Misplaced Objects: Migrating Collections and Recollections in Europe and the Americas (review)
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Reviewed by
Spitta, Silvia. Misplaced Objects: Migrating Collections and Recollections in Europe and the Americas. Austin: U of Texas P, 2009. 294 pp.

This is a gorgeous book. It was apparently intended as a study of meanings as they migrate from places of origin to places where original meanings morph into variations on the power to conquer objects and their authors. But Silvia Spitta's [End Page 516] book is an objective correlative of her own developing observation: the power of objects themselves to seduce viewers. This is an art book, as well as a sophisticated meditation on what Foucault called "les mots et les choses." The large format, the crisp and colorful images that shine on glossy paper, the chapter divisions that appear like decorative wall text in glorious galleries, are all testimonies to the contagiously arresting prose and mesmerizing art pieces that might have merited less attention and produced a more conventionally academic book, were it the work of a conventional scholar and a simply academic press. But the result of the collaboration is itself a fascinating object that will be placed and replaced, admired, borrowed, and discussed in future migrations.

From the preface on, Spitta testifies to the enchantment of things and to her own ductile power to follow leads instead of getting stuck in preestablished lines of investigation. Her work was to be a development on the dynamics of transculturation in Latin America, adding now its distinctive form, mestizaje. But what has resulted is an adventure in layering rather than suturing meanings and uses. With two apt epilogues from Latin American literature—one from blind Borges about the "silent slaves" or everyday tools that make life possible and pleasant, and another by García Márquez about gypsy magicians who wake up the souls of things—Spitta embarks on transatlantic circuits of exchange in objects and interpretations.

For a while now, the history of Spain's conquests in the Americas has been understood as the motor behind an aesthetic and philosophical movement known as the Baroque. Just as Europe was beginning to imagine itself as the center of a newly dynamic world of economic and military prowess, Spain discovered advanced civilizations that owed nothing of their sophistication to either Europe or to her classical roots in the Middle East. Wonder, Spitta quotes Descartes as saying, was Europe's first response to American objects, before it invented the ethnographic term "artifact" to contain and to control the surprise. The sensation of decentered and destabilized identity, as well as the anxious activity of patching up the fissured identity and social structures, embellishing images to insure their visual and conceptual impact, describe the Baroque period in Europe as a nervous response to America. Part of that response was to appropriate the riches and the sophistication of the New World and incorporate them into an expanded European self. But those objects and the histories embedded there irritated Europe's digestive capacities. The objects were simultaneously signs of Europe's superior power and haunting signs that Europe was powerless to understand and to assimilate the foreign elements it presumed to conquer.

Misplaced Objects brings this general appreciation for the unsettling conquest into the concrete dimension of enchanting and disturbing things. While Stephen Greenblatt noted the wondrous objects that made Europeans marvel at America, [End Page 517] his focus generally shifts to the foreign subjects of the scene, while Spitta tarries with the objects. Part I considers the phenomenon of "curiosity cabinets" developed in Europe to house, or enshrine, objects whose exotic and therefore mysterious meanings set them apart from less remarkable and familiar surroundings. Without their native meanings, they were arranged haphazardly and created metonymies of meaning that would have been foreign at home, something like the scandal of Duchamps's "ready-made" project of hanging a urinal in an art exhibition. Soon, however, the nervous desire for order would generate tables of symmetrical meanings as in the racial "casting" in Spanish imperial administration.

But Madrid's variation on the curiosity cabinet caught the attention of Thomas Jefferson, who had occasion to consider the ethical and intellectual limitations of what we now call Eurocentrism. This beginning of American self...


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