All posts by KDSMurray

Southern Theory by Raewyn Connell

resized_9781741753578_224_297_FitSquareThe idea of South contests a universal truth based on colonial interests. This universal truth is the target of a recent publication by Raewyn Connell titled Southern Theory.

Connell presents a variety of sociological thought that emerges outside the ‘metropolitan’ centres. This includes the economics of Argentinean Raul Prebisch, the psychology of Indian Ashis Nandy, the anthropology of Mexican Néstor García-Canclini and the philosophy of Beninese Paulin Hountondji.

Naturally, most of these writers are critical of the effect of colonisation and its more recent expression in neo-liberal economics. But it is interesting that Connell resists a relativist position, where theory would be seen as inevitably limited by its position of enunciation. For Connell, sociological truth and generalisation remains key to the discipline. However, truth for her is not an abstract theory that is seen to transcend context. She advocates instead for a ‘dirty theory’:

The goal of dirty theory is not to subsume, but to clarify; not to classify from outside, but to illuminate a situation in its concreteness. And for that purpose – to change the metaphor – all is grist to the mill. Our interest as researchers is to maximise the wealth of materials that are drawn into the analysis and explanation. It is also our interest to multiply, rather than slim down, the theoretical idea that we have to work with. That includes multiplying the local sources of our thinking, as this book attempts to do. (p.207)

While open to competing voices, Connell is keen to abide by the key elements in the discipline of sociology: ‘investigation, corrigibility, generalisation and the growth of knowledge’. However, this methodology should be underpinned by a compassion based on the inherent story of loss that pervades the South.

This does raise a difficult question. To what extent should the South be portrayed as a ‘victim’ of history? While the overwhelming evidence would seem to support the story of persecution, it can lead to a position for the South as an essentially passive agent in history. Perhaps it is maintain an openness in compassion to different perspectives, including potential for attributions of cowardice and complicity.

Connell’s own ‘compassion’ does lend her book a particular charm. Rather than take a universal position herself, she chooses to identify as an Australian. In particular, she articulates a deep connection with the landscape of the Hawkesbury river, north of Sydney, with its story of dispossession. This connection to place does surface when she contests a bad rap pinned on Australian fauna by Indian writer Vandana Shiva:

The arbitrary character of Shiva’s text is curiously revealed, for an Australian reader, by her discussion of eucalyptus trees. Here Shiva converts a perfectly valid argument against monoculture of exotics in India into a denunciation of eucalyptus trees themselves, which seem to epitomise the grasping, masculine, anti-life forces that Shiva hates. She does not seem to know that eucalyptus is not a ‘single species’, but a very large genus with more than 500 varied species, beautifully adapted to the different environments across Australia, and must loved in their native places. (p.176)

Most importantly, Connell’s book does help lay the ground for a field of knowledge that takes its perspective from the South. She notes that obvious commonality of theme shared between debates about African Renaissance and colonialism in Latin America. This leads to a call for greater south-south exchange:

It is possible to reshape the circuits through which social-scientific knowledge moves, to modify — since we cannot quickly end — the metropolitan focus. The intellectuals of rich peripheral countries such as Australia, and of the privileged classes in countries like Mexico, Chile, India, South Africa and Brazil, have significant resources for intellectual work and the circulation of knowledge. (p.228)

This is a significant challenge. It goes against the flow of money and prestige associated with northern centres of learning. But as a challenge, it promises to enliven intellectual and social activity.

Is the South a mirage?

A recent workshop in Valparaiso has revealed a contradiction in the Idea of South between the view from above and below. It’s a contradiction between romance and realism which is felt particularly keenly in Chile.

The University of Valparaiso has a small but adventurous design course where students go out to work with a remote community with a mission to develop product for a broader market. It’s an open process based on the personal relationships that students are able to forge with local residents.

The meeting of these two halves, urban and rural, offers an interesting space for considering the identity of South. In a workshop, the students worked on some exercises to consider Chile’s position in the South.

The first exercise was to create a world market. By this method, it is possible to consider the kinds of identity that Chile has on the international stage. First, the students identified some typical persons in a market. Chileans often feel they are characterised as thieves, having a hard time when entering shops in the North. The students avoided this role, but assigned Chile relatively peripheral roles, such as Acomodator de Auto (the man who looks after cars on the street) or Vendador Ambulante (the man who roams around selling things from a cart). The feeling was that the Chilean would be streetwise: he would get to know all the people in the market and learn how things work behind the scenes.

Acomodador de Auto   Chile      
Turista USA Gringolandia Gringos   Chile
Dueña de casa     Perú   EE UU
Feriante Turco     Chile  
Artesano   Perú   Boliviano  
Pescadero   Japón Chile Japón  
Cocinero   Italia Francia   India
Músico México   Brasil   Francia
Carabinero Ruso     Ingles  
Ladrón         España
Vendedor ambulante Chile        
Carcinero       Argentino  

The second exercise was to design a display for Chilean products in an exclusive gift store in New York. This display was framed by the statement, ‘Chile es un país del Sur, donde…’ (‘Chile is a country of the South, where…’) Students had to complete this statement. They came up with:

  • · …lo natural brinda la oportunidad (where nature supports opportunity)
  • · …toda se transforma (all is transformed)
  • · …existen contrastes naturales y gente cálida (there is contrasting nature and warm people)
  • · …se sirven la tradición (they serve up tradition)
  • · …el comer se vincula a la tierra (the link between food and earth)

The sentences had many layers of meaning that are difficult to convey in English. But the overall direction is clear.

The majority of groups developed stories about Chile that celebrated its rootedness. Chile was a country where you might enjoy the simple fruits of nature, discover the ancient cultures or connect with community. This certainly resonated with established consumer interests, in areas like slow food and Indigenous art. But it did not connect with the picture of Chile as streetwise, making do’ with what it can find. Only one group touched on this. Toda se transforma was a display of Chilean goods that were essentially the from the global market, including Barbi dolls and Bart Simpson. All, however, slight alternations to make them ‘Chilean.’

The position of Chile in the South is complex and deserves a separate post. But this workshop exposed a contradiction in Southern identity. To the North, the default image of the South consists of roots—nature, tradition, community, Indigeneity. But to the South itself, what is most salient is often inauthenticity—backwardness, laziness, and general inability to reach the standards of the ‘developed’ world.

One challenge is to consider whether the ‘inauthentic’ identity of a county like Chile is something that is more meaningful on the world stage than the sentimental romance about a grounded culture down there. The market needs someone behind the scenes who gets to know the vendors, helps fix the stalls and lets people know what’s up.

A popular Chilean film at the moment is MirageMan, which depicts an ordinary man in Santiago who attempts to become a superhero by sheer hard work—cutting out and assembling his uniform by hand and working on this physique. He jumps from tall buildings, and hurts himself. Gets up, dusts himself down, and limps on. In the end, he is shot, and dies. It’s a brutal realism, but somehow MirageMan manages to make a small difference for the better in his world. In the Pantheon of Superheroes, MirageMen looks fairly ridiculous alongside SpiderMan or SuperMan. But in relation to life as it is lived on the street, MirageMan towers above them all.

Go down Moses


How was the world oriented north? We take it for granted that north is up because you place the more important things on top. But does this mean that people in the South must feel forever inferior? To counter this psychological disadvantage, it is important to understand the historical processes that led to this arrangement.

The most obvious point of reference is the map. Who decided that North was up? It seems that the vertical orientation of the world map was developed during the Italian renaissance, accompanying the great voyages of discovery by Columbus and co. Before that, the Arab maps were oriented upside down to us, with the south up. So as the practice of map-mapping passed from Eastern to Western empires, was it informed by a particular north-orientation in the Judeo-Christian tradition?

We are now on the verge of the great Jewish ritual of Passover, which commemorates the escape of the Jews from Egypt to find the promised land of Israel. In the Bible, the relationship between Egypt and Israel is vertical. In Genesis, Abraham goes ‘down into Egypt’ to escape famine (10). Later Joseph is brought ‘down to Egypt’, followed by his brothers (39). And the Exodus (32), Moses is described as the man that brought the Jews up out of the land of Egypt.

At the Passover feast, those gathered for the Passover feast read from the Haggadah, which includes the Afro-America spiritual Go Down Moses, expressing the hope among slaves that they would find a Moses to release them from bondage. William Faulkner’s story of the same name clearly identifies Pharaoh as the white slave master.

Up and down feature elsewhere in the Bible, but not along the north-south axis. The Book of Ezra tells the story of the Persian king Cyrus who invaded Babylon and released the Jews from bondage. Though himself a Zoroastrian, Cyrus had a great respect for other religions and won the allegiance of Babylonians by praying at the temple of Marduk. He also vowed to help the Jews re-established their great temple in Jerusalem. Cyrus proclaimed, ‘Anyone of his people among you—may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem in Judah and build the temple of the LORD.’ Though the trajectory from Iran-Iraq-Israel is along the east-west axis, it is still a matter of going ‘up’ to Jerusalem.

The particular Jewish arrangement of cardinal points seems quite independent of this vertical axis. The most important direction is Kedem, or east, towards which everything of importance is directed. They share with the Arabs an understanding of North as left and South as right.

The Hebrew word for ‘go up’ is aliyah. At one level, it describes the process of migrating to Israel, from the exiles of ancient Babylon to the more recent diaspora from Russia. At a more immediate level, it also describes when someone is called in the Synagogue to come up to the front and read from the Torah.

The opposite of aliyah is yerida, to go down. This is clearly a less desirable direction. There is even today argument about whether Abraham sinned when he committed yerida in going down to Egypt. One interesting paradox is yerida l’tzorich aliya (go down in order to come up), as evident in the folk wisdom about the necessity of hard times to acquire knowledge of the world.

So, the vertical root that surfaces in the Renaissance seems to strike deep in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But where does it begin? It becomes more difficult to find sources, but there’s an interesting resonance in the culture of Babylon itself. The creation epic known as Enûma Eliš is one of the first references to a sacred domain above. It pictures the beginning of the world… ‘When in the height heaven was not named,/And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name…’

And where did the Babylonians acquire their verticalism from? Where do we stop?

From the Judeo-Christian roots, we have a better understanding of why it is important whatever is given the elevated position. But it still does not explain how this privilege was granted to the North. We may have to go back to the Renaissance for that answer.

Thanks for Bernard Rechter and Paul Forgasz for their assistance with this issue.

Colombia – from El Dorado to FARC

The idea continues its southward journey. We move from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean to a tropical land which, though part of the Northern Hemisphere, crowns the continent of South America. Not just geographically in the northern half, Colombia is also widely seen as ally to its northern patron, the USA, resisting the ‘pink tide’ that has pushed its southern neighbours to the left. How does Colombia inform our understanding of South?

It should be noted that Colombia is a complex story and this is very much an external viewpoint, related to the ongoing search for south-ness. To help explore a little more deeply, a number of people familiar with the country have been asked to comment on what might be missing in the world if Colombia did not exist. They help us reflect on a country that evokes the violence of gratuity.

It begins with El Dorado…

muisca95 On the shores of Guatavitá, a volcanic lake near present-day Bogatá, the new Zipa is prepared for the ceremony marking his ascension to the throne. He is stripped naked and covered with a sticky layer of balsam gum, on which gold dust is applied. Transformed into a golden figure, he steps on to a raft with other gold objects, including intricate votive figurines, tunjos. Once out in the centre of the lake, priests throw all the golden objects into the water, restoring the divine order of things. Finally, the Zipa plunges into the lake and swims to shore a new chief.

This legend of the ‘gifted one’, El Dorado, soon spread throughout the newly colonised world. When riches ran out in Mexico, Europe turned its attention to the tropics, seeking the valley of wild cinnamon containing untold gold reserves. The brutal colonisation of the northern stretch of South America can be traced directly to the expeditions in search of El Dorado.

The fantasy of El Dorado was based on the hypothesis that there existed a culture in which gold was of no value. Gold in Central America was used only for adornment, rarely currency. The Aztec word for gold was teocuitlatl, or ‘excrement of the gods’. The value of gold was only as it was crafted into precious objects. A Panamanian chief could not understand why the Spanish would melt objects down into featureless ingots.[1] In Candide, Voltaire writes about Cacambo and Candide visiting El Dorado, which is an idyllic isolated valley run on strict communitarian principles. The King treats them with great kindness, but is amused with their love of gold, which he dismisses as ‘yellow mud’. Like the number ‘zero’, El Dorado served as a null state that underpinned the emerging mathematics of global trade.

The dream of untold wealth was not an auspicious beginning.

Fault lines

Colombia emerged as a nation from the Viceroyalty of New Granada in 1810, lead by the forces of Simón Bolívar. The Bolivarian dream of a United States of South America came to a cruel end as the Colombian federation was broken up by reactionary forces in Venezuela and Ecuador. The conflict became a ‘war to the death’ (guerra a muerte) where no prisoners were taken. As Eduardo Galeano comments on Bolivar’s demise: ‘Was this, was this history? All grandeur ends up dwarfed. On the neck of every promise crawls betrayal. Great men become voracious landlords. The sons of America destroy each other. ‘[2]

The fault-line of violence continues into the modern era, with today’s three-way conflict between the government and left and right-wing guerrillas. The writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the atrocities that have become part of everyday life in Colombia as a ‘Biblical Holocaust’. His News of a Kidnapping documents the national obsession with guerrillas, including children’s birthday parties broadcast on national television in the hope that their kidnapped parents may still be alive and encouraged by the happy scenes.

In this context, the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez appears as a kind of imaginary haven from the violence outside. For Marquez, the world of fantastic places like Macondo in 100 Years of Solitude reflects the true nature of Colombian life. As he said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: ‘Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable.’

The happy sublime


Yet rather than succumbing to gloom, Colombia seems to counter violence with festivity. According to the Happy Planet Index, Colombians are among the happiest people on earth, second only to Vanuatu. This certainly reflects on the carnival of cambia, salsa, food and sex that is celebrated at the Colombian way of life. Colombian artists respond to this contradiction between reality and mood in different ways.

The artist Maria Fernando Cardoso has produced a number of exhibitions in Australia, including Zoomorphia in which animals perform baroque feats such as flea circuses. When considering what is unique to Colombia, Cardoso nominates its regional specialisations, ‘…being a particular Lechona (roasted pork) a Ternera a la Llanera, an Ajiaco, a Casuela de Mariscos, Cuajada con Queso, Melcoha, Alfandoque, Chicha, Arepa de Choclo, Pandeyuca, Almohabana, Chocolate Caliente, etc.  Colombia one of the most diverse countries I know, there are differences from town to town’ For Cardoso, Colombia is a nation of artists, including ‘street people, street culture, los recicladores, los vendedores ambulantes.’


Nadin Ospina

The artist Nadín Ospina created a series of work that reflected on the penetration of capitalism into Colombian identity. He commissioned objects from artisans who forged pre-Colombian artefacts and so produced objects incorporating Western icons like Mickey Mouse and Bart Simpson. His most recent work Colombialan uses the style of a children’s Lego game to reflect on the unreality of guerrilla violence. Ospina is critical of the escapist culture of Colombia; he says, ‘A society used to its pain and its violence is a society incapable of finding a solution to its conflicts.’

Oscar Muños gives expression to the fraught progress of Colombian politics with a series of portraits that require active participation in order to remain visible. Breath requires the viewer to breathe on steel plates to see the face, while in Project for a Memorial the face evaporates as it is drawn. The work evokes an anxiety about the lack of political progress.

What if Colombia did not exist?

Gabriela Salgado (curator, Tate Modern) sees Colombia as the projection of global anxieties:

Colombia is larger than the imagination and more positive than its media profile, which always associates the country with war, violence and drug production. If it did not exist, the ignorance- propagation machine of the global media would invent another Colombia to fulfil the need for gore and negativity with which invests selected parts of the world. On the other hand, if it did not exist, I would have not seen one of the most beautiful natural sanctuaries in the planet, and we would be missing a great deal of high quality contemporary art, literature, film, music, and intellectual production.

Jeff Browit (Coordinator of Contemporary Latin America at University of Technology Sydney) located Colombia firmly in the south:

Colombia is geographically ‘north’ of the equator, but philosophically ‘south’ in that it has a legacy of Iberian invasion and the imposition of an Iberian version of Westernisation and Christianity. It has subsequently laboured under neocolonial pressures from the United States and found itself trapped at times in the Cold War logics of the US-Soviet struggle for hearts and minds. In that sense it shares a common experience with many countries deemed part of the ‘south’. Aside from these geopolitical implications, it has an extraordinary diversity of geography, biology and culture and is blessed with a dynamic, hardworking, loving population, in spite of its constant demonisation in the press, in Washington and in Hollywood popular culture.

May Maloney, who has just returned as an exchange student in the region, the world owes an unacknowledged debt to Colombia:

If Colombia were to be missing from the world then all of Latin America would be suffering from a terrible identity crisis. If Colombia just zipped off the face of the Earth or was never there to begin with then we wouldn’t have ‘Pre-Colombian’ history, or Bolivar’s Pan-American dream. Spain wouldn’t have been able to transport (steal?) the all gold and silver of Bolivia without the port of Cartagena and, moreover, Henry Morgan and Francis Drake (along with all other pirates) would not have entered popular folklore if Santa Marta and Cartagena hadn’t been there to be sacked and razed at will. An obvious gap in the world economy would be left without Colombia—the Panama Canal as we know was once part of Colombia. The international drug economy, largely funded by the US, would have to be relocated to another part of the world and The War on Drugs wouldn’t have arrived at a Plan Colombia. Shakira wouldn’t be bringing her Laundry Service to the world, Miami could crumble to the ground and salsa would only be danced in Cuban circles if Cali hadn’t taught us that you can do it in straight lines. And worst of all for most Melbournians here in the South we wouldn’t be sipping at out ‘Italian’ coffee!

Sing as the birds do

The recent conflict between Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela has awakened the ghosts of Bolívar. Chavez is seeking to exhume the remains of Bolivar from his crypt in Caracas in order to discover if he was poisoned by the reactionary forces who then went on to rule Colombia.

Meanwhile, among the FARC guerrillas killed by Colombian forces in Ecuador was the folk singer Julian Conrado, who composed revolutionary songs in the traditional vallenato style, music of troubadours from the valley in north-east Colombia. One of his famous songs was El Canto

When you are going to sing
sing as the birds do
it has to turn out beautiful because it is done free of charge …
he who would pay for happiness,
no happiness will find.

The idea of Colombia is a world without value. Travelling through El Dorado to FARC we experience its sublime imagination and fraught reality. And along the way, we might glimpse a truth about the capitalist empire.

Next, southern Italy…

[1] Heide King ‘Gold in Ancient America’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2002, 59: 4, pp. 5-55

[2] Eduardo Galeano Memory of Fire: II Faces & Masks (trans. Cedric Belfrage) New York: Pantheon, 1987 (orig. 1984), p. 138

West Wing – ‘It’s freaking me out’

It is common when talking about the influence of the world map for people to invoke an episode of the much celebrated US television series West Wing. The appeal of this series lay partly in the way its director Aaron Sorkin’s was able to tie together events on the world stage with the personal lives of those at work in the office of the President. He mixes a Seinfeld love of the ordinary with a Star Trek adventure of empire.

Episode #38 is one of the classics. ‘Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail’ is set in the carnival atmosphere of ‘Big Cheese Day’ when lobbyists are granted access to key decision makers. White House Press Secretary CJ Cregg is assigned the Cartographers for Social Equality, which she dismisses as an empty duty, ‘I won’t really be listening to them’.

CJ Craig with Peters Projection map The scene is set up as an amusing diversion from the stress of world affairs. The cartographers appear typical of the earnest myopic NGOs that flood the White House on this day. Her colleague Josh Lyman appears impatient, and says to CJ as he leaves, ‘These guys find Brigadoon on that map, you’ll call me, right?’ But when presented with the corrected Peters Projection of the world, CJ begins to listen carefully. When this map is then rotated with the south at the top, CJ objects that it isn’t right. And when asked for a reason why, she can only say ‘Because it’s freaking me out.’

The other story line concerns Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn who is trying to obtain a pardon for a friend’s grandfather, a White House staffer who was convicted during a McCarthy purge. By the end of the show, Sam faces the difficult realisation that the initial charges were actually true, he was a Soviet spy. Shattered, he says, ‘It’s just there are certain things you’re sure of… like longitude and latitude.’ His colleague quips, ‘according to C.J., I wouldn’t be so sure about longitude and latitude.’

So Sorkin brings to together the seeming light-hearted line about turning the world’s map upside down with a revolution in someone’s moral outlook on the world. He offers no resolution to the north-south orientation, but uses its seeming arbitrariness to question our pre-determined ideological world views. While the cartographical question plays a subsidiary role to the main plot, episode #38 does demonstrate its power as a ‘natural symbol’ for the particular world order that we inhabit.

Above is the second appearance of the Cartographers for Social Equity. You can see the first appearance here, but it is also worth looking at a serious take on this episode here