Book Review

A Tejano Theory of Community

Raúl Coronado, A World Not to Come: A History of Latino Writing and Print Culture (Harvard University Press, 2013) 555 pages.

Review by Philip Lorenz, Cornell University

(Go here for the introductory post for this round table series.)

Raúl Coronado’s A World Not to Come tells a “murky” (55) tale. Beginning in 1810, in the geographical region now known as Texas, Coronado’s story “spirals” backward and forward through vast swathes of Continental and ‘New World” political history, consisting, in its material form, of books, manuscripts, pamphlets, proclamations, broadsheets, speeches, newspapers and Scholastic treatises – on the way to presenting its reader with a fascinating story of unrealized possibility and a modernity that was not to be.  The “textual” (semantic and discursive) field Coronado examines includes the writings of a wide range of thinkers, politicians, theologians and philosophers spanning continents and more than four centuries of history.  What emerges, in this meticulously well researched and beautifully written account, is a mixed and above all “ambivalent” modernity that in many ways remains haunted – both by its own achievements, as well as its unfilled potentialities.

 More specifically, A World Not to Come argues that an exploration of the discursive history of 18th early 19th ‘New Spain’ offers an “alternative model of modernity as it unfolded in the Americas” (8).  This America is not the heir of a northern European Protestant, Capitalist “disenchanted” tradition familiar from Max Weber’s influential secularization thesis that undergirds the narrative of “possessive individualism.” The problem with that thesis, according to Coronado, is that it takes the Northern European Protestant experience as representative, ignoring the extremely complex, mixed and “hybrid” (61) experience of New Spain.  This is an experience in which neither the religious sensibility of Catholicism, with its venerated objects, things, relics, shrines and Saints, and visuality, nor the Scholastic philosophy out of which Catholic sovereignty theories emerge, has been completely superseded. On the contrary, Coronado’s “historical-archaeological account,” reconstructs a West that has its roots in Catholic thought that became increasingly marginalized after the Protestant Reformation. So much so that the post-Reformation intellectual history of the Hispanic world – Spain and Spanish America – has been effectively excised from the narrative of modernity, based as it is on a certain Protestant theories of political sovereignty, secularization and autonomy.

Building on the work of scholars such as Walter Mignolo and Enrique Dussel, one of the goals of Coronado’s project is thus to counter this dominant cultural and historical narrative that uncritically represents the “imperial presuppositions that maintain a universal idea of humanity” (8, quoting Mignolo) with a more complex, nuanced – and also “ambivalent” (64, 71-2, 90) account.  For Coronado, the “modern” world – the “Hispanic” world that now includes Mexico and much of North America geographically – but also simply the intellectual world of the West – is one that contests such presuppositions, in aworldnotocomepart by turning or returning to Catholic theories of community most fully elaborated in Late Scholasticism, perhaps best represented by the Jesuit theologian and philosopher, Francisco Suárez.

Here, in a wonderfully suggestive and persuasive link, the latent Latinity of Suárez’s sovereignty theory returns reconfigured in the “Latino” writings of a series of intellectuals in the form of an “amalgamation” (14) of new historical thought.  From Suárez’s understanding of the community’s power [“potestas”] as a “productive,” “collective” and “mystical,” a power “that does not emerge out of separate, individual, autonomous beings but only through their coming together as families” (227), emerges a Spanish-American / Tejano theory of community based on the collectivity rather than the individual.  Agency and rights, in this tradition, are not conceived of as following but rather as preceding the figure of the [“possessive”] “individual.”

Corresponding with such a vision is a notion of writing as non-unified, non-Cartesian, non-owned and in different ways constituting the communal. This politically founding potentiality is seen to be at work even (or especially) in the cases when authors (Antonio, Bernardo, Tresplacios, etc.)  are seen as performing certain acts understood precisely as acts of separation, revolution, declaration.  This sense of writing – or, rather of “textuality” as a bearer of ideas leading to unintended consequences – underlies the “history of Latino” writing.

Pursuing that writing, the book relies, methodologically on the work of Foucault, whose notion of genealogy Coronado productively follows to explore the alternative temporalities of Hispanic modernities. But it also turns to others, including Charles Taylor’s work on secularization, Harry Harootunian’s analyses of the spatial and above all temporal dimensions of “Enlightenment” narratives, and the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty’s postcolonial critique of histories that assume that the “human is ontologically singular” (450, n.40). In the course of doing so, Coronado covers vast swathes of history with stylistic grace and precision.  His sentences are capable of extraordinary feats of synthesis, as his narrative skillfully weaves historical anecdotes, biographies and literary and political events with conceptual and theoretical analyses without losing the thread of its larger argument about alternative modernities.  Among the many achievements of this book is its skillful ability to synthesize large expanses of Western intellectual history (the history of moral theology, of political philosophy, of Natural Law, etc.) – even as it critiques that history precisely for its exclusions.

Regarding precisely the book’s dual (synthetic and critical) argument, I have three questions:

First, regarding the book’s recurring argument that this tradition of textuality in different ways marks a historical, epistemic, temporal or cultural “rupture” (30, 220, 260, 270, 283, 285, 289, 311), how are we to understand these “ruptures”?  While, on the one hand, they are sometimes presented as being initiated or inaugurated at the individual level, as the product, outcome, discovery of a particular gesture in a particular piece of writing, produced by a particular individual. (“With those two words, “sois libres [you are free],” Trespalacios attempted to create a rupture in historical time” (278)] – on the other hand, Coronado is aware that to give such significance to the individual agent would go precisely against the overall argument that the communities theorized in this history of Latino writing are conceived of precisely not in terms of individual agency but rather in terms of collective and shared visions of life.  Do these ruptures, initiated by an individual piece of writing, in some ways run counter to Foucault’s own account of epistemic shifts as the outcome of complex collective institutional and social processes?

Second, regarding Suárez, Late Scholasticism and Catholics theories of sovereignty:  Is the real legacy of Late Scholastics like Suárez (as well as other School of Salamanca thinkers) for modernity their legal, political and rights thinking? Or is it in the end not their economic thinking?  Here, I’m thinking specifically of the concept of dominium.  That is, despite the book’s argument that (for example) the revolutionary broadsheet presents us with a conception of human rights that thinks in terms of families over individuals as in Protestant theories, do we also see that, in both Protestant and Catholic cases, the notion of rights emerges from property (232)? [i]

Third, to what degree does the “Hispanic” Scholastic tradition of conceiving of community in terms of “concentric relations” presuppose a unity that is itself a problematic part of the dominant (not alternative) modernity that A World Not to Come sets itself up against? A unity, that is, that presupposes Christianity not only as its origin but also as its telos – and that comes with its own form of often violent exclusions?  (That is, the (also Catholic) unity implicit in Ginés de Sepulveda’s ‘New World” vision just as much as in Antonio’s proclamation?  How to reconcile Antonio’s repudiation of violence with the Proclamation’s call for “venganza”? (72-3))

What begins to emerge, then, out of the “murkiness” of the tale World Not to Come tells, is a certain image – an image in the Benjaminian sense of historical illumination.  And as with Benjamin, it is an image of history that is not without its violence. The question of an alternative modernity consisting of a more collective sense of belonging and more immanent sense of political making than what currently reigns in the tradition of a social contract thinking (that always presumes a transcendent source of power and consequently becomes, in a way, disempowering at the level of interpersonal subjectivity) seems to at the same time exclude those other (non-Christian) others against which their alternative sovereignty comes into view.  (If the ‘enemy’ is always the hidden figure of sovereignty, then, as the Proclamation of the Tejanos makes clear, in the case of the United States of North America, that enemy is more often than not the native American (in this case the Comanches. p. 300).  One might argue that here is where “alternative modernity” meets its – at least “American” – limit.)

Yet in the end, we are not left with enmity.  Rather, what we see, as Coronado explains his desire to have attended to “the details within” the various writings he examines, is a work of tremendous “empathy.” The empathy of recovery, as Coronado says, quoting Benjamin:  the recovery of a tradition, of texts and of a certain vision of life. Coronado reads and listens to the voices of these texts, as together they compose the traditions that we may call “lost” but whose social and political visions were and in many ways remain possible. A World Not to Come presents us with another view of modernity – and therefore of a possible future – in which identity is at least as much collective as individual, history more connective than broken apart, land shared, and economy and ecology a matter for all.  If, for Benjamin the act of recognizing the other is both a spiritual and an aesthetic one, then, for Coronado, too, in this beautiful, and painstakingly carefully researched and attentive book, the “world” of Latino writing that was, is also a world that is yet to come, a world that calls us to attention and toward a sense of the beauty that – again, potentially – as well as the responsibility that lies within the corpus mysticum of Latino modernity.  That responsibility involves the actuality of race and racism. A World Not to Come is a reminder of the challenges of thinking modernity along non-racialized ties.  It’s the – ongoing – challenge that Coronado’s book inspires us to see and to reconceive.

[i] Here, I’m thinking specifically (among other things) of passages such as the following from De legibus, where Suárez seems to link sovereignty to dominum: “…el  poder de soberanía es una cierta forma de dominio.  Pero no es un domino al que deba responder un esclavitud propiamente despótica sino más bien sumisión en el orden civil.” [Denique haec potestas superior est species cuiusdam dominii. Non est autem tale dominium hoc, ut ei respondeat propria servitus despotica, sed subiectio civilis. Ergo est dominium iurisdictionis quale est in principe seu rege.] De legibus III.1, 8-9. (Pereña 13-14).

Philip Lorenz is associate professor in the department of English at Cornell University. His research focuses on English and Spanish literature and drama of the Lorenzsixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His first book, The Tears of Sovereignty: Perspectives of Power in Renaissance Drama (Fordham University Press 2013) argues that the great playwrights of the early modern period—William Shakespeare, Lope de Vega, and Calderón de la Barca – reconstitute the metaphors through which contemporary theorists continue to conceive the problems of sovereignty.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Prof. Lorenz,

    Thanks for this review essay. I am especially interested in how Coronado is complicating the common and all too easy conception of “the Western tradition” as a (retrospectively identified) single stream of thought, but rather as a stream with many tributaries (or perhaps just mostly many streams flowing alongside each other, joining and dividing and meeting again?). “Modernity” as we know it has developed by following one of those streams, but there is another part of the river, maybe still within earshot even, that might lead to more hospitable terrain. So the “latent Latinity” that returns in the late Scholastic writings Coronado is looking at would be a reminder, I expect, that the ideas about self and society that he is foregrounding here have as much claim (if wanted) to “Westernness” as the (heavily Protestant!) notions of self-sovereignty that saturate modern life and our conceptions of it.

    This line of argument opens up some great possibilities; I can certainly see how it will be helpful for my own current project/problem, which involves (in part) explaining how Latin American literature, and Latin America more generally, could be variously viewed as “Western” or “non-Western” in 1980s canon debates. So, just one day into the roundtable, I have ordered the book.

    Thanks much for the generative essay, and thanks also to Robert and Lilian for organizing the roundtable. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the essays, and of course Coronado’s book. Amazon prime will be my undoing!

  2. Thank you for this review.

    I don’t know very much about Suarez and I found the discussion of him a bit cryptic. For instance, your suggestion that Suarez links sovereignty to dominium and hence to property. In that quote from ‘De legibus’ in the footnote the Spanish word is dominio. My Spanish, unfortunately, is close to non-existent but an old paperback dictionary gives dominio as “domain, dominion, sway; territory.” The notions of territory and property are related but not really synonymous. Anyway, since I only got a rough gist of that quote in the footnote, perhaps you could say a little more about this? Thanks.

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