About a politics of life
Here is a spell in the form of a manifesto: to counteract the brutal venom of Brazilian colonization, the authors evoke a multitude of enchanted beings.
Es la vida, más que la muerte, la que no tiene límites.
Gabriel García Márquez
In today’s world, connection is the order of the day. “Connecting” means the act of linking a computer to the internet, or to some device such as a printer. It can also refer to the wiring of electrical circuits. But to connect is a transitive verb that, in a much broader sense, stands for the aggregation of diverse elements. To reconnect is to remake connections that have been lost.
As for enchanting, it is a term from the Latin incantare, the chanting that bewitches, intoxicates, creates other senses for the world. In some cultures in North Africa and Asia, there is a widespread ritual of snake enchantment. When the charmer opens the basket, he knows that the snake will wake up with the light and come out. When the animal sees the flute, it will assume a natural defensive position, keeping part of its body upright. Who will strike first?
The sound of the flute deceives the foolish, but not the snake. The cobra is deaf, it doesn’t hear the music. It is the movements of the flute that make the snake dance, assuming a position of defense and, at the same time, fascination with the object handled by the enchanter.
The most experienced charmers know that if the snake strikes, the enchanting flute becomes a shield. If the snake tries to bite the flute, it gets hurt. Little by little, it learns and stops striking. The most daring charmers seduce the audience and earn a few bucks by kissing the head of the snake, reaching it from above. They know, after all, that the cobra only strikes downward. Those who approach it from above play it safe.
To end the show, it is enough to slow the movement of the flute. The game doesn’t end here, it is only interrupted. The serpent retreats to the bottom of the basket and the flutist packs the instrument, until the dance, the challenge, the enchantment begin again. In its deepest dimension, the enchantment is a game of attack and defense, and the flutist’s survival depends on various tricks to evade the serpent and its murderous venom. The flutist knows that he has two options: either to charm the snake or to succumb to the bite and venom of death.
What is our aim in putting side by side these two elements: the strategies of connection and the tactics of enchantment of the snake/world?
Colonization (and we think of colonization as a long-term phenomenon, continuing even today to spew its poisons) generates a multitude of disposable living beings that do not fit into the system’s hyper-mercantilized and normative logic, in which consumption and scarcity act like Siamese siblings, one depending on the other.
Some of those disposable beings — we call them “sobras viventes,” “living leftovers” — can turn into sobreviventes, survivors. Others, not even that. The survivors can become supraviventes, supervivors: those who are capable of getting around the condition of exclusion, stop being just reactive, and go beyond, affirming life as a politics of building connections between being and world, human and nature, corporeality and spirituality, ancestry and future, temporality and permanence. A dispute operated only in the field of politics and economics can generate effective gains, of course. But the crucial leap between survival and supervival demands a set of strategies and tactics so that we know how to act in the relentless battles for the enchantment of the world.
We understand that the colonial matrix is one of the keys to consider the war of domination that takes place between different worlds.
Life is under constant threat from the snake’s venom that, once injected, spreads death, discrediting the beings and their knowledges. For the majority of beings who do not experience the world from the porches of the Casa Grande, the balconies of imperial sobrados, and the conference rooms in the offices of major corporations, it is worth understanding enchantment as an act of disobedience, transgression, invention, and reconnection: in short, an affirmation of life.
Around here, and over time, the concept of enchantment has been practiced as a political and poetic gira, which relates to other ways of existing and performing knowledge. The encantado, the enchanted, is the being who has undergone the experience of crossing time and being transmuted into different expressions of nature. In Brazil, the encantaria, as embodied in the drums, the woods, and the trance of its people, crosses countless references to draw on the shores of the New World a politics of life based on cosmic and cosmopolitan principles.
The notion of enchantment evokes the principle of integration of all forms that inhabit the biosphere, the integration of the visible and the invisible (materiality and spirituality), and the connection and responsive/responsible relationship between different space-times (ancestry). For us, it is very important to treat the colonial issue in dialogue with this orientation. We understand that the colonial matrix is one of the keys to consider the war of domination that takes place between different worlds. If on one side of the war we have the integration of living systems, the connection between material and immaterial dimensions, and ancestral ethics, on the other we have separation and hierarchization: God/State, humans/heirs of God, and nature/resources to be transformed in favor of human development.
Enchantment is a struggle against the paradigm of disenchantment instilled here. It does so as a capacity to transit through the innumerable cycles of time, to invoke spiritualities of battle and healing, to strive for a community-based politics and education among all beings and ancestors, to inscribe daily life as a rite of reading and writing in different poetic systems, and to strive for the intelligibility of cycles. In other words, the encante is a political foundation that confronts the limitations of the so-called consciousness of westernized mentalities.
Characterized by its cosmopolitism, enchantment does not exclude the other as a possible presence to weave a dialogue with. Since it prioritizes coexistence and alterity and understands that life is an ecological radical, the logic of enchantment does not exclude Western experiences as contributions to the potentiation of the livingness. However, a little over five centuries indicate how the productions coming from the other side of the Atlantic have been steeped in racial, hetero-patriarchal, theological-political, and anthropocenic contractualities.
Even discursive traditions that claim to be progressive are still fixed in westernizing assumptions. They are unavailable to the trance and have not responded responsibly to the diversity of the world. Knowledges older than five centuries of history are indexed as irrelevant because they speak from other grammars. As a result, they do not bear the stamp of consciousness, of the human, and of civilization.
This is why enchantment has been the target of fetishism and disqualification in debates about societies and ways of life. In a world haunted by terror, we speak of enchantment as battle cunning and mandinga. While some may think this is nonsense — and forests are cut down — shamans and pajés invoke the spirits of nature and remind us that we were once a tree, a leaf, and dust of the universe. In a trance of medical sciences that we ignore, they aim at the cure for this sickness.
There is no romanticism in this talk that longs for relationships free of conflict, redemption, and promises of conquest. Enchantment reveals how the supervivor grammars inscribed themselves in the gaps of a wide repertoire of murders. To bend the logic of killing, it is fundamental to consider death as a double of life, a passage to other dimensions of existence, a crossing through the cycles of time, and the fulfillment of ancestral ethics. It is not a radical of scarcity, of interruption, but of continuity. In this way, death as a rite can be central to understanding the sphere of livingness, escaping the dichotomy between the living and the dead as active and inactive, or useful and disposable.
Enchantment dribbles and bewitches the logics that wish to apprehend life through a single model, logics that are almost invariably linked to a productivist and utilitarian sense.
Enchantment dribbles and bewitches the logics that wish to apprehend life through a single model, logics that are almost invariably linked to a productivist and utilitarian sense. Enchantment is a pulsation that rips the human being apart to transform them into an animal, a wind, a water spring, a river rock, a grain of sand. Enchanting pluralizes, decentralizes, and elicits the being as something that will never be total, but rather ecological and unfinished.
Thus, we should speak of deadness and aliveness, considering that the first is a state of disenchantment of life, and the second is the experience of being integral and integrated as nature, concerning even beings that have eventually died. This is one of the picuias cast by the caboclos onto the dominant modes of existence whose sense of humanity is perverse with nature. The caboclos of Brazil are supervivors that summon us to face this quizumba through enchantment, or by making the pair life/death a journey of non-forgetting.
The cry echoes. A diseased way of life has taken hold on this earth, sustained by a wide repertoire of forms of disenchantment that today make us believe that this simulacrum is destined to us as a “normal” way of life. Recovering the ancestral/spiritual sense of the idea of connection is necessary for re-entangling us with the webs and technologies of the biosphere; they are capable of making us breathe and point out paths in the struggle between aliveness and the venom of disenchantment.
When we speak of ancestry, we are not bowing to death, but rather strengthening connections between the dead and the living; something that keeps the community’s history perfectly alive. The dead represent a physical and spiritual reality, present both in the past and now, among the living. At the same time, they underpin the shaping of our presence in the future and the direction of our physical and spiritual reality, in connection with the most diverse forms of life. As an old saying of the Congos goes, the winds teach that birds have wings because they were passed to them by other birds.
We go as a flock. In many different ways, the knowledges of the margins speak about how the violence perpetrated here for centuries prevents the experience of cycles, in which life and death are dimensions of nature and the connection with the whole. A world obsessed by linearity, by a mode of development that exploits nature as mere resource and sees in the metric of the human the similarity with the divine is doomed to get lost in the circularity of existence.
In the entanglement between aliveness and deadness, enchantment and venom, we dock in Brazil. We throw our bodies into the dance, and in the chant of the flute, we find the hope for a poetic and political turn that will transmute the energies. At this point, we launch the provocation: Brazil needs to go wrong urgently. The country that has been looking at itself in the mirror over these bizarre last years is one that destroys systems of worlds and plural forms of life, a country made up of capitães do mato, foremen, perverted senhores de engenho, slavedrivers, bandeirantes who preyed on Indigenous peoples and destroyed quilombos, génocidaires, generals, torturers, colonels, gunmen, death squad members, misogynists, homophobes, social parasites, religious fanatics, mediocre bureaucrats, mafia businessmen, pedantic doctors, sybaritic millionaires, and unscrupulous opportunists.
In order to be successful, the project of standardization of this Brazil of horrors required strategies to disenchant the world and deepen the colonization of bodies. The body, after all, can threaten in a more forceful way, more than words, the colonizing project based on catechism, forced labor, ostensive submission of women, and preparation of men for the kind of virility conveyed in rape culture: the converted body, the enslaved body, the body made object, and the body as a lethal weapon. This Brazil is a country of sick bodies, conditioned and educated for horror as an enterprise.
There are still other subtle and long-lasting ways of feeding disenchantment: various modes of colonization that annihilate maternal grammars and perceptions of the world, create ways of interrupting cycles, encapsulating time, destroying community relations, and obliterating the ritual sense of life as an ecological dimension. In other words, those who traveled here — bringing war, disease, and promise — engendered forms of disenchantment (deadness), assassinating knowledge, languages, communities, and rituals. This Brazil is a success: it has financed a way of life that, in order to be acquired, hijacked the aliveness of its beings.
In the midst of all this, and to make matters worse, the possibility of any less bizarre project of nation seems to be lost in the short or medium term. The desires of groups that romanticize the precarious and of others who pragmatically believe that the ends justify the means are all over, like airport windsocks in the shifting wind. Every illusion of enlightenment was trampled by a troglodyte’s salute to the murderer Brilhante Ustra, the most grotesque foreman of the 1964 regime of exception.
Vampirized by terror, part of the population supports the most obscurantist agendas. Inclusion only through consumption has led to this: the revolution is a car in the garage, bought in 72 installments. Our next step seems to be the privatization, at the same time, of public universities and Brazilian prisons.
Brazil as a colonial state was designed by the men in power to be exclusionary, racist, sexist, homophobic, income-concentrating, inimical to education, violent, murderous of its people, intolerant, coarse, misogynistic, castrating, hungry, and rude. We are in part all of this, aren’t we? In this sense, we suspect that our problem is not that we have gone wrong. Brazil as a project has worked, so far.
Our chance is to start going wrong, as individuals and collectively, with the greatest urgency. We need to blossom with the delicacy of the jasmine and the thousand-year strength of the kapok of the forest. We need to act like the leaf of the espinheira-santa with its battle gimmicks, its thorny edges, and its healing of diseases when enchanted by the caboclos.
How can we fight the killing when it has become so commonplace? Enchantment, without any conceptual fetishism or boastfulness, is the politics of life planted in the margins, in the capoeiras, sambaquis, quilombos, mangroves, sertões, gameleiras, corners, and forests around here. Enchantment, as a manifestation of the aliveness expressed in the crossing between nature and languages, is implicated in the dimension of community and rite.
What dwells in the bodies of those who twirl around misery? Colonial domination poses a problem to be confronted in a pedagogical way also: how to respond with life to a system of disenchantment? The Brazil of the “good men” invokes colonial spirituality for the transformation of the state into a “bankocracy.” It sees in killing the impulse for profit. Wealth is for them an ideal of grandeur anchored in scarcity, in the plundering of bodies, and in the leftovers of the dismantling of the world. As the preto velho grunts facing the horror, the colony is a bank of souls.
It is necessary to listen to the silence. The technologies that connect us to the practice of living well are ancestral. We need to break with the schooling done by the colonial state and the BBB culture (bullet, bulls, and bible) that spreads the infection of forgetfulness. Every drum, when played in any crack of the earth, calls those who live in the margins of time. The drum heals the body by saying that it is the support for life and that the true annihilation is the one made by the dismantling of histories. It has been, after all, 500 years of investment in the Word of God as salvation and a rosary of holy justifications for mortality. In believing that man owns the land, we forget that the land is the matrix of everything. Everything can be bought, says the merchant. Get out of your own body, it no longer belongs to you, says the preacher.
The sickness, the desolation, the disarray of memories is the existential dismemberment. Disenchantment sometimes annihilates, sometimes jinxes us, casting a continuous loss of vitality that immobilizes us and closes our ears to the song of the bird of dreams. It is vital that we blow words of strength, that we learn the knowledge of the elders of the land. It has not been lost. It is not enough to pick the leaf to make medicine; one must know how to sing it and enchant it. To sing the leaf is to revere the permanence of the tree.
Iroko is the orixá of time and ancestry. In some myths, it is the first tree in the world. Through its trunk, the orixás of creation left Orum and arrived at Ayê. For some elders, more than a tree, Iroko is a root. An evocation of the power of the ancestors, Iroko is the lord of the time of patience. Iroko has a connection with the cult of the witch mothers since in a myth the bird of the Ladies landed on Iroko’s branch. Iroko’s messenger is the vulture, which flies from the immense branches of the sacred tree to say that we are not masters of our time. The vulture embodies our finitude. The roots of Iroko embody the eternity of ancestral memory. Iroko is time in two dimensions: that of ancestry and that of what is to come. Exu runs through the temporality of Iroko in the dimension of unpredictability. Iroko has the fixity of a ficus tree. Exu has the fluidity of the leaf that falls from the tree in the middle of the whirlwind.
The wisdom of Ifá, the oracular knowledge that underlies the worship of the orixás, states that time manifests itself in all facts that are about to happen, are happening, or have happened. In addition, time encompasses all the past events that link the beginning of things to the present. We live — as teaches the “little man without bones,” one of Orunmilá’s titles — concurrently in three connected times/worlds: that of concrete reality, that of social values, and that of self-consciousness.
The first is the time/world of living beings, of cosmic nature, and of natural phenomena. The second is that of the ancestral values that govern the community’s spiritual processes in order to allow permanence. The third is that of the incorporeal, the forces absolutely inexpressible outside the poetics of enchantment. The simultaneous existence of past, present, and future, ritualized in villages, gumas, and terreiros, is seasoned within the harmony of these three variants.
With time encapsulated in the dimension of the clock and the rhythms of production and consumption, life is restricted to a utilitarian and communicide functionality; we are deprived of aliveness and become no more than a cog in a wheel. Do we produce the merchandise or does it produce us?
To broaden time is to go beyond appearances and understand the pluriverse of beings and their connections. Such understanding is a foundation for community experience and a means to intervene against threats to it. It is an understanding far from exhibitionist eruditism or infertile speculation, which are incapable of being translated into responsible actions that elaborate tactics for the political construction of life. This is what it is all about.
Thus the task of enchantment is launched: to affirm life in this and other worlds — multiple worlds, like leaves — as birds dancing above the bonfires. Birds with the courage to challenge the fire, and the caution not to burn their wings. Scorched, wounded, but whole and intense, singing for knowing that life is flight.
* This text is a shortened version of “Encantamento: sobre política de vida,” published in 2020 by Mórula Editorial.