Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 195-200
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Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492–2019). Translated by Heather MacLean. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. 284 pp.
The opening to Images at War introduces us to a world where social stability is threatened by the “too-perfect image,” the replicant: androids that are almost indistinguishable from humans and in some ways supersede their authentic referents. That Serge Gruzinski posits the fictitious Los Angeles of Blade Runner as a possible endpoint to his history of colonial idoloclasty demonstrates not only his rhetorical flair, but also his ambition to have this erudite study speak to the present—which, he observes, is what science fiction teaches us about anyway—and to intervene in debates about modernity and postmodernity, and the horizon of colonialism within those still disputed epochal shifts. Although new terms and concepts have inevitably come to the fore in the twelve years since the book's original publication in French, Heather Maclean's translation of Images at War remains a powerful contribution to the field of Latin American colonial studies. Moreover, it should find an audience interested in the politics of cultural production in settings outside of the colonial era and/or Latin America. Contained within the narrative of the image in colonial Mexico are some fascinating conceptual strategies that speak directly to questions of postcolonial theory and historical methodology. Specifically, Gruzinski's use of the Nahuatl concept of the ixiptla (“bark,” “skin,” “envelope”; also “delegate,” or “representative”)1 addresses the dilemma of writing history without recourse to Western concepts—a dilemma articulated strongly, but not exclusively, by Dipesh Chakrabarty. That said, it should prove useful to rethink Gruzinski's work—both his narrative of the image in colonial Mexico and his science-fictitious circumscription of that narrative—in the context of [End Page 195] recent theoretical debates about subalternity, postmodernism, and postcolonialism.
Gruzinski carefully defines his task as tracing the status of the image in colonial Mexico, but in so doing he by no means limits the implications of his project. In fact, his history of the image is a case study in how a seemingly simple problematic can lead to multiple insights into such categories as race, gender, nationalism, and subjectivity, to name a few. He offers a compelling portrayal of colonial Mexico by not contenting himself with a straightforward account of the contestation of Christian images by indigenous communities or the annihilation of idolatrous images by the spiritual conquerors. Rather, he endeavors “to grasp simultaneously the acts of the colonizers and response of the colonized, whether Indian, mestizo, black or mulatto . . . . but I also needed to return the strategic and cultural weight—that I had undervalued—to the image, and better capture that which the seductive, but too often imprecise, notion of the imaginaire covered” (6). Furthermore, he argues that it is not the content or even the form of specific images that is relevant so much as the conflict over what constitutes an image. He explains that his “study will focus more on examining the programs and politics of the image, the multiple forms of resistance that the image causes or anticipates, and the roles that it takes on in a multicultural society” (4). If in outlining his task Gruzinski seems to establish difficult dualities—colonizer/colonized or image/imaginaire—he just as quickly complicates the rubrics with which he initiates his project through subtle theoretical maneuvers that are borne out in his documentation: the “war” he details speaks in turn to problems of conceptions of space and time, categories of knowledge, and colonial subjectivities.
In the first chapter, “Points of Reference,” the problem of discovery is at stake. As such, Gruzinski offers deft readings of the reception of the indigenous image (in this case the Caribbean zemí, wood and stone pieces carved by the Arawak for a variety of political, religious, climatic, and therapeutic purposes ) in European chronicles, paying particular attention to the account by Peter Martyr. When confronted with the unknown, the Milanese...