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  • Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture, and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic by Erin Graff Zivin
  • Patrick Dove
Graff Zivin, Erin. Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture, and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2014. 167 pp.

Recent Hispanic Studies scholarship and criticism has shown growing interest in problems inherent to modern ways of thinking about ethics, politics, and the relationship between these two conceptual spheres. With the publication of her edited volume The Ethics of Latin American Literary Criticism: Reading Otherwise (Palgrave, 2007) and her first monograph, The Wandering Signifier: Rhetoric of Jewishness in the Latin American Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2008), Erin Graff Zivin established her reputation as a leading critical voice on these concerns. With her latest monograph, Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture, and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic, Graff Zivin helps to open up what may be taking shape as a new conceptual vocabulary for thinking about the singular and collective forms of relationality that we call ethics and politics, and thus also for the relation between the singular and the universal as such.

The protagonist of Graff Zivin's wonderfully-written book is the marrano, a term used in early-modern Spain and its colonies to designate those newly converted Christians who were suspected of holding onto the practices and beliefs associated with their old religion. Before delving into the marrano, a brief description of the book's organization is in order. Figurative Inquisitions contains four central chapters along with a Preface and an Introduction. In dialogue with the work of [End Page 262] Paige DuBois, Elaine Scarry, and Slavoj Žižek, the Introduction poses critical questions for standard ways of understanding torture: namely, that its primary objective is the extraction of information or truth. Drawing on Scarry's The Body in Pain, Graff Zivin proposes that violent interrogation does not extract truth so much as it makes truth through the "conversion" of bodily pain into the semblance of uncontestable power. It is in this sense of making truth that the practice of torture shares something with the practice of literature, of writing and reading. Each of the four central chapters explores a key conceptual term or terms: the marrano understood as aporia at the heart of the subject (chapter one); allegory as undermining prevailing ways of thinking about time and representation (chapter two); the secret as fantasy object that drives Inquisitional practices and as absolute limit for what can be grasped (chapter three); and literary discourse as reproducing and calling into question Inquisitional logic. In each chapter, the discussion returns to a core group of primary works that include film (Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers [1966], Arturo Ripstein's El Santo Oficio [1974], and Jom Tob Azulay's O Judeu [1996]), theater (Gonçalves de Magalhães's O poeta e a inquisição [1838], Sabina Berman's En el nombre de Dios [1991], and Bernardo Santareno's O Judeo [1966]), and one novel (José Saramago's 2004 Ensaio sobre a Lucidez). While Pontecorvo and Saramago provide the impetus for questions about interrogation and truth, each of the other primary works returns to the colonial past and to one of two historical figures associated with the history of conversion and marranismo: Luis de Carvajal (1537-91) (Ripstein and Berman) and Antônio José da Silva (1705-39) (de Magalhães, Santareno, Tob Azulay). In one respect, this organizational scheme allows for a progression beginning with a film—Pontecorvo's—that denounces torture while reinforcing what we might call the ontology of interrogation (its primary motive understood as extraction of a preexisting truth) and ending with a novel that calls into question the idea that truth is a content that can be hidden and disclosed. At the same time, Figurative Inquisitions returns in the final chapter to the ambiguities and obscurities of the marrano and thereby ruins any misplaced expectation that this book might restore what the genealogical figure of the marrano has provoked us to doubt and question. If the book leaves us with a number of unsettling questions, this is not a fault but rather a form of combatting the urge for certainty that is at the heart of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2164-9308
Print ISSN
0034-818X
Pages
pp. 262-264
Launched on MUSE
2018-05-05
Open Access
No
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