Southern Shoots on Northern Ruins

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 09.06.2020

About the Portuguese sociologist and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos

In the late 1960s, the BBC broadcasted an epic 13-series documentary, Civilization, narrated by the eminent art historian Kenneth Clark. In it, he told the history of Western European culture from the Middle Ages to the beginning of the 20th century in a stoic voice with a hint of tragic pathos. To circumvent criticism that the series didn’t touch on either the ancient or any other world culture, its sub-heading stated that it was “his personal view”. He added however, that in his view, there is nothing extraordinary here that isn’t self-evident to any educated member of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century being that civilization is the opposite of barbarism, and that it’s the right time to talk about it. Baron Clark's sense of the moment, and imminent demise, was fueled by global events: the British Empire had ceased to exist, student unrest was raging in Western cities, and various liberation and human rights movements were gaining momentum around the world.

In 2018, the BBC returned to the subject, creating an even more impressive series, Civilizations, in which three no less prominent British historians – the greying Mary Beard, the dark-skinned David Olusoga, and Jewish Simon Schama – shifted the emphasis to little-known historical inter-cultural connections and how other cultures, being no less great, have enriched each other both before and after The Age of Discovery and the onset of Western colonialism.

“Hands off!”, the Portuguese sociologist and legal scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos (1940), would’ve exclaimed, on hearing such a narrative. As chauvinistic, outdated and exhausted as Clark's Eurocentric concept would have seemed to him at the time, Santos (then a young law student in his native Coimbra, and soon to be a Marxist at Yale) would also have had significant objections to the new BBC World Cultural History Department’s politically correct and seemingly all-encompassing view.

This view, too, is not free from colonial thinking. If, in the heyday of the Western Empires, “inter-cultural enrichment” was in fact an enduring trend of consumerism, greedily devouring all that might have some commercial value in the metropolis and stamping out intangible cultural practices in the name of “civilization”, then now colonialism continues as patronizing guardianship and exploitation in the name of “development, equality and democracy”.

Taking down the well-intentioned, much-anticipated British educational TV project here and subjecting it to Santos’s criticism is an arbitrary choice and desire to take something that I, inspired by the ideas of Western Enlightenment and science, have automatically considered as a value that ought to be learned and disseminated. Imagine that my notions of useful knowledge and standards of a quality of life could simply be as consumerist in nature as the three great forces that continue to enslave the world: capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.

For Santos, however, this destructive axis is represented not by the “West” cliché but by the global North, which is also not a geographical but an epistemological concept. The contrasting “Epistemologies of the South” is the research project of his lifetime. Geographically, the term mostly covers the former colonies, which are patronized as developing countries, but following his explanation, it becomes clear that they have also permeated the North. Not only do they take the form of immigrant communities, refugee flows and other traditionally discriminated groups, they exist as continually marginalized “internal protectorates”, such as the “lazy and fiscally undisciplined” Mediterranean countries or the “eternal beggars” in Eastern Europe.

On the other hand, the South continues to be further brutally impoverished by the informal colonialism created by the global market for which, after the “end of history” and the logic of neoliberal capitalism born in the “North”, there seems to be no alternative. Moreover, the protracted crisis, in this case the lack of alternatives, does not create new opportunities but is an excuse for even more drastic repression and exploitation. (As one of the many examples of this neoliberal colonialism, he cites the submissive surrender of governments to pressure from international financial institutions and arrogant boards of directors of auditor companies, who usually neither take domestic social and political conditions and forces into account, nor later bear responsibility for the consequences.)

Santos unrelentingly seeks to remind us of two possible ways out of this globally dangerous situation. Firstly, the assumptions underlying Western epistemology need to be seriously revised: “an absolute priority given to science as rigorous knowledge; rigor, conceived of as determination; universalism, conceived of as a specificity of western modernity, referring to any entity or condition the validity of which does not depend on any specific social, cultural, or political context; truth, conceived of as the representation of reality; a distinction between subject and object, the knower and the known; nature as res extensa; linear time; the progress of science via the disciplines and specialization; social and political neutrality as a condition of objectivity.”[1]  It’s these assumptions, or Cartesian self-positioning of the rest of the world (its objectification), that has made the West such a devastating conqueror.

Secondly, he calls for involvement in “the Epistemologies of the South.” They differ from Western scientific alienation in essence: The knowledges redeemed by the epistemologies of the south are technically and culturally intrinsic to certain practices – the practices of resistance against oppression. They are ways-of-knowing, rather than knowledges. They exist embodied in social practices. [..] While knowledges appropriate reality, ways-of-knowing embody reality.” In the West, such often-learned rather than acquired or intuitive “knowledge” resides in the non-normative social practices of various discriminated, marginalized or illegal subcultures.

However, according to Santos, even in the fight against oppression or as a refuge against it, they continue to be part of the northern paradigm of thinking rather than competing with, for example, the traditional way of life, worldview and faith of various colonized indigenous peoples. “At the epistemological level, such diversity translates into what I designate as an “ecology of knowledges,” i.e., the recognition of the co-presence of different ways of knowing and the need to study the affinities, divergences, complementarities, and contradictions among them in order to maximize the effectiveness of the struggles of resistance against oppression,” says Santos.

This is the kind of research that he does within the ALICE project that he founded at the Centre for Social Studies at the Faculty of Economics of his native Coimbra University (a faculty he also founded after his studies in the United States and Portugal, when the fall of Fascism created the opportunity). He is also one of the initiators of the World Social Forum, which has been bringing together anti-globalization and anti-neoliberalism activists since 2001. In those sessions, as well as in his numerous books and guest lectures around the world, he generously shares examples of the ecological diversity of knowledge. Proof of the fundamental difference in these southern epistemological concepts is the inability or reluctance to translate and define them in Western scientific language.

This is the idea of indivisible coexistence or the “ubuntu” notion of humanity from southern Africa, which roughly translates as “I am, because you are.” (On the other hand, according to Santos, South African philosophers have had difficulty translating Descartes' famous phrase into their own languages.) In the late 2000s, in consultation with Santos, the new constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia also incorporated the principle of “sumak kawasay” or “good life” known to the Quechua and Ayamara peoples, which freed both documents from Western notions of growth and socialism. “Pachamama”, on the other hand, means “mother-nature”, and it now has the same constitutional status in Ecuador as human rights.

At a Western European university, after hearing these examples, a member of the audience commented: “Nice, but it's probably not for us.” Santos replied that if your thinking doesn’t allow it, then probably not. However, if it’s possible to conceive that living nature is not something outside man (like a resource or property, or a threat) but that man is part of it (as it still remains in many traditional cultures), then it can give additional impetus to the struggle for nature conservation and changes in legislation to protect such.

This is what Santos reminds all activists: at a time when all possibilities seem exhausted, new unexpected coalitions must be sought and formed. Moreover, he calls for lessons to be learned from those for whom a crisis has been the norm for a long time, rather than fighting to maintain questioEpistemologiesnable normality. Furthermore, short-term and false problems (with which politicians, the media and producers of goods are constantly trying to colonize our full attention) prevent us from thinking about really important topics, such as life after capitalism, the patriarchy, and a good life that doesn’t require the creation of new categories of the unwanted, excluded or exploited.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos’ lecture took place on June 11, 2020 as part of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art’s weekly Series of Talks and Conversations, which bring together outstanding thinkers, researchers, and writers from various fields.

[1] From the essay Why the Epistemologies of the South?, which is the basis for the live online RIBOCA2 talk.

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