Cultural Identities: Recounting the "Technologies of Memory"Skip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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“Technologies of Memory: The Atlantic Axis in the Early Modern Period” was a multi-disciplinary conference organized by the Atlantic Studies Initiative on March 21-22 at the University of Michigan. Focused on the newly-formed transatlantic world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the gathering explored the ways in which the cross-cultural conflicts of the period produced new techniques of forging cultural identities and memories. Papers examined these issues as they arose in Mexico, Brazil, Central America, the Caribbean (Hispanic, English, French, and Dutch), Africa, Ireland, the Hapsburg Empire, and France. The conference was made possible by generous support from the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the International Institute, Medieval and Early Modern Studies, the Department of English, the Department of History, the Department of Romance Languages, the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, the Center for European Studies, the Program in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and the Williams L. Clements Library.
The early modern period was a time of contradictions so intense that they are still with us in their post-modern forms. In many ways, what we call modernity started here, in this early, first era of globalization. It was a time when European states narrowed down into vernacular languages and intensely local, sometimes ethnic identities, yet also expanded across a globe whose dimensions were still in dispute. The transatlantic world added a new axis to the geopolitical indices of European awareness, and created new demands, for Europeans and most especially for the peoples of Africa and the Americas, on the always fragile collective memories and narratives that help to fashion cultural identities.
The conference participants focused on the techniques as well as the technologies by which histories were maintained or revised, memories recollected or scattered or erased, on both sides of the Atlantic. After welcoming remarks by Carroll Smith-Rosenberg (history, American culture, and women‘s studies) and Steven Mullaney (English), the first panel addressed ways in which new cultural identities were forged in the period, sometimes in response to colonial encounters, sometimes in response to old division newly adumbrated by colonial expansion. Jerome Branch (Hispanic literature, University of Pittsburgh) traced the roots of modern racial and racist thought to Spanish laws of limpieza or purity, originally formulated to distinguish Christian from Muslim or Jew in terms of blood lines rather than skin color, and the transposition of this system from the purity of one‘s blood to the purity or whiteness of one‘s skin. Patricia Seed (history, Rice University) also focused on the prehistory of later prejudice, tracing the migration of terms like raza and casta, race and caste, from Spain to India and back again. On their return, the terms had begun to acquire the hierarchical sense of discrimination they did not possess originally. Nicholas Canny (history, National University of Ireland) closed the first panel with an examination of how rigid some cultural memories proved to be, detailing those European preconceptions that resisted modification from the actual experience of other cultures. After discussion finished there was a screening of “Asientos”, François Woukoache‘s film on the memorializing of the African slave trade.
A keynote address by Walter Mignolo, the William Hanes Wannamaker Professor of Romance Studies at Duke University, opened the next day‘s discussion. Mignolo used his talk to think back and to some extent rethink his path-breaking work, The Darker Side of the Renaissance, presenting what he called an “other paradigm,” a new geopolitics of knowledge, to define the epistemic break represented by the early modern, early colonial period. Following the discussion, the next panel focused on the ways in which self and Other were inscribed in writing and especially print. Tom Conley (Romance languages, Harvard University) provided a guided tour to the complexities of orthography in Montaigne‘s Essay on Cannibals. Margo Hendricks (literature, UC Santa Cruz) questioned some received histories of blackness by examining theories of generation in the period and comparing them to the metaphysics of body and memory in Heliodorus and other instances of medieval Greek romance.
The virtual demise of one of the Brazilian tribes known to Montaigne, the Tupi, was examined by John M. Monteiro (anthropology, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Brazil). Missionaries were trained in the Tupi language, but written Tupi was not introduced to the indigenous peoples. When the Tupi virtually disappear as a people in the seventeenth century, victims of severe epidemics and opportunistic warfare by neighboring tribes, they left behind indigenous forms of memory in stone carvings and inscriptions which register the Christian encounter and the illnesses it brought. Later Tupi gods acquired the sores of disease.
William O‘Reilly (history, National University of Ireland) reminded us of the Eastern world and its competing significance for Western Europe, arguing that stereotyped images of Muslims often mediated European apprehensions of Amerindians.
The body as a memory system, in image and in performance, was the topic of the final panel of papers. Jennifer Morgan (history and women‘s studies, Rutgers University) focused on images of African women with babies, often depicted as suckling them over their shoulder, and the commodification of both mother and child that lay behind such portraits. Doris Garraway (French and Italian, Northwestern University) examined the erotics of colonialism in the French Caribbean, especially as played out in Pierre-Corneille Blessebois‘ “Le Zombi du Grand-Pérou.” The immense labors of slave culture–the work in the fields, and the work it took over centuries to rationalize and justify transatlantic slavery–was the topic of the final talk of the conference by Kim Hall (Thomas F.X. Mullarkey Professor in Literature, Fordham University). Detailing the massive increase of slave labor that followed the shift to much larger sugar plantations in the mid-seventeenth century, Hall traced a reverse relationship in the representation of laboring slaves; the more extensive the reliance on brutalizing slave labor, the more dignified and mystified are the images of slaves, at work or at rest, in illustrations of the same period. In the ensuing discussion, Walter Mignolo suggested that the conversation between race and class in the transatlantic world is a complex one, whose syntax was being worked out through many of the memory systems we had encountered in the course of the conference. Complex enough, he suggested, that the linguistic analogy might not be adequately inchoate, and so he left us with an olfactory analogy to ponder: “America smells like race, Europe smells like class.”
Errata: The print version of this issue was incorrectly designated as Vol. 10, No. 4.
Steven Mullaney is associate professor of English at the University of Michigan.