- Speaking of Flowers: Student Movements and the Making and Remembering of 1968 in Military Brazil by Victoria Langland
Over the last decade, scholars of Brazil have been producing a steady flow of closely researched studies of the 1964-1985 military dictatorships. Victoria Langland's Speaking of Flowers is one of the best of those new works. It is well conceived, thoroughly researched, and beautifully written.
Speaking of Flowers is a joy to read. More significantly, Langland's book provides the first rigorous analysis of a key aspect of civil society under dictatorship. Brazilianists almost always note that during the 1964-85 military dictatorship parts of civil society continued to function, although with some significant interruptions. The military allowed elections for state governors and the national and state legislatures during much of this time. Press censorship waxed and waned, and groups such as Brazilian Lawyers' Association, physician and journalist groups, the National Council of Brazilian Bishops, and others openly protested against the regime's excesses. Langland's book is one of the few studies that details the origins and operation of such an opposition group. It is, therefore, much more than a history of the student movement in Brazil. Speaking of Flowers will become a key text for understanding the relationship between civil society and the state during the dictatorship. I believe it is like Jim Green's We Cannot Remain Silent (Durham, 2010) one of the very best books in English on the Brazilian dictatorship.
The reason a study of student movements is so important for understanding Brazil under dictatorship is that so many of the regime's authoritarian practices had been common during nominally democratic governments in the pre-1964 era. But, that authoritarianism was focused almost exclusively on the poor. One completely new aspect of the 1964-85 dictatorship was the crackdown on middle-class and even elite opposition figures. Studying [End Page 394] student politics allows Langland to provide a nuanced understanding of how that happened. Indeed, her analysis of the divide between those who read student activism as a product of youth and part of an international zeitgeist, and those (mostly in the military) who saw student activism and protest as part of an organized effort by the international left is one of the book's many strengths.
Langland also provides a closely researched account of how the state cracked down on the student movement in the aftermath of the deepening of its authoritarianism with December 1968's Institutional Act 5, which brought the ascendance of the hardliners within the military, and so is known as "the coup within the coup." Previous discussions of the period have focused on the most extreme regime activities, particularly torture and murder. Langland complements those studies by detailing the many levers of power the state used to try to control or even destroy the student movement that preceded incarceration, torture, and potentially murder. She does this without getting bogged down in bureaucratic details. And, she always grounds the military's actions in long-held views of students, youth, and the left. Langland's careful analysis of gender and sexuality are particularly important in this section of the book.
Another major contribution of Speaking of Flowers is Langland's careful and creative analysis of the legacy of student politics in the pro-democracy movement, particularly during the Abertura, which was the regime-sanctioned process of transition out of authoritarianism. Too many studies of that period see completely new social actors who were disconnected from previous eras as the drivers of the democratization process. The best social science literature on the Abertura theorizes that it was dominated by the so-called New Social Movements. Langland does not directly challenge that idea, but her book puts those movements on a more accurate historical footing. This is demonstrated quite well in chapter five, "Rebuilding the House of Memories, 1974–1985." This chapter also carefully navigates the often tendentious debates over the meaning of memory as captured...