Bet on dramatization

Image: Luiz Armando Bagolin
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By TIAGO FERRO*

One or two comments on the essay “It looks like a revolution, but it's just neoliberalism”

I read with interest the essay “It looks like a revolution, but it's just neoliberalism” (magazine Piauí, Jan. 21). I confess that the text seduced me. But something didn't click. And it was just the last paragraph. The strangeness caused by the end of the essay made me return to the text and write these comments.

Here's the ending: “I'm just sorry I had to sign it under a pseudonym. The reason for this is evident. In these times of moralistic authoritarian crusades and neoliberal media narcissism, a critique such as the one I have made here has to make use of authorial privacy as a shield and refuge”.

In the same move in which the author disappears, he doubles the bet on the dramatization of what is at stake, reinforcing the argument constructed from start to finish that he, the author, and his fellow professors at public universities are victims of such a violent attack, that made him give up a basic assumption of the search for consensus in modernity: open and public debate.

It was only in 1960, with the publication of The Brazilian Othello of Machado de Assis, that a new way of understanding the Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis. Shakespeare expert Helen Caldwell noted how Bento Santiago distorts the play Othello to reinforce Capitu's guilt. We went from adultery to jealousy as the plot's organizing passion, and Capitu found herself innocent. Did she cheat or not? A zero-sum game that, however, opened the doors for literary critic Roberto Schwarz to interpret the novel based on the idea of ​​an unreliable narrator. Two alternatives presented themselves to the reader, with opposite ideological consequences: to adhere or not to Bento's account. And, therefore, to stand beside or against the patriarchal society represented by the narrator.

Let us think of the narrator of the essay in question.

The text is divided into two parts. In the first, there are a series of reports about absurd and abusive demands by students against professors at public universities. Read less, obtain a diploma without proving merit, pass the subject without writing the final paper, etc. Despite the absurd demands, the teachers, the narrator's colleagues, find themselves cornered, losing sleep, and not knowing how to deal with the students. After a longer first story, the others are short, and the absence of concrete referents – since it is always about “a friend who teaches”, “another professor at a public university”, on the one hand and, on the other, “an undergraduate student”, “the students”, etc. – makes the narrative loose, stripped, and at the limit of verisimilitude. Let's see the answer that a group of students gives to the teacher who, upon entering the classroom, asks about the reason for the hubbub: “We are causing a riot”. Who is setting up a riot announces it with tranquility precisely to his target? Or does he keep everything under wraps to explode at just the right time? The narrator betrays himself when he reveals that he chooses the most appropriate tone for each episode: “The episode I narrated may have been particularly theatrical and pedagogical […]”.

In the second part, when the narrator tries to explain the phenomenon that animates such riots, the students gain thickness – and also color and gender. Thus, we begin to leave the world of generalities and understand the specifics of the situation, which, however, reveals itself in an ambiguous way, but nonetheless identifiable.

If at first it is cultural neoliberalism that animates these student-consumers who see themselves as having the right to demand what pleases them most, at a second it is the class struggle: students place themselves in the position of an exploited class and see teachers as an exploiting class. Class struggle or consumer rights? Two alternatives that would be excluded were it not for the change in terms from cultural neoliberalism to left neoliberalism. Concepts sneak in and concrete takes over.

Among the professors there would be “an underrepresentation of groups discriminated against and oppressed for racial, ethnic, religious, gender, sexuality or class reasons. As many students are affected by these discriminations, it is not surprising that some see their teachers as privileged subjects endowed with great power”. We finally know who the students are: they belong to groups that suffer discrimination. Still according to the narrator, these students miss the mark, since the professors fight for the same flags – yet another generalization of the text. These students, who therefore now have identifiable and serious causes, should not “spend their time and energy fighting for petty 'causes' like the supposed right to study less […]”.

Once the picture of sympathy with the professors is in place, once it becomes impossible to side with these impertinent consumers, the narrator moves on to the greater causes, but already here distorted by the progress of the story, by the poisoned narrative. “It is also serious the deviation made by the progressive political offensive when it starts to attack its allies. The most atrocious expression of this misrepresentation is the proliferation of unfounded accusations of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and transphobia leveled against teachers.” Nobody would disagree with the gravity of an environment where the proliferation of false accusations reigns. But the narrator balances on ambiguities, otherwise he would have to offer concrete examples that prove the proliferation of accusations and other loose threads that are being abandoned along the way. He states that this type of denunciation must be taken seriously and investigated, and then goes on to say that although these attitudes are frequent, “it does not mean, however, that all denunciations are true”, “since some of these accusations are opportunistic acts of people driven by more immediate and less than commendable goals [...]”. As the reader can see, it is difficult to understand the point of balance in sentences that cancel each other out in the end to create a climate of general injustice against teachers.

Once we are introduced to the more concrete problem, the narrator provides examples of that first opportunism of student-consumers, but now wrapped up by agendas of the so-called identity struggles. Students from discriminated groups seek undue advantages under the banners of struggles for historical reparations of minorities. Small causes and great causes are on par here, and by contagion both gain a negative sign.

Then the narrator reinforces the problem by showing that public education is under attack by its usual enemies, right-wing neoliberalism – just neoliberalism? – and now also left-wing neoliberalism – Nancy Fraser addressed the concept of progressive neoliberalism, a more appropriate term and certainly an urgent debate that the text in question offers in a biased way –, which, as we have seen, is not just about student-consumers, but of a certain group of students who manipulate discourses and identities to take advantage of “small causes”.

Before closing the text, when the “necessity” of using the pseudonym is revealed, the narrator compares the current situation with the year 1815, when “Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Europeans joined retrograde forces in a Holy Alliance against republican ideals” . The “theatrical and pedagogical” slides into nonsense. Anachronism is only justified by the confidence that the reader has completely adhered to what has been narrated so far. The conclusion by analogy is clear: it will take an open war against the fanatics who threaten the autonomous existence of the public university.

The title and the name that signs the essay are also part of the construction and are of interest. The name “Benamê Kamu Almudras”, due to its distant sound from the Western white standard, puts the author face to face with the groups he will attack. This would shield you from possible accusations of prejudice – if one day we find out who wrote the essay, it will not matter if that person fits more or less in this or that group, since when the essay was published, the pseudonym was chosen, and our analysis was done entirely within the text.

And finally, using the same reductive formula of the title of the essay, of the type “it seems but it is not”, which does not leave intermediate spaces for debate, we can say that the apparently interesting and seductive text, “seems critical, but it is just conservatism ”.

PS Thanks for the dialogue and suggestions to Francisco Alambert and Victor Santos Vigneron.

* Tiago Ferro is a critic and novelist, author of The dead girl's father (However), winner of the 2019 Jabuti Prize for Best Novel.

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