by J. Cassar Scalia
(Essay from ‘A Transmission Beyond Histories: Capoeira, Embodied Semiotics and the Roots of Resistance’)
“Capoeira e manha. E malicia. E tudo que a boca come.” These words were spoken by capoeira legend Mestre Pastinha some 80 years ago. They roughly translate to: ‘Capoeira is the way. It is trickery. It is everything that the mouth eats.’
It is quite an enigmatic statement. The idea of “everything that the mouth eats” (which seems to lose something in the English translation) speaks to the flexible, adaptable, and elusive nature of capoeira. It is a metaphor for its omnipotent flexibility. Camara, a young contramestre (instructor) at Ache Brasil Studio in Vancouver, understands it to mean that “capoeira is whatever you need it to be.” Understood as such, “everything that the mouth eats” is a metaphor that seems to resolve the contradiction between the first two sentences- that is, between manha and malicia.
Manha means way. Malicia means trickery. It is to say in a sense, that capoeira is the truth, and it is also deception; that it is both. It is deception as a way to incite an experience of truth, to agitate it into being, or even to transmute it, and its binary relation with falsity – and it does so with and through the harnessed energies and rhythms of the body.
Everything that the mouth eats can be read as the higher order under which manha and malicia become unified. On the whole, the quote represents the all-pervading, paradox-collapsing nature of capoeira movement, going beyond dialogical comprehension. It speaks past the dia-logic of the tongue/mind to the infra-logic of the body. When the body is sufficiently engaged in rigorous, interactive capoeira movement, the mind’s antinomical constraint on consciousness is loosened. Where the tongue is confounded, the body is enlivened. The lyrics of the capoeira song, Porquinho, lay it out plainly:
“Free your body boy. Stop talking. You’ve got to have feeling to play Capoeira Angola.”
While capoeira bodily movement is free in the creative, free flowing, unrestricted sense of Mestre Pastinha’s quote it is at the same time a highly disciplined mimicry, like any practice. The fundamental movement of capoeira is like a corporeal grammar that must be thoroughly grasped, mimed into the muscle memory so to speak. This is the ginga grammar, the fundamental rocking sway of the practice. Capoeira is unique in martial-arts in that this fundamental movement is constant. There is no pausing, no waiting to see what your opponent does next.
In a still further sense, the constant sway of the ginga grammar allows for a subtler and indeed larger mimesis. The range of capoeira motion, and its vast inventory of physical positioning through the ginga grammar, is something like an expanse within which the body may scout the articulatory possibilities of itself in an ongoing stream of movement. The body, in its flowing, ever-changing, never-ceasing movement stream, mirrors (mimics) an affective emotional experience of instability, ambiguity, disorientation, upset, uncertainty, or in the positive- euphoria, enthrallment, ecstasy, joy– all of the feelings that disquiet the world of discourse and representation, that disturb the prospect of segmenting the world into fixed, finite states, and that confound the mind in its effort toward order and stasis. So being, a body in continual modulating motion can be read as a corporeal representation of the experience of emotive fluctuations, desirous energies, or further, the intensity out of which a near infinitude of such fluctuating energies are made an effect. Through a disciplined and dexterous practice of capoeira movement, the body as a mimetic metaphor for uncertainty, a flexible mirror that transduces the frenetic vibration of instability into a masterful display of physical unpredictability, joins chaos with order, panic with precision, vulnerability with power, and most foundationally of all, mutability with immutability. The result is an experience of ecstatic equilibrium. This is the body/metaphor wholly realized.
In this sense, the body of the capoeirista itself becomes the ‘point of the spear’ of inquiry and knowing, relegating the mind and its semiotic operation to an auxiliary role. The body, in full metaphoric swing, takes over the semiotic work. It, itself becomes a fluent discourse. It becomes mind in its fullest sense, more fully than the dialogical brain ever can know. The body/metaphor could take on any number or degree of meanings. Though, in its most expansive sense of ginga grammar it is the body as a metaphor for trans-embodiment, or what I’ll call absolute movement. This is the full, unchartable range and power of the body’s articulatory potential. It is unrestricted (disembodied) potential catching into the body. As 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza once wrote, “Nobody as yet has learned from experience what a body can and cannot do.” It is precisely here that the ginga movement of capoeira rocks, swings and sways: at the line of “what a body can and cannot do.”
Capoeira movement, specifically ginga movement, is a corporeal semiotics that engages with that which is beyond mental semiotic order: energy. It is the infralogical body charged with energy surging against the constraint of the dialogical mind. Through this engagement the capoeirista’s conscious experience is moved partially out of the dialogical realm. The body/metaphor engaged in a constant flowing embodied semiotics does not wait for its messaging (the body’s various energetic movements) to be decoded by the other. It is a discourse that does not wait to be nor think of being understood, and yet it is. In this way, it moves beyond the antinomical paradox that constrains the discursive/dialogical world of representation, the realm of speech and memory.
Through detailed description (mirroring) of positive and negative energies the body/metaphor, like Michael Taussig’s notion of a spirit-copy, effectively gains “power over the thing described” and, by degree, transcends or joins with that which it describes (Taussig 1993). Such advanced mirroring may induce an experience of consciousness that goes beyond the limited particulars of positive/negative emotions, which is to say that it goes beyond the binary opposition frame, moving deeper into what J. Lowell Lewis calls “the ecstasis” (1992).
Lowell Lewis has examined what may separate the semiotic/mimetic experience of artists and practitioners that rely on extrinsic instruments (tools, materials, etc.) from the experience of those in which the body itself is the primary instrument. He states, “What one does when learning a skill is to focus on the mediating processes that link relatively embodied and relatively disembodied states.” Extending from this he argues that it is “precisely this mode that the concept of instrumental action loses analytical usefulness, since if the body itself becomes an instrument… and action can issue from a more essential self (still embodied) to the “outer” body ecstatically, then it is no longer possible to use an absolute opposition between phenomenal states” (Lewis 1992).
Lewis’ proposition is quite compelling. When the technique of the instrument is sufficiently grasped, or mimed then the monitoring of the level of ability of the technique begins to subside. Because technical operation in the discursive sense of speaking and writing requires a constant analytical monitoring in order to proceed, it maintains an antinomical frame, a distinction between the subject and the instrument or words that s/he employs. This is in contrast to Camara’s temporally collapsed statement, “I prepare techniques for me to do, while I’m doing it.” If the body itself is the instrument and it is able to mime the technique to the point that it surpasses the monitoring of said technique, then it shall be significantly less aware of the distinction between technique and technician, signified and signifier.
All of this is quite consistent with Camara’s paradoxical description of being connected and separated at the same time: “At the same time I’m connected to the capoeira but not connected to my body…. I would feel just like- it’s hard to explain.”
Primed and impelled by the multi-sensory experience of the roda such an emotive, fluent, energetic and musicological discourse shared by bodies may lose a significant temporal (and spatial) quality, and may generate experiences where impression and expression, action and reflection, begin to fade into each other. What is especially curious and certainly begs deeper investigation is that as the intercorporeal dialogue between two capoeiristas becomes more fluent and intense, the analytical/mental preoccupation (the inner-dialogue that one has with oneself) seems to diminish, and a feeling of autonomic interconnection increases. In other words, the dialogical experience ebbs and the infralogical experience flows. And it is out of this intensifying inter-corporeal dialogue, the infralogical experience, that many capoeiristas report ecstatic experiences for which words always seem to fail.
The physiological architecture of the body is dialogical. It is built for inter-subjectivity. Yet the energy that animates it, that courses through it, that makes the dialogical inter-subjective experience possible, is infralogical. It does not fix distinctions or take positions. It is beyond dialogical constraint. This tension between the dialogical and infralogical is the force that capoeira movement draws on.
In this sense, capoeira is a diagnosis of and prescription for the divided and therefore dialogical nature of the individual’s relationship with not only the rest of the world but with himself. It recognizes and articulates the need to fundamentally (infralogically) exercise and transcend this division by dancing (dialogically) between, competitive and cooperative impulses, at times blending these oppositional impulses beyond distinction. A semi-simulated clash, two bodies competitively masquerading in rhythmic opposition triggers and deeply pronounces its antidote, the empathic undercurrent that is drawn up into the corporeal dialectic; joining the two capoeiristas, blending them, returning them to the rhythmic, empathic swell of the roda.
The individual capoeirista operating as the body/metaphor becomes the vehicle and mode through which self and other may be reconciled, and the body itself stands (and sways) as the threshold between self and other, the alternately flexible and constricting boundary between the bound and the boundless.