Translated and introduced by Alex Brostoff
On March 6, 2020, at the seventh annual São Paulo International Theater Exhibition (Mostra Internacional de Teatro de São Paulo), a panel on “Anticolonial Perspectives” convened around the question, “What can we still imagine together?” At the opening roundtable, “On Time,” Brazilian Indigenous intellectual and activist Ailton Krenak addressed the occasion and its audience directly. In the remarks that follow, transcribed by Sonia Sobral, Krenak theorizes the polysemic possibilities and ambivalent effects of the encontro, a Portuguese term for an “encounter,” “meeting,” “assembly,” or “conference.” At once imbricated in ongoing colonial practices and imbued with the potentials of a collective subject, the encontro both intensifies and deters ecological disaster. “We are an unsustainable civilization,” Krenak contends, “We are unsustainable.” And yet, the prospect of encountering each other and continuing to imagine otherwise sustains the possibility of another tomorrow.
This translation is published with kind permission from n-1 edições.
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here this morning among such wonderful people, who have created such a well-intentioned temporary community. I arrived in São Paulo yesterday for our encontro.1 I feel very privileged that my professional work has afforded me the ability to travel. To be invited to travel from the place where I live with my family in order to speak with people in places like this, for example, is a privilege. This privilege distinguishes me from people, who, in order to make a living, don’t experience such extravagant realities as going to the airport, catching a plane, arriving elsewhere, and attending organized events to hear someone give a lecture.
Think about what living at this time allows us to do. Consider these extravagant experiences. In what other historical era could people do such things with such ease? It seems almost magical, like an almost virtual reality. In a world where people struggle to travel from the place where they live to the place where they work, some folks touch down in unlikely places for affective encontros, for celebrations. This could also be a wake-up call for those of us who are aware of the times we live in, of the inconsistency of this kind of reality, and of how we passively accept that this is real, that this is reality.
My immense sense of gratitude for these privileges is, at the same time, critically charged. How long am I going to be able to tolerate this torture? We are currently excluding billions of underprivileged people from the experience of being alive, of experiencing freedom. We are living in a world plagued by need. What infuriates me is how fucked this civilization is and how we manage to live with injustice and the death of so many people around us, and yet we carry on with our heads held high.
Here on Paulista Avenue, many businesses are bankrolling the invasion of the Amazon to mine the territory where my kin are being assassinated—in order to extract the fake wealth that the West so celebrates. We cover our eyes and ears to avoid the piercing reality that surrounds us, and we create comfortable scenarios and settings like this so we can feel, at least temporarily, “civilized.” Because, after all, we are connected to and part of a world project, even if unintentionally, whether as workers, as students, or in any other capacity. We are bound by a process: the phenomenon we have learned to recognize as “globalization.” We were warned about this phenomenon by folks like Professor Milton Santos. He spoke of globalization as a grave planetary disturbance of the social, political, and ecological order. When he talked about what would happen, people called him eccentric. He demonstrated that we were facing a new paradigm, one in which we wouldn’t be able to choose which virus would consume us tomorrow.
Now I see people wearing little white masks. Instead of wearing the Zapatista flag, people put little white masks on; it’s like they want to live in peace with the virus. We’re not going to fight the virus with these little strips of white cloth tied over our noses.
We’re living in the face of transnationalization. In the past, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people thought it could be regulated, but when it got out of control, transnationalization resulted in globalization. Globalization has taken root as an ecologically, politically, and economically significant event. We can’t fool ourselves into believing that globalization is something we can assimilate and integrate like any other aspect of a modern, equipped society. It’s no use thinking we’re equipped for this; we’re not equipped for anything. If we were, a virus wouldn’t be throwing the world into panic, while sinking the stock market into total darkness and letting people take advantage of the opportunity to rob each other blind.
I don’t really interact much with the culture industry. I don’t see culture as a market. I see it as an arena that challenges people who—at different sites of culture, identity, and struggles for life on earth—need to wake up and help each other, in order to protect ourselves from life under globalization, inside this life capsule. Culture isn’t just another opportunity to consume, but rather, a chance for us to create worlds, invent worlds we can exist in.
The concept of globalization is terrible, because if globalization promises expansion, it also intensifies high concentrations of everything. Globalization does not expand; globalization atomizes. It concentrates everything in a terrifying way. One means of exposing this is a virus that originated in a place called China and has caused an earthquake here in South America.
If we are living in a time of total uncertainty (even in our experience of daily life), art becomes the most powerful and probable site for formulating new answers and new questions about the world we’ll have to deal with from here on out.
In the eighties and nineties, some individuals, like Boaventura de Souza Santos, Gorbachev, and other prominent figures, convened those enormous encontros called “global social forums,” “social global forums,” “the world global social forum,” “the social global world forum,” etc. Those encontros were uprootings, which brought the maximum number of people together to discuss the apocalypse to come. The anxiety that descended on us at the end of the twentieth century was about what the world was coming to.
What’s interesting is that those forums, which opened windows onto some new horizons, rapidly began breaking down. Professor Boaventura said that in the late nineties, the structures of those encontros with thousands of people didn’t accomplish anything. They were pointless. There came a time when those huge forums that brought incredible people together seemed more like rock concerts than opportunities to discuss the urgent issues that communities were facing. Then the right started to denounce the forums, saying they were parties for hippies and stoners.
The right is always ready to spit on any decent and legitimate attempt we may make to lift ourselves out of the sewers we live in. The right does nothing but poison the very places in which people are fighting for air to breathe. This is just like what they do to the rivers, when they throw poisonous chemicals in the rivers and then, hypocritically, say that we’re an underdeveloped region of the world which still hasn’t learned how to brush its teeth.
It’s horribly hypocritical how these people on the right manage to exploit and condemn poverty. It’s a dirty trick! They manipulate public opinion, create false narratives, and ultimately their dominance prevails.
When will those voices that have been silenced and those peoples who have been rendered invisible rise up against this order, which is so well-constituted that it manages to manipulate and mold everything into “order, progress, and development?”2 Narrative structures emerge within this idiom, which manage, for example, to invent the myth of sustainable development.
I made an intervention in the book Idéias para adiar o fim do mundo (Ideas to Postpone the End of the World).3 My provocation there was to argue that sustainability is a myth. And since one thing always implies another, I had to think beyond this assertion, to think about those practices that receive certificates of sustainability, and to look at what is actually “sustainable” under that seal. Until one day, that haiku occurred to me, the one that says: “sustainability is personal vanity.”
I almost got in trouble because people were saying, “Now Ailton is going to invent some tall tale just to scare the fancy corporate environmental managers?” Well, if you have a legal job nowadays, it’s as a chief sustainability officer for any one of those incredible institutions. They all need one.
So, if you’re the sustainability manager of a corporation like this, you arrive early in the morning and someone tells you that sustainability is personal vanity, you say, “damn, I lost my job.” A lot of managers complained to me about this. I think we should fire them all. But if you built your career on a lie, the worst that can happen is that one day you fall from grace and land down here with the rest of us.
Listen folks, we are living precariously in relation to consuming what Mother Nature has given us. And we have always used what our Mother offers in the most exhaustive way possible. We’ve formed such an immense constellation of consumerism that, one day, Mother Nature said: “hold on, are you going to destroy ecological equilibrium, which sustains everyone and everything that can possibly exist here? Are you going to scrutinize the production of life and decide just how many life-sustaining resources each one of us can get? And from this position of egregious inequality, are you going to go around regulating access to water, oxygen, food, soil?” And so, acknowledging this began to put limits on our ambition.
One way that humans have managed to regulate these ecologies was by creating methods of categorical control—for example, the idea that there’s such a thing as “an environment” and that this universe is something you can regulate. And within this “environment,” there’s the notion that some natural resources and vital sources of life can also be measured, evaluated and certified, including with certificates of sustainability.
If you draw water from the Guarani Aquifer, for example, it’ll be very good quality water, and if you bottle it properly, then you are a “sustainable company.” But who ever said that drawing water from the Guarani Aquifer is “sustainable”? Corporations incite violence at the source and receive a certificate of sustainability along the way. It’s the same thing with wood. This is a dirty trick! There is no such thing as sustainable groundwater extraction, and there is no such thing as sustainable logging. We are an unsustainable civilization. We are unsustainable. How are we ever going to produce anything in equilibrium?
It is not by praying that you invent god. But there are people who believe that if you pray a lot, you pray, and you pray, and up you go … So, every civilization gets the god it deserves. And we are now faced with the dilemma of having to produce a god that is global, multiethnic, multifaceted, diverse, that serves the whole world—a diacritical divinity. We’re done for.
These encontros of ours shouldn’t be places to flagellate and offend each other, because offense and flagellation already saturate the market. We need to create opportunities for fruition. In this moment that has brought us together here—I am heartened by the promise that this conversation won’t end today, that there’s a possibility of continuing to share ideas and perspectives next year. The very prospect of something yet to come is enlivening. Our collective imaginings postpone the end of the world. We postpone the end of the world each day, by fostering a genuine desire to meet tomorrow, at the end of the day, next year.
This conversation about colonization, and about these worlds encapsulated in each other, challenges us to think about a possible encontro of our existences. It is an extraordinary challenge.
A friend of mine named Nurit Bensusan (she’s a biologist who worked with the legal cases that preceded the biodiversity convention) wrote a book called Do que é feito o encontro? (What is the Encontro Made of?).4 This book really moves me because it touches on an issue that has always resonated with me. It’s the question of whether we can really encounter one another, whether we can really experience an encontro. We’re not only talking about the interpersonal encontro just between people, but about encontros between communities and cultures, between diverse traditions. In my thinking, this kind of encontro emerges from the notion of a subject that longs to experience a collective. I don’t see myself as walking alone in the world. I always call on someone to walk with me.
The first time that I referred to this notion of the encontro was in the title of an article called “O eterno retorno do encontro” (“The Eternal Return of the Encontro”), which was published in a collection of texts edited by Adauto Novaes. This collection addressed the issue of the 500 years of colonial navigation, and Adauto invited me to speak about this encontro that transpired with the arrival of the fleets.5 And I said, “encontro”?
So. The eternal return of the encontro is a promise, an expectation, but it is not something that has already happened, nor is it a guarantee that something will happen. It is a drawn bow, tensed in the hope that something will happen. It is not a guarantee, nor is it a certificate of sustainability.
The repeated disaster of these attempted encontros is scattered across our shores. It has taken the form of genocide, domination, and a colonization that seems to have no end in sight.
We’re used to debating colonization from a postcolonial perspective. But colonization is—it is here and now. To think that we are discussing colonial practices as something past, something which is over and whose mess we’re just now cleaning up—it’s a farce.
Colonization is like what our mentor, Professor Kabenguele Munanga, was saying about racism: “that racism is concealed in the epidermis, it’s under the skin.” Coloniality is camouflaged in such an incredible way that it seems like it’s over. Like racism, the reproduction of colonial practices, of the colonialist virus, is tenacious, and it is present in everything. It’s in our daily lives, in the classroom, in each and every relationship.
So, when we’re under the illusion that we’re going to organize a forum to discuss decolonization or decolonizing or anti-colonialism or whatever else you want to call it, we are digging ourselves deep into a conceptual labyrinth. We aren’t even able to open the door of the crypt, let alone face the ghosts.
Coloniality is as infused in us as air pollution; it is imbricated in the way we look at the world, at the landscape, at life itself. The architecture of our cities, the aesthetics of the world that we share, is colonial and colonialist. Colonialism reproduces itself; it metastasizes. It’s naive to think that we’re going to organize a forum to discuss decolonization when we already are and will continue to be immersed in colonial practices.
This is not just a desire to challenge the issue of sustainability or racism or gender or any other matter that ruptures our relations; it is a desire to be constantly positioning ourselves in relation to something that truly troubles the idea of an encontro.
If the idea of the encontro is pacifying, encouraging, and a promise, then daily life is a constant denial of the encontro. Daily life is a litmus test. If you wrap up the day today and say, “today was a good day, I had a good encontro,” if that’s true, then congratulations, it was worth it.
- Translator’s Note: An encontro can refer to an “encounter,” but it may, more specifically, mean a “meeting,” “assembly,” or “conference.” In what follows, Krenak not only refers to the promise of the encontro that brings the panelists and audience together to discuss “Anticolonial Perspectives,” but he also suggests that a colonial perspective is imbricated in each and every encontro we experience: in meetings, in conferences, and in our ecological epistemes.
- Translator’s Note: The words “ordem e progresso” (order and progress) are inscribed on the Brazilian flag. Though it serves as a national idiom, the phrase is also invoked in the context of anticolonialism.
- Ailton Krenak, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, translated by Anthony Doyle (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2020).
- Nurit Bensusan, Do que é feito o encontro? (Brasília: Mil Folhas, 2019).
- Translator’s Note: In April of the year 1500, Portuguese courtier Pedro Álvares Cabral’s fleet led the “discovery” (that is, the invasion) of the land that would come to be called Brazil. For more on 500 years of European colonialism, see Krenak’s “O eterno retorno do encontro” (“The Eternal Return of the Encontro”) https://pib.socioambiental.org/pt/O_eterno_retorno_do_encontro, originally published in Adauto Novaes, ed., A outra margem do Ocidente (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1999).
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