Tracking the Silence of the Backlands - in search of a non-Euclidean criticism on the Canudos Massacre
The project to combat urban violence in Brazil through the policies of pacification of favelas (UPP) is undoubtedly the flagship of public policy in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics respectively. By focusing the problem of violence in Brazil on the enclosed space of the favelas, the Federal Government maintains a civil order model guided by police intervention in spaces of social exclusion, where legal exceptions often apply. The model is therefore a type violence itself. My working hypothesis is that this model is not only a contemporary solution to an urgent problem, but a biopolitics practice of confining poverty which has historically prevailed in the country since the 1889 establishment of the Republic. This model is often responsible for producing the same violence that it tries to fight, insofar as creating what I call “pockets of unease”, or the encapsulation of the slums, the isolation of the outskirts, the cruel demarcation of indigenous reserves, inhuman abandonment of prisons, and so on, resulting in an old bipartite portrait of Brazil often retrieved by major national critics and interpreters, between the city and the favelas, between the coast and the interior, between the civilized and the barbarous, between progress and disorders.
The line of research I have been developing with the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at UC Berkeley propose to think about the production of spaces of exclusion/exception regarding this idea of a divided Brazil. More precisely, I research how this idea was exploited and reified violently in the decisive moments of both literary and cultural life within Brazil, in the face of discourses that interpret national identity. For this purpose, my starting point is a critical reappraisal of one out of many armed conflicts that outline certain historiography of violence in Brazil: The Massacre of Canudos (1897). This is undoubtedly the episode that reached the highest national and international visibility, having been the subject of extensive studies in different fields of knowledge.
The mediation of the writer Euclides da Cunha in the memory of this conflict was crucial for such public visibility. da Cunha not only reported to the rest of the country about the existence of “another Brazil” economically crushed and politically forgotten, but also ended up shaping the ambiguities of the concept of barbarism to urban societies that found themselves civilized. If first, through the war reports he wrote as a special envoy from the newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo (1887), he supported the republican military uprising against the canudenses, five years later, revising and expanding his own readings of the conflict in the monumental historiographic essay Os Sertões (1902), Euclides changes his perspective, and goes on to defend the canudenses’ rustic heroism against the harassment of the Republic.
In my investigations, I point out that Euclides da Cunha’s criticism not only turned upside down but it didn’t stop to switch his two opposite point of views, for da Cunha’s mediation has proved to be, in the end, undecidable, in part because of its bipartisan approach of Brazil, dividing the country between modern cities and the undeveloped backlands. However, Brazilian intellectuals eager to exorcise that horrific page of national history, erased ideological ambiguities of the text and immediately canonized the essay and the author as ultimate examples of maximum both literary style and social protest. The book of Euclides seems to be, thus, the first cultural item to expose Brazilian violence in a key full of ambivalences. Furthermore, Os Sertões also seems to forge a national profile that has not diminished in value precisely because of its ambivalences, which inaugurate a critique of violence whose unassailable ambiguities often end up dodging a judgment more severe concerning the practices of extermination in Brazil.
The current stage of my research aims to investigate in depth problems within Euclidean interpretation of the Canudos episode, particularly in contrast with other historiographical sources that undermine the polarization between the civilized and the barbarian through which Euclides da Cunha simplified the problem of violence in Brazil. To this end, it will be essential to investigate the archives of José Calasans, placed in CEB - Centro de Estudos Baianos, in Federal University of Bahia at Salvador. Calasans was one of the most acknowledged scholars of Brazilian folklore and devoted much of his life to discovering sources that developed a non-Euclidean critique regarding the community and slaughter of Canudos.
The Calasans Archive has approximately 5000 books, 180 periodicals and hundreds of documents and personal belongings of victims of Canudos. All these items form a rare and complex testimony of the massacre. I’m sure that diving into this collection is therefore essential to reappraise more accurately the ambiguities of the Euclidean approach. At CEB, I will have the chance to get in touch with researchers who are currently working with Calasans’ collection. Once in Bahia, I intend to interview the investigator Antonio Olavo, responsible for the compilation of one of the largest iconographic collections about Canudos. One purpose of this season in Bahia is also to travel to the backland and visit the “Old Canudos”, where there is the Historical Museum of Canudos, Canudos State Park, The Antonio Conselheiro Memorial, and visit the “new city” of Canudos. My goal there is to collect data that might serve as a trace of the impact of Euclides da Cunha’s work in the memory of current inhabitants of the former camp in order to broaden the discussion about the role of Brazilian intellectuals in the formation of self-consciousness of civil society regarding violence.
This research project also includes a few weeks in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where I will have access to the Euclidean bibliography deposited in the National Library and in the Brazilian Academy of Letters, including his diaries and his letters. The goal is to map ideological strategies adopted by Euclides da Cunha in order to inscribe The Backlands into his “project of Brazil”. Therefore, I want to investigate how the Canudos episode contributed to this goal. I also intend to investigate newspapers of his time in order to draw a profile of the literary reception of his work to understand the cultural debate around this issue of spatial segmentation of Brazil.
Also in Rio de Janeiro, I intend to visit the Instituto Moreira Salles and talk to the researchers responsible for the edition of two thick books of images on Euclides da Cunha, Os Sertões and the anonymous people of Canudos. I am interested in the criteria for the organization of these volumes and the critical perspective of the editors on the aesthetic use of some images of violence. Furthermore, I intend to discuss ideas in an interview with Luiz Costa Lima, scholar in the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, who wrote a sharp and loud criticism of the Euclidean method (Terra Ignota, 1997), and with João Camillo Penna, scholar in the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Professor Penna is author of numerous essays addressing the criminalization of poverty in Brazil as well as its subtle ramifications in literary discourse.
After these six weeks in Brazil, I will have a more solid basis for approaching the problems posed by the Canudos Massacre for Brazilian critics and authors such as Euclides da Cunha. I believe that this question attacks the main framework of a certain tradition of uncompromised discussion of violence in Brazil that often softens its drama and authorizes further violence. My research aims to make it possible to more clearly outline the protocols of exclusion of poverty through policies that attempt to eliminate poor in Brazil.