On ‘Lost Writings’ and Decolonial Archives from Southern Brazil

Written by
Nikhil Pandhi
Dec. 11, 2022

On Friday, December 2, the Brazil LAB held a book forum on ‘Lost Writings’ (‘Escritos Perdidos’), with authors João Biehl and Miqueias Mugge. Hendrik Lorenz, Lilia M. Schwarcz and Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez served as discussants.

João Biehl, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Princeton and Brazil LAB director, and Miqueias Mugge, a historian and associate research scholar at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), introduced their work to the audience, emphasizing its historical and anthropological anchoring in the frontier zones of German colonization in southern Brazil from the mid 19th century.

Escritos Perdidos is a collective work of both archiving the ‘lost writings’ of lay-theologian Johann Georg Klein (1822-1915) and its critical possibilities of shedding radically new insights on questions of the historiography of coloniality, enslavement, racial miscegenation, and whiteness in Southern Brazil, encompassing critical historical events like the Mucker War (the war of the ‘false saints’) – the first major messianic uprising of modern Brazil. According to the authors, the book illuminates the lost layers of a moment in Brazilian history that has now opened itself to critical scrutiny involving the shared anxieties, aspirations, conflicts and contradictions of life among early German colonists (often dubbed poor, ‘white negroes’) and the enslaved, Black Afro-Brazillian populations who lived among them. “The coexistence of immigrants and enslaved peoples”, Biehl and Mugge argued, “sheds new light on the theological reasoning and sanctioning of slavery, and forces us to recalibrate the terms of the normalization of slavery in southern Brazil” at a time when trans-Atlantic slavery was banned, and slave resistance on the rise in other parts of the world.

In his comments, Fernando Acosta-Rodríguez, librarian for Latin American Studies a Princeton, drew attention to the ways in which processes of archiving the other ‘lost writings’ of Klein at Firestone Library – something the authors also did during the course of their fieldwork in southern Brazil - helped create a public-facing digital repository of documents, letters and texts that can further help elucidate the decolonial possibilities of the text, its original author(s), current translators and archivists.

Lilia Schwarcz, visiting professor at Princeton, professor of Anthropology at the University of São Paulo and one of Brazil’s most well-known public intellectuals, drew attention to the fact that “Brazilian history (even so-called revisionist and subaltern accounts of it) tends to emphasize white history,” without making critical connections with how whiteness is always inflected with the stories, subjectivities and silences of enslaved and indigenous peoples. Calling Escritos Perdidos a “a story of adventure”, Schwarcz emphasized its value as a primary source and a “decolonial archive” of novel historical possibilities.

Hendrik Lorenz, professor of Philosophy at Princeton, drew attention to the intricacies of translation that animated the intellectual labour of early lay-theologians like Klein, including the translation of theological concepts from German to Portuguese, the possibilities of loss, cross-contamination and cross-pollination between languages, and their bearing on the everyday lives of theological concepts and catechisms. Lorenz emphasized that the text robustly captures the ways in which the “experiment for German colonization” in southern Brazil was never quite achieved in the ways it was imagined; its improvisational nature is evident in the slippages of inter-textuality and translation between German speaking colonizers, their catechisms (written, in southern Brazil, in a language known as ‘German from the bushes’) and in their own clashes with the white missionary elite who followed in their wake.

A lively and engaging discussion followed with the audience, in which a number of vital themes were discussed, including the fruitful combination of historical and anthropological methods, decolonizing Afro-Brazilian and indigenous histories, the relationships between theology, colonialism and translation and the recuperative possibilities of insurgent archiving.

The event was co-organized with the Department of Anthropology and co-sponsored by the Firestone Library, the Program in Latin American Studies and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.