Exam List 1: The Colonization of Space and Place in Pre-1700 Colonial Latin America, Part I

(Over the next several posts, I’ll be writing a revised version of the headnotes for my exam list on Colonial Latin America; when I’m done, I’ll compile the results and update the Exam List 1 page in the sidebar)

Recent trends in the study of Latin American colonial society have emphasized the “revolution in modes of expression” (Gruzinski) that accompanied the imposition of the Spanish colonial system on the indigenous populations of the South America and Mesoamerica. Martin Lienhard suggests that pre-Columbian discursive systems were dominated by oral traditions which employed pictography as a means of conservation supporting oral performances. Studies such as those in Writing without Words, however, emphasize the diversity, complexity and utility of indigenous recording technologies, ranging from Mayan glyphs and the iconographic systems found in Mexica codices and cartographic histories to the more abstract systems of the Peruvian tocapu and quipu. The imposition of alphabetic writing and European practices of visual representation into the American context as instruments of the colonial enterprise, supplemented by the loss of cultural knowledge resulting from the collapse of pre-Columbian socio-political arrangements and the rapid decline of indigenous populations in the sixteenth century, irrevocably altered existing traditions with devastating consequences. According to Mignolo, the Spanish, often drawing on the ideology of an evolutionary model of writing still present in 20th century scholarship, interpreted the absence of western-style alphabetic writing as evidence of a less advanced civilization and used the resultant assumption of cultural superiority as an ideological support for domination. During the three centuries following the conquest, the Americas witnessed a systematic restructuring of Spanish controlled territory around an urban lettered elite, as described by Rama. The predominance and gradual adoption of European discursive practices were encouraged by the educational practices and methods of religious indoctrination of the colonial period, and by the clerical demands of colonial administration, as seen in the documentation of lienzos, or land claims, and in indigenous responses to the geographical surveys of the Relaciones Geográficas as analyzed by Mundy. Nonetheless, the sign systems and conventions of pre-conquest discursive practices survived in modified form to produce new and unique practices of graphic representation defined by the hybridization of Spanish and indigenous discursive conventions and habits of thought.

While the privileged status granted to Spanish, Latin, and, in certain cases, the alphabetized vocabularies of indigenous elites in legal, economic and religious domains itself constitutes a significant consequence of colonialism insofar as asymmetrical access to Western literacy both reflected and helped to sustain an inequitable distribution of power, the differences in discursive practices that preceded and emerged out of the colonial situation cannot be reduced to an account of the differences in access to power of the demographics that employed them. Instead, the transformation and redistribution of graphic codes over the course of the colonial period represent a significant alteration of the modes of production of meaning that accompanied seismic shifts in worldview along spatial and temporal axes on both sides of the Atlantic. Mignolo’s notion of the “Colonization of Space,” for example, articulates a point of intersection between traditional notions of colonization as physical occupation of space, and the more discourse-centered dimensions of colonization laid out, for example, in “On the Colonization of Amerindian Languages and Memories.” By focusing on the impact of colonization on cartography, Mignolo is able to trace a visible discursive shift in both European and Amerindian semiosis while at the same time presenting a convenient means of connecting that shift in writing back to a shift in the principles of organization of spatio-temporal experience that radically restructured the modes of cognition corresponding to emergent socio-cultural formations during the colonial period. Reading shifts in colonial sign production as indicative of changes in the understanding of space and place thus provides a tentative solution to the hermeneutic questions thematized in Mignolo’s introduction while simultaneously inaugurating a project for subsequent analysis of colonial semiosis. Although alternative avenues exist for exploring the cognitive significance of new discursive practices – Mignolo and Gruzinski, for example, have each effectively traced the reorganization of indigenous memories resulting from the cross-fertilization of Spanish and indigenous modes of expression – the focus on spatial experience constitutes a particularly fertile ground for exploration, particularly given the magnitude of the impact of what O’Gorman calls “the invention of America” on the European cosmovision.

(More to follow…)


~ by Matt on September 6, 2007.

One Response to “Exam List 1: The Colonization of Space and Place in Pre-1700 Colonial Latin America, Part I”

  1. […] and Place in Pre-1700 Colonial Latin America, Part 2 (This post continues my efforts from my previous post to write a revised and expanded version of my headnotes for my exam list on Colonial Latin […]

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