Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Conquest by Traffic Sign

I think Todorov’s greatest contribution is his emphasis on the discourse of language and epistemology. Rather than focusing on the political or material bases on which the Spaniards conquered America, but the underlying linguistic and epistemological reasons why. For example He does not discuss “How the Spaniards used smallpox to massacre the Aztecs.” Instead he talks about how the Spaniards used signs to obliterate the other. I think this is an extremely original and interesting contribution. I had never thought to contemplate how cyclical notions of time, and ritualized speech could so easily demobilize a people. The way in which you conceptualize these things determines much of your behavior. It makes much more sense now that the Aztec’s hesitation is put within a broader discursive framework. Without this framework, I think we lose a lot of understanding in regard to the Mesoamericans.

I also like how mike mentioned that westerners were particularly suited to understand the other so that they could annihilate them. I think this shift from Columbus not understanding the Caribs at all, to Cortes deftly exploiting Aztec ideas, show the shift from the medieval to modern times. Rather than seek to conquer the holy lands and cleanse them of unbelievers, the Spaniards seek to conquer the natives and then convert them to their purpose. Todorov describes this as the ironic case of eliminating the internal other (through the reconquista) whilst introducing massive external others into the regime. This shift in attitude really presupposes a more modern view, because it is one based on imperialism instead of crusader zeal. The Spanish crown wanted an ethnically pure state so that it could then impose its purity on others.

In that regard I also enjoyed the overview of Columbus as a silly man. Who knew he was such a superstitious little Catholic! Columbus is supposed to be this great modern explorer who laughed in the face of those who claimed he would fall off the earth. Yet for all his abilities in the field of naturalism, the man was not a very good follower of scientific skepticism. He had what Freud would call “religious delusions” ie that his belief in religion forced him to believe in things that might be true, but for which there was no evidence. To fill that gap Columbus deluded himself with “discovering” evidence to always support his beliefs.

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