Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism Reply To: 1. Mon 3 Feb: Course intro & India and the Environmental History of Imperialism

Author Replies # Posted on February 4, 2014 at 15:47

Markus Nyström
Reflection paper 1
Current debates, 2014-02-03, ntroduction/Gunnel Cederlöf’s lacture

It’s interesting to read and hear about the complexities in the establishment of a colonial rule in the case of the early era of British rule in India as. Colonialism is naturally a very large subject but is often treated and talked about as something homogenous, and well-defined both temporally and spatially.
I my reading of Cederlöf’s book, there was a rather short section early on in the book that caught my attention in particular. It is graphic and telling, and though short, I would like to base my reflection on that section since I believe it points toward something bigger.
The section is the first three pages of chapter 2 (p. 17-19). What’s described was the effects of a powerful earthquake the 2 april 1762 in the Arakan and Chittagong area. Amidst the countless descriptions of the devastation the quake brought, there is the correspondence of the “revenue suerveyors” of the East-India Company. They only had eyes open for the cultivated land and revenue assessment. Cederlöf writes: “While the disaster reports spoke of chaos and represented nature as out of control, revenue and cartographic surveys were in search of a regular, stable and ordered landscape.”
The key words in that sentence are: “were in search of”. The surveyors had a strict method, as it were, guiding their perception and reporting. It as an apt description of how methodological bias blinds you, as a researcher/investigator/surveyor, from portraiting a subject of study fully or truthfully. It’s a healthy reminder and a very apt metaphor for research.
But I want to discuss something larger still. The act of (re-)categorization, of (re-)structuring, (re-)naming the (new) world that the colonialists encountered was in the border zone of science and struggle for colonial power. The work of cartographers and scientists were necessary for the colonial states to appropriate power. Without this knowledge (and this kind of knowledge), territorial colonialism would not have worked. I here combine the acts of research with the act of bureaucratization – including tax systems and the bureaucracy to uphold those systems – since I believe they stem from the same desire to rule and dominate – both nature and people – through an imposed system on knowledge.
It seems, as exemplified by Cederlöf, that there was a structurally demanded urge to put all of reality into the 18th century equivalent of a Windows Excell Document. Everything neatly in boxes of understanding and order. Order means control – not only in the colonial context, but generally – which means that categorization (or “methodological bias”) was a means of control. In other words, the result was control and power. But it is an assumption that the desire for power alone was the source of this urge to categorize.
I believe one could make a valid argument that there lies something deeper, still today, in the scientific/academic urge to order and categorize reality. In performing this ordering, in looking at the world and ignoring chaos and disaster, one is undoubtedly left with a view on reality as predictable, ordered and maybe even benign. I believe, to put it clearly, that this ordering could be a result of existential angst, leading away from faith in religions as both explanation of, as well as salvation from, a world full of dangers and death, to a materialist, secular “faith” in humanity itself.
I’m not implying this to be a good or a bad move. I merely want to point out the existential benefits of seeing the world as “regular, stable and ordered” instead of a place of disaster and chaos. In chaos, death is always close. In order, the inevetebility of death can be kept at bay.
It’s interesting in this regard to think about the role of science today. Of course, science is still a means of power and (today perhaps more than in the 18th century) technological prowess. But in the increasingly secular, or atheist, and globalizing world view of capitalism, there is undoubtedly an existential void to fill. Is it so unlikely that science is vital in filling that void? I think it’s an interesting thought experiment since it would mean that science is not only about knowledge and power, but an existential endevour.