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This long-read essay is published in three parts.
From 18 to 21 November 2018, shortly after the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s 38th president, I visited São Paulo State University (UNESP) at Presidente Prudente to participate in the Fifth International Seminar on Microterritorialities in Cities, which coincided with the Fifth National Seminar on Multiple Territorialities. The theme of the joint event organized by two networks of Brazilian geographers was “Cities in territories and territories in cities – from bodies to the world.” The double conceptual focus on “micro” and “multiple” territorialities proved capacious in illuminating some of the contested power relations that have to do with the “relation of territory to identities and alterities,” as announced in the programme. What is more, the event made tangible how “getting (re)territorialised is a political strategy of transformation much more than an academic question,” to come back to Haesbaert’s (2013: 148) formulation.
The transformative pathways that engaging with território can open up were powerfully brought out right at the beginning of the event, where the theatre group CALATE (Cartografia Latino Americana de Teatro do Oprimido), composed of UNESP geography students, enacted Latin America’s history of struggles over land and livelihoods. Connecting Milton Santos’s account of territory formation through state, capital and people to the lived experience of the de-privileged peasantry, quilombolas and indigenous communities, the piece revisited the violent ruptures in collective relationships to territory reiterated from colonization and industrialization to contemporary forms of dispossession that are enforced by alliances of agribusiness and politics, and assisted by current right-wing discourses around family morals and the left’s “corruption.” The performance culminated in a rendition of Daniel Viglietti’s song “A desalambrar” (roughly: “Undo the wire-fencing”), to which everyone was invited to sing along: “… Que la tierra es nuestra, es tuya y de aquel …” – “For this land is ours, is yours, whoever’s.”
This was by far the most moving conference opening I have ever attended. Evoking a strong sense of how “getting (re)territorialised is a political strategy of transformation,” and thereby setting the event’s agenda for an interweaving of território’s analytic, political and performative registers, the song summoned the audience into some of Latin America’s most contested de- and reterritorializations. In affective terms, the opening was emblematic of the political verve and boldness of the conference, which took place at a campus that abounded with political activities. In my own embodied reading as a researcher and political subject with white European privileges who has been invested in progressive transformation in Brazil, these bold affects themselves fostered progressive micro-territorialities.
Bold de- and reterritorializations
As co-organizer of the UNESP event Nécio Turra Neto pointed out, “territory” has acquired its significance as a key term in Latin American geography due to the ongoing pertinence of territorial struggles at a range of scales – from the indigenous populations living in Brazil’s 721 as yet only partly legally demarcated territories, or MST activists occupying lands of agricultural production and defending their settlements against the hatched men of private companies, to favela residents building and re-building their communities under the persistent threat of eviction, or homeless people and street sex workers who face violence and state repression on a daily basis. Many of these topics were also discussed by the forty-odd presenters at the UNESP conference on “Cities in territories and territories in cities.” which featured talks on urban youth cultures, struggles against the privatization of water and farming land, LGBTQ people’s access to rights in city spaces, sexualized violence in the home, post-industrial urban restructuring, environmental education in Afrobrazilian religious communities, or masculinities in prison space. Strikingly, many of the presentations paid close attention to subaltern practices where territories of activity, conviviality and expression are created in the midst of precarity, exclusion and violence.
Even more than the contents of the various contributions at the UNESP event, it was the ways in which they were affectively delivered that conveyed to me a commitment to affirm the university as a space of resistance – and that instigated what I call “bold” de- and reterritorializations. Among the most intense such reterritorializations – apart from the aforementioned theatre piece – was the opening of a roundtable on “gender, racialities and territorialities” by black scholar-activist Ivonete Aparecida Alves, who graduated from Presidente Prudente and is a PhD candidate at Campinas.
An Afrobrazilian song rang out through the speakers, sung by a female voice. Alves then appeared on the stage of the lecture hall in an outfit that made use of indigenous and Afrobrazilian dressing styles, continuing to sing the song – which the audience listened to more intently as she became visible. She had moreover decorated the front of the room with handcrafted dolls. As Alves subsequently recounted, they were historically connected to black women’s practice of sewing such dolls to comfort children whose enslaved parents were elsewhere or dead. In the background, Alves screened slides of pieces of African and Afrobrazilian arts and events organized by the Coletivo Mãos Negras (Black Hands Collective), which is based at the UNESP.
Through these various media of singing, performing, story-telling and presenting objects and images, Alves filled the lecture hall with practices and expressions that invoked and affirmed black, feminist and subaltern presences in academic space while also establishing connections with activist and cultural territorialities. After introducing the topic of the roundtable and the participants, the speaker-performer ended her introduction with the call “Marielle”, to which the audience responded with the steady chorus: “presente!” In thus re-invoking the call-and-response practice cultivated in a range of political – as well as in black cultural – spaces, Alves transterritorially connected the lecture hall, with its disciplining tablet-arm chairs, to the streets and to black communities.
I perceived Ivonete Aparecida Alves’ introduction as “bold” because it used the predominantly white space of an academic conference to counter racist and sexist exclusion. Moreover, it countered the current attack on subjugated knowledges by the new government, which has announced that Paulo Freire’s legacy will be “purged” from curricula (even though it is not even really there). At the same time, Alves’s introduction disseminated ways of inhabiting academic space otherwise.
Another such bold reterritorialization was Jhonata Estevam aka Jhow’s performance “Monólogo com Berê,” which opened the final session on 21 November, and was warmly received by the audience. Jhow, a geography student at Presidente Prudente, stood in front of the audience, holding a big rainbow flag and singing in spoken-word style Linn da Quebrada’s song Talento, which challenges the stereotypical sexualization of bichas and travestis, that is, Brazilian queer and trans femininities. After laying out the flag on the stage, the performer sang “Estou procurando, estou procurando,” – “I’m searching, I’m searching.” Jhow then walked slowly into the lecture hall and all around the seated audience, continuing to sing Linn da Quebrada’s song Submissa do 7° Dia:
Estou procurando, estou tentado entender / O que é que tem em mim / Que tanto incomoda você / Se é a sobrancelha, o peito / A barba, o quadril sujeito … / [I’m searching / I’m searching / I’m searching, I’m trying to understand / What’s there in me / That bothers you so much / If it’s the eyebrow, the chest / The beard, the subject hip …]
As Jhow later wrote to me, the performance was inspired by LGBTQ friends’ reports on daily experiences of aggression and exclusion, which are often related to norms around the body, aesthetics, habitus and behavior. The performance thus affirmed not only the spatial presence of queer and trans people of color in the lecture hall, recalling their daily struggles for território in and out of the academy, but it also challenged the academic audience to reflect on the ways in which they look at queer bodies in daily life. The university space was thus de- and re-territorialized as the normative gender performances commonly prevailing there were “dis-placed,” being “re-placed” by other forms of expression. For those familiar with black trans performer Linn da Quebrada from São Paulo, a “transterritorial” linkage to contemporary spaces of queer communities – which are also transnationally shaped – was moreover invited.
Apart from these explicitly performative contributions, expressive and affective reterritorializations were also instigated by some of the talks and discussions. For example, on the evening of 20 November, a collective of women from the UNESP at Presidente Prudente convened a panel on feminism at the university. In her subsequent talk titled “Women in the construction of geographic thinking?” Joseli Maria Silva from the State University of Ponta Grossa in the state of Paraná cherished this event as the most touching academic event she had ever participated in, being a senior feminist geographer. She included in her talk, which was a detailed account of the side-lining of female and feminist voices in Brazilian geography, a moving account of her protracted struggle for feminist voices to be heard in the discipline. This rang all the truer in view of the new right’s current “anti-genderism” agitation.
Rethinking territoriality through affective boldness
My depiction of some affective scenarios that unfolded at the UNESP conference is not meant to “represent” the actual experiences of performers, speakers and participants – for how one relates to de- and reterritorialization has to do with one’s specific positionality and a range of contingencies. Beyond my own embodied reading, however, women’s, black and queer mobilizations in particular have long demonstrated that there is potential for progressive affirmations that contribute to a proliferation of bold and hopeful affects beyond the crisis-ridden PT project.
More specifically, the various affirmations of progressive visions and subjectivities at the UNESP can be understood as subaltern de-territorializations inasmuch they challenged the kinds of expressions that often bestride academic spatial practices. They also confronted the discourses and embodiments disseminated by the Brazilian new right, which has been campaigning against emancipatory discourses in schools and higher education by cherishing the values of the (white, rich, heterosexual) “Brazilian family.” In this sense, they intervened into an entire structure of feeling that Bolsonarism has successfully harnessed to intersect the interests of the military, church and propertied elites, as the final part of this essay will also highlight. At the same time, these affirmations were re-territorializations, as they forged capacities to inhabit academic spaces otherwise, establishing multiple connections to subaltern territorialities that have already been crafted elsewhere.
These examples, then, bring into relief some of the affective dynamics involved in de- and reterritorialization. They thereby also call for a reconsideration of humanistic approaches, which have often associated territoriality – akin to “place” – with affectivity as such, and with “euphoric” affects of love and intimacy linked to romanticized images of “home” and “place” in particular. Deterritorialization, on the other hand, has been equated with the “lack” of affect engendered by alienation, as well as with dysphoric affects such as fear. Deterritorialization, however, is no less affective than reterritorialization. The point is that affective quality and intensity depend on how agential capacities are reshaped in de- and reterrritorialization processes. Boldness is among the affects that seem of great relevance in reshaping agential capacities in the current political conjuncture.
I take inspiration here from the term Finnish geographer Hille Koskela (1997) has used to describe the “spatial confidence” that characterizes many women’s walks in city streets. Boldness, in this sense, goes beyond a mere denial of internalized fears, and instead sets a focus on how those commonly viewed as vulnerable “can take their space and enjoy it” (Koskela 1997: 305). While boldness implies an awareness of risks and dangers, it is simultaneously associated with a set of resistant everyday practices where subjects in a subaltern power relation “actively produce, define and reclaim space” (ibid.).
Likewise, the aforementioned de- and reterritorializations at “Cities in territories and territories in cities” express an awareness of the very real dangers of the current social and political conjuncture, which harks back to a much longer history of racist, sexist, anti-LGBT and anti-poor violence and repression. They confront this situation and the associated proliferation of anxieties with bold ways of reclaiming space. As embodied practice, boldness is variegated as it can range from joy- and playful to angry and assertive moods and postures. Its particular affectivity is engendered, though, precisely by its capacity to confront and transform adverse territorialities and the subjectivities implicated within them: bold anger, bold playfulness, bold joy.
Transversal connections (and their limits)
Attending to affective territoriality seems of great pertinence in the current political conjuncture, as it can illuminate how subjectivities connect “transversally” – that is, despite their various differences –on an affective level. It is through such connections that progressive (as well as authoritarian) ways of world-making are amplified. For instance, while what I have been able to say as a white male German about black Brazilian women’s affective de- and reterritorialization practices has been limited, some of the vectors of de- and reterritorialization I sensed as Ivonete Aparecida Alves came singing on stage still point beyond my individual positionality – and intensely so. Aparecida Alves’ or Joseli Maria Silva’s bold reterritorializations were enacted in ways that invited all who are willing to confront the current backlash. While they centered specific subjectivities, these de- and reterritorializations simultaneously fostered transversal connections. Even Jhow’s provocative singing “I’m trying to understand | What’s there in me | That bothers you so much” was an invitation to the academic audience to take our interest in territorialities a step further and contribute towards creating spaces where queer and trans subjectivities can flourish. Intent listening, impressed faces or frenetic applause therefore proliferated across a range of subjectivities – Sara Ahmed’s important argument around the often radically different experiences of spatial atmospheres notwithstanding.
These instigations of territorialization, then, engendered enthusiasm to transform academic and political spaces across different positionalities. Some limitations could also be witnessed, however. After the mentioned roundtable on “gender, racialities and territorialities,” participants were invited to join a roda de samba, a samba circle, just outside the lecture hall. A capoeira group based at the UNESP started singing and playing drums, pandeiros and caxixis, enacting a practice that has been of great significance to especially black sociability and resistance in postcolonial Brazil. The majority-white conference participants, while certainly familiar with the significance of roda de samba in creating subaltern microterritorialities, largely remained at a distance, looking at the half-circle that had been formed as yet another presentation, rather than as a practice to be collectively engaged. Only after the main singer explicitly invited people to form a circle did some of the participants join in singing and dancing – in many cases their embodied academic habitus rubbing against the roda’s rhythm. The awkwardness of this roda – which revitalized some of the participants after hours of sitting while clearly challenging others – exemplified the frictions that exist even in progressive academic spaces in relation to the territorialities that the black diaspora has cultivated. The long history of colonialism, capitalism and resistance that has shaped these co-existing territorialities has also reterritorialized embodied forms of expression in ways that are not easily transcended.
What adds to these challenges in amplifying progressive territorialities in and out of academia, though, are the de- and reterritorialization processes that have been successfully instigated by the authoritarian right, as the last part of this essay suggests.