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Remarks on the opening of the Maré from the Inside exhibit at the University of Virginia

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Note to Readers: I delivered these remarks as a part of a panel at the University of Virginia School of Architecture on March 25, 2022, to open the exhibit, Maré from the Inside, at that institution. Special thanks to Professor Vanessa Guerra of the University of Virginia and Professor Desiree Poets of Virginia Tech for this very special opportunity. The exhibit, which was recently displayed at Virginia Tech’s Newman Library, https://exhibits.lib.vt.edu/mare-from-the-inside/indexEN.html, treats the issue of the agency of an othered and oppressed population in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. I collaborated with Professors Nicolas Barnes of St. Andrews University and Desiree Poets to edit a book, published by Virginia Tech Publishing last year, and also entitled Maré from the Inside, to accompany and explore the exhibit. That volume is cited below and is available free for download or for purchase in softcover for those who may be interested. Overall, the exhibit and book address a concern that is ubiquitously important for the many vulnerable populations whose conditions the Institute has long examined, including refugees and immigrants, the impoverished, the drug and alcohol dependent, and those suffering from mental illness or addressing other impairments. The questions raised by the exhibit and book are as important and enduring for these populations in the United States as for those residing in favelas in Brazil. MOS

        I want briefly to take up three broad questions or larger looming themes raised by the Maré from the Inside exhibit. The first concerns the overarching misrepresentation of the residents of Maré, and favelas more generally, in the broader public imagination. The second addresses the foundational roots of that narrative, and the last suggests the character of the long-term challenge implicit in seeking to change that overarching motif or story. In my view, this exhibit raises each of these basic concerns in vital ways.

        First, residents of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, and certainly in Maré, daily confront systematic misrepresentation of their way of life in Brazilian social and political discourse. Their communities are routinely described as sites of perilous and unhealthy conditions. More, residents are depicted by society and the media as laggards, drug addicts and criminals. But this exhibit and its accompanying book paint a far different and decidedly anti-stereotypical picture of the actual vibrant reality of the lives of Maré’s residents.1 Rather than accord with the broad social representation of its citizens, the photographs and short films associated with the exhibit tell a story of a richly textured community of individuals and their families that is as varied as the tapestry of humanity itself. In this sense, the exhibit and its accompanying book can be understood to build on Licia do Prado Valladares contention that historical, social and academic representations of these communities have systematically misled many into considering them as alike in three overarching ways:

The first is that of specificity: the favela is a different place from the rest of the city. The second is that the favela is the urban locus of poverty. The third is that of unity: unity between favelas, unity within the favela.2

        The exhibit shows clearly that Maré’s residents have refused to concede to the social tyranny Valladares described, even as those assumptions underpin and drive the dominant frame or social imaginary daily imposed on them. They have instead consistently challenged those who have contended that their neighborhoods are somehow different than all others in Brazil. And of course, stereotypes notwithstanding, they are not. Citizens in Maré raise children, care for aging parents or relatives and pursue livelihoods and otherwise seek happiness and fulfillment, just as other Brazilians, irrespective of their social class, marital status, race or backgrounds do. Maré’s residents are citizens of the nation like any others, and individuals and families of all types call the Complexo home.

        More, the favela’s residents are engaged in a wide range of occupations. They are certainly not all involved in the illicit drug trade, nor are all of them poor and uneducated. A share do, indeed, work in the nation’s informal economy, as do millions of Brazilians and citizens around the world. But many also do not. The broader point, in these terms, illustrated by the exhibit and its accompanying book, is that Maré’s citizens cannot be painted with a single brush and their community may not be fairly so categorized either.

        Similarly, as Valladares’ observation also highlighted, the 140,000 residents of Maré differ not only among themselves, but also with citizens of other favelas. That is, as a group they are not identical to the residents of Rio de Janeiro’s other favelas, let alone those located elsewhere in the country. Put differently, on reflection and following even limited empirical investigation, one discovers that Maré is unique and that it reflects heterogeneity across its geography, even as it differs from favelas elsewhere. This exhibit highlights the community’s rich economic, cultural and social vibrancy.

        Turning to the second theme I raised, none of this variety or vitality is acknowledged by the dominant social narrative. That account has instead othered Maré’s residents as uniformly less than and has done so in the abstract, for it is always in the abstract that such conceptions gain power. One might say in this regard that the exhibit and book, and the Complexo’s residents more generally, call on Brazil’s government and broader population to accept and act on a moral claim of human dignity in lieu of the prototypical assumption that favela residents are to be deplored. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has captured this point elegantly:

Being moral means, in the nutshell, knowing the difference between good and evil and where to draw a line between them—as well as being able to tell one from another when you watch them in action or contemplate enacting them. By extension it also means recognizing one’s own … [r]esponsibility for promoting good and resisting evil. … To put the matter bluntly: what is wholly and unconditionally alien to the quality of ‘being moral,’ and what militates against it, is the tendency to halt and renounce moral responsibility for others at the border drawn between ‘us’ and ‘them’3

        The exhibit and its powerful images press observers to confront, and hopefully at least to begin to grapple with, the stereotypic story that too many have imposed on this population, and to imagine the dissolution and reconstruction or reordering of that vision. That demeaning narrative has its roots in the origins of many of Mare’s original residents as descendants of slaves, first freed in Brazil in 1888.  Many of those now calling the Complexo home are subjected to the daily oppression represented by the disparaging story that they are as a group less than due to their skin color. That account appears to inhere first in the reality of human response to difference and the fear that, apparently via evolution, such engenders. It seems also to be rooted in perceptions of race and linked to a continuing claim by whites to an elevated status in a presumed social hierarchy, based on skin color. That is, apart from the anxiety that fuels this concern to maintain supposed superior hierarchical social status, it seems clear that a share of the popular misrepresentation pervasively oppressing Maré’s residents has arisen based on racism as well. Millions of Brazilians continue to distinguish between “us” and “them” along the lines of skin color in these two allied ways, even though favela inhabitants generally, and Maré’s residents more particularly, are citizens, just as they are. Nonetheless, the twin forces of racism and social hierarchy anxiety linked to claims for status and power, continue to animate too many to adopt a story that portrays these favela residents as “less than.”

        Sociologists in the United States, especially and powerfully, Arlie Russell Hochschild, have labeled this narrative the “Deep Story” and have argued that it is closely aligned with the identities of those adopting it.4 That is, it is assumed by those people, as most fundamental human values become engrained, to describe reality. Prompting those adopting that account to rethink its claims, which exist for them at the epistemic and even ontological scale, is no easy task. In democratic terms, it requires offering that population, a strong majority in Brazil, multiple occasions, and space to become conscious of their values, aware of their anti-democratic and oppressive character and to rethink and replace them with democratically just substitutes. As I noted above, this exhibit, with its depiction of the heterogeneity and complexities of favela life, offers individuals potentially open to that possibility, an array of opportunities at least to begin that process. 

        One way, perhaps the principal way, Maré from the Inside and its accompanying volume open such space is by taking the daily lives of the community’s inhabitants and their shared realities seriously. The French philosopher Michel de Certeau captured the enormous significance of observing what he dubbed The Practice of Everyday Life to glean the daily rhythms of communities and to detect the ways in which their residents were addressing injustice and oppression.5 Andrew Blauvelt has captured the broad import of de Certeau’s insights:

De Certeau's investigations into the realm of routine practices, or the 'arts of doing' such as walking, talking, reading, dwelling, and cooking, were guided by his belief that despite repressive aspects of modern society, there exists an element of creative resistance to these structures enacted by ordinary people … de Certeau outline[d] an important critical distinction between strategies and tactics in this battle of repression and expression. According to him, strategies are used by those within organizational power structures, whether small or large, such as the state or municipality, the corporation or the proprietor, a scientific enterprise, or the scientist. … Tactics, on the other hand, are employed by those who are subjugated. By their very nature tactics are defensive and opportunistic, used in more limited ways and seized momentarily within spaces, both physical and psychological, produced and governed by more powerful strategic relations.6

        The photographs and videos that this exhibit includes offer a lens into a society whose inherent mosaic-like complexity and whose very lived realities, in de Certeau’s terms, constitute a vital and important tactic. They represent not merely a defensive reaction to the stereotypes pressed upon its population, but also a generative evocation of a community of spirit, diversity and resilience.

        That intricacy raises an enduringly important and rich theoretical and conceptual challenge for interested scholars: how to represent the individual and collective agency of this population in a non-dualistic way that illumines its liveliness, shapeshifting character and innate heterogeneity.  I say non-dualistic because Maré’s citizens are not simply claiming their inherent human and civil rights as advocates calling on the state to provide those, as important as asserting those claims are. Nor are they alone mobilizing to provide services Brazil is not otherwise offering or extending insufficiently, as meritorious as such initiatives individually may be. Instead, they are acting together in generative ways to help themselves, even as they also demand that governments treat them no differently than they would treat any citizen in service provision. It must also be said, however, that while these forms of effort arise from the inherent agency of this community’s population, an agency on full display in this exhibit, neither of these valences is ensured success in the face of a degrading social imaginary. While that fact is certainly not an argument for not launching such initiatives and doing so as widely and aggressively as possible, it is a caution to those who believe that dominant social narratives are easily or readily changed or recast with the application of simple technical interventions of one sort or another.

        Instead, each is mediated by an array of factors, including the strength of the existing social frame, the degree to which a targeted community’s citizens have integrated the prevailing view into their own perspectives, and the relative capacity of those repeatedly browbeaten by persistent social and political opprobrium to mobilize necessary economic and other resources to address the aspersions cast on them. Success depends, too, on whether those seeking change can themselves identify and press a counter-narrative or narratives that can capture the attention and imagination of those who have long accepted claims of alterity concerning them and provide actionable steps for change away from prevailing epistemic social assumptions. Such efforts often take the guise of social movements with justice claims at their core. The civil rights movement in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s was one such.

        In sum, this exhibit asks those who encounter it to consider its subject community whole, that is, with its strengths, weaknesses and challenges in view, and to do so with an eye to the difficult realities and vicissitudes of human cruelty its citizens confront. In so doing, it demands that viewers regard Maré’s citizenry as human beings just like themselves seeking to make their way in the world and to realize lives of purpose and possibility for themselves and their progeny. While this seems a simple aspiration, it is not, for in Brazil, it challenges a prevailing and deeply unjust social imaginary that demands that the citizens of Maré behave and dream only within the confines of a priori claims that they are both different and less than the majority. As such, Maré from the Inside may be read as a cry for justice and claim of humanity that should, in normative terms, not have to be mounted. History teaches, however, in the Complexo, and in too many places elsewhere, that this exhibit and its related book and others like them must be available to tell these populations stories. I am encouraged that this community’s residents know full well that their personal human and civil rights and realized freedom are at stake. And they also realize that as they work each day to attain those aspirations, they are also helping to ensure them in principle for countless others facing the same senseless discrimination and conditions. Maré from the Inside tells a powerful story of a community’s quest not only to realize its own freedom, but to work to promote and protect that principle and dream for countless others as well.              

Notes

Barnes, Nicholas, Desiree Poets and Max Stephenson, Jr., Eds. Maré from the Inside, (Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Tech Publishing, 2021. Those interested may learn more and download the book here: https://publishing.vt.edu/site/books/e/10.21061/mare/

Valladares, Licia Do Prado. The Invention of the Favela, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2019, p. XV.

3 Bauman, Zygmunt. Strangers At Our Door. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016, pp. 82-83.

4 Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press, 2018.

5 De Certau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans, Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

6 Blauvelt Andrew. Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life. Minneapolis, MN.: Walker Art Center, p. 20.               

    

Publication Date

April 1, 2022

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