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Misplaced Objects

Misplaced Objects
Migrating Collections and Recollections in Europe and the Americas

From sixteenth-century European Wunderkammern to the veneration of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Latinization of the United States, this dynamic and innovative book explores how the circulation of objects between Europe and the Americas has profoundly reshaped our understanding of the world.

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

January 2009
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294 pages | 8.25 x 11.75 | 137 b&w and color photos |

"When things move, things change." Starting from this deceptively simple premise, Silvia Spitta opens a fascinating window onto the profound displacements and transformations that have occurred over the six centuries since material objects and human subjects began circulating between Europe and the Americas.

This extended reflection on the dynamics of misplacement starts with the European practice of collecting objects from the Americas into Wunderkammern, literally "cabinets of wonders." Stripped of all identifying contexts, these exuberant collections, including the famous Real Gabinete de Historia Natural de Madrid, upset European certainties, forcing a reorganization of knowledge that gave rise to scientific inquiry and to the epistemological shift we call modernity. In contrast, cults such as that of the Virgin of Guadalupe arose out of the reverse migration from Europe to the Americas. The ultimate marker of mestizo identity in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe is now fast crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, and miracles are increasingly being reported. Misplaced Objects then concludes with the more intimate and familial collections and recollections of Cuban and Mexican American artists and writers that are contributing to the Latinization of the United States.

Beautifully illustrated and radically interdisciplinary, Misplaced Objects clearly demonstrates that it is not the awed viewer, but rather the misplaced object itself that unsettles our certainties, allowing new meanings to emerge.


Transdisciplinary Humanities Award
Institute for Humanities Research at Arizona State University

  • Preface
  • Introduction: Misplaced Objects and Subject Matters
  • Part I: The Object as Specimen
  • 1. Misplaced Objects from the Americas and the Emergence of the European Wunderkammern
  • 2. Transatlantic Subject Matters and Big Bones: The Real Gabinete de Historia Natural de Madrid
  • 3. Writing the Natural History of Our Destruction: From P. T. Barnum's National Histrionics to Contemporary, Post-Apocalyptic Wunderkammern
  • Part II: Migrating Icons and Sacred Geographies in the Americas
  • 4. GuadalupeNation: Disappearing Objects, National Narratives
  • 5. Guadalupe's Wheels: Runaway Image, Undocumented Border Crosser, Miracle Worker
  • 6. The New Mexico/New Mestizo Effect: Enchanted and Otherwise Enacted Spaces
  • Part III: Found Objects and Re-Collecting Subjects
  • 7. Re-Collecting the Past: Latinidad's Found Objects, Photographs, and Home Altars
  • 8. Sandra Ramos and the Cuban Diaspora: La vida no cabe en una maleta
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Silva Spitta is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College. She is the author of Between Two Waters: Narratives of Transculturation in Latin America.


This study is driven by the Melquíadesque assertion in the opening pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, also echoed in Borges's poem "Las cosas," that things have a life of their own. Not necessarily tricked by a gypsy, I have always suspected this, and I have watched things happen with a sense of wonder somewhat akin to that which determines the lives of the inhabitants of Macondo. José Arcadio Buendía sold his family's last means of livelihood, trading a mule and a pair of goats because he was convinced that the magnets of the gypsies possessed magical alchemical powers to also attract gold. While I do suspect that things have a life of their own, and while that suspicion partially underlies my interest in and fascination with objects, I won't make that assertion here. Misplaced Objects is driven, however, by the underlying notion of misplacement and the paradoxically simple thesis that when things move, things change. While literary fiction and films like to play with these forms of dis- and misplaced objects (think of the monolith that suddenly appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Coca-Cola bottle thrown out of a plane in the African desert and found by a Bushman in The Gods Must Be Crazy, the role of the ring in The Lord of the Rings, the function of "clues" in detective fiction, etc.), I am interested in tracing the kinds of epistemological, cultural, and geographical shifts that had to take place for the myriad objects that migrated between Europe and the Americas to find their new place within altogether alien contexts.

The (il)logic of misplacement drives this book in its attempt to highlight those moments when objects enter a new cultural context. Initially, the new objects are incongruous; suddenly, quotidian space looks different. In order to understand the effects and theorize the dynamics of misplacement that underlie and structure this book, I borrow Foucault's explanation in The Order of Things—modeled on how archaeology constructs both its subject and its object—of a culture's epistemology as the table on which things are ordered. Applying Foucault's notion again quite literally, in my mind's eye I see an object such as Montezuma's headdress suddenly appearing around 1500 on the table on which Europeans had, until then, ordered the things that structured their world. A "history of things," George Kubler writes, includes "both artifacts and works of art, both replicas and unique examples, both tools and expressions—in short, all materials worked by human hands under the guidance of connected ideas developed in temporal sequence." But in 1500 an object such as Montezuma's headdress was not yet archaeology's object. That is, it was not yet an "artifact"—it was simply exotic and soon considered the signature piece of a culture never heard of before. Appearing on the European "table," what could Montezuma's headdress do, to continue with this example, but destabilize the existing order of things? Forcing a profound reshuffling of the known, it could stand only for the image of "America" that would gradually take shape: indeed, what could it do, to continue with Kubler, but change the "shape of time"?

Juxtaposed with "normal" things, objects arriving from afar were greeted with a sense of wonder, leading Descartes to posit that it was "the first of all passions." Wonder was Europe's first response to the newness of the New World following Columbus's 1492 voyage because wonder steps in when the table of our culture gets messy, when logic and order fail. During this initial, sudden, pre-logical, pre-reflexive phase—whether seen as a rush of intense emotion to the blood and heart (Albertus Magnus) or to the brain (Descartes), the object stands utterly alone, decontextualized, untamed by any classificatory system, "unmoored and unmooring" the rapt observer. Wonder, according to Stephen Greenblatt, causes a "rift" and a "cracking apart of contextual understanding," and thus constitutes "an elusive and ambiguous experience." While illuminating, analyses like Greenblatt's quickly slip away from the wonder-arousing object to the awed subject. If we focus differently, and stay with the object rather than highlight the emotion of the observer, the enormous role of misplaced objects in the formation of our modern epistemology comes fully into view. Indeed, as I argue throughout, it is not the awed subject, but rather the misplaced object, that causes a rift in understanding. We find a clue to the unsettling of the subject/object binary that structures our certainty and that I am attempting to undo in this study when considering the words marvel, wonder, and curiosity. All three simultaneously designate an object and a state of mind, thus underlining those moments conjoining the object and the subject.

Allowing both Foucault and myself to indulge in our desire to be literal, of course, is the ongoing critique of how museums construct and anchor national and private meanings in the things they opt to collect and contain. Displaced, Montezuma's headdress should have served as an index to the violence and probable theft that had led to its misplacement. That it did not is clear from the lack of any mention in the writings of discoverers and conquerors, and of many travelers, scientists, and collectors regarding the correctness of appropriating the native objects and specimens they were "gathering" for the emergent science of natural history. Set amid things altogether alien to it, having lost its place in the culture that created it and that anchored its meaning and whose meaning it in turn anchored, Montezuma's headdress was disorderly on every level and misplaced in every sense of that word. Since there was no epistemological table on which it could find a place, what work could it do, then, other than upset European certainties? Indeed, the emergence of modern science, natural history, and Europe's first museums—that immense epistemological shift that we call modernity—gives witness to the sheer force of misplaced objects to destabilize certainties and rearrange cultural tables.

Misplaced American Objects

Unclassifiable by any known standard of the time, the objects arriving in Europe from the Americas were organized next to one another in what were called cabinets of wonders, or Wunderkammern. Shells, beads, tusks, coins, feathers, coral, archaeological artifacts, jewelry, weapons, precious stones, and animal and botanical specimens gathered from across the Americas, as well as objects arriving from the East, were all set together on the same plane. Haphazardly assembled in what to us today look like messy and illogical collections, those exotic objects were displayed for their wonder-inducing powers, yet they put an entire period's epistemological "table" into disarray. This process ultimately restructured the West's knowledge systems and led to the emergence of European museums (of art, science, and natural history), botanical and zoological gardens, and thus increasingly to the distinction between art and science that marks modernity. Indeed, European Wunderkammern—the focus of the next chapter—make visible the extent to which the arrival of strange and marvelous objects from the Americas brought about the European epistemological sea change that has shaped our time.

No one has better described the experience we have today when confronted with the cabinets of wonders than Jorge Luis Borges. In his oft-quoted story "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," he reports having stumbled upon a certain "Chinese encyclopedia" (the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge), which classified animals in an order completely alien to our modern taxonomic imagination and sense of rationality (by grouping them as tame, embalmed, stray dogs, sirens, the Emperor's, fabulous, innumerable ones, drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others that from a long way off look like flies, etc.). While Wilkins did indeed exist and write in the 1600s, no one to date has found the "Chinese encyclopedia." Borges's completely deadpan tone describing these incongruous groupings, indeed, his assumption of extreme disorder as something absolutely normal (and hence his reflection that what for other cultures constitutes order may seem utterly bewildering to us), so surprised Michel Foucault that, "out of the laughter that literally shattered" him, he was led to write The Order of Things—his archaeology of the human sciences.

Borges's story had the same effect on Foucault as Marcel Duchamp's 1917 placing of a urinal in a museum ("Fountain") had on our understanding of the politics of display. What both works immediately make evident is the otherwise invisible ordering of things. Without referencing the transformative effect the arrival of exotic objects such as "Montezuma's headdress" had in Europe, "Fountain" and its placing highlight how incongruence leads us to the limits of our imagination, to a space where we must question our own sense of order. As Foucault recalls, his laughter shattered all his assumptions about "our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterward to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other." The Order of Things, then, is the necessarily failed attempt of thinking our way into an altogether different rationality: "the stark impossibility of thinking that." What better illustration of what Foucault meant by "that" than to recall the unease that Europeans must have felt as ships laden with strange objects arrived on their shores? What did they make of them? How did they place them? Others who played with this type of strangeness were the surrealists. They understood the epistemology of a period as consisting of all the things that "fit" together on an imaginary table, and they realized how our mindset mirrors the table on which we organize things. They delighted in jarring our consciousness and never tired of the perverse thrill that came with confronting us with all sorts of misplacements (think of Méret Oppenheim's fur teacup, for example, or the adoption of Lautréamont's "encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table" as the symbol for their movement). Our discomfort when faced with such juxtapositions gives us an idea of what Europeans must have experienced with the discovery of the New World. And while we cannot reproduce the effect that the presence of unknown objects must have had, we nevertheless do not tire of endless variations on the theme of "aliens" in fiction and films. More importantly, despite the fact that Foucault based his analyses in The Order of Things on the works of three Hispanic writers and artists (Cervantes's Don Quixote as the first modern novel, Velázquez's painting "Las Meninas" as the beginning of new forms of representation, and the passage in Borges's Chinese encyclopedia as the possibility of a radically different order of things), it is not inconsequential that he completely bypassed the question of the impact that the conquest and colonization of the New World had on the great epistemic shifts that transformed Europe and that shaped our modernity. The Americas fell off Foucault's own epistemological table as they often have, in fact, since 1492, when they were misplaced in world history and geography by Columbus (as the "Indies"). We all know that you sometimes lose things when you misplace them, and much has been lost as a consequence of the rise of Eurocentrism since 1492.

While my first chapter charts the breakup of the cabinets of wonders and the emergence of Europe's first museums and scientific academies, my second chapter focuses on Madrid's Wunderkammer, the Real Gabinete, or Royal Cabinet, and its important, yet marginalized, contribution to Europe's scientific preeminence in the nineteenth century. Madrid's Real Gabinete was crucial in transforming the Americas from the paradise Columbus and others thought they had found to a naturalist's paradise, and thus transforming marvelous objects into ethnological artifacts. Intuiting its role in the emergence of modern science and the consequent parting of the ways between Latin and Anglo America, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson felt that the science arising in Europe was deeply Eurocentric and in need of revision. The exchange between him and Bru, the official dissector of the Real Gabinete in Madrid, is only now being studied. This little-known correspondence illustrates how the United States—in contrast to the rest of the Americas—emerged as an important scientific center increasingly in competition with Europe, thanks in part to Jefferson's collaboration with Madrid's Real Gabinete in his search for "big bones" that would prove that species in the Americas were superior (not inferior) to those in Europe. Jan van der Straet's 1575 representation of the encounter of Vespucci, standing in full regalia and holding an astrolabe, in front of a naked "America" (nature and woman), reclining in a hammock while members of her tribe are shown roasting a human leg, would prove strangely prophetic—if not paradigmatic—of the epistemological divide that would arise between the West and the rest.

Chapter Three pursues the divide (science/nature) between Anglo and Latin America and the United States by turning to P. T. Barnum's massive collections of specimens and exotic objects, which were deployed in an increasingly histrionic center-staging of science for a mass audience. It ends with contemporary cabinets of wonders such as those created by Mark Dion and Rosamond Purcell and alternative museums such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles and the Main Street Museum in White River Junction, Vermont, which shift the focus away from the marvelous creations of artists and nature and instead work to salvage—as if writing the natural history of our destruction10—the refuse of our society. The post-1492 period that saw its culmination in the Enlightenment has seemingly run its course, as is becoming evident in the current questioning of museological practices. Indeed, we seem to have come full circle: from objects displayed as marvelous in the early Wunderkammern to objects salvaged from the trash and exhibited in modern cabinets as the "marvels" of the world.

Misplaced American Subjects

As the three chapters in the first part of this study show, the objects that arrived in Europe from the Americas led to the enormous sea change we call modernity, even as the impact of the Americas, constitutive of modernity, was erased. Indeed, through misplacement, Europe was able to convert the destabilizing effect of strange and exotic objects into emerging technologies of power as they undertook the colonization of the Americas and much of the rest of the world. In a parallel, yet profoundly asymmetrical way, in the second part of this book (Chapters Four, Five, and Six), I discuss how the objects that arrived in the Americas from Europe in turn destabilized certainties there. Of course, the most obvious strange objects to reach the Americas were guns, gunpowder, the wheel, the Bible, horses, and different plants. With "Germs, Guns, and Steel," the conquistadores literally leveled indigenous cultures. Nowhere is the devastating potential of migrating objects more apparent than in the Americas, post-1492—indeed, in any scenario, what is more violent and more misplaced than a bullet?

When thinking about misplacement, it is important to remember that the exchange of objects between Europe and the Americas occurred under the sign of Conquest and colonization, and hence occurred in profoundly uneven ways, other than, perhaps, the exchange of plants and animals. Objects from Europe arrived under the banner of imperialism and thus were imposed in the interests of domination, whereas indigenous objects entered the European Wunderkammern and taxonomies as strange and exotic. Indeed, in European intellectual history, the Americas are misplaced in a fundamental way as a source of specimens (plant, animal, mineral, human)—rather than as a subject or a producer of knowledge. Incorporated into European epistemology as objects of study, then, how else could indigenous Americans respond to colonization but from a position of weakness (as specimens) and by employing what Josefina Ludmer has called "tactics of the weak"? Furthermore, while objects from the Americas arrived in Europe without a concomitant migration of people (other than the occasional Indian to be displayed as a rarity), European objects arrived in the Americas along with successive waves of Europeans, Africans, and Asians. Cultural change has therefore been most often theorized in terms of mestizaje, or race mixture (inscribed as the birth of the mestizo bastard out of the rape of indigenous women by Spanish conquistadores). In coming to terms with this long colonial legacy of violence, Latin America has produced a prolific if not wild and unruly intellectual corpus of texts. Concepts such as hybridity, métissage, creolization, syncretism, colonial semiosis, coloniality, etc., all, in one way or another, attempt to theorize the multifaceted ways in which first indigenous communities and then emergent nations reacted to and subverted colonial impositions. However, these concepts run the danger of simply proliferating further, since they reiterate essentialist notions of racial and ethnic identity. More importantly, their focus on identities circumvents the crucial role played by objects in delimiting them.

Dirt is "matter out of place," writes Mary Douglas. That most basic definition of how we define the boundaries between the pure and impure, of what is in place and what is out of place, is inextricably linked to the history and development of the concept of mestizaje. Leed's Shoes 1983, painted by the Mexican-American John Valadez, represents one of the fundamental ways of thinking about the dynamics of what is treated as dirt: the homeless person huddled at the entrance of Leed's department store is literally dirt poor and visually equated with the trash piling up at the foreground of the store. While this painting could serve as a jolting reflection on contemporary race relations and the marginalization of poverty in the United States, and while this reading could be extended to encompass an implicit critique of the way colonialism relegated Americans to the margins of history, science, and modernity, it also suggests the hierarchies of race in Latin America. Nowhere is this structure of inclusion and marginalization better illustrated than in the caste paintings (or paintings of miscegenation or mestizaje). These series, consisting usually of sixteen individual paintings, purportedly represented all the different possible racial combinations that arose during the colonial period. Each painting depicts a couple with their mixed-race child. While many of these series were "mass" produced as ethnographic documents and of little artistic value, in the better-executed series, the upper castes are marked as wealthy, whether by the sumptuous clothes they wear or by the space they inhabit. The first paradigmatic mixture is identified with the label "Of Spaniard and Indian, Mestizo." Directly proportional to degrees of racial mixture, the most mixed castes are increasingly darkened and shown peddling their wares in the streets. The most mixed castes then are treated like matter out of place, and labels such as "Tente en el aire" or "Hold Yourself Up in the Air," "No te entiendo" or "I Don't Understand You," and "Torna atrás" or "Throwback" reflect this marginalization. Most telling is the association of racially mixed individuals with zoological taxonomies and their labeling as "coyote" or "lobo" (wolf). Toward the end of the series, and with the inclusion of Africans into the racial mix, the couple (particularly the black or mulatto woman) is represented as prone to violence.

Created to satisfy European curiosity regarding indigenous American populations, the caste paintings are witnesses to the taxonomic drive of the eighteenth century, and are but one example of the myriad ways in which Europe—and particularly Spain—"mapped" the Americas in terms of natural history (botany, zoology, mineralogy, archaeology) and most pointedly biology: the different races the encounter produced. The caste paintings trace how the Enlightenment, which literally means "shining a light upon," shone a light upon nature. They also show, however, how that light increasingly became distorted by colonialism into the pseudo-science of eugenics—thus, the progression from rich to poor and from "pure" to mixed is seen in terms of increasing degeneration of the "species." As in Valadez's painting, misplaced objects are people—viewed as out of place, all the while they are being violently placed within a taxonomy. Moreover, when Americans are inserted into taxonomies, that is, as they become objects of knowledge, they are elided as subjects. Some of paintings in these series, which were included in the collections of Madrid's Real Gabinete, serve as mute witnesses to the perceived need to control unruly populations by "framing" and displaying them as objects of study. Foreshadowing and also embodying the pigmentocracies that ensued in Latin America, it is ironic that the caste paintings also show, first and foremost, that "race" is unrepresentable other than as rough (and random) gradations in color. Indeed, culture, economic status, place, and occupation, that is, the placement of individuals within a certain material context, serve as the culturally accepted, highly coded way of "seeing" race. Within this extremely hierarchical system, the independence movements of the 1820s brought together deeply divided communities by mobilizing ideologies of mestizaje as the harmonious coexistence of different races and cultures. These national imaginaries would paradoxically go on to deploy mestizaje both to underpin a sense of commonality and to serve as a mechanism of exclusion. Mestizaje was mobilized to locate a privileged national subject so that colonized forms of disidentification and caste privilege would dominate at the expense of democratic forms of inclusion. This legacy has had lasting effects. Even today, poverty or wearing native dress invariably serves as an index of marginality, despite any and all claims of mestizo commonality.

This ongoing stratifying and divisive ideology is illustrated at work by haunting photographs that appeared in the news in the 1980s during the dirty war in Guatemala and other parts of Central America. They often showed one man, in military uniform, pointing a machine gun at Indians (maybe his friends and family) in Maya-Quiché villages in the highlands. What mechanisms had made it possible for one Indian to be placed on one side of the social divide and the other on the other, I wondered? And what did mestizaje have to do with this violent cultural and personal divide? As we know, the military is one of the most effective hierarchy-imposing and socially leveling mechanisms in the world, and in Latin America it functions as a veritable mestizo-making machine. The military, in Erving Goffman's words, is a "total" institution, and total institutions strip individuals of their "identity kit." In Latin America, too, Indians' "identity kit" is taken away from them when they enter the military. Forced into military service—"caught" walking on the side of the road by military patrols—the Indians' hair is shorn, their traditional dress and personal belongings are confiscated, their native languages are forbidden, and a profound sense of cultural and racial shame is instilled. Before long—through the various mechanisms of policing the body, the imposition of an "other" sense of authority and hierarchy—they stop dressing and identifying as Indian. After military service, what remains of an Indian? And what is a "mestizo" in this context other than a lack? Conversely, what is a mestizo other than his or her "identity kit"?

Despite the importance of objects to mark identities, few critics (excepting those who study religious syncretism) have focused on the fact that the cultural changes that ensued during the colonial period were mediated by and through the dis- and misplacement of objects. If racial mestizaje is intimately—in every sense of the word—linked to migration, the condition that makes transculturation possible is the reconfiguration of people (racially) and objects in a new context. Indeed, how is the "mixing" of races or mestizaje marked but through culture: art, music, foods, literature, religious icons and practices, and the different cultural geographies that emerge? Mestizaje, then, is framed by these objects and practices and cannot be represented other than through them. National belonging is affirmed by highly visible images and syncretic religious and national symbols, as well as collections of objects in national museums. Telling in this respect are the murals of the great Mexican artists Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros commissioned by Minister of Culture José Vasconcelos to paint the epic of mestizaje in Mexico. Nowhere is the racial unrepresentability of mestizos more evident, paradoxically, than in Orozco's famous "Epic of American Civilization"—which could equally well have been called "Epic of Mestizaje." Painted on the walls of the Reserve Room in the basement of Baker Library in the 1930s at Dartmouth College, it is both thematically and aesthetically an oddly misplaced object. While it draws visitors from far and wide, the unsuspecting visitor happening upon the mural feels suddenly as if he or she had stumbled into another space and time. As I was writing this book, I often studied Orozco's "Epic" in search of the way in which he had represented mestizaje, but I was invariably at a loss, for in this fabulous mural Orozco seemed to be unable to represent mestizaje other than through depictions of degenerate generals, corrupt military leaders, and valiant revolutionaries, contrasted to historic Aztec leaders. Is this because it is ultimately impossible to represent mestizaje per se? As in the casta paintings, is it because mestizos are only representable through their circumstance and their "identity kit": the dress they wear, the space they inhabit, the objects they possess, and always in contrast to marginalized indigenous peoples? Or is it because everyone is mestizo and there is no "outside" of mestizaje?

While mestizaje remains largely unrepresentable, then, as an ideology it does privilege the female body as the site of mestizaje. It should therefore come as no surprise that the most visible symbol of mestizaje in the Americas is the Virgin of Guadalupe. Indeed, the Virgin of Guadalupe has played an indispensable role in the foundational hagiography of Mexico. Brought to Mexico by Cortés and his men, the Spanish Virgin of Guadalupe fast subsumed the apparently eradicated pre-Columbian Aztec cult of the goddess Tonantzin, thanks to a series of miracles that took place (according to Guadalupan accounts) only ten years after the fall of the great Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, and moreover, on the very site where the Aztec goddess's temple had formerly stood at Tepeyac on the outskirts of Mexico City. Crucial to how fast the cult spread was the Virgin's dark color, obviously identifying her with Indians and mestizos alike. In a world devoid of hope, her color transformed her into their "mother" and "patroness." When Father Hidalgo started the move toward independence in the early nineteenth century, he rode under her banner, brilliantly understanding that the only ideology that would unite such diverse populations against the Spaniards was that of mestizaje (as utopian ideal of racial unity), and that the only symbol under which he could rally the very populations marginalized by that ideology was the Virgin. For how is it possible for an ideology to persist in the face of deep discrimination against a majority indigenous population? Rebellion would have followed rebellion—and it did in countries such as Perú and Bolivia, which were not dominated by ideologies of mestizaje. Indeed, while mestizaje is present across Latin America as a utopian ideal of racial harmony, few nations, other than Mexico, have so successfully integrated that ideology into their foundational national imaginary. And it probably is not altogether accidental that Mexico, of all Latin American countries, would be the one most successful in promoting the conjoining of the Virgin of Guadalupe with the ideology of mestizaje. Given its closeness to the United States (so far from God, so close to the United States, in Porfirio Díaz's words), the celebration of racial heterogeneity and harmony could be read as a reaction to and critique of the black/white racial divide operant here.

While mestizaje (the "cosmic race," in José Vasconcelos's coining) arose in Latin America as the result of mass migration of people across the Atlantic, we are seeing today another migratory wave worldwide, and scientists predict that with global warming this tendency will only increase exponentially. Helping to explain contemporary artists' obsessions with suitcases and trunks of all sorts, estimates set total numbers of migrants worldwide as high as 50 million. With these migrants, as I show in Chapter Six, the Virgin, once carried across the Atlantic, is on the move again and "on wheels," this time crossing into the United States from Mexico. Hence, while I could have chosen almost any other religious icon from Latin America to discuss the misplacing of objects, the increasing reach of the Virgin of Guadalupe across this country, and into Canada as well, triangulates nicely with the transatlantic migration of objects studied so far. Simultaneous with the Virgin's arrival in the United States, the politics of "brown" (as mestizaje is translated, intervening between black and white) are arriving too. Indeed, increasingly visible as an icon, the Virgin of Guadalupe is now bridging cultural and religious divides. A multiply misplaced object, she is appearing not only on Catholic altars and in churches, but has also become a fashion statement and part of the "identity kit" marking latinidad in the United States. Tattooed on bodies, spray painted on lowriders, she also appears on posters, candles, and other religious paraphernalia sold at supermarkets across the country. Miracles, formerly alien to an Anglo-American cultural context, are more and more frequently reported. As a religious cult, Guadalupanism is also being mobilized in the interests of defending the rights of migrant and undocumented workers—be they Mexican, Dominican, Salvadoran, etc. Concomitant with the migration north of this predominantly Mexican religious icon and its commodification, then, is its increased significance as an index of latinidad across the differences that divide Latin Americans in the United States—hence, translatinidad.

Significantly, the Virgin's trajectory north from Mexico traverses the U.S. Southwest, a region that before 1848 and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo belonged to Mexico, and before that to Spain. Known as New Spain, this region preceded and then coexisted in uneasy tension with New England during the colonial period. In this multiply traversed and multilayered region, archaic representations of the Virgin coexist with modern ones that originate in Mexico. Important as a middle ground and immense borderland—simultaneously separating the United States from and joining it to Mexico—this important region invariably falls off the table in the construction of the U.S. national imaginary, which grounds itself in the original thirteen colonies and cannot (yet) embrace the many parts out of which it is constituted—and particularly not its Hispanic colonial legacy. As Chapter Seven shows, the alterity of this land in the middle has been marked by New York socialites who settled there between the two world wars and created fabulous collections of Southwestern arts, and through them, an "enchanted" space outside history. In the 1960s and 70s, this same space would be appropriated by the Chicano movement as Aztlán—an imaginary homeland from where the tribes that settled Tenochtitlán and the Valley of Anahuac (what is today Mexico City) originated. While still an imaginary homeland "somewhere" in the U.S. Southwest, Aztlán is being mobilized by Latinos to underline migration as a historically grounded continuous back-and-forth across the border that allows them also to critique the increasing militarization of the border region as a process that instantly transforms New Mexicans, Californios, and other borderland dwellers into wetbacks and illegal aliens.

Re-Collecting Subjects

As is clear from the examples by means of which I discuss the dynamics of misplacement in the first two parts of this study, catastrophic historical events often underlie the misplacement of objects. With migratory waves, objects become detached from the spaces and memories to which they are and were anchored, even if only through unconscious and unacknowledged associations or dissociations. Having lost some of their meaning, they are reconfigured in new spaces and acquire different meanings. A stunning depiction of this process of uprooting is artist Mirta Kupferminc's engraving "En camino" [En route], sometimes also titled "Nuestros árboles" [Our Trees]. Born in Argentina, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she represents migration as people literally uprooting themselves. With all their belongings on their backs, along with branches and tree canopies, they are set in motion despite deep inner resistance that pulls them back to their origin. In my final section, I turn to objects as vehicles of intimate and inward narratives.

The profound connection between objects, identity, and memory was brought home to me when I found myself helping the daughters of dear friends move their belongings out of the family home. As I was carrying some of the boxes they had stored in their parents' attic, I found one on which the eldest had written VERONIKA'S MEMORIES. I was somehow sure that it contained photos, letters, souvenirs, ticket stubs, concert programs, and the bric-a-brac that young girls everywhere endow with magical value. Remembering that, as a consequence of the importance of these memory-embodying dimensions of objects, losing one's possessions to a fire is ranked, along with the death of a loved person, divorce, and exile, among the major stressors of the modern world, I wondered what would happen to my friends' daughter's memories if that box were lost. Or if Veronika, after having stored it in her parents' attic for years, opened it to find objects that she revisited lovingly—maybe nostalgically—only to decide she no longer needed them, that they had become disposable.

At different times of our lives, most of us clear out our houses and throw away some of our "memories," and this may have been the fate of Veronika's box too. Chinese popular wisdom embodies this impulse as the need to make room for new energies in the many rules elaborated in feng shui manuals in vogue today. What we consider "normal," "sane" behavior is clearly linked to the ability to maintain a balance between order and disorder. The inability to throw things away is often seen as a symptom of emotional imbalance; conversely, too clean a desk is said to be the sign of a sick mind. Sometimes when we throw away things, we do so simply to make room for new things; at other times we feel the memory-object has served us long enough, much as the silent partners alluded to in Borges's poem "Las cosas" that accompany us throughout our lives yet do not mourn our passing. Despite these important memory-anchoring functions, and despite the fact that we are all determined by material things in myriad ways, we nevertheless refuse to acknowledge—much less theorize—the full extent of the power of objects over us. "[F]or us, to love things is something of an embarrassment. Things are, after all, mere things," writes Peter Stallybrass in his moving essay "Worn Worlds," where he reflects upon his relationship to the things—particularly an old frayed jacket—left him by a close friend who had passed away. Indeed, it may be that nowhere is the power of objects more evident than in their ability to mediate between the living and the dead. The things in a person's life suddenly acquire immense power to recall that person. When friends or family pass away, their things pass into our lives and occupy a special place, usually in altars of sorts—whether a person is religious or not, and whether the "altar" is acknowledged or not.

As Stallybrass concludes, asserting the mediating function of his friend Allon White's jacket: "I cannot recall Allon White as an idea, but only as the habits through which I inhabit him, through which he inhabits and wears me. I know Allon through the smell of his jacket." While death triumphs over the sheer materiality of the body, the objects that had made up a life become animated with memory-imprints. More recently, Joan Didion writes that the alarm clock she had received from her husband for Christmas and that stood on her nightstand stopped working one year before his death. After he died, the wafer-thin, black alarm clock had a mind of its own and "could not be thrown out. It could not even be removed." And the same thing happened with the colored Buffalo pens that had long since "gone dry, but, again, could not be thrown out."

Despite the fact that we all have had and often continue to have real boxes or places where we "store" our memories or that "hold" our memories in place, few of us know today why we do this and why we learn the quotidian mnemonic of switching rings from one finger to another or putting something out of place to remind us of that which we wish to remember. Frances Yates's The Art of Memory traces the development of "the art of memory" not as we have come to practice it but as it was developed by the poet Simonides of Ceos (ca. 556 to 468 B.C.). Indeed, Simonides taught orators to "pin" memories to places (e.g., the entrance to a cathedral, the columns, the statues, the paintings, and so on), thereby allowing them to memorize literally thousands of speeches. He derived his immensely effective mnemonic technique thanks, like my friend Veronika, to a tragic personal experience. He left a dinner party for a few minutes, called outside by someone who turned out not to be there, and this alleged call (by an angel? A premonition?) saved him, for, while he was gone, the ceiling of the building collapsed, killing all the guests at the dinner table. As one of the survivors, Simonides was faced with the gruesome task of identifying the severely dismembered bodies. He was able to do so only because he had memorized where everyone had been seated. He learned firsthand not only that place and identity often coincide, but also that memories can be attached to places, and indeed, that it is easier to remember things when one trains one's memory to do this consciously and systematically. Not interested in personal memory, but in creating a system that would allow orators to remember vast numbers of speeches, Simonides invented a system of artificial memory upon realizing that "orderly arrangement is essential for good memory."

While few of us learn his technique, we are all subject to forms of involuntary memory that function, for all practical purposes, in a similar but unconscious manner. In the course of living our lives, we all "pin" our memories—however inadvertently—to the houses and cities we inhabit and to the objects with which we surround ourselves or that surround us. Simonides' observations prove illuminating to my discussion of the losses incurred by migration, because he shows how much we depend on order to hold our thoughts (and identities) in place and why it is significant that dirt is matter out of place. With migration, the cultural order is undone and experienced as a radical undoing. Much is lost and misplaced in the transition from one place to another, and much work needs to be done in order to create and attach new memories to new places. While there is loss, nostalgia, and disorientation, much that is new, vibrant, and creative also emerges from the reshuffling of things in new contexts. Therefore, the focus of my last two chapters is on the works of the Ortiz Taylor sisters and on Sandra Ramos's installations, which inspired me to write this book. That is, as I mentioned in the preface, I end with the Latinization being effected gradually by the private, familial, laborious, and loving cultural and memory work of the millions of Latinos—that majority minority—now in the United States. Latinization is reflected in the current boom of Latino art and literature, and it is also evident in the Virgin of Guadalupe's exponentially growing capacity to embrace multitudes and in the transformation of U.S. cities into cities with barrios and Little Havanas. The Ortiz Taylors' Imaginary Parents, with its accompanying miniatures, as well as Ramos's suitcases and trunks, remind us that the work of the great collectors, which often resulted in the establishment of museums and other such examples of national showcasing, most often started out as a private obsession.

Subject Matters

Every new cultural configuration and therefore every subject position depends upon transcultural processes: the uprooting of objects, the loss of place and memory that such uprooting entails, the reconfiguration of objects in foreign spaces, and the concomitant reorganization of the epistemological table of the receptor culture under the impact of those objects. The notion of misplacement, then, underlines my entire project. We create narratives of the past based on the shards, the fragments of things, the texture and design of pottery and textiles that cultures leave in their wake. This connection between objects and cultural narratives leads James Clifford and other ethnographers to assert that cultures are "ethnographic collections." While this statement may sound apodictic and even hyperbolic at first, and despite the fact that some cultural forms may survive embodied in the internalized repertoires of dance or performance, it is clear that cultures that leave no material traces irremediably disappear. Indeed, in most cases we only "know" defunct cultures through the memories embodied in the objects that survived them. Objects' inability to mourn does not mean, however, that they do not carry a "memory," an imprint of the action of human thought: and in Kubler's words, that they allow us to intuit an emerging shape in time.

The late Harvard zoologist and geologist Stephen Jay Gould explains how this shape in time is to be taken quite literally, since it is constituted as a complex totality through numerous overlyings of objects and human action. He shows this interpenetration of subject and object at work in the famous fossil fish embedded in Solnhofen limestone that has allowed the soft parts of the fish (fins and body outline) to be preserved along with the fish fossil's bony skeleton. The surrounding rock in which the fossil is embedded has cracked and been stapled together. This suture is the youngest stratum, and it in turn is marked by penciled numbers and corrections in classification written directly on the rock, a piece of paper with notes attached, and two words seemingly printed on the rock: Gold and Oesterr. These, it turns out, were from the Austrian paper wrapping used when the fossil was transported to the United States. In Gould's reading, the top layer is the most recent, and the bottom layers are the oldest. Geologists uncovering amalgamations of this sort are "quite literal about 'overlying'" because they reveal something about time, but also because they show us that what emerges out of the shards of the past is always a multilayered complex totality. Indeed, nothing comes to us unmediated. Crucial in this respect and underlying all of Gould's own famous interventions, especially his lifelong collaboration with photographer and installation artist Rosamond Purcell (indeed, their attraction to the early Wunderkammern), is the recognition that science and art have remained deeply implicated with each other despite all notions to the contrary. Studying the artistic rendering of Purcell's photograph of the overlayered fossil fish, Gould left us with the injunction that intellectual life "should not be construed as two cultures of science and humanities at war." Just as art and science are inextricably linked, Gould asserted that so, too, the subject and the object are indistinguishable from each other despite traditional cultural accounts. He concludes that the sequence of superposition on the Solnhofen fossil fish shows "an unbroken transition from things of nature to things of art, flesh to rock to paper to ink," and that this "illustrates the embedding of mind in nature."

In his meditations on mind, memory, and matter, the early twentieth-century French philosopher Henri Bergson collapses the opposition between mind and matter in a different way. He writes that one can perceive the world only through the body—that object-image par excellence—and that as a consequence, every time one moves, "everything changes, as though by a turn of a kaleidoscope." Bergson is not thinking of a subject (like the Enlightened Eurocentric subject) situated at the center, spinning around an axis and surveying the world. More radically, in the kaleidoscope, he seems to have made the subject and the object indistinguishable from each other, for am "I" not the kaleidoscope in his phrasing? Extending his metaphor a bit further to help clarify my own growing unease with conventional distinctions between subject and object, I assume that I am immersed in materiality and can only articulate my "I" through the materiality of my body. In the chapters that follow, I therefore assume an "I" that is distinguishable from a world of materiality (things) only at those moments of attention and tension between "I" and "it" that I call the "object." This "I" emerges much as the reconstituted image emerges after the turning of the kaleidoscope. Misplaced Objects is, then, my attempt to think through the object, and as such it is the attempt to think through the subject/object divide that structures our thinking.

In much the same manner as a photograph invariably disappears as an object when we focus on its referent (the photographer's object), objects, too, prove to be endlessly elusive and singularly ungraspable. They do seem, however, to become of concern to us at moments of crisis. The surrealists' fanciful playing with incongruous juxtapositions emerged in the time of political instability between World Wars I and II, and more recently, the narratives of Holocaust survivors, Vietnam veterans, political exiles, and migrants all privilege objects in their construction. Important for challenging the subject/object divide in the 1960s is the so-called "knowledges reconstruction project." European and U.S. intellectuals at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. (Marcus Raskin, Joseph Turner, Susan Buck-Morss, Ann Wilcox, and Herbert Bernstein, among others), came together to critique our epistemology. They started out with the premise that the modern forms of rationality, science, technology, and the subject/object binary have to be rethought in the interests of saving a planet many felt was doomed, particularly after the failure of leftist revolutionary ideals. They argued in different joint and individual publications that our epistemology is colonial, that our "knowledges define the character of modern life and are presently used for colonizing and controlling purposes," indeed, that "much of our inquiry system sustains racism, sexism, and classism." Their call was to create a general awareness of the colonial and colonizing underpinnings of our "rationality" and a "reconstructive knowledge" that would allow for a more humane, ethical, and ultimately sustainable world. Their ideal was to create the conditions of possibility that would allow for dialogue on and across many of the divides that currently hinder the free exchange of ideas and positions. Appealing to the more utopian moments in Marx's thinking, they envisioned creating the possibility of having everyone involved first take "turns of participating in what is eaten, what is to be grown, and how to take out the garbage" and then sitting down at the same table to negotiate. Their group's proposed democratization of work and space would undo the situational politics of the museum panopticon that currently structures our certainties. The work of this group is echoed in contemporary artists' reclaiming of the messiness of the early Wunderkammern and in feminist, queer, and much postmodern and border criticism. While the "knowledges reconstruction project" is now defunct, it has reverberated provocatively across the academic and artistic spectrum and was capped—in what could constitute a rough periodicity—by Susan Stewart's marvelous On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, and more recently still, by Bill Brown's Things. To cite the words with which Brown ends his introduction (and which outline his intellectual project by aligning it with Bergson's), we need to undermine "our very capacity to imagine that thinking and thingness are utterly distinct."

Finally, as studies such as Brown's, Stewart's, and others show, any attempt to undermine hierarchies between subject and object, that is, any attempt to shift the focus away from the subject and to think through the object necessarily breaks down disciplinary boundaries because disciplines are both formed and hence constrained by the object they study.


“This book will make a significant contribution to more than one field. Conceptually, Spitta’s model is an innovative one—she presents fresh historical perspectives on colonial phenomena and institutions . . . while interweaving this material with contemporary institutional or cultural echoes. The result is that we not only learn more about the ‘old’ New World, but the ‘new’ New World as well. . . . The scholarship underlying this project is wide-reaching and impressive.”
R. Tripp Evans, Associate Professor of American Art, Wheaton College, and author of Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820–1915