Kevin Donovan

Graduate Student
E. Africa / (im)mobility / STS
Intellectual Biography: 

What does approaching ‘theory from the South’ with an awareness of this quandary’s history do for us? While the current urgency of this issue is not reducible to previous attempts to decolonize the mind, history does rhyme on this theme. It seems to me that foundational to this conversation is a question of why and with what distinctiveness. Of what is the recurrence of this issue indicative and productive? What shifts – from the geopolitical to the conceptual – structure our conversation differently than those of preceding interrogations of ‘theory’ and ‘the South’? In addition to this historical sensitivity, I want to spend the workshop discussing how the global South as a source of theory matters differently for different knowledge practices and disciplines. Throughout the global South, between Gramscian organic intellectuals and academic theorists are a host of thinkers – from journalists to artists and novelists. Can our conversations incorporate the work of intelligentsia who do not see themselves as explicitly engaged in theorizing? Some of my work focuses more explicitly on the ‘expert’ rationalities and methodologies of the aid industry. I am particularly engaged with how entities like the World Bank construct what Nagel (1986) called “the view from nowhere.” We know well that ideologies of ‘development’ rest upon a temporal alterity or anachronism that defines certain peoples as backwards (Bloch’s “simultaneity of the non-simultaneous”). Yet, developmentalism also relies on the commensurability of distinct localities: experts circulate between, say, Malawi and India dispensing similar interventions. One of the crucial mechanisms today underlying such work is the use of social scientific experimentation – so-called randomized control trials (RCTs) – to provide ‘rigorous evidence’ of ‘what works’. This methodology is another North Atlantic particular masquerading as a universally appropriate knowledge practice. It explicitly seeks to remove context and standardize knowledge. We certainly can take steps to understand such evidentiary regimes, but can a conversation about theory and the South engage with our more positivist neighbors and colleagues? Should it?

Presentation Title: 
Achieving the View from Nowhere: Economics, Experimentation, and Aid.
In the spirit of unusual references on this theme, perhaps some excellent novels can inform our discussions? Roberto Bolano’s ‘The Savage Detectives’ (Picador, 2007) is a semi-autobiographical account of Latin American poets and the ‘small media’ through which their knowledge circulates. Alternatively, we might turn to Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’ (Random House, 2011) and ‘Every Day is for the Thief’ (Random House, 2014 [2007]), both striking accounts of diasporic experience. How does the global circulation of people and dreams challenge and improve our understanding of the global South?
Just so you are aware, I have a conflict starting on May 15th, but would be thrilled to join prior to that.