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Latin America: The Empty Continent


The Spanish and Portuguese colonization of America is still a kind of theoretical no-man’s land and a political taboo.  One can easily understand why Spanish and Portuguese intellectuals avoid any discussion of the topic.  Remember the magnificent Centennials of both the Spanish discovery of the Caribbean and the Portuguese discovery of Brazil.  Any critical approach to the topic of colonialism had effectively been wiped out.  Censorship has been imposed within both academia and the Spanish and Latin American media.  The only critical book on the Spanish colonization of America published in Spain in recent years fell victim to the ultimate censorship — that of the marketplace.  It has been sold for paper pulp.  In countries like Mexico, Bolivia, or Perù, where the colonization of the so-called ethnic or indigenous American cultures has not been fully achieved, its critical interpretation is now a national security matter.

These facts are very relevant to our interpretation of the colonization of America.  It was conceived theologically and militarily as an extension and perpetuation of the medieval crusades.  The “Conquest of America” represented an extension of the so-called “Reconquista,” the Reconquest of Spanish territory, that is, the Spanish-Christian Holy War against Spain’s Muslims and Jews.  This war ended officially in 1492 with the destruction of Granada, the last Islamic kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula, and the expulsion of the Spanish Jews.  The strategy of forced mass conversion and genocide, at the core of the “Reconquista,” was carried over to America immediately after 1492.

The Christian and premodern strategy of genocide, mass conversion, and religious persecution does not permit a space of recognition, or a process of mutual representation and symbolic negotiation.  The so-called West Indian was first and foremost a non-existence.  The first official Vatican documents addressing the question of Christian property in the New World described its inhabitants as an absence: they were godless, speechless, naked, and without will.  Later they were defined legally and theologically as Spaniards and Christians.  This explains why so prominent a theologian as Vitoria, a personal friend of the Emperor Charles V, opposed waging war against them: you cannot go to war against your own citizens, he argued.  This explains also why such a prominent missionary as Las Casas opposed the genocide of Indians.  After all, they were as Christian as the Spaniards, for most Spaniards, himself included, were themselves forced converts to Christianity.

Contemporary postcolonial studies have attempted to transfer various categories and analytical paradigms of modern British Oriental colonialism to the earlier Spanish premodern Western Indian colonialism.  This has led to a series of very complacent interpretations which do not get at the nerve of Iberian colonialism.  Todorov’s portrayal of the destruction of Tenoxticlan by Cortés casts it as the skilled deployment of an elaborate game whose goal was the construction of an identity, that of the Other.  Todorov does not recognize biological, ecological, cultural and social destruction as a primary task of the strategies of both Cortés and Pizarro, and the missionaries that followed them.  Bartra’s research on European representations of a pre-Columbian savage is in fact a precious work.  But these representations would have been utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to the strategists of the Conquista or the Propaganda Fide in America.  Gruzinski, for his part, shows a somewhat naive fascination with the colorful hybridization of colonial religious symbols.  The brutal missionary repression of ancient practices and knowledges, he points out, did not eliminate them entirely.  As in the Freudian dream, the repressed returns under new and fabulous shapes and colors to pass censorship.  Nonetheless, the problem is not the colorfulness of the repressed, but the repression itself.  Gruzinski’s analysis manages to avoid the core process of the negation and annihilation of the colonized culture, language, and existence.

The perspective critical of Orientalism offers no better account of the process of successful obliteration of the Islamic and Hebrew cultures in the Iberian Peninsula.  The Islamic library of Granada, one of the most important of its time, was not misread; it was burned.   So too the lives of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews, their houses of worship and their records.  The purpose of the Spanish Christian Military Orders and Christians Kings over the centuries was the construction of an ethnically and theologically homogeneous nation.  Such a national-Christian construction was not a speech act, but a violent destruction and a Christian genocide.  For the crusaders, there was no Other at all, but only One and the Same: One Truth, or death.

In my book, El Continente Vacío, I use the concept of “the theology of colonization” as a way of understanding, at its very deep roots, this process of total annihilation of non-Christian cultures.  The theology of colonization reveals Christian universals as a process of virtual global conversion of all languages and cults to the Christian Word and God, to the Christian worldview, moral norms and political goals.  Instead of interpreting the premodern Ibero-American colonization through the categories and strategies of the modern European colonization of Asia and Africa, I propose we do the opposite and interpret this new and Enlightened imperialism from the perspective of the earlier experiences of Christian and unenlightened imperialism.  Fascinating cross-influences reveal themselves, the interpretation of Bacon’s modern scientific epistemology from the point of view of his missionary critique of “idols” being just one example among many others.

Postcolonialism is my second topic.  I will be very brief.  It is impossible to understand anything at all about so-called postcolonial or modern cultures of Latin America (apart from Brazil) unless we keep two circumstances in mind.  The first and most important one, as I have said, is the process of Christian colonization as a total annihilation of the Iberian and American historical cultures.  The second is the absence of a Spanish and Spanish-American Enlightenment.

Deconstructionist scholars pretend that there is no single privileged European or Eurocentric Enlightenment on the one hand and its peripheral and marginal shadows, on the other.  Rather, they say, there are merely different Enlightenments, arraying themselves across a global decentralized remapping of social texts.  Alonso made recently such an attempt at de-centering Enlightenments.  This construction is irrelevant.  In any case, what makes the Spanish and Spanish-American Enlightenments different is the fact that they are not enlightened at all.  I do not think that this absence of a Spanish and Spanish-American Enlightenment constitutes a flaw, some kind of original sin.  Rather, it exposes the false pretension of universalism so central to the scientific epistemologies, liberal utopias, moral principles of autonomy, and the dreams of progress distinctive of European Enlightenment philosophies.

Spanish nationalists base their claims to a Spanish Enlightenment on a Benedictine friar named Feijoo, who borrowed from Bacon’s empirical epistemology while suppressing the latter’s arguments against metaphysics.   And of course, we cannot ignore BolÌvar, a main figure of Latin American Independence, Enlightenment, and modernity.  But he defined Latin American Independence through a rather ambivalent historical construction: “No somos europeos, no somos indios, sino una especie media entre los aborígenes y los españoles,” he wrote.  “We are not European, nor Indians, but an intermediate species between the natives and the Spaniards.  We are born Americans, but we have also the rights of the Europeans.  This is our conflict: we have to fight for our possessions against the natives, and maintain ourselves in the country where we were born against the will of the invaders.”   Sarmiento is another paradigm of Latin American modernity.  However, his Enlightenment consisted of a pathetic paean to Parisian civilization as the supposed antithesis of Spanish-Indian barbarism.  This was not hollow praise: he backed it up with genocide of Indians, drawing his inspiration from Spanish as well as North American concepts of colonization.

Jovellanos and Quintana, Bello and Martí, Miranda and Varela, and many other Spanish and Latin American intellectuals cannot be called unambiguously enlightened, liberal, or even modern.  They were something else.  They were liberals, independentists, progressives, and, at the same time, neocolonialists of a sort.  They were modern and sometimes Christian fundamentalists too.  They are hybrids.

Eduardo Subirats is the author, among other books, of Da vanguarda ao pós-moderno (Sâo Paulo: Nobel, 1984); Culturas virtuales (México: Coyoacán, 2001); El continente vacío (Mexico: Siglo XXI, 1994); Linterna Mágica (Madrid: Siruela, 1997); Memoria y exilio (Madrid: Losada, 2003), Viaje al fin del Paraíso. Un ensayo sobre América latina (Madrid: Losada, 2005).  His latest book is Violencia y civilización (Madrid: Losada, 2006).  He currently contributes cultural and political articles to the Latin American press.  Subirats is a professor at the Department of Spanish and Portuguese of New York University, specializing in modern philosophy, aesthetics, critical theory and colonial theory.  He formerly taught at Princeton University and at the universities of São Paulo, México, Caracas, and Madrid.

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