Friday, 28 August 2015

Capoeira and the art of Total Resistance

In my previous two blogs I have linked the study of capoeira to the topics of inequality and identity. Taking these two themes together, there is a potential for capoeira to present a model for a profound form of resistance that counters inequality in a universal way because it is founded in the identity of the player and the totality of the game. Such a conceptualisation is analytically exciting, and raises questions about how resistance makes it out of the roda of the game into the roda of life.

Policing the Forte de Santo Antonio

Since 2001, the era of the global terror and surveillance has generated forms of violence and control that are infinite over time (endless) and all-pervasive in their operations, employing political, legal and security architecture to extend power from the global to the individual. These forms of violence and control have been theorised by Mark Duffield as 'total war', a conceptualisation that issues political and analytical challenges in formulating and analysing responses made, including artistic responses. How do people survive, and what do art and resistance mean under conditions of total war?

Art – there's a lot of it about :)

Capoeira developed under political configurations that attempted to control the bodies, identity and expression of black people in 19th and early 20th century Brazil. Capoeira players not only denied the state the power to assign them unequal status, but forged identities that have become part of the Brazilian mainstream, and maintained a historical continuity that the state was attempting to eliminate.

The boundless nature of state control attacked the identity – the heritage, values and associations – of a marginalised population. It was met with the infinite nature of the game – a game that encompasses musicality, physicality and spirituality; a game with no rules, points or set timings, played in a circle. Congolese scholar Fu-Kiau described games in Congo as containing ‘all the ingredients a person needed to acquire mental and physical fitness…The music, dance, lyrics, joy, and laughter were all means to create positive energy that encouraged the community to join in an active participation. Games were thus an integral part of the process called life” (quoted in Chvaicer 2002, 537). Capoeira has this totality.

Capoeira is life – from Kilombo Tenonde

Capoeira is a somatic dialogue of questions and answers; insecurity in capoeira – as in life – derives from getting into a dangerous situation that you cannot escape. Total war generates this form of insecurity – militarily, politically, economically and psychologically. Violence and control are differentially experienced across the world, but the war is not defined only territorially. Control of the means of violence, access to capital and the threat or protection offered by surveillance mediate people's experience of total war. Total war is about systemic management and resistance to it is described by countering or escaping the politics of violence and control.

Capoeira prompts two lines of thought with regard to the art of resisting total war. The first is that artistic resistance can be oblique and unguided: capoeira is a source of inspiration and community rather than a concerted political lever. The second insight is that, despite – or because of – this lack of functional engagement, art continually creates both a retreat from political assault and a source of strength. Like other arts and forms of spirituality it provides a response to feelings of powerlessness and apathy arising from the aggression of total war. In doing so, art counters the inevitability of the violence of total war with potentiality – the idea that other possibilities exist and can be created.

Simply playing capoeira was resistance for those whose identity was threatened by the laws against it. Today, capoeira is a lens on struggle – for most of its players it is not the struggle itself. Power is defined as the ability to influence people, a definition that can be extended to art. Using capoeira – or other artistic pursuits – to influence the experiences of people who are marginalised from collective identities, dignified life or physical or psychological well-being are logical ways of channelling the struggle. The other way of extending the resistance of capoeira is to allow its history of struggle to change us – to internalise and act on the values of equality and struggle that are embodied in the music and movement to counter the forms of violence and control that continue to threaten people through war and devastating poverty.

Leaving Salvador! It has been beautiful

I will be elaborating on these thoughts with Professora Paulinha (Capoeira Bem-Vindo) in a presentation for the In Place of War project at Manchester Metropolitan University in November.

Chvaicer, M. T. (2002). "The Criminalization of Capoeira in Nineteenth-Century Brazil." Hispanic American Historical Review 82(3): 525-547.

Duffield, M. (2007). Development, Security and Unending War: Governing the World of Peoples, Polity.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Identity in the history and geography of capoeira

I'm in Salvador, training and playing in rodas. The Forte de Santo Antonio, overlooking the Bay of All Saints, received a facelift in the 1980s and has been the cultural centre for capoeira since, but capoeira is played elsewhere too – in other academies and in the street.

Bay of All Saints, looking lovely

Inside the Forte de Santo Antonio

The groups in the Forte de Santo Antonio retain the characteristics of their teachers' capoeira. The identity of each group is reproduced in the conventions of training, movement, rhythm and repertoire. Playing in the Forte de Santo Antonio is like taking a step out of time – and space (as many of the students are foreign) – to a kind of ideal capoeira, stylised by practitioners of the mid-20th century.

The attention to convention in the Forte de Santo Antonio contrasts with the lawlessness of capoeira in 19th and early 20th century when it was played in the streets. Arguably the most significant change in capoeira in the 20th century was the move from the streets to the academy in the 1930s and 1940s. Most academies are named after their founding teachers, and teaching lineage is – for many – a mark of legitimacy of style and identity. (For others it is constraining, and knowledge is acquired through engagement rather than hierarchy). Just at there is a contrast between the convention of the academy and the lawlessness of the capoeira that preceded it, there is a contrast between 'purity' of lineage since the mid-20th century and the mixed African, indigenous Brazilian and Portuguese heritage of the capoeira that preceded.

Roda at GCAP in the Forte (that's me on agogo!)

Identities make historically and geographically links, and provide a framework for navigating diverse and mutating capoeira lineages and groups. They are also forged by the relationship between capoeira and the state. Academies changed the identity of capoeira from an evasive practice in ungoverned areas to a governed art – in fact over-policed initially, when security agents attended games in the early years.

Last week I drew parallels between the attempts by the Brazilian state in the early 20th century and contemporary European governments to institutionalise inequality, noting that inequality has been the subject of various theories relating to security. Identity, too, features strongly in academic literature on security, and assessing how interests interact with identities offers insights into the survival and growth of capoeira.

The relationship between capoeira and the state puts the contrasts in capoeira identities in political perspective, encompassing the struggle for space (the street) and heritage (African/European). By accepting the state's need for regularity, and some 'Brazilian' ownership of capoeira, capoeira practitioners interlaced their interests with those of state authority, reducing the perceived threats. Today, groups in the Forte, other academies and the street reach various settlements of allied interests with each other and with the state.

Workshop on the street with Mestre Claudio de Feira de Santana (I'm at the back in red!)

Capoeira has flourished largely because its diversity enables it to adapt it to different political and cultural conditions. There is no overarching or united goal and therefore no rationality determining strategic gains. Instead, Habermas theory of 'communicative rationality' is helpful in detailing a rationality oriented towards understanding. The practice of capoeira generates opportunities for communication in the the game, group and teaching. While there is abundant bickering between capoeira teachers and groups, there is no fundamental incompatibility and the contestation of identities maintains connection and difference.

Capoeira provides a laboratory study in identity politics that throws regressive contemporary politics in Europe into relief. Crucially, capoeira groups have negotiated their own identities and interests, rather than having characteristics assigned and manipulated by others. Current portrayals of refugees, Muslims, welfare-claimants, the unemployed, and migrant workers as threatening are determined largely by the popular press. Ring-fencing sections of the population – allocating them an identity – and presenting these identities as having interests that are incompatible with the mainstream fosters blame, competition or conflict. As the imperfect but strangely functional case of capoeira demonstrates, though, diversity is a strength not only in that it accommodates a range of predilections, but that in doing so, it constitutes an adaptable and self-reflective whole.

I will be presenting these thoughts in the Post-Colonial Studies Convention in the University of Leicester in September.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Finding inequality problematic

I have returned to Bahia after three years. In the interim I have changed capoeira groups. For the last two years I have practised capoeira Angola and I now train with Professora Paulinha in CapoeiraBem-Vindo.

I have continued to think about how capoeira affects security through a study of how capoeira players have reworked relationships of threat and protection by gaining cultural and political space. A key reason for choosing to study capoeira was that, as a subaltern voice, its perspective contrasts with that of conventional studies in security, which have been dominated by the powerful north.

Subaltern voices do not simply complement more powerful voices, they provide insights through the political challenges the pose. The subject of inequality, for instance, has been researched from diverse disciplines with regards to incidence of conflict, and the reduction of inequality is central to progressive peace. At the same time, though, the processes of capitalism and the priorities of neoliberalism have reproduced inequalities domestically and internationally.

The tension between the merits of equality and the realist demands of politics is maintained because inequality is not genuinely problematic for the powerful. The current securitisation of migration, the political and media noise framing the threats posed by migrants in the Mediterranean and Calais, can be understood as the institutionalisation of inequality according to the political needs of European governments.

Capoeira is a form of embodied knowledge that has grown out of inequality – of the slave trade and racial injustice – and it finds inequality problematic as it is degrading and dangerous.
Playing capoeira with Treinel Marcelo (FICA) in Kilombo

I have just spent three weeks in Kilombo Tenonde, a centre for capoeira and permaculture led by Mestre Cobra Mansa (FICA). Kilombo is dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability through bio-construction, and organic gardening and agro-forestry. Capoeira training takes place every day from 6-8am and there are music classes in the evening. The intensity and regularity of training attests to the fact that capoeira is not a distraction, it is integral to the way that Kilombo operates. Sharing in the artistic practice of capoeira generates community, and also provides a site for physical and mental well-being, reflection and mobilisation.

Where does this leave inequality and politics, conflict, peace and the securitisation of migration? Inequality is problematic because it enables the powerful to exert violence on the relatively powerless, and subaltern voices start to redress the inequality in information that imposes structures of violence on distressed populations. The criminalisation of capoeira in early 20th century Brazil was the Brazilian state's attempt to erase African history and the brutality of the slave trade from the future of Brazil. The securitisation of migration in the 21st century is a similar attempt to erase historic and contemporary violence from the future global order.

Capoeira provides an example of how a struggle has been maintained in Brazil, but as Kilombo demonstrates, art can provide a focus for undertaking or understanding other struggles. It is not simply what is said, it is how it is said: capoeira's constant celebration of African heritage and its valorisation of artistic expression is not a snapshot quantitative measure of inequality but a bulwark against its political processes.

Artwork at Kilombo
Attending to the perspectives and experiences of people – whether they are in Libya, Syria, the Mediterranean or Calais – is essential to the process of finding inequality problematic in the sense of being degrading, dangerous. Just as capoeira has celebrated its heritage, contemporary subaltern perspectives illuminate the regressive nature of northern security, and indicate how to work towards a future that does not systematically exclude the victims of past and present violence.

I will be presenting these thoughts as Keynote Speaker at the International Conference: Inequality, Peace and Conflict at Manchester University in September.