Bridging the Gap: Spatialized History and the Category of Space

This is a short paper I wrote for a Cultural History seminar at Northwestern. Centered on Manu Goswami’s excellent study of Indian nationalism Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space, this paper was an attempt to think about the concept of space and how it can be used as a historical category of analysis. 

Overwhelmingly concerned with time, historians of all stripes tend to treat space as a self-evident, unproblematic category coterminous with physical territory. In so far as space becomes a rubric of historical analysis, it is often used in a linear and unidimensional fashion to describe asymmetrical relationships of power between city and country, imperial core and colonized periphery, or strong and weak states in the international state system. Most often, space is used in a metaphorical register to describe exchanges and flows of power relations. In recent years, however, a growing body of scholarship has developed a more complex understanding of space to describe social life and historical change. Among them, Manu Goswami’s Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space is a daring and sophisticated effort to re-conceptualize the study of Indian nationalism in spatial terms and gesture toward a new kind of spatialized history. The category of space appears prominently in Producing India and constitutes the work’s main theoretical and methodological contribution. Yet, it remains confusingly intertwined within the book’s complex historical narrative, thereby obscuring the term’s analytical function. What is the role of space in Goswami’s analysis of Indian nationalism? To what problem is the category of space an answer? What can such a conceptual category bring to the practice of history? The following paper attempts to answer these questions by articulating some of the methodological principles and commitments at work in Goswami’s complex account of nationalism in late colonial India.

According to Goswami, Producing India is, in part, an attempt to overcome one of the central methodological divide running through the interdisciplinary field of nationalism scholarship between what she calls “objective” and “subjective” approaches. Objective or structural approaches, she argues, tend to search for the cause or origin of nationalism in material and structural processes and aim to account for its emergence as a specifically world-historical phenomenon. Inversely, subjective or cultural approaches tend to focus on the lived experience of nationalism and its particular character in various national contexts. Cultural approaches have also focused attention on nationalism’s “diffuse, contingent character, its inner incoherence, its constitutive ambiguity, and its lack of discursive closure.”[1] While subjective approaches have done much to caution scholars against essentializing the nation, they have, according to Goswami, eclipsed “the sociohistorical process and institutional constraints that condition the global (re)production of the universally legitimate form of the nation.”[2] Here, Goswami echoes William Sewell’s concern in Logics of History that by setting aside structural explanation, cultural history has deprived itself from the tools necessary to grasp the “deep structures” of social life.[3][4] Moreover, as a historical phenomenon and object of analysis, nationalism is both universal and particular. Indeed, all nations are particular but formally equivalent in the interstate system, just as all nationalist projects present themselves as universal within their own borders but particular with respect to other nations. For Goswami, this double character of nationalism requires a mode of analysis that can do justice to its complex mechanics without giving up its universal character or reifying the concept. In sum, “the conceptual challenge posed by nationalism lies in placing the interlinked objective/subjective and universal/particular dimensions of nationalism in a single analytical field.”[5] The challenge, then, is to write a kind of history that takes global structural processes into account without erasing agency, culture, and the texture of lived experience. In other words, the historian of nationalism must find a way to reconcile social and cultural history, macro and micro approaches, structure and agency. While Sewell turns to cultural anthropology in search of an answer, Goswami turns to space as the category of analysis tasked with overcoming this divide.

Following the French Marxist philosopher and social theorist Henri Lefebvre, Goswami conceptualizes space as “a dynamic social product and as a constitutive dimension of social relations” understood in relational and processual terms.[6] In this view, space is not an empty container defined by Cartesian coordinates, but rather a set of material and cultural relations activated through practice. Space thus understood cannot be conceptually separated from time and abstracted transhistorical space does not exist. As a result, the production of space is an “intrinsically historical phenomenon” that might be more accurately described as “space-as-process” and must always be analyzed in its specific, historically embedded context.[7]  In this view, the social world is constituted of an unlimited number of spaces (economic, political, cultural) existing at various levels of analysis (local, national, global) that constantly overlap, interpenetrate, subsume, and influence one another. For Goswami, a new kind of global space emerged in the nineteenth century driven by Britain’s ascension as a global imperial and economic force. The explosive use of new modes of transportation and communication along with the spread of capitalism to the entire surface of the globe “yoked together” diverse, previously isolated spaces into “a complex space of coexistence and interdependence.”[8] The emergence of global space is thus characterized by the deepening and multiplication of transnational interdependency and the subjection of national and local economies to a global capitalist order. Yet, as it reshaped the Indian colonial space, global space created new forms of unevenness and polarization within it. For instance, even as railroads and other public works brought the Indian national space together, it created inequality by privileging routes between regions rich in natural resources and port cities open to global commerce to the detriment of rural areas. In doing so, the new communication network cut across pre-existing networks and rearranged the spatial distribution of production, and therefore power, across India. As this example shows, global space both contains and constrains other subordinate spaces without abolishing them and while it tends toward homogenization, it remains fundamentally uneven, hierarchical, and differentiated.

The picture of space emerging in Producing India is one in which the structure/culture methodological divide is contained—but not erased—within the analytic category of space. If various social spaces can synchronously influence one another externally they can also be diachronically reconfigured from the inside, either structurally due to the fundamental contradictions of capitalism or culturally through people’s ability to assign new meanings to their existing social conditions. In fact, it is precisely because space is both structured and experienced that it can successfully replace structure and culture as basic category of analysis without destroying either. Space contains within itself both structural and cultural processes and both are given equal ontological standing in their mutual ability to produce space. As a result, the dialectical configuration of structural and cultural process in any given space must be determined on a case by case basis. In thus subsuming structure and culture, space becomes the main bearer of causality and the locus of explanation. At the same time, in a global space constituted by an infinite number of interconnected and co-constitutive spaces, causality itself is multiplied, divided, diffused, such that it can never be located in any particular structural or cultural process. Tellingly, the word causality only appears once in the entire book, replaced instead by the much more malleable, fungible, and multidirectional term transformation.

In Producing India, Goswami outlines a mode of doing history “that takes space as well as time seriously.”[9] This kind of spatialized history is multidimensional in that it is able to account for a multitude of interdependent relationships cutting across many levels of analysis and shaped by both structural and cultural processes. Spatialized history is both synchronic and diachronic in so far as the diachronic movement of space production is contained within a synchronic picture of interacting spaces.  As such, it emphasizes “the synchronicity of the non-synchronous” and can hold contending temporalities and spaces within the same field of analysis.[10] It is a kind of analysis uniquely able to handle complexity and grasp the universal within the particular and the particular within the universal. In this sense, it should not surprise us to see it come into being at a historical moment when globalization appears to be the overwhelming driver of social change. Yet, despite its analytical promise, spatialized history runs the risk of losing all explanatory power in the endless and dizzying reconfiguration of social spaces. The future of spatialized history, then, hinges on the ability of historians to balance complexity and clarity in their work, a daunting task Goswami manages to accomplish remarkably well.

[1] Manu Goswami, Producing India: from Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 14

[2] Goswami, Producing India, 14

[3] Goswami, Producing India, 19

[4] William Sewell, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), Chapter 2.

[5] Goswami, Producing India, 15

[6] Goswami, Producing India, 18

[7] Goswami, Producing India, 34

[8] Goswami, Producing India, 41

[9] Goswami, Producing India, 27

[10] Goswami, Producing India, 9