The Politics of Respiration: The Catholic Charismatic Movement in Brazil

Global Convivial Forum 

Ajay Gandhi in Conversation with Maria José de Abreu

Ajay Gandhi, a 2021-2022 Senior Fellow at Mecila and an anthropologist and faculty member at Leiden University, conducted this dialogue with Maria José de Abreu, assistant professor of anthropology at Columbia University. Building on her recent book, The Charismatic Gymnasium (Duke University Press, 2021), we discussed the crafting of bodies by religious actors and the politics of respiration in Brazil and elsewhere.













Maria José de Abreu: The ecumenical Charismatic movement – a new Pentecost – first appeared among university scholars in Arkansas and Pennsylvania in prayer groups. While it gained visibility and official recognition in the 1990s, it came to Brazil in 1969, brought by two American Jesuits, Father Eduardo Dougherty, and Father Haroldo Rahm.

The CCR evolves, like Liberation Theology, out of the Second Vatican Council, a reform within Catholicism. Liberation Theology will develop the tendencies of modern Catholicism toward rationalization introduced in Brazil in the late nineteenth century. Except that this modernized rational Catholicism also went for the vernacular, finding ways to articulate teachings and tendencies channelled through European thinkers’ influence and mediated via local realities and struggles. This tendency was exacerbated by the fact that around the same time as the second Vatican Council, Brazil and other places within Latin America were US-backed dictatorships. Thus, Liberation Theology’s fame as a left-wing Catholic movement emerges in this conjuncture of modern progressive Catholicism, grassroots movements, and political opposition.

At the same time, you have another group or clusters with ideological affinities who wonder, since when is religion “an option for the poor”? Since when is religion about politics? Clearly Charismatics –an economic and intellectual elite – resented the idea of a “theology for the poor”.

Charismatics in Brazil needed a theological principle that would allow them to accommodate a language of radical inclusion and that principle in the Greek pneuma: as the Greek term for breath, air, or Spirit, Charismatics claimed, is radically democratic. But here we come to the crucial point that I think is pertinent for what is happening today with the pandemic – namely, the capacity to hide the particular behind the universal. To co-opt and explore a vital structure that as substance seems to know no borders, but only to demarcate even more what separates them from others.

Thus, for example, in those early days when Charismatics came to Brazil, they did not go to a central metropolis, such as São Paulo, but to a peripheral, secondary city, Campinas. There, they disparaged Liberation Theology as exclusionary, temporal, political viz universalism. But what they were actually doing was to self-enhance the idea of marginality and the peripheral. This idea allowed them to authenticate that they were living an experience like the first Christians.

In the 1990s, this political geography changed. The dictatorship is over, and a Cold Holy War (guerra santa) between mainstream Catholics and Protestants is happening. What Charismatics do is jump into this rift and concoct a new religious-political agenda. This does not mean leaving the periphery behind, but rather taking the periphery to the centre. The periphery becomes even more important – they embrace corporate media. At the same time, the centre symbolized by the state and its “third-way” politics is hollowing out, becoming more like a donut, an infinite circle with a big hole in the middle. This is perfect for Catholic Charismatics.

Charismatics combine pneuma and mass media. They also employ a political model that goes back to an orthodoxy voiced by Carl Schmitt as the complexio oppositorum: the ability to speak to two opposite audiences at once. To the right as well as to the left, to neoliberalism and to neo-conservativism. But they also do something else: they recover an idea of charisma, which was very important to pre-modern audiences. This is anti-institutional, except that this time around neoliberalism is defined by the institution’s ability to be against itself.

AG: Your work is a diagnosis of power mechanics in contemporary Brazil. Pneuma becomes a way that conservative, reactionary forms use flexibility and freedom to co-opt the fundamental substrate of existence: breath. I wanted to ask if we might reflect on the wider politics of respiration. For example, Frantz Fanon, in A Dying Colonialism (1959), speaks of the conditions of colonial occupation in French Algeria in the 1950s. There, the “daily pulsation” of people is “disfigured”. Breath is not liberatory but “an observed, an occupied breathing. It is a combat breathing”. For Fanon, respiration, under such unjust conditions, is an artifice, a “clandestine form of existence” where natives, under the occupier’s gaze, learn to “dissemble, to resort to trickery”. Breath, Fanon suggests, is never self-evident or obvious when shaped by power. It is something constricted and contrived, the opposite of natural.

I am interested in that sense of laboured breathing, of unnatural respiration in current circumstances. Health care professionals, for example, know that socioeconomic deprivation catalyses physiological contraction. In our age of anxiety, where futures are abruptly terminated, many are short of breath, too worried, or physically exhausted to take in the full nourishment of oxygen. Yet our elites and politicians also practice what we could call “salvation as inhalation”.

For example, India experienced a catastrophic shortage of medical oxygen in early 2021, leading to thousands of deaths. As people gasped for air, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a tweet, instructing people to “Sit in a comfortable meditative posture… Gently close the eyes and raise the face slightly. Breathe normally”. This top-down command came in the idiom of wise yogic advice. But may we see it as akin to what you describe in Brazil: the appropriation of life’s structure?

MJA: Once again, we are talking about how the universal is recruited in order to better hide the particular. It is precisely because breath and air seem to be such equalizers, the fluid that par excellence transcends all socio-economic barriers, that it becomes a potent medium to manipulate. One would indeed think of air as the ultimate expression of what is natural and spontaneous. Yet, the very idea of being natural and spontaneous is itself the result of power, a constricting power. Michel Foucault would say that power is not only constricting, but precisely because it is constricting, it can be enabling. Foucault was preoccupied with the creative aspects of power. But we need to ask: Creative for whom?

Now, Charismatics have this very interesting capacity to flip between domains. I have heard them conflating the natural and the supernatural when it comes to pneuma more than once. This idea of a supernatural is interesting because it can mean both the superlative for natural – a natural more natural it could not be – and supernatural in the sense of spiritual and divine. That when it comes to breathing practices, a supernatural can also be a supernatural felt incredible to me. More so because this flip between supernatural and supernatural entails the use of mass media technologies. For example, the use of songs through CDs and videos also involves recording breath. It helps people relate to religion as a training (askesis), where all attempts at separating breathing bodies and recorded breathing collapses.

You mention a context in India via Modi, where people are instructed to breathe calmly in a moment of great anxiety. Charismatics did that, too. And by the way, in the late 1990s, it was common to see women on Paulista Avenue, the financial artery of São Paulo City, with a stethoscope to check your pulse and do auscultation of your heart. Neoliberalism was this moment when finance became increasingly attached to supple, healthy bodies whose efficiency was somehow connected with the mechanisms of fluidity and circulation. Breathing of all physiological activities seemed to speak the language of economics. Breath is that which is at once abstract and concrete, regulated according to a balance between inputs (inhalation/importation) and outputs (exhalation/exportation), circulation, flow and so forth.

A history of the air of Brazil has yet to be written, but one could detect this important transformation from when air was perceived as a substance well until the latter part of the nineteenth century and when air became conceived as a dimension. From substance to dimension, in other words. In the first we have a thick air, an air that is populated by spirits, odours, messages, and diseases. In the latter, you have air as measurable. The statue of Jesus at the Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro marks the moment when air becomes conceived as a dimension. It is Catholicism’s skyscraper put there by the Redentoristas who had migrated to Brazil in the late nineteenth century to reform Catholicism: to turn air from substance to dimension. This tendency changes with Catholic Charismatics. It is no longer about placing a subject within a dimension, but a subject poised for change, a subject that has incorporated a level of flexibility to adapt. No longer just prediction, but adaptability, a feature that reflects a shift from longer to shorter temporalities. In that sense, it is not surprising that so many gyms and spas mushroomed in the 1990s, in Brazil and around the world. We see an economic elite appropriating, as you say, “life’s structure” such as air, attached to a whole discourse of salvation. The discourse of breath is so effective because it echoes with “letting go” whereas in effect it is a way of capture. It is a way of saying that there is nothing you can do except staying alive and feeling that you stay alive. So do nothing. Just breathe!

AG: Reading your book, I thought of Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 science fiction film. In it, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character discovers a conspiracy on a human-colonized Mars in the near future. The red planet is now overseen by a powerful corporation. The company’s control rests on mining and controlling the planet’s artificial oxygen supply. On Mars, a racialized category of infrahuman – freaks and deviants termed “mutants” – aids an insurgency against this concentrated power. The film, in exaggerated form, stages the politics of possession and segregation in our own world.

Total Recall asks who is allowed to breathe and control the basic mechanism of life. Oxygen becomes saleable, a means of leverage and authority – the corporate leader deprives the semi-human “mutants” of breath to exert coercion. In the end – it is a Hollywood film, after all! – the Schwarzenegger character ends the artificial lack of oxygen on Mars. In this way, he democratizes the means of living.

I am interested in this film in relation to your book through the prism of climate change and the pandemic. The coronavirus suggests that what we take for granted – oxygen, breath – is a contingent fact. In the context of infectious illness, medical oxygen becomes a scarce commodity that can be hoarded, privatized, and denied to others.

It would seem rather that the pandemic is continuous with – rather than disruptive of – pre-existing asymmetries in our compartmentalized world. Respirators and filtration devices, after all, are largely not available to the poor in the Global South. And we can think of the disproportionate suffocation that afflicts the disadvantaged: asthma, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases stifle the capacity to breathe. In a planetary atmosphere where carbon dioxide increases, those inequities – except for the super-rich like Jeff Bezos, zooming off to on Mars – will only continue.

My question for you is about the management of breath. In your book, you suggest that Brazilian Charismatics have developed a logistics, an infrastructure, for moulding subjects around breath. In this managerial mentality, they are perhaps not that different from state planners or executive administrators. In this sense, religious subjectivity, political sovereignty, and neoliberal appropriation are indebted to a technique of control and intentionality. I am interested in the limits of human designs, two centuries after the Enlightenment imparted the myth of mastering our destiny. Are we at a point, on a planetary scale, where agents like viruses delimit our breath and where the earth’s atmosphere is no longer benign? Where we hit the limits of control, of calisthenics, of trying to shape breath like bodies at a gym?

MJA: I agree with you that the pandemic is not an interruption of the asymmetric privileges, but the exposure of what was always already there. The irony of air as a substance is that it tries to suggest that there is no compartmentalizing. That is precisely the illusion that a movement like the CCR has been trying to communicate for the last four decades or so. In your question, you mention a “religious subjectivity, political sovereignty, and neoliberal appropriation [that] are indebted to a technique of control and intentionality”. But one thing that I think has come up with the turn to “air” and “breathing” among Charismatics, if we can put it like that with Covid-19 still literally in the air and on air, is precisely the suspension of intentionality for something like indeterminacy. And the irony is that we kind of like it because of how we tend to equate intentionality with the logics of modern subject or sovereign – the idea that puts humans at the centre as capable of intentionally designing human destiny, whereas indeterminacy sounds like a more poetic form of going about things. It suggests letting go of control, a praise of the uncertain that only makes sense because of narratives of progress and the violences inherent to telos. But the thing is, it is precisely certain movements on the (extreme) right who are now criticizing intentionality and adopting, even structuring, indeterminacy. This is tremendous because our project of the criticism of secular modernity is not finished. However, we also need to be attentive to these right-wing logics of appropriating left-wing discourses.

On the other hand, because of my new work on Portugal, your question also brings to mind canonical discourses that appeared in the aftermath of the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755. What lessons could one draw from the fact that nature could not be fully domesticated and that it could, after all, strike back? As you seem to suggest about the coronavirus, that earthquake led to great philosophical reflections on the nature of evil, speculative theodicy, and the role of humans in controlling their destiny. This very reflection on limits was at the point that “the myth of mastering our destiny” was at its peak. This gives me hope that perhaps we are never just in one camp alone but are always invited to reflect on the realities that could thwart them. Indeed, we need contrarians in order to deny them. On the other hand, there is no doubt that we are exhausting nature’s resources, and without going too much into the idea that nature has agency, it will strike back in ever fiercer ways. Perhaps we are living a moment where friend and foe are really intimate partners, and we need to reflect on where that leads us as thinkers and as breathers.

AG: Breath entails an interval, a pause. I am curious about the potential politics of this interval or pause. In the space between, at the moment of interruption, can other paths be taken? We live in a time when the dominant metaphors are “flow, stream, torrent” – the oversaturation and compulsion of digital and real life. Is it possible to find an alternative rhythm of life, a space of reflection, in the interval or pause within breath?

MJA: This again brings us back to how we are so invested in equating freedom with flow and movement. But now we have two tendencies: the logic of walled states and a new valorisation of the rural and of nature. What does this mean? That we will go back to idealised romanticism? I would not be surprised. The problem is that these spaces of escape are not cut out/off from the digital. One thus needs to ask, am I going to nature to escape the digital or to make up for the fact that I use so much digital? It is difficult to say. I think the idea of interval is curious because the interval in breathing is precisely what allows continuity. But I think you mean the pause for breath, as in the pause for reflection. Walter Benjamin describes his “pausing for breath… Tirelessly the process of thinking makes new beginnings, returning in a roundabout way to its original object. This continual pausing for breath is the mode most proper to the process of contemplation”. We shall have to see. I really don’t know. Neither do I wish to conduct a futurology of where breathing will take us. I think the reflection might start with the fact that we are posing the problem like this. That we are aware that we do not take breathing, but breathing takes us. Perhaps that is the beginning of reflection.

Ajay Gandhi: Your recent book examines a Catholic evangelical movement in Brazil, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR), which was newly influential in the 1990s, as the country was increasingly entangled in global capitalism. You argue that this heralds a form of religious self-consciousness, prizing bodily elasticity and the management of opposites (the complexio oppositorum). As part of this, Catholic evangelicals recuperate a Greek vocabulary: that of pneuma or breath. These aerobics of faith intersect with electronic media; an episteme aligns with an infrastructure. It shapes the body in an individual and political sense. What is important is the way the spirit is connected to the material. Circulation happens in unbounded space alongside the creation of tangible substances.

Can you describe how you see this, first, in terms of near history, a rupture with how religion in Brazil conceived of the national and individual? Second, in the longer span of Christianity, is this a revitalization or recuperation of ideas going back to Greece and Byzantium – or is it a new way of crafting a religious and political self?

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