The poultice: Interweaving critical and creative thinking in scholarly research
As it so happened, one day in the morning, as I was strolling through the grounds of my suburban home, an idea took hold of the trapeze I carry about in my brain. Once hanging there, it began to wave its arms and legs and execute the most daring antics of a tightrope walker that one can possibly imagine. I just stood there and watched it. Suddenly, it made a great leap, extended its arms and legs, until it formed an X, and said, “decipher me or I devour thee.”
My idea, after so many feats, became a fixed idea. God save you, my reader, from a fixed idea. Better a speck, a mote in the eye.
– J. M. Machado de Assis,
Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881
This essay will not consider, in detail, my research project at the International Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures.” Instead, I will take the opportunity to consider one creative exercise that led me to the solution of an intriguing puzzle, into which I stumbled during the early stages of this on-going investigation. Since the intention here is to discuss the process through which I was able to figure out such riddle, not what it unlocked, I will only present bits of information, here and there, in places where it seems crucial.
Here is the proposed hypothesis: there is a direct connection between (cognitive) creativity and (scientific) discovery. And more, the combined deployment of critical and creative thinking offers a much more productive way to generate break-through ideas. As it seems evident to the naked eye, although scientific production is organized differently from artistic endeavors, in both scenarios insights take place whenever one approaches an apparently unsolvable problem from a different point of view: the so-called aha! effect (also known as eureka effect) often results from the abandonment of one’s habituated settings, method of inquiry, or framework of reference. In so many words, in order to complete a qualitative jump, one must think “outside the box.”
Before I get to the description of my breakout experiment, one should know that the author of this article is involved in the arts in more than one ways: as a scholar in the field of critical dance studies, my theoretical work focuses on the relationship across embodiment, knowledge production, and processes of identification. As an interdisciplinary artist, my past and present creative ventures have intersected a range of visual art forms and movement practices. My ability to wear many hats, so to speak, has proven to be advantageous in many directions. Case in point: the fact that I theorize about particular Afro-Brazilian forms such as capoeira and samba and I also practice them, has given me a multifaceted perspective on these co-related subjects. By the same token, my scholarly research on Afro-Brazilian aesthetic, in which I combine movement analysis with historiography, has played a decisive role in re-shaping my point of view. And, because I implicate my own body in such intellectual endeavors, it has had a transforming effect on my artistic creations. In so many words, my scholarly research has “contaminated” the ways in which I orient myself in the world and articulate ideas, both visually and corporeally. In fact, the ways I move across and think about the world are constantly being updated, informing and being formed by the data I exchange with my surroundings, other people, and the different roles (or hats) I take on. Above that, my technical training in both traditional art forms (e.g. drawing, painting, dance) and new media art (e.g. photography and computer arts) has enabled me to diversify my lectures and presentations, interweaving my own (written) texts with images, sounds, videos, and live performances, in order to better illustrate what I mean theoretically. Juxtaposing form and content, my kaleidoscopic layering of different media, signals, and apparatuses produces performative effects that, especially when I speak to a non-specialized audience, have functioned as rhetorical strategies of persuasion.
It is true that, no matter which hat I am wearing, the value of my production remains connected to the particular issues it addresses, the time and effort it entails, and the solutions it proposes, be that an innovative perspective or the power to transform others. Switching gears has proven to be, nevertheless, equally challenging. The credibility of my work as a scholar, for instance, seems bound to the rigor of my methods; the validity of my data and/or sources; the logic of my argument; and the impartiality of my assessment of the above mentioned elements. My reputation as an artist, on the other hand, tends to point towards the originality or personalization of my ideas, which often combines imagination with experimentation, and/or the formal eloquence or forcefulness with which I articulate them. Across my artistic investigations in the field of both visual and performing arts, I tend to employ a variety of methods, resources, and techniques that may or may not be concerned with concepts such as reality, logic, and reason. And, as it turns out, as long as I am able to demonstrate my clear understanding of how each of these realms operates, no one seems to object my inter-migration between them. I am allowed to trespass borders, I would say, as long as I can seamlessly switch hats and play by the unique set of rules and guidelines pre-established in each of these practiced places.
After a few years moving in and out of these delineated camps, one thing has caught my attention. The art world doesn’t seem to have restrictions towards those who include scientific approaches and techniques in their creative productions. Conversely, the academic world seems rather skeptical, or at least hesitant and suspicious, towards the inclusion of creative methods of inquiry in the production of scientific knowledge. Despite the common understanding that thinking outside “the box” may lead to innovative solutions, the edges of this idealized locale, or philosophical framework, delimits the realm of credibility. These are the facts, that is, the state of things.
The experiment I will describe below is concerned with the following set of questions: Can a method traditionally associated with artistic endeavors, such as creative thinking, be systematically employed in the production of scientific knowledge? Is it possible to develop exercises of cognitive creativity to induce, foster, or at least increase the chances of having break-through ideas, especially within the realm of the humanities? After all, how do creativity and logic interact in the production of insights? I should note here that, since the main goal of this essay is to offer one personal example of how artistic and cognitive processes may interact towards the development of break-through thinking, the last question will not be fully exhausted.
My experiment began in the summer of 2012, as I was getting ready to share the early findings of my research project at the Research Center “Interweaving Performance Cultures” as well as at a working group meeting in the US. Generally speaking, the project examines the presence of a syncopated way of moving connected to Afro-Brazilian heritage, commonly known as ginga, in the so-called “Brazilian style” of playing football. I am particularly interested in analyzing the means through which and the reasons why the ginga in football has been incorporated into a modern conceptualization of Brazil as an imagined community that emerged in the 1930s. In an attempt to understand how a cultural trait historically associated with blackness becomes a key ingredient within a sport historically practiced by white gentlemen, I decided to turn my attention to Brazil’s First Republic (1889–1930), a period that coincides with the introduction and development of football in the country.
Let me paint you a picture. At the end of the 19th century, the European-aspiring elites of Brazil continued to regard African and indigenous populations as inferior beings. After the country’s late abolition of slavery in 1888, in particular, miscegenation becomes a topic of national (and international) concern, often appointed as a source or symptom of social/moral denigration in that former colony. Hence, during the First Republic, the dominant classes stumbled into an insolvable puzzle: How to built a nation following the Enlightenment’s notions of progress and civility, without questioning the raced division of labor, subjectivity, and knowledge and, subsequently, their own privileged position? How to construct a national sentiment in a community built on the guilt of slavery and doomed by the shame of miscegenation? In sum, the country’s long-lasting history of sexual interaction between races, measured against its raced division of labor, had become one of the major obstacles hindering the projection of a unifying sentiment in and about that nation, subsequently provoking a kind of “identity crisis.” The quest for a panacea or remedy that could cure Brazil’s colonial melancholia lasted the entire First Republic.[i] Now, fast forward to president Getúlio Vargas’s populist dictatorship, or Estado Novo (New State, 1937–1945): in less than a decade, Vargas’ administration fostered the emergence of a new regime of intelligibility, today commonly known as “democracy of races” ideology, which ultimately embraces miscegenation as a positive trait and a source of national pride. Meanwhile, it also legally denies the existence of racial discrimination and implements overbearing measures, such as the dissolution of the first Black political party, thus boycotting any possibility of reform or democratization of that society.
As I examined these two scenarios, I was faced with an apparently unsolvable puzzle: How did the Brazilian society go from a long-lasting fixed idea – namely the notion that non-white peoples are ontologically distinct and necessarily inferior to a point that their social and/or sexual interaction could shamefully compromise the progress and evolution of that society as a whole – to another very different but equally fixed idea – namely that miscegenation was a source of national pride in Brazil and racial discrimination was, therefore, no longer an issue? What kind of magical poultice manages to transform the figure of the mulatto from an abject to an idealized myth (the vortex of all races) and a symbol of national pride? How did this strategy manage to alter the prejudice aimed towards inter-racial offspring and cultural hybridity, but leave the raced division of labor unquestioned? Here, my reader, you need an acrobatic idea, flexible enough to overpower people’s daily experiences.
My understanding of fixed and flexible ideas was inspired by a famous literary passage in Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s novel Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1881). Machado de Assis, one should note, was a mulatto self-taught writer, novelist, playwright, and poet, whose prolific production and impeccable craftsmanship made him an acclaimed author in his lifetime. Widely regarded as one of the most important books within Brazilian literature, Memórias Póstumas … marks a radical change in Machado de Assis’s oeuvre. Unlike his previous works, which presented a romantic, thus unquestioned depiction of the society from an outside/privileged point of view, here Machado de Assis gives “the pen” to the dominant class. That is, the novel is ironically written in the first-person from the point of view of a white, male, chauvinist, and clientelistic land/slave owner aristocrat in the periphery of capitalism. Interesting enough, the novel coincides with the historical period I was investigating.
To be precise, the plot of the novel is banal to an extreme. Brás Cubas is an egocentric man born and raised on the top of the food chain, who never had to work and, more importantly, accomplished absolutely nothing in life. His existence is a caprice authorized by his position in that slave society. Meanwhile, throughout his memoirs, the narrator displays such a vast understanding of the world’s philosophy, politics, arts, sciences, etc.; the almost encyclopedic overtones shape him as a noble product of the Age of Enlightenment. Yet – and here comes Machado de Assis’s subtle yet fulminating irony – Brás Cubas’s postmortem examination of his own life reproduces, in the periphery, the Eurocentric colonial/imperial gaze at the world. References to Africa, for instance, are limited to the pyramids of Egypt (North/ancient past) and slavery (Sub-Saharan/present). Conversely, European figures, places, events, and opinions are described with a prolix, almost pedant, amount of detail and a quasi-farcical lack of intellectual depth. It reveals, as Roberto Schwarz has pointed out, an uncanny locus of enunciation where “ideas are out of place,” a social contradiction that the literary scholar defines as an ideological comedy (1977).
After so many feats, I bring the reader back to the summer of 2012, towards my already mentioned experiment. At one point, while preparing my lecture, I began to entertain the idea of quoting a passage from Memórias Póstumas … in which the narrator talks about the conceptualization of an acrobatic idea, and perhaps another section where Brás Cubas indicates its transformation into an idée fixe. As the narrator explains, “the idea was nothing less than the invention of a sublime remedy, an anti-hypochondriac poultice, destined to alleviate our melancholic humanity.” But, of course, I was equally aware that it would be rather tedious and ineffective to recite a text translated in the 19th in the middle of my lecture. On the one side, I doubted the international audience, unfamiliar with the context of Machado de Assis’s novel and his ironic penmanship, could grasp all the rich nuances embedded in the text. On the other, it was possible that, between my Brazilian accent and my lack of training as an actress, the power of Machado de Assis’s intricate metaphors would be simply washed away. The solution was to create a video collage that could illustrate and further vivify the literary excerpt.
The project, initially conceived as a simple and didactic tool, took on a life of its own. In a matter of days, it transformed itself into an exciting yet never-ending endeavor. The experiment (see video below) resulted in a five-minute video, divided into five sections: a brief introduction, a passage from chapter two (“The Poultice”), an edited excerpt from chapter four (“The Fixed Idea”), and credits. My translation of Machado de Assis’s text was reproduced in the form of subtitles and voice over (my narration).
Since I had no intention of presenting my collage outside that one particular lecture (and a working group discussion), I paid little attention to the technical quality of the audio-visual materials I was appropriating or their copyrights. The exercise was conceptualized and executed, homemade style, on my kitchen table. Most of the footage included in my experiment, for instance, was extracted from Capitu (2008), Luiz Fernando Carvalho’s adaptation of Dom Casmurro (1899), another novel by Machado de Assis. To expedite the process, I played Capitu’s original DVD on my laptop and simply grabbed the footage that interested me with my personal digital camera. Next, I searched for and downloaded additional footage and images from the Internet. I then proceed to edit the video with iMovie, adding the voice over, the soundtrack,[ii] and subtitles with that same basic software.
The deeper I got into my creative project, pulling images here, adding a new footage there, cutting and pasting the text over there, comparing existing translations of Machado de Assis’s text and adding my “two cents” to it, it became clear to me that the process I was enduring was far more relevant to my research project than the final product I was getting ready to screen in my lecture. What started as a fancy illustration of one particular point, inside one slide, within my forty-minute presentation, turned into an experimental exercise of cognitive creativity and intellectual clarification. It was like fabricating the mechanisms through which a light bulb could be lit inside my brain; the manufacturing of an aha! effect, so to speak. In a sense, my personal attempt to bring to life the 19th century metaphor I had incorporated into my own scholarly work – Machado de Assis’s take on flexible and fixed ideas – became a laboratory space, through which I was able to solve the riddle to the (mentioned above) puzzle. In other words, my creative exercise consciously and sub-consciously juxtaposing words, images, and sounds functioned as a breeding ground, where creativity and discovery could feed of each other.
[Embed video here]
To make a long story short, here is the solution to the riddle. In the 1930s, Gilberto Freyre departed from Franz Boas’ notion of cultural relativism and arrived at a revolutionary understanding of cultural miscegenation as a positive element of Brazil’s uniqueness. Freyre’s Casa-Grande & Senzala (The Masters and the Slaves, 1933), centers/focuses on the private/sexual life of that society since colonial times; and Sobrados e Mucambos (The Mansions and the Shanties, 1936) provoked a radical transformation in the way Brazilians, especially the intellectual elites, saw themselves. Yet, the publication of these books alone is not enough to explain the extent to which Freyre’s sociological interpretation of Brazil took the nation by storm. Freyre’s stroke of luck, I propose, lies in a) a selection of cherry-picked, yet extremely well documented case studies, employed to illustrate and later generalize his arguments, and b) the historical moment in which these theories were disseminated. Consciously or not, his focus on practices popularized via means of mass-communication, such as music (e.g. samba) and team sports (e.g. football), ensured that his ideas spread out beyond the confinement of erudite circles.[iii] In the months leading to the 1938 Word Cup in France, for instance, Freyre published a newspaper article in Recife, in which he introduced the concept of foot-ball mulato (mulatto football). In a nutshell, he argued that local footballers in Brazil had incorporated elements available in Afro-Brazilian practices, such as samba and capoeira, into their personalized way of playing. In doing so, Brazilians transformed the British way of playing, or Apollonian style, into a Dionysian dance. In 1947, Freyre revisited his argument in the preface of Mário Filho’s quintessential O Negro no Futebol Brasileiro (The Black in the Brazilian football, 1947). There, as Brazil geared to host the next World Cup[iv], Freyre affirmed that the importance of football in Brazil lies in its ability to sublimate animal energies and irrational instincts present in all Brazilians, but especially abundant in blacks and mixed-race footballers. Implicit here is the (colonial/imperial) idea that football transforms non-white/primitive individuals into civilized sportsmen.
Freyre offers, through isolated yet concrete case studies such as this, tangible examples of how cultural hybrid could be regarded as a source of national pride. Meanwhile, his patronizing exaltation cultural homogeneity as a symbol of Brazilianness deviates the nation’s attention away from the unsolved discussion of race discrimination. Freyre’s theories are flexible enough to untie certain knots and leave other intact. It unties, for example, miscegenation from coloniality and its raced division of labor and ties it with national culture. It also unties ginga from Blackness and barbarism, ties it to mulatto football and calls it a beautiful thing . In the end, the political economy of indefiniteness inherent in his understanding of miscegenation contributes to support the carefully constructed imagination of Brazil as a racially harmonious community. It becomes, thus, one of the secret ingredients of Brazil’s magical solution or poultice.
Similar to Brás Cuba’s “Poultice,” Freyre’s sublime theory of cultural miscegenation was “destined to alleviate our melancholic humanity.” Contrary to the 19th century imaginary one, the “modern” remedy was packaged and distributed at an extremely felicitous time and place. By the end of the 1930s, for instance, Leônidas da Silva and Carmen Miranda were amongst the most famous names within the entertainment industry in Brazil. Their performances fit Freyre’s notion of cultural miscegenation, or poultice, like a glove. Contrary to Carmen Miranda, a figure that looked white but acted black, Leônidas da Silva, the Afro-Brazilian footballer, gained notoriety for his ability to excel in playing a European sport, that is, “acting white.” But similar to the Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat, on local and global stages his uncanny maneuvers were exoticised. In the 1938 World Cup in France, for instance, Brazil achieved a glorious third place; Leônidas da Silva was elected the top scorer in the tournament. Yet the French press compared him to a circus freak with six legs and an elastic man.[v]
In The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (2003), the North American choreographer Twyla Tharp advocates that routine and consistency, especially when in alignment with a habit-forming environment, are the stepping-stones for creativity. “In my own work, everything is raw material. But without proper preparation – habit, if you will – I couldn’t see that raw material or know how to use it” (2008). For Tharp, there are two distinctive moments in the process of creation, the preparation stage – or filling up the box – and the production stage – or coming in-and-out of the box. She sees the creative process as a type of “get out there and innovate” procedure. However, in case you get lost or loose your train of thought, she safeguards, “[E]verything you’ve done is in the box. You can always come back to it” (2003, 89). In Tharp’s metaphor the idea of a “box” functions not only as a repository of data. It is both a place of preparation and reflection; a place one can call home. She is, however, categorical when she states that, “[B]efore you can think out of the box, you have to start with the box” (2003, 88).
Conversely, in an essay entitled “Exile and Creativity,” the Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser challenges us to think of the concept of exile, in the general sense of being expelled from your comfort zone or “home-like” setting, as a creative space. Similar to Tharp, Flusser agrees that one departs from previously accumulated information in order to process, or rather create, new things. Unlike her, he proposes that, while habit – like a warm and fussy blanket – comforts us, it inhibits us from noticing what is permanent or, for that matter, has been normatized. For Flusser – a German-Jewish who fled to Brazil in the 1940s, became a citizen in the country, but was forced to migrate back to Europe in 1972 due to the military dictatorship’s persecution of left-wing intellectuals –
Habit is a blanket that covers up the facts of the case. In familiar surroundings, change is recognized, but not permanence. Whoever lives in a home finds change informative but considers permanence redundant. (2004, 1)
Hence, he states, “[I]f the cotton blanket of habit is pulled back, one discovers things. Everything becomes unusual, monstrous, in the true sense of the word un-settling” (2004, 2). But for the latter, the unsettlement caused by those who are forced to live in a foreign land (a place where information doesn’t make sense at first) is key to understand not only creativity. Since exile broadens one’s field of vision, it also transforms one’s perception of concepts such as human dignity and freedom. In the later, he proposes,
This is also about a phenomenon of freedom: one is forced to be creative. In this sense the equation expellation=creation may be turned around: Not only is every expelled forced to be creative, but also everyone who is creative sees himself forced to be expelled. This turnaround of the equation, with a question mark set, is the motivation.” (2004, 5)
In the days leading to my lecture, came the realization [in the form of a second aha! effect] that my creative endeavor was, although excessively time-consuming, not a deviation from scholarly standards. During my artistic “escape”, a kind of (self-inflicted) exile from the realm of rigorous scientific investigation, I was able to uncover permanencies until then invisible to me. It exposed, as many Latin American post-colonial scholars seem to agree, the myth of “the faceless, zero-point philosophy that would be taken up by the human sciences from the 19th century onward as the epistemology of axiological neutrality and empirical objectivity of the subject, which produces scientific knowledge” (Grosfoguel 2012, 89).
In this case, I must add, my exile from this “point-zero logic” has proven to be productive and transformative. After all, it brought me closer to the decolonial critique of Western universalism, in which my historiography was grounded. It made me realize, through a first-hand experience process, that it is not only the land and the people that must be decolonized. In order to generate – i.e. create – new information it is not enough to appropriate Western discursive frameworks, or “the tools of the colonizer” (Savigliano 1995), either. We must also decolonize the ways in which we think and produce knowledge, even if that means momentarily fleeing our comfort zone – be that the world in which we physically grew up, or the normatized way of thinking about the world. To remain a neutral, weightless, and invisible observer, detached from one’s own body, time, and space, would be to think like a colonizing subject (ego conquiro, not ego cogito), as Dussel proposes in 1492: El Encubrimiento del Otro (1994). It would cause me to perpetuate the Enlightenment’s notion of knowledge and subjectivity across the globe.
My exile into the world of art making led me to an unstructured and open-ended game (paidia) with Machado de Assis’s choice of terms and expressions such as “poultice” (emplasto), “fixed idea” (idéia fixa), and “antics” (cabriolas). Through free association, I recalled literary excerpts, video clips, and works of arts, largely of European origin or influence, with which I had developed personal relations. For instance, my engagement with the word cabriola led me to, amongst others, Convoi funèbre d’un fils de roi nègre (Funeral Procession of the Son of Black King, 1835–9), a lithograph entitled by Jean-Baptiste Debret that I reproduced in my doctoral dissertation; scenes from Cirque du Soleil’s OVO, a production envisioned by the set designer Gringo Cardia and directed by the choreographer Deborah Colker (2009), both Brazilians, which I watched in Las Vegas a few years ago; Seiltänzer (Tightrope Walker, 1923), a lithograph print by Paul Klee, whose reproduction I had seen in a book at my parents place; an excerpt from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra on the same topic, which I had painstakingly investigated and illustrated in college, as part of a philosophy assignment (see figure below); a circus scene from Wim Wenders’s acclaimed Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987), one of my all time favorite films; Marc Chagall’s stunning painting for the ceiling of the Paris Opera (1963–4), which I had seen for the first time that summer; an iconic series of black-and-white photographs of capoeira, taken by the French anthropologist Pierre “Fátúmbí” Verger in Salvador, Bahia (1946–7); and, finally, an anonymous photo of the Afro-Brazilian footballer Leônidas da Silva, intersecting the ball in midair with his foot, as he hit it towards the goal with an overhead maneuver commonly known as the “bicycle kick.”
It was there and then, one night, as I was staring at Leônidas da Silva’s acrobatic move, that I finally came to realize the connection between the idea of a “foot-ball mulato” as a positive trait of Brazil’s particularity and that nation’s “democracy of races” ideology. Sporting spectacles such as World Cup tournaments are an ideal field – and perhaps one of the only realms –, in which Freyre’s theory makes perfect sense.
On another level, as it also became evident through my experiment, the ephemerality of my artistic journey prevented me from “settling down.” Thus, it also inhibited the transformation of my self-inflicted exile into a new blinding habit, just as Flusser suspects. Yet, as Twarp suggests, the careful preparation of my “box” with a variety of critical tools and pieces of information allowed me to easily find my way home, or create new shortcuts, whenever I got lost or felt uneasy. Once I placed myself in the shoes of the author, or rather, once I assumed the role of the narrator of Machado de Assis’s fictional novel – in this case a 19th century patriarch and slave owner aristocrat –, not only speaking the text out loud but also illustrating it with an array of personalized and subjective collection of audio-visual metaphors, I was able to make a deep connection between what Machado de Assis saw and the world in which he lived. And what’s more, my didactic video put me in contact not with Machado de Assis, the genius, and his universal/atemporal masterpiece. Instead, it made me realize that the author’s decision to equip the narrator, as he put it, with “playful pen and melancholic ink” was his way of becoming “a man of his own time and country, even when dealing with issues far removed from time and space,” (1959, 31),[vi] as he advocated in 1873. After experiencing this uncanny combination of melancholia and playfulness, I was finally able to understand, how his synthetic writing style, thus worldview, is at the same time local and global. Ultimately, his masterful way of choreographing ideas on paper revealed yet another dimension of what I have entitled, in my own scholarship, Brazil’s pride-and-shame conundrum.
In the last instance, my video collage project this past summer reminded me that knowledges are always-already embodied, subjective, particular. It also made me understand the value of stepping into rather than distancing oneself from one’s object of study. The personalized locus of enunciation from which the video collage was assembled – in this case my footage selection, my voice intonation, my timely juxtaposition of text with sounds and images, and my final cut – all clearly inserted me in the picture. As it became clear to me, it was only by exposing the subject of enunciation, rather than erasing its spatial and corporeal location of within the cartography of global power, that my critical point of view would make sense. After all, no critique can be complete unless the neutrality of the place from which one speaks and produces knowledge, this imaginary “zero-point”, is questioned or rather exposed. Hence, we must thrive for what Aimé Césaire (2006) calls “concrete universalism:” unlike the abstract universals historically defended by Western thinkers (from Descartes to Hegel and Marx), Césaire’s notion of concrete universalism challenges us to imagine a horizontal dialogue across multiple cosmological and epistemological determinations established by peoples that, although different, are treated as equals.
The question of cognitive creativity is not so much a question of embodying and/or embracing a non-habitual episteme or system, but rather of remaining a stranger even when you become familiar with your object of study and, therefore, recreating the experience of mismatching “hats” or performative roles in order to look at a known puzzle with a fresh set of eyes. As a Latin American scholar in the field of arts conducting research in Berlin, my peripheral positionality is not necessary an exile from the center, but an occupied yet moving territory on the edge of that imagined world. On the one hand, it is a non-static space, where difference continues to be visible from the same (prevailing) point of view. On the other hand, its proximity to exile, a point of view from which the artificiality/constructiveness of the “norm” can also be re-cognized and, therefore, detaches the gaze from that particular frame of view. Engaging with Machado de Assis’s novel Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas was like momentarily diving into that borderline reality, or in-between space – neither home nor exile, neither inside nor outside the box. It was a window towards the decolonization of (my own) body and mind.
To understand the place from which I speak, that is produce knowledge, is to envision a mapping or a retracing the pathways of my trajectories in time and space as well the ways in which I relate to other things, be that people, boxes, facts, or ideas. I am not a thing in itself, but a node in an entire network of connections. Not a tree with roots and ontological tendency to grow upward in a linear fashion, but an uprooted rhizome-like cluster gliding over a moving web, always-already informing and being formed by other clusters, routes, and intentionalities.
I hereby close with Clarice Lispector’s words: “In no sense an intellectual, I write with my body.”
[i] According to Lilia Schwartz, legal authorities, governmental entities, and academic institutions supported two prevailing panaceas: criminalization via scientific racism and winterization via eugenics.
[ii] For the soundtrack, I used songs that I had in my personal library. They are, in order of appearance, “Maracatu de Tiro Certeiro” by Chico Science and Nação Zumbi (Da lama ao Caos, 1994); “Ferramenta” by José Miguel Wisnik (soundtrack of Grupo Corpo’s Nazareth 1992); and “Wave” by Tom Jobim and Vinícius de Moraes (Tom, Vinícius, Toquinho, Miucha, 1994).
[iii] It is worthwhile noting that in the 1930s, nearly 60% of the population could not even read or write their own name.
[iv] The 1950 World Cup tournament, which took place in Brazil, was the first tournament held after WWII. Originally scheduled to take place in 1946, it was the first World Cup attended by the British team.
[v] Cited in Ribeiro 1999.
[vi] In the article “Instinto de Nacionalidade” (“Instinct of Nationality”, 1873), Machado de Assis writes that, “O que se deve exigir do escritor, antes de tudo, é certo sentimento íntimo, que o torne homem do seu tempo e do seu país, ainda quando trate de assuntos remotos no tempo e no espaço.”