Category Archives: method

West, then left

imageThe History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning. The History of the World has an East… for although the Earth forms a sphere, History performs no circle around it, but has on the contrary a determinate East, viz, Asia. Here rises the outward physical Sun, and in the West it sinks down: here consentaneously rises the Sun of self-consciousness, which diffuses a nobler brilliance.

G.W.F. Hegel The Philosophy Of History (trans. J. Sibree) New York: Dover, 1956 (orig. 1831), p. 103

In exploring ideas of South, one is wary of ascribing any essential meaning to the nether regions. After all, South is a purely relative term. It is not a specific place, so much as the direction in which to look. So South in the Northern Hemisphere is associated with the sun and warmth, whereas precisely the opposite holds in the Southern Hemisphere.

But there are other directions that seem to have a more natural meaning. No matter where you are in the world, the sun always sets in the West. In ‘Western’ culture, traditional forms of understanding such as the Bible have identified the East as the source of history. It was the mythical location of the Garden of Eden, from where mankind emerged. In the modern era, the focus shifted more towards the future, where the sun was travelling. So Hegel invoked the travel of the sun to underpin his history of the Idea, which began with the Greeks and then travelled West to Europe. This reached its apotheosis in the New World, with the West as the limitless land of opportunity in which the nation’s manifest destiny might be found (see Ken Burn’s documentary West, episode ‘Geography of Hope’).

So where is the South in this? Put yourself looking West, towards the setting sun. There on your right is North. And South?

Right and left have a natural incline of meaning in themselves. Most people are born right-handed. It is the norm. Those favouring the left are abnormal, ‘sinister’.

So far, I haven’t come across any reference to this characteristic of South, being left of the setting sun. But it has an uncanny economy to it. If we look to the West, we invoke a hierarchy of North about South. But if we reverse, and face East, then South is in the superior position. Strange that Chinese maps are oriented South, whereas those in the West have North as up.

I doubt we can go much further along this path. But it is in the nature of this journey to map the dead-ends as well as the breakthroughs. We may well return to this point coming from a different direction.

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.

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.’