Archaeology of Babel
The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities
Siraj Ahmed



The research that led to this book began with a still-disregarded detail of English and comparative literary history. A late eighteenth-century British polymath single-handedly translated the most influential works, arguably, of the Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit traditions. Displaying a mastery of Asian tongues even more improbable then, Sir William Jones published nuanced renderings of Hafiz in 1771, the Mu‘allaqāt in 1782, and Śakuntalā in 1789. Though spread across two decades, these translations were part of a unified project: Jones intended them to revolutionize European poetry, releasing it from the grip of ancien régime neoclassicism. Just as he had hoped, Romantic writers both inside and outside England located radically different aesthetics in the works he translated and turned to them as models for their own poetry. Goethe in particular immersed himself in these works before he formulated the idea of Weltliteratur.

But if the seminal place of Jones’s translations has been largely overlooked, they point to an even more disregarded history. Before they became part of Romanticism and world literature, these translations were the products of British colonial rule. Jones published each of them alongside philological studies that served the East India Company conquest of Bengal. These studies—including the first colonial grammar of an Asian language, codifications of both Muslim and Hindu law, and the discovery of the Indo-European language family—helped lay the groundwork for the philological revolution. In fact, they disseminated its cardinal principles: language pertains to history, not divine providence or the laws of nature; each language produces its own history; and the history disclosed by literature belongs to national peoples. But the relationship between colonial rule and the philological revolution has been excised from disciplinary histories of the humanities. Hence, even postcolonial scholars have come around on the question of philology, insisting in ever larger numbers that it is, as Jones always suggested, a politically progressive method.

Many of those discussed in the Introduction and Conclusion to this book have, in fact, called for a return to philology. One irony of this call is that the philological revolution precipitated an epistemic transformation so vast that it has, in fact, never ceased to define the humanities. A second irony is that the new philology became so widespread and powerful precisely because of its own colonial history. The present study returns, therefore, not to the protocols of philology but rather to this suppressed history. As this focus makes clear, the new philology’s global force lay in its singular capacity to comprehend every language, literature, and legal tradition—and hence to provide Europeans transhistorical and suprageographic knowledge about the colonized (among much else). The new philology was, in other words, the perfect method for both comparative scholars and colonial states. As Jones’s work attests, philology’s centuries-old claim to be emancipatory is itself a colonial legacy.

Philology had become entwined with the idea of human liberation even before the eighteenth century. From the late seventeenth century, linguists began to break with the idea of a universal grammar and to study languages historically instead. A century later, philosophers reconceived languages as archives of national spirit. Precisely these lines of argument enabled the East India Company to claim that its grammars of native languages and its codes of native law contained the popular will of its colonial subjects in opposition to the arbitrary power of despots, judges, and priests.

But Company scholars did not merely propagate a mutation in European knowledge; they adapted it to the demands of colonial rule. They used it not only to undercut clerical power but also, much more broadly, to obscure the diverse ontologies of texts that typified manuscript cultures. Before colonial rule, texts had not defined the law but rather served diverse functions within it: pedagogic, mnemonic, commentarial, and even contemplative. When the Company published certain manuscripts as the historically authentic version of the law, it disembedded these texts from all such practices, where they had undergone constant metamorphoses. It thus made both shari‘a and the sastras appear historically arrested and immutable. Jones’s legal project explicitly depended on this operation: he demanded a law founded solely, in his words, on “original texts arranged in a scientific method.”1 This demand reflects the ancient philological approach Michel Foucault described in “My Body, This Paper, This Fire”: “the reduction of discursive practices to textual traces; the elision of [events;] the retention only of marks for reading.”2 With the aid of the printing press and historical method, the Company made this approach a ruling principle. Texts became vessels of historical knowledge only on the condition that their own historicity be rendered invisible.

Jones’s literary translations must be understood as another effect of the same dynamic. Like his legal codes, they each reduced a complex discursive practice to a standardized text. In fact, it is the substitution of a historically authoritative text for heterogeneous manuscripts and performances that constituted Hafiz, the Mu‘allaqāt, and Śakuntalā as literature in the first place and hence instituted non-Western literatures. On a deeper level, though, the abstraction of texts from discursive practices produced historical knowledge in the modern sense: non-European texts enabled European scholars to reconstruct a global map of human history and hence to acquire total historical knowledge. If non-European literature was to free the republic of letters from the fetters of neoclassicism, it would do so, in Jones’s view, by helping it think historically in this way. No less than his legal project, Jones’s literary project thus required this substitution: he called on scholars across the continent to translate and publish the Oriental manuscripts that lay unstudied in European libraries.3

The Romantic category of literature that emerged—according to Jerome McGann, among many others—from Jones’s work presented itself as a new literary practice freed from neoclassicism’s bias toward privileged speech.4 Relying on the nascent disciplines of archaeology, paleontology, geology, and, above all, philology, it aspired to read the history inscribed in every object and hence to give each form of life its own speech back. Like the law after its colonial codification, literature after its Romantic reconceptualization became a universal framework of representation, capable of subsuming every other language. The philological revolution against anciens régimes in both East and West turned immediately, in other words, into the rule of this historical consciousness, which was consequently identified with human liberation. Philology still possesses that identity in Erich Auerbach’s and Edward Said’s dialectically opposed concepts of comparatism. Colonialism’s first trick is to make language appear to be the colonizer’s possession. Its second trick, per Jacques Derrida, is the idea of “liberation,” which internalizes the colonizer’s concept of language within the colonized.5 As the chapters that follow demonstrate, this colonial trick explains phenomena as apparently disparate and politically opposed as language-based racism, Islamic fundamentalism, Hindu nationalism, and the global discourses of environmentalism and indigeneity, all of which descend from colonial philology.

The problem for a properly postcolonial literary studies is, presumably, to move beyond colonial approaches to language and literature. Our failure to recognize the new philology as precisely such an approach may prevent us from seeing this problem clearly, much less solving it. Until we recognize the philological shift that began in late eighteenth-century colonial India, we may be condemned to play it out unconsciously, tacitly assuming that historical method and printed texts possess the power to comprehend every other discursive practice. We will observe this assumption program the arguments not just of the new philology’s advocates, such as Auerbach and Said, but even of philosophers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Rancière, and Alain Badiou, all of whom take for granted philology’s endless linguistic reach.

If we rejected this assumption, we might begin to discern the discursive practices philology has, in fact, failed to grasp. We would, in this way, push archaeological method further than even Nietzsche and Foucault were willing to. The point of archaeology is, of course, not to produce historical truth but rather to excavate the premises that qualify knowledge as truth in a given period and the “subjugated knowledges” these premises disqualified.6 But if so, archaeology—designed by Nietzsche to be a counterphilological approach—should ultimately arrive at discursive practices completely bereft of philological power. This study thus attempts to take both archaeology and postcolonial criticism to their logical conclusion. What falls through the cracks of print and historicism is not, as Foucault implied, discursive practices as such. It is rather those particular practices that are oriented not toward the production of history but rather, we could say, toward its victims—discursive practices that, in other words, cede historical power and embrace an unhistorical existence instead. These practices leave no mark on the historical record and, as a consequence, absolutely cannot be seen from a new philological perspective. Yet, if the promise of postcolonial studies—in contradistinction to Marxism, for example—is to foster the autonomy of unhistorical lives, it must become sensitive to such practices, which alone articulate such lives.

We cannot simply identify these practices with the subalterns of a certain time and place. The practices in question here belong not to subalterns per se but rather to the conscious desire to remain non-elite. For example, each of the works Jones translated came to be identified with one or another type of subalternity: Hafiz with the medieval Sufi mystic, who embodied self-annihilating desire; the Mu‘allaqāt with the pre-Islamic Bedouin nomad, who embodied nonstatist sovereignty; and Śakuntalā with the ancient Indian adivasi, who embodied the primordial earth. Mystic, nomad, adivasi: paradigmatic figures of unhistorical life—yet each of them was in fact implicated in the exercise of historical power. We need to see through all such subaltern figures to the discursive practices they appear to inscribe but in fact only efface. Hafiz linked his poetry not to Sufi mystics, who were in fact Shiraz’s ruling elite, but instead to nameless faqirs who took the greatest pains imaginable to separate their lives from the law. Their spiritual path involved, paradoxically, both a ceaseless confrontation with legal authority and an absolute refusal to represent themselves in its terms. Though the Mu‘allaqāt opposes nomadism to statism, such Bedouin poetry was actually composed for ceremonies of allegiance between tribal leaders and surrounding empires. It is instead the everyday poetry of Bedouin women that rejects the rituals of sovereign power. Devoted to expressing disaffection from male elders, it is heard only by women and youth. Neither composed nor recorded, it exists in singular performances, as evanescent as the feelings that occasion them. Śakuntalā counterposes the earth, represented by the sacred grove, to sovereign violence. In fact, though, such groves were produced by Brahman sacrifice, which burned the forests, cleared its adivasi and animal populations, and extended royal territory. Yet adivasis also sometimes served as the advance guard of Indo-European expansion. A truly ecological sensibility belonged neither to sacred groves nor to adivasis in general but rather to the necessarily prehistorical refusal of all human appropriation—even the placement of anthropomorphic deities—except what was necessary for bare survival.

In each of these examples, the practice that ultimately lends the literary work its meaning is something philology cannot place. Each of these practices not only resisted being recorded but, furthermore, disavowed all philological power in order to pursue a fundamentally different form of life. This point applies not just to the specific works Jones translated but also to the broader fields they helped constitute, including Romantic literature, world literature, and non-Western literatures. These concepts of literature, descending to us from the new philology, tacitly claim that literature inscribes historically excluded languages. But this claim appropriates to literature languages that belong to antithetical practices. Though these practices often inform the new-philological concept of literature, they are categorically disjunct from it: they resist not just literary inscription but historical transmission of any kind. Paradoxically, then, the languages that supposedly distinguish literature in the modern sense can neither be reconstructed philologically nor even located historically. They belong not to historical figures but rather to the discursive practices such figures inscribe—and, in the very act of inscription, always efface. Without fetishizing literature at all, we could insist that something fundamental to it lies outside history and consequently cannot be approached philologically. As Louis Althusser observed, “The invisible of a visible field is [not] outside and foreign[.] The invisible is defined by the visible as its invisible, its forbidden vision[:] the inner darkness of exclusion, inside the visible itself.”7

But even as they attempt to discern within the history of literature, law, and religion what philology has obscured, the chapters that follow would have been absolutely impossible without the extraordinary erudition and painstaking research of countless philologists working in many different languages and widely disparate traditions. Similarly, even as I claim that many of the postcolonial scholars and European philosophers most admired today remain trapped within the philological mindset, their theories provide the inspiration behind, when they do not form the foundation of, my own arguments. Needless to say, none of us are free, none of us to blame. But the traces within texts of the discursive practices that rejected all linguistic authority return us to a power that is, in my view, much more profound than philology. If we begin to study these traces, we will use literary studies, now inextricably tied to print technology and historical method, to create an opening for the languages they were designed to erase. We might in this way gradually disentangle the postcolonial humanities from their still-unconsidered and hence unresolved colonial legacy. Now more than ever, doing so has become a politically urgent task, as I explain in what follows.

The story of late eighteenth-century colonial philology is an unexamined part of a familiar and ever more pressing history: the reorientation of humanity’s relationship with the earth from subsistence to profit; the transformation of rights to its common use into private property. In the British Isles and Western Europe, the commercialization of people’s relationships with each other, their own labor, and the land had been occurring since the Middle Ages. As a consequence, English common law had largely subsumed the islands’ diverse concepts of common right into an abstract idea of property by the late eighteenth century.8 The British Empire spread this definition of property—that is, the absolute and unqualified ownership of both territory and its use—first to the Americas and the Scottish Highlands, then eventually to Asia, the South Pacific, and the Antipodes. In the latter contexts, colonial administrators needed, in effect, to recapitulate English history, turning common use into exclusive property, in a matter of years rather than centuries. Hence, in these territories, it was often the law itself, not merchant capital, that first inducted hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, peasants, feudal lords, and so forth into capitalist property. The law’s “most ambitious project” to institute English property—according to a no less authoritative work on this subject than E. P. Thompson’s Customs in Common—took place in India during the late eighteenth century.9

Common rights vary widely across time and space and hence tend to be transmitted orally. The “translation” of such rights into the universal, written medium of private property is, according to Thompson, a “central episode” of “global ecological history.”10 The shift from one to the other has led to the earth’s unrestrained privatization and pushed us beyond the brink of ecological catastrophe.

Thompson nonetheless concluded his monograph on English enclosure, Whigs and Hunters, with a surprisingly impassioned defense of capitalist property law against its Marxist detractors. Though it eventually came to legitimize dispossession, property law was used by seventeenth-century merchants, small farmers, and craftsmen as “a defence against arbitrary power.”11 Thompson called the law’s “inhibitions upon power” a “cultural achievement of universal significance” and an “unqualified human good.”12 In contrast to his Marxist colleagues, Thompson emphasized the “very large difference, which twentieth-century experience ought to have made clear even to the most exalted thinker, between arbitrary extra-legal power and the rule of law.”13

As I observe in my own Conclusion, many scholars have questioned whether there ever was any such difference in Europe’s colonies. And Thompson himself acknowledged a colonial exception: “In a context of gross class inequalities, the equity of the law must always be in some part sham. Transplanted as it was to even more inequitable contexts, this law could be an instrument of imperialism.”14 But he tempered even this condemnation: “The rules and rhetoric have imposed some inhibitions on imperial power. If the rhetoric was a mask, it was a mask which Gandhi and Nehru were to borrow, at the head of a million masked supporters.”15 Thompson here extolled the (colonial) rule of law because it supposedly inspired revolution—even if such inspiration masked revolution in colonialism’s very image.

The vision of a million rule-of-law masked Indians thus raises questions about the law’s “universal significance” and “unqualified human” value that Thompson did not address. First, if the rule of law inhibited “power,” did it not therefore limit the political praxis of revolution as well as the ruling classes, and if so, how? Second, is there no salient difference in this regard between colonial law and its metropolitan kin? Thompson considered the law—not religion, print culture, capitalist markets, or even military power—to be the eighteenth century’s hegemonic institution. He astutely observed that, due to the previous century’s battles against arbitrary power, eighteenth-century English law had its own “history and logic” irreducible to ruling-class ideology: the rule of law was not just a superstructure but itself a material force.16 But that century of struggle was manifestly not responsible for the institution of colonial law. How can we grasp the colonies’ different materiality, history, and logic?

This study concerns the difference introduced by philology, which in late eighteenth-century British India took the place of struggles against arbitrary power in the definition of property. Though Thompson overlooks this fact, the “translation” from common to private rights could not have been accomplished in colonial India without philology, which alone claimed the linguistic and historical competence necessary to reconstruct Islamic and Hindu law. As they rewrote Arabic and Sanskrit legal manuscripts in terms of modern property, colonial scholars aimed less to protect prescriptive rights from extralegal power than to transform the structure of tradition itself. They dictated that, henceforward, authentic tradition would exist only in philologically reconstructed texts and be understood only by historical method. In this way, they eroded natives’ capacity to recall the extratextual practices that had helped constitute precolonial traditions and that might otherwise inform anticolonial thought. Perhaps the image of Gandhi and Nehru at the head of a million followers is instructive in this regard. They were both British-trained barristers whose understanding of Indian legal traditions had less to do with indigenous practices than with colonial knowledge, as I explain in the chapters that follow. In any case, though, the aim of this study is neither (like Thompson’s Marxist interlocutors) to dismiss nor (like Thompson’s Marxist heresy) to defend the rule of law. It is instead to explore the effects colonial law and, even more fundamentally, philology and historical method have had on our very capacity to imagine political resistance.

This book focuses, therefore, on historical method’s forgotten colonial history. For reasons already adduced and to be elaborated in much greater detail, this history first took root in late eighteenth-century British India. But though the chapters that follow critique historical method, their intention is not to reject it tout court. In fact, whenever they use the term “historical method,” they refer only to the language-based approach to humanity’s origins and development that emerged with the philological revolution and served as the epistemic foundation of colonial rule. Adapting Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s idea of “instrumental reason” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, we could thus call this method “instrumental philology.”17

Its fundamental premise is that language is not the reflection of an a priori reality but rather itself originary. The philological revolution presupposed, in other words, that every language shapes the development of the particular people, culture, nation, et cetera that corresponds to it: studying the evolution of the former unlocked the historical truth of the latter. Thompson himself wrote, for instance, that “most Western intellectuals today would unhesitatingly award theoretical primacy to [language] as not only the carrier but as the constitutive influence upon consciousness[;] It has become fashionable to assume that [common people are] in a sense ‘spoken’ by their linguistic inheritance.”18 Each of the philological revolution’s signal innovations—comparative grammar, the divisions of languages into families, and the reconstruction of protolanguages—presupposed that languages were originary (or constituent) in this way. The rigorously historical approach to language that the philological revolution elaborated was thought, furthermore, to comprehend every kind of discursive practice and by extension every language, law, and literature, which would have otherwise remained heterogeneous and incommensurable. Finally, this approach equated the truth of every tradition—those that held power and hence must be critiqued as well as those that existed in its shadow and hence must be brought to light—with written, if not printed, texts. These interrelated premises—the only historical method this book questions—were fundamental to British rule in India precisely because they held the key to knowledge about its colonial subjects.

Yet one cannot overstate this method’s broader significance. By virtue of its ability to make definite historical claims about religions and laws, ethnicities and races, traditions and indeed whole civilizations, the new philology helped give rise to the modern humanities. It underpins the authority of text-based academics today as much as it did colonial administrators centuries ago. Even when humanities scholars no longer invoke the new philology, we almost always tacitly presuppose historical premises it has passed down. Such presuppositions are evident not just in literary studies but in religion, jurisprudence, European philosophy, and historiography proper, among other disciplines. But even as the humanities still emphasize historicism, they tend to dis-identify from philology. I hope that calling the object of this book’s critique “historical method” will, therefore, help us see ourselves as inheritors of a colonial legacy.

But rather than rejecting historical approaches as such, the chapters that follow try, on the contrary, to dissociate them from their colonial uses. They do so by using literary history, many different forms of historiography, and even philological learning itself not ultimately to produce historical knowledge about a given period or people but rather to understand what such knowledge constitutively excludes. These chapters argue that when we treat textually transmitted languages as originary, we cast out from history all those who did not possess, or did not want, the power to produce texts. Instead of treating textual discourses as originary, I take account of the philological formations—that is, scholarly and sovereign power relations—that produced the texts (and supposedly originary languages) under investigation. Following Nietzsche, I call this counterphilological method “archaeology.” An archaeological approach reveals that the texts we now identify with religions, nations, civilizations, and so on are the products not of such generalities but instead of very particular contests over the possession of philological power. Read archaeologically, these texts become palimpsests of such contests, repeated ad infinitum across time. If we reconceived “history” in this way, as an endless series of philological conflicts that have defined and ceaselessly redefine the very terms of our historical imagination, our histories might finally attend to what philology has traditionally obscured: those who were bereft of philological power. Such attention is at the heart of the historical method for which this book calls, one that brushes philology—and, by extension, the postcolonial humanities—against the grain.

I add one final step to this archaeological approach. As I’ve already suggested, literature comprises not only languages that possessed philological power but also the trace of those that abjured it altogether. The long, final section in each of the book’s three central chapters follows this trace. The philological revolution called for the recovery of languages that lay outside the previous history of philological power, languages that had been silenced or marginalized because, for example, of their radically anticlerical or democratic character. This call of course still provides the humanities much of their ethical energy. My book tries to respond to it even more scrupulously than the new philology itself did. It tries to think through, in other words, precisely what discursive practices count as the antitheses of philological power. If we can use literature to help us imagine what philology cannot recover, we might begin to realize both the new philology’s highest ideals and archaeology’s counterphilological ambitions.

My task is not, therefore, to recover popular traditions from high culture and elitist historiography. I am not a social historian, nor is this book, à la Customs in Common, a study of “plebeian culture.”19 As a literary scholar, I’m concerned instead to consider those discursive practices whose negation is the precondition of the new philology, literary history, and the humanities’ epistemic authority. What defines the practices I oppose to philological power is not, therefore, their customary character but rather their opposition to textual authority: because these practices without exception shunned literary inscription and historical transmission, they cannot, in contrast to Thompson’s customs, be reconstructed historiographically. Yet far from invisible, their traces are practically ever present, if often difficult to see. The precolonial legal and literary traditions studied here do not merely invoke but appear often to have depended on them. And the scholarship on these texts, traditions, and periods frequently alludes to them, though without being able to describe them rigorously. In other words, the discursive practices of those who abjured textual authority, however imperceptible the modern humanities have rendered them, appear to have shaped premodern traditions in ways we can now barely comprehend.

Thompson insisted that those Marxists who reject the rule of law “throw away a whole inheritance of struggle about law, and within the forms of law.”20 But the European rule of law hardly exhausts the possibilities for such struggle. The discursive practices I discuss, no less than Thompson’s customs, existed at the “interface between law and praxis” and defended local traditions from “the constraints and controls” of the “rulers.”21 But these practices preceded the European rule of law and thus refute Thompson’s premise that its institution must be recognized as a “universal” and “unqualified human” good. Thompson hoped studying what he called “customary pre-enclosure consciousness” would prepare the way for the “unlikely advent of a new ‘customary consciousness’” in which “material satisfactions remain stable [but] more equally distributed.”22 Yet pre-enclosure custom was itself, as Thompson acknowledged, “parochial and exclusive”: it was “the rhetoric of legitimation for almost any usage, practice or demanded right.”23 It follows that the consciousness of the common Thompson wanted to encourage requires practices different from what he studied. Those I have in mind, in contrast to Thompson’s customs, never needed “juridical endorsement” because they did not aim to be exclusive.24

Some may consider my advocacy of these practices romantic. Such criticism would fundamentally misunderstand their ontology. To romanticize is to reify or idealize a historical entity. My starting point is not history: I did not arrive at my descriptions of these discursive practices by studying an empirical object (nor do my descriptions presume to explain any such object). I arrived at them instead by working back from the philological revolution through various non-Western legal and literary traditions in an effort to discern the traditional practices the new philology cannot see. These practices are, therefore, ideal from the beginning: they are what I posit to be the philological revolution’s negative image. Only such an imaginative act can realize the new philology’s ambition to recover the languages that prior philology had ignored. More to the point, only those discursive practices that resist textual authority can, it seems to me, fulfill the humanities’ own radically democratic—one could say, romantic—ideals.

The conclusion to this study turns to a subject—states of emergency—one might assume belongs to politics today, not the late eighteenth century. In fact, though, the rule of law in colonial India devolved almost immediately into the states of emergency the East India Company imposed on frontier populations. No less than colonial philology, these colonial emergencies facilitated the earth’s reorientation from subsistence to profit and from common use to private property. The Company called those natives who did not want to participate in its political economy threats to security; it met their resistance with the circumscriptions of habeas corpus, martial law, and ecological violence.25 This colonial logic—wherein property and law metamorphose into environmental devastation and emergency—still defines conflicts throughout the peripheries. Within India alone, in places such as Bastar, Kalinganagar, and Kashmir, mining and hydroelectric projects depend on the army’s and police’s emergency powers, often to kill those deemed terrorists merely “on suspicion.”26 Multinational corporations thus clear forests and villages of adivasis and peasants in order to explode mountaintops or erect colossal dams. Progress here merely returns to colonialism’s script, with today’s conglomerates playing the merchant company’s part.

Studying late eighteenth-century British India can thus help us understand philology’s relationship to emergency. Each of this book’s central chapters explores how British scholars attempted to circumscribe legal authority within the colonial state. The transfer of such authority from the people to the executive is of course the very definition of emergency: the executive (or “sovereign”) proclaims the polity to be in danger, suspends the constitution, and declares unilaterally the extraordinary laws that govern in its place. On the level of colonial history, therefore, philology both prefigured and facilitated the institution of emergency. On a deeper level, philology’s affinity with emergency is immemorial. The usurpation of philological power is the ancient prerogative of priests and clerics, the arrogation of emergency powers that of sovereigns and kings.27 But both practices serve to articulate the law (during, respectively, peace and war)—or, put differently, to preserve social hierarchy and unequal distribution.28

Philology anticipates emergency, finally, because it expresses the ruler’s ambivalence toward language’s constituent power. On one hand, the new philology drew attention to language’s “performative” dimension: language does not describe but rather constitutes reality; language is, as mentioned, originary, the quasi-mystical foundation of politics and history.29 But, on the other hand, the new philology located language’s constituent power only in those texts historical method had reconstructed and explained. Since the philological revolution, such texts have always been identified with the tradition or literary history under investigation. The most important of the many examples discussed in this study are, of course, Jones’s Islamic and Hindu legal codes, which the East India Company intended to regulate Arabic’s and Sanskrit’s law-making power. States of emergency likewise appropriate language’s constituent power, which they locate, similarly, within sovereign command or “decision” alone.30 Like the new philology, states of emergency presuppose that politics ultimately has no foundation more firm than language but recoil from the radical consequences of this fact.

Yet these analogies between philology (i.e., the methodological foundation of the humanities) and emergency (i.e., the global deposition of democracy today) are difficult to see because we reflexively consider new philological concepts of language the very antithesis of extralegal sovereignty. William Keach has tracked both terms of this opposition back to the late seventeenth century. In regard to the former, John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding observes, famously, that words do not refer, “naturally,” to things but rather are “imposed” by people, “arbitrarily,” on their ideas.31 In regard to the latter, his Second Treatise of Government argues, just as momentously, that sovereignty must not take the form of “an Absolute, Arbitrary Power over [Men’s] Lives and Fortunes.”32 By the Romantic era, these apparently unrelated forms of “arbitrary power”—linguistic performativity and unconstitutional sovereignty—had become diametrically opposed to each other. Whereas the former was believed to join rule to “the represented will” of the people, the latter severs them from each other again.33 Hence, in Burke’s Enquiry, language possesses an “immediate affective power” that, in his later works, helps constitute national “habit” and “custom.”34 Similarly, across his works, from the Lyrical Ballads to The Prelude, Wordsworth opposed the “language really used by men” to “despotick” or lawless power.35 Blake and Shelley also aligned language’s performative dimension—its “visionary power,” its capacity “to act”—with “popular power” against British monarchic and imperial tyranny, from the 1780 Gordon Riots to the 1819 Peterloo massacre (when the British state effectively suspended the law and declared an emergency).36

At the same time, the Romantics confined language’s constituent power within “poetic agency.”37 The Romantic category of literature thus popularized the new philological fallacy that written texts and “the literary” are paradigmatic of radical democracy.38 This fallacy persists across the humanities, as my Conclusion illustrates with examples from eminent figures in comparative literature, religion, anthropology, history, and even French philosophy. Searching for the antitheses of antidemocratic politics or coloniality, these scholars are limited, in the end, to rehearsing discourses about language and literature inherited from Romanticism and stereotypes about non-Western cultures passed down by colonial philology. In every case, their varied efforts to exit the history of Western politics or colonial knowledge reach a methodological impasse. One way out would follow the faint tracks of those practices that resisted the lure of cultural prestige and sovereign power and that consequently were never recognized as literature or history in the first place.

The point of conflict in any emergency turns, in essence, on the possession of language’s constituent power—on the question of who can suspend the constituted law and thus live autonomously, in the literal sense of the word. In their debate about emergency, Carl Schmitt assigned this power solely to the sovereign, whereas Walter Benjamin insisted it belongs instead to those who exercise it democratically, whom he called the “oppressed” and the “anonymous.”39 Trained as both a jurist and a philologist, Schmitt argued law philologically, in terms of Europe’s hegemonic tongues.40 In pointed contrast, Benjamin’s invocations of the oppressed and the anonymous gestured toward those recognized by neither the law nor philology, those who had lost their economic rights and their place in history, those whose traditions existed therefore in a real, and perpetual, state of emergency. His final essay, “On the Concept of History,” explicitly opposes both the protocols of historicism and the practice of emergency. It implies that the antithesis of extralegal sovereignty is neither the rule of law nor linguistic performativity but rather traditions that embraced their exclusion from both the law and history, traditions we text-based scholars conventionally ignore. I close the book by studying this essay, trying to grasp, yet again, at a fugitive power that could overcome the politics of philology and of emergency at once.


1. Jones, Letters, 2:721 (to C. W. Boughton Rouse, 24 October 1786).

2. Foucault, Aesthetics, 416.

3. Jones, Works, 10:359–60 (“Essay on the Poetry of Eastern Nations”).

4. McGann, New Oxford Book, xxi. See also McGann, Poetics of Sensibility, 128–31.

5. Derrida, Monolingualism, 24.

6. Foucault, “Two Lectures,” 20.

7. Althusser and Balibar, Reading Capital, 26.

8. Thompson, Customs, 106, 115, 133–36, 138, 161, 162, 164, 167.

9. Ibid., 167, 171.

10. Ibid., 15, 145, 151, 164.

11. Thompson, Whigs, 206, 207; Thompson, Customs, 12.

12. Thompson, Whigs, 207, 208, 209 (my emphases).

13. Ibid., 207.

14. Ibid., 207–8.

15. Ibid., 208.

16. Ibid., 204, 205, 206, 207, 209.

17. My thanks to Stanford University Press’s anonymous reader for the quoted phrase.

18. Thompson, Customs, 10–11, citing Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 419–25.

19. Thompson, Customs, 6.

20. Thompson, Whigs, 208.

21. Thompson, Customs, 6–7, 100.

22. Ibid., 15, 182.

23. Ibid., 6, 98.

24. Ibid., 98.

25. Raman, “Law.”

26. See Roy, Capitalism, 11–15, 52, 100. See also Human Rights Watch, Getting Away with Murder.

27. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, 74; Schmitt, Political Theology, 6–7.

28. Dumézil, Mitra-Varuna, 23, 72, 78, 82; Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 388.

29. On this concept of performative language, see Austin, How to Do Things with Words; Searle, Intentionality, 166–67, and Speech Acts, 137–40; Derrida, “Signature Event Context”; Butler, Excitable Speech; and Esterhammer, Romantic Performative.

30. Schmitt, Political Theology, 6, 31–35.

31. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 405. See Keach, Arbitrary Power, 2.

32. Locke, Two Treatises, 400. See Keach, Arbitrary Power, 4.

33. Keach, Arbitrary Power, 1, 2, 5–6.

34. Ibid., 16. Keach quotes, for example, Burke, Philosophical Enquiry, 60.

35. Keach, Arbitrary Power, 13, 15, 126; Wordsworth and Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads, 97. Keach quotes Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805), 10.107–11.

36. Keach, Arbitrary Power, 30, 35, 126, 129, 131–32, 148; Thompson, Whigs, 210.

37. Keach, Arbitrary Power, 17, 130.

38. Rancière, Politics of Literature, 13, 15, 17.

39. Benjamin, Selected Writings, 4:391–92, 406, 407.

40. Balakrishnan, Enemy, 13.