From The American Historical Review, Vol. 108, Issue 5 (December 2003)
Review by Nita Kumar, University of Michigan
Michael Katten centers his book around two interrelated issues: the change in categories of identity in nineteenth-century Andhra and the power of these formulations of category. The particular changes he traces are the products of "certain technologies of expression" such as the printing press and colonial bureaucracy, and with the proclivity, not as clearly spelled out, to assert solidarities or groupings that use the technologies at hand. While this is interesting (and also somewhat problematical), what is more interesting is Katten's unequivocal insistence throughout his book that the power of these categories lies in the fact that they are produced at the margin and not at the center. In Indian history, the power of category construction lay with ordinary Indians all the time, not unilaterally with the British and not even with them in adjustment with the protests of the periphery. Categories of the self should be seen as going beyond the usual structures of colonialism, class, state, and nationalism to a group's own imagining of its needs and maneuvering of available technology.
Katten takes issue with historians who write within the rubric of colonial power or elite domination, and then with those who pursue the emancipatory project of documenting the resistance of the undergroups. This includes almost everyone writing Indian history: subalternist historians, Cambridge-school wallahs, older social-cultural Marxists, economic historians, and those, presumably, who write in a postmodernist mode to question subjectivity. Katten wants to reposition historical events as those that take place "between and beyond revolutions, revolts, and insurrections" and to expand subjectivity into something produced and existent all the time. Some of his most interesting questions concern the sources that can be used for such a project.
The topics in chapters two through five each revolve around one source to tell the story of category creation. In chapter two, we are told about the negotiation of land disputes, and how the very identity of a "village" and "villager" emerges. In chapter three, the technology of the petition is traced through its changing history of most of a century. The petition, according to Katten, exemplifies a site where Indians were producing categories about themselves, but one that, after a certain time in the mid-nineteenth century, served to freeze them within those hitherto negotiated categories. To the question that arises of whether this does not display the relative powerlessness of Indians to be in control of category construction, Katten's response would be that "epistemologies of the self were still being developed, they were being developed elsewhere" (pp. 2126).
The fourth chapter rests on the Bobbili Katha, or the narrative of Bobbili (a fort besieged in 1757, upon which all the noncombatants martyred themselves). The history of this story, as traced over 150 years, illustrates the formation of the identity of a caste: the Velama. It demonstrates caste formation to be the work of Indians and not the colonial state. Caste is shown to be something different than what current debates suggest. The larger point is that communities began "essentializing" and objectifying themselves with the coming of print media and associated changes. Katten finds a commonality in this development of a new identity between Europe and India. Finally, in chapter five, perhaps the strongest in terms of its historical argument, Katten discusses the production of an identity for weavers in coastal Andhra. This moved between "weaver" as occupation, as caste(s), and as a description with several political nuances. Economic historians of the region and industry are taken to task for sidestepping any serious discussion of weavers' own sense of selfhood.
When put like this‹"sense of selfhood"‹some of the questions raised stand forth. What is the author's theory of identity that the book revolves around? Katten's problematization of caste is convincing, but the discussion of weavers eschews class without any serious discussion, and gender is a category mostly ignored. Is it enough to present people's own versions of themselves, and, if so, why not look at some impressive works of ethnosociology that theorize this procedure? What could it mean to use terms like "ongoing change in the makeup of society" and "wide-ranging subjectivity over time" (pp. 5, 18)? What could be the locus of subjectivity? I am afraid, as someone favorably inclined to Katten's agenda and delighted with his sources, that he is making an important point in a relatively unimportant way. The point made is that Indian history has been dominated by the role of the colonial state and that historians' imaginations need to break out of this impasse. To do justice to this agenda, what could be theoretically refined is how Indians themselves exercised a politics, poetics, and reflexivity in their production of subjectivity to keep all those ironical, deconstructive questions active that presently delight us when targeting the colonial state.
But in making this larger point, Katten gives us four stimulating historiographical-cum-historical essays that deserve reading and pondering over. He is to be congratulated for writing an ambitious and stimulating book.