Category Archives: verticalism

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.

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

The fall of South

‘Perhaps universal history is but the history of several metaphors.’ Jorge Luis Borges 

If you’re in Pretoria, you go ‘down’ to Johannesburg. Melbournians travel ‘up’ to Sydney. Cariocas in Rio pop ‘down’ to São Paulo. The expression ‘up’ or ‘down’ has nothing to do with any incline in the journey. Then why do we use a vertical dimension when talking about horizontal travel?

The association of ‘south’ with ‘down’ seems deeply embedded. If ‘language is the house of being’, then the blueprint for this arrangement lies in the Oxford English Dictionary. Open the OED and the first definition of ‘south’ is ‘directly opposite to the north’. So, it would be reasonable to assume that when you ‘north’ you find it defined as ‘directly opposite the south’? No, ‘north’ is defined as ‘the direction of the part of the horizon on the left-hand side of a person facing the rising sun’. So why isn’t ‘south’ the ‘right-hand side…’? Why does our reckoning start only with the north?

History is not kind to ‘south’. Most established references for ‘south’ in the OED are self-evident. However, in recent times it has developed a negative idiomatic use. The term ‘global south’ is first cited in an Economist article from 1975. At the very same time, the direction ‘south’ becomes associated with economic decline. A 1975 article in Business Week included the phrase, ‘If the market is headed South… there is a point beyond which information and growth prospects are meaningless.’ Recently, ‘south’ has been used idiomatically for any downturn, including marriage going ‘south’ (R. B. Parker, 2003) and a night scene that is ‘south of anemic’ (N.Y. Times, 2006).

It may seem a minor conceit. This use of ‘south’ is metonymically related to the downward trajectory of financial graphs at times of economic decline. But it is clearly a powerful idiom given its generalisation to all situations of decline.

This use of ‘south’ has particular power in the USA. The phrase ‘going south’ also refers to someone who absconds with money gained illicitly at a poker game. The allusion is to someone who has escaped to Mexico, beyond the reach of the law.

Given this geographic locus, it would be interesting to know if this pejorative use of ‘south’ is limited to English. We can perform a simple test. When you type the phrase ‘market is going south’ into Google, you receive 5,150 hits. Whereas if you enter the same phrase in Spanish (‘mercado va sur’), you draw a blank. This Anglo usage of ‘south’ prompts a question. Is the ‘verticalisation’ of ‘south’ one of those turns of language designed to service a specific power structure? Imagine the Board meeting of a New York-based financial organisation determining whether to relocate to Buenos Aires—‘Why would we want to move down there’?

The subtle operations of power in language have been noted before. In Violence and Metaphysics, Derrida described the ‘heliological’ metaphor of the Enlightenment as ‘providing an alibi for the historical violence of light’. The identification of light with knowledge was complicit with the operations of slavery and exploration that serviced colonial power. Derrida illuminated the dark motives at play in the gloomy minds of blackened characters.

But we shouldn’t be too downbeat about the idea of South. By following its path through history and space, we might have a better understanding of how it has been constructed.

So why is South left scraping the bottom of the barrel? Let’s see what we can discover from the different ideas of South.