Notes on:  de Sousa Santos, B. (2012)  Public Sphere and Epistemologies of the South  Africa Development, XXXVII (1):  43 – 67

Dave Harris

This paper offers a 'meta-theoretical critique of the concept of the public sphere' [in Habermas], and wants to argue instead for epistemological diversity,  'intercultural translation'and mutual intelligibility.

Habermas's concept of public sphere 'reflects, in a stylised way, the political practices of the European bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 18th century… Its theoretical and cultural presuppositions are entirely European' (44). Habermas himself recognised that he had excluded women, workers and non-proprietors (?). The issue is whether 'the global South' needs this concept, and whether we can make it fit by 'adjectivising or qualifying' the concept. If not, we need to develop a more adequate concept, more post-imperialist, more 'truly decolonised', and in the process, discuss the issues connecting theory and practice. Generally, we should start with 'a hermeneutics of suspicion' addressing all social theories produced in the global North: the differences between the views of the North and the South 'are so vast that they seem to refer to different worlds' (45).

Modern solutions proposed by liberalism or Marxism no longer work, including Habermas and his reconstruction. It still traces an 'abyssal line' between metropolitan societies in Europe and colonial societies. Habermas can see this but not overcome it. His theory of communicative action, for example is supposed to be 'a telos of development for all humanity', but he was once asked if it would be useful 'to the struggles of democratic socialism in developed countries', and apparently Habermas (1984) answered that he was inclined to reply no, that his was a limited and Eurocentric version. Santos comments that this 'actually excludes 4/5 of the world population… Habermas's universalism turns out to be a benevolent but imperialist universalism' deciding what to include and exclude (46)

[I think this is total bollocks, and misunderstands Habermas's own discussion of the links between theory and practice, say in his Theory and Practice {!} 1974, chapter 1, where he says that theorists should focus on critiquing other theories and their claims to truth, but when it comes to political action, those who are actually willing to take the risks should take the difficult decisions]

What we actually need is a more '"transgressive sociology"' distanced from Western modernity, closer to marginalised versions of maternity, focusing on 'absences and emergences', confronting epistemologies of the global North with 'an [just the one] epistemology of the South'. In particular we need oppose the tendency in 'Eurocentric critical theory — 'the loss of critical nouns and the phantasmal relationship between theory and action' [real woefully idealist crap]. [The idea is that the old nouns belonging to critical theory like socialism, class struggle and alienation and so on have been weakened and modified by various adjectives like alternative, democratic or sustainable. The adjectives are supposed to 'creatively take advantage of nouns', but the nouns still 'limit its debates and proposals' (47). What we need to do instead is to introduce new concepts 'without precedent in Eurocentric theory' often expressed in languages other than the colonial ones, seen, for example in new adjectives like 'subaltern, plebeian, counter insurgent', belonging to new groups like 'indigenous, peasant, women, Afro descendants' and demands for 'dignity, respect, territory… Mother Earth' (48). All these were 'highly visible in the World Cup social Forum in 2001']

As examples Zapatista, Argentina piqueteros, , the landless in Brazil, indigenous movements in Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Chavez, Morales in Bolivia, Lugo in Paraguay, Mujica in Uruguay — all emancipatory but not theorised [reminds me of Debray who said it better] (49).

There is epistemological and ontological difference between these movements and Eurocentric critical theory, because they are based on 'ancestral, popular and spiritual knowledge that has always been alien to Eurocentric critical theory', (50) distinct from Western individualism, stressing community where the ancestors are present 'as well as animals and mother Earth'. There is an emancipatory project based on 'ethnic and peasant themes' which will replace Marxist ideology. They demand the unthinkable and develop surprise, 'theoretical work that goes hand-in-hand with the transformative work of the social movements', symbolically enlarging it.

The 'epistemology of the South' means 'the retrieval of new processes of production and valorisation of valid knowledges', scientific and nonscientific, and with new relations among them, formed by classes and social groups that have been oppressed. He admits that 'the South is here rather a metaphor of the human suffering caused by capitalism in colonialism and… of the resistance to overcome or minimise such suffering… An anticapitalist, anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist South' (51). Its characteristic understandings are broader than those of the West, so it can offer change in unforeseen ways. It embraces an infinite diversity of the world with very different modes of being thinking and feeling, 'ways of conceiving time' and ways of organising life.

These alternative epistemologies are built by four steps: 'sociology of absences, sociology of emergencies, ecology of knowledges, intercultural translation''[so we do it for the poor bastards?].

First we show that what does not exist 'is actually actively produced as non-existent… [as]an unbelievable alternative… Ignorant, backward, inferior, local or particular, and unproductive or sterile', depending on the logic in operation at the time, which itself depends on the particular 'monoculture' [do keep up]. The '"monoculture of knowledge" and "rigour of knowledge"' sees science and high culture as the 'sole criteria of truth and aesthetic quality. The '"monoculture of linear time"' says that history has 'a unique and well-known meaning and direction'so that things that are backward or asymmetrical can be declared to have nonexistence (52). There is also a logic of social classification based on the monoculture of '"naturalisation of differences"', categories that naturalise hierarchies, like racial and sexual ones, and racial classification is particularly important of course. Then there is the '"logic of the dominant scale"' where, universal or global categories are more important than any other realities depending on context. Finally there is the '"logic of productivity"' where economic growth is unquestioned, so anything that serves it is unquestionable as well (53).

Second, we have to develop the notion of emergence to combat the emptiness of the future of linear time [?] with 'plural and concrete possibilities, utopian and realist'. Here we can rely on the work of Bloch [isn't he a European?] And his concept of 'not yet' which means a concrete possibility and capacity that is real but not predetermined (54) — [further explained as being something dynamic, between reality and necessity]. It involves caring for the future, dealing with frustration by hope, 'symbolic enlargement' through sociological imagination. There is a necessary subjective dimension — 'cosmopolitan consciousness and nonconformism before the waste of experience' (56).

Third we have to develop an ecology of knowledges, rejecting the idea of ignorance or knowledge in general, where 'every kind of ignorance ignores a certain kind of knowledge'. When we learn some kinds of knowledge we forget or ignore others, but there is a utopia where we can learn other knowledges without forgetting, an ecology of knowledge, assuming more than one form. Modern capitalist society favours practices in which scientific knowledge prevails [still? Where has he been?] and this favours groups who can access scientific knowledge. Alternatives are ignored. With a proper ecology of knowledge, 'granting credibility to nonscientific knowledge does not imply discrediting scientific knowledge. What it does imply is using it in a counterhegemonic way' — we have to explore alternative scientific practices and promote 'interdependence between scientific and nonscientific knowledge' [after you pal]. All knowledge has internal and external limits, the former concerning interventions in the real world, the latter recognition of alternative interventions from other possible forms of knowledge. To defeat hegemony we have to deal with both, and this is found in challenges facing African philosophy today — identify Eurocentric remains and then reconstruct the possibilities of the African legacy, keeping both alive in 'mutual intelligibility… which must not result in the "cannibalisation" of some by others' (58).

[Intercultural translation, fourth, introduces my favourite concept] — '"diatopical hermeneutics"' — interpreting two or more cultures to identify isomorphic concerns and the different answers they provide. He has done this elsewhere, bringing together Islamic umma and Hindu dharma, and has also tried Western philosophy and African sagacity. He describes African Sage philosophy, a mixture of popular wisdom and didactics wisdom, rational thought, which can be critical of popular wisdom, often unwritten, sometimes influenced by the West but '"basically that of traditional rural Africa"'. Diatopical hermeneutics assumes all cultures are incomplete and so can be enriched by confronting or talking to other cultures [an additive notion, no conflict?]. This is not relativism, nor is it universalism in the Western sense. It is 'negative universalism, the idea of the impossibility of cultural completeness' (59). General theory is impossible, and the point is to try to keep alive what is best in say Western culture and at the same time recognise the value of thought in the rest of the world. Translation also means 'mutual intelligibility among forms of organisation' especially types of struggle, say of two social movements, 'the feminist movement and the labour movement' (60). The aim is to identify which 'constellations… Carry more counterhegemonic potential' [he likes Zapatistas, and says much more work is to be done, via the World Social Forum, perhaps]. This will therefore proceed both on knowledge and culture and practices and agents, the latter 'an aggregation from bottom up', not at all one 'imposed by general theory or a privileged social actor'.

And certainly not organised by a public sphere which is the 'tribalism of the European bourgeoisie at the beginning of the 18th century', which was rapidly turned into a global aspiration and a universal theoretical concept', at the very moment that an 'abyssal divide' emerge between metropolitan and colonial societies which denied its very principles. He has shown the way theoretical work can position itself 'as the facilitating or supporting rearguard of the social movements and struggles that fight against capitalism' instead (61). [I just hope the global South are grateful.]