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.