The south is everywhere

23.05.2018 - Article

The Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai about the concept of “Theory of the South”.

Performer Val Souza during Carol Barreto's “Coleção Asè”
Performer Val Souza during Carol Barreto's “Coleção As蔩 Taylla de Paula

In April, the future of Southern Transatlantic relations between Europe, South America and Africa were discussed at the “Echoes of the South Atlantic” conference in Salvador, Bahia. Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte, director of the Goethe-Institut São Paolo, spoke to the Indian anthropologist Arjun Appadurai about the concept of “Theory of the South”.

When you gave a keynote at the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (JWTC), you provocatively said that you would question the existence of a theory of the South and rather would believe that there might be a “South of theory.” What did you mean by this?

The idea of a “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.


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.

Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte at the Echoes of the South Atlantic conference
Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte at the “Echoes of the South Atlantic” conference© Taylla de Paula

My first sense of the South, growing up in India in the 1950s and 1960s, was tied up with the decolonising world and revolved around the West and the Non-West. I later realised that the relevant issue is rich versus poor, North versus South, a distinction which brought Latin America more clearly into the story of decolonisation 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.

What role will the “South” play in the future?

I 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-Institut 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.

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

Brochures of Contemporary&
Brochures of Contemporary&© Taylla de Paula

I fear that decolonisation 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 decolonisation to refer to the specific moment in which many countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East achieved independence in the 1940s and 1950s. 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 decolonising process of which we have real knowledge.

What is your South?

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

Katharina von Ruckteschell-Katte, director of the Goethe-Institut São Paulo and regional director for South America, conducted the interview in English.

The complete interview was published on the website “Episodes of the South”.

© Goethe-Institut

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