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  • The Persistence of Presence: Emblem and Ritual in Baroque Spain
  • Luis F. Avilés

Emblem, Ritual, Baroque, Presence, Wit, Spain, Empire, Golden Age, Subjectivity, Early Modern

Bradley J. Nelson. The Persistence of Presence: Emblem and Ritual in Baroque Spain. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2010. 272 pp.

In The Persistence of Presence, Bradley Nelson approaches the production of emblems from a theoretical perspective informed by anthropological and politico-philosophical traditions. Following Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Nelson [End Page 122] defines emblems as creators of presence. Emblematic structures are conceived as powerful tools for the production of religious, metaphysical and transcendental content. They manifest a need for social and political order in response to fissures in the early modern Spanish imaginary. Although it aims for a consistent structure of meaning, one finds imbedded in the form of the emblem the ingredients of its differential constitution. Nelson argues quite convincingly that emblems express a desire for presence as a compensation for symbolic, historical, and social instability. They communicate a unified meaning but in a hybrid form (an image combined with language and, at times, performance). The ideological purpose of the emblem is thus to block contradictions experienced in the material and symbolic world, presenting instead a transcendental image that can stand as an integrated whole. Through ritual studies and an anthropological approach, Nelson’s purpose is to focus not necessarily on the meaning of emblems, but on the social and material processes in charge of creating and disseminating them, taking into account the institutions that manage and distribute them as well. What is important is the “activity” of the emblem rather than its reading. Catherine Bell’s concept of “redemptive hegemony” is fundamental to Nelson’s approach, as well as José Antonio Maravall’s reading of the Baroque as “dynamic guidance through activity.”

The book is divided into three major sections. In the first one, the author proposes a theory of emblematic reception by focusing on Juan de Borja’s Empresas morales (1581) and Juan de Horozco y Covarrubias’s Emblemas morales (1603). In the case of Borja, his empresas, rather than being a performance of individualistic wit and ingenuity, are closer to the emblem in the sense that they are presented within the frame of moral customs. Nelson studies this shift as an example of Maravall’s “program of cultural guidance,” which also entails a transition from the personal to the collective sphere. For Nelson, the empresa, as an apparent instrument of reason, does not lead to a transformation of the self or of the world. The self does not engage in a consideration of the material world, but succumbs to punitive introspection and self-loathing. For Nelson, these are “rituals of self-abasement” that follow closely the spiritual program of Ignatius of Loyola. In the case of Juan de Horozco, Nelson studies the relationship between his emblematics and Horozco’s own definition of the emblem as “a painting that signifies a warning under some or many figures.” The political significance of Horozco’s project resides in the incorporation of Spain and empire into a sort of universal historicity effectively articulated in the emblem. Through it, subjects redeem their casticismo as well as the whole of Spanish history. This phenomenon is a way of increasing the voluntary participation of subjects in a social practice related to a stronger consolidation of power.

In section two, Applied Emblematics, Nelson focuses on the relationship between emblems, theatre, and the constitution of modern subjectivities. The focus is now on three dramatic examples: Lope de Vega’s El nuevo mundo descubierto por Cristóbal Colón, and two works by Calderón de la Barca (El gran mercado del mundo and El alcalde de Zalamea). In the case of Lope, the indio is represented as an emblematic figure of the incorporation of the other as part of a “national identity” based on religious symbols. In Calderón, the auto sacramental is understood as an instance of religious presence constituted by means of highly ritualistic [End Page 123] structures. Precisely because of the fear it instills, the auto sacramental creates a collectivity—the otherwise scattered spectators are bonded by a common threat. In El alcalde...


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pp. 122-125
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