“Conscripts of modernity: the tragedy of colonial enlightenment,” David Scott

Danny Postel
24 August 2005


“Conscripts of modernity: the tragedy of colonial enlightenment”
by David Scott
Duke University Press | November 2004 | ISBN 0822334445

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Recommended by Danny Postel: “This book is fascinating, and I recommend it highly. It is about the legacy of anti-colonial struggles and their overall failure to realise the emancipatory ideals they upheld. To make sense of this, Scott proposes that what he calls the spirit of ‘romantic anti-colonialism’ be replaced by a tragic sense of history. He interweaves a reading of C.L.R. James’ classic study The Black Jacobins with Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution. Tremendously thought-provoking and relevant.”

What the publisher says: “At this stalled and disillusioned juncture in postcolonial history — when many anti-colonial utopias have withered into a morass of exhaustion, corruption, and authoritarianism — David Scott argues the need to reconceptualise the past in order to reimagine a more usable future. He describes how, prior to independence, anti-colonialists narrated the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism as romance—as a story of overcoming and vindication, of salvation and redemption. Scott contends that postcolonial scholarship assumes the same trajectory, and that this imposes conceptual limitations. He suggests that tragedy may be a more useful narrative frame than romance. In tragedy, the future does not appear as part of a seamless forward movement, but instead as a slow and sometimes reversible series of ups and downs.”

About the author: David Scott is Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. He is the author of Refashioning Futures: Criticism after Postcoloniality and Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil. He is editor of the journal Small Axe.

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