As a political theorist trained in the analytic tradition, my training has often focused on precision and how, through text, to articulate exact meaning through clear steps of an argument. Against this background it has been surprising for me to notice that it is an image that has served as the framework to best describe my research project and point to the value of my experience at HIAS.
During my stay at HIAS I began work on a project titled: ‹What we owe each other when others owe us so much: Global Injustice and inter-state duties in the Global South.› The project seeks to think through normative questions of international relations from the perspective of the Global South. It takes seriously that many states in the Global South are owed much from an unjust global order (and its many actors) and interrogates what norms and responsibilities ought to guide inter-state duties among these states who bear the brunt of this unjust global system. These states are often acting together to respond to this unjust reality, and proximity and current challenges require often intensive engagement between them. The project interrogates what normative principles, if any, ought to guide such interaction? It does not aim to develop such guiding norms from first principles but through an analysis of the norms underlying current diplomatic practice and the principles contained within philosophies of the South.
While we might be looking at the same thing, our location will shape our view. And our view, or the story we tell from our position, offers insight into our context, just as the myths that describe this constellation reveal something of the ways of life of those who held them.
Before taking up my fellowship, HIAS requested an image to represent this project. This is a challenging task at any time, but for a new, normative project I found myself with little footing to conceptualise an appropriate image. In the end I chose a constellation: the Pleiades. Knowledge of the Pleiades was a gift from a fellow fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study, the home institute of my Iso Lomso Fellowship. In early 2020
I had joined Elleke Boehmer, who was working on a project on Southern Imaginaries, on a trip into the desert to Sutherland, the home of South Africa’s SALT telescope. There we had seen magnificent stars and talked of the myths that surrounded them.
The Pleiades is one of the constellations that you can see from both hemispheres and a range of places around the world, at different times of year and with a different placement within the night sky. Already, this captures the idea of location in my project: while we might be looking at the same thing, our location will shape our view. And our view, or the story we tell from our position, offers insight into our context, just as the myths that describe this constellation reveal something of the ways of life of those who held them.
The constellation is also called ‹the Seven Sisters› but on a clear night we can only see six stars with the naked eye. Myths from around the ancient world—from Aboriginal communities in Australia, to Cherokee communities in North America, to the Ancient Greeks—speak to this disappearance of the seventh star, or in the myths, the seventh sister. Each community tells a different story to articulate and explain this experience—and we are richer for having the variety. Through interrogating the puzzle as to how different ancient communities came to share similar 100,000 year old myths, astronomers have discovered the movement of the stars in the constellation such that stars that once looked like two to the naked eye now appear merged as one. No one story captured the full reality of the event, but taken together they pointed towards it.
This offers me a helpful description of knowledge creation, especially in exploring the complex moral landscape of our world: as a political philosopher, the normative stories I can tell, through careful reasoned argument, do not aim to be the full story or truth but to contribute to a much wider project of finding our way forward. The Pleiades helps to illustrate an aim of this project to begin very consciously from a location and so to be conscious of how this location shapes the view and so the content and nature of the particular contribution I hope to make to knowledge creation.
This kind of experience of academic mobility brings alive for me the arguments made by many decolonial and feminist scholars—that our positionality as scholars is always present in our work.
It was valuable to me to begin this project in the context of an interdisciplinary, international Institute of Advanced Study because this consciousness of location—both physical and disciplinary—is brought to the fore in these moments of encounter. For me, it is not just having experienced different physical and intellectual locations (and so viewpoints), but those moments of movement between them that often provide me with opportunity to understand my own positionality better. During my four month residency at HIAS, over many seminars, meals, and discussion, I had opportunity to notice the responses to my ideas within this different academic and socio-political space, and to notice the questions that I have in response to the work of others. This kind of experience of academic mobility brings alive for me the arguments made by many decolonial and feminist scholars—that our positionality as scholars is always present in our work.
While there is still much conceptualisation and groundwork to be done on my research project, my HIAS Fellowship has prompted me to think more boldly and creatively around how to develop a project that begins from but goes beyond my own location and positionality as a scholar, to creating space to bring a diversity of voices into this important question of normative duties between states of the Global South. Perhaps, as fellow fellow Elvira Pushkareva has illustrated, opening space for artistic expression of complex and fraught concepts is one creative way to widen the scope of the narratives that, taken together, can help us move forward toward living together well.
Christine Hobden is Senior Lecturer in ethics and public governance at Wits School of Governance, University of Witwatersrand. Core themes of her research include citizens’ collective and individual responsibilities, duties between states, and methods of political theory. As part of the Iso Lomso Fellowship program, provided by Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), Christine Hobden was granted a Residency Fellowship at HIAS. Her fellowship 2022/2023 was funded by the ZEIT-Foundation Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius.
Stars, St. Nicholas-Vol 1.1-537-3, Made with the ten-inch lens of the Bruce Photographic Telescope of the Yerkes Observatory, by E. E. Barnard. Exposure three hours, forty-eight minutes, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Legs, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), Lost Pleiad (1884), Wikimedia Commons, File:William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)—Lost Pleiad (1884).jpg—Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.
Young woman surrounded by stars by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta—Artvee, Artvee, Public Domain.
PSM V18 D198 Shower from camelopardus aug 6 to 12, Shower from camelopardus aug 6 to 12, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.