Mega-Events and the Neoliberal Production of Space in Rio de Janeiro

By Sam Smith
2016, Vol. 8 No. 03 | pg. 7/7 |

Conclusion: Ethical Disruptions

It is certain that more research and attention is due to the upcoming mega-events in Rio de Janeiro, as their influences play out over the coming months and years. Much of their impact upon the organization of space and the lived experience of the city is yet to come. This thesis, an examination of immanent processes of urban transformation as they are underway, if lacking the empirical depth that hindsight confers, has a particular kind of role to play.

By asking how it is that the present circumstances have come about, and beginning to frame the conditions for their contestation, I endorse a critical praxis that considers action as the ultimate ends of a scholarly engagement. I have foregrounded not only the historical precedents and spatial practices leading to the present, but also the modes through which urban infrastructural development is being actively contested. This contestation is seen to be occurring across scales in ways that rely upon developing networks of social media. As translations of experience, calls for attention on the world stage are rife with semiotic problems. Thus, the politics of recognition emerge as crucial for understanding the growth of such local, regional, and trans-regional dissent against processes of structural violence. We must recall that visibility as a category is always mediated by signs for recognition that are immanently political, and can never be taken for granted as transparent (Keane 2003).

Complicating the terms of trans-regional visibility of violence does not untie the ethnographer from the ethical implications of their engagement. As a work which challenges received notions that help to prop up powerful regimes of neoliberalism, this thesis has intended, in a minute way, to disrupt the seeming stability of those systems. By illustrating projects of modernization and development as immanently contested projects of material and imaginative spatio-temporal scale, I have hoped also to illustrate their contingency, and their capacity to change.

It is frequently the case that contemporary anthropologists advance an activist agenda, but seem left wringing their hands over the problem of involvement. Aware of our complicity, and possessing a great deal of privilege as members of a Western intellectual ‘ivory tower’, indeed, who do we dare accuse? As Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1995) notes, there is a tendency to attempt to ‘suspend the ethical’ in ethnographic and theoretical practice, as a means of separating a Western enlightenment sense of morality from the topics at hand. However, it is never possible to fully remove oneself from the equation. We would do better to examine our own prejudices and tendencies alongside our findings, and place them in dialogue. I thus endorse Scheper-Hughes’ observation that the pursuit of ‘objectivity’ is better served by the recognition and explication of a moral stance than the attempt to mask or cover it.

As one of many left or radical-leaning academics writing on Latin America from afar, attempting to tread the fine line between critical distance and political urgency has constituted a significant challenge in this project. Future studies will possess the benefit of hindsight with regard to Rio’s Olympic transformations, but will no less be encumbered by the necessity of engaging with the ethical, both at the scales of urban displacement and expropriation in Rio, and in the broad-reaching cultures of neoliberalism that remain pervasive. Through engaging the disruptions of hegemonic discourses in the context of Rio’s favelas, the precariousness of diverse regimes of power and their modes of reproduction is made apparent. Casting a critical eye towards the realm of spectacle and the sanitation of the urban poor, I have hoped to contribute in a small way to the development of this awareness.


I’d like first of all to thank my parents for their endless love and support this year, and every year; thanks to Charlene, for reminding me of the light at the end of the tunnel, and for being an unforgettable professor and advisor; to LaShandra Sullivan, for providing regional expertise, humor, and invaluable feedback; to my brother, for wanting to talk about anything and everything but my thesis; to Rick Smith, for small sparks of wisdom; to Isabella Salton, for being a gracious host and friend during my stay in São Paulo; to Dario Nascimento, for showing me hidden beaches and local secrets of Rio; and to my friends at Reed, in Olympia, and in the rest of the world, for sharing with me whimsy, vigor, and summer bliss, past and future.


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  1. I.e., Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus; [1959]); Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad; 2007); Cidade de Deus (City of God; 2002)
  2. I.e. Waste Land (2011), a look at a favela in Rio built by catadores (trashpickers)
  3. I.e.,“Rio Sustainable City Project(2012). The video was produced by DOW Chemical Company, a major sponsor of the 2012 London Games and a contractor for present infrastructural development projects in Rio.
  4. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a popular console video game, features a sequence in which players raid a favela, shooting ‘terrorists’ and arms dealers.
  5. I.e., Michael Jackson’s controversial music video “They Don’t Care About Us.”
  6. I.e., Arias 2004, 2006; Caldeira 2000; Carvalho 2011; Fischer 2008; Freire-Medeiros 2009; Gaffney 2010; Holston 1989, 2008; Goldstein 2003; Nuijten 2013; Oliveira 1997, 2002; Perlman 2010; Scheper-Hughes 1992, 1995; Schwambach 2011; Twine 1998; Vargas 2006, 2012; Zaluar 1999
  7. The role of the Olympic bid as mode of jockeying for geopolitical status of Rio as a city, and Brazil as a nation, are apparent in a leaked memo from Lisa Kubiske,Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States Mission in Brazil. Rio’s status is here produced not only by concrete economic forces, but also through the production of its reputation and perceptions of ‘primacy’ (Mackay 2010). Citing then president Lula’s remark that Brazil has ended its ‘street dog complex’, newly assured of its status as an important country, the memo remarks on the importance of IOC recognition of a city and a nation for perceptions of its ability to ‘deal with the global financial crisis’ and to compete with North American, European, and Asian cities who lost the Olympic bidding process, itself a long and cost-intensive process for the competing nations.
  8. As I later illustrate, the APO is made up of a group of businessmen and politicians, appointed by the IOC to oversee the entirety of the Olympic process. This includes the distribution of national and municipal funds, marketing of the events, and coordination with state-controlled military police securitization.
  9. The consistent use of female images as the font of Brazilian eroticism portrays part of a broader culture of patriarchy machismo, in which the interests and sexual preferences of heterosexual males are seen to take political precedence.
  10. A woman working as a live-in maid at my hosts’ house in São Paulo explained her carioca origins as the source of her distinct mannerisms, appearance, and accent, as compared to paulistanos. A degree of related civic chauvinism was apparent on the part of my middle-class hosts. Once when I had difficulty understanding the maid, mainly due to my poor Portuguese, their daughter interjected, “She’s carioca;, of course no one can understand!” This comment in fact probably had much more to do with class, and this woman’s origin in Rio’s favelas, than it did the intelligibility of carioca accents in general, as much of the national news and media is based in Rio and bears its vernacular and accent.
  11. Related videos feature children of varying ethnic backgrounds and gender, iconizing Brazilian nationalist discourse of ‘racial democracy’.
  12. Mazzarella (2003) suggests that the rise of global communications technology in the twentieth century has been key to the production of novel forms of branded commodities, designed to iconize specific places of origin within a universal circulation of goods and images. The effect of Olympic events as branded entities has also been coincident with the rise of ‘Olympic TV’ as a ‘sharable global community experience’ that includes a sense of ‘simultaneous co-presence’ (Roche 2006:34).
  13. Collier (2005:35), in his analysis of post-Soviet engagements with capitalist markets in the early 1990s, points to the importance of distinguishing ‘neoliberal technical mechanisms’ from a broader political-economic project, which takes the form of structural transformations (‘marketization’) or the ‘political orientations and goals of key actors’. The post-socialist context presents a compelling comparative locus for studying the diversity of cultures of capitalism.
  14. The term morador means in Portuguese ‘resident’, or ‘dweller’. It is a term those living in favelas frequently employ to describe themselves.
  15. According to Ney dos Santos Oliveira’s studies of a favela in Niteroi, just outside of Rio de Janeiro, whereas Niterói has about 70 percent white and 30 percent black residents (“including self-denominated blacks and browns”), the favela has about 70 percent black and 30 percent white residents (Oliveira 2002; in Vargas 2006).
  16. This exclusive focus might seem to suggest that favelas are the only zones experiencing securitization, gentrification, and violent upheavals based in the conflicting motives and goals of powerful elites with those of the urban poor. However, it is not my goal to marginalize the experiences of the urban poor that do not reside in favelas. I find the term useful as a common identifier of the neighborhoods I study, and a marker for the specificity of particular localities that I wish to foreground in this thesis.
  17. The term ‘favela’ is also considered in some contexts to be a pejorative term. The the use of “morro (hill), communidade popular (popular community), or simply communidade” are common alternate terms used for the favelas by those who live within them (Perlman 2010).
  18. Perlman (2010) argues that the meaning of ‘becoming gente’ is fluid, and an indicator of urban status relations that beyond simple differences in economic earnings. It is used as a term of respect in diverse contexts (i.e. ‘gente boa’; a good person). She suggests, “Being gente is not a static state. It is a relational condition that may vary for a single person over time…It is part of the urban condition of the underclass, a way the affluent distance themselves from those less fortunate and reinforce their sense of being above the rules” (2010: 319)
  19. If organized by a group such the Landless Workers Movement (MST), as has often occurred in other cities, it may be termed an ocupação or invasão - occupation or invasion.
  20. Mega-events in the neo-liberal era have entailed urban displacements of astonishing scale. A report by the center on housing rights and evictions ( claims that prior to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, 720,000 urban poor were forcibly relocated in connection with the events; they place the number of peripheral residents in Beijing displaced in connection with the 2008 Olympics at around 1.25 million.
  21. While photos from these investigative journalists’ reports are strategically framed to tell a certain story, I include them here as (situated) tokens of the material conditions of evictions and demolition.
  22. The film portrays her life after the forced removal, where she is shown as taking on extra work (including 18 hour days) in order to make up for the loss of the home. The precise nature of the city’s compensation of her home is not treated – we as the viewers are left to surmise that whatever the promises made, they have not prevented her from having to undergo hardship including the loss of their family’s downstairs carpentry business. She and her husband, after living with family for three months, have since built a new home together in Fontela, in a different area of the city.
  23. Friedman’s innovations were first tested under the rule of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, leading to sweeping free market reforms that had devastating economic effects on millions of Chilean poor (Klein 2007:7), alongside the despotic use of state violence.
  24. Harvey (2001:285) emphasizes the necessity of getting beyond the use of space as merely a ‘metaphor’ employed to describe the ‘new cosmopolitanism’ of a globalized world, critiquing Shapiro (1998) as guilty of a kind of banal reduction of the importance of actively produced geographies.
  25. This marked the beginning of a long streak of violence that included the bombing of a shopping center as well as the 2009 downing of a police helicopter.
  26. In recent weeks, the privatization of the Maracaña has been placed under increased doubt under public pressure and allegations of corrupt bidding processes. Its fate is currently uncertain (May 2013).
  27. A classic challenge to the universality of formal economics occurred in the post WWII formalist-substantivist debate. This debate pitted classical economic theory against Polanyi’s conception of markets as ‘embedded’ within locally specific social forms (see Graeber 2001).
  28. These discourses were also in play in the 2007 Pan-American games, and occurred in many ways in contradiction to empirical evidence of event practices. Gaffney(2006: 24) writes, “Ironically, the majority of the facilities built for the Pan 2007 were constructed on wetlands in Barra de Tijuca. The majority of the housing and sporting infrastructures were built on concrete pylons that had to be sunk 45 meters into the subsoil. Additionally, the highway and subway projects envisioned for the Olympics will pass through existing neighborhoods and under park space, lessening water quality and disturbing natural habitat. The majority of Rio’s Olympic installations will be built on the wetlands of Barra de Tijuca.”
  29. Vargas (2006:70) also points to the potential fruitfulness of transnational, diasporic alliances formed through social media, in this case with former U.S. Black Panther militants in which contact “has had a transcendental quality that has generated optimism and confirmed the Afro-Brazilians’ will to endure the struggle” (2006:70).

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On November 20th, 2018, a federal judge in Michigan ruled that the Female Genital Mutilation Act 1996, which federally prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM/C) in the United States, was unconstitutional within the context of a case that has presented... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02
The issue of “comfort women,” sex slaves utilized by the Japanese army during World War II, is treated in this paper as a collective memory in the consciousness of South Koreans. Differing narratives of this historical event, and the... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 12
The study of DNA and genetics has always been a large mystery to many scientists. The current Ancient DNA (aDNA) research on human history is more complex than what can be inferred from modern DNA research. Scientists and researchers are constantly... Read Article »

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