With the Social Sciences in Brasil

I spent 24-27 October at the annual conference of ANPOCS, the national social science association of Brasil.  I gave a plenary address, on “The Coming Revolution in Social Theory”, to a vast cheering crowd of revolutionaries.  Well, I exaggerate slightly.  But there were getting on for two hundred people.  Simultaneous translation, and I had an entertaining talk beforehand with the translators. I’m thinking of patenting TIB, the Translators’ Index of Boredom, as a key performance indicator for speeches; translators must have to put across a lot of dreadful stuff at corporate and government events.

Hotel Gloria, site of ANPOCS conference
This is a big conference, it combines sociology with political science and anthropology.  I hung out with a clan of anthropologists working on childhood, a clutch of gender/sexuality studies folk, and a gang of sociological theorists.  It’s held in Caxambu, an old spa town in the highlands, mainly in a second-empire era hotel, full of wood panelling and incredibly noisy and maze-like, but great for unexpected meetings.

They run later than we do in staid Australia, one night I was at a panel that went on well after 11 pm.   They joke about Brasilians never being on time, but in fact the conference ran like clockwork. Many people worked for this, but it will be principally down to the Executive Secretary of ANPOCS, Maria Filomena Gregori, universally known as Bibia, an anthropologist, a gender researcher, and certainly an amazing person.

My Southern Theory argument was received with interest, both by the translators and the audience.  I talked about Hountondji’s stuff, showed pictures of interesting social thinkers from around the periphery, developed an argument about the need for global re-shaping of social science, showcased some of the Australian work in the area.

They know about these issues already in Brasil of course – a source of critical thought on development as long ago as the 1950s.  But when I look at the Brasilian journals and at the conference book display (from which I have acquired a small library) most of it is still very European- and US-centered in terms of theory - also true of Australia.  The Brasilians have a lively academic culture and should have more impact internationally.  It really is a problem of hegemony - the usual assumption is that if you engage with Bauman, Bourdieu, Habermas and Foucault you are engaging with Theory, there is no sense that these guys represent specifically European experience.

Conference delegates conferring not swimming
The topics of the papers are quite like those in Australian social science conferences, with the extra edge of a society with mass poverty, a fair bit of violence, and a still-reformist though partly neoliberal labour government.  I have been to sessions on LGBTT politics (add ‘travesti’ to the debatable international acronym LGBT), on internationalization of social science, on Brazilian social thought, on environmental politics, on ‘Reinventing the Brasilian classics’, and on something we have in Australia but don’t theorize in the same way, ‘dilemmas of modernity in the periphery’.  The style of the sessions is pretty top-down, often with little chance for discussion.

My three words of Portuguese didn’t stretch very far, but I could recognize abstract nouns and some personal names in the presentations, and could understand the interactions in the sessions ethnographically.  A nice moment came in a session on the future of social science.  The Man From the Ministry, correctly dressed in suit and tie, did a long fast PowerPoint presentation with all the statistics of how funding was up, numbers were up, and the output of international publications was exponentially up (all true).  Then the bolshie academics, in jeans and open-necked shirts, tore it all to pieces, and even I could follow the dark mutterings about academic neo-colonialism and intensification of labour.  Familiar.

Another thing the Brasilians do well is press liaison.  There were many press reports of papers from the conference, I kept an eye on the bulletin board where the conference staff put them up, and there were so many that they had to change the display twice a day.  I featured too, with an interview in “Folha de S. Paulo”, said to be the leading daily in the country, 29 October, page A17 if you want to try your Portuguese.

Well, when my time comes, I can die happy, for I have gone dancing with Brasilians in Brasil.  ANPOCS is famous, I was assured by many people, for its end-of-conference parties.  The 2011 party got underway about 11 on the last night, with hundreds of delegates gathered around the Hotel Gloria pool chatting away.  There was a tremendous cloudburst and we were washed inside.  It didn’t dampen the party however, which just re-assembled in the disco room.  The conference photographic display about the life and work of Celso Furtado (very important theorist and policy activist) had been cleared away, and the place set up with turntables, loudspeakers, laser lights, smoke machine, glitter ball, a DJ and security guys – clearly the hotel is used to this.

Hotel Gloria breakfast room, the morning after the party.
The DJ was pretty good, making perfect transitions between tracks.  He started with some pretty easy pop stuff going back to ABBA, and then even deeper into prehistory.  After I started dancing, the DJ took one look at me and put on “Twist and Shout”.  Amazingly, many of the younger people knew the words, how is this possible?   I’m glad to say the other overseas speakers were also on the dance floor, full marks to the Anglos.  The vice-rector of a regional university was also dancing pretty well, though I wouldn’t like to try in the heels she was wearing.  So a good time was had by all, and perhaps they got on to samba later in the night and perhaps they didn’t, but I faded out about 2 am, and slept like a log until breakfast. Thank you ANPOCS!

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