Where North meets South

Notes for the keynote – ‘Where North Meets South:  The Promise of Transnational Law as a Platform for Creative Collaborations’ University of Melbourne South of International Law symposium, July 2010 (2010)

In 1538, the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator created his first world map. This ‘double cordiform’ is a romantic design arranging the northern and southern hemispheres in matching heart-shaped frames. These shapes reflect the distortion that occurs when transforming a sphere into a flat plane. Unfortunately, the ‘double cordiform’ was not successful in its time as navigators found it difficult to trace continuous journeys. However, his projection thirty years later found much greater success, as it made sense of the broader trade and military routes unfolding at that time. Fatefully, it placed Europe towards the top centre.

There are two halves to the world.

The question is how they connect to each other.

North-South relations


The dominant paradigm in the modern era is developmentalism. At one end, this entails the North lending assistance to the South so that it might raise it up to the North’s standards. From the other end, the South aspires to gain recognition by the North. While going down the line are missionaries, consultants, importers to assist the building of capacity in the South, moving up is a heady mixture of cargo cult, consumerism and talent drain. For every third world banana republic there is a ‘Paris of the South’.

This paradigm roughly constitutes what we call regional studies. Here core disciplines based in transatlantic centres direct their attention to the foibles of non-western parts of the world.


Any attempt to create a hierarchy leaves open the possibility of its reversal. One hermeneutic strategy of reversal entails the revealing of a hidden debt to the South in the North. This is the nature of Martin Bernal’s book Black Athena,[1] which points the influence on classic Greek thought of its African antecedents. A more modest move in this direction can be found in the school of New Southern Studies, which focused on the multicultural influences on the southern literature of the United States. Keith Cartwright’s Reading Africa into American Literature[2] identified the influence of Senegambian culture on the development of American modernism, particularly the culture of the jazz era.

While lacking the dialectical framework of other critical hermeneutic frameworks, such as psychoanalysis and Marxism, this approach offers the academic strategy of undermining the north-south hierarchy by revealing the indebtedness of the North to the South.

In the cultural realm, reversal appears in two different forms. In a carnivalesque manner, what is low becomes high. So the movement of abajismo, or ‘lowism’, in Chile celebrates all the qualities that consign it to a lesser country. This is particularly so of the ‘poor’ arts that use found materials, such as Pablo Neruda Elementary Odes.

The alternative movement comes from the other Atlantic side of South America in Brazil and Argentina, who have at different times conceived themselves as inheriting cultural leadership from Europe. The concept of anthropophagi in Brazil celebrates the cannibalisation of Western culture and the emergence of a new ‘tropical man’. This has emerged recently with the work of cultural theorist Antônio Cícero who has argued for a neo-Cartesianism. Alternatively, the history of Jorge Luis Borges in Argentina is related to the journal Sur, which was

Sur would never be greatly interested in the specific problems of the continent, for the patrimony of Argentina was, in Borges’ later phrase, that of the universe.[3]


More recently, there have been attempts to conceive of a South that is independent of the North, neither follower nor leader. In critical theory, this is evident in Indigenous Studies .The Latin American concept of indigenismo is celebrated by writers like Walter Mignolo, [4] along with other Southern mentalities such as creolism and hybridity. The Lusophone sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos[5] outlines an ‘epistemology of the south’ which reflected a grounded knowledge that seeks to account for its political implications. In the terms outlined by Amartya Sen in his Idea of Justice, the South proposes a consequential or nyaya ideal of justice, as opposed to the Northern deontic ideal, or niti.


Closer to home, the work by sociologist Raewyn Connell in his book Southern Theory[6]argues on the basis of the geopolitics of knowledge for an alternative to the centripetal reduction of theory to the transatlantic centres. For Connell, this alternative can be found in the lateral connections between countries on the periphery. As she writes:

It is possible to reshape the circuits through which social-scientific knowledge moves, to modify — since we cannot quickly end — the metropolitan focus. The intellectuals of rich peripheral countries such as Australia, and of the privileged classes in countries like Mexico, Chile, India, South Africa and Brazil, have significant resources for intellectual work and the circulation of knowledge. Because of their location in the post-colonial world, they have — or can have — perspectives which overlap with those of subaltern majorities.[7]

For Connell, what separates the South from the North it its sense of compassion… Franz Fanon the ‘wretched of the earth.’


The territory that we have covered so far will seem familiar. Now we move into less chartered waters, when we consider the framework in which North and South might be seen to co-exist.

This would follow a concept of the world like Goethe’s that global differences form part of a dynamic whole rather than an unevenness.

If I were not driven by my German mentality and a desire to learn and do, rather than to enjoy, I would linger somewhat longer in this school of light and merry living and try to profit from it more…

And now, after all this pleasure and hundreds of others, the Sirens are luring me across the sea, and, if the wind is favorable, I shall leave at the same time as this letter, it to the north, and I to the south. The human mind balks at limits, and I, especially, have great need of the wide world. (22/03/1787)[8]

Globalisation in the modern era can be seen to entail a division of the world between the modern Northern nations forging ahead into the future and the traditional Southern societies maintaining their cultural heritage. So the cultural arm of UNESCO concerns itself with helping to preserve Southern traditions as a part of humanity’s heritage. In very broad terms, this division of labour separates the economic from the cultural.

Some might claim this as a scam to make the South feel comfortable about its economic disenfranchisement.

Professor Ali Mazrui in a 1998 speech in Cape Town, when he said of the 1994 compromise: ‘You wear the crown, we’ll keep the jewels.’

But is the alternative to reduce everything to economic terms?

Might it be possible to come up with an agreement between North and South about this arrangement?

How could such an arrangement avoid exploitation?

Transnational law

As is well recognised in this setting, transnational law has played a significant role in the globalisation process. For the development of international corporations that can spread their supply chains over great distances, it has been necessary to creative private legal instruments that ensure consistency and trust from Southern mines to Northern shops.

Ethical consumerism

One genre of international law has responded to the emergence of what is called ‘ethical consumerism’. Here there is recognition that raising standards is not only a matter of meeting demands of workers but also responding to concerns of consumers as well. The fate of the fur coat stands as an exemplary case of how an entire industry can be wiped out due to consumer concerns. The issue of blood diamonds is the cause of much anxiety in the jewellery industry for similar reasons. The challenge is to create a transparency across the supply chain so that the customer in Tiffany’s can know how the diamond on their engagement ring was sourced.

Arguably the most visible manifestation of transnational law has been Fair Trade. Their certification process attempts to verify that certain standards in production have been adhered to, particularly those of the ILO.

When you buy a block Fair Trade chocolate, there is an implied solidarity between North and South.

Many other more commercial standards are evolving now. For example, World of Good…

While these do offer solidarity, they do reproduce a power relationship between producer and consumer nations.

Creative Collaborations

There are interesting developments occurring in the area of product design. While the handmade has usually been associated with the local, manual craft processes are increasingly being outsourced.

Two examples in Australia, with Koskela and Better World Arts.

This reflects a changing strategy from bodies such as UNESCO, which attempt to promote heritage through what they term ‘creative industries’ such as design and fashion. This relies on market forces to encourage innovation in traditional cultures to assist their economic sustainability.

The Designers Meet Artisans publication.

Here is a potential partnership between North and South. But how to ensure that it is reciprocal?

The Code of Practice for Creative Collaborations is an attempt to work with major stakeholders to develop a common set of standards. Part of this involves navigating through quite complex terrain of laws, particularly in intellectual property.

The balance is going to be towards the consumer in terms of setting standards. Like the ‘good print’, the attempt is going to be to provide consumers with information. Rather than just checking boxes, this is going to enable individual stories to travel with the object.

This considers ethics not just a constraint on creative freedom but as a framework for storied value.

But on its own, this arrangement produces the producer/consumer divide. One area to explore is the creation of a covenant in which the consumer will agree to particular conditions in the way they use the product.

This is very much a project and we welcome participation from those interested in being part.

[1] Martin Bernal Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization London: Free Association, 1987

[2] Keith Cartwright Reading Africa Into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2004

[3] John King Sur: A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture, 1931-1970 New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986

[4] Walter Mignolo The Idea of Latin America Oxford: Blackwell, 2005

[5] Boaventura de Sousa Santos 2006 Beyond abyssal thinking: From global lines to ecologies of knowledges www.eurozine.com/articles/2007-06-29-santos-en.html

[6] Raewyn Connell Southern Theory: The global dynamics of knowledge in social science St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2007

[7] Raewyn Connell Southern Theory: The global dynamics of knowledge in social science St Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2007, p. 228

[8] J.W. Goethe Italian Journey (trans. Robert R. Heitner) New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994 (orig. 1786), p. 177

One Reply to “Where North meets South”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *