Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Contemporary South Asia

Theory from the South

The idea is very simple really, although its implications could be quite radical...

It is this. Western enlightenment thought has, from the first, posited itself as the wellspring of universal learning, of Science and Philosophy, upper case; 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. These other worlds, in short, are treated less as sources of refined knowledge than as reservoirs of raw fact: of the minutiae from which Euromodernity might fashion its testable theories and transcendent truths. Just as it has long capitalized on non-Western ‘raw materials’ by ostensibly adding value and refinement to them. In some measure, this continues to be the case. 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 so-called ‘Global South’ that affords privileged insight into the workings of the world at large? That it is from here that our empirical grasp of its lineaments, and our theory-work in accounting for them, ought to be coming, at least in major part?

Jean and John Comaroff, “Theory from the South,” Anthropological Forum, Vol. 22, No. 2, July 2012.

The “Global South” is a working category today for a diversity of intellectual projects centered on the non-European postcolonial world. Many of us at Brown use it as a shorthand to locate our work. While this category is embedded in histories of empire and culture, critical thinking since the 1970s has already done much to “provincialize Europe” and interrogate the ways in which power and knowledge have been imbricated in the making of universal claims, institutional processes and historical self-understanding – the very tools with which we have been interpreting and engaging with the world. Now the task at hand is different.

Taking cues from Jean and John Comaroff, it is time to relocate the “Global South,” as not merely a field-site for study, but rather to “invert” the canon and return to it as a generative source for theory and for understanding the world as it is changing around us. This relocation, however, is not simply a new trend that follows as postcolonial critique arguably reaches its limits. It has a long genealogy of its own in anti-colonial struggles (Gandhi, Fanon, Tagore, and Al-Afghani amongst others) and certainly many of us use “Global South” as a progressive shorthand to refer implicitly to liberation projects, and to struggles for social justice that have challenged “North-South” relations across the globe. As we think about how to promote peace and justice in the world, a vigorous engagement with theory from the south should be an integral part of our endeavors. Anthony Bogues, in his 2012 keynote address to BIARI (a project that reflects Watson’s commitment to dialogues with the south), drew on the insights of Franz Fanon to argue for the importance of a “worldly hermeneutics of the human” in order to “...confront the world that we have created and to act to change that world.” (Bogues 2013: 28)

Thus we inaugurate an interdisciplinary reading group, entitled Theory from the South, to bring together Watson faculty with colleagues, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from across the University, to read recent essays and books that “shake the ground” so to speak, and present challenging ideas from the global south. Each month, we will ask a scholar from Brown, or elsewhere, to select a text or curate a set of shorter pieces for the reading group. Any faculty or student at Brown interested in attending the discussion should contact the Graduate Student Coordinators for a copy of the text/s. Theory from the South will provide the reading/s to those who commit to attending the discussion.

This reading group builds on a prior group Empires and Cultures that was set up by Professor Kerry Smith and his colleagues from the History Department, and which met for six years on a monthly basis in the South Common Room of the Watson. If you attended an Empires and Cultures discussion in its long life, we invite you to join us in its re-incarnation as Theory from the South. Most of all, we reach out broadly across the social sciences and humanities to those who want to read and argue and shape a community through ideas that reach beyond the specificities of “expertise.” Come join us this semester!

Graduate Student Coordinators: 

Rijuta Mehta (MCM): rijuta_mehta@brown.edu
Rajeev Kadambi (Political Science): rajeev_kadambi@brown.edu