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QUITE CONTRARY

“Who says the clock always has to turn one way?” No, this is neither Alice nor the Cat, but the foreign minister of Bolivia speaking. That, too, at a press conference. The occasion is also fantastically Carrollian. The clock on the façade of the government building housing the Bolivian National Congress in La Paz has been reversed. The hands turn left, and the numbers are inverted to go from one to twelve anticlockwise. Hence, the foreign minister’s unabashedly defiant “Who says?”, followed by two more, equally startling, assertions: “Why do we always have to obey? Why can’t we be creative?” As a symbol of inversion, therefore, this anti-clock is both deeply comic (in the world-turned-upside-down sense of the word) and just as deeply serious. To rotate counter-clockwise becomes a political movement on that façade in La Paz — at the risk of making the government look goofy.

For Bolivia — ruled by an indigenous, leftist, environmentalist, anti-imperialist, cocalero-activist president, who has signed up with a football club to play midfield in the next season — the clock moving in a contrary direction is a “clock of the South”. It reverses the clocks of the North, which regards the Earth’s rotation from the (normative and hegemonic) point of view afforded by the North Pole. Foreign delegates attending the recent G77 summit in the Bolivian city of Santa Cruz were all given left-turning desk clocks as gifts. But Bolivia’s contrariness got its worthiest recognition last year when its president’s plane, returning to Bolivia from Russia, was re-routed to Vienna at the behest of some European governments. They had been tipped off by the United States of America that Edward Snowden, the whistleblower, could be on that plane, for he may have been given asylum in Bolivia.

Yet, the tradition of clock-face deviancy is not exclusively Bolivian or leftist. Anti-clocks are still made for the left-handed, and some Jewish clocks also move in the Southern direction — because the Hebrew script, like the Arabic and unlike the Latin, reads from right to left. Left and right, clockwise and anti-clockwise are mutually defining positions and movements that not only determine notions of time, but also become the template for the perception of all kinds of anatomical, linguistic, behavioural and political phenomena. In all these structures, the duality is not symmetrical, since the relationship between Left and Right usually ends up being hierarchical rather than equal. For reasons that go beyond etymology, to be left-aligned never quite manages to shed its sinisterness. This is sometimes alluring: there are many who find left-handedness, with all the oddness and creativity associated with it, irresistibly sexy. And sometimes, it is threatening. That is when planes have to be diverted and whistleblowers nailed.