Copyright: Goethe-Institut São Paulo

South as critique
Can the Global South be perhaps a category that produces a critique of the political economy of production and circulation of knowledge?

The category of the Global South emerged only after the end of the Cold War, in the mid-1990s when then world began to be imagined as one, as a more or less homogenous totality.

I would like to suggest that Globalization, and the globalized world, are military terms, geopolitical categories that stem from the victories and defeats in trans-national wars. These are also financial categories, as their rise accompanied the progressive hegemonization of the economy and the social, by trans-national finance capital. The “Global South,” a category made possible by this new globalized condition, refers to various scattered regions, which occupy a peripheral space within this new militarized, geopolitical order whose temporalities are calibrated by the speed of financial markets.

The South is a territory without defined borders. It can be conceptualized as a series of parallel, comparable histories. The South has fundamentally been shaped by processes of colonial and neo-colonial political violence, repression, partition, and interconnected trajectories of political and economic imperialisms, external and internal colonialisms, interruptions of the nation-state and national-popular projects. Today, the Global South can also be conceptualized as a series of spaces arising from post-totalitarian processes.

The South’s internal conflicts and crises have largely stemmed from trans-national schemes that have connected different regions of the world. Indeed, one of the critical tasks of the university today is to promote South-South comparative research. The different regions of the Global South should be approached in a comparative political and epistemological plane.

The study of democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s illuminates similar processes that occurred later in Africa. State definitions of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity derived from colonialism and inherited by African and Asian postcolonial states are fertile grounds for rethinking in a different way the prevalent social structures in Latin America.

Neo-colonial mechanisms of global scope, such as structural adjustment plans and the crisis of sovereign debt, as well as military occupational and counterinsurgency techniques, articulate disparate political histories, economic temporalities and trans-regional spaces. Today, the dynamics of extractive capitalism, with its methods, agents and effects, which are repeated across regions and sub-continents, also pave the way for comparative epistemological work within South-South perspectives.

Universities based both in the North and the South are firmly inserted within this geopolitical context of financialization and militarization, although in different ways and to different degrees. Developments in security, defense, finance and real estate, are behind some of the crucial transformations that universities are undergoing in terms of funding, the privatization of public higher education budget cuts, reallocation of resources, termination of programs, promotion of engineering and applied science, and exponential growth of bureaucratic administrative structures. It is also a current task of a critical university to research the governmental, military and financial logics behind the apparent inevitable transformation, downsizing and outsourcing of the university.

As the Global South occupies this liminal place within processes of globalization perhaps the term can be mobilized, in all its ambiguity, as pharmakon (simultaneous poison and remedy) as a critical framework to rethink the production of global knowledge and the interactions of academic centers from various regions, within globalization. Perhaps the South itself can be posited as critique.

The category of Global South can function as a catalyst for rethinking the critical tasks of the university. To think South means to suspend the usual general assumptions about the university held in the North which are currently being exported as a new universal paradigm. Issues of composition of faculty and student bodies, language, funding, relations between academic research, politics and social movements and the public sphere at large acquire different contours in the South.

Reflecting on the project and promise of the Global South, we can deploy the turn of phrase, “thinking South,” to refer to the production of social knowledge situated in world regions peripheral to processes of globalization. Whereas the territorial definitions of the South are imprecise, perhaps it can be thought of as an event, as the materiality of a certain experience and as the production of an autonomous thought about this experience.

The South can be generally defined, as opposed to most of the North, as an economy and social world marked by precarity and precariousness. The South is a series of territories in which the most negative socio-economic, violent and environmental effects of globalization are experienced and endured to a heightened degree, given the feeble, unstable nature of local social textures, infrastructures and institutions.

It can be argued that the South is often located at the forefront of global political and economic processes, as was the case with neoliberal policies implemented for the first time by military dictatorships in South America, under advisement of Chicago School economists, in the mid 1970s and only later imported back to the USA and Europe, with the Reagan, Thatcher and Giscard d’Estaing administrations. Something similar can be said for the effects of massive indebtment under structural adjustment in the 1980s, or the impact of extractivist industries since the 1990s.

Evidently the term South is performing some very concrete and crucial epistemic and political work within the discourse on the potentials of a globalized world that has made necessary its sudden, strong emergence.

A working hypothesis would posit the South at the same time as a geographic territory (peripheral areas located beyond USA and Western Europe) as well as a space of economic relations determined by debt, uneven development and a highly unequal and extractive model of accumulation mandated by the capitalist economic system and geopolitical strategies since 1945. These are dynamics that reproduce global strategies of power and domination that establish nodes both in the North and the South.

It is crucial not to think about the South in territorial terms, as a matter of space or scale, but, rather, as a form-of-life, exploring entanglements and mediations between fields that Western modernity has presented as dissimilar and separate and appear in the South, within different interconnected configurations and temporalities, thus producing singular institutional forms, textures of everyday life and non-humanistic subjectivities.

The South is an assemblage of singular forms-of-life that has generated its own proper thinking on the textures that they inhabit. Southern theory recombines in different ways the classical metaphysical relations between subject and object, and the metaphysics of presence and domination established between the subject and the world, inherited that organizes Western modern epistemes.

The "South" can be thought of as an imaginary, an epistemic perspective embedded in socio-economic relations and a development model that generate a differential perspective on the social. It can be argued that lately, some of the most advanced theorizing about the social and its recent crises has been generated in the "South," in the wake of the loss of centrality and progress of Northern thinking.

Usually in the South, the strict borders between the university and the public sphere, the political, the state, social movements, activism and media are porous. This might be changing due to the recent expansion of financial globalization; the globalization of American systems of metric evaluation of knowledge production; and the preeminence of certain Northern journals and publishing houses.

The theorization of the social generated in the South is produced not only by academics, but also by public intellectuals and social and political movements, in response to demands from the public sphere, economic structures and the political. This context of production of knowledge, loosely determined by the diffuse borders between fields and genres, and strongly inflected by social transformations, locates Southern thinking on a very different plane compared to the theorizations produced in the relative isolation of the Northern university, or the expert technical knowledge of private research centers.

Today, Southern theory is also produced by grassroots social movements that theorize their own practices of organizing and action, as well as local socio-economic conditions and the impact of global flows of capital, technology and information.

It can be argued that just as in political and economic terms, the local produces inflections and tensions that mediate and refract the global, modifying it. In the same way, Southern theory produces an inflection on thought itself; it generates a modulation, or nuance on how thinking has been conceptualized since Western classical modernity. This realization implies considering Southern thinking as a singular perspective on the world of social imaginaries, beyond any nativism or chauvinism or futile attempt to recover supposedly pristine cosmogonies or ancestral world views.

Southern theory generates its own conceptual and institutional frameworks. Its aim is to displace classical dichotomies between the universal and the particular. Its objective is to reorient parameters of thought generated in the North (formerly Europe, now also the United States) and the mandate to adapt them to regional processes defined merely as ethnographic cases and local histories.
br> Far from merely adopting and reproducing concepts generated in the North, Southern Theory resumes those forms and ideas, re-elaborating them in profound ways, translating them into local versions that deeply modify them, in response to regional socio-economic conditions. Economic globalization has not generated a standardization of knowledge but rather has made it possible for Southern theorists to have access to a whole series of theories that had not circulated globally before. The dissemination and hybridization of these theories has taken unpredictable turns that have relativized the absolute hegemony of those Western concepts, enabling practices of intellectual bricolage within social, political and aesthetic theory. This material and institutional order also generates the emergence of epistemologies and methodologies proper to the South, that, even though mediated by a lack of financial and infrastructural resources, generate responses to uniquely local problems.

This landscape of innovative epistemic and methodological conceptualization, usually materialized in the form of the essay, stands in contrast with the rest of the production of social knowledge in the South, which mostly presents a technocratic bent, mainly determined by the pressures and ideological orientation of multilateral financial agencies and the development industry. This type of social knowledge circulates in the forms of the dry, standardized, indexed academic papers, the taxonomic survey and the consultancy report. Within the economic crisis of the university in impoverished and indebted economies, development agencies become the main contractors of social research geared toward solutions to technical problems, and to reducing the political to an utilitarian calculus and practices of “open” “good governance".

It is necessary, in order to weigh the dimension and relevance of the theories produced in the South, to discuss the current institutional context and the financing of the production of social knowledge in the South. Which socio-political elites of knowledge, are the legitimate generators of theory? Can they co-exist with the emergence of new epistemic actors that also theorize the social? How do capital flows today enable the theorizing of the social? What are the current strategic struggles on decisions to privilege certain areas and objects of research?

The creativity of Southern theory prompts the debate on the global political economy of knowledge. What is the added value provided by the theory produced in the South to the markets of contemporary cognitive capitalism and the society of information, for which knowledge is the main force of production? Who theorizes the South? Who has access to concepts and information imported from abroad, which can then be modified, paving the way to the generation of new, localized conceptualizations?

Theory: The Southern Question

Next, we must dissect the structures of hierarchy and the dynamics of accumulation and circulation of theory. The recent critiques are well known, and they point out the fact that while the South is seen as a repository of data and raw evidence illustrating empirical facts, the North constitutes the place of extraction of data, towards its processing and translation into theory.

Southern theory puts in question this international status quo and the picture of the South as an archive of catalogues, taxonomies and databases, by conceptualizing, producing new abstract discourses and figures, constellations of thought stemming from regional histories, local knowledge and subjective and communal experiences, often not in sync with the temporalities and logic prevalent in the North.

From the Enlightenment philosophies to modernization theory to development programs, Western modernity has been posed as the true, original model and parameter of progress. All other modernist processes in the South have been usually regarded as mere degraded copies or imperfect, unfinished imitations. In the linear teleologies of reason, the South (the Orient, the Third World, the non-aligned world, in sum the Other) has always been depicted as being deferred. Its future is usually portrayed at best as the eternal return of the same, and its historical changes are understood as late arrivals.

Critics in the Global North usually expect that Southern aesthetic production will only represent local histories and "national allegories." The aesthetic or intellectual production from the global South seemingly needs to be to be presented as a simulacrum, a more or less exotic copy, of Western liberal universalism.

In contrast to this state of things, the South emerges today as a space of deep experimentation that by recombining the rich artistic, intellectual and political languages and traditions of the past might be prefiguring the near future of the West itself. Whereas the colonies had always been the initial laboratory of modernity, there is today an extended uncanny feeling about the modes in which political, economic, and cultural developments in the South might anticipate the contours of the Euro-American future.

Given current connections between assemblages of production to machineries of memory and information, theory itself can be equated with capital. Thus, the raw materials from an older colonial world or from today's South that become value-added commodities in the North might be equated here with the raw, unprocessed data from today's postcolony or "Global South," which becomes Theory after being analytically processed by Northern authors.

The category of the global South is a heuristic tool with great potential, but is also a problematic all-encompassing term, which might occlude deep differences between regions such as Asia and Africa, or the ambiguous role and location of a large economic and military power such as China.

In today’s global order, which is a multiple-entry scheme, a variegated, textured canvass, the terms "global" "regional" and "local" do not refer to matters of scales but rather to rhythms and temporalities, as well as to various entangled dimensions and folds.

The term "South" alludes to a set of relations signaling to multiple causalities and to the non-linear directionality of global flows. It constitutes an assemblage of lines of flight and materialized intensities, formations and information, which re-orients the debate on universals and particulars and the centers and peripheries of modernity.

It is necessary to engage the historical context of the colonial background of current global structures, in order to reverse the previous colonial (and now global/(neo)liberal) forms of production and distribution of knowledge and language production and its exclusionary teleological reason. In order to understand the aporetic nature of the contemporary global moment, we may leave behind the project of "provincializing Europe" and instead attempt to "universalize the South" and show how regions such as the Sahel, or the Andes, Bengal, the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean, are not mere local particulars to be subsumed by western rationality, but rather constitute hubs of potentiality located at the avant-garde of intellectual ventures that build on centuries of historical textures and cultural formations.

To Conclude

Se a universidade for realizar sua função de intervir em prol do desenvolvimento, inclusão e justiça social, então outra tarefa crítica atual da universidade é sua função de abordar e reparar as desigualdades entre as universidades do Norte e do Sul. Isso implica encorajar mais colaborações e intercâmbios num plano comum, imaginar novas formas de triangulação entre regiões, assim como promover uma circulação de conhecimento internacional mais horizontal.

As questões em jogo são: quem está legitimado a ter uma perspectiva comparativa global?; quem pode postular sua própria imaginação local e particular como uma imaginação nova e universal?; quem ocupa uma posição vantajosa que permita escrever a história global?; podemos pensar o mundo a partir da África, da América Latina ou da China?

Atualmente, há novas articulações e desarticulações entre a universidade do Norte Global e a do Sul Global, ocasionadas pelos fluxos globais e pelo projeto recente de internacionalização da educação superior.

Juan Obarrio is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University (USA). ​He works in the fields of critical theory and political anthropology, focusing on issues of state, democracy, law, violence, magic; and has conducted extensive fieldwork in Southern Africa and South America.