Martijn Oosterbaan on his new book, Transmitting the Spirit

Cover image for Transmitting the Spirit: Religious Conversion, Media, and Urban Violence in Brazil By Martijn Oosterbaan

Interview by Jessica Rivers

Jessica Rivers: In your book, you argue convincingly that it is important to understand the Pentecostalism of Rio’s favelas as governmentality.  Based on your research, do you believe the sound practices of the evangelicals in Visionario and Roda do Vento effectively extended the reach of Pentecostal governmentality to non-evangelicals?

Martijn Oosterbaan: In the book I analyze what it means for people who live in dense favela spaces to be enveloped in the sounds emanating from churches, and the sound of carioca funk and samba music. Broadly speaking, I analyze conversion through the lens of governmentality, and not only because Pentecostalism is concerned with bodily discipline and with the government of self. Conversion in this context cannot be wholly understood without including the politics of favela life. Conversions are not definite moments of transition in a favela.  Instead, they are processes in which people come to understand themselves and their environment differently.  If we see sound practices as part and parcel of these process, we might also see that even for those who do not describe themselves as converted evangélicos these sound practices – in combination with assertive evangelization techniques – are re-ordering their perceptions of space and power in the favela. By and large, many people who are not considered evangélicos regard Pentecostal churches and church leaders as legitimate authorities within the favela – not in the least because many of these leaders (loudly) promise the possibility of salvation, prosperity, and protection to people who live in precarious situations. Approaching this question from a different angle, I argue that the sanctuary spaces of churches are extended by means of amplified church sounds and by means of gospel music. We should not see Pentecostalism as the only bundle of techniques and representations that informs governmentality but it has become a very important element of it in the context of Rio’s favelas.

Jessica Rivers: Are there instances in which the Pentecostalism you witnessed could be interpreted as operating (aspirationally) as sovereignty (p. 42)? I’m thinking, for instance, of their creation of absolute spaces and their reclamation of public spaces with the trificante exorcisms?

Martijn Oosterbaan: When we regard sovereignty as tentative form of authority grounded in physical violence, as some do, such an argument might be harder to make. There are, however, Pentecostal practices such as the performative evangelical crusades (cruzadas) that I describe in the book that are presented as rupturing moments in public favela life. These performances could be conceived as acts that aspire towards sovereignty. During these crusades, which are highly mediatized and ritualized events that involve musical performances, pastors, preachers and singers narrate the possibility of personal and collective liberation by way of the works of the Holy Spirit and the exorcism of demons. In the context of favela life such events are presented as breaching the politics of daily life, in which people are bound by the machinations of the devil, often without their own knowing. Testimonies of former drug gang members during these crusades reveal that they no longer abide by the rules of the comandos whose leaders are the informal sovereigns of the favelas but by God’s laws that grant protection in this life and salvation thereafter. These events generate exceptional moments of rupture that sustain the notion that a different life is possible. Nevertheless, Pentecostal groups do not take the informal sovereigns head on and generally do not interfere directly with their businesses.

Jessica Rivers: Your research intervenes in the conversation on the relationship between religion and violence. You argue scholars should not assume Pentecostal practices are merely soothing since, in constantly presenting Pentecostal churches as a powerful counterforce, they necessarily (re)produce their own forms of anxiety about the city as an evil place (83). Do you think this means the Pentecostalism of the favelas has a sort of hopelessness built into its strategic long-term planning? Would you go as far as to say that the manifestation of Pentecostalism described in your book, in fact, depends on seemingly continuous, otherwise uncontrollable violence?

Martijn Oosterbaan: This is a very pertinent question in this post-Olympic moment in Rio’s history. Surely I don’t mean to argue that Pentecostalism is only popular because Rio de Janeiro is witnessing uncontrollable violence, nor do I argue that the anxiety that certain Pentecostal practices and ideologies reproduce is of the same kind as the anxiety that traumatic physical violence might cause. In the context of Rio’s favelas, there are other socio-material circumstances that are enmeshed with the persuasive emotional practices of Pentecostalism (dreams of material wealth for example). Nevertheless, I do indeed argue for an understanding of its popularity in context and violence, unfortunately, is a pervasive aspect of favela life. Moreover, the testimonies that I documented and church services I attended featured many accounts of people’s experiences of urban violence. Having said that, in the book I aim to counter arguments of people who describe Pentecostalism in a reductionist fashion as making up for uncontrollable violence – a discourse that several Pentecostal churches also employ themselves. Pentecostal groups generally do not oppose the criminalized comandos directly or interfere directly with their businesses but these groups do present themselves as the only way out for those people that feel that they are in the grip of the comandos and that presentation remains a very powerful selling-point, I argue.

Jessica Rivers: It is intriguing that your informants felt conflicted about watching telenovelas and reality soaps because of their salacious content and decidedly unconflicted about watching the spectacularized violence of news programs.  Do you believe it was merely a question of genre that made them feel they could read and judge the material of (semi) fictional programming and not the selective narrative packaging that went into the nightly news?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Not merely, but genre is very influential. In the book I try to show how different modes of Pentecostal self-discipline overlap or clash with media genres. As I argue, the notion of factuality is very important in the unconflicted reception of spectacular news programs. The presentation of ‘news’ as unmediated representation of ‘how it is’ in the world distinguishes the genre from others. Producers appear to go at length to sustain the myth that ‘what you see is how it is’. Moreover, there is something quite definitive about physical violence – especially with regard to cases where people are mortally injured – and sharp distinctions between heroes, villains and victims are sustained easier in cases of spectacular urban violence than in the case of juicy soap operas (telenovelas). As I relate in the book, my Pentecostal interlocutors frequently characterized perpetrators as possessed individuals and pictured violent urban encounters as manifestations of the cosmic battle between God and the devil. The genre of the telenovela, on the other hand, hinges on moral ambivalence. Protagonists are hardly ever entirely upright and the attraction to watch telenovelas is related to the possibility to ‘watch and judge’ the behavior of the lead characters. Such a spectator-position overlaps well with certain Pentecostal discourses in church services and informal talk. Gossip (fofoca) about the behavior of neighbors or even fellow church members often revolved around the question if this or that person was ‘of God’ or not. Nevertheless, some evangelical spectators despised the moral ambivalence and argued that this was exactly how people were lead away from the straight path.

Jessica Rivers: Your informants disliked and distrusted Rede Globo; were they more likely to notice the aesthetics and read its programs against the grain (like in the U.S., conservatives do with MSNBC and liberals do with FOX news)?

Martijn Oosterbaan: Certainly, but not with all the programs. Rede Globo is the biggest media-imperium of Brazil. By way of its news-programs and several of its fiction programs it has criticized and ridiculed Pentecostal churches – predominantly the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (the Igreja Universal). In the nineties, it set out to unmask the leaders of the Universal Church as greedy businessmen that employed the prosperity gospel for personal benefits. The Universal Church and several other Pentecostal churches have reacted fiercely against these accusations. They stressed that TV Globo was broadcasting lies because Globo’s leaders perceived the rise of the broadcaster Rede Record – owned by the leader of the Universal Church, Edir Macedo – as a threat to their media-hegemony. As I show in the book – many of the adherents of Pentecostal churches living in the favelas of my research attached these clashes to prevalent interpretations of Globo’s telenovelas as degenerate. In addition to the genre specific critique I just described, evangelical spectators told me that Globo’s spread of immoral content by way of its novelas was related to their support for Afro-Brazilian and Roman Catholic traditions and their dislike of evangelical values. Some even told me that Globo had made a pact with the devil to air demonic programs. Such suspicions definitively influenced people’s perceptions of Globo programs.

Jessica Rivers: You group the lived religious practices of the people who attended the Igreja Universal and Assembleia de Deus together. Did your informants ever take issue with this grouping? I was surprised to see that you did not describe the Igreja Universal as Neo-Pentecostal.  And could you elaborate on how you made that decision and what difference, if any, it makes (and to whom) to designate a church: Pentecostal, Neo-Pentecostal, Charismatic, or otherwise.

Martijn Oosterbaan: Thank you for raising these questions. I struggled with the question if I should separate or group together the people who attended the two churches but eventually decided not to distinguish the people in relation to the questions I was attempting to answer. I think we are severely mislead when we start from the assumption that because there are different churches with contrasting doctrines, people who attend different churches have fundamentally different experiences of their mediated surroundings. That can be the case for sure but it is something that can only be confirmed by research. Not long after I started, I decided not to write a ‘church ethnography’ but to explore favela spaces as shared life-worlds in which boundaries are produced in flexible fashion. In the book, I discuss the lives of people of one household and several of their family members who also lived in the favela. Many of these people frequented different Pentecostal denominations, yet quite a number of them had attended both services of the Igreja Universal and of the Assembleia de Deus, eventually picking one that suited them better (at that moment). More importantly at the time of research – people from different Pentecostal and Protestant churches generally identified with each other as evangélicos in opposition to Catholics, Umbandistas and Spiritistas. These people often share mediated spaces where Pentecostalism is broadcast. This not only meant that they heard each other’s preferred sermons or gospel music, they also regularly connected to the messages of fellow Pentecostal churches beyond church boundaries. They were shaped by their shared understanding of the dangers posed by the media that surrounded them on a daily basis (carioca funk, samba, telenovelas), so many people of both churches voiced the same suspicions and experiences regarding demonic powers. Certainly, boundaries were drawn when people disagreed with each other’s doctrinal positions at times. Nevertheless, I really wanted to foreground the shared, mediated Pentecostal life-world created in the favela space instead of the differences between people who attended churches of different denominations at the time of my research.

Jessica Rivers: You apply Gershon’s concept of media ideologies to your Pentecostal informants’ television viewing practice but not to their listening practices.  Was it a difference in the modes of consumption available to them that guided this aspect of your analysis? Did your informants find it harder to experience music critically than they did television? Could they only allow themselves to be critical of worldly media? If so, why do you think that was?

Martijn Oosterbaan: You rightly point to something that I did not spell out explicitly in the book and which is related to the fact that people generally presented music’s mediation as less intricate than the mediation of audio-visual content via television. Music itself was certainly regarded critically and Pentecostal listeners often discussed who and what could transmit spiritual force and which marvels and dangers were involved. Music as mediating technology was thus very important and people’s evaluations of music feature prominently in the book. As I explain in detail, people’s evaluations were closely related to perceived differences between music genres and the associations between genres, life-styles and communities in the favelas. In my opinion, Ilana Gershon’s concept of media ideology can be applied very well to music and the critical appraisals of evangelical listeners, and though I did not explicitly refer to her concept with regard to listening practices, I do refer to the work of Webb Keane, whose concept of semiotic ideology is very close to Gershon’s work. So why did I refer explicitly to the notion of media ideology when discussing television? In contrast to television-broadcasters, evangelical radio-broadcasters played only recognized evangelical (gospel) music, made by people who identified themselves as evangélicos. Other ‘worldly’ radio stations played no evangelical music at all – at least not music of self-identified evangélicos. Tuning in to an evangelical radio station gave the evangelical listeners a sense of ease since they did not have to worry about the possibility of hearing sinful music. Television broadcasters that broadcast evangelical programs, on the other hand, also aired worldly content. Even TV Record, the channel owned by Edir Macedo, leader of the Igreja Universal, aired programs that could be considered worldly (yet not necessarily immoral). As a consequence, television (the device) demanded much critical attention according to the people I spoke to. Evangelical programs could be followed by worldly or even demonic programs. People generally remained vigilant to see what would be aired next. The notion of media ideology helped me to describe the problems of evangelical television viewers a bit better than the concept of semiotic ideology. Television presented my evangelical interlocutors with bundles of related ideologies that included semiotic ideologies but also appraisals of the medium as it works in the context of Rio de Janeiro. And television confronted them with several questions: Which programs are available on each television channel at what moments during the day and how is each program related to Brazil’s intricate religious field? When believing that television can transmit demonic powers, which programs should be considered harmless and which not? And when they are potentially harmful, can one still watch them in an effort to test oneself as firm Christian or should one turn off the television? As I describe in the book, one Pentecostal viewer recounted how he had tried to watch an erotic television program – believing he would be able to withstand its demonic seduction – to find himself powerless in the face of its lure and then quickly turned it off.





Jennifer Roth-Gordon on her new book, Race and the Brazilian Body

Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro by [Roth-Gordon, Jennifer]

Interview by Ilana Gershon

If you were at a wedding, and the person at your table happened to be a scholar of African-American experiences of the Jim Crow South who wanted to know a bit about your book, what would you say?

Can the person sitting next to the Jim Crow scholar at our table be someone who witnessed the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville? I think I might open by saying to them that I study race relations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a context which is both very similar and very different from the ones that they are immersed in. My book is an investigation into how we can watch people draw on and perpetuate racial hierarchy in daily conversations and interactions, in a national context where noticing racial difference is (and has long been) taboo. These racial ideas – about the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of blackness – are the same ideas that were legalized in the Jim Crow South and that white people marched to uphold just a few weeks ago, in defense of statues meant to keep nonwhite people “in their place.” I can point to very little that changes, over time or across national boundaries, in the civilized/uncivilized and upstanding/dangerous distinctions between what whiteness and nonwhiteness are thought to represent.

Brazil also suffers from incredibly high levels of structural racism that almost always exceed statistics from the present-day U.S. (from racial gaps in education levels, income, and where people live, to what scholars have called a black genocide of thousands of Afro-descended youth killed by police each year). Despite these national similarities, Brazil has long used incidents like Charlottesville (such as the Civil War, lynchings, the LA riots and Rodney King beating, Ferguson, and so on) to define themselves in contrast to the violent history and aggressive nature of race relations in the U.S. Though they are now more aware of racism than ever before, many Brazilians continue to take pride in their reputation for racial mixture and racial tolerance. While most would admit that Brazil is not (and has never been) a “racial democracy,” there is a strong belief that inequality in Brazil is socioeconomic, rather than racial.

My book seeks to explain the “comfortable racial contradiction” that surrounds Rio residents with signs of blackness and whiteness but discourages them from describing what they see in racial terms. It’s not a contradiction that is “comfortable” for all, but I argue that this contradiction is surprisingly easy to live within, even as it may be hard to unravel and explain – in the same way that we now have to contemplate what it means to live in a “colorblind” America that has people on both ends of the political spectrum loudly proclaiming that race matters. I study how racial ideology allows us to live in societies that promote themselves as tolerant and equal, even as we are daily surrounded by (and participating in) profoundly racially unequal and unjust circumstances. Laws and torches are not the only ways to maintain white supremacy, and swastika-flag bearers are not the only ones who keep systems of racial hierarchy in place.

You argue that Rio residents are in the position of being able to claim to be racially tolerant while still re-inscribing racial hierarchies in practice.  Do you have an especially apt example of this dynamic?

My intention is to better understand race, and more specifically whiteness, by disentangling the obvious relevance of phenotype from the often unacknowledged significance of embodied practices. As I describe, medium brown-skinned bodies can be read as “black” in Rio when they take up slang associated with favelas (shantyowns). These same bodies can be read as “white” when they occupy exclusive private spaces like social clubs and demonstrate “proper” restraint and decorum. Drawing on everyday interactions, I show how Rio residents unavoidably draw on widespread and well known racial discourses to make their bodies interpretable, and to interpret others, as they interact in both comfortable private spaces amongst “equals” and as they cross the city’s well-established race and class borders.

In the book, I discuss an especially interesting situation in which a phenotypically “brown” youth who I call Bola started spending time hanging out in the housing project/favela where I was conducting research. He was raised in the white middle class, and he was splitting his time between studying for college-entrance exams with his friends from his private high school and hanging out on the streets with darker-skinned peers in Cruzada who were not on the same life path. He adapted a very different speech style with these youth. I played recordings of his speech for outside listeners (non-participants), including his own mother. Her response offered an excellent example of this simultaneously racially tolerant and racially hierarchical reaction. She was not upset that her son chose to associate closely with darker-skinned people in spaces that were considered dangerous. But she was horrified by his language in these conversations, which evoked the blackness and criminality associated with the favela: “É uma tristeza isso aqui! Meu Deus do céu! Que diálogo horroroso isso! [Eu rio] Não, eu acho! Não vou dar crédito a isso aqui . . . Que bando de marginal!” (How sad this is! Oh my God! What a horrible dialogue! [I laugh] No, I think so! I won’t give credit to this . . . It sounds like a group of marginals [criminals]!) It was not people who were visibly and audibly black that worried her but rather others’ ability to read the signs of blackness off of her son’s body (and the fact that these signs undid the possibilities of his whiteness).

In Brazil, neither light skin nor ancestry guarantees or is required for racial whiteness, which is helpful for phenotypically darker members of the middle class like Bola, but this makes the constant display of the bodily techniques associated with whiteness all the more important.

How are notions of whiteness in Brazil different than in the United States?  How might this explain the differences between being a Brazilian playboy and a U.S. wigger? 

Brazil is both proud of its history promoting miscegenation and racial mixture and deeply ashamed of its status as a “mongrel” nation that lacks the culture, civilization, and modernity associated with racial whiteness. Across Latin America and the Caribbean, individuals, families, and nation-states have long struggled to acquire and display whiteness, harboring both implicit and explicit fears that they will never shed their associations with nonwhiteness, which includes both African and indigenous heredity. Whiteness suggests decorum, respectability, and civilized control. But the presumed lack of racial purity in Brazil – what has been called “virtual whiteness” or the implication that one is “branco por procuração” (white by proxy) – means that one’s whiteness is always vulnerable. I find this racial anxiety productive in suggesting that critical whiteness scholars should question the presumed “normalcy” and stability of whiteness, even in the United States. In particular, I am intrigued by the cultural and linguistic work that people (of different racial backgrounds) do to associate themselves with whiteness, in order to benefit from racial privilege. (Though people like the rappers and rap fans I worked with could also choose to explicitly reject the push for racial whitening or assimilation.) In the book, I examine three social and racial imperatives that uphold Brazilian racial hierarchy: (1) the need to display whiteness, (2) the desire to avoid blackness, and (3) the obligation to remain racially “cordial.” I believe that the United States shares with Brazil this orientation towards whiteness and away from blackness, though ideologies of racial purity clearly differ. In Brazil, the ideal national color is “moreno” or brown.

Because of the ambivalence surrounding racial purity, the Brazilian “playboy” is a term rappers use to call out the desire of privileged male youth to flaunt their racial whiteness (without necessarily identifying as white). By contrast, the U.S. wigger is a term used for white-identified male youth who flaunt their dangerous and “inappropriate” connections to blackness. Both terms help illustrate the main argument of my book: The amount of whiteness or blackness a body displays is determined not only through observations of phenotypical features, but also through careful attention paid to cultural and linguistic practices.

One of your fieldwork strategies that turns out to be very productive is playing recordings of people’s speech across class lines and analyzing people’s reactions.   You often mention that the Brazilians you encountered seemed intent on not discussing or openly acknowledging race.  How did this technique function in a context where people actively avoided discussing precisely what you were interested in studying?   Is there a specific response someone had to a decontextualized snippet of conversation that you especially like to analyze?

My favorite “decontextualized snippet” to play wound up being one in which a favela youth recounted a time that he felt he was going to be robbed. Just as cultural anthropologist Teresa Caldeira has found in São Paulo, “talk of crime” is a very productive narrative genre in Rio. But rather than responding by producing their own “near robbery” experiences (which they all undoubtedly had and liked to share), middle-class listeners reacted very viscerally to the speech that they had just heard. Though the story was about a favela youth’s own vulnerability and near-victim status, all they could hear was the voice of a criminal. Their reactions to the non-standard speech that he used (all of which they associated with gíria or slang) beautifully illustrated the enregisterment of slang, as specific linguistic features were grouped together to point directly to “dangerous” city spaces and the persona of a “bandido” (bandit or criminal). Though the actual bodies of the speakers could only be imagined, foundational ties were being stitched together between perceived linguistic disorder, the breaking of laws, and blackness. In less directed conversations and without concrete examples that triggered emotional reactions of fear and disdain, members of the middle class were more likely to speak in general terms about the links between standard speech, education, and socioeconomic class. Rio residents rarely mention race explicitly, and this technique of metalinguistic interviewing allowed me to show how they continue to draw on an implicit racial logic that links whiteness to bodily and linguistic control, cultural refinement, and law and order while connecting blackness to a lack of rationality and intellect, violence, and dangerous disarray.

How did being part of a mixed family in the field, since you have two adopted children who read as black in Brazil (and in the US as well), offer you a useful lens for understanding how race is socially constructed?   And how do all your children deal with the transitions of moving between two such differentially racialized contexts?

I’ve studied race in Rio since 1995, but the year I spent living in Rio with my three children in tow (in 2014) was an eye-opener in understanding the huge differences between color and race and between brownness and blackness. Though they went to a private school with hundreds of children, many of whom would not be considered white in the U.S., my two African American children stuck out due to their phenotypical blackness. At the same time, I could watch how they were treated very differently from the darker-skinned people who did occupy the same private, middle-class spaces (as minimum-wage workers who cleaned, served as security guards, and so on). Rather than attributing that merely to a difference of socioeconomic class (as many Brazilians, and even North Americans, would assume), I had to expand my understanding of race beyond phenotypical markers. My children did not cease being black and people did not turn off their awareness of race just because of their class status. This led me to question why two of my three children didn’t receive more of a reaction when they entered such white spaces. On the one hand, I would argue that they have acquired the right “racial sensibilities” (as Ann Stoler calls them), but, at the same time, structural racism gets pretty glaring when you are in its limelight. When we are at a “casa de festa” (private party space) with dozens of other children, none of them dark-skinned, and another mother comes up to ask me if I am the mother of the “girl in the green dress,” it becomes clear that there is a sophisticated “not noticing” of race that is going on. Rather than merely benefiting from socioeconomic similarity, my daughter was being read as both black and white. This has euphemistically been referred to as being a “negro de alma branca” (a black person with a white soul).

My children have struggled with their own noticing of racial difference (“why are most of the street kids black?”) and the occasionally loud noticing of racial difference by other young children not yet trained in the racial etiquette of tolerance or colorblindness (“your skin is black!”). But cycling back to my answer to your first question, the structural racism they live in and the white supremacist ideologies that they must live with have produced similar life lessons in racial inequality in both contexts. This simultaneous similarity and difference has long made Brazil a productive foil for the study of U.S. race relations.

Falina Enriquez’s Composing Cultura

“ . . . those who align with Pernambucan discourses of cultura [culture] [. . .]  are not simply elevating themselves by excluding massively popular, commercial genres like swingueira from the category of cultura, but their ability to evaluate and define cultura is a sign and source of power” (pg. 99).

My dissertation, “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil,” examines how a constellation of musicians, bureaucrats, and audiences objectify and commodify local culture in Pernambuco’s capital city, Recife. The dissertation contributes to anthropological and ethnomusicological studies that analyze how musical practices are interactionally embedded in debates over power and meaning. Specifically, the dissertation argues that while participants in Recife’s state-sponsored music scene were creating new multicultural and democratic understandings of ‘culture,’ they were simultaneously reconfiguring social stratification. Page ninety-nine is part of the second chapter’s introduction. The chapter is organized around the musical rivalry between Pernambuco and the neighboring state of Bahia. It examines how members of a state agency committee and other participants in the state-sponsored music scene invoke pop music from Bahia as the antithesis of Pernambucan “cultural” music. I show how these actors interpret Bahian pop music as kitschy and disposable, but more importantly, how they discursively employ these qualities to depict its performers/consumers as lower-class and (implicitly) racially marked.  As the quotation above suggests, these discourses are important because they are themselves a sign of power and a tool for (re)producing it. When I conducted the majority of my fieldwork research from 2009-2011, many of my consultants interpreted these problematic discourses as evidence that new policies and idioms centered on socio-political inclusion were not as effective as they seemed. Yet, while these were significant concerns, they existed within a broader understanding that Brazilian society was progressing. However, now in 2016, such hopes seem even more remote. Brazilian citizens are currently coping with instability caused by corruption scandals, economic decline, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the new federal administration’s elimination of government ministries and programs focused on minimizing poverty, racism, and other forms of inequality. The issues I discuss on page ninety-nine and throughout the dissertation therefore seem more relevant now. Accordingly, as I develop my book project, I will focus on how musicians and other residents of Recife are negotiating the dramatic changes they have experienced during the past five years.

Falina Enriquez. “Composing Cultura: Musical Democracy and Multiculturalism in Recife, Brazil.” Phd diss, University of Chicago, 2014.