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“Dissidences”
Josiah Blackmore, University of Toronto


“Dissidences” as the conceptual center of my present remarks is also the term I would use to characterize the divide between literary scholars and some historians that emerged in the first published reviews of Queer Iberia. It’s not necessary to repeat the particulars of those reviews, since they’re available to all; rather, I’d like simply to take one key idea from them as a springboard to consider the overall project of the volume, as evidenced both in the collective work of the original contributors and in the provocative, forward-looking research trajectories presented by our new contributors here this weekend. It has to do with how we conceive of heterogeneity as a way to reconstruct, redirect, and push forward the critical historiography of the Iberian past.

That one point, voiced by a pair of reviewers, is that Queer Iberia revives a debate that saw its heydey years ago: the Castro/Sánchez-Albornoz polemic. While of course that polemic must be accounted for in any contemporary reading of the Iberian (especially Spanish) past, to see the collective project of the anthology as merely a resuscitation of this debate in its original terms is to overlook the problematic introduction of the new terms of sexuality, gender, and fluid notions of difference into the mix of historical, literary, and cultural accounts of medieval and early modern Iberia. This perhaps seems almost too self-evident to mention, but the politics of disciplinary studies evident in some reviews and discussions at conferences since the volume’s publication require us to pose again this question: what kind of history are we attempting to trace, to expose? How might we encourage a program of productive dissidences among scholars and students as we rethink the boundaries and possibilities of our collective field of academic inquiry?

Especially in the case of Iberian Studies, one of the “histories” documented in Queer Iberia is the still-emerging interactive arena of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in which we are witnessing a dialogue among a plurality of formal academic disciplines. This interdisciplinary, or cross-disciplinary, methodology is particularly apt and welcome for the study of Iberian letters, culture, and history, whether we’re speaking about the passions of St. Pelagius or the most recent novel by Catalán writer Lluís Fernàndez. While the Iberians of earlier epochs may have had contact with the intellectual, artistic, or political currents of northern Europe, and while there may have been much travel between countries and exchange of ideas with an implementation of northern European models of learning and exchange in southern Europe, we still maintain that Iberia is singular because of its heterogeneous sociological and cultural landscape, however we might choose to define the tenor of interaction between Christians, Muslims, and Jews, or the extent to which a monolithic Latinity operated as a historical and cultural determinant. And this leads me to engage “histories” on the level that primarily motivated Queer Iberia’s very existence: how do the complementary and conflictive interactions of culture, gender, sexuality, race and difference in Iberia require us to think metacritically -or meta-historiographically, if you prefer- about codifying, interpreting, or exploring the Iberian past and present, or indeed, any past or present?

In this regard, the analysis of Iberia might serve as an exemplum of how to reinvigorate critical positionalities in their most dissident, and therefore productive, possibilities. If we do nothing more than gesture toward a modified critical path, toward a new continuum of influence between categories of historical experience and exegetical practice, then we’ve done our job. On such a continuum, for example, even a broad, multifaceted term such as “culture” might enjoy new life. Iberian queerness -wherever we might identify or locate instantiations of this concept, with whatever discursive or textual examples- is part of Iberian culture and its criticism in the ecumenical and vital sense of process, of mobilizing and shaping identities, both personal and collective.

The work of Queer Iberia (including the thoughts presented by contributors, respondents, and symposium participants this weekend) demonstrates that “culture” must be released from its moorings as a category of fixity or stasis, that it necessarily pre-exists a moment of textual, artistic, or even theological expression. We would be better served to remember the components of Queer Iberia’s subtitle -“Sexualities, Cultures, and Crossings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance”- and our collective return to it here, not as discrete and often intersecting entities but as a simultaneous, often dissonant, perhaps even self-contradictory, dynamic of the structuration of meaning. A poet might not work solely within a given cultural context so much as the poet might perform culture, even create it. Indeed, in my own contribution to Queer Iberia, one of the points I made was that the “culture” of sexuality of the medieval Galician-Portuguese poets does not exist a priori outside the poems as “context”, but that the poets engage in a dialogic of creating a culture in their texts through the agency and sociology of trobar (“The Poets of Sodom”).

Another dissidence that is often erased by metonymic association with the book’s title is the one between the cultural histories of Spain and Portugal under the aegis of “Iberia”. While Portugal shares the overall profile of the heterogeneous, sociological mix characteristic of early Iberia, there are some differences. The Portuguese scene is where we can locate a more conservative, Latin culture in medieval and early modern times, replete though it might be with Jewish and Arabic intellectuals. (We shouldn’t forget that the Galician-Portuguese lyric, the lingua franca of Iberian poetic creation for nearly two centuries, had as much to do with Portugal as it did with Galicia or Castile.) Expressions of queerness are generally more understated in early Portuguese culture, and we must dig deeper to excavate them, but they’re there, as the recent work of my Toronto colleague David Higgs has shown in the case of Inquisitorial records detailing the trials and confessions of sodomites and heretics or the fascinating, self-imposed identities of marginalized groups in seventeenth-century Lisbon and Coimbra. The Portuguese Inquisitors appear to be very much concerned with naming, defining, and delimiting queerness: for the Portuguese Inquisition, the non-normative (i.e., that which contravenes “a nossa santa fé e bons costumes”) can manifest itself in any number of social moments. As scholars working on the other end of the spectrum of “Inquisitorial logic” (in Leora Lev’s apt expression), the attention to labels, definitions of terms, delineations of working hypotheses -such as academe’s evolving notions of queerness- acquire a liberating force, even if, or especially because, we find it hard to agree.

I’d like to conclude by offering a few thoughts on what I take to be the lesson of Queer Iberia. We need to take the aims of the anthology and follow the trajectories further outward, across disciplines and across chronologies. All of the papers presented this weekend testify to the viability of this, and to the engaging and productive scholarly results. There is an opportunity to continue work in Iberian Studies by broadening our reach of reference to include primary sources (so many of them still ignored, even among Iberianists) and critical practices, to offer problem sets of dissidences in the task of investing Luso-Hispanomedievalism with a healthy flexibility. The book and the example of this conference point to possibilities of renewed exchange between historians and literary scholars, between philologists (in all valences of that term) and theorists, or between any type of critic who takes concrete instances of discourse or textual production as a platform for scholarly elaboration. One of the advantages of post-postmodern scholarly inquiry is that it allows for a more integrated and informed encounter between academics working within different national or geographic boundaries. It allows Iberianists opportunities to make contributions to theoretical debates traditionally promoted by those working in other academic areas or fields. It allows us to tackle head-on scholarly practices that would otherwise blur vital questions of difference and dissidence.


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A Journal of Medieval Hispanic Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
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