1 The Conservative Lettered City and the Twilight of Parliamentary Democracy
This essay sets out to interpret the relation of translational practices to the exercise of power in late-nineteenth-century Colombia. To this end, it surveys the work of several philologists and translators (particularly that of the grammarian and president Miguel Antonio Caro [1843–1909]) whose literary careers are inextricably bound up with their political life. Along the way, I also explain how the theorists of sovereignty whose ideas enjoyed wide currency in Caro's time—from Augustine to Juan de Mariana and on to Antonio Nariño—often resorted to the tropes of translation (notably the translatio imperii and the pactum translationis) to signify the transmission and legitimation of political authority. Although Caro does not mention such concepts by name, he engages them in ways that anticipate Carl Schmitt's powerful critique of parliamentary democracy. The various versions of the translatio that coexisted in the later nineteenth century had historically been attached to very specific models of the state. In fact, it is now a critical commonplace to refer to the proliferation of text-bound images of a modern bureaucratic state and its attending cultural and educational institutions in nineteenth-century Spanish America as the emergence of a "lettered city [ciudad letrada]." As used by Ángel Rama, the phrase "lettered city" designates an imagined community of learned elites that obtains from the rise of the "men of letters" and/or "lawyers" (letrados means both in Spanish) through the ranks of the state bureaucracy, all the way to the principal political offices, on the basis of their related abilities to write and speak eloquently and to construct rhetorico-political arguments. Because Caro's career as a man of letters, a publicist of political ideas, and a self-taught jurist was enabled by a long-standing tradition that posited all three endeavors as coexisting in a continuous flow, his opinions, aesthetic choices, and acts of legislation must necessarily be compared to those promoted by some of his forerunners and coevals who also assumed a dual identity as forgers of the citizenry's tastes and prejudices.
The main features of the lettered city, which Rama has set forth in a book by the same title, are as follows: first, the superimposition (Rama's words are translación and transculturación) of a preexisting order of signs on an uncontrollable and unpredictable phenomenal reality that often goes unacknowledged as such; second, the use of a highly cultured language, often disconnected from everyday usage and fully understood mainly by the minority in power; and third, the displacement of the most immediate economic and social problems of the community by ambitious cultural projects in [End Page 143] keeping with the imperatives of nation building.1 The Colombian lettered city achieved its climax at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the longue durée that Néstor García Canclini has characterized as the discontinuous, sinuous, and heterogeneous modernization of Latin America [244–54]. As late as 1909, the staunch conservative Lorenzo Marroquín could still attack, in a journalistic pamphlet, the disastrous economic policies of Rafael Reyes's government (1904–09) on the basis that it did not employ "heroes [héroes]" and "literati [literatos]," as previous administrations had done, but relied instead on "the unlettered [iliteratos]," described in the pamphlet as "practical men, new men, who had no education but that furnished by their own experience [hombres prácticos, hombres nuevos, sin más educación que la educación de la experiencia]" .
A working distinction can be made between the liberal and the conservative lettered cities in the post–Independence years. The former is best represented by the educator Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811–88), who became President of Argentina in 1868–74, and his fellow countryman, the jurist and publicist Juan Bautista Alberdi (1810–84). Their counterparts...