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Boaventura de Sousa Santos maps the abyss



Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a professor in the Sociology department University of Coimbra, Portugal. He specialises in issues of law and globalisation, particularly as they relate to the Lusophone South (Mozambique, Brazil, Angola, etc). de Sousa Santos combines his academic life with an active political engagement in World Social Forum.

His essay Beyond Abyssal Thinking offers a broad framework for southern perspectives. It begins with a critique of northern epistemology, which he characterises as a methodology for dividing the world between regions of order and chaos. He offers the example of Amity Lines, agreed on by the Spanish and French in the 16th century as distinguishing those areas where rule of law would apply from the realm beyond where each was free to pursue their interests unhindered. De Sousa Santos links cartography with law and colonisation as part of a fundamental distinction between civilised and savage, cultural and natural and legal and lawless.

As an alternative to this ‘’abyssal thinking’, de Sousa Santos offers an ‘epistemology of the South’ which practices knowledge that is ecologically linked to its context. This grounds thought in both its cultural context and its ethical dimension – as a form of intervention more than representation. de Sousa Santos locates within this epistemology a ‘subaltern cosmopolitanism’ reflecting the diversity of cultures on the periphery (this evokes the ‘world’ that is used to identify non-Western art forms like ‘world music.’)

While de Sousa Santos’ opposition between Northern and Southern epistemologies may seem melodramatic, he is at pains to us it  as a way of opening questions rather than proclaiming answers. His essay concludes with the following questions:

How can we identify the perspective of the oppressed in real-world interventions or in any resistance to them? How can we translate this perspective into knowledge practices? In the search for alternatives to domination and oppression, how can we distinguish between alternatives to the system of oppression and domination and alternatives within the system or, more specifically, how do we distinguish between alternatives to capitalism and alternatives within capitalism? In sum, how can we fight against the abyssal lines using conceptual and political instruments that don’t reproduce them? And finally, a question of special interest to educators: what would be the impact of a post-abyssal conception of knowledge (as an ecology of knowledges) upon our educational institutions and research centres?

Useful references

  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos ‘A Map of Misreading: Toward a Postmodern Conception of Law’ Journal of Law and Society (1987) 14: 3, pp. 279-302
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos Law and globalization from below: towards a cosmopolitan legality Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-06-29-santos-en.html, 2006
  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos (ed) Another Knowledge Is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies London: Verso, 2007