Order of Multitudes

The Past is not a Monument: Manan Ahmed on Data and Power

Professor Manan Ahmed is a historian of South Asia at Columbia University. Author of A Book of Conquest: Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (2016) and The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (2020), he has written extensively about how historical narratives create understandings of places, communities, and intellectual genealogies. Thematically, his research addresses digital history, the history of archives in the global south, and the problems of data access and control. He is a co-founder of the Group for Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research, which employs computational literary analysis to rethink the praxis and possibilities of humanities. In this interview, Professor Ahmed and I discuss the historical origins of data science, his experience with migration and its impact on his scholarship, as well as his visions for creating more just intellectual collaborations in a connected yet unequal world.

Yi Lu: A recurring theme in your work is the violence of imperial knowledge. You argue that imperial knowledge erases the diversity of contemporary voices; essentially it colonizes the way we see and remember the past. For example, in your new book The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, you restore a notion of  Hindustan before the arrival of Europeans. However, the very archives, libraries, and museums that are now the source base of history have also been handmaidens to — and products of — the silencing of indigenous perspectives. How do you engage with this perennial tension in your scholarship?

Manan Ahmed: Thank you for this question and let me actually begin answering it from a  short reflection I wrote while I was undocumented for a number of years. Even when I did receive papers allowing me to be a legal resident, I spent years under the fear of imminent deportation. After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security’s Special Registration program required male non-citizens above the age of 16 from 24 Muslim countries to appear before a judge or have the FBI come and find them. A number of my friends were taken and deported. As a graduate student, I lived with the fear of sudden deportation. My access to archives in Europe were always mediated through my capacity to get a visa, and be allowed in, and then be allowed back. This was a constant anxiety that I retain to this day. So it is from that space of intense legal precarity that I approached this problem of the amassment project of colonialism. 

I argued in my first book, A Book of Conquest, that a post-colonized historian of the medieval period cannot reflect or imagine the worldview of the texts they were studying (in my case a thirteenth-century text written in Uch Sharif, Sindh). I declared the limitations of a politically-partitioned world to be the limits imposed on my own imagination. I had been trained to think of myself as a medievalist along the lines of R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943), Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-1987) or Quentin Skinner (1940-), very much of the “text in context” variety and one who can take the world as it appears in the text as a starting point. But I cannot either take the world as it appeared, because I cannot travel to Roman ruins or to Italian villas or to Deccan forts, nor can I take the manuscript culture as it has lasted because the accumulated artifacts reside in London, in Paris, in Berlin, in Amsterdam, in Leiden, anywhere but in Lahore or Uch Sharif. 

And the very specific reason that I cannot do so is that I do not have the right kind of passport—to which we can also add the wealth needed (either personal or institutional) to travel and the freedom from caregiving required. I had none of those things. My passport did not allow for me to easily get a visa (Pakistan’s passport ranks last or near last in the world on freedom-to-travel indexes). I had a young family that could not spare my trips. I was in a doctoral program without full funding and was working full time as a programmer throughout my graduate career. So here is my personal history. I say all this to give a sense of how a post-colonized existence has actually determined the contours of my journey through the academy. 

Now to turn to your specific question about how the colonial amassment project of collecting, cataloguing, describing, labeling, and tearing-apart of manuscripts also served to silence indigenous perspectives. In my recent work, I have asked that we put Europe in its place. That is, we take its claims of universalism and show them to be the deeply contingent, located, and limited claims that they are. Part of that effort is to make the colonial shapes of its cultural institutions, especially libraries, more visible. This first step would then force us, as scholars, to re-articulate the ways in which colonial othering shapes the stories we are able to tell about the erasure of black and brown bodies from the archives. There are some amazing colleagues at British Library who have begun this work recently and I am learning from their collective efforts. If area studies were the darling of higher education funding during the Cold War, today it is data sciences. 

Yi Lu: In a provocative essay entitled, “Technologies of Power: From Area Studies to Data Sciences,” you offer a new intellectual genealogy of our age of big data by suggesting that the shift was less radical than we think: not only do both fields of study share a genealogy in philology — the earliest dictionaries of indigenous languages, for example, were our earliest big data databases — they are also embedded in the same infrastructure of knowledge production in the United States. What are the stakes — intellectual, political, and epistemic — of this alternate history of big data? Do you see anything new about our age of big data today?

Manan Ahmed: As a historian trained to study the 9th to 13th century Indian Ocean World (and very much taken by Fernand Braudel during graduate training), I hesitate to make any claims of new-news. We do see a massive creation of what we are willing to acknowledge as ‘data’ in a new way. We do see fields of study, governors of capital, state functionaries, even sports franchises turn towards their own idiosyncratic management of data.’ We see claims of transparency, truth, etc. Is any of this ‘new’? Perhaps in the genre of ‘new’ itself would be my uncharitable view. 

I do think there are consequences to the emerging ways of ordering knowledge (and people ought to revisit Foucault’s The Order of Things) in the humanities and social sciences. It is important that we delve back to the colonial and imperial urges to the amassment and comparativist project. There is an ontology at stake here. The colonial ordering of the world is indeed a history that needs to be re-inscribed in order to resist the ways Uber or the National Security Agency are scripting our algorithmic present. The past is not the past. It is not a monument. It is our connection to the oppressed and yet barely suppressed forms of resistances. It is hence important to strip the celebratory and emancipatory colors of big data and re-read the elementary forms of rebellions into our present.

Yi Lu: You are the co-founder of the Group for Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research at Columbia University. From visualization projects such as Torn Apart, a digital journal of ICE deportations,  to the inclusion of “process-based scholarship” (e.g. drafts and notes that did not make it into scholarly publications), the group aspires to be a hybrid space between the laboratory and the studio, the science and the art. What are your visions and goals for this initiative? 

Manan Ahmed: Too often, when humanities or social sciences interact with lab-based sciences or computing sciences, there is a heavy emphasis on learning ‘tools’ or technologies. Our aim was always the “process” and remains so. We believe that individuals can bring their unique talents and insights to a collaboration and expand the goals, as well as the pathways to the goals. In fact, the model for what we wanted lies in Mutual Aid societies and in commune-based practices of engagement, a staple of artistic and scientific endeavors. The myth of the solo (presumed male, supposed genius) scholar in the humanities and social sciences is a myth that needs to be swept aside. Take a scholarly book, any book, and I would argue that it is a collaboration—look at its footnotes, at the bibliography, at the acknowledgments. 

Yi Lu: You are part of the Mellon-funded project, “Decolonization, the Disciplines and the University,” which seeks to introduce decolonization as a field of study and train the next generation of scholars in Kampala (Uganda), Accra (Ghana), Beirut (Lebanon), and Kolkata (India). How do you hope to address the problem of stratification in higher education, especially present in archives, libraries, and museums? 

Manan Ahmed: In the collaborative project “Decolonization, the Disciplines and the University” our aim is to do two things: give funding for new cohorts of students at the M.A. and Ph.D. level who can think about the project of decolonization within their social science endeavors (broadly defined) and second, to connect across these spaces (Kampala, Kolkata, Beirut, Accra) the histories of social sciences during the decolonization period. We recently held our first workshop (via Zoom) and it was an amazingly enriching experience. We hope that various new collaborative projects will emerge from this five-year-long grant (already a rich conversation has begun on the monuments debate).