Pierre Monbeig – the formation of Brazilian geography

Hélio Oiticica, Metaesquemas.


Commentary on the book by Larissa Alves Lira

For those interested in the history of geographical thought, Alameda has just published the book Pierre Monbeig and the formation of Brazilian geography (1925-1956): a geohistory of knowledge, by Larissa Alves Lira, the result of her doctoral thesis defended in a double degree between USP and EHESS (École de Haute Études en Sciences Sociales, from Paris).

The author, a geographer who graduated from the University of São Paulo, is not new to discussing the topic. In 2013, she released The Mediterranean and Vidal de la Blache: the first sketch of the geographical method (1872-1918), result of his master's thesis.

His third book, despite being a recent release, has everything to become a reference in the area. Very symptomatic of this is that the production has just won an honorable mention from LASA (Latin American Studies Association) as the best Humanities book on Brazil in 2021. One of the strengths of the work is the analysis of the history of science, in this case geography, which takes into account the space and circulation of ideas. A perspective called by the author of geo-history of knowledge, whose defense goes through the argument that spaces determine the intellectual field.

In other words, a method to understand, from a global perspective linked to the dynamics of capitalism, science, the knowledge associated with places, where these have weight in the conformation, corrosion, modification of scientific paradigms and circulation. Within this framework, the book seeks to explore the formation and consolidation of Brazilian geography, having as a guiding principle the figure of Pierre Monbeig (1908-1987), a French geographer who taught at FFLCH/USP between the years 1935-1946. In reality, it is, in a certain way, a history of the formation and consolidation of Brazilian geography from the intellectual biography of Monbeig. It is for no other reason that the author points out: “I consider both Brazil, geography and the geographer Pierre Monbeig as characters in this narrative” (Lira, p. 24).

In this sense, the narrative to which the author refers is operationalized in six chapters supported by extensive documentary research and richly illustrated with photos, graphics and maps that help the exposition.

Thus, the first chapter, “The seductions of a young science (1925-1929)”, discusses Monbeig's formation in the context of French geography, in addition to situating such formation within the framework of long-term tensions that geographic science (strongly linked to the Lablachian heritage) was experiencing in France.

Tensions between a literary paradigm (whose model pointed to a geography linked to history, strong use of description, attachment to singularity, appreciation of the local scale, “predominance of regional geography” etc.) and a scientific paradigm (based on the questioning of modernity , intervention in present-day issues, concern with the systematization of the method, “predominance of general geography” etc.) give the author the opportunity to present to the reader both the reasons for Monbeig's choice of training in geography, as well as his positions and formulations in relation to that framework of discipline tensions.

The second chapter, “A geographer facing globalization (1930-1935)”, deepens the explanation of that framework of tensions between the two paradigms, in addition to debating the French School of Geography and its dispute for the control or hegemony of the direction of world geography, highlighting the role of a geopolitics of knowledge instrumentalized, to a certain extent, by the French State to expand its area of ​​influence (via cultural and scientific expression) in the game of international relations. The important fact here is that the Vidalian heritage – although divided between a literary and scientific paradigm – intended to understand the globe, which led it to desires for internationalization in line with the interests of Paris, which also aspired to spread its influence throughout the world's geographic space. .

The foundation of USP by the French Mission in 1934, despite the multiplicity of interests involved, is inserted in such a geopolitical context. The same can be said, on an individual level, about Monbeig's stay in the Balearic Islands, Spain, to develop the work of his doctoral thesis (later changed to the spatial area of ​​Brazil, more specifically São Paulo). The election of the Balearic Islands as the object of study configures this Spanish archipelago as a bridgehead for the young Monbeig to disembark in the territory of continental Brazil.

The third chapter, “Organizing Brazilian geography 1935-1940”, marks a turning point in the work, as it discusses Monbeig's landing, his first contacts, and his initial experience with Brazil. The social and institutional context of the French geographer's work in our country is widely explored, such as, for example, his initial works at USP, tensions, proximity, cooperation with the circle of the São Paulo elite, with the bureaucracy of the newly founded USP, with the “leaders” of the French Mission, the disputes surrounding the university project, as well as the friendly relations between the French mission professors: Fernand Baudel, Claude Lèvi-Strauss and Monbeig himself.

It is interesting how the author captures the climate of the foundation of the University of São Paulo, whose origin is anchored in the dispute between the São Paulo elite and the Vargas Government for hegemony in Brazil. São Paulo, defeated in the Revolution in 1932, chose culture and higher education as strategies to fight for the direction of transformations in Brazil anchored in a so-called democratic, liberal, but elitist project and, in this sense, opposed to Vargas's project, which was centralist, authoritarian, but more popular.

In such a context of dispute, the long-term paradigms of geography put into circulation by Monbeig through his work in the Association of Brazilian Geographers (AGB), in the National Council of Geography (CNG), in the formulations of the teaching method and curriculum suffer reaffirmations, resistances, readjustments and erosions in contact with the reality of the country. São Paulo, the forming and radiating center of Brazilian geography, strongly supported by propositions of literary values, is opposed to the Brazilian hub, based in Rio de Janeiro, defender of a model of science based on the needs of modernizing the territory, on the planning model, in intervention and engagement.

Chapter 4, “How a young French teacher acquires authority in Brazil (1937-1946)”, as the title indicates, highlights Monbeig's work in terms of building intellectual leadership in the process of building and consolidating the geographic field in the country. This chapter, unlike the previous one, shows Monbeig more attuned to the reality in which he is inserted and as a founding figure of a tradition, of a São Paulo school of geography, which will become the backbone of Brazilian geography through “Monbeiguian” strategies. of “colonization”, which ranged from contact with figures of the local intelligentsia to the formation of a plethora of competent disciples in the preparation of regional monographs with potential for generalization to the rest of the country; from the creation of a geography course in Brazil to the nationalization of the USP Geography Curriculum; from a strong performance in the AGB and other national court intuitions to a methodological refinement in the problematization of the Brazilian reality.

In this context of building an institutional and intellectual authority, Monbeig, from São Paulo, consolidates the foundations of a Brazilian school of geography, whose contours of autonomous recognition, for the author, will occur with the holding of the Congress of the UGI (União Geográfica Internacional) in 1956, in Rio de Janeiro.

Chapter 5, “A geo-history of the expansion of capitalism (1940-1956)”, one of the strongest in terms of space, places Brazil within the scope of world capitalist modernization, highlighting its position as a new country endowed with immense territorial funds and moved by a strong colonizing impulse in the face of immense open borders. This leads, in this context, both the Brazilian State to be an active player in the modernization of the territory and Monbeig, faced with this reality, to formulate, avant la letter, a geography of development.

In other words, the dynamics of capitalism permeates the modernization of the Brazilian territory as well as the geography that is built on this national territory. The impact of Brazilian reality on the framework of tensions (literary paradigm x scientific paradigm) that Monbeig already brought from France is evident, given the corrosive capacity of the Brazilian territory on the great scientific theories mobilized. It is the space impacting, “conditioning”, forcing readaptations to the production of knowledge, of science.

Finally, chapter 6, “The resistance of literary values ​​(1938-1953)”, analyzes Monbeig’s doctoral thesis – thesis, by the way, later enshrined in the books Pioneers and Farmers of São Paulo e The Growth of the City of São Paulo – exploring the methods of exposition and investigation and, in addition, identifying the tensions between literary and scientific values ​​within this work of the French geographer on Brazil.

In addition to everything that has been denoted, it is necessary to point out that the course of the chapters, without a shadow of a doubt, makes it very clear that São Paulo, USP and Monbeig are relevant to Brazilian geography. In a more abstract way, space is not inert to the idea, to science. A direct corollary of this is that Brazil, the Brazilian reality – the materiality of the territory, the continental dimension of the country, expansion of borders, tropicality, the situation, the population and the social dynamics projected in space – impact on the construction of the geographic field in the country, as Monbeig's intellectual paradigm is challenged in the face of the new reality and must readjust.

It is precisely in this confrontation that lies the origin of Brazilian geography, which, when analyzed from the perspective of the geohistory of knowledge, has the power to propose a decolonization of the history of science and, particularly, of the disciplinary field in question. About this, the author points out, in a very pertinent way, that her book brings such a contribution to this discussion by “demonstrating a dialectic between the Monbeig professor and the Monbeig that apprehends with Brazil, Brazilians and space and the formation of an epistemology with its own point of view that is formed in Brazil, a country in the south of the world” (LIRA, p. 40).

Following the same line, Larissa reinforces: “Through the analysis of the trajectory of a geographer who is subject and open to alterity from a global experience, I suggest a temporary inversion of the nexus commonly accepted by historiography, that French professors taught Brazilians to 'think', as if this nexus always had a single meaning” (LIRA, p. 40)

However, regarding the geo-history of knowledge method used in the work, it is noted that it did not substantially explore the intellectual dimension of Brazil. As much as the author points out that the French geographer learned from Brazil and Brazilians, the element that Monbeig most teaches is Brazil, understood as the materiality of the territory, the continental dimension of the country, the expansion of borders, the tropicality, the location, population, etc. There are no Brazilian intellectuals making contact with the founder of Brazilian geography and impacting him, that is, teaching Monbeig. Basically, the only figure to accomplish such a feat is São Paulo historian Caio Prado Junior.

In this way, Brazil as an intellectual space is subsumed, in the analysis, by material Brazil. Very symptomatic of this is that the subsumption advances to the very way of historicizing the origins of Brazilian geography and, in this exercise, does not report the organization of a geography prior to the founding of USP or pre-Monbeig – which, at that time, was structured around of a tradition of congresses, publications, elaboration of regional monographs, etc. Thus, the decolonizing approach to science does not advance as much as it could, since it does not bring, in a substantial way, to the game of analysis the ideas, the studies in production and circulation in and about this territory.

However, none of these points eliminates the pertinence of the work. Thus, those who follow the route from the introduction to the last chapter will be convinced that space – far from any narrow determinism – is an important element for understanding the history of science and, in particular, of Geography. That, in itself, is enough as an invitation to read.

* Erivaldo Costa de Oliveira Professor of Geography at the State University of Piauí.



Larissa Alves Lira. Pierre Monbeig and the formation of Brazilian geography (1925-1956): a geohistory of knowledge. São Paulo, Alameda, 2021, 372 pages.


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