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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.3 (2004) 475-498

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" Honor Moderno ":

The Significance of Honor in Fin-de-Siècle Argentina

Recent years have produced a steady stream of conference papers, congresses, books, and academic reviews on the subject of honor. This outpouring indicates a rebirth of interest in the topic and, at the same time, bears witness to the reconsideration of certain theoretical precepts.1 In Argentine historiography, however, honor has rarely been the direct object of systematic consideration; rather, it emerges as an unexpected by-product in studies dealing with the family, especially those focused on the late colonial period.2 This "invisibility" of [End Page 475] honor, and the silence of postcolonial historiography on the subject, derives from the association of honor with colonial criollo culture (honor de los criollos).3 Since the nineteenth century, massive immigration, demographic growth, family transformations, and urbanization (all distinctive of "modern" Argentina) have allegedly delivered "the coup de graceto the tyranny of honor" in the Río de la Plata.4 Most Argentine historians apparently agree with Norbert Elias that the rise of a "bureaucratic ethos" during the nineteenth century supplanted the ethics of honor. This commercial bourgeois ethos, they argue, diminished the importance of honor among the upper classes.5

Similarly, Peter Stearns notes that in the new bourgeois society of the American West, honor became an archaic remnant.6 Applying this assertion to Argentina, however, would amount to denying the historical reality of accused [End Page 476] murderer Bonifacio Albornoz, a 27 -year-old Spanish shop assistant who, in 1908 , concludes his deposition by declaring, "I would like to call on every sensible and honorable husband and ask them to step into my ignominious shoes and answer frankly: What would they do! I am sure they would reply: Honor above all! Justice shall be done."7

The sexual dimension of honor evidenced in Bonifacio's declaration coexisted with dimensions that referenced courage and sangfroid, physical strength, honesty in the business world, and respect for personal pledges.8 This multiplicity of meanings pervades lower-class discourses on male honor, which are remarkably similar to those circulating among journalists, military officers, lawyers, and scholars. Honor was defended by challenging someone to combat by "throwing down the gauntlet" and arranging a duel by means of the parties' seconds.9 In Argentina, dueling between legislative representatives and municipal officers was deemed an obligation—an imperative—as a means to settle political rivalries and appointments to public offices.10 For either private or public reasons, individuals from a variety of social, geographical, and professional backgrounds resorted to honor in order to pass judgements on an array of different issues.

Honor continued to hold significance into the late nineteenth century, and its shifting meanings and class associations prompted spirited public debate. The discourse of public intellectuals (especially "men versed in law"—lawyers, judges, jurists, and law students) offers one window of analysis onto the reasons, [End Page 477] terms, and implications of this debate. Although this focus does not exhaust the possible sources, it reflects discussions that took place concerning the place and role of honor in modern Argentina. My material is drawn from statements made by political and intellectual elites—the driving forces of modernity—who disseminated new ideas such as positivism. Therefore, they are representative examples from a larger field of discourse. The heterogeneous meanings and uses of honor created a problem for intellectuals and policy makers who sought to reinstate hierarchies and social codes within a context of dramatic social change. As traditional criteria for social classification were challenged and as novel sources of social status emerged, honor gained salience both as a social practice and as an issue. It is at the forefront of public discussion concerning the definition of virtuous behavior, the basis of social status, and the values and attitudes that constitute merit. Thus, honor is a window onto the values and social hierarchies of Porteño society.

Intellectuals acknowledged honor as more than a remnant inherited from traditional society that was incompatible...


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pp. 475-498
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Archived 2004
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