Codex Mendoza

the highest rank of warriorThe sixteenth-century Codex Mendoza is an extraordinary document, for aesthetic, formal, and historical reasons.

Most likely commissioned by Viceroy Mendoza, with its images produced by indigenous scribes and informants, then annotated by the Spanish, the document is a key source for our understanding of Aztec culture and society, not least because so few codices survived the conquest, but also because this one was specifically produced as what Mary Louise Pratt would term an “autoethnography”: an attempt by the indigenous to record and describe their own way of life and translate this understanding for outsiders’ benefit.

Formally, therefore, the document is a fascinating hybrid of pictorial representation, glyphic or symbolic visual codes (from the curlicues to depict speech to the stylized images of dwellings or the multiple eyes that are to signify “night”), annotations of these same images, and then prose interpretations of image sequences or entire pages. It’s a collaborative work, arguably perhaps the first Latin American testimonio.

Aesthetically, what’s striking is above all the colour and vibrancy of the images, particularly the depictions of the various ranks, honours, and wardrobes of warriors, priests, spies, and so on, all of which indicate a fantastic aesthetic sense that must have permeated Aztec society itself. The various patterns employed on clothing, shields, and headdresses indicate a desire to differentiate between functions and achievements as spectacularly as possible.

spies and warriors
No doubt some of this formalization is misleading just as, one would expect, is the extreme rigour and mechanism of the section on child-rearing. As with the Popol Vuh, our knowledge of pre-Columbian America is hostage to the desires of those who were best-placed to present themselves as its legitimate representatives, and who also had most to gain from the perpetuation of pre-existing hierarchies. It’s significant how much of the text deals with discipline and punishment: of recalcitrant children (“a 9-year old boy is pierced in his body with maguey spikes by his father, for being incorrigible”), of wayward apprentices (“if the youth roamed about as a vagabond, the two masters punished him by shearing him and singeing his head with fire”), or of rebel caciques (“summoned to war for his rebellion against the lord of Mexico”). Imagine if the only texts that survived to attest to Western cultural achievement were Doctor Spock, Debrett’s, and the Southern Baptist Church’s rulings on moral degeneracy.

What’s interesting, too, but somewhat undecideable, is the extent of the mistranslation or misinterpretation in the constitution of meaning from indigenous codes to Spanish narrative. Its noticeable, for instance, that the prose interpretation uses the term “mezquita” or “mosque” to describe Aztec temples, so demonstrating the extent to which the Spaniards understood their encounters with indigenous civilization within a framework determined by their lengthy interaction with the Arab world.

The document’s concluding annotation admits to the limits of European knowledge: “The reader must excuse the rough style in the interpretation of the drawings in this history, because the interpreter did not take time or work at all slowly.” Its author goes on to provide a series of errata, and an indication of Spanish dependence upon native informants. The comment also, significantly, alludes to disagreements among these informants as to how Aztec society should be portrayed: “he interpreted it carelessly because the Indians came to agreement late; and so it was done in haste and he did not improve the style suitable for an interpretation” (my emphasis).

Finally, it’s worth saying something about the codex’s convoluted material history: seized by French corsairs (pirates!) who intercepted the Spanish fleet, it was first taken to the French court and then sold to Richard Hakluyt, the English writer whose work was used by Shakespeare as the source for his own colonial fable, The Tempest. Eventually it ended up in Oxford’s Bodleian library.

So this colourful work of indigenous scribes fed Europe’s (still) voracious but also unsettling appetite for images and approximations of indigeneity. It remains a vehicle for translation, but also a marker of the fissures that necessarily attend all (auto)ethnographies. The colour endures, standing in for and obscuring the social conflicts that didn’t survive transfer to representational form.


The Third World is often depicted as a place of languor and lassitude, where not much ever happens, and where what does happen takes place with almost infinite torpitude, as if in some tropical slow motion. Latin America is particularly associated with this arrested temporality: here Third World torpor meets the Hispanic legacy of “mañana culture.”

This conception of Latin American life in the slow lane applies to all temporal and social scales: from a corner store’s relaxed approach to opening times to the delays of an over-bureaucratized state, from the individual slumbering under his sombrero to the patience of whole indigenous races, from the slow swing of a hammock to lands that the twentieth-century has passed by, all facets of the region’s culture and history are imagined to be bathed in this thick viscosity.

Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó celebrated a Latin habit of leisure that allowed for philosophy and contrasted with North American utilitarian industriousness. Perhaps most influentially, Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional Macondo is affectionately portrayed as a quaint tropical oasis inhabiting its own, parallel, unchanging temporality.

So Fernando Ortiz’s emphasis is perhaps brusque and surprising. His stress is on immense speed and tumultuous changes, a breathtaking rush of precipitate adaptation and re-invention:

The whole gamut of culture run by Europe in a span of more than four millenniums took place in Cuba in less than four centuries. In Europe the change was step by step; here it was by leaps and bounds. (Cuban Counterpoint 99)

He notes particularly the abruptness of the transition ushered in by Spanish colonization:

At one bound the bridge between the drowsing stone ages and the wide-awake Renaissance was spanned. In a single day various of the intervening ages were crossed in Cuba. [. . .] If the Indies of America were a New World for the Europeans, Europe was a far newer world for the people of America. They were two worlds that discovered each other and collided head-on. (99-100)

Far from a vision of Latin American culture as close to nature, bound to the slow rhythms of either the seasons or the sea gently lapping on the beach, Ortiz suggests a history of continual dislocation, deracination, uprooting, confrontation, confusion, and innovation that comprise a process he designates with the term “transculturation.”

In short, for Ortiz, Cuba, Spain’s richest colony and source of so much of Europe’s wealth, has long been a cauldron of activity stirred up to an accelerated pace. It was always revolutionary, always the site of struggle and creative disruption, long before the 1959 uprising that brought Castro to power.

But no doubt the same could be said for Latin America as a whole: rather than a region left out of the loop of world history, it was here that modernity itself was born and continues to thrive.

Mackandal's miracleAnd no wonder that Alejo Carpentier, another Cuban though writing in a somewhat different context, could say that “the presence and vitality of this marvelous real” was “the heritage of all America” (“On the Marvelous Real in America” 87).

In Carpentier’s founding manifesto for what would later be packaged (and slowed down) as “magical realism,” what is most striking is again the sense of dynamism and potential that he identifies with what he terms an “unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality, perceived with particular intensity by virtue of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of extreme state” (86).

But rather than merely an “extreme state,” Carpentier’s original Spanish refers here to an estado límite or “limit state.” So why not envisage Latin America not as perpetual laggard but as a region always at the limit, at the cutting edge (too often, literally the bleeding edge) of modernization and history?


Juan Domingo Sarmiento, on the Argentine gaucho:

Without instruction, without need of it either, without a means of subsistence and without needs, he is happy in the midst of his poverty and privations, which are not many for one who has never known greater pleasures or set his desires any higher. So, although this dissolution of society deeply implants barbarism because of the impossibility and uselessness of moral and intellectual education, in another way it is not without its attractions (Facundo 58; emphasis added)

It’s hardly news that Sarmiento is ambivalent about the figure–the gaucho, the caudillo–that his great work ostensibly excoriates. No doubt it is precisely this ambivalence that makes the book, still, great: it resonates not only with the thunder of Sarmiento’s denunciations, but also with his own fascination towards what he was denouncing.

FacundoSarmiento introduces his biography of the legendary caudillo Juan Facundo Quiroga by means of a brief story: one day a gaucho was travelling the vast desert of the pampa when he found a ravening, man-eating tiger on his track. He ran to a small tree nearby, climbed to the top, and from there “sway[ing] continuously, half-hidden among the branches [. . .] he could observe the scene taking place on the road” (92). Down below, the tiger had caught up with him and soon tore apart the saddle he had been carrying “with a slap of the paw.” Turning to the tree in which the gaucho had sought refuge, the bloodthirsty beast,

eyes reddened, [. . .] roaring with rage, lay down on the ground, ceaselessly switching its tail, eyes fixed on its prey, mouth partly open and parched. This horrible scene had now lasted two deadly hours; the strained pose of the gaucho and the terrifying fascination exerted over him by the bloody, immobile gaze of the tiger–from which, owing to an invincible force of attraction, he could not avert his eyes–had begun to weaken his strength, and he could feel the moment coming in which his exhausted body would fall into the tiger’s wide mouth, when the far-off sound of galloping horses gave him hope for salvation. (92-93; emphasis added)

We learn shortly that the gaucho protagonist of the story was in fact the young Facundo. But it might equally be Sarmiento himself, almost overcome by his fascination for the caudillo nicknamed “Tiger of the Plains.”

Sarmiento is looking to fashion a gaze appropriate for the American landscape and people. His complaint is that Europeans, with their “classical, European prejudices” only see in the Americas a mirror of their own civilization, “the imitation of Europe, and nothing that reveals America to me” (39, 38). But to look with American eyes also, inexorably, means looking at least in part through the eyes of the gaucho Facundo, and so sympathizing with the very forces that have proved an obstacle to civilization in Argentina.

No wonder that Sarmiento should discuss “the enigma of the political organization of the Republic” in terms of an “Argentine Sphinx, half cowardly woman, half bloodthirsty tiger” (32). Like Oedipus, he sees his task as confronting but also claiming his savage paternity, and claiming but also confronting the weaknesses of a maternal European colonial heritage.

Ironically, of course, Sarmiento’s arch-enemy, the dictator Rosas, has already effected a fusion of the barbarous and the civilized, has already subjugated the forces of gaucho nature to the ends of social organization. Whereas Facundo is noble (if fearful) in his un-tamed, natural savagery, “what in him was only instinct, impulse, and a tendency, in Rosas became a system, means, and end. Rural nature, colonial and barbarous, was changed through this metamorphosis into art, into a system, and into regular policy” (31). Rosas has rationalized violence, “organiz[ing] despotism with all the intelligence of a Machiavelli” (32).

Facundo is centrally concerned with this paradox without ever fully finding a resolution. In the end, there will be no galloping hooves heralding rescue from Sarmiento’s plight: he will remain transfixed by the gaze of the barbarous other that is also his barbarous self. Argentina is insufficiently civilized; but it is also (already) too civilized, too instrumental in its cold-hearted recuperation of its prodigious natural power in the name of governance.

But there is perhaps another possibility: the option of nomadism, of piracy. Indeed, the pampa in its featureless expanse provides “an image of the sea on land” (46); the Montonero warrior band that Facundo joins is described as “those filibusters of the Pampas” (98); but Sarmiento sometimes laments that “on the Argentine plains, the nomad tribe does not exist” (54).

For in nomadism at least “a society exists, although it may not be permanently set in a certain place on earth; religious beliefs, traditions immemorial, the invariability of customs, respect for elders, together form a code of law, of customary ways and practices of government, that maintains order, morality as they understand it, and association within the tribe” (53-54). Perhaps nomadism offers another model of organization for that “nameless, subaltern volcano” (32) that is the region’s immense constituent power.

Popol Vuh

Mayan skullThe Popol Vuh, “Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life,” is also a book of death. For it is at best the record of an absence. Its anonymous authors tell us at the outset that they are writing the history and myth of the Quiché people precisely because

there is no longer

a place to see it, a Council Book,
a place to see “The Light that Came from Beside the Sea,”
the account of “Our Place in the Shadows,”
a place to see “The Dawn of Life.” (63)

They conclude in similar vein:

This is enough about the Being of Quiché, given that there is no longer a place to see it. There is the original book and ancient writing owned by the lords, now lost. (198)

The Popol Vuh itself, then, can only supplement or stand in for a lost or inaccessible text, a missing plenitude irrecoverable in the wake of Spanish conquest. Hence the ambivalence of the book’s final lines, which assert either that this substitution has been successful in recapturing the lost history that it retells, or that the supplement can be no more than an epitaph to an independent existence now irredeemably extinguished: “everything has been completed here concerning Quiché, which is now named Santa Cruz” (198).

Something of this impossibility inheres in all subaltern texts: they recognize that the power of naming (a power continually underscored within the pages of the Popol Vuh) escapes their grasp. At best, the subaltern can hope to insinuate him or herself within the codes established by the dominant, perhaps to upset or relativize that discourse of power, at least slightly. At best, the subaltern aims at a precarious reinscription within or between the terms structuring the new doxa.

Mayan Death GodAt the same time, with the Popol Vuh–and the same goes for the Incas with both Garcilaso de la Vega’s Comentarios reales and Guaman Poma’s Primer Nueva Corónica–there are very definite limits to the sympathy such a text can incite. For what it laments is not the fact of domination per se, but simply its relocation. These books lament the destitution of indigenous sovereignty, but above all they also mourn the fate of a native aristocracy usurped.

The Popol Vuh is a genealogy of the Quiché state, a record of its noble houses and lordships, and a celebration of its (former) power to exact tribute from surrounding tribes:

What they did was no small feat, and the tribes they conquered were not few in number. The tribute of Quiché came from many tribal divisions.
And the lords had undergone pain and withstood it; their rise to splendor had not been sudden. Actually it was Plumed Serpent who was the root of the greatness of the lordship.
Such was the beginning of the rise and growth of Quiché.
And now we shall list the generations of lords, and we shall also name the names of all these lords. (194)

The last lords in the list have Spanish names: Don Juan de Rojas and Don Juan Cortés. They themselves now pay tribute to the Spanish, rather than receiving it from their fellow indigenous people. Like many native aristocrats, however, Juan de Rojas and Juan Cortés sought accommodation with the Spaniards, hoping to maintain their rights to local domination under the aegis of European imperialism. And, as translator and editor Dennis Tedlock notes, the Popol Vuh itself may well have been a crucial implement in the case that the local lords made as they tried to establish dialogue with their new masters:

Juan Cortés, whose duties as Keeper of the Reception House Mat would have included tribute collection had he served before the coming of [conquistador] Alvarado, worked constantly to restore tribute rights to the lordly lineages of the town of Quiché. In 1557 he went all the way to Spain to press his case, and it could be that he took a copy of the alphabetic Popol Vuh with him. (56)

Interestingly, the subjugated tribes are described twice as a multitude, at least as they are ventriloquized by the scribal aristocrats of their subjugators: “Don’t we constitute a multitude of people?” (166); “Aren’t we a multitude?” (169).

The real absence, then, is surely not the defeated state nobility whose destruction these texts bemoan; it is rather the constituent power that they themselves repress, in a form of anticipatory counter-insurgency.

But what can we say of constituent power in pre-Columbian societies, when constituted power has so thoroughly mystified its origins in the few texts that are available to us?


Colonial logic often suggests that the further one travels from the metropolis, the further one returns back to a semi-forgotten past.

ChristchurchThe Commonwealth semi-periphery, for instance, is cast as a redoubt of mid-century English innocence. Writing in The Times, Arnie Wilson cites what he calls “that traditional Kiwi joke: ‘We’re about to land in Auckland — please put your watches back 50 years.'” Victoria, British Columbia, has also been described in similar terms.

In the periphery itself, travelers are apt to find Dickensian exploitation, feudal simplicity, Stone Age barbarism, or even prehistoric lost worlds, depending upon inclination.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps (Los pasos perdidos) is a classic narrative of this spatialization of time: its narrator has to undertake a tortuous journey through a maze of Amazonian waterways in his quest to find the origin of music, the primitive foundation of melody and rhythm. At each turn he peels back decades, centuries of time passed and forgotten by “civilized” man.

But, as Mary Louise Pratt shows in her reading of Alexander Von Humboldt’s travel writings, precisely the same gesture positing the Third World as some primal past also frames it as the site from which the future will be born. If Latin America was “a primal world of nature, an unclaimed and timeless space [. . .] whose only history was the one about to begin,” then it could also be envisaged as “point of origin for a future that starts now, and will rework that ‘savage terrain'” (Imperial Eyes 126, 127).

It is because America is our past that it can be, in Hegel’s famous words, “the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.”

For Pratt, it is Humboldt who most persuasively and influentially articulates this sense of the Americas as a continent pregnant with possibilities for investment and growth:

On the eve of Spanish American independence and the eve of a capitalist ‘scramble for America’ not unlike the scramble for Africa still to come, Humboldt’s Views and his viewing stake out a new beginning of history in South America. (127)

Humboldt’s portrayal of the American landscape in terms of its dynamism, worked over by the “occult forces” of geology and climate, resonates as much with “industrialism and the machine age” as it does with the “spiritualist esthetics of Romanticism” (124). The region’s immense forests, mountains, and plains constitute a natural factory: a complex mechanism characterized above all by its productivity.

After all, doesn’t Humboldt’s sketch of Chimborazo resemble nothing so much as a nineteenth-century factory, complete with its innards dissected and delineated according to the natural division of labour, and its serrated roof topped by a chimney belching smoke into the blue sky?

Pratt quotes from the Preface to Humboldt’s Personal Narrative, which predicts an age in which:

the inhabitant of the banks of the Oroonoko will behold with extasy, that populous cities enriched by commerce, and fertile fields cultivated by the hands of freemen, adorn those very spots, where, at the time of my travels, I found only impenetrable forests, and inundated lands. (qtd. 131)

And as she notes, in this description of an “ecstatic future counterpart” who will see the results of “rapturous nature” harnessed to industrial commerce (131, 130), Humboldt’s discourse is ultimately affective. “Humboldt sought,” Pratt tells us, “to pry affect away from autobiography and narcissism and fuse it with science” (124).

In the jungles of Latin America–and this is how its landscape differs from the English Lakes or French Alps beloved of other Romantics–affect is envisaged as combining with science and harnessed to capital in the name of a utopian future of industrial enrichment.


Travel writer Tim Cahill tells us:

I am frightened by the jungle. I am frightened by the sickly sweet odors, by the moist darkness, by the dank fecundity. I am frightened by the chaos: green things lash about in slow motion, choke off lesser plants, rise towards the sun like those subconscious horrors that sometimes bubble up into the conscious mind. (Jaguars Ripped My Flesh 42-43)

He is writing about the rainforest of Northern Amazonia, more specifically the “Mundo Perdido” that straddles Venezuela and Guyana, and a clearer instance of Latin America as the West’s unconscious would be hard to find.

[UPDATE: OK, I’ve found one.]

Nor could one hope for a better example of the way in which the unconscious is cast in terms of (feminine) sexuality (and vice versa, of course): “sickly sweet odors,” “moist darkness,” “dank fecundity.” Not that there is anything very unconscious about these associations for Cahill. A little later, in a shallow canyon high up on Mount Roraima, the plateau mountain that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, he strips off his clothes and, standing “naked under the unfamiliar sun,” informs us that “it seemed to me that the smooth, rounded, dripping rocks, the puddled depressions, the archways and spires, all had overtly sexual connotations.” What follows is a patch of rather purple prose that ends with “a terrible roar of release” as water from the plateau cascades down the mountainside (56).

It is often suggested that psychoanalysis is complicit with the colonial imagination. But although (as a good Deleuzian) I’m skeptical of many aspects of Freud’s work, it can also obviously be invoked to analyze and criticize colonialism’s own fantasies and desires.

The thing about the unconscious is that it is at the same time both alien and strangely familiar, intimate: unheimlich. What is frightening about the unconscious is also what is frightening about the self.

Cahill admits that the Latin American landscape (its populace, too, while we’re at it) functions for him as a kind of Rorschach blot: “there was a cavernlike quality to the canyon, and the mind does not allow such shapes to go uninterpreted” (55). But it is not as though such projections are “merely” imaginary. Or rather, the point is that they have real effects. As Cahill says of Conan Doyle’s story, “his fantasy [. . .] was so compelling that it gave the area its name” (44). Moreover, Conan Doyle’s fantasy motivates Cahill’s own trip to the region, otherwise a wholly senseless enterprise, particularly at the time of year he is there:

The urge to climb Mount Roraima in the rainy season is simply inexplicable without reference to psychiatric literature–and the tales of adventure one reads in childhood. (45)

The notion that the tropics drive unwary travelers mad is a familiar one; but so is the idea that they must be a little unhinged to be there in the first place.

And Cahill finds a fair few other foreigners who have either been adversely affected by this particular heart of darkness, or who were some way round the bend already. Not least the Latvian “hermit” Laime who “for nineteen years [. . .] had lived alone in the jungle, nineteen years alone with his thoughts” (48). But the prime example is Cahill, who is introduced as an anonymous third person, as though unrecognizable even to the author himself: “the gringo was sweating in the humid heat, and he began babbling in incoherent Spanish. [. . .] the big one with the beard, he was a writer named Tim Cahill” (40, 41).

The tropics, as so often, are a place where men (less often women) go to find themselves, to find the truth of the stories they heard as children, to find and confront their culture’s primal fears. But they are also a place where outsiders too easily lose themselves, either figuratively or literally. The last person who had tried to climb the mountain in the rainy season was “a solitary hiker from Caracas who had supposedly died in the frigid rains there” (53). And Cahill and his friends dice with death at least twice, at the outset when they are stopped by a Venezuelan army patrol (“‘They almost shot us,’ I said, incredulous” [41]), and at the end when the pilot due to fly them back over Roraima crashes his plane on the way down to meet them.

Cahill ends his account with an image of the dead at Jonestown, whose story he had covered some years previously, and so an image of “all those bodies bloating in the heat and the rain” (59). The tragic end to the People’s Temple saga, a tale of misplaced faith and mass suicide, comes to represent all the fears of what Latin America will bring out in us.

Jim Jones's cabinthe jonestown report