"On Time and Climate Crisis by the way of Early Modern Bengal" | An interview with Mellon Fellow Dr. Eduardo Acosta

Eduardo Acosta is 2023-24 Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in History Department. He received his Ph.D. in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in 2022. A historian of early modern South Asia, he works on the intersection of environmental history, philology and conceptual history with a special attention to the coinage and use of the concept of the `medieval’ outside Europe. His current book project, tentatively titled “Medieval Landscapes: History and Environmental Change in Early Modern Bengal”, investigates how rivers and the natural landscape of Bengal inflected the understanding of historical time in the early colonial period.

How did you become interested in South Asian history?

It was a bit serendipitous. When I was an undergrad at the National University of Mexico, there were not that many opportunities to study anything South Asia-related. By mere chance, I sauntered into a postcolonial studies class while majoring in sociology, and there we read some works from the subaltern studies collective. At that timeI was studying Latin and Greek, because I was interested in historical linguistics, and for the first time ever the school offered a class on Sanskrit, one of the classical languages of India. I took that class and realized I was actually more interested in the cultural and historical worlds that the study of Sanskrit opened up for my  research than in those possible through  the historical morphology of the language. Later on, I realized that during the twentieth century a serious academic and cultural dialogue had been started between India and Mexico, mainly at the behest of the Nobel laureate Octavio Paz. I became more interested in this exchange and the questions around the politics of knowledge it raised, of two non-aligned countries with a colonial past studying each other without the mediation of a metaphorical metropole. After these experiences, I decided I wanted to pursue  a path in the history of South Asia.

How is time conceptualized in medieval Europe and South Asia? 

This is actually the theme of my Spring 2024 course called HISTORY 297T/397T:  “Time and History in South Asia.” Of course, time and our measures and concepts of it change constantly; yet, time is fundamental to all ideas about the past and our projections of the future. What I am most interested to explore, both in my research and my teaching, is how ideas, debates and everyday experiences of time, history, and their periodization have taken shape in the intellectual exchange between South Asia and the West, and what we can still learn from this exchange. For example: What can a bored monk writing in medieval India teach us about our hurried digital life? Was the relationship between past and present in premodern South Asia different from ours? What can we learn about colonialism and capitalism studying work schedules of clerks in colonial India?

Your book explores the combined impact of European Enlightenment and British colonial endeavors to know, control and profit from nature. Tell us more about the project. 

My book project,  “Medieval Landscapes: History and Environmental Change in Early Modern Bengal,”brings together a wide range of sources and methodologies to map a conceptual history of the riverine landscape of early modern Bengal as a site of coalescence between history and nature. Paying attention to the deep imbrication between human and riverine history in Bengal, I explore the processes and intellectual debates through which historical time, understood as teleological, stagist and rooted in the notion of progress, was naturalized in this region. I specifically explore how these notions of time and natural environment were crystallized around the idea of the ‘medieval,’ a category that was deployed on, or ‘naturalized’ as I argue, the landscape of Bengal. In this respect, my book brings to the inquiry of a conceptual history of environmental studies and historical time a range of sources that have not yet been studied in a global framework, mainly because these sources were taken as embodying the categories of the ‘local’ and the temporality of the ‘medieval.’  

How does your book project help us unpack the role of states, supra-national bodies, or non-governmental activism in understanding current environmental crises? 

While my research looks at the entangled ecological and cultural/political pasts of a region in Eastern India, my book project aims to contribute to the public debate on our current climatic crisis. Historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty argue that our current climate crisis has caused a collapse of the two orders of time, historical and natural, human and non-human. In  my book, I  historicize the convoluted and non-linear processes by which natural time and historical time were conceived as different and separate orders of time. In that sense, the question of historical agency becomes important: From where or whom do our ideas about the landscape come? Who has a say in conceptualizing our relationship to nature? Now that the idea of restoration of historical landscapes to alleviate the climate emergency is a major point in public discussions and possibly an impactful measure to take, it is also important to understand, historicize and untangle the different historical relations and concepts humans have had with their landscapes.

Which classes are you excited to teach at Stanford?

In Winter 2024  I will teach HISTORY 1B: Global History: The Early Modern World, 1300 to 1800, which is thrilling and new to me since I have been mostly teaching classes with a heavy focus on South Asia. But I am really excited to teach this class: I will get to explore with my students the different ways worlds were being made and imagined in a moment when the idea of the “global” is starting to take shape in different places at roughly the same time. Next year, I hope to teach an environmental history survey, most likely focused on rivers and how they have been differently conceptualized throughout the ages, how they have become historical objects but also historical agents themselves.

What texts inspired you the most in your career? Why?

Early in my undergrad I read Norbert Elias’ Mozart: Portrait of a Genius. I was majoring in sociology, not in history, so that book was probably the one that opened for me the depths and possibilities of historical imagination. Specially, his lucid prose and the almost seamless bridging of intellectual and social history helped me understand the tensions between Mozart, the figure but also the man, and his own times. In that sense, a book to which I return every once in a while, is François Hartog’s Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time. Hartog provides a clear methodology to think about the experience, as a historical subject but also as a historian, of being between two “orders of time” or two different ways of relating to our past and future. In the current climate crisis and with everything else going on in the world, we surely need to rethink how we articulate our sense of the past, present and, of course, the future.