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GSSC Seminar Series
6 June 2023


Work-in-Progress Seminar: Mastery and Misrecognition in the Anthropocene | Lessons from Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões on the Insurrection of the Earth

Jonathan DeVore



This paper conceptualizes the misrecognition involved in claims about mastery over human and other nature in the Anthropocene, drawing comparative insight from one of the most important pieces of Brazilian literature from the turn of the 20th century, Euclides da Cunha’s Os Sertões. The famous volume draws on da Cunha’s first-hand account of the Brazilian state’s military efforts to crush a multi-racial/ethnic millenarian movement that formed near the rural town of Canudos (Bahia) in the 1890s. The state’s first three campaigns to destroy Canudos were decisive failures, according to da Cunha, because the infamously harsh sertão environment of the Brazilian Northeast fought alongside the rebels. Historians such as Fernand Braudel have frequently remarked on how people marginalized by dominant social orders often escaped to mountains, forests, deserts, and other regions of refuge. Yet, Braudel and other scholars implicitly view such landscapes as mere backdrops to social struggles. Drawing on da Cunha’s thick descriptions of the insurrection of the earth during the Canudos campaigns, this paper reconsiders such environments as active and sublime powers in order to develop a critique of the Anthropocene concept. While highlighting human geological agency, the import of the Anthropocene is drawn into relief by the powers of nature that humans unleash against themselves, threatening the end of their world – or, at least, the end of (friendly) Holocene nature that permitted Anthropos to thrive and, apparently, to master nature.

Jonathan DeVore is a socio-cultural anthropologist who has been conducting ethnographic and ethnohistorical research in northeastern Brazil since 2002. He has published on themes ranging from land grabs, land rights movements, and racialization to multispecies ethnography, ontology, and conservation politics, among other themes. Jonathan’s current book project, under contract with the University of Washington Press, is entitled Emancipation Work: Reconstruction and Renewal in the Aftermath of Brazilian Slavery. The book traces the multigenerational struggles by which freed slaves, their descendants, and other members of the rural poor have struggled to realize the promise of freedom in Brazil’s post-emancipation period. Jonathan received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 2014, and has held postdoctoral research and teaching positions at Yale University, the University of Bonn, the University of Cologne, Miami University of Ohio, and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, before returning to the University of Cologne in 2021 to join the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology.