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By turning the world around for a different view, you can map a novel perspective

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Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

We live in a sticking-to-my-story society of same-as-me bubbles and echo chambers that tend to confirm our biases. But a different angle can open up a whole new world of surprising views. 

The look on Daily Maverick founding editor Branko Brkic’s face, when he was handed a luminous star chart of the southern hemisphere night sky, was one to savour.

It was time to pass on the map, as several attempts to make sense of it on my part had failed. We are both children of the space age (before Elon Musk). Branko opened the map, flipped it upside down and scanned it.

Suddenly the night sky that has twinkled above my head for more than half a century popped into view. Especially the cluster that has always looked to me like a rocking chair.

But of course. The star chart was printed in the north, and so in order for me to steer by the stars in the south I would have had to flip it. Duh.

First, I had simply assumed the map had been printed in South Africa and second, I did not pay any attention to any subject at school. Not that I can recall.

It is all about perspective. When the perspective from which I was viewing the sky was flipped, the stars aligned and I recognised them.

Flip the script

Online map store Maps International offers an upside-down map of the world on its website, among the more traditional ones. And here’s why:

“This map helps us all appreciate that the world is spherical rather than flat and presents a view of the world that’s different from the maps we are used to,” it explains.

In the early 1900s, Uruguayan modernist painter Joaquín Torres García created the first south-at-the-top map as a political statement. Much later, in 1979, Australian Stuart McArthur created the McArthur Universal Corrective Map.

Nick Danforth, a doctoral candidate in history at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, says “the McArthur map also makes us wonder why we are so quick to assume that Northern Europeans were the ones who invented the modern map — and decided which way to hold it — in the first place”.

Danforth points out that the eagerness to invoke Eurocentrism “displays a certain bias of its own, since in fact, the north’s elite cartographic status owes more to Byzantine monks and Majorcan Jews than it does to any Englishman”.

As historian Frances Stonor Saunders has written so brilliantly, “Sometimes we cross borders, sometimes borders cross us”.

The world is witnessing a significant shift of perspectives as devastating wars in the Middle East, Eurasia, North Africa and elsewhere rage. The axis of power, big and small, is shifting. No one can be indifferent to these horrors in this age of knowing.

This is how we should view South Africa’s submission to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) with regard to Israel’s continuing bombardment of Gaza.

Read more in Daily Maverick: No ceasefire, but SA wins substantive rights measures in the Gaza genocide case

Critics have pointed out the hypocrisy of the submission considering former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s easy exit from South Africa in 2015 while wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Western hegemony

Researchers Timothy Garton Ash, Ivan Krastev and Mark Leonard published a policy brief titled “What European Policymakers Should Learn from Global Public Opinion” in November 2023.

They found that European and US leaders (i.e. the West) view the world through a lens of competing ideological and political systems. You are either “with” the West or “against” it.

However, a major public opinion poll indicated that, across the globe, people favour what the authors termed an “à la carte arrangement” in which their governments could “pragmatically choose their partners depending on the issue at stake”.

And this perspective should be held in mind when considering South Africa’s ICJ submission.

The researchers noted that China and Russia do not compete with the West in terms of “their attractiveness as a place to live or the values that people want to live by”.

Leaders in the West, they say, often frame life in the 21st century as a competition between political systems: “They talk of ‘winning over’ the ‘Global South’ to the West and shoring up the rules-based order against its challengers.”

The first new view in Europe

The Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889 as the main feature of the Paris World Fair, at the time offered a new and different perspective on the landscape around it. Until then the highest point built by humans was the gargoyle gallery of Notre Dame.

Millions visited the tower during the fair. “The most spectacular thing about it in the 1890s was not the view of the Tower from the ground. It was seeing the ground from the Tower,” wrote Australian-born art critic Robert Hughes.

This way of seeing was one of the pivots of human consciousness. The sight of Paris from above, says Hughes, was as significant in 1889 as the Nasa photograph of the Earth from the moon, floating like a vulnerable green bubble in the dark indifference of space.

The tower, in other, words, offered a new and different perspective, which in turn inspired new forms of art, expression and indeed politics.

The more you know, the less you can be fooled. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    About your concluding statement about “the more you know … ” … does it apply to the Trump supporters who still believe (like the Americans AFTER the refuting ICJ judgement about meritless, without foundation, baseless etc!) including several in the Congress and Senate … that the last election was ‘stolen’ ? Even what you ‘know’ can be dismissed/replaced by what you ‘believe’ it seems to me ? Belief is more powerful than knowledge or view … at least for many who do not wish to ‘see’.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Regarding your opening statement … is that the reason why Professors like Chomsky and Shlaim et al have been confined to the ‘margins’ and described as ‘self hating’ Jews ? Propaganda in the hands of the ‘powerful’ still seem to hold sway today ? Ah … but I forget the use of the term ‘woke’, like the terms terrorist/communist in our apartheid era, which is very much in vogue today ! You have been cautioned about developing a different perspective … with a red card next.

  • frances hardie says:

    Not to mention frame of reference…

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