Maria José de Abreu is assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Her work engages with a range of anthropological, philosophical and literary debates about temporality, personhood, the human senses, and their technological extensions in the Lusophone world. Her work takes inspiration from the work of Padre Marcelo Rossi, a Brazilian Catholic Priest and figurehead of the widely televised Charismatic movement conjugating an interest in the aerobics of faith with new media infrastructures. Tessellating the political economy of the digitized culture industry with the affective pathways its valorizes, de Abreu identifies the ancient Greek concept of the pneuma as an organizing organ of the contemporary. Articulated by the lungs and windpipe, the pneumatics of neoliberalism grounds the processes and practices of our long moment in the precarious temporality of the ongoing, in the renegotiations and proprioceptions necessary to just catch our breath. Editors Aaron Su and Ben Bieser sat down with her to discuss her methods and interests—truly a breath of fresh air in these noxious times.
CJLC: Through a host of different veins, much of your scholarship dwells on questions of embodiment, attunement, and materiality in conjunction with the emergence of neoliberalism and its styles of reasoning. Can you explain what texts and investments have informed your approach?
Maria José de Abreu: My interest in the crossings of materiality and neoliberalism have sharpened with my work in Brazil—on an urban religious movement in São Paulo, where you see a vested interest by this movement, which is a Catholic, evangelical, conservative movement [the Charismatics], moving toward the recuperation of Greek vocabularies and terminologies, with a strong emphasis on the notion of pneuma. Here, pneuma, which is the Greek term for “breath,” becomes a form of talking about spirit as both air and force. Therefore, to think about airspace in general will lead to the question of materiality. Contrary to the suggestions brought forward towards the latter part of the 19th century, which tried to conceive air as a dimension in which we exist, rather, pneuma thinks of air not as an empty vacuum in which humans exist, but as the substance in which we exist. So to attend to air’s material properties as such through Greek pneumatology—that which is motile, dynamic, and vital—you have this shift toward the material. And then there’s also the question opened up when this movement in São Paulo becomes very popular in the 90s, which is when Brazil is opening up to a neoliberal moment. Here ideas of flow also become important, and whereby materialities that were extant within a Catholic register such as ideas of images and statues, become too heavy with the kind of gravitas that seems to be incompatible with the jump into the neoliberal moment, where one would rather have an idea of the living body instead of those static images. It becomes urgent to interface with ideas of fluidity and flexibility, and other vocabularies that are central to neoliberalism. So what you see is this religious movement that goes back to Greek and Byzantine logics of pneumatology, in order to interface and enter the neoliberal moment through a very particular formation that is based on materiality–through the idea of the breathing body. [This shift] happens through the act of breathing, really, and the capacity of bodies to interconnect, through exchanges of atmospheres, centered on that idea of spirit and pneuma. In other words, what you have in the end is a spiritualized form of neoliberalism.
Once air is no longer perceived as dimension but as substance, what happens as well is a shift in the ways the substance of air and its circulations are followed, thereby transforming a whole set of considerations. That is to say, when you follow the circulations of air, you start to think of how the inside and the outside relate and constitute each other. You really follow the material circulations of breathing. And what does that do to an idea of the subject? This liberal subject that was once there and seen as a self-contained entity, is unsettled by this idea of circulation, by which subjects become more implicated into each other. Henceforth, you move from this idea of a public sphere in which people exist to a public atmosphere that is constitutive of the social. So you see a more material dimension, or reading, of public relations, based on this idea of atmosphere.
And through this logic of breathing and mutual implication in the collective, there are ways that space itself becomes implicated in the idea of the body. In the Charismatics’ practices of bodybuilding, a double standard emerges, wherein bodybuilding is also body un-building. It’s important for Charismatics also to be in certain spaces that also create certain continuities with the inside, with lungs, so they often perform in tents or other porous structures where the inside and outside travel; there is a certain porosity that is valued in general. And so while they are in these ritual spaces doing bodybuilding, they are also doing body un-building–in that they are choosing certain special settings that forge relations between body and building on a continuum. The media is also an extension of that reciprocation between body and space, and body as space, as most of these shows are transmitted live elsewhere. So the airwaves extend this relation, so we have body-building-media. And sometimes this extension moves to the Amazon rainforest, the ultimate lungs of the earth. So you have the lungs within; the body that becomes this membrane; and then space, tents, screens, which are other membranes; moving toward the spirit of the Amazon to find a vernacular form of talking about what is in fact global neoliberalism where the Amazon becomes the lungs of the earth, so you see the local and global intersecting. What you have is this vast network where the minimal cells in the body are connecting through all these different stations: bodybuilding, media, forests, and back– as this idea of circulating spirit, in a Christian idiom. Here, you feel the universalism of a Christian evangelical, highly conservative and very sophisticated operation.
CJLC: Which is to say that the technics of embodiment within this approach are quite vexed, because at once this engagement with air as substance heightens embodiment in a strange way—the way that the body is attuned to its porosity and flexibility—but at the same time it’s a dispersal and a disembodiment—it’s an extension of the body into different technological and natural scapes that configure the body in different ways. Do you make of this as a paradox of neoliberalism?
MD: Oh yes. Even breathing itself is paradoxical; it’s all about tension and release, emptying and filling up. And paradox is vital. It’s the grammar of neoliberalism, as in [writer Fernando Pessoa’s] “Anarchist Banker”—the paradox is no hindrance; it is precisely what keeps it going. And this is the essence of Catholic conservatism that Carl Schmitt talks about in his piece from 1923, “Catholicism and Political Form.” He describes Catholicism in terms—and these are his words—of his outstanding elasticity. And the concept he uses to explore this outstanding elasticity is a theological concept that goes under the name of the complexio oppositorum [coincidence of opposites], which is its capacity to speak to absolutely opposite audiences at the same time. That you will please Right and Left, the banker and the anarchist at the same time. And that this is a characteristic of conservative Catholicism. So there you see that paradox was a very familiar grammar to conservative Christianity, and it goes very well with neoliberalism as well, so no wonder we are seeing this moment: the spread, also here in the United States, of evangelical conservatism. And I think it’s going to get worse, stronger, more expressive.
CJLC: In terms of facing this futurity where it seems that the paradox will only exacerbate, how do you conceive of an optimism that doesn’t approach the future in neoliberal terms? Where do you find this?
MD: I am so busy with this question myself. That is the problem of the paradox, and the logic of immunity that comes along with paradox: when you’re able to incorporate the enemy within, the opposite within, the nonself within. If that which attacks you is precisely what makes you go, what constitutes you, what kind of resistance or immanent critique is possible? Is resistance being your friend, or going with you, or agreeing with you? What are the vocabularies that are going to be there to create a form of resistance? I do not know. I am myself wondering where to go with it, how to block this paradox, the vitality and the operational capacities of that paradox, how to interrupt it somehow. I’m sorry, I can only tell that I’m very busy with thinking about it.
CJLC: You say as you hold [Lauren Berlant’s] Cruel Optimism.
MD: I wanted something as a support, and look what I found.
CJLC: You just mentioned how there’s a homology between this neoliberal moment and the one of Catholic conservatism that Schmitt is talking about. How do you think this relationship works? Is it that neoliberal practices and epistemological underpinnings are resuscitating it or bringing it back in some way? Why is Carl Schmitt’s text now becoming an appropriate lens with which to apprehend the neoliberal moment?
MD: It’s because of that grammar. In a way, your question responds to itself, because it seems that you were referring to that homology. I think that neoliberalism does thrive, or learn to thrive, on antagonism or contradiction. There’s something about the challenging of certain logics of containment that were associated with the colonial moment, whereby we learn to understand that everything that had to do with establishing borders and containment was negative, because we associate them with the incarcerations of colonialism, of forms of representation that delineate, demarcate, circumscribe, capture. And so many people have turned to people like Gilles Deleuze as a way of redeeming or liberating from those logics of containment. What people are not yet seeing is that conservative movements and neoliberalism alike use those very logics that seek to free us from these vocabularies of containment towards a strange form of capture that is all the stranger because you do not see the borders there. It becomes unbounded. If your neighbor puts a fence up for you, it’s bad—but you know there’s a fence there, and you can react to it. If there’s no fence, it becomes very strange to localize power. It becomes a power that is everywhere by being nowhere in particular. Now, a thing that is everywhere by being nowhere in particular is paradox itself. So what’s at stake here is how this infrastructure of paradox is operating in ways that allow power to disguise itself in terms that used to be considered very positive. Who talks about freedom these days? It’s the Right. Of the logics of flow, of freedom. So there’s something there that is oddly oppressive, precisely because you cannot grasp its contours because it has appropriated the structure of life itself, which happens through paradox. Because that’s what breathing is—it’s paradox. Paradox is so within, and so everywhere, and so promising: it marks the conditions of life itself. It is paradoxically both good and bad.
There’s this constant circularity that makes it difficult to find, in the end, where is my position from which I will speak and criticize what’s going on? How can I criticize breathing when it is precisely breathing that is allowing me to criticize? So I do not know exactly what to do with all of this. Where do you cut the kind of tautological self-referentiality going on here in this moment, and this strange rhythm of contradictions that mark this administration?
CJLC: This is a bit of a tangent, or a departure point. You mentioned the styles of reasoning brought on by vital materiality and engagements with new materialism that might more accurately articulate these dispersed vectors of agency, power, discipline. I’m wondering about any considerations you’ve had with that vein of thought, and any approaches you might’ve had that have been influenced by that.
MD: My big influence is—you’re going to be surprised by this—Marie-José Mondzain, on the iconoclastic controversy of the 8th and 9th century around Byzantine iconography. What is a Byzantine icon? This is a moment that can be compared with what’s happening now. It was a moment when you had to think of icon, non-icon, this controversy over the icon, where the church had to find an icon that is not there. I’m very interested in the idea of the I’m-not-there. The icon instantiates absence: it says, “I’m not here.” This is the compromise that had to be found between the icon lovers and the icon destroyers, creating an icon that is kenotic—what in theology is kenosis, the ability to withdraw in the moment of appearance. Which is also what breathing is, this empty field, which brings this idea of motion, of dynamism.
She’s not very well-known, but I think she’s amazing. And so, you’re probably surprised, you thought I would speak of Agamben, or Foucault. and they are important too. It’s actually this very obscure woman, very little-known woman. I’s funny, she’s called Marie-José too.
CJLC: Which brings me back to our earlier question, just because of the mention of the Byzantines, and this kind of uncanny repetition of the two Maria/Marie-Joses. So do we conceive of this rehashing of logics as some kind of linearity or convergence? We were touching on it earlier with the idea of colonial logics as a hinge, but how do we conceive of the trajectory, or form a historiography? How do we form a juncture between these much older styles of reasoning and then these ones we’re encountering right now that resonate with each other despite the interregnum of an entire millenium in between?
MD: I think it relates again to the question of the geopolitical and the logics of containment. Now, at least since the mandate of John Paul II, he really becomes the charismatic guy. And he, just like with the Byzantine empire, it was a moment where the church feels that it needs to go to the gym. And work on its extensions. Because you have Peter, the Rock, and Paul, the tentmaker. And Paul is the Greek. He’s the one who moves in space. He’s the gymnasiarch in the primitive church in Greece. Nothing is really new under the sun. And this Byzantine moment was one of those moments when the Church had to go to the gym. It was a moment of universalism, of expanding. Of bringing this icon that is paradoxical—and in being paradoxical, it plays, again, with the idea that it’s there and not there at the same time, so you cannot see where the borders are. In the nineties in Brazil, you also see this coming of electronic media that is going to replace the idea of the statue. Because the statue is positioned in time and place; there’s a circumscription; there’s an image; it’s there. So my book begins precisely at this moment in Brazil in 1995—it’s called guerra santa, the holy war. How did it happen, this holy war? It started with an evangelical pastor who comes on television on the day that thousands of people across Brazil come to this sanctuary on pilgrimage to pay adoration to the Patron Saint of Brazil, named Our Lady of Aparecida. He goes on television and kicks the statue, kicks the image [of the patron saint]. It’s a moment of blasphemy, and it was followed by weeks of protest and revolt and forms of retaliation by other TV channels because it becomes a war between Catholicism and Protestant Evangelicals, the people who owned that network. As you can see, it’s a war between channels in the name of a religion. And this holy war goes on for weeks. What’s very interesting is that, when I talk to people about this moment, everybody says that this pastor shattered the image in pieces. But that’s not true. What happened—or my reading of it—is that the repetition of that moment on television—time and again—was such that people thought that the statue was broken. But it was just the iteration of the medium itself on the image, as if it shattered its own content. What happens here is that you see the particular geopolitics of television goes on and is infinite. The repetition of the image replaces the idea of the statue. People think it is broken, but it isn’t—they have entered the register of electronic media at that moment—a kind of staccato of repetition, time-and-again. There’s something about that moment that goes from something that is circumscribed in time and space into the electronic medium. I compare this with the Byzantine icon in the 8th and 9th centuries that is there and not there at the same time, and I relate the electronic image as a kind of serial iconoclasm, because it’s one shot after another. The images are passing. One denies the one before.
And of course the logics of liveliness reappear here. Whereas in the Byzantine icon, that paradox that we were talking about is in a way what brings the icon to life, what makes it perform that kenotic becoming—like breathing itself. So the resonance is definitely there (according to my reading of this moment and the now). I describe it in terms of a change from what Mondzain calls from périgraphè to graphè, from circumscription to inscription. The first means “border” and the other one “an absence of borders.” I’m trying to speak of an image as a living image, whether it’s a body or through the dynamics of television as such, which wants to keep the image alive. It moves—it’s not a frozen statue. And through this form of iconography, you can find many problems with electronic media. Through this interfacing of being there and not there at once.
CJLC: Where do locate this labor of detecting these resonances?
When you see things through air, it’s a completely different arrangement of your frame. It will bring in the ideas of resonance and parallels. To express the simultaneity of bodies, space, media, you can show the relational continuum that emerges between them. And at the same time, how are you going to be critical about that? How are you going to find that outside that your subject seems to want to avoid, precisely because it wants to be everywhere. So, to eliminate a transcendental outside from where critique used to be articulated. Where am I going to find my niche of critique?