Sunday, April 20, 2008

Linear Paths

I am always amazed at how many people view time as a linear experience and then use that understanding to conceptualize development theory. Essentially coming up with the conclusion that we are all on a single path of development – following stages from 1 to 2 to 3…. I know that this is actually a very Marxist way of envisioning the world. But, our greatest scientist, Einstein, showed us in a very basic fashion how time is relative. In fact, depending on your vantage point your experience is different vis-à-vis someone else’s experience. In essence one can apply this to the global physical geographic landscape. Those of us standing in Africa view development – the trajectory of it – differently then those in Europe and that the end result – the final station/stage (if there can even be such a thing) – are not necessarily following the same path as others.

I am no physicist – and perhaps I am completely misapplying Einstein’s thinking, but hopefully you get the point. Essentially I am amazed at how people place development on a single path, a trajectory that all nations, no matter where they are located, no matter what their relative position is – view, experience and follow the same path; that development is a linear process. I am emphatically disagreeing with this view, and in my favorite professor, Gillian Hart’s words – it is always constituted of historically and geographically specific parts. That it always, always, depends on where you are, what you have experienced and how the world has interacted with that space.

What this means for so many people is places like Europe or America are ahead of places like Africa and S. America. And that places like China and India are somewhere in the middle. And, that we in South Africa are still a hundred years behind those in Europe.

In fact I sat today at one of my favorite little coffee shops in Kalk Bay, very Euro/very French coffee shop, with a young Greek-South African brother and sister. They were talking about how the culture of Europe is so much further ahead of South African culture and that that is why they no longer want to live here in South Africa. I didn’t challenge them on this notion. But the truth is that these are not two cultures on the same path just at different stages. They are two cultures on the same planet in different phases of their historically and geographically specific emergence. South Africa is not European it is not American it is a version of an African culture with elements of these other cultures. It is what it is and will never be something that it can’t be. It can never be European; in fact the only place that can be European is Europe.

Sure we can argue that there are elements within the European culture that are important and valuable and aught to be integrated into our South African culture. But, hell, has anyone read the South African constitution lately. That seems pretty “advanced” to me and incorporates ideas that Europe has struggled to integrate into any legal structure for eons. Remember it was only 60 years ago that the Europeans were slaughtering each other because of the differing religious ethnicities.

In a discussion with a new friend a few weeks ago, while hanging out in the ever so quaint town of Stanford – about 1.5 hours outside of Cape Town – we were using and debating terms like “1st world/3rd world”, “developing/developed” etc. (You all know the different versions of this.) She started using the term “emergent” - South Africa is an emergent culture. It is not emerged, it is not emerging as something. It is under constant formation that is historically and geographically specific.

We all need to remember that the thinking has been so dominated by those in the north that we have bought into the greatest marketing achievement of all time. That some how Europe and America, in the infamous words of the scholar Francis Fukuyama, has reached the “end of history”, which somehow Europe and America have beaten us to the final station on the road of “progress” and “development”. Yet, no one has considered what Africa may still have to offer South Africa’s very specific historical experience and that its very specific geographical location affects and continues to affect what cultural experiences will emerge.

You are fooling yourself if you think Europe is more advanced; that somehow it has something over the rest. The primary thing that we all want is the ability to feel physically safe, for our children to feel safe and that our ability to provide for our family and ourselves is somewhat guaranteed. Europe and America have traditionally (or at least in Europe for the past 60 yeas) been able to create that sense of security. There is nothing about the way that Europe operates or the “stage” that it is in that guarantee this. That at some point this ability will be reduced and Europe may not be so advanced.

What I think is so often missed is that we are heading towards an end goal – that there is somewhere that we are going to end up. In the end it is this view of life that we are all so caught up in – that this is what has been marketed to us. That the goal is to own a big house, a fancy car and cool sunglasses. And, that when we have this we are done and can sit back and be happy. What crap. That is just the start – that is where it all begins. We are all in a constant process of emergentness – that we are trying to find our space and that anyone that tells us that those are already there and we are just playing catch up are, well, in for a surprise one of these days.

1 comment:

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