Platforms of Partiality

Brasil: the spectacle of growth

Photograph from Tuca Vieira’s series “Brasil: the spectacle of growth”, as seen in the Xth Biennale of Architecture in São Paulo, 2013

In recent years a huge debate has emerged from a perceived collapse of the contemporary political system. The advance of modern representative democracies seems to have halted, signaling their decline by increasingly investing in the mere aestheticization of their operation. The remaining political parties are restructuring themselves according to a new logic that is perhaps best represented by Slavoj Zizek’s political formulas of capitalism x anti-capitalism and universalism x patriotism.1  

In the first instance, these ideological inversions have made possible the alignment of both the labour left and neoliberals in support of the vast network of institutions and physical structures that comprise the contemporary globally-integrated economy. Simultaneously, regions that find themselves at the margins of the modern consumerist platform seek national identity and competitiveness precisely through the bartering of sovereignty in return for access to the virtual flow of global capital and the extension of global trade infrastructure into their territory. For those not integrated into the boundaries of modernity, like indigenous populations, what remains is to struggle against the expansion of the biochemical restructuring of their entire landscapes and to demand and enjoy the brief periods in which the globalist labour left can leverage modernity’s soft power in order to decrease the collateral damage of industrial operations.  

At a conceptual level, we might say that the modern political system’s purpose has been to contain the collateral damage and suffering that came with an increasingly complex and mechanized landscape. That is, in order to make sense of complexity, our institutions have enforced a rigid integration of bodies within the social order, providing the human realm with a didactic structure that teaches conformity to the priorities of global capital. The First Industrial Revolution set in motion the release of technology at a planetary scale,2enabling modernism to deploy a machinic landscape of new and complex institutional arrangements. Once such an institutional infrastructure is established, its stabilization ­– which would mean social, economic and political stabilization ­– is only possible through the intensification of the whole system and its conditions of existence. Such an institutional order has been deliberately constructed with great effort, and it will require the same investment of energy to work towards its dismantling.  

The metabolism of the mechanized landscape in modernity has been maintained by accelerating the flow of goods and services. Fast consumption, regarded as a reliable measurement of living standards by both the left and the right, has of course vastly increased the demand for raw materials to be brought to the centers of consumption. The Brazilian southeast, for instance, was completely restructured throughout the nineteenth century by the action of British rail companies in order to create a triangle between four states (São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Paraná and Minas Gerais) that would function as a designated coffee producing region capable of serving global demand.3 The same would be done in the 1950s when the new economic hegemony of the United States demanded an increased supply of meat and soy. This decade also marked the foundation of Brasília, the national capital at the country's geographic center, an intentional effort to “integrate the national territory” according to former President Juscelino Kubitschek. The macro-region around Brasília, known as Center-West now feeds more than 1 billion of the world’s population. 

The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the United Nations – the great institutional monuments of developmentalism – speak the gospel of infrastructure, consumption, and adherence to progressive liberal culture. They understand only one way to establish a higher standard of living within the constraints of the new industrial age. The emergence of this new consensus, which is nothing but a better way to survive in present contradictions put in place by our technosocial structure, has created a pool of ideological differentiation within itself that questions all possibility of social contradiction without questioning the primordial industrial condition of that society in itself. That is, the sensual border of consumerism becomes a hegemonic reality.  

We should understand this historically as an extremely new sensibility, as the majority of global infrastructure has been erected in the past 70 years, marked by Harry S. Truman’s Inaugural Address of 1949, in which he declared the dawn of the development era. Now the global logistic network seems almost seamless; both in a cartesian as well as in a subjective way. The continual juxtaposition of built objects, superimposition of layers and bending of time already amounts to an almost single, vast, and cohesive global structure. In trying to comprehend this global system we are immobilized by a kind of material and conceptual parallax at both extremes. Edmund Burke described this in the terms of the sublime, writing:  

"We become amazed and confounded at the wonders of minuteness; nor can we distinguish in its effects this extreme of littleness from the vast itself. For division must be infinite as well as addition […] Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime. There are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses, that are really and in their own nature infinite. But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so."4 

In an effort to contain the simultaneous vastness and minuteness of global trade and its logic of infrastructuralization, we begin to render it as a solid conceptual object, similar to the Monoliths in Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey. Contemporary political experience then becomes a common human experience around this single impressive object. Global development can also be described as the center of the conceptual political structure that gains force and signification in human culture throughout our perception of this object in itself. The magnitude of this object, despite not being fully actualized as a political discourse yet, already permeates representative democracies as affective politics; through fear and affection.5 Localists tackle fears and insecurities created by contemporary global capitalism; universalists work through an ethos of an affective transcultural union. That is, rejection or allegiance to global progressivism. 

The central problem of this context can be analyzed, for instance, in the reaction of localists against the asymmetric condition of this macrostructure: the problem of agency. Both the fear and affection towards globalism comes through the realization of belonging to a bigger Other, in which individual agency becomes a detail against the monumentality of the structure.6 If this structure is perceived as a good provider it will be understood as a cohesive affective community, but if it is seen as economically or socially restrictive, it will be understood as an authoritarian command coming from financial and technocratic elites residing in great metropolitan centers of the world. Politics must then solve a contradiction between the passivity of universal development, the endgame of which is ecological catastrophe, and the reaction of those wishing inclusion in its platform. The latter relate their immediacies to the possibility unbounded freedom as an attempt to fill in the evident power gap: as the state becomes the mediator between the territory and global flow of capital it often exists but is not physically present. This power void then becomes the opportunity for new agents to dominate the socio-economic structures operating along that region. Brazilian urban peripheries and favelas might be the clear consequence of such a posture. As an ethnostate denies the expansion of its services, communities living in its borders already organize the safe and smooth operation of its economy and society through a legal and judicial system established by criminal factions. In present conditions, both state and parallel state systems run side-by-side, with informality proving to be a more dynamic economy for many, whether or not there is actually any improvement of life.  

In addition to these populations living on the borders of modernity, there are those who have never been integrated into the global platform, not even partially, and do not wish to be so.  

The mere existence of this opposition, outside the bounds of contemporary politics, serves to highlight and rearticulate the imperative dominance of the industrial landscape against the biosphere. Once again, the logic of the machine is the center that enables symbolic significance in political discourse of the present. If within western tradition the concept of God has already operated as a political stabilizer, only to be substituted by the concept of Society, now the Machine guarantees the smooth operation of large-scale human institutions. That is, the collapse of political modernity relates to its conceptual incapacity to respond to the perceived bigger Other. The problem is no longer in society, which is now pacified under consumerism, but in matter

From the moment our landscapes are being measured and analyzed by accounting structures and this capacity scales without human restriction through computational capacity, creating a system of inorganic feedback and response, this means we are finding ourselves in a self-informing and acting landscape. This logic might be traced back to the first time someone wrote down a list of materials with quantifiable characteristics. Mathematics and computational capacity have only allowed this logic to reach higher intensities. Therefore, the world has been put in a dynamic equilibrium in which any matter that produces information acts and reacts. Action becomes universal, belonging to matter in general, and deprives consciousness of the privilege of this category. If action is no longer a useful tool for identifying the human domain the question of what describes the difference between agents remains.  

With a post-anthropocentric paradigm comes a humanist anxiety over the perceived loss of agency or “freedom”. However, this is only despair emerging out of the realization that not only is action in general limited and universal but that it only exists through the very limitation of an agent in the process of apprehending and producing information. By comprehending that even the inorganic is able to operate categorically as things described so far as “aware” – to process information and respond – our understanding of humanity goes through a contradiction. We not only have to project concepts into matter that we have saved for a restricted number of lifeforms, but conversely we must also project some of the limitations of matter into ourselves.  

Our confrontation with matter returns us to the Kantian realization that the comprehension of reality is nothing but a partial capacity to fine-tune in accordance to historical contingency.7 That is, the awareness of the chemical and biological determinisms that condition our action is a fundamental step towards restructuring critical analysis as much as realizing the autonomous functioning of reality. It does not mean that we are bounded to total determination but it means we are more aware of the boundaries of things. Freedom and limitation are interconnected forces that enable each other through awareness. By analyzing the friction between discourse and reality, its coherence and contradiction, we can understand the multi-directional dynamic of action and comprehend its failures as the very limitation of our own cosmological view.  

It is here that the indigenous perspective, radically indifferent to the western naturalist worldview, can intervene into the global modern order. As Claude Lévi-Strauss reminds us, we have been met with these cosmological ruptures throughout our colonial history. He writes in Structural Anthropology, Vol. II of a case in the Greater Antilles where it was found that “whilst the Spanish were dispatching inquisitional commissions to investigate whether the natives had a soul or not, these very natives were busy drowning the white people they had captured in order to find out, after lengthy observation, whether or not the corpses were subject to putrefaction.”8 That is, Europeans doubted that Amerindians had souls while the latter doubted if the Other had the same body. Viveiros de Castro has written at length about this passage in Levi-Strauss, arguing that the Spanish criteria for the “savages” required that they maintain the same divisions between nature and culture, the same order of things maintained by the western colonialists. However, he also points out the great folly of this assumption:

"Now, everything has changed. The savages are no longer ethnocentric but rather cosmocentric; instead of having to prove that they are humans because they distinguish themselves from animals, we now have to recognize how inhuman we are for opposing humans to animals in a way they never did: for them nature and culture are part of the same sociocosmic field. Not only would Amerindians put a wide berth between themselves and the Great Cartesian Divide which separated humanity from animality, but their views anticipate the fundamental lessons of ecology which we are only now in a position to assimilate.”9

The cosmological view of Amerindians, described by a capacity to consider a subjective dimension in all elements of landscape and to understand their identity as fluid already bore evidence of what a truly ontological perspective is. Not one derived from an analogy from scientism but one that naturalizes a view of reality as a pulsating complexity of subjectivities in which the body is merely an instrument; a detail of existence. While we keep pushing further towards a supposed flat ontology, we maintain unquestioning our own relationship with materiality in an ethical sense. What exists and how it exists becomes then a fundamental question for understanding a new relationship between not only members of a society of individuals, but between one and their reality.  

Xingu-Roncador Expedition

Photograph from José Medeiros taken in the Xingu-Roncador Expedition in 1949 (Moreira Salles Institute Collection).

São Paulo Rainforest

São Paulo Rainforest. Photograph Rodovia dos Imigrantes from Cássio Vasconcellos. It belongs to the series Aéreas #2 done between 2007-2014.

  1. Slavoj Žižek, “The Populist Temptation”, in The Great Regression , ed. Heinrich Geiselberger (Polity, 2017).

  2. Concept as put by Kenneth Frampton analyzing the essay “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” in Studies in Tectonic Culture, ed. John Cava (MIT Press, 1995).

  3. The process concerning British territorial restructuring through railways in Brasil has been documented by Luis Saia in Morada Paulista (Perspectiva, 1978).

  4. Edmund Burke, “Vastness” and “Infinity”, in On the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Charles W. Eliot (P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14) 64.

  5. Idea developed by brazilian philosopher Vladimir Safatle in Os Circuitos do Afeto: corpos políticos, desamparo e o fim do indivíduo (Cosac Naify, 2015).

  6. Although this refers to the Lacanian concept, it shouldn’t be analyzed with such philosophical rigor according to the original source.

  7. Although these limits to our apprehension of reality and operations within it can be traced back to the very foundations of Kant’s description of consciousness, contemporary ontological thought has been bothered by this limitation and has tried to dispense with it through sophisticated object-oriented conceptual instruments such as mathematics (in the case of Meillassoux) and fiction. However, this line of inquiry tends to run into a problem, mainly that in order for those readings to attain meaning they must be culturally decoded and therefore subjectivized both in reading and production.

  8. Lévi-Strauss, Claude, Anthropologie structurale deux (Plon, 1973).

  9. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Sep. 1998), pp. 469-488.