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Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You

Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You
Elsewheres and Ethnosuicide in the Colonial Mesoamerican World

This pathfinding book presents a new understanding of the pictorial vocabulary presented in Codex Telleriano-Remensis, which reveals a native painter's perspective on the tandem of ethnosuicide and ethnogenesis, and the topology of conquest.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture, in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

October 2011
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278 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w photos |

Folio 46r from Codex Telleriano-Remensis was created in the sixteenth century under the supervision of Spanish missionaries in central Mexico. As an artifact of seismic cultural and political shifts, the manuscript painting is a singular document of indigenous response to Spanish conquest. Examining the ways in which the folio's tlacuilo (indigenous painter/writer) creates a pictorial vocabulary, this book embraces the place "outside" history from which this rich document emerged.

Applying contemporary intellectual perspectives, including aspects of gender, modernity, nation, and visual representation itself, José Rabasa reveals new perspectives on colonial order. Folio 46r becomes a metaphor for reading the totality of the codex and for reflecting on the postcolonial theoretical issues now brought to bear on the past. Ambitious and innovative (such as the invention of the concepts of elsewheres and ethnosuicide, and the emphasis on intuition), Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You embraces the performative force of the native scribe while acknowledging the ineffable traits of 46r—traits that remain untenably foreign to the modern excavator/scholar. Posing provocative questions about the unspoken dialogues between evangelizing friars and their spiritual conquests, this book offers a theoretic-political experiment on the possibility of learning from the tlacuilo ways of seeing the world that dislocate the predominance of the West.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Overture
  • Chapter 2. Reading Folio 46r
  • Chapter 3. Depicting Perspective
  • Chapter 4. The Dispute of the Friars
  • Chapter 5. Topologies of Conquest
  • Chapter 6. "Tell Me the Story of How I Conquered You"
  • Chapter 7. The Entrails of Periodization
  • Chapter 8. (In)comparable Worlds
  • Chapter 9. Elsewheres
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

José Rabasa teaches in the Department of Romance Languages at Harvard University. His previous books include Inventing America: Spanish Historiography and the Formation of Eurocentrism; Writing Violence on the Northern Frontier: The Historiography of Sixteenth-Century New Mexico and Florida and the Legacy of Conquest; and Without History: Subaltern Studies, the Zapatista Insurgency, and the Specter of History.


In reading folio 46r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis (ca. 1563), I face a tlacuilo, a native scribe, who painted the colonial world from an elsewhere. The performative force of folio 46r resides in placing me under a threatening empiricism that reveals a world that escapes categorization and the assurance of universals.


By the concept of elsewheres, I understand spaces and temporalities that define a world that remains exterior to the spatio-temporal location of any given observer. This definition has enabled me to intuit a spatio-temporal difference that cannot be conflated with the knowledge we Western-trained academics construe about objects and subjects (in this case, Mesoamerican) that remain—in fact, must remain—outside the languages and methods we privilege in our positive knowledge, hermeneutics, or ontological definition of the world.


Elsewheres are not merely spatial locations. They consist of forms of affect, knowledge, and perception underlying what a given individual in a given culture can say and show about the world. The concept of elsewhere enables me to think in terms of a neuter, that is, of a pure negation, a not that lacks any reference to a previous state of affairs or even a positive entity. Elsewheres are ineffable though intuitable. Elsewheres demand the recognition that objects have a life of their own, but also a life for the Mesoamerican subjects whose affective and practical relation to objects cannot be reduced to those of the foreign or—for that matter—native scholar conducting excavations or archival retrieval or pinching bits and pieces from objects for laboratory testing. In this regard, this book should be read less as a hermeneutic of a Mesoamerican system of writing one may attribute to the tlacuilo and more as a philosophical or theoretical reflection on the revelation of the existence of elsewheres that disrupt the assumption that Western thought exhausts what can be said and thought—or, by extension, what must remain unsaid and unthought—about the experience humans may have of the world.


Beyond the role of scribes, the tlacuiloque in ancient Mesoamerica were wise men and women responsible for transmitting the knowledge they painted in their amoxtli (native books made of bark). In this book, I speak of the tlacuilo as a she to call attention to the fact that in Mesoamerica, painters included women and men, as evidenced in folio 30r of Telleriano-Remensis, which depicts a female tlacuilo that a Spanish gloss identifies as La pintora, supposedly a spouse or a concubine of Huitzilihuitl, the first ruler of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. This folio offers a point of entry for envisioning tlacuiloque at work, as it is, perhaps, a self-portrait, or minimally an image that captures the conventions used in depicting the posture, instrument, and symbolic language of a female tlacuilo. This is the sole image of native painters the tlacuilo produced for posterity. But, then again, she probably had a long disquisition on La pintora about which the Spanish glossator was apparently oblivious. We don’t know and probably will never know if the tlacuilo of Telleriano-Remensis was in fact a woman, but in memory of the anonymous La pintora, I have chosen to generalize the references to the tlacuilo as she, even if for the mere rhetorical effect that should keep us from generalizing the male identity of all tlacuiloque. In the colonial world, their knowledge extended to the native and Spanish legal, political, and religious institutions that interpellated the Nahuas in the daily life of the colony. The tlacuilo, working under the supervision of Dominican friars, had to adapt the traditional Mesoamerican genres to European materials and formats. She modified the use of screenfolds by painting the content on European paper, on discrete sheets to be compiled into a book. The supervisors also demanded that she leave spaces blank for the annotation of glosses.


The notion of elsewhere that I develop in this book has affinities with what Doris Sommer calls the "rhetoric of particularism"—that is, the strategies minority writers have developed to produce spaces that bar majority readers from entering. A brief discussion of Sommer’s project should prove useful for further defining what I understand by elsewhere. In Sommer’s argument, it is not a question of majority readers not understanding what is being said (or, in the case of folio 46r, depicted) but of minority writers constructing autonomous spaces by drawing limits of interpretation that must be respected. Having said this, I would underscore that the setting, positioning, and practice of painting cannot be subsumed under minority and resistant practices. The case of the tlacuilo differs from the literatures Sommer examines in that it is not necessarily an instance of a resistance text in which “a target audience is constructed as outsider and another as complicitous in the exclusion.’ The tlacuilo, however, does not paint from the position of a minority writer who writes from within the dominant language, system of representation, and writing system—Latin script in English or Spanish, as in Sommer’s cases. The tlacuilo follows the instructions of the supervisors and yet paints from a place they cannot access. I am less interested in what the tlacuilo keeps the audience from learning, though one might identify signs of no trespassing, than in what was communicated to the missionaries that disrupted their certainty by offering a view of their world that made manifest epistemological fissures and doctrinal inconsistencies between the two main orders in Mexico, the Franciscans and the Dominicans—corresponding to the right- and left-hand top corners of the page. This is to mention just one aspect of folio 46r that disrupted the world of the Dominican missionaries that solicited and supervised the painting of Telleriano-Remensis. What interests me in folio 46r is not so much the tlacuilo’s construction of inaccessible elsewheres that demand respect, but her creation of a pictorial vocabulary consistent with the ancient Mesoamerican life-forms (i.e., the elsewhere) with which and from which she makes sense of the colonial world. Although I am barred from seeing the world with the eyes of the tlacuilo, I can certainly recognize and be affected by what she shows me.


In this book, at the expense of positive knowledge about Codex Telleriano-Remensis or of ancient and colonial pictorial texts, I take the intuition of the elsewhere as a point of departure for a theoretic-political experiment on what we may learn to say and see about the colonial world from native painters. I offer a reminder of the significance of intuition, speculation, and thought experiments when reading history. In this regard, this is not “history’ in the strict sense of the term (few historians would recognize what I do as history), and yet it is a historical inquiry. In creating a theoretic-political experiment, I am also less concerned with offering conventional historical evidence (documents) drawn from existing archives than in exploring the possibility of building new forms of historical evidence that place an emphasis on the historical imagination. The notion of elsewhere enables me to recognize the existence of a self that produced the painting while drawing the limits of what I can say about this self.


The theoretical virtue of conceptualizing elsewheres is that it offers a neuter space that avoids the mirroring effect the category of the Other always carries with respect to a Same. As such, my method allows the tlacuilo to teach me how to see and understand the colonial world. In this way, this book works against the grain of much work in colonial and imperial studies that over the last two or three decades has placed an emphasis on the relationship of power and knowledge (and the expected allowance for resistance). If the end of this book bears many affinities with calls for decolonization and deconstruction, it underscores that in the de- of deconstruct, decolonial, and demystify, we recognize our participation in the construct, the colonial, and the mythical. My project also involves the pursuit of an elsewhere to the will for mastery and dominion from within the tradition of Western thought in which we scholars today cannot but dwell.


If the end of producing Telleriano-Remensis was to have the tlacuilo create an album of Mesoamerican writing systems to facilitate the indoctrination of the Nahuas, the Dominicans who directed the project became one more item in the painting of the colonial world. As I will argue in this book, they were distraught at the depiction of their self and the realization that the painter came from a world they couldn’t contain. Although there are other instance in colonial verbal and pictorial texts in which missionaries and lay officials bemoan the limits of their mastery, the force of folio 46r, however, resides in the threat the tlacuilo posed by capturing the world of the missionaries in terms that they couldn’t anticipate or fully decipher. The missionaries’ recognition of an elsewhere refers to the experience of a subject that is surprised, amazed, or terrified by the realization that he or she cannot understand, experience, or engage the world of an observer—in this case, the observed (the tlacuilo) looking back at the observer (the missionaries). I share this malaise as I imagine myself under the gaze of the tlacuilo.


In fact, the depiction of colonial objects, institutions, and personages affects those who come to the paintings from an elsewhere, from a habitus, that couldn’t anticipate the dislocation provoked by a gaze that shows itself in looking back at those who requested the pictorial text. The eye of the modern inquisitor finds its match in the eye of the tlacuilo who depicts the colonial order from an elsewhere that remains inaccessible to the missionary. In the depiction of the Franciscan missionary (right hand), we discover a symbolic use of three-dimensional perspective that enables the tlacuilo to record in the frontal depiction the order’s preference for the sacrament of the penitence and the inquisitorial powers the Franciscan Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico, assumed in the early 1530s. The frontal perspective is used only on two occasions in Codex Telleriano-Remensis, for the image of Zumârraga on folio 44v and for the Franciscan on folio 46r; otherwise, the tlacuilo remains faithful to the tradition of picturing the profile of subjects even when inventing new pictorial vocabularies. The doctrine or confession manual held by the Franciscan records the imparting of the doctrine that followed multitudinous baptisms on demand. At the other end of the page, we find the depiction of a Dominican in full ceremonial dress, suggesting the preference of this order for thorough catechization prior to imparting baptism and for strict abidance to the required liturgy. In the act of depicting the essential characteristics of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, the tlacuilo shatters the certainty of the missionary by mirroring the ethnographer-missionary. In the tlacuilo’s depiction of the missionaries’ world, the missionary is led to realize that he is not the only observer. They see themselves through her eyes. In the mirroring, the missionaries learn to recognize their evangelical and ethnographic practices. The tlacuilo thus forces them to yield their position as observers to she who now observes them from a place and time that remains opaque in the act of showing itself. The tlacuilo’s picturing of readily recognizable colonial subjects manifests an irreducible excess in signification that cannot be exhausted by positive knowledge of the subjects, and yet it has revealed itself as a saturated phenomenon that has enabled me to ask questions about the depicted subjects that I wouldn’t have entertained if I had not learned from the tlacuilo to see the colonial world differently. The tlacuilo showed me a world that altered my seeing, which in turn led me to see the colonial world differently. Given the centrality of folio 46r in this book, I return to this folio in the chapters that follow to elaborate a series of takes that address different questions the tlacuilo has taught me to ask.


As I look at the folio and intuit a place of difference from which the tlacuilo painted, I am surprised by her ability to dwell in a plurality of worlds. While she partakes of a “modern’ subjectivity in conversing with the missionaries—thereby participating in their temporality—and in understanding their request to objectify her culture by creating an album that reproduced and compiled several genres of pictographic writings (amoxtli that specialized in the recording of the feasts, calendars, rites, deities, and history), she partakes of a (nonmodern) Mesoamerican subjectivity that captures the colonial world from a habitus or background that is not that of the missionaries, nor that of us modern scholars for that matter. By joining the terms habitus and background, I want to underscore a collective understanding of these terms rather than an individual manifestation of them. Obviously, the tlacuilo didn’t use the terms habitus or background to reflect on her paintings or on the Mesoamerican world in which she dwelled. There are no corresponding terms in Nahuatl that I know of. Having said this, I would assume that the tlacuilo and sixteenth-century Nahuas in general were particularly aware (arguably more so than the Spaniards) of the different habitus that differentiated their ways of making the world from those the Spaniards sought to implant. As such, the terms habitus and background fulfill a heuristic function for approaching the concept of elsewheres as comprising the affective, logical, and ethical forms that ground what Mesoamerican subjects show or say. When I speak of the tlacuilo’s habitus, then, it shouldn’t be understood as a particular instance of a collective spirit that I could pretend to know and define, but as the ground from which she paints and speaks in showing a world that eludes and yet records Western categories. Her showing affects the assumptions that ground Western thought. This book offers a theoretic-political experiment on the possibility of learning from the tlacuilo ways of seeing the world that dislocate the predominance of the West—namely, Christian revealed truth, universal history, ontological claims on the real, three-dimensional perspective, et cetera.


My understanding of the term habitus builds on definitions I draw from two classic sources. First, from the Scholastic meaning, most rigorously defined by Thomas Aquinas, that speaks of developing technologies of the self and soul, such as would prepare the soul for the reception of the sacraments and the corresponding infusion of the habitus of grace. The Scholastic definition also concerns the soil that missionaries and secular officials were to prepare (tilling for planting the seeds of Christianity are the preferred metaphors) for implanting spiritual as well as material habitus. This involves a transformation—if not a wholesale replacement—of the indigenous habitus for the reception and incorporation of Christian doctrine, as well as for the development of a work ethic that would turn Indians into productive laborers under proto-capitalist enterprises.


Although both the Dominican and the Franciscan theologians and missionaries make use of the concept of habitus, it is a particular staple of the Thomist theology. It plays a lesser role among Franciscan theologians, who tend to emphasize the function of the will. As we will see in later chapters, for the Franciscans, the central explanation of what was perceived by the mid-sixteenth century as failed conversion was the notion that the Nahuas had lied and deceived the first missionaries about their willingness to embrace the tenets of the Christian dogma. The Dominicans attributed the failed conversion to the impossibility of replacing the old habitus that infused with superstitious meanings the material and spiritual objects introduced by the Spaniards. These two understandings define radically different ethnographic projects and evangelical practices. The brilliance of the tlacuilo, in turn, consists in capturing the habitus of the two orders; her recording of their habitus manages to link the habit (the elegant ceremonial white dress of the Dominican vis-à-vis the rough woolen robe of the Franciscan) with their theological-ethnographic preferences. It is as if the habit itself shaped their evangelic-ethnographic dispositions. In pointing out this difference between habit and ethos, the tlacuilo was not alone among sixteenth-century Nahuas.


Second, I find particularly significant Pierre Bourdieu’s transformation and redefinition of the term habitus in his “Postface to Erwin Panofsky, Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.” My reading of Bourdieu is less concerned with interpreting what Bourdieu understood by habitus or with practicing the sociology he defined on the basis of this term, than with taking his insights to expand Scholastic understandings I have outlined above that were part of the intellectual frame of sixteenth-century missionaries. The definition I will develop from Bourdieu, as I have already suggested above, fulfills a heuristic function that enables me to recognize, without exhausting their meaning, the different backgrounds from which and against which the tlacuilo, the missionaries, and scholars today make and unmake worlds. The term habitus in Bourdieu pertains to the form “through which the creator partakes of his community and time, and that guides and directs, unbeknownst to him, his apparently most unique creative acts.” In Outline of a Theory of Practice, Bourdieu speaks of positions and dispositions, terms one could apply to the tlacuilo if one were to study her particular mode of being a native painter. I will not carry out this task, for which archaeologists and art historians are much better equipped and have already done extensive, if not definitive, manuscript studies of Codex Telleriano-Remensis, but also because an exhaustive definition of her habitus would be contrary to the principle of elsewhere I privilege in this book.


The key word in the cited passage from “Postface” is unbeknownst. Arguably the tlacuilo could know her position as painter and could evaluate her disposition in terms of the missionaries’ recognition of her talent as a painter. But she would remain blind to the forms through which she participates in her community and time. I wouldn’t want to suggest, however, that her production of the paintings that make up Telleriano-Remensis adopts the colonial structures imposed by the Dominican ethnographic project. I would even complicate this observation by saying that the missionaries were interested in having her make manifest the Mesoamerican pictorial forms rather than in having her reproduce Western Christian forms. The missionaries, however, did not anticipate her invention of a vocabulary that captures European objects from a habitus that was not their own. If in certain formulations of evangelization one finds the call for a wholesale replacement and destruction of the Mesoamerican habitus, the demand that she produce an album of writing systems was conceived as the process of collecting data for the extirpation of what they conceived as superstitions and idolatries. This effort assumes the possibility that the Mesoamerican world could be frozen, made readily available. This effort seems paradoxical, given the continuous complaint, especially among the Dominicans, of a generalized syncretism of European objects and pagan beliefs. Beyond objectifying her habitus, she demonstrated her ability to generate new images that, even if Western in appearance, show worlds that cannot be reduced to Western forms.


Given the colonial situation in which the tlacuilo paints, I must account for the limits of evangelical practices. The first limit resides, of course, in the fact that she paints from an elsewhere that makes sense of what the friars demanded but also of the Western categories they privileged in their request that she produce an album of writing systems. The Nahuas, of course, were born with the capacity to embody a habitus or to speak a language, which for the missionaries should be wholly substituted by the Christian worldview. However, the substitution of Spanish for Nahuatl was not a central objective among missionaries, even in those instances when the Spanish Crown legislated Hispanicization. In fact, the missionaries entertained the dream of Nahuatlizing Christianity and in some instances assumed the risk that the schemas structuring their habitus could be radically transformed in the process of translation and dialogue. The art of ethnography, when conducted in earnest, cannot but involve jeopardy, an ieu parti—an “(evenly) divided game,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary).


In the paintings in Telleriano-Remensis, in particular those on folio 46r, I recognize semantic excess that cannot be exhausted by the knowledge and identification of the personages, colonial institutions, situations, glyphs, or spatial arrangement of the depicted subjects. Archaeological knowledge of the codex and its system of writing provides the key for the identification of its signifying forms. But the language that transmitted the stories, incantations, chants, and discourses associated with the depicted subjects in Mesoamerican codices is not, clearly, the language of science that scholars have produced since colonial times. In the case of Telleriano-Remensis, the marginal glosses are in Spanish and on rare occasions quote (in Spanish) native speech that further documents the knowledge recorded in iconic script. Spanish accounts by missionaries and lay officials provide information about historical events, calendars, ceremonies, or rites. It is perhaps because of the urgency to record knowledge about Nahuatl institutions and practices for the purpose of their extirpation that missionaries consulted and diligently recorded verbal performances by informants. It is in native texts using alphabetical script, which record voices in Nahuatl, where we find the sorts of speeches (songs, discourses, chants, incantations, narratives) that would have been enunciated to verbally supplement iconic depictions of historical or ceremonial events. These alphabetically scripted supplements are independent texts rather than verbal descriptions of the pictograms, as is the case in studies by modern archaeologists and art historians. Moreover, archaeologists often perceive colonial texts as contaminated by Spanish ideology. Missionaries rarely if ever privileged “pure” objects.


In this book I am particularly interested in hybrid verbal and pictorial texts in which we can trace the incorporation of European forms. As we read folio 46r, we realize not only that the habitus of the tlacuilo is not our own, but also that her pictorial vocabulary produces a new textuality that builds on the remains of the ancient Mesoamerican pictorial systems while incorporating European artifacts and scriptural technologies. It is certainly a hybrid text (as in mixed) but not a mestizo text (as in no longer Mesoamerican). If the analogy does not offend, we may state that in the “same way” that Europe remains Europe after the incorporation of Mesoamerica (chocolate, cacao, cochineal, silver, gold, but also the concepts of the noble savage, cannibalism, wildness, New World, America) into its systems of thought and everyday life, Mesoamerica remains Mesoamerica after the incorporation of European life-forms. The processes of appropriation, expropriation, and exappropriation involve a two-way street.


Along with the texts jointly produced by missionaries and native informants, we also find indigenous intellectuals, such as Fernando de Alva Ixtlixochitl and Domingo de San Antón Muñón Chimalpahin Quauhtlehuanitzin, who collected and critically archived the stories the elders would tell when reading pictorial texts in an effort to preserve their voices for posterity. I speak of verbal performances to underscore that they are singular renditions of narratives, discourses, rites, or incantations rather than faithful repetitions of scripted texts. The native informant possessed the key for both the production and the interpretation of the pictorial texts, even when their voices were silenced in texts such as Codex Telleriano-Remensis. If the missionary supervising the production of Telleriano-Remensis silenced his sources, this codex offers a point of entry into questions that can be further explored with colonial instances of Nahuatl texts that combine iconic and Latin script. Among the notable examples I will address in this book, I can mention here the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca and the corpus of texts collected by the great Franciscan ethnographer Bernardino de Sahagún—namely, Primeros memoriales (1561), Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España or Florentine Codex (ca. 1579), and Colloquios y doctrina christiana (1564).


I will refer to Sahagún’s texts less for the purpose of documenting speech that could be associated with pictograms in Codex Telleriano-Remensis than for further exploring the implications of producing texts in conjunction with Indian informants where the end was to lead the Nahuas to objectify their own culture. This objectification entailed telling stories that implemented their own ethnosuicide. One clear instance of paradigmatic texts for ethnosuicide is the bilingual confessional manuals that required Indians to tell the story of their conversion, of expressing their attrition and subsequent contrition for having honored false gods in their pagan pasts. Another instance is the ethnographic inquests that demand that Indians tell the story of how they were conquered. These second kinds of stories range from the acknowledgment of the epistemological limits of discourses of magic (magical incantations have no effect on Spaniards) to the internalization of the ontological truths supposedly manifest in learning to reproduce three-dimensional pictorial perspective. In telling these stories, Indians were asked to narrate and show how they had turned themselves into normalized Western subjects. Telling these stories also entails the production of linguistic and cognitive instruments (grammars, vocabularies, and cartillas—reading primers—for teaching writing and reading; confession manuals; catechisms; sermons) for the destruction of native culture. Codex Telleriano-Remensis belongs to this genre of texts that promoted ethnosuicide in assuming that the tlacuilo has internalized the superiority of Western epistemological and ontological values. And this is precisely the missionaries’ assurance of control that the tlacuilo disrupts. The evangelical and epistemological instruments for ethnosuicide proved (and continue to prove) to be ineffectual when introduced to an elsewhere that exposes the limits of empire.


One may further expand the concept of ethnosuicide to include the participation in the collection of objects as an instance of desecration. There is defacement in the production of copies of ancient texts dislocated from the role images played in ceremonies or in the remembrance of ancestors. The production of scientific truths and the collection of artifacts in museums, whether in modern institutions or the cabinets of the sixteenth century, assume the potential to sap life from objects by turning them into historical evidence. Indian workers dig, translate, copy, and retrieve objects whose significance they would learn in the articles or the museum tags archaeologists and historians produce. By delegating the task of producing meaning to the specialists, native informants contribute to the desecration of their cultures. As such, participation in the historical and archaeological inquiries already constitutes an act of ethnosuicide. Obviously, indigenous subjects can be trained in scientific methods, in the technologies of conversion to Christianity, and to adopt Western protocols of interpretation.


One needs, however, to keep in mind that if ethnosuicide is an objective diligently pursued by missionaries in their production of catechistic instruments and the administration of the sacraments, these same instruments and processes, which took on a life of their own in versions produced by Nahua scribes, enabled Nahuas to develop a distance and critical consciousness with respect to the missionaries’ contradictory conceptualization and definitions of evangelical methods. If the tlacuilo participates in ethnosuicide by producing copies of the ancient books that sap the life these objects had in the communities, her objectification of the missionaries, in turn, saps the force of the evangelical instruments that were to lead to her self-destruction. Lest one wants to reduce all missionaries to a uniform ideology, one ought to allow for missionaries who produced catechistic instruments that developed skills that would enable Nahuas to act in the legal, political, and cultural life of the colony. The call to commit ethnosuicide is perplexing, for it led the Nahuas to wonder why they were asked to destroy their culture and selves, but also to conceptualize the call to ethnosuicide from an elsewhere that by remaining inaccessible to the missionary observer—or, for that matter, to scholars today bent on insisting on the efficacy of colonial techniques of governmentality—makes its success all too dubious. In the production of knowledge for extirpation we witness the production of cultural artifacts that manifest an intentionality, in both the tlacuilo (or more generally the informant) and the objects themselves, that turns the call for ethnosuicide into ethnogenesis. The “new’ objects the tlacuilo produces in responding to the missionaries become actors that elude the mastery of both missionary and tlacuilo. As such, the objects as actors form part of an ethnogenetic process that future generations take on and modify while remaining determined by them. We witness the paradoxical turn of ethnosuicide into ethnogenesis. In the objectification of culture and history in images remains the slippage that leads from self-destruction into healing and invention.


These observations build on the ethical turn in anthropology and archaeology that has systematically insisted since the 1980s on vigilance for the violence one inflicts in the production of knowledge. However, scholars today tend to be too cavalier about the ethnosuicide involved in the training of informants for ethnography and labor for excavations—and thus in requesting natives' participation in the mummification of their culture in museums. Even though the awareness of mummification dates back to the 1x80s, we scholars remain caught in the legacies of the disciplinary categories and often manifest a naïveté regarding the transparency of our informants. Beyond the awareness of being caught in institutional and authoritative binds, this book places an emphasis on the performativity of the informants and the objects they produce.


In the case of Codex Telleriano-Remensis, one faces the task of understanding a habitus that investigates another habitus, of observers who mutually place each other within a field of vision and hearing. It is worth recalling here that Aquinas’s understanding of habitus, whether intellectual or spiritual, resides in and results from specific disciplines that in colonial practices would include the inculcation of logical attitudes and ways of caring for the soul in opposition to the ancient wisdom Indians are called to ruin. The task of colonizing a Mesoamerican habitus, that is, of reeducating Indian subjects by means of the catechism, alphabetical writing, and pictorial perspective, ultimately faced the daunting task of producing a wholesale replacement of one habitus with another. It clearly escaped the missionaries that the “neophytes” could, as it were, cultivate the new habitus alongside the previous one without necessarily affecting the integrity of what made those subjects distinctively Mesoamerican: clearly colonial ladinos drew from different cultures but hardly merely reproduced medieval, Renaissance, or modern subjectivities. As we examine the uses of perspective and alphabetical writing, we come to realize the existence of wild or savage literacy, that is, uses of the alphabet outside the supervision and control of missionaries and lay officials. If perspective and the alphabet wished to colonize the mind of the Nahuas, these grassroots forms of literacy take on a life of their own in the passage from ethnosuicide to ethnogenesis. Some of these practices could be seen as mestizo, hybrid, or transcultural instances of appropriation that retain their specific form alongside indigenous forms. The quality of ladino need not be exclusively or predominantly or preferably that of mixed, in-between, borderlike, or hybrid forms; rather, ladino experience and practice can be understood as straddling discrete cultural forms, practices, and habitus. If the goal of colonization is to destroy the indigenous habitus either through imposition of a new habitus or simply by making the indigenous habitus inoperative, the categories of the mixed, the hybrid, the borderline, and the in-between would testify to the success of colonization. To paraphrase Homi Bhabha, though perhaps against the gist of Bhabha’s argument, the colonial order seeks to engender natives that are “almost, but not quite,” “almost, but not white.” This amounts to subjects seeking recognition not for their indigenous culture but for their ability to mimic the dominant one or, perhaps, for their ability to articulate equivalences between native and dominant culture (as in the dating systems in Telleriano-Remensis). As a result, the indigenous subjects become bound to perpetual tutelage under the semblance of “almost, but not quite.” The tlacuilo’s return of the gaze exposes gaps in the constitution of a subject at fault. Her lessons reach beyond the immediate colonial world that sought to circumscribe her.


It is perhaps in the nature of elsewheres to introduce suffering, confusion, nihilism, and the end of history. It was an elsewhere that introduced havoc into Mesoamerica in the sixteenth century, but it is also an elsewhere that now (but already in the sixteenth century) has led the West to its own destruction (of metaphysics, capitalism, globalization), often by recruiting agents from these same elsewheres who have learned to dwell in plural worlds without abdicating their own. Given the exploitation of globalization, of capitalism, of terrorist administration of law, invasions from elsewheres to the West cannot but be saluted and adopted as a philosophical end. Arguably the best minds in philosophy today (Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Derrida, Nancy, Marion, but I would add sixteenth-century thinkers like Las Casas) have been busy bringing forth this destruction. With Nancy, we may characterize this destruction (indeed, the destruction of destruction) as revolutionary destruction: “It is permanent revolution, the possibility, at every moment, of opening space.” In this respect I view the tlacuilo’s return of the gaze as a moment in which revolutionary destruction comes to complicate the West’s destiny from an elsewhere.


It is a reminder that in the face of current processes of globalization, whose beginnings may date from the invention of the Americas in the sixteenth century, we should be cautious not to assume the existence of a single world and history. Even when conceiving the task in terms of an open horizon of meaning or in terms of the undesirability of pursuing univocal sense, we must resist assuming that modernity is an all-encompassing historical reality. But then again, we must also resist the call to explain differences by inventing alternative modernities. The modern in its alternative modalities calls forth the denial of all exteriority to capital and globalization. Theories of alternative modernities have underscored that heterogeneous temporalities to capital are in fact products of the latter rather than rem(a)inders of precapitalist societies that dominant forms of modernity invent in decrying their obsolescence in a generalized call to abandon them. Both the dominant and the alternative definitions of modernity entail the built-in teleology of the pre- in premodern as well as the supposition that the nonmodern in its coexistence with the modern must be static.


The concept of elsewheres, as I conceive it in this book, has enabled me to retain the possibility that the modern and the nonmodern coexist in a given culture and subject without incurring contradiction. In fact, the concept of elsewheres enables me to step out of the negative non- in nonmodern that binds this concept to a denial or a reversal of the modern. It is in the essence of the modern to underscore the incompatibility of the modern and the nonmodern, indeed, to impose the iron-fisted historical logic that promotes the internalization of values aimed at the disappearance of the nonmodern. If the power of modernity reduces all exterior forms to its categories, we must also recognize—to cognize again, that is, intuit a different habitus, as in the tlacuilo’s picturing of the colonial order—the countering effects of the nonmodern as an elsewhere from which the modern (and its ability to generate binaries) is observed. The task of thinking a way out of the destructive, appropriative, and dominant forms of globalization demands that we acknowledge the places that determine and circumscribe thought within the history of Western thought.


The nominalization of the adverbial elsewhere—in the plural form elsewheres in the subtitle of this book—allows me to reflect on forms of difference that are not bound by a Same/Other paradigm. Etymologically, else, which has its Germanic origins in Middle Dutch els and Swedish eljest, resonates with the Latin adverbial form alio (to another place, elsewhere), from alius (another, different), but not with alter (other, as in the other of two) nor with alienus, the allos, everyone’s other and the senseless. And yet alienus as "alien," or in Spanish ajeno, "not one’s own," or even the French aillures, especially in its nominal use, approximate what I want to convey by elsewheres. I also use the term to undo binaries such as medieval and modern that create a paradigm that leads scholars to repeat a whole series of truisms about the people and the artifacts that are produced in these reputedly objective periods. Elsewheres, then, pose the limits of translation while at the same time point to the task of interrogating the categories, the concepts, and the interpretative strategies that erase and conceal the specificity of historical and cultural phenomena that we scholars may recognize as not our own.


The tlacuilo, of course, pertains to radical alterity in her existence as a singular subject, a self that brings forth the showing of the colonial world, and she also remains in radical alterity in her speaking and painting from the space of death. While her paintings bar us from entering her space and time, the intuition of the elsewhere from which the tlacuilo paints entails the recognition of intentionality, a life of their own for the pictorial forms she invents. But having said this, my reference to the elsewhere from which she paints also underscores the habitus she dwells in as a member of a collectivity with whom she inhabits the world. Although habitus assume specific instances in singular subjects and cultural forms, a habitus always refers to a shared world.


Negation and propriety are fraught with the danger of reproducing the Same/Other paradigm and the kinds of statements one is bound to produce and repeat endlessly. The not our own suggests inversion by negation but also the assuredness of ownership. As I have pointed out above, the project of elsewheres entails the urgent task of inventing forms of thought not determined by the current habitus in the West that reiterates the will to mastery, appropriation, and domination. This invention would entail being aware of the ethnosuicide that contemporary research projects continue to promote in the production of knowledge. The elsewheres to current forms of thought would free us from the violence we scholars exercise when we act as if our categories were transparent. We ought instead to conceive the possibility that words such as sacred, religion, apostasy, apostleship, art, morality, or philosophy conceal the possibility of dwelling in different semantic spaces. On the other hand, the concepts of habitus or background have enabled me to intuit spaces of difference rather than to categorize positive referents. In the end, my appeal to different habitus or backgrounds offers an argument for learning and teaching non-European languages with their potential to lead students to experience, that is, to catch a glimpse into the existence of multiple discrete worlds.



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