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Commonplace Narratives

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Demonstrators on Presidente Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2013.

Demonstrators on Presidente Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2013. Photo: Santiago García Navarro

Demonstrators on Presidente Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2013

Demonstrators on Presidente Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2013. Photo: Santiago García Navarro

Demonstrators on Presidente Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2013

Demonstrators on Presidente Vargas Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro, June 20, 2013. Photo: Santiago García Navarro

Trans-Brazilian (capable of finding its bearings in obscure parts of the country), trans-continental (able to envision a destination in common with the rest of America) and trans-world (departing from its own continental platform and entering into cooperation with the rest of the globe)—this is the image of Brazil that Oswald de Andrade’s texts have always conjured in my mind. According to his notion of anthropophagic illumination,1 encountering others starts long before conscious interaction, beginning instead in the microphysical variation of the body, where those others are already within one, and one is already inside others. The denial of this affective constitution, the contour politics that cannot be transposed without the consent of the substantial other, is in keeping with that of a subject that has been subordinated three times by the Latin-American colonial matrix—by the light of Christianity, by Cartesian reason, and by the capitalist economy. In this context, the anthropophagy is the mise en monde of a subject capable of devouring that matrix, thereby emancipating itself and, in the same stroke, emancipating the enemy.

Since de Andrade’s texts explain this purely as a swallowing of Europe by Brazil, such a position may be interpreted as an “un-Brazilianizing” movement. Read according to the terms of the 1928 Manifesto, the line “lazy people in the world atlas of Brazil” longs for the transmutation of Brazil into world-mode, as opposed to those interpretations that see it as a world in itself, self-sufficient and permanently self-devouring (devouring materials originating in Europe and United States).

2.1. In the weeks before the march in Rio de Janeiro on June 17, 2013, I was busy trying to understand why exactly it was that Brazilians had no interest in the rest of Latin America. When asking the people I came across about the root of the problem, I noticed immediately that their answers were delivered in an automaton-like, disembodied manner, lacking traces of subjectivity; their grammar revealed a hidden discourse.

According to one of the most common replies, this lack of interest was due to “Brazil’s continental dimension.” But this argument clearly did not get to the bottom of things; it did nothing more than justify the country’s self-referentiality, keeping it blind to the unique characteristics of the rest of the continent. A second phrase heard many times, “each region of Brazil is a different Brazil,” reinforced the terms of the previous phrase, thereby producing an effect that is the opposite of diversity: being amazed by its wealth (of ethnicity, landscape, and culture) in fact implied that the size (magnitude) of the country was sufficient for it to contain all the difference necessary for collective living. A third common response held that the obstacle was one of linguistic difference, which caused the countries “of the America that speaks Spanish,” as Cabrera Infante would say, to establish a closer relationship between themselves than with Brazil. To counter this argument, I would give a new answer: for example, that the cultural relationship between Bolivia and its neighbor Paraguay is almost nonexistent, or that Brazil has infinitely stronger ties with France than with Angola.

This is how I imagined the process of inverting or denying the common answers “Brazil does not have a continental dimension,” “The regional differences of Brazil are less significant than the similarities,” and “For a Brazilian, Spanish is the easiest language to learn.” Placed one after the other, these reformulated phrases ostensibly change the image of the country. Without the weight of Brazilian-ness, it seems easier to traverse the continent across its entire dimensionality.

2.2. In a second large demonstration, on June 20, 2013, the most repeated chant imagined the impossible: “There will be no World Cup!” It was in the middle of the march that I noticed the solidarity between this deactivation mechanism and what I had been seeking to achieve by inverting the phrases, to the point of wondering whether my restlessness had perhaps been provoked by the distant, initial shudders of the social movement, before it finally erupted on June 17.

3. In her speech on June 21, President Dilma Roussef declared that Brazil would host a great World Cup in 2014, and asked the citizens for their goodwill in receiving visitors. One of her justifications was that Brazil was the only country that had participated in every World Cup to date, in addition to winning five of them, and has thus gained worldwide acceptance. A second argument appealed to the Brazilian “soul” and “way of life,” trying to reaffirm the unassailable core of Brazilian-ness in this vast deposit of commonplace narratives that is the national mythology. By calling on identity to save the World Cup, Brazilian participation in the mega-event was presented as a decision made by the people for their own benefit, veiling FIFA’s strategy (which, as is the case for all transnational consortia, and in agreement with political power, uses the States’ infrastructure, and the ideals produced around it, for its own purposes).

4. Commentators across the political spectrum highlighted the almost total absence of party banners at the protests, as well as the ubiquity of the national flag. Several chants made “I am Brazilian!” the central phrase of the discourse heard on the streets. It is far from evident, however, what exactly it meant to be Brazilian under those circumstances. Only one thing could be said: that a Brazil without the World Cup was radical news. The fact that some Brazilian fans, in the semi-finals of the Confederations Cup against Uruguay on June 26th, 2013, held posters with the words “I must have this World Cup,” only emphasizes the inconsistency of Brazilian-ness at that moment: both its definition and its mode of insertion into trans-national capital were directly disputed amongst the people in a highly volatile atmosphere. National sentiment was no longer sublime.

The slogan “There will be no World Cup!” seemed to introduce, insofar as identifications with national codes still made some sense, the possibility of the impossible at the level of forming a community. “There will be no World Cup” meant denying the association between the joy of football and the logic of gain. It could imply, for example, abandoning those affective ties managed as commodities by the transnational market. Therefore, denying the undeniable—the basis of the common being—was to unravel what was absolutely denied and go out to meet it. Among the most significant of the events in June was the denial of Brazilian impossibilities. The open challenge in the streets was to think the unthinkable, and act under the terms of this unthinkability.

5. The most explicit and systematic manifestation of “outsiders” acting within Brazil in the last twenty years has been the graphisms written by pixadores (taggers) on the walls of the country’s main cities. The power of the phenomenon—which, incidentally, is no longer as far-reaching as when it first appeared in the 1990s—is based on an oddity: the foreignness of the native.

The illegibility of the pixadores’ writing is of the same nature as the illegibility of the risk that the writing entails (being beaten by the police or dying by falling from a building), and as the illegibility of the violence against public and private buildings. As vandals or as artists, much more than as slum dwellers, the pixadores participate in city life as spectra, spreading a diffuse fear, less linked to property damage than to causing those living in the buildings to feel a ubiquitous threat of the unknown, precisely because the actions by the pixadores elude any form of interpretation. It would be less disturbing if they were criminals or tout court artists, or the kind of slum dwellers that are displayed at the carnival or in police news.

The texts and the context of pixadores remain hidden behind a veil. Foreignness and illegibility join, first, wherever pixadores’ actions are as illegible to the Brazilian as the codes of any foreigner. Here, nationality and origin connect, to the extent that the indistinctness in the nature of provenance makes the subjectivizing value of nationality relative: all of them are foreigners and are primarily and indistinctly thought of as such. But foreignness and illegibility also cross paths insofar as the pixadores are seen as belonging nowhere. They write in a Portuguese that is cryptic due to its content, typography, and fragmentary nature, and which appears somewhere other than the slum, the museum, or the authorized wall (as with street art). In their radical condition as foreigners, the form their visibility takes reaffirms their desire not to be integrated.

6. The subject of “the masses” is currently a foreigner in his own home, writes Paolo Virno, because strong communities that were the remedy for the unpredictability and contingency of the world no longer exist: “those who do not feel at home, in order to guide and protect themselves, shall appeal to the commonplace narratives, i.e., the general categories of linguistic intellect; as such, foreigners are always thinkers” (Virno, 30). In this situation, according to Virno, atypical linguistic phenomena specific to these non-substantial contemporary communities appear, including the replacement, in spoken language, of distinctive places (Aristotle’s topoi idioi or ways of speaking, vocabularies, thematic repertoires, and private types of argumentation distinct to specific social circles such as the club or the political party) by common places (topoi koinoi or “logical and linguistic forms of a general character”). Faced with the immediate and permanent perception of global instability, contemporary man realizes that he must respond by producing highly flexible situational speech. Nonetheless, in order to ensure communication between all members of a featureless community, it is necessary to use topoi koinoi, the only thing that is immediately common in speech.

They appear on the surface like a toolbox for immediate use. What else could the commonplace narratives be other than the fundamental core of the ‘life of the mind’?
[ . . . ] the ‘life of the mind’ becomes public in itself: since it no longer has ‘special,’ sectorial ethico-communicative codes, it uses general categories to deal with varied situations. ‘Not feeling at home’ and the preeminence of ‘commonplace narratives’ go hand in hand. Intellect in itself, pure intellect, becomes the firm compass.” (Virno, 28)

Maybe the pixadores prefigured the composition of new subjectivities in Brazil. Not only because the production of thought by those “distinct foreigners” is already universal, but also because of the spectral condition of this subjectivization. The spectral nature of the distinct foreigner is clear in cities such as São Paulo, epicenter of the uprising initiated by Movimento Passe Livre (Free Pass Movement), which protested against a twenty-cent increase in the cost of an urban bus ticket.

The marches of June 17 and 20 in various cities around the country dispersed that spectral nature. While subjection to apparata of everyday influence granted the government almost unlimited leeway, Brazilians were endowed with a latent awareness of said apparata. That was probably the clearest expression of foreign thinking by local residents, and this newly visible foreignness splintered Brazil’s “continental dimension’ in another way.

7. Relating the events of the week of June 17 with contemporary events in other countries, Giuseppe Cocco reflects:

The social basis of this production of subjectivity is the new type of work that characterizes cognitive capitalism. The networks that protest and are formed in the streets of Madrid, Lisbon, Rome, Athens, Istanbul, New York and now of all Brazilian cities are made up of immaterial labor: students, university students, unemployed youths, immigrants, poor people, indigenous peoples . . . that is, the heterogeneous composition of metropolitan work. [ . . . ] A movement against twenty cents! Therefore, that “little” is actually “a lot.” Why? Because the matter of transport, and public services in general, is strategic for metropolitan labor. [ . . . ] The workers at the Ford plant fought to reduce the proportion of time that was embedded as profit in the cars they produced; the immaterial workers in metropolises twist the advertising slogans of a car manufacturer (‘Vem Pra Rua’) (‘Come to the street’) to convey a new meaning to the productive advertisements that circulated. The Ford plant workers fought against labor. Immaterial workers fight in the field of the production of subjectivity. Subjectivity is produced and produces value and income through its circulation.

The immaterial work to which Coco refers is based on Virno’s life of the mind, the instantaneous publicness of which is already global. Since methods of circulating, working, and making are incessantly accelerating and hyperlinking, the events of June 2013 in Brazil should also be understood as a mass opening to globalized currents. “There will be no World Cup!” was, to that end, a direct message from Brazil to the world, spoken with topoi koinoi (which make messages that are immediately reproducible not only because of immediate legibility, but also because they are immediately captured by transmission systems).

8. There is a potential confrontation between two types of commonplace narrative: topoi koinoi (which are themselves always disputable, as an indispensable guide in post-Fordism), and the commonplace narratives of the national imagination that holds itself captive. There seems to be a reciprocal logic to these desubjectivations, according to which the greater the loss of the nation as a solid community, the more the commonplace narratives that imaginatively ensure the protective power of this nation are invoked.

The stereotypes of Brazilian-ness are images that are fossilized in spoken language. Topoi koinoi, on the contrary, constitute linguistic-communicative faculties common to the species that are the same as the composition of general intellect (Virno, 35). The stereotypes of Brazilian-ness may only be introduced in this general intellect with a restrictive effect, to the extent that they send us back to the impossibilities of the nation (as a subsidiary of transnational capital) and cannot contribute to a community that works in the collectivization of common uses.

Currently, the easier it is to dismantle the commonplace narratives of Brazilian-ness, the more effective they become. The impossibilities repeated as a “device” are, in fact, the ones that make up the self-referential system. The device also makes the unthinkable thinkable; it is the inversion of this logic that disarms the device.

9. Even today, Brazilian-ness emerges from a triangle formed by Brazil, the United States and Western Europe. But amid the global currents, this identification is no longer structural. It is, however, still in the majority, and tends to evade other identifications. If Brazil feels that opening up to Latin America is impossible, it is because it still feeds (and not anthropophagically) off what it perceives as superior. And it avoids equality only in order to maintain the illusion of superiority before those who are irremediably its peers. While Brazil had already been penetrated by transnational capital, in June it was penetrated by the protests.

10. Brazil already experiences multiple restrictions of non-specificity and hybridization along its borders with Hispano-American countries (and Brazil is the territory of hybridization—another commonplace narrative formulated in the main urban centers as an effect of a modernity that was only urban). In order to be able to confer the reality of the other, the borders resort to topoi koinoi, creating a language without identity that is the portunhol adopted by several native languages. The border experience is not what guarantees Brazil’s opening up to its neighbors, but it is offered as an example of what lies outside the ideal of Brazilian-ness, thereby opening a potential space for a “trans-Brazilian” Brazil.

11. The spectrality of pixadores is about an outside that we perceive dimly from the inside, and with mixed feelings. But this outside is an emancipation as precarious, partial, and changeable as any other today. Like the pixadores’, but at the same time quite singular, the emancipation of members of the new Brazilian middle class, or of the jobless and the marginalized, is a construction built during a storm. We can all, at any time, pass from spectra to heroes (and, albeit it with more difficulty, from heroes to spectra). Our lack of refuge is simultaneously the place of our power and of our impotence.

But the pixadores are also those who do not resort to the topoi koinoi. They introduce a private writing into the streets, which then becomes immediately public due to its blatant muteness. By avoiding the topoi koinoi, they show the impossibility of entering into discourse with Brazilians, becoming targets of an internal xenophobia. While mute, this writing speaks by pointing out the way in which the common is stolen. It does not speak for itself, but rather through graphics, producing an unexpected semantic displacement. The illegible aspect of the tagging has nothing to do with what cannot be communicated, but rather with what is purposely not transmitted. By experiencing being left out of the conversation, the public reader notices that something is being addressed to him or her. In this interruption of communication, the use of public walls as a support deepens the seriousness of the message, establishing the opposition between the legality of property and the illegality of the accusation.

12. According to Virno, Aristotle distinguishes between three topoi koinoi: the relationship between more and less; the opposition of contraries; and the category of reciprocity (“if I am his father, he is my son”). Before the pixadores’ power of making themselves visible in the privatized city, one of the frequent methods used to deconstruct the grammar of Brazilian Portuguese is the violence directed towards the second Aristotelian topós koinós, as in the following example: “The greatest Brazilian problem is its historic division into two social classes. Or not.”

This inclusion of the opposite in the argument itself sustains, albeit in a veiled way, the ontological equivalence of the opposites. Not an escape from binarism, but rather the nullification of the differential, because the “or not” nullifies the entire “outside” in the terms proposed by the person using it, in order to appropriate the totality of speech. If the topoi koinoi are of the same language structure, the common equity that allows for difference, in the use of the “or not,” the violence perpetrated against the commons is in the very mouth of the speaker, which orders the listener to stay silent. The one who says “or not” does not accept the foreigner, nor the very foreignness. It divides the linguistic space between those who are entitled to speak and those who are not.

13. “Brazilians do not protest on the streets.” So holds another commonplace narrative. But, in June 2013, Brazilians did, and new discourses of Brazilian-ness entered into dispute with new demonstrators. Over the last few years, the vulgarization of the motto “Gentileza gera gentileza” (Kindness generates kindness), by the popular artist Profeta Gentileza, often only contributed to updating the myth of “cordial Brazilian-ness,” introducing a fear of confrontation and the mandate of consensus into the possibilities of dissidence. Regularly heard in the June marches, the new version “Protesto gera mudanças” (Protest generates change) did not erase the original motto, but rather used the same form, tone, and spirit of the original to articulate the new phrase. And it did not imply the denial of kindness, but rather strengthened it before present challenges.

14. Today, after the end of the World Cup in a political context controlled in paranoid manner by those in power, and with the common man facing severe difficulties in occupying the streets and intervening in the media, discourses, and the way those discourses are felt and disseminated, require new focus and thought.

 

References

Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Vidas para leerlas (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1998).

Giuseppe Coco and Patrícia Facchin, “Revuelta brasileña: entrevista a Giuseppe Coco” in Lobo Suelto (Buenos Aires: June 23, 2013), trans. to Portugese by Santiago García Navarro, http://www.anarquiacoronada.blogspot.com.br/#!.

Paolo Virno, Gramática de la multitud. Para un análisis de las formas de vida contemporánea (Buenos Aires: Colihue, 2003).

  1. See, among other texts by Oswald de Andrade, “Manifesto da poesia Pau-Brasil” (1924), “Manifesto antropófago” (1928), “A Crise da Filosofia Messiânica” (1950), and “Um Aspecto Antropofágico da Cultura Brasileira: O Homem Cordial” (1950).

How have the idea, structure, and function of public protest and “occupation” manifested themselves differently in the first years of the twenty-first century century, and what role might art practice have to play therein?