Can you hear the beetle sing?

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Can you hear the beetle sing?

Toward radical pedagogies and insurgent learning inspired by feminist antiracist epistemologies.

Love in times of extinction forces us to ask other questions, to find other stories, to create other loops. I believe that is what is happening here and it is with our relationship with animals.” (Vinciane Despret)

Metaphor, biology, and politics

At the beginning of 2019 I was responsible to teach a discipline “Practical of learning philosophy: methodologies”, that is offered for students of philosophy who intend to be teachers. But afterwords, I felt I was not prepared to teach in such a new context. Many political decisions changed the education in Brazil: persecution of teachers, militarization of schools, alteration of curriculum, persecution of speaking about gender and Marxism, and devaluation of philosophy and human sciences. And the questions that emerged in my body and mind were: How will I follow my courses in this context? I'm training students to teach where? For what and for whom? What will I tell my students at the beginning of the course? How will I support them if I don't know what to say? Will the students still have jobs? Will I have still my job?

At the beginning of 2019, deeply affected in my body-mind by a very difficult moment, an escarabajo, a beetle, appeared to me. I called for it. In this meeting, it began to be part of me. And I felt that my body was proposing (or imposing) a transformation ...

Very little in my own heritage has suggested to me that a wild living creature might bring me a direct personal message. (...) I am suspicious of adopted mysticisms (...) But our trajectory crossed at a time when I was ready to begin something new, the nature of which I did not clearly see. And poetry, too, begins in this ways: the crossing of trajectories of two (or more) elements that might not otherwise have known simultaneity. When this happens, a piece of the universe is reveled as if for the first time.” (“Woman and Bird”, Adrienne Rich)

At that moment, unsure of what to do, I realized that my body, as an interface between worlds, as mixture of tissues, flesh and bones was changing. My body was creating a chitin-shell like a Coleoptero.

These Coleoptera, of Filo Arthropoda and Insect Class, have the morphological characteristic of an exoskeleton, that is, a surface that mixes flexibility and strength, allowing the insect to have a large freedom of movement in inhospitable spaces without, however, losing the ability to defend and protect. This kind of cover also helps not to lose water and produces a camouflage. In addition, Coleoptera is a word of Greek origin that unites koleos (case) and pteron (wings), which in a free translation means a 'wing case'. According to the morphological explanation, this means that these beings have (1) an anterior (external) pair of wings that functions as a rigid (sclerotized) cape for protection; and (2) another pair of posterior wings, internal to the rigid, more delicate, membranous wings that serve to fly.

In the scientific researches, I learned that the Beetles has a very visual systems of insects. As the sun sets over southern Africa, the Scarabaeus satyrus and S. zambezianus beetles fly to find fresh manure. Once found, the beetles carve a ball and run quickly in a straight direction. And what scientists have discovered from their experiments is that the beetles have a celestial compass and that they follow straight through the stars of the Milk Way. With the lights of the sky, it is sure that it is rolling the balls in the right direction and not circling. Nothing can stop them. They run directly in the same direction. In the words of scientists, to understand the beetles you need to have a "full visual sophisticated ecology".

So, straightening the body in another direction, I asked myself other questions: How did the resistance processes in education take place? How did people keep following? What experiences of resistance could I mobilize? So, together with the students, we could invent other ways to continue walking as teachers. How can we do that?

If the Beetle appeared to me as a possibility of metamorphosis by creating an imaginary-bodily exoskeleton to keep protected and moving, a light wing over the hard wing... it was just the beginning of what I could exchange with these amazing beings which are the beetles. By a strange synchronicity, from this change in skin, beetles began to approach me, and I have let them come.

The Politics of location: never to talk “about”

This work was only possible because of encounters: between Lea Tosold and me but also others. Would it be possible for us, here and now, to produce another one? Encounters are not easy to occur... What is an encounter? What occurs when we really meet something or someone new? What kind of challenge does it open? What kind of fear emerges? What are the conditions to really establish an encounter? Can you hear me? Can I hear or communicate with someone that don't speak my language? Do we really need languages to communicate between us? What kind of understanding can we have with someone that has another culture? What is its limit? What each one can do to overcome these limits? What is the function of Body? What is relationality?

And I ask me and us if we can have an encounter with the Earth? I ask If we can really overcome the blocked dialectic between human and nature, if we can change the relationship with what we name “nature”. What kind of encounter is it possible between humans and animals? For me, the answer to these questions are at the center of the ecological problems today if we understand ecology as much more than to protect nature, including all humannatural beings as a whole.

What gets to count as nature and who gets to inhabit natural categories”? “What’s at stake in the judgement about nature and what’s at stake in maintaining the boundaries between what gets called nature and what gets called culture in your society”? (“How like a leaf”, Donna Haraway)

These questions led my body to remember the words and teachings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Adrienne Rich and Judith Butler:

With Butler, we understood that the meeting between me and the Other produces a kind of dispossession and that the self never stays the same after an encounter. (“Violence, Mourning, Politics”)

With Anzaldua, we learned that (1) it is not possible to speak if the other doesn’t hear and (2) that the hearing place is an active position that involves the whole body, not just the “ears”. (“Speaking in Tongues: letter to the Third World Women Writers”)

With Rich, we learn that a politics of location doesn't finish by enumerating the series of identities that are attached to our bodies. This is the first step to understand the social production of our bodies. But we need to go beyond. The politics of location open ways to connect different stories (of oppression but also of resistances) and complexifies what we understand as “me or I” because “my” story appears as part of other bodies too (“Notes toward Politics of Location”). With this perspective, we go toward the production of unexpected alliances. In this sense, I remember the work of the Brazilian black woman historian Beatriz Nascimento that connects body and territory to explain the black experience of the “Quilombos” in Brazil (as place of r-existence). The memory is the body. To Rich, the politics of location is a “struggle against free-floating abstraction” that emerges in feminism or in marxism too. This abstraction is an abstraction of the body, is to speak alone, to speak about, but never with: “You cannot speak for me. Me cannot speak for us” (Rich, 224).

But, if we follow Rich a little bit more, she can help us to imagine what can occur when we really encounter an animal being. And with Rich, and the biological metaphors of Donna Haraway and the ethnography of fishes by Zoe Todd (“An Indigenous Feminist's Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism”), We will hear the story a un unexpected encounter with these little insects named Beetles and how it can transforme us.

We're telling the story of the metamorphosis that happens through encounters. I'm going to tell the story of how these encounters allowed an metamorphosis in our educational practice towards an insurgent pedagogy.

From talking “with” through talking “as”: to become an escarabajo

And it was then that a talking beetle appeared, sitting on the shoulders of Subcommander Marcos, in a book I received from a Mexican student I met2. The beetle had a name, Don Durito de la Lacandona. (“En algún lugar de la selva Lancadona: aventuras e desaventuras de Don Durito”, Subcomandante Marcos).

This image is very complex, because it mixes memory and imagination. I will try to tell what a beetle said to us: can you hear it?

Don Durito is a dreamer, sometimes a grumpy beetle, a researcher of political philosophy and a specialist in neoliberalism, who accompanies the Subcomandante Marcos during insurgent actions at the Lacandona Jungle in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Sitting on his shoulder, or hiding in the middle of his beard to protect himself from the cold, Don Durito talks and instigates ways to the Subcommander in his actions on cold nights and insurgent actions against the Mexican army. What Don Durito says?

From the perspective of little beings, he tells about the worry of being crushed by the soldiers' boots. So, he decided to help Subcomandante Marcos in three ways: he helps to think about the best way to go into the Jungle; he helps to think about what neoliberal economic policy means, how the Mexican State are supporting this violence and he helps to think about what kind of insurgent action can be possible in neoliberal times; and he dreams and imagines other possible worlds.

When we talk “with”, we transform ourselves, we don't remain the same. We can block and hear nothing, refusing what is unacknowledged; we can hear just what we want and identify as ourselves; or we can accept the difference and open the self for a transformation... so, we become the Other, and this Other will become in part me in some senses... when it does not happen, we are missing something. Can you hear it?

Insurgent learning

I entered the classroom that early February 2019, determined to produce a break. I did not know what to do. For three weeks I thought of different strategies. And at some point my body, as a memory, pointed the way. The path was chosen by itself, and I went straight.

During 2018 I participated of an independent and collective research in the State of Acre, in Amazonia, Brazil. Inspired by the notions of situated philosophy and implicated research, I, Lea, and a group of five women flew to Acre to interview and to register the memory of rubber tappers women who participated in actions in defense of the forest in the 1980s. We stayed for 20 days in the “Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve”, at the municipality of Xapuri.

So, I propose an exercise of imagination. I would like to transport you with us to “Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve”, on August 11, 2018. Can you hear it?

The conflicts in the region began around 1978. We were all together 20 hours in the rear of a truck to find these women. Dercy Teles is with us, a big leadership, one of the first Brazilian woman president of a syndicate -- the syndicate of rural workers of Xapuri, Acre.

The landscape on our way switches between excerpts of native forest (with its delicate smell, the moisture, the noise of an immense diversity of birds, insects, flowers and trees) ...

... and pastures dried, hot and lifeless, where the white cattle graze and look at us with melancholic eyes (are they asking for help to not die in the freezers of the biggest Brazilian slaughterhouse here in Xapuri?). We remember a sentence we heard in Rio Branco: each piece of meat on the plate is one less tree in the forest.

We direct our attention to the quantity of rivers channeled, the machines in the road working without stop. Dercy Teles tells us that in the past it was not like this. She could cross the forest walking, she could take water in the rivers and she was received in the home of the people to eat together. The life of the forest and the life of the people of the forest are not anymore the same, both suffer nowadays.

And after days and days walking and talking with these women, hearing the story that connects the past and the present3, we learned that there is forest only if people are there in this interdependent and symbiotic relationship between subjects, forest, and people. That these people protect the forest when they are there. We learned that the racialization of populations is fundamental in the process of territorial exploitation and coloniality. That every ecological crisis is a humanitarian crisis, and ecocide. And that every ecocide implies in epistemicide. Sebastiana told us - can you hear it?

“I'm afraid. I will not say that I am not, because I am. Is it good for us to raise one or two cattle? Yes, it is. Sometimes we get tight, we sell a calf; get sick, sell a cow. Then, it's good. Three years ago I sold a cow and a calf because my mother needed to have surgery, we in the family gathered and made it. But this is not the same as clearing the whole forest to make a farm, for we are not farmers. We have to understand that we are rubber tappers. Farmer is the same person, but we have to understand that the farmer is already a farmer. We are rubber tappers. You have to be born, raised, be old and die knowing you're a rubber tapper. Because a rubber tapper cannot be a farmer: we are rubber tappers. We have to understand it... this is our life."

In the State of Acre, Brazil, the discourse about modernity reveals its ideological face in the coloniality-modernity pair. The discourse of the owners and politicians always invoke “modernity”. Amazonian modernity is marked by the propagandistic idea of Civilization, the Fatherland, the question of the frontier and Progress, Development, with the devaluation of traditional knowledges and the praise of the “businessmen”. Coloniality depends on an ontology founded in modernity which hierarchizes superiority and inferiority through the idea of race and ethnicity. Through the ethnic / racial device we see an intentional operation of ontological emptying of the colonized being transformed into an instrument at service, a "nothingness".

In this light, the Acrean Amazon appears as a territorial and epistemic locus, the inaugural stage of the markedly modern-colonial historical occurrence, which pursue us in the understanding of the phenomenon of coloniality in the Amazonia (João José Veras de Souza, “Seringalidade: o estado de colonialidade na Amazônia e os condenados da floresta” 2017, p. 159).

This encounter with the rubber tappers women emerged as a body experience and as a creative memory. And this memory created a new way and connected different stories.

They told us about Paulo Freire's experience of popular education in Acre, and how they were able to produce the Poronga (a didactic material) from the experience of the people in that territory, delivering a (de)colonized education. And this memory brought another memory.

A memory that emerges in the body as territory. The ABC region in the state of Sao Paulo, where I work, is known for the struggles of the metallurgists in the 80s. So we decided, me and the students, to connect the territory and the people, drawing an “autobiography through territories”, activity carried out at the beginning of a course.

Then we decided to go to the anarchist place “Casa da Lagartixa Preta” [“Black Lizard’s house”], in Santo Andre (ABC region, state of Sao Paulo), and together we worked producing an activity for teachers of the region.

At the “Black Lizard’s house” we encountered the Zapatista insurgent education. The Zapatistas helped us to think the following question, worked by Edgardo Garcia (a zapateca researcher) and Manuel Callahan: how "Learning to learn in a context of war"? From the zapatistas of Mexico, through the popular education project in Acre, through the ABC region, we connected experiences, learned together and created a proper path that could strengthen and enable us to keep on walking.

The encounter with the beetle marked deeply in my skin. As a beetle, we decided to take on this radical straightforwardness. We are because of this path. Can you hear it?


Bibliographical References:

ANZALDUA, Gloria. “Speaking in Tongues: letter to the Third World Women Writers”. In: Gloria Anzaldua Reader. Duke University Press, 2009 [1980].

BAIRD, Emily; BYRNE, Marcus J.; SMOLKA, Jochen; WARRANT, Eric J.; DACKE, Marie. “The Dung Beetle Dance: An Orientation Behaviour?”. In: Journal PLOS, 2012.

BUTLER, Judith. “Violence, Mourning, Politics”. In: Journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Volume 4, 2003.

CALLAHAN, Manolo. Insurgent learning and convivial research: Universidad de la Tierra, Califas, 2018. research-universidad-de-la-tierra-califas/

Casa da Lagartixa Preta "Malagueña Salerosa": 10 Anos de Experiências Anarquistas.

COLETIVO ATIVISMO ABC. Gestão de Espaços Autônomos. Marco de 2014.

DACKE, Marie. On Celestial Orientation: From Behavior to Neurons. Online course, 2019.

GARCÍA, Edgardo. Learning in a context of war, 2017.

HARAWAY, Donna; GOODEVE, Thyrza Nichols. Like a Leaf. Routledge, 1999.

MARCOS, Subcomandante Insurgente. En algum lugar de la selva Lancadona: aventuras e desventuras de Don Durito. México, 2017.

MARCUSE, Herbert. Transvaluation of values and radical social changes (five lectures, 1966-1976). Edited by JANSESN, P, SURAK, Sarah, REITZ, C. York University, Toronto, 2017.

NASCIMENTO, Beatriz; RATTS, Alex (org). Eu sou atlântica: sobre a trajetória de vida de Beatriz Nascimento. São Paulo: Imprensa oficial, 2006.

RICH, Adrienne. Notes toward Politics of Location. 1984, a-Politics-of-Location.pdf

___________. “Women and Bird”. In: What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, 2003, pp. 3-8.

SOUZA, João José Veras de. Seringalidade: o estado de colonialidade na Amazônia e os condenados da floresta. Editora Valer, Manaus, Brazil, 2017.

ZOE, Todd. “An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism”. In: Journal of Historical Sociology 29(1): 4-22, March 2016.

WARRANT, Eric Warrant; DACKE, Marie. “Visual Navigation in Nocturnal Insects”. In: American Physiological Society. April 2016.


Marilia Mello Pisani is a Professor of philosophy at ABC Federal University, and Coordinator of Nexos-Southeast research group.

Lea Tosold is a Political theorist of University of São Paulo, and Member of the Nexos-Southeast research group.

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