Personhood and Consideration in Bahia (NE Brazil)
This is an essay about the ways of life of the people who inhabit one of the most charming regions of Brazil: the vast coastal mangroves to the South of the Bay of All Saints (Bahia). Based on ethnographic fieldwork (2004-2011), the book is a response to the stories that Bahians tell about themselves, but it is structured by anthropological analysis. It examines the modes of personal constitution of that part of the population of Bahia who call themselves “the weak folk” (gente fraca), and who Brazilian social scientists refer to as “low income” (baixa renda).
Our narrative model and inspiration was the long and distinguished tradition of essay writing through which modern Brazilians have attempted to make sense of themselves: Euclides da Cunha, Oliveira Viana, Nina Rodrigues, Gilberto Freyre, Caio Prado Jr., Buarque de Holanda, DaMatta, etc., etc. This essay is our homage to that mode of self-analysis that has produced one of the world’s liveliest social science traditions. On the other hand, anthropology has recently witnessed a renewed interest in kinship studies the main focus of which is a concern with the singular person as the ground of sociality and, in particular, the process through which each one of us produces him or herself as person (Sahlins). In this book, we seek to give ethnographic substance to that anti-intellectualist vision and, at the same time, to show how it can cast light onto some of the most intractable problems that have haunted Brazilian modernity.
We begin by debating a trope that pervades Bahian discourses about their own lives: ‘consideration’ (consideração), a concept that Bahians repeatedly use to describe the essential quality that gives truth to personal relations. Another unavoidable trope is criação (the raising/nurturing of children), that is, the process of consolidation of foundational solidarities that launches each one’s personal history as a social being (one’s ontogenesis – cf. C. Toren). As the narrative unfolds, we present a series of case studies in order to explore the modes of operation of these early solidarities: in personhood, in household formation, in the creation of vicinages, in processes of local indebtedness. Finally, we are led to debate two tropes that emerged unexpectedly from our field notes: firstly, conjugality and its temporal lag with the fertility cycle; secondly, the uncertain ownership of land (posse, not property) and its relation with local notions of personhood.
As we wrote the last chapters of the essay, we came to realize that perhaps the central value that structures this people’s worldview is their preoccupation with safeguarding personal freedom: they stubbornly insist on being “free folk” (gente livre). One can only understand this constant watchfulness if one acknowledges the actual imminence of violence, dehumanizing exploitation, and servitude in their contemporary world.
In Bahia, constitutive (benevolent) domination and dehumanizing (destructive) domination confront one another without ever being very distant from each other; the present never gets rid of the past in a dynamic of preterity (that is, past relations are immanent in present life). On the one hand, it has to be noted, we did not find in today’s Bahia the lively feeling of revolt that is described, for example, by João José Reis, when he studied the recently enslaved African residents of nineteenth century Bahia. But, on the other hand, the fact that the active memory of that anger is no longer present does not mean that the echoes of captivity simply vanished. Today’s Bahia still navigates the muted waves of the dehumanizing past that constituted it. Only a stubborn respect for the right to be different and a generous will to overcome easy polarizations of identity will eventually help to soften the scar. The clearer headed among our informants spoke to us about this with a humanity and practical wisdom that often deeply moved us.
In broad terms, the Bahia that we came to know and love over the past decade was a reasonably prosperous land, where one could witness a visible diminution of poverty; a place where the “weak folk” (os fracos) where prone to feel that their lives had turned out to be less difficult than they had foreseen. Moreover, it was a country where the process of democratization that characterises recent Brazilian politics had freed many people from the servile bonds of a traumatic past. This having been said, however, it remained a dangerous environment, where a past of extreme oppression had not simply vanished into thin air, manifesting itself in what on the surface appeared to be random, pointless brutality. In short, inside the small gestures that make up the daily life of each of us and that bind us to the habits of sociality, there emerged every so often traces of destruction that challenged the integrity of personhood. The chains of determination that link the past of violence to the more democratic present are so complex that when pastness challenges one’s present personhood it surfaces as unreason. The randomness and meaninglessness of what Brazilians call “criminality” — its pathological nature — is, in fact, an obsessively reiterated theme of all Brazilian media.
João started fieldwork around Valença in the Baixo Sul in 2004 in order to study processes of personal naming; in 2009, the project inflected towards a study of territoriality and Vanda joined it because of her interest in the topic. The two ethnographic visits that followed were particularly intense: João’s familiarity with the local space and its inhabitants combined with Vanda’s deep familiarity with Brazilian society and her remarkable ethnographic flair. A good part of the essay was drafted during the long and creative evenings in which, back at home in Valença, we debated our daytime encounters with our friends and acquaintances in the mangrove. The book, of course, is a mark of Bahian friendships and is written with heartfelt gratitude for their generosity and their infectious capacity to enjoy life’s better moments.
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