mortality trumps utopia

I’ve been thinking a lot about utopias. It started with Peter Robb’s A Death in Brazil. It’s a great read: part political thriller, part personal travelogue and part geo-historical exploration. It’s beautifully written, as are all Robb’s books (Midnight in Sicily is especially good), and you can feel the years’ worth of labour involved in making it a coherent whole, as well as the long hours fustigating for the right words and the right order. He thinks about Brazil deeply: considering the food on his plate, the buses he rides, the people he meets, the wind and rain and sun, the forest and mountains in the distance, the papers and the TV. His narrative is dense enough to suggest the complexity of time and place –though not so dense as to obscure what he has to say.

But the thing that grabbed me was his long exploration of Canudos and the war that led to its destruction. I had read Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World and considered it a good novel but hadn’t twigged that it was referencing a real thing, somewhat to my embarrassment. Similarly I had read a couple of references to Canudos but not chased them down: Zizek, Laclau, Susanna Hecht, and some travel writers who’ve wandered through Brazil. So over the last months of 2013 I began to read about Canudos, rather pleased with myself for still pursuing new things to know.

The gist of the Canudos thing is relatively simple. Jon Beasley-Murray provides an excellent little summary on his blog Posthegemony:

Canudos…was a settlement in the dry backlands of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, founded in 1893 by the followers of a charismatic preacher and mystic. Viewed as a threat by a range of authorities, from the local church to (eventually) the national government, it was the object of a series of attempts at military pacification, each of which were fiercely resisted. Despite their portrayal as uncivilized savages, its inhabitants managed to embarrass the nascent Republic (established in 1889) by repelling two expeditionary forces of the Brazilian army until, finally, in October 1897 they were overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of men and resources devoted to their extirpation.

This is to say that a four year military action was taken against a village in the bush because it wasn’t following the usual patterns and practices of Brazilian colonial nationalism. Property was communal, resources were collectively managed, national and state laws were ignored, and there was no currency. Unsurprisingly the poor, the landless, the indigent, the indigenous, and former slaves came hither to Canudos.

Zizek, in Live Theory, describes the Canudos as “an outlaw community deep in the Brazilian backlands that was home to prostitutes, freaks, beggars, bandits, and the most wretched of the poor.” This makes it sound pretty cool, like a rather inclusive refugee camp except it was led by a religious nutter, which renders it more reminiscent of Jonestown or Rife’s Raft in Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. Perhaps wisely, Zizek choses to focus on Canudos as being a liberated space, as a germ cell for “self-organized societies” and as “an alternative community that thoroughly negates the existing state space.” Zizek even goes a bit further in his fandom, saying that “[e]verything is to be endorsed here, up to the religious ‘fanaticism’.” Zizek uses Canudos to speak of stepping outside culturally, politically, and economically. Canudos in this reading is about making unregulated spaces, a means to avoid relation to the powers that be: “it is as if, in such communities…the defeated ones acquire a space of their own,” a space to become and remain undefeated.

Zizek, as is so often the case, is inclined toward a festive representation of hopelessness because in his worldview liberation is never impossible but always marked by loss. Freedom is always, for Zizek, simultaneously a baptism and a funeral. Further on in Live Theory he says of Canudos: “Utopia existed here for a brief period of time, this is the only way to account for the ‘irrational’ excessive, violence of the destruction of these communities.” The wonder of Canudos is represented, for Zizek, in the fervour of its ending. The success of unregulated spaces is marked by the determination of regulatory authority to reassert itself. Elsewhere Zizek makes the point that “liberation hurts.”

Most of what is known about Canudos and the Canudos War comes from Euclides da Cunha’s astonishing Os Sertões (known in English as Rebellion in the Backlands or Backlands: The Canudos Campaign). Not always the most pleasant of reading and denser than Zizek in parts, da Cunha divides his tale in three parts dealing with the landscape, the people and the war. There’s a fair bit of dodgy social Darwinism and some fairly awkward racial generalisations which have to be taken as markers of context. But they also serve another purpose, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the shape of the land and the past of its inhabitants are really the chains that the community were attempting to break. da Cunha sees that it is not Brazil that the Canudosi seek to escape but the structures that determine who a person is, and who they might become.

Slavery is central to this. The end of slavery in 1888 was the final scene for an institution that had already begun to fade by the early 1870s, but over that fifteen year period maybe 1.5 million men and women were deprived of the employment and sustenance that they had been provided with previously. They sought out both in competitive and cruel labour markets. Unsurprisingly some of those men and women chose to attempt to step outside those rubrics for exchange, to no longer be held as a body in the gaze of property or service. In this light Canudos and Antônio Conselheiro must have appeared as a good a chance as any at stepping outside the economic and moral structures of 1890s Brazil.

A chance taken that didn’t pay off, it turned out. Almost all the inhabitants of Canudos were killed; indeed the Canudos War is often simply referred to as the Canudos massacre. Maybe 150 (out of 15,000 or so) walked away. Antônio Conselheiro died in the early stages of the final siege, after fasting for quite some time, of dysentery. For the Canudosi stepping outside provoked the violent reassertion of their subjectivity, their unliberation, the temporary liberty of their bodies required, structurally, the sovereignty of the state to insist on its primacy. Their bodies, though freed from slavery, remained imprisoned by the sovereignty of the Brazilian republic.

Bodies aren’t free, hence the pain of liberation. As I thought about Canudos and Zizek and slavery and sovereignty my mind wandered to William Gibson, and the Sprawl Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive). Back in the early nineties I had loved the Sprawl trilogy, loving its energies and counter energies, but I was also struck by its descriptions of the body as meat. So I got the now pretty ancient paperbacks down from the bookshelf and got to reading them again. The gist of the trilogy is a search for sentience by an artificial intelligence, to be completely unbodied, untethered to hardware. The artificial intelligence seeks to be all consciousness, as well all consciousnesses.

This is a neat transcendental pathway, liberation from the custody of the body. (Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, is described as having “a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh… The body was meat” and when Case is deprived of his cyberspace life he “fell into the prison of his own flesh.”) The trilogy follows this pathway as the characters attempt to follow the artificial intelligence toward disembodiment and replicates the multiple, contradictory, and free selves that the artificial intelligence has become having transcended hardware, bodily containers. Ultimately there is no transcendence for the characters, they remain meat and the meat is always subject. Liberation, the making of unregulated spaces and selves, not only hurts but must ultimately be temporary.

A utopia has a cost which transgresses its utopianism. Imprisoned in the fragile container we are subject to the constraints of the materiality of that container. Utopias are pretty clearly wishful thinking, a weekend away, maybe a long-weekend away. Mortality trumps utopia, everytime.

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About rustichello

A rather too quiet fellow of little reknown.
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