Urban Amazonian Show & Tell
Nicholas C. Kawa
Here’s an image for you. It’s a still from a video that I came across several years ago on the Facebook page of No Amazonas é Assim (“That’s How It Is in Amazonas)—a site that collects and curates popular media, images, and articles that capture life in Brazil’s Amazonas state and its capital city of Manaus.
The video, produced by the Brazilian media giant Globo, tells the story of a group of “Stand Up Paddlers” from Manaus that collect garbage along the banks of the mighty Rio Negro. The report shares that in 2014, more than 7,000 tons of garbage were removed from Manaus’s rivers and streams alone. At the video’s conclusion, it shows the paddlers making their way out to the famed “meeting of the waters” where the murky Rio Negro encounters the Amazon’s silty café au lait, just east of the city. After a long morning of gathering discarded plastic bottles, plastic bags, yogurt containers, and used sleeves of laundry detergent, the paddleboarders revel in this “postcard” image at the contact point of two of the world’s largest rivers.
What initially struck me about the video is how bourgeois moral values of “taking care of the planet” by picking up trash while also practicing recreational watersports to experience sublime nature are grafted onto life in Manaus in a way that appears virtually seamless. It only stands out to me because of my ignorance in thinking that paddle-boarding and community trash clean-ups are monopolized by middle-class residents of the Global North or Brazil’s centers of power like Rio and São Paulo. It’s especially ironic because it makes me guilty of much the same thing that I’ve accused other anthropologists of doing—of pigeon-holing Amazonia, or worse, doubling down on the image of a region dominated by isolated indigenous peoples or agro-industrialists hell-bent on rainforest destruction and that alone. Having lived in the city of Manaus for several years, I should’ve suspected that it’s also home to paddle-boarding trash-pickers. How is that these images managed to catch me off guard? How could I still think of them as somehow “out of place”?
Clearly, there’s so much more going on here. But I am also worried about telling you too much or hijacking the story and its images, and not letting you, the audience, do some of the unpacking here yourselves.
So, let’s move on to another image.
When Manaus is named one of the host cities for the 2014 World Cup – the only host city in Brazil’s Amazon region – speculations about infrastructural improvements begin to circulate. The state government says that a monorail will be erected, whisking residents from the city’s periphery to downtown in 15 minutes flat. Usually it takes an hour and a half over multiple sweat-soaked bus rides. The throngs at the bus terminals fantasize about such a possibility. I do too.
But then the World Cup comes and goes and the monorail never materializes. Instead, it becomes a joke—laughable political theatre of Amazonas. An absurd promise that never should’ve been made. One that never should have even been entertained. A promise that played on people’s fantasies of living in a city that looked like science-fiction. Now it’s a species of political fiction instead.
Outside the new soccer stadium—yes, of course, that had to be built—the man in this image weaves through a crowd in a monorail train constructed from cardboard boxes. People laugh and shout out at the satirical performance. A cardboard joke is the closest thing to a real monorail that the city will see, at least for now.
But these are jokes that are funny and not-so-funny at the same time. We laugh because sometimes that’s all we can do. We laugh knowing that the momentary feeling of lightness will soon gallop away, and disappear into the heat of the city. We laugh because despite the admiration that many express for the magnificent stadium and the beauty of Brazilian futebol, humor is still Brazil’s most enduring art form.
Let’s do one more.
A girl (sixteen, maybe seventeen years old?) opens the leg of her pink shorts just wide enough to piss out of them as she stands in the middle of the street. It’s 10 in the morning. This is Manaus Moderno, the principal commercial port area of the city. It lives up to its name in the sense that it’s a chaotic mix of people and commerce and concrete.
Not far from where I see the girl pissing, my friend Rafa got robbed by machete in sheer daylight. When I see him back in the United States a few months after the event, all he can say to me is this: “Manaus is a dangerous fucking city.”
Nearby, on the floating docks, men dripping with sweat are hauling bananas and sweet manioc up from newly arrived boats while others hawk plantain chips wrapped in small plastic sleeves to travelers preparing to embark. In the distance, a piece of grafitti reads: “tem muito corno que não sabe que é corno.” (There are lots of cuckolds who don’t know they’re cuckolds.) Below, the carregadores continue to load and unload boats, back and forth, choking down shots of cachaça during breaks to keep themselves limber. The sociologist Elenise Scherer calls their labor trabalho ocultado. Hidden work. Not that it’s hidden from the naked eye. The carregadores are like so many ants in the port, in what almost seems like an eternalized chain of coming-and-going, vai e vem, with so many weights on their shoulders, their backs, their necks, their hands.
Papito used to have a restaurant nearby. After working for Philips for 20 years as a chemist, he left the company. Or rather due to downsizing, he was asked to retire early. So he got into the restaurant business through a friend. His place was called “Good Gula”—a mix of English and Portuguese that means something to the effect of “good gluttony.”
But with the World Cup also come reforms to the port area. And after much messy wrangling in court, Papito loses his lease on the restaurant. Now he’s retired for good. When I visit in July of 2017, he’s happy to drive me around town and crack jokes. We go up to Educandos, a working-class neighborhood perched high above the expansive Rio Negro. We stop at a little plaza and look out over the dark waters glistening in the late morning sun. He tells me: “If the world ends in flames, we’ll be the last to die here.”
This panel opens up a useful opportunity to meditate on the cultural work of aesthetics – and notions of beauty in Brazil in particular – and here I want to raise a few questions along this line. First, I’m curious how anthropologists might draw attention to “everyday aesthetics” much in the same way that Kathleen Stewart (2007) has helped us to home in on “ordinary affects” or those little ripples that rise and take form in quotidian human encounters. From the off-the-cuff jokes that people tell to the public satire of infrastructural inadequacies to the performance of nature worship in the face of growing industrial excess, I am interested in what these little object lessons might teach us about the urban Amazon, a place that’s received relatively little anthropological attention considering the incredible anthropological interest in the region.
The philosopher Yuriko Saito (2001) reminds that anything, whether sensed or perceived, whether the product of imagination or conceptual thought, can become the object of aesthetic attention. However, much of the theorization in relation to aesthetics continues to be found in the arts and design. For this reason, Saito argues: “Our current art- and spectator-centered aesthetics cannot adequately account for our equally important aesthetic experience of everyday objects and activities, which almost always engage us bodily.”
In reflecting on Saito’s observations, I also wonder how these everyday aesthetics can push us to scrutinize and reflect on the aesthetic forms – and also possibly the affective dimensions – of ethnographic representation.
Over the past several years, I’ve spent time considering how the model of “show & tell” – a format typically seen as most suitable for elementary classroom presentations – may be helpful for us, as anthropologists, to think about ethnography and its forms. This is because when anthropologists try to lure a reader in with an opening ethnographic vignette – ostensibly “to show” what’s happening – it is nearly always followed up with an exegetical commentary that claims to explain what’s really happening, or what the ethnographic material is really all about.
We show. Then we tell.
(And in many ways, I’m reproducing this model here, except with 3 opening ethnographic sketches and then some anthropological analysis or quasi-theorization.)
The problem with such a model of writing is that it typically downplays the uncertainties and open-endedness of ethnographic inquiry—that creeping sense that right around the corner you might happen upon something the opens up a whole other world, or a fleeting glimpse into another life…or maybe nothing you can be very sure of at all. In this regard, ethnographic writing differs fundamentally from ethnographic film and photography.
As David MacDougall (1998) writes: “Anthropological writing usually tells us what it is about, but films expect us to find out” (p.72). And perhaps this is why visual anthropology frustrates anthropologists who might be (too?) accustomed to expository writing as their primary mode of representation.
MacDougall makes this point more explicit in terms of anthropology’s conventions and methodological expectations: “A significant contrast between the written and the visual in anthropology may…lie not in the their very great ontological differences, nor even in the very different ways of constructing meaning, but in their control of meaning” (emphasis from original; 68). He notes that a charge often made against the photograph is that it contains too many meanings.
The visual and the sensorial more broadly, then, are troubling because they challenge the anthropologist’s desire to control the audience’s reception and interpretation of the ethnographic material. They stifle the anthropologist’s ability to offer a simplified and authoritative account of the events at hand. They have meanings that proliferate and escape control—meanings gone wild! Editing, cropping, condensing and chopping may work to rein them in, but the possibilities never narrow down to just one or two.
Paradoxically, or perhaps for this very reason, the visual has a strong allure for textually-dependent anthropologists. This fascination is rooted, MacDougall suspects, in the “dissatisfaction felt by anthropologists with the disjunction between their encounters with living people and the terms in which they often feel constrained to write about them” (62).
Some of these constraints might include:
- The dominant tendency to employ interpretations drawn from the concepts or musings of Euro-North American philosophers and scholars, many of whom are white men.
- The general avoidance of everyday bodily functions and physical arousals, or other “unmentionables.”
- The restricted use of humor, perhaps out of fear that people might not take our “very serious work” very seriously.
- The need to portray oneself in a self-deprecating but charming way, if at all.
- The pressure to offer authoritative explanations even when one’s understanding of the matters at hand is riddled with ambiguity and ambivalence.
- The subtle yet persistent privileging of post-hoc explication over active revelation.
- The challenge of conveying things one feels and sees and smells and hears through words.
- The challenge of determining which feelings and senses are appropriate for the audience and which should be kept to yourself.
- The madness of trying to turn those feelings and senses into words and then hoping others may feel and sense those things too.
These latter questions of emotion, affect, and embodiment are crucial aspects of ethnographic writing and theorization in the late 20th and early 21st century (Behar 1996; Csordas 1990; Feld 2007; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Jain 2007; Mascia-Lees 2011; Stewart 2007). In a telling moment in Hugh Raffles (2010) book Insectopedia, he interviews a man that is characterized as having a “squish fetish.” Despite many attempts to pathologize, criminalize, and intellectualize the man’s proclivities, Raffles remarks that understanding them may come down to a simple question in the end: do you feel it or not? (280–281).
So, what might this all mean for ethnographic writing and how can it be employed to engage with the everyday aesthetics of places like urban Amazonia?
One of ethnography’s greatest strengths is its ability to articulate or attempt to render the things that we (the ethnographers) don’t know, or what we continue to misunderstand. It can also help bring new elements to the foreground in anthropological analysis and direct different types of attention to them. We can cultivate different “arts of noticing” as Anna Tsing has described it (2015:17–26). And we can find ways to better articulate the crucial things that we still just don’t “get.”
Of course, it’s clear that open-ended ethnographic explorations, or “showing-just-for-showing’s-sake,” has its own problems, perhaps just as vexing as ethnographic work myopically centered on explanation alone. Maybe that’s what people mean when they dismissively say “it’s all for show”? You only scratch the surface and you never get to what’s happening underneath? It doesn’t mean anything, and thus, it doesn’t have a point, it doesn’t have a “reason”? Or really, maybe the scariest thing of all is that it can mean far too many things.
A naked woman runs past me on the sidewalk of Avenida Djalma Batista, opposite from the Amazonas Shopping Center, as I’m walking back from work one evening. When I get home fifteen minutes later, I tell Miriene that I saw a naked woman in the street. “Ah, she must be doida,” she tells me. It must’ve been my first month in Manaus because I know it was at this precise moment that I learned this common word for crazy.
Then I saw the woman again. At least twice. I may have seen her three times, but I can’t say for sure. After you see naked people in the street a few times, they are no longer memorable.
There are lots of doidas and doidos in this world.
And Manaus put me in touch with some of them, or at least, helped put them into view. And like Clarice Lispector said about her writing, perhaps understanding Manaus and its everyday aesthetics is not a question of intelligence but rather sensing, of entering in contact. Either you feel it, or you don’t.
 Scherer, Elenise. 2013. Trabalho Ocultado: Os carregadores e transportadores de bagagens do Roadway e da Estacao Hidroviaria de Manaus. Sao Paulo: Annablume.