Race, space, secularism, and the writing of history

in Focaal
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  • 1 Wilfrid Laurier University alebner@wlu.ca

Collins, John F. 2015. Revolt of the saints: Memory and redemption in the twilight of Brazilian racial democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Seales, Chad E. 2013. The secular spectacle: Performing religion in a Southern town. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Scholars have long found it illuminating to compare race relations in Brazil and the United States, the two most populous countries in the Americas whose colonial and early postindependence economies were powered by slavery. The attention is due not only to their similar size and political economic history but also to an apparent difference in attitude toward their African-descended populations, especially after official abolition (Brazil in 1888; the US in 1865). Scholars have repeatedly contrasted the slow postabolition achievement of even formal civil rights for African Americans with what is famously known as Brazil’s “racial democracy,” an apparent promotion of mixture, racial fluidity, and equality from the early twentieth century (Skidmore 1993).

Of course, for decades Brazil has been coming to terms with the fact that this democracy has never been as democratic as all that—“racial democracy” having also served as a discursive veneer to cover up systematic racial discrimination. With Afro-Brazilian activists now increasingly inspired by racial struggles in the US, scholars have called attention to a change in discourse in Brazil (including Collins, under discussion here), some even polemically lamenting the potential for polarization over the long term: the pitting of “black” against “white” characteristic of American race relations (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1999; Fry 2009; Fry and Maggie 2004). Interestingly, these changes in Brazil are occurring while the US is purportedly moving away from its more binary and hierarchical view of race. This has lead some scholars to claim that Brazil and the US are on “converging paths” with regard to race relations (Daniel 2006), even if more recent events—especially the 2016 US presidential election—have made it devastatingly clear that old and perhaps new racisms are thriving in contemporary America.

Neither of the works considered here are conceived as explicit comparisons of race relations. Nevertheless, juxtaposing insights into Brazil (John F. Collins) and the US (Chad E. Seales) is as illuminating as ever. Indeed, the convergence of these two books’ arguments, different as they might otherwise appear to be, seems to be particularly prescient given the current political conjuncture: how beneath prevailing discourses of racial inclusion, racial discrimination has continued to be expressed daily, and even silently, through the work of spatializing practices. Yet the very distinct path each author takes to arrive at this point—Collins describes the creation of cultural heritage, and Seales focuses on secularism—is especially instructive. That is, while I discuss each book on its own terms, I am particularly interested in what they together suggest: that we should re-examine histories of race relations and their making and, crucially, beware of the unselfconsciously secular mode of writing history. Certainly, it seems time to begin rethinking our critical scholarly conventions and strategies.

Although both works interrogate the history of race in their respective contexts, Collins pointedly raises the question of social scientists’ role in helping to produce this “history” and its effects. The issue emerges out of Collins’s reflexivity regarding his research focus: the creation of a UNESCO world heritage site in the historic red-light Pelourinho district of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil’s first capital (1549–1763). Significantly, Collins had first lived and worked as an artisan alongside the Pelourinho’s (colloquially “O Pelourinho”) largely Afro-Brazilian residents and therefore comes by his reflexivity honestly, experiencing the transition from “local foreigner” to “foreign researcher” at a time of intensified social scientific scrutiny in O Pelourinho. Afro-Brazilian culture and religion in Bahia, the heart of “black Brazil,” have long captured the attention of social scientists. And yet, the imbrications of social science and governance became troublingly evident in the early 1990s when social scientists helped pave the way for the eviction of the Afro-Brazilian population while rendering their “culture” and “religion” national heritage. Collins, faced with the task of doing social science in a context where even the right to occupy space was given or taken away in light of social scientific evidence, struggled to decide how best to do “justice” (xiii) to the identities, differences, and inequalities with which he was engaged.

The result, Collins admits, is an “inability to circumscribe the story as some neat building block that fits nicely into established theoretical canons” (43). And so it is not quite a book about “‘Brazil,’ or ‘history,’ or ‘racial politics,’ or even that familiar, sentimentalized object … ‘those poor people who were expelled from their homes’” (42). Instead, Collins works at producing himself in the text, on the one hand, “as a fictional character, or social scientist with … too much power over the representations that drive Bahia’s political economy” (43), while offering an account, on the other hand, of “love, and pain, and confusion that makes a variety of specific … points about the ways that shifting approaches to the past and modes of claiming truth factor into Brazil’s democratic transitions” (42). Thus, although Collins doesn’t explicitly conceptualize his book as being about “writing,” either, the book is very much about the struggle to write ethnography and (understand its connection to) history—and their relation to the material, spatial, and racial exclusions of Brazilian history in particular.

Collins confronts this challenge across seven extended chapters (excluding the introduction and conclusion). These chapters cover many themes: from diverse mobilizations against the Pelourinho expulsions and the co-creation of “race” and “history” by both social scientists and Afro-Brazilians (across all chapters), to hygiene classes (chapter 6), translations of reggae music (chapter 7), the history of Salvadoran bohemianism (chapter 3), and the mysteries of local archaeological excavations (chapter 5). Yet significantly, the theme of any one chapter is guided—and subverted—by the figuras Collins encounters along the way. Calling someone a figura in Brazilian Portuguese is similar to calling someone a “character” in English, although with a shade more positive significance: “To be a ‘figura,’” Collins explains, “is to act in a manner that suggests, but does not necessarily reveal, larger-than-life, exceptional … qualities and … a manner that generate[s] laugher, respect and goodwill” (68). More specifically, the figuras of O Pelourinho are able to deftly negotiate and go beyond various goods and evils—including the violence of spatial segregation at their doorsteps.

Yet Collins is also aware that “figuration” has a conventional side. Much like the early theologians who sought figuras in the Hebrew Bible to “prefigure” Christ, cultural heritage in O Pelourinho was made by refiguring the memory of Afro-Brazilianness for the history and present of the nation. Thus, even as ethnography is entwined with conventional approaches to figuration, Collins resists replicating them. Instead, he emphasizes that while figuras help create both ethnography and history, they also partially do so by disrupting others’ expectations of them.

Of course, it should also be expected that the unruly charisma of figuras can sometimes be vexing, both in person and on the page. Thus, while Collins’s characters are captivating on their own terms—for example, Malaquias the Rastafarian, who opens and closes the first and last chapter of the book—the repeated disturbance of argument by often unconnected vignettes can sometimes be hard for a reader hoping to know more often than not where they are going. And so many questions remain, among them: If heritage is, as Collins asserts, the “secular sacred” (31; following MacCannell 1999), what gave rise to its “secular” character? And what is its connection to that figure that always haunts it, religion?

Collins offers readers only a partial exploration of cultural patrimony in this light: patrimony is the secular sacred because it involves the “elevation or valorization of aspects of the quotidian” (31). In the case of O Pelourinho, this secular sacralization of heritage turns even people into patrimony, a process that occurs by simultaneously relying on Afro-Brazilians to help create and legitimize history, while expelling them from the spaces of the historical center. The revolting paradox of this, significantly, is Collins’s primary inspiration for calling his book Revolt of the Saints. Yet the secondary reason for his choice of title is important as well: the notion of “saints” here refers to Candomblé—a Brazilian iteration of West African possession and divination practice—which is now considered the paradigmatic Afro-Brazilian “religion” and therefore the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture in today’s Brazil and in Pelourinho in particular. There is a double irony here: on the one hand, residents are only partially resisting the history of race and culture offered to them (as they also help to create it); on the other hand, many O Pelourinho residents are not actual practitioners of Candomblé, instead having become Pentecostal Protestants.

If Collins does not address these and other issues head-on, it should be emphasized that he does warn readers that they might be frustrated by his book’s resistance to narrative closure—indeed, this is one of his book’s important points: ethnography and history and even conceptions of race and culture are really products of unruly and ephemeral encounters, even if the history of race and culture and ultimately space is also shaped by those with the power to craft “history” and “ethnography” in the first place. Thus, Collins focuses on provoking his readers by unsettling such narratives. He shows that neither race nor cultural heritage nor history are ever quite as knowable or controllable as we think.

Recent work in religious studies suggests that it is in fact secularism that lies at the root of this “will to order and know” with which Collins is concerned (Modern 2012). I will return to this after I have addressed Seales, also a religious studies scholar, who takes a different tack with regard to secularism. Seales focuses on Siler City, a mid-sized town in North Carolina, and elucidates the racializing and spatializing aspects of secularism in the American South. His argument, that southern secularism is characterized by its “local politics of spatial relationships” (13), is unique within the growing interdisciplinary literature on secularism. Indeed, if there has been a relatively limited amount of work on race in relation to secularism, there is even less on the role of space. Connecting them certainly provides food for thought. In fact, experimentally generalizing beyond Seales’s intentionally particularizing account may offer another way to stimulate secular studies (Lebner 2015). I return to this later.

By contemplating space and race, Seales aims to shed light on a different “kind” of secularism. He partially builds on work by Talal Asad (2003), who argues that secularism is a political doctrine through which the state becomes a transcendent public mediator of conflicting religious and other identities. Nevertheless, Seales engages more with religious studies scholars like John Modern (2012). These latter authors both study American secularism and argue that, on the one hand, there are multiple secularisms (not an Asadian position per se; see below), while, on the other, these secularisms nevertheless make secular and religious differences appear along a religious-secular continuum “in which the religious could fade into the secular or the secular could replace the religious.” While Seales agrees that there are multiple secularisms, he argues in contrast that not all rely on this continuum to make sense of difference. Some secularisms enact social differentiation not along a sliding scale but instead “in relation to categorical binaries” (13) of space and race. The secularism of Siler City, Seales argues, is of the latter kind: religious and secular differences are distinguished racially and spatially.

Seales, being aware (with Lofton 2012) that history isn’t the only method of religious studies, even when it addresses the past, makes a point of saying that his book “in the strictest sense” does not “compile a local history” (21). Instead, each of the book’s five chapters (excluding introduction and postscript) highlights a different method: from “social history, ritual studies, institutional analysis, critical theory to migration studies” (21), in that order. Nevertheless, the chapters are ordered in a reasonable chronology. They begin with describing what Seales calls the “incorporation” of Siler City (the formation of the city in 1887 and the subsequent building of community via religious and secular performances), and each covers key themes in the study of secular formations: industry, nationalism, civility, privatization, and migration.

Together the chapters help illustrate how Siler City’s spatially segregated secularism operates to maintain difference today. Thus, the first chapter describes the town’s economic development in the wake of the Civil War and the creation of secular and religious spaces that excluded African Americans by persuasion and coercion. The subsequent three of four chapters focus more on the secular spectacle itself, showing us how secular-nationalist performances, like the Fourth of July parade (chapters 2, 4) and the workings of the law (chapter 3), retain both religious and racist-segregationist residues that affect the full incorporation of African Americans and more recent Mexican migrants into the life of Siler City.

For example, Seales shows that the first post–Civil War Fourth of July parades in Siler City were performed “to contest black claims to public space” (61). White businesses and churches organized the parades “to reclaim a racial status that referenced the sacred order of antebellum plantations” (65), by including a variety of symbols, from famous confederate soldiers (in only the very first parade in 1901) to—more enduringly—blackface minstrelsy. “The Fourth of July celebration was performed for the glory of southern whites and intended to reflect their racial and patriotic superiority” (56) as well as the sense that it was the white Christian male who protected the sacred order of the South. It is no surprise, then—although this is not the account Siler City residents give—that with desegregation in the 1970s and the increasingly integrated participation in the parade, the public Fourth of July parades stopped in 1976, and private invitation-only celebrations developed in the backyards of white Baptists thereafter. It should be even less of a surprise to readers, but certainly still shocking, that the secular spectacle of southern law similarly denied that racism affected the decision of a white Siler City judge, who gave a suspended sentence with five years probation to a police officer who killed an unarmed African American man he had taken into custody for no apparent reason. If the spectacle of secular law and “civility” is different from the religiously inspired practice of lynch mobbing, which Seales fascinatingly shows, it is nevertheless clear that segregation and violence against black bodies continues to be executed.

The final chapter then explores the performance of “religion” via an annual Easter passion parade performed by Catholic Mexican migrants, most of whom had come to Siler City after being recruited in Mexico by poultry processing plants. Their arrival through the 1990s was neither smooth nor uncontested; an anti-immigration rally was even held in downtown Siler City in 2000, with former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Louisiana state legislator David Duke as special guest. Yet even if initially unsettling the segregated spaces of the town, Mexican immigrants began carving out their own spaces. The annual passion parade, in particular the “culture of suffering” on display, was one of the ways immigrants did that. Nevertheless, their particular performance of religion reinforced white residents’ sense of physical “secular” difference—and intentional distancing—of migrant Latinos, even as they acknowledged the validity of their faith.

Ultimately, Seales shows that through (mutually implicated) “secular” and “religious” performances, racism and segregation persist in Siler City, though they are silently effaced from dominant discourse as secularism demands. The postscript elegantly elaborates on this “silence” of secularism and is perhaps the only place where Seales seems to generalize beyond the South. Nevertheless, Seales poignantly evokes this silence by taking a very local example—a mural painted to honor the history (and “heritage”) of Siler City that quietly erases the black business district. Thus, Seales’s focus remains on how the effaced history and spatial exclusions of nonwhite bodies is “the shared secret of Southern secularism” (162). It remains to be seen whether in the Trump era this silence will be continuously and violently broken as it was during his campaign, less to acknowledge and heal long-concealed divisions than to make them more entrenched. What we have seen in the first two weeks of his presidency—when this piece went to press—frighteningly suggests that it will.

While the particularization of Siler City’s (southern) secularism is important, the book could have moved toward a more general level of discussion. To be sure, Seales’s particularizing approach is in part an artifact of his choice to embrace the idea of “multiple secularisms” discussed earlier, which operates somewhat against the Asadian (2003) call to describe the specificities of secular formations as well as their global spread. Saba Mahmood, picking up on earlier critiques of the notion of “alternative modernities,” further points out that the focus on multiple secularisms constructs these other secularisms as either “a deviation from Western modes of secularism or as a local and regional story that adds little to its conceptual formulation.” The critical issue, Mahmood continues, “is not so much to pluralize secularism as to conceptualize its variations in relation to a universalizing project, which, in the postcolonial context, also involves the ongoing subjugation of non-Western societies to various forms of Western domination” (2015: 10). In other words, focusing on “multiple secularisms” can impede further understanding of how secularism is a project that affects the West and far beyond in ways that we are still beginning to understand.

Read with this broader perspective in mind, Seales’s book offers contributions on many fronts that are worth absorbing at this juncture. Indeed, while Asad and Mahmood say little about race (speaking more about minorities), others inspired by their work, like religious studies scholar Gil Anidjar (2008, 2015) and anthropologist Mayanthi Fernando (2014), have remarked on the cocreation, the ambiguous shifting, and often the “coconcealment” of “race” and “religion” in the contemporary period. Fernando’s (2014) analysis even alludes (in her discussion of architecture) to how this bears on space in the context of present-day France. Yet certainly Seales’s ample material could help consolidate and extend these points: even if local governance in the American South retains an especially segregationist form, one could argue that, by definition, secularism elsewhere is always relatively silent about the problem of race—being more overtly concerned, of course, with distinctions between “religion” and the “secular.” In other words, Seales’s work further exemplifies the point that racism can always potentially be expressed in secular regimes through spatializing/distancing practices instead of, and/or in addition to, racism’s more common modes of expression. Put otherwise still, if Seales chose to generalize a bit more, he might not have to make a negative argument—that some secularisms do not conceptualize religious difference along a continuum, for example—and suggest more plausibly that both religious-secular continuums and the spatialization of racism variously operate in the US and under other secular regimes.

If I have pointed out that Seales’s discussion might have benefitted from engagement with broader debates about secularism, this is also ultimately the case with Collins, who is similarly concerned with governance (note that I emphasize elsewhere that a focus on “secularism” might not be appropriate for all ethnographic cases and has played an overdetermining role in secular studies to date; Lebner 2015, n.d.). For example, the paradox noted earlier—the fact that the Brazilian state now promotes Candomblé as Afro-Brazilian heritage, while many of the Afro-Brazilians to be displaced from O Pelourinho were not actual practitioners of Candomblé—begins to make more sense if we think in terms of the Brazilian state’s secularism. If secularism not only mediates conflicting identities, but also tends to protect majority religion (Mahmood 2015), it is not surprising that Candomblé is preferred over the Pentecostal Protestantism to which Afro-Brazilians of O Pelourinho have increasingly converted. Indeed, Pentecostals have repeatedly challenged not only Afro-Brazilian religions, but also, crucially, the Catholicism that undergirds modern Brazilian nationhood. Of course, I am not saying that the displacement occurred only because of Protestantism rather than because of race and class, which is more Collins’s focus. But I would like to emphasize, as Anidjar and Fernando suggest, that race, class, and religion are closely articulated in secular regimes and are variously mobilized to fit state and “majority” agendas. In other words, the perspective of secularism rather than a focus on the politics and history of race and class alone makes the mutually entailed dynamics of race, class, space, religion, and cultural heritage in O Pelourinho and elsewhere all the more visible.

Most significantly for future reflection, however, it is worth noting that both Collins’s and Seales’s writing around “history” would also have been enriched by an engagement with discussions of secularism. I say this not only with Modern’s (2012) experimental history of antebellum American secularism in mind. Certainly Modern’s peculiar stylistic approach emerged from his identification of secularism as a source of the systematicity (“rationality”) that shapes contemporary academic endeavors—and his evident wish to subvert it. Yet I am also referring to the more generally secular nature of conventional (scholarly) notions of history, whose negative effects on description have often been remarked upon yet have somehow remained resistant to critique.

Benedict Anderson (1983) famously declared that history was secular. Yet if Asad (2003) was among the first to call upon anthropologists to treat the idea of “secular history” as an object of analysis—himself offering us less a “history” than a genealogy of the secular—few have engaged this issue much, even among those renewing the long-standing call for an “anthropology of history” (Palmié and Stewart 2016, referring to Sahlins 1985). Tambar (2014) is a notable exception, offering an ethnography of how the demands of secular Turkish history have reshaped Alevi ritual (Alevism being a branch of Shi’a Islam). As Tambar notes, to speak of conventional history as secular is to assert neither the exclusion of religion nor a uniform Western temporality, as some critiques have claimed (Deeb 2009; more recently, Hamann 2016). Rather, secular history, like the notion of the secular itself, “is meant to indicate the temporal framing that defines the intelligibility of ‘religion’ as a discursive object” (Tambar 2014: 179). From this perspective, an anthropology of history could engage more with the anthropology of the secular, of which a focus on secularism is part, while addressing how we write conventional (Western secular) assumptions out of our accounts in the first place.1

If the convergence of Collins’s and Seales’s arguments ultimately raises the question of writing history and its connection to secularism anew, it is also true that not everyone would wish to adopt Collins’s more figurative approach, or Seales’s multidisciplinary take on local history. Yet I daresay that this is how it should be—though not because these books should not inspire further readings and writings; they certainly should. Rather, following an anthropologist whose experimental writing we are still only beginning to explore, scholars might consider writing with all of the relations they contain within them, which would result in consistently different writerly forms and even conceptions of authorship (Strathern 2004; Strathern 2011; Lebner 2016, forthcoming).

Conjuring Marilyn Strathern in a discussion of history might provoke protests: some might even argue that Strathern herself has written among the most “ahistorical” works since the turn to history in anthropology in the 1980s. And in a sense this is true, as Strathern perhaps more than any other anthropologist has worked to mitigate the effects of Western knowledge practices, including the turn to history, on ethnography. But her approach is still worth reflecting upon, even if one is a historically minded anthropologist or an anthropologically-minded historian.

Although one could gain insight into her methods from any of her writings, Strathern’s little-remarked ripostes to Sahlins (1985) are a good place to begin when rethinking the writing of time and history (Strathern 1990; Strathern 1992b). For if few use Sahlins’ framework to explicitly guide their historical ethnographies today, it arguably still informs common assumptions: that, for example, to understand transformation one must look to events, defined as a relation between an occurrence and a structure mediated by a third term, also known as the “structure of the conjuncture.” Strathern (1990) reminds us that as open as Sahlins’s framework might appear to be to other (“cultural”) modes of interpretation, it is still burdened by Euro-American conceptions of system/structure, time, and the knowing subject (relating to its objects of knowledge). Thus, while Sahlins tries to discover how the structure of the encounter between Captain Cook and the people of Hawaii came to transform the latter’s culture (structure), Strathern offers an experimental reflection on an encounter between New Guinea Highlanders and white Australians that decomposes and redescribes (the very notion of) an event, Melanesian-style. That is, to state it simply, Strathern suggests considering that the event for Highlanders consisted in the realization (the indigenous analysis) that Australians were capable of the right kind of exchange and were thus not only human, but also able to be in relation. For them, this additionally gave the Australians “dimension in time” (Strathern 1992b: 249), projecting them into the past and the future. My aim in referring to this here is not to say that others should adopt her analysis or a Melanesian definition of an event. Rather, I wish simply to indicate that Strathern’s work offers one of the many potential tools, together with the works by Collins and Seales, that can help us continue to work on ensuring that secular modes of history no longer silently (un-self-consciously) shape our accounts—especially of phenomena like “race” and “religion,” which have their own place in secular histories to begin with.

Changing our approach to writing is important not only because we want to describe things better as anthropologists or historians, but also because we need to seriously rethink our critical disciplinary strategies. Certainly, as Strathern was very much aware, even when scholarly conventions appear to be critical and progressive they could be doing more to produce conservative politics than we might otherwise think—Strathern found this to be the case leading to Thatcher’s Britain (Strathern 1992a, 1996; Lebner 2016; Strathern et al., forthcoming). Now, as we brace ourselves for a cruel, bare-knuckled American and global conservatism, we should think carefully but quickly, with all resources to hand, about how best to intervene.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Chris Krupa for the invitation to write this review as well as for his reading and feedback. I am also grateful to Carol Duncan, to Erik Mueggler, and especially to Erich Fox Tree for their readings and comments on the text.

Note

1

The secular, of course, is a shifting formation of conceptual practice and sensibility (i.e., the secular is not only “one” set of elements), and when scholars study what constitutes it, they should be open to the secular potentially being many different things. However, openness to changes in the secular does not negate that there are conventional secular assumptions that, given their long-standing power in the West, continue to haunt anthropological description—such as the autonomous individual grounded in “nature” or reality (among other concepts, see Asad 2003; Lebner 2015).

References

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Contributor Notes

Ashley Lebner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion and Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University. She has published on the politics and cultures of friendship, Christianity, secularity, and science, as well as on the history of anthropology. She is currently completing her first monograph, After Impossibility: Christianity, Marxism and Secularity on a Brazilian Amazonian Frontier. Based on ethnography among landless workers in Amazonia, the book explores the paradoxes animating Christian and secular formations and their implications for understandings of politics. She is also the editor of Redescribing Relations: Strathernian Conversations on Ethnography, Knowledge and Politics (Berghahn Books). E-mail: alebner@wlu.ca

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

  • Anidjar, Gil. 2008. Secularism. In Semites: Race, religion, literature, pp. 3966. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Anidjar, Gil. 2015. The history of race, the race of history. Jewish Quarterly Review 105(4): 515521.

  • Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1999. On the cunning of imperialist reason. Theory, Culture & Society 16(1): 4158.

  • Daniel, G. Reginald. 2006. Race and multiraciality in Brazil and the United States: Converging paths? University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Deeb, Lara. 2009. Emulating and/or embodying the ideal: The gendering of temporal frameworks and Islamic role models in Shi’i Lebanon. American Ethnologist 36(2): 242257.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fernando, Mayanthi L. 2014. The Republic unsettled: Muslim French and the contradictions of secularism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Fry, Peter. 2009. The politics of “racial” classification in Brazil. Journal de la société des américanistes 95(2): 261282.

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