Jair Bolsonaro’s recent rise to power in Brazil dramatically foregrounds a shift in classical understandings of sovereignty within Brazil and other nations around the world. During an open session of the Câmara dos Deputados in 1993, Bolsonaro famously declared, “I am in favor of a dictatorship, a regime of exception.” In 2018, twenty-five years following that pronouncement, he captured the presidency under the national campaign slogan “Brazil Before Anything; God Above All.” Defining the rule of law and sovereign decision through the rhetoric of exception seemingly puts Bolsonaro at the center of a Schmittian understanding of political theology. In its classic formulation, in line with Westphalian order, the politico-theological centers on the problem of sovereign decision. As the Schmittian dictum goes, the “sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception.”
While phrases such as “Brazil first,” “America first,” or “Brexit is Brexit” may suggest a will to restore sovereignty around the logic of positionality—of what stands before and above—they operate in a distinctive power arrangement. Bolsonaro, and his counterpart Donald Trump, warn that a decision will take place and threaten that they will decide. The capacity on the part of these leaders for making things decisive is, however, precisely what is disabled in the process; if there is any sense of the exception, it is the exception from decision itself. This is not to say that new laws are not instituted or overturned. It is rather that their enactment occurs in the fearful shadow cast by sovereignty’s lack, one which will require continuous confrontation with the exception and the extreme so that in time, exception will be everywhere and nowhere in particular. Sovereignty, I suggest, is a rhythmic echo between opposites.
The challenge is to understand how Bolsonaro’s rhetoric of exception situates him at a far remove from the very classical model it references. Where formerly sovereign action often implied the taking of decision from an exceptional position that required the suspension of the norm, governance in the age of Bolsonarismo—and Trumpism—operationalizes extremes as such. Governance entails bouncing between extremes so as to highlight the tension of opposites, the swaying of opinions, and the unleashing of forces in conflict. Language is infused with punctum. It explores interruption as part of its communicability, making it available for new iterations. Given this, the levels of performative paradox and tautological reductionism across Brazil’s political spectrum require more flexible modes of understanding how authoritarianism combines with neoliberalism and how to make sense of a centralized extremism.
Walter Benjamin, in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama, offers a key reference for thinking about our political present. What strikes me as particularly relatable to Brazil’s current situation is the baroque stage-form Benjamin explores in his literary and philosophical practice. He calls this trauerspiel or “mourning play.” As Benjamin notes, the rise in importance of the German baroque mourning play entailed a particular mode of staging sovereignty. He writes,
The antitheses between the power of the ruler and his capacity to rule . . . can be illuminated only against the background of the theory of sovereignty. This is the indecisiveness of the tyrant. The prince, who is responsible for making the decision to proclaim the state of emergency, reveals at the first opportunity, that he is almost incapable of making decisions. Just as compositions with restful lightning are virtually unknown in mannerist painting, so it is that theatrical figures of this epoch always appear in the harsh light of their changing resolve. What is conspicuous about them is not so much the sovereignty evident in the stoic turns of phrase, as the sheer arbitrariness of a constantly shifting emotional storm . . .
In sum, at the center of the ideological-affective apparatus of governance in Brazil and elsewhere lies a particular dramaturgy. Specifically, the staging of Bolsonaro’s regime of sovereignty involves two key aspects: First, an alteration of the problematics of decision based on the constancy of exception. Second, and consequently, the displacement of sovereignty as such.
In the three decades leading to the presidential election of Bolsonaro, an accompanying shift took place in the prevalent grammar of Christianity in Brazil. Analysts have pointed out that the far right-wing candidate, tied as he is to an anti-Communist rhetoric and theistic campaign slogan, found support among the country’s active Christian sector. Statistics have suggested that amongst evangelicals, 70 percent voted for Bolsonaro, while the rate amongst Catholics is estimated at 51 percent.This divide between Catholics and evangelicals is advantageously blurred by the fact that Charismatic Catholicism in Brazil is a revivalist movement of the Catholic Church that integrates in its own structure a tactical ambivalence between Orthodox Catholicism and evangelicalism. This ambivalence between Catholic and Protestant traditions aligns with, and is mirrored in, the religious spectrum of the new presidential house: Jair Bolsonaro’s Catholicism and Michelle Bolsonaro’s evangelicalism. The candidate’s rise to power, in other words, coincides with the ascendant dynamic force of the Catholic Charismatic movement, with its hybrid blend of theistic elements.
Drawing on Pentecostalism, Orthodox Byzantine Christianity, and televangelist methods, the Catholic Charismatic movement was originally formed by middle class and well-educated individuals who resented liberation theology’s dictum “preference for the poor.” Early Charismatics nurtured hostility toward Communism and leftist ideologies, a sentiment that would reappear as a heavy theme in Bolsonaro’s rhetoric.
Emerging as a distinctive sector in Brazil in the late 1960s, Catholic Pentecostals (as they were first called by virtue of their ecumenical orientations) organized their practices around the notion of pneuma, the Greek term for breath, air, or spirit. Charismatics’ emphasis on anointment and bodily language made reference to Paul, apostle and gymnasiarch, and to passages from the Book of Acts, while tapping on to an explosion of gym spaces in Brazil in the second half of the nineties. Much like with Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, Charismatic pneumatic practices hone the ability to deal with opposites by approaching these not as obtrusive to its constitution, but rather as extremes with which to work on its elasticity: on the capacity to stretch its limits to the edge. Charismatics’ primary goal is muscular virtuosity.
The dramatic element of theater is tied to political form. As I argue in my forthcoming book on the movement, Charismatics adopt a philosophy of staging that distances itself from the Aristotelian theatrical arrangement. Rather than relating to the plot through exposition, development, and resolution of conflict, in the technologically mediated events of this religious movement, Charismatics practice a more gestural theatrical model, one that renders the articulations of linguistic form themselves apparent.
For example, at Canção Nova Media Community, a hugely successful Catholic Charismatic-owned global media association and religious community based in Brazil, to enunciate the Acts of the Apostles is to “work out” language. For its members and followers, staging Acts is to make words malleable to be recombined and transported elsewhere. It is to voice, recite, and exercise words and sounds until it is “o pulmão que[m] canta,” “lungs [that] sing it” (hence the name Canção Nova). In such Charismatic settings, language becomes one with middle (meio being the Portuguese word for medium, midst, and middle). It becomes its medium as spirit. Particularly during religious shows, the voicing of words happens so as to highlight the circulation between what is said and the material infrastructure through which saying is possible. Thanks to that circulation, a form of self-referential tautology ensues between medium and message, the function of which is to confound foreground from background so that communication becomes a total event, a mediality without end.
In practice, this borderless frame (oxymoron intended) is attainable through the recruitment of figures of speech with performative potentials, such as, for example, the tautology “the Acts of the Apostles [is] the Acts of the Apostles.” The exercisable qualities of tautology lie in how its symmetrical structure allows Charismatics to mimic the metrics of breath in terms of input and output. It allows language to mimic the physiological operations of the breathing body, and in doing so turns language into a function of rhythm, circulation, and pulsation. Tautological speech, one could say, is good to breathe with.
For Charismatics, nothing expresses self-referentiality better than the practice of glossolalia. This is because nothing comes closer to tautological perfection than the white noise produced by this practice: it is what it is. All and nothing, everything and nothing. The before is the after and the above is the below. What counts is that language and gesture coincide, such that to speak is intrinsically to act. In such a scenario, there is no possible grounds with which to think decision in the sense of the above and before exception. Instead of decision as separation from, there is oscillation between opposites and a zealous determination to turn this oscillation into its own exercise of sovereignty. There lies the play of rhythmic incisions, the cut, or gap through which, in a perverse twist of Benjamin’s historical materialism, the Messiahs will enter the stage.
Incision, Not Decision
The world will remember the moment when Jair Bolsonaro was stabbed in September 2018 while campaigning for president. The press soon communicated that the incision caused by the stabbing was 12 cm (4.7 inches) deep and that Bolsonaro had lost 40 percent of his blood. Asked to address the nation while he recovered, Bolsonaro reiterated the same slogan-cum-prayer, “Brazil before everything, God above all,” a phrase that would proliferate across the entire media sphere and beyond. Such a slogan, however, would be suffused by the logics of the incision he suffered on his body: how to proceed with the campaign and reoccupy the stage of sovereignty, how to turn the incision into reproducible value? Owing to the incision he suffered, Bolsonaro was excused from attending public debates. He did not argue against his opponents; he did not try to persuade voters. Instead he modulated the affective consequences of his injury to the punctuating dynamics of social media, each tweet piercing and polarizing the fragile body of democracy, allowing him to go from one exceptional decision to the next, all the while returning, time and again, to the same refrain of the campaign.
Governance in the Bolsonaro era, starting with his campaign, thus happens not via decision (separation from) but rather through rhythmic incisions (cut through). Despite what it says, the presidential slogan does not demarcate an outside point of sovereign exception. The “outside” and the “above” in the slogan are but the eye of the vortex of contradictions that encircle Bolsonaro’s political regime. His first days in office have been remarkably singular at that. He splits off decision into alternate opposites and has these placed beside one another such that, much like in the break-dancer’s moonwalk, to arrive is to leave, to rise is to lower, to add is to subtract. In other words, attending to the affective powers of the Bolsonaro’s presidential slogan is to realize the opposite in it. It is to realize that the outside and beyond it suggests is, in effect, no other than the innner motor of rhythmic undecidability constitutive of a form of immanent sovereignty. Unlike the stiffness of the old sovereign who held a scepter of history in his hand, the Bolsonaro sovereign adopts an oddly flexible form of authoritarianism. His virtuosity as leader is, and will be, in the suppleness and mediality of gesture. The fact that the first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro, broke the protocols by gesturing her inaugural speech in sign language or that she translated the entire campaign into sign language is but one portent moment toward the central role gesture occupies in this new political era. Not in communicating through gesture but in terms of rendering visible the operations of a communication poised to oscillate between what it says and to its contrary.
A form of tyrant flexibility becomes subservient to, and a condition for, the play of contraries, what Schmitt (writing on Catholicism’s political form in the 1920s) famously described as the outstanding elasticity of the “coincidentia oppositorium.” What is bewildering about the form of sovereignty we now confront is the displacement of the “before and above all” in the very moment of promoting it as the defining central slogan of the nation-state. This paradox provides the rhythm the new regime runs to. As Benjamin writes,
The baroque is moved by the antitheses that is at once preoccupied with restoring, the ideal of restoration as much as with the idea of catastrophe—and it bounces between both. And it is in response to this antithesis that the theory of the state of emergency is devised!
Before anything, above all: no decision.