Debate as a form of art

Hi folks,

As you know I am writing a paper/chapter about the intellectual debates in Lagos between 1880 and 1920, in which I argue that the best way to study the dynamic of the Lagosian intellectual network is through their published debates.

For that, I followed a debate about polygamy (if Christians could be polygamous) in books and newspapers from 1850’s to 1920’s. My theoretical framework goes from Appadurai and his concepts of ‘scapes’ and ‘disjunctures’ to Bourdieu and his famous ‘symbolic capital’ – Really crazy post modern stuff!

But it is all a great theoretically supported excuse to show these debates. They are beautiful:  how it develops, how the authors changed their ideas, how other players get included on the discussion…it is fascinating! And the best part, I think, are the arguments used: so many of them, coming from all ideological backgrounds, foreseeing disastrous futures of total corruption and anarchy or brilliant solutions that almost descend from the skies as miracles! Oh, those who defend monogamy do for the most misogynist reasons – “you can’t control more than one wife!!” – to feminist motives  – “if a man is allowed to have more than one wife, why women can’t have more than one husband?” – quite right, isn’t it? Supporters of polygamy argue that they have to populate the world, or that there are not enough men for all these women, so better half man than no man at all!

All those articles, lectures, pamphlets, letter to the newspapers are carefully written; a text being weaved, as Karin Barber says. And this is where I ask you: aren’t them a form of art?

I know that debate and rhetoric are considered by some people a kind of art. I learned that in school, and I remember my teacher explaining that it was much more than just the strength of the argument, but also about the voice, the body language, and the perfect timed sarcasm. For him, a good speech was art.

Around the same time ‘my’ Lagosians were debating polygamy, in Rio de Janeiro there was another controversy going on.

Wilson Batista and Noel Rosa were debating about the stereotype of samba musicians (called sambistas). Batista, who grew up in Campos, inland of Rio de Janeiro, when arrived in the capital got fascinated with the laid back style of some sambistas, avoiding work and spending their time singing. Wilson wrote honouring their style, and the controversy began. Noel Rosa, from Vila Isabel, a middle class neighbourhood, answered him saying that this image of the samba musician was only jeopardising the professional: “buy a suit and find a job!”, Noel advised Wilson, to what Wilson answered: “shut up, posh boy!”

Both Batista and Noel Rosa were samba musicians themselves, and this debate was actually happening in the format of samba music, with provocative lyrics inserted in lovely melodies.

The next move was from Noel Rosa. He composed this beautiful samba called Feitico da Vila (Enchantment of Vila Isabel)

In this link you can listen to Caetano Veloso singing it.

Part of the lyric says: “Vila Isabel has a good magic spell, with its name of princess (Isabel was the Brazilian princess who signed the slave abolition in 1888), it changed the samba in a decent spell that holds us. There is no lock in the gate, because in Vila Isabel there are no thieves!”

And Wilson sang back: “That is just talk! I went there to see (…) and they’ve killed the samba!” And he warns us: “before going to sleep, lock twice your door” Click here to listen.

And the debate was closed by Noel Rosa with Palpite infeliz (unfortunate remark).

“Who are you who does not know what you are saying? We salute Estacio, Salgueiro, Mangueira, Osvaldo Cruz and Matriz  (all neighbourhood where sambas were composed by locals) that always knew that Vila Isabel does not want to steal the show, just want to show that it can also compose samba”

This is Joao Gilberto (father of Bossa Nova) singing it.

Anyway, this samba-debate makes me think about the Lagosian debate as art. They were not composing samba, but there is beautiful work on each of these articles, that when I read them, I can’t avoid questioning beyond the colonial history that contextualised them.

I would love to get your comments on this.


ps: is that obvious that I can only think about going home?

Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. This post and the musical argument – awesome! – and the consideration of debate as art put me in mind of many things – but here are a few initial and unprocessed ones:
    1. Do you know of the City Dionysa – an Ancient Greek festival of performances that consisted of competitive oration and rhetoric, pitting performers against each other – orators, choruses, rhetoricians – and also playwrights? Imagine the synthesis..? The public debate embedded in and as art – the mechanism by which the boundaries that have been drawn, those that serve to separate genres and forms, can/may/become or are inconsequential – to talk about everything at once – mythological, secular, philosophical, aesthetic, teacher, student, citizen, actor… (I find it funny – City Dionysa is something taught to Drama students, generally on the Drama curriculum, and I’m guessing maybe Classicists – but the pedagogical applications of it clearly stress its performative, performance-led aspects, in a way that circumscribe them to that particular disciplinary space.)
    2. Also in mind, then, of the Open Letter – and particularly those famous instances where disciplinary boundaries, or indeed the lines around the kind of role the public intellectual ‘should’ hold, the role that is prescribed to public intellectual output, where those lines shift or become inconsequential in light of the letters’ contents: I am thinking, primarily, of what are seen to be the ‘literary’ qualities of Derrida’s ‘But Beyond… (Open Letter to Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon)’ (1986), a ‘reply’ to Nixon and McClintock’s ‘No Names Apart: the Separation of Word and History in Derrida’s ‘Le Dernier Mot du Racisme’’ (1986), itself a critical response to Derrida’s article ‘Racism’s Last Word’ (1985), through which Derrida addresses apartheid South Africa on and regarding his visit there in 1985. In ‘No Names Apart’ McClintock and Nixon discuss the perceived inadequacies of literary deconstruction in the face of the apartheid system. Derrida’s letter and the articles in question, are reproduced by Critical Inquiry and can be found in the first CI Dossier here:; but also, famously, Zola’s ‘J’accuse’ – the open letter to France’s President, published on January 13, 1898, in the newspaper L’Aurore, in which Zola accused the government of anti-Semitism, judicial errors, and a lack of concrete evidence in the Dreyfus case, Dreyfus a military officer sentenced to penal servitude for life for espionage. Zola was prosecuted and found guilty of libel and fled to England to avoid imprisonment.
    This kind of crossing of the public and private that the letter form always entails is, in the open letter, reflexive – the impassioned (aggrieved) individual speaks to another individual specifically entering into the public domain to discuss issues pertinent to society at large – a performance of self for public consumption with specific aim… this the cleanest (or stupidest – you can decide) indicator through the ‘map’ of the self-construction of the ‘Republic of Letters’…any Republic of Letters.
    3. A debate I keep coming across – primarily a reception (literary reception) debate about ‘the function’ of literature and the ‘responsibility’ of the African writer, which comes up around either around genre-crossing, genre-hybrid forms, or writing which conforms to generic conventions but takes them outside of their expected audience – (these are South African examples) like Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City – a literary South African sci-fi; like creative non-fiction texts, or creative journalism; like the ‘literary photo-journalism’ that Goldblatt’s photos have been described as when seen in conjunction with Vladislavic’s ‘literature proper’ in their collaborative text TJ/Double Negative. And these are the ‘clever’ ones: this argument about the value of literary accomplishments, in this instance from South Africa, reaches almost hysterical proportions when those overtly didactic or genre-defined literary texts are considered – those about AIDS, homosexuality, disability, child labour, poverty, crime – those texts that seek strategies of transformation through aesthetic means, ways of making a difference, that reach an audience adept at reading aestheticised forms – of journalism, open debate, a continuing legacy of protest literature – stuff written to make stuff happen – a call to action, those texts that illustrate our own prejudices about the paradigms we put writing into – public or private – and the value placed onto African ‘literary’, even intellectual accomplishments.
    4. I’m drawn back to South Africa’s recent ‘Secrecy Bill’ and the possibilities and constraints of participating in the public domain – so evocatively drawn in your post and so clearly located historically and geographically.
    So – thanks to your post, Nara, and its attention to the ever-shifting paradigmatic, epistemological ground beneath our feet.
    Or rather our writing hands.
    Between our ears? …

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