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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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Sons of the Nation

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In his paradigmatic text Disemi-nation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of Modern Nation,1 Homi Bhabha speaks of the need to distinguish between two temporalities to understand the nation: the first is pedagogical, and involves the teaching and learning of the nation’s principles and history to the people. The second one is performative and must be repeated over time and reproduced in the present to legitimize, demonstrate and embody the national discourse. Following this idea of performativity, we can think of the nation as akin to a narcissistic father figure that hopes to see his image, feats and aspirations reflected in the citizens. And intellectuals are the best national ideologues: as the modernist poet and essayist Mário de Andrade said in the 1920s, it was urgent to take on the task of “giving Brazil a soul and any sacrifice to this end is grandiose and sublime, and makes us happy.” 2 In other words, the nation had to be conceptualized. To that end, Mário de Andrade traveled throughout all of Brazil and wrote pioneering studies about its popular culture. This experience led him to write his famous book of adventures Macunaíma, a popular character he built from his research notes and celebrated passages written by European anthropologists. He called Macunaíma the Brazilian anti-hero, without character, or, that is to say, without a soul. In contrast with this author, who did not leave Brazil (even to present the translations of his works in New York at the end of his life), two intellectuals from the same period were inspired by international travel. They created two fundamental concepts for understanding Brazil’s national history. Oswald de Andrade, also a modernist, created Anthropophagy (1928). Gilberto Freyre gave rise to the concept of Racial Democracy (1933). They could be akin to two typical brothers in a young, narcissistic and dysfunctional National Family: the first was the Scapegoat, and the second the Golden Child. 3

The first was the object of all kinds of contempt for not living up to paternal aspirations, occupying a place of ostracism and denial; the second child received all the merits of the most pristine version of this family, fed and nurtured by its narcissistic dream. The idea of racial democracy was the key piece to the puzzle of national discourse through the end of the Brazilian dictatorship in the 1970s.4 It was at that moment when activists from Brazil’s Black Movement began to unmask the colonial condition and conservative aspirations behind this false notion of democracy that naturalized inequalities in the name of culture.

Freyre cheated in his appropriation of the innovative studies surrounding culture and race created by Franz Boas (who was his professor at Columbia University). Upon returning to Brazil, Freyre described inequality and poverty as a question of tradition, derived from the masochistic cultural nature of the subaltern. The celebratory approach to inequality was such that in a 1974 documentary, an almost 90-year-old Freyre appeared in front of his Northeastern mansion explaining how, upon finishing his book The Masters and the Slaves (1933) his friends threw him a carnivalesque surprise-party where each of them dressed up as an Indian, Black person, or Master. 5

In the meantime, as in many narcissistic families, the scapegoat detached from paternal authority would eventually reach a moment of maturation, blossoming and developing all of his potential. Such is the case of the important concept of cultural Anthropophagy launched in 1928 with the Magazine of Anthropophagy. However, in the 1930s it fell from grace—surely because its author, Oswald de Andrade, began to serve in the Communist Party. It was then that he reneged on his status as part of a bourgeois intellectual elite from the 1920s, when he was connected to the artistic vanguard in Paris alongside his millionaire partner Tarsila do Amaral. Precisely in 1933, he wrote: “I was a buffoon. Animated by my expectation, by rounds of applause and capitalist offals, my literary being got caught several times in the trenches of reactionary social relations.” 6 After the Second World War, Oswald de Andrade grew disillusioned with communism and wrote about Anthropophagy again. He presented it as a new philosophical method to defend his position of Professor of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo.7

Possibly inspired by this reappearance and the parallels between the spirit of rupture of the 1920s and the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, at the beginning of the decade various leftist intellectuals began to take up once more the silenced concept of Anthropophagy. These authors developed its potential to explain Brazil’s transgressive mestizaje, contesting Freyre’s conservatism which was advocated for by the dictatorship. Most importantly, they opened the pathways for dialogue with international vanguardist thought. Anthropophagy could finally explain the hybrid and all-consuming condition of European thought in Brazil, which was remade to become an original Brazilian contribution: the expression of its postcolonial modernity.

However, the truth is that both the left and the right (and by extension, the irreconcilable brothers Anthropophagy and racial democracy) kept disputing the same question: the definition of the old patriarch of the nation, creating the concepts that could convey the performativity explained by Bhabha. Yet we must not forget that the nation is a modern and colonial institution that was one of the great accomplices to the crime of coloniality. Anthropophagy has become, without a doubt, one of the great and over-exploited international products of the Brazilian intellectual elite. Its over-use has led this concept to deploy the colonial image of indigenous alterity as mere representation, depoliticizing its contemporary presence and struggles on a local level. It is not by chance that the reason Mário de Andrade cut off relations with his modernist partner Oswald de Andrade at the end of the 1920s is not well-known. His whole life he refused any reconciliation, hurt by the racist attitudes that came with the launching of the Magazine of Anthropophagy. 8

With the application of affirmative action quotas for Black and indigenous students to attend university since 2012, a new group of descendants of the national family, more marginalized and more invisible than the Scapegoat was, are making new and important revisions to the discourse of the nation. They are showing how the elitism of their predecessors promoted internal colonialism. Interrupting the performativity that sustained the national patriarch, and free of showing loyalty to him, this unstoppable generation is showing how coloniality is camouflaged in the great intellectual dissertations of their predecessors, starting, of course, with Anthropophagy. 

This text is dedicated to my sister Ainoa Iñigo Clavo, a fighter and resident of Harlem and voracious reader of Latin American literature.

  1. Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994)
  2. Mello e Souza, G. de y Campos Vergueiro, L. Mario de Andrade. Obra escogida. (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979).
  3. Gershelis, Anna, Relationship Between Perceived Narcissistic Personality Traits in Mothers and Level of Differentiation of Self in Their Adult Children, A dissertation submitted for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology, California School of Professional Psychology. 2021.
  4. Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves (Casa-Grande & Sezala): A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963) Second English Language Edition.
  5. Documentary by Geraldo Sarno, Casa Grande & Senzala, 1974.
  6. Mello e Souza, G. de y Campos Vergueiro, L. Mario de Andrade. Obra escogida. (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979). p75-77
  7. Andrade, Oswald. A Crise da Filosofia Messiânica, 1950. Dissertation for the position of Professor of Philosophy at the University of São Paulo. In Andrade Oswald, De Pau Brasil à Antropofagia e  às Utopías.
  8. Mello e Souza, Op cit, 1979, p. 478


María Iñigo Clavo

María Iñigo Clavo is a researcher, curator and lecturer at the Open University of Catalonia and at the MA of Curating Art and Public Programmes of Whitechapel Gallery in Barcelona. She has written for publications such as e-flux, Third Text, Afterall, Stedelijk Journal, Museum of Art of São Paulo, Fran Hals Museum/De Hallen Haarlem, Valiz, L’international or Reina Sofía Museum. She has been the editor of issue # 7 (2017) of the journal Re-visiones entitled: Is it possible to decolonize? and volume 19 of journal Art in Translation, University of Edinburgh (Taylor & Francis/Routledge).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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