- Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World by Irene Silverblatt
In this “cautionary tale” anthropologist Irene Silverblatt would extend Hannah Arendt’s contention —that the origins of twentieth-century fascism lie in nineteenth-century imperialism and “race thinking”— to early modern Spanish Empire and the Inquisition. Modern Inquisitions (heretofore, MI) argues that the Spanish inquisitorial discourse was a “race thinking” that was “very close to the nineteenth-century rhetoric of European exceptionalism that is critiqued by the British postcolonial theorists” (p. 229). MI thus enlists itself in the recent and not-so-recent wave of critical historical writing that traces the “subterranean” origins of “Western modernity” to colonialism.
MI does not present a comparative or transhistorical analysis of early modern and modern European colonialisms. It is instead composed of eight interpretive essays on various dimensions of rule and dissent in seventeenth-century Viceregal Peru. Silverblatt’s approach is that of the historical anthropologist and the cultural critic of power. In addition to Arendt, MI follows Benjamin and Taussig on “civilization and violence,” enlists Foucault rather than Weber on the key notions of “bureaucracy” and “the arts of government,” and takes from Bourdieu and Abrams on “the state.” For interpretations of the Inquisition and Hispanic Empire, for the most part Silverblatt follows Henry Kamen, and for colonial Peru she largely follows the interpretive spirit of her own earlier work on witchcraft, native resistance, and the Extirpation of Idolatry, along the way making much use of the “Letter to the King” of the writing subject “Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala,” the famous and much reproduced line drawings of which serve to illustrate the text of MI.
As the authorial “we” confesses in MI’s Appendix, “Modern Inquisitions has a bias: we focus on the connections between the seventeenth century and ‘modern’ life, not on the distinctions between them. Because of that bias –and our focus on modern institutions like bureaucracies, colonialism, and race—we risk encouraging the perception that little of substance changed between the seventeenth century and the nineteenth. That, of course, was not the case” (p. 227). But saying so in the Appendix does not undo the overall effect of the text, which is indeed one of dialogical continuity more than “connection” (since the connections are not drawn but implied in words), accentuated by the button-pushing use of current phraseology, e.g., that seventeenth-century Spain was “an emerging modern nation” and “a country that defined religion as nationalism” (p. 96), that the Spanish Inquisition appealed to “national security” (p. 17) and that it was “an institution of state that defined what nationhood meant” (p. 96), and that it practiced the equivalent of “racial profiling” (p. 25). MI then is clearly at odds with those cultural historians (including, they would argue, Foucault) who hold that early modern epistemics and languages of power, and in particular those that informed the Spanish Monarchy, were in key ways distinct from modern regimes and vocabularies of state power. For these historians, MI must stand or fall on the proposition that “race thinking” and “bureaucratic rule” were articulated first in the seventeenth-century colonial folds of Spanish Monarchy, and more particularly in the practices and discourse of the Inquisition and its institutional “cousin” the Extirpation of Idolatry.
The confessed “bias” on “connections” (if that is in fact what it is) is surely the strength and weakness of MI. MI addresses itself to a broad, perhaps undergraduate Anglo American readership and this strategy is surely what recommends the book and its “bias” but it does so at the risk of losing Andean specialists and other cultural historians and historical anthropologists who are more attuned to reading genealogies of difference and change in history. The unmistakable discursive strategy of MI is to sustain a pedagogical dialogue with “We Americans,” that is, an Anglo (and Jewish?) readership identified at various points in the texts as “we,” “ourselves,” and “you.” This imagined reader is otherwise “blinded” by a Black Legendesque, Anglocentric narrative of the glowing rise of modernity’s sun (the...