Tip of the Cap

Surreptitious Creativities behind Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela

We would like to welcome Ben Penglase in this latest edition of our monthly feature, Tip of the Cap.

My book, Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela, examines the social production of insecurity in a poor neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro, paying particular attention to how multiple, overlapping forms of urban violence impact the residents of a neighborhood that I call Caxambu.   I try to show how the neighborhood is experienced as a profoundly contradictory space. On the one hand, it is a place of social intimacy, pride, and creativity, reflecting the deep social ties that bind many of its residents and the years of work that they’ve put into building their homes, streets and alleys. Yet at the same time it is often a space of social marginalization and unpredictably lethal violence, reflecting how drug-trafficking and policing conspire to disorganize daily life.

The Brazil-related influences on my book are fairly obvious. When I was a human rights activist and considering carrying out ethnographic research on violence, I read Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s Death Without Weeping. The similarities, and also deep differences, between her description of favelas in northeastern Brazil and what I had seen in Rio, influenced my work. Liz Leeds’s seminal article “Cocaine and Parallel Polities in the Brazilian Urban Periphery” also stimulated an attempt to understand the modes of governance that drug-traffickers have constructed in Rio’s favelas. And Alba Zaluar’s A Máquina e a Revolta was a deep source of inspiration, especially her argument that drug-traffickers and favela residents share a common moral and cultural universe. Brazilian rappers and samba singers – especially MV Bill and Bezerra da Silva – were also tremendous sources of inspiration. The stack of books on my desk was usually complemented by a matching stack of CDs.

The theoretical influences are probably more opaque, especially since I chose to foreground the ethnographic narrative and place the theoretical argument between the lines. Especially important was Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, especially his analysis of how urban space is constituted through social practices, and his notion of social tactics. The residents of the neighborhood that I call Caxambu spent considerable time, energy and creativity negotiating a world of challenging obstacles, from the lack of city services to abusive policing to local drug traffickers. Certeau’s notion of tactics as “surreptitious creativities” and his focus on “arts of doing” helped me conceptualize at an analytic level the daily acts of creative improvisation that are such an important part of the daily lives of poor people in Brazil.

Finally, shadowing my book, and deeply influencing it, is a book that I barely cite: Begoña Aretxaga’s Shattering Silence. Her work helped me think through how subject positions are constructed through the convergence of violence and gendered and racialized discourses, and how social actors can mobilize, and at times transgress, these positions. Her work also encouraged me to see the urban spaces that favela residents live in as both mudane and yet also fantastical and phantasmagoric, shaped by both the anxieties and fears of outsiders and their own memories and social practices.

Works Referenced

Aretxaga, B. (1997). Shattering silence: Women, nationalism, and political subjectivity in Northern Ireland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

De Certeau, M. (1998). The Practice of Everyday Life: Living and cooking. Volume 2 (Vol. 2). U of Minnesota Press.

Leeds, E. (1996). Cocaine and parallel polities in the Brazilian urban periphery: Constraints on local-level democratization. Latin American Research Review, 47-83.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993). Death without weeping: The violence of everyday life in Brazil. Univ of California Press.

Zaluar, A. (1985). A máquina ea revolta: as organizações populares eo significado da pobreza. Sao Paulo. Brasiliense.

Ben Penglase is an associate professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at Loyola University Chicago. His book Living with Insecurity in a Brazilian Favela was published by Rutgers University Press in August 2014.

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