"We did not create Sur Journal because we had certainties, but because we were plagued by doubts"
In a publishing world where analysts, writers, academics and journalists have their ideas rated by the number of “likes” conferred upon them by social networks, it is rare to come across someone with the kind of analogue knowledge such as that possessed by Pedro Paulo Poppovic, the São Paulo sociologist who for over 10 years edited Sur-International Journal on Human Rights, published by Conectas. He is also one of the few editors that can boast of a remarkable achievement: transforming the works of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates into national bestsellers in the 1970s, when he was in charge of the Os Pensadores (The Thinkers) collection at the giant Abril publishing house. With their distinctive blue covers, these books still flood the shelves of bookstores across the country, disproving the myth that Brazilians are no longer interested in philosophy and literature.
Poppovic is anything but virtual. Tall, well-built and reassuring, he makes himself comfortable in a solid armchair beneath an array of bookshelves reaching to the ceiling of his apartment in a traditional neighborhood of São Paulo. Calmly holding the visitor in his line of vision for a good two seconds more than usual, he starts by reaffirming the importance of pen and paper, clearly rowing against the tide in a world increasingly steeped in fast virtuality. Poppovic speaks as a person with time on his side. “The book, physically speaking, is something that is almost sacred, filled with symbolic values ??that transcend the mere transmission of knowledge.” Despite this forthright assertion, he sighs as if seeking confirmation of the phrase or preparing himself to give an opposite view – which never materializes.
Few intellectuals feel at ease when confronted by doubt. When he joined the SUR editorial team ten years ago, Poppovic was an island of ideas surrounded by an ocean of question marks. “We thought a lot about whether the Global South existed or not as a generator of academic knowledge. But the Global South is a comparative, relative concept. Despite these doubts, we pressed on with this very pretentious idea of giving voice to what the Global South could be, and we ended up by accepting the thesis that it does indeed exist.”
This conceptual decision, combining intuition, practical experience and political judgment, was the cornerstone on which SUR was founded. “We were in the South, a long way from the Rule of Law as interpreted by certain northern countries, where most academic publications dedicated to discussing human rights issues originated”*, Poppovic recalls in an article co-authored with the current Conectas’ Program Director Juana Kweitel in the issue 15 of the journal (December 2011).
The same spirit is reflected in a comment by Conectas’ Executive Director, Lucia Nader, in a 2013 video commemorating the organization’s 12 years of existence: “Although you were not based in Europe or the United States, or you could aim to be a regional organization.”
This “dogmatic” decision to advocate the existence of the Global South resolved the question, and the Journal’s editors were thereafter able to define their scope of action, presenting a logical explanation for what the Journal is, what it does and what its contribution in the field. Once the problems of a conceptual order were overcome, the group came face to face with a second, more practical obstacle: the shortcomings of many of the academic papers produced in the Global South. While the conceptual debate could be resolved with a coherent approach to the way the world was structured, there was no doubt that the Global South lagged behind in technical, academic and intellectual terms.
Poppovic candidly acknowledges that “most of the articles we received from the North were better than those we received from the Global South. Work produced in the Global South often contained excellent ideas but failed to conform to the academic standards of the time.”
Categorical statements like this can be interpreted in different ways: as, for example, harsh self-criticism, or a certain kind of prejudice blurred by a Eurocentric or Americanized view of the world. It all depends on who is making the statements. To understand why Poppovic took it upon himself to criticize some of the contributors to the journal, we have to go back 40 years to when Poppovic was a young sociology student at the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences.
Brazil was going through one of the darkest periods of its entire history. The military dictatorship, established in 1964 by the coup that overthrew President João Goulart, tortured, arrested and “disappeared” political dissidents, and also directed its persecution and anticommunist paranoia against university teachers and scholars working in the humanities. This was particularly the case with sociologists, philosophers and anthropologists who dared to criticize the oligarch, slave-owning and patrimonial traditions that had marked Brazil’s 500 year history and which continued to determine the way the military government, widely supported by conservative sectors of society, businessmen and industrialists ran the country at that particular moment in our history.
As a young student, Poppovic was the assistant to one of the greatest academicians of the time, the sociologist Florestan Fernandes. Accompanying him was another young university sociology colleague, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Up to the 1990s Cardoso served as a senator and minister, and finally became President of Brazil for two terms (1995-2003). During these two mandates, Poppovic, as Secretary for the Ministry of Education, coordinated an innovative distance education plan for government-run schools in the vast interior of Brazil.
Poppovic’s criticism of the quality of the Global South’s academic production can be understood more as a lament about his own academic condition and of his colleagues and as a desire for change and improvement than as contempt for those resigned to the status quo. Faced with this limitation, Poppovic decided to risk trying out a remedy for the very evil that SUR had set out to combat in a metalinguistic way. “We decided to publish the articles anyway. We selected the best, even if sometimes we had to put up with some shortcomings. We were sent 80 articles, with no payment requested. We were never short of papers.”
Given that the expectation of receiving top-class articles was obviously unrealistic, the editors of the journal then began to look for solutions to improve the editorial level of the contributions. A solution was found, together with the staff of the Carlos Chagas Foundation, that consisted of “coaching”—a challenging program designed to encourage good academic writing by young Brazilian researchers and activists.
“It immediately became clear to us what this challenge involved. It was not simply a question of printing a journal containing a few articles. The task of creating a journal with thinkers from the Global South took on an ambitious educational and training character. Again, the willingness to question our own certainties and to be prepared to delve into the unknown guided the editorial board’s decisions. We never strove to be dogmatic. And although we worked on the journal with people from the same academic area, they were never from our own organization. We had no intention of using the journal to express our own points of view.”
A group of editors governed by the prospect of profit, increased circulation and competition for sales might have regarded this as a non-starter in such circumstances. At this point, Poppovic began to speak more slowly, with increasing silences between phrases while he pondered the weight of each idea. He is perfectly aware of the current challenge faced by the journal. With such rapid changes in the publishing world, with questions being raised about the paper form of production and the high costs of translation, printing and mailing, it is inevitable that the publishers have, over the years, given thought to how SUR will survive into the future, with the virtual world encroaching ever closer on that of paper.
Poppovic sighs and looks around him as if searching for a non-existent window. After hours of discussion, the evening draws to a close and in the library of his apartment, surrounded by books in the half-light, the journal’s editor appears to want to say that the future has arrived too fast, as fast as the approach of the end of the day. “I’m a reactionary. I like the print form, even though it more than doubles the price of a publication,” he says, as if asking forgiveness. “The publications that are restricted to the internet lose substance. The idea that people only want to read short texts is far from the truth. Look at the United States, where 1,000 new books are printed every day. Look at São Paulo, which has more bookstores opening every day. I believe that SUR, after publishing 200 articles, needs to evolve. It needs to deal with more current issues. It needs to appear more regularly, and it needs a bigger budget. It must remain open, but as a typical academic journal. Its outlook and language are academic.”
Over ten years the journal has continued to reinvent itself. And even today, still solidly afloat, with 20 editions published in three languages ??and distributed to over one hundred countries, SUR is still seeking to innovate. The original group of editors, under Poppovic’s leadership, addressed the doubts and uncertainties of the time. The same is now happening with the new generation that has shouldered the same challenge of swimming against the tide to give a voice to the Global South. The synergy between the lessons learned in the past and bets on the future is producing one of the most worthwhile and interesting experiences of knowledge production aimed at action on human rights beyond the US-Europe axis.
* See full article available at: http://sur.conectas.org/en/journal-south-global-reach/. Last accessed on: 20 July 2014.