By Helton Levy

Helton Levy is a journalist and academic researcher based in London, UK. He is the author of "Peripheral Media" (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

Being optimistic in dark times

It is not that my book sees total progress in Brazil, but it is fairly optimistic when it comes to the progress and diversification of the country’s media environment in the last decades.

I interviewed two dozens of media producers, all based across that immense territory: from the Amazonian area to the very hot northeast; from the populous southeast to the Agro-industrial centre. I also analysed content produced from a myriad of small websites during three years. From the transition of the ill-fated Rousseff’s government to the disastrous impeachment and the ascension of Michel Temer to power.

My first goal (then a PhD research) was to capture the changing political position of the populations living in the country’s peripheries (favelas, suburbs, and the vast countryside) after nearly two decades of a perceived improvement in their quality of life: they now had access to credit, could buy homes and furniture, but to what extent could they also communicate as the rest of society?

My hypothesis was that such new socioeconomic conditions would be enough to bring forward a stream of political contention that was at best ignored by the commercial media, at worst ignored because the periphery never really mattered to the mainstream society.

What I found after four years into my research was that, in the periphery, media producers could voice in their outlets some kind of truth that many people have underestimated. Primarily blogs, social media, they started to come up in the media and as “the media”, opening a path to dialogue with mainstream actors, but also among themselves, between regions and communities. In other words, their pattern of communication has changed.

Not only that, they showed that they could recognise the democratic infrastructure of the country: its institutions, the media, and demonstrated confidence in freedom of expression to speak truth to power. I called this network of outlets and especially their maturity and responsibility toward democracy, the “peripheral media.”

All was well in this narrative until dramatic changes in the political scenario. Stormy clouds brought a successful case for Rousseff’s impeachment, serial accusations posed to the Vice-President in charge, and the worst corruption scandals in history were in the global media. The public opinion saw new facts conducting then reliable politicians straight into jail. The rising appeal of right-wing roadshow of justice did not necessarily unmake a panorama of media development that was good.

On the one hand, one cannot call “development” a string of fake news that went down as “news” in the last months. On the other, there is a big picture that informs us of the inclusion of interlocutors, tastes, and voices that has no parallel in the country’s history. What I am saying is that social change should, wishfully, come along with peace and social cohesion, but sometimes it doesn’t. .

I finished off my research before the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, whereas I worked in a country that was already divided. Back then, he was another failed politician with bizarre ideas broadcasted during the impeachment, but which one would never see implemented in normal conditions. Today, he is poised to conquer mainstream society and the periphery with controversial ideas, but largely conservatism in its return. It might not be the more progressive layer of the periphery I researched that voted for him, but there are surely representatives of the favelas, suburbs and the countryside that I researched, and which definitely supported him to some extent.

Even on top of such political choice, we should, still, face their ability of inclusion and decision as a positive outcome of recent Brazil.

How poverty affects online personalities on social media

In August 2018, I published an article on First Monday about the advent of online self-representations in the context of impoverished communities.

I believe this is one of the most underresearched aspects of social media. The extent to which poverty and inequality could mirror different kinds of self-representation, either by selfies and short text posts on the Internet.

I took on the example of Brazil’s favelas. First because of the past of these communities in the media. They are since a long time de-humanised, de-personalised, and stereotyped; either in telenovelas, films, and in popular discourse. Based on this background, I could check whether the Internet could allow fresh images to flourish and influence the mainstream society.

I first approached the possibilities of new online ‘subjectivities’ from favelas a few years ago for the Discovery Society. Now, I deepen in how these subjectivities can fructify. I discuss the opportunities surrounding the online favelado in a more practical sense. What can they make it of themselves by being online? Below I clarify some of the conceptual tools I used in this research.

What is personality?

I simplified the understanding of such deep psychologic notion by limiting my interest in a generic form of media expressions on the Internet as models for personality.

Despite so many definitions, my aim was to accept the common sense of organised forms of “accounts”, “patterns of feelings.” In my perception, textual references or imagery could embed many of the attributes of personality:

Personality is a system of parts that is organized, develops, and is expressed in a person’s actions.

Personality is about many things: perception and attention, cognition and memory, neurons and brain circuitry…We try to understand the individual human being as a complex whole…[and] to construct a scientifically credible account of human individuality (McAdams, 2006, p. 2).

Personality is the organized, developing system within the individual that represents the collective action of that individual’s major psychological subsystems (Mayer, 2007, p. 14).

Personality refers to those characteristics of the person that account for consistent patterns of feelings, thinking, and behaving (Pervin, Cervone & John, 2005, p. 6)

Social media and ‘personality’

I placed the existence of online personality in contrast with the persistence of past stigmas related to these communities. So I oppose an external inheritance (representation) to a notion of ‘personality’ that stemming from within; from the sharing of everyday experiences on Facebook or Twitter. To what extent could this internal process of self-representing is enough to unmake a background of inherited stereotypes?

I qualified personality also based on social media interactions. It is true that what we call ‘IT  skills’ involve a range of socially-approved behaviours and goals that point to a rather limited form of consensus; But it is possible to look, for instance, at the occurrence of likes as exercises of personality without believing that those who don’t like it on social media wouldn’t have done it if they could.

Another conceptual difficulty of studying poverty within social technology is to go against these platforms’ design. Its commercialism is embedded in tastes and possibilities of its participants. However, even if the use of filters and geotagging are ways to “show off,” which is not in the best interests of the poorest, it could still reveal if poverty is likeable or accepted.

In the end, I targeted the display of personality directly from the content of users’ publications. On the one hand, this approach has not allowed me to extrapolate to the whole issue of social media usage by favela-based users. On the other, it was not possible to assume that every social user was living de facto in a favela, I had to be limit my use to references to the geographical favela. Let’s see some results.

Representing and self-representing

This repeated display of personality could be captured through practices of representing or self-representing. 

Representing on a media perspective exists in the well-watched telenovelas, for example, which has mirrored the life of millions as soft, sympathetic and suburban-like in Avenida Brasil. Internationally, favelas could be stages for drug dealing and violent police Films such as in films such as City of God or Elite Troop. Those are representations.

Then, self-representing appeared as the opposite of these generalist portraits. If not entirely contradicting this past of injustice and violence seen in the favelas, self-representing constantly pointed to the unmaking of the hegemonic face of poverty.  In this sense, I tried to build
not only how poverty defines online personality, but how it leads to other roles and responsibilities assumed by such producers.

Self-representing, whether by expressions, images, and roles described in this content, led me into three main roles that emerge as the contemporary possibilities of the favelado once he or she assumes the control of its authorship. In my First Monday article, I described these roles in its entirety. Below I give you a brief description:

Favela media producers as leaders

Personality in favelas is historically tied to past models of community leadership. While calling themselves journalists, bloggers, and content producers, media producers from favelas distance themselves from the image of these leaders. In other words, there was no evidence that the former individuals have had any influence over interviewed producers through any platform.

In reality, much of what producers have mentioned is about being themselves with their personal habits and tastes. This ‘individuality’ comes up as opposed to speaking on the citizens’ behalf. Fewer producers have said to feel proud of the individuals that used to speak on behalf of the favela, but in a memorialising way.

Favela media producers as journalists

I did not sight that what I conceptualised as ‘self-representation’ is still an advanced affordance that might not be available for all the citizens, as it was for the interviewees. However, those which have voiced it out had positioned themselves as if belonging to a fusion of journalist and amateur content producer.

In fact, media studies literature has said much on the re-invention of alternative media producers as journalists, as well as on how fluid are the barriers of the profession. But as a self-representation, being a journalist has meant a range of things, from informing (in partnership with the mainstream media or not) to finding what to do, organising events, claiming importance. Poverty as a topic of their practice has been directly associated with each producers’ publication.

Favela media producers as culture promoters

Some content has indeed displayed personality in a more conventional way. By doing what they call ‘showing off’, favela media producers could not escape from posting pictures of their stay in whatever hotel rooms they were in (some of whom do it for the first time), or underlining their consumerism habits.

By doing so, they try to bridge their personality with the average middle-class person personality. The difference is that they also open space for burst pipes leaking water, or for the shootings in their communities. There is much of sharing of the Sunday’s barbecue or the pagode in the middle of the streets as it has of bodies lying on the pavement.

Conclusion: New forms of personalising the periphery

The approximation of poverty from social media platforms happens to the extent that these platforms allow these interspersions between the soft and hard aspect of life; whether the favela personality is based on rap, hip-hop, funk, and on transgender singers or personality as a range of constraints faced on first hand (although it is evident that this is persistently their ‘real’ life.)

Thanks to social media, I argue, personality exists in individuals’ well-known hardship, but as different forms of authorship spread through the Internet, the narrative of pleasure and power mingles one of oppression and fear, being the latter increasingly losing ground to the former.

This phenomenon I called the “personalisation of the periphery” which praises individualism and merit but also allows leadership, journalism, and culture amid an increasingly mediatised battle against urban chaos and violence.

In sum, the online favela tends to reduce the cult of the charismatic community leader. This image might still echo on the mass media, but it says more about the mainstream media inability to truly engage with dwellers’ emerging personalities than it denies the existence of more nuances of the process (the new soap operas do not necessarily address these individuals, as seen in other studies.)

In this way, even under several limitations of social media as a representational tool of poverty, this contrast between soft and hard aspects of the discourse has the fluid personality from these communities as the main phenomenon, which deserves a further exploration.

In times of political crisis, could this favela personality change towards a more politicised self? Could it forge a political voice amid the current right-wing turmoil? Could it stop the capture by consumerist forces? All these questions demand scholars’ engagement in methods and scope.

Reassessing the life of Chica da Silva: A tale about Brazil

There is no doubt that Brazil’s history remains under-researched and under-theorised. Especially with regards to the country’s extensive colonial legacy, different periods can be open to negotiation and interpretation, but most of which are still stuck in a range of stereotypes that say little about the complexities of its characters.

The biography of the 18th-century slave, Chica da Silva (1732-1796) is one of these attempts to re-interpreting history in all its caveats. Silva lived in the village of Tejuco, in the modern city of Diamantina, a city in the north of the Minas Gerais state. She has become notorious and iconic to contemporary audiences due to programmes and films featuring her life.

Owned as a slave in a big household, she managed to be sold to the Portuguese diamond merchant João Fernandes de Oliveira, a representative of the Portuguese Crown. Despite the blur that surrounds her life after marriage, the few accounts amount to an extravagant lifestyle. Owner of dozens of slaves herself, she lived in a lavish house, entertained herself with exotic goods and lots of guests.

Besides the colourful details of her biography, this is at the same time a tale of class mobility that has attracted so much attention. How much of it was true? What does this tell us about colonialism, race, and mobility in Brazil? It was indeed an extraordinary life,  even for modern Brazil, with such a meteoric rise even to modern day standards. Her fairy tale is also about challenging the order, but also focuses on her personality as a distinctive trait that would allow her to move forward.

In sum, her grace and power would carry an antidote against a racist and obscure society. Examples abound in her lifetime: if the Church does not allow your presence inside, let’s build a new one; if she could not travel to the sea, she made them build a lake. IHer myth is as sociological as it is celebrity-driven. To the left, she was an icon of resistance that would inspire the black movements; to the right, she showed how racial relations in Brazil were not too harsh.

A documented reassessment was made possible thanks to “Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteen Century” (Cambridge University Press), a book by Junia Pereira Furtado. The book’s main merit stems from Furtado valuable effort to shed light on Silva’s physical existence in the 18th century, still doubted by some, as well as to confirms further details of her life. Furtado is successful in placing Silva’s in a wider context, moving her into a less spectacular place.

Silva’s life, according to the book, was not an average one. This is for sure. After all, any black individual breaking the 18th-century social contract, based on slavery and inescapable use of African individuals as economic commodities, could not have lived a normal life; leave alone a rise-up to own and ostentate a luxury lifestyle.

On the other hand, in her will to balance, Furtado also recognises the impossibility to tell more about Silva, except that once married to a white Portuguese man, she behaved as many other women in her condition. The evidence failed to show anything more than an uninteresting life after her establishment in society.  No surprises or breaks from the order what one would see in a woman of her wealth, whether of black or white skin.

What strikes me after reading Furtado’s enlightening account is the transformation of this character over time. Silva’s story is one of a slave’s luck, from the senzala into the heart of the Catholic, colonial Portuguese society. Instead, the conventional saying tells us that all glories from her marriage to a white, rich man stem from her sexuality and outstanding beauty. This attractive picture is the way in which she has appeared over centuries (since the 19th century at least).

The documents also tell us about the conservative turn of Chica da Silva, different from the confrontational stances that soap opera authors have told. Once her husband returns to Portugal, her option, for instance, was to hide in religious “sisterhoods”, sustained by members of the elite. The book also informs us about the fate of her sons, some of whom once moving to Portugal, had deliberately erased her presence from their backgrounds.

In sum, Chica da Silva’s trajectory is not only one of a rise-and-shine at expense of struggle against the gold-fed establishment of Minas Gerais, an important piece of Brazil of the time. Her trajectory is one of confirmation of the mechanisms of inequality and the ephemeron fractures that allow a few to emerge from time to time. As Furtado encapsulates it, it is about the average black lady “Chica”, an archetype so common in countryside Brazil, and one of a sexual volcano, white man temptation “Xica”, graphed in a marketable x.

Confronting the homogenised Xica (like in Caca Diegues’ eponymous movie or in the famous soap opera of the extinct Manchete TV), Junia Furtado’s book dismantles this portrait, but not necessarily puts up another one. We simply don’t know more about it. After many trips paid to archives in Brazil and Portugal, what she achieves is to fit an otherwise disruptive character into Brazil’s course of history. Maybe because these documents are so revelatory of Silva’s ordinariness, to the extent of the deceptive, that this book is not more popular than it deserved.

Back to the starting argument, there are signs that the recklessness with history is changing. The new Joaquim movie released in 2017, directed by Marcelo Gomes, gives a new direction to the image of the martyrised hero. Who knows this film could be the beginning of a critical re-appraisal of the country’s heroes, at least as the media see it.

As Furtado’s study digs deep into Chica da Silva’s contradictions, it is possible to assert that Brazilians have cared very little about history. If they did not do so, they could search for new meanings and, in the meantime, find opportunities to reflect on past misconceptions that could offer new teachings for the present’s faults.

Between methods and “inner experience”: The challenges of studying sexuality

In “Eroticism”, Georges Bataille discusses the need for methods and even science when approaching sex and sexuality. He argues that studying such subjective phenomenon, one could quit objective resources: data, methods, and traceability. One could, instead, use as scientific research oneself’s “inner” experience. As human beings, we have all experienced some erotic situation. In this case, it is a matter of how to transmit that knowledge. 

For Bataille, to communicate what one understands as eroticism, a realm close to that of religion, is to admit that “neither philosophy nor science can answer the questions that religious aspirations have set us.” On the other hand, while every scholar is acquainted with erotic experiences as any other human being is, we can neither stop behaving as subjects, not refrain from talking experience:

“My inquiry, then, based essentially on inner experience, springs from a different source from the work if religious, historians, ethnographers, and theologists. No doubt men working in these fields did have to ask whether they could assess the data under their consideration independently of the inner experience which on the one hand they share with their contemporaries and on the other resulted to some degree from their personal experiences modified by contact with the world constituting their fields of study (…)”

Bataille then hints at an alternative, to map “coincidences”:

“This difficulty is a general one, though it is relatively simple for me to imagine in what way my own inner experience coincides with that of other people and in what way it enables me to communicate with them.”

By the end of the book, he ponders on how research difficulties emerge even for those who try to study sexuality from a neutral point of view:

“If we affirm that guilty sexuality can be regarded as innocently material, our awareness, far from seeing sexual life as it is, neglects entirely those disturbing aspects which do not fit in with a clear picture. A clear picture is actually the first requirement but because of this, the truth escapes notice. Such aspects, felt to be accursed, remain in the twilight where are a prev to horror and anguish. By exonerating our sexual life from every trace of guilty science has no chance of seeing for what it is. Our ideas are clarified but at the cost of being blinkered. Science with its emphasis on precision cannot grasp the complexity of the system in which a few factors are pushed to extremes when it rejects the blurred and distinct realities of sexual life.”

Excerpt from:
Bataille, G. (2001). Eroticism, trans. Mary Dalwood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.