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This long-read essay is published in three parts. Parts II and III are accessible at the bottom of the post.Content Warning: This essay contains a quote with a homophobic and derogatory slur. The term is used by the perpetrator of a transphobic assault, and is in the subsection "Anxiety and Fear."
I. POLITICAL AFFECTS
Brazil is once again at the focus of public debate. But whereas into the mid-2010s the country was celebrated for its showcase combination of democratization, reduced poverty rates and economic growth, it is now hogging the headlines due to its role in the global ascension of right-wing populism—or fascism, depending on the term chosen. After the Brazilian left had been able to shape public discourses especially during Lula da Silva’s presidency, attention has now shifted to the ultra-conservative, ultra-neoliberal, ultra-militaristic government of Jair Bolsonaro.
As leftist or liberal academics based in Western Europe, we frequently stare at the ultra-right’s global ascendance like a deer caught in the headlights, shocked at the speed at which a new (or not so new) set of narratives is articulated with elitist class interests and political power. After a much-too-short global season of Arab springs and Occupy movements, the left now seems to be lagging behind in terms of mobilizing, strategizing and narrativizing – notable exceptions such as Black Lives Matter or #MeToo notwithstanding. This impression might also be due though to the grotesque spectacles with which the right has flooded our media-saturated visions. For its meme-based rabble-rousing – where “rabble” significantly includes the middle-classes – has not only bestowed electoral successes upon the extreme right; it has also contributed to a reterritorialization of spaces and subjectivities. For example, when a play narrating the Christian Gospel from a trans perspective leads to censorship, a presidential candidate’s derogatory tweet and violent clashes in a theatre, this indicates intense struggles around who is able to make use of which kinds of spaces. Especially in the Brazilian case, this also points to the proliferation of evangelical subjectivities that police rigid norms around gender and sexuality with ardent zeal. Right-wing scare stories around corruption, crime or the Workers’ Party (PT) have been told with similar fervor. The current political conjuncture is thus also inherently affective.
But affect has also played a vital role in leftist resistance and organizing—as well as the lack thereof. To help re-direct our attention towards progressive ways of world-making, this three-part essay therefore discusses some of the affective dynamics that have unfolded on the political left in the Brazilian context. My focus, especially in the second part of this essay, is on the connection between affect and territoriality. I pick up here on the discussion of território and territorialidade in Brazilian geography, where these terms, as in other Romance languages, denote not only politically demarcated areas, but also pieces of the world that are inhabited and agentially shaped through everyday practice. These terms thus denote the sets of meanings, practices and processes that constitute what is subjectively experienced as well as politically affirmed as território (Haesbaert 2013). “Territorializing” spaces then means generating the material and semiotic conditions for inhabiting spaces. Or, as Rogério Haesbaert has noted, “[i]n Latin America today … getting (re)territorialised is a political strategy of transformation much more than an academic question” (2013: 148).
A plethora of academic works published since the mid-2000s have used a focus on território to look at political strategies of transformation in a range of urban and rural contexts, often focusing on subaltern struggles and resistances. Epistemologically, these engagements with territory “from below”—akin to contemporary Anglo writings on place – have combined a humanistic focus on lived experiences with materialist and poststructuralist concerns with inequalities, power relations and multiplicity. However, while it has been commonplace to mention “affective” dimensions of territoriality in connection to its “symbolic” constituents, questions of emotion and affect have received little sustained empirical or conceptual attention so far. Coming back to Haesbaert’s above-cited formulation, though, the affective constraining of people’s joyful relations to spaces is arguably a striking example of how “getting (re)territorialised is a political strategy of transformation”—a reactionary strategy in this case. Likewise, wherever subaltern subjects affectively affirm their presence in the context of reactionary reterritorialization – whether through joy or anger—these can be seen as resistant forms of de- and reterritorialization.
Such affective dimensions seem worth further scrutiny, not least due to their salience in Brazil’s current political conjuncture. For as Haesbaert has also argued, “struggles/social practices themselves continually remake the concept of territory” (2013: 148). The current moment, I suggest, calls for complementing the functional and symbolic dimensions around which the concept of território has long been organized with a sharpened focus on affect. As I will elaborate, I have found the affective de- and reterritorializations instigated especially by female, black and queer activists and academics in Brazil deeply moving, and I hope that this essay contributes to a further proliferation of the affective and political verve thus being generated.
I want to start, however, by outlining the shifts and turns in political moods and affects on the Brazilian left as I have witnessed them since the mid-2010s through reports, stays in Brazil and conversations in Europe. My intention is not to provide an exhaustive account, but rather to bring into relief some of the ways in which the recent enthrallment with right-wing politics has piggybacked on an earlier amplification of negative affects through public media – in particular disenchantment, apathy and anxiety. I will subsequently consider the role a focus on “bold” affects might play in supporting more joyful and progressive territorializations.
Political affects, or, from hope to anxiety
Commentators have frequently described the ups and downs of the Brazilian left over the last ten years or so in affective terms. These narrative accounts – which can be traced from major newspapers such as Folha de São Paulo, El País or The Guardian to researchers and intellectuals including Esther Solano, Alfredo Saad-Filho or Jessé Souza – index a series of moods that have proliferated in political discourses from the streets to institutional spaces. According to these accounts, the extreme right’s ascendance took shape against the backdrop of a progressive disenchantment with Lula da Silva’s PT. The hopeful atmosphere that had surrounded the PT’s project of democratization and poverty reduction since Lula’s inauguration as president in 2003 gave way, in this view, to growing anger and disappointment regarding the project’s inherent limitations, followed by exhaustion, fears, and anxieties as Bolsonaro was elected in October 2018.
In my research on Brazilian LGBT politics that started in 2006, just after Lula had embarked on his second term of office, I witnessed up-close a progressive disenchantment with the government, which failed to follow up on such projects as “Brazil without homophobia,” launched by Lula at the First National LGBT Conference in Brasília in 2008. To secure a majority in the multi-party congress, Lula’s government entered into coalitions with evangelicals who had campaigned against LGBT and abortion rights.
Others, like the rural and indigenous communities suffering the damaging impacts of mega-projects such as the Belo Monte Dam, had become increasingly impatient with the PT’s developmentalist agenda and its strategic alliances with agribusiness. The 2005-2006 Mensalão corruption scandal had moreover bruised Lula’s image of integrity. Commentators criticised the government’s agenda, which promised improvements for everyone but glossed over social and economic contradictions. Social transfers to the poor increased consumption while leaving the colonial structure of land ownership, the monopolization of media, and the militarized police apparatus untouched.
Especially since 2011, when Lula had to hand over his presidency to his less-than-charismatic successor Dilma Rousseff, this agenda entered into crisis. The decline in oil prices in the wake of the global economic crisis made a continuation of the developmentalist model impossible. At the same time, portions of the middle-class became worried about losing their privileges, as the barriers that had kept poor and black people in a subordinate position seemed to become increasingly porous. On the backdrop of this waning sense of hope regarding societal change, parts of the middle-class were able to highjack the 2013 mobilizations that demanded investments in public services and infrastructure alleging corruption in order to spread anti-PT sentiment.
The outcome of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which turned out to be disastrous for the country not only in an athletic sense, provoked a broader culmination of disenchantments. Advertised as a milestone of national prosperity, the “copa” was accompanied instead by mass evictions, militarized interventions in communities, repression of street vendors and homeless people, numerous deaths of construction workers, and large-scale privatization associated with massive corruption. The 2016 Summer Olympics followed along the same track. During a trip there in 2015, we spoke with residents who were still holding out in Rio’s community of Vila Autódromo, which was in the process of being razed by the city government. The construction of the adjacent Olympic Village went along with a massive transformation of public and community lands into investment capital for the real-estate market.
The Vila Autódromo residents were as exasperated as those in Minas Gerais’s mining regions which we subsequently visited. A former mining worker and activist took us to Latin America’s largest tailings dam built in an urban area, explaining the imminent risk of its failure. A month later, the Mariana dam breached. The times of hope were clearly over.
Exhaustion, apathy, aporia
This time of disenchantment had still been marked by an effervescence of leftist mobilizations though – from the 2013 protests to the copa – that breathed the air of the international Occupy and Gezi movements. The subsequent impeachment of Rousseff in 2015-16 and interim president Michel Temer’s ensuing onslaught on the PT’s agenda of social, economic and human rights then marked a turning point from accumulated disenchantments to a spreading sense of exhaustion that manifested in the waning of these earlier mobilizations and in a dearth of publicly articulated visions for the future. This sense of exhaustion coincided with increasingly pessimistic diagnoses in national and international media reports of where the country was headed.
Exhaustion was moreover coupled with the left airing feelings of disempowerment, as center and right-wing politicians had been able to instrumentalize fraudulent allegations of corruption against the PT. These expressions of disempowerment were exacerbated when judge Sérgio Moro – now Bolsonaro’s Minister of Justice and Public Security – convicted former president Lula da Silva for corruption and money laundering based on very thin evidence, thereby hollowing out wider confidence in state institutions including the judiciary. Leftist mobilization fragmented.
At the level of political discourses, the exhaustion of hope thus left behind an immobilizing sense of exhaustion: apathy. Some have argued that parts of the left themselves contributed to “immobilism and desperation” (MA Perruso), as they focused all energy on denouncing the “coup” and rehabilitating Lula and the PT, rather than building up a real alternative. What further aggravated this sense of exhaustion and disempowerment was the targeted – and in all likelihood politically and economically motivated – killing of the left municipal councilor Marielle Franco in downtown Rio de Janeiro in March 2018. A black feminist, and LGBT activist, Franco had been a vital source of hope for many, as she represented the possibility of a different politics and a new generation of politicians. As one of the protesters who gathered in front of Rio’s council chamber the day after Franco’s killing told the Guardian, “I feel lost, without hope,” describing the killing as “a very tough blow for anyone who fights for justice, for freedom, for equality.”
When a major source of hope is lost, what remains is the feeling of being lost, the sense that one has nowhere to go from here. Apathy turns into aporia – without a passage, aporos. The exhaustion of hope, which has ensued from the accumulation of disenchantments over time, thus seemed to lead to an aporetic political spacetime with “nowhere to go” – perhaps a more agitated way of “feeling backwards” (Heather Love) than the melancholia so often debated in Anglo cultural theory.
Black, feminist and queer activists in particular countered apathy with bold affirmations that recurred in a range of manifestations, events and social media postings: “Marielle presente – hoje e sempre!” (“Marielle present – today and always!”).
Feminist mobilizations had already crystallized in what came to be known as the feminist spring of 2015, when women took to the streets in protest of the conservative backlash spearheaded by Temer and launched a series of marches, articles and social media debates to raise issues around femicide, rape, racism and machismo as well as abortion and sex workers’ rights.
As in the activism around the assassination of Marielle Franco, these mobilizations often inserted a tone and posture of bold resistance into public space. For instance, in a report from October 2016, a participant at a demonstration in downtown Rio declared, “We won’t accept that every two hours a woman is assassinated in our country. We have to stop all this! We have to fight, we won’t rest, we won’t stop!” The “#EleNão” (“not him”) campaign launched in September 2018 against Bolsonaro followed on a similar affective track of bold resistance.
However, the ensuing baton change from the hugely unpopular beneficiary of impeachment, Temer, to hard-line militarist Bolsonaro deepened the political aporia amplified in political discourses. In these narratives, the left’s failure to avoid this transition despite months and years of mobilizing on the streets and the social media, in the universities and parliaments, in urban communities, rural encampments and indigenous territories, dealt the final blow to the PT’s politics of hope. What is more, the feeling of being at a loss described by protesters of Marielle Franco’s killing also coalesced with the discursive amplification of another affect, which the election of Bolsonaro has further intensified: anxiety.
Anxiety and fear
“I have never been so scared,” another interviewee told the Guardian at the protests for Franco in March 2018. “People are shocked with what happened. They did this to Mari, one of the most popular lawmakers in Rio. What will stop them doing this to others?” Between Franco’s killing and Bolsonaro’s election, anxieties further proliferated, as Brazil’s openly racist, sexist and homophobic new president sanctioned violent attacks on and even killings of anyone deemed to stand outside the – especially rich, white, male, heterosexual, right-wing – supporters of the “Brazilian family”. The increase in reported attacks on black, queer and indigenous people, settlers of the Landless Workers’ Movement (MST), oppositional journalists, politicians or campaigners in the months leading up to the elections further intensified public expressions of fear and anxiety.
Even schoolteachers and university professors have been under attack, receiving threats from those that followed Bolsonaro’s recommendation to film and denounce whoever deviates in classroom from his radical so-called “anti-communist” and “anti-genderism” course. Some have even described these threats as worse than the surveillance conducted under the Military Dictatorship, when clandestine observers in universities were more narrowly demarcated. Now, aggressions and denunciations could come from all sides.
The leftist public’s fear of aggression and attacks has moreover fed into broader anxieties around the new president’s projected onslaught on the civil, social and land rights that have been gained since the country’s democratization in the 1980s. But spreading fears and anxieties might also have begun to transform people’s relations to city spaces. Trans people and those without stable homes were reported to arm themselves with knives and guns against attacks by those who throughout 2018 could be heard shouting in public: “When Bolsonaro comes to power, he will finally put an end to you!”
It was in the context of this aggressive atmosphere that, on the day before the first round of the elections, a man severely injured trans woman Julyanna Barbosa near a highway in Nova Iguaçu north of Rio. A group of four men had started insulting Barbosa with comments such as, “What a faggot! Bolsonaro has to win to get this garbage off the street!” After Barbosa, a prominent performer who was returning from a club, retorted, one of the men took a metal club and hit her on the head.
Barbosa later described feelings of fear and shame that kept her from reporting the case to the police, as well as a sense of powerlessness in view of the other people’s failure to intervene: “Besides the shame and the fear, there is the sensation that there wasn’t anything. There were people at the bus stop and nobody reacted. So why should I complain?” This relates to the argument made by feminist geographers who have connected women’s generalized anxieties in city spaces, among other things, to their sense of lacking support from others (Koskela 1997) – raising the issue of affective territoriality.
Towards bold reterritorializations
The proliferation of fears and anxieties in streets, classrooms and elsewhere, amplified through public media, might already have begun to further constrain the concrete spaces which subaltern subjects can find hope within and joyfully inhabit. Barbosa’s comments, for instance, suggest that anxieties proliferate among subaltern and dissident subjects as the risk increases that witnesses of violence might take a “Bolsonarist” stance. Where such a stance – which endorses violence against queer, trans, poor and black people as well as women and political opponents – becomes hegemonic in city, community or educational spaces, this signals a violently repressive reterritorialization of these spaces. Behaviors and expressions run the risk of being aligned according to the extreme right’s white-supremacist, evangelical, militaristic and normatively gendered standards.
Rather than just staring at this on-going restriction of political and everyday spaces, though, it is time to appreciate and intensify the bold responses that especially those most affected by the extreme right have been creating. The late Marielle Franco has become iconic for the spatial affirmations of women as well as poor, black and queer people. For instance, addressing poor women’s well-founded fears of assaults in public space, in 2016 she campaigned for a law that enables women to leave the bus at night outside bus stops, as a large number of assaults happen in connection to public transport. In the same breath, she demanded a larger presence of women in spaces of decision-making: “There cannot only be rich white men, who never had fear of leaving the bus at a dark bus stop or who have never been harassed.”
Especially black feminists and queer activists have long demonstrated how progressive affirmations can contribute to a proliferation of bold and hopeful affects beyond the crisis-ridden PT project. As the second part of this essay elaborates, this not only resonates with Brazilian geographers’ pronounced interest in subaltern territorialities; it also calls us to consider academic spaces as vital sites for progressive de- and reterritorialization.
The fateful time from the toppling of Dilma Rousseff’s government in 2015-16 to last year’s election has received remarkablylittle attention in international media, but that is another story.
These include, among many others, Timo Bartholl’s PhD thesis “Territories of Resistance and Social Grassroots Movements;” Benhur Pinós da Costa’s PhD thesis “Territory, Culture and Homoeroticism in the City;” Miguel Angelo Ribeiro’s and Rafael da Silva Oliveira’s edited volume on sex work titled “Territory, Sex and Pleasure” from 2011; or Frederico de Araujo and Rogério Haesbaert’s 2007 edited collection “Identities and Territories.” The latter gathers conceptual texts on the discursive construction (Araujo) and the multiplicitous character (Haesbaert) of territory and identity as well as discussions of the segregated urban spaces inhabited by poor people (Eber Pires Marzulo) and the “territorial identities” constructed by the social movements of the Amazon (Valter do Carmo Cruz). See also Zibechi (2012).Urban and political geography have on the other hand also attended to the “illegal territorial enclaves” (Souza 2008) that are formed by drug trafficking organizations as well as by military-police militias and other armed groups, or to the territorial strategies of militarized police interventions and exceptionalist politics.
For further conceptual discussions see Saquet and Sposito (2009), and Haesbaert (2004).
I am grateful to Joseli Maria Silva, Nécio Turra Neto and Charmaine Chua for their helpful comments on earlier drafts.
For a discussion of the Brazilian middle-classes and their role in anti-PT and “anti-corruption” politics, see Souza (2018).
I organized this trip for students together with Tobias Schmitt from the University of Hamburg.
After a further disaster, the dam collapse near Brumadinho in January 2019 that killed hundreds people, residents of Congonhas are again exasperated.
“Aporia” derives from the Greek word “aporos,” meaning “impassable, impracticable, very difficult; hard to deal with; at a loss.” It is composed of the prefix “a-“ meaning “not, without” and the word “póro’”, meaning “passage.”