Sociology of Absences

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Boaventura de Sousa Santos:

"The sociology of absences consists of an inquiry that aims to explain that what does not exist is, in fact, actively produced as non-existent, that is, as a non-credible alternative to what exists. The objective of the sociology of absences is to transform impossible into possible objects, absent into present objects. The logics and processes through which hegemonic criteria of rationality and efficiency produce non-existence are various. Nonexistence is produced whenever a certain entity is disqualified and rendered invisible, unintelligible, or irreversibly discardable. What unites the different logics of production of non-existence is that they are all manifestations of the same rational monoculture.

I distinguish five logics or modes of production of non-existence. The first derives from the monoculture of knowledge. It turns modern science and high culture into the sole criteria of truth and aesthetic quality, respectively. All that is not recognised or legitimated by the canon is declared non-existent. Non-existence appears in this case in the form of ignorance or lack of culture.

The second logic resides in the monoculture of linear time, the idea that time is linear and that ahead of time precedes the core countries of the world system. This logic produces non-existence by describing as ‘backward’ (pre-modern, under-developed, etc.) whatever is asymmetrical vis-à-vis whatever is declared ‘forward’. The third logic is the monoculture of classification, based on the naturalisation of differences. It consists of distributing populations according to categories that naturalise hierarchies. Racial and sexual classifications are the most salient manifestations of this logic, with racial classification as one of the one most deeply reconstructed by capitalism.3\

The fourth logic of production of non-existence is the logic of the dominant scale: the monoculture of the universal and the global. Globalisation privileges entities or realities that widen their scope to the whole globe, thus earning the prerogative to designate rival entities as local. Non-existence is produced under the form of the particular and the local. The entities or realities defined as particular or local are captured in scales that render them incapable of being credible alternatives to what exists globally and universally. Finally, the fifth logic is that of productivity. It resides in the monoculture of criteria of capitalist productivity and efficiency, which privileges growth through market forces. This criterion applies both to nature and to human labour. Non-existence is produced in the form of non-productiveness. Applied to nature, non-productiveness is sterility; applied to labour, “discardable populations”, laziness, professional disqualification, lack of skills.

There are thus five principal social forms of non-existence produced by hegemonic epistemology and rationality: the ignorant, the residual, the inferior, the local and the non-productive. The realities to which they give shape are present only as obstacle visà- vis the realities deemed relevant, be they scientific, advanced, superior, global, or productive realities. They are what exist under irretrievably disqualified forms of existing. To be made present, these absences need to be constructed as alternatives to hegemonic experience, to have their credibility discussed and argued for and their relations taken as object of political dispute. The sociology of absences therefore creates the conditions to enlarge the field of credible experiences. The enlargement of the world occurs not only because the field of credible experiences is widened but also because the possibilities of social experimentation in the future are increased.

The sociology of absence proceeds by confronting each one of the modes of production of absence mentioned above and by replacing monocultures by ecologies. I therefore identify and propose five ecologies : the ecology of knowledges, which confronts the logic of the monoculture of scientific knowledge with the identification of other knowledge and criteria of rigour that operate credibly in social practices. The central idea is that there is no ignorance or knowledge in general. All ignorance is ignorant of certain knowledge, and all knowledge is the overcoming of a particular ignorance. In this domain, the sociology of absences aims to substitute an ecology of knowledges for the monoculture of scientific knowledge.

Second, the ecology of temporalities, which questions the monoculture of linear time with the idea that linear time is only one among many conceptions of time and that, if we take the world as our unit of analysis, it is not even the most commonly adopted. Linear time was adopted by western modernity, but it never erased, not even in the West, other conceptions of time such as circular time, cyclical time, the doctrine of the eternal return, and still others that are not adequately grasped by the images of the arrow of time. In this domain, the sociology of absences aims to free social practices from their status as residuum, devolving to them their own temporality and thus the possibility of autonomous development. In this way, the activity of the African or Asian peasant becomes contemporaneous of the activity of the hi-tech farmer in the USA or the activity of the World Bank executive; it becomes another form of contemporaneity.

The ecology of recognition, thirdly, opposes the monoculture of classification. It confronts the colonial mentality of race and unequal sexuality;5\ it looks for a new articulation between the principles of equality and difference, thus allowing for the possibility of equal differences — an ecology of differences comprised of mutual recognition. The differences that remain when hierarchy vanishes become a powerful denunciation of the differences that hierarchy reclaims in order not to vanish. The ecology of trans-scale confronts the logic of global scale by recuperating what in the local is not the result of hegemonic globalisation. The local that has been integrated in hegemonic globalisation is what I designate as localised globalism, that is, the specific impact of hegemonic globalisation on the local.6 The de-globalisation of the local and its eventual counter-hegemonic re-globalisation broadens the diversity of social practices by offering alternatives to localised globalisms. The sociology of absences requires in this domain, the use of cartographic imagination, to deal with cognitive maps that operate simultaneously with different scales, namely to identify local / global articulations.

The ecology of productivity, finally, consists in recuperating and valorising alternative systems of production, popular economic organisations, workers’ co-operatives, selfmanaged enterprises, solidarity economy, etc., which have been hidden or discredited by the capitalist orthodoxy of productivity. This is perhaps the most controversial domain of the sociology of absences, for it confronts directly both the paradigm of development and infinite economic growth and the logic of the primacy of the objectives of accumulation over the objectives of distribution that sustain global capitalism. In each of the five domains, the objective of the sociology of absences is to disclose, and give credit to, the diversity and multiplicity of social practices in opposition to the exclusive credibility of hegemonic practices. The idea of multiplicity and non-destructive relations is suggested by the concept of ecology. The WSF is a broad exercise of the sociology of absences. But there are variations. If it is, in general, unequivocally a refusal of monocultures and an adoption of ecologies, this process is not present with the same intensity in all movements, organisations and articulations. If for some, opting for ecologies are unconditional, for others hybridity between monocultures and ecologies is permissible.

Some movements or organisations act, in some domains, according to a monocultural logic and, in others, according to an ecological logic. It is also possible that the adoption of an ecological logic is de-characterised by the factionalism and power struggle inside one movement or organisation, and turn into a new monocultural logic. Finally, I offer as a hypothesis that even the movements that claim different ecologies are vulnerable to the temptation of evaluating themselves according to an ecological logic, while evaluating the other movements according to a hegemonic monocultural logic."


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