Copy to Clipboard. Add italics as necessaryCite as: Iracema Dulley and Özgün Eylül İşcen, ‘Introduction: Displacing Theory: Berlin Notes’, in Displacing Theory Through the Global South, ed. by Iracema Dulley and Özgün Eylül İşcen, Cultural Inquiry, 29 (Berlin: ICI Berlin Press, 2024), pp. 1–14 <https:/​/​doi.org/​10.37050/​ci-29_01>

IntroductionDisplacing Theory: Berlin NotesIracema Dulley and Özgün Eylül İşcen

How is it possible to theorize not only on the so-called Global South, but also in, from, and through it? This question involves reflecting on the institutional, disciplinary, and rhetorical devices that shape the production of theory, as much as on geopolitical inequalities and the entanglement of knowledge production and imperialism. This joint collection results both from our commitment to the long-standing critique of colonialism, imperialism, and Eurocentrism, and from our inquiries into where and how to move from there.

As Berlin-based researchers and practitioners invested in both theorization and a specific historical and geopolitical context, we recurrently face the frustration of having our work either reduced to the particularity of its context or subsumed into Eurocentric generalizations. In this vein, we propose to reflect on the following questions: How are our theoretical affinities transformed through contexts in the so-called Global South? How can we make our work relevant to a larger audience beyond a particular region or a field defined in terms of area studies? What are possible strategies to present the theoretical impact of our work despite its constant peripheralization as a case study? What affordances can certain disciplines and institutions offer to tackle such theoretical and methodological challenges?

What appears as the universal often involves a gesture of generalization that flattens and dominates the particular, predominantly from a Eurocentric perspective. We wish to simultaneously unsettle the very distinction between the general and the particular that underlies asymmetrical claims to universality and retain the claim to the universal that makes theorization generative and relevant. How can one maintain a critique of the Eurocentric gaze without falling into the traps of ethnocentrism, which ends up posing one’s particularity as a universal, or cultural relativism, which leads to discursive and political ambivalence regarding the local manifestations of capitalist imperial violence? What methodologies can be employed to expand, if not transform, our understandings of the universal? How can one relate discourse to positionality without implying that the position occupied by a subject is equivalent to the totality of discourse one can produce from that specific place?

This book results from a series of encounters in Berlin. On this basis, we reached out to scholars working within a wide range of fields and regions, and some of these scholars became contributors to this collection, in which we jointly address the above-mentioned questions. Our first encounter took place in a monthly reading group in which we engaged with and discussed the works of scholars who propose to both theorize and reflect on areas of the world that are now said to be located in the Global South without reducing such areas to sites where theory is to be applied or tested. At ICI Berlin, we organized a public workshop titled Theorizing Through the Global South, which took place from 10–11 March 2022 and was followed by a publication workshop on 11 November 2022.1

This collection of essays is the product of the vibrant conversation we developed on all these occasions. As such, it embodies a collective nature and the situatedness of our project. It does not intend to be exhaustive. Rather, it aims to discuss and challenge the relationship between the production of theory as a form of generalization and the tendency to relegate locations in the Global South, as well as the intellectuals who are associated with it, to the role of either suppliers of raw material for abstraction produced in the Global North or consumers of its final products. As explored by some of the position papers that compose this volume, this power imbalance depends on relations that are both material and symbolic.

Collaboration and dialogue are core features of this enterprise because we believe they are central to the task of undoing such divides. Yet, dialogue does not always mean agreement. Thus, not only consensus but also dissonance is to be found among the positions taken by the various authors that compose this collection. Titles have also been the matter of much discussion among us. The title of the workshop we organized in March, Theorizing Through the Global South, was an object of opposition for different reasons: the centrality ascribed to theory; Global South as a designation; the possible implication that theory is something distinct from its objects. Such attention is given to the title because it not only announces but also performs the paradox that drives our discussion. What do we mean when we say ‘theorizing’? What do we mean with ‘Global South’? Or, as some contributors bring up, aren’t these only to be thought of in the plural — knowledges, Global Souths? These questions are all interrelated.

The concept of the Global South is compelling because it simultaneously implies global and local scales of theorization. In its localization, this concept hints at the particular that is usually associated with the empirical, whereas the idea of the global points to the attempt at universalization. Yet, the Global South is thought of in relation to something, and that implicit something is the site from which theory is usually thought to be produced: Europe, the North, the West, or the like. Another problem with the concept of a Global South is that the process through which such an entity is constituted depends on hierarchizations and reifications that end up reproducing power asymmetries within knowledge production.

As we aim to analyse such power relations, it is important to keep in mind that they also shape the ways in which we produce what we here call theory (for lack of a better word). In this sense, our title poses a paradox, which is the paradox that is posed whenever one gestures towards generalization and simultaneously reveals the contingent, provisional, and unfinished character of this gesture. We thus invite you to dwell with us on the paradoxical position that consists of undoing the opposition between the theoretical and the empirical, the North and the South, the general and the particular, while still having recourse to the oppositional languages and infrastructures in which our thoughts and actions take place.

Our new title, Displacing Theory, highlights the work of transformation that results from a reassessment of the relationship between particularization and generalization. This reassessment occurs when one proposes to theorize without subsuming places that have been the object of colonialism, imperialism, and extractive capitalism to a reductive, Eurocentric gaze. From this displacement of theory, replacements and new emplacements ensue — a process that happens in space and time and involves collaboration. This is why we have chosen to think of the ‘Global South’ as modified by the adjective ‘so-called’. In so doing, we recognize the structural inequalities between the so-called Global North and the so-called Global South while at the same time marking the limited ability of such designations to describe anything that has actuality on the ground. Moreover, as our title highlights, theory is produced not only on something but also through and from it.

Ideally, we would like to extend the collaboration between theoretical and empirical investigation to our situatedness as both the producers and the subjects of theory. Indeed, this trajectory motivated our invitation to Berlin-based scholars to delve into this endeavour with us because our questions and methods also derive from the concrete sites in which we produce knowledge. In this regard, we are committed to tackling more pragmatic issues concerning our practice, such as developing networks, resources, and strategies within academia or the realm of cultural production at large. Each locality and each positionality come with distinct possibilities and challenges that reconfigure our working and living conditions.

For instance, we are often expected to work on specific ‘safe’ and ‘valuable’ themes and often discouraged, if not prevented, from working outside these thematic zones. These repressive mechanisms operate through devices that are sometimes implicit, such as funding and visibility structures, and sometimes explicit, such as institutional and racial discrimination, censorship, and peer pressure. Needless to say, this happens within and beyond academia. Moreover, as a collectivity mostly composed of immigrants living in Berlin, we often face precarity due to the instability of jobs, housing, and immigration status, sometimes accompanied by the impossibility or the obligation of returning to our so-called home countries.

Some of us, coming from, working within, and allying with targeted communities, are confronted with anti-immigrant, anti-Palestinian, and anti-black sentiments, whether official, public, or implicit, that make themselves apparent in the cultural and political landscapes of contemporary Germany. Even though there have been increasing efforts towards decolonizing cultural and educational settings, these initiatives usually fall short of confronting Germany’s colonial history and presence, which is an essential task if one is to effectively address processes of repatriation, restitution, and reparation. Still, the diverse communities of Berlin help us learn from and partake in each other’s struggles within the city and parts of the world to which we feel that we belong in one way or another. As described above, what we mean by theorization also entails embracing different corners of the city that manifest multiple ways of overcoming the divides we tackle in this book.

Many contributors to this volume address the theoretical and political possibilities and challenges of their intersectional positionality, producing knowledge on and through the Global South while placed in Berlin, Europe, or the Global North at large. Some of them take this task as part of an agenda for decolonizing knowledge production. In other words, they aim at contesting colonial regimes of knowledge, which hierarchize, marginalize, and devalue certain modes and sites of theorization, while embracing the relational and processual nature of intellectual work, which is to say, a pluriversal method of thinking.

In her contribution, Michela Coletta introduces the idea of ‘entangled ecologies’ to attend to the cross-hemispheric histories of extractive capitalism that have shaped the politics of knowledge production. To this end, she engages with decolonial thinkers and environmental movements unfolding in Latin America as much as with her professional and intellectual crossings. On the one hand, Coletta unsettles the predominant conceptual order, which has led to the North-South division and other dichotomies, such as indigeneity and modernity, in the first place. On the other hand, she offers more complex models and methodologies for mapping (the history of) community-based practices of knowledge-making that are attentive to the increasingly complex interconnections across human and non-human worlds. Ultimately, through her investment in entanglement, she calls for non-anthropocentric alliances in order to address the planetary crises we face today.

In Mahmoud Al-Zayed’s contribution, we witness a similar emphasis on tackling the urgencies of our times, such as mass displacements due to the ongoing imperial wars, and reframing decolonial critique as a situated practice. According to Al-Zayed, each location generates different sets of problems and questions that motivate varied modes of decoloniality, which is to say, decolonialities. Without romanticizing the bitter experience of forced displacement, and while drawing upon decolonial thinkers living in exile, including himself, Al-Zayed engages with the plurality of thought embedded within the exilic intellectual formation that can potentially undo colonial forms of knowledge-making and being in the world. Indeed, for him, the critical potential of exilic consciousness resides in its possibility to generate a pluriversal method of thinking that can unsettle various colonial epistemic forms of monolingualism and monohumanism that rely on the self-sufficiency of thought.

This very exilic condition, with all the challenges and possibilities embedded within it, also comes up in Şirin Fulya Erensoy’s contribution on the feminist artistic landscape emerging in Berlin, with its growing, diverse migrant community. Erensoy, by reflecting on homemaking practices in exile, explores how women* artists challenge the imposed notions — borders and boundaries of exclusion/inclusion — that come along with their migrant status within the city. Thus, she shows us how feminisms from the Global South decentralize claims to truth by taking the means of production into their own hands. By engaging with the recent protests that have unfolded in Berlin in solidarity with the feminist revolution in Iran, she simultaneously exposes the limits of such mobilizations whenever they do not embrace intersectionality and proposes to invest in feminist artistic practices that destabilize exclusionary politics as they bridge theory and practice.

While focusing on the specific case of knowledge production in and about Iran, Firoozeh Farvardin and Nader Talebi point out the risk of reproducing a Northern perspective as one attempts to produce knowledge on and through the Global South(s). Whenever this is the case, the effects are cognitive suppression, further peripheralization, or even recolonization of the South(s). Farvardin and Talebi emphasize the long-lasting effects of methodological nationalism and its political effects, such as in the adoption of nativist discourses historically connected to the ‘Islamic’ Revolution by scholars focusing on the Global South(s) and in area studies concerning Iran. To avoid these effects, Farvardin and Talebi draw upon the politics of scale in their critique of the power asymmetries underlying the hierarchization of Northern and Southern sites of knowledge production and claim that one should acknowledge the diverse particularities of these sites and communities, which are often flattened within the seemingly coherent categories of nation or region. Eventually, the contribution of Farvardin and Talebi demonstrates the significance of prioritizing the very site from and on which knowledge is produced, Iran in this case. Indeed, they shed light on the dialectical nature of the mediation between there (Iran) and here (Germany), which includes paying heed to one’s in-betweenness as a Berlin-based immigrant scholar.

Speaking to the problem of mediation (e.g. between here and there) as inherently part of any attempt at representation as well as theorization, Iracema Dulley and Juliana M. Streva question the politics, if not the possibility, of speaking for others, the ultimate colonial gesture through which authority is claimed. As they engage in a dialogue among themselves and with Trinh T. Minh-ha’s idea and practice of ‘speaking nearby’, Dulley and Streva demonstrate how, in Western academia, the acts of reading and writing have granted authority to the figure of the author as the knowledge producer par excellence — for Trinh the ‘voice of knowledge’.2 In return, they invest in liberating the act of speaking-writing from the colonial structures of othering and ownership that are continually reinscribed by disciplinary, authoritarian systems of knowledge. Thus, Dulley and Streva invite us to speak, think, and listen nearby, which ultimately relies on the recognition that the language of others, in whatever form, remains opaque to us. Inspired by an ethics and epistemology of fugitivity, the authors argue that in striving for dialogue, there is the possibility of displacing theory and unsettling colonial legacies.

Displacing the assigned authority of the researcher, especially within an anthropological fieldwork setting and all the colonial registers it thrives upon, Iracema Dulley and Frederico Santos dos Santos tackle the relationship between naming and social positionality. To this end, they offer a comparative analysis of Dulley’s being designated as branca and ocindele in Angola and Santos’s being interpellated as toubab in Senegal. In so doing, they explore how thinking of the intersections between race, class, and religion can be relevant to situate the positions from which ethnographic research is produced. Yet, since such broad categories frequently do not find equivalents in the context of fieldwork, understanding positionality in context involves paying attention to how these categories are displaced in the process of their translation into the languages in which designators usually generalized in terms of race, class, religion, etc. are locally expressed — in the cases addressed here, Wolof, Portuguese, and Umbundu. Thus, while arguing for the political and ethical relevance of taking intersectional positionality into account, Dulley and Santos also highlight the need to listen to one’s interlocutors and pay heed to local forms of expressing relations of power that challenge such pre-established categories.

In continuity with these vernacular experiences of moving across multiple sites and languages, other contributions in this volume engage with historically situated examples that dissolve the prescribed roles of intellectuals from the Global South/North. Instead, these contributions demonstrate how to perform what Coletta calls entangled ecologies of knowledge, which complicate the history of thought — in the cases addressed here, Marxist theory and Radical Psychiatry. With reference to the Marx Seminars at the University of São Paulo between the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bernardo Bianchi examines, by means of a confrontation with temporal as much as spatial dualisms, the creation of a specific tradition in the social sciences. He argues that the development of this new perspective must be understood in terms of its efforts to rethink Marx but also, and more importantly, of the need of Brazilian intellectuals to rethink Brazil’s place in the shifting world system. Following this thread, Bianchi analyses Roberto Schwarz’s work as paradigmatic for understanding the centrality of the concept of the periphery in these discussions that account for a specific moment in the history of postcolonial and decolonial studies.

Marlon Miguel’s contribution, in turn, focuses on the work of Brazilian psychiatrist Nise da Silveira, a pioneer who introduced artistic tools into her work with her patients, especially those diagnosed as psychotic. Miguel argues that Nise, as she is widely known by first name in Brazil, produced a deeply innovative and reflective practice as she engaged with a variety of European psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and thinkers within and through her situatedness in Brazil. Her work resonates in particular with French Institutional Psychotherapy, as well as with Frantz Fanon’s psychiatric work in Algeria, but also differs from them in that she places art at the core of her clinical method and radically opposes medicalized approaches. According to Miguel, in the contemporary context of a renewed organicist vision of mental disorders, novel perspectives on current clinical debates could be gained from inverting the marginalization of figures from the Global South, such as Nise da Silveira, and from considering the history of Brazilian psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

European traditions of canonization that flatten and marginalize some historical figures of intellectual thought are also questioned in Kata Katz’s think piece. With the provocative (working) title ‘Kill your Darlings’, Katz explores what it means to exist in a culture of idols by questioning the universalistic practice of canonization. To this end, along with other contributors who rely on a feminist perspective to develop their critical yet creative analyses, she builds upon feminist praxis to denounce the (most often male) genius-based, self-contained understanding of creativity and success that is often found in contemporary scientific research. Instead, she engages with several thinkers that could make up a ‘masterclass’ while proposing to go beyond a male-thinkers-dominated curriculum in order to make room for the voices of plurality and collective thinking. Demonstrating what she argues for in her own writing style, Katz presents a case for cultivating cultures of failure within and at the edges of academia.

While adopting a similar experimental style, some contributions situate the volume within the context in which it came into being, thereby dissolving the distance between here and there in terms of both space and time. For instance, Ana Carolina Schveitzer invests in rendering Germany’s hidden yet omnipresent colonial past visible by means of a walk through Berlin, during which she highlights places related to this part of German history. Schveitzer argues that even though there is an increased interest in decolonial praxis within Berlin-based cultural and educational settings, the persistence of such efforts and their implications within larger society are hard to assess in advance. In response, her contribution builds a thread of several references to colonialism spread through the city while engaging with initiatives that seek to contest this complicated history and make visible their presence today as more than mere residues of the past. Ultimately, Schveitzer critically reflects on the possibilities and challenges of the ongoing struggles for historical reparation, which will increasingly occupy the cultural landscape of Germany with the growth of public awareness and collective mobilization.

Finally, the volume ends with Bruna Martins Coelho’s intriguing contribution: a letter addressed to the researchers of the South located in the North. Resorting to concepts drawn from feminist, decolonial, postcolonial, and post-structuralist literature as well as from Marx-inspired sociological literature on labour, Martins Coelho indicates many of the impasses related to the processes through which labour relations are made precarious in academia. In her summary of the setbacks of academic life in the world at large and in Germany in particular, the prosaic tone of her narrative reminds us of how quotidian and banal aspects of precarity are interconnected with its structural character. In doing so, she shows how researchers from the Global South experience a further layer of precarization while based in the North, even though some convert this situatedness into a status currency when they go back to where they come from, often in the face of worsened economic and political instability.

As this outline demonstrates, the contributions to this collection address the varied issues our dialogues have raised and contain in themselves the dialogical nature of our collaboration, sometimes even in their writing style. Since the current volume proceeded through regular meetings and conversations, it presents our, the editors’, primary research networks in Berlin. For, as far as the relationship between theorization and the so-called Global South is concerned, most of our collaborators work on contexts within Latin America and the Middle East. Still, alongside some other contributors to this volume, we would like to underline the in-betweenness of our scholarship and research sites, blurring our belonging to any region or research paradigm. Indeed, we are critical of the titling, grouping, and mapping that operate in representational terms and reduce us to commodified and profitable labels.

We see this volume as a toolbox that came out of our particular yet collective, as well as persistent, experience of working together. This collection thus gives material form to a joint effort to tackle the ethical, political, and intellectual questions that arise whenever one attempts to both theorize and work through places situated in the so-called Global South. We would like to thank all the contributors, workshop participants, ICI Berlin fellows, staff and the ICI Berlin Press team that have made this journey possible, and we are happy to invite you to take part in it.

Notes

  1. See ‘Theorizing Through the Global South’, workshop, ICI Berlin, 10–11 March 2022 <https://doi.org/10.25620/e220310>.
  2. See Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘“Speaking Nearby”: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha’, Visual Anthropology Review, 8.1 (1992), pp. 82–91 and Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p. 63.

Bibliography

  1. ‘Theorizing Through the Global South’, workshop, ICI Berlin, 10–11 March 2022 <https://doi.org/10.25620/e220310>
  2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘“Speaking Nearby”: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha’, Visual Anthropology Review, 8.1 (1992), pp. 82–91 <https:/​/​doi.org/​10.1525/​var.1992.8.1.82>
  3. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989)