Friday, 22 June 2012


Playing in the available space
Communicative rationality functions alongside instrumental rationality, and can itself be instrumental in some ways. This blog and the two that follow will explore instrumental rationalities within the game and history of capoeira. This blog looks at tactics – the gains that can be made within the available space and according to which the weaker party conforms to the same rationality as the dominant party. A destitute thief and a rich person may have different perspectives on the law but agree on the value of money.

De Certeau differentiates between strategy and tactics, whereby strategy involves the ability to command and shape and environment. Conversely, “The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power… It operates in isolated actions, blow by blow… It is a guileful ruse… In short, a tactic is an art of the weak” (de Certeau 1984, 37).

Attack! Escape!

The history of capoeira and the identity of the capoeirista derives from the perspective of the weaker party: it was developed in slave communities and then among people who were politically and economically marginalised.

Contrary to other martial arts and mainstream security thinking, there is little notion of defence. People talk about defence in capoeira but there is no block. Players swipe away kicks that have not come to full force, but they do not stand in the way. The key defensive tactic in capoeira is escape – esquiva: ducking the kick, or moving to the side or behind. This allows the game to continue. As Mestre Poncianinho observes: ‘escape is infinite.’ In security terms, having an infinite resource is helpful.

from Alexandre Robatto’s 1954 film ‘Vadiação’; photo displayed in Forte de Santo Antonio

The game of capoeira is not role-play, and there are strategies that are employed within the characteristically tactical context: players try to dominate space and the stronger player has some advantages. Of greater significance, though, is malandragem – being streetwise. Capoeira is a streetfighting art: songs celebrate no wrong step, no move in vain. The kicks are not the point; the point is to take down the other person, preferably using a rasteira – a sweep – something that goes under the radar and takes away the other person’s feet when they are attacking. As a corrido puts it, “tough guy, I’ll give you a rasteira and put you on the ground!” (FICA songbook p27).


Santo Antonio – He’s a busy man
Protection is a recurrent theme in the moves and the songs, reflecting the vulnerability of the weaker party. All moves involve an element of protection – the capoeirista can be attacked at any moment: one hand always protects the face, and the body is protected by being ‘closed’ – using the legs or arms to protect the torso.

There is a strong theme of protection in the songs too. A commonly sung corrido is ‘Saint Antonio is the protector’: firstly protector of Noah’s ark, then of capoeira, quite often of Salvador, and finally of love! Orixás, too are called on for protection, either by name or by allusion. The corrido “my mermaid, queen of the sea, don’t let my boat capsize’ is addressed to Yemanja, Orixá of the sea, often depicted as a mermaid.

Yemanja taking care of a boat
God is another source of protection: “a little with God is a lot. A lot without God is nothing” (Retrato da Bahia. CD Mestre Paulo dos Anjos). The ladainha ‘Iê Senhor Bom Deus’ (‘Oh Lord Good God’ – sorry, this one is really lost in translation!) (FICA CD track 3) makes clear allusion to the Lord’s Prayer, but is a honed-down version, especially for capoeiristas! Firstly, ‘make me a good capoeirista’ (with the usual ambiguity between the game and life). It then misses the majority of the prayer and cuts to the protective elements: deliver me from temptation, all evil and my enemies. It concludes with a prayer for protection.

Reducing vulnerability

The identity of the capoeirista is a ‘small’ one: ‘pequeno sou eu’ – ‘I’m small’ is a constant refrain, especially in chulas (the songs sung between the ladainha and the corrido). But the diminutive size of the capoeirista amplifies the size of the protector: ‘Maior e deus!’ – ‘God is great.’ That reduces vulnerability.

The animals invoked in moves and songs also signal an element of vulnerability. They are not predatory: they are frogs, monkeys and birds, not big cats, bears or wolves. In ladainhas there are frequent references to being wary or careful: ‘I don’t go to your house, you don’t come to mine’; ‘I say my prayers with a knife in my belt.’ By allusion too, the capoeirista is often threatened: ‘the German canary killed my songbird.’

Sapinho – want to play?

In this threatened role, the priority of reducing vulnerability is higher than that of increasing influence. Besouro de Mangangá – ‘Beetle’ is the name of a quasi-mythical capoeirista (some say he is mythical. Mestre Joao Pequeno, when asked about him said, ‘yes, he was my father’s cousin’). The beetle has a protective shell but is small and does not pose a threat. It can fly away though (and Besouro is credited with the ability to fly when pursued by the police), so it is able to outwit and destabilise its persecutor.


“The boat capsized, sailor! There is treasure on the ocean floor!” – corrido.

Head above water? Missing opportunities!

Nancy Scheper-Hughes has written about psychological responses to violence and theorises resilience as the ‘refusal to be negated’ (Scheper-Hughes 1992, 19). A short ladainha observes, “The miner bird doesn’t sing when it’s in a cage. It only sings when it’s by the anthill and sees an ant outside!”

Resilience is a subject that is taken up in Claudia Seymour’s ground-breaking work on young people’s experiences of violence in eastern Congo, in which she explores how people cope in various ways and to various degrees with incessant violence. She finds, amongst other things, that the way that people recount their own histories is significant in attributing responsibility and meaning to violence. In capoeira, too, the preservation of cultural identity and the tactics used in the game demonstrate a strong form of resilience: you smile in adversary, if you are taken down you get up, if you are taken down again you get up again. You look the other person in the eye. You sing.

There is a clear instrumental rationality in staying in the game (literally or figuratively) by whatever means, and this has some lessons for the pursuit of security. Mearsheimer identifies the inability of states to cooperate as the ‘Tragedy of Great Power Politics.’ The reason, he argues is that ‘it pays to be selfish in a self-help world’ – both in the short and the long term (Mearsheimer 2002, 33). The ‘tragedy’ as far as great powers is concerned, is of political stalemate and environmental collapse. But a much more immediate ‘tragedy’ faces weaker states: that of political, cultural or literal obliteration. The tactical responses offered in and by capoeira inform an understanding of the quest for security for the majority of the world. Escaping, seeking protection, reducing vulnerability and refusing to be negated are tactics that start to fill some of the conceptual void created by the assumptions of conventional security studies – assumptions of strategic rationality and power.


de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life, University of California Press.

Mearsheimer, J. J. (2002). The tragedy of great power politics. New York London, W. W. Norton.

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