postcolonial history

The Archive is Burning: Walter Benjamin in Brazil

By guest contributor Niklas Plaetzer

Walter_Benjamin_vers_1928

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.

 

Niklas #2

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.”

Niklas #1

“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).

Saving Nigeria

by guest contributor James Farquharson

The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One of postcolonial Africa’s most devastating conflicts, the war left between one and three million people dead. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of a forgotten peace mission organized by four prominent African-American civil rights leaders in an attempt to halt the Nigerian conflict.  In the midst of one of the most significant phases in the civil rights revolution in the United States, the four co-chairmen of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA)—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Whitney Young of the Urban League—attempted to craft a diplomatic settlement between the Nigerian federal government and the self-declared Republic of Biafra. It is an effort that has been mostly ignored in the scholarship or written off as the final act of a moribund organization, but it deserves a much closer examination.

Between March 1967 and April 1968, the ANLCA dedicated its financial, political and individual resources to stop the fighting. Theodore E. Brown, the executive director of the Conference, criss-crossed Africa from Accra to Lagos to Addis Ababa, building diplomatic support for the mission. In the United States, the four co-chairmen met with Nigerian and Biafran officials as well as senior figures in the U.S. State Department to coordinate their efforts. The ANLCA was backed by a call committee of over seventy-five organizations, including African-American business, educational, fraternal and sorority, labor, professional, religious, and social organizations and with significant support in the black press, particularly the New York Amsterdam News.

While the mission itself was unprecedented in the annals of African-American engagement with Africa, it also represented a shift in the ANLCA understanding of black internationalism. The civil war in Nigeria broke out at a time when three converging elements were pushing the ANLCA in a more “activist” direction: the political situation in the Third World, particularly in Southern Africa; the advent of “Black Power” in the United States; the growing appeal of radical regimes and groups in the Third World to some African American activists; and the need for mainline civil rights leaders to remain relevant domestically.

In a speech in December 1962 at the founding of the ANLCA, Dr. King evoked the black intellectual W.E B DuBois in the need for the African American community to overcome “racial provincialism” that did not look beyond “125th Street in New York or Beale Street in Memphis.” King noted that “the emergent African nations and the American Negro are intertwined. As long as segregation and discrimination exist in our nation the longer the chances of survival are for colonization and vice-versa.”  The ANLCA’s black internationalism focused on developing greater understanding of Africa among African Americans and broader American society and influence U.S. foreign policy towards the continent by arguing that the U.S. throw its full weight behind decolonization. Through its unparalleled access to diplomats in the State Department as well as officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Conference hoped to push its agenda forward.

However, by 1965 the Conference’s leadership became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. policy towards Africa. The Johnson’s Administration’s anemic handling of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 and stalling of the decolonization process throughout Southern Africa pushed in the ANLCA to adopt a more activist approach to the continent. In a memorandum to the call committee of the Conference in June 1966, Executive Director Theodore Brown stated that:

Our efforts must be accelerated if we are to have a meanful [sic] impact on the problem of racism in Africa generally, apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Angola and Mozambique and the ‘after thought’ approach of our own government in the formulation of United States-African policy.

The Nigerian peace mission, which occurred in the aftermath of this activist turn, reflected the sense that the gains of African self-determination and Pan-Africanism needed to be protected at all costs. The disintegration of Nigeria, a country that since its independence in 1960 had been lauded by the black press and by black community leaders in the United States as a model for African development sparked serious concern. The mission, according to the New York Amsterdam News, offered “a unique but extremely vital opportunity for Negro American leaders (ANLCA)” to assert themselves in contemporary African diplomacy. While provoked by the fear that the collapse of Nigeria into civil war would lead to untold human misery and a backward step for postcolonial Africa, the mission also reflected the domestic context of the battle for black liberation in the United States. By 1967, the civil rights leaders that made up the ANLCA, who had been the predominant voices in the movement since the mid-1950s, were being challenged by the Black Power activists.

Black Power emerged out of growing frustration with the lack of further progress on racial equality, particularly in terms of tackling persistent poverty and economic inequality in African-American communities. Black Power activists critiqued the viability of capitalism to provide economic justice for African-Americans. They were equally dubious about the effectiveness of Gandhian non-violent direct action employed by leaders such as Dr King in the face of continued violent resistance by U.S. segregationists. In search of inspiration, key Black Power activists looked abroad for inspiration. As historian Fanon Che Wilkins noted, Black Power was “internationalist from its inception.” Leaders of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton saw in the guerrilla organizations and radical nationalist and Marxist regimes of the Third World from Havana to Hanoi as models to be emulated in the United States. This re-engagement with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as part of the African-American freedom struggle marked a return to programmatic positions adopted by black activists such as W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and the Council of African Affairs prior to the onset of the Cold War.

As historian Brenda Plummer has noted: “[T]he ANLCA interests after 1966 reflected pressures by domestic nationalist organizations and civil rights activists committed to that immediatism [sic] of ‘Freedom Now’.” This meant that the ANLCA needed to maintain its credibility in the face of Black Power critiques by continuing to firmly advocate for Pan-Africanism, self-determination and decolonization. While the Conference offer to help mediate the conflict was provoked by shocking accounts of violence and political disintegration reported widely in the mainstream and African-American press, the mission was viewed as a way for integrationist civil rights leaders to reassert themselves both at home and abroad. By taking on the role as peacemakers in Nigeria, the ANLCA sought to burnish its credibility as an organization that stood for black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. In seeking to bring both the Nigerian government and the Biafran leadership together to peacefully resolve the conflict, the ANLCA hoped to show that political change could be achieved through compromise and diplomacy, a notion increasingly challenged at home.

By March 1968, after a year of planning and consultations, the ANLCA leadership were able to gain a major breakthrough. Both sides in the war agreed to have the four co-chairmen travel to Nigeria to act as intermediaries in resolving the conflict. Dr King, according to the New York Amsterdam News, was willing to postpone his Poor People’s march on Washington to enable him to make the trip. However, an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel not only ended King’s life but the mission to Nigeria. It is impossible to know whether the ANLCA peace effort would have succeeded. Growing domestic turmoil in the United States certainly acted to distract civil rights leaders from their internationalist platforms. Moreover, even after almost a year of bloodshed, neither Nigerian nor Biafran leaders seemed particularly likely to reach a compromise.

Nevertheless, the ANCLA mission itself represented an under-appreciated aspect of black internationalism during the 1960s. Rather than being an organization destined to wither away, the ANLCA adapted to the shifting domestic and international context of the mid-1960s, a period when the ideas associated with black internationalism were in flux. In wading into the maelstrom of the Nigerian Civil War, the ANLCA were attempting to show that the future of black internationalism was not destined to be armed struggle and revolution. Rather, diplomacy and mediations offer another pathway to achieving peace and justice for the black diaspora.

James Farquharson is a PhD candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the Australian Catholic University. He holds a Master’s degree in American diplomatic history from the University of Sydney. He has a chapter forthcoming on the response of African-Americans to the Nigerian Civil War in Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970 (Routledge). He will be presenting on this topic at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New Orleans in April.