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This long-read essay is published in three parts.
n Brazil’s volatile and multifaceted political conjuncture – which began with a crisis of the PT project in the early 2010s, moved through the center-right’s shady aspirations to power and culminated in the election of an openly anti-democratic president (see Part I) – territorial struggles have played a key role. These struggles pertain to violent contestations around increasingly privatized, financialized and violently policed urban and rural spaces, as well as to subaltern people’s endeavors for dignified institutional, political and everyday spaces. For instance, the authoritarian right has used the increasing presence of queer, black and poor people in the academy – which has been assisted by the PT education program – to stir anxieties around a gay-feminist-communist takeover, as Joseli Maria Silva has pointed out to me. Backlash. The affective de- and reterritorializations that I have been able to witness at the UNESP in Presidente Prudente have therefore been located at the heart of these territorial contestations. To give just one example relating to these contestations in the academy and in the field of geography in particular, in mid-February, Jair Bolsonaro’s son, the politician Carlos Bolsonaro, ridiculed a geography master’s thesis that looks at online dating among gay men in a Whatsapp posting that went viral. The discipline suddenly received unexpected nationwide attention, which led to public pronouncements by geographers and a call for international solidarity.
Critical commentators such as Vladimir Safatle or Eliane Brum have connected the partial success of such attempts to oust subaltern ways of living and thinking to the wider anxieties that have proliferated in a context of economic crisis, climate change, precarity and urban violence. Importantly, though, if Bolsonarism has sought to discredit, disempower and even annihilate subaltern lives, it has simultaneously operated, not only through fears and anxieties, but through affective de- and reterritorializations that have a positive valence. In particular, Jair Bolsonaro – whose middle name is “Messias” and has been referred to as “o mito,” “the myth,” by his followers – has been able to surround himself with an air of messianic change – despite his thoroughly anti-Christian stances. Anthropologist Rosana Pinheiro-Machado thus talks about a “renovation of hope.” As she elaborates:
“I saw a lot of popular hope on the part of Bolsonaro’s voters towards the end of the elections. Many say that it was the election of the resenting, the embittered and the frustrated. I think it was the renovation of the hope of the frustrated. It was a genuine hope for change” (translation mine).
Bolsonaro’s victory, then, is itself premised on a series of affective de- and reterritorializations that have stirred anti-PT resentments on the one hand, while promoting a new messianism on the other. What Pinheiro-Machado is particularly concerned about, however, is that the “Bolsonarist zeal” might shortly diminish and convert into ever-deeper frustration – which Bolsonaro will likely counter with intensified persecution and scapegoating of minorities, teachers and the poor, blaming structural inequality on people’s “depravity” and invoking moral issues around LGBT and women’s rights. It is therefore precisely these popular frustrations, the anthropologist argues, that the left will need to act upon.
The boldness that struck me at Presidente Prudente, then, confronted not only the imminent threats posed by Bolsonarism, but also suggested an affective alternative to Bolsonaro’s response to the anxieties that have proliferated in the context of social, political and economic crises. The audience’s exclamation “presente!” that invoked the late Marielle Franco; the theatre group’s singing of A desalambrar; Jhow’s performance of Linn da Quebrada’s Estou procurando – all these enactments conveyed the embodied sense of a resolute resistance and alternative to violent conservatism. Where Bolsonarism promises to ward off anxieties through militarism and the exclusion of what is coded as “dangerous,” such bold articulations open up affective space for non-phobic, egalitarian and transformative politics. In this sense, boldness can be an affective condition of resistant expressions that have emerged in a context of backlash.
De- and reterritorializations such as those at the Presidente Prudente conference therefore serve as an inspiration for affective de- and reterritorializations within and beyond the academy. They display a real potential to alter the current, still volatile, conjuncture, as they intervene on an affective level that shapes political discourse and action. Scholarly interventions and collaborations can make particularly important contributions, as research and education are among the major sites of the current political contestations in Brazil. Apart from opening up academic and discursive spaces for Brazilian researchers, as Western-based academics we can for instance analyze and denounce the economic and political entanglements of European actors that openly support and collaborate with the Brazilian extreme right.
A recent example of interventions outside the academy that brought to light these entanglements were the international manifestations on 14 March 2019 in remembrance of Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes, who were both shot dead a year earlier by a suspected contract killer who lived in a condominium in Rio where Bolsonaro owns a home.
In Berlin, the protesters who were summoned by Fórum Resiste Brasil, the RefrACTa Coletivo Brasil-Berlim and other groups, thus reminded the public that the fatal shots were fired from a gun produced by the German company Heckler & Koch, which has its seat in Oberndorf am Neckar (a chilling transterritorial connection between the idyllic Black Forest town and Rio’s militias!). Steamed up by the drums of a Brazilian-diasporic group of black feminist activists, speakers denounced Deutsche Bank, Bertelsmann, Volkswagen as well as the German Ministry of Economics for their endorsement of and collaborations with Bolsonaro, his Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes or his ultra-right partisan Wilson Witzel, Rio’s state governor. Similar issues were raised during the protests in Bern, Switzerland.
The new right’s political and economic territories are clearly transnational. But so are the progressive territorialities that are boldly being created and inhabited, from São Paulo, Rio or the Amazon to Bern, Berlin and elsewhere!