miguel boyayanThe writing of 69-year old Professor José de Souza Martins is of a surprising beauty, which is rare in sociological texts, and is on a par with its analytical depth. The sociologist’s prose, or rather conversation, is deep but fluent, abundant, involving, ready to make the speaker discover new experiences, get a glimpse of other worlds, surrender to the unexpected in the stories, one emerging from within another, like the stories that drew their inspiration from The Thousand and One Nights. So much so that if we reproduced in full the three-hour conversation with this head professor from the University of São Paulo (USP), who writes for the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, one would get something equal to five times the interview in the pages that follow. And all of it consistent, ranging from the theoretical questions that are currently ravaging sociology to his studies on lynchings, from his analyses of the impoverished city outskirts to the migration from the South of Brazil to the state of Rondônia in the 1970’s, from the unusual and unique personal path of this son of factory workers – who began to work at a very young age, so much so that the age of 11 he was already part of the workforce – to the debates on modernity, daily life and the importance of dreams and the residuals of hope in sociological investigation. Yes, sociological – Professor Martins does not believe that dreams belong solely to the world of psychoanalysis and Freudian theory.
Amid such a wealth of reflections, the following passages are mainly the result of our choice to focus on one of the interview’s pivotal topics, namely, that relating to the book A sociabilidade do homem simples [The sociability of the common man], whose second edition was recently released by the Contexto publishing house. This is one of Martins’s 27 books and he feels it plays a central role in his sociological works. Shortly afterward the Editora 34 publishing house launched the book A aparição do demônio na fábrica: origens sociais do Eu dividido no subúrbio operário [The devil’s apparition in factories: social origins of the divided Id in working-class suburbs]. One should keep in mind that Martins has held the Simon Bolivar Chair at the University of Cambridge, in England, as well as having been a visiting professor at the University of Florida in the United States and at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. In addition, he is also an amateur photographer and is a member of FAPESP’s Board of Governors. A more complete version of this interview can be found on the site of Pesquisa FAPESP.
I would like to start off by making a comment of an aesthetic nature: I find it surprising that a sociologist writes as beautifully as you do, for instance, in your book A sociabilidade do homem simples. How does this relationship between sociological research and language work?
I learnt sociology in Florestan Fernandes’ group. I was one of his students. And Florestan was famous for his use of no-nonsense language. This was very common in the world of sociology of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Talcott Parsons wrote like this and was therefore a success. Until the day on which Wright Mills, another important sociologist, said that one had to translate Parsons into English (but he had written in English!). Parsons’ ideas were overturned in the student riots of 1968, when the uprising of young people revealed that this sort of sociology was worthless. There is a film with Anthony Quinn [R. P. M., 1970], in which he plays a sociology professor on an English university campus and, in one particular scene, he can be seen walking with Parsons’ most complicated book, Social System, under his arm, in the midst of that student uprising. It is a symbolic scene because it exposes the ageing of a sociology that was very formal and very positive in how it dealt with things. I was lucky in that I had professors who were concerned about language, because of the influence of Antonio Candido, who is also a sociologist, but deals with literature, and who is a literary critic who always wrote very clearly and elegantly. But one also learns clarity by doing fieldwork. A person who becomes a desk-bound sociologist ends up talking to himself, which is very bad for sociology and for the social sciences in general, because he is not talking to anyone. When you are doing fieldwork, you can’t ask people theoretical questions using academic language. And the researcher must then translate from the ordinary language that people use into scientific language, and this is his job. And so, since I did a lot of fieldwork and, in addition to this, I come from a poor working-class family of factory workers, I was always very aware that this air-tight language presented some problems in terms of translation and comprehension. I am lucky in that I find myself standing in between two cultures, the academic one of formal education on the one hand and that of popular culture on the other. So it could be said that I became a linguistic interpreter.
But, in addition to this, you have a certain liking for or pleasure in dealing with words.
Ah, yes, because I like to read; I attach a lot of value to literature and feel that sociology, in addition to being a science, is also a literary form of expression. Sociologists don’t produce formulas that explain anything in less than three pages. Think of Einstein: his famous formula [E = mc2] expresses everything that he discovered during a certain period, there’s no need for style. In the sociologist’s case, it is necessary to present an argument, and one can either make it complicated, so that only a few people will understand it, or present an argument that fulfils one of the functions of sociology, which by the way is an idea that Florestan greatly liked, namely, scientific self-awareness of social reality. So I’ve always been very concerned about this and therefore I’ve tried not just to speak clearly when I have to give an explanation, but also to write clearly. For instance, this book [A sociabilidade do homem simples], was written clearly, but has now undergone a major revision.
By the way, the book was written in 2000, and was reedited in 2008. On page 11 you say that the book is based on the broad theme of the possible reencounter of man with himself, on the difference of our specific historical position and, that in addition to this, it contains a methodological purpose, which is that of taking what is at the edge, marginal and abnormal, as a reference for sociological comprehension. Is the aim in 2008 the same as it was in 2000?
Yes, it’s the same, and by the way, it’s a purpose that in methodological terms appears more clearly in a number of my books from 1975 onward. I think that one of the good things about sociology, which is not widely cultivated by sociologists, is the following: when you do field research and you interview people, the best respondent is the one who stands on the limits, because he has a critical comprehension of society. If he is a fully integrated interview subject, he notices nothing – he is a victim of the situation, rather than an agent, a qualified actor within the situation. Meanwhile people on the edge of society – and I learnt this very clearly in the countryside – can see. Why in the countryside? Because there the world is divided, it’s a traditional world that is being invaded by science, by technology, by politics, with the arrival of major corporations… I did research in the Amazon region during the time when the large corporations were arriving, expelling or killing the Indians, the small farmers, etc. The whole thing began in the late 1960’s, but the situation got a lot worse in the 1970’s. So these people are on the edge of their own societies; by this I mean that these societies have no chance to move forward, they are being exterminated and destroyed by economic, technological and social development.
In the same way as the riverside populations of the São Francisco River, who in the 1970’s were being shifted from the river’s margins to make way for dams, had to totally change their lives.
Exactly. This population, even though I cannot explain it in sociological terms, has a better understanding of what is taking place in society as a whole and of its contradictions than a population that lives in the [upscale] Jardim Paulista district. They know that their world is going to end. They feel socially threatened, not just personally threatened. The world that they know, along with its beliefs, ideas, values, and farming techniques, all of this will be threatened by the expansion of the so-called national society, of the capitalist world. Therefore, they are the best sources for the ethnography of what is going on. If we assume, as social sciences generally do, that the economy is the most important thing, that capitalist development is in itself a good but relentless thing, and that one can no longer live without it, then we do not really understand what this capitalist development is, what problems it creates. And it doesn’t just create solutions; it also creates problems for those populations that aren’t going to be integrated. They have no chance because they find themselves in another culture; they are knowledgeable about their own culture, but they are ignorant of the ways of the society that is gaining the upper hand. It is this population which can best talk about the society that sociology belongs to. Sociology is not a part of the marginal society that is being threatened, although it can communicate with it, be an instrument to help preserve indigenous societies, agricultural cultures that should not be destroyed, notions of botany, of biology that the people have, but which are not codified in their predominant knowledge.
One of your discoveries, which is stated in the book, is just how revealing the arguments of these societies on the edge are. And that leads to questions about the renewal of sociological thought.
Both their arguments and their actions are revealing. Concerning the renewal of sociological thought, I believe that sociology that lacks a certain type of hope is useless. Sociology was characterized by hope when it was born, and I am not talking of Marx here, but of Durkheim. What is the core of Durkheim’s sociology? It’s the issue of social anonymity. What I mean is that society is transformed by a number of factors that are imponderable, let’s put it that way, and there is no way to ensure social development, economic development, etc. In this process, it transforms into social waste – I’m the one who is using this expression, not Durkheim – people who don’t adjust to the changes, the majority, who have a serious problems understanding what is going on and the direction that the world is moving in, but the world is moving. The chief issue facing sociology is whether these people will move in the same direction as this world or whether they will remain on the edges. Durkheim’s sociology does not believe that people will remain on the edges, it believes in the integration of people; thus, it has been, for the most part, a sociology of education. Everything that is known about the sociology of education is linked to this: it is a sociology aimed precisely at overcoming states of anonymity, in other words, situations in which are people are living socially, but don’t really know how they are living; they don’t know the rules or the values of the society that is taking shape. They remain backward, trapped in the past. In Marx it’s the same thing, just expressed differently. I’m talking about the core of Marx’s sociological thought. Marx’s political thought is a totally different matter. Florestan was the one who rescued Marx the sociologist in Brazil, and his work was pioneering in this context, because this would only take place in Europe 20 years later.
And is there any recognition of Brazilian sociology and Brazilian science in relation to this?
There’s a complicated question regarding this point. In the case of Marx, he says that the core of the problem is man’s alienation. What I mean is that society changes and mankind thinks that change is something that it is not. Human beings are exploited in the work relationship, but they don’t know how the exploitation takes place, so they become accomplices to this exploitation. Society changes in overall terms and people remain confined in a relationship of relative conformism that prevents them from keeping up with the changes that are taking place as active agents. This is alienation. What I mean is people’s lack of understanding of what they are experiencing, and it is not just factory workers, it’s all of us, Marx himself was alienated. If you read his letters to his daughters, for example, you’ll see that they are from someone who was completely isolated, with a dreadful lack of understanding of what it was to be a woman in a changing society. He was repressive and punitive, which is not what you’d expect from a person who was not alienated. But he was alienated because this is a society based on alienation. So the sociology of Marx indicates that society develops, creates wealth, but alienates and turns people into things, transforming them into objects. And if what we’re talking about is human emancipation, which is the main target of the major philosophical and religious convictions, we need to understand this process and to master it. How? Sociologically, which is also what Durkheim, in his own way, was saying. In the case of Max Weber, another major structural and historical reference in sociology, it’s different. He says: “I can understand what is rational. What is not rational is residual in all this, I understand rationally what is not rational, but I know that I am not uncovering, let’s say, things that survive, the traditions etc. I explain things from the outside, not from inside.” Therefore, right from the outset sociology has been struggling with this problem, which is to interpret society as it is today, extremely complex, and make this interpretation available for people, in order to enable them to face the inevitable changes without suffering. And more: to allow them to control the directions of the changes, instead of being passive subjects of change, which if left to itself, ends up causing injustices, iniquities, devastation, human destruction, neuroses and everything else that one can imagine. This is what we mean by sociology that is critical because it digs down into the root of things. It is critical in relation to society and indicates critically the mistakes of each one of us. All of us have a biased relationship with reality. To a great extent, the function of sociology is to explain why this happens and create the conditions for an understanding that overcomes the problem, so to speak.
How can the sociologist, placed at once on critical soil and in a place of alienation, when making the critique, not be alienated from that which he is observing?
He has no way of escaping his own alienation, but he can understand his alienation sociologically. Undergoing psychoanalysis may help solve a whole load of problems, but it’s not the way to go. What I mean is that I went through this, because I come from a family at the edge of society, that came from the countryside, migrated to the city, became a family of factory workers, and all of a sudden I found myself at university.
How come, after a lost childhood and adolescence, full of sharp twists and turns, family dramas, going out to work when you were very young, and not having studied for a number of years, you ended up opting for sociology?
In the elementary school teacher’s training course, equivalent to high school, which took three years, like the Scientific high school course and the Classic high school course, I came into contact with sociology and history and was torn between the two of them. I had a history teacher, Ms. Margarida Amyr Silva, who, like all the other high school teachers at that time, had graduated from the School of Philosophy. She didn’t write on the blackboard; she used to sit and deliver a learned lecture. It was fascinating. It wasn’t the kind of history that was told in chronological order; she would make sociological interpretations, and we sat there. She used to bring books from her home and make us read them; she made me read a book for a seminar that I would never have otherwise read, O valeroso Lucideno [The Valiant Lucidenus], from the seventeenth century [O valeroso Lucideno e triunfo da liberdade na restauração de Pernambuco, i.e., The Valiant Lucidenus and the triumph of freedom in the reconquest of Pernambuco, by Frei Manuel Calado, Lisbon, 1648], written by a priest who was a witness to the Dutch invasion, and who wrote in verses ridiculing the Dutch. It’s a classic, a document of the history of the expulsion of the Dutch from Brazil. I had a sociology teacher, Ms. Araci Ferreira Leite, who also had a degree from USP, who used to make us read social science books. When I read The Study of Man by Ralph Linton, an anthropology classic, I was surprised: society was therefore explainable, logical, coherent!
When did you enter USP?
I took the entrance exam and was certain that I would not pass. I opted for the evening course because I had to work during the day. My classmates were all from good families, with a stable situation, upper-class, while I lived with a family that was disintegrating, and came from the underprivileged city outskirts, coming literally from the poor suburbs. I was living in São Caetano, at my mother’s house. I didn’t even go and check out the results, until someone said to me: “Stop being such a jerk, go and see how you did!” I finally went along, on registration day, and found out I had passed. Afterwards one of my university classmates fixed me up with a job at Nestlé’s offices, on Sete de Abril street. The work, in the market research department, was akin to what I was studying, in the sense that it brought me into contact with quantitative techniques, and involved carrying out samples, quantifying, analyzing and interpreting. I’d been there a year, when one day a professor called Fernando Henrique Cardoso, to whom I undoubtedly owe a great deal, asked me what sort of job I was doing. So then he asked me if I wanted to get a grant, because he and Luís Pereira were recruiting three or four students to work in research at the Center of Industrial Sociology of Labor, which he had created in connection with Florestan’s chair at the university and which was the start of industrial sociology in Brazil. I immediately replied “Deal” and handed in my resignation at Nestle. It was a grant from Inep, the National Institute of Pedagogical Studies, to work on a project about training labor in industrial companies, which was something I knew well. I think that Fernando Henrique took this into account to some extent. When the survey ended, since Florestan had plans to strengthen his department at the university, to expand the courses and explore new themes, he intended to choose two of those who had been selected as research assistants to stay on as assistants, teaching assistants. I was sure I wouldn’t be picked because I lacked the right background. This was always a reference for me, not an inferiority complex; I didn’t want to look like a jerk, you know what I mean? But then Florestan comes out from inside, calls me over and says: “You’re one of the ones who’s been chosen, sort out the necessary paperwork so that the contract can be drawn up.” I was hired in April 1965.
From that point on, your academic career advanced by leaps and bounds.
Yes. I threw myself head-first into the work. I went to work at Center of Industrial Sociology of Labor, but I soon opted for a research project in the countryside in connection with social development in extreme regions. I took a backwater area in the upper part of the state of Paraíba, a decaying coffee producing region in Amparo and a cutting edge agricultural company in the upper Sorocabana region, because I wanted to study the resistance to technological innovation in these areas. I managed to get a limited amount of funding from FAPESP for the research. Then suddenly the dictatorship came out of nowhere, there were mass layoffs of university professors, the whole thing became a living hell. We were all together, but each one of us had to survive as best he could. Early on in 1964 Fernando Henrique had to leave and go into exile; he was the first one to be persecuted, and we carried on groping our way around until 1969, when the mass layoffs came.
And what was your situation like in 1969?
On the night when Florestan was dismissed we all went to his home, and he made us promise that nobody else would resign in solidarity. They had done this in Brasília and it had been a total disaster. The dictatorship had rejoiced in the resignations because the professors had made the dictatorship’s dirty work easier. He said: “Those who aren’t fired must stay on and the aim must be to continue with what has been created here at USP since Lévi-Strauss and [Roger] Bastide. You carry on as best you can.” A few days later they dismissed Fernando Henrique, Octávio Ianni and so on. From that point on, we were banging our heads against a wall, and were having a lot of difficulty, and there was lot of tension within the group, because we had relatively little support. They were outside the university and didn’t want to do anything that might look like provocation and that as a result might lead to the remaining professors being dismissed. During this period, Jaime Pinsky, who was a history professor at what is now Unesp, the Paulista State University, started contacting me and we became friends. He was linked to the Editora Hucitec publishing house and decided to launch a social sciences magazine, Debate & Crítica [Debate & Criticism]. This was produced at his house and I helped with contacting Florestan, Fernando Henrique, so at the end of the day, both professors who had been laid off as well as those who had not, joined forces to produce the magazine. Not everyone, because many of those who hadn’t been fired didn’t want to run any risks. We kept this up for two or three years, and then the Federal Police came onto the scene. They wanted to impose prior censorship, and we said no. I remember Florestan was furious. He, Jaime Pinsky and I, and afterwards Tamás Szmerecsányi, all said no. They said that this would mean the magazine would have to close down. Tamás went as far as to go to Brasília to talk with people in the Censorship bureau, to explain that it was a scientific magazine, but it was useless. Debate & Crítica was the only scientific magazine to be threatened with prior censorship and we never got any support from anyone in the scientific field, which is something I regard as very disappointing. We closed down, waited for a few months and then reopened the magazine under a different name: Contexto [Context]. This lasted for as long as possible and was sold at newsstands and bookshops, with a small circulation, until 1978.
You never had any connection with the communist party, did you?
No, and with no other party either. The communists invited me to join, and I went as far as going to a meeting at Dom Pedro Park, but I came away with a very bad impression, because there was a lot of authoritarianism in the party and among left-wing groups in general. For me, it was very complicated being a sociologist and having someone controlling my conscience. I said: “Look, I’m a left-wing guy, I’m against the dictatorship, I want it to end as soon as possible, and I’m all for a social democracy, something that’s more advanced than what we’ve got right now, but this is not the right path.’ Anyway, in 1975 I decided to do a survey in the Amazon region about immigration, the conflicts and the violence, which was a totally foolhardy move on my part, but which worked out brilliantly. We were in the final stages of the Araguaia guerilla war and it was a risk. I spent years doing the research with no financing. I applied to FAPESP for funds, and they took 18 months to produce an answer, and what I managed to get, even after an audience with the scientific director, Professor William Saad Hossne, was just enough to buy a plane ticket from the city of Curitiba, which I had reached by bus, to Foz do Iguaçu, Cascavel, which was the area from which the masses were leaving, day and night, by truck. My research was all financed by the Martins Research Support Foundation.
You mean out of your own pocket.
Yes. Luckily my wife [Heloísa Helena Teixeira de Souza Martins] was also working at the University; she was a professor in another area of sociology, and so we managed to pay the bills. I paid for everything this way or by accepting invitations to take part in conferences in Belém, or in another city, in return for a plane-ticket to get me there. That was a big frontier in Brazil, and as a result the military government was building the road from Cuiabá to Porto Velho. Brazil has always focused on the frontier, and continues to think in terms of a war. They built the road and decided to go ahead and colonize the region with settlers, unlike what occurred regarding the Trans-Amazon highway, where the colonization did not work out very well and you ended up getting large ranches, huge estates, land grabbing, and all kinds of wrong-doings. In the case of the state of Rondônia, the idea was to create a state of family-owned properties, such as those found in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Paraná and Santa Catarina, and to create a rural middle class. I wrote a number of papers about this and have a book, Fronteira [The Frontier], which I hope to re-edit shortly. It contains various studies, and one of them, which was done with children, “Regimar e seus amigos” [Regimar and her friends], was one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done. It sets down in writing the things said by a little girl from a small settlement on the border between the states of Maranhão and Pará, where the hired goons of a land-grabber set fire to everything in the settlement and in the surrounding woods, in order to kill the old people and the children while their parents were out working on the land. Luckily, a gale blew the fire in the opposite direction. The children were fully aware of this. And so I asked them to speak and write it all down. I remember this little girl, Regimar, giving me an interview while she sat on a tree-trunk which had been used as a barrier by the residents of the settlement to defend themselves from the pot-shots of the goons. She must have been about nine or ten. I’d spoken to the children in the local school: “I’ll come in tomorrow and have a chat with all of you.” And on the following day they all turned up wearing their best clothes. She looked very proper in a pretty little pale colored dress and she said to me: “Professor, don’t worry. This will all be over soon. We’re leaving Brazil, we’re going to Roraima.”
Each story in one of your surveys seems to lead on to another, simultaneously…
I never did just one study, I never wrote one book at a time. Intellectual work flows at a different pace from that of industry. It’s important to develop two or three studies at the same time, because you get a break from one by doing the other. This way, one day we begin to harvest lots of results. Regarding the impoverished outskirts, for instance, I have been doing research into this since I entered university. To me, the poor suburbs seemed like unexplained reality. They maintained a lot of rural characteristics, and were what remained of the countryside within the towns. And we used to do studies here in relation to the urban environment from the American perspective, while in the United States things developed differently. The urban environment in Brazil never fully developed, except in city centers and in the residential neighborhoods of the elite. The rest was both rural and urban at the same time. As a matter of fact, at the time of the mass layoffs of professors I was carrying out a survey in the countryside, covering the entire Vale do Paraíba area, the first survey of rural sociology in Brazil that was based on aerial photometry to determine the units and even select a probable sample, and at the same time I was investigating the establishment of the colonial cores in the underprivileged city outskirts, the Italian influence in this formation. I gathered a great deal of material about the suburbs and did a lot of historical research, because the original idea was to produce a trilogy and this book which has just been re-edited, A aparição do demônio na fábrica, is one of the results of all this. It relates to the issue of popular culture and the factory workers’ social conscience in their daily life. Not this class consciousness that sociologists argue about and that never materializes.
I’d like to take a look at the issue of modernity and the modern element as dealt with in A sociabilidade do homem simples. Look at this passage: “If modernity is the permanent form of what is provisional, the temporary element as a way of life, the fashion, our question is to find out what form it takes in societies such as those in Latin-America and in Brazilian society in particular, which in many aspects is so different from the rest of Latin America.” What form does it take?
Well, Brazilian society is a hybrid one in every sense. In São Paulo we have Indians and we have this fake New York that is Paulista Avenue, with all of its wealth, and its pretentiously cosmopolitan mentality etc. The diversity is enormous and the modernity, in a certain sense, is this, this combination of diversity. Even in sociology a lot of people confuse modernity with the modern element. The modern element is merely a moment, one aspect of modernity. And some people use the name post-modernity to refer to this combination, this mixture of times. I think that this is inherent to modernity itself; there is no modernity and post-modernity. Brazil is very characteristically this strange combination. We are not Paraguay, or Bolivia or Ecuador, which are frozen in time, so that modernity there is not therefore as scandalous, as glaring, or as visible. Here it is. What I mean is that if you leave Paulista Avenue, go down into a subway station, travel half an hour in any direction, you arrive in the nineteenth century or even in the eighteenth century, depending on the place.
When examining the modernity issue, your book enters the world of images, a fundamental topic in communication studies. I highlight the passage below on the observation of satellite dishes in the shantytown: “It’s as if people lived inside the image, and ate images. The image has become, in the imaginary world of modernity, a nutrient just as fundamental or even more so than bread, water or books. It justifies all sacrifices and privations as well as transgressions” (p.36). This seems eerily similar to Muniz Sodré’s concept of what he calls media bios, mediatized life.
This notion of living inside images is not exclusive to Sodré. It’s a general assumption among those sociologists who work with the issue of modernity. Modernity is the society of appearance, of the image. There in a shantytown where people live in boxes measuring two or three square meters and where sewage flows through the box, there hanging on the wall of the shack, and I have photos of this, you have the most up-to-date TV set they can afford. What I mean is they don’t have enough to eat, and the assumption that people make is, on the whole, true, but this TV set, there’s no way to do without it.
In this same chapter on modernity there is a conversation between you and [Nestor García] Canclini (p. 20), and I’d like to know whether there is also an answer, although not an explicit one, to Paul Baudrillard, in the references to the notion of make-believe.
Not necessarily. To tell the truth, one of my fundamental reference authors is Henri Lefebvre, a pioneer in relation to all of this and one who treated these concepts linked to modernity from a much more sociological perspective than they did because he took into account other aspects of social reality. Going back to Marx, he was an author who distinguished between the Marxist Marx and the Marxian Marx. Marx was not a Marxist, he was a Marxian. He said this to his son-in-law, Paul Lafargue: “If what you wrote is Marxism, I am not a Marxist.” Marx was much more of a sociologist than it is said. He tried to understand what contemporary society was. Obviously he fell into the trap of thinking that sociologists can change society. Sociologists can’t change a thing.
In your conversation with Lefebvre, what is more useful in order to understand Brazilian society?
The resumption of the dialectic method by Lefebvre, which consists precisely of taking into account the extremes, the anomalies, the things that are weird and different in relation to the dominant models, as a benchmark for a fundamental methodological nature.
In the chapter after the one about the examination of modernity and the challenges of the renovation of sociological thought, we find the following about the crisis of the major explanatory systems (p. 52): “Certainty in relation to major issues is a thing of the past. And along with this, the great structures of wealth and power have also gone into crisis (as well as the major theoretical schemes). This is where the challenges of our time come from. The challenges of life and the challenges of science, the renewal of sociological thought.” And thinking of sociologists who are studying at university right now, how can you translate these challenges into commonsensical language?
What I’m trying to underscore in this text is that society has always believed that it is well protected against major changes. These changes used to come slowly, there was time to prepare for them, but it’s not like that anymore, they happen from one day to the next. What I mean is that I’m here discussing sociology with you, but I’m not sure that this is what sociology is, at this point in the game. Because there are people coming up with new things based on sociological tradition everywhere. Coming up with both good things and bad things. I was in Cambridge about two years ago and I bought a book by Anthony Giddens, which is a huge sociology manual, a big fat book, for the sum of one pound sterling. I thought that it was weird that it was so cheap, so I consulted one of my colleagues and he explained that it was because the book had become obsolete and that the author had produced another manual, in which he had had to change everything. The way one used to work with the issues of daily life, the little details of ordinary life, what used to be known, all of this is no longer worth anything.
In dealing with theory issues in A sociabilidade, and thinking about the divergence between the orientation of Marxists and phenomenologists in sociology, there is a reference to the possibility of a joining up that creates a place of knowledge. How does this theoretical possibility come about, in your experience?
I think that I managed to do this and I am not saying that it’s the best solution, perhaps someone else can find a better solution than I did. Sociology has always been based on the assumption that the main currents of sociological thought are incompatible. Florestan Fernandes is heavily criticized because in his book Os fundamentos empíricos da explicação sociológica [The fundamentals of sociological explanation] he lumps together Marx, Weber and Durkheim. Actually, he separates them into chapters, but in a sense he advocates the notion that one can combine these three theoretical orientations. I think that a joining up could take place if one takes the dialectic perspective, which is the only method that allows one to deal with hope in today’s world, regarding what is residual about it. Hope has become residual, it is no longer an objective for anyone. Modernity has killed hope.
But what is this residual hope like?
Through a resumption of the dialectics that Lefebvre proclaims, through a resumption of Marx’s method, one may discover who is the agent of hope. In the nineteenth century, for sociological reasons, it was the factory worker class that Marx showed. But we need to learn who the main characters of hope are today, or the unwitting bearers of the possibilities of change that, at least, cause this utopia about the world as a place of joy, freedom and plenty to come true.
Do we have any clues to help us identify these actors?
We have to carry out research. The path starts off with the critique of present society, in the same way as Marx did a critique of the political economy that held sway in the nineteenth century, and just as Lefebvre produced a critique of daily life regarding the start of the second half of the twentieth century. Where is that society drowning? It is drowning in daily life, in the visible element, in the experience of life. So I want to learn what this is. Because if there is no longer any hope, if society is nothing more than the quotidian, I must understand this quotidian in order to be able to say: “That’s the way the world is, society is, over and out”.
But even in this moment in which the quotidian seems to swallow everything, are there any clues as to who may be the bearer of hope?
Who? is a question of the common man’s Marxism.
So, what then?
The Chinese used to say “it’s the peasants.” The Russians used to say “it’s the factory workers.” And each of them invented their own. No, that’s not the way to go. The question is wrong. This is a question that those who criticize Marxism have to ask themselves. If this is indeed a society that is dominated by the quotidian, then research must be conducted to find out what this quotidian actually is, how things are set in it. And of course, since dialectics work with historical time, with the issue of temporality, it is in the contradictions of the quotidian that we will discover the residuals of hope. Hope is residual element of the quotidian, in the world of daily living. The key issue put forth by Lefebvre, which demands research rather than a sociologist’s hurried response, is to find out under what conditions there may be a coalition of these residual elements that becomes more consistent and that says: “It’s this way, there’s a gap here.” This was a part of the student movement in 1968. Factory workers in the United States were conservative, and they were conservative in France. It was the young people who were disturbed by the social injustices, by social immobility; there was no room for them. So it was youth that represented radicalism at that moment, the possibility of a coalition.
And what happened that caused the coalition to be unable to sustain itself?
They were quickly co-opted. The question is to investigate how. Agnes Heller developed a theory that is also given lesser importance in a small book written by Lefebvre, La Proclamation de la Commune [The Proclamation of the Commune], in which she draws attention to the following: the bearers of the new are those who have radical needs, which cannot be resolved in this society. The hunger for learning, for instance, for knowledge, the hunger for schooling. If we analyze the underprivileged outskirts – and I have drawn attention to this a number of times – of the ABC region in the São Paulo metropolitan area, whereas the communists used to say that factory workers as a class fought for better salaries, what they were actually fighting for was schooling. I was there, I know this. The populist politicians understood this, the left as a whole did not. All demand was aimed at bringing secondary education into the ABC region, and bringing universities, and they brought it. What I mean is that the radical demand is different. And the place, the social category, the period and the way of expression demands change. This is why we need sociologists who know how to investigate this and how to respond to it.
Was your investigation of dreams designed to find out whether these radical needs showed up in any other instance? Appropriating oneself of dreams in sociology is a bold bet.
It’s bold, isn’t it? I expressly told the students who did the research, and whose works I published later, that it was forbidden to read Freud.
Because they had to discover what the dreamers were saying about themselves and their dreams while ignoring Freudian theory.
Obviously, what I actually said was that if they read Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, for instance, or what the Freudians say, they would be unable to do a sociological job. I forbade them so that they would be able to imagine, create and be bold. Freud explained things from a psychoanalytical point of view. Now, sociologically, it’s a different thing entirely. And in Brazil, here at USP, we had two reference works, one by Bastide and the other one by Florestan. Bastide researched the dreams of black people and discovered an important thing that makes black people furious nowadays: it is only blacks who dream as blacks. This means dreaming with the archetypes of black culture, in which there is no separation between life and death. This work is old, and later he resumed this theme.
And what about Florestan’s work?
It’s an unfinished survey about dreams. In his youth, Florestan was very interesting, very open to investigation. He not only undertook the first and one of the very few sociological studies in the entire world about children, As trocinhas do Bom Retiro [The playgroups from the Bom Retiro district], but he carried it out in São Paulo city districts. He was interested in something that is very original and very creative, which is how people interpret their dreams. Because, as he says, and this is very typical of sociology: “If I discover the key to interpreting dreams, the ordinary man’s key, not Freud’s one, I can look around in his mind, I can get a clearer picture of his understanding of the society in which he lives.” Florestan provided a number of tips in this unfinished work, published in Folclore e mudança social na cidade de São Paulo [Folklore and Social Change in the city of São Paulo]. I used these tips; they’re mentioned in my work, because they’re fundamental. It’s necessary to resume this theme and conduct some specific research into it.
So the dreams help to understand who the subject is?
“Of course. Erich Fromm called attention to this quite a while ago in his work Consciência e sociedade industrial [Awareness and industrial society]. The question is the following: this society split our world into a world of watchfulness and a world of dreams. And a black person who has experienced this is only residually black. All of us, in Western society, experience this division. Christianity did this: it split our ID into two halves, one hidden, which we do not recognize other than indirectly, and a visible half, this one in which we are right now, talking, one might say.
Daytime and nighttime, body and soul…
Yes, all of this is split. So, what do we put there in the world of dreams? Our fears. But our fears are what control us when we’re awake, it’s just that we’re not aware of it. Then they explode while we are asleep. So we made a database of dreams. People dream about their homes, which represents the womb in our culture. They take refuge in their homes, they only feel safe inside the home, even with the family’s dead there. They are afraid of the street, of circulation, of movement, they are afraid of everything that is not related to the tribe, the family or the womb. We are primitive, in this sense.
To some extent, we are archaic.
Yes, nobody is just modern, we are also archaic and this archaic aspect plays the role of regulating; it regulates fears, insecurities. What I mean is that people spend the entire day afraid, but at night they dream of their mother’s womb, their parents’ house; they take refuge inside and feel protected. But then they dream that cars are starting to go through the house, and that strangers are banging on the door and entering without asking for permission, and so on and so forth. A lion comes into the house or, alternatively one is in the bathroom and discovers that all the walls are made of glass, so one is totally exposed.
The survey also found that the faces in the street are not visible in people’s dreams, isn’t that the case?
Exactly, people are unable to identify the faces. The images are hazy; they have no identity, so that people can’t remember. This is something we all experience. You walk down the street, leave São Francisco square and go along until you get to São Bento square. I am waiting for you there at São Bento church, and when I walk in to the little bakery there I ask you to tell me what the people that you saw on the street looked like. You’ll remember the color of a woman’s dress, her shoes, her nose, but not her face. If the person had a squint, you’ll remember the squint, but you won’t remember the rest. What I mean is that it’s a mutilated society.
I’d like to highlight this passage in your book (p. 60), because I think it’s really extraordinarily beautiful: “What terrifies us in our dreams is the revelation that we ourselves are responsible for our fears and horrors, the raw materials of our conformism. The courage that we have during the night makes us see and makes us aware of the courage that we lack during the day, when we must face the things that shape us and constrain us. The madness of the night and of sleep exposes the insanity of the day and of the waking hours: the insanity of someone who is guided and defined by an alien desire, which was not doubted or even questioned.” In addition to the beauty, it makes an allusion to our inevitable alienation.
Exactly. The book’s theme is alienation. The person is a set of separations, because during the day he is not the same as he is during the night. I study lynchings, and in terms of numbers it’s one of the things that I have done the most research into, with two thousand cases catalogued in my database. What strikes me the most is that the violence involved in nighttime lynchings is immeasurably greater than that observed in daytime lynchings. Why? Because modern society is a society of cowards. In the darkness people do things that they can’t do in the light of day. So they become more courageous when it’s dark. They throw stones, burn people alive, kill, crush people’s eyes, etc., because they are in the dark; these are acts of horrendous cowardice. It’s the same thing that the torturer does during torture. Cowardice has become an institution.
I’d like to take advantage of your statement that “empirical research is what makes a huge difference between deep sociological examination with a philosophical emphasis and sociology per se,” to ask you: what is sociology in your opinion?
Sociology is one of the most interesting sciences that have come up over the last 100 to 150 years. Not as interesting as anthropology, which is a competing and complementary science, at the end of the day, but it is very interesting because it is a great tool for learning about the modern world’s enigmas. Ancient society didn’t have any enigmas. Everything was explained either by the philosophers or by the theologians, and common sense assimilated this with no problems. And everybody lived in peace. Wars were for other reasons. Today, society has too many enigmas and the number of enigmas is growing every day. One thing, an enigma, for instance, a Brazilian case: the absurd number of children who kill their parents. And the even greater number of parents who kill their children. This has never been considered acceptable, and it still isn’t, but it goes on nonetheless. Sociology can help to explain this and, possibly, even result in public policies that, at the end of the day, prevent this tragedy, the worst of all tragedies. The case of lynchings as well. In general, sociologists are more interested in political systems than in the themes of daily life and of society, of ordinary people as it were, which includes all of us, and this is not a good thing. For the time being sociology has missed the bus, although it could still catch it. But it is struggling with such a huge number of urgent issues that this has caused it to mistakenly make thematic options. I doubt, for instance, there are as many projects in relation to daily life, either at FAPESP or the CNPq, as there are about the MST (Landless Agricultural Workers’ Movement). And the MST, at this point, has already become irrelevant, because it has been studied so much, and has become so well known and so predictable, that there is no longer any mystery about it. It is no longer an enigma to anyone, and therefore it is no longer a theme for study. But one of the great enigmas of the present time relates to what has happened to hope.