Conservation and Society

: 2008  |  Volume : 6  |  Issue : 4  |  Page : 339--341

Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries

John Mathew 
 Department of the History of Science, 371 Science Centre, 1 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

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John Mathew
Department of the History of Science, 371 Science Centre, 1 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

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Mathew J. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries.Conservat Soc 2008;6:339-341

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Kapil Raj. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries. New Delhi: Permanent Black. 2006. xiii + 285 pp. INR 650 (Hardcover). ISBN 81-7824-146-3

In his adventurous and occasionally mischievous novel, The Calcutta chromosome [1] , Amitav Ghosh predicates his plot on the notion that Sir Ronald Ross, winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1902 for his discovery of the malarial mosquito vector, would have continued to bark up the wrong tree and disappear into consequent oblivion were it not for the assiduous efforts of native interlocutors, who through considerable enterprise brought the somewhat obtuse scientist to a point where he could voice his own Eureka. Indigenes and Europeans within a long colonial moment in South Asia similarly characterise the book under review if in a non-fictional context, where the narrative depends on a series of meticulous examples, resulting in a gripping account.

Let us start with the reviews of which there are, at the time of writing and excepting the current effort, six; four in English, two in French. We are advised generally that Kapil Raj has written a fine book; that it is a theoretical treasure-trove and sets out a new agenda for research well beyond the customary dichotomy of Western science deployed in the colonies and passively received by the indigene versus nationalistic retorts wearing prior claims about the discipline loudly and intransigently; that it deals at length with the issue of the circulation of knowledge across six case studies taking care to move the locus of activity from the laboratory to the open air; and above all that it demonstrates that the making of science in seventeenth to nineteenth century South Asia was in fact the result of complex negotiations in which local interlocutors were actively a part, the asymmetry of power between colonist and subject notwithstanding. The slants are of course different: if in Isis [2] , Sujit Sivasundaram of Cambridge University is sceptical about the emprise of models of circulation in South Asian and more extensively global history that Raj invokes, seeing the result as sometimes more 'dialogic' or 'enforced', Tirthankar Roy from the London School of Economics and writing for the Journal of Global History [3] bemoans the relative lack of attention afforded to 'the economic axis in knowledge making' (Roy 2008: 131) [3] in the book that might otherwise have served to contextualise arguments more effectively; an understandable enough conclusion given the disciplinary focus of the reviewer. Charles Withers, not surprisingly for the Journal of Historical Geography [4] , draws attention to the general 'geographical turn' in the writing of the history of science including the book in question, and commends the author for furnishing a distinction with Bruno Latour's [5] position on the immutability of transferred materials and practices by showing that they are in fact mutable, a feature also picked up by Mark Harrison in his review for Metascience [6] . Harrison goes further, however, in evaluating the claims that Raj makes for the transactional quality of the construction of science in colonial South Asia and finds that some cases compel while others still fall within the traditional ambit of Western metropolitan cores (such as London and Amsterdam) and peripheries (for example Calcutta and Batavia). The French reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Serge Gruzinski in what is the first evaluation of the work (2006) in the journal Annales [7] illuminates the novel approach taken by the author in contrasting English Orientalism to the ideas of the French Revolution (the only review so far to do so), and then proceeds to champion the overall effort, stating that the resident notions could as easily be extended to the world of Iberian colonialism (both Spanish and Portuguese) and ultimately that the extent of historiographic study, the discussion rooted squarely in conversation with post-modern and postcolonial studies and equally the weight restored to institutional history demands swift translation of the book into French. In an article in Revue d'Anthropologie des Connaissances [8] , Rigas Arvanitis is lavish in his praise, describing whole chapters as exciting and making comparisons with Salman Rushdie's recent fable, The enchantress of Florence [9] by proposing that in both cases, the world of today is no longer divided so clearly between Orient and Occident, while in contradistinction to Edward Said's [10] reification of such difference, Raj has demonstrated that the meeting between the aforementioned realms occurred long before colonialism. The book, Aravinitis suggests, deserves its place not only as a monograph in the history of science but as a splendid general reflection on the creation and circulation of knowledge-in short a book that is meant to endure.

In the overarch from restrained plaudit to untrammelled enthusiasm, it is manifestly clear that Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, seventeenth to nineteenth centuries is breaking new ground. Intellectual shorthand might demur, suggesting that a middle path is always going to emerge as a third way between extremes, and that the hybrid gradient is but a matter of degrees- there really is nothing new under the sun. But shorthand misses the devil, or god, in the details, often at incalculable cost. In his exemplary account (2004) of Dipesh Chakrabarty's effort, Provincialising Europe [11] , in the London Review of Books , Amit Chaudhuri refers to the author's conceptualisation of the Euro-colonised world as being in 'the imaginary waiting room of history' (Chaudhuri 2004) [12] . Chaudhuri says,

The phrase has purgatorial resonances: you feel that those who are in the waiting-room are going to be there for some time. For modernity has already had its authentic incarnation in Europe: how then can it happen again, elsewhere? The non-West-the waiting room-is therefore doomed either never to be quite modern, to be, in Naipaul's phrase, 'half-made'; or to possess only a semblance of modernity. This is a view of a history that has, according to Chakrabarty, at once liberated, defined and shackled us in its discriminatory universalism; it is a view powerfully theological in its determinism, except that the angels, the blessed and the excluded are real people, real communities (Chaudhuri 2004).

Chakrabarty himself is described as one of the founding school of subaltern studies, an influential strand of South Asian historiography in the 1980s that, drawing upon the writing of Antonin Gramsci [13] , looks at 'history from below' i.e., the typically excluded in the writing thereof. It is significant that in one review, a criticism of Raj's work is that he does not consider the subaltern angle, suggesting that the author might possess less familiarity with South Asian historiography than science studies and the general history of science in Europe (a charge that the author has vigorously contested in person and that this reviewer is inclined to question as well). It does point to a central issue, however, and one which begs resolution- the importance of particular schools and/or individuals to a specific strand of historiography notwithstanding, must obeisance be paid as a matter of course at the altars of the relatively few? If anything the book does tell the stories of those that are largely remanded to the dustbin of history, but does so with a delicacy of nuance that is refreshing to encounter, mercifully sparing the reader the daunting task of having to deal with every furnished point in loud larger print.

At the heart of the matter, of course, are the stakes. If we are to keep the thread of the Chaudhuri article going, Raj is no flâneur on the cobbled stones of the city of history, idly remarking the tide of pedestrians and carriages as they pass. If anything, the comments raised in the reviews point to what he is endeavouring to do-to upend conventional, even comfortable (if only because time rather than content has worn the edges of disturbance down to indifference) narratives and disturb in turn by making possible alternate readings, where native as well as translocated European interlocutors can contribute and claim agency through local knowledge in concert with what they are called upon to deploy as colonial method on the ground. Thus it is that a long forgotten herbal known as Le Jardin de Lorixa ( The garden of Orissa ) and credited to a surgeon named Nicolas L'Empereur in the employ of the French Compagnie des Indes can be recovered to be seen as a sedulous translation of native work, that cartographic surveys in India through the Great Trigonometrical Survey can have such immense impact back in Britain, that a whole school of the study of native learning can spring up at the instance of a junior judge in Calcutta called William Jones, further impelled by the efforts of Richard Wellesley, Governor General of the East India Company who founds the College of Fort William in the self-same city in an effort to fob off the effects of the ideology of the French Revolution, that there is a self-fashioning that occurs of an educated elite in Bengal that alternately consults and contradicts the manner of European learning that is being received, and finally, that human travellers, both South Asian and European, can themselves become instruments of knowledge gathering as evidenced in a driving exploration of a significant fraction of Central Asia. The empirical melds seamlessly with the theoretical; the stories of munshis , pundits and guides in relentless narrative are told in the context of contact zones as adumbrated by Mary Louise Pratt [14] and in contradistinction to unidirectional vectors of scientific knowledge as propounded by George Basalla [15] . Other reviewers have called considerably on the theme of circulation; for this one, the key term is actually relocation, as suggested in the title of the book, and directly as the heading of the conclusion (if in the plural), in which circulation forms an integral but not allencompassing role. For the author points to other relocations as well, such as those of commerce and trade interaction at locale specific points, where such additional disciplines as social and cultural history as well as anthropology come to bear. One of the most important points of contradistinction that Raj claims for his work is vis-à-vis another compelling effort, Christopher Bayly's Empire and information [16] where the informal inclusion of indigenous networks 'ranging from gossip-mongers in the bazaars, marriage-makers, and midwives to astronomers, physicians, and philosophers' (p. 230) formed part of a surveillance system that was taken on the one hand for granted while unravelling on the other through increasing mutual suspicion and violence between the colonial officer and subject, which, Bayly asserts, led to the lack of preparedness on the part of the British to face the initial onslaught of the 1857 Mutiny. Raj contends that such a position does not account for other institutions that were more successful and resilient, such as those that form the fabric of the work under review.

Does Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, seventeenth to nineteenth centuries succeed, then? Mark Harrison responds thoughtfully,

More generally, there are surely limits to how far Raj's argument can be taken on the basis of six examples, stretching across a period of nearly 200 years. How typical are these case studies? For every example that highlights meaningful interaction and mutual shaping, it is arguably possible to find examples of strong metropolitan direction or the rejection of local knowledge. Thus, while suggestive, Relocating Modern Science stops short of being totally compelling as a description of scientific activity, especially into the nineteenth century when colonial rule was consolidated (Harrison 2007: 546) [17] .

It is true that inductive reasoning is often more indicatory than conclusive and while the case studies in question have been strategically deployed, they are equally subject to the closest scrutiny, the resultant reactions always likely to be discrepant. The immediate reader has few problems with the choices themselves, however. If anything, the book feels a spot uneven only because many of the chapters have appeared as individual papers in the past and the through-line is as a consequence occasionally blighted by repetitions. This, however, is a venial point. What has seemed to be largely missed in the other reviews is the ineluctable aspect of rescue-of sometimes marginal figures in the historical pantheon being afforded voice along with more renowned actors such as Sir William Jones. To this end, the work of Maya Jasanoff in her provocative book, Edge of empire [18] comes to mind, where subjects of other nations, such as Switzerland (in the case of Antoine Polier) or France (Claude Martin, after whom the now famous schools in Calcutta and Lucknow, apart from Lyon, La Martinière, are named) can work in the blurry lines of early empire for the British, where concert of activity between colonial and local is more easily facilitated and consequently circulation and indeed relocation; well before grand plans of administration are conceived as blueprints and then written retroactively into history, often in clumsy constructions that cannot escape J. R. Seeley's quip about the British conquering and peopling half the world 'in a fit of absence of mind'(Seeley 1883: 8) [19] . Can someone like L'Empereur, admittedly working in the role of surgeon and collector for the leading overseas trade company in the East of his own country, France, yet at a distance and arrayed poorly against the powerful influence of the professor of botany at the Jardin du Roi in Paris, Antoine Jussieu, also be considered in such a light-mining the edge yet not completely dismissible as peripheral? It is to such that this review would like to draw attention-to the European traveller abroad in the name of empire as much as to the local interlocutor, both of whom have to deal with asymmetries of power, not merely between each other but with controlling interests in the centripetal force of colonialism and more immediate administrative machineries of power. The possibilities raised by Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, seventeenth to nineteenth centuries for new ways of reading history therefore continue to be immense, demonstrated amply by the tremendous respect that it has received across the board hitherto. Reading the book several times over has left this reviewer in no doubt as to why.


1Ghosh, A. 2006. The Calcutta chromosome . London: Picador.
2Sivasumdaram, S. 2008. Kapil Raj. Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 . xiii+285 pp., illus. bibl. Index. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. $74.95 (cloth). Isis 99(2): 384-385.
3Roy, T. 2008. Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 . By Kapil Raj. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xiv+285. Hardback. £50. ISBN 9780230507081. Journal of Historical Geography 33: 901-934.
4Withers, C. 2007. Kapil Raj, Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 . Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. xiii+285 pages. £50 hardback. Journal of Historical Geography 33: 901-934.
5Latour, B. 1990. Visualisation and cognition: Drawing things together. In: Representation and scientific practice (eds. Lynch, M and S. Woolgar). Pp. 153-186. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
6Harrison, M. 2007. Decentering 'colonial' science. Kapil Raj, Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. xiii+285. £50 HB. Metascience 16: 543-547.
7Gruzinski, S. 2006. Comptes rendus. Kapil Raj. Relocating modern science. Circulation and the construction of scientific knowledge in South Asia and Europe. Seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Annales 61 (5): 1221-1223.
8Arvanitis, R. 2008. Relocating modern science: Circulation and the construction of knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650- 1900 . Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan (258 pages). ISBN: 0- 230-50708-5. 50 livres sterling. Publié également à Delhi par Permanent Black. ISBN: 81-7824-146-3. 650 Roupies. Revue d'Anthropologie des Connaissances 5(3): 434-437.
9Rushdie, S. 2008. The enchantress of Florence. New York: Random House.
10Said, E. 1979. Orientalism . New York: Vintage.
11Chakrabarty, D. 2000. Provincialising Europe. Postcolonial thought and historical difference . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
12Chaudhuri, A. 2004. In the waiting room of history. London Review of Books. URL: (last accessed January 2009).
13Antonin Gramsci's Prison notebooks in three volumes. Year of publication: Volume 1 in 1991, 2 in 1996 and 3 in 2007 and published by the Columbia University Press, New York.
14Pratt, M.L. 1992. Imperial eyes: Travel writing and transculturation. London: Routledge.
15Basalla, G. 1967. The spread of Western science. Science 156: 611-622.
16Bayly, C. 2000. Empire and information . Intelligence gathering and social communication in India, 1780-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
17Same reference as note 6.
18Jasanoff, M. 2006. Edge of empire: Lives, culture, and conquest in the East, 1750-1850. New York: Vintage.
19Seeley, J.R. 1883. The expansion of England. Boston: Roberts Brothers.