Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why epistemologies of the south?

JWTC in conversation

“Why epistemologies of the south?” Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s challenging lecture was charged with greater provocation in the context of the JWTC conversation on nature and environment. It was even more provocative since his argument seemed to unsettle the emergent view in the workshop that knowledges alternative to hegemonic knowledge are romanticized reinventions whose time has passed since the world in which their interventions may have been productive has already been fundamentally transformed. The lecture foregrounded the epistemologies of the metaphorical global south in the context of what the speaker observed as seven threats to social justice in the forms taken by contemporary neoliberal capitalism. Some of these threats, like continued colonialismfor example, are not new or different, just paradoxical in the ways that they continues to perpetuate racism while superficially rejecting the nineteenth century science of race. Other threats to social justice identified represent a widening out of the exclusions of earlier forms of capitalism: For example, as technological advances have allowed work to be brought home and as the nature of the workplace has changed in various sectors, incursions into leisure time have been pushed further. These forms of unpaid labour have thus expanded the sphere of the most significantly unrecognized and unrecompensed labour of traditional women’s work. Most of the threats outlined identify attacks on social justice which allow the continued encroachment of a fluid and engulfing capitalism.
 One of the threats singled out by the speaker, however, namely, the destruction of nature, is a threat of a different magnitude and order since it threatens both the dominant and the dominated. This reinforces the view of Immanuel Wallerstein, among others, who suggests that the finitude of the world conceptualized as resource makes the present crisis of capitalism a crisis which capitalism’s legendary protean powers of transformation will not succeed in transcending. In fact, the environmental threat is a planetary catastrophe which could destroy not only actors in capitalist relations of power, but also animal and vegetable life. (This question addresses a different tension which seems to have arisen in the JWTC conversation. On the one hand, some points of view have taken for granted environmental finitude and potential catastrophe. On the other, the discourse of disaster has been presented as part of the problematic which needs to be challenged.)
 The speaker asserts that containing and reversing global disaster in the cause of social justice cannot emerge from the systems of knowledge which have produced transformations of the natural world on a scale hitherto unknown and unthinkable. In the context of global warming, there quite literally is no part of the planet which lies outside of human influence – there is no wilderness. The speaker maintains that since the sum of knowledges of the world exceeds a western understanding of the world, the epistemologies of the global south suggest a trajectory out of the impasse. Responses to environmental finitude for the most part engage only the knowledge of the global north whose epistemology exists on one side of an “abyssal divide”, producing a radically truncated horizon of possibility. In this way cognitive injustice reinforces social injustice.
Some questions, however, remain troubling in this approach which clearly is inspired both by a pragmatic realism and social concern. In terms of the argument presented, those on the other side of the “abyssal divide” must engage indigenous epistemologies. There is an interesting slippage in the terms used to describe the knowledge which must be gleaned. The argument shuttles between the terms “epistemological” and “cognitive” justice and also “indigenous understandings”. One gets the impression, one that possibly may be misconceived, that the framework and the terms of thinking of indigenous knowledges may, in fact, produce an instrumentalisation of epistemologies of the south, just as epistemologies of the north defined, delimited and  instrumentalised nature. If epistemology of the south refers only to indigenous “know-how”, then it may disembed knowledge from a much more profound understanding of the world which connects human, non-human, plant and cosmos. These spiritually and philosophically integrated worlds are also worlds enabled by a mythology which may not be shared by other indigenous groups. The question then arises of how different indigenous ethical understandings might encounter and engage one another.
Constituting the epistemology of the south as an epistemology of “those who have suffered injustices” as the speaker does, also tends to elide the enabling mythology of indigenous groups in favour of a mythology of a constitutive moment forged out of the engagement with capitalist modernity. In other words, this paradigm would continue to cast into abyssal darkness the epistemology which exists in excess of the epistemology of injustice constituted at the moment of capitalist encounter.
The broader framework of the argument also implies that somehow the radical left summons itself into being outside of an enabling mythology, in other words, universally, and so may be tasked with the role of managing indigenous epistemologies.
Indigenous cosmological or cosmogonic mythologies also simultaneously constitute a set of social and human – nonhuman relations conceived as obligation, the ways one ought to act and engage other people and the natural world. The epistemology of the south is always inherently an ethical understanding, not just a “know-how”. Ethics is also a term which has repeatedly been introduced in the JWTC conversation, but one which has not gone on to produce a dialogue.
Fiona Moola
English Department, University of the Western Cape

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

.thanks for sharing

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