Review of The Brazilian Puzzle by Hess and DaMatta (anthro)

27 Oct 1996 02:21:32 GMT

The Brazilian Puzzle, Culture on the Borderlands of the Western World,
edited by David J.Hess and Roberto A. DaMatta. Columbia U Press, NY,
1995 ISBN 0-231-10115-5 306 pages.

by D. D. Dunkerson

This collegiate book of chapters by different authors seeks to
bolster DaMatta's questioning of the value of the authenticity of
Brazilian studies if conducted by non-Brazilian "Brazilianists".
DaMatta seeks the decolonization of area studies. This is to be
accomplished via consideration of modernity, tradition,non-Western,
Western,ascribed hierarchies, veneers, blood-color-gender-religion,
personalism, egalitarianism and rituals of inversion.
This is contemporary anthropology. At least it is aspiring to be
such. If one is to bring this off then one must be fluid and deny
rigidity and structural thought edifices. But if denying fluidity
around the concepts which arise from having the fluidity of "today"
and thereby rather having the very structures of thought, the
generalities, themselves be fluid; then this puts one at sea in a
lost world of specifics.
These specifics are basic patterns, structures, or values-
whatever term with which one is comfortable as a definition of
"culture". I find it difficult to believe that fieldwork or recourse
to texts has objectivity in a generality of which one is a part.
Nevertheless, one can read, apart from service to a perplexing
need for self-proclamation, about the brazilian jeitinho (Livia Neves
de H. Barbosa), swim teams in the US and Brazil (Conrad Kottak),
small town Brazil (Rosane Prado), morality and transgression among
the poor of Brazil (Cynthia Sarti), Alcoholics Anonymous in Brazil
(Jeffrey Jarrad) and the criminal justice systems in Brazil (Roberto
Kant de Lima).
This last mentioned chapter places law pertaining to labor,
civil, commercial, and criminal matters at the Federal level. Not
until 1989, the date of the latest Constitution, has the right to
nonself-incrimination been granted. Jurists dispute among themselves
for the "keys" needed to decipher legal codes. One must answer all
questions coming from a judge. Defendents can lie on their behalf.
Prosecutors may also lie to secure conviction. A confession is
expected from all defendants who are gradually proven guilty. The
police "proceed against everything and everybody" - secretly produced
evidence can and will be used. Evidence, of whatever kind, may be
secured by torture. In any event, the facts of the case are what the
agents of the system say they are. The defendant is a victim of a
progressive incrimination and humiliation. The judges and police
decide for themselves the criteria for their proceedings. Juries are
drawn from a list made by the judge. The judge reads, the attorneys
talk for two hours. Jurors may not talk to each other. Judge,lawyers,
bailiff and jurors then go to a room. Questions are asked to which
they must reply yes or no. A headcount is taken after every question.
Proceedings move on even if a confession is made known. Negotiations
are to be expected and entered into, sensitive to one's social
This is contemporary anthropology but it yet needs fieldwork
among those whose lives have become a study in how one can negotiate
about what is legality. What is and what is not a crime and a
criminal? But such fieldwork may not lie in the realm of anthropology,
but under the aegis of the novelist.
The answers to most of the questions posed by the editors,with
their preoccupation with proofs as to what Brazil is or is not, are
said to lie in mediating terms and ambiguous markers of the in-
The best of thought, not necessarily solutions to puzzles, has
never been put forward by those who think all of knowledge is outside
the books they never read. Nor can understanding lie in regions
demarcated by those for whom "daily living" is a bore, a frightful
As Mr. Hitchens as noted in his book, For the Sake of Argument,
"everyone has to descend or degenerate from some species of