Why the periphery?

My wish to organize the Reading the Periphery.org online archive derives from my longstanding interest in encounters between “old” and “new” worlds. While historians have focused on laying out the history of power and domination among continents, I am yet to see the same consideration to the impressions of ordinary Europeans or non-Europeans when confronted with each other’s realities.

Instead, I realized that individual accounts remained forgotten or spared from the context of cross-cultural relationships, especially if they had no intention to engage with scholarly thought. But how to frame these encounters? How to describe the meeting of individuals of such different realities, while leveling a legacy of transatlantic relationships?

I realized that building upon a particular notion of periphery could help me to incorporate many of these accounts and in all their variety. More, it could recognize existing divides and the inherent economic, and historical asymmetry between Europe and its colonies. At the same time, this term would allow me to set a standard ground for engaging with the reports of writers, scholars, scientists, or, directly, with those who have ever “explored” the other side.

By assuming that there is a periphery and there is a center, I ended up with the long list of critical texts featured here.

In fact, the periphery as a term may have endless spatial correlations. It attests the existence of a “center,” as said, while not detaching itself from the whole. As Shils discusses, assuming that there is a periphery allows a power relationship with the unknown. However, we do not necessarily need to believe there is the “unknown” when we have a significant wealth of scholarly research talking about exchanges with the periphery, even though these processes appear as “colonization” or “diaspora.”

For this archive’s accessibility purposes, more urgent than engaging with the multiple definitions of these concepts, it was to cover both literary and academic readings of this imagined periphery, as the debate flows into stories, reportages, articles, and books, much of which not entirely captured by sociological theories.

Whether during idyllic 19th-century transatlantic voyages or by dwelling on contemporary issues of “development,” authors have located themselves and “the other” according to the values they find dearest but which change over time.

This relationship periphery and center indeed underpins contemporary Western thought, which is one of implementing the “most advanced” reality in the underdeveloped environment. Furthermore, if the westerner goes to the periphery, it is about exploration, if the latter goes to the center, it embodies the invader, the strange visitor, the illegal immigrant. This duality shows why ‘reading the periphery’ does matter.

Seeing the periphery is also to confront many fears and concerns. British colonial writers, such as Anthony Trollope, imagined railways that run through unknown, dangerous lands. He saw as the only reason for handling the harsh reality (the tropical, humid forest) was to implement (British) technology, so that one transform iron and steel into something that could make sense for his civilization. Assumedly, without this purpose, the white man would have no other reason to know the “periphery.”

This fear from the wild indigenous and its endurance co-exists with the pains of meeting the members of the periphery. For instance, the moment when Michel de Montaigne engaged in conversation with a native from Brazil. Despite his reservations, that was a way of reading the periphery, albeit present as an enforced “transplantation” into the heart of the 16th-century European bourgeoisie.

After getting used to the peripheral subject in society, the European center then goes on to the perpetuate the former’s subaltern ethos. For the center, the periphery remains both the likes of an art deemed as “primitive”, these are some of the paintings hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; or it is what stems from Brazil’s favelas, places reduced to poverty and violence. In all these episodes of the so-called modern Western world, authors have operated under the assumption of a well-defined, even though feared, dangerous, impenetrable periphery.

By collecting records of these debates, I have learned that the priority of this archive should be to reinforce both pessimistic and optimistic readings but overall recognizing its continuation as a site of struggle and strangeness.

There is no such thing as “one subdued periphery,” as some scholars of colonialism, and post-colonialism have argued. The truth is that the periphery also reads the center in challenging ways, often disputing assigned marginalities. This archive could tell that story.

For instance, we find Mariáteguy diagnosing the evils that capitalism has unleashed in his native Peru; Martí declaring the United States as a threat for his Pan-American vision; we have the open veins of “Latin America”; or yet the hyper-sexualized brown female that has the agency of marrying her “gringo.”

All these readings aren’t that media-oriented, neither are easy to understand, but they are existing relationships between periphery and center.

While this archive does not aim to politicize these clashes for meaning, contentious as they are, the goal is to dwell on this idea of the periphery so to allow readers to develop their critical position, questioning the limits of known stereotypes.

Whether the periphery is in South or Central America, Africa or Asia, or in the so-called “Global South” altogether (a concept I do not subscribe to), we cannot forget that the making of the periphery exists as an attempt of seeing “the world.” It is possible to advance in that discussion by rescuing the right intention that exists in it, drawing on the legacy of intercontinental imagination. Even though much of it stems from the effort of seeing and politicizing differences, on the one hand, it inevitably has a role in somehow connecting people, on the other.

In sum, by reading the periphery we can eventually conclude it does not fit in our personal views or disagree with the connotation it has gotten, but in any case, we will have known more about those who – we think – do not live close to us.

Helton Levy
Editor, Reading the Periphery.org