- Capoeira and Candomblé: Conformity and Resistance Through Afro-Brazilian Experience
Floyd Merrell’s Capoeira and Candomblé: Conformity and Resistance through Afro-Brazilian Experience, claims to be “neither anthropology nor sociology” The author also states in the preface that he does not “enter into current debates over fine details regarding poststructuralism, postmodernism, subaltern studies, or cultural studies,” (vii) and yet he cites Butler (whom he grossly misunderstands), Bhabha, Gramsci, Deleuze and Guattari and even offhandedly answers Spivak’s famous question. For Merrell, the matter is simple: “the celebrated subaltern can speak after all” (218). Although he claims only to “offer reflections” (vii) on capoeira and candomblé, Merrell proposes a repetitive theory of “becoming,” reaching the not exactly groundbreaking conclusion that both capoeira and candomblé are “in the process of continually becoming something other than they were becoming” (189). in other words, are constantly changing.
Merrell alternates between a chatty tone peppered with empty idiomatic expressions (“various and sundry,” “part and parcel,” “wheeling and dealing”) and a highly academic tone where he presents his theories through convoluted charts while bombarding the reader with neologisms such as bodymindspirit and kinesomatic. Although he claims that his book is not intended as a historical treatise, much of the book is spent on historical summaries drawn from secondary sources with no footnotes or endnotes and few citations. Merrell turns history into neat, linear stories, often using a writing style filled with short, declarative sentences.
The editing from Markus Weiner Publishers is far from meticulous: the book is filled with spelling errors in both English and Portuguese (“principle” for “principal”; “criolho” for “crioulo”; “Luna” for “Iúna”), as well as misplaced commas, extra spaces between words and missing periods at the ends of sentences.
But the problems in this book go beyond an inconsistent writing style and poor editing. Merrell is also inconsistent when he, while relying heavily on binaries in his own analysis of Brazilian society (“haves and have-nots,” “blacks and whites”) at the same time criticizing this kind of binary thinking by other authors. Merrell’s inconsistency also shows up in the way that he deals with his “friends” from the capoeira and candomblé communities mentioned in the book: some are assigned a pseudonym, while others are referred to by their real names. Although he claims this was a choice to protect their anonymity, by using a pseudonym for a mestre (Mestre Rapôsa [sic]) while using the real name of one of his very well-known disciples (Mestra Jararaca), he exposes the real identity of the mestre under “protection” to anyone with even superficial knowledge of the Bahian capoeira community. It is not difficult to solve the mystery: Mestre Rapôsa [sic] is really Mestre Curió, who informed me in a recent [End Page 222] conversation that he did not give Merrell permission to cite him or refer to him as his mestre, as Merrell does throughout the book. Mestre Curió is known and respected in the capoeira community in Bahia and abroad, and there would be no reason to “protect [his] role in the profession and [his] anonymity” (xi); the use of a pseudonym in this case seems to have a purpose different from the one stated by the author.
Using dubious research with people he can’t even cite without having to resort to a pseudonym, Merrel uses himself as his primary informant, drawing conclusions and building theories on superficial knowledge of both capoeira and candomblé, not to mention Brazilian culture in general. The second part of the book purportedly deals with candomblé, but after brief summaries of the characteristics of a few orixás, Merrell broadens the scope of his analysis to include everything from umbanda to samba to carnaval and back to capoeira, with a section on what he terms “jeito culture,” where he profoundly misunderstands what Brazilians call the jeitinho brasileiro.
His generalizations about Brazilian culture are essentialist and simplistic. The examples he uses to support his analysis of “what makes Brazil Brazil” (255) often come from Brazilian novels and even from TV...