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.