Do we need Border Knowledges?

authors such as Glissant, Mignolo and Khatibi argue for the formation of ‘border knowledges’ which form horizontal connections between different local spaces, reconstructing the global, or ‘planetary’, as a network of perspectives rather than something viewed from the top-down. This kind of horizontal connection can help avoid the problems arising from connection by the intermediary of global knowledge, instead connecting localities without an integrating centre.

An introduction to and defense of the contemporary importance of local traditional knowledge, excerpted from Andy Robinson:

“Local knowledges also usually involve an intense sense of locality and place, and are self-consciously local and place-specific. This construction of a sense of place in local knowledge is very different from top-down mapping practices. It involves the formation of specific connections which actively relate people to particular sites, creating what are sometimes called ‘existential territories’. The ways in which local groups map spaces often have many dimensions, and focus on the uses, structures or meanings of places rather than their abstractly observed characteristics.

It talks mostly about relations, rather than things. This preference is often built into the structure of indigenous languages, with words referring mainly to relations instead of things. In some cases, the ability to ‘properly’ act or know is believed to be conditioned on a specific position in an entire relational web. It also tends to be holistic, rejecting the global-scientific approach of dividing the world into categories and disciplines, and rejecting simplification.

Hence for instance, natural, cultural and supernatural spheres are not necessarily separated, but can be viewed as a single field or a continuum. The entire local context is sometimes linked together in complex narratives of origin and essence which cross the three planes.

Faced with a choice, global knowledge tends to choose decisiveness, whereas local knowledge chooses inclusion. Local knowledge is often happy with inconclusiveness and differences within itself, placing a lot less value on coherence and decisiveness compared to global science (and global power).

This is shown, for instance, in the prolonged consultative processes which accompany indigenous decision-making. Whereas global knowledge seeks to extend itself over space, indigenous knowledge tends to extend itself through time. It also often emphasises the qualitative over the quantitative. For instance, Melanesian approaches to counting focus on the value of things which can’t be counted, and many indigenous approaches oppose the idea that wealth is measurable.

Wealth, rather, consists in the density and richness of social and ecological relations. The mode of expression of local knowledge is usually expressive, rather than instrumental. In other words, it is primarily a way of giving voice to particular perspectives, feelings and experiences, rather than a way of manipulating objects.

This contrasts with the language of ‘modernity’, which is increasingly trapped in instrumental ‘rationality’.

As a way of constructing life-worlds, local knowledge is connected to an orientation to redundancy rather than efficiency. Local knowledge often involves the maintenance of high levels of redundancy in its social system. In other words, instead of massively producing or extracting certain very specific ‘resources’, they maintain a wide range of different subsistence strategies connected to different means of survival. Such approaches go against ideas of efficiency dominant in capitalist economies, but provide a lot of resilience against unexpected events and crises.

For instance, a group growing multiple crops might make less on the commodity market, but be less at risk of starvation or dispossession in the event of a failure of one of the crops. The management of risk through resilience, rather than through the closure of space known as ‘security’, also sets indigenous knowledge aside from state perspectives. Resilient systems also tend to promote biodiversity. At least in principle, indigenous perspectives also usually reject the reduction of nature and of non-human entities to instrumentally usable resources. Rather, they are part of specific, densely related local places.

Similar to this orientation to resilience, indigenous knowledge often engages in syncretism, incorporating elements of newly-introduced belief-systems as an additional, parallel track alongside existing belief-systems. This is seen as a way to enrich indigenous knowledge by multiplying the perspectives it contains. Outside agents often find a similarly inclusive stance, except when local people have been hurt by previous contact. As well as aiding resilience, this approach expresses a situated view of the world which is very different from Northern ideas of purity and identity.

It doubtless carries dangers of recuperation, but it also provides the potential for resistance from within. In the Zapatista story “Questions and Swords”, external power is portrayed as a sword, and the local context as water. Power thinks it has dominated the context by striking the water and passing through, but in fact, over time, the water will rust the sword.

This is a metaphor for how local knowledges can absorb and corrode external power, reducing it to an empty shell of itself and preserving local autonomy. One might say there is a constant struggle below the surface in many marginal contexts as to which of the two forces – submersion and corrosion – will triumph.

There is a certain controversy in the scholarship which arises from the fact that local knowledges can both be highly pragmatic and instrumental, and also theoretical, religious and cosmological (such as the idea of an ecosystem as a living spiritual being which can feel pain), sometimes at the same time – for instance, a prohibition against destroying a sacred grove might also serve to protect an important source of food or medicine. Northern commentators have problems getting their heads around this, and end up splitting into two camps – some who read indigenous knowledge as entirely pragmatic, and others who read it as primarily cosmological.

The former accuse the latter of romanticism, misrepresenting indigenous people as a kind of untainted perfection, the latter accuse the former of creating their own version of a global-local and silencing local ways of seeing. While indigenous knowledge often involves extensive practical claims, these often make little sense outside their cosmological context. Their removal from this context effectively also removes their locality.

To complicate matters further, the relationality and situatedness of indigenous knowledge also seems to apply to the ways in which it’s expressed to outsiders: local people will play up or even invent a pragmatic view or an ecological worldview to appeal to powerful groups in the North. Indigenous knowledge also looks rather different from each of the positions situated within it, which are sometimes affected by differences in power and perspective. And many groups have taken on extractive attitudes arising from the wider capitalist context. In many cases, local knowledges coexist in unstable relations with global forces.

Authors such as Valentin Mudimbe have attempted to revive the idea that local knowledges are relevant to philosophy, questioning the dominant narrative in which philosophy was invented in the North. The main difficulty in drawing on and revaluing local knowledges is the effects of ‘enclaving’, the isolation of such knowledges. This leads to a need to construct networks which maintain the locality of contexts but are also able to communicate through ‘weak ties’ across contexts.

In this vein, various authors such as Glissant, Mignolo and Khatibi argue for the formation of ‘border knowledges’ which form horizontal connections between different local spaces, reconstructing the global, or ‘planetary’, as a network of perspectives rather than something viewed from the top-down. This kind of horizontal connection can help avoid the problems arising from connection by the intermediary of global knowledge, instead connecting localities without an integrating centre.

Local knowledge is neither a distant, esoteric knowledge which is ‘lost’, nor a collection of information which can be incorporated in dominant frames. It is based on a way of seeing and relating which produce a different form of knowledge in correspondence with a different form of power, both among people and between people and the ecosystem. What can be learnt in the capitalist-dominated world from indigenous knowledge is above all the practice of forming such alternative ways of seeing and relating.

Local knowledge provides the basis for building a new world in the interstices of the old, in the holes in the dominant grid. The question is not only to defend existing spaces of subsistence, but to expand and recreate the social relations through which such spaces emerge.”

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