Photo from Arjun Appadurai: Wikicommons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0)

Arjun Appadurai: “I realized that the relevant issue was the rich versus the poor”

For the Indian anthropologist, both an idea of a “Southern Theory” and the term “decolonization” out of historical context can easily slip into clichés.

When you gave a keynote at JWTC – a conference on “The Theory of the South” – you provocatively said that you would question the existence of a theory of the South but rather would believe that there might be a “South of theory”. What did you mean by this and would you still argue like this?

I meant this as a provocation since the idea of “theory from the South” was already at risk of becoming a cliché. I meant to suggest that places and locations were important in the geography of knowledge, but that what was more important was to unsettle the very idea of theory, by looking at it from unfamiliar points of view, some of which could be geographical, but others could be professional, generational or ideological. The idea of going south of theory also opens up the question of the epistemological status of distinctions such a theory/practice, theory/observation, theory/data etc.

As the South is not only geographically defined but also implicates a lot of other meanings, it would be interesting to hear what it implicates for you personally and also within your research.

My first sense of the south, growing up in India in the 1950’s and 1960’s, was tied up with the decolonizing world and revolved around the West and the Non-West. I later realized that the relevant issue was the rich versus the poor, i.e. the North versus the South, a distinction which brought Latin America more clearly into the story of decolonization and dependence. Still later, I began to see that were there was an East in every West (minority and oppositional traditions within the dominant one) and a South within every North, as I saw in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, with huge black ghettoes which I saw for the first time. Through this set of steps, I began to think of the positionality of theory as being more political and less geographical.

I think you would agree to the fact that the powers of the world are shifting. Brexit, Trump, right wing populism in Europe, the positioning of China and Russia etc are indicators for that. What is your opinion when it comes to the question what kind of role the “South” could play in the next decades and whether Europe will have a part in it?

I do believe that the geographical “South” is changing its balance and that India and China are going to be major sites for defining the relationship between authoritarianism, rapid growth and populism. Europe can play a vital role in this process by providing a balance between the contending claims of China and the USA as contenders for global domination and between India and China as competitors for economic domination in Asia. it can do this through the EU, through such global civil endeavors as the Goethe-Institute and by exemplifying a real future for democratic politics. This can only be done if Europe sees the problems of the world and its own problems as two sides of the same coin.

Decolonization is the expression one hears in all kind of contexts of globalization. Where does this decolonization lead to, or is it just something that only exists as a theoretical construction that has to be deconstructed again?

Yes, I fear that decolonization has become too loose a category and is now used for all kinds of movements, impulses and aspirations many of which have nothing do with actual colonies or colonialism. I prefer to use the term decolonization to refer to the specific moment in which many countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East achieved independence in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The Latin American case is interesting but it took place more than a century earlier and also occurred in relation to pre-industrial capitalism. Still, it is the first real decolonizing process of which we have real knowledge. I am interested in all these cases, but not in the recent trend to throw around words like “decolonial” without reference to specific historical cases.

What is your South?

My South is the place where marginal populations meet marginalizing theories and suffer under their dominion. That “South” can be anywhere and it needs intervention in any all of its locations.

Arjun Appadurai, Social-cultural anthropologist, India/ USA, is Goddard Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, where he is also Senior Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge. In 2016/17 he is a Visiting Professor at the Institute for European Ethnology at Humboldt University Berlin. Appadurai has published a number of seminal books within the field of globalization studies. Most recently, he published “Banking on Words. The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance” (2015).

Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte, Executive Director of the Goethe-Institut São Paulo and Regional Director for South America, conducted the interview.