Some things could be other than they are. And if they were, well, then I guess things would be different, wouldn’t they? That’s not very interesting. What we find interesting is that decisions could have been made other than they were. It’s that kind of counterfacutalizing that makes possible our forensic judgments. If you hadn’t run the light that child would still be alive. If you hadn’t jumped in to rescue her that woman would have drowned.
But I have something much more specific in mind.
What I have in mind are not decisions we took because we thought they mattered, like whether to go to war, or – less dramatically but as importantly -whether to put a sales tax on milk. Rather I’m thinking about decisions we took to do things this way rather than that because we thought it didn’t matter which, so long as it was one or the other. I’m thinking of things like which side of the road we’ll all drive on, or from which line of longitude we’ll measure time zones.
There’s always a history to why we chose this way rather than that; for why, for example, in North America and Europe we drive on the right whereas in England and the Antipodes they drive on the left. Or why it’s the time in Greenwich rather than Calcutta from which we all set our watches. These things are interesting, I suppose, but still not very.
What’s much more interesting, however, is why, on a map, north is up and south is down?
We’re told – and I have no reason to naysay whomever of my betters researched it – that it had something to do with an unreflective Eurocentrism. And then, because of European imperialism, that perspective took canonical root. But it’s precisely because of this history that there’s a political movement afoot to have us turn our globes and our maps upside-down.
Or better put, downside-up. For notice the negative associations that attach to the phrase ‘upside-down’. To say that something’s upside-down is to suggest there’s something wrong with it. And that’s exactly how most of us feel when we see a globe ‘standing on its head’, or, more commonly, a road map that my ‘navigator’ has to rotate before she can read it and tell me which way to turn.
Curmudgeons like me complain when the neighbors haven’t mowed their lawn in almost a week. Sometimes, to get into character, I have an imaginary cane I shake. But back in the 80’s I came to accept using ‘she’ instead of ‘he’ in my academic writing. I’m gradually learning not to presuppose the sexual orientation of my students when coming up with an example of something in class. So unlike Scrooge, I’m not “too old to change.” Like the members of Red Green’s Possum Lodge, “I can change, if I must.” So if, like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More, upending my globe combats white supremacy, I’m totally on board.
But just a few thoughts before we push off.
As things stand, Italy is a boot, with the toe kicking a – I don’t know, a misshapen meatball? – to the left. Now do the flip. Unless you’re going to ask me to stand on my head – and please don’t – Italy is now an arm with a hand either catching or tossing – hard to tell which – a misshapen meatball to the right! I can learn to live with that. The mind is infinitely plastic. Old similes will give way to new ones. In fact it could be kinda fun to have to reinvent them. .
But my worry is this. What happens if the Eastern hemisphere – which has been as denigrated by the West as has the South by the North – gets the same idea?
I’ll give you a minute to try to picture this proposal. If it helps, look at your globe through a mirror.
Now we’ve got navigational problems that could cross a rabbi’s eyes. I used to have to turn right when driving from Naples down to Reggio Calabria. Now I have to turn left. With a little retooling I can adjust. But will El Nino and La Nina be able to keep all this straight?
What this suggests is this admittedly unconscionable cartographical imperialism might have less to do with European muskets versus African spears and more to do with gravity and human morphology. To explain:
We’re land animals. We evolved to see the world in terms of up and down and forward and back. What was left to us to work out for ourselves was that third dimension, without which we couldn’t negotiate a three-dimensional world, Which hand will be left and which right? And how would we remember? Robinson Crusoe tied a ribbon around one wrist and called it his ribbonside. But when his man Friday came along, Crusoe being white and Friday being black, he pinned it with a staple gun to his servant’s ear.
In any event, north, south, east, and west, are parasitic on our having not two but three two-valued dimensions, because we need to be able to imagine how things would look from over there. We now know that the world is reversed in the eye and then reversed again in our brains. But save for experiencing the world through yet another reversing lens, there’s no reversing our visual field. Whether we’re facing this way or that in the Americas, Asia will always be over in that direction, and that direction we’ve decided to call east. We can represent it on a globe as being over in this direction rather than that one, but we can’t experience it that way when looking down on the two continents from space. And a globe just is as if we’re looking down at the Earth from space.
We can rotate the globe any way we like, just as, in our minds, we can rotate ourselves in space any way we like. We can watch the Earth rotate on its axis, or we can, along with the rest of the cosmos, revolve ourselves around it. There’s no fact of the matter as to which of the two is really happening, any more than there’s a fact of the matter as to whether north is up or down on a map. If the latter is a political decision, so is the former.
So I’ve made a political decision. If I’m going to be asked to flip my globe downside-up in solidarity with (what Frantz Fanon called) the Wretched of the Earth – which I think would be only fair – then surely it’s equally fair for me to ask others, in solidarity with our much-maligned pre-Copernican brothers and sisters, to join me in my geocentricity.
Okay, that was a bit tongue in cheek. But this next bit isn’t.
Speaking of political decisions, look! There are no natural kinds. We carve up the world according to what carvings are useful to us. It’s useful to us to categorize ourselves first and foremost as animals, because if we start thinking of ourselves as spiritual beings, we’re going to forget to eat and then we’ll starve to death.
The next paragraph is in voce. I have a friend – for whom, I hasten to add, I have no respect – who’d say what he’s about to, though I certainly wouldn’t.
“Now then,” says he, “I’m an animal. So when someone’s coming down the hallway in my direction, the first cut I make, even before friend or foe, is fuck-able or not. If the answer is yes, that doesn’t mean I want to, and certainly not that I can. There are seventeen further gates that have to flip open rather than shut after that first one. But I happen to be out-of-the-closet exclusively heterosexual, for whom every female is prima facie fuck-able and every male absolutely not. So the binary of male and female is indispensable to me.”
So – and now I’m back to my own voice – I grant that there are all kinds of uses for which this binary is utterly inadequate and/or misleading. My point is simply that the binary is embedded in a fact not about human biology – I’m hip enough to concede that – but in human behavior, more particularly my friend’s. So given his uses for carving up the world, he’s as entitled to his binary categories of male and female as any of the people he’s so categorized are entitled to the multivalent categories they find useful. You don’t want him to think of you as prima facie fuck-able? Well, live with it, just as he has to live with you refusing to think of him as an electric toaster.
That said, I have to add that I find it odd that people think I should take such a keen interest in the sexual proclivities of complete strangers. To be honest – and I’m really sorry about this – I just don’t give a damn about the play list that makes up your sexual repertoire. I know you’re trying to shock me, but trust me when I say nothing could. I know someone who’s a formicophile! (Yes, we’re talkin’ ants..) So that you identify yourself as a Klingon who wants to be a Clydesdale nag with a speech impediment having auditory canal sex with a manatee, just doesn’t impress me. I’d much rather know what you think about the war in Syria, or the rise of fascism in America, or cartographical imperialism.
I’m sorry if that makes you feel unaffirmed as a whatever-you’ve-decided-you-are. But if you really feel the need to share, and for some reason it has to be with me, I’ll try to look interested. I really will try.