The South has no idea, really

It can be useful to consider the doubts that beset the South. In a way, it’s repeating conventional wisdom to claim that the North is more significant than the South, but it’s important to acknowledge it at some point in this journey. At least we know what we are up against. Treat it as a crude provocation. Rebuttals are most welcome.

Let’s face it, North is where the action is.

  • There are four times as many people living in the northern as in the southern hemisphere.
  • The South is mostly water. Two thirds of the continents are in the North.
  • The earth is magnetised so that all our compasses point north.
  • Since the breakup of Gondwana, even southern continents have been moving steadily northwards. Africa will eventually be joined to Europe.
  • The South is mostly islands. Isolation leads to inferior evolution — look at the flightless birds.
  • Colonisation was an unfortunate but inevitable confrontation between the superior interconnected empires of the North and the fragmented independent kingdoms of the South.

The superiority of the North is partly due to its curiosity for the unknown. An idea of South emerges not from anything within the South, but from the missionary impulse of the North itself. The South sees itself through the lens of northern primitivism.

The South may chose to turn its back on the North, but this will only isolate it further from the source of new ideas and resources. Nations like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Chile were formed by empires from the North and so are destined to judge themselves according to Northern values. They may achieve significant feats in their own hemisphere, but they will never contribute anything original to the source of their nationhood in the North.

Starting from a blank page


Where to begin…

As a metaphor, the ‘blank page’ indicates a starting point that is without any assumptions or vested interests. It is to cast something ‘into the wind’ without any ties in order to see which way the breeze will take it.

The ‘blank page’ is a foundational move. It is designed to secure a stable base from which it is possible to build reliably and strongly.

Such a move can be cyclical. As organisations might go through Business Planning every few years, so farmers need to ‘turn the soil’ in order to refresh their fields. It can mark generational change were a new team is able to re-define their collective direction. In modern democracies, the position of government is ‘up for grabs’ every electoral cycle.

Such a notion is not without its problems. The ‘blank page’ is a modernist gesture, which is free of any responsibility to tradition. Such freedom is not equally available to all. It requires the surplus capital to be able to question existing practice. You can’t feed a family on blank pages. This kind of erasure is often associated with colonisation, most notably the doctrine of terra nullius, which seeks to reduce complex layers of habitation to a flattened grid of real estate.

But this association should not preclude its use per se. Because ‘hierarchy’ is associated with oppressive forms of power does not mean that it cannot be useful when trying to achieve practical results.

So how can the metaphor of ‘blank page’ be used without being complicit in the erasure of pre-existing claims?

First, it needs to be admitted that the ‘blank page’ never really exists. Our attempt to erase the contents on the page in reality leaves a palimpsest of traces of its previous inscriptions. The blank page is a normative horizon to which we can aspire without ever feeling we have arrived. So one can never say that the page was once completely blank. It is always possible that someone will identify previous traces still visible in what emerges.

The second requirement is more difficult. It is important to open the page to a variety of interests, to build confidence that no one vested interest is retained in masked form. An example of this in the idea of South is the claim of ‘missionary attitude’. If the presupposition is that the South is an entity to be ‘saved’, then it is open to the criticism that this is a way of perpetuating dependence on more powerful interests.

The blank page is a not an inherently popular medium. While it can be the focus for resentment, as previous interests are stripped away, it is largely a ‘labour of the negative’. Yet like re-stumping a suburban house, it is an invisible achievement that gives confidence to those who invest a future in it.

Yes, that last metaphor is indicative of my own position, relatively secure in the surplus capital of a first world nation like Australia. But there are other ways we could choose to invest that capital. We’ll see what kind of investment the idea of South turns out to be.

This journey into the idea of South begins with an aspiration of the ‘blank page’. If we want to turn the world upside down, we need to understand how the world got to be arranged on a vertical axis. We have to beware that our South may just be a North reversed. But as with the ‘blank page’ we need to be confident to proceed where there are no pre-existing markings or paths.

As Lin Yutang , the inventor of the Chinese typewriter, says ‘Hope is like a road in the country; there never was a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.’

A Journey through the Souths of the World