the fall of the sky

Image: Elyeser Szturm

Bolsonaro's denialist discourse takes on an explicitly necropolitical dimension, in addition to being grotesque, to the extreme point of becoming a kind of autoimmune reaction, a suicide policy

By Carolina Correia dos Santos* and Luciano Nuzzo**

In 2015, the work – a mixture of prophecy, autobiographical account, testimony, ethnography and mythology – by Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa, was published in Brazil, The fall of the sky: words of a Yanomami shaman[1]. Among all the passages discussed and told in the book, some have a special appeal to think about today. The first is the prophecy of the end of the world that Kopenawa evokes from the Yanomami myths and that accounts for the destructive effects of human activity on Earth – a situation that the scientific community officially came to call the “Anthropocene”. To reach the end of the world, Kopenawa formulates, “naturally”, what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, who writes the introduction to the book, claims to be a global theory of place, a powerful formulation about the Earth as a common place. The end of the world would be the same for everyone, here, in Rio de Janeiro, where we write from, in the Amazon, in Europe or in China. The psychosocial experience we are experiencing, in this quarantine of global proportions to which we are subjected at the same time, is the strongest evidence of this. The (correct) impression that we will not “beat the virus” alone – whether we are talking about our national or regional groups, or our class – is the necessary and obvious reminder that the Earth is um cosmopolitically inhabited planet (by humans, viruses, bats, multiple entities).

Furthermore, the end of the Yanomami world that Kopenawa reports to Albert has to do with contact with civilization: with criminal mining in indigenous lands, with the opening of roads and pastures in the Amazon, which imposed the destruction of an entire ecosystem. In a word, the end of the world is determined by the encounter with white people, a fact that, incidentally, produced, throughout Latin American history, countless ends of indigenous worlds. In this sense, it is worth remembering that the Yanomami word for “white” is “näpe”, whose meaning prior to the catastrophic encounter was “enemy, outsider”.

The second passage that jumps out at us and impels us to think about today is linked to the first, but its link with covid-19 does not require mediation. the fall of the sky has entire pages dedicated to epidemics (xawara) that afflicted the Yanomami. Flu epidemics, which the Yanomami experienced as coughing, conjunctivitis, dysentery and deaths. Epidemics of measles, rubella, scarlet fever. All of them associated, by the Yanomami, with breathing, with what they breathed, with smoke. “Epidemic smoke” is the Yanomami expression.

Kopenawa and Albert's book arrived in Brazil at a time when the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, in the Xingu river basin, was being completed. The subject of heated debates, Belo Monte was defended by the development wing of the then federal government, and by President Dilma Rousseff herself, and widely attacked by environmentalists, indigenous peoples and riverside communities. The arguments against the construction of the plant were numerous and ranged from the defense of the forest to the defense of its inhabitants, indigenous and non-indigenous, passing through the predictable degradation of human ways of life in an area that depends on nature to guarantee social and cultural habits. The inauguration of Belo Monte promoted an implicit stimulus to the destruction of the forest and the imposition of agribusiness in the region.

In the four years that have passed since the publication of the book and since the opening of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant, Brazil has experienced a radical political and social crisis. President Dilma, re-elected in 2014, is deposed with an impeachment process that assumes the characteristics of a true institutional coup. Lula, former president of Brazil and presidential candidate, is arrested on the eve of the 2018 elections and sentenced to twelve years in prison, in an accelerated and interrupted trial, by a first instance judge who will become the Minister of Justice of the future government. After a violent election campaign, Jair Messias Bolsonaro is elected president of Brazil.

 The black smoke that, in August of last year, covered the sky of São Paulo, therefore, did not surprise those who had been following, alarmed, the political directions in Brazil. The gray sky that darkened the largest city in South America, at 15:278, was the result of the combination of a cold front and particles, brought by the wind, from the large wild fires that were taking place, in those days, in the Amazon. What you saw, with little imaginative effort, was the sky falling, Kopenawa's prophecy coming true. To complement the apocalyptic scenario, the position of the republic's representative, sometimes presented by himself, sometimes through his minister, Ricardo Salles, was the denial of the severity of the fires, attributing the reason to natural droughts. This despite the blatant data on the increase in forest devastation made available by Inpe (National Institute for Space Research), which showed a 2018% increase in the area affected by fire compared to the same period in XNUMX. At some point in the crisis, Salles arrives to declare that the solution to save the Amazon was to monetize it.

The Covid-19 pandemic is yet another health emergency, but also a socio-political one, for a country, Brazil, used to constantly living in an emergency. It is clear that this time it is a pandemic of global proportions, capable of producing a humanitarian catastrophe in a few months. Perhaps especially in Brazil, where 13,5 million people live in extreme poverty, with a per capita income of 145 reais per month (just over 25 euros) [2]; 31,1 million (16% of the population) do not have access to safe drinking water; 74,2 million (37% of the population) live in areas that do not have sewage services and 5,8 million do not have a toilet at home[3].

The brutality of the numbers indicates a very clear fact: if it is true that we will not save ourselves from the virus, an invisible and omnipresent enemy, alone, it is equally true that the effects of the emergency will be unevenly distributed, exacerbating once again the already existing social inequality and the contradictions of a highly stratified and racist society. It is in this scenario that Bolsonaro’s denialist discourse, his appeal to “normality”, takes on an explicitly necropolitical dimension, in addition to being grotesque, to the extreme point of becoming a kind of autoimmune reaction, a policy of suicide, of his person, as an increasingly marginalized and declining leader and, more worryingly, of the population of the state of which he is president.

The opposition would seem to be simply that between capital and health, between profit and the protection of life. But things are more complicated than that. On the one hand, capital needs living labor; on the other hand, the State needs to safeguard life in the face of the viral danger of contagion, but also the life necessary for the social reproduction of capital. If the opposition has the merit of making evident, with its simplicity, the relationship of exploitation and destruction that capital establishes with life, at the same time, however, it can only work on condition of believing that capital continues to have infinite resources , human and natural. On the contrary, in the explosion of the last decades of the environmental crisis, that is, in the Anthropocene, both proved to be limited, more fragile and codependent. The falling sky falls on us all. This is what the Covid-19 pandemic clearly shows us. The virus brings to light the fundamental relationship between urbanized human beings and wild beings and its speed of contagion does not allow us to think of resources as unlimited, be they technical and scientific technology, health professionals, consumers or workers – if not all of them run risk of death, everyone, being potential carriers of the virus, jeopardizes the more or less necessary balance for the world to continue functioning as before.

It seems to us, therefore, that this opposition fails to focus on the question of the relationship between normality and emergency, with reference to the various institutional subjects, public and private, called upon to manage the crisis and guarantee the biopolitical governance of the population, which is the interweaving between life, capital and political power. Under the pressure of the health emergency, what is taking shape is not just a generic crisis of political institutions to mediate the conflicts and contradictions that cross them, but new ways of managing and organizing crises.

Ultimately, the contrast between capital and public health (or between capital and the state) has a structural defect. Like all binarisms, past and present, it simplifies the complexity of the world and the specificity of the situation it would like to explain, thus resulting in ineffectiveness. The particularity, perhaps, of what constitutes Brazil, or of what constitutes the history of Brazilian development, is that the country serves as an example, works as a laboratory, showing, with magnified lenses, the world's social processes. Thus, the contraposition not only does not oppose opposites, since capital accurate of healthy bodies, as the very attempt to enunciate it and make it operative demonstrates the co-implication of the terms rather than the opposition. In Brazil, the symbiotic relationship between two poles that one would like to keep apart – for the sake of order and disciplinary discourse – is what seems to best explain its history and its contemporary social condition. In Rio de Janeiro, the former imperial and republican capital, constituted, against the grain of the social theories of the 20th century, simultaneously by the city and the favela, not as norm and exception or present and archaic, but where one influences the other to the point of confusion. las (in this sense, think about the expressions “favelization of the city” and “urbanization of the favela”); city ​​where the data we mentioned about Brazil stand out, the imminence of the epidemic means that the perennial state of precariousness of the old capital will be exasperated, constraining us, probably, to rethink the habits of living and inhabiting in this city and in this country, encompassing the issue of public health, housing, transport and the distribution of economic activities to the pollution of land, water and air. A rethinking that cannot fail to reframe the forms of life in and on the planet.

In Brazil, perhaps more evidently than elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic does not confront us with the alternative between security and freedom, nor with the choice between the militarization of everyday life (which for some sectors of the population is the rule) and survival. biology, themes dear to contemporary European discussions. The emergence of Covid-19 highlights, with the violence of the pandemic, already existing trends and, at the same time, amplifies and generalizes them. What appears to be happening, under the pressure and fear of contagion, is primarily a redefinition and reconfiguration of selection criteria in order to choose “who to live and who to let die”. The criteria of class, race and gender are integrated and mixed, transversally, with “biomedical” criteria – age, previous illnesses, genetic predispositions – defining the risk profile of each individual and reconfiguring the same access to care based on an economic calculation between costs and benefits.

To make it clear, the emergency is not the state of exception and the decision about who to “make live and who to let die” has nothing to do with the decision by Carl Schmitt. Unlike the exception, emergence is not at the origin of any order, just as there is no sovereign who, on the brink of the abyss of his groundlessness, founds order in the nothingness of order. No. This decision is not grandiose, this is simply a risk handling technique and, like all risk management techniques, it can only decide the risk to be taken and the subjects and categories under which this risk will have to fall. We are far from the “tragedy” of political theology. Here political theology and its tragic epiphany are replaced by sober statistics.

Bolsonaro is certainly a grotesque character, exactly in the terms that Foucault refers to in the beautiful pages he dedicates, in Abnormalities, to the description of the power of normalization. He is the common man. Everything about him is extremely common, terribly normal, even the racist psychopathology of his speech, which makes him say, for example, that “increasingly, the Indian is a human being just like us”. Therefore, the normality to which he refers is that of racism, colonialism and patriarchy, founding elements of Brazilian history (and of the entire West) and which, in a certain way, have allowed the “normal” functioning of the State until today. In this regard, it is possible to understand Bolsonaro's call for Brazilians to return to work. The president's constant invitation to reopen stores and schools, with the argument that death is everyone's destiny and cannot be avoided, is not justified only by the concern to reactivate the economy, but by the need to guarantee the "social containment" of the crowd as a condition of “normal” everyday life.

Now, this ridiculous and dangerous sovereign, or rather, ridiculous and infamous, and criminal in the effects it produces, is paradoxically an expression of the impossibility of deciding. Bolsonaro is the ruler who does not know, who does not decide and who cannot decide. Like a new Hamlet, Bolsonaro embodies the undecidability of any political decision. The not knowing that the decision, deciding, decides to minimize. The undecidability – and in this the president of Brazil is really a sample to be studied – of Bolsonaro is, in fact, the situation to which all Western political leaders are exposed who, faced with a pandemic whose precedents go back to an already remote time, they can only respond with the old solution of social isolation.

Unlike Hamlet, however, Bolsonaro does not experience the tragedy of his not knowing and his ontological impossibility. In the indefinite opening of a space between the sovereign claim to decide and its practical impossibility, emergency and normality are brought together, defining the biopolitical horizon in which our existences become numbers, statistics, potential risk groups.

This does not mean that the exception becomes the rule. Once again, we are far from any epic of the state of exception that has become the rule. On the contrary, without obvious ruptures, beyond and below the institutional forms, in the space that opens up between the decision and its impossibility, between the knowledge of the past and the not knowing of the future, new forms of crisis management are stabilized, in which subjects participate. different that guide their decisions to control the risks caused by the sovereign impossibility of making decisions.

One thing is clear, if the health emergency aggravates and highlights the ongoing processes, at the same time intensifies and expands resistance. On the one hand, the same partitions that are “normal” in a big city like Rio, hill / asphalt, favela / city become more than ever impossible with the arrival of an epidemic that affects everyone. As in the film “La Zona”, by Rodrigo Pla, the gated community has been violated and the sacrifice of a scapegoat is not enough to restore its boundaries, unless one wants to officiate a mass suicide. On the other hand, there is a collective intelligence, a wisdom of everyday struggles and resistance in the making. Also from this point of view, covid-19 expands current trends, makes clear the forces, their lines of flight, the possibilities that continually cross the meshes of powers. Life, the object of political intervention, was in a sense taken literally and turned against the system that controlled it. Paraphrasing Deleuze when he talks about Foucault, we could say that the pandemic questions us about what we can “as living beings”, that is, as a set of forces that resist.[4]


Every night, at half past eight, in many neighborhoods and cities in Brazil, the silence of the quarantine is interrupted by the resounding sound of pots and pans. A crowd at the windows, overlooking the outside of its confines, banging pots and other instruments, reinvents the common space through the air. The cries of “outside” echo others perhaps in the hope of expelling from the lungs what was breathed. As, perhaps, in an urban but cosmopolitical ritual of expulsion from xawara.

* Caroline Correia dos Santos Professor of Literary Theory at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ).

** Luciano Nuzzo Professor of Legal Sociology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ)

[1] David Kopenawa, Bruce Albert, The fall of the sky: words of a Yanomami shaman🇧🇷 São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015.

[2] Data are available in the 2018 “Synthesis of Social Indicators” (SIS), developed by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

[3] Data contained in the “Continuous National Household Sample Survey” (PNAD), 2018, developed by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

[4] G. Deleuze, Foucault, Cronopio 2002, p. 124.

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