What is the South?
by Nikos Papastergiadis
A highly ambivalent concept, the South oscillates between a clarion call for antipodean rebelliousness and stigmatic expression of the cultural cringe
The south is not a place in the world; it is a space where people meet to imagine the possibility of other ways of being in the world. It is a ‘little public sphere’. It is where strangers encounter each other and through dialogue produce some form of exchange and mutual understanding. The raw matter of this little public sphere is the democratic right to give voice to one’s beliefs and the cosmopolitan principles of curiosity and respect for the other. Today, we are aware of the fragmentation and commercialisation of public spaces. There has been a steady erosion of the available spaces for public debate. However, there has also been a proliferation of media outlets through which private views can be made public. Each time we find a place to meet, whether it is in the context of a journal, a website, an exhibition or a conference there is the possibility of building a little public sphere. I am drawn to those events and sites that are not just magnets for like-minded people, but also assume the function of a platform for generating an understanding of the predicament we share. The little public spheres play a crucial role in the delivery of this option. They require participants to position themselves as interlocutors of the contemporary. What counts is not whether you are based in New York or Melbourne, but how you follow the flows.
So while the South is a big and spherical concept, it is nevertheless a useful heading for understanding a certain set of relationships within the global network of little public spheres. In the recent past it has been revived as a possible frame for representing the cultural context of not just regions that are geographically located in the South, but also those that share a common post-colonial heritage. Over the past decade the idea of the South has captured the interest of historians, activists, political scientists and cultural practitioners. It has been used to explore the legacies and links that shape the lives of people who are dispersed across a vast region. In geopolitical terms the South is not confined to the southern hemisphere as it captures elements that are located on both sides of the equatorial divide. The only constant for those who identify with the concept of the South is a dual awareness that the Euro-American hegemony in global affairs has concentrated power in the North, and that survival requires a coordinated transnational response.
I understand the concept of the South as a loose hemispheric term that refers to a series of places that share similar patterns of colonisation, migration and cultural combinations. For me, the South is also expressive of a cultural imagination that looks outwards from its own national base, going against the grain of its colonial past. This appeal to a more open-ended identity is, in one critic’s view, a betrayal of a deep imperial history. In other words, any use of the language that draws from a metaphoric association with the cardinal points of cartography risks being embedded in the naturalistic discourse of magnetic polarities.
South is an ambivalent concept. It oscillates between a clarion call for antipodean rebelliousness and the stigmatic expression of the cultural cringe. However, in this current phase of globalisation there is a further twist in the geopolitical polarisation – whereby the isolation of a region is not a consequence of its physical remoteness, but of a negative process of bifurcation – and parts of cities, rural areas and significant parts of a region are increasingly bypassed or ‘splintered’ from the emergent forms of exchange. It is therefore crucial to stress that the South does not refer to a geopolitical entity that possesses a singular territorial bloc with an attendant unified cultural and political identity.
In the South many people may share many common negative sentiments and political ideologies. They may start by feeling the same sardonic pain of cultural belatedness, and may reach a conjoined stance against the political humiliations of the North. However, beyond this kindred untimeliness and shared sense of opposition what are the subtle bonds that affirm a sense of community?
The South in geopolitical terms has been described as a kind of defensive reaction to the hegemony of the North. However, in the case of this magazine and my essay, it can also be a deliberate act of rapprochement, a path that both ‘swerves away from the influence of predecessors’, and heads towards a ‘third space’. The relational energy that connects personal and historical claims not only curves away from the compulsive trajectories that head North, but also draws force from the swirling gestures of rapport with other like-minded southerners.
More than two decades ago the Australian political scientist Alan Davies suggested that “we should spend less time in awed upward contemplation of the great metropolitan centres and a good deal more looking sideways at the experience of similar small nations, whose solutions should be better scaled to our problems, and whose definition of their problems are more likely to help us understand our own”. He imagined a form of cultural exchange that would reveal insights and develop skills that would be more worthy of emulation because their fit would be closer to our own experiences. The transferability of knowledge would not be about adopting and applying models, but in grasping what Davies called the “nuances of likeness”.
What blocks the potential for a relational understanding of geopolitical scale and socio-cultural texture? Is it due to our fears of facing the insecurities and horrors within, as well as a failure to define a measure of our own worth and common bonds? The models of explanation that have been prominent in the humanities and social sciences tend to reinforce a view that privileges defensive psychic reactions and imbalances in the global system. For instance, Freud’s insight into the “narcissism of minor differences” is an account of the disproportionate violence directed towards proximate rivals, while Paz’s exegesis of the self-hatred in the “Malinche complex” is reliant on a paradigm that underlines the potency of negative cultural identifications.
The South is, as Michael Taussig would say, a “murky” concept. It embodies the “nightmarish medium of domination”, but as it diverges from its intended axis, invents new relations and sweeps up the missing it impugns the prison-house of its own language. From this perspective, the South does not always arrive after the North. Our sense of becoming is not doomed by a primal loss, because as Borges promised in “El Sur”, “reality favours symmetries and slight anachronisms”. The South, as he said in his favourite story, exists, “on the other side of Avenida Rivadavia”. Borges gives us the phantasmagorical hint that the South is found in the rugged recovery of memories. To find such a place we are usually told to choose between a specific place, unique voice or permanent exile. However, I place greater faith in the sparkling intelligence of the antipodean intellectual who, according to Peter Beiharz, not only leaves home in order to return, transmits messages from across the horizon, and maintains an open line with the past, but also “lives out all three modes of activity”.
In 2009, while living in Filopappou, I wrote this essay: “What is the South?” It was a reflection on the idea of the South as a cultural modality and as a regional optic, or on what I call ‘spherical consciousness’. The idea of spherical consciousness comes from Herodotus. In Herodotus’s account of history we must remember that his account of events is informed by the principle that everything is in eternal motion. The centre of the world is the sea. He sees things not from a specific vantage point within terra firma, but as if he was also a traveller, a sailor, a mere passer-by. His approach towards other people and cultures is not to regard them as adversarial enemies or monstrous subhumans, but rather as equals who have developed different values and traditions. To comprehend these differences Herodotus recommends that we observe, enquire and relate them to our own values and traditions. Looking out towards the horizon Herodotus had no idea of what lay beyond. He did not have an aerial perspective. There were no real maps. He overcame the doubt and anxieties that normally cloud the imagination when it considers what lies over the horizon. Herodotus proceeded by reassuring himself that he would ask his neighbour, and his neighbour’s neighbour to guide him through the unknown parts of the world. This kind of horizontal thinking, a set of connections, which unfold and cascade into new connections, has always given me hope.
During the time I lived in Greece, a young artist who had just returned from a residency in Australia described his positive experiences: “everyone was so friendly, everything was so efficient,” and then he added with considerable emphasis, and “SO CHEAP”. I thought to myself that this is what going South usually means. Now of course, the world financial system is spinning around different axes and thrusting in unpredictable directions. Even well-positioned friends of Greece are saying crazy things: “Why not default?” said a Greek in the South. “It worked for Argentina. Within a few years the financial markets will have forgotten and forgiven everything.” I have no doubt that traders and bankers have the capacity to convince themselves that there are opportunities in catastrophe. But now the troubles that are befalling Greece do not just fall on Greece. Greece is not the sole author of this crisis, and the consequences spread far beyond its shores entangling others. Now is the time to think about the crisis in terms that go beyond the polis, the state and the nation. We need a new kind of spherical consciousness.