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Writing Theory from the South: The Global Order from an African Perspective

By Jean Comaroff & John L. Comaroff

Western thought has, from the first, regarded the non-West as a place of antiquarian traditions and unprocessed data. Below, Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff suggest that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large, as old margins become new frontiers.

Western enlightenment thought has, from the first, posited itself as the wellspring of universal learning, of Science and Philosophy, uppercase; concomitantly, it has regarded the non-West—variously known as the ancient world, the orient, the primitive world, the third world, the underdeveloped world, the developing world, and now the global south—primarily as a place of parochial wisdom, of antiquarian traditions, of exotic ways and means. Above all, of unprocessed data. But what if, and here is the idea in interrogative form, we invert that order of things? What if we posit that, in the present moment, it is the global south that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large? That in probing what is at stake in the North-South division itself, we may move beyond the contrast to lay bare the larger, global processes that produce and sustain it.

To the degree that the making of modernity has been a world-historical process, it can as well be narrated from its undersides as it can from its self-proclaimed centers—like those maps that, as a cosmic joke, invert planet Earth to place the south on top, the north below. But we seek to do more than just turn the story upside down, thus to leave intact the Manichean dualism that holds Euro-America and its others in the same, fixed embrace. What we suggest, in addition, is that contemporary world-historical processes are disrupting received geographies of core and periphery, relocating southward—and, of course, eastward as well—some of the most innovative and energetic modes of producing value. And, as importantly, part or whole ownership of them. In making this claim, Theory from the South is built on two closely interwoven arguments. We develop them, as we intimated earlier, by taking Africa as our point of departure. In the final analysis, however, our horizons extend to the global order at large.

“We suggest that contemporary world-historical processes are disrupting received geographies of core and periphery, relocating southward—and, of course, eastward as well—some of the most innovative and energetic modes of producing value. “

Afromodernity, In Practice and Theory
The first argument is that modernity in the south is not adequately understood as a derivative or a doppelganger, a callow copy or a counterfeit, of the Euro-American “original.” To the contrary: it demands to be apprehended and addressed in its own right. Like its European counterpart, modernity in Africa, for example, has entailed a re-genesis, a consciousness of new possibilities, and a rupture with the past—a past that, in the upshot, was flattened out, detemporalized, and congealed into “tradition,” itself a thoroughly modern construct. African modernity, in sum, has always had its own trajectories, giving moral and material shape to everyday life. It has yielded diverse yet distinctive means with which to make sense of the world and to act upon it, to fashion social relations, commodities, and forms of value appropriate to contemporary circumstances—not least those sown by the uneven impact of capitalism, first colonial, then international, then global. Nor is this true of Africa alone: in making reference to a notorious site of sweatshop production — the Northern Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific — US senator Tom DeLay, called it a “perfect petri dish of capitalism.”1

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