The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer


Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin never left Europe, yet his writings have had a remarkable impact on critical thought around the globe. As Edward Said suggested, the dislocation of an idea in time and space can never leave its content unaffected. “Having moved from one place and time to another, an idea or a theory gains or loses in strength,” so that its “travels” render a theory “altogether different for another period or situation” (226). The plasticity of ideas, their capacity to be torn out of context and made to speak in ever-new constellations, lies at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s own work. Benjamin’s thought never took the form of systematic exposition, but rather unfolded in essays, journal articles, sketches, and thought fragments. This was not just a stylistic choice; in fact, it corresponded closely to his view of a radical break in the linear time of progress—to a splintered temporality, shot through by the unmasterable memories of the oppressed.


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Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, iconically envisioned by Benjamin as “the angel of history”

Benjamin’s syncretic fusion of Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and the German Romantics continues to cast its spell on contemporary readers. Perhaps it is precisely this fragmented character, combined with the palpable urgency of his writings, that can account for the globalized interest in his work. But more importantly still, Benjamin’s relentless emphasis on dialectical reversal—on another kind of history, told from the “point of view of the defeated”—continues to resonate with post- and decolonial projects and a “reading against the grain” of history. Paul Gilroy, in his The Black Atlantic, explicitly drew on Benjamin to write a “primal history of modernity to be reconstructed from the slaves’ point of view” (55). Decolonial scholars continue to find inspiration in Benjamin’s scathing critique of modernity as well as his call to cling to a “humanity-in-the-making” amidst an unending catastrophe. In 2015, the international conference “Benjamin in Palestine: Who Owns Walter Benjamin? On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought” was held in Ramallah. It opened new paths for such an engagement with Benjamin from within states of exception, “among layers of rubble and generations of resistance,” escaping the confines of academic canonization (60–64).


Slipping under the radar of Euro-American academia, Benjamin has exerted a particular influence on Brazilian critical theory. In an admirable study on his reception history in Brazil, Gunter Karl Pressler of the Federal University of Pará, Belém, has traced this unusually fruitful interplay of traditions: between North and South as well as between thought and revolutionary practice. What accounts for the elective affinity between Brazilian critical theory and Benjamin’s work? Pressler ties it back to the 1960s, when experimental poet and translator Haroldo de Campos, one of the co-founders of the Concrete Poetry movement in Brazil, took inspiration from Benjamin to theorize translation as “transcreation” [transcriação], as a practice of “parricide dis-memory” [desmemória parricida] (p. 149-153). Haroldo de Campos and his brother Augusto thereby took a decisively “anti-Eurocentric, anti-ethnocentric, deconstructive strategy, beginning with the idea of cannibalism, understood as the appropriation of the vital energy of the Other, beginning with his destruction” (9). In doing so, they read Benjamin alongside a classic of Brazilian modernism, Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), in which cannibalism is reconfigured as a positive model of cultural appropriation by the oppressed: eating up the potency of the colonizing North, destroying its claim to control, and producing new, unauthorized constellations in the process. Authors like José Guilherme Merquior and Flávio R. Kothe further helped disseminate Benjamin and the Frankfurt School at a time when the Brazilian military dictatorship had taken over and the student movement organized its resistance against heavy repression.

For the Brazilian left, Benjamin’s peculiar Marxism seemed like a way to both articulate critical thought in solidarity with on-going movements, and still open up a gap within Marxist discourse, creating spaces beyond authoritarian orthodoxy. A turn to Benjamin also broke up space for counter-histories of Brazil itself, resonating with the memory of indigenous genocide and slavery. His phrase that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” has rung true in a society dominated by rural latifundistas (plantation owners) and a state ideology of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress). It also spoke to theorists who tried to position themselves between an elitist attachment to European intellectual production on the one hand, and the rising visibility of black, indigenous, and landless workers’ movements on the other. As Pressler argues, Benjamin thereby became part of 1970s Brazilian counter-culture, somewhere between Marx and Caetano Veloso.

Two key figures in this creative reception stand out: Leandro Konder (1936-2014) and Michael Löwy (born in 1938). As Löwy puts it,

there is a necessity to look at the past in Brazil—even recent past—from the point of view of the oppressed [derrotados], the poor, Blacks, women, workers, revolutionaries. In Benjamin, this sensibility finds a coherent philosophical expression. I believe that this has helped to develop a current of people in the social sciences, in the historiography of political thought, who are very interested in Benjamin. (200)

What unites Konder and Löwy is their appreciation for the deep melancholia of Benjamin’s thought, which they regard as the truly revolutionary attitude, at odds with a bourgeois belief in progress. For Benjamin as for his Brazilian readers, social critique must begin with a critique of the very idea of progress, including its leftist varities, and fuel a lucid melancholia from which there is no escape. Yet such Benjaminian melancholia has “nothing to do with fatalistic resignation and even less with the conservative, reactionary, prefascist German Kulturpessimismus,” Löwy emphasizes (9). “This is not a contemplative sentiment, but an active, ‘organized,’ practical pessimism, directed entirely at preventing the onset of disaster by all possible means” (9). For Leandro Konder, Benjaminian melancholia, “brought into tune with the calls for ‘revenge’ among the traditionally exploited social classes and stimulated by their movements of contestation,” should thus be understood as “melancolérico:” a melancholic kind of anger, organized and fueled by memory.

Löwy’s seminal book on Benjamin, Fire Alarm, was originally published in French, in his Parisian exile, where he has lived and worked since 1969. Born in São Paulo as the son of Jewish immigrants from Vienna, Löwy has not ceased to push Benjamin’s insights to new conclusions—such as ecosocialism—without ever abandoning a practical commitment to the radical left. Unlike many critical theorists, he also remains acutely aware of non-Eurocentric imaginaries at work in social struggles. He has written about the quilombo dos Palmares, the revolution of maroon slaves (fugitives) in the Brazilian North-East, who, until their defeat in 1695, resisted the onslaught of Dutch and Portuguese armies under the leadership of Zumbi dos Palmares. While the Haitian Revolution is today receiving increasing historiographical attention, the quilombo dos Palmares still remains a largely ignored event. Against such enforced forgetfulness, Löwy’s writings place it in an unusual conversation with the history of the 1871 Paris Commune and the struggles of international workers. But what might seem like an arbitrary juxtaposition is better grasped as a Benjaminian constellation of memories in resistance. They not only animate Löwy’s thinking, but continue to fuel the practices of Brazil’s opposition: for instance, when black movements, hip hop artists, or occupations of landless workers draw on the memory of Palmares, invoking the legendary name of Zumbi, as they fight for land reform and against institutional racism. As Benjamin’s Thesis VI puts it, “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was.’ It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”

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“Limpo Seu Historico” (“I clean your record”): street art in Cachoeira in the northeastern state of Bahia. Photo credit: Niklas Plaetzer, August 2017.

In June 2017, in the wake of the (arguably unconstitutional) impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, Brazilian Congress passed a bill that allows for the large-scale burning of historical documents from national archives after their digitization as part austerity plans. Already accepted by both chambers, the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo” (Law of the Archive Burning) is awaiting a final consultation process before going into effect. This controversial reform must be understood against the backdrop of what many consider to be a coup d’état by President Michel Temer. Yet the current political situation can hardly be considered an anomaly. As Benjamin put it, in his often quoted phrase, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”

With the “Lei da Queima de Arquivo,” Löwy’s Fire Alarm has taken up another scandalous reality. Its painful resonance speaks to the ways in which a postcolonial reading of Benjamin cannot be a calm, scholarly addition to a renewed and reconciled canon. The planned burning of the Brazilian national archives remains inscribed in a long history of erasure, of which Palmares is one powerful symbol and of which Brazil’s social movements continue to carry the traces. But reading Benjamin while the archive is burning also speaks to struggles in the present that remain undecided—in Brazil and elsewhere.

Niklas Plaetzer is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Chicago’s Department of Political Science, specializing in political theory. He holds a masters degree from Sciences Po Paris, where he worked on Hannah Arendt’s critique of sovereignty in light of radical democratic thought. At the University of Chicago, he is hoping to do research at the juncture of critical theory, constitutional law, and the politics of social movements, with a particular interest in Brazil. His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs, the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism, 3:am magazine, and the Review of Politics (forthcoming).

We should justify ourselves no more: Felwine Sarr’s Afrotopia

by guest contributor Laetitia Citroen

2016 has been a particularly prolific year for the French-speaking African intellectual community, with symbolical landmarks like the appointment of a Congolese award-winning novelist, Alain Mabanckou, as guest-lecturer at the prestigious Collège de France in Paris and the gathering of some of the best minds of the continent (many of whom teach in the US) in two international and interdisciplinary conferences—one at the Collège de France, and one at the Universities of Dakar and Saint Louis in Senegal—to think about the future of Africa in terms of its economy, philosophy, and culture.

afrotopia.jpgThe organizer of the Conference in Senegal, Felwine Sarr, is a young economist and philosopher whose most recent book could serve as a manifesto for this new dynamic. Afrotopia powerfully advocates for a new Africa. Sarr combines work as an economist with a broad philosophical background in both European and African traditions. This essay is punctuated with deft quotations from Castoriadis, Lyotard, and Foucault alongside Mudimbé, Wiredu, and Mbembe, all as Saar discretely takes up the heritage of Frantz Fanon. In spite of the title, the author’s purpose has nothing of the dreamy or the unrealistic. Afrotopia is not an u-topia, a place that does not exist; rather, it is a topos, a place that can and will appear because “there is a continuity between the real and the possible.” This book is not an optimistic dream; it is a galvanizing declaration of love to an entire continent that has so much potential and only needs to become aware of it. It is also a deeply philosophical analysis of the numerous invisible ties that prevent its economies from ‘growing’ and ‘developing.’

The book also treats the ‘economy’ of Africa in the most philosophical sense: the complex network of relationships that connects African people on all kinds of levels, a study of what constitutes the inner equilibrium of the continent. Despite Sarr’s training as an economist, you will find not find here any graphs or compilation of numbers imported from World Bank Reports. Instead, he dwells on the importance of sustaining the link between culture and economy: “in human communities,” he writes, “the imaginary is a constitutive part of social relationships, including the most materialistic ones. An economic interaction is, first and foremost, a social interaction. The imaginary and the symbolical determine its production. Therefore, cultural factors will influence economic performances. (…) African economies would take off if only they functioned on their own motives.” Quoting French intellectual Cornelius Castoriadis, Sarr argues that the first step is an “imaginary institution” of this new Africa, of this “Afrotopia.” African intellectuals need to take the time to define their own “autonomous and endogenous teleonomy”: to set the goals of the African societies themselves or, to put it in other terms, to block any external attempt to determine what would be good for Africa. In many ways, the term ‘development’ itself needs to be decolonized.


Felwine Sarr (© Léo Paul Ridet/ pour Jeune Afrique)

The author hence argues that not only have International Aid Agencies forgotten to take specific cultural features into account, but that they have also brought their own teleology. Real African ‘development’ cannot and will not take place if it only aims at objectives—like ‘growth’—that Westerners consider best. He quotes his friend the Togolese novelist Sami Tchak, who once provocatively asked him: “When will we ever stop considering others’ past as our future?” Afrotopia is precisely an African place, not a copy of the global north. When reflecting on other ways of defining ‘development,’ Sarr refers to the philosophy of development as Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum founded it; he also underlines the symbolical value of all economic exchanges as studied by anthropologists of economy—like Jane Guyer—who show how all economic behavior is based on cultural meaning. Simple examples of this could be the money sent home by emigrants of the diaspora or the importance of hospitality.

Therefore, writing about the African economy entails much more than drawing graphs. The pure rationality of an homo economicus yields no satisfactory explanation of economic exchanges in Africa—or, the author hints, anywhere else. So studying the economy of Africa proves nothing short of studying the social interactions themselves; Afrotopia must be a place that thrives ‘economically’ in its fullest meaning ; it has to be a place that “makes sense to those who inhabit it.” Understanding this requires taking distance from, or completely abandoning, the “methodological individualism” of orthodox economic thinking. Therefore, Sarr calls for an “epistemic decentering,” even for an “epistemogonia.” Western economics yield an épistêmè of sorts that need to be reconsidered before being applied to African situations as other non-Western economists, like Ugandan Yash Tandon or Indian Rajeev Bhargav have pointed out. Africa needs to speak about itself in its own language, and it is time to “leave the dialectic of appropriation and alienation behind.”  Africa is not faced with a binary choice of either being alienated, of losing its identity to the hands of new colonizers, or of willingly embracing the Western civilization.

But this carries wider implications than simple methodology: the debate about Africa is stuck in a dialectic of tradition and modernity. The lack of ‘modernity’ in Africa commonly refers to the lack of technological and industrial ‘progress.’ Yet why do we still speak in these terms about Africa when philosophers in the West have long started theorizing postmodernity? Sarr situates his Afrotopia as part of this new way of thinking: simple mimetism of Western values is no real ‘progress’ for Africa; and the ‘weight’ of ‘tradition’ is no synonym of backwardness and refusal to change. Rather, it is also the unique root from which the continent can draw its future, as Japan did one hundred and fifty years ago. In the end, Sarr advocates for an “Afrocontemporanéité” rather than an African modernity: equally averting from nostalgia of a mythical past and from pure awe at technological progress, Sarr argues that Africa has to consider its situation as it is right now, in its contemporaneity, and make sure it is as unique and true to itself as it can be.


Zeinab Mialele colletion (© Charles Bah/Fima)

There is no fatality. Africa is not this tragic continent that has lost all connection with its ancient culture, nor is it this strange space that will eventually come to resemble northern countries. The author calls pragmatically for thinkers who will take Africa as it is right now, with the inherited and the assimilated. As can be seen in the beautiful creations of young African stylists (Sarr takes his examples in all realms of activity, from fashion to urbanism), whose syncretism can be a virtue: “we are the result of what has persisted, the result of the syntheses that took place in ourselves.” In a way, Sarr also foresees Africa’s capacity to jump directly into the twenty-first century without endlessly asking itself about its past – be it colonial or pre-colonial – and invites us to trust its capacity of poiésis, of creating something new. For instance, the continent has not yet built environmentally harmful industries on its soil, and could therefore start implementing cleaner ways of production right from the beginning, and even use its resources as leverage to impose these clean industries in the rest of the world.

So where is this Afrotopia, and how can we find it—the real place of Africa, the one it has not yet been able to bring into shape? The must first exist as a mental place; it needs to be built in ideas, intention, and will before it is built on real land. As with any proper construction work, however, the foundation must be clean, and the tendency to uncritical imitation must be set aside. This is, indeed, a very classical idea in the postcolonial context look back to Fanon’s Black skin, white masks (1952). Africans should stop running away from their true selves. For Sarr, economy (and therefore civilization) is not about comparing childishly who has the more riches; it is about building societies that pursue their own happiness, defined according to their own values.

One thing that could have been interesting in addition to this powerful global analysis may have been an inquiry into the unity or diversity of ‘Africa.’ The author brings up intellectual and political references from all over the continent – from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, from Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara to Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere—and we would want to know more about his vision of “the continent” as a whole. What constitutes its unity? The question, of course, can be asked about any continent, and Sarr rightly complains that Africa has been asked that question many more times than others. But for a continent that is far too often considered as a massive entity, sometimes even confused with a ‘country,’ it would be extremely enlightening to have his contribution to a question that will likely never be fully answered.

In the end, what the author pleas for is time—it is the “longue durée” (long-term) defined by French historian Fernand Braudel as the time allowing civilizations to build themselves cautiously, carefully and wisely and the time necessary to structure strong and autonomous values one by one. It also marks the time that is needed to ‘imagine’ this new Africa, the time needed for intellectuals to conceptualize this Africa yet to come. It is the time needed for governments to plan in the long run, and not be forced to make rash decisions when selling their precious resources because the needs are too urgent. But the advent of Afrotopia is near at hand: it is like the blueprint of an entirely new continent, and this book sounds like the guideline for a whole generation of philosophers, economists, historians, architects, musicians, artists who will transform the current Africa into this “Afrotopia, this other Africa which we should hurry to make real, because it realizes its happiest potentialities.”

Laetitia Citroen studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and is a PhD candidate in political philosophy at the University of Lyon (France). Her dissertation examines the philosophical background necessary to rethinking economic development in West Africa, namely through taxation, in a less abstract and more humanist way.