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Beneath Butler: Cruising Brazilian Dystopia


by Jota Mombaça

November 10: Judith Butler is harassed at the Congonhas airport by a group of Brazilian conservatives, after a week of controversies due to her participation in the public seminar “Os Fins da Democracia” (The Ends/Aims of Democracy), hosted by SESC Pompeia in São Paulo. Even before Butler’s arrival in the country, the conservatives had begun their fight against her presence there, by organizing a public petition and a large campaign through social media against the philosopher’s alleged contribution to the diffusion of the so-called gender-ideology-that-is-ruining-the-national-youth as a plague within schools and universities.

Suddenly, queer theory leaves the academic departments from which it emerged into a hot debate waged in the country’s already turbulent public sphere. The images of burning witches in the hands of Christian fundamentalists, as well as the offensive posters accusing Butler’s texts of inciting “pedophilia” and “antisemitism,” provide us with a visual account of the surrealistic vocation of the conservative interpretation of current national and international scenarios. With no attachment to a realist epistemology, the core of this narrative is the moral panic concerning the threat presented by the rise of movements such as LGBTQIA and intersectional trans-feminism to the world they are trying to preserve—the one governed by the gender binary, the heterosexual family, and the fiction of the good national warrior.

Along with the episode regarding Butler, the closure of “Queermuseu” (an exhibition commissioned by Santander Cultural, a major art institution funded by the namesake bank), the public persecution against the artist Wagner Schwartz for his performance La Béte (in which his naked body is deployed as an interactive platform for the audience), as well as the legal interruption of Renata Carvalho’s theater play O Evangelho Segundo Jesus, Rainha do Céu (The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven—based on Jo Clifford’s original script, in which Jesus is performed as and by a transgender woman), became simultaneously the most visible targets of the right-wing activists—grouped under the umbrella of a new movement fueled by old ideals, the MBL—and their institutional apparatuses (the government itself), as well as the most visible bastions of the leftist resistance against censorship.

Although it is important to fight against this moralistic wave of censorship, showing how those episodes of public persecution against critical artists and intellectuals are entangled with a much more complex device of silencing and exclusion, it is also important to consider, during this process, the ways in which the very cartography of dissidence that is at stake right now was designed according to the discursive limits imposed by the conservative gestures of censorship: one is led to believe that art is what is at risk, when the artistic risk is nothing but a continuation of the very risk for the lives of those represented by the right-wing’s public crusade as dangerous to the national project. Besides that, the spectacle of censorship can easily lead one to believe that this risk is unprecedented in the history of Brazilian democracy, as if the unstoppable embodied struggle of black, queer, trans, and feminine subjects to simply live with dignity was not an index of the pervasiveness of white supremacy, cisgender fundamentalism, and heteronormativity even in the most “progressive” years of Brazilian democracy.

The public crusade of right-wing conservatives against queer and feminist forms of expression, for its appeal to the sacred image of the national-child-that-must-be-protected, identifies the representations of the naked body and the social performances of non-normalcy regarding gender and sexuality as the emblem of an anti-national spirit that is allegedly driving the country towards ruins. Paradoxically, this apocalyptic narrative simultaneously conceals and reproduces the apocalyptic materiality of Brazilian politics: while in daily life, as well as in the macro-structural dynamic, nonnormative bodies are the ones who face most blatantly the violence of captivity and death, the right-wing narrative states that what is currently threatened here is the entitlement of the white, heterosexual, and cisgender subjects to live freely at the expense of its “Others.” That is to say that the fear of the right-wing crusaders that their world could come to an end with the rise of black, queer, and feminist political projects is deeply attached to the social reproduction of the brutal effects enacted by the actual structures of power against gender-disobedient and sexually-dissident beings, especially the ones who are at the intersection of poverty and racial hatred.

In face of an event like this, one could say that the emancipatory imperative of the present is to stop the march of those retro-sci-fi totalitarian projections, to block their path. The problem with this formulation is that it restrains the battlefield to the territory demarcated by the fences of the right-wing’s conservative scenes of subjection—or, to put it differently: in order to stop them one could get stuck in their fiction, answering questions that could not be answered but in their terms and within their frame of reference. Perhaps the imperative here is, in fact, to be able to distinguish what cannot be silenced by the hyper-moralistic persecution of conservative crusaders, and the continuation of the unfinished projects of black, queer, trans, and feminist liberation beyond the totalitarian scope.

After all, the dystopic predicament boosted by the heavy activity of those forces, at least in what concerns the Brazilian context, was foreshadowed even before, and beneath, the recent censorship of artworks, exhibitions, and public seminars. It was operating even before, and beneath, what happened to Judith Butler in São Paulo. From the perspective of those whose expressions of gender, desire, sexuality, and embodiment have been targeted by the violent codes of Brazilian society since its formulation as a democracy (and even before, and beneath), the dystopic crusaders of this military utopia have always been marching. We—and here I speak as a nonbinary bixa of color born and raised in the Northeast of Brazil during the post-dictatorship period—saw them coming. Nevertheless, instead of fighting alone from our insulated positions, we choose to nurture ourselves so as not to let their rise stop us.

And we need to keep doing it. We need to keep imagining. We need to keep unfolding escape routes in the beleaguered map of Brazilian dystopia; studying how to inhabit it as a cross-road, and not as our stoppage—deviating, disrupting, moving, as we’ve been doing. We need to tear apart their war against our radical imagination in order to be able to dream of worlds that do not exist yet, even if every week the reactionary tornadoes of totalitarianism compel us to defend the things we thought we had already established. Even if they force us to defend the obvious one thousand times, we need to overcome their determination, dreaming even further—above, beneath, within, against, and around of their world of containment. We need to embody, as an intensity and as our matter, the spell that allows us to speak in two or more languages at the same time: one that confronts the gag imposed by the right-wing crusaders; and another that leads beyond what they meant for us.

We cannot let them stop us now.

(And we won’t!)


Image: Protest against an appearance by Judith Butler at a conference in São Paulo. The sign says that Judith Butler’s dream is to “Destroy your children’s sexual identity.” Via