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CR: The New Centennial Review 2.1 (2002) 277-286
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The Long Road from Guadalupe to Televisa
University of Michigan
Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492-2019). By Serge Gruzinski, trans. Heather MacLean. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001
This long overdue translation of serge gruzinski's 1990 book is a welcome addition to the author's corpus in English. It is, besides, an important companion to The Conquest of Mexico in that it supplements some of the aspects of the process of Westernization that took place during colonial times to which the aforementioned book did not pay special attention. One of those neglected aspects is the role played by the image throughout the colonial period.
One of the objectives of this book is to show that images were very important for the Europeans and that they constituted an extremely valuable tool for colonization. There are different kinds of reasons for the relevance of the image in colonial times: spiritual (the imperative of evangelization), linguistic (as a tool to overcome the obstacle posed by the indigenous languages to the missionaries' message), and technical (the availability and popularization of engravings and of the printing press ). Yet the Amerindians did not remain passive before the European aggression. On the [End Page 277] contrary, they responded to the images that were imposed on them with images of their own creation. That is why Gruzinski asserts that, in good part, the enterprise of colonization was a war of images that lasted several centuries (2).
The book begins with a chapter on the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, because in Gruzinski's opinion the importance of the image can be traced as far back as his arrival in American lands. Christopher Columbus's gaze is what the chapter focuses on in its first section. There, Gruzinski analyzes the ways in which Columbus deals with indigenous objects that seem to be representational. Yet it is Fray Ramón Pané (a Catalonian friar) who, in 1496, studies the indigenous objects today known as Cemíes, which have many meanings, origins, and forms (10). In spite of the polysemous nature of those objects and the lack of referent points for the task of interpreting them from a completely different culture, Fray Ramón Pané does not describe them as idols that represented false gods or the devil (11). They are, instead, things endowed or not with a life (11). Columbus, for his part, does not call the Amerindians idolaters either (11).
Although Gruzinki's attribution of ethnographic sensitivity to Fray Ramón Pané is arguable (because it sounds like a forced attribution of modern values to an early modern subject who—I hasten to declare in order to avoid falling into an anachronism that would eventually be noticed—had no knowledge of anything remotely similar to ethnography), it is clear that the friar tries, most of the time, to describe the indigenous rituals in their own specificity. That is, he does not try to understand them from an exclusively European standpoint but tries, instead, to understand the local context in which they take place. Nevertheless, it can be said that the discourses of Pané and Columbus share one trait with modern ethnography: they are unilateral discourses that do not give the Amerindian the chance to produce, in turn, a discourse about the European subject.
The following section studies Peter Martyr of Anghiera's (humanist and advisor to the Spanish Crown, the first to ever publish an encyclopedic volume on the New World) interpretation of the Cemíes as ghosts (13-18) and Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo's (the first royally appointed chronicler of the Indies) characterization of them as figures of the devil (18-22). In both cases, [End Page 278] the indigenous object is reduced to something familiar, to something easily understood in the European episteme. Yet, it is with the arrival of Hernán Cortés (the conqueror of Mexico-Tenochtitlan) in the discursive scene that the word "Cemí" disappears and gives way to the most familiar...