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Avoiding False Problems: Politics of the Fluid, Hybrid, and Flexible


Hybrid cultural cartographies of all kinds are being sketched out alongside new and complex existential territories that are made and unmade in an irreversibly globalized world.[footnote This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the colloquium On Cultural Translation. A Conference on Artistic Practice in a Context of Cultural Translation. U-TURN Quadrennial for Contemporary Art in collaboration with the University of Copenhagen, the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art, and Lettre International (Copenhagen, November 24, 2007).] To present within these dynamics a choice between refusing or celebrating cultural universes marked by cultural hybridization, flexibility, and fluidity would be to put forward a false problem, for these dynamics constitute our present reality, created through the struggle between various politics. The real difference to be found, therefore, lies in the forces at play in the sketching of its cartographies. This is what I intend to explore here, following the trajectory of this question as it has appeared in my own work, for the first time in the 1980s with the formulation of the concept of “anthropophagic subjectivity.”[footnote The strong singularity of the Anthropophagic Movement in the international context of modernism is still relatively ignored outside of Brazil. The 1928 Anthropophagic Manifesto by Oswald de Andrade—poet, playwright and experimental novelist—is its most well known reference.]

I have reworked this concept from time to time since then—not to “correct” it, but to give voice to the singularity of the process that invokes and reconstitutes it, and also to address contexts for which it might be productive again. Its most recent reappearances were mobilized by contemporary art, which has become, since the mid-1990s, a privileged arena for the struggle of forces that outline the cultural cartographies of the present.

The notion of “anthropophagy,” as proposed by the modernists, harks back to a practice of the indigenous Tupinambás.[footnote The generic name of Tupinambá refers, in fact, to a great variety of indigenous groups that inhabited the vast territory taken hold of by the Portuguese colonization, where it “founded” Brazil.] It was a complex ritual that could continue for months, even years, in which enemies captured in battle would be killed and devoured; cannibalism is only one of the ritual’s stages—and the only (or almost only) registered in the European imaginary, probably because of the horror it instilled in European colonizers. Although the cannibalist stage of the ritual is, curiously, the same stage that was privileged by the modernists in the construction of their argument, it seems that another one altogether would offer us an important key to the questions I want to address. The anthropologists Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro described this part of the ritual: “having killed the enemy, the executor would change his name and have scars made in his body during a long and rigorous period of reclusion.”[footnote Manuela L. Carneiro da Costa and Eduardo B. Viveiros de Castro, “Vingança e temporalidade: os Tupinambás,” Anuário Antropofágico 85 (Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Tempo Brasileiro, 1986). This is how the authors describe the ritual: “A prisoner, after having lived for a few months or even years among his captors, would be killed publicly in front of the community. Adorned with feathers and body painting, he would carry out arrogance-packed dialogues with an equally bedecked executioner. ... Ideally, the killing should be done with a single blow of the Ibirapema [ritual stick]], which should crack his skull.” Only then was the body devoured, following a rigorous ritual of distribution of its parts, and the killer would go into reclusion.] And thus, over time, names would accumulate following each confrontation with a new enemy, along with the engraving of each name in the flesh. The more names recorded in a body, the more prestigious their bearer. The existence of the Other—not one, but many and distinct—was thus inscribed in the memory of the body, producing unpredictable becomings of subjectivity.

It follows from the same logic, according to the Jesuits, that the Tupinambás easily absorbed their European Catholic teachings—and they just as easily forgot or abandoned them. What the priests saw as “inconstancy” reveals the inexistence of a substantialized sense of the self, or of a cartography inhabited as a supposed individual or collective essence, whatever that might be; hence the detachment and the freedom to rid oneself of elements of one’s own culture, to absorb elements from others, and also dismiss them when they seem to lose significance. It is no coincidence that the only aspect of their culture that the Tupinambás ferociously refused to abandon was anthropophagy.[footnote According to the same authors, the Portuguese wanted to employ the practice of capturing enemies in order to acquire slaves, which the indigineous people resisted. When it was not possible to escape the colonizers’ orders, they would rather offer family members as slaves than surrender their captured enemies and let go of the anthropophagic ritual, with the public killing and all its other stages.] They relinquished the cannibalistic stage in this ritual only when the Portuguese imposed this demand on them . What they would not renounce was this “mnemonic technique of the enemy,” of the radically Other, which sustained and secured the “opening to the Other, the elsewhere, and the beyond”—this ritual of initiation into the outside and to the heterogenetic principle of the production of the self and the world that it follows from it. Would keeping the ritual at any cost not be a way of exorcizing the risk of contagium by the identitarian principle, and its dissociation of the body, that presided over the culture and subjectivity of the colonizer?

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