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

•September 6, 2007 • 1 Comment

(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…)

Mapping Colonial Latin America: Typvs Orbis Terrarvm (1570)

•August 30, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Typus Orbis Terrarvm (1870)

Unlike the Cholula map I discussed in the previous post, I chose the other map for the header without the Spanish/Latin American context particularly in mind. In fact, the map was produced by a Flemish mapmaker named Abraham Ortelius in 1570 as part of a work considered to be the first modern atlas. Nonetheless, juxtaposed with the Cholula map, Ortelius’s Typvs Orbis Terrarvm map is quite revealing with regards to the colonial encounter from the European point of view. As part of the first modern atlas, the Typvs Orbis Terrarvm reflects the impact of the discovery of the Americas on the emergence of a modern European cosmovision. In particular, it represents an intermediary stage in the emergence of a rationalized, geometricized conception of global space as a consequence of what Eugene O’Gorman calls the Invention of America.

T-O Map (Guntherus Ziner, Augsburg, 1472)

The reason America had to be “invented” rather than merely discovered is that Europe in the 15th century was still dominated by a mythological world view. Even in 1492 European cosmography remained under the spell of the medieval “T-O map,” pictured at the right, which divided the world into three discrete parts (Europe, Asia and Africa) centered around Jerusalem, with each part corresponding to the domain granted by God to a particular race – the descendants of each of the three sons of Noah.

Columbus’s arrival in the New World, though initially filtered through the misinterpretation that he had arrived on the eastern coast of Asia, gradually disrupted the tripartite worldview of the T-O map because it introduced a fourth part of the world which could not be incorporated into the mythological schema. Forced to abandon the model of a world divided into a discrete number of parts, European cosmography in the 16th century adopted instead a homogenized, geometrical conception of space organized around Ptolemy’s grid of latitude and longitude. At the same time, Europe gradually gave up the notion of the world as a limited space assigned to man by God in favor of a limitless world over which man (and, in particular, European man) was sovereign.

Ortelius’s world map of 1570 shows the process of filling in the grid at work. Notice in particular the relative accuracy of the vertical dimensions of the map, in contrast to the rather distorted horizontal dimensions. By 1570, European cosmographers had perfected a method of measuring latitude, but a reliable method for measuring longitude was slower in coming. López de Velasco attempted to include with his geographical survey instructions for a process involving measurements of the location of the moon during an eclipse, but the colonial officials who received the instructions were either apathetic or inadequately trained to perform the tasks with any degree accurately, if they performed them at all.

As in the Relaciones Geográficas map of Cholula, the gridlike structure of Oretelius’s world map as a framework exceeds the information with which it is filled in. Both maps bare witness to a moment when the grid signifies only itself, when the imposition of grid lines, meant to facilitate the ideal of a mimetic, one-to-one correspondence between the geography of the map and the geography of the landscape, comes instead to mark the very ideality of the grid in the European imagination.

Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)

•August 28, 2007 • 4 Comments

Visitors to Oublié Sur La Carte (not so many these days, I know, since I haven’t posted in a while) are greeted by a quotation from Baudelaire and a pair of map images. When the site was first launched, I offered some comments on the quote. Here are some thoughts on the maps, in anticipation of some revisions to the headnotes of my Exam List 1, covering representations of space in Colonial Latin America, which I’ll begin posting soon. Many of the ideas in this post are culled from Barbara Mundy’s excellent work on colonial map-making, The Mapping of New Spain (University of Chicago Press, 1996).

Map of Cholula from the Relaciones Geograficas (1581)

Beginning in 1578, a survey of 44 questions authored by Spanish royal cosmographer Juan López de Velasco was distributed throughout the Spanish controlled portions of the Americas as part of a larger effort to extensively map the region and document its features. Though the survey was addressed only to colonial officials, many such officials, lacking either interest or sufficient familiarity with the region to answer the questions, passed the survey on to members of the indigenous population. The resulting documents, known as the Relaciones Geográficas, constitute a fascinating and varied collection of colonial semiosis, a heterogeneous mixture of graphic and print sign systems drawn from both Spanish and indigenous traditions in order to represented a colonial landscape that was itself already organized in conflicting ways around Spanish and indigenous patterns of understanding and inhabiting space.

The map above, produced by an indigenous mapmaker in 1581 in response to the Relaciones Geográficas, depicts the town of Cholula in Mexico, an important Tolteca-Chichimeca religious and political site and one of the largest population centers in Mesoamerica at the time of Cortes’s conequest of Mexico. Several aspects of this map make it a striking example of a number of the issues involved in the study of colonial representations of space:

Continue reading ‘Mapping Colonial Latin America: Relaciones Geográficas Map of Cholula (1581)’

More on Derrida’s Letter to UCI

•July 16, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Having had the opportunity to think more carefully about the issues raised in this post, I’ve taken the occasion of a new article on the subject in the Chronicle of Higher Education to write a somewhat lengthy comment to a brief write up of the article by John Holbo at the Valve.  If you’ve been following this discussion, please weigh in at the Valve – for good or for bad, this issue doesn’t seem to be going away, and all the whispery talk in the comment fields of my last post doesn’t seem to be helping anyone think this through.

The Derrida Incident?

•April 11, 2007 • 23 Comments

I hate to be the agent of this kind of controversy, but something is rotten in Denmark, and no one is talking about it.

As this article from the L.A. Times describes in greater depth, UC Irvine and the family of the late Jacques Derrida have been embroiled for some time now in a struggle over the ownership of an archive of Derrida’s writing which he supposedly promised to the university, only to withdraw his promise subsequently over a dispute with the University. Perhaps given the gravitas of Derrida’s name, even among those who vigorously oppose his work, or perhaps because the current incarnation of the struggle pits a large and impersonal university against Derrida’s widow, the University of California seems to have come out as the bad guy here. While I have no problem with this in principle, the facts of the case don’t seem to fit this characterization, and in fact pose troubling consequences for Derrida’s legacy.

What the mis-characterization leaves out is the nature of the impetus for Derrida’s falling out with the university. As the article explains:

In [a three-paragraph document that Derrida signed in 1990], Derrida pledged to donate his archives to UCI, where he taught part time. However, shortly before his death in 2004, the pipe-puffing philosopher changed his tune. Derrida threatened to torpedo the archive agreement unless school officials halted their investigation into a Russian studies professor [Dragan Kujundzic] accused of sexually harassing a female grad student.

I find this particular disturbing because I know the female grad student and some (but certainly not all) of the details of the Dragan incident. I have a hard time understanding why Derrida went to bat for Dragan, particularly to the point of trying to disrupt a sexual harassment investigation and withdrawing his commitments to the university when he failed to do so. Surely Derrida was defending a friend whom he believed to be innocent, but the facts of the case suggest otherwise:

Although a school probe concluded that Kujundzic’s four encounters with the woman were consensual, it said he nevertheless had violated a university policy that bars faculty members from dating students they supervise.

The student, who said she felt coerced to have sex because of Kujundzic’s influence over her academic career, then sued him and the university, a case that was recently settled out of court for $100,000 — of which $20,000 came from Kujundzic’s pocket.

Kujundzic violated a university policy designed to prevent sexual harassment, and paid $20,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit. The violation of the policy alone means (in ethical terms at least, if not in legal terms) he committed sexual harassment. The fact that the encounters were “consensual” is irrelevant – there is no such thing as consensual sexual relations in a relationship where one party has significant control over the future career of the other. The fact that the victim “felt coerced” is enough – the situation itself was coercive, and there was a policy in place to prevent it precisely because it would otherwise be impossible to draw the line between “consensual” and “coercive” sexual relations between an advisor and an advisee. I just don’t see how any apologetics is possible – Dragan knew the consequences of his actions, and could have acted otherwise. Derrida’s defense of his actions is inexcusable.

There’s a long tradition of sometimes shoddy and sometimes thoughtful criticism of major figures in literary/critical theory or continental philosophy based on revelations about their ethical or political decisions “outside” of their work. Heidegger’s relationship to the Nazi party, for example, remains a major stumbling block for those interested in his work, as does de Man’s wartime writing for a collaborationist newspaper, including an anti-Semitic article entitled “Jews in Contemporary Literature.”

The best writing on the subject of these controversies is able to take seriously our misgivings about the ethical or political decisions of these thinkers without jumping to a premature dismissal of their writings. Avital Ronnel’s The Telephone Book for example, poses a command issued by telephone to Heidegger by a Nazi official as the nexus of questions about “the call of conscience” and Heidegger’s rethinking of modern technology. This strategy allows Ronnel to investigate Heidegger’s ethos through the terms of his philosophy while simultaneously testing the limits of that philosophy. Ethical and philosophical considerations mutually inform each other without producing the convenient “out” for which misinformed critics of “theory” are desperate. Unlike in high school debate, where I remember winning a case mainly by arguing that Heidegger was a Nazi, such ethical considerations should never be a substitute for an understanding of the writing that one is trying to dismiss. The philosophical or theoretical work should not, nonetheless, emerge intact.

In using the term “the Derrida Incident,” I realize I’m opening up all of the potentially facile dismissive readings that accompanied the “De Man Incident,” which was heralded as one of the many “death knells” of deconstruction, which in turn nonetheless remains as undead as it ever was. However, I think it is essential to open up a responsible consideration of the ethical implications of a major figure in literary theory who seems to have chosen to use his archives as a form of capital in order to subvert a university policy designed to prevent sexual harassment. How might we theorize this incident in terms of Derrida’s own work? What does the conversion of writing into capital or clout tell us about Derrida’s renown equation between his “debts” and his “death”? How do Derrida’s writing on sexual difference, the law and the politics of friendship inform his response to an application of sexual harassment policy against a friend and colleague? These questions do not suffice to erase the body of writing which Derrida has left behind, the very dead body over which two parties, both in mourning in their own ways, are now struggling for control. But there is no possible account of Derrida’s writing of which this incident can be said to fall “outside.”

Edit: S reminds us in the comments that Derrida was not in the best of health at the time of the events in question, and this certainly bears on the discussion in a significant way. I’m not certain that this entirely removes my concerns, but it certainly mitigates them.

In Lieu of a Post on Derrida…

•April 6, 2007 • 6 Comments

In some comments over at the Valve, I’ve said most of things I was going to post about Derrida’s Of Grammatology. The distinction between writing and “writing” is crucial, and I think one of the main places careless readers of Derrida get lead astray. Anyway, check it out if you’re interested.

The promised follow-up post on 300 probably isn’t going to happen. I’ve got some ideas cooking on the OuLiPo and on community in Bataille/Blanchot/Nancy/Agamben that may see the light of day. But I’ve sworn off promising.

Frank Miller’s 300: On Laconism in Contemporary American Cinema (Part 1 of 2)

•March 11, 2007 • 3 Comments

300 Poster[Warning, spoiler alert]

I had a very frustrating conversation last night about 300, the new film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel on the Battle of Thermopylae. The conversation was frustrating for two reasons. The first is that, by the time the conversation started, I had consumed enough alcohol to render me mostly inarticulate on the subject. The second is that, from the moment when I “confessed” to having seen and even enjoyed the film, I felt attacked. I’m not sure exactly how to account for that. The film is, admittedly, clearly problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its insistence on the line “Freedom isn’t free” which of course resonates in the current political landscape with a weak defense of the worst aspects of the “War on Terror.” In fact, the film’s dialogue as a whole is problematic, but in an interesting way. Indeed, I readily admitted this last night at the outset of the conversation. But given that 300 is clearly driven not by dialogue but by its remarkable and innovative cinematography, it seems odd that the film would occasion such a whole-scale a priori rejection from people who had seen only the preview.

Not that I mind the critical engagement – indeed, I hope this post will occasion some. What was frustrating, however, was the sense that the question had somehow been already resolved in advance, along with the severe reluctance to consider the possibility that certain aspects of the film might be recuperable despite the film’s obvious flaws. I’ve encountered a similar reluctance when attempting to articulate my reading of the third Matrix movie. Last week, the subject (which I don’t think had been discussed in 3 years) came up at a poker game, and someone there who hadn’t heard my reading asked me to explain it…which was greeted generally by groans, of the “not this again” variety…which is odd, since, as I said, this hasn’t come up in years. Admittedly, my reading (which I won’t reproduce here) isn’t all that great of a reading, but it’s not so bad that it dare not speak its name. At last night’s poker game, when I tried to recuperate 300 in a slightly similar manner, before I had even explained my reading, someone alluded to my Matrix reading and said, more or less, “not this again.”

While I hope I’m wrong about this, and someone will correct me, I have a hard time understanding these reactions as anything less than a certain kind of aestheticism that insists on maintaining a clear dividing line between “good” and “bad” taste. Only the obligations of taste permit a reading to be rejected on face rather than on the basis of a counter-reading – thus, since clearly everyone (academic and non-academic audiences alike, myself included) agrees that Matrix Revolutions is a bad movie, it’s best never to speak of it again, except possibly in the form of a critique, lest the taint of a recuperation reveal something like bad taste. This sort of obligatory dismissal is not only contrary to the way we talk about “high literature,” it ultimately results in simplistic readings: as I will attempt to show here, what is most troubling about 300 is not the superficial political commitments of its awkward dialogue, but the deeper ideological commitments of what the film does best – its near perfect visual form. Rejecting the film based on its dialogue gets the critique entirely wrong.

Continue reading ‘Frank Miller’s 300: On Laconism in Contemporary American Cinema (Part 1 of 2)’

Irony Continued: Undecidability and Polysemy, Truth and Error

•March 4, 2007 • 1 Comment

The ongoing discussion of Paul de Man’s “The Concept of Irony” continues with a long comment by Joe, and my response here. Newcomers to the discussion should start at the beginning here and here. Because this post attempts to respond to Joe’s latest comment line-by-line, most of it will be of little interest to those who haven’t been following the discussion (is anyone following the discussion at this point other than Joe and myself?). One point of interest even out of context might be my attempt to lay out de Man’s concept of undecidability in parts 3-5, starting here.

That brings us up to this post, where I intend to respond, as I said, line-by-line to Joe’s latest comments. They are quoted in their entirety here, but check out the above link to the comment if you want to see them in their original, undivided form. For the sake of clarity, I’ve placed Joe’s quotes in italics and mine in boldface.

Continue reading ‘Irony Continued: Undecidability and Polysemy, Truth and Error’

Irony Continued: The Joke’s on Me?

•February 24, 2007 • 2 Comments

Since I began the series of posts on irony (here and here) with the subtitle “J/K, J.K.; OR, A JOKE ON JOE K” – that is, joking around that the post might be a roast – I suppose turnabout is fair play. Joe K has responded over at The Kugelmass Episodes (here), and I can’t help feeling there’s something funny about his response. Not the second half, mind you. The argument is divided into two parts, and I think the second part, to which I will devote a separate response, still pending, develops the argument in an interesting new direction, despite some problems I will try to identify. The first part, however, places me in the precarious position of defending what looks like a caricature of my original post against what must be a caricature of De Man, leaving me only the option of opting out of this false choice

Now, my original thought was:

  • to begin a long response that explains why Joe was incorrect to accuse me of “assum[ing] that de Man is internally consistent,” that is, treating de Man’s consistency on the particular problem of “the rhetoric of persuasion” as an unfounded assumption rather than a claim to be supported by close reading
  • then, on the other hand, to explain why Joe’s attempt to confront de Man’s explicit intentions with “the totality of what we can say about the way his texts work” (as opposed to the totality of what we can claim and support about the way his texts work) results in an insufficiently critical hermeneutics which is not, as Joe insists, authorized by de Man’s approach

However, while I think these claims identify genuine flaws in some of Joe’s rhetoric, which I would be happy to articulate in greater depth in future posts, if necessary, I don’t think this is where the main argument lies, and I don’t want to frontload this post with what now seems to me like a digression. Instead, I will briefly point out where I think the debate does lie, and confront Joe’s argument there.

Continue reading ‘Irony Continued: The Joke’s on Me?’

One good Neruda deserves anuder

•February 10, 2007 • 3 Comments

From Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desesperada by Pablo Neruda:


Juegas todos los días con la luz del universo.
Sutil visitadora, llegas en la flor y en el agua.
Eres más que esta blanca cabecita que aprieto
como un racimo entre mis manos cada día.

A nadie te pareces desde que yo te amo.
Déjame tenderte entre guirnaldas amarillas.
Quién escribe tu nombre con letras de humo entre las estrellas del sur?
Ah déjame recordarte como eras entonces, cuando aún no existías.

De pronto el viento aúlla y golpea mi ventana cerrada.
El cielo es una red cuajada de peces sombríos.
Aquí vienen a dar todos los vientos, todos.
Se desviste la lluvia.

Pasan huyendo los pájaros.
El viento. El viento.
Yo solo puedo luchar contra la fuerza de los hombres.
El temporal arremolina hojas oscuras
y suelta todas las barcas que anoche amarraron al cielo.

Tú estás aquí. Ah tú no huyes.
Tú me responderás hasta el último grito.
Ovíllate a mi lado como si tuvieras miedo.
Sin embargo alguna vez corrió una sombra extraña por tus ojos.

Ahora, ahora también, pequeña, me traes madreselvas,
y tienes hasta los senos perfumados.
Mientras el viento triste galopa matando mariposas
yo te amo, y mi alegría muerde tu boca de ciruela.

Cuánto te habrá dolido acostumbrarte a mí,
a mi alma sola y salvaje, a mi nombre que todos ahuyentan.
Hemos visto arder tantas veces el lucero besándonos los ojos
y sobre nuestras cabezas destorcerse los crepúsculos en abanicos girantes.

Mis palabras llovieron sobre ti acariciándote.
Amé desde hace tiempo tu cuerpo de nácar soleado.
Hasta te creo dueña del universo.
Te traeré de las montañas flores alegres, copihues,
avellanas oscuras, y cestas silvestres de besos.

Quiero hacer contigo
lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos.

Continue reading ‘One good Neruda deserves anuder’