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.


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