Fall 2014 – Wolfe Abstract

Modernity in Motion: Brazil’s Struggle to Make the Nation
Joel Wolfe
Professor of History

University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Modernity as a state of being depends upon motion – often constant motion. When Brazilian elites ended the Empire (1822-1889) and declared the Republic (1889), they focused on gaining physical and economic control over their massive national territory, and transforming their populations of color that they believed were retarding progress. They turned to science and technology for the means to “fix” those problems without creating social, economic, or political conflicts. These elites believed they could promote nation building by connecting the Brazil’s distant regions through the new transportation technologies. In doing so, they embraced a formal, almost linear sense of modernity that ignored the contingent and messy nature of their project. As that modernist project began to alter Brazil’s social and economic geography in the 1960s, many elites became fearful of the changes they had promoted, and so they supported the 1964 military coup. New social actors brought to prominence by that modernist project helped initiate in the 1970s and 80s a popular push for the creation of an authentic democracy. In doing so, these popular class actors helped to create an integrated nation and vibrant democracy. In other words, they fulfilled the promise of that initial modernist project, but in ways its original elite proponents never could have imagined.

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