Category Archives: Sociology

The Cultural Cringe and Social Science

There is a problem about intellectual work in settler-colonial societies that deeply affects social science.

The problem was named “The Cultural Cringe” by the Australian critic Arthur Phillips, in a pungent article published in 1950 by the new literary magazine Meanjin. Phillips diagnosed “a disease of the Australian mind”, an assumption of inferiority vis-a-vis England, a deep dependence on imported judgments and tastes. Phillips shrewdly observed that this resulted in “the estrangement of the Australian Intellectual” from Australian society, a disdainful attitude that equated the rough, the uncultured and the local.

Phillips was talking about literature and art, but the same issues arise in science. The Beninese philosopher Paulin Hountondji described the situation in his important 1997 book Endogenous Knowledge. There is a global division of labour: data are gathered in the colony, but theory is made in the metropole. Scientists from the global South travel to the USA and Europe for training and recognition, learn Northern intellectual frameworks, try to get published in Northern journals. Hountondji calls this attitude “extraversion”, being oriented to external sources of authority. It is found both in settler and colonized societies.

What Phillips called a disease is better analyzed by Hountondji as part of a global economy of culture. It’s structural, not personal. Ultimately it has to do with the way the public realm is created in colonial societies.

The colonizers claimed to have the true religion or a superior civilization, but what they crucially had was warships, muskets, cavalry, cannon, steam power and the ruthlessness to use them for conquest. As Hilaire Belloc observed,

Whatever happens, we have got/ The Maxim gun, and they have not.

Imperial force enabled settlement, up to the point of demographic dominance over indigenous people, and demographic dominance was mainly achieved by immigration. The colonial state achieved local order, so far as it could – the colonies were violent places – through imperial law and bureaucracy. Settler schools and newspapers were modelled from the start on those of the home country. When the colonists felt they were up to universities (the 1850s, in Sydney and Melbourne) they imported both the academics and the curricula direct from what was, without irony, called the mother country.

Settler colonialism thus produced a truncated public realm. The leading institutions and technologies were developed in the metropole; most of the capital that underpinned colonial development came from the metropole; and key political decisions were also made there. In 1939 the Prime Minister famously announced on radio that “Great Britain has declared war on [Germany], and that, as a result, Australia is also at war”. The gesture was repeated as recently as 2003, when the Prime Minister of the day sent Australian troops into Iraq.

For social sciences in a settler-colonial society, this produces an “as-if” form of knowledge. Research is done as if the researcher were standing in the metropole, or as if the society being studied were part of the metropole. Thus, Australian psychology is full of experiments using scales developed in the United States, Australian economics is full of models developed in the United States, Australian sociology is full of concepts developed in France.

When these studies are published, there is normally no discussion of whether such ideas really apply in a settler-colonial context. What might be called the productive arc of methodology – the movement of thought in which concepts and methods are generated from actual social experience – is missing, in settler society’s truncated public realm of social science. That arc was traversed in the metropole. Its results, packaged as theory or methodology, are simply imported.

To extraverted thought, what is imported from the metropole simply is theory or method – no other meaning for those terms is recognized. So, on the rare occasions where an Australian journal conducts a conceptual discussion, it is conducted wholly within European or US parameters, and often by invited European and US writers, at that. Australian social scientists writing theory usually do so by commentary on European and US theorists.

The fact that the settler population is mostly white, English-speaking, and has European ancestors creates an illusion of identity. Politicians encourage this by constantly talking of Australia as a “Western country”, a nonsense term that a surprising number of social scientists still use.

Current trends in universities are worsening the problem. Neoliberal policy-makers drive Australian universities and academics to compete with each other. The key metrics for this competition involve recognition in the metropole, especially, publication and citation in highly-ranked metropolitan journals. Since metropolitan journals operate within metropolitan intellectual cultures (we can’t expect them to do otherwise!), the message for Australian scientists is clear: do it the US/EU way, if you want promotion and grants in Australia.

Social science in a settler-colonial society therefore tends to split between an abstracted theoretical discourse, conducted as if in the metropole with little or no local reference, and an applied social science in which methodologies developed in the metropole are applied to empirical studies of local social problems.

The social problems – class, patriarchy, racism, environmental destruction, and more – are all too real. But the methodologies are rarely sufficient to understand them in depth. Why? Because the social problems of settler society partly arise from the nature of settler colonialism itself, especially from its truncated public realm. When key determinants are located in the relationship with the metropole, or in the dynamics of the world economy, a social science using methods and concepts developed for the metropole to describe itself, and constantly looking for authority to the metropole, is in a specific way displaced. Like the literary culture criticized by Phillips, though trying to describe local society it is estranged from it.

Estrangement of intellectuals is recognized, indeed a cliché of Australian cultural history. There are also well-known responses to it. One is the angry rejection of the cultural cringe in the name of an anti-imperial nationalism. That was the note struck by Bulletin school of writers in the 1890s, especially the radicals who associated English culture with a despised upper class in the colonies. Settler intellectuals don’t have Aboriginal culture to fall back on, though the “Jindyworobak” movement poets of the 1930s tried – the result being an arrogant act of colonial re-appropriation, as well as some interesting poetry. Some go into exile, but in a way that inverts the exile stories known since Ovid. It is exile to the metropole. The result can be the haunted double vision of the world seen in The Man Who Loved Children, the great work of Australia’s first modernist novelist, Christina Stead, who wrote it in exile in the United States.

These responses are available to social scientists too, and we can trace them through the history of social sciences in settler societies. The greatest social scientist Australia has produced, the pre-historian Vere Gordon Childe, went down the track of exile, working in Europe for most of his career from the 1920s on. He came back to the Blue Mountains near Sydney to die.

The problem can’t be solved on an individual basis. It requires collective and institutional change, on a scale that is only now becoming clear. It requires, in fact, a re-making of social science on a world scale. It is worth enquiring whether there is a specific role for settler-colonial intellectuals in that re-making.

Raewyn Connell is Professor of Sociology at University of Sydney – see www.raewynconnell.net.

Decolonising our Universities–Penang (June 2011)

International Conference on “Decolonising Our Universities” June 27-29th, 2011, Penang, Malaysia

Multiversity is pleased to announce its Fourth International Conference on the subject of “Decolonising Our Universities” being held in Penang, Malaysia, from June 27-29, 2011.  The conference is being jointly organized by Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Citizens International (CI), both based in Penang.

The specific objective of the conference is to provide a platform to scholars, researchers and activists to share work done by them individually or by their departments and institutions on drafting university curricula, syllabuses and courses in social sciences teaching and research that consciously avoid, deny or reject Eurocentric frameworks and assumptions.

The conference is not focused on Eurocentrism itself. The explicit purpose is to encourage academics within the Global South to move out of a Eurocentric worldview in the sphere of knowledge production, especially in the social sciences, and to help regenerate or create fresh models of intellectual enquiry and research more in touch with their own realities and intellectual traditions.

It is an undisputed reality of our times that most academic knowledge has been hegemonized by the western world. The hegemony has extended to even the perception of what constitutes knowledge. This situation of tyranny has prevailed now for over 200 years. Efforts are even now underway to expand further the reach and influence of existing social science models from European and American universities and to intensify dependence of the academic community located within the Global South on these.

There have been several attempts to resist this hegemony in knowledge production and sharing or what Ward Churchill has referred to as the empire of “white studies.” There is an intensive discussion underway on the reality of Eurocentrism and on the baleful distortions that affect knowledge when it is impregnated by such ethnocentric western assumptions and orientations. This  discussion is taking place across the board beginning from anthropology and extending to the media and communications. African scholars, for example, have recently challenged the propriety of teaching traditions of western philosophy contaminated with racism in African universities.

By and large, however, thousands of universities across the Global South have uncritically imported, adopted or inherited the prevailing model of social science research from the European academic community (which, of course, also comprised their erstwhile colonizers). Prestigious universities like Delhi, for example, continue to teach courses in which the bulk of the content is unabashedly imported from the west. This, nearly sixty years of being politically free.

Multiversity – a joint project of Citizens International in Malaysia headed by S.M. Mohammad Idris (also President of the Third World Network), and Other India Press headed by Claude Alvares from India – has held three earlier international conferences to take this discussion and its momentum forward. The first conference was held in 2002, the second in 2006 and the third in August 2010. (See www.multiworldindia.org.) At these conferences several discussions have taken place on these issues and it was therefore resolved to bring together in June this year:

a) Researchers and scholars who have done substantial work in excoriating the ghost of Eurocentrism consciously from their teaching and academic work or institutions;

b) Persons at the university level including Vice Chancellors who might be keen to introduce non-Eurocentric research methodologies in their own universities and departments.

c) Innovators who have ventured beyond the petrified framework of lectures in lecture halls and developed methodologies of learning that once again excite students, enthuse society and economy, and help generate new knowledge that is of use to society as a whole.

For the conference, the Secretariat is preparing for circulation a preliminary Source Book containing the output of scholars and intellectuals who have done work in this specific area. However, Multiversity is also committed – pursuant to the conference – to publishing a volume comprising all the presentations made during the event. This would also perhaps be the first major text reflecting academic attempts emanating from the Global South to depart from the regime of Eurocentric social sciences.

Claude Alvares
Multiversity Coordinator
Goa, India

(For more information about the conference, please visit www.multiworldindia.org, or email: Claude Alvares (goafoundation@gmail.com) or Uma Ramaswamy (idris_md@streamyx.com)

Image courtesy of dennisyu68

‘Here from Elsewhere’–settler-colonialism with a southern horizon

James Belich, Lorenzo Veracini, Kate Darian-Smith

James Belich, Lorenzo Veracini, Kate Darian-Smith

Here from Elsewhere was the final in this year’s Southern Perspectives series at the IPCS. The series began with Raewyn Connell’s outline of ‘southern theory’ as a counter-hegemonic argument against the concentration of knowledge in the metropolitan centres. It set the scene for speculative propositions about forms of knowledge particular to the periphery, which included developments in indigenous theory, tidalectics and humid thinking.

One of the obvious points of connection between countries of the south lies in the settler-colonial experience. But recent developments in settler-colonial studies disturb the comfortable opposition between centre and periphery, north and south. The Imperial/Settler binary is counterbalanced by the Settler/Indigenous divide. While it might seem possible for those who cast themselves as ‘southern’ to join in solidarity against the metropolitan centres, there remains the historical conditions that continue to split these nations along colonial lines.

New Zealand historian James Belich (Victoria University, Wellington) began by outlining the argument in his recent book Replenishing the Earth. He articulated the three phrases of Anglo settlerism: incremental, explosive and re-colonisation. In the discussion that followed, Belich’s concept of the ‘re-colonisation’ was seen as implying that the flow of influence from Britain had ebbed before it was re-kindled.

Specialist in settler colonialism Lorenzo Veracini (Swinburne University, Melbourne) provided an analytic account of the distinction between colonialism and settlerism. He argued that settlerism was a distinctly southern phenomenon, emerging from the periphery. The discussion questioned the qualitative difference in relations with indigenous between colonial and setter. Veracini gestured the difference as one between the colonist addressing the indigenous with ‘You, work for me!’ (colonial), or ‘You, go away!’ (settler).

Historian Kate Darian-Smith (University of Melbourne) reflected on her own research, particularly in the circulation of objects related to reconciliation around the Pacific rim. In discussing the significance of objects such as the brass gorgets, Darian-Smith pointed to the active ways in which settlers proceeded to make their claims on the new land. She also implied a gender dimension in analysis of settlerism.

The following discussion continued the spirited contestation and defence of the settler-colonial paradigms that were presented. In terms of ‘southern perspectives’, it raised some important questions:

  • What is the substantial difference between the settler-colonialism experienced in Australasia and that of the United States?
  • What is the prognosis for the condition of settler-colonialism? Is it an original sin beyond redemption?

Clearly, the notion of a southern perspective must critique the manufactured forms of solidarity that elide the violence of colonisation. Settler colonial studies provides a powerful argument to expose facile alliances.

But settler-colonial studies also provides a powerful enabler of south-south dialogue by exposing exceptionalism as a common condition. In the case of Australia, the concept of the ‘great southern land’ encourages the narrative of a lucky country with singular promise. Through the settler lens, we see the way other countries create parallel forms of exceptionalism, particularly from the booster narratives of explosive colonisation. This applies not just to Anglo cousins, but across the latitude to Latin America and southern Africa.

So the challenge now awaits to use this platform as a way of journeying out beyond the familiar forums into south-south conversations. This notion of south is not the ground we stand on, but the horizon towards which we can gaze.

On the Circulation of Knowledge between Europe and the Global South

Wiebke Keim, from Institut für Soziologie (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität, Freiburg) announces a  new research project around Europe’s relation to the Global South:

We are happy to announce the launch of our international project  ‘Universality and the Acceptance Potential of Social Science Knowledge: On the Circulation of Knowledge between Europe and the Global South’. Four interconnected research projects are going to be carried out in the next four years and at same time we will be supporting and  complementing one another.

Our studies focus on the following ambivalent phenomenon: on the one hand, the European research area and its achievements still enjoy a high standing outside of Europe. On the other hand, the worldwide influence of the European theoretical tradition is increasingly being perceived as dominant, and European social science’s claim to universality is, as a result, seen as overbearing and presumptuous. By investigating this field of tension, we aim to obtain innovative ideas for the future positioning of the European scholarly community and its successful activity within the internationalized field of social sciences.

This endeavour has been made possible above all through the funding of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research  (German:  BMBF) within the ‘Free Space for the Humanities’ funding initiative on the subject of  ‘Europe Viewed from the Outside’. The  Institute of Sociology at the Albert-Ludwigs University Freiburg has agreed to act as a home for our project. Our international advisory board will support us scientifically: Prof.  Hermann Schwengel and Prof. Sabine Dabringhaus from the University of Freiburg, Prof. Jìmí O. Adésínà of Rhodes University as well as Prof. Ari Sitas from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Assoc. Prof. Syed Farid Alatas from the National University of Singapore, Prof. Monica Budowski from the University of Fribourg  in Switzerland, Prof. Dr. Mehmet Ecevit from the  Middle East Technical University  in Turkey, Dr. Terry Shinn from the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne/CNRS  and Dr. Roland Waast from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD)  -  Ex  ORSTOM  in France. In addition, at present four  researchers are associated to the project: Dr. Miriam Nandi (English studies), Dr. Paruedee Nguitragool (Political Science) und Barbara Riedel (M.A., Social Anthropology) from the  University of Freiburg, as well as Dr. Sabine Ammon (Philosophy and Architecture) from the Technical University Berlin. Twelve Fellows from around the world are also going to work with us here in Freiburg, each for several months, in order to promote the international and interdisciplinary scholarly exchange of our project. We will be welcoming our fellows to Freiburg beginning in April 2011.

Dialogue among the Disciplines of Knowledge (Chile 2010)

II Congress on Sciences, Technologies and Cultures: Dialogue among the Disciplines of Knowledge

Looking at the future of Latin America and the Caribbean

October  29 and November 1 ,2010 at the Universidad de Santiago de Chile USACH

The Study Net on Migrations, Nationalism and Citizenship (USACH 2008) invites you to take part in the Symposium.
The Challenges of Globalization. Conceptual, Historical and Present Problematic Prospects regarding Migrations, Citizenship and Nationalisms in Europe and America.

Coordinators:

  • Dr Martha Ruffini (Universidad del Comahue, Argentina)
  • Mg Maria Eugenia Cruset (universidad Nacional de La Plata, Argentina)
  • Dr Hélcio Ribeiro (Universidade Presbiteriana MacKenzie, Brazil)
  • Contact mail mcruset@hotmail.com

The political, economical, social and cultural transformation of the last thirty years have placed some concepts again in the centre of the discussions about the challenges provoked by the so-called “global era”. Changes in historical configuration which today question the existence of the Nation-State, the interaction and interconnection between  people and organizations through markets and global informatic nets, the questions around cultural diversity, the problematic of migrations and its relationship with the rebirth of nationalisms and the crisis of the concept of citizenship worked out in modern times invite researchers to reflect jointly on these problems, their history, their present and their future.

With the summons we continue with reflections began at the symposium which took place at the I International Congress on Knowledge (Santiago de Chile 2008) and the 53rd Americanist Congress (Mexico 2009) which resulted in the creation of a Net (www.internacionaldelconocimiento.org) and the publication of a recently edited book which takes the most significant ideas of the I International Congress on Knowledge.

We invite colleagues of all disciplines who work on these subjects to participate. Those papers which deal with conceptual, methodological, historical and present problematics of Diasporas, and Migrations will be especially welcomed. Proposals will be received in Spanish, Portuguese and English.

Paper summaries are accepted (200 words) and institutional ascriptions up to June 30 2010. Papers (15 pages max.) up to August 31, 2010. Only approved papers will be accepted at the symposium.

Raewyn Connell – the pond of small boats

Last night Raewyn Connell gave the first lecture of the Southern Perspectives series at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies. ‘Thinking South: Re-Locating Australian Intellectual Culture’ covered many points about the relation between Australia and the metropolitan centres of the North:

  • Paulin Hountondji’s concept of extraversion and the construction of local disciplines as ‘data mines’ for the North
  • The establishment of humanities in Australia was a bastion of classical languages
  • The new ‘audit culture’ in academics that focuses on the top ranking journals of the North
  • The career of Australian pre-historian Gordon Childe
  • The condition of Australians who go North to conquer the metropole, such as the pre-historian Gordon Childe and Germaine Greer
  • Those who travel in the opposite direction such as those studying Indigenous knowledges
  • Those who work in between the centre and periphery such as Patrick White
  • The emotional attachment to the northern metropole, such as that ‘smoky pub in Oxford’
  • By contrast to Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, a pond of small boats

It was a full house for her talk, and there were many questions:

  • Impediments for people living in countries like East Timor to access academic journals
  • The role of Australia as a hegemonic power in the Pacific
  • The difficulty of confronting emotional attachments to intellectual authorities

Here she gives a quick summary of her talk, and reflects on the discussion afterwards.

Southern Theory – picking up the gauntlet

Raewyn Connell’s book Southern Theory has attracted a great deal of attention in the field of sociology. As an example of the use of ‘South’ within a particular discipline of knowledge, it is worth reflecting on the responses. It has won awards and been the subject of many conference sessions, but it has also engendered some interesting critical responses.

Kerry Carrington Journal of Sociology 2008; 44; 301

Carrington welcomes Connell’s book, but faults it for a perceived sense of pessimism about change, alleging a debt to Gramsci’s concept of hegemony. But the review also reveals problems in the way the concept of South is received. Despite the broad concept of South to include countries of the Global South such as India, Carrington reduces it to a question of hemisphere:

Southern Theory provides the next generation of social scientists from societies of the southern hemisphere the intellectual foundation to break with the self-deprecating dynamic of replicating he globalizing social science produced in the northern hemisphere.

Crain Soudien and Carlos Alberto Torre British Journal of Sociology of Education 2008; 29, Issue 6; 719-725

Soudien and Alberto are quite fulsome in their praise.They describe the text as ‘profoundly generative’ and claim that ‘Southern Theory is a key text for the period in which we are living.’ Within their own South African context, they use Connell’s text to highlight the neglected work of Ben Kies. They claim that his 1953 lecture ‘The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to World Civilisation’ is now worth revisiting.

Saïd Amir Arjomand ‘Southern Theory: an Illusion’ European Journal of Sociology 2008; 49; 546-549

Arjomand’s review is the most critical. He takes Connell to task for claiming a commonality between heterogeneous forms of knowledge emerging from Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. He argues that such a commonality cannot exist without a shared community of scholars. In the end, he defers to a single global community of sociology to pursue these questions. Nonetheless, he does acknowledge the contribution of Southern Theory towards a more representative discipline.

The creation of this new republic of social knowledge could be the work of generations, and one would need to integrate Northern and Southern theory. Our concern should not be with the ethnic identity and geographical location of social scientists and public intellectuals, but with comparisons of the concepts used to understand the phenomena and developmental patterns of the metropolitan and peripheral regions of the world. And we would need an enormous growth in the institutional infrastructure for the production of social knowledge in the global South. Along this long road ahead, Southern Theory should be considered the first milestone.

Catrin Lundström Acta Sociologica 2009; 52; 85

Lundström’s review is positive, though laced with various concerns. She does question the position of the author herself, as the synoptic point of view that can made the connections between disparate voices, who themselves are caught in their own concerns. This challenge awaits alternative ‘southern theories’ emerging from the countries that Connell looks to. Despite the focus in Southern Theory on gender, Lundström makes the point that the theorists it includes are almost all men. And she sees a risk that the North/South division too easily inherits the previous division of First/Third World.

Robin Peace New Zealand Geographer 2009; 65 Issue 1, 84-85

While Peace makes certain criticisms:

  • too much focus on sociology rather than other social sciences
  • missing some important women scholars
  • lack of reference to the renaissance of indigenous knowledge in Aotearoa/New Zealand

…she recognises the difference it makes:

It stimulated me to recognize the elisions and gaps in the knowledge that I take for granted, and to think differently about the global constructions of sociological knowledge… It places ‘southern’ names on the ‘northern’ lectern…names that embody rich insight and people who make strong knowledge claims but whose voices are most often a whisper, an echo or a silence in contemporary social science…a challenging and necessary book. 

Nathan Hollier Australian Journal of Political Science 2008; 43 Issue 2, 368-9

Southern Theory is a breakthrough book – for Raewyn Connell and for Australian and international social science… This text could also be seen as the latest step in her career-long attempt to identify the social, political and intellectual conditions in which a genuine, that is, genuinely democratic, dialogue might take place. Southern Theory should revolutionise understandings of the history, function and proper practice of social theory.

Responses to Southern Theory include not only formal reviews. Where do you put a book like that? In the Carlton bookshop Readings it was placed in the Indigenous section, rather than Theory. At the University of Melbourne library, it is given the keyword ‘Social sciences – Southern Hemisphere’, for which it is the only entry. Will there come a time when ‘Southern’ can become a subject heading, like ‘Western civilization’?

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Generally, the reviews reflect a positive welcome for Southern Theory to the discipline of sociology. But there are issues to be dealt with. There is the question of balance, particularly in gender. But perhaps most challenging is the question of how ‘southern theory’ is to constitute itself as a field of discourse, so that it engages the very voices its seeks to ‘uncover’. That’s not just a challenge for Raewyn Connell, but for her readers as well.

Finally, as Lena Rodriquez from University of Newcastle remarks on the book’s Amazon page, Raewyn Connell ‘throws down the gauntlet.’

Raewyn Connell ‘Thinking South: Re-Locating Australian Intellectual Culture’ 18 March 2010

The first seminar in the Southern Perspectives series at the Institute of Postcolonial Studies features Raewyn Connell, author of Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Her book has proven to be a significant and highly controversial intervention into sociology and related disciplines.She has spoken about Southern Theory in academic forums around the world. This is a rare opportunity to address the questions raised by this book at a public forum in Melbourne.

This is the outline of her talk:

Modern Australia was formed by colonial invasion, dispossession of indigenous people, dependent development, and social struggles – framed in turn by the British Empire, the American hegemony, and neo-liberal globalization.  Australian intellectual culture, formed to a large extent around universities whose institutional ideology emphasises a placeless modernism, has had difficulty in locating itself securely.  A tension has long existed, for intellectuals of the settler population, between intellectual extraversion (in Hountondji’s sense) at the price of dependence, and a resistant nationalism that acknowledges place at the price of marginality.  One path beyond this is engagement with the legacy of colonialism and the situation of Australia’s indigenous people now; another is engagement with the structures of world inequality, exploring connections around the global South.  In this session I will sketch our place in a global political economy of knowledge; discuss the intellectual wealth of the periphery; and assess responses by Australian intellectuals to the difficulties and possibilities of our location in the world.

Raewyn Connell is University Professor at University of Sydney. See interview.

Event details

Raewyn Connell ‘Thinking South: Re-Locating Australian Intellectual Culture’
Thursday 18 March 2010, 7-8:30pm
Institute of Postcolonial Studies
78-80 Curzon Street
North Melbourne (map)
Tel: 03 9329 6381
Admission – $5 for waged, $3 for unwaged, and free for members

Sociology goes south

Last Wednesday, 2 December, at the annual conference of the Australian Sociological Association (TASA), there was a plenary titled ‘Southern Perspectives’. Speakers included Raewyn Connell, Chilla Bulbeck, Margaret Jolly and Peter Beilharz. They considered the following questions:

  • Is there a ‘southern sociology’?
  • What kind of sociology do we teach and research in Australia? 
  • Should southern theory inform the future of sociology – in Australia and elsewhere?

The plenary attracted around one hundred and by all accounts a very lively discussion ensued.

Thoughts on ‘Siútico’ by Oscar Contardo

OSCAR 6586 BN alta

OSCAR 6586 BN alta

Oscar Contardo

Chile has a lively publishing industry that produces serious non-fiction on cultural themes, often Latin American, particularly Chilean. Given the issues of language and subject, these works are rarely read outside Latin America. The leading art theorist Ticio Escobar, for instance, is hardly translated into English at all.

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Sometimes there are books that are both uniquely Chilean but potentially also universal in their particularity, at least to fellow countries of the colonised South. Oscar Contardo’s Siútico: Arribismo, abajismo y vida social en Chile (Santiago: Vergara, 2008) seems at first inscrutable. The title itself is a word only found in Chile. The other words are hard to find in English – ‘upism’, ‘lowism’? Yet its analysis of the way a colonial class attempts to distinguish itself from the upwardly mobile, first by elitism and then by a kind of poverty chic, has compelling parallels to the social dynamics in other colonial cultures.


¿Puedes explicar lo que la palabra ‘siútico’ significa?

“Siútico” es un chilenismo de origen oscuro y etimología incierta. Apareció a mediados del siglo XIX como un adjetivo burlón para señalar personas —sobre todo varones— que pretendían ser tomados por elegantes sin pertenecer a la clase alta chilena. Es una palabra cuyo sinónimo más cercano en castellano es “cursi” o “arribista”, pero que por el hecho de ser chilena encierra matices propios de nuestra sociedad. Chile en el siglo XIX era una sociedad agraria, socialmente muy rígida en donde las riquezas nuevas de los mineros del norte sacudieron las costumbres campesinas, sobrias de la elite del “valle central”. Así como la palabra expresión inglesa “snob” le debe mucho a la revolución industrial y al surgimiento de una burguesía en Inglaterra, la palabra “Siútico” en chile le debe otro tanto a los nuevos ricos de los minerales de plata descubiertos a mediados del siglo XIX y a una cierta (y pequeña) clase media burócrata.

Can you explain what the word ‘siutico’ means?

“Siútico” is a Chilenism of obscure origin and uncertain etymology. It appeared in the mid-nineteenth century as an adjective to indicate ridiculous people — especially males — who claimed to be taken by elegant without belonging to the upper class in Chile. It is a word whose synonym is closest in Castilian “cursi” or “arribista”, but due to the fact of being Chilean it contains nuances particular to out society. Chile in the nineteenth century was an agrarian society, socially very rigid, where the new wealth of miners of the north challenged the peasant habits, the sober elite of the “Valle Central”. Just as the word “snob” owes much to the industrial revolution and the emergence of a bourgeoisie in England, the word “Siútico in Chile owes as much to the new rich of minerals of silver discovered in the mid XIX and a certain (and petty) middle class bureaucrat.

Has escrito sobre el fenómeno de la abajismo. ¿Qué es esto?

El abajismo lo describo como un fenómeno que ha atravesado de distintas maneras la historia de Chile. Se trata de una expresión que describe la identificación de ciertos personajes de la elite con la vida propia del pueblo llano, de las clases medias y bajas. La historia de la izquierda chilena está salpicada de ilustres apellidos de clase alta. En su mayoría hombres (el ingreso de las mujeres al espacio público es reciente) que abrazaron la causa de los desamparados desde la política (el mismo Salvador Allende, Carlos Altamirano y otros tanto). Esto tuvo su vertiente religiosa sobre todo a partir de los 60 con sacerdores “obreros” como el padre Puga o el Padre Aldunate. Los últimos síntomas de abajismo tienen menos carga ideológica y una mayor tendencia estética: es el turismo de clase que emprenden jóvenes en antros de bariios populares. La “vida del pobre” es vista como algo interesante, “trendy”, verdadero. Hay una línea piadosa del abajismo que toma ciertas nociones del “cura obrero” pero en donde los elementos revolucionarios aparecen diluidos por el neo asistencialismo. Esto se ve mucho entre alumnos de ciertas universidades caras (no hay universidades gratuitas en Chile) que organizan trabajos de verano o jornadas de ayuda durante los fines de semana en barrios marfginales. Son una suerte de “visita a la realidad” frecuentemente auspiciadas por organizaciones católicas.

You write about the phenomenon of abajismo. What is this?

I described it as a phenomenon that has taken different paths in the story of Chile. It is a term that describes the identification of certain characters in the elite with the life of ordinary people, from middle and lower classes. The history of the Chilean left is peppered with famous names of high class. Most men (women’s entry to the public is recent) embraced the cause of the disadvantaged from politics (as Salvador Allende, Carlos Altamirano and both). There was an especially religious dimension from 60s, with priest “workers” such as the father Puga or father Aldunate. The latest symptoms of abajismo are less ideological and more inclined aesthetics: it is the young class tourists who visit the dens of popular suburbs. The “life of the poor” is seen as something “trendy”, true! There is a pious version of abajismo that takes the certain notions of “worker priest”, but where the revolutionaries are diluted by the new welfarism. This is seen widely among students of certain expensive universities (there are no free universities in Chile) who organize summer jobs or day jobs during the weekends in marginal neighbourhoods. They are a kind of “reality tour” frequently sponsored by Catholic organizations.

¿Crees que puede haber una forma válida de abajismo? Algunos ejemplos?

Sobre esta pregunta está implícito el juicio de que hay formas válidas y otras que no. La verdad a mi no me interesa entrar en ese esquema, sino en el análisis del fenómeno. Yo creo en la libertad de la gente en adherir a causas legales y en expresar sus inquietudes sociales de la mejor forma. También creo que dada la importancia del problema social en Chile (pobreza, desigualdad, discriminación) es necesario tener posturas críticas sobre el punto.

Do you think there can be a valid form of abajismo? Any examples?

On this question is the implicit view that there are valid and others not. Actually I do not interested in engaging with this proposition, but in the analysis of the phenomenon. I believe in the freedom of people to adhere to legal reasons and express their social concerns in the best way. I also believe that given the important social problem in Chile (poverty, inequality, discrimination) it is necessary to take critical positions on this matter.

Abajismo es algo único en Chile?

No, no lo creo. Se da de manera difrenete eso sí. En Latinoamérica debe haber variaciones que tienen que ver con la propia historia del país, su demografía, economía y desigualdades. Latinoamérica tiende a ser mirada como un todo sin distinción básicamente porque es “mirada” desde fuera. Es una región de sociedades que comparten muchas cosas, pero que difieren en otras tantas. Creo, sin embargo, que la desigualdad y la discriminación son dos ejes comunes que se expresan de manera distinta.

Is abajismo something unique to Chile?

No, I do not think so. But it’s style is different. In Latin America there must be changes that have to do with the history of the country, its demography, economy and inequality. Latin America tends to look uniform as a whole because it is basically seen from the outside. It is a region of societies that share many things, but they differ in others. However, I believe that inequality and discrimination are two common axes that are expressed differently.

¿Qué tiene la respuesta a Siutico sido?

El libro ha sido un éxito que no me esperaba. La crítcia lo recibió muy bien, y lleva casi un año entre los más vendidos. Mis compatriotas tienen una cierta inclinacíón por leer libros en donde puedan reconocerse, sobre todo en sus pequeñeces, odios y venganzas. Debería existir un género sobre el tema. Un apartado en las librerías que se llamara “en qué consiste ser chileno”. El rol del código secreto, el sobre entendido, la crueldad disfrazada de buen tono, el aislamiento geográfico como factor de asfixia histórica, el racismo galopante y a la vez negado, el aburrimiento como valor y el pánico por la imaginación.

What has the response to Siútico been like?

The book has been more of a success than I expected. The critics received it very well, and it is nearly a year among the top sellers. My compatriots have a certain inclination to read books where they can be recognized, especially in the little things, hatred and vengeance. There should be a genre on the subject. A paragraph in the book is called “what it takes to be Chilean.” The role of the secret code, on the understanding, cruelty disguised as good tone, geographic isolation as a factor of its stifling history, rampant racism and at the same time, boredom as value and panic in the place of imagination.

¿Tienes previsto proyectos similares en el futuro?

Similares creo que no. Estoy un poco intoxicado con el tema y necesito sacarlo de mi sistema para no terminar estallando en la calle.

Are you planning similar projects in the future?

I don’t think anything similar. I am a little intoxicated with the theme and I need to get it out of my system so as to not end up in the street.