The North is Everywhere

Wiki Commons Image by Stefan-Xp

Wiki Commons Image by Stefan-Xp

Over the last few years, a number of us have been involved in a research programme funded through the European Science Foundation. Known as the BOREAS programme, its full title was Histories from the North: Environments, Movements, Narratives. I had a hand in inventing this title, and I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the significance of its key terms, not just as convenient pegs on which to hang an assortment of research topics, but as big ideas that shape the intellectual projects not only of my own discipline of anthropology but also of other disciplines dedicated to understanding the conditions and possibilities of human existence in the world. I begin with the idea of history, showing how this idea takes on a specific resonance when it is taken from the North, rather than situated in the fields of the West, the East or the South. I’ll then explore the three key terms: environment, movement, narrative, in order to show how history from, which is of the essence of North-ness, gives to each of these terms a particular inflection.

On the compass, North, South, East and West are just the four cardinal points. Yet they have come to stand in contemporary discourses for very different ideas of history. By that I don’t mean different historical accounts, but rather different conceptions of what history is. The idea of history we associate with the West is one of technological and economic progress; we associate histories of the East with ancient civilisations, and histories of the South with resistance against colonial oppression. All these kinds of history are being done in the region we call the North: thus some scholars write about development and modernisation in the North, some about ancient traditions and systems of belief in the North, and some about colonial and post-colonial struggles in the North. In these accounts the North figures as a region in which we can imagine other, non-North kinds of history. What if we were to turn this around and think of the North as a particular kind of history, a history from, which we could apply not just to northern peoples but perhaps to peoples everywhere?

This is where our key terms – environment, movement, narrative – come in. From the perspective of the North, the environment is inhabited. In the process of habitation, animate beings of all kinds, human and non-human, weave their lives into the land. This is to think of the land not a solid surface to be staked out, appropriated and exploited, but rather as a zone of interpenetration in which earth and sky mingle in the ongoing production of life. In this environment of ever-weaving pathways, movement does not go from point to point across the earth’s surface, as the notion of transport implies, but rather issues forth along lines of growth. Even when using modern forms of transport, as they very often do nowadays, northerners still understand their movement in the same way that they would understand the movements of the manifold non-human beings around them. Histories from the North, then, are narratives: not just ways of remembering but also ways of carrying on. In a history from, the story flows like a river from its source, and in this, history and time are one and the same. What is important about the story lies not in the particular events it connects, not the beginnings and the endings, but all the things that take place along the way.

In short, in a history from – a North kind of history – we can understand indigenousness as habitation, migration as movement, and identity as emplacement within a fluid environment. My radical claim is that North-ness is everywhere. Of course in its claims to human universality, West-ness is everywhere too. One of the things about the West is that it isn’t anywhere, it is just everywhere, and it is always making claims to human universals. The North can be everywhere too, but the North’s everywhere is of a fundamentally different kind from the West’s. The West’s everywhere is the surface of the globe, where people live all around on the outside, as exhabitants, not inhabitants. But the North’s everywhere is an inhabited everywhere; a relational manifold of places and paths that extends without limit and that ultimately binds us all. So rather than doing southern, eastern and western histories in the North, I suggest that we might do histories from the North, or take these histories into, the South, the East and the West.

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Assistant professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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