Columbus, Foucault, and the New World as Keplerian Baroque Space

Mid-summer progress report:

I’ve been engaged in some reading and rereading in anticipation of getting started on the third chapter of the book project, which will chiefly consist of readings of Cabeza de Vaca as he presents himself in Castaways and Cooper’s Natty Bumppo in The Last of the Mohicans and The Prairie.  I have also been editing the preface, the Columbus chapter, and the Faulkner and Amado chapter with the goals of trying to tighten up the writing.  Finally and most significantly, in the Columbus chapter I’ve incorporated an argument about the Baroque that you’ll see in this post.

A while back, I wrote in this post about Foucault’s reticence as to the causes of the shifts in ideas about language and space that are his subjects in, respectively, The Order of Things and “Of Other Spaces.”  For Foucault, the Baroque is the aesthetic of those shifts, but he seems deeply suspicious of it, if not actively dismissive of it: in it, “[s]imilitude is no longer the form of knowledge but rather the occasion of error, the danger to which one exposes oneself when one does not examine the obscure region of confusions” (The Order of Things, 51).  Anyway, while in that earlier post I name the Encounter as the cause of those shifts Foucault describes, in the excerpt below I develop that more fully with an assist from Cuban novelist and theorist Severo Sarduy’s essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (found in Baroque New Worlds, one of the titles I mentioned here).  I think this excerpt is pretty self-contained; just in case, though, “Carpentier” refers to Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier’s essay “Problemática de la actual novela latinoamericana, and “Benítez-Rojo” refers to Antonio Benítez-Rojo’s book The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective.

I am hopeful that someone out there in the Interwebs who knows more than I do about Foucault and/or Sarduy will bump into this and leave a comment.  Thanks in advance.



Mappamonde, Gerard Mercator, 1587.  Via.

[The] dynamism inherent in this New World Baroque as described by Carpentier gives us some insight into his response to his argument that this hemisphere’s lack of a style conveys well the truths of this region.  Moreover, other writers and critics likewise, in their own ways, either name the dilemma(s) New World writers encounter, or name it/them and then propose ways of framing New World experience similar to Carpentier’s own solution and his rationale for it.  That solution lies not so much in postmodernism’s lack of a center and distrust of Grand Narratives but, rather, in the Baroque’s honoring of dynamism, its lack of fixedness, which creates a space within which the interactions of cultures and the land provide a common ground for this hemisphere’s writers.

Just to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that Carpentier or other 20th-century New World writers themselves “discovered” this style—or, for that matter, “discovered” only in this century the problems, to which this style responds, that beset the writers of this hemisphere.  Indeed, I do not believe we would not be guilty of too great a historio-critical transgression if we were to make the claim that the Columbian narratives—not as written but as subsequently discussed and understood by his contemporaries—at the very least began to prepare the cultural ground for the eventual leave-taking of modernity Benítez-Rojo argues has happened here, 400 years before modernity as a cultural expression had even appeared in Europe.  After all, as we have already seen, many Europeans, after examining Columbus’s Diarios and his letters to the Spanish monarchs and then comparing those documents to the cartography of the waters and islands he visited, clearly had that same incredulous attitude toward his metadiscourse.  They concluded that his claims about those regions simply did not square with the physical realities of this hemisphere and, as represented by both Peter Martyr and Bartolomé de Las Casas, collectively set about creating a semiotics that, as O’Gorman notes in The Invention of America, would allow Europeans to begin to conceive of this new place within a European frame.  Meanwhile, this hemisphere’s newly-emerging peoples would both find that Eurocentric semiotics lacking and, almost contemporaneously with it, would discover and explore the central, defining narrative of their region: its response to having been, as Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes once put it, “condemned to utopia by the Old World.”[1]

I want to argue on behalf of that defining narrative throughout the rest of this chapter and then, in those that follow, try to identify and describe.  Rather than simply (and perhaps simplistically) describe this hemisphere as a postmodern space, with its origins always in various Elsewheres, I wish to propose and then pursue the idea that the New World is its own Elsewhere.  I will begin to do this by suggesting that we can consider the New World more than an example of that type of site that Michel Foucault calls a heterotopia.  Indeed, I hope to show that Columbus’s encounter with the landmasses of this hemisphere creates the dramatic shift, between the 16th and 17th centuries, in Europeans’ understanding of themselves and their literal and figurative place in the world that serves as the historical starting-point for Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, The Order of Things.

In the second and third chapters of that book, Foucault lays out a description of the shift in Europeans’ understanding of the relationship between language and the world.  He argues that in the 16th century, they understood that language “is a treasury of signs linked by similitude to that which they are empowered to denote,” that “[t]he truth of all these marks–whether they are woven into nature itself or whether they exist in lines on parchment and in libraries–is everywhere the same: coeval with the institution of God” (34).  By the 17th century, however, that understanding had changed dramatically: with the important exception of literary language, “the arrangement of signs was to become binary, since it was to be defined, with Port-Royal, as the connection of a significant and a signified” (42).  Curiously, however, nowhere in those two chapters does Foucault indicate what had changed in Europe that led to that shift.  Still, while discussing an analogous and contemporaneous dramatic shift in Europeans’ conceptions of space in his 1967 essay “Of Other Spaces,” Foucault does point to a cause for that shift.  He argues that medieval Europeans conceived of space as emplacement (that is, its spaces had a hierarchical organization to them: sacred and profane spaces; rural and urban spaces; etc.).  For Renaissance Europeans, space became extension, with the old hierarchical arrangement of spaces now done away with: “a thing’s place was no longer anything but a point in its movement, just as the stability of a thing was only its movement indefinitely slowed down.”  (We can see this idea at work in Peter Martyr’s rationale for coining the term “novus orbis,” the new lands described by Columbus being incorporated into an extension of the world-as-understood by Europeans.)  Foucault attributes the cause of that shift in understanding to Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system in 1616.   At some undetermined point afterward, however, another shift in thought occurred, such that our own historio-cultural moment’s sense of space is what Foucault calls the site:

The site is defined by relations of proximity between points or elements; formally, we can describe these relations as series, trees, or grids.  Moreover, the importance of the site as a problem in contemporary technical work is well known[. . .]

[T]he problem of siting or placement arises for mankind in terms of demography. This problem of the human site or living space is not simply that of knowing whether there will be enough space for men in the world—a problem that is certainly quite important—but also that of knowing what relations of propinquity, what type of storage, circulation, marking, and classification of human elements should be adopted in a given situation in order to achieve a given end. Our epoch is one in which space takes for us the form of relations among sites. (“Of Other Spaces”)

As I say, Foucault does not locate a historical moment after which the site became our new configuration of space, though his description does seem to correspond to his remarks in The Order of Things regarding language’s understood relation to the world, beginning in the 17th century, as a binary one.  Still, in both texts the cause remains invisible; Foucault only notes its effects on the intellectual world he describes.

However, in both “Of Other Spaces” and The Order of Things we see indirect signs that the Encounter may be that cause: it haunts these texts in the form of this hemisphere’s cultural products.  In “Of Other Spaces,” for example, several of Foucault’s examples of heterotopic spaces come from the Americas; and his concluding paragraph’s lyrical evocation of the sailing ship, “the heterotopia par excellence,” “goes as far as the colonies in search of the most precious treasures they conceal in their gardens,” thus making it not only “the great instrument of economic development” but “simultaneously the greatest reserve of the imagination.”  (Note also the ship’s ability to establish connections between otherwise disparate points, an issue that Foucault argues arises from our contemporary age’s notion of the site as our chief way of thinking about space.)  Meanwhile, he opens the preface to The Order of Things by announcing, “This book first arose out of a passage in [Argentinian writer Jorge Luis] Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography” (xv, emphasis the author’s).  In both texts, the New World serves as a point from which Foucault orients himself relative to the tasks which he sets himself (note the resonances with physical space held by the words landmarks and geography in the passage quoted just above).  In both these texts, but in particular in The Order of Things, the New World has the same effect on his account of European thought as South America does on Columbus’s thought after his third voyage when he re-imagines the planet as pear-shaped.  In each case, to quote Foucault again, the Encounter shatters “all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought;” it de-centers what people thought they had known about the planet in the direction of another, previously-unsuspected center of geological and intellectual gravity.  In the thought of each, and certainly quite literally to Columbus’s mind, the earth begins to morph from a sphere to an ovoid: the Baroque appears, in the form of the New World, before the Renaissance begins in Europe.

Johannes Kepler’s discovery in 1609 that Mars and, thus, all the planets orbit around the sun in an ellipsis and not a circle serves as the starting point for Cuban writer Severo Sarduy’s description of Baroque aesthetics in his 1974 book Barroco.   Though Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the cosmos (and Galileo’s confirmation of it) was indeed truer than Ptolemy’s description, it nevertheless retained the circle as its shape and thus, for Sarduy, implicitly continues to value a social politics in which power emanates from a single, clearly defined center.  Kepler’s discovery, by contrast,

alter[s] the scientific foundation on which rested the entire knowledge of the age [and] create[s] a reference point in relation to which all symbolic activity, explicitly or not, is situated.  Something is decentering itself, or rather, duplicating, dividing its center; now, the dominant figure is not the circle, with its single, radiating, luminous, paternal center, but the ellipse, which opposes this visible focal point with another, equally functional, equally real, albeit closed off, dead, nocturnal, the blind center, the other side of the Sun’s germinative yang, that which is absent.[2]

The geometry of the ellipse’s “dual focalization” (292), Sarduy argues, “must be assimilated to a given moment in a formal dialectic: multiple dynamic components, capable of being projected into other forms, generative,” which then reveals what Sarduy calls the ellipse’s retombée, the “epistemological solidarity between geometric and rhetorical figures”[3] (293).

I wish to propose here, though, that the Keplerian moment Sarduy describes actually occurred over a hundred years prior to Galileo’s astronomical observations that, Foucault says, ushered in the notion of space as extension: it happened during the years of Columbus’s voyages, as Europeans attempted to make sense of the lands and peoples Columbus described in the Diario and his letters.  To put the matter another way, from the perspective of the New World, “the problem of siting or placement,” of locating what Sarduy denotes as the blind, absent center of the Keplerian ellipse, begins not with demography but, rather, geography: not with Columbus’s encountering of the Bahamas or even of Cuba or Hispaniola, but on his third voyage—to be precise, in the moment he encountered fresh water and not salt water in the Gulf of Paria and knew the land he saw to his south, the land that fresh water came from, must be large indeed as well as previously unaccounted for.  Peter Martyr, via his coinage of novus orbis, hoped to incorporate the lands described by Columbus into an already-existing frame for discussing the world’s landmasses, as did, for that matter, Columbus through his insistence that he had arrived in Asia.  The landscape forced Columbus to propose his pear-shaped globe in order to account for what he found without at the same time calling into question previously-received truths about the planet’s landmasses.  Yet in the act of proposing the pear-shaped globe and, in particular, his argument that at its summit one would find the Garden of Eden, Columbus nevertheless felt himself forced to reject even Ptolemy’s teaching of the earth’s sphericity and earlier saints’ claims regarding the location of Eden.[4]  The brute fact of the land before them, or its description, compelled Columbus and Martyr, respectively, to engage in the rhetorics they did, such that each sought in his own way to squeeze their observations into conformity with already-existing narratives.

[1]“Gabriel García Márquez and the Invention of America,” in Fuentes, Myself with Others: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1988), 184.

[2] “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (trans. Christopher Winks), p. 293 in Baroque New Worlds.  All subsequent quotes are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

[3] In “El barroco après la letter (entrevista con Alberto Cardín y Biel Mesquida,” quoted by Christopher Wicks in Baroque New Worlds, 293 n. i.

[4] I am being guided here by excerpts from Columbus’s third letter, trans. by Samuel Eliot Morison. (ENGL 4/5125-01W [Colonial and Early American Literature].  University of West Georgia.  2005.  Web.  19 Apr. 2015.)

10 thoughts on “Columbus, Foucault, and the New World as Keplerian Baroque Space

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  7. Very nice work. I am a pastoral educator and a PhD student with Tyler Art School in the Renaissance Baroque program. I draw upon liberation and radical theology in my work. I would love to connect with you.


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