Mário de Andrade’s Antropofagia and Macunaíma as Anti-Imperial Scene of Writing
Mário de Andrade’s Antropofagia and Macunaíma as Anti-Imperial Scene of Writing
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines Mário’s own deployment of the cannibal allegory his novel, Macunaíma (1928), and then by offering a rereading of the relationship between a particular chapter of the novel, titled ‘Carta pras Icamiabas’ [‘Letter to the Icamiabas’] and the novel as a whole. This particular part of the novel stands out from the rest for a variety of reasons. Firstly, its prose, utilizing a Renaissance European register of written Portuguese, is markedly different from the rest of the novel’s use of a strategically colloquial speech – one that supposedly reflected the everyday speech of Brazilian non-elites. Equally relevant is the fact that it is the only part of the novel narrated by Macunaíma. The letter comes after he reaches São Paulo following his journey from the Amazon to the industrialized mega-city, and is addressed to the all-woman tribe, Icamiabas, detailing what he finds in São Paulo.
As in the case of Oswald de Andrade, in the work of Mário de Andrade produced during his ‘anthropophagic period,’ one finds a sustained aesthetic project in which the experience of colonialism emerges in different pieces and fragments. In the work of Mário de Andrade, the experience of Empire is rendered in the plural, particularly as a multiplicity of subject-positions that form postcoloniality. In his body of work, moreover, one finds these polyphonic experiences of colonialism translated into an unspecific ontological place from which to articulate the postcolony. In his famous modernist novel from 1928, Macunaíma: Um Herói Sem Nenhum Caracter, the titular character – ‘herói de nossa gente’ [‘hero of our people’] (9) – embodies the collision between the colonially historicized past and Mário’s industrial present.
Although many scholars and even Mário de Andrade himself would later question the location of his novel within the Antropofagia archive, it nonetheless shares the tenets of the cannibalist movement – namely the consumption, rethinking, and underlining of gaps of imperial meaning. In a cogent defense of reading Macunaíma as a contribution to Antropofagia and as an embodiment of its aesthetic and political goals, Zita Nunes argues that:
The novel enacts cannibalism on: 1) a textual level by incorporating other texts through plagiarism; 2) a linguistic level by incorporating other languages into Portuguese; 3) a thematic level through cannibalistic activities of its characters; and 4) on a formal level by incorporating various genres into the novel, producing what Mário called a ‘rapsódia’ (rhapsody), an improvisational composition having no fixed form. (41)
Drawing on and further exploring the critical potentials of these aspects of Macunaíma, what follows will expand on Antropofagia’s engagement with Empire while also discussing its limitations and ultimate shortcomings, through the gaze of Mário de Andrade.
As Albert Braz reminds us, Macunaíma is not entirely Mário de Andrade’s creation, but firstly an Amerindian mythological character. Moreover, de Andrade seemingly (re)constructs Macunaíma, at the beginning of the novel at least, as the intersection of different subaltern experiences within Brazilian colonial history, intertwining Amerindian indigeneity with blackness, and not without problematic signifiers of otherness. His epic journey begins as he is born in an unnamed forest, the youngest of three brothers of the fictional Tapanhumas tribe. Macunaíma and other members of the Tapanhumas are described as ‘retinto’ [‘dark-skinned’]. This leads K. David Jackson to classify Macunaíma as ‘multiracial’ (96). In this regard, Macunaíma embodies the anthropophagist mission of establishing a postcolonial scene of writing – as the syncretistic figure of the plural experiences of imperial power in colony and postcolony.
It is through Macunaíma’s significational gaze – one that consumes and signifies – that we read Westernness as he encounters it in his journey from the forest to the city in search of a precious amulet given to him by the goddess Cí. At various points in the novel, the reader finds Macunaíma’s encounters with Western signifiers regarding Brazil pertaining to race, indigeneity, and space. From these confrontations, Macunaíma takes on Antropofagia’s mission of reordering these signifiers.
The journey away from the forest begins with a fascinating early scene that captures the allegorical verve of the novel. As Macunaíma and his brothers, Jiguê and Maanape, make their way toward industrialized São Paulo, they come across the magical water pit formed by the giant foot of Sumé, a mythological figure from Tupi folklore, where they decide to bathe, one at a time. The first to enter the water, Macunaíma quickly discovers that it magically whitens his skin, washing off his blackness. The three rejoice in the water’s race-altering properties. Having entered the water first, however, Macunaíma absorbs most of its power, also staining it with his former blackness. Subsequently, Jiguê, the second to enter the water, is only able to whiten his skin enough to become ‘vermelho’ – red-skinned or Amerindian. Maanape, finally, is merely able to lighten the skin of his hands with the shallow dark water that did not splash out during the baths of Macunaíma and Jiguê. This complex scene allows us to explore various layers of the novel’s allegorical form within a postcolonial epic model which Mário de Andrade was aiming to engender. Macunaíma’s passage through the novel’s diegetic time-space marks his passage through discourse and Brazilian historicity; here, in the footprint of Sumé, he enters the ‘magical’ (p.71) world of racial signification, finding himself within realms of othering that came to structure Brazilian society.
This passage perhaps also represents a tacit critique of the work of other members of the Antropofagia movement, namely those who offered multiculturalist narratives of Brazil while marginalizing Afro-Brazilians. Some of the artists, writers, and poets who participated in Antropofagia produced their own modernist epics and blueprints for a ‘Brazilian-Brazil.’ Many of these works, including Raul Bopp’s Cobra Norato, Cassiano Ricardo’s Martim Cererê, and numerous works by members of the Verde-Amarelismo [Green-and-Yellowism] nationalist movement (that broke away from Antropofagia) such as Plínio Salgado and César Menotti del Picchia, construct national identity through a mythical Tupi figure. This idealization of the Tupi, however, seeks a national origin through a precolonial fantasy. This is where Mário and Oswald de Andrade offer a more nuanced decolonial project. Rather than conceiving a central signifier that purports to convey a precolonial origin, Mário’s and Oswald’s respective work suggests that such an origin is untenable, and that any articulation of one is inevitably constructed through imperial knowledge and writing about the Tupi. The decolonial path, therefore, begins with a reading or decolonial consumption of the field of meaning produced by Empire. In the case of Macunaíma, the journey begins with an experience of the imperial categories of race, not prior to such categories.
History, and how Macunaíma travels through it, emerges in the novel as a temporal mash-up. From the forest where racial difference is presented to him, he moves to the modern industrialized city. Time is articulated by means of spatial crossings, while historical moments are unfolding in seemingly simultaneous movement. The (discursive) machine of History thus resembles a sort of theme park attraction transporting protagonist and reader across periods.
Spatial movement, so integral to the epic genre, is therefore crucially multilayered. Furthermore, the construction of the novel’s titular character develops a deeply ambivalent sort of epic. As the novel’s subtitle indicates, he is a ‘hero with no character.’ His diegetic centrality is always already in dialogue with the decentralization of the behavioral makeup of a Western epic protagonist. More importantly for our concerns here, the allegorical protagonist lacks the key element of the traditional epic hero, often manifest at the plot’s closing – mastery over intersubjective reality. Herein lies the postcolonial challenge of nationhood that Mário de Andrade aims to articulate, in which the sign of the nation attempts to make sense of the History (imperial narrativization as intersubjective reality) into which it has been inserted.
(p.72) As Walter D. Mignolo elaborates, drawing on Aníbal Quijano, the coloniality of power transcends locality and ‘goes beyond decolonization and nation building: coloniality is the machine that reproduces subalternity today in the form of global coloniality in the network society’ (‘Coloniality’ 426). Mário de Andrade’s Antropofagia opens a historical fissure through which this brand of coloniality can be challenged, namely in terms of local power that inserts the postcolonial nation into the global network. In his deeper elaboration of coloniality of power, Mignolo addresses the relationship (in terms of cultural and economic politics) between Latin America and the West as one in which the former is historically constructed (in both colonialism and postcoloniality) not so much as the latter’s other, but its Occidentalist extension (Local Histories 58). One can sum up Brazil’s Tropical Belle Époque – in its cultural, architectural, and political being – as a sustained bourgeois project of inserting the postcolonial nation into modernity and the West. In this light, the Tropical Belle Époque (on the heels of which emerged Antropofagia) extended the West not only spatially but temporally. Through declaratively contesting the narrativizing gaze of the West, the Antropofagia movement can be thought of as an early form of post-Occidentalist discourse, devised almost a half-century later by Roberto Fernández Retamar (‘Nuestra América’).
Within the allegory of the epic character traveling through historicization emerge further long-established allegories of Brazil’s colonial and postcolonial formation. Most notably, the aforementioned scene of the magical water in Macunaíma can be read as a complex questioning of the national myth of the three races in which Brazilianness is founded upon the multicultural exchange between Europeans, Amerindians, and Africans. The radical reformulation of this particular allegory implies a rewriting of postcolonial national thought that had been articulated from historically privileged subject-positions. More than highlighting the historical centrality and subsequent desirability of whiteness within the multiracial national narrative, the novel’s parody of the original allegory lays bare the ontological site from which such postcolonial narratives emerge, while underscoring racial inequities occulted therein. These are inequities upon which nationhood has been founded. In this regard, the novel pre-emptively challenges the national/societal myth of ‘racial democracy’ that Brazilian sociologist/anthropologist Gilberto Freyre was already developing and later set out in his ambitious treatise on Brazilian national formation, Casa Grande e Senzala (1933). In arguing that Brazilian society lacks racial prejudice and post-abolition institutional disenfranchisement, especially vis-à-vis the United States’ Jim Crow South, white masculine elite subjectivity nevertheless emerges in Freyre’s historical argumentation as the de facto agent of Brazilian history and historicity.
(p.73) This relationship between whiteness and historicization informs Macunaíma’s allegorical scene at Sumé’s water pit in which the pigment-altering contents of the pit are tied to the sign of whiteness in this scene and to the construction of its own privilege; that is, to the right to signify. In quantitative terms, postcolonial whiteness is synonymous with access to History and historicization in its entirety, while blackness in the postcolonial Western nation is articulated in terms of relegation, that is to the vestiges of History. Instead of conveying subalternity in spatial terms of historical center and periphery, this passage of the novel brings forth History in terms of volume. Similarly, rather than the subaltern being ‘written out of history,’ Mário de Andrade suggests that the relationship between History and subalternity is more complex. In the scene in question, the subaltern is inside of History, that is, as a historical being, but not a historicizing one. The subaltern’s place within the signifying field of History is that of the written sign, as opposed to the sign that writes; as inscription, not inscriber. The privileged double function of historical agency ultimately belongs to the whitened Macunaíma – enunciator of self and other within History. Tellingly, he quickly comments on Jiguê’s inability to become white: ‘Olhe, mano Jiguê, branco você não ficou, porém pretume foi-se e antes fanhoso que sem nariz’ [‘Look, brother Jiguê, you did not become white, but your blackness is gone and it is better to be nasally than nose-less’] (Macunaíma 48). While whiteness is to be desired and attained, blackness here is its dialectical abject other, to be avoided, a reference to eugenicist and racial scientific thought prevalent among Brazilian elites.
Jackson’s reading of the passage underscores part of its larger racial commentary: ‘as a result of this episode Macunaíma is the best prepared to enter “civilization,”’ while ‘Manaape is said to be the true son of the Tapanhumas: a combination of black and red’ (97). Macunaíma has largely been read as gesturing toward a multicultural narrative of Brazilian nationhood, but that is merely one of its many significational and self-reflexive layers. In attempting to engender a decolonial site of consumption or scene of writing, the novel’s narrator, in controlling and toying with the relationship between the novel’s diegetic space and that of imperial History, consistently asks the reader to be cognizant of imperial meaning’s impact on multiculturalist discourse.
We can also read this passage of Macunaíma through the lens of parody, a narrative device which Maria Eugenia Boaventura suggests is central to the aesthetic and political ends of the Antropofagia movement: ‘transforma-se a paródia em modo eficaz de expressão, típico de uma civilização em estado de transição’ [‘parody is transformed into an effective mode of expression, typical of a civilization in a state of transition’] (23). Drawing on Boaventura’s (p.74) argument, Antropofagia and the modernist period of cultural production in Brazil both enact and critically reflect on the transitions proposed. The parodic device both constitutes and engenders (in the reader/viewer) a new form of understanding the myth as a piece of historicization, and thus a potentially revised relationship between reading subject and discourse. In contesting a particular myth, greater myths may subsequently crumble. In other words, in rethinking such a celebrated fragment of a hegemonic historical narrative by laying bare the imbalances behind it, the larger myth of a totalized monolithic History is possibly interrupted.
It is this sort of engagement with imperial consumption and signification that I find to be the key to understanding both the novel and Mário de Andrade’s larger anthropophagic project. His elaboration of Macunaíma through what scholars and cultural critics have considered primitivist attitudes reflects his (more than most other members of Antropofagia) critical gaze upon the signification of otherness within nationalist ideologies. Macunaíma, the character, is of course extracted from Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s ethnographic account of indigenous peoples in the Amazon and Mount Roraima in Venezuela, published in 1917. As a critical reader of colonial discourse, Mário deploys Macunaíma not as a national symbol, but as a nuanced reading of European knowledge in its intersections with Latin American multicultural and hybrid national narratives. Any critical reflection of nationhood must begin with an engagement against European consumption and signification of the (post)colony.
Imperial consumption emerges in many ways throughout the novel, both at the level of historical and ethnographic texts with which Andrade dialogues, but also within the diegesis through its characters. The most explicit example would be Macunaíma’s principal nemesis, Venceslau Pietro Pietra, a Peruvian capitalist of Italian descent. His nefarious role in social relations is particularly underscored by his corporal stature as a giant. Moreover, as Kimberle López points out, Pietro Pietra ‘carries the labels of “gigante” and “Piaimã,” appellations which evoke both Iberian and Taulipang legends of man-eaters’ (33). Within the plot, Pietro Pietra is thus the consumer par excellence, the collector of precious stones (the embodiment of commodity circulation) and consumer of Brazilian property and labor force. Macunaíma’s search for the amulet ultimately leads to his decisive confrontation with Pietro Pietra.
Esther Gabara’s in-depth analysis of Mário de Andrade’s brand of modernism brings to light his profound engagement with colonial discourse through an intricate dialogue between his literary production, ethnographic work, and photography. In terms of the latter, Gabara offers elucidating readings of Mário’s ‘practice of portraiture’ as one that is strikingly opposed (p.75) to the primitivism that marks European consumption of the Amerindian and Afro-Brazilian other. While much Eurocentric primitivism – including some produced by Latin American modernists – sought to fix, capture, and homogenize the other, Mário’s work, Gabara argues, ‘strives to avoid capture and record heterogeneity’ (66). This is, Gabara concludes, part of Mário’s larger project of a ‘critical nationalism that developed in opposition to the history of colonial pain’ (66). Part of his practice of critical nationalism led Mário de Andrade, more than other modernists, to avoid some of the pitfalls of expressing heterogeneity through an imperial lexicon. This is most notably underscored by his extensive research into Afro-Brazilian and Amerindian communities in order to understand non-imperial narrativizations of time and space. From this research into alternate modes of signification, Mário de Andrade aims for a dialogical scene of decolonial writing that is never one, but multiple.
Macunaíma’s voice, actions, and diegetic configuration are not, therefore, Mário de Andrade’s expression of Brazilian identity. Rather Macunaíma – as the condensation of imperial racial signifiers (laziness, hypersexuality, and abjection) – represents Mário’s denunciation of many of his modernist contemporaries who reproduced such fantasies of otherness. Macunaíma is, at least at one level, truly not a character, as the title indicates, but an imperial fantasy that Mário de Andrade witnessed being appropriated to convey national identity. López points out regarding Macunaíma’s nationalism, that his ‘inability to commit to a national identity ultimately leads to his death, when Vei, the Sun, still angry because he betrayed her native daughters with a Portuguese fishwife, concerts the hero’s fatal encounter with the lady of the lake’ (33). Macunaíma, the tentative decolonial scene of writing and consumption, is himself consumed as punishment for not consistently identifying with the mandates of the nation voiced by Vei, who summons the siren Uiara to devour him.
The titular character is thus more a vehicle of critique – of nationalism and its imperial foundations, as well as of colonial discourse as it informs cultural understandings and identity politics. This critique, if we read Vei as the voicing of national desire and surveying of ‘national’ bodies, also arguably configures nation as a potentially oppressive framework that establishes the parameters of individual identity and desire. In this sense, Macunaíma’s trajectory, as a scene of consumption, points to Cândido’s positing of nation as a ‘recurso ideológico, numa fase de construção e autodefinição’ [‘ideological recourse, in a phase of construction and (p.76) auto-identification’] (28). The decolonial stance of this scene of consumption and writing would thus include a questioning of the nation in its imperial underpinnings and coercive impact on different identities.
Fernando Rosenberg adds yet another layer to Macunaíma’s critical nationalism, crucially pointing out that:
Macunaíma doesn’t just stop at proposing a cultural mix of its own. It explores the blind spots of these newly hegemonic transcultural narratives. It subjects to scrutiny the strategies of antropofagia, transculturation, and hybridity by referring them to the recurring history of colonial domination that they attempt to nationalize and turn around. (81)
Mário de Andrade’s novel, in other words, offers further nuance to existing theories of colonial pasts and presents. Coined in 1947 by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, the term transculturación became a conceptual framework for thinking through intercultural and interethnic encounters, especially but not solely those producing the largest impact, such as colonialism and slavery. These encounters, for Ortiz, came to enact ‘diferentes fases del proceso transitivo de una cultura a otra’ [‘different phases of the transitive process from one culture to another’] (90). Ortiz also differentiates transculturation from other phenomena, although these may result from transcultural encounters:
éste no consiste solamente en adquirir una distinta cultura, que es lo que en rigor indica la voz angloamericana acculturation, sino que el proceso implica también necesariamente la pérdida o desarraigo de una cultura precedente, lo que pudiera decirse una parcial desculturacíon. (90; emphasis original)
[this does not consist solely of acquiring a different culture, which is what the Anglo-American voice effectively calls acculturation, but also necessarily implies the loss or eradication of a preceding culture, what could be called partial deculturation.]
Notwithstanding the undeniable deculturation or deracination of indigenous groups resulting from European colonialism in Latin America, Ortiz locates mainstream Latin American (more particularly Cuban) cultural production as reflective of the ‘creación de nuevos fenómenos culturales que pudieran denominarse de neoculturación’ [‘creation of new cultural phenomena that could be called neoculturation’] (90; emphasis original).
The latter reflection or version of transculturation is arguably that which has been most appropriated by subsequent Latin American intellectuals to (p.77) theorize the (post)colonial negotiations between metropolitan cultural forms and historical and cultural particularities of Latin American producers. Drawing on, while also expanding Ortiz’s conception, Uruguayan theorist Ángel Rama defines the term as implying
una doble comprobación: por una parte registra que la cultura presente de la comunidad latinoamericana (que es un producto largamente transculturado y en permanente evolución) está compuesta de valores idiosincráticos, los que pueden reconocerse actuando desde fechas remotas; por otra parte corrobora la energía creadora que la mueve, haciéndola muy distinta de un simple agregado de normas, comportamientos, creencias y objetos culturales, pues se trata de una fuerza que actúa con desenvoltura tanto sobre su herencia particular, según las situaciones proprias de su desarrollo, como sobre las aportaciones provenientes de fuera. Es justamente esa capacidad para elaborar con originalidad, aun en difíciles circunstancias históricas, la que demuestra que pertenece a una sociedad viva y creadora. (33–34)
[a double verification: on the one hand, it registers that the present culture of the Latin American community (which is a largely transcultured product in permanent evolution) is composed of idiosyncratic values, which can be identified as acting from remote dates; on the other hand, it corroborates the creative energy that moves it, distinguishing it from a simple aggregate of norms, behaviors, and cultural objects, as it implies a force that acts with aplomb over both its particular heritage, according to particular situations of its development, and foreign approaches. It is precisely this ability to elaborate with originality, even in difficult historical circumstances, that demonstrates that it belongs to a vivacious and creative society.]
Rama updates Ortiz’s concept by designating an interstitial space occupied by Latin American cultural producers through which the national is in constant flux and negotiation between hegemonic and subaltern production. Dispelling accusations of imitation levied against Latin American artists and writers (such as Mário de Andrade), Rama underscores the profound creative labor undertaken in elaborating this negotiation.
For Oswald and Mário de Andrade’s Antropofagia, couched within Brazilian modernism, this negotiation also implies rethinking and responding to the tenets of their contemporaneous modernity – the historical, racial, bourgeois, medical (i.e. eugenic), and urban developmental discourses espoused by national elites – that marked the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As we saw in the case of Oswald de Andrade, and will (p.78) explore in the context Mário de Andrade’s Macunaíma, contesting this modernity requires a historical revisiting in the form of a cannibal genealogy or critical repetition of Empire’s moments leading up to the present. This revision of modernity, undergirded by the aforementioned negotiation between subaltern (not the phantasmatic precolonial Tupi, but the displaced Tupi, the enslaved Afro-Brazilian subject, and the urban proletariat, to name only a few) and hegemonic knowledge, suggests an open-ended and indeterminate process of rethinking the modern order. In doing so, room is cleared for hybrid – to borrow Bhabha’s term – cultural production and identities emerging from the imbalanced encounters between cultures and knowledges. Bhabha’s theoretical artifice, hybridity, names the myriad sites of this negotiation between subaltern and hegemonic in the context of Empire. The concept is predicated, moreover, on the indeterminacy of the sign, what Jacques Derrida calls différance, the postponement of meaning between subject, reading of the sign, and reinscription (145–70). In this sense, transcultural negotiations imply the repetition of imperial signs, each moment of repetition representing an opportunity for resignification; and from there, the possibility of reformulating subjectivity in regard to Empire.
What Mário and Oswald de Andrade contribute to these debates is the notion that their contemporary Brazil is not composed of one single Brazilian culture or knowledge that negotiates between an inaccessible precolonial past and modern European politics and aesthetics. Rather, this endless transcultural process is a nuanced and constant struggle between subaltern identities on the precipice of erasure and dominant imperial/ European models of knowledge and personhood. The transcultural battle is thus undergirded, as Oswald makes clear in ‘Manifesto Antropófago,’ by Empire, capitalism, and patriarchy; and, therefore, the resignification and/or contestation of modernity must not be undertaken by national cultural elites (including himself) but by the existing knowledges that have experienced and are under persistent attack by the political, economic, and representational forces of Empire. One can tie this approach to transcultural negotiation to Mário de Andrade’s contributions to political and institutional landscapes, namely his role in the creation of the University of São Paulo and his founding and directorship of the Department of Culture in São Paulo. As Saulo Gouveia notes with regard to the creation of the latter, ‘the main goal of this cultural project was to democratize access to culture’ (178).
A transcultural negotiation based on analyzing what colonialism and Western History has left, allows ultimately for the decolonial nation-sign to be articulated and/or constantly problematized. It is worth noting that Mário applied his ‘critical nationalism’ even to his own sense of national identity, or lack thereof. He often alludes to ‘the de-nationalizing anguish of culture’ (p.79) that he encounters in exploring Brazilian history. In an unpublished preface to Macunaíma, he questions whether he ‘made a Brazilian work’ (356) and admits, ‘I don’t know if I am Brazilian’ (356).
The Anthropophagic Scene of Consumption
The larger argument regarding the novel is that, contrary to common readings of it, which arise largely as a consequence of particular understandings of Antropofagia, Macunaíma is not a symbol of a hybridized national identity, but rather a composite of imperial meanings as well as representing an emergent decolonial scene of writing – the anthropophagic subject that produces meaning. Nowhere in the novel is this more evident than in the letter Macunaíma writes from the city of São Paulo to the female subjects of his Amazonian kingdom – the Icamiabas.
In the letter, titled ‘Carta prás Icamiabas’ [‘Letter to the Icamiabas’] and spanning its own chapter in the novel, Macunaíma offers several analyses of European meanings and the Western narrativization of otherness. As noted in the previous chapter, Mário de Andrade claimed to have copied several passages of this particular letter directly from travel texts. Alfredo Bosi considers the letter to be a ‘crônica jocosa’ [‘humorous chronicle’] (400), and an example of the novel’s ‘estilo de paródia’ [‘parodic style’] (399). Bosi reads the letter, more specifically, as a parody of pre-modernist Parnassianism in Brazil, namely the writing of Coelho Neto and Rui Barbosa. In Bosi’s opinion, the plot’s abrupt shifts from primitivism to parody to a distancing from both, ‘[justifica] plenamente o título de rapsódia, mais do que “romance” que emprestou à obra’ [‘fully justifies the title of rhapsody more than that of “novel,” which he attributed to the work’] (400; emphasis original). The letter’s text inevitably lends itself to various interpretations and critiques. Regardless of to whom it may or may not be directed among the readership, the letter is the only instance in which the reader is granted extended access to the transitioning voice of the titular character. The letter is, moreover, a product and example of Macunaíma’s consumption and narrativization of São Paulo. The choice of prose, as we will explore, offers further layers of potentially decolonial meanings, as well as warnings on the cooptation of radical movements.
Taking on the role of travel writer, an anthropophagic one who interprets and re-narrativizes the layout of modern power that informs and compartmentalizes urban life at the height of Brazilian industrialization, he writes:
Moram os Paulistanos em Palácios alterosos de cinquenta, cem e mais andares […] nos bairros miseráveis, surge anualmente uma (p.80) incontável multidão de rapazes e raparigas bulhentos, a que chamamos ‘italianinhos’; destinados a alimentarem as fábricas dos áureos potentados, e a servirem, escravos, o descanso aromático dos Cresos.
Estes e outros multimilionários é que ergueram em torno da urbs as doze mil fábricas de seda, e no recesso dela os famosos Cafés maiores do mundo […]
E o Palácio do Governo é todo de oiro, à feição dos da Rainha do Adriático; e, em carruagens de prata, forradas de peles finíssimas, o Presidente, que mantém muitas esposas, passeia, ao cair das tardes, sorrindo com vagar. (105–06)
[Paulistanos reside in tall Palaces of fifty, a hundred and more floors (…) every year in poor neighborhoods there emerges an innumerable multitude of disorderly boys and girls whom we call ‘little Italians’, destined to sustain the factories of the golden potentates, and serving the aromatic ease of Croesuses like slaves.
These and other multimillionaires erected the twelve thousand silk factories around the city, and in between the famous, largest Cafés in the world (…).
And the Government Palace is made of gold, in the likeness of the palaces of the Queen of the Adriatic; and, in silver caravans lined with the finest furs, the President, who maintains many wives, strolls smiling and wandering in the late afternoon.]
The counter-historicist project of Antropofagia embodied by Macunaíma’s letter aims to enact a critical distance vis-à-vis Western modernity and the signifiers it has produced. The cultural imperative of modernizing national culture – gesturing toward a ‘Brazilian-Brazil’ – implies a decolonial, non-imperial modernization. The decolonial voice in which the letter is written does not point toward a premodern ideal, nor toward a premodern voice, but to one that emerges through the signifiers of modernity, imperialism, and industrial capitalism – delinking these from their field of meaning and thus interrupting imperial historicity in favor of a decolonial mode of signification.
This gesture exemplifies Walter Mignolo’s call for a shift from what he coins a ‘geopolitics of knowledge’ to the ‘geopolitics of knowing’ (Darker Side 119) – that is, a decolonial shift from being enunciated within imperial knowledge to enunciating from within its field of power. Mignolo identifies the enunciated as the ‘anthropos’ – the object of Western knowledge, signified as non-Western otherness: ‘The anthropos, in inhabiting non-European places, discovered that she/he has been invented, as anthropos, by a locus (p.81) of enunciation self-defined as humanitas’ (Darker Side 119). Macunaíma’s letter thus stages the anthropos’s discovery ‘that she/he has been invented’ and the recognition that s/he is ‘inside the space and institutions that created him/her’ (119). The aforementioned shift taken on by Macunaíma’s anthropophagist letter transforms the site of the enunciated, or consumed (as other), into the site of consumption and enunciation. Macunaíma, embodying the object of European consumption and Western imperial power, is flipped and becomes a site or agent of knowing. This shift from knowledge to knowing, Mignolo argues,
is the beginning of any epistemic decolonial linking with all its historical, political, and ethical consequences. Why? Because geo-historical and bio-graphic (constructed, of course, in the same way that zero point epistemology is constructed) loci of enunciation have been located by and through the making and transformation of the colonial matrix of power: a racial system of social classification that invented Occidentalism (e.g., Indias Occidentales; that created the conditions for Orientalism; that distinguished the South of Europe from its center (Hegel); and that remapped the world in First, Second, and Third ranking during the Cold War.
In this regard, the letter inserts modern urban industrial imagery – bodies, spaces, machinery – into a new web of meaning and body of knowledge. The delinking called for by Mignolo is undertaken, for instance, at a micro level, through a reformulated relationship between signifier and signified.
The automobile, for instance, the commodity par excellence of industrial modernity, is described as a ‘carruage[m] de prata, forrada de pele finíssima’ [‘silver caravan lined with the finest furs’] (106). The realm of objects as they reside within a capitalist sphere of production is narrativized by Macunaíma in a manner that ambivalently eludes the bourgeois abstraction of each object’s use-value, from which exchange value emerges. This sort of re-narrativization, or de-narrativization, ‘engag[es] in epistemic disobedience and delinking from the magic of the Western idea of modernity’ (Mignolo, Darker Side 120).
Macunaíma’s re-narrativizing of the realm of production and the circulation of commodities essentially strips these (commodities) of their magic – their exchange value, that which permits the performance of bourgeois identity, especially in relation to the marginalized and othered proletariat. Macunaíma’s account of the modern urban realm of power tacitly ties the abstraction of value regarding commodities (including labor) to the performance of identity at different ends of the spectrum of power. (p.82) In the space of three paragraphs, he is able to connect, without overtly Marxian language, the exploitation of immigrant labor, the production of commodities, ownership over the modes of production, performance of bourgeois life as tied to the commodity, and political power. This is the imperial trajectory of production to consumption. After all, Antropofagia is as much about the formation of a decolonial site of postcolonial consumption as it is about critiquing dominant forms of consumption.
Dominant consumption in the postcolony is, of course, inextricably linked to a national elite consolidated through Western modes of production and performed by way of European forms of bourgeois cultural identity. Bourgeois identity is then predicated on the abstraction of value ascribed to commodities; one divorced from the value of labor. The value of the commodity is subsequently expressed by its consumed existence as an appendage to the body. The bourgeois postcolonial subject, which is antithetical to Antropofagia, is ultimately an amalgam of commodities that originate from the industrial space of labor – namely the confines of the factory in Macunaíma’s letter.
Macunaíma’s writing on the city subtly presents the realm of production (and consumption) and wealth accumulation as a vicious cycle. São Paulo’s industrial elites engender the conditions for surplus labor as the construction of factories drives internal migration and foreign immigration to the city. Through a constant labor surplus, the ‘milionários’ consolidate their control over the means of production. Ensnared by the controlled means of production, the surplus labor embodied by Italian immigrants (‘italianinhos’) resides on the outskirts of the city – the exponentially growing ‘bairros miseráveis’ (106). While the socioeconomic critique within the novel is not as fleshed out and nuanced as the Marxist-influenced readings of History offered by Oswald de Andrade’s poetry and political writings, Macunaíma’s letter nonetheless ties together various elements of modern urban power and how such power informs identity across this spectrum. The means of production and wealth accumulation, colonial processes of industrial capitalism, also inform the layout of the city, the paradoxical overlapping of spaces of production, subalternity, and privilege; Macunaíma points this out referring to the physical proximity between the twelve thousand factories and largest cafés in the world.
The term café is likely deployed as a double entendre. Firstly, it signifies a space of privileged consumption-as-performance embodying the bourgeois usurpation of the public sphere (see Habermas). At a deeper layer, it genealogically points toward the historical accumulation of wealth and power by São Paulo elites. The booming coffee industry of the nineteenth century led to the concentration of wealth in the state of São Paulo, where (p.83) the largest portion of the industry was located. By 1840, coffee accounted for 43.8% of Brazil’s total exports (Bethell 85) reaching 63.9% in 1950 before its decline due to the emergence of other exports (see Fausto). The accumulation of wealth derived from coffee production gave rise to state elites that would eventually dominate the national political sphere. This predictable intersection of wealth and political power reached its apex during Brazil’s First Republic (1889–1930) – a historical period of national politics, the tail end of which witnessed the rise of the anthropophagic modernist movement. This geographical concentration of power famously became known as ‘café com leite’ [‘coffee with milk’] politics in reference to São Paulo’s coffee production and Minas Gerais’s dairy industry. All of the First Republic’s presidents came from these two states. Subsequently, the concentration of political influence led to consistent satisfaction of the political interests and demands of these two states and their respective elites, reproducing their wealth and population/labor force. From the wealth and political power accumulated by way of the coffee industry, the city of São Paulo, the state’s capital, became the core of Brazil’s industrialization founded on Fordist methods of factory production.
From the concentration of wealth and political power emerge the conditions for brutal industrial – that is, modernized – forms of exploitation. While the transition from a national monarchy to a republic, along with the abolition of slavery, were narrativized as national modernization projects, they did not displace the imperial field of meaning where national power is narrativized. As I have argued elsewhere (Silva, Subjectivity), the modernization of the nation became, at its core, the reconsolidation of imperial forms of power and wealth concentration through reformulated modes of otherness, brought on by overlapping discourses of industrialization, urban renewal, and eugenics. At the heart of this reproduction of Empire and reconsolidation of its material conditions was the same imperial scene of writing against which Antropofagia, despite pitfalls, positioned its project.
Reversing Empire’s Psychic Links
The strangeness with which Macunaíma consumes this paradoxical overlapping of spaces of production, subalternity, and privilege of the urban terrain – understanding it as a paradox – performs a crucial sort of delinking. He fails to misrecognize the inner workings of the imperial symbolic order of the industrial city. As a writer/consumer who has not been interpellated into the city’s field of meaning, thus not possessing an identity/ place within production, Macunaíma is not taught how to read or link the field’s circulating signifiers. The imperial field of meaning is, moreover, an (p.84) economy of desire where interpellation is the successful synchronization of the subject’s desire with imperial power’s desire for reproduction. Louis Althusser famously extrapolates interpellation from Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage where the uninterpellated individual – embodied by the trope of the infant – confronts the image of their ideal identity – ideal for power’s field of meaning. The formation of this image – the ideal ego – is thus narrativized trans-temporally through the desire of the symbolic order, the Lacanian big Other. The ideal ego is what the big Other wants from the subject at the moment of interpellation. Interpellation is never one isolated moment, but a constant process of regulating the subject’s desire in agreement with the desire of the Other, in this case, Empire. Lacan notably attributed this regulation to the paternal function within the patriarchal organization of society, but it is not limited to the gendered role of the father, biological or otherwise. Part of the interpellation, the social agreement between subject and Other, is that the interpellated individual will go on to become a scene of writing for the Other, a producer of meaning that will reconsolidate and reproduce the Other as a field of meaning.
In Macunaíma’s journey from the forest, the space of precolonial fantasy, to the space formed by industrial production and massive imperial manipulation, he enters the latter physically but is never ideologically inserted into it through power’s subjectivation. The interpellated subject would be firstly, in Mignolo’s words, the object of knowledge, akin to the ideal ego as the strategic agglomeration of meaning that forms imperialized identities and scenes of writing. If the interpellated subject is the discursive intersection between object of knowledge and subject of knowledge, Macunaíma, as constructed by Mário de Andrade, is a pure subject of knowledge. Andrade’s aesthetic and political project of embodying the cannibal metaphor perhaps inevitably forms an entity that is a pure scene of writing. In this regard, Macunaíma’s lack of character or personality plays into this aspect of Andrade’s version of the anthropophagic project. As someone with little awareness of proper interpersonal conduct, he seemingly comes from no symbolic order from which a subject can be expelled for not following implied intersubjective laws.
As he weaves through various cultural and epistemological realms, he reads different components of Empire’s signifying field (such as capitalist modes of production) without misrecognizing them, in the Marxist sense – especially the most perilous of them that he encounters in the city. If he truly ever becomes an object of knowledge, it is through being first and foremost a subject of knowledge; that is, through the meanings which he consumes, collects, delinks, and reformulates throughout his journey. In this regard, Mário de Andrade reverses the imperial order of subjectivation through (p.85) Macunaíma. The path toward decoloniality in the novel begins through a scene of writing that is not merely an object of imperial knowledge, but is firstly a critical reader and writer of meaning.
If the scene of national writing culturally and socioeconomically located in the bourgeois locales of the city is one that is successfully interpellated into the imperial field of meaning, the anthropophagic scene of writing must be somehow uninterpellated. The imperial subject/scene of writing, embodied in the letter by the São Paulo industrial capitalist, ultimately represents the intersection of Empire’s desire with that of the subject; the bond of desire necessary for the reproduction of power. In desiring the accumulation of wealth via the oppressive mechanisms of production, the capitalist subject also desires – and reproduces – the field of meaning that designates the bodies to be marginalized, based on imperial taxonomies of race and transnational flows of capital and people. The industrial city, in this case São Paulo, is part of a global web of production, consumption, and markets. Its factories are staffed by the descendants of African slaves – the primordial globally translocated labor force – as well as European peasants and proletariats, subalternized in their own national economic contexts. The search for survival of what can be considered a global subaltern class emerging from Empire ultimately leads to the population and formation of the world’s mega-cities, the global capitals of production. The influx of European workers into São Paulo, and many other cities of the Americas, was further propelled by state-driven whitening initiatives. In this regard, eugenic discourses and ideals of national improvement based on imperial notions of white superiority, backed by pseudo-science, further drive the slumization of the city. The presence of italianinhos in the São Paulo periphery is ultimately the product of the multi-localized desire of Empire. The reproduction of inequities in Italy guided by the hyper-concentration of wealth intersects with the reproduction of inequities in Brazil led by the desire for wealth accumulation in the industrialized postcolony. Both desires, in their own distinct, yet overlapping locations, are, of course, sanctioned by the imperial field of meaning.
Within this realm of inequities and classification of bodies and life, bourgeois identity is performed – itself a reproduction of Empire. The industrial elite subject, including the President Macunaíma witnesses cruising through São Paulo (106), reads the field of meaning – crystallized by the ideal ego in the mirror stage – at the moment of interpellation. In this regard, Macunaíma does not fail to point out the close relationship between the wealthy industrial class and the realm of municipal and national politics. The subject’s desire within Empire thus operates in agreement with the white patriarchal capitalist structuring of power, (p.86) as underscored by his quotidian actions. Economic luxury in terms of consumption of objects and a performance of hyper-masculinity embodied by polygamy constitute the performance of identity as the reproduction of power.
From his uninterpellated place, Macumaíma re-historicizes the phenomena he encounters in the city, thus enunciating a new narrative of urban life divorced from the power relations that mark the existing narrative. In this regard, Macunaíma’s letter on São Paulo offers an interesting dialogue with Mário de Andrade’s earlier collection of poems on the city, Paulicéia Desvairada [Hallucinated City], in which urban life is reimagined through the lens of urban industrial apocalypse, articulating the city as a locus of abjection and death. The city is thus a terrain of Western and industrial power that mutilates the landscape and the bodies that populate it through production and labor exploitation.
Logocentrism and Antropofagia’s Failure
The very writing of the letter, the logocentric act itself and the speech through which Macunaíma conveys the urban field of meaning, carries its own complexities. Through his act of writing, he takes up the logocentric mode of Western signification while simultaneously critiquing it. Macunaíma writes using archaic European Portuguese vocabulary and syntax only to then underscore the chasm between spoken and written Portuguese, particularly when describing the people of industrialized and socially compartmentalized São Paulo. Of São Paulo’s elites, he writes ‘ora sabereis que a sua riqueza de expressão intelectual é tão prodigiosa, que falam numa língua e escrevem noutra’ [‘now you shall know that their rich intellectual expression is so prodigious that they speak in one language and write in another’] (106). In articulating such a discrepancy, he gives postcolonial primacy to phonocentrism by parodying logocentrism – and bourgeois linguistic production – and explicitly aligning it with European colonial endeavor and the Latinization of the New World.
He thus ties the logocentric incarnation of the language to the performance of white bourgeois power in the postcolony. In mimicking bourgeois writing, he ultimately mimics bourgeois identity, particularly in its enunciation of otherness – in this case the othering of spoken Portuguese in Brazil:
Mas si de tal desprezível língua se utilizam na conversação os naturais desta terra, logo que tomam da pena, se despojam de tanta asperidade e surge o Homem Latino, de Lineu, exprimindo-se numa outra linguagem, mui próxima da vergiliana, no dizer dum panegirista, (p.87) meigo idioma, que, com imperecível galhardia, se intitula: língua de Camões! (107)
[If such a despicable language is used in conversation by the natives of this land, as soon as they take up the pen, they abandon such coarseness and there emerges the Latin Man, of Linnaeus, expressing themselves in another language, much closer to that of Virgil, in the speech of a panegyrist, gentle language that, with imperishable gallantry, is called the language of Camões!]
Aside from transforming the protagonist into a narrational voice or an internal anthropophagist, the ‘Letter to the Icamiabas’ offers a stark contrast to the linguistic project carried out by the novel’s narration. In this regard, the integration of the letter in the novel performs a parodic articulation of difference; a difference that is now located among European language and linguistic production. Within the novel’s own system of meanings, this mode of language is to be read as other; thus tentatively effacing the linguistic prestige of this temporally situated and historically produced variant.
As Mignolo reminds us, ‘Modern European languages embodied, during and after the Renaissance, the ‘spirit’ of epistemology’ (Darker Side 183). It is perhaps no coincidence then that the letter reproduces the prose of renaissance Portuguese travel writers. The starkest example of this would be the use of what today is the second-person plural subject pronoun vós (and conjugations) as a hyper-formal second-person singular address, often reserved for royalty. Antropofagia had, of course, a well-delineated mission regarding language, which was ‘to Brazilianize the Portuguese language, rejecting archaisms and erudition while proclaiming the naturalness of neological forms, which should come into everyday usage from contact with languages such as Tupy-Guarani and Yoruba’ (Jackson 100–01). The language of the novel (excluding the letter) embodies this aspect of the anthropophagist project. It becomes a text, a series of meanings and signs, which is to be consumed and reformulated from the manipulated and marginalized signifiers of colonial otherness. From there, the cannibalized language-text is also to be the mode through which the negotiated anthropophagist scene of writing shall decolonize the nation-sign.
The use of a highly Europeanized writing, itself a collection of linguistic signs, to critique imperial narrativization serves as a useful metaphor for the avant-gardist uses of European forms, the main limitation being that such cultural movements of anti-imperial political stances emerge from sites of relative social privilege. The movement openly aimed to distinguish itself (p.88) from the bourgeois cultural production of the time, although its members were, as Jean Franco notes, ‘sophisticated urbanites’ (94). Esther Gabara offers a thorough review of the critiques levied against early twentieth-century modernisms in Latin America, including Antropofagia:
scholars such as Natalia Majluf and Sérgio Luiz Prado Bellei, as well as George Yúdice and Roberto Reis take this generation of writers and artists to task for their participation in a nationalist ideology that depended upon primitivist attitudes toward the native and black populations in the Americas. They examine how this generation of thinkers, including Peruvian José Carlos Mariátegui, Cuban Renato Ortiz, and Mexican José Vasconcelos, produced theories of transculturation and mestizaje (racial mixture) from the position of the same social elites who had controlled power and wealth in the region since independence. Prado Bellei’s conclusion that modernism provides little ‘emancipatory potential’ is typical of contemporary reactions against the heroic proclamations of the 1920s and 1930s. (63)
The larger critique of the movement would thus assert that, in many ways, it reproduced what it purportedly repudiated, especially due to its own use of European aesthetic trends. Mário de Andrade points out as much in his reflection on Brazilian modernism on the twentieth anniversary of São Paulo’s modern art week. In his essay, ‘O Movimento Modernista,’ Andrade recalls the movement’s ‘revolta contra a intelligensia nacional’ [‘revolt against the national intelligentsia’], while also underscoring that the ‘modas que revestiram este espírito foram diretamente importadas da Europa’ [‘styles that conveyed this spirit were imported directly from Europe’] (non. pag.), alluding here to the European modernisms that emerged from the cultural aftermath of World War I. Andrade also denounces the group’s brand of modernism: ‘o movimento renovador era nitidamente aristocrático. Pelo seu caráter de jogo arriscado, pelo seu espírito aventureiro, pelo seu internacionalismo modernista, pelo seu nacionalismo embravecido, pela gratuidade antipopular, era uma aristocracia do espírito’ [‘this renovating movement was clearly aristocratic. Due to its risky character, its adventurous spirit, its modernist internationalism, its infuriated nationalism, its anti-popular gratuitousness, it was an aristocracy of the spirit’] (non. pag.).
For Mário de Andrade, therefore, the movement’s ultimate downfall was due not only to its bourgeois origins, but its subsequent inability to engender a cultural discourse that could surpass its origins. This would have implied a scene of writing that could fully eclipse the subject-position from which it was spawned. The construction of a decolonial place of (p.89) signification never usurped the very colonial (in the sense of coloniality) place that birthed the movement. To put it in Andrade’s own words, the anthropophagus never erased, or at least divorced itself from, the aristocracy of the movement’s spirit. We can thus read the prose of Macunaíma’s ‘Letter to the Icamiabas’ as perhaps an expression of Mário de Andrade’s internal critique of the movement. The letter’s scene of writing, despite its spirit of renovation and impulse to modernize the production of national meaning from a decolonial site, cannot help but speak from a lexicon of colonial privilege.
This perhaps points to a greater antagonism within the novel, as Mário de Andrade constructed it, pitting the prose of the ‘Letter to the Icamiabas’ against that of the rest of the novel. Whereas the latter embodies a gesture toward a decolonial langue for the postcolony, the prose of the letter within and vis-à-vis the novel embodies colonial continuity, that which is most difficult to vanquish as it resides in the power (inherent to the system) of those who articulate change. Amílcar Cabral notably called this necessary step, the most obstinate one on the road to anti-colonial revolution, ‘class suicide’ – the postcolonial bourgeoisie’s foregoing of its own interests in favor of those of the subaltern (110). The next – unfulfilled – phase in the Antropofagia project was perhaps this transition, implying a sustained shift in enunciatory locale, from the urban cultural aristocracy to the subject-positions that reside at the margins of the imperial field of meaning that informs the nation-sign. The failure of the movement, however, does not irrevocably tarnish its objective. Despite the seemingly irreconcilable discrepancy between the anthropophagic scene of writing and the scene of writing from which the movement emerges, Antropofagia ‘may nevertheless put into question the authority of Europe’s “long story” of modernity’ (Madureira 23), and ‘nonetheless evokes, if only inchoately, the terror of totalizing projects’ (Madureira 50).
Reading the Realm of Concepts, Interrupting Interpellation
Part of Antropofagia’s decolonial project meant grappling with and contesting the role of modern global capitalism as well as the larger international colonial matrix of economic dependency and imperial epistemology. The formation of international relationships of economic dependency was, for Oswald de Andrade, tied to the reproduction of this imperial field of meaning. He has tacitly connected it to the European philosophical tradition of rationalism. This relationship between Reason and Empire would be famously interrogated in greater depth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire, where they trace contemporary hegemony within global capital (p.90) back to Reason’s suppression of immanence as the philosophical ground upon which ‘modern sovereignty’ emerged. As opposed to immanence, embodied by Spinozan ethics, Reason implied a grip on how individuals related to the material world, a hold on meaning in other words. As a consequence of Reason’s mediated reality, ‘Nature and experience are unrecognizable except through the filter of phenomena; human knowledge cannot be achieved except through the reflection of the intellect; and the ethical world is incommunicable except through the schematism of reason’ (Hardt and Negri 78–79; emphasis original).
Antropofagia, therefore, implies perhaps not a return to immanence, but at least a critique of Kantian transcendental philosophy that offered a fleshed-out philosophical foundation for imperial epistemology, namely the positing of knowledge as transcendental: knowledge that ‘is occupied not so much with objects, as with our a priori concepts of objects (Kant, Basic 38). Through the transcendental model of knowledge, the consumption of colonial otherness is made possible – knowledge without experience. More precisely, the transcendental implies the precedence of the concepts of objects over the experience of them. In other words, imperial knowledge pertaining to bodies, geographies, and commodities becomes the frame through which these entities are experienced. The interpellation of the subject into the imperial field of meaning is ultimately the formation of a transcendental – in a strictly Kantian sense – subject, one whose experience of objects is grounded in the shifting definitions of them as they have been narrativized. This is, for Kant, the basis of Reason – ‘the faculty which supplies the principles of knowledge a priori’ (38). Reason, therefore, not only offers the ideological grounds for global forms of domination through logics of legitimization, it is the modus operandi of subjectivity as it resides within global power’s web of meanings.
Mignolo interestingly points out Kant’s own moments of consumption when discussing the latter’s take on geography: ‘The global totality that Kant searches for in his Geography, which parallels other fields of his inquiry, is driven by an anxious will to control knowledge and a blind sensitivity toward what he overrules by means of what he appropriates’ (Darker Side 182). More than merely a totality, it firmly reproduces existing imperial modes of power and categories pertaining to race, gender, and sexuality. In his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, a compilation of material he had taught on the subject for 25 years, Kant notably constructs a binary realm of gender difference through what he called ‘nature’s economy.’ Gender difference is thus a product of natural forces, interests, and nature’s division of labor. Eduardo Mendieta and Stuart Elden succinctly capture Kant’s conceptualization of man and woman:
(p.91) Nature’s economy, according to Kant, has entrusted to woman’s womb the ‘dearest pledge, namely the species.’ It is for this reason that nature has implanted in woman fear of physical injury and in particular of sexual injury. By the same token, this fear has given rise to female timidity. And for this reason, woman must rightly claim the protection of the male. Woman’s role as the preserver of the species requires a protector of the womb of the species. (356)
Kant, therefore, not only offers the theoretical blueprint for knowledge with his theses on reason, but also enacts his argument of transcendental knowledge in his historicization of the world.
Kant is firmly embedded in Empire’s field of meaning and is thus another scene of writing for its reproduction. His interpretation of racial and geographic difference in Physical Geography is based on an existing set of concepts pertaining to bodies and spaces, one that narrativizes particular racial hierarchies. He notably theorizes human perfection in terms of skin color and climate:
In the torrid zones, humans mature more quickly in all aspects than in the temperate zones, but they fail to reach the same degree of perfection. Humanity has its highest degree of perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a somewhat lesser talent. The Negroes are much lower, and lowest of all is part of the American races. (316)
Kant succinctly narrativizes power in racialized terms, proclaiming difference as a natural truth. The epistemological consequences of doing so, moreover, delineate a particular path of History, a field of meaning that is monological and dominated by the whiteness.
Displacing Reason altogether is perhaps beyond the philosophical scope of the anthropophagist project. The political end, however, may lie in recircuiting the transcendental basis of knowledge toward the objective of enunciating a decolonial scene of writing/consumption. The issue with the transcendental is not the philosophy itself, but the political purposes it serves, namely the narrativization of global and intercultural time and space, in conjunction with the political and economic power of Europe. We can already perceive this relationship between the transcendental and Western imperialism in the writings of Kant himself.
The project of delinking thus aims for a reordering of the ‘concepts of objects.’ Over a century after Kant, Ferdinand de Saussure would schematize more precisely what the concept of an object meant. Saussure, of course, called the constellation of concepts langue – a system of signs, themselves constituted by the relationship between signifier and signified, while (p.92) the object itself remains outside of the relationship. Knowledge, in its transcendental form, as it is a product of concepts and not objects, can therefore be thought of as pure narrativization. This is precisely Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément’s theoretical argument when exploring European constructions of otherness at the moment of encounter as the formation of a sign that forecloses the native’s subjectivity:
What is the ‘Other’? If it is truly the ‘other’, there is nothing to say; it cannot be theorized. The ‘other’ escapes me. It is elsewhere, outside: absolutely other. It doesn’t settle down. But in History, of course, what is called ‘other’ is an alterity that does settle down, that falls into the dialectical circle. It is the other in a hierarchically organized relationship in which the same is what rules, names, defines, and assigns ‘its’ other. With the dreadful simplicity that orders the movement Hegel erected as a system, society trots along before my eyes reproducing to perfection the mechanism of the death struggle: the reduction of a ‘person’ to a ‘nobody’ to the position of ‘other’ – the inexorable plot of racism. (70–71)
It is thus the imperial writing of the concept that forecloses the person. The other becomes knowable only as the other, a text, never as the person. In purely Kantian terms, then, the concept of the object erases the object, and the field of meaning in which power resides and is reproduced is based solely on the concept as it is articulated by power.
The anthropophagic mission is not to articulate a longing for a pre-transcendental epistemological form, however. The anthropophagic scene of writing, like that of Macunaíma in his letter, aims to shift the concept (of bodies, nation, etc.) as it is read in the postcolony. The rearticulation of concepts would ultimately foment emergent decolonial scenes of writing from which the Brazilian nation-sign, as well as the subjects residing therein, can be disentangled from the Eurocentric field of meaning. This would usher in, through the possibility of a decolonial subject, a shift in political power, one that may articulate the nation through the spectrum of voices that inhabit its geopolitical borders. The overarching objective would thus be political change through a shift in the subject. As Félix Guattari argues with regard to the production of subjectivity, ‘the various semiotic registers that combine to engender subjectivity do not maintain obligatory hierarchical relations fixed for all time’ (1). The interpellation of the subject is never a seamless operation. Rather, the moment in which the individual is hailed, thus confronting the ideal ego, is fraught with tension and uncertainty. The individual may not respond to power’s desire being conveyed through the image. Interpellation is thus a consistently repeated (p.93) process – a pedagogical operation that teaches how to desire. Nonetheless, in the interstices of these repeated moments conveyed through ‘various semiotic registers’ (Guattari 1) – economic, cultural, racial, gender – the concentration of power may not change though its signifiers are in flux, and new meanings may emerge.
It is here that Antropofagia intervenes – in the dispersed moments of subjectivation, presenting a new mode of reading the field of meaning into which the subject is interpellated. Part of the ideal ego, as an image of productivity for the desire of the big Other, is its ability to produce meaning – its promise of becoming a scene of writing. The anthropophagic project thus sets in motion a revising of the subject starting with its production of meaning as the central facet of subjective performativity. The shift in the subject, in other words, must begin somewhat retroactively, or in a possibly opposite order. This is not to argue that the Althusserian hailing and the production of meaning are temporally separate phenomena. I would argue, rather, that they are part of the same agreement. In Mário de Andrade’s focus on the subject’s production of meaning, we understand that the subject cannot adequately respond to the big Other’s desire without the hailing. On the other hand, a hailed subject is rendered useless to the Other if it does not perform its identity in agreement with the tenets of Empire. This seems to be the logic that undergirds the deployment of the cannibal metaphor in Macunaíma. The text cannot fully intercept the hailing, especially because it cannot erase the imperial field of meaning; nor does it intend to, but it can impact the other deeply intertwined part of the equation – the interpellated subject’s production of meaning.
The novel – and, ironically, its uninterpellated protagonist – is thus directed toward the interpellated reader, the subject residing within the global imperial field of meaning, particularly that residing and circulating among the nation’s privileged circles and/or literati. The objective then becomes to connect the imperial reader to the uninterpellated scene of writing that is the novel’s titular character. Macunaíma, within the novel’s diegetic realm, is not taught to desire Empire. He is thus outside of desire, and his own desire is only liminally found in the imperial field of meaning as it is produced by Mário de Andrade from his own reading of History. In the reader’s realm of meaning, Macunaíma is an amalgam of imperial signifiers, a product of Empire’s historicization. At the same time, Macunaíma is also the uninterpellated reader/translator of the field of meaning in which the book’s reader resides.
Mário de Andrade does not merely create Macunaíma’s scene of writing, he does so with the overarching goal of dictating a relationship between it and the postcolonial reader. This would be a connection between uninterpellated (p.94) internal reader and implied external reader. The ‘Letter to the Icamiabas’ represents the most significant attempt at this. In the letter, the imperially interpellated reader must read the realm of objects as a text produced by the uninterpellated scene of writing. The reader must first understand Macunaíma precisely as uninterpellated in order to grasp his epistemic disconnection from the imperial realm of concepts. Only through this process can the novel successfully offer a model for decolonial rereading and delinking. In doing so, the text of History can be re-evaluated and the subject’s place within it critiqued. From here, the rewriting of the field of meaning can begin, and perhaps only then can a decolonial, or ‘Brazilian,’ Brazil begin to be articulated.
Reading Macunaíma from a dialectical materialist approach, one can thus argue that subjective – national – change must come first from a shift in the production of meaning. The novel, and the larger Antropofagia movement, seems to separate subjectivation into two simultaneously emerging parts: interpellation (hailing) and writing (the production of meaning). Rather than challenging interpellation directly, the cannibal metaphor and its focus on writing (reading/consuming and producing/the end of the digestion process) implies a theory of ideology and ideological change that gives precedence to the production of meaning. In other words, the emergence of a decolonial subjectivation must begin with the production of meaning that intervenes in the imperial signifying field from which interpellation takes place. It is from such a shift that decolonial interpellations may then occur and reproduce each other, subsequently resignifying the nation-sign of Brazil, and the larger field of meaning in which it is couched.
In more racial terms, the goal of Antropofagia (at least for Mário and Oswald de Andrade) was in many ways to decenter whiteness as the privileged scene of national writing. In starting with signification/ consumption, the anthropaphagus intervenes against the end result of white identity and performance, the reproduction of the imperial signifying chain, both national and global. The objective was to produce national and transnational meanings pertaining to bodies and capital in a way that is divorced from the racially privileged subject-positions that national writing has reproduced. In doing so, the anthropophagists complicate the notion at the heart of Western power that there is only one linear History, the narrative of Western hegemony, which is told by the West and props up its power.
From the vantage point of the present, one can perhaps argue that the anthropophagic movement, although short-lived, was somewhat successful in engendering new, decolonial, modes of consuming the imperial field of meaning. The cannibal metaphor, though, also led to consumptions and resignifications that were less than decolonial. Although there emerged new modes of national multiculturalism and multiracial nationalism from Antropofagia, these narratives did little or nothing to efface the racial and sexual modes of power, and became, moreover, apparatuses for reproducing a white heteronormative bourgeois patriarchal society. Equally notable were the political shifts that emerged on the heels of the movement. Mário de Andrade later reflected that: ‘o movimento de Inteligência que representamos, em sua fase “modernista” não foi o gerador das mudanças político-sociais posteriores a ele no Brasil. Foi essencialmente um preparador, o criador de um estado de espírito revolucionário’ [‘The movement of the Intelligentsia that we represented, in its “modernist” phase did not generate later sociopolitical shifts in Brazil. It essentially prepared, or created a state of revolutionary spirit’] (‘O Movimento’ non. pag.). As Walter Benjamin’s famous axiom warns, though, ‘the rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution’ (cited in Žižek, Living 152). One can argue that this was the case in post-modernismo Brazil.
The year 1930 brought an end to the café com leite politics of the First Republic, thanks to a military coup d’état born of dissatisfaction among the larger national bourgeoisie and the military. The impact of the Great Depression ultimately spelled the end of the political control of São Paulo/ Minas Gerais. This was an interstate relationship that had already been compromised by São Paulo’s support of its state president Júlio Prestes for president of Brazil. The coup ousted the president-elect, Prestes, and the incumbent president, Washington Luís, on October 24, 1930. As a consequence, Getúlio Vargas from the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the runner-up in the presidential election won by Prestes, was named president. In the process, the constitution of the First Republic was repealed, and Vargas was handed broad political powers, essentially ruling by decree. The situation worsened further when Vargas circumvented national restrictions on re-elections by declaring a state of siege in response to a supposed planned communist revolution. This ultimately gave birth to the corporatist authoritarian regime known as the Estado Novo in November of 1937.
Aside from stifling proletarian organization and imprisoning dissenters of his brand of fascism, Vargas’s regime also looked to construct a multiracial vision of Brazilianness. This was undoubtedly part of his populist rhetoric (p.96) and went hand in hand with his economic policies of state intervention, especially in terms of the working class, a climate in which organized labor was articulated as anti-national. As Alexander Edmonds reminds us, ‘when Vargas addressed the “workers of Brazil” by radio, he was expressing a particular vision of the body politic. Labor was reimagined as the essence of working-class citizenship’ (112). Part of Vargas’s propaganda machine was, as Colin Maclachlan notes, the stimulation of ‘a useful sense of nationalism. Radio loudspeakers placed in central locations by the government made sure people got the message. Propaganda stressed that all had something to offer their country, whether poor or rich, without reference to race’ (103). As Maclachlan succinctly puts it: ‘The Estado Novo rested on three main pillars – the army, bureaucracy, and urban workers – while propaganda smoothed over any contradictions’ (103).
In many ways, the Estado Novo co-opted the anthropophagic project of building a Brazilian-Brazil, but one that served Vargas’s political agenda, namely the reproduction of a small sphere of power and control over the nation’s proletariat and sub-proletariat. It was, of course, the Vargas regime, both under the Estado Novo and during his later democratically elected presidency (1951–54), which promoted a multiracial brand of popular culture to embody the nation, thus propelling his form of populism. For instance, Vargas played a major role in the establishment of samba – a musical genre of Afro-Brazilian origins – as an official Brazilian cultural expression, and Carnival as a national event. He offered official and economic support for samba schools, subsidizing such institutions throughout Brazil. In addition to the participation of samba schools in Carnival celebrations, he called for strictly ‘national’ floats to appear during Carnival parades, thus barring non-Brazilian cultural symbols. In terms of Afro-Brazilian representations during Carnival, satirical racist floats were banned in favor of those that evoked African contributions to the brand of national identity the Estado Novo sought to portray.
It was also under the Estado Novo that soccer became a central part of post-Antropofagia Brazilianness; the sport becoming another medium through which to convey a multiracial nation where all participate:
Similar to what he had done with samba and Carnival, Vargas sought to use soccer as a way of unifying the nation, creating a common source of identity, and developing a single national culture. And as had happened with samba, this meant discrediting the racist notions that kept black and mulatto Brazilian players from competing widely.
The Estado Novo’s official investment in soccer as national pastime ultimately served as a blueprint for the later right-wing military dictatorship (1964–85) to perpetuate the false narrative of racial inclusivity.
(p.97) This was, and continues to be, a narrative that reproduces imperial power rather than displacing it. While the regime looked to carve a space for black history within the nation-sign of Brazil, it also suppressed the Frente Negra Brasileira [Black Brazilian Front], for instance. Considered a political party by the Estado Novo, the Frente was declared illegal and suffered the same fate as other parties, all outlawed by Vargas. In terms of blackness in Brazil, and negotiation of the nation-sign, the Estado Novo sought to impose a strict distinction between culture and politics. The limiting of representations of blackness to samba, carnival, and soccer – the realm of entertainment – produced a signification of Afro-Brazilianness and Afro-Brazilian bodies that excluded these from political action and participation. Blackness was to be known nationally through the comfortable signifiers of music and sport, divorced from the political sphere; cultural meanings that made the nation knowable to its population. The Estado Novo thus articulated its own version of a Brazilian-Brazil while barring most Brazilians from the anthropophagic dream, a perpetually undefined scene of writing that called for the Brazilian-Brazil to be an open-ended sign. Rather, the Estado Novo and later military dictatorship co-opted the project by essentially usurping the scene of writing to construct a multiracial narrative that obfuscated its monologic imperial core.
The Estado Novo was not the only right-wing political entity whose emergence can be tied to Antropofagia and Brazilian Modernismo. The fascist movement known as Integralismo [Brazilian Integralism] was notably spawned by a member of the modernist cultural circle: Plínio Salgado, a writer and journalist from the state of São Paulo. While working as a journalist with the Republican Party of São Paulo, he became friends with César Menotti del Picchia, one of the Grupo de Cinco – five of the most emblematic members of the Modernismo movement alongside Tarsila do Amaral, Anitta Malfatti, Oswald de Andrade, and Mário de Andrade. Salgado went on to launch the right-wing nationalistic Verde-Amarelismo [Green Yellowism] movement, alongside del Picchia and other modernist participants, poet and literary critic Cassiano Ricardo, and essayist Cândido Mota Filho. The group itself, like its writings, was a polemical response to Oswald de Andrade’s Brazilwood Manifesto and Antropofagia in general. Raul Bopp, a poet and one of the more acclaimed members of the Brazilian modernist movement, joined the nationalistic group. Salgado and Bopp co-founded the Escola Anta [Tapir School] – a more left-leaning section of the Verde-Amarelo movement – in 1927, before Salgado started the fascist Integralist party.
Salgado’s nationalistic discourse was centered on the Anta, as Madureira notes from the Verde-Amarelo manifesto, co-authored by Salgado, Menotti del Picchia, and Ricardo:
(p.98) the authentic meaning of Brazil’s national character is said to reside in the unyielding and savage will of the Anta people, as expressed in their precolonial descent into the Atlantic coast from the continental plateau […] advancing inexorably, with tapir-like single-mindedness, across the Amazon, finally to expel the shore-dwelling Tapuias – posited as the symbol of national origin.
While Mário and Oswald de Andrade sought a postcolonial project embodied by the anthropaphagus, the cannibal metaphor, Salgado and the verde-amarelistas preferred the tapir metaphor to convey a Brazilian origin untouched by colonialism. They thus located this figure away from the coast where European settlement and postcolonial wealth was concentrated and, by extension, where the nation-sign was negotiated by Eurocentric elites.
The Verde-Amarelo manifesto thus narrates the cultural antagonism within the nation-sign as a historical conflict between Eurocentric and indigenous groups, modern and precolonial. The manifesto explicitly renders the tapir of the continental plateaus and the Amazon as the Tupi people, positing them as the embodiment of Brazilian origins. The anta is, according to the manifesto, ‘um animal que abre caminhos, e aí parece estar indicada a predestinação da gente tupi’ [‘an animal that opens trails, and there resides the predestination of the Tupi people’] (Salgado, Menotti del Picchia, and Ricardo non. pag.). In this way, the movement called for ‘an intensive study of Tupi language’ (Madureira 30) as the system of linguistic/ semiological differences through which Brazil could truly become Brazilian.
The manifesto begins by proclaiming that ‘a descida dos tupis do planalto continental no rumo do Atlântico foi uma fatalidade histórica pré-cabralina, que preparou o ambiente para as entradas no sertão pelos aventureiros brancos desbravadores do oceano’ [‘the descent of the Tupis from the continental plateau toward the Atlantic was a pre-Cabraline fatality that prepared the conditions for entry into the sertão (backlands) by white adventurers, explorers of the ocean’] (Salgado et al. non. pag.). The Tupis, in their mythic construction, serve as the antithesis of the Tapuia: ‘o tupi significa a ausência de preconceitos. O tapuia é o próprio preconceito em fuga para o sertão’ [the Tupi means the absence of prejudice. The Tapuia is prejudice itself fleeing into the backlands’] (Salgado et al. non. pag.).
The Tapuia is, in other words, the condensation of European-imposed forms – knowledge, religion, art, and, perhaps more importantly, the corruption of the Tupi ‘original.’ In the scheme of the nation-sign, ‘todas as formas do jacobinismo na América são tapuias. O nacionalismo sadio, de grande finalidade histórica, de predestinação humana, esse é forçosamente tupi’ [‘all forms of Jacobinism in America are Tapuia. Sound nationalism, with a great (p.99) historical objective, of human predestination, is perforce Tupi’] (Salgado et al. non. pag.). Prior to evolving into Salgado’s Integralism, the Verde-Amarelo project laid much of the cultural and philosophical groundwork for the fascist conception of the nation, namely a very fixed teleology: the predestined purpose of the Tupi people is to be the symbolic driving force for the nation, leading it to be the next great civilization, the ‘fifth race’ that will become the universal form of humanity. Citing and supporting the work of Mexican intellectual José Vasconcelos, Salgado affirms that
é de entre as bacias do Amazonas e do Prata que sairá a ‘quinta raça,’ a ‘raça cósmica,’ que realizará a concórdia universal, porque será filha das dores e das esperanças de toda a humanidade. Temos de construir essa grande nação, integrando na Pátria Comum todas as nossas expressões históricas, étnicas, sociais, religiosas e políticas. Pela força centrípeta do elemento tupi.
(Salgado et al. non. pag.)
[it is from between the Amazon and Plate River basins that the ‘fifth race’ will emerge, the ‘cosmic race’ which will accomplish universal peace, because it will be the spawn of the pains and hopes of all humanity. We must build this great nation, integrating within the Common Fatherland all of our historical, ethnic, social, religious, and political expressions. By means of the centripetal force of the Tupi element.]
From the myriad intercultural crossings and conflicts that characterize Brazilian colonial and postcolonial history – for Salgado, a microcosm of world history – the Tupi is thus the central signifier that will unify the four Kantian races (White, Black, Yellow, and Red). The Verde-Amarelo movement offers a re-narration of the past, a narrative that serves as an alternative to the imperial present of Brazilian history. Nonetheless, such an alternative narrative or field of meaning is betrayed by the discursive formations deployed by the movement’s members. In other words, their multicultural gnosis, their reading of racial, ethnic, and social difference is very much grounded in the imperial signification of such difference.
Raul Bopp’s epic poem Cobra Norato, still regarded as one of Antropofagia’s greatest works, has, as Madureira argues, ‘closer affinities with the right-wing triumphalism of the nationalistic verde-amarelismo movement […] than with the more radical antropofagia’ (14). Furthermore, Madureira crucially denounces that
the Tupi serves as the key figure in a ‘eugenic’ romance of miscegenation (between male European migrants and native Brazilian woman). While (p.100) ascribing to noble autochthons a ‘spiritual’ (i.e., figural) agency, this rhetorical appropriation ultimately reinforces prevalent racist theories, relegating blacks, for instance, to the margins of the narrative of the modern nation. (14)
As Madureira importantly points out, the verde-amarelista arrangement of the nation-sign does not displace the racial underpinnings of the hegemonic national narrative. The nation’s white scene of writing is by no means suppressed, and imperial notions of otherness are left firmly intact. This can also be seen in José Vasconcelos’s aforementioned essay on the ‘cosmic race,’ so lauded by the verde-amarelistas. Vasconcelos constructs the cosmic race as an amalgam of imperial notions of otherness regarding race:
How different the sounds of the Ibero-American development [from that of the Anglo-Saxons]! They resemble the profound scherzo of a deep and infinite symphony: Voices that bring accents from Atlantis; depths contained in the pupil of the red man, who knew so much, so many thousand years ago, and now seems to have forgotten everything. His soul resembles the old Mayan cenote [natural well] of green waters, laying deep and still, in the middle of the forest, for so many centuries since, that not even its legend remains any more. This infinite quietude is stirred with the drop put in our blood by the Black, eager for sensual joy, intoxicated with dances and unbridled lust. There also appears the Mongol, with the mystery of his slanted eyes that see everything according to a strange angle, and discover I know not what folds and newer dimensions. The clear mind of the White, that resembles his skin and his dreams, also intervenes. Judaic striae hidden within the Castilian blood since the days of the cruel expulsion now reveal themselves, along with Arabian melancholy, as a reminder of the sickly Muslim sensuality. Who has not a little of all this, or does not wish to have all? There is the Hindu, who also will come, who has already arrived by way of the spirit, and although he is the last one to arrive, he seems the closest relative. […] we in America shall arrive, before any other part of the world, at the creation of a new race fashioned out of the treasures of all the previous ones: The final race, the cosmic race. (21, 40)
Vasconcelos’s articulation of the cosmic race offers an unrivalled insight into the shortcomings of many formulations of multiracial universals such as that of the Verde-Amarelo movement and, as we shall see, Gilberto Freyre’s racial democracy and Lusotropicalism. Vasconcelos’s conception of the truly universal race is based on an intercultural dialectic, but one that reads said (p.101) cultures, and constructs the concept of ‘culture’ per se, through imperial fantasies of ethnic, racial, and religious otherness. For Vasconcelos and the verde-amarelistas, the universal race is not only a product of the antagonisms found within the imperial field of meaning, it is firmly embedded in Empire and resolves said antagonisms without critiquing the violence that guides them. In this regard, the fomentation of this brand of universality is not only in agreement with the desire of Empire, it also articulates an absolute to which Empire guides us. It contributes a teleology to the deep colonial discourse that renders each racial meaning while, most importantly, continuing to confer historical agency upon whiteness.
Regarding the verde-amarelistas, this historical agency is most evident in their own scene of writing. Salgado, Menotti del Picchia, Ricardo, and Bopp usurped historicization while Mário and Oswald aimed to deconstruct it, delinking its imperial bonds of meaning. The verde-amarelistas’ fixed centralization of the Tupi as both ideal and prophetic constructer of the multiracial nation is born out of the writers’ very imperial scene of writing. The anthropophagic scene of writing that emerges in Macunaíma, in contrast, is one that Mário de Andrade labored to disconnect from his own imperial present of the nation through the trope of uninterpellated writing.
It is in reading the Verde-Amarelo movement beneath its multicultural narrative layer that we find the core of Salgado’s integralist fascism, its conservative modernity. Although the Tupi image with which it works represents a divorce from Eurocentrism, it is a cultural signifier born from imperial power, the deployment of which does not displace this power. This is always merely a Tupi image, never someone who has suffered the colonial disenfranchisement that comes from having indigenous origins in modern Brazil. The verde-amarelistas, in this regard, do not allow that suffering to speak. The cultural negotiation of the nation-sign is conducted through the Tupi image, as it is palimpsestically narrated from colonial encounter to the modernist present, by members of society whose privilege and right to signify have emerged through the colonial matrix of power. Salgado, as opposed to Oswald and Mário de Andrade, posited the precolonial Amerindian not as a trope for decolonial signification, but as a national ideal and nationalistic prophecy. The precolonial fantasy became an object of truth, a vehicle through which to grip and fix the nation-sign.
It is here that Mário and Oswald de Andrade’s version of Antropofagia offers more radical possibilities, and it is in contrast with Salgado that we can observe the singularity, if not the theoretical depth, of Mário and Oswald de Andrade’s anthropophagic conceptions. By not centering their cultural project on a particular precolonial fantasy of otherness, and thus reconstructing otherness, Mário and Oswald refrain from speaking (p.102) in the other’s place through a false image of it. The voice of otherness is not silenced behind yet another imperially controlled signifier. This subsequently leaves an opening – through an undefined scene of writing – for a more encompassing decolonization to occur. This would be one in which otherness can be contested by the bodies and voices that have been subalternized within imperial power and its social organization.
Antropofagia, as evidenced by both the Estado Novo’s nationalistic discourse and the Verde-Amarelo movement, ushered in a decentering of whiteness at the level of the national narrative, while reinforcing whiteness as the privileged scene of writing operating behind the narrative. No post-Antropofagia discourse has had a longer-lasting or more pervasive impact on Brazilian society, however, than the myth of racial democracy1 – a narrative of the nation as a multiracial collective that entered the public sphere through sociologist/anthropologist Gilberto Freyre’s most celebrated and criticized work, Casa Grande e Senzala. Like Modernismo, Freyre’s narrative of Brazil emerged at a time when national elites were looking to assert Brazilian modernity on the international stage. In terms of racial demographics, such assertions intersected with racist discourses of progress, namely eugenics, psychiatry, and whitening policies intended to improve the ‘national race’ after slavery. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Brazilian state strongly sought the immigration of European workers, not only to constitute an industrial labor force, but also to ‘dilute’ the blackness of Brazil’s population.
On the surface, Freyre appeared to call for an alternative modernity, one that posited Brazil at the global forefront of multiracial humanity. While such eugenic versions of modernity signified racial otherness as un-modern, Freyre’s nationalist argument asserted that Brazil was modern precisely because of its multiracial composition. From this premise, Casa Grande e Senzala offers an elaborate re-historicization of Brazilian race relations centering on the relationship between white masters and black female slaves, as the dialectic of national history leading to a twentieth-century present in which Brazilianness is a fusion of cultures – European, Amerindian, and (p.103) African. Freyre notably translated and built upon the theories in The Casa Grande e Senzala in New World in the Tropics: The Culture of Modern Brazil (1959), which he wrote in English drawing on many contrasts with Anglophone nations, namely the United States:
Men [in Brazil] regard each other as fellow citizens and fellow Christians without regard to color or ethnic differences. Not that there is no race or color prejudice mixed with class prejudice in Brazil. There is. But no one would think of having churches only for whites. No one in Brazil would think of laws against interracial marriage. No one would think of barring colored people from theaters or residential sections of a town. A general spirit of human brotherhood is much stronger among Brazilians than race, color, class, or religious prejudice. (8)
Freyre is, of course, implicitly comparing Brazilian race relations to the Jim Crow laws of the United States, arguing that participation in the Brazilian nation-sign trumps, and is not inhibited by, racial signifiers. Beyond Freyre’s ignorance of de facto racism and the social compartmentalization of public space, he omits from his narrative of Brazilian society contemporary power relations that would lead to the emergence of such everyday and systemic racism.
He traces this supposed deficit of prejudice – central to his conception of Brazilian multiracial modernity – back to the Portuguese and the supposed exceptionalism of their model for colonization. Freyre re-historicizes the Portuguese imperial project as one founded not upon the search for control of markets and natural resources, but on love and a mystical desire for intercultural contact and syncretism. In O Mundo que o Português Criou [‘The World the Portuguese Created’], where he further develops this thesis, he notably declares: ‘I am one of those who attribute the ability of the Portuguese to unite themselves with the tropics for love, not convenience, to the close contacts between the Portuguese in Europe and the Moors’ (46).
The consequences of this Portuguese multicultural syncretism can then be found, for Freyre, in Brazilian slavery as the historical foundations for the creation of modern racial democracy:
It is true that racial equality did not become absolute with the abolition of slavery in 1888. But it is true also that even before the 1888 law the relations between whites and colored, between masters and slaves, in Brazil attracted the attention of foreign observers as being particularly cordial and humane. Even before that law, miscegenation had occurred, freely practiced among the people in general […]. There is in all likelihood no earthly paradise, but in respect of race relations the (p.104) Brazilian situation is probably the nearest approach to a paradise found anywhere in the world.
Freyre’s positing of miscegenation as the machine behind a modern Brazilian ethos, without analyzing the power dynamics of interracial sex, inevitably leads to a social narrative that obscures racial hegemony. Antonio Sérgio Alfredo Guimarães notably underscores that ‘racism is a taboo subject in Brazil. Brazilians imagine themselves as inhabiting an anti-racist nation, a “racial democracy.” This is one of their sources of pride and, at the same time, conclusive proof of their status as a civilized nation’ (208). Guimarães crucially highlights the still prevalent connection between racial democracy and modern nationhood that Freyre had initially invoked. Denouncing racism, and subsequently pointing out social dynamics of power and privilege constitutes, therefore, an affront to Brazilian modernity in its multiracial narrative.
Underneath the narrative of a non-racist nation that celebrates a collective interracial history is, as Abdias do Nascimento notes, the systemic social and cultural erasure of blackness from the nation-sign; a component also present in the Verde-Amarelo movement. For Nascimento, narratives like racial democracy celebrating miscegenation obscure the crucial connection between the ‘sexual exploitation of Black women’ and a ‘simple genocide’ (65). Nascimento goes on to explain: ‘with the growth of the mulatto population, the Black race began to disappear’ (65). He points out another integral layer of contemporary narratives of Brazilian multiracial nationhood: one that posits ‘the presence of African cultural forms, especially in the field of religion’ as evidence of a ‘history of amiable relations between master and slave and between Blacks and whites in Brazil’ (69). According to the logic of racial democracy, the persistence of such forms, without mentioning the immense violence they survived, is also evidence of a flourishing cultural presence of blackness in the nation-sign. This is, however, a liminal and limited inclusion of blackness and black signifiers in the multiracial narrative, concomitant with blackness’s increasing marginality and erasure in the envisioning of the nation’s future.
In calling for a decolonial renegotiation of the nation-sign, Antropofagia paved the way for various re-historization projects. The most impactful of these were reactionary to varying degrees and ultimately led to the reconsolidation of the very colonial matrix of power the movement sought to displace. The articulation of a decolonial scene of writing was (p.105) quickly usurped by hegemonic scenes of writing, thus continuing the narrativization of the nation-sign that reproduces its privileged place in the national collective. Mário de Andrade’s novel Macunaíma, published after his fallout with Oswald de Andrade and Antropofagia, beside tracing ways of reimagining human relations, brings to light the shortcomings and pitfalls of the avant-garde movement. In doing so, it allows us to better understand the political divisions and conflicts within the movement, and especially their repercussions in terms of who participates in the postcolonial signifying process. In terms of the theoretical contributions by, and derived from, Antropofagia, the ‘Letter to the Incamiabas’ offers a decolonial mode of intervention vis-à-vis imperial subjectivation. In this regard, the letter enacts a theory of formulating a decolonial subject beginning with Macunaíma as an uninterpellated scene of writing.
(1) A more nuanced exploration of racial democracy and the work of Gilberto Freyre is beyond the scope of this project. There are several excellent studies that offer rigorous analyses of Freyre’s impact on Brazilian race relations. These include, but are not limited to: Abdias do Nascimento’s Brazil: Mixture or Massacre; France Winddance Twine’s Racism in a Racial Democracy: The Maintenance of White Supremacy in Brazil; Thomas Skidmore’s Black into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought; Jerry Dávila’s Diploma of Whiteness: Race and Social Policy in Brazil, 1917–1945; Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond’s White Negritude: Race, Writing and Brazilian Cultural Identity; and Lamonte Aidoo’s Slavery Unseen: Sex, Power, and Violence in Brazilian History.