When Busier is Not Better: An Interview with Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela

Sleeping in the classroom of occupied school. April 2016. Photo by Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela.

This post builds on the research article “Pedagogies of Prohibition: Time, Education, and the War on Drugs in Rio de Janeiro's Zona Norte” by Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela, which was published in the May 2022 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela's well-written and thought-provoking paper addresses dead on the question of temporal regulation, establishing a departure from the analytics of space and spatial social dynamics and practicessomething that anthropologists and ethnographers have gravitated towards time and again. His is an invitation to situate terms like “chronopolitics” and “chronormativity” in a terrain where the maintained physical occupation by the euphemistic Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (UPP, The Pacifying Police Unit) in Rio's favelas stands for the Brazilian state's military stake in reclaiming public space. It is no trivial matter: this sort of “community-oriented” policing has surpassed any other form of municipal public spending since the end of the country's dictatorship. In Fogarty-Valenzuela's account, the urge to prevent youth from partaking in gang activity is fulfilled by way of the occupation of their “leisure time” with extra-curricular activities, resulting not in a “pedagogy of the oppressed” but in a temporally oppressive pedagogy, one that carries with it the emphatic aim to extricate surplus energies from youthful bodies that could be used otherwise. For one, this account turns on its head some of the arguments with which French theorist Michel de Certeau sought to challenge post-structuralist views of social determination and subject-formation. In The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), de Certeau makes a distinction between “strategies” of institutions and “tactics” of everyday social agency. Whereas the former is a “triumph of space over time” by hegemonic or established powers, the latter refers to the indeterminacy of ordinary people’s utilization of timeagency's temporal free stylingas it eludes and circumnavigates the grasp of state and commercial spatial monopolies. “Pedagogies of Prohibition,” on the other hand, makes a case for how power also translates to a forceful management of differing/different temporalities and the containment of free time, specifically targeting youth from historically neglected communities. Yet, do carioca youth counter the strategies of ocupação/busyness by introducing other cadences of life and rhythms of creative flair? How does this tie with a larger picture of Brazilians trying to escape or resist the afterlives of the country’s Cold War dictatorial militarism (embodied in Jair Bolsonaro, the UPP, and the BOPE)?

In this interview, Fogarty-Valenzuela addresses these questions and much more, resulting in an overall picture that is pieced together by topics such as creative practice, surveillance, war on drugs, militarism, youth culture, and pedagogy.

Alejandro Jaramillo and Prerna Srigyan: Tell us about your research process: What ethnographic encounters led you to this topic? Is Rio de Janeiro a special site to study “pedagogies of prohibition” (in contrast to other cities in Brazil)? How does this article fit in with your larger research interests or projects?

Benjamin Fogarty-Valenzuela: A set of stubborn contradictions brought me to Rio de Janeiro: How could a city that popularized samba, forró, capoeira, and funk carioca be at once the capital of state violence, often lethal police violence enacted against the very people whose cultural production brought about those forms of creative expression? In parallel, how could a city that was the cradle of critical pedagogy and theater of the oppressed be at the same time a city that burdens its young citizens-in-the-making with exhausting daily routines?

Rio de Janeiro is the artistic and cultural capital of Brazil. It is where Brazilian urban aesthetics associated with youth arts and bodily technique reaches its most visible and influential degree. Rio is influenced by youth cultures from around Brazilso too does Rio influence other Brazilian and regional practices. Like we’ve seen in popular culture around the world, the iconicity of such practicesthink capoeira, samba, baile funkis frequently preceded by ugly histories of criminalization of the bodies that practice them (Smith 2015).

The reason being that these practices more often than not entail transgressing middle class norms of respectability and placement in space and time of particular bodies. Specifically, they are criminalized because they take time, they tend to be loud and effusive, and they are, initially, not valued as a commodity. It’s no surprise, then, that youth cultural production is in many ways the prime target of what Sadiyya Hartmanspeaking about a Black post-emancipation US contextwould call “status criminality” (Hartman 2019), a form of criminality that is not an act, but rather a state of being. In the context of drug war violence, the free time needed for these practices is associated with deviance.

When I arrived in Brazil, I began to frequent a seemingly sleepy park in one of Rio de Janeiro’s working class neighborhoodsthis was where young people gathered to hang out in the interstitial times of the day, after school and before work or internships. The park was a place for free time; it was also a place for leisurewith a crucial difference between the two. Free time was associated with idleness leading to deviance, whereas leisure, sanctioned by middle class sensibilities, was associated with a productive worker’s right. The main distinction between the two were the bodies in question. The “problem of free time” was young and black, whereas “leisure” was practiced by seemingly lighter skinned workers. The educational efforts that I discuss in Pedagogies of Prohibition, not surprisingly, targeted the former. Thus, I began to unravel the imperativeon behalf of a range of actorsto occupy free time, and the ways in which it dovetailed with the moral logics of the war on drugs as they entangle with the economic optics of the capitalist state.

Youth nightlife in public plaza in Rio de Janeiro’s Zona Norte. Photograph by Author. August 2017.

In this sleepy park, young people’s lively experimentation mainly revolved around the phatic labor of small-talk, zueira (messing around), and brincadeiras (joking around). It also entailed a range of established, improvised, and invented games, arts, dance, and sports. These forms of skillful-making and expression take time to establish stylized expertise: the bodily technique and tacit knowledge are slow to accumulate. Besides, the purpose is the activity itself, the affect and sociality it generates as it knits together reputations, aesthetics, and friend groups.

Carol Greenhouse, with whom I worked in graduate school, cautioned me to avoid the temptation to make my ethnography only about darkness: to foreground the destructive weaponry and imaginary of the police. Rather, she urged that I write about the entanglement of the war on drugs, capitalism, and education from the vantage point of young people and their vivid imaginations. During fieldwork, my ethnography organically drew me to the time of disciplining, but more importantly, to the time of lively experimentation and resistanceand the delicate urban spaces that they occupy. This was not by chance.

Aside from an interest in the politics and policing of youth and the role of critical pedagogy, prior to fieldwork, my political formation and research interest was inflected by two major events: the first was the explosion of drug violence across Latin Americaand my home country of Guatemalaafter Mexico’s president Calderon declared a “war on drugs.” I witnessed first-hand the transformation of social and cultural life at large under the weight of unprecedented violence. The second was the growing consensus in North America that the war on drugs was a failure. As a critical educator and engaged scholar, I became increasingly indignant about the mediocre “just say no” drug education my generation had received.

In response, in 2019, some colleagues and I set out to build a new drug education curriculum grounded in humanistic social science, one that prioritized transnational youth narratives, arts and activisms (Di Castri 2020, also see the Catalyst Catalizador Facebook page). The undercommons generated by these young spaces of color, sound, and movement presented a clear alternative to the hopeless mutual suspicion that, with various parallels in Guatemalan history, tends to take hold in Latin American households and neighborhoods in the face of such violence. Through my work with Catalyst, I found that young people need pedagogies that center critical thinking and making, but in parallel, they also need self-directed time to experiment and create.

All of this movement, expression, and color meant that, upon return to my U.S. campuses, I kept returning to the question, “why is busier better?” I witnessed productivity being equated with self-worth, exhaustion as a badge of honor, and down time always accompanied by an itch of unease. So my work in Brazil was also an effort to find out how such cultural and capitalist logics manifest in people’s everyday lives in a global south context. It was a look in the mirror, one that forced me to imagine what an education could look like when busier is not better.

I began to unravel the imperative—on behalf of a range of actors—to occupy free time, and the ways in which it dovetailed with the moral logics of the war on drugs as they entangle with the economic optics of the capitalist state.

PS: What I find gripping in the article is your use of pedagogy as an analytic to understand the interiority of subject formation from a temporal lens. This allows you to trace enduring processes of “habit, personhood, and aspiration” that become important for the “governance of youth” (288). How did you arrive at pedagogy as an analytic in your thinking and work? What is it about pedagogy that it is such a compelling lens?

BFV: The parallels between carcerality and schooling have been duly noted. Far from the romantic notion that schools instill civilizational values and citizenship, more skeptical scholars have noted that schools, along particular race, class, and gender lines, are warehouses for the young. Schools contain youththeir irreverence and idiosyncrasiesto free up adults for wage labor. Pedagogies of Prohibition extends and qualifies this thought. Yes, youth having free time is understood as a threatto the daily routines that sustain wage labor extraction. So too, however, is youth free time a highly charged site of intervention and moral anxiety. Hopes and fears for the future of family, city, nation, and world are attached to youth free time. Enter fears of the demographic and media category of the “geração nem nem” (the generation that neither works nor studies, or the NEET youth indicator, in English-speaking contexts), and interventions at various scales designed to address it.

Crucially, the domain poised to manage this free time is the domain of education. This entails formal educationthe time youth spend in school, learning to mimic the daily routines required for precarious wage labor. So too does it balloon outward, beyond formal schooling, into the “idle” periods before and after school. What strikes me about anxiety over the “geração nem nem,” is that suddenly we have a common-sense and widespread discourse that understands the everyday lives of an entire generation as a threat to be managed. Moreover, that some people’s “idle time” is bad, and other people’s “leisure time” is good, marks a highly pernicious racialization that criminalizes poor, Black youth. Pedagogies of Prohibition centers how such subtle criminalization also occurs through a soft power, educational idiom, feeding into processes of dehumanization that make Rio de Janeiro’s police force one of the most lethal in the world.

In the name of education, youth are kept busy with educational programming that often privileges form (busyness) over content (teaching and learning). But free time for whom? And busyness for whom? Extremely busy routines don’t make for creativity; neither do they make for protest. Rather, they make for conformity to a highly exhausting daily grind characteristic of capitalist regimes of wage labor and human capital maximization. For those who refuse such routines, exclusion and stigmatization are normalized as a self-inflicted condition of the lazy.

Mural and police car on Avenida Brasil. Photograph by Author. February 2016.

Part of the reason I deem it necessary to center pedagogy as an analytic relates to the rich history of ideas emerging from Brazil around critical, emancipatory pedagogy. So too, does it relate to the need to critically reflect on the foundational purpose of pedagogy. Why do schools exist? What is the point of teaching? I find this line of questioning helpful for educators beyond the Brazilian context: are we all here to, in the words of one critical educator, “encher linguiça” (“stuff sausages,” or an expression meaning to waste each others’ time)filling up students’ time to graduate and receive wage labor salaries? Or are we here for something more?

PS: It was exactly this relationship between carcerality and schooling that I was hoping you would bring up, Benjamin. I am curious about the difference between schooling and pedagogy in your work. Anthropologists like Damien Sojoyner (First Strike) and Savannah Shange (Progressive Dystopia) have written extensively about carcerality in educational spaces, even in apparently progressive ones. They propose blues and abolitionist pedagogies respectively to resist the hegemonic pedagogies entailed in formal schooling. Pedagogy provides you the analytic to show why temporality matters alongside spatialization of education. Given the importance of critical pedagogies in Brazil in informal spacesI am thinking about how the youth are kept busy in Rio beyond formal schools in after-school programs and mallshow do you see pedagogies of prohibition entangled with the legacy of Freirean critical pedagogy?

BFV: In many ways, I see critical pedagogy as antithetical to busyness-based pedagogy. Pedagogies of prohibition further what Paulo Freire outlined as a “banking” conception of education (2000), where students are empty vessels awaiting knowledge to be deposited in them. Pedagogies of prohibition function as a sort of mobile enclosure, in which young people are sped up, worn down, turned in, burned outand in the process, they render themselves legible to what David Graber once called the cultural-moral fabric of contemporary capitalism (2018). This is far from the understanding of pedagogy advanced by proponents of critical pedagogy such as Paulo Freire, and other Brazilian contemporaries. In my broader book project, I employ the analytic of occupation to encompass both control-based, and emancipatory forms of pedagogy. What I like about Sojoyner (2016) and Shange’s (2019) work is how prominently pedagogy figures into the theoretical path forth that they chart. So the goal is not to abandon the project of pedagogy, but to point out the way in which schooling as encountered ethnographically is constricting youth’s horizons and lifeworlds.

The larger book project centers interventions designed to keep young people busy, or ocupados. However, when my field site was upended by a protest movement of organized students demanding better schools, I expanded my focus to encompass a separate form of ocupação, such as school buildings that are converted into protest occupation encampments. These encampments are used as schools and organizing spaces to build a larger movement. Busyness gives way to alternative rhythms and schedules. In these sites, the legacy of critical pedagogy is palpable, with horizontal organizing forming the basis for the introduction of teach-ins, horizontal assemblies, and ludic learning to the school space in place of schooling timetables. In this sense, and stemming from a longstanding tradition of radical pedagogy and democratic organizing, a new form of ocupação can emerge, one that is deeply pedagogical, and antithetical to the busyness-based pedagogy constituting pedagogies of prohibition.

The goal is not to abandon the project of pedagogy, but to point out the way in which schooling as encountered ethnographically is constricting youth’s horizons and lifeworlds.

AJ: In this article, and in your work in general, you incorporate photography as a multimodal research strategy. Since your article deals with the politics of time management and chrononormativity for youth in Rio de Janeiro, I wonder if you have any thoughts on the adequacy of photography as a medium to represent or to capture how time is to be managed according to the pedagogies of occupationor, alternatively, how practices of idleness are supposed to be overcomed. Here I am thinking of Michael Taussig’s reflections in I Swear I Saw This: Drawings on Fieldwork Notebooks (2011) regarding John Berger’s commentary of how photography is a mode of taking whereas drawing is a mode of making. Further, according to Berger, a photograph stops time, while a drawing encompasses it and allows for an ongoing conversation with that which it seeks to represent. Notwithstanding its supposed indexical relationship to the real, what does your practice of photography intend to portray or capture? Does the photograph run the risk of rendering activities, locations, or groups as idle or desocupados?

BFV: I like to think of photography broadly. Trees are photographic. Showered with light, they cast their shadows on the surfaces below them, leaving impressions on the ground. The light and shadow they cast leave their traces. Traces upon traces foment growth or deathleaving behind an archive of environmental history. A similar thought experiment can be applied, in the inverse, to stars. Such illustrations help us break free from photography’s fraught relationship with “the real,” to think broadly about photography as the interplay of shadow and lightand the art of writing with light. In this sense, my photography is self-consciously open to interpretation, rather than burrowing towards argumentative closure.

Such epistemic open-endedness was always well received in the field. I was always struck by the magnetism of a camera when working with my research collaborators. Curious, many asked to shoot with my camera, a practice that I first resisted, but later came to embrace as part of my methodology, a circulation that I discuss further in my article “Camera Ocupa” (2020). Perhaps it’s their creative potential, shareability, ubiquity, or their manual-technical aspectsomething draws young people to making photographs unlike any other form of media. In this sense, I am held in check by the young people I work with to constantly reinvent my engaged media storytelling practice.

My photographic practice is a form of ethnographic engagement and co-production. When accompanied with ethnographic text, photography becomes more of an art that articulates feelings than a science that articulates argument. In this sense, my photography seeks to always be open to multiple interpretations rather than a single call to action (which I attempt to do in my recent photo-ethnographic book: Art of Captivity, University of Toronto Press, 2020). Moreover, after school in the Madeiro’s park, the space becomes a playground for making and being made into photographsa domain of rich cultural production that I humbly see myself as but one additional participant in the zueira, or playful messing around.

Climbing an abandoned building to play on rooftop. Photograph by Author. May 2016.

As an educator, I take seriously the meaning of critical media literacy and critical making. When students mobilized to occupy the school in Madeiros featured in the article, I was positioned to enter into critical dialogue with their mode of multimodal storytelling, as they narrated daily life within a protest encampment with sound, photo, video and text. I discuss this mode of occupationdistinct from the forms of keeping busy characteristic of pedagogies of prohibitionin my larger book project, Pedagogies of Occupation, and reflect on occupation as method.

AJ: On another front, do educators like Guerreiro use video, photos, or both when documenting the activities they oversee? With this last question I am wondering about the relationship of specific media to the surveillance of youthful in-activity in neighborhoods like Madeiros.

BFV: Educators like Guerreiro have carved out their raison-d’être from the moral valence of busyness, and the value that busyness generates to broader publics (parents, media observers, public administrators). Therefore, what I observe are careful and detailed practices of documenting schooling or after-school activities: such media serves as promotional material that simultaneously frames a problem and positions itself as its one-stop solution. Like surveillance media, this mediawhether photo or videotends to follow particular visual tropes and looks quite similar across a range of disparate contexts. However, less media is captured with the usual outcomes of surveillance in mind (self-censorship, evidence-making, discipline). This is because the objective of pedagogies of prohibition is containment, often at the expense of pedagogical content: occurring through schedules and timetables, pedagogies of prohibition curtail and short circuit self-generated youth practices through obstruction rather than coercion.

The goal here is not to criticize parents and educators who see young ones facing real danger: rather it is to point out that, as they say in Brazil, “o buraco e mais embaixo” (the problem is further below). The problem is not idleness in the park, it’s that, for starters, the Rio de Janeiro police kill more than any other police force, in particular, young, Black youth. Under this light, “solutions” that entail compulsive busy-making look more like moral anxiety under late capitalist labor regimes than critically informed pedagogy.

On the topic of surveillance media, we can’t forget to mention Escola Sem Partido, one pernicious form of self-surveillanceor “trolling” media-making that has emerged from right wing youth movements. I witnessed the effects of Escola Sem Partido (Ramos and Santoro, 2017) in an incident that occurred in the Madeiro’s mentioned in the article: a student records and posts a video of him holding a left-wing political party campaign flier, narrating that the Black teacher in the video frame had been handing them out, and accusing her of political bias in school. In fact, I later learned, he had seen her in possession of the fliers, and asked her for one. These details didn’t matter when an online controversy ensued, pressing the teacher and nearly getting her removed for bringing “ideology” to the classroom. This insurgent media-making is the bread and butter of Escola Sem Partido and similar conservative movements across the region hinging on weaponizing smartphone media to generate self-censorship among educators. It is a movement that is designed to generate a witch-hunt effect, targeting educators who step out of a morally policed normativityone that’s enshrined in conservative values. Such phenomena beg a rethinking of who is, in fact, canceling, and who is being “cancelled” in practice, but more importantly, it helps us understand the new ways that digital media is reshaping local political dynamics.


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