More “new” writing

On the “Domestic Issue” page of this blog, I’ve replaced the original chapter on Columbus with a much-expanded version, this one incorporating ideas about the Baroque (in particular Cuban writer Severo Sarduy’s ideas about it) as a tool for thinking about this hemisphere’s topography and culture.  The basic idea is that Columbus’s attempt, in his account of his third voyage (which took him to the Venezuelan coast), to account for the enormous landmass that “shouldn’t” have been there by describing the Earth as actually being shaped like a pear is itself a manifestation of the Baroque, even though Sarduy associates the beginnings of the Baroque with Kepler’s discovery that the planets follow elliptical orbits around the Sun.  A while back, I wrote about this here.  Also, as you’ll see, I puzzle over the question of why Foucault, in The Order of Things, doesn’t identify a historical event as marking the sudden shift in Europe from Renaissance to Baroque thinking.  (If you’re curious, though, in this post I try to make the case that Foucault’s discussion of the figure of Don Quixote as an emblem of the Baroque turns the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance into a pretty good proxy for Columbus.)

In this new version of the chapter, there’s also some writing by way of setting up not only the Columbus stuff but the larger project that tries to make the case that our reclaiming the term “New World” from its European purpose of attempting to shoe-horn this hemisphere’s landmasses into a European-centered conception of the world would be a worthwhile thing to try to do.

I hope some of you might find your way over there and take the time to have a look–and, even better, offer up a comment or two.  Thanks in advance.

Latin-American liberation theology and the Neo-Baroque: a point of connection

This is one of those “I have more reading to do, but . . . ” posts.  Some context, first of all: as part of a chapter, on New World rhetoric(s), for the book project, I’ve been reading essays by the early 20th-century Peruvian socialist José Carlos Mariátegui and Latin American liberation theologians of the ’70s and ’80s.  The former was an important influence on the latter, in that each believed that socioeconomic theory and theology, respectively, had to have as their starting points the actual conditions of–and solidarity with–the people being witnessed to (that verb being as appropriate a description for Mariátegui’s arguments for a distinctly Latin American style of socialism as it is for describing clergy and laypeople engaged in making the arguments for a theology of liberation).  While my reading has so far confirmed all of this for me, the reason for this post is the diagram you see below and its strong evocation by analogy of Cuban theorist Severo Sarduy’s discussion of the Neo-Baroque.

Dussel The synchronic and diachronic dimensions of analogy in theology

from Enrique Dussel’s “Historical and Philosophical Presuppositions for Latin American Theology,” found here.

In this chart, Dussel seeks to illustrate his argument that, as represented by the shaded area of the chart, the Church throughout history has always held in common the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God and that humankind finds its salvation through belief in him.  At the same time, however, “We can also have participation in that same catholicity in different historical epochs, thereby forming one and the same tradition through time (i.e., diachronically); but the “sameness” would not be of a univocal sort” due to the “analogical ‘distinctions’ that are characteristic of the metaphysical innovativeness of a given theologian or a given culture in all its inimitable uniqueness” (193; italics are Dussel’s).  This recognition that the Church is located in particular spaces and times may seem quite obvious, but theologians of liberation use as their starting point the recognition that European theologies would too often presume that their teachings have always and everywhere been true, which had the effect of marginalizing non-Europeans and the non-powerful.

All those ellipsoid shapes in Dussel’s diagram are where Sarduy and his discussions of the Baroque come in.  In his essay “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler,” Sarduy argues (and I’ll be quoting from an earlier post of mine),

“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 that the planets orbit the Sun in ellipsoid orbits, by contrast, Sarduy says,

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. ( “Baroque Cosmology: Kepler” (trans. Christopher Winks), p. 293 in Baroque New Worlds.)

I have much to say in that earlier post about how the brute facts of the Americas’ landmasses, its indigenous flora, fauna, and peoples and, later, its mixed-race populations are the cause of the decentering that Sarduy describes.  For now, I’ll just add here that those theologians of liberation whose work I’ve read likewise note that, as Juan Carlos Scannone puts it, “it would be a completely new reworking and formulation of theological activity as a whole from a completely new standpoint: i.e., the kairos of salvation history now being lived on our continent” (215).  Dussel’s discussion of the various manifestations of the Church as having, in effect, dual centers of attention is a direct reflection of that new standpoint as well.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I have more reading to do; moreover, what you see above is no more than a sketching-out of these links.  But it’s a good feeling to see some initial confirmation of some claims I’m making even when I’m not actively looking for something to confirm my biases.

Jose Carlos Mariategui: An Anthology (a review)

Jose Carlos MariateguiJosé Carlos Mariátegui: An Anthology, ed. and trans. by Harry E. Vanden and Marc Becker (Monthly Review Press, 2011).  Amazon.

I want to state from the outset that I’m glad this book is available.  As Vanden and Becker note, Mariátegui is still not well known in this country, and this collection aims to both remedy that and augment the other, best-known (in the United States) collection of his writings, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality I had first run into  Mariátegui’s thought in a book on Faulkner, Hosam Aboul-Ela’s  Other South: Faulkner, Coloniality, and the Mariátegui Tradition, and discuss at length Mariátegui’s idea that history is comprised of “stages that are not entirely linear in their development” as it might apply to Go Down, Moses’ narrative structure in  this old post.  Thanks to this anthology, I now know considerably more about Mariátegui’s thought than I had before.

Apart from his idea about history’s non-linear development, though, Mariátegui is fascinating to me more generally as an example of a thinker from Latin America (in his case, the Peru of the turn of the 20th century) who is drawn to a philosophy from Europe (in his case, Marxism) who, instead of slapping it on his country and region to use as a kind of one-size-fits-all template for making sense of its history and culture, does something almost like the reverse: he looks closely at his region and its people, its history and culture, and borrows and modifies elements from Marxism to make it a more-fitting tool for change.  As just one example: in several writings included in this anthology, Mariátegui implicitly notes the common root in the words communism and community and argues that Inca society had been its essence a communist society because of its communities’ agricultural lands had been held in common by the members of those communities: “Inca communism, which cannot be denied or disparaged, developed under the autocratic rule of the Incas, is therefore designated as an agrarian communism” (in “The Land Problem,” p. 73 of the present edition).  A kind of communism, thus, not only pre-dates Marx but is actually autochthonous to this hemisphere.  Mariátegui goes on to note that indigenous and mixed-race communities in Peru still retain this communal impulse as they tend to organize and work together to complete large-scale projects, and he concludes that Peru’s peasant class, with training and organizing led by people from those communities, would be receptive to those parts of communism that would lead to workers’ seeking to control the means of production (in most Peruvians’ case, this would mean controlling the land).  It is thinking like this, along with Mariátegui’s full-throated argument for the necessity of myth in a culture (thus rebutting orthodox Marxism’s rejection of religion), that explains simultaneously (for me) both Mariátegui’s continuing influence in Latin America and that he remains relatively unknown in this country.  And, indeed, Vanden and Becker write that  “Mariátegui’s writings . . . . represent the dynamic, creative vein in Marxist thought that can, we believe, best nourish cogent analyses and potent praxis” (9).

So, then, why is this book so frustrating at times?

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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.

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Proving What the Books Say Is True: Don Quixote as Columbus in Foucault’s The Order of Things

Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things is at least as remarkable, to me, for what it does not say in its opening chapters as for what it does say.  As its readers know, its second and third chapters (“The Prose of the World” and “Representing”) describe the dramatic shift in Europeans’ understanding of language’s relationship to the world that occurred between the 16th and 17th centuries: a shift from a time when “[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) to a time when, 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).  However, Foucault offers no explanation for why this shift occurred.  He does indirectly give a name to the time during which it occurred–the Baroque (he devotes a single, rather dismissive paragraph on p. 51 to a description of its attributes)–and identifies Cervantes’ Don Quixote as the Baroque’s avatar, but he has nothing more to say on the matter.

In his early speech (which later became an article) “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias,” Foucault names Galileo’s confirmation of Copernicus’s heliocentric model for what we now call the solar system as the cause for the intellectual shift from medieval to Renaissance understandings of space.  Thus, we know that Foucault is more than capable of identifying significant events whose consequences reverberate through time and culture.  Yet in The Order of Things, he does not.

I do not pretend to know why Foucault is silent on the cause for this profound shift in Western thought, but I can tell you what I think he should have said that cause was: Columbus’s arrivals in the Americas. There’s nothing like a culture’s encountering two enormous landmasses completely unaccounted for by the Bible to thoroughly shake that culture’s previously-unquestioned assumption that language is “coeval with the institution of God.”  However, perhaps Foucault does mention the Americas-as-cause indirectly, through a bit of projection.  In the preface to The Order of Things, he mentions the ficciones of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges as an inspiration for his idea of heterotopias, and several of the examples of heterotopias he provides in “Of Other Spaces” are from the Americas.  To some extent, then, Foucault thinks of the Americas and at least some of its cultural products as disruptive in comparison to European conceptions of space and language.  Meanwhile, in the sub-chapter on Don Quixote in “Representing,” Foucault could not have provides us, through his discussion of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, a better description both of how Columbus understood the space through which he sailed and how his understanding looks to us today.

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Agamben’s Concept of Homo Sacer

I first learned of political philosopher Giorgio Agamben earlier this year via this long review article by Adam Kotsko in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  Since then, I’ve not exactly been a diligent student of his, but Kotsko’s discussion of Agamben’s book The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, struck me as having resonances with Foucault’s notion of heterotopia which, as the tens of readers of this blog may recall, has considerable importance for my book project.  My long-time Internet friend Kári was kind enough to send me a copy of that book when he learned of my interest in Agamben, and he also has the useful habit of posting things about Agamben on his Facebook feed from time to time.

Anyway, speaking of Facebook, this morning the video below popped up as a Suggested Post; it’s an 8-minute condensed presentation of Agamben’s central idea, the Homo Sacer, or “sacred man,” and its gradual loss as monarchies have evolved into democracies (and totalitarian states) and biology has become the chief determinant of the individual’s value in society.  If any of this sounds the least bit interesting to you, I encourage you to watch this.