Thursday, 29 March 2012

Playing past the shouting

I am two weeks into my stay in Salvador, Brazil. Coming straight from the London winter, the heat is impressive. I’m living by the sea and training capoeira every day. How did I get here?

How did I get here?

In recent years, my research on security has taken place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the majority of the population experiences diverse and extreme forms of insecurity. Development policy has employed various strategies to break the reinforcing disasters that Congolese people face: demobilisation, presidential elections, poverty-alleviation and technical support. All have faced considerable disruption at implementation and all come from outside: the priorities – the interests – are defined by the UN and northern donors, not by the Congolese. There is no concerted discourse from within Congo, no articulation of interests, no strategy.

This lack of command of a discourse – even a historical narrative – is, I think, both cause and effect of Congo’s predicament. It also issues a challenge to security studies. How can security studies – which has been dominated by northern writers and northern concerns – address the insecurity faced by people in Congo if it assumes, as it tends to, strategic rationality? As Bob Marley puts it: Half the story has never been told. The vast majority of the world’s population does not have the power or information to command strategic space; this affects behaviour and re-dcfines what rationality is.

In their recent book, ´The Evolution of International Security Studies,´ Buzan and Hansen capture the range of forces that have shaped the sub-discipline, and the title of the book signals a Darwinian survival of the strongest. This is disconcerting, given the inclusion of security within development policy, and a strange disjuncture emerges: a sub-discipline that champions universalising values and rationality, is revealed to be driven chiefly by ‘great power politics’ which are subject to internal illogicalities and have no regard for actors who pose no threat. Buzan and Hansen describe the normatively divided security debates of the Cold War as ‘shouting past each other’ (Buzan and Hansen 2009, 90).

In London, I teach Security on Thursdays, and in the evening I play capoeira. Capoeira developed amongst slave and ex-slave communities: these were people who could not present a strategic response to the oppression they faced. But they could wrong-foot slave masters with trickery, deceit and magic. These are tactics that are used within the game, but there is little distinction between the game and life. The freedom that capoeira achieves – even simply freedom of expression – counters the dominant version of events. In legal terms, slaves belonged to their masters. Capoeira refutes that: possessions do not create or express. Possessions do not have values or cultures; they tend not to sing or play around. The interests of dominant classes in early 20th century Brazil were aggressively promoted through a Portuguese cultural and political identity. Capoeiristas were playing past the shouting.

So the journey across the kalunga, the Middle Passage, which has been made by millions of slaves from the Congo-Angola region and from West Africa has, for me, specific continuities with the work I have done in the past. In investigating counter-hegemonic versions of events, the research takes its cue from Paulo Friere who introduces the concept of conscientisation. In Goldbard’s words, “Conscientisation means breaking through prevailing mythologies to reach new levels of awareness – in particular, awareness of oppression, being an ‘object’ of others’ will rather than a self-determining ‘subject’” (Goldbard 2006). Capoeira is a discourse – a somatic and musical discourse – that presents a history that is conceptually independent of the dominant discourse.

The dominant security discourse has no means of explaining how people can pursue their interests from a position of weakness or why people find happiness in their lives when they are oppressed or destitute. Researching children living on the street in Northeast Brazil, Hecht writes, “Hunger, violence and ostracism… may be the context in which street children exist, but their lives can hardly be reduced to these elements” (Hecht 1998, 233). Observing carnival, Scheper-Hughes comments that people living in the north east of Brazil “have a knack for making life a worthwhile experience” (Sheper-Hughes 2008). Carnival, capoeira and Candombl√© share cultural roots and functions in maintaining identity and meaning, and in establishing values and relationships with others and with the past and future. Habermas’ theory of communicative action is helpful in giving a framework for understanding action that is not strategic by acknowledging communicative rationality and focusing on social interaction rather than individualistic behaviour (Miller 1992, 22).

The story of capoeira is of particular significance to security studies. A marginalised group has, in mainly tactical (rather than strategic) ways, gained political influence. They have protected their interests and extended their power and a large part of this has been through their ability to generate and preserve a discourse that tells the other side of history and generates possibilities for the future. How did this happen? How has security been distributed through capoeira? What implications can be drawn from the policy and practice of security? These are the questions that I want to answer in my research.

So why am I training every day? In my last class in London before coming to Salvador, my mestre talked about capoeira taking place in the present. A painting of capoeira is not capoeira, it is a painting. A video of capoeira is not capoeira, it is a video. The observation went to the heart of my methodology: to access the discourse of capoeira and its meaning, to learn it, learn about it and learn through it, the fundamental research is training and playing capoeira. Capoeira is capoeira.

Some references:

Buzan, B. and L. Hansen (2009). The Evolution of International Security Studies. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hecht, T. (1998). At home in the street. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Miller, B. (1992). "Collective action and rational choice. Place, community and the limits to individual self-interest." Economic Geography 68(1): 22-42.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2008). "A talent for life: Reflections on Human Vulnerability and Resilience." Ethnos 73(1): 25-56.

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