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Unreal Brazil

When I started out as a doctoral student there were generally two favoured destinations for anthropologists to Brazil: Amazonia or Salvador de Bahia. Amazonia was where one went to study indigenous socieities, to immerse oneself in the radical otherness of perspectival cosmologies, and Bahia was where one went to engage with quixotic gods known as Orixas – in other words, to study the mysterious secrects of Afro-Brazilian religion. Of the anthropologists that I then knew, the majority headed out to do their research in Amazonia or Bahia. It would appear that this is a trend  – with a few notable exceptions – that continues to dominate the anthropological scholarship of Brazil, at least in British institutions.

I had never been to Amazonia but, in the course of previous travels, I had once been to Salvador, Bahia’s popular capital. Arriving at the airport I had been greeted by a sign welcoming me to ‘Bahia, a land of magic’. Like every other traveller I had stepped out onto winding cobbled streets, and had been struck by the sight of Candomblé priestesses in white lacy skirts and the glistening musculature of Capoeira dancers. Like surrealist artists, anthropologists, filmmakers, writers, middle class Brazilians and tourists before me, I was instantly entranced. Mattijs Van de Port captures the sensation Salvador da Bahia tends to have on outsiders with the word jouissance. Salvador da Bahia is, on first impression, a veritable source of jouissance. To a Western-European sensibility, it stands out as a place of colour, drumming, dancing, and spirit possessions. I remember my first time in Salvador well. And I remember longing to embed myself deeper into its layers. Young and inexperienced I had no idea how to go about embedding myself deeply into anything, so I did the first thing that presented itself: I signed up for an official excursion organised by my hotel to see a Candomblé ceremony.

That little excursion put me off for good. The drumming and dancing was all there, but somehow I felt cheated: as though it was all just a show, the real stuff was happening off stage somewhere. I later concluded that Candomblé had become part of the same package, including such things as football, body-beautiful samba queens, string bikinis, Capoeira dancers, and gigantic Christ statues that epitomised Brazil to tourists. A few years later and keen to establish myself as a serious ethnographer, I wanted no part of the ‘iconic Brazil’ being sold to the tourists. I carefully avoided both Amazonia and Salvador de Bahia.

What I probably failed to appreciate at that time was the fascinating history that belied ‘iconic Brazil’ as constructed in the public sphere, not just for tourists and anthropologists, but also for Brazilians themselves. The sense that Brazil is one big spectacular show (and hence, that the real stuff is all happening off-stage elsewhere) is very much part of a particularly Brazilian kind of posturing that van de Port examines in this original and theoretically engaging monograph. Ecstatic Encounters is the result of having thrown himself into a search for the sacred via Candomblé  – an Afro-Brazilian religion with roots in the diviners cults of West Africa. Over the course of the twentieth century Candomblé transformed in status from an illegal and persecuted ‘cult’ into an officially recognised Brazilian ‘religion.’ With its legalisation in the 1970s came an intensification of its status on the national stage as a symbol of Brazil’s proudly syncretic cultural heritage. Today Candomblé is part of a complex public-political sphere and mediates various civil-secular causes such as gay rights and the Black movement. As a religion it has been a focal point for anthropologists of various traditions and persuasions; as the vast literature on the topic will demonstrate. As Paul Christopher Johnson comments, academic publications and cinematic representations produced by outside observers are even appropriated into the routines of traditional terreiros (temples), and directed toward the revitalization of the community or its own pedagogy (2002: 164).

Ecstatic Encounters is not, however, the usual in-depth, anthropologist-becomes-initiate type of study, and in this sense it makes for a refreshing change. It constitutes more of a cultural history drawn through a series of essays that tangentially explore the theme of Candomblé in the public sphere. Beginning with the emergence of the religion as a topic of scientific study in the early twentieth century, van de Port traces the oculacentred gaze of social scientists and other cultural producers, from Raymundo Nina Rodrigues, who produced the first ever scientific study of the cult; through the modernist epoch where outsider bohemians and intellectuals would visit the festas dos orixás; and to the current day, where gay rights and Black movement activists use Candomblé as their banner, and celebrities such as Gilberto Gil (a famous singer and former Minister for Culture 2003-08) expound the ‘beauty’ and ‘wisdom’ of the religion from the pages of Brazilian Hello-style magazines.

For contemporary (I want to say ‘genuine’ – but I’m not sure van de Port would approve of this term) practitioners of the religion, the serious flip side of this public fascination with Candomblé is the problem of ‘folclorisation.’ As an official part of Bahia’s cultural heritage Candomblé has been cannibalised; consumed and transformed by outsiders into something beautiful but ultimately inconsequential. Not only can tourists go on hotel-organised excursions to actual ceremonies, choreographers put on spectacular performances of Candomblé dancing for public consumption where there is no risk of possession. Celebrities who engage with Candomblé in this register find it stimulating. But this is Candomblé ‘light’: always benign, somewhat distracting, life enhancing, but not fundamentally life-changing. The difference of register maps onto differences of class. Candomblé as lived by the poor majority is more than beauty, it is potentially dangerous. Van de Port notes the ambiguous warnings of others – mostly from poorer backgrounds – who hint at macumba (black magic). For them, Candomblé is not merely another colourful aspect of Brazil’s misceginistic heritage, nor is it something one can dip into  – a bit like visiting a spa for a weekend of spiritual pampering.  Candomblé is dangerously real and an onerous burden. Committing oneself to a terreiro (temple), becoming an initiate, honouring one’s obligations to the orixas uses up time and resources. Far from a weekend spa break, it is more akin to paying off a mortgage. The difference between these two registers is not exclusive to Candomblé. It can be seen in other parts of world where secularisation produces a tension between religion as gift-shop-heritage and religion as something with hard edges and serious consequences.


Van de Port is a consummate writer: his prose combines classical exegesis, solipsism, and skilled literary technique. The sense evoked is energetic, sometimes edgy, but always  – though not obviously at first – with just cause. The erotic and confessional techniques he employs will make some readers uncomfortable but, as he insists, they result from his conscious choice to ‘soil academic convention’ and test the boundaries of how knowledge is constructed (cf. Wafer 1991). We are present as he reflects intimately on himself in particular contexts: ‘a sweating white man standing in a corner chewing gum’ for example (2011:257). We are invited to wonder with him, whether his fascination for Bahia was due to: ‘romantic yearnings, libidinal undercurrents, silly but irresistible midlife fantasies. . . [or] vague worries over the prospect of an academic career gone bureacratic’ (2011: 63). We are present, again, as van de Port suddenly pulls back from his confessional: ‘I know’ he writes, ‘I should not be writing like this. I should be moving to a more dispassionate register. . .’ (2011: 50).

There is a strong phenomenological thread to the book. At heart it is an extended meditation on what it means to study something that resists study, but also about the impossibility of translating the viscerality of experience. While the problem of translating experience is hardly new to anthropology, Ecstatic Encounters offers a particularly engaging angle on the theme. Van de Port offers himself up as a useful device for reflection on the notion of ‘total immersion’. Having arrived in the field, for example, he feels momentarily liberated from academia and seeks knowledge through touching, eating, and smelling over knowledge through thinking, dialoguing, and looking:

I bought pretty much all the Candomblé statues at Feira de Sao Joaquim to set up a home alter. I struggled to play the little four stringed guitar that is called cavaquinho. I returned the flirtatious winks coming my way. . . I kept cooking the fish stew moqueca-de-peixe until it came out just like the one served at Dada’s restaurant (2011: 63)

Yet, looking back, he notes how these attempts to produce such immersion were nevertheless scripted and authored by his own imagination and thus failed to achieve their goal. ‘Being–in-the-here-and-now’ he muses ‘ – the most alluring promise of immersion – does not happen as long as you claim authorship of the world you inhabit.’ (2011: 64).

If there is one experience that does offer him complete immersion it is the experience of falling in love. ‘Did I mention Victor?’ van de Port asks the reader. Victor enters our awareness, and from that point on remains a constant but enigmatic presence in the book, both metaphorical and metonymical of the wider story being told.  Victor is clearly part of van de Port’s romantic entanglement in the ‘magic of Bahia’. He, like the religion van de Port has come to study, is both the subject and object of an overpowering seduction. And yet van de Port wants us to understand that Victor, like Candomblé, like Bahia itself, is also so much more than this. Victor’s bemused gaze at Mattijs-the-anthropologist is, in a couple of places, touchingly noted. In one paragraph Victor says to Otavio, a young man about to participate in a ceremony, that it would be good if he became possessed because Mattijs ‘likes that stuff’ (2011:188). ‘Coming from Victor’s mouth, the remark sounded like a command’ van de Port wryly notes (ibid). It is moments like this, where the anthropologist is captured in the participant/lover’s bemused gaze, that the layers of Candomblé’s history as the object of foreign fascination are so poignantly exposed. In fact, we never really get to know Victor, which is frustrating, but deep down we know why: van de Port wishes to protect him from the coldness of the academic enterprise. Unlike certain anthropological others, Victor remains safely suspended in the sort of indeterminately complex space that all real-life flesh and blood humans ultimately inhabit.


In the colonial baroque churches of central Salvador, van de Port is ‘pushed off track’, made to feel ‘dizzy’ by the pomp and splendour: the golden orgy of garlands, birds, bells, angels, tied bows, cherubs, and seraphims ‘offering their nakedness to the congregation like ever so many flashers’ (2011: 58). Baroque in this context is the breaking down of boundaries – the immersive aesthetic par excellence. In Europe baroque was an aesthetic that accompanied the Counter-Reformation; following the Council of Trent, art was to be a medium of theological instruction. Baroque forms aimed to do the very opposite of the more austere and streamlined material culture of Protestantism. Eschewing formality and tradition it strove for the kind of hyperrealism that would stimulate the senses, leading the viewer to experience a sense of embodied contiguity with the divine realm. In many ways baroque represented a continuation of the Catholic mysticism that saw the divine as continuous with, or inherent within the material world. So baroque is the vehicle par excellence for total immersion. It triggers bodily reactions in people that enable transcendence. Immersive, in the same way van de Port experiences the jouissance of Bahia during the carnival of 2008, the ‘ecstatic frenzy of thousands of scantily clad bodies, packed together on the Avenida Oceanica. . . stretching, stretching, jumping, jumping, singing their heads off in massive unison’. ‘Really’ he writes in his field notes journal for that day ‘that’s all there is to say.’ (2011: 11).

A long time ago Victor Turner arguably tried to say something similar. (It would be interesting to identify an equivalent sort of sentence or exclamation in Turner’s own field note diaries). However wild and inexplicable that earlier anthropological ‘eureka’ moment was, it was later written down  – ‘tamed’ we might say –  by signifiers such as ‘liminalitiy’ and ‘communitas’. As a classical but imaginative scholar – and one who was himself quite religious  – Victor Turner nevertheless conformed to a classical tradition that could not but reduce the numinous to discursive form. In contrast to this tradition van de Port argues that Candomblé and the Bahian sensibility more generally is based on a sort of knowledge-awareness that is classically incomprehensible. At the heart of the book, then, is van de Port’s exposition of the baroque ethos, which he addresses as an aesthetics of absent truth grounded in a detailed engagement with the Lacanian concept of the Real.

For Lacan, the existential human condition is based on a symbolic order that fails to capture the totality of individual experience and the world in its entirety. The problem then becomes one of how to grasp at this nub of experience, this pre-linguistic blob of awareness that can never be fully articulated. Seeking to preserve the unknowable yet all-engulfing nature of this sensibility van de Port refers to this un-signifiable excess, this ‘jumping, jumping’, this ‘golden orgy’, as ‘the-rest-of-what-is’.

‘The-rest-of-what-is’ is, on the one hand, another unsatisfyingly (and baggy) discursive signifier, but compared to ‘communitas’, it has no classic explanatory power. In van de Port’s handling it does not service any need for catharsis, nor does it unite, divide, or repress groups or individuals in any particular way that is scientifically measurable. In fact, the-rest-of-what-is could be almost anything at all: a kind of sense knowledge, an affective space, a social practice, a relationship, a form of subjectivity. Its vagueness is purposive. The purpose here is to keep all that is ‘not-known’ central to this particular anthropological project.

By chapter five, the deeply immersive character of baroque has been substituted in favour of a reading that centres on the concept of allegory that owes much to the writings of Walter Benjamin, and Lacanian thinkers, such as Slavoj Zizek, Terry Eagleton, and Yannis Stavrakakis. The baroque cosmovision, when read through this intellectual genealogy becomes a much more melancholic affair. Rather than contiguity and presence baroque comes to stand for the inevitable disintegration of the sacred canopy. Baroque styles are no longer sensually triumphant, they fail to convince, they fail to produce a totalizing metaphysical account of the state of things. And it is this ‘failed’ sensibility that van de Port sees as pervasive in what he terms ‘Bahian baroque:

In its insistence that the world of men is a sorry place, full of cracks; and in its aesthetic employment of these cracks, the baroque plays on people’s despair over the fact that truth resides elsewhere. Desperate faith (Cowan) is how the dominant mood of the baroque has been characterised, and that oxymoronic expression is, indeed, a most adequate phrasing of a sensibility that Bahians have cultivated to the full (2011: 161)

Van de Port finds evidence for this particular Bahian subjectivity, not only in the baroque churches with their kitschy cherubs and golden garlands, but in the life worlds of a population whose ancestors suffered the brutality of slavery and continue to live ‘the endless humiliations and indignities of being poor and powerless’(2011: 180). Life as a poor, black, Bahian means being present in but unable to live the reality of, a modern consumer society. Survival generates a baroque mind-set that insists on the absent presence of ultimate meaning. Van de Port has in mind here a contemporary neoliberal Brazil: one that affects a myth of racial democracy, but measures ‘authenticity’ via a televisual world of stylised spectacle and perfection (cf. Edmonds 2011). ‘Spectacular Brazil’  – one might call it – is Brazil as land of beauty, jouissance, and racial harmony. Like its close media cousin ‘iconic Brazil,’ ‘spectacular Brazil’ is a façade promulgated mostly by rich elites and plastified celebrities. It is encountered in the mass media and the elegant, marble-floored shopping malls of every state capital. According to van de Port, it constitutes an elusive sphere of value, at once more powerful and ‘authentic’ than any other, yet permanently out reach for the vast majority of Brazilians. Its powerful presence causes Bahia’s poor to experience the moral and cultural orders that pervade their world as founded on make-believe.

There is great theoretical energy in van de Port’s work. The spirit of baroque is central to his – in my view- brilliant analysis of camp (van de Port 2012). Van de Port argues that camp and baroque are essentially alike: both constitute registers that manifest artifice as somehow ‘realer’ than nature. Both appeal to people whose biographies are marked by catastrophe (such as war) or radical discontinuities (such being raised to be heterosexual, then coming out as gay). This kind of subjectivity may have a high incidence among other social groups: Lacan’s melancholic bourgeois patients, Salvador’s intellectually reflexive, artisitic elites and, of course, anthropologists themselves. As van de Port notes anthropologists are ‘allegorists through and through. . . deeply suspicious of everything that presents itself as ‘natural’ (2011: 171).  Yet van de Port is arguing that baroque is particular to a Bahian subjectivity – one that encompasses the experience of being poor, black, and Bahian – regardless of class, sexuality, gender, or faith. At no point, however, does he present us with substantive evidence of a Bahian semiotics of baroque, grounded in Bahian speech acts, Bahian language ideologies, or Bahian philosophizing on the nature of the Real. For an anthropologist the question is invariably one of how do we know that others experience the world this way? What evidence do we have that others perceive their worlds as differently from how they are made?If this disjunctive ethos van de Port speaks of is in fact a visceral, unmediated, contemporary Bahian sensation, ‘baroque’ may not be the most appropriate term for it. The ‘baroque’ being elaborated is a culturally peculiar kind of baroque. It is baroque that derives from a highly intellectualist, European tradition – one that has been extensively worked through by European writers such as Walter Benjamin and Gilles Deleuze; thinkers whose own subjectivities have been undoubtedly shaped by modern forms of psychoanalytical reflexivity. Coming from this tradition it is easy to enter a Baroque church and notice that a statue has been painted using polychrome techniques fashionable in the 17th century to achieve the effect of hyperrealism. One is also more likely to notice that the ceiling is a tromp l’oiel, and connect this with a particular theological aporia: the absent presence of God. One’s engagement with a golden interior in this tradition is ideational rather than devotional and, as such, is already a kind of post hoc signification, based on an intellectual critique of the Counter-Reformation. Baroque, to this kind of subject, is merely a human phenomenon, a premeditated technique of deception: clever artists and crafty craftsmen ‘tricking’ the masses into glorious, sensory submission.

But is the same thing going on when Bahians walk into churches not to look at the ceilings, but to pray and light candles? Are they thinking about God’s absence as they kiss the feet of a saint’s statue? For many Brazilian Catholics Baroque statues are more than just polychrome ‘tromp l’oeils’, they are actually saints. In Candomblé also, the anthropologist enters the ceremony with  ‘suspended disbelief’  – the gods might be present, they might not (it could all be a trick). For the initiates, the gods are not absent, they are very much present. The orixá will enter the body through the cut made in the top of the initiand’s head (or, by some accounts, emerge from inside the body),[1] and in that moment transform it completely (cf. Sansi 2011).


This said, the strength of Ecstatic Encounters is not so much as a convincing ethnographic detailing of other lives and worlds, but as a meditation on representation as a form of world-making and the limits of human meaning making. Such concerns may not be new to anthropologists, in fact, van de Port’s musings might be viewed as evidence of an expanding tendency within the humanities and social sciences toward affect theory, toward exploring the limits of the human imagination, or – as so many continental philosophers would put it –  toward radical negativity. Where van de Port uses Lacan and a notion of the baroque to clutch at the edges of what can be grasped within an interpretivist framework, others have meditated upon concepts such as ‘horizons’ (Jackson 2009), ‘hope’ (Miyazaki 2004), and ‘wonder’ (Scott 2013). This list is not exhaustive and the body of literature I have in mind is impossible to condense into any neat or homogenous framework, but it feeds into a growing fascination in contemporary social theorising with stuff which is pre-discursive, which resists signification, or that which can only be perceived as a trace.

Michael Scott (2013) has recently remarked on the religious sensibility that runs through some of this work: most notably that which falls under the rubric of the ‘ontological turn’. The ‘ontological turn’ literature is ‘religious,’ Scott argues, inasmuch as it champions –or presents, as somehow morally superior – the interconnectivity and non-duality of other, non-Western worlds. The shared tenet here is a hidden morality of wonder. Anthropological approaches to wonder that remain ‘open in the face of the unknown’ are basically presented as good, approaches that seek to close wonder down and explain it away with the help of science are bad. It strikes me that while van de Port may not be an ‘ontologist’ his own scheme fits this pattern remarkably well. The problem with what van de Port calls ‘classicist’ approaches to phenomena such as Candomblé (scientific argument, language, philosophical deployment) is that they seem to stifle wonder. That is, they close down what other sorts of approaches – Lacanian approaches, for instance –  leave open. But van de Port’s pursuit of wonder differs from the ontological turn’s pursuit of the same object in one significant way: it remains inherently suspicious of its own form.

What van de Port calls the ‘classicist’ mode of being in the world is, he admits, powerfully seductive. Not only does it establish careers, pay bills, and confer prestige, it has the potential to revolutionise things and herein lies the problem: classical modes generate in their producers (and consumers) an excessive confidence in academic forms of world-making. Anthropologists seek quite literally, through scholarship, to bring forth new worlds. But the worlds brought forth, no matter how radically alter they are, will always be built on signification. Reading about them cannot physically transform us – will not transport us far outside our familiar comfort zones. Reading does not take us, bodily, far from the chair, the book, or the computer we are at that moment, physically connected with. Van de Port seeks to make this fact explicit. He comments on the difficulty anthropologists have accepting the incompatibility of their modes of world-making with those of Candomblé adepts. ‘Anthropologists’, he writes, ‘do not have seven years at their disposal to become an initiate. They have deadlines to meet, projects to finish, careers to pursue. . .’ (2011: 15). Van de Port is describing himself with a certain irony. In doing so, he wants to challenge the academic world he belongs to, ‘where logocentrism reigns unchallenged’ and where there is ‘a reluctance (or stubborn refusal) to grant the infinity of our not-knowing a role in our portrayals of the world’ (2011: 16). Like others before him, he wants to push his readers to the very limits of their conceptual resources but, unlike many others, is willing to foreground defeat when his academic tools and credentials – and perhaps ours as readers – can take us no further. One might say that there is a virtuous humility at the heart of van de Port’s work, a humility that is rare in comparative works by contemporary scholars. On the other hand van de Port’s Lacanian angst could be read as a kind of communicative cop-out, a refusal to attempt some sort of translation (however imperfect) of other worlds.

It is failure, then, that opens and ends the final chapter. Failure is all that remains. Van de Port is aware that this sort of emptiness goes against the deeply ingrained inclinations of anthropologists.  ‘We have been instructed to study the work of culture in its positive, enabling dimensions’ (2011: 255) he writes.  And in this, he has a point. But what does making failure the centrepiece of our academic enterprise really achieve? Is a ‘failed’ attempt to convey something in writing essentially all that bad? Is failure absolute or a matter of degree? Does an anthropologist fail more or less for having at least tried to brush failure under the carpet for the time being – by resorting to poetic, literary, cognitive, Deleuzean, Lacanian or ontological turns?

‘Let me briefly summarize what an awareness of lack in all story-telling – their story-telling, my story-telling – has done for this research project’ van de Port writes, ‘what such an awareness might do for the anthropology of religion, and beyond, anthropology as a whole’. Keeping failure centre stage, he argues, forces us to act upon that often proclaimed, yet difficult to accomplish, ideal to think ‘culture-in-motion’ (2011: 259). It provides us with ‘an opportunity to explore innovative, creative forms of report.’ But most intriguingly, it allows for the ‘(re)introduction of an “essence”, an ontology, a truth.’ (2011: 259). This ‘truth’, he posits, is none other than the simple awareness that there is always an excess to a particular representation of the world.

With this I would agree, but it strikes me that we only fail if we start out with the expectation that anthropology can tell us everything there is to know about human experience in the first place. As anthropologists we may keep trying to evoke exact reproductions of what we smelled, heard, felt, or did and our attempts may always fail. But in failure we bring new, un-expected worlds into being: worlds of words that matter in their own way even if not in the way we originally wanted them to matter. Without the unexpected by-products of our failure there would be no reason to keep doing anthropology at all. Ecstatic Encounters is a case in point: if it is indeed a failure, it still counts as interesting – it is a failure that deserves to be read.



Edmonds, Alexander. 2011. Pretty Moderns. Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. Duke University Press.

Jackson, Michael D. 2009. The Palm at the End of the Mind: Relatedness, Religiosity, and the Real. Duke University Press.

Johnson, Paul Christopher. 2002.  Secrets, Gossip, and Gods: The transformation of Brazilian Candomblé. Oxford University Press.

Miyazaki, Hirokazu. 2004. The Method of Hope. Anthropology, philosophy, and Fijian knowledge. Stanford University Press.

Sansi, Roger, 2012. Book Review of ‘Ecstatic Encounters. Bahian Candomblé and the quest for the Really Real’. Mattijs van de Port. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. 17 (2): 364-366.

Scott, Michael W. 2013. The anthropology of ontology (religious science?). Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (4): 859-72.

Van De Port, Mattijs.  2011. Ecstatic Encounters. Bahian Candomblé and the quest for the Really Real. Amsterdam University Press.

Van De Port, Mattijs. 2012. Genuinely made up: camp, Baroque, and other denaturalizing aesthetics in the cultural production of the real. Journal of the Royal Antropological Institute. 18 (4): 864-883.

Wafer, Jim. 1991 The Taste of Blood. Spirit Possession in Brazilian Candomblé. University of Pennsylvania Press.

  1. [1]Hannah Lesshafft, personal communication.

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