Video School

Suely Rolnik: Beyond Colonial Unconscious

Produced by Tate

Brazilian theorist and psychoanalyst Suely Rolnik speaks here about ethics, and what she calls “body-knowing,” or “drive-knowing,” specifically in regards to the practice of Brazilian anthropophagy. Rolnik’s talk contributes to a thriving body of knowledge produced around the question, in particular Eduardo Viveiro de Castro’s theorization of multinatural perspectivism, evolving in conversation with the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and anthropologist Philippe Descola’s work on differential ontologies.

For Rolnik, anthropophagic practices in the Tupinamba tribe provide an ethical formula for the relation to the other, one that is intrinsically linked to the transformation of the self. Although I am using the terms “self” and “other” here, it is with the caveat that the entire ontology ruling their relation is radically different for the animist Tupinamba. This process, in combination with the tribe’s anthropophagic ritual, is what in fact produced the warrior’s subjectivity, in a radically different process of subjective and objective constitution than ours in the West. Rather than the subject producing the object, as Saussure would have it of language, and of the speaker’s necessary habit of parsing out an object from an undifferentiated linguistic stream, here the “object” (the enemy) produces the “subject” (the warrior) who has killed him. Devouring an enemy is both a politics of desire and a means of producing culture, part of a larger politics of the production of self and world. In opposition to the degraded version of the rite in the Western imaginary, the warrior who had killed never partook of the ritual feast of ingesting his enemy, instead staying isolated from the community, and engaging in ritual fasting and other preparatory rites. For every killed enemy, the warrior would gain a new name and new scars would be added to his body. Rolnik explains that these were signs of his becoming, and physical traces of the recognition of the effects on his body of the forces of each of his enemies, signs of his “courage in honoring, upholding, sustaining, and supporting the desire of recreating himself mobilized by the body-knowing of these effects.”

In response to colonial invasion, indigenous peoples did adopt certain European cultural mores, through religious syncretism or language acquisition. The one cultural practice, however, that the Tupinamba refused to forego was anthropophagy. Under situations of extreme duress, they would rather offer up their own family or their captured enemies than give up the rite, says Rolnik. The maintenance of the anthropophagic principle represents their resistance to the European model of identity, and specifically, their exorcism of the danger of succumbing to the unconscious suppression of the body that defines it. Rolnik locates this repression at the base of the cultural regime of modernity, inseparable from its correlates, the economic structure of capitalism, the religious suppression of the body through the destruction of primitive Christianity and its instrumentalization by the Church, and the desiring regime of the production of modern individuality as psychically structured through what Freud has defined as neurosis. In opposition to this, the critical devouring of an alterity in anthropophagy provides a heterogeneous principle for the production of self, creation through differentiation. Spreading in the 1920 through avant-garde circles, and then again in the 1960s, the allegory of the anthropophagic rite assumed an important position in the Brazilian cultural imaginary as a politics of creation and resistance to the forces of colonization.

However, the repression of the body in the production of thought at the base of the modernist subject did not only affect colonized populations. It was also imposed on people of the European continent. For Rolnik, this repression is actually the most efficient device of global colonial repression, in all continents. And it is also at the heart of the current financial crises, inasmuch as this repression rules the role attributed to creation at the core of transnational financial capitalism.

Consequently, the primary task for any micropolitics of resistance becomes that of activating the body, and with it, body-knowing and drive-knowing. Rolnik defines body-knowing as harnessing the “bodily power to listen to the diagram of the forces of the present.” It is a way to transform and increase our powers of existence through differentiation. Drive-knowing, which she invokes at the beginning of her talk, is defined in psychoanalysis, and particularly by João Perci Schiavon, as what should never be renounced, what serves no moral purpose, but instead elucidates the good and bad in every event.

Rolnik argues that the repression of the body forms the base of a triple historical trauma in Brazil: the genocide of its indigenous populations, the importation of African slaves, and the immigration of minority cultures from Europe fleeing the inquisition (predominantly Jewish and Arab populations). She argues that the violence of that historical trauma leads to a humiliation that in turn demobilizes the principle of the unconscious repression of the body in the production of thought. In other words, the humiliated of the earth—of which I consider myself a part, despite the many privileges that are mine—are ripe to return to this sensor of the body. Reclaiming a body-knowing means to regain access to the main sensor for cognitive practice and its interference in the world. It means to engage with a sensor whose main role is to locate us in what Rolnik beautifully names “the invisible states of vital possession.”

Suely Rolnik is a psychoanalyst, writer, and Professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Noura Wedell‘s program composes a loose foray through different viewpoints on reproduction.