Sentencing Canudos

Adriana Johnson, Sentencing Canudos

Within Latin American Studies, people sometimes treat subalternism as a movement that is done and dusted: as though the break-up of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group over a decade ago had meant the end of that particular road. But a book such as Adriana Johnson’s Sentencing Canudos reminds us that this is far from true, and indeed that in some respects we have barely begun the project to re-read the Latin American archive with an eye to the mechanisms of subalternization and resistance.

Canudos, the object of Johnson’s focus, was a settlement in the dry backlands of Bahia, Northeastern Brazil, founded in 1893 by the followers of a charismatic preacher and mystic, Antônio Conselheiro. 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.

The War of Canudos is best-known today thanks to its documentation in a classic text, Os Sertões (1902; translated into English as Rebellion in the Backlands), by Euclides da Cunha, a journalist who had covered the conflict for a São Paulo newspaper. But the story has been told by others in a range of genres, from novels to films, perhaps most notably by the Peruvian Nobel Prize-winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, in The War of the End of the World. And as Johnson observes, Canudos has been taken up by contemporary theorists such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek, who terms it “forever the model of a liberated space, of an alternative community which thoroughly negates the existing state space” (qtd. 80). What happened over a century ago in this remote, impoverished corner of South America seems to have something to say to us not only about the traumas attending the formation of the Brazilian nation state, but also about the perils of political and aesthetic representation in Latin America and about the limits of sovereignty as a whole.

For all the scrutiny they have received, just about everything about Canudos and the violence it provoked is contestable and uncertain: from the size of the settlement or the manner of Conselheiro’s death to whether the Conselheristas’ protest should best be described as political or pre-political, religious millenarianism or atavistic monarchism. Johnson is not so much concerned to establish the truth of Canudos, though she persuasively argues that the community is best seen as a response to an intensification of governance, a “second conquest” whose resultant tensions were inscribed upon the transition from Empire to Republic. She is more interested in the ways in which it has been represented, in terms of a “prose of counter-insurgency” that casts its inhabitants as liminal figures–neither fully belonging to nor fully beyond the national community–in short, as subalterns. She is also interested in the ways in which those representations, above all da Cunha’s, have themselves been received and represented. What explains the success of Os Sertões, its canonization as a model of both insight and judgement?

Johnson dwells at length on the problematics of representation, in its double meaning as portrait and proxy, as aesthetic depiction and political mediation. Likewise she explores the ambivalence of the notion of the “sentence” that provides her work with her title: both linguistic form and juridical decision. She aims to challenge the finality of the sentence, the way in which the Canudenses have been “sentenced to history [. . .] inscribed in history, overtaken by it, condemned to take part in it, turned into its subjects” (163). There’s perhaps no better instance of this than the way in which da Cunha insists that there were no survivors of the conflict, that the rebels were eliminated to the very last man, woman, and child. On the one hand, in his guise of voice for the “voiceless,” he intends both to praise the stubborn resistance of the vanquished and to condemn the excessive force of the victors. But on the other hand, and especially once we note that in fact several scores of the prophets followers emerged alive from the final conflagration, it is as though he himself desired to write out the event more emphatically than even the army had: “By killing off the inhabitants, da Cunha effectively isolates Canudos in time [. . .]. Nothing comes after it, other than his own book, the lullaby to lay them to rest” (167).

The book’s best chapter, however, is the central one on “The Event and the Everyday.” Here Johnson really advances the cause of Subaltern Studies–whereas elsewhere she sometimes comes close merely to repeating and recapitulating the prior work of Ranajit Guha and other South Asian scholars, if now on Latin American terrain. Her point is that subalternization is not only a matter of condemning others to the past, to history (by means of a “denial of coevalness”), or of casting them out spatially, to the margins (the backlands, the borders of the nation state). Subalternity is also about denying ordinary everydayness, which eludes any possibility of hegemony

If [the subaltern’s] everydayness escapes, as happens in the case of Canudos, this happens not simply because the everyday is so banal and familiar as to be unperceived [. . .] but because it has become too unfamiliar to be perceived. This everyday cannot be seen because the ‘forms’ of society are no longer legible there. (86)

Both too familiar and unsettlingly unfamiliar for the forms of literary or state representation, the ordinary everyday is always already posthegemonic.

Here, then, habit comes to the fore: habit as both the structured repetition of daily activities and what resists any attempt to give structure to what is every day slightly different. For habit is a mode of repetition in which what returns or is done again is never precisely the same; it encodes a certain lag, a friction that incarnates an innate heterogeneity. Habit is always opposed to the grid, to precise measurement or to chronometric time. Habit is a domain that has to be “conquered, transformed, and rendered commensurable” (91) by an expansive nation state and market society, even as its regularities and repetitions also subtend and enable structures of exchange and equivalence that are never quite as homogenous as they are made out to be.

No wonder, then, that as Johnson shows both Canudos and the “Quebra-Quilos” riots of a couple of decades earlier had habit–or the tension between the heterogeneity of habitual repetition on the one hand and the homogeneity of standardization and chronometric regulation on the other–at the center of their respective conflicts. Quebra-Quilos (“Smash the Kilos”) “often involved the destruction of the scales used to weigh goods in the marketplace” and even “included the deliberate destruction of house numbers” (86). Canudos likewise expressed a resistance to “new processes of governmentalization” (94) from taxation to civil marriage that were perceived as an encroachment on what Peter Linebaugh (in The London Hanged) discusses in terms of the criminalization of customary rights and the imposition of the wage relation. In other words, not only does da Cunha’s “prose of counter-insurgency” function to eliminate the everyday in its account of Canudos: the struggle itself was at heart part of a massive effort to transform or transmute everyday rituals into the regularities of life under the modern state. Ultimately, Johnson claims, it is not that the settlement’s inhabitants were protesting their abandonment by the state (as some have suggested); theirs instead was a plea for autonomy.

In sum, Sentencing Canudos, in leveraging Subaltern Studies so as to go beyond the stale narratives of transculturation and/or deadening solidarity with the poor that have dominated Latin American cultural studies, begins to make visible the ordinariness that is at stake even in the most extraordinary events such as the destruction of Canudos, and even in the most canonical of texts such as da Cunha’s Os Sertões. From the ruins of the past (such as the remains of Conselheiro’s church, featured on the book’s front cover), it aims to produce not a new totality or a “noble unity” (168) but the possibility of new habits of reading and thinking at odds with the ordering devices of would-be hegemonic projects.

The Gramscian Moment

Peter Thomas, The Gramscian Moment

Peter Thomas’s The Gramscian Moment is probably the highlight to date of a revival in studies of the Italian Marxist philosopher that has been gathering pace for the past twenty years or so. This revival has been accompanied (and enabled) by Joseph Buttigieg’s edition of the Prison Notebooks, translated into English for the first time in more or less unexpurgated, uncondensed form. The third volume of this massive effort only appeared in 2007. Hitherto, the Anglophone world had to rely mostly on Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith’s Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971), plus a few other collections. Given the immense influence that some of Gramsci’s key concepts–not least, the notion of “hegemony”–has had on so many fields, it’s amazing that it has taken so long for his work to be fully available. Or to put this another way: never perhaps has any cultural critic been cited so much and yet been read so little.

Not, however, that the full publication of the Prison Notebooks resolves all the many obstacles to interpreting the text. For they are indeed “notebooks,” famously fragmentary, with numerous repetitions and rewritings, compiled in the most arduous conditions and left unfinished (if indeed by that time there was any thought that they could be completed) at Gramsci’s death. As Buttigieg notes, then, the temptation is to try to “reconstruct” the final text that Gramsci may have written had he been able to do so:

Whenever this takes place, the notebooks become a happy hunting ground from which one picks what is ‘important’ and discards what is deemed ‘incidental’–and, of course, everyone accuses everyone else of not having identified the ‘right’ fragments and the ‘correct’ relations between them. (“Introduction.” Prison Notebooks Vol. 1. 63)

And through Thomas quotes approvingly from Buttigieg on this point (and many others), arguing that Gramsci’s work is necessarily incomplete, he is equally keen to assert that the notebooks “have a fundamental coherence” (46) and cannot simply be harvested willy-nilly for any and every project on the Marxist or post-Marxist Left.

On the contrary: Thomas’s contribution is a battling intervention that seeks to rewrite and recast Marxist theory for contemporary times. Specifically, he plays off two antagonists: Louis Althusser, whose critique of Gramsci in the 1960s he describes (following André Tosel) as “the last great theoretical debate of Marxism” (8); and Perry Anderson, whose famous 1976 article “The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci” he excoriates for its sequence of supposed misreadings.

Thomas clearly has rather more respect for Althusser than for Anderson, and the vehemence of his criticism of the latter is at times surprising and certainly excessive. The argument is essentially that Anderson blames Gramsci’s apparent incoherence for the subsequent rise of a form of Western Marxism that focuses on civil society rather than the state, culture rather than politics. This shallow, bastardized Gramscianism then posits hegemony as merely a matter of persuasion and ignores the continuing importance of coercion even in the West. Thomas argues, however, that this claim that Gramsci’s own hestiations and “antimonies” are to blame for the uses to which he is put rests on inadequate attention to the Prison Notebooks‘ complex textual history. At the same time he admits that “it could indeed be objected that there is a certain amount of pedantry” involved in his detailing Anderson’s supposed interpretative errors so exhaustively, not least “now, at a distance of thirty years” (82).

One might add that Thomas’s vehemence is even odder given that he and Anderson seem to agree in all the fundamentals. For they both have the same vision of what Gramsci might ideally have said: the only difference is that Thomas claims to have found it, whereas for Anderson it is sadly missing. And they both seek this “ideal Gramsci” in order to short-circuit the link that quasi-naturally gave us Eurocommunism on the one hand and the likes of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on the other. In other words, they both seek a Gramsci who is “posthegemonic” in so far as he would be clearly distanced from the appropriation of the term “hegemony” that has been dominant in cultural studies (and elsewhere) since the 1970s, and that I detail at some length in my own book, Posthegemony.

In fact, Thomas has very little to say about hegemony. And when he does come to define the concept, he hardly distinguishes himself from those with whom he is otherwise in such bitter disagreement: Hegemony, he tells us,

emerges as a new “consensual” political practice distinct from mere coercion (a dominant means of previous ruling classes) on this new terrain of civil society; but, like civil society, integrally linked to the state, hegemony’s full meaning only becomes apparent as the social basis of the dominant class’s political power in the state apparatus, which in turn reinforces its initiatives in civil society. The integral state, understood in this broader sense, is the process of the condensation and transformation of these class relations into institutional form. (144)

Honestly, I scarcely see (say) Stuart Hall, Dick Hebdige, Larry Grossberg, or any other proponent of cultural studies disagreeing with this characterization. What’s more interesting here is that, over the course of a few lines, what begins as a definition of hegemony swiftly becomes instead a description of the “integral state.” And, when it comes to politics, that is where Thomas’s interests lie: his is a Gramsci of the integral state and “passive revolution” far more than a Gramsci who would be the founding figure of hegemony theory. Consistently, systematically, Thomas downplays the importance of hegemony to Gramsci, and indeed of Gramsci to hegemony (stressing by contrast the term’s Leninist credentials).

But it is in the debate that he stages with Althusser that Thomas reveals the heart of his reconceptualization, and this is where the book is at its best and most intriguing. For whereas others have taken the Prison Notebooks’ description of Marxism as the “philosophy of praxis” to be a euphemism or (frankly, not very convincing) attempt to evade the Fascist censors, Thomas proposes to take the term with utter seriousness, and to reclaim Gramsci for philosophy. He wants, in short, to put the “philosophy” back in to the philosophy of praxis. And in that this was the terrain on which Althusser pressed most hard, it is here that Thomas fights hardest to redeem what he sees as the three key tenets of Gramsci’s thought: historicism, immanence, and humanism. For Thomas, Gramsci radicalizes and absolutizes each of these terms. And so he concludes, summing up the book as a whole:

This study has argued that the “Gramscian moment” of 1932 explored the themes of the Theses on Feuerbach by means of the concepts of ”absolute historicism,” “absolute immanence” and “absolute humanism.” These concepts should be regarded as the three “attributes” of the constitutively incomplete project of the development of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis. Taken in their fertile and dynamic interaction, these three attributes can be considered as brief resumes for the elaboration of an autonomous research programme in Marxist philosophy today, as an intervention on the Kampfplatz of contemporary philosophy that attempts to inherit and to renew Marx’s original critical and constructive gesture. (448)

It’s worth noting, however, two things. First, this return to the “Gramscian moment” is also undoubtedly a return to what Thomas himself terms the Althusserian moment that put concerns about historicism, immanence, and humanism on the map. Unlike Anderson (or Thomas’s version of Anderson, at least), Althusser proves a worthy antagonist and the serious engagement with his thought is one of this book’s highlights. In fact, hidden within what is often a ponderous and repetitious tome on Gramsci are the elements of a short but smart take on Althusser that reminds us of the French philosopher’s decisive contribution to our considerations of the relationship between philosophy and Marxism.

Second, as Thomas engages with Althusser, his own account comes closer to what we associate with French structuralism and post-structuralism, with curious effects on his account of politics as well as philosophy. For instance, he has increasing recourse to Spinoza as justification for his construction of Gramsci’s immanentism and historicism–and yet it is Althusser, rather than Gramsci, who is most associated with the Dutch marrano. Moreover, mentions of “hegemony” fall away even more markedly than before, replaced by invocations of “the molecular, individualizing logic of disaggregation endemic to the passive revolution” (424) or of the logic of habit and personhood, of “states of mind or ‘beliefs’ that are as strong as material facts” (404), that remind us still more of Foucault and even Deleuze and Guattari.

In sum, Thomas’s book points us towards a Gramsci that would be a curious beast, but not unwelcome for all that: a posthegemonic Gramsci that returns us to seminal French debates of the 1960s and 1970s but also indicates perhaps new ways of conceiving politics as well as philosophy now that civil society is definitively withering away.