Renzo Taddei

Doctoral Dissertation

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Dissertation Précis

OF CLOUDS AND STREAMS, PROPHETS AND PROFITS:
THE POLITICAL SEMIOTICS OF CLIMATE AND WATER IN THE BRAZILIAN NORTHEAST

The reorganization of the local material order, brought about by economic development efforts in the so-called developing world, is, to a large extent, dependent on how efficient these efforts are in reorganizing the symbolic order. In this transformational process, the creation of new institutions and, with them, new institutionalized rituals, is a widely employed resource. In my dissertation, I use sociosemiotic theories to study the transformations of meanings that characterize these moments of social change. I describe, through three case analyses, the major elements of the microphysics of the meaning transformations that take place during institutionalized rituals. On the theoretical side, this research had the purpose of showing how a body of theory, that became known as metapragmatics, can be fruitfully applied to domains beyond verbal communication - in this case the analysis of the key role of institutionalized rituals as arenas in which semiotic transformations enable political change to take place.

This research focuses on how economic development efforts bring with them new ways of conceptualizing and making use of the environment. This is particularly relevant in areas in which the climate is seen as a main constraint for development, as in semi-arid regions. The case study addresses the ways in which different social actors in Northeast Brazil make use of distinct narratives on climate, science, politics and religion in their participation in local political processes. The analyses focus on three institutionalized rituals of relatively recent creation - one involving local rain prophets, another being the annual meeting of meteorologists and finally a local participatory water allocation meeting -, all seeking to influence how sectors of the local population understand and relate to environmental phenomena.

The Rain Prophets Meetings take place annually in the hinterland of the state of Ceará, just before the arrival of the rainy season and is organized by local business people rather than by the so-called rain prophets themselves. The circumstances in which the meeting occurs and the role of the media in its broadcasting to outside the walls in which it takes place radically decontextualize the ways in which such traditional forecasts exist in society and places those local narratives, as performed by rain prophets, in the fetters of a reified recontextualization that portrays them as stereotyped chunks of folklore. This produces a collective representation of the rain prophets as individuals identified with the past, imagined by the urban population as guardians of a folklore-bound understanding of the cultural heritage of the nation, seen sometimes as cultural heroes, sometimes as victims of their own backwardness. Rural individuals are represented in developmentist political cosmologies as devoid of authority for making decisions that affect their everyday lives, inserted, as they are, in an environment undergoing fast-paced modernization. This "folklorization" results in the depoliticization of the rural segments of society.

The second case of analysis focuses on the activities of meteorologists, who have to work under a heavy load of social pressure and anxiety coming from many sides, including from political leaders with power to manipulate the outcomes of the scientific meteorological activity. The case study analyzes the strategies formulated by a group of meteorologists to circumvent such pressures and avoid the political manipulation of the products of their activities. This group created ways of limiting the number of scientific rain forecasts in society (through the creation of a collaborative network of meteorological institutions), and attracted international research institutions to participate in the production of the forecast. By so doing, they gave the forecast the symbolic dimension of being "larger than Ceará," which therefore functioned as a strategy against local political manipulations. But for this metapragmatic move to work, a set of ideological configurations, enacted through local narratives, was set in motion: first, the representation of the forecast as a scientific product, associated with the representation of science as politically neutral; that was reinforced by the participation of national and international agencies, seen as disconnected from local political processes and institutions and therefore politically disinterested; and third, there is a link of metonymic associations: the stereotypical image of the "Developed World" as being marked by technological sophistication is projected towards the American and British meteorological institutions that participate in the meetings. These associations are used in the construction of the legitimacy of the forecast produced by the joint work of institutions.

An interesting detail of the issue of the rain forecasts is the existence of an enormous number of jokes ridiculing meteorologists in the rural areas of the Brazilian Northeast. It is of interest to note the way in which rural popular culture tends to depict technicians in general, among which we find meteorologists. There seems to be what we called the discourse of indexical authority, which sustained that "you need to be rural to understand rural things." It also acts as a metapragmatic move towards defining the grounds upon which authority is constructed around the semiotic politics of climate, and its implications for local economy and society. It is almost the exact opposite process from what happens in the Rain Prophets Meetings: if there the performances of rural knowledgeable individuals are transformed into folklore, here we see the rural world semiotically transforming the perceived social identity of technicians, representing them as fools. Rural hinterlanders seem to make strategic use of this discourse in a field in which the government is dependent upon their collaboration, at moments putting the government in a politically vulnerable situation.

The third case is the analysis of water allocation rituals. Here we discuss how the imposition of a technical framework upon the participatory allocation commissions concerning how water should be understood and dealt with culminated in the granting of authority to commission members according to their ability to handle such technical concepts, and in a short time technicians linked to municipal governments assumed leadership during water management negotiations and decisions. Some less privileged water user groups remained relatively alienated from the commission processes. The official rhetoric, on the other hand, presents the meetings as democratic egalitarian spaces for negotiation. Here is where we see the metapragmatic organization of the water allocation meeting providing political efficacy to the process. This metapragmatic organization is based on a set of discourses with clear ideological implications. Among these discourses we find the argument in favor of the necessity of the use of disciplinary technologies in the control of water use, in order to rationalize it, due to ecological and economic reasons; the liberal approach to agriculture that asserts that previous irrigation projects created as social programs to attend poor landless families have to achieve economic self-sustainability, through the initiative and organization of the producers themselves, or should be discontinued; and that water, in having an intrinsic economic value, should be used as an economic asset, which means, in the government's agenda, prioritizing high added value activities like industries and fruit and shrimp production for export, which increase the government tax revenue. One of the outcomes of such an ideological activity is a resulting conceptualization that traditional local agricultural activities, such as flooded rice agriculture, is backward and economically irresponsible, and holds a great deal of responsibility for periodic water crises of the region, due to the sector's high consumption of water. It also increases the perceived authority of representatives of the large agribusiness corporations in the water allocation meetings, due to the fact that their more sophisticated infrastructure enables a more controlled use of water.

The core of the question lies in the way implicit and explicit metapragmatic features of the process interact. The implicit metapragmatic organization of the event is what we described above, that is, the forms through which the technical paradigm, imposed as the legitimate form for understanding and acting in water management, functioned as distinction mechanisms in which parts of the commission - those with less formal education - were alienated from power, while local technicians took control of activities. The explicit metapragmatic organization of the event, on the other hand, is seen in the constant verbal references, in the beginning and end of each water allocation meeting, to the democratic quality of the process, represented as an arena in which all participants had equal decision power. This configuration of power ends up affecting the distribution of interactional dominance during negotiations in benefit of those groups with more formal education.

In summary, an important element of the analyses here presented lies in how historical narratives on climate, coupled with political and economic genres, structures and processes that developed through time, are strategically used as framing devices in discussions and decision-making processes related to the environment. We conclude by arguing that being able to produce some degree of semiotic regimentation seems to be a requirement for efficient action in any political field.