imagine Hartog, with silver hair and glasses, brown turtleneck sweater and dark blue blazer, and Chakrabarty, in a white shirt under a grey sweater and a brown scarf, sipping slowly from their glasses of red wine. Whenever François coughs–the result of catching cold on the Paris-Chicago flight–Dipesh shoots a quick concerned look at him, without turning his head.

Interview

*

N.L. Thank you very much for agreeing to be interviewed. The two of you are considered two of the greatest historians of the past few decades, so it’s not surprising you are also friends. Can you tell me when the friendship began and weather it had any impact on your view of history along the years?

F.H. Our friendship started when I was in Chicago, in Fall 2016, and taught a course, as you do now. I was engaged with a book that became Chronos. The section about the “Christian Regime of Historicity” followed a few years of seminars in Paris, but through our conversation I discovered a new field. Dipesh made me aware of what was for him already a known territory. I was agile. Since then, it was clear to me that I could not end the Western reflection about time without the Anthropocene.

In a way, you see, we were not supposed to meet. We came from very different spheres. Dipesh came from Calcutta, postcolonial studies and moved to the climate question. I came from the classical European tradition. But it’s precisely because we were not supposed to meet, that the meeting became so important.

D.C. I’m grateful that the work on climate change brought me some extremely valuable  friendships. The friendship with Bruno Latour was natural, given the topic.[1] François became an extremely important friend, and the conversations with him became critical to my own thinking. I knew, of course, about François’s work since his book on Herodotus (The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History [2009]). That book was of interest to scholars in postcolonial studies because of its discussion of “the other” and of “difference.” I read parts of Regimes of Historicity before but read it more carefully when François was teaching his class. The critical thing for me was what François calls “presentism”: the end of the modern regime of historicity. I suddenly realized that my time and my childhood began with what he—and [Reinhart] Koselleck before him—discussed as the end of historicity. A décallage between Europe and new nations, as waves of European presentism washed over South Asian history, particularly Indian, history. The “modern regime of historicity” that India entered in 1947 was somewhat displaced by memory studies: The partition of 1947 became, like the “Holocaust,” our site of memory studies— generating interest, for example, in books like Alessandro Portelli’s The Order Has Been Carried Out (2003). François and I discussed these and other issues even beyond his stay in Chicago. Our concerns overlapped again when François was working on the chapter about apocalyptic thinking in Chronos and analyzed some of Latour’s writings on the Anthropocene. He made the arresting argument that Bruno’s thinking here was influenced by Christian ideas of the apocalypse, which made me think that while this observation was absolutely fascinating, the Anthropocene as a global formation time could not merely be  an extension of Christian time; otherwise one would not be able to explain India and China’s pursuit of energy-intensive modernization in apparent disregard of the alarmism that often marks the discussion in the West. François’s work was extremely helpful in teasing out, as if with a pair of pincers, the Western strands of time in the knotty temporal formation that the Anthropocene hypothesis implied. This was eye- opening for me. So both Regimes of Historicity and Chronos were instructive but I’d say that Chronos carries the evidence of our meeting.

Also, François may have been the first scholar to describe the Anthropocene, our present, as “disorienting.” Disorienting in the sense that the many strands of temporality that made up the global time of the Anthropocene, an entity that involved geological, that is, planetary, time as well, never gave us a consistent sense either of the present or of the future. Both the present and the future appear fragmented. Planetary environmental crisis could manifest itself as the pandemic; it could also appear in the form of extreme weather events, or the general warming up of the surface of the earth. And these all look to different kinds of presents and futures that operate on difference scales of time. Latour would also describe our present as disorienting.

N.L. How does this “disorientation” show in contemporary historical thinking?

D.C. In the Dilthey sense of understanding, and that is profoundly disorienting within the tripartite division between Chronos, Kairos, Crisis. Some say, with reference to anthropogenic climate change, that we are way past the decision time. Others, like Latour (or James Hansen the scientist), say it’s decision time. There is a crisis and we should take charge, but it’s disorienting because who will take charge?

N.L. That was his claim in a recent article published in Critical Inquiry [See “How to Remain Human in the Wrong Space? A Comment on a Dialogue by Carl Schmitt,” Critical Inquiry 47 (Summer 2021)], where he advocates for a Schmittian rereading of the Anthropocene, and asks that we take action in a “terrestrial” space.

D.C. Precisely, but there is no we. There are only disagreements. So that’s why it’s internally plural but crisis-ridden sense of time. It’s no longer the time of globalization of the 1980s-90s when the dilemma was whether the technology forced into existence a global humanity too quickly without giving humans time for any genuine cross-cultural conversations . This, in a sense, was the fear of technology expressed by a long line of German thinkers. Postcolonial scholarship and globalization studies tried to make cultural sense of globalization by developing forms of thought that sought to get around this fear.  Francois’ work saves us from this [cultural] pessimism with his delicate sense of irony.

*

Frances Tanzer, The World (2021)

N.L. It seems that both of you changed course, about two-to-three decades ago, and moved from a more local and archive-oriented history to a broader and more conceptual history. Can you tell me about the change and what instigated it?

F.H. Dipesh referred to the Regimes of Historicity, which was, for me, a change from historiography, in the broader sense, to a new temporal perspective. The inspiration came from reading anthropologists who focused on time. Critical reviewers argued that Regimes of Historicity was written from a European, or even French, perspective. It’s wrong, because we—succeeding anthropologists and historians such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marhsall Sahlins, and Koselleck of course—focused on multiple temporalities. Sahlins followed Lévi-Strauss’s  distinction between cold and warm societies [see the “Time Regained” chapter in The Savage Mind] when he merged a structural analysis and an emphasis on the event. Analyzing the apotheosis of Cook [in How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, for Example (1995)] he came to realize that it was a mutual misunderstanding of the English and the Polynesians that led to violence. Cook, “the white God,” was not supposed to return—there was a problem with the ship. The Polynesian lived an ancient regime of historicity and the English saw themselves as the representatives of a modern temporality. This led to a clash, not of civilizations, but of temporalities.

That was the backround, but the concrete change occurred when I was invited to the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin in 1993. During that year I walked through Berlin, a short time after the fall of the wall. Berlin looked like a huge construction site. I discovered a city that lived between different temporalities. You could see that with your own eyes. This was a distinct embodiment of the Regime of Historicity. It’s not an abstract “ideal type,” in the Weberian sense, but a Benjaminian embodiment. I realized, there, that the regime of historicity is not an abstract analysis of far away societies but a contemporaneous tool.

D.C. My personal interest in climate change started in 2003, when the devastating fire in Canberra destroyed many of the natural spots I grew to love when I was a graduate student there. I had a complete sense of loss and grief. But I was also fascinated by the proposition that humans now acted as a very powerful geological force on the planet, a sense of human agency that was so different from what my historian heroes such as E. P. Thompson used. I wrote the “Four Theses” essay [“The Climate of History: Four Theses,” in Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009)] first in Bengali, in 2007, for a Calcutta magazine. No one there was interested in it. When, a few years later Critical Inquiry was running low submissions and asked me if I had anything for them, I said I could translate and expand that article.

While working on Provincializing Europe [Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000)], I realized that while I’m a trained historian, I also love thinking beyond the kind of questions that historians usually ask. My legitimate way of doing such thinking was by putting pressure on the categories with which historians think. In Provincializing Europe these were memory, oral history, indigenous history that allowed me to questions “historians’ history.” In the “Four Theses” I used science—geology, evolutionary biology – to the same end. All disciplines have their “externalities,” things they don’t train you to think about. Economists don’t want to know about the social cost of coal when they work on the price of coal; historians don’t want to know about evolutionary history, geological history. They see them as given. Braudel was an exception. He’s an ancestor of what he are doing today but for my liking he went too far in neglecting the importance of everyday human experience. In On History (1980) he argues that the individual doesn’t really matter. I am too much of a humanist, too much of a reader of E. P. Thompson to think that the individual doesn’t matter. The tension between our participation in geological and evolutionary history and what we, as human beings, think of as our mortality, that tension is of interest to me.

It is also interesting to think about the criticisms I get for my planetary views. There are, of course, those who argue that capitalism is at the root of all our crises. One response I get in the subcontinent sometimes is that the planetary view is too Western and universal. The planetary voice, some of them say, is White. And then there are “decolonial” scholars who think the world should go back to a pre-1492 world. While I agree with much in their criticism of colonial domination, as a historian I think that there is no going back. We are in the world that we are in. But these criticisms make me reflect on my own reasons for being interested in planetary questions. I realize that while I’m certainly not a White person—Tagore is a major figure in my book; I criticize him, but he’s my own person— the Western academy still retains, perhaps as a remnant of their imperial days,  a deep capacity to speak in the name of univerals. Otherwise, how would one explain the fact that most if not all of the scientists who have so far written books for the general reader explaining global warming as a physical-social phenomenon are based in in what we call the West?

F.H. I would like to add something here: Dipesh was born in December 1948. That is the time of independence, in India, and the rise of its modern regime of historicity, under (Jawaharlal) Nehru and other modernizers. I was born in 1946. Of course, I didn’t know it back then, but I’m the son of the Nuremberg Trials. That makes a difference. It became apparent to me many years later, walking through Berlin in the 1990s, but the first time it hit me was actually during the mid-1970s, in the early days of the “memory wave,” or the start of memory studies. Lanzmann’s Shoah—which took fifteen years to complete—and Pierre Nora’s Les lieux de mémoire [“Shoah” was released fully in 1985; Nora’s in 1984] raised the question: what is national history? Unlike Lanzmann, Nora didn’t deal directly with the Holocaust but the Holocaust was present in everything he did. So in that regard I’m the son of the crash of the modern regime of historicity. After the Nuremberg Trials we lost faith in the progress of humanity. It took me time to become fully aware of it. The time of being born on this earth changes my, or our, perspective.

*

N.L. So far, we’ve been talking about different historical conceptions, but your theories reverberate strongly for those interested in the present and future state of things. As a Middle Eastern, I wonder how you see your analysis working in particular settings, such as the amplified rhetoric against the Arab population inside and outside the 1967 line. What is the significance of the Anthropocene to the current situation in Israel/Palestine/ the Middle East? How does history help—or not—understanding the conflict?

F.H. I do not know enough to judge whether the Anthopocene is a present concern for Israelis and Palestinians. It would be good if they cared. But one aspect of the conflict is the temporal gap between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel was established (in 1948) with a modern perspective—the building of a new nation and taking progress as a mission. But Israeli “progress” meant a catastrophe [the Nakba] for the Palestinians. Their sense of time, after the catastrophe (of expulsion and military regime) changed fundamentally. The Arab world, at that time—Egypt for example—did experience a drive to modernize and developed its own version of modern regime. I’m sure there was a section of the Palestinian population that strove for that, too. However, an essential component in that history is the Iranian Revolution of 1979. It changed the situation dramatically in the whole Arab world and marked another end of the modern regime. The result was a mass shift from the Left or the Marxist view of history, to religion, which has a very different notion of time. The Palestinians were trapped in that tectonic change, on the one hand, and by the Israeli state, on the other hand. Israel was navigating between different times, the modern regime remained active, but presentism started altering the society. The Palestinians experienced a growing dispossession because their future was negated by the Israelis, their past was denied and in the process of disappearing [many of the deserted Palestinian villages, after 1948 and 1967, were destroyed] they were trapped in a present that kept changing, under a barrage of regulations and orders by the Israeli authorities. So from my perspective, the Palestinians experience is now a complete temporal disorientation. When Arafat was trying to comfort the Palestinians and commit to the struggle for national independence, he explained it may take a day or a thousand years, but this demonstrated an inability to grasp time realistically. After that, the rise of a presentist regime of time pushed an apocalyptic worldview and when realized by individuals, the Shahid suicide attacks, it expressed an individualized apocalypse. Da’esh followed the same apocalyptic view, advocating a Kairotic time which is the time of the Caliphate and resisted a Chronos-time. Da’esh’s is a deep faith in the end-time and the coming of the apocalypse. But not understanding that defending a territory and a border is more related to Chronos than to Kairos led to their defeat.

N.L. So reading the Greeks could have helped them win…

D.C. Or lose better…

N.L.: I see the conflict moving—within what François calls Chronos-time—from an ethnic postpartition conflict to a biopolitical, permanent conflict. The incessant slicing of the West Bank to smaller and smaller enclaves, Bantustans, changes the temporal experience of Israelis and Palestinians. Dipesh, how do you see the Anthropocene changing or helping us understand this situation? Could it propose, ironically, an opportunity for a dialogue?

D.C.: on a practical level Israelis have been doing a lot of work on climate, dry cultivation and irrigation systems. Building desalination plants or growing tomatoes in desert climate are part of the technological approach to climate change. So one obvious question is whether the Palestinians are or will be losing out on such technological solutions. Your description is exactly right, the Palestinian territory looks more and more like a patchwork quilt. Israel has made it impossible for them to even dream of a separate state. At the same time,–going back to what François was saying,– Palestinians have a hard time accepting this as their reality, because acceptance sounds like defeat, and creates despair. I’m sure it’s hard for them to think beyond the moment, except making demands for a separate state… The real solution must be, however, a  bi-national state, where Palestinians would become full citizens with full rights and where Israelis would confront their ethnocracy. Hannah Arendt was writing this in the 1930s, before Israel was established,– but the Hebrew University was already there. She was writing about a shared settlement of Jews and Arab. I am sure some Israelis think about this situation in a way similar to how some Indians think about Kashmir. The assumption is: We’ll spend money and maintain our control. It’ll bleed our state but we’re rich enough to support it. No one knows how long that could work.

N.L: A politics of suspension…

D.C.: Yes, the politics of suspension on both sides, and one wishes for a leadership that would break through these barriers, which doesn’t seem possible in the near future. So going back to the Anthropocene question, no country knows fully how it’s going to be affected. Israelis are exposed as much as others in the Middle East. That’s the problem with Climate Change; no country can prepare for it. That is why the most powerful countries invest a lot in defense technology, in internal and external security [for example, against climate immigration, N.L.]. Sometimes people fight battles in times that are different from their own: Hitler fought a nineteenth century self-aggrandizing battle, colonizing other people and taking over their territories. Putin is fighting an old Imperial war. Israel and India are locked in a twentieth-century nation-state politics while the times have moved on. We need to think beyond the nation state, beyond ethnocracy. That’s the problem with climate politics: the politics we’re engaging with are mostly twentieth century politics, but Climate Change is redefining the twenty-first century, and politically, we haven’t yet responded to it.

F.H. We see a strong move in the opposite direction, towards radical nationalism, with the recent election campaigns in Europe and South-America…

N.L. We need to end soon, but let me challenge you one last time: I hear also the arguments from the other end, that we are the dreamy Idealists and that the lessons of such changes should be the opposite, that is a shift towards a biopolitical fight for survival and securing basic means of living. Why insist on future hypothetical solutions?

D.C. We don’t know how the crisis is going to affect us. In the short term, selfish politics makes sense: I’ll become richer and gather resources to deal with whatever problem. Or I will build walls and stop human movement. But what happens if the problem out scales your resources? We all go down. It’s a gamble based on presentist calculations. We are still using much more fossil fuel than we should. The world will get hotter, humans will move both within and between nations, and there will be more conflicts. But what happens above 2.5 degrees? That’s an unfamiliar terrain.

N.L. Many thanks to you both for a fascinating conversation.


The interview was recorded at University of Chicago’s “Quad Club,” on 27 September, 2022. I translated the full interview for a forthcoming special “climate issue” of the Israeli T’eoria u’Vikoret (Theory and Criticism). The English version is about third shorter than the Hebrew/Arabic.

[1] The interview was conducted a few days before the news about Bruno Latour’s death, on 9 October 2022.


Nitzan Lebovic is a professor of history and the Apter Chair of Holocaust Studies and Ethical Values at Lehigh University, and the Joyce C. Greenberg Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago.

Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago.

François Hartog is the director of the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS).

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