Danced fight, divided city: figuring the space between
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In this dissertation, I aim to flesh out connections between: the sensate form and moving substance of the “traditional” style of an Afro-Brazilian art form and danced fight known as capoeira Angola; the volatile history of “black” struggle on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from which this cultural practice was violently severed towards the end of the nineteenth century; and the efforts of practitioners of this art to revitalize it as a movement of cultural resistance in (and beyond) this city in the present. I thus read capoeira (Angola) as an ethically and politically charged counter-figuration to contemporary representations of Rio de Janeiro as a city divided between the forces of order, reason, and civility, on the one side, and disorder, violence, and insubordination on the other, and the sensate subtext of racialized fear that animates such a social imaginary. Along such lines, the dissertation consists of three parts, each with multiple sections. Part One lays out an initial constellation of perspectives regarding the “traditional” art form and some of the varied social contexts in which it is performed throughout the “modern” city of Rio de Janeiro. Throughout, it engages with the politicized poetics involved in representing this cultural and historically “black” practice -- in particular, that of translating this bodily art into writing without either effacing aspects of the art that resist referential discourse, or reproducing implicitly racialized assumptions regarding the passage from “disorderly” sensations to “reasonable” language. Part Two, in turn, explores some of the ever-so-volatile scenes taking place amidst the streets of Rio, in which those suspect social figures known as capoeiras, and the groups or maltas to which they belonged, played some of the more visible roles -- at least as seen through the eyes of the largely “white” elites, government officials, journalists, and foreign travelers writing about them. After addressing how, in looking through those images, we see not the capoeiras themselves, so much as the racial gaze through which they were viewed, I turn to a number of alternate sources in composing counter-images to that gaze; these sources range from the literary figuration of social invisibility painted by Ralph Ellison in early-to-mid-twentieth century Harlem, to the sensate memory of that volatile history as embodied in a singular gesture in capoeira Angola as presently played – that of slashing the body or throat of one’s opponent with a finger, thereby recalling at once the razors or navalhas the capoeiras were once known for using. Part Three pursues connections between the “inside game” of capoeira and its “outside world” that run counter not only to its widespread transformation into a depoliticized sport, spectacle, and cultural commodity, but also to historically engrained associations between “blackness,” “marginality” and “violence” that continue to plague the present. In so doing, I seek to flesh out the deceptively fluid-yet-volatile aesthetics of the art as at once an embodied memory of black struggle, and a flexible figuration of (black) subjectivity in Brazil. Here, as in Part One, the dissertation makes use of Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of aesthetics as a mode of engaging with affects, forms, and sensations so as to feel out the unsystematic – yet anything but disorderly – forces underlying and exceeding social-scientific conceptions of knowledge and politics alike. The photographs, which were all taken by the author, are meant not so much to illustrate any particular point, as to indirectly illuminate the written body of the text: they are meant to reveal other possible views not directly addressed herein, as well as to point to yet other dimensions that words alone cannot capture.