Barcelona full-back Dani Alves recently made headlines by eating a banana during his team’s league game at Villrreal’s El Madrigal stadium. While the football press is frequently guilty of giving undue exposure to the minutest of insignificant minutiae, this was not one of those occasions: the banana had been thrown in Alves’ direction by a fan in what has been unanimously accepted (and subsequently penalised) as a racist gesture. Alves’ unique deflation of this long-standing trope of sporting white suprematism has thus been read as a shot in the arm for football’s faltering anti-racist movement. With a swiftness characteristic of media flows in 2014, Alves’ response generated a visual meme – players like his teammate and Brazilian compatriat Neymar Jr., Sergio Aguero, Robert Lewandowski and Luis Suarez all published selfies in which they were depicted on the verge of tucking into a banana – as well as the Twitter hashtag “#somostodosmacacos” (we are all monkeys).
There are of course issues with this fallout. The eventual inclusion of Suarez in the selfie campaign – the Liverpool striker remains unrepentant after being found guilty of racially abusing Patrice Evra on the field of play in 2011 – highlighted for some the tokenistic nature of this show of solidarity. As Jude Wanga pointed out in a column for the Independent, the impact of attempts by players like Suarez to join in attempting to ‘reclaim’ the insult launched against Alves is minimal, since these players are socially situated on the side of the abusers, not the abused. Musa Okwonga characterised a wave of responses to the event in asking that the conditions which allowed the culprit to feel ‘comfortable enough’ to make such a public gesture be examined: the affirmatory nature of the selfie and hashtag campaigns, so the implication goes, is hardly the sharpest critical tool. Finally, it was suggested some days after the incident that the ensuing campaign had actually been premeditated by Alves along with his teammate Neymar, and carried out with the help of advertising agencies Loducca and Meio e Mensagen. As reported by Spanish sports daily AS, Alves and Neymar had resolved that if a banana were ever thrown in their direction during a game, they would make sure to be seen eating it, subsequently leveraging these images for their social media potential.
Does it matter that Alves’ response was not spontaneous, or that it was conceived with its own mimetic capabilities in mind? Straightforwardly, the event’s premeditation points with even greater clarity to the need for action on racism in Spanish football than the single, central offensive gesture ever could: it reveals the absolute assurance on the part of two men of colour that they will be racially abused in their workplace in the immediate future. Furthermore, the planned nature of the gesture does not erase its peculiar force, which is one aspect of this story that has gone relatively unremarked upon. While newspapers broadly pre-empted the banana selfie campaign by enshrining Alves’ reaction as an iconic moment in football’s ongoing anti-racist struggle, few really paused to consider the singularity of this incident: Alves did not simply renounce the slur, after all, or call out the individual who had thrown it in the manner of Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes’ intervention in an game at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last May. He peeled and ate the banana, not only mushing it into a non-sigifying pulp but digesting it in the process. If the response of white players like Suarez, Aguero and Lewandowski erred on the side of safety, then Alves’ was a particularly and pointedly risky strategy: as many have pointed out, the Barcelona player had no way of knowing that the banana had not been poisoned, laced with razor blades or some such. Even if the chances of a stadium attendee being sufficiently motivated to commit such an extreme act seem slim, the generalised paranoia regarding stadium security can never truly allow such possibilities to be precluded.
Alves’ gesture – perhaps particularly now that we know it was premeditated – opens itself up to multiple readings besides the PR-mandated one. Marcel Duchamp provides us with an opening: the pioneer of the use of “found objects” in visual art once advised that it should be possible to conceive of ‘reciprocal readymades’ like a Rembrandt canvas used as an ironing board. This gesture would serve to prick the bubble of artistic aura in an even more directly confrontational way than Duchamp’s attempt to display an upturned urinal in a major New York art institution in 1917. To convert an object suffused with expressive and cultural significance back into a state of blunt facticity – to swap exchange value for use value, in other words – is to perform a kind of alchemy in reverse. In a similar way, the banana thrown at Dani Alves, once peeled and chewed, suddenly underwent a dramatic structural shift, metamorphosing from symbolic prop with the capacity to wound to dumb, factitious foodstuff with the capacity to nourish. Racism of course perseveres in inescapably concrete ways, but for one tiny moment its symbolic basis was held up as fragile, easily rendered hollow by an unexpected act of wilful misreading.
There is a second figure of the early 20th century whose writing ties up wilful misreading with gustatory metaphors, and he is Brazilian to boot. Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 ‘Manifesto Antropófago’ (Cannibalist Manifesto) famously argued that Brazilian culture was formed on the basis of a “cannibalising” of colonial cultures. Here Oswald drew romantically on mythologies around the supposedly man-eating indigenous tribes of the Brazilian coast, but did so in the name of avant-garde renewal. As Liladhar Ramchandra Pendse argues, Oswald’s “cannibalism” is not the same as simple ideological internalisation, since ‘during anthropophagic discourse, we see a qualitative modification of the internalized values’ – elite texts are chewed up to provide sustenance for a new, self-asserting postcolonial body. In a much-repeated excerpt, Oswald mushes Shakespeare together with the name of a native Brazilian tribe known for their anthropophagic rituals since the Bard’s own epoch of colonial expansion: ‘Tupi or not Tupi’. Dani Alves’ bananaphagy, we can argue, has more than a little in common with this line: Alves is assailed from the point of white privilege with a symbol casting him as inescapably other, and his misappropriation is just so.