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“Hispanism, Queer Theory, and Community”
Israel Burshatin, Haverford College


The three terms that I have loosely assembled as a title, “Hispanism”, “queer history” and “community”, are meant to stand as temporary markers for the comments and many questions that follow. The first two especially, “Hispanism” and “queer history” (or queer anything), can arouse deeply held convictions and disciplinary anxieties. With “Hispanism” one treads perilously across a once imperial and now trans-national field whose demarcations have been intensely questioned in recent years. The name itself is one that many have grown increasingly weary of. In this sense, Hispanism is quickly finding its own queer turn, a discipline that nowadays dares not speak its name. I like the provisional and functional definition that Sylvia Molloy and Robert McKee Irwin give in their introduction to Hispanisms and Homosexualities:

Hispanism ... is more than a linguistic bond: it is a conviction, a passion, a temporal continuity, an imperial monument. If for some of us it may mean a (provisional) way of organizing the study of a set of cultures, we should remember that we are, most assuredly, in a minority; that what for us is functional, either as a way of organizing a subject of study or even as a means of postulating strategic identities, is for others an article of faith and a clear call to the heart. (x)

They go on to observe, accurately I think, the extent to which Hispanism “has traditionally conceived itself in monolithic terms, as an oddly defensive family whose members supposedly share cultural values and engage in common cultural practices” and, I would add, who are expected to follow narrowly prescribed disciplinary protocols (x-xi). For the medieval and early modern periods, the disparities are, I believe, even greater. Attempts to write a queer history of Iberian culture will necessarily occupy an interstitial disciplinary location, against the grain of the fusty rules of decorum of traditional Hispanism and on the margins of the incessant crossings of queer historiography. Is this interstitiality something to bemoan or to celebrate?

I use the term “queer history” (rather than queer theory or queer studies) since one of the strengths of the essays in Queer Iberia is the historical grounding of the interpretations offered, even those of literary texts. In Getting Medieval Carolyn Dinshaw helps us to grasp queerness as a historical category in a tour de force of combined close readings and expansive theorization. As I understand her multiple and unbounded definitions of the queer, it designates a Derridian supplement. For instance, she calls Margery Kempe queer in the sense that her “body, does not fit her desires” (149). But the dissemination that accompanies Derrida’s semantic supplementarity is reined in by the ethical stance inherent in the queer scholar’s location in his or her communities (scholarly, gender, class, ethnic, etc.). The scholar’s position depends on affiliations to communities past and present. For Dinshaw the queer is also both excess and the unsaid, “what is left out”, “the leavings of categories”: “queerness is just that relation of unfittingness, disjunctiveness - that uncategorizability, that being-left-out” (158). Especially useful, I find, is her attention to the alterity that medievalists and early modernists are accustomed to finding in their objects of study, the irreducible differences that arise as we interpret societies, texts, beliefs and cultural artifacts that only with difficulty or by some act of ethnocentric or presentist elision can be neatly mapped onto our world. Dinshaw’s exhortation to join her in queer historiciza-tion makes the interstitiality I referred to earlier a very good thing, nurtured by affiliations that are partial and contingent:

Let us imagine the widest possible usable field of others with whom to make partial connections [...and] a process that engages all kinds of differences, though not all in the same ways: racial, ethnic, national, sexual, gender, class, even historical/ temporal. Thus ... the medieval, as well as other dank stretches of time, becomes itself a resource for subject and community formation and materially engaged coalition building. By using this concept of making relations with the past we realize a temporal dimension of the self and of community. (21)

Return to Queer Iberia formally acknowledges and celebrates the rise of one such scholarly community that is in the process of coalescing around queer interventions in medieval and early modern Iberian studies. Fundamental to Queer Iberia and other similar projects is our awareness of discontinuities and of “textual intimacy”, the Barthesian act of queer history, in which the “touch” of recognition and solidarity closes gaps of time, space and culture (Dinshaw 50).

How do our scholarship and teaching affect hegemonic Hispanism? Assuming that we envision our work as an oppositional practice -or a “radical practice”, as John Beverley once proposed- do we constitute ourselves as a minority in the Deleuzian sense of not having a stable and limiting model while we pursue, instead, strategies and tactics that would counter disciplinary myths of “temporal continuity” and “imperial monuments”? Do we privilege, instead, “constant variation” (Daniel W. Smith xliii), which undermines the reification of canonical texts? How do we promote convergences and divergences that do not pass through the filter of global capitalism and the corporate university? With full awareness of Hispanism as a hegemonic structure, viable in the sense that it also varies over time and is sufficiently malleable to accommodate dissenting voices as it co-opts them, is it enough to assert our deep conviction that interpreters can never really master a past recorded in the “archives of repression”?1 Is it sufficient just to teach our students about the origins of disciplinary practices whose function was to maintain subaltern subjects silenced in the past (women, sexual minorities, Amerindians, conversos, Moriscos, Africans)? Is our project reducible to the mid twentieth-century ideal of “la otra España”, one that sought to give voice to an imagined community dating back to nineteenth-century Spanish liberals exiled in England and France? The ideal of “the other Spain”, conceived as an antidote to “la leyenda negra” and to the triumphalist myths of Spanish imperial resurgence cultivated by the Franco dictatorship, still has irresistible force for any project of disciplinary renewal.2 It is that counter-hegemonic offshoot of Hispanism that in a very real sense has become a new orthodoxy and one with remarkable staying power and progressive credentials, in part because it has assimilated the strong critical voices of distinguished peninsularists like Américo Castro, Juan Goytisolo, Luce López-Baralt and Francisco Márquez-Villanueva.

The editors of Queer Iberia are right to underscore the importance of the yoking of race and sexuality in the past as well in today’s theoretical discussions, as in the work of Ann Laura Stoler, whom they specifically cite (Hutcheson and Blackmore 11). But should we not also attempt to historicize -and critique- similar concepts as they have been understood in the discourse of the more progressive elements of Hispanism? The value of this more local dialogue within the discipline might enable us to engage more fruitfully with Hispanism, if that’s something that seems worth pursuing. Regardless of how we might reformulate these questions or go about answering them, our scholarship and teaching should reflect the view, I believe, that even within hegemonic structures it is possible to find or open up “spaces in which resistance can manifest itself” (Dominick LaCapra 64). One of the challenges before us is the extent to which a revitalized Hispanism that embraces queer studies can do so without necessarily rehabilitating the historically determined structures that have never really wanted to let the subaltern speak, the mythography of Castilian regeneration, populism and Europeanization notwithstanding.

As an example of the interstitiality of queer Iberian studies I referred to at the beginning of these remarks I would like take a brief look at the thoughtful review of Queer Iberia written by the distinguished medieval historian Teófilo Ruiz. Above and beyond the differences I will necessarily focus on here, it is most important to keep in mind that Ruiz is undoubtedly a sympathetic -indeed, an indispensable- interlocutor for the project of Queer Iberia. Ruiz writes with palpable appreciation that Queer Iberia “reveals aspects of Iberian medieval and early modern culture hitherto unexplored or dealt with as ancillary to mainstream history”, and he mentions specifically “same-gender sexual relations, cross-dressing and gender bending taxonomies”. He welcomes themes that would have been considered untouchable when people of my generation were completing their dissertations in the late seventies and early eighties. He takes issue, nevertheless, with a number of perceived deficiencies: the absence of contributors from Spain, over-reliance on literary representations, and what he considers to be the unfounded assertion of a “teleology” of queerness that asserts its “enduring quality in Iberia” (585). He questions the criteria used to make this claim of peninsular queerness and asks, provocatively, “but, by that criteria [sic] what culture is not ‘queer’? Is all difference ‘queer’?” (586).

Some of his observations are indisputable - all of us, I’m sure, would welcome closer dialogue with our colleagues in Spain and elsewhere in the Spanish speaking world. But his attribution of a reductive teleology of queerness to some of the work in Queer Iberia is an interesting but problematic move. If I were to debate the point -which is not my purpose here- I would ask him to consider the remarkably queer thrust of the national imaginary of medieval Spain, as found in chronicles and historical narratives in Arabic, Latin, Castilian and other peninsular languages, in which the Muslim conquest of 711 becomes a cultural sign of divine retribution for the moral failings of the Visigoths and especially, for the concupiscence of the last king of the Visigoths, don Rodrigo. There is ample evidence of the construction of a proto-national/religious identity closely bound to a queer sexuality encompassing voyeurism and fetishism, as well as symbolic re-enactments of subjugation, jouissance and self-castration. (No wonder our courses are so popular!) The legends of Rodrigo and La Cava and the monarch’s synecdochic violation of the Tower of Hercules bespeak a concept of nationhood that is suffused with themes of sexual and national transgression in the form of Muslim invaders, who themselves represent extremes of masculinity and femininity.3 As some of the contributors in Queer Iberia have shown, sexuality and gender operate in other important historical narratives that are not derived from those of don Rodrigo and La Cava. And, surely, post-Freud, it would not be an argument for exceptionalism to suggest that historically grounded perceptions of self and other are never too far from the symbolism and languages of Eros. In fact, Sara Lipton’s essay in Queer Iberia, which Ruiz singles out for praise, makes very explicit the undeniable queer subtext that underlies Pedro II of Aragon’s historical narrative.

An important issue raised by Ruiz concerns the gap that he sees between Queer Iberia and contemporary Spain’s purported indifference to the issues debated by Américo Castro and Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz. Ruiz states categorically that the Castro-Albornoz “debate [is] so dated as to make the discussion almost anachronistic. No one in Spain under the age of sixty cares about these issues anymore” (586). What is unclear to me is whether he means the specifics of an acrimonious and admittedly outmoded debate or the underlying -and, I would argue, still pertinent- complex of questions regarding Spanish or peninsular identities and their alternately repressed, scorned or romanticized Jewish, converso, Islamic and Morisco elements. While the specific debate may indeed be hopelessly démodé, the larger underlying questions of Spanish indebtedness to its former colonial or minority subjects are, if anything, more pertinent than ever.

Even a casual reader of the Spanish press will be familiar with the alarming rise of xenophobic thinking, reinforced by official measures recently adopted that seek to limit migration from the Maghreb and sub-Saharan regions of Africa. This closing of the peninsular cultural mind seems to coincide with a corresponding rise in hate crimes in urban centers, from Almería to Madrid, where Moroccans and Dominicans have been targeted. What, exactly, has superseded the debate over the value of non-Christian and non-“Western” contributions to peninsular cultural history? In the eyes of Juan Goytisolo and other critics of the contemporary scene, current cultural tensions reinscribe the old biases, sometimes shamefully so. When the Castro-Albornoz debate was au courant, these issues were in fact more academic than they are today, for in the depressed economy of the postwar period Spain exported its surplus labor to Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe as low-paid “guest-workers”. But the tide has turned as the metropole, now a major economic force, is awash with unwanted (but useful) low-paid migrants from Africa and the Americas, a situation that gives renewed currency to the old essentialisms favored by Albornoz and his supporters. I shall cite one recent example of retro thinking that not only recycles some of the old shibboleths about Islamic resistance to European assimilation, but proffers these as the kind of useful thinking we must accept if we are to recover from the attacks of September 11, 2001.

In a recent issue of ABC, Cándido, a regular columnist for the Madrid daily, sings the praises of Emilio Castelar’s acumen in capturing the essence of “Orientals” like Osama Bin Laden - back in 1876! Cándido’s bizarre point is that history and today’s intellectuals are at best unhelpful in elucidating the events of September 11th. He offers, instead, the most hackneyed recycling of the psychological and moral attributes dear to Orientalists over one hundred years ago, during the waning years of the Spanish empire:

Cuando Emilio Castelar en su ensayo político de 1876 titulado «La cuestión de Oriente» describe el tipo árabe, parece estar describiendo a Osama bin Laden, el presunto responsable de la tragedia del 11 de septiembre: “La elevada estatura, las distinguidas maneras, el temperamento nervioso, el arte en el manejo de las armas, los ojos profundos, la mirada escudri-ñadora, los labios perfectamente dibujados, la frente espaciosa, la color atezada ...”. Sin embargo es el mismo tipo de hombre que inventó la trigonometría, que llevó el álgebra a las matemáticas o que instaló el primer observatorio astronómico en la Giralda.... La grandeza de los árabes se debió a su heterodoxia, que floreció sobre todo en el imperio maho-metano de Occidente y que se movía en el esquema de la razón y el trabajo, no en el de la inspiración y el principio del fatalismo. Este principio es el que destruye la voluntad y la conciencia, suprime la libertad y quita la dignidad quitando la responsabilidad. El fatalismo musulmán carece de opciones y convierte la lucha contra él en una lucha contra máquinas. Como escribía también Castelar, “un solo libro entregado al comentario perpetuo de una raza muy dada a las argucias teológicas petrifica la inteligencia y le da la rigidez de la muerte”. A eso es a lo que se enfrenta el secularizado mundo occidental. Por eso en situaciones como la creada después del ataque de precisión a Nueva York y a Washington, que eleva definitivamente el terrorismo a uno de los peligros mayores de este mundo, cabe preguntarse por el papel del intelectual en las coyunturas extremas de la historia.

This truly bizarre reiteration of Orientalist clichés shows how far some contemporary Spanish commentators are from effecting the sort of clear break with outmoded ideas that Ruiz has in mind. As this passage shows, the essentialisms of the so-called clash of civilizations that we’ve been hearing so much about lately, and which the Castro and Albornoz debate directly engaged, are not in the dustbin of history. As tempting as it is, I will not comment on the transparently queer traits ascribed to the “Oriental" -his “ojos profundos”, “labios perfectamente dibujados”, “distinguidas maneras”, “temperamento nervioso”- but mention these only to indicate the alarming resurgence of stereotypes one hoped had been rendered obsolete by the writings of Edward Said and Juan Goytisolo, to name just two of the most prominent public intellectuals to have demystified the cultural constructions of Islamic or Arab otherness.

At the beginning of my remarks I summarized some of Carolyn Dinshaw’s ideas about queerness - its double valence as both excess and the unsaid, its “unfittingness” and “disjunctiveness”. Although he writes from a position outside queer studies, Ruiz’s commentary suggests that he too endorses a substantial rewriting of the culture. Nevertheless, he pulls back from fully endorsing this direction by cautioning against the dangers -and temptations- of over-interpretation: “As with many exegeses, some interpretations can be stretched too far” (587). He expresses greater comfort and assurance with queerness as part of a microhistorical approach, a local phenomenon that resists wider application: “‘Queerness’, like every other historical category must be contextualized in the local and in the particular”. But how, then, do we take the results of our investigations to the higher plane of writing culture, which he also finds compelling? Indeed, Ruiz exhorts Hispanists “to integrate ‘queerness’ into the way we write culture”(588). I find intriguing that queerness somehow figures on both sides of the divide, a ubiquitous yet problematic position for a critical and historical approach that only very recently entered Hispanic studies. Still to be determined by all of us is how to negotiate the disjunction between the local and historicized micro-event of queerness and the broader category of writing culture, which implies, surely, a theoretical and speculative construct, one that must perforce attend to master narratives. Do these negotiations implicitly trace the divide between history and literature? Are there other disjunctions implicit in these two disciplinary opposites? Isn’t the project of Queer Iberia about just such crossings and connections? Does exegesis, as Ruiz presents it, imply an always already present queer turn? As tempting as that sounds, I do not believe that any of the contributors to Queer Iberia has made any such claim. Rather, they have shown -and rightly so- that queer scholarship chafes the rigors of narrowly defined disciplinary protocols.



1 The term “archives of repression” is Carlo Ginzburg’s and it designates the corpus of heresy and inquisition trials that scholars must tap into in order to document subaltern resistance in medieval and early modern societies (xxi). My own work on the “hermaphrodite” Eleno de Céspedes is based on such “repressed” archival sources.

2 See Beverley, who references Roberto Fernández-Retamar.

3 Shortly after September 11, 2001 on Pat Robertson’s TV show, “The 700 Club” Jerry Falwell interpreted the attacks of September 11 in remarkably similar terms. He “point[ed] a finger” to blame, among others, pagans, feminists, abortionists, gays and secularists for the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City (audio portion in Scott Simon). Like the Arab and Berber invasions of the Iberian Peninsula in Christian chronicles, the events of September 11th turned Islamic warriors into the instruments of a wrathful God in Falwell’s feverish imagination.


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