Tuesday, 20 November 2018

The End of the Cognitive Empire by Boaventura de Sousa Santos: Book Note
Note: This is a revised version of an academic book review that will be published in Human Rights Quarterly: I am including it on my blog with the permission of Bert Lockwood, HRQ’s Editor. I’ve removed footnotes, but can supply the footnoted version to readers on request; email me at hassmann@wlu.ca .

This volume is an exemplar of a new kind of academic literature that denigrates the universality of human rights, seen by the author as an imperialist concept that denies the particularity of suffering in the South. Santos is a sociologist of epistemology, the science of knowledge, who relies on a conceptual opposition of the “South” and its systems of epistemologies, to the “North” or “West” (used interchangeably). This opposition is a metaphor for two kinds of thinking; the North rational, scientific, objective, aggregative, globalizing and imperialist, committing epistemicide on the emotional, corporeal, subjective, particularist, local, and resistant epistemologies of the South. Santos’ purpose is to “de-monumentalize” the North’s bloodless and emotionless system of scientific knowledge, compared to “knowledges” from the South. An “abyssal line,” he claims, separates the two areas.

Santos does not explain what “knowledges” means; perhaps scholars familiar with the critical literature on epistemology do not need such instruction. It appears that whatever a Southern individual might think or claim to know is an epistemology or “knowledge” in itself. Thus people from the South have multiple, indeed millions, of knowledges while the North--confined as it is to reason-based thinking epitomized by well-known philosophers and (social) scientists--is confined to one ”knowledge.”

Nor does Santos explain what exactly an “abyssal line” means. It appears to apply to the Indigenous and Afro-descendant groups with whom he has worked in the actual geographical South, and whose situation one might readily agree is truly abyssal. Otherwise, the line seems to be wherever Santos puts it. The North enforces the line via the trilogy of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy, although Santos concedes that some “satellite versions” of these phenomena sometimes exist in the South. Throughout, Santos refers to this trilogy in rote fashion, without analyzing whether their linkages are necessary or merely contingent.

It is difficult to argue against the empirical accuracy of Santos’ claims, because he specifically states that to him, the North and the South are not geographical regions. They appear, rather, to be mindsets. Santos’ North is rooted in Enlightenment philosophers’ stress on reason over emotion, on abstraction over concrete experience. His South is composed of people who struggle against oppression, who rely on experiences and emotions. If Santos approves of an epistemology or sociology, then it is Southern; if not, it is Northern. Nevertheless, his frequent references to Northern, Western, or Eurocentric ways of thinking or conducting research suggest that his usages of these terms are more than mere metaphors.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Santos posits a false opposition, between Northern thinkers and scientists and Southern people(s) engaged in struggle. His empirical references for evidence about Northern ways of thinking are the philosophers he cites in his footnotes. But very few real people in the geographical North actually read the philosophers that Santos claims created the modernist, Northern mindset. Most Northern individuals live their lives much as individuals in the South do, thinking with their emotions and feelings, celebrating joyously on some occasions; their reasoning is as much “warmed up” (Santos’ conception of corazonar) by experience and emotions as the reasoning of people living in the South. They live their knowledge much as Southerners do, albeit usually in much more comfortable circumstances.

Nor is it true that Northern philosophers created their ideas purely from whole cloth, unmindful of the corporeality of people’s lived experiences within their own bodies, a mindfulness that Santos claims is confined to the knowledges of the South. Philosophers of the past, like Northern human rights scholars and activists today, are well aware of the corporeality of victims of human rights abuses. That is why they oppose torture, rape, and murder, and why they promote economic human rights such as shelter, food, and health care, which protect the vulnerable body. According to Santos, though, these rights are irrelevant to people living below the abyssal line.

The North, says Santos, has neglected what he calls the “sociology of absences….” and the “sociology of emergences. This is not so: Northern sociologists have been dealing with absences for fifty years, since feminist scholars first began to note the absence of gender analysis. There has also been much attention to previous exclusions of race, indigeneity, and sexual orientation and identity from sociology and epistemology. Northern critical theorists of fifty years ago were not unaware of Fanon, Nkrumah, Freire, or many other Southern theorists/activists whose thought Santos analyses.
Santos particularly admires Gandhi, especially his synthetic approach to “knowledges” from the North and the South, a capacity for intercultural translation that Santos appears to believe is absent in the North. Yes despite his stress on the sociology of absences, Santos himself relegates to a footnote what he considers to have been Gandhi’s “complex” relations with the struggles of Dalits and the Adivasi (tribal) people.

And Santos does not mention at all Gandhi’s relations to women. Recent research (available since at least 2012) has confirmed that Gandhi slept naked with naked women, including his own grand-niece, in an attempt to show that he could resist sexual temptation. This peculiar practice was well-known during his lifetime but knowledge of it was suppressed after his death. This posthumous #MeToo information does not mean that Gandhi’s teachings are no longer relevant. But if an author purports to be concerned with patriarchy, then surely he should acknowledge his own sociological “absence” in ignoring the sexually exploitative, indeed incestuous, activities of one of his own epistemic heroes.

What does this book have to say to human rights scholars who are not concerned with the epistemology or sociology of knowledge? Not much. Santos rejects human rights and democracy for the South, claiming that such concepts were “developed by dominant social groups to reproduce domination.” They are useful concepts for “nonabyssal exclusions” in the North, he says, but they have no bearing elsewhere. It is difficult to understand why. Perhaps people engaged in struggle- especially the Indigenous and Afro-descendants communities among whom Santos himself has conducted research and for whom he has much sympathy—are so committed that they are willing to give up their lives, thus have no use for international laws or practices that might protect them from torture or arbitrary execution.

Santos also rejects Northern-based (if not all) NGOs, perhaps because they are committed to rational planning and other aspects of modernism. He views them as agents of capitalist, colonialist, and patriarchal domination, including a scathing paragraph listing the many failings of which some NGOs have been accused.

Santos’ recommendations for what he calls “rearguard” as opposed to “vanguard” intellectuals might have some bearing on some types of “post-abyssal” research; that is, by  researchers who wish to cross the abyssal line. Anthropologists and some sociologists studying human rights will no doubt agree that if they can live with and among the people they study and see the world through their eyes, they will be less guilty of “extractivist” research than if they merely visit a society, ask questions, and then disappear. Santos argues for long, discursive interviewing styles in which those being interviewed can raise whatever topics they wish, tell stories, and express their emotions to the researcher, as in his own research project on Voices of the World. Such a style of interviewing has been common in sociology for decades; it is known as open-ended, unstructured interviewing.   

If one accepts Santos’ theoretical premises, moreover, then that might lead one to conduct a new kind of human rights research, based in praxis, the unity of theory and action. The only legitimate researchers, according to Santos, are those who participate directly in struggle with the people about whom they are learning. Research in these conditions is co-creation of knowledge; there are no objects of research, only subjects; the objective is “knowing-with,” not “knowing-about.” In Canada, there have been lively discussions of the ethics of conducting research among Indigenous communities without their cooperation and input, for at least twenty years, reflecting precisely these concerns about scholarly extractivism. Researchers in the geographical North are as capable of self-reflexivity as researchers in the geographical South, but Santos might argue that those capable of self-reflexivity are therefore, by definition, part of his metaphorical South.

The type of research that Santos advocates is very different from that conducted by human rights lawyers for the purpose of building legal cases. In such circumstances, lawyers may have to ask questions that might shed light on abuses that violate international law, at the expense of the larger stories that victims might wish to tell. And not all struggles are confined to the local level. Some research requires aggregation, large-scale surveys, and statistical sophistication; statistics are not merely an example of Northern modernist empiricism. The method depends in part on the objective, and researchers can assist those struggling against oppression (but not, according to Santos, for their human rights) even if they are not embedded in the day-to-day lives of people of the South.

Santos’ personal commitment to the struggling communities of both the metaphorical and the geographical South is obvious and admirable, but he has created a false opposition of regions, mindsets, and epistemologies. Within his limited dichotomies, there are some ideas that human rights scholars and activists might find worth pondering. Unfortunately, the book is characterized by verbose, obscure and almost impenetrable language, reducing its value to those who do not devote their time to debates on the sociology of knowledge.

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