Autoconstruction in Working-Class Brazil

Essay Excerpt

This article considers autoconstruction as an arena of such spatial, political, and symbolic mobilizations in Brazil. Its thesis is that the experience of the autoconstructed hinterland engenders political actions about residence and aesthetic judgments about houses through which the working classes develop new kinds of social agencies and subjective capacities that not only subvert historically ascribed incapacities but paradoxically actualize the new hegemonies of modern industrial society. Thus, the impact of autoconstruction is complex: it replaces what are in fact outmoded geographic, political, and personal identities among the working classes with updated industrial versions. To make these points, I first establish the spatial and historical contexts in which autoconstruction became important in Brazil. I then analyze the political significance of autoconstruction, arguing that it generates an expansion of the field of the political to include a new set of issues clustered around the home concerning daily life, the personal, and urban space. Finally, I discuss its aesthetic significance as a public idiom that the working classes construct to express their participation in modern consumer society, in which house transformations provide people with a model of change itself. (Holston, 447)

About the Author

James Holston is a Professor at the University of California at Berkeley. 

His current research examines the worldwide insurgence of democratic citizenships in the context of global urbanization, especially the generation of insurgent citizenship among the urban working classes in Brazil, as they confront problems of urbanization, land tenure, government regulation, state violence, and misrule of law.

"My current research examines the worldwide insurgence of democratic citizenships in the context of global urbanization. Three considerations frame this work: those of theme, method, and critique.

The first analyzes insurgent citizenship movements in relation to projects of state that aim to produce the nation and manage the social by imposing a future embodied in plans _ projects of city planning, development, law, and government. By insurgent, I refer to practices through which people problematize such projects _ practices that work against established conditions of inequality and provide alternatives for including citizens and distributing rights. My research focuses especially on the generation of insurgent citizenship among the urban working classes in Brazil, as they confront problems of urbanization, land tenure, government regulation, state violence, and misrule of law. My publications consider the unsettling of national and local citizenship this insurgence produces. They emphasize, however, that as dominant regimes of rule destabilize, the insurgent remains entangled with the entrenched. The result is a process of democratization in which new kinds of citizens arise to expand democracy and new forms of violence, illegality, and exclusion simultaneously erode it.

The methodological concerns of my research combine ethnography and history to study the present. I rely on the empirical depth and precision of ethnographic analysis to engage the problems that mobilize people in the places I work: in the poor peripheries and elite neighborhoods of S∆o Paulo, in a new religion on the outskirts of Bras°lia, in Latino neighborhoods in California. This mapping has always suggested to me that a particular problem encountered in the field takes on a specific expression because its historical formulation continues to structure its present possibilities. For example, the use of law to legalize illegal land seizures in the contemporary peripheries of S∆o Paulo makes sense only in relation to the centuries of land occupation in Brazil that made illegal settlement the norm of residence. Contemporary citizenships are typically volatile mixtures of insurgent and entrenched elements because the dominant historical regimes of citizenship both produce and limit possible counter-formulations. I pursue historical analysis in ethnography to investigate these articulations.

Anthropology_s engagement of ethnography and history also suggests a strategy for critical research. By that, I mean problematizing thoughts and actions that rest on taken-for-granted, unexamined assumptions and demonstrating the consequences that both the unexamination of the familiar and its defamiliarization have for the construction of the present. Thus my research aims to debunk a number of professional practices and presuppositions: to expose modes of urban planning that segregate; to doubt distinctions between the illegal and the legal that ground law systems and the constitution of political powers; to demonstrate how development policies predictably promote conflict because they set the terms by which encroachments are reliably legalized; to argue that political definitions alone are inadequate to evaluate democracy and that political democracies do not necessary produce a democratic rule of law. I encourage collaborative work among students with the aim of building a corpus of research both to ground such critique and to indicate professional practices that foster greater citizen participation and social justice."

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