Review: In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Foucault in Brazil

In the Shadow of Dictatorship: Foucault in Brazil

Review of Heliana de Barros Conde Rodrigues, Ensaios sobre Michel Foucault no Brasil: Presença, efeitos, ressonâncias  (Lamparina 2016), 176 pages

Reviewed by Marcelo Hoffman

Ensaios-sobre-Michel-Foucault-no-Brasil-CapaAbstract: Michel Foucault visited Brazil five times from 1965 to 1976 yet the details of his overall presence in the country have remained largely unexplored even in Brazil. Heliana Conde’s Ensaios sobre Michel Foucault no Brasil has the great merit of introducing readers to these details through a reliance on wide range of sources, including interviews with his interlocutors and the archives of the former secret police. While her book covers various aspects of Foucault in Brazil up to his effects and resonances in our present, she compellingly illuminates how the military dictatorship cast a long and ominous shadow over each of his visits to the country.

Keywords: Foucault, Brazil, dictatorship, oral history, militancy, power, resistance

Michel Foucault journeyed to Brazil five times between 1965 and 1976. His first voyage there took place in 1965 and his last four took place in 1973, 1974, 1975, and 1976. Foucault travelled to Brazil to fulfill a fairly standard intellectual itinerary consisting of talks and lectures on a wide range of topics related to his ongoing research. Some of these talks and lectures are noteworthy for heralding important conceptual developments in his analyses. After all, it was in a lecture on social medicine in Rio de Janeiro in 1974 that Foucault first mentioned his much-vaunted concept of biopolitics. Notably, all of Foucault’s visits to Brazil occurred in the context of a military dictatorship that would last until a year after his death in 1984. They also spanned an eleven-year period that involved enormous transformations in his thought, politics, and stature. Foucault arrived in Brazil for the first time in 1965 as a little known thinker (to Brazilian audiences) without much of a history of political militancy. He left Brazil for the final time in 1976 as a renowned intellectual with a reputation for militant political engagements. Until recently, however, the overall story of his presence in Brazil has remained largely unexplored even in Brazil. Heliana Conde’s newly published book has the great merit of introducing readers to the intricate details of this story through a rich array of sources, including interviews with the individuals who accompanied Foucault in Brazil, alternative and mainstream press accounts of his activities, and documents about him obtained from the archives of the former secret police, the National Information Service (SNI). Conde’s book is not a biography of Foucault in Brazil so much as an audiography of him there. She relies extensively on the reconstitution his speech through oral history in particular to convey his “presence, effects, resonances” in Brazil. Conde not only succeeds in this ambitious task but she also brings forth new and surprising details about Foucault in Brazil.

Conde’s narrative suggests that the story of Foucault in Brazil is to a large extent a story of Foucault and military dictatorship. And this story, she emphasizes, offers a glimpse into larger power relations and forms of resistance (or counter-conducts) in Brazil under the dictatorship. Foucault arrived in Brazil for the first time in October 1965, roughly a year and a half after a military coup that deposed the civilian government of João Goulart. He delivered lectures based on what was to become The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences at the Faculty of Philosophy, Science, and Letters (FFCL) at the University of São Paulo (USP). While the contents of these lectures are not well known (and are now housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris), the lectures themselves are regarded by biographer David Macey as having been poorly attended and largely unsuccessful. Conde relates their lack of success to the overall climate of political repression at USP. She recalls that after the coup the military police had invaded the grounds of the FFCL with canine units in a “‘hunt for communists’” (37).  No wonder, Conde surmises, that professors and students were preoccupied with something other than Foucault’s reflections on epistemes.

Conde also nicely details the set of circumstances that drew Foucault into open resistance to the military dictatorship a whole decade later. In 1975, the dictatorship launched a campaign to target persons in the media suspected of connections with the Brazilian Communist Party. By late October, the ensuing repression compelled Foucault to attend a student protest at USP against the imprisonment of students, professors, and journalists. At the protest, Foucault delivered a statement of support for the students and academic freedom as a whole. In his blunt words: “‘you can’t teach under boot heels’” (114).  Just two days later, the television journalist Vladimir Herzog was tortured and assassinated at an infamous facility of the Department for Information Operations – Center for Defense Operations in São Paulo. In response to Herzog’s assassination, Foucault suspended his course at USP. He also attended a moving ecumenical funeral service for Herzog led by the recently deceased Archbishop of São Paulo, Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns. After his departure from Brazil, Foucault drew attention to Herzog’s assassination in reflections on the role of doctors in torture during a lecture in New York City. Foucault had hoped that his involvement in protests at USP would provoke his expulsion from Brazil and concentrate international attention on the political situation in the country. When no expulsion ensued Foucault pegged his hopes on another publicity-generating strategy: being barred from entry to Brazil. But his hopes were once again dashed when he received permission to revisit the country in 1976. It seems that the dictatorship was too prudent to run the risk of an international incident involving a renowned French intellectual. But it continued to make its presence felt during Foucault’s final visit to Brazil. In Recife, professors suddenly cancelled their appointments with Foucault via telephone for fear of the consequences of simply being associated with him. After Foucault delivered a lecture series at the Federal University of Pará in Belém, the SNI requested a list of attendees to his lectures but the vice-chancellor courageously refused to provide the list.

Conde not only elaborates on all of these intricate details in her narrative. She also marshals the contributions to oral history in her research to bring to light some little known and truly stunning details about Foucault and the Brazilian dictatorship. Conde’s interviewees repeatedly informed her about Foucault’s nagging suspicions of being under police surveillance after the assassination of Herzog. Prompted by these observations, Conde took the initiative of requesting any possible documentation about Foucault from the SNI archives. The results of her request are enlightening to say the least: it turns out that Foucault’s suspicions were wrong only in underestimating the temporal scope of his surveillance. The SNI had Foucault under surveillance even before the assassination of Herzog. As proof of this surveillance, Conde reproduces whole portions of Foucault’s file acquired from the SNI archives. One of the documents in the file contains the statement that Foucault gave on behalf of protesting students at USP. The other offers a paragraph-long (and mistaken) description of his political orientation as liberal rather than communist. These documents confirm that the dictatorship regarded Foucault as a potential problem at the very least. They also, Conde stresses, provide a measure of the penetration of SNI informants into the academic and political life of one of Brazil’s most prestigious universities. She credits her reliance on oral history with furnishing these unexpected details. In her words: “We never would have thought of consulting the archives of the SNI, for instance, if it had not been for the insistence of our interviewees on the permanent climate of suspicion existing during Foucault’s journey through the North-Northeast” (116). Conde speculates that this climate of suspicion may have dissuaded Foucault from ever visiting Brazil again.

Conde’s book, I should hasten to note, goes well beyond the parameters of her groundbreaking research into Foucault and the Brazilian dictatorship. Indeed, she devotes a whole chapter of her book to the journal Clima, run by a group of students at the FFCL-USP in the early 1940s, and the influence of the French philosophy professor Jean Maugüé in this group. She sees in Maugüé’s idiosyncratic teaching style and corresponding reputation as a non-philosopher a kind of precursor to Foucault in Brazil. Conde also emphasizes that Foucault’s lectures on social medicine in Rio de Janeiro in 1974 eventually helped reframe debates about medicine in Brazil by challenging the stark opposition dear to his Brazilian interlocutors between social medicine and private medicine. In other chapters, she deals at great length with the resonance of Foucault’s thought among Brazilian anarchists in his present and ours. In this context, she sounds some cautionary notes about the absorption and propagation of Foucault’s thought within disciplinary divisions in academe among “Foucauldians” themselves in Brazil. In this regard, Conde instructively recalls her participation at an evaluative meeting of a conference on Foucault. She recounts being altogether struck by the ways in which the attendees to the meeting criticized or praised conference presenters in terms of disciplinary divisions and proximities to what was deemed authentically “Foucauldian.” Conde views the elision of strong doctrinal orientations in the history of anarchism as a resource for countering these tendencies. She even gestures toward the need for the resuscitation of a possibly “non-Foucauldian Foucault” (163).

There are a few aspects of Conde’s narrative that seem to warrant a bit more consideration. She notes that even though Foucault had just emerged from a period of “battles with the French police” he had nothing to say about the political situation in Brazil during his visit to Belo Horizonte in May 1973 (61). Why the silence? Was it a matter of Foucault refusing to play the predictable and tedious role of the omniscient intellectual foisted on him by officialdom? A few pages later, readers learn that the professors who accompanied Foucault in Belo Horizonte had been targeted by the dictatorship (69). It would therefore seem that Foucault remained silent about political matters on this occasion to protect his interlocutors but Conde does not explicitly relate these two points or offer another reason for Foucault’s silence. Similarly, in his foreword to Conde’s book, Ernani Chaves reports that Foucault received an ominous-sounding “‘invitation’” to present himself at a police station in Recife (11). Yet Conde does not mention this seemingly important detail in her otherwise informative discussion of Foucault in Recife.

Then again, Conde does not claim to offer the final word on Foucault in Brazil. Quite the contrary, she frames her analysis as a “work in progress” (19) that Edson Passetti helpfully construes as an invitation to an ongoing conversation in his postface (165). This work deserves to be translated into English so that Conde’s fascinating story of the “presence, effects, resonances” of Foucault in Brazil can reach a still wider audience and thereby enrich this conversation. Students of Foucault unfamiliar with his moments in Brazil should find her book deeply illuminating, if not engrossing.

Marcelo Hoffman is the author of Foucault and Power: The Influence of Political Engagement on Theories of Power (Bloomsbury Academic 2014). He is finishing a book manuscript entitled Militant Acts: Investigations in Radical Political Theories and Struggles (under contract with State University of New York Press). His writings have appeared in a wide range of publications.