Making historical analysis the discourse of the continuous and making
human consciousness the original subject of all historical development and
all action are the two sides of the same system of thought.
—Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge
Only ignorance explains why São Paulo, with all its advantages and defects,
still isn’t regarded as the best synthesis of Brazil.
—Gilberto Dimenstein, “Capital de São Paulo é o Brasil,” A Folha de São Paulo
Historians, as Michel Foucault observed, have tended to privilege con-
tinuities, deep structures of unbroken thought or tradition, in their
construction of historical narratives or modes of interpretation. Though
the analysis of “change over time” often serves as a shorthand for the
historian’s craft, what use is the study of the past unless we can discern
a thread, no matter how tenuous, between what has gone before and
the present? Of course, Foucault was critiquing, not congratulating,
historians for their focus on continuities, which he regarded as insep-
arable from their tendentious belief that documents could reveal “real”
traces of the past. For the most part, I nd this critique persuasive and
am sympathetic to postmodern scholars who emphasize rupture over
continuity, and instability (if not indeterminacy) of meaning over per-
sistence. But every now and then the sources make it almost irresistible
to argue for continuity, or to draw a direct line from historical point “A”
to historical point “B.”
This was my initial response to two editorials that appeared in O Es-
tado de São Paulo just before and after the Brazilian military’s seizure
of power on March 31, 1964, an act that initiated twenty- one years of
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