Rowman and Littlefield International

carnival or cultural clash?

Published on Wednesday 01 Mar 2017 by Ricardo Sanín-Restrepo

Tropicalia ou Panis et Circencis[1]: the Cosmic Clash at the Rio Olympic Games


As I write this article a news bulletin rustles through the radio informing that the Senado Federal (Senate) is one step closer to pushing Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff down the grinder of the constitution into full destitution, it happens as a cascade of measures dismounting social programs and gagging political actors such as teachers trickle down the bulwarks of oppression. This just reinforces my acknowledgement that on this continent we are devoted to doing things by the book: depredation, displacement, mass incarcerations, oppression, gender discrimination is all within the panoply of the law.

In a recent article[2] I defined two basic features of the current turmoil in the political situation in Brazil which are relevant for the points I will develop here. First, a white masculine elite has ruled the country for the last five centuries through systematic racial and gender discrimination; this rule is internationally unchallenged because this elite does not meddle with powerful global players and since oppression is done ‘by the book’. Second, in the last thirteen years of the ‘Partido dos Trabalhadores-PT’ (workers party) in power saw both situations deeply disturbed. Internally dense masses of populations became socially visible and legally empowered, internationally Brazil engineered sophisticated global networks that challenged traditional forms of coloniality especially the one exercised by the United States of America in the continent.  

I want to draw attention to two things. One, that what is happening in Brazil is the perfect example of coloniality, which I have defined as a form of ‘solidification’ of power based on the prohibition to access language, through the establishment of transcendent models of belonging to a body politic completed in the artifice of law[3]. Coloniality is thus the denial of politics through the stratifications of the access and uses of language. It is quite simple: The powerful establish a simulated and impossible model (‘the white heterosexual cultivated man’ for example) and expel from the law every singularity of difference that does not conform to the model. In doing so the constitution becomes the weapon of choice of power - it is swift, clean and all embracing. The second thing I want to draw attention to is the Olympic games opening ceremony as a carnival and the art imbued in it as an alternative narration of politics which created a two tier representation of reality, an above, the VIP boxes reserved for the government and a below, the field where life took the place of reality.

The transition from the military dictatorship to the current ‘democratic’ system was moulded to keep popular forces at bay, an oligarchic distribution of power with the political parties as its piecemeal suppliers. The history of Brazil, as is the case of coloniality, is a history of repetitive pacts among the powerful to defuse any contestation from the weak and many. In the last thirteen years, PT have begun to break the spine of this form of anti-politics. Insofar, the present constitutional ‘Coup’ had a very neat modus operandi, the neoliberal elites mobilized their hard line middle class conservative clientele to exert the moral retribution against PT, while the powerful sat down rubbing their hands behind curtains to the smell of the kill. In this toxic ideological soup, the free market was sublimated to a moral axiom and the constitution transformed to a mystic oracle that embodies the sacred fate of the few and powerful. The financial system was more than happy to join the demagogic political lynching. Monopolized mass media regurgitated to the beat of the second the dense ideological slob of ‘moral rectitude’ and the calls to ‘rescue our traditional values’ who by this feat became grafted onto the ‘dogma’ of the free market with no possible way of telling one from the other. The table was set for the deadly blow to democracy and decoloniality, with the constitution as the emblem shinning down on the axes of the tyrants.

In a deeply divided society where exclusion reveals the intimacy of the order, the constitution becomes much like those inane signs posted on restaurants and shopping malls in Brazil and many other countries ‘we do not discriminate anyone on account of race, gender, etc.’. The constitution standing neatly at the end of the social process simply sanctions the stubbornness of reality and gives it a new splendorous endorsement of political legitimacy. The market and embroiled social processes have already discriminated efficiently and hence the constitution turns material inequality into formal equality while the hands of the discriminators appear squeaky clean. When a constitution does not crush the primordial inequalities that fashion a society it simply reproduces a legalized inequality so that racism, exclusion and oppression may roam at large. This allows a versatile pulling of the strings from the dominators. When they define the ‘model’ in any petty or grand act they pull the strings back either to the values of the catholic heterosexual family or the free market. When they hide their atrocities they do so under the ‘simulacrum’[4] of a ‘colorblind constitution’ and define society shamelessly as a ‘melting pot of races’. A colorblind constitution is just the hideous catalyst that spikes and naturalizes racism, simulating politics and democracy while producing huge scales of inequality. A melting pot of races hides a racial wound that runs through the whole of the social body as it defines it, a wound that never heals and through which imagination must flourish, the latter is what happened in the opening ceremony.

The opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics allowed us a different perspective from the hoary and bleak one offered in the constitution. There were at least two worlds present at the ceremony. The VIP box where interim President Michel Temer was and the field where the carnival unfolded. Hidden from the spotlight, Temer remained in the shadow that is naturally his. In the VIP stands the simulacrum of rectitude disguising appropriation and destitution, the long sleuth of hierarchies, the mono-normative of gender and social class stretching to recreate the abstruse model of a white European society sat unfettered. Nevertheless, there was no trace of that country in the ceremony. The grim man of power watched undaunted as life unfolded before his eyes in the true color of diversity. The archetype as the gatekeeper of identity was blown to smithereens in the ceremony, it was the clash of constitutions and art, of law and modeless poetry.

The ceremony was a true survey of the chemistry of blends in Brazilian culture, a cinematic and anthropological exploration of the history of colonization, rising from the gravel of invasions to dense urbanization process. It was done in an unapologetic way, it was truth to the very fiber of being. Samba, funk carioca and Tropicália was voiced through musical legends such as Annita, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Zeca Pagodinho, Elsa Soares, Jorge Ben Jor, Regina Casé, Lea T. but you could also hear the echoes of Fela Kuti, Baba Maal, Peter Tosh, Miles Davis or Richard Bona. This carnival reminded us that music can tear the full metal jacket of the dim representation of normative models because it is not the representation of subjectivity but subjectivity in the flesh. Brazilian music is immemorial resistance, it is composed of sweat and tar, of chains and lashes, they are ‘songs of freedom redemption songs’. If there is a common theme Brazilian music refers to is liberation in the form of the malandro who outsmarts the law constantly, and collectivities that outrun the cunning of history through powerful forms of commonalities.

What happened in the field is the truth of Brazil, even if it was intended as panem et circenses: it was sinuous, beautiful, dangerous, limitless and voluptuous as Brazil is. It was not the Western Mega-narrative of the spirit overcoming itself or a pacific ensemble of mono-narratives but rather it highlighted well the transplants and brutal bifurcations, the volatility of its history and how resistance is braided to it in one single breath. The ceremony was a carnival in the fullest sense, a mockery of the unilateral story of the powerful and the inversion of its legality. The message was clear ‘there would be nothing without us’, without our imagination and memory, without the retelling of slavery through batucadas, drum beats that unearth subterranean spirits which rock the inner core of the earth reality would be shuddered in the absolute void. The gravity of the body was there in all its density, not as a number or a label but as the limit of the possible, as a connected emptiness that transits in between the spaces of what is accounted for in the pale sciences of coloniality. The simulated country of protocols and formulas was subverted, the adoration of the empty form jested through the exuberant forms of music and dances turned into a manifesto of freedom. The carnival goes on every day and everywhere where there is resistance, it is the profanation of the order, any order, the order of the firing squad, of the cemetery or of the law of the bodies. It is not the ceremony according to the dictates of an empty model that orders every outcome beforehand, but the ceremony as its own destruction in an instant so everything must be rethought anew. Before the modeless form of the carnival the molecular structure of order succumbs helplessly. The ritual of discipline thrown to its limits and transformed into a sensual annunciation of the black, the feminine, the other. The carnival is the denial of the sour reality of the abhorrent present where time is opened from the inside and thrown headfirst into an unsaid and unnamed future.

In this context, their blue ties and tailor made cotton shirts, and their laws and decrees, and their starched language, and their barbed communities of meaning become the representation of the uncanny, of the unearthly, of what shocks our common sense of justice and reality, while the tremulous multiplicity of the invisible and the magical sounds of the dead that transcend space and time become the only possibility of the world. What was revealed is that for most of the times, the law and the constitution are the true composites of panem et circenses. The government that forbade political manifestations saw the biggest one reveal in front of their eyes, it saw the womb of resistance opening as a primordial drum beat. Above, in the boxes, the representation of a totality without bonds, below, an infinity without bounds. Imagine the ceremony if it were to represent the cultural acumen of the simulated white supremacy; it would have been a man in a suit, a single light illuminating him as he reads passages from the constitution, but, as we can anticipate, there is not only no meaning in them but no sound at all.


Ricardo Sanín-Restrepo is author of Decolonizing Democracy: Power in a Solid State


[1] Is the exact title of a studio album released in 1968 by  Caetano VelosoGal CostaGilberto Gil and Nara Leão among others and that constitutes a subversive manifesto of Tropicália music in Brazil.


[3] In the terms I put forth in my latest book ‘Decolonizing Democracy: Power in a Solid State’ Rowman and Littlefield International. London 2016

[4] As understood in the precise politial terms put forth in my book ‘Decolonizing Democracy: Power in a Solid State’ Ibid.