What makes us shudder



Reflections from the books of Vladimir Safatle and José Henrique Bortoluci

I traveled to beautiful and serene Montevideo with hedonistic plans, but a terrible flu stopped them. Surprisingly, the negative circumstances ended up giving me a week of great pleasure and learning. Cold and fever reduced the programs to reading and I had the privilege of dedicating myself to two extraordinary books. It was chance that brought together, in the same moment of forced concentration, two works that were distant in style, purpose and themes: At one with the momentum, by Vladimir Safatle, and What is mine, by José Henrique Bortoluci. However, if the choice was fortuitous, arbitrary beforehand, was motivated, a posteriori. Thinking about their possible connections, putting them in dialogue, was the unexpected effect of living with creations as different as they are brilliant, sophisticated, disturbing, inspiring and similar in their ability to mobilize affections and the desire to reflect.


At one with impulse, aesthetic experience and social emancipation, published by Autêntica, in 2022, is the first volume – or block, as author Vladimir Safatle prefers – of a magnificent tour de force which explores the cultural constellations of Western Europe. As the title suggests, the work is not limited to the genealogy of reflection on aesthetics – with a non-exclusive focus on music. His subject is also, from the beginning and by principle, political philosophy, and goes beyond, insofar as the questions are also epistemological, sociological, anthropological, as well as pertaining to the philosophy of language and psychoanalysis.

Vladimir Safatle serves us a generous and pantagruelic supper, in which the paradoxical delight that seduces us (poison remedy) is the permanent destabilization to which we are subjected in the turbulent sea of ​​his text, whose plot is passionate and rigorous, brilliant and dry, allusive and direct , enchanting and unsettling, purposefully open and inconclusive yet precise and consistent. Each chapter combines conceptual rigor, erudition (not as an exhibitionist exercise of encyclopedic knowledge, but as a practice that respects accumulated critical human effort) and a commitment either to aesthetic, constructive and expressive radicalism, or to the political radicality of social emancipation. There could be no more faithful heir to Adorno, dialectically unfaithful whenever fidelity betrays the radical nature of the path.

I dare, here, to make a perhaps frivolous statement, strictly anecdotal and therefore, in that sense, subjective and personal: I finished reading feeling my soul washed, as if Vladimir Safatle had fulfilled for me and for my generation – being so much younger than us – the duty to keep standing (or re-raise) the flags that, shortly after 1968, constituted the great political (and ethical) motivations of my life (and the lives of so many people with whom I identified and still do): the struggles against dictatorship and in defense of the aesthetic avant-garde that fed on the repudiation of capitalist exploitation, the reification of alienated social relations, and the mimetic populism of socialist realisms of all kinds.

Populism that compromised with patriarchy, racism and authoritarianism of the most diverse extractions, and also with aesthetic solutions that reproduced, in language, the grammar of affections and formal schemes unconsciously inherited. By socialist realism I mean the cliché constructions and the veto of “expression”, understood as the rupture that opens language to wild manifestations of radical alterity that the category “sublime” evokes more than it names and conceptualizes, manifestations that displace the subject ( from the place of coincidence with oneself, that is, from the appeased comfort of conscience, lord of reason and meaning), as well as decentering the “principle of reality”, the governing criterion of the naturalized social contract.

At one with the momentum it washed my soul also for a second reason, complementary to the first. If, on the one hand, when criticizing the instrumentalization of art, the author takes up the avant-garde tradition, so to speak, preserving, updating, expanding and intensifying the commitment to the radicality invested in art, the estuary of an autonomy that needs to be qualified, however. , on the other hand, rejects the inverse symmetrical mistake: the reification of autonomy, whether in an idealized form -art for art's sake, absolute art, refractory to historical contexts and indifferent to perspectives (or rather, to the impulse) of structural reconfiguration of social relations – whether in the form of commodified integration. Both forms end up being just two sides of the same coin - and the word here is not arbitrary.

The combined and unequal processes of modernization under bourgeois hegemony, which gain traction with the overwhelming speed of capitalist development (predatory and colonizing), establish, in parallel (and articulately) to the dynamics of individuation and urbanization, the regime of differentiation between the spheres of social life, which progressively become autonomous and specialized, forming, separating and hierarchizing knowledge, powers, experiences, ways of life, types of language, identities and modes of subjectivation. As is often the case in the toxic and nebulous environment of capitalism, which enslaves and mutilates body and spirit, leaps forward, lateral and regressive (if I may be allowed the precarious spatial metaphor). The cost of the relative autonomy granted to aesthetic construction – granted, but also conquered, in the frenetic dialectic between freedom and control – will be its co-option, and, consequently, the neutralization of its potential effect of revolutionizing popular sensibility, making it susceptible to the trembling (which is neither catharsis nor reconciling epiphany). The category, used by Paulo Arantes, justifiably cited and reiterated by Vladimir Safatle, corresponds to a kind of foreshadowing or evocation, intuition or proto-imagination of what could perhaps be called the horizon of social emancipation.

It is worth a pause at this point. I mentioned radicality, so it is worth asking: where is this root planted?, in what soil? true content of a work of art, what are we left with? Here, one more turn of the screw. Let's see: the concept of autonomy associated with illustration takes on contours of pretentious anthropological maturity on the threshold of the bourgeois revolution and is linked to the figure of freedom in the Rousseauist image of the legislator of himself.

The self-possessed self, placed on the pillars of reason, is legislator and judge, ruler of its destiny, as long as it recognizes its limits as a being of heteronomy, for whom autonomy can only be ideal, idea of ​​reason, indirect guide of its actions through the mediation of categorical imperatives. But before reaching, with Kant, the statute of appanage of the moral subject, ruled by categorical imperatives – a derivation of the idea of ​​self of reason (separated from contingencies, passions and interests), applied to the material world, eminently heteronomous –, the representation of freedom it was juridical-political, it composed a duet with the norm or the limit.

Giving yourself the law and obeying only the determinations dictated by the judgment itself, arbiter of the legal code through which the individual would exercise power over himself: this is the legal model with which Rousseau formulated his utopia. The reflexive, evaluative and aesthetic constellation that Vladimir Safatle identifies with romanticism, in its complexity, in its innumerable variations, would have opened the way, through some of its shortcuts, to more daring possibilities, tearing the figurations of freedom from legal or legislating registers.

Especially in music, Vladimir Safatle envisions the creative and transgressive audacity that inscribes revolutionary alterities in the field of practices and social sensitivity, which correspond to excesses resistant to integration into assimilated and consecrated systems, surpluses that restructure the game of form and meaning, subverting hitherto legitimate languages, without renouncing form, language, structure.

Such limiting movement, which is negativity but also affirmation, replaces the conditions for reception and production, inaugurates constructive principles and establishes a surprising harmony between aesthetic alterations and metamorphoses in the forms of life, inscribing in art the prospective palpitation of the collective will for change – returning libidinal investment and imaginative energy to political desire. Hence the relevance of the category “trembling”. It would be about tuning in with the displacement of tectonic plates of social life. Displacement that releases energy. Syntony, therefore, by contiguity – being, in this case, the allusion to metonymy just a metaphor.

The alterity that rips and emerges in art, turning its world upside down, like events and singularities, demanding new critical categories with each impulse, cannot be domesticated and reduced to particular incarnations of an alleged universal human spirit. A space is opened to inquire into the inhuman, the monstrous and the profusion of astonishments that shake empires (subjective, imaginary, objective, intellectual, etc.). Boundaries and borders blurred and violated, perceptions of nature – and corresponding practices – on the basis of which we build what we call civilization, go into space.

It should be noted that it is not these theses that open the gates of hell. They were opened by the barbarism that imposed itself on us as second nature, abolishing the future in the name of perpetuating the capitalist order.


The second book has the unpretentious aspect of a brief biographical record, assembled from memoirs of his father, a truck driver, who crossed the country from north to south, east to west, since the 1960s, recollections condensed and commented on by the author. Anyone who underestimates this unique and precious work is wrong. I would not hesitate to define it as a simply masterful aesthetic-reflective experiment. I refer to What is mine, by José Henrique Boltoluci, published in 2023 by Fósforo.

If it were up to me to suggest one book, just one, to a foreigner curious about Brazil, I would recommend this one, and I would also recommend it to us, Brazilian men and women, lay people, professors, researchers, neophytes or doctors. Some to discover, others to rediscover our country. Seasoned readers might assume that the narratives send them back to the déjà vue: roads and forests cleared, the sertanejo is above all strong, poor health and a lot of ants, the evils of Brazil are, the catiline with the usual musty jargon. None of that.

What José Henrique Bortoluci proposes to us is a monstrous challenge, to use the adjective that Vladimir Saflatle teaches and authorizes us to employ. Because on the track of “O que é meu” – there are the stories, the memory, the collection of affections and values ​​that enclose a life, and there are many of them – we find the traces of the construction of Brazil, which is also and at the same time its devastation, comings and goings crossed over the same footprints, dull ballast in the immense flooded territory, the gigantic and impassable mud, the oceanic rivers, the absolute solitude in the darkness, malaria, violence, the spoliation of the earth and human work, the destructive arrogance of the dictatorship's mega-projects, the ferocious greed of land grabbers, landowners, lords and colonels, loggers, miners, moving forward the expansion fronts to consolidate authoritarian capitalism that Otavio Velho captured like no one else 50 years ago, the brutal war and without truce against the original societies and the environment, the Amazon, the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest, the Serra do Mar.

On the other hand, the tyrannical empire of nature, the sovereignty of the tectonic forces with which the small worker struggles, with no more powerful weapons than class solidarity. Duel on the ground, covering incalculable distances in the most precarious conditions, and duel inside the father's own body, invaded and devastated by cancer, the unstoppable multiplication of cells, the uncontrollable impetus of life that mutilates, deforms, annihilates and kills.

Excesses in the violation of elementary rights never recognized and respected (even more extreme excesses when their victims are black), excesses in the irresponsible and suicidal liquidation of the biodiverse treasure, vilified day by day, excesses in the emergence of the reverse of life in vital organs, the Way of the Cross of the body. Simultaneously, excess in vastness, beauty, revered potentialities, courage, moving and superhuman dedication to work, in the titanic effort to return, always throwing oneself forward, further away, extending the limits of cartographies, reimagining, touching and memorizing new national contours, new reliefs tattooed on the body by accidents and confrontations.

The incessant centrifugal movement, in each small cunning, each tasty detail, each terrifying encounter, each emotional scene, reveals itself to be the counterpart of the centripetal vocation of the traveller, who, leaving, saying goodbye to his wife and two children, only prepares the return home, in a universal and personal odyssey, Brazilian and domestic, like all great mythology and all good literature. History with a capital letter merges with the tiny history of individuals, exemplary members of the working class, which expels some of their own to physical and moral degradation, and others, a few, to doctorates abroad and academic consecration. In this case, a legitimate representative of his lineage, José Henrique Bortoluci was faithful to the values ​​that made his upward trajectory a collective undertaking, the work of a family and a class, reaching his critical, reflective, ethical and political conscience through the mediation of the genius talent of a son.

What is mine shares with its readers the intangible heritage of knowledge and affection that transcend limits and borders, properties and geographies, personalities and idiosyncrasies. It shows without fuss, but with clarity and accuracy, why an abyss has opened up between political parties and enlightened spokespersons for the left and the working masses. It lays bare some of the reasons that sterilized popular political sensibility and poisoned the moral imaginary of society, clearing the ground for the advancement of neo-fascism, in the vacuum of indifference and discredit of flags and leaders supposedly progressives.

The feeling that reading this masterpiece provoked in me, I would summarize it in the following terms: May everything that the ancient Muse sings cease; let us listen less to the echoes of our own wise voices and more to what the dispossessed working class has to say, judging less, understanding more. And let us once and for all mourn the lethal cult of progress, that passive-revolution which is nothing more than the drawn-out procession of primitive capitalist accumulation towards increasingly savage scales. Let us bury the illusions that still tie expressive segments of the left to mythologies of capitalist development, peremptory and malignant mirages, which were at the service of devastation, in all dimensions: human, social and natural.

Evidently, maintaining lucidity and, therefore, the awareness that the opposite of capitalist progress, magnetized in the Brazilian political imaginary, is not the obscurantist regression. The desirable opposite would be new ways of reducing avoidable suffering, taking advantage of all human achievements in terms of knowledge and technology, doing justice and improving collective life, giving absolute priority to the elementary rights of working people, in the countryside and in the cities. A post-capitalism that had learned the lessons of all socialist defeats, instead of the Benjaminian angel, thrown backwards by the furious winds of history, contemplating the ruins that accumulate. But be careful: these conclusions are my sole responsibility - I cannot blame the author for the naivety they exude.


There is still an important issue to be addressed. Vladimir Safatle does not allow himself to be deceived by reifying visions of the nature-culture pair, forged either in a rationalist-idealist key, or by an immanentism that blocks the reintroduction of the theme of freedom through a dialectical bias – even negative, with Adornian inspiration. When he erases the figure of the self and its domain, in morality, politics and aesthetics, he is faced with the challenge of thinking about the social and nature, resorting to other mediations that are neither irrational nor metaphysical.

It focuses on the “expression” category, as I highlighted above. There springs up the space for what, in his work, will not be the human spirit, nor schematism (anthropological or transcendental), nor will they be (immanent) vitalisms that dissipate the problem under the appearance of resolving the impasse – and end up, allow me Give me the elusive formula: naturalizing nature which is paradoxically equivalent to idealizing idealism, in a metaphysics of the second degree, the realm of metalanguage. The vanishing point in which the practice is inscribed (the work, the art, the shot – the act, the grain of the gesture, the impulse –, irreconcilable, for the structural reconfiguration of social relations) refers to the subject displaced from himself who becomes inscribes in language, but always escapes as Other (not being, there, where however it is actualized).

However, the subject is agitated and entangled with the (de)constructive operations of language, in a historical, material and politically determined horizon. Thus – as I gathered – Lacan dialogues with the specter of Marx, thanks to Adorno's support, saving from Benjamin's hell -that is, from the rubble- the creative, revolutionary, philosophical and aesthetic Western legacy (under constant threat of colonial stains ).

José Henrique Bortoluci's work adds a difficult problem: although destroyed by capitalist expansionism, nature is not just a stronghold of wealth, abundance, extraordinary forms of intelligence, teachings, virtuous potential, a sign of life, health, energy and aggregation. It is also death. The civil-military dictatorship, without shame, called the Amazon the “green hell”. Naming her justified the treatment accorded to her. Conquering, submitting its forces to captivity, that was the historical task that would fit the Brazilian civilization. Uproot evil, erase hell from the face of the earth. Or the nation, or the forest. Either society, or untamed nature. There is no need to insist on what this way of defining and treating nature implied.

Because What is mine elaborates with refinement another figure of excess, which is not the musical, aesthetic or political revolution, but the indomitable cancer, the autopoeisis that disfigures, tortures, corrodes and kills, mercilessly. Death restores dualism, whether dialectical or not, and, in a certain way, reverses the direction of the questions that, in the work of Vladimir Safatle, attributed validity to the inhuman or post-anthropocentric perspective.

To some extent, it seems to me that there is a limit, dictated by the (affective) commitment to the life of the Other – not just the human Other, I admit, but the centrality of the human for the subject intertwined not only in language, but in nexuses is undeniable. primary social links, connections that are of meaning, but also of gratitude, loyalty and love (why not pronounce that word?). Commitment that reaches the sphere of morality and politics. The love engagement circumscribes natural movements and qualifies the transit of the flows of becoming. Continuous and discontinuous, matrix categories for anthropology and philosophy, return to the scene, as one returns to one's father and mother's house. Wasn't it Vladimir Safatle himself who spoke of origin as destiny?

José Henrique's father fights for his life, alongside his two sons and his wife, in the face of the solidarity of readers. Brazil resists fascism and devastation.

But the diseases are fierce. And the harbingers of the end also make us shudder.

* Luiz Eduardo Soares is an anthropologist, political scientist and writer. Former national secretary of public security. Author, among other books, of Brazil and its double (Still).


Vladimir Safatle. At one with impulse: aesthetic experience and social emancipation. Belo Horizonte, Autêntica, 2022, 240 pages (https://amzn.to/3QDlqnG).

José Henrique Bortoluci. What is mine. São Paulo, Fósforo, 2023, 144 pages (https://amzn.to/3DWb2zM).

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