3.2 A Eulogy for Predatory Comparatism: Brazilian Alterity Theory from Anthropophagy to Equivocation

Jamille Pinheiro Dias


Erro de português

Quando o português chegou
Debaixo duma bruta chuva
Vestiu o índio
Que pena! Fosse uma manhã de sol
O índio tinha despido
O português

Portuguese mistake

The Portuguese came
Under a pounding rain
and clothed the Indian
Had it been a sunny morning
the Indian would have had
unclothed the Portuguese1

– Oswald de Andrade


A antropofagia é a única filosofia brasileira original.
Anthropophagy is Brazil's only original philosophy.

– Augusto de Campos


How do we compare across radically different systems of knowledge? By way of unfolding this question, I turn to Brazilian alterity theorists Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), Haroldo de Campos (1929-2003), and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (1951-), for whom taking from abroad — and, by extension, translating and comparing — is not a transposition, but an exercise of reconceptualization. I address how what I refer to as predatory comparatism — a notion that draws upon key ideas advanced by this trio of Brazilian theorists — can shed light on the directions that translation of Amerindian verbal arts might take and nurture a renewed bond between comparative literature, translation studies and anthropology.


In his 1928 “Anthropophagy Manifesto,” Brazilian novelist, essayist, poet and playwright Oswald de Andrade formulated an ingenious philosophy known as anthropophagy. He was inspired by what happened to Brazil’s first bishop, Dom Pedro Fernandes Sardinha, who was tasked with christianizing and teaching Portuguese manners to the Amerindians. In the aftermath of a shipwreck in 1556, near the São Francisco River, Sardinha was killed and cannibalized by natives (Henderson 93). More than a mere response to colonial abuse, the predation of the bishop is, Andrade argues, the assertion of an omnivorous ethics that positions the act of devouring as a critical engagement with multiple systems of knowledge. Oswaldian anthropophagy does not allude to the “noble savage” idealizations of the nativist strain of Romanticism. Rather, Andrade’s “Anthropophagy Manifesto” extols the virtues of the “bad savage,” whose act of biting, chewing and swallowing human flesh suggests that “in our age of universal devouring, our issues are odontological rather than ontological” (72). As Rio de Janeiro ethnologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro notes:

[A antropofagia oswaldiana] é a reflexão meta-cultural mais original produzida na América Latina até hoje. Ela foi a única contribuição realmente anti-colonialista que geramos. Ela não é uma teoria do nacionalismo, da volta às raízes, do indianismo.

[Oswaldian anthropophagy] is the most original meta-cultural reflection that has been produced in Latin America so far. It is the only truly anti-colonialist contribution engendered by us […] It's not a nationalist, Indianist, back-to-our-roots theory. (Encontros 168)

Andrade’s irreverent cannibalistic approach, which established a nexus between his philosophy of alterity and the function of teeth, commanded the attention of Viveiros de Castro.


Viveiros de Castro’s effort to translate the theories of the South American indigenous peoples he had met in his fieldwork motivated him to develop a conceptual translation of native thought called “Ameridian perspectivism,” which is the “resumption of Oswald de Andradre's anthropophagy in new terms” (Encontros 129):

O perspectivismo [é] um conceito da mesma família política e poética que a antropofagia de Oswald de Andrade, isto é, [é] uma arma de combate contra a sujeição cultural da América Latina, índios e não-índios confundidos, aos paradigmas europeus e cristãos.

The concept of perspectivism [is] part of Oswald de Andrade’s political and poetic family, that is, a weapon of combat against the cultural subjection of Latin American, of both indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, to the European and Christian paradigms. (Encontros 129)

Oswald de Andrade wanted to build dialectically a Brazil that would be grounded not on identity principles provided by Europeans, but rather on the anti-principle proclaimed by the Anthropophagy Manifesto: “I am only interested in that which is not my own” (249).


Anthropophagy and Equivocation

Drawing upon Nietzsche’s idea of “perspectivism” (12) — the notion that there is no absolute “God's eye” standpoint from which one can survey everything that exists — Viveiros de Castro advances a translation theory based upon equivocation, which correlates Amerindian emphasis on transformation and exchange with the Oswaldian anthropophagous anti-identity principles. Rather than a translational mistake, equivocation is, for Viveiros de Castro, a fundamental tenet of comparability within and across cultures. Viveiros de Castro treats equivocation as a “tool of objectification,” not a “subjective failure,” error, deception or lie (“Perspectival Anthropology” 11).


Viveiros de Castro seeks to translate the indigenous conceptual imagination by challenging the intellectual automatisms embedded within dominant Euro-centric conceptual imaginations. In this translational operation, the traditional dichotomy between source and target languages comes out garbled, since the translator places the “target terms” in dangerous relationships, unsettling the target language’s categories and deliberately betraying its conceptual toolbox (“Perspectival Anthropology” 5).


Transcreation and transvaluation

Like Castro, the São Paulo translator, poet and essayist Haroldo de Campos was inspired by Andrade’s anthropophagous “transvaluational” view. Campos drew heavily upon Andrade’s work while formulating his highly experimental transcreations, which paratactically integrated verbal and visual effects through different typographical arrangements.

Com a "Antropofagia" de Oswald de Andrade, nos anos 20 [...] tivemos um sentido agudo da necessidade de pensar o naciona em relacionamento dialético com o universal. [A Antropofagia] não envolve uma submissão (uma catequese), mas uma transculturação; melhor ainda, uma transvalorização: uma visão crítica da história como função negativa (Nietzsche) capaz tanto de uma apropriação como de desapropriação, desierarquização e desconstrução.

In the 1920s, with Oswald de Andrade's Anthropophagy […] we felt a keen sense of the need to think of the national in a dialectical relationship with the universal [...] [Anthropophagy] does not involve a submission (a catechesis), but a transculturation; better still, a “transvaluation,” a critical view of history as a negative function (in Nietzsche’s sense), capable of appropriation and expropriation, de-hierarchicalization, and deconstruction. (Campos 109)

The method of “transcreation” that Campos developed in the 1960s is a radical translational operation that seeks to approach the form of the original in a cannibalistic way, benefiting from the creative resources of the best poetry available to the translator. Transcreation is related to Viveiros de Castro’s notion of equivocation, insofar as the ethnologist — like Viveiros de Castro’s translator — uses native discourses in order to transform his or her own culture’s terms and categories. Rather than an ethnocentric universalism, this self-reflexive comparatism offers a rigorous and critical sense of the meaning of translatability.


Comparing comparisons

What should emerge from a translation across two radically different types of subjective agencies is a relationship of epistemological equivalence between the translated and target discourses. The comparatist should proceed like the bricoleur described by Lévi-Strauss (1962), cobbling together disparate elements and juxtaposing fragments or parts so as to provide them with extra meaning.


The image of comparison as bricolage is reminiscent of Maria Tymoczko’s conceptualization of translation as a metonymic exercise. Tymoczko argues that all literary texts are metonymic evocations of the contexts from which they emerge, which inevitably privilege certain metonymies over others (55). Translators create images of their source cultures in a process that has important ideological implications:

Translators select some elements, some aspects, or some parts of the source text to highlight and preserve; translators prioritize and privilege some parameters and not others; and thus, translators represent some aspects of the source text partially or fully or others not at all in a translation. […] By definition, translation in metonymic: it is a form of representation in which parts or aspects of the source text come to stand for the whole. (Tymoczko 55)

Through his theory of equivocation, Viveiros de Castro takes one step further than Tymoczko in tackling the matter of parts and wholes in anthropological, translational and comparative procedures. If doing anthropology necessarily means “compar[ing] […], in one form or other, comparisons,” then shouldn’t we acknowledge, Viveiros de Castro suggests, that Amerindian peoples have not only specific modes of conceiving of the limits between parts and wholes, but also different comparative practices (“Perspectival Anthropology” 2)? In a similar fashion, if we presume that other peoples also distinguish between metaphoric and literal discourse, we may be responsible for a translational error if we are not conscious of the equivocations within our assumptions that “metaphors” are always what’s “not out there” — what is constructed — and that “literality” is what is “out there” — what is given.


Equivocations are the condition of every comparison. This is a rather optimistic take on the matter of translatability and comparability, since what makes comparison between two discourses possible — what grounds the correlations that the comparatist attempts to establish — is precisely the fact that these discourses are not saying the same thing. Other people’s metonymies are not our metonymies. Other people’s bricolages are not “our” bricolages. Other people's comparatisms are not “our” comparatisms.


Comparing worlds beyond words

Translating Amerindian verbal arts rarely goes hand in hand with attempts to Amerindianize translation procedures. There is frequently a stark asymmetry between Amerindian modes of translation and modes of translating the Amerindian. For the translator, there’s the complicating factor that Amerindian verbal arts go beyond words, insofar as they are constituted by an intersemiotic chain of oral, musical, choreological and visual codes. In his account of the Kamayurá people, who live in the Upper Xingu region and speak a Tupi-Guarani language, Brazilian ethnologist Rafael José de Menezes Bastos notes that this chain of codes is composed of connections between music and dance and other subsystems or “nodes,” as he calls them (297-98).


Only a thoughtful consideration of intersemioticity can impel us to bring on board a profound complication of the graphocentric and representational biases inherent in a typically Western emphasis on creation and production. In other words, merely to apply (and not reflect upon) modern Euro-American translation theories when translating Amerindian theories is to fall short of recognizing that Amerindian modes of translating are as creative, complex, and sophisticated as modern Euro-American modes of translating.


Predatory comparatism and reconceptualization of Ameridian verbal arts

By approaching the work of reconceptualizing Ameridian verbal arts through the lens of predatory comparatism, we are called forth to juxtapose worlds beyond words. The notion of predatory comparatism helps us to engage with transcription, orthographization and translation procedures that take seriously the sensorial, intersemiotic and multimodal practices that are key to Amerindian systems of knowledge. Engaging in translation and comparison is a political as well as a cosmological quest, which may be described as cosmopolitical.


I conclude by referring to Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers (2005), for whom cosmopolitics is a conscious withdrawal from worldhood. Diverging from Kantian cosmopolitanism, according to which politics should aim at allowing a good common world to exist, she contends that the whole idea of cosmopolitics is to slow down the construction of this consensual common world.  Stengers invokes Deleuze’s idiot, the figure who knows how to slow things down to prevent the rush to consensus, who “demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we possess the meaning of what we know” (995). Predatory comparatism, like the idiot, calls for a deceleration of the rush to a common world of transcendent peace or transparent meaning. There is no common world foreign to comparison, and no meaning foreign to equivocation.


Works Cited


Andrade, Oswald de. “Erro de Português.” O Santeiro do Mangue e Outros Poemas. São Paulo: Globo, 1991. 1-2. Print.

---. “Manifesto antropófago.” A Utopia Antropofágica. São Paulo: Globo, 2011. 66-72. Print.

Campos, Augusto de. Poesia, Antipoesia, Antropofagia. São Paulo: Cortez e Moraes, 1978. Print.

Campos, Haroldo de. “Da razão antropofágica: diálogo e diferença na cultura brasileira”. Boletim Bibliográfico: Biblioteca Mário de Andrade, Vol 44. São Paulo: Biblioteca Mário de Andrade, 1983. Print.

Candido, Antônio. Vários escritos. São Paulo: Livraria Duas Cidades, 1977. Print.

Henderson, James D. et al., eds. A Reference Guide to Latin American History. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2000. Print.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. La Pensée Sauvage. 1962. Paris: Librarie Plon, 2009. Print.

Menezes Bastos, Rafael José de. “Música nas Sociedades Indígenas das Terras Baixas da América do Sul: Estado da Arte.” Mana 13.2 (2007): 293-316.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Trans. Douglas Smith. Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1996. Print.

Stengers, Isabel. “The Cosmopolitical Proposal.” Making Things: Public Atmospheres of Democracy. Ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel. 994-1003, Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2005. Print.

Tymoczko, Maria. Translation in a Postcolonial Context: Early Irish Literature in English. Manchester: St. Jerome, 1999. Print.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation.” Tipiti 2.1 (2004): 3-22.

---. Encontros. Ed. Renato Sztutman. Rio de Janeiro: Azougue, 2008. Print.




Jamille Pinheiro Dias is a PhD candidate at the Department of Modern Languages at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, and a teaching assistant at the Institute of Brazilian Studies within the same institution. Her dissertation research focuses on contemporary translations of indigenous poetics in the Americas. She collaborates with the Centre for Globalization and Cultural Studies at the University of Manitoba as a researcher in the Brazil/Canada Knowledge Exchange project, and holds a grant from the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Level Personnel within the Brazilian Ministry of Education.



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