Publikation Inequality / Social Struggles - Analysis of Capitalism - Gender Relations - Americas - Southern Cone - Andes Region - Brazil / Paraguay - Authoritarianism - Feminism The Virtues of Disobedience

Rita Segato's opening speech at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair 2019



Juli 2019


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Rita Laura Segato

Rita Laura Segato now most certainly belongs to Argentina’s star intellectuals. The 67-year-old retired anthropologist taught and researched in Brasilia for over 30 years and is a knowledgeable expert on all of Latin America, particularly when it comes to the far-too-often ignored majorities: women, indigenous people, and afrolatin@s. She also gets involved: when it came to introducing quotas for black and indigenous students in Brazil’s public universities, she was one of the most influential voices. She has already long been regarded as a hidden gem among feminists, and also participated in the opening of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Buenos Aires Office in late 2015. After the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonora’s electoral victory she was forced to turn her back on Brazil. Now she commutes—when she is not traveling to give lectures—between her apartment in San Telmo in the capital city and her beloved home of choice in Tilcara in the northwest Argentinian province Jujuy, where indigenous rituals naturally belong to locals’ everyday life. She became known to an increasingly broad left-wing audience after her ground-breaking interventions around racist violence against women in Guatemala and Mexico and the explosion of the feminist movement in Argentina. Her invitation to open the Buenos Aires Book Fair in April 2019 brought her into mainstream media, and her essay collections have become bestsellers.

An anti-capitalist consensus is a good foundation, but insufficient both in analysis as well as guiding principle to build broad alliances against the neoliberal to far-right rollback in Latin America and elsewhere. Patriarchal, racist, and (neo-)colonial structures must also be recognized and made visible in order to fight them.  For this it is worth reading Rita Segato in Europe, as well. She lucidly explains what stands in the way of doing so in her speech opening this year’s international Buenos Aires Book fair.

We’ve published this widely read intervention as an excellent example of Segato’s fundamental orientation: she calls for independent thinking that opposes in equal measure the fixation of many intellectuals on Europe, the political correctness of US provenance, as well as superficial analyses of violence against women.

Rita Segato combines her detailed knowledge of the barbaric conditions in Brazilian prisons or femicides in Ciudad Tijuana with an inspiring optimism of the will. Moreover, she is deeply convinced that the feminist mass movement in southern South America is currently on its way to permanently shifting the system of political coordinates on the continent.

Gerhard Dilger

RLS Regional Office Buenos Aires, May 2019

The Speech:

Elizabeth Costello is always the one who saves me when I find myself in situations like this. She has already done so several times, coming to my aid from the literary heaven where surely she can be found.  Professor Costello, who is my age, is the feminine guardian angel who protects those who, like me, are not happy with the formalities and circumstances that they must adapt to in order to survive a career as a humanities scholar. What I like about and what allows me to find refuge in the famous character who circulates in Coetzee’s novels is not the subject that she speaks of, but rather that the fact that she talks about something other than what she has been invited to speak about. In other words, it is her indiscipline, her indomitable finesse, her indifference to academic protocol, which seemingly has brought her to the podium she occupies today.

She could be, for example, invited to speak about seventeenth-century English literature, but goes on—to the dismay and disappointment of the audience and the disapproval of her son—to speak about the Lives of Animals. What Costello does to me is practically an alternative state of consciousness, like being possessed: a saint comes down to me, as they say in the language of Candomblé, and that saint is Costello, when I have to speak in circumstances like this one. Her politics, as I see it, lies less in what she says and more in her constant act of disobeying, her lack of attention to norms.

That is my reading of the divine character, and that is my reading of the most human element of the human: examining the chips that program us and choosing which to turn off, which we get rid of, what mandates we remove from our matrix. I have asked my anthropology students many times throughout the years: why do we study how culture makes us be a certain way, how it formats us, instead of studying how, despite the culture that we supposedly “belong to”, each of us can be unique, unrepeatable, different? The guiding star of humanity is precisely its capacity for deviation, a capacity to which we owe nothing less than history itself.  

First Disobedience

That is why I have been saying, among other things, that for a number of reasons a feminine form of politics cannot be based on principles, but must be pragmatic and capable of improvising, directed to life in the here and now, its continuity and its splendour, despite everything, or—as we say—against all odds. Therefore, and in order to do so, it must always be nourished by what I have called an “ethics of dissatisfaction”, the framework of any good politics and the opposite drive to an ethics of conformity, that ethics in which it is more important to be good than to act well.

It becomes necessary, along this path, to be pluralist before being feminist, to have a radically plural world as a historical objective. This goal cannot be reached either by the patriarchy or by its historical project of things—capitalist accumulation—which is always in tension with the historical project of relationships, of communal roots.

Nor can any of the dogmatic monotheisms be validated within the objective of a plural world. Because for the patriarchy, capital, and fundamentalist monotheisms there is only one truth, only one way of living well, one god, one form of the future, one form of justice. They are in this way monopolies, governed by an exclusive and exclusionary logic.

Our logic, the logic that allowed us to survive so many centuries of massacres on our continent, is not a monological, monopolistic logic governed by the neurosis of coherence and control, the monotheistic and white logic of the Europeans. Our logic is tragic, in the sense of being able to co-exist with inconsistency, with incompatible truths, with the equation A and not-A, both opposites and truths at the same time. Therefore, it is always, always endowed with the vital intensity of disobedience. A logic that is consistently for something: for conserving life and guaranteeing the continued and improved well-being of more people, for keeping the horizon of history open without a predetermined destiny, for keeping time moving. 

Second Disobedience

The second disobedience takes me to Europe, the continent of the monotheistic neurosis, as I call it in my book Santos e Dáimones (Saints and Demons), the continent whose neurosis is to control and morally judge the world. Thus another inevitable memory comes to mind as I prepare this uncomfortable lecture, which is the uneasiness that struck me 36 years ago when I heard Gabriel García Márquez’s acceptance speech, entitled “The Solitude of Latin America”, on the occasion of his receiving the Nobel Prize in 1982. The memory of that vague and incomprehensible discomfort has accompanied me ever since and only now do I find the space to speak about it in front of an audience. 

At that time the word Eurocentrism did not even exist in my brain, partly because in those years I was living in Europe. Let’s see: García Márquez seemed to be saying that Latin America was alone because Europe did not look to it, did not see it, did not register its existence and did not understand it. I was immensely bothered by, and continue to be bothered by, the subtext of his speech that clearly pointed to the author’s conviction that our continent could only achieve its full existence in the eyes of Europe.

Is it our destiny to exist as a being for the Other? That would be problematic, because to effectively be a being for the Other it is necessary to learn how to be from that Other. Over the years, and with vocabularies that I started gaining access to, that discomfort was transformed into a consciousness. That consciousness is what allows me to speak to you all today, as the literary people that you are, of our issue: the circulation of words and their form.

About twenty days ago, at a meeting with directors of European museums in the Pompidou Museum in Paris, they asked me an important, intelligent, and very unusual question: how does Eurocentrism affect Europe? I affirmed: it is Europe that is alone. It looks at itself in the narcissistic mirror of its museums but lacks a real mirror, one which can exercise resistance and show defects, because those objects cannot return its gaze.

Europe lacks that powerful feminine utensil of the “mirror, mirror on the wall” of the Evil Queen in fairy tales: it does not see its flaws in the eyes of others because it keeps the Other enclosed as treasure in the glass showcases of its colonial power. The visit to the Chirac Museum on the Quai de Branly confirmed that impression for me. There I only saw “imprisoned beauty”—objects removed from their own destiny, their historical home, from the landscape where they had been rooted. From there they would have been able to follow their own path and exert their influence. The same thing happens with books. 

According to García Márquez, we need to see ourselves in the eyes of Europe, in the books of Europe, to not be alone. However, he does not recognize that Europe does not even perceive its own loneliness, loneliness that has slowly led to a decline in its creative imagination, which once dazzled us, and to an unbearable tedium.

Third Disobedience

I exasperated my teachers, teachers from the elite, in the Juan Ramón Fernández Living Languages school of my childhood, when, from the age of six, I would always refuse to write my sentences using the peninsular mode of “tú” and its associated verb forms.[1]  To this day I continue that arduous task of modifying the spellcheck and auto-correct, each time, line by line, to put the accents on the appropriate syllables (on the i of decíme, the i of veníte, and on the e and the a in si querés pasá por mi casa). Swimming against the current of conformity, in disobedience. Later my beloved José María Arguedas would appear, with his Quechua language in Spanish, his inflections of Quechua in the superimposed language, his way of truly appropriating Spanish to say what he desired and what was necessary to say: that it was the indio who carried the flag of history and sovereignty on our continent.

Just as Karl Polanyi spoke about the destruction of the embedded economy by capitalism, we must propose re-embedding language as the path to its re-existence, despite institutions, in people’s verbal gestures.

Fourth Disobedience

On 8 July 2018 Juan Pérez (pseudonym) from the very prestigious Spanish publishing house La Eterna (pseudonym) wrote:

Dear Ms. Segato,

My name is Juan Pérez and I am an editor from La Eterna publishing house. I wanted to get in touch with you to cordially invite you to join us on our editorial list in some way.

To me, your critical work is an intellectual gem that should be known and read around the world. In Spain, for example, it is not easily accessible.

Of course, I know that you do not suffer from a lack of spaces to publish in, specifically Prometeo, with whom you work in a continuous way.

Despite being aware of that situation, I allow myself to invite you due to my admiration of your work.

Best regards,

Juan Pérez

Senior Editor

Madrid (Spain)

From: Rita Segato

Sent: Friday August 10, 2018

To: Juan Pérez

Subject: Re: La Eterna Publishing

Dear Juan, thank you very much for the words of your message. It is exciting to know that one’s effort is appreciated, and even more so by an editor from such a prestigious publishing house. But I think you will understand me if I tell you that, as you know, I write from the perspective of the coloniality of power and also of knowledge. My perspective is critical of Eurocentrism, which is nothing other than racism applied to the knowledge and products of those of us who inhabit and work on these things, on this side of the sea, in a landscape that is marked and demarcated by the colonial process that persists into the present.

So, I have an editor who is the first who extended me a hand in 2003, when I wanted to return to my country and nobody knew me in Argentina. I hold him in high esteem and he has helped me in a series of difficult life situations. I publish with him in Spanish in the same way as I would publish with you. However, due to the fact that La Eterna is located on that other side of the sea, it is easier for you to distribute books to the whole universe of Spanish language readers, and although I was happy with your message, it is impossible for me to agree with that situation, to adapt to that, to reconcile myself with that. You can understand, right? I am stubborn as a mule, I know. But the thing is, it pains me to know that a publisher from Latin America does not have the same facilities for distribution as a Spanish publisher. The only idea that occurs to me then, is to suggest that you establish some type of collaboration with my publisher Prometeo, so that between the two of you, in partnership, you can publish something of mine soon… What do you think of that idea?

Whatever your response, I send you a hug and my sincere gratitude for your appreciation of my work.


From: Juan Pérez

Subject: RE: La Eterna Publishing

Sent: Friday, August 13, 2018

To: Rita Segato

Dear friend,

I understand perfectly, of course. I should say that it is comforting to find an intellectual whose actions are consistent with their discourse (that does not always happen)…

Juan Pérez

Senior Editor

Madrid (Spain)

I quote this exchange with the senior editor of a highly regarded and otherwise respectable Peninsular publishing house due to its elegance and the mutual personal respect revealed between the correspondent representing the company’s interests and myself, as his interlocutor. It is one of the many invitations to publish with global publishers that I have received, all of which I have declined for the reasons that I explain to Juan Pérez. Basically, as was said to me in those days by my dear friend Claudia Schwartz, who grew up among the bookshelves of the Fausto bookstore and who now edits poetry with great difficulty with the publishing house Leviatán: why can’t I get a book from Chile, why can’t I get a book from Uruguay? Why don’t I have access to those authors from Argentina, instead of only through Spain?

The real reason is that the military dictatorship (1976–1983) targeted large Argentinian booksellers and destroyed the large publishing field that we had through political persecution. During his presidency, Carlos Menem (1990–1999) finished the job by the complete lack of protection provided to the Argentine publishing industry, which had enjoyed great prestige in the Spanish-speaking world due to its unparalleled quality, leaving it defenceless against global market forces. Honourable booksellers persisted and/or emerged to try to resuscitate what had been lost… Others died of despair, like Claudia’s father, with the final closure of his Fausto bookstores and his publishing house, Siglo XX, in a supposed “democracy” that, having only recently been recovered, succumbed to the coloniality of power and knowledge.

Spanish publishing houses bought the publishers of textbooks and school manuals, profiting from the already existing know-how in the country, threatening the beauty and value of the linguistic pluralism and ways of speaking rooted in Argentina. I weep for that loss: the Argentina of Fausto was beautiful. The Argentina of the publishing house Centro Editor de América Latina is equally irreplaceable. The value and historical objective of a plural world was left in a very vulnerable situation, in a similar process to what happened with transnational music record labels that bought the music of the world and “equalized” it in a pasteurized and rapidly obsolescent “world music”.

I want to pay homage to those publishers that survived that time of destruction and to those who started after the ruin: Corregidor, Colihue, de la Flor, Biblos, Manantial, Lugar editorial, Espacio Editorial, Homo Sapiens, Pequeño Editor, Prometeo, Godot, Leviatán. And forgive me if I have not managed to name all of them, or if any of those that I named have already perished.

I want it to be understood that this has nothing to do with patriotic values, but rather the value of pluralism.

Fifth Disobedience

Let’s name ourselves, choose our own names. Let’s not pass the message on to young people, as we generally do, that they go to school, to university, merely to learn. Because that learning automatically refers to learning what has already been thought, and beneath that already thought, we inevitably sneak in the idea of what has already been thought of in another place. The task of the intellectual is to invent and assign names. I learned that from my beloved teacher Aníbal Quijano. Authorship comes from authorizing. They are two fundamentally related terms. Let’s start from there, thinking from our own position, and not delegating thinking about the world we live in to those on the outside.

It happens to us, and it happens to Spain as well. Like our continent, it finds itself on the side of the consumption and application of theoretical categories, not their formulation. Let’s not fool ourselves. It happens to that country that is as sadly colonial and Creole as ours, a nation that conquered itself and immediately continued that conquest over here on the other side of the ocean in the same year, 1492. The Spanish language is widely spoken, but it is not hegemonic. It does not produce theoretical thinking destined to cross the Great Global Border from the South to the North. Books published here by large publishing conglomerates seeking global profit are not catapulted to the languages in which ideas obtain planetary circulation and influence.

The market reserve of the North over what we could well call “patents” in the field of the Humanities is hermetic, impregnable. Because, let’s make no mistake: it is the field of the Humanities, with its power of words, its poiesis of concepts, which shapes the future of history. That is why the key to the Humanities remains in the hands of the few, a few who are not located here. Thus the door of global circulation is closed to concepts coined in our language, with sovereignty and autonomy, from right here, from this ground on which we are rooted.

Sixth Disobedience

Along with the fence that is erected to keep out our words, another impregnable wall is put up to impede our writing styles from crossing over. Universities impose the North’s technique of academic books on us. Let’s not give in to that textual technique, which originates in an era when information, due to its scarcity, was a problem and was a problem that the universities of the imperial North did not have. A text or a book was a way of displaying access to information, the power that it meant to have access to that information.

Today information is also a problem, but for the opposite reason. We are drowning in information—that is why what matters is the author’s capacity to choose their own route in the plethora of information that bombards us. The important thing is to develop the ability to identify what exists around us and has not been named and to not renounce the essay, which is our way of arguing. We must not abandon the essay: the “I say”. The voice of the essayist is inevitably the author’s voice that does not hide behind the alibi of enumerating facts. Let’s keep in mind that the truth is an agreement between interlocutors. Well-known names are like messages in bottles thrown into the sea that reach their destination. I can confirm that because I know from my experience.

Seventh Disobedience

Let’s shape our own disobedience. Let’s not confuse Ni Una Menos[2] with #MeToo, and let’s not get caught up in its tension with the Manifesto by the French Intellectuals. Each movement and each feminism can only be built based on the elements of its own history. In the dispute between Anglo and French forms of feminism, I see key elements of two histories of marriage, two forms of sexuality and love established by different civilizations and lyrics, as was already pointed out some time ago by Peter Gay, as well as the Brazilian writer Josefina Pimenta Lobato. The conflict is over two models of love: the Anglo-Saxon and the French.

As far as Ni Una Menos is concerned, let’s remember that there is a coloniality within social movements as well. That coloniality is deceptive and disorienting. #MeToo, with its roots in North American pilgrim-Puritan feminism, is directed towards and appeals to the paternity of the State, a third party as an indispensable arbiter of relations, a lawyer in the sheets, possibly as the only tool available in that ultra-individualist world. While #MeToo speaks to the state, Ni Una Menos speaks to all of us, men and women, it speaks to a society.

Our feminism belongs to a world in which even in the whitened metropolis interconnectedness is vital and can and should be preserved because of the protection it provides us and the happiness it brings us. It is a world in which remnants of community have been preserved. I am convinced that we should not delegate the arbitration of our erotic life to a third party.

I still think in our world it should be possible to deal with our desires face-to-face, body-to-body, and that we should fight for that, creating the conditions in which it is possible. To do so we must work hard to change power relations in the fields of labour and study, in which there is a decisive hierarchy and patriarchy is more viciously manifested, and to regenerate the communal structures capable of monitoring and caring for people’s forms of life. Then there is the need to dismantle the patriarchal political order and usher in a new era of history. We are clearly already on our way.

Epilogue: The Eighth Disobedience.

Down with the mandate of masculinity!

For peoples’ rights to their territories and their mode of life rooted in the community!

Yes to legal, safe, and free abortion!

Not one woman less!

Justice for Sabrina Garnica, an 11-year-old girl, inhabitant of the neighbourhood Virgen Desatanudos of La Rioja and enthusiastic activist with La Garganta Poderosa, raped and murdered on 14 April!

Not one press worker less!

Recognition for the bachilleratos populares [3] For a radically plural world!

Translation by Liz Mason-Deese.

[1] Translator’s note: the Spanish of the Rioplatense Region of Argentina and Uruguay (and to a lesser extent, other regions of South America) maintains the voseo as the second person singular with its associated verb forms (for example, vos hacés instead of tú haces). Into the 1980s, textbooks and schools in Argentina tended to solely teach the peninsular variety, which was considered the “correct” version, especially in formal writing, and to punish the use of the voseo.

[2] Ni Una Menos (Not One Woman Less) is the slogan and rallying cry used to name the radical and mass feminist movement that has emerged in Argentina since 2015 protesting against femicide and other forms of gendered violence, connecting them to other forms of economic and political violence. A transversal movement connecting a multitude of struggles, it has also played an important role in organizing the international feminist strikes of recent years.

[3] Self-managed high school degree programs, usually run by social movements, worker-managed factories, or unions and using popular education methods which are fighting to be recognized by the state in other to be able to grant official degrees and receive state funding.