From negation to negationism: the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil

Author: Paulo Beer1
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  • 1 University of São Paulo, , Brazil
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Even beyond the dramatic social and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, one can affirm that the manner in which the pandemic was and is being handled in Brazil involves more than mere questions of public health. This article focuses on the negationist discourse that emerged in Brazil, and proposes that its roots are to be found in a previous process of dismantling established knowledge and identifications. This process is observed in the government’s handling of the pandemic. To support this idea, we refer to two main clinical and theoretical frameworks, the first of which involves a psychoanalytic understanding of the place of truth in discursivity and in identification processes; this will be employed to shed light on a particular functioning of negationist discourses. Second, the idea of historical ontology is introduced from the philosophy of science to gain a further understanding of the effects of this process on identification.

Abstract

Even beyond the dramatic social and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, one can affirm that the manner in which the pandemic was and is being handled in Brazil involves more than mere questions of public health. This article focuses on the negationist discourse that emerged in Brazil, and proposes that its roots are to be found in a previous process of dismantling established knowledge and identifications. This process is observed in the government’s handling of the pandemic. To support this idea, we refer to two main clinical and theoretical frameworks, the first of which involves a psychoanalytic understanding of the place of truth in discursivity and in identification processes; this will be employed to shed light on a particular functioning of negationist discourses. Second, the idea of historical ontology is introduced from the philosophy of science to gain a further understanding of the effects of this process on identification.

Brazil’s incompetence in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic quickly became international knowledge (Ferigato et al, 2020; Lowy Institute, 2021). General data show that, despite having several weeks to prepare itself for the upcoming pandemic and having been offered vaccination solutions early on, the country eventually accrued more than 550,000 deaths by 26 July 2021, this meaning more than 2,500 deaths per million inhabitants (Worldmeters, 2021). These numbers are alarming. Despite being a country of continental dimensions, with a population of more than 200 million people, Brazil’s ‘Unified Health System’ [Sistema Único de Saúde] normally offers rather efficient public health care: ‘Based on the 2013 National Health Survey, among those who sought health care, about 95% received care the first time they sought it’ (Castro et al, 2019: 5). Considering the system’s strong primary care services and accumulated know-how regarding preventive medicine, a very different scenario could have been expected.1

Moreover, and despite several funding cuts, the country has a good record with immunisation programmes (Consensus, 2017), having the capacity of vaccinating more than 60 million people per month (Passarinho, 2021). This could have led to a highly efficient vaccination programme, had it pursued a different political path in relation to the acquisition of vaccines. One might consider how Brazil’s numbers compare to other countries, but unfortunately, Brazil’s accounting is likely to be worse than it may appear. It suffers both from a very low testing rate and from high under-reporting, with around 250 tests for every 1,000 people. The respective rate is more than ten times higher in, for example, the UK, with 3,500 tests for every 1,000 people (Worldmeters, 2021). Debating these numbers, however, would deviate from the main goal of this article.

One might remember several notorious assertions and actions vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic of the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. These go directly to the main aim of this article, which is to attempt to illustrate a possible psychoanalytic understanding of libidinal processes related to negationist discourses. Focusing on negationism is important in order to better understand what happened and is still happening regarding the pandemic in Brazil as it has led to great harm-inducing health measures. It should be noted, however, that negationist discourse is employed in Brazil as a political tool, in an express process that preceded the pandemic.

Negationist discourse in Brazil, writ large as regards the COVID-19 pandemic, has ineluctably impacted people’s behaviour in a dangerous manner; Bolsonaro’s role in that is undeniable (Ajzenman et al, 2020). His irresponsible claims, such as calling COVID-19 a ‘little flu’ and promoting an anti-mask stance (Walsh et al, 2020), have negatively impacted social isolation measures and undermined instructions for self-care (Ajzenman et al, 2020). Furthermore, his dissemination of scientifically unproven and discredited medications for COVID-19 treatment – such as hydroxychloroquine – have exacerbated the pandemic in Brazil. Finally, there is evidence that President Bolsonaro has even tried to sabotage the vaccination programme (Gaspar, 2021), both by disseminating his anti-vax views and by hindering vaccine-acquisition negotiations.

The President’s trivialisation of the pandemic and of death should also be underlined here. In March 2020, he diminished COVID-19’s potential for causing real harm by saying ‘Brazilians jump into the sewage and nothing happens’ (Gomes, 2020). This was followed by a harsher statement: when asked about the high number of Brazilian COVID-19 deaths, in April 2020, Bolsonaro replied, ‘So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do? I’m the Messiah, but I don’t perform miracles’ (Garcia et al, 2020). By trivialising the possible death of others, Bolsonaro reinforces his image of the one who speaks the ‘hard truth’.

This is a rather succinct presentation of the Brazilian ‘messianic’ President’s position towards the COVID-19 pandemic (his complete name is indeed Jair Messias [Messiah] Bolsonaro). Nevertheless, it does prompt some possible theoretical articulations aimed at discerning how it is possible to maintain such an irresponsible approach. In this context, there are two categories within the President’s affirmations that are deeply related to negationism: (a) denying accepted narratives, which includes diminishing the gravity of the crisis (disrespecting social isolation policies, disregarding scientific findings about treatment and vaccination and so on); and (b) offering new narratives that reinforce his ‘sincere’ and ‘truthful’ position, even though they deal with death as something trivial.

Before addressing these categories, we might first address the aforementioned messianic character of Bolsonaro. No small or passing detail, messianism is widely deployed throughout Bolsonaro’s discourse; it is a very important key to understanding how ‘truthfulness’ might be presented by what seems to be a bunch of lies. Nor should negationism be seen exclusively as a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil in particular; negationism operates in several different places around the world, especially where authoritarian governments gain strength. There seems to be a general functioning that begins with a generalised negation, followed by a reinforcement of the image of the one who speaks what others would not. This negationist ‘structure’ was present in Bolsonaro’s election campaign, with similar characteristics to those seen in the Brexit campaign in the UK and throughout Trump’s campaign and government in the US.

In all these places, a functioning based on ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ requires several factors to be ongoing, including certain new technological features that allow for a widespread and ‘personalised’ diffusion of information through social networks via networking tools (such as Facebook and WhatsApp). It is no accident that Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica were highly involved in all three events: Brexit, Trump and Bolsonaro. That might be explained by their expertise in using digital tools to undermine accepted narratives and establish alternative ones. The expanding range of so-called ‘algorithm tools’ is also central to events like these, since they can alter the equilibrium between power and information (da Silva Junior, 2019; Vilalta, 2020).

However, technological advances alone cannot explain how people come to believe narratives that remain sustained even when they are confronted with clearly contradictory information presented by traditional and socially valued institutions. It is also necessary to understand how patterns of truthfulness may be changed in such a radical fashion. Psychoanalysis might well offer some theoretical tools in that regard.

Truth, knowledge and negation

The matter of truth has been a central issue in psychoanalytic thinking since its inception, and the object of several different approaches (Beer, 2020). I shall focus here on a Lacanian reading of the matter, since that provides powerful possibilities for elaboration. In general terms, a Lacanian reading refers to the dialectical relationship between knowledge and truth, as widely developed by Jacques Lacan throughout his work.

A main feature in Lacan’s work is that both terms, knowledge and truth, are to be understood in a dialectical manner, as if on different sides of a moebius strip (Lacan, [1966] 2006). One of truth’s most crucial features is its disruptive relationship with knowledge, operating as a sign of questioning or of negation, which emerges from the unconscious. This is a theoretical but also clinical proposition formulated by Lacan in his ‘return to Freud’.

Departing from a specific discussion in Freud’s (1937) ‘Constructions in analysis’, Lacan substantiates his own reference to Hegelian dialectics by proposing that any knowledge about desire (in the sense of knowing the adequate object to desire) is inherently false in some way; this approach places the act of negation at the centre of psychoanalytic clinical work.

That development initially responded to a specific issue about the concept of ‘resistance’ (Lacan, [1953–54] 1991). Later, it gains a more general role within Lacan’s theoretical framework. One should remember that the aforementioned Freudian text begins with Freud’s comment about common critiques about the concept of resistance. This led Freud to reflect on moments when the analysand negates a construction proposed by the analyst. Lacan seems to pay special attention to the final part of the text, where Freud elaborates two different outcomes: on the one hand, the analysand might recognise that a given construction is wrong, still nevertheless producing therapeutic effects; on the other hand, there are moments when an analysand might agree with a given construction, but still holds on to some sort of negation, connected to the feeling that something is missing. These two moments are privileged by Lacan since they present crucial points of his theoretical route: the relative unimportance of a construction being correct, as well as its necessary incompleteness.

This is affirmed by Lacan in his commentary on Ernst Kris’s case about an analysand with plagiarist fantasies (Lacan, [1953–54] 1991; [1958] 2006). The analysand affirms that, at a given moment, what he was wishing to write had already been published. The analyst reads the article in question and confronts the patient by affirming that the patient’s fantasy was unfounded, since the ideas in the article clearly were different; he then makes an interpretation aimed at the patient’s resistance, emphasising the link with his father’s and grandfather’s history. In the next session, the patient tells the analyst that, right after their previous session, he went to a restaurant to eat ‘fresh brains’ (referring to a traditional dish made of monkey brains). Kris takes this as a sign of his construction’s accuracy, since it would show a successful sublimation process in which the fantasy of ‘stealing others’ ideas’ would have been transformed into something socially accepted: ‘eating (monkey) brains’.

Lacan does not agree. He affirms that the analysand’s response to the analyst’s construction was an acting-out (Lacan, [1953–54] 1991; [1958] 2006), produced by the fact that something could not be heard. The French psychoanalyst is also clear in affirming that he is not challenging the accuracy of Kris’s construction, which could well be correct apropos the analysand’s history. However, Lacan contends that the analyst offered his own knowledge in the very place where something related to truth could otherwise emerge. In this key moment, which was filled with anguish and close to truth, Lacan asserts that Kris’s knowledge impeded the flourishing of the analysand’s unconscious revelation. Knowledge, the analyst’s knowledge, filled the gap, silenced the analysand and led to the acting-out, (when something related to truth could have finally emerged).

This Lacanian reasoning implies that ‘truth’ does not relate to the accuracy of a construction – what, in Freudian terms, could be defined as the ‘historical truth’ – but that it should be taken as what emerges beyond any stabilised knowledge. Thus, in effect, Lacan proposes that any construction is both inevitably incomplete and, at the same time, independent from the point of view of its historical correctness, which remains unimportant. Truth is therefore linked to a destabilisation effect rather than to any claims of adequation or correspondence.

According to Lacan, Kris’s main error was in not twisting the symptom from ‘willing to steal ideas’ to a resembling, but still very different, form such as ‘the impossibility of having his own ideas’. The latter could more properly contain the negativity of desire, which should be the permanent horizon of any interpretation. Since there is no adequate object to be desired, interpretation should not offer explanations (knowledge), thus avoiding the illusion that it would be feasible to know a satisfactory object of desire. On the contrary, it should ‘carry’ that impossibility and thus present a ‘negative’ appeal, which would lead to the truth of desire; that desire is marked by an everlasting dissatisfaction, linked to an infinite mismatch.

Even apart from Lacan’s remarks about resistance, this reasoning is a good example of how he generally presents a dynamic relationship between truth and knowledge. In his text ‘The Freudian thing’, Lacan ([1955] 2006) defines truth as what emerges from the unconscious. This is deeply linked to the negation of established knowledge and it follows in continuity to what Freud (1937) began in ‘Constructions in analysis’. There is, moreover, a temporal dimension in this process that must be accounted for: namely, something that initially emerged as truth will, in the very next moment, obtain its form as knowledge. In that sense, truth is mostly an effect, a flash of light – as Alain Badiou puts it, something that ‘has its origin in a disappearance’ (Badiou, 2005: 122). After truth has been established as knowledge, a new form of truth might then irrupt. This dialectical functioning links truth to incompleteness, which indeed Lacan distinctly highlights apropos Freud’s Constructions. These ideas are developed further in Lacanian psychoanalysis, resulting in more extreme forms, such as the association between truth and the ‘impossible’ or the ‘real’ (Lacan, [1973] 2003).

Such a process should not, however, be considered within exclusively cognitive or representational parameters. On the contrary – and consistent with the Freudian idea that thinking and representing respond to affect and libidinal life (Freud, 1908b; 1925) – one must pay attention to what is mobilised in terms of drive and libido when this dialectical spiral turns knowledge and truth around.

This libidinal dimension may be found in several points in Lacan’s work. For example, he often points out that truth is accompanied by anguish. This is commonly found in clinical experience, where the emergence of the unconscious somehow dismantles stabilised ideas and also produces psychic disorganisation. From this symptomatic functioning, Lacan resumes the Freudian idea that the symptom carries truth, leading in turn to the assertion that ‘truth as cause’ is the cause of neurotic suffering (Lacan, [1966] 2006). The latter also indicates that knowledge might be understood as a form of defence. Lacan’s idea is that of a see-saw effect between alienation and separation (Lacan, [1964] 2008), whereby knowledge would refer to the former and truth and anguish to the latter. We are now able to take one more step towards understanding the libidinal functioning of negationist discourses: that of discerning how such a truth/knowledge operation via affects has identificatory effects.

Truth and identification

Lacan, in his first published ‘seminar’, starts with the matter of resistance and negation, and then elaborates a fierce critique of the idea that an analysis would end with the analysand identifying with the analyst (Lacan, [1953–54] 1991). This underlines his preceding ideas on knowledge and truth as a dialectical process that might be understood as something linked to identification processes.

Put succinctly, truth can dismantle previously established identifications, leaving the subject in an undefined situation. This results in anguish (which is considered here a by-product of losing an identificatory tie), and it also leads to the idea that establishing a new identification could bring some comfort. According to Lacan, such might be an alienating comfort, but still comfort. That comfort would nevertheless have a price: that of silencing truth, silencing anything that could disrupt and perturb that comfort.

Such an anguish and a demand to be comforted are more intense in the very next moment following a truth emergence. Indeed, this may well be the logical moment when the subject, having been signalled of his/her identifications or knowledge about him/herself, has not yet had time to establish new identificatory ties. In this crucial and delicate moment, the very cause responsible for the previous dismantlement of identification can be taken as an identificatory model. New identifications can thereby be produced, clinging to traces of what has emerged as truth, or to those who participated in the production of this emergence, including the analyst. In this moment, the analyst might sustain the void, as Lacan puts it, or, again, might offer her/himself as an identificatory object, thus interrupting the separation process.

In the latter scenario, two interesting points arise: the analyst might become an identificatory model, and is especially likely to become so when truth emergence results from an interpretation – this is understood as the function envisaged by the analyst (Lacan, [1945] 2006). Here, however, the analyst would become a difficult identificatory object, since he/she offers the analysand seemingly very limited identificatory material. Herein lies the core of the Lacanian critique of valuing the identification with the analyst as a good thing (Lacan, [1953–54] 1991). Identifying with the image of someone strong and capable of dealing with his own issues (for example, Kohut, 1979) might be a means of reproducing ideological modes of life; in the aforementioned ‘seminar’, Lacan actually refers to ‘the American way of life’. On the other hand, what would be more consistent with psychoanalytic theory (according to Lacan) would be to carry this identificatory process forward as a form of identification with the supposition of knowledge, which in turn would be the basis of transference (Lacan, 1967–68).

We do not intend to enter into a clinical discussion about which response is better. How anguish might be managed should be considered within each particular case. What interests us here nonetheless is the process itself – whereby one might wonder if something similar also happens outside the clinic, on a social level.

What we are proposing is that a negation or disruption as delineated above might produce a dismantlement of identifications. We further propose that such a moment of dismantlement might be understood as a moment of truth; the moment when an established knowledge has its flaws exposed, leaving the subject in a position of helplessness. From that point on, new identifications may be more easily implemented. One might relate the first moment, that of the dismantlement of identifications, to the first category presented in the beginning of this article (denying established narratives), and the implementation of new identifications to the second (offering new narratives).

One might also adduce Freud’s elaborations about identification as a de-eroticisation process, as presented in ‘The ego and the id’ (Freud, 1923). In that sense, identification would be the result of a libidinal disinvestment after an object is somehow lost or interdicted. As in any process of sublimation, it causes suffering. Freud argued as much in his ‘“Civilized” sexual morality and modern nervous illness’ (1908a), which was resumed 15 years later, in his dual drive theory (Freud, 1923), affirming that framing an interdicted object of desire as an identificatory model is a way of not losing the object. This, of course, comes at a price.

To the extent that death and erotic drives are usually fused – that is, bound together – Freud affirms that sublimatory processes perform change: death and erotic drives become temporally separated, in what he calls drive de-fusion. When the object is, perhaps, de-eroticised and relocated to an ‘acceptable’ form (as an identificatory object and not as an object of desire), drives are re-fused, but with a difference: a quantum of erotic drive thereupon becomes death drive, which might be internalised or addressed externally. In other words, the kind of process referred to by Freud as de-sexualisation implies a side-effect, which is the transformation of a given amount of libido into aggressivity. That aggressiveness might be directed back to the subject itself or towards others. In both cases, there is an increase of death drive, be it in the form of moral masochism and guilt or aggressiveness.

Identification must therefore be seen as a complex process, which includes the interdiction of an object of desire and a reorganisation of libidinal investment. By following on with what Freud had presented earlier on, in his famous Chapter 7 from ‘Group psychology and the analysis of the ego’ (Freud, 1921), one may surmise that identifying with a leader (which also includes ‘lateral’ identifications produced by binding with pairs) also implicates anguish and suffering caused by the interdiction of an object of desire, producing the drive reorganisation referred to above.

How might this be linked to fake news and to authoritarian discourses? Here, identification should be linked to the above-mentioned dialectical movement between knowledge and truth. This may be inferred from an early Freudian (1908b) text, ‘On the sexual theories of children’, where linking castration, knowledge and identification is shown as possible. A child starts to theorise about sexuality when confronted with a limitation of the attention received from her/his carers (for example, when a sibling arrives, or this happens with a friend). As Freud shows, those primordial thoughts provoke a libidinal reorganisation, whereby that child might occupy a new position and deal with desire-objects from her/his new ‘interdicted’ situation. One may see thus that intellectual activity is deeply embedded with affectivity, as developed in ‘Negation’ (Freud, 1925).

In that sense, the matter of identifying with the analyst is useful, since it relates to the working through of infantile theories and their identificatory effects. This so-called ‘secondary’ identificatory process refers to the fact that the analyst is somehow responsible, or, at least, co-responsible, for producing truth disruptions affecting ‘primordial’ theories. Such truth disruptions might cause the dismantlement of established constructions and identifications about the analysand her/himself which were, until then, believed in by him/her. This, directly or indirectly, may produce anguish and helplessness. This process operates directly when identifications are frontally confronted, and indirectly when they are weakened or overcome by confrontations with theories that are inseparable from patterns of identificatory organisation. However, in both cases, the libidinal process is at stake.

One way of dealing with the anguish produced in this process is by establishing new identifications or creating new narratives that include identificatory possibilities (for example, bonding with a new group, recovering ancestors’ histories and so on). To perform an identification with the analyst might be a useful option at this point, seeing that this ‘truth effect’ implies dismantling ‘erroneous’ previous identifications. The analyst might accept this identificatory demand, or not. In either case, one might agree that being placed within the process whereby truth negates an established knowledge is a privileged position apropos the possible responses to dealing with the anguish that was generated by the process. In fact, either way of responding to an individual in an anguished and probably vulnerable position might produce different outcomes, including stronger (or more impermeable) ties to the newly established identification. From here, one may discern a link between the two categories proposed at the beginning of this article.

From negation to negationism

Two crucial points must now be reconsidered regarding our main discussion: first, one must acknowledge that there is a link between truth and the negation of established knowledge; and second, that negation simultaneously produces a compelling ‘truth effect’ along with the anguish caused by the dismantling of previous identifications. One may thus posit an inseparability between identifications and knowledge, meaning, in turn, that the negation of ideas may produce an identificatory crisis, as well as establish new identities that may mediate how one deals with theories and ideas.

The link between identification and knowledge is readily found in authors distant to psychoanalytic thinking, such as Ian Hacking. Hacking shows how scientific knowledge produces retroactive effects and modifies the possibilities of experience in the group of people affected by that discourse (Hacking, 1995). This is initially shown in his work about multiple personality disorder, a disorder almost exclusive to the population of the United States (Hacking, 1995). According to Hacking, produced knowledge with wide social circulation (regardless of its accuracy) changes how people actually experience their own existence; and this can create new transient disorders such as multiple personality disorder or hysterical fugue (Hacking, 1998). Those transient disorders display points of identification between symptoms and knowledge. Hacking always recognises the media’s and entertainment industry’s role in that, and he shows how newspapers, books and movies are crucial elements in that process. Finally, he presents an ‘historical ontology’ (Hacking, 2002), affirming that there is always a cultural and historical dimension to ontological experiences, which interact with established discourses and institutions. In that sense, existence would be experienced from within the constructs of the available cultural elements, to which individuals might establish identificatory bonds in several different ways.2

From this author’s theorisation regarding what he defines as ‘dynamic nominalism’, there is one particular aspect that is crucial for the purposes of this article: the interaction between two different levels of discursivity. In Rewriting the Soul, Hacking (1995) affirms that it is necessary to consider the existence of two types of knowledge: ‘surface knowledge’ and ‘depth knowledge’. For example, the existence of a theory about personality based on memory functioning (surface knowledge) implicitly assumes that there are knowable facts about memory (depth knowledge). That thinking arises from the 19th century, when scientific reasoning started to assert itself in areas hitherto occupied by religion, such as the soul. Hacking further proposes a modification in the way in which individuals understand and experience their own existence, in so far as the matters of the soul could be scientifically understood. Moreover, this depth knowledge reaffirms another, also depth knowledge: the idea that there is a particular and perhaps more reliable way of knowing things (that is, through science). Knowledge thus changes, in both a superficial way and in a deep way, how individuals live, see and experience themselves. They might imagine themselves as scientifically knowable objects, thereby also identifying with specific, circulating ideas. The inversion of this ideation can lead to an interesting way of approaching negationism, where it consists in the denial of knowledge.

While dealing with contemporary authoritarian discourses based on fake news and alternative facts, the above-described processes can, in fact, be crucial in order to account for the fundamental role that negation has had with them. This may be illustrated in phenomena like promoting Brexit, or by Trump’s or Bolsonaro’s discourses: before even proposing a new narrative, there is typically a radical negation of a given fact. Negation is thus deployed in a very sophisticated manner, not by producing an open debate to compare ideas, but by deliberately mobilising the weaknesses of established narratives in targeted groups.

This procedure of negation writ large relies on technological tools that enable the diagnosis of what might be a weak point in each targeted group and therefore offering them personalised (dis)information (da Silva Junior, 2019). On the other hand, the assumption that any discourse has a weak point that might be explored and exploited is sustained by the notion that truth emerges as something opposed to established knowledge. Technology helps to instrumentalise the manipulation of the incompleteness, as alluded to by Freud and taken as central by Lacan.

Various examples of negations like this focus on a specific point in order to delegitimise narratives as a whole, departing from a surface knowledge and arriving at one of depth. The passage from the particular to the general is also central, since that empowers the negation of the identificatory model belonging to the idea that was previously denied. This is clear in a famous discourse by Donald Trump, which caused several comparisons with George Orwell’s (1949) novel 1984. Trump starts talking about a very specific issue regarding the taxation of automotive imports; this then passes seamlessly to the delegitimisation of trust in the media in general (Gajanan, 2018). In the recording, he says, verbatim: ‘What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.’

This sentence has a double role: it can be understood as both a generalised critique aimed at the media and as a statement of the inherent incompleteness of knowledge, inserting an underlying, destabilising warning about believing any narrative, since narratives would always be false. Perhaps Trump had read, in Lacan’s work, about truth being structured like a fantasy (Lacan, [1953] 2007) and hence started assuming that he does not lie, but rather creates reality (Scherer, 2017). Joking apart, there are crucial differences between a ‘truth effect’ in the psychoanalytic sense and ‘truth as veracity’ as usually employed in scientific or journalistic procedures. Nevertheless, the former influences the latter: that is, truth as adequation or correspondence, such as mobilised in the scientific method, also depends on an authoritative position that is usually linked to libidinal processes.

The main dynamic involves linking information and confidence: this is the dynamic of dismantling an established knowledge or identification (a truth effect) and subsequently being placed in the position of the one who speaks the truth. Whoever gets to be placed in that position gains an authority that is not limited to rational procedures (speaking the truth) but includes an affective dimension: that person becomes someone privileged in offering an identificatory horizon to reorganise the libidinal life of, and alleviate anguish in, the subject.

Thus, when Donald Trump performs a focused critique of a particular subject that might disclose something that is not contained in the established narrative (knowledge), he might produce a truth effect. This effect is recaptured by his next move, which aims at dismantling not only the particular narrative, but also the legitimacy of anyone who might have affirmed it (the media). This is then reinforced by an allusion to the fact that nothing can be trusted – resounding a truthful yet anguishing ‘fact’, that truth cannot be fully spoken.

At this point, one typically arrives at a performative contradiction where the one who is denouncing falseness and warning about the fragility of any truthful enunciation is simultaneously assimilated as a bearer of the truth. That person is the one who can be trusted because he/she is the one who reveals everyone’s lies. To recognise this contradiction on an intellectual level does not prevent it from being assimilated as an identificatory model that preserves the person’s character as a bearer of the truth, including accepting anything that person says. This a fortiori if that individual continues to produce truth effects through negations and by delegitimising institutions. This is how negation may become negationism.

COVID-19 and negationism in brazil

At this point, one can re-approach Bolsonaro’s character construction as messianic, which is deeply linked to the idea of truth revelation. This is a central claim of his, and it is no coincidence that one of his main mottos is a famous quote from John in the Bible (8: 32): ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.’ His supporters who call and consider him ‘a myth’ (mito, in Portuguese) often refer to that aspect, actually using the word as a verb (mitou [mythed]) when he ‘reveals’ an ‘uncomfortable truth’. Needless to say, those uncomfortable truths usually consist in a denial of accepted narratives rather than the affirmation of any concrete or theoretical propositions. This position is widely consistent with regard to such new far-right gurus as Olavo de Carvalho and Steve Bannon, whose ‘traditionalism’ is much more focused on destroying than constructing (Teitelbaum, 2020).

There was a specific live interview with nine journalists that Bolsonaro undertook when he was still a candidate, in 2018, that exposes the functioning of this operation with great clarity. Questioned about a negationist position he holds in relation to the 1964 military coup in Brazil, which he claims did not lead to a military dictatorship, Bolsonaro reaffirms his stance by attacking the network’s credibility (Padiglione, 2018). He responded by saying that it was hypocritical even to challenge him on that point, since the network where the interview was being carried out (Rede Globo) supported the coup in 1964. From that point on, he felt free to affirm several historically false reasons that would sustain his declaration that the military regime in Brazil was not a dictatorship. The effect on all nine interviewers was one of consternation, as if they had actually lost legitimacy to affirm historical facts. The interview ended with the host journalist, Miriam Leitão, repeating a text that was being read to her through her earphone by the programme directors, where the network tried to explain its own position and protest that it did not, in fact, agree with the military dictatorship that was in power in Brazil after 1964.

The whole scene was even more disturbing since Miriam Leitão had been a victim of state violence during the dictatorship; she was violently tortured, while pregnant. Anguish and consternation were explicit by the end of the interview, and it was hard to understand what had happened. At that point, there was no doubt that Bolsonaro had won the dispute for the truth. He was successfully recognised as a truth-bearer since he denounced a ‘usually concealed’ part of Brazilian history (that Rede Globo supported the dictatorship). It must be said that this same denunciation had historically been made by left-wing movements radically opposed to Bolsonaro. After that, it was as if Bolsonaro had a licence to say anything, and no one seemed to be able to confront him. The video of the interview quickly became viral and the ‘Myth’, as Bolsonaro is known, had done it again. Employing technological tools, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, to widely (and in a personalised manner) perform this negation procedure, the ‘Brazilian Messiah’ went on to occupy his ‘rightful’ place as the one who reveals the truth, at least for a large part of the Brazilian electorate.

Even the quick chronology above points to the fact that fake news and negationism rapidly gained roots in Brazil. It illustrates how Bolsonaro became a charismatic leader based on the idea of ‘liberating truth’. And it also sheds some light on Brazil’s current situation, which includes high acceptance of treating COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine, disregarding social isolation measures and dismissing any sense of urgency in handling the pandemic. From the moment when a significant part of the population followed the President as a truth-bearer, his negationism fractured any attempt at social solidarity in facing the pandemic. Even if he eventually denies these positions and retracts himself, this does not put his essential, identificatory image at stake, since that position itself is founded in negations and not in propositions.

It is thus possible to understand how the passage from negation to negationism is linked to acts that diminish the gravity of the pandemic, disrespect social isolation policies, disregard scientific findings about treatment (first category - denying established narratives) and talk about death in a trivial and violent fashion (second category - offering new narratives). In this context, it is also helpful to recognise the existence of a Bolsonarian (but also, broadly speaking, alt-right) meta-narrative related to the alleged existence of a global movement that aims to destabilise local governments and implement ‘globalism’, an alleged international communist world order (Gragnani, 2019).

This meta-narrative was employed, as in the first category, along with other ‘disruptive’ facts, such as the claim that the numbers of deaths as a result of the pandemic were being artificially increased by political competitors who tried to make the situation look worse in order to harm Bolsonaro. The President encouraged his supporters to invade hospitals and ‘prove’ that they were empty (Uribe, 2020). When faced with the impossibility of doing so, he claimed that this was itself a confirmation of the veracity of the claim. The same negationism was performed regarding scientific findings, which were claimed to be biased in order to achieve ‘globalist goals’. Studies about the necessity of quarantine for health reasons were accused of being tools to harm the economy and weaken the President, while unproven and potentially harmful treatments (such as hydroxychloroquine) were claimed to be appropriate, but were being ignored by the mainstream media and healthcare institutions because of a lobby by the pharmaceutical industry. All of this was confirmed by a Secretary of the Health Ministry in a deposition given within the context of a Senate investigation into the handling of the pandemic in Brazil (Jucá, 2021).

The second category is linked to the sustaining of a new identificatory horizon. If the first category clearly shows a denial that is followed by ‘new and hidden facts’, the second demonstrates Bolsonaro’s character as the ‘persecuted truth-bearer’, as can be recognised in his response about the high number of deaths: ‘I’m the Messiah, but I don’t perform miracles’ (Garcia et al, 2020). The one who says ‘difficult truths’ also tries to keep people’s morale high, by affirming that Brazilians are survivors. The ensemble of these categories shows that they are not only a method of dealing with the problems resulting from the pandemic, but also mainly a way of using the pandemic to achieve political objectives.

This kind of functioning shows that it is all not just about ideas, but also about how ideas relate to identification and anguish. It is possible to create a charismatic leader through a process that generates anguish and helplessness in individuals by dismantling their crucial identificatory bases and beliefs, and then alleviating their anguish and helplessness through the offer of a new identificatory model with ‘the one who bears the truth’. What is at stake therefore is not just a debate of ideas, but also a battle for the affects related to the ideas, affects that are present in the decision to accept or refuse an idea. There is a libidinal process that must be understood when it relates to the anguish and helplessness that negating established knowledge might produce – something, indeed, that psychoanalytic clinical experience and theory have been demonstrating for decades.

In the long run, it is clear that the necessary change cannot be limited to particular authoritarian leaders, but must include the contemplation of discursivities and also institutions. We are experiencing some extreme consequences of the nurturing of ideals of absolute knowledge, or of infallible leaders (Latour, 2013). As we have seen, affirming ideals comes at a cost, both when they rise and when they fall. Hopefully we will survive and have the chance to do things differently.

Notes

1

For a rigorous discussion about the Brazilian public health system, see the special The Lancet volume dedicated to that, published in 2011. Despite already being ten years old, it still discusses main issues and strengths of the system: https://www.thelancet.com/series/health-in-brazil.

2

It is important to note that other authors have carried out similar discussions from different perspectives. Such may be found, for example, in Nikolas Rose’s (1996) Inventing Ourselves. Besides that, there are other possible articulations of psychoanalytic thinking, within different traditions: the link between modes of subjectification and historical moments is referred to in the work of Lacan ([1966] 2006), and has been developed in more depth in recent works (Dunker, 2015; Beer, 2020); it is also possible to link Hacking’s historical ontology with the notion of environment proposed by Winnicott (1971), especially in his articles ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomena’ and ‘The location of cultural experience’.

Funding

This work was supported by the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo (FAPESP) under grant numbers 2016/03096-7 and 2018/09753-5.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Jonathan Stanley for his great support in making this text better in several different ways, and Marco Guasti for his great technical revision.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Badiou, A. (2005) Theoretical Writings, London: Continuum.

  • Beer, P.A.C. (2020) A Questão da Verdade na Produção de Conhecimento Sobre Sofrimento Psíquico: Considerações A Partir de Ian Hacking e Jacques Lacan, São Paulo: Tese de Doutorado, Instituto de Psicologia, Universidade de São Paulo, doi: 10.11606/T.47.2020.tde-28052020-185500.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Castro, M., Massuda, A., Almeida, G., Menezes-Filho, A., Andrade, M., Noronha, K., Rocha, R., Macinko, J., Hone, T., Tasca, R. et al. (2019) Brazil’s unified health system: the first 30 years and prospects for the future, The Lancet, 394(10195): 34556, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)31243–7.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Consensus (2017) A queda da imunização no Brasil, https://www.conass.org.br/consensus/queda-da-imunizacao-brasil/.

  • Da Silva Junior, N. (2019) The politics of truth and its transformations in neoliberalism: the subject supposed to know in algorithmic times, Filozofski Vestnik. Ljubljana, Slovenija, 40(3): 13344, https://ojs.zrc-sazu.si/filozofski-vestnik/article/view/8125.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dunker, C. (2015) Mal-estar, sofrimento e sintoma. São Paulo: Boitempo.

  • Ferigato, S., Fernandez, M., Amorim, M., Ambrogi, I., Fernandes, L. and Pacheco, R. (2020) The Brazilian government’s mistakes in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Lancet, 396(10263): 1636, doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)32164-4.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Freud, S. (1908a) ‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality, and Modern Nervous Illness, SE 9, London: Hogarth.

  • Freud, S. (1908b) On the Sexual Theories of Children, SE 9, London: Hogarth.

  • Freud, S. (1921) Mass Psychology, and the Analysis of the Ego, SE 18, London: Hogarth.

  • Freud, S. (1923) The Ego, and the id, SE 19, London: Hogarth.

  • Freud, S. (1925) Negation, SE 19, London: Hogarth.

  • Freud, S. (1937) Constructions in Analysis, SE 23, London: Hogarth.

  • Gajanan, M. (2018) Donald Trump: ‘What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening’, Time, 24 July, https://time.com/5347737/trump-quote-george-orwell-vfw-speech.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garcia, G., Gomes, P.H. and Viana, H. (2020) E daí? Lamento: quer que eu faça o quê?’, diz Bolsonaro sobre mortes por coronavírus; ‘Sou Messias, mas não faço milagre’, G1, 28 April, https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/04/28/e-dai-lamento-quer-que-eu-faca-o-que-diz-bolsonaro-sobre-mortes-por-coronavirus-no-brasil.ghtml.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gaspar, M. (2021) O sabotador: como Bolsonaro agiu, nos bastidores e em público, para boicotar a vacina, Revista Piauí, Edição 173, February, https://piaui.folha.uol.com.br/materia/o-sabotador.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gomes, P.H. (2020) Brasileiro pula em esgoto e não acontece nada, diz Bolsonaro em alusão a infecção pelo coronavírus, G1, https://g1.globo.com/politica/noticia/2020/03/26/brasileiro-pula-em-esgoto-e-nao-acontece-nada-diz-bolsonaro-em-alusao-a-infeccao-pelo-coronavirus.ghtml.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gragnani, J. (2019) O que é ‘globalismo’, termo usado pelo novo chanceler brasileiro e por Trump?, BBC Brazil, https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/internacional-46786314.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hacking, I. (1995) Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

  • Hacking, I. (1998) Mad Travelers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illness, London: University Press of Virginia.

  • Hacking, I. (2002) Historical Ontology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Jucá, B. (2021) Capitã cloroquina’ admite documento que pressionou Manaus a usar o remédio ineficaz e contradiz Pazuello três vezes, El País Brasil, https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2021-05-25/capita-cloroquina-admite-documento-que-pressionou-manaus-a-usar-o-remedio-ineficaz-e-contradiz-pazuello-tres-vezes.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kohut, H. (1979) The two analyses of Mr Z, International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 60(1): 327.

  • Lacan, J. ([1945] 2006) Logical time and the assertion of anticipated certainty, in Écrits, London and New York: Norton.

  • Lacan, J. ([1953] 2007) O Mito Individual do Neurótico, Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Ed.

  • Lacan, J. ([1953–54] 1991) The Seminar, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, J. Forrester (trans), London and New York: Norton.

  • Lacan, J. ([1955] 2006) The freudian thing, in Écrits, London and New York: Norton.

  • Lacan, J. ([1958] 2006) The direction of the treatment and the principles of its power, in Écrits, London and New York: Norton.

  • Lacan, J. ([1964] 2008) Seminário, Livro 11: Os Quatro Conceitos Fundamentais da Psicanálise, Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar.

  • Lacan, J. ([1966] 2006) Science and truth, in Écrits, London and New York: Norton.

  • Lacan, J. ([1973] 2003) Televisão, in Outros Escritos, Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.

  • Lacan, J. (1967-68) Séminaire 15: L’acte psychanalitique, http://staferla.free.fr/S15/S15.htm.

  • Latour, B. (2013) An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

  • Lowy Institute (2021) Covid Performance, index, https://interactives.lowyinstitute.org/features/covid-performance/#rankings.

  • Orwell, G. (1949) 1984, London: Secker and Warburg.

  • Padiglione, C. (2018) Não tem Whatsapp? GloboNews submete Miriam Leitão a ditado para rebater Bolsonaro, Folha de São Paulo, 4 August, https://telepadi.folha.uol.com.br/nao-tem-whatsapp-globonews-submete-miriam-leitao-repetir-ponto-eletronico-para-refutar-bolsonaro.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Passarinho, N. (2021) Brasil consegue vacinar 60 milhões por mês contra covid-19; só falta a vacina, diz fundador da Anvisa, BBC Brazil, 21 February, https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-56104951.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Rose, N. (1996) Inventing Ourselves, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Scherer, M. (2017) Read President Trump’s interview with TIME on truth and falsehoods, Time, 23 March, https://time.com/4710456/donald-trump-time-interview-truth-falsehood/?xid=homepage.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Teitelbaum, B. (2020) War for Eternity: Inside Bannon’s Far-Right Circle of Global Powerbrokers, New York: Dey Street Books.

  • The Lancet (2011) Brazil (Global Health Series). The Lancet 377 (9779): 17212053, https://www.thelancet.com/series/health-in-brazil.

  • Uribe, G. (2020) Bolsonaro estimula população a invadir hospitais para filmar oferta de leitos, Folha de São Paulo, 11 June, https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2020/06/bolsonaro-estimula-populacao-a-invadir-hospitais-para-filmar-oferta-de-leitos.shtml.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Vilalta, L.P. (2020) O neoliberalismo é uma governamentalidade algorítmica. Lacuna: uma revista de psicanálise, São Paulo, 9: 7.

  • Walsh, N., Shelley, J., Duwe, E. and Bonnett, W. (2020) Bolsonaro calls coronavirus a ‘little flu’: inside Brazil’s hospitals, doctors know the horrifying reality, CNN, 25 May, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/23/americas/brazil-coronavirus-hospitals-intl/index.html.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Winnicott, D. (1971) Playing and Reality, London: Routledge, 2005.

  • Worldmeters (2021) COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, 26 July 2021, https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus.

  • 1 University of São Paulo, , Brazil

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