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Margaret Cavendish, ‘Restoring Beds, or Wombs,’ and a Feminist-Materialist Quest for Everlasting Life

By Anne M. Thell

The pursuit of long life has a long history, from Socrates to Jeff Bezos. Less known but no less intriguing in this genealogy is Margaret Cavendish (1623–73), an English writer, philosopher, and demagogue of the Restoration period who devoted much of her career to questions of mortality and developed a corresponding set of strategies to cheat death. The author’s thinking on this subject is timely not only in light of ongoing global affairs, but also for other reasons: Cavendish scholarship is exploding in both literature and, more recently, philosophy, while 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of her birth.

Cavendish was a vitalist-materialist, while she also espoused panpsychism. This means that she viewed nature as a living, moving, and sentient thing, while she also believed that nature is both eternal and infinite. Even when a particular creature dies or “dissolves,” its matter simply dissembles and migrates into new forms. For her, there was no entirely new matter in nature, nor was there entropy. Instead, the matter that composes the universe—from the furthest stars to our fingernails—exists in a state of “perpetual transformation” and thereby exists forever. 

Perhaps the most obvious expression of Cavendish’s interest in immortality appears in her career-long quest for fame (or, in her words, her desire to scale “Fame’s Tower” and “Live in Many Brains”). This emphasis on the continuance of her ideas in “after-Ages” typifies what Michael W. Clune has called “the classical tradition of literary immortality,” whereby authors strive to combat time by claiming that art lives on in perpetuity. This rubric is especially important to Cavendish because she wrote in a period that did not look kindly on female philosophers. She thus imagined her texts as progeny who might achieve “glorious resurrection” in the minds of more enlightened future readers.

But Cavendish moved beyond literary tactics by writing the possibility of eluding death into her metaphysics. Across her later philosophy, which includes Philosophical Letters (1664), Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (1666), and Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668), she offered a more totalizing approach to dodging annihilation via the transformational properties innate in natural matter. In the Cavendishean universe, nothing really dies. Instead, natural matter exists in certain formations—a human, say, or a tree—for varied durations before dissolving and then reconfiguring in new ways.

However, the author’s most spectacular—and speculative—solution to preserving bodies against the violence of time appears in the concluding pages of her final philosophical treatise, Grounds of Natural Philosophy. Here, she hypothesizes “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” that restore life to annihilated bodies. These peculiar devices can restore any natural creature—animal, mineral, vegetable—which means that any given person or thing could be revivified exactly as it existed before decay or illness set in.

Eucharius Rösslin and Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankind (1560), 108. Image Wikimedia Commons.

Cavendish clearly enjoys theorizing these “Beds, or Wombs.” She reasons that they could not be “Fleshy by reason the nature of Flesh is so corruptible,” yet must be “like Flesh, for Softness, or Spunginess; as also for Colour.” She also suspects that they would be located in “the Center of the World,” which is most likely a rocky island in “the Center of the Sea.” The devices consist of a “compounded” substance that contains the building blocks for “all the Kinds and Sorts of the Creatures of this World,” and, obeying laws of self-motion, automatically open once their work is done to release a perfectly restored creature.

We might recall that Cavendish was the author of Blazing World (1666), one of the earliest pieces of science-fiction in English, and thus no novice to the imaginative dimensions of scientific speculation. In keeping with these interests, she places on this island of regeneration a center within the center where the beds themselves are produced. Here we find a spectacular sci-fi vision of a massive “Rocky Creature” that is “all covered with its own Productions”—some wombs “hung by Strings, or Nerves: others stuck close,” some grow out of the “upper parts,” others “the middle” or “lower parts.” This creature is “as lasting as the Sun, or other Planets,” and thus “not subject to decay” (a smart detail that eliminates the problem of finding restoring beds for the restoring beds).

If this all sounds pretty wild, both for the 1660s and today, it is. But it is also canny, self-aware, and largely consistent with her later philosophy. One might immediately notice that these contrivances provide a natural, material, and decidedly gendered account—they are wombs, after all—of revivification that overtly competes with religious notions of resurrection (a rather risky postulate in seventeenth-century England). Indeed, these devices provide a more satisfying explanation for what is essentially a fantasy of an infinite series of lives. One might also notice that these “Beds, or Wombs” eradicate the need for men, sex, or god. In this way, Cavendish reformulates the search for everlasting life in a feminist-materialist way.

Broadly, the wombs also demonstrate Cavendish’s interest in nature’s sentient resilience, as well as its ability to repair and renew its constituent parts. Unlike most scientific thinkers of the period (and notably experimental scientists like Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, or Robert Hooke), Cavendish insisted that humans are part of nature—not above it—and thus that we lack the perspectival leverage to see and understand its operations. A committed probabilist, she believed that human knowledge is always approximate (certain options might shave closer to truth than others, but are never perfect or comprehensive). In Grounds, she recognizes that bodily regeneration is wildly conjectural and thus frames the debate as a lighthearted argument between the parts of her mind and pokes fun at herself for too zealous an interest in immortality. Yet in the end, she decides that it is “at least, probable, there were such things in Nature as Restoring-Beds, or Wombs.” Thus Cavendish concludes her career engaging a type of philosophical speculation that produces open-ended pleasure (i.e., the beds are fun to think about and cannot be ruled out entirely). Such inconclusiveness thwarts death, too, as it becomes an interpretive puzzle for future readers.

If rocky “Wombs” seem too eccentric to demonstrate the regenerative impulses that define Cavendish’s later views on nature, we might return to their logical underpinning: her concept of “translation.” Cavendish was a devout materialist—rivaling only Thomas Hobbes as the Restoration thinker most committed to this doctrine—yet she also recognized that bodies tend to slow, decline, and fail. In response to this problem, translation allows infinite transmutation: When any “particular motion” or “Society” ends, its matter is “not annihilated, but changed.” Organic matter exists “by a perpetual supply and succession of particulars,” or “perpetual alternations, generations, and dissolutions.” Hence, “infinite varieties” of combinations generate “infinite varieties” of “Productions,” which are always temporary and contingent.

“The Tree of Life,” c. seventeenth century, British. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain).

Surprisingly, this topic—“Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” in particular and regeneration more broadly—has received only scant attention from Cavendish scholars, although an increasing number are approaching her work from the perspective of eco-criticism, human/non-human relations, and the medical humanities. Cavendish was a thinker uniquely in and out of her time; her work has deeply syncretic aspects—she was well-versed in both ancient and contemporary philosophy—as well as a restless, idiosyncratic streak, which often anticipates much later thinking (e.g., materialist understandings of consciousness, many-worlds theory, deconstructions of the Anthropocene, Romantic views of imagination, biotech-fueled rejuvenation). She is also one important voice in a long line of literary authors who seek to counter neurobiological time and its inevitable erosion of pleasure, sensation, and self.

As is likely obvious by this point, Cavendish was a unique voice of the later seventeenth century. In her thoroughgoing materialism, she shares much with Hobbes; however, unlike Hobbes, she rejects mechanism and claims instead that all of nature lives, thinks, perceives, and moves itself, with intent and volition. Her hylozoism might seem to align her with thinkers like Henry More or Anne Conway; unlike those vitalists, though, Cavendish adamantly denies “spirits” or incorporeal substances in nature: as she argues, nothing can exist “between Something and Nothing.” She does acknowledge the possibility of a “divine soul,” but this supernatural entity falls far beyond the scope of natural philosophy. Along with Hobbes, Descartes, and More, Cavendish sparred with Jan Baptiste van Helmont, whose materialist understanding of disease clearly influenced her medical thinking. But she disparaged his fusing of theology and natural philosophy and his interest in supernatural substances like blas. In sum, her rigorous brand of materialism stands apart because it infuses all natural matter—rocks, algae, humans—with life, sentience, and free will.   

Cavendish’s materialism is also what connects her most vividly to the present day. Indeed, her material theory of mind is a clear precedent to contemporary understandings of consciousness. Anil Seth, for instance, has demonstrated that our sense of self is based on the experience of our bodies, as we perceive our physical condition via internal sense organs. Thus, consciousness is rooted in our nature as biological organisms: we are “beast machines,” a term Seth adapts from Descartes, and the brain ensures our survival and organismic self-regulation. Seth views consciousness as an embodied system (like many other recent thinkers who seek to reconnect body and mind), and locates us firmly within nature, an approach that Cavendish anticipates. Like Seth, Cavendish concentrates on embodied sentience, while she also, as a rationalist-materialist, examines the phenomenology of consciousness as bodily phenomenon.

In these virus-haunted days, lethal threats to life on this planet seem a uniquely modern predicament. Cavendish reminds us to historicize our entreaties for health and longevity, which extend into past and future—from ancient elixirs to a new quest for immortality in Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos (Altos Labs, Unity); Peter Thiel (Methuselah Foundation, Unity); Sergey Brin and Larry Page (Calico)—all invest massive sums in life-extending research, or “biohacking,” which does not strive to eradicate death entirely but, over future decades, to control the body’s relationship with time by, say, arresting bodily degeneration (e.g., sustaining heart or brain health), or reprogramming our bodies on a cellular level (e.g., cell-tissue rejuvenation via didactic proteins). These are appeals for a radical extension of life, if not immortality in the Ponce de León sense. But these dreams of living forever on a dying planet—and then shooting into space to set up new colonies—remain noticeably ego-driven, masculinist, and anthropocentric (whatever trickle-down effects they might have on ordinary people). (Here one cannot help but think of Jonathan Swift’s Struldbrugs.) By contrast, Cavendish’s “Wombs” restore all natural things, not just humans, even after their expiry. She therefore reconfigures a familiar yearning in a way that displaces humans as sole beneficiaries.

Today, with our materialist leanings, our ongoing tussle with the “hard problem” of consciousness, and our tendency to view humans as just one small part of nature, we are perhaps better positioned to notice Cavendish’s ingenuity. Indeed, within the academy at least, she has found her “glorious resurrection.” Her work is now standard fare in literature classes, following the pioneering work of feminist scholars of the 1980s and 1990s (here I think of Sylvia Bowerbank, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Sara Mendelson, Anna Battigelli, Sarah Hutton, and Eileen O’Neill, to name only a few). More recently, she has made her way into the philosophy canon, which is notoriously slow-changing. This is long overdue, since she responds with intelligence and creativity to the same fundamental questions as her more famous male contemporaries. She is vital to understanding more fully the philosophical and scientific debates of her era because she noticed and critiqued their masculinist assumptions, while she also articulated alternate explanations of a universe that she saw as infinite, sentient, and alive. We might even say that this renegade thinker offers a secret history of the so-called “Scientific Revolution,” one that envisions nature as a self-knowing, self-governing system that produces and sustains life in ways far beyond human perception.

Cavendish’s “Restoring-Beds, or Wombs” are one distinctive iteration of the human drive to imagine lives that continue on beyond the grave. They are also the final display of Cavendish’s lifelong investment in preserving natural productions against the indignities of time and, broadly, in refuting the temporal-material conditions of our lives. She strives to enrich experience—and to ennoble bodies—in an intense yet secular battle against “the Nature of Blood and Flesh.” In 2023, as we celebrate the 400th anniversary of her birth, she scores one point in that arduous contest and inches further towards “monumental fame.”


Anne M. Thell is Associate Professor of English literature at National University of Singapore and, in 2022-23, a Sassoon Fellow at The Bodleian Library, Oxford. Her most recent book is the Broadview edition of Cavendish’s Grounds of Natural Philosophy (2020). She is now at work on two new projects: One on mental illness as it relates to early British fiction, and another on Cavendish and time.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta & Tom Furse

Featured Image: “The Fountain of Youth,” 1546, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Image Wikimedia Commons.

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Zarela (1910?), A Feminist Novel in Peru: Strategies, Negotiations, and Silences

By Luz Ainaí Morales-Pino

Zarela: novela feminista (Zarela: A Feminist Novel) by Leonor Espinoza de Menéndez (Arequipa, Peru 1876-?), narrates the tragedies of a group of women who, regardless of their best efforts, are vulnerable due to their poor education, the lack of access to a remunerated job and the imperative of marriage as their only resource for survival. Confronting the naturalist discourse dominant in the period, as Gabriela Nouzeilles has noted, the fact that Zarela, the main character, belongs to a line of socially condemned women, none of whom manage to survive, does not determine her destiny. In fact, relating to a positivist ground that considers education as key to progress, once she was abducted by the wealthy—and anti-normative woman– Luisa de Espanet, Zarela manages to change her destiny and that of those around her, thanks to her privileged access to education that led to a paid job. Therefore, the text showcases that blood inheritance, race, or place of origin are not determining forces for the individual, which turns even more relevant when it comes to female subjects traditionally considered as inclined to socio-sexual degeneration. The novel suggests that female subjects are not condemned by their own nature, but by the very dysfunctionalities of a social order that relegates them to the margins. Moreover, in dialogue with what Doris Sommer has conceptualized as the “foundational fictions” of Latin American Literature, the novel presents a happy ending with Zarela’s celebrated marriage to Rafael, a young man who embodies an exemplary masculinity supporting Zarela’s endeavors and considering her an equal.

Understanding marriage as the key to a happy ending marks the ambivalent reading of feminism in the novel, as pointed by Tauzin Castellanos, as well as the silence of the critics. As it usually happens to literature written by women during the 19th and early 20th century, its unclassifiable nature leads to minoritization or erasure. The silence towards the novel strengthens with its murkiness in terms of its date of publication and biographical information about the author (not even a precise date of death). Such absences give an account of women writers’ difficult access to history and historicizations, while they make visible tacit but effective forms of erasure. Never re-edited before, Editorial Aletheya re-launched Zarela in 2020. Among the few critical studies about it, I underscore the works of Isabelle Tauzin Castellanos, Lady Rojas Benavente, and Martha Leticia Salas Pino’s introduction to the newest edition, who refers to the existence of copies only in the Biblioteca Nacional de Arequipa, the Instituto Riva Agüero, and the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú’s digital repository. Tauzin Castellanos agrees with Rojas Benavente in pointing to 1914-1915 as the feasible dates of publication, whereas the PUCP repository indicates the date of 1900 in the file’s metadata. However, this copy of the novel includes a signed dedication by the author, in her own handwriting, with a date of 1910 (based on such annotation, Salas Pino proposes 1910 as the novel’s date of publication). These inconsistencies emphasize the difficulties of anchoring women into the historical discourse, especially when considering this novel written by a woman not based in the capital city of Lima, and with the term “feminist” in its title.

In addition to the problematic metadata, the emphasis on social conflicts during a time when male writers were experimenting with modernism and other aesthetics and ideologies has linked the text to the realist aesthetic. However, realism tends to constitute an overly generic label used to typify proposals that overflow and problematize classifications outlined by the critical tradition. Such classifications respond to what is dominant within certain zones of the cultural field, which leads to a reductionist perspective, especially when it comes to novels written by women. Nevertheless, Zarela is not only a fundamental piece within a genealogy that has still got many missing links, but an eloquent example of how Peruvian women writers of the period used literature as means to problematize the socio-cultural order and the patriarchal aesthetics and ideologies, at the same time as they created what we have conceptualized with Grau-Lleveria as paths for women’s transit towards modernity.

Whereas traditional studies about the literary productions from the turn of the century tend to emphasize the predominance of modernist and decadent aesthetics, as well as the naturalist ideologies, I propose Zarela sheds light upon a silenced aesthetic and ideological line prevalent in women’s writings from the period, which is fundamental to problematizing hegemonic literary histories. Zarela is part of the aesthetics of reform that confront imaginaries that celebrate decadence, degeneration, and the counter normative. Therefore, whereas male writers used literature as a means of escaping their realities (modernist or decadent aesthetics), or as a way of pointing out the total lack of possibilities for our nations (naturalism), women writers such as Leonor Espinoza de Menéndez focused instead on shaping a set of reforms with specific sociosexual agendas.

Despite the title and the novel’s emphasis on women, the reforms proposed in Espinoza de Menéndez’ text illuminate the subtleties of feminist ideology during the turn of the century (as it was conceived by white, lettered women), as well on its subjects, objects, and programs. The women it displays are middle-and-upper class females whose privileged social status impeded them from working and making a living unless married to a wealthy man (usually in troubled and loveless unions condemned to diverse forms of violence). This calls out for an intersectional approach that considers the multiple layers that condition and affect the individual’s existence, opportunities, exclusions, and vulnerabilities, all of which surpass sexual identity. The term “woman” at the time comprised complexities, heterogeneities, and silences. As Lee Skinner explains,

The intersectionality of racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, sexual, and gendered identities means that speaking about “women” entails careful differentiations around race, class, and region […] Many lower-class women in nineteenth century Latin America may have seen their interests as aligned with lower-class men, not with elite women, and many, although not all, white women did not always understand their experiences as similar to those of women of color.

A scene in which Luisa de Espanet, Zarela’s foster mother-to-be, along with her sister and her maid, Rosalía, take advantage of the two poor women who were looking after the baby, Zarela sheds light on the impossible solidarity among women within a perilous system that can only lead to perversion. Luisa de Espanet and her sister run away with Zarela condemning her real mother, Soledad, to a string of misfortunes. Her husband will reject her after their daughter’s disappearance, dying of sadness years later. Moreover, Skinner’s statements turn even more complex if we consider how Rosalía does not express any kind of solidarity towards those women, who were her equals; instead, she is always loyal to her betters. Societal linkages are corrupted and fractured, especially among women, given their vulnerable situation. Therefore, even though the novel presents a reform that aims to improve their situation, racialized and female subjects belonging to lower classes are not Espinoza’s object of concern.

            Another relevant tension comes up with the text’s ambivalent feminism, especially if considered from contemporary standards. As stated by Tauzin Castellanos, Zarela’s happy marriage and the need of constantly negotiating with a patriarchal system of consent could seem to neutralize the text’s revolutionary potential. Nevertheless, such ending sheds light on the author’s dialogue with what Eliana Rivero conceptualizes as a feminine feminism: a type of advocacy for women that is willing to adapt itself to the conventions of the patriarchal system, especially when it comes to the roles it outlines for female individuals. Moreover, Zarela’s need to convince the most strong-minded defenders of the patriarchal system, the entomologist Peñaloza and the astronomer Alcázar, discloses the author’s very understanding of feminism as a political praxis that needs conciliation and, foremost, networks of consent to overcome the realm of ethereal ideas. Peñaloza and Alcázar were scientists that used their knowledge to avail their contempt towards Zarela’s feminist agenda in episodes that would qualify nowadays as mansplaining:

Zarelita [little Zarela], my dear daughter—said Mr. Peñaloza in a fatherly tone—how is it possible that you, clever and rational, contribute or, more specifically, create this feminist confusion? How can you oppose the natural laws? Don’t you consider convenient, fair and natural, what is predetermined by such laws and those of the reason, i.e., that woman continues to be the tender hemiptera that accompanies man or the mischievous orthopteron that entertains him and makes life pleasant?

Zarela’s dialogue with male figures that embody a hegemonic knowledge and condescending tone sheds lights on the importance of community and communication for Espinoza Menéndez’ aesthetic and ideological project. Therefore, what would appear conservative from our perspective was, in fact, a strategy of power acquisition fundamental for crafting paths for a feminist agenda whose subtleties do not necessary diminish its potential, as we can see in Zarela’s response:

“Rest assured. The modern woman will continue to be the loving and obedient man’s companion, though more spiritual and suitable for performing the solemn roles of the mother, the educator, and the useful member of society.

Our main aspiration is to be considered equals to men, in the real understanding of equality.”

   

Zarela’s explanations comply with the need of alleviating men’s anxieties and fears about the emerging paradigm of “the new woman” in European and North American settings, which was considered a threat for male writers and the social establishment of the period. Reinforcing the ethics-aesthetics of reform posed by the novel and its transformative agenda, Zarela’s character manages to turn her main antagonists into advocates of her cause.

The sense of community is also present in the reference to Zarela’s entrance into the university. Rather than embodying an exceptional desire, the narrator comments that Zarela joins the medical school accompanied by a girlfriend whose name and identity, however, we never learn. Entering the university accompanied emphasizes a particular ethical positioning that confronts the traditional masculine modus operandi. Espinoza de Menéndez stresses the need of acting within a network, rather than carrying out the typical egotistic and narcissist endeavors relatable to male figures. Moreover, rather than presenting the network as homogeneous, the novel highlights De Espanet’s participation in it, even when she originally opposed her daughter’s initiative. De Espanet uses her social power and influence to grant the two girls a place in a traditionally masculine setting:

The girls’ presence at the medical school was a novelty. It was so unusual to find skirts there! Some classmates treated them with evident irony. Others were enthusiastic about the possibility of flirting with them. However, the girls’ righteous attitude soon bewildered the ill-intentioned ones. Their non-arrogant severity granted them the respect and consideration they, in fact, deserved. Professors distinguished them with paternal affection, and treated them deferentially, especially when it came to contents that could affect their decency. They knew how to receive the lessons with seclusion and healthy interest. Therefore, they would not be detrimental to their decorum and innocence. They were protected by the ambience of purity that surrounded their noble souls.

Avoiding the possibility of threats, the text continues to link the feminine to a traditional apparel (skirts) and behavior: the girls remain humble and submissive to patriarchal rule, whereas ethically ascending thanks to education. This showcases an eloquent dialogue with other Latin American women writers from the 19th century that used literature as a means for proposing improved projects of modernity that they envisioned as adequate for our context. Such project pose clear confrontations to the traditional 19th century letrados and intellectuals, whose ideas of modernity were grounded in the mere imitationof the European model, leading them later on to disappointment and despair (as we can read in the evasive and dystopic tones of modernist and naturalist fiction of the time). On the contrary, Espinoza de Menendez articulates a feasible project of modernity for the region: one that is even more relevant once we consider the participation of female subjects within the socio-national order with roles that go beyond motherhood and the labor of care—although without discarding them. Additionally, this reformed and Latin Americanist project of modernity dialogues with Martha Nussbaum’s approach to feminism and human development from the notion of capacities, especially what she conceptualizes as the capacity of affiliation. Adding layers of complexity to the narrative about rights, the notion of capacities analyzes the political and social setting in which such rights can actually be exerted. In that sense, the capacity of affiliation to other women becomes key for female subjects’ transit towards modernity. This leads to the articulation of a different imaginary of progress marked by the emphasis on community, rather than individuals, as Zarela complex sociosexual scenarios exemplify.            


Luz Ainaí Morales-Pino obtained her Ph.D. in Romance Studies at the University of Miami (2017). She is an Assistant Professor of Spanish American Literature at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on Latin American Literature and Culture. Her research focuses on literary and cultural productions from the 19th and early 20th century Latin America, with emphasis on feminisms, gender studies, visual culture studies, and history of ideas. A selection of previous works is available here.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia 

Featured Image: First page of Prisma (Lima, 1907), depicting modern women in a defiant attitude (photo by Marcel Velázquez Castro).

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Seeing and Speaking to Ghosts: Hauntology’s Limits for Understanding Ghosts as Beings

By Kit Bauserman

The academy is haunted. In the 1990s, literary and cultural criticism took a “spectral turn,” a term coined by literary scholar Roger Luckhurt to describe his field’s increasing obsession with “ghosts” and “haunting.” This pre-occupation with the spectral grew to such an extent that by the mid-2000s it became a field in its own right, termed “spectrality studies” by gothic scholar Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. This field draws its name from Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, which explains hauntology, a “haunted ontology” that describes a culture’s inability to escape its past, much like the West fails to escape the specter of Marx. Though “spectrality studies” is an interdisciplinary field that has seen much success, it has its limits. To most spectral scholars, a ghost is a metaphor or an analytic frame. As such, “spectrality” and “hauntology” have little use in the fields of anthropology and ethnography. However, reconsidering the “ghost,” and encountering it as an actual ghost or as a being, provides scholars more significant insight into social, cultural, and political structures that the “spectral” cannot hope to uncover.

Spectrality studies’ history makes clear how the use of ghosts as a metaphor became widespread. The Spectralities Reader, a spectral studies anthology edited by Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, chronicles the field’s development. It likely received its name from Bernard Steigler’s 1993 interview with fellow philosopher Derrida, titled “Spectrographies.” The interview, included in Ecographies of Television, clarifies the difference between the “ghost” and the “specter.” The “ghost” is a revenant, a past that keeps returning to the present reality. It is undead. The “specter” is somewhat different. It is of the “invisible visible.” It is much like a missing puzzle piece, its conspicuous absence defining its presence. The “specter” is also a figure that observes and makes an individual feel observed. To illustrate the concept, Derrida recalled an incident where he saw the face of actress Pascale Ogier on film following her death. Her specter repeatedly returned to him, observed him, and never left him alone. Derrida likens his experience to an individual who “observes and respects the law.” The relationship between a man and the law, like the specter, concerns only the individual, and not the law itself. It is wholly one-sided.

            The response to Derrida’s work was the “spectral turn” mentioned above. The phrase first appeared in “The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the ‘Spectral Turn,’” a 2002 article by Luckhurst. He critiques spectral scholarship’s inability to accomplish anything beyond pointing out cultural cycles. To him, scholars fail to engage with the ghost’s concerns. For example, in the London Gothic, ghosts signpost cultural traumas unique to the city. Only addressing those London-specific grievances halt their return. Unlike Luckhurst, Weinstock does not conceive of ghosts as limited literary figures used to critique the past. Instead, he sees them as an avenue for writers to ask questions about what futures might result from avoiding past misdeeds. Weinstock explains the “spectral turn” as an expression of various anxieties surrounding the start of the new millennium, directly contradicting Luckhurst’s idea of ghosts as distinctly localized. Weinstock’s ghost stays closer to Derrida’s, questioning our very constructions of history and time. They are confusingly atemporal, serving to correct the future by warning of past transgressions within the present.

            As Luckhurst previously established, the gothic mode and Derrida’s hauntology have a special relationship. The gothic mode, according to literary scholar Caitlyn Duffy,  is “a broad literary method that can be located through its repeated motifs, language, settings, and figures, as well as its common affects, terror and horror.” The ghosts occupying the gothic are slightly more real than in Derrida’s hauntology, where they are purely metaphors. They are characters that serve as signs out of time, warnings from the past that reflect contemporary cultural anxieties. Though to Luckhurst, ghosts’ function in the London Gothic may be limited, they have an important role in the American Gothic. The United States as a nation has a unique temporality, one Martin Procházka calls a “quasi-eternity.” It is a nation out of time, chosen by God, an empire, and a city on a hill that will never fall. Ideologically speaking, it is a nation without a past, present, or future, ever-present and timeless. This standard is impossible to reach. This impossibility, however, gives ghosts an additional function, one of social critique. Their temporality is not only used to harken to the bloody American past but to address the issues of the present and anxieties about the nation’s racial, gendered, and economic future(s). In this sense, ghosts are a vessel for the writer and the scholar to affect societal change.

            In contrast to the disciplines above, anthropologists and ethnographers are among the academics who engage with the most “real” ghosts. These ghosts are the monsters that inhabit our media and folklore. However, these academics rarely encounter ghosts personally, such as through seeing an apparition. Instead, for anthropologists and ethnographers, ghosts present themselves in the people who encounter them. Ghostly experiences shape people revealed through their beliefs and memories of those who engage them personally or through cultural channels like folk tales. It is the belief and memories, that the anthropologist and ethnographer study, spectral fingerprints on the human experience. For example, in “A Social Anthropology of Ghosts in Twenty-First-Century America,” Joseph O. Baker and Christopher D. Bader examine influences on paranormal belief, experience, and media consumption. Ethnography, a field that grew out of anthropology, engages with the spectral similarly.  In “Manifesting Spirits: Paranormal Investigation and the Narrative Development of a Haunting,” Marc A. Eaton join the Upper Midwest Paranormal (UMP) team for an investigation at the Highwayman Inn. Through ethnographic practice, he details their narrative-making process whereby different group members leverage their authority to determine the outcome of an investigation. In his article, Eaton dissects a series of debates following an incident where group member Heidi tripped and fell, prompting group leader Matthew to believe paranormal influence was involved. The group jockeyed for an explanation and put out competing narratives that alluded to the (im)possibility of paranormal influence. The group ultimately co-opts Matthew’s interpretation as the official narrative. Here we see the hand of the spectral in shaping human stories, team culture, and conflict, but we do not see the ghost itself. It is suspiciously absent.

As illustrated above, anthropologists and ethnographers come the closest to engaging ghosts as beings. They engage with the ghost’s fingerprints. For literary and cultural critics, it is a fictional vessel that co-opts their social agenda. For philosophers like Derrida and Steigler, “the ghost” is pure metaphor. These approaches to engaging monstrous and metaphorical ghosts remove an important part of the narrative in each field: the specter’s perspective. Academics often fail to engage with the ghost as a formerly human agent with unique concerns and viewpoints. Nicole Anderson, a social anthropologist, discusses such failures in anthropological and ethnographic contexts. In her article, “Monstrous Anthropologies: Is an Ethnography of Monsters Possible?,” she discusses the difficulties of applying anthropological and ethnographic methods to monstrous subjects. Often, for the ethnographer and anthropologist, like the author and cultural critic, the ghost becomes a vessel for the researcher’s ideology. They risk “imposing a rationality” on monstrous subjects through cultural relativism. The ethnographer and anthropologist risk trying to explain the monster, and its existence, as a product of a superstitious culture. This explanation resultant of an academic need for reality to be scientifically measurable.

The problem with engaging with monsters, and especially ghosts, is their immateriality. How do you engage with a subject that rarely appears, and speaks even less? There exist non-academic methods to communicate with the deceased like tarot cards and ouija boards, which have their places in ethnographic and anthropological studies. In other disciplines, using such practices simply does not pass academic scrutiny. This methodological restriction arises from misunderstanding the researcher’s purpose when engaging with monsters and the paranormal. Outside of theology and possibly the hard sciences, scholars do not need to prove the existence of ghosts. Instead, for humanities scholars, their task is to treat the ghost as if it is real to explore the social, cultural, and philosophical significance of such encounters with the spectral (see C.J. Scruton for further discussion on this topic). Academics engaging with ghosts and monsters must adopt a “multinaturalism, as suggested by anthropologists Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch. Their “multinaturalism” recognizes ghosts might see themselves as humans see themselves, while perhaps seeing humans as we see animals.

Adopting a multi-natural perspective is more easily said than done. Without a definitive method Anderson, Whitehead, and I only charge scholars with a goal and do not provide them the tools to fill it. To this end, I would like to highlight two methods of inquiry that would be beneficial to scholars attempting to engage the spectral as beings. The first, phenomenological inquiry, specifically constitutive phenomenology, is inspired partly by Anderson’s call for an “ontological turn” in anthropology. In constitutive phenomenology, the researcher suspends their pre-conceived ideas about the phenomenon being studied and its status in the natural world to reach an intersubjective understanding of the world. As mentioned above, phenomenology allows the researcher to discard the improper question of if ghosts and monsters are real and instead focus on their being and significance. The second draws from human-animal studies (HAS). As a field, it aims not only to understand what significance animals have in the human world but to understand what animals are when divorced from human meaning, a perspective useful to all scholars engaging the spectral and monstrous. In particular, it aims to remove the ontological border between the categories of “human” and “animal” much as I am trying to with “human” and “monster.” The human, the animal, and the ghost are beings inhabiting the same world, with their own lives, thoughts, and motivations. I must note that HAS is not a perfect tool. HAS’ use of the sciences like neuropsychology and sociobiology, are currently incompatible with the spectral. Scholars must draw more from the humanistic strains of human-animal studies, rather than its scientific ones.

Though Derrida’s use of ghosts has contributed much to academic scholarship in the past thirty years, overreliance on his means of inquiry and understanding of the spectral fundamentally restricts our understanding of ghosts, and in turn, the human. An ontological turn in ethnography and anthropology, driven by contributions from philosophy and human-animal studies, allows us to approach the ghosts as beings and agents, especially formerly human ones. By adopting this new approach, scholars can not only enter new realms of knowledge beyond the human, involving the spectral and the monstrous, but uncover facets of human social, cultural, and political life the Derridean spectral cannot hope to address.


Kit Bauserman is an M.A./Ph.D. student in American Studies at the College of William & Mary. They are interested in the intersections of folklore, the Gothic, and New Media. Particular topics of interest to them include digital folklore, horror podcasts, and the American Gothic as a tool of cultural criticism.

Edited by Grant Wong

Featured Image: A scene from The Screaming Skull, a 1958 film directed by Alex Nicol. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Think Piece

Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world (1880-1940)

By Leandro Losada

How was Niccolò Machiavelli read in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, meaning the vast region encompassing Spain and the nations that had made up its former American empire? This is an issue that, despite the signal importance of the reception of one of the foremost writers in the history of Western political thought, has not been tackled in a systematic fashion, neither in proper depth.

This impression becomes apparent when compared to the attention paid to the subject in the English-speaking Atlantic world, in such studies as John G.A. Pocock’s, which had a profound and lasting impact not only on the field of studies dedicated to the author of The Prince¸ but also on the history of political thought. Strictly speaking, the existing research devoted to the reception of Machiavelli in Spanish Baroque thought (for instance, studies by José Antonio Maravall or Keith David Howard), helps us to come up with hypotheses and arguments that shed more light on the reasons why this topic has not received more attention in recent times. The overall picture that that corpus gives is that Machiavelli was received with scorn or explicit disapproval, and that this was so for two main reasons. The first, because he was seen as a writer who separated politics from Christian morality, thereby legitimizing all aberrations imaginable (from lying to murder) as well as the arbitrary exercise of power. The second aspect is that this interpretation was indicative of a more general tendency shaping Hispanic political thought: the influence wielded by Catholicism. In these intellectual latitudes, a writer chiefly known for his criticism of Christianity and the Church could only be condemned. The Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, in short, was a case in point of the so-called “anti-Machiavellian movement” that favored criticism of Machiavelli based on an interpretation of his work as inherently “evil” (in the words of Pierre Manent).

It is a known fact that Protestant Reformation and Humanism espoused their own versions of this type of reading. Likewise, the study of Spanish Catholic “anti-Machiavellianism”, and its relationship with the revival of Thomism in the 17th century, does not ignore that there were Catholic versions of concepts condemned in the Florentine’s writings (such as “good Reason of State” or the “Christian prince”). Beyond this seminal nuance (meaning that the Spanish Catholic anti-Machiavellianism movement possessed certain Machiavellian ingredients), the overall view indicates that any other possible readings of the work by the author of the Discourses, such as one linking it to freedom and the republic (highlighted by research devoted to the English-speaking Atlantic space), would have had neither weight nor relevance.

Faced with this situation, the exploration of a specific period —between 1880 and 1940, whose singularity lies in the fact that it marked the apogee and crisis of liberalism in Spanish-speaking political thought (and also beyond it, of course)— indicates that the aforementioned characterization does not match this historical moment. Throughout the period, interpretations of Machiavelli that were widespread in other intellectual geographies made their appearance also in this specific context. The singularity of the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world, as far as receptions of Machiavelli are concerned, did not lie in any exceptional or unique readings, but in its peculiar development of the topics and arguments related to the study of his work since the publication of his principal texts in sixteenth-century Europe. What were, then, the most important axes of the reception of Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world between 1880 and 1940?

In the first place, one could say that as long as anti-Machiavellianism of Catholic origin is visible, there was a similar sentiment of a liberal hue. The rejection of Machiavelli as tantamount to tyranny or the exercise of immoral politics was not exclusive to Catholic intellectuals or apologists. Liberals authors, such as the Argentine Juan Bautista Alberdi, who described Machiavelli as an enemy of modern freedoms in his book El crimen de la guerra (1870), would come up with criticism in a similar vein.

Anti-Machiavellianism (understood as a conception of the Florentine as a defender of arbitrariness and even evil) was not only reflected in his connection with the concept of unlimited personal power. Negative readings of Machiavelli shifted in line with political events: the Florentine was thus seen as the intellectual father of militaristic nationalism and imperialism at the end of the 19th century, and as the referent of fascism during the first post-war period (largely enabled thanks to Mussolini’s fulsome appeals to Machiavelli).

Secondly, then, as a result of these shifts in interpretation, which cannot be attributed exclusively to textual or scholarly analysis – as pointed out above – but rather to the influence of political circumstances, the Florentine was associated with different political phenomena. Despite the persistence of his portrayal in negative terms (an enemy of freedom), this version would change. Thus, over time, Machiavelli simply ceased to be linked to tyranny, and came to be seen as a theoretician of the State (of a form of State at odds with liberalism for its aggressive and militaristic nature, according to the Spaniard Adolfo Posada in La idea del Estado y la guerra europea -1915), or even as the harbinger of totalitarianism. These were the reasons why several texts written during the 1920s warned about the “return” of Machiavelli.

The third point of note is that, as this period progressed, there was a major change in the conception of Machiavelli and his work. One of the most popular views espoused by his 19th century critics was that he was an “ancient” author. Therein lay (especially for those of liberal ideas) the threat to freedom, for he represented passions and principles that were contradictory with modernity. And these, it is worth clarifying, were to be found not only in the apologies for the concentration of power in the hands of the prince, but also in the republicanism (of a militaristic and patriotic tone) underlying the Discourses on the first decade of Tito Livio, as stated by the aforementioned Alberdi.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century, the perception of the Florentine began to be the one of a seminal modern author. The reason for this was a well-known aspect of his work, the separation between politics and morality. With this split, Machiavelli had founded a conception of politics as a “thing in itself”, something immanent and independent of any higher authority: an exclusively human activity. His political ontology, rather than his doctrinal arguments, was the truly revolutionary aspect, since it defined the way in which, from then on, philosophers and political scientists experienced and conceived politics. Consequently, Machiavelli went from being read as an “ancient” writer and an enemy of freedom, to being understood as a “modern” one, whose work had brought about political modernity, and with it, liberalism.

The fourth point, related to the previous one, is that this new perception was espoused neither exclusively, nor even mostly, by liberal authors, among whom such readings heralded a celebration of the Florentine. This was the case with the Argentine writer Mariano de Vedia y Mitre, a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, who, moreover, saw in Machiavelli a bastion of a version of republicanism. Unlike the conception held by 19th century liberal authors such as Alberdi, for de Vedia y Mitre, there were points of contact with liberalism rather than opposed to it, because of the central role afforded to the rule of law. And also because of a notion of freedom that did not offset but reconciled political freedom with individual freedoms.

Without leaving aside these versions, it is worth noting that it was primarily Catholic intellectuals, or, at all events, those closest to neo-Thomism and classical natural law (Tomás Casares in Argentina, Luis Legaz y Lacambra in Spain), who spearheaded the portrayal of Machiavelli as a modern and liberal. In other words, the Catholic anti-Machiavellianism of this period did not base the view of him as anti-Christian on the perception that he wrote in favor of tyranny. In fact, Catholic anti-Machiavellianism during the first half of the 20th century took quite a different doctrinal approach, concluding that Machiavelli was anti-Christian for having made modernity and liberalism possible.

A fifth point to be raised is that, as indicated in the preceding paragraph, anti-liberalism did not turn to Machiavelli as an intellectual figure of note. This, despite the fact that liberalism, as previously noted, had repudiated him, and that furthermore, during the first half of the 20th century, fascism had crowned Machiavelli as one of its intellectual fathers (the recovery at the hands of Antonio Gramsci exalted the Italian dispute over Machiavelli). This reveals two things. Firstly, that despite its ideological renewal in the interwar period, anti-liberalism in the Spanish-speaking world continued to bear the enduring stamp of Catholicism. And, secondly, that this rejection or disdain for Machiavelli can be seen as an expression of the persistence of an anti-Machiavellianism with Catholic roots, notwithstanding the fact that the reason for the Florentine’s rejection during this period was that his work was synonymous with freedom rather than tyranny.

A sixth and final point is that Machiavelli’s republican facet was well known to Spanish and Latin American intellectuals and publicists. The republican interpretation of the Florentine’s work, so important for its reception in the English-speaking Atlantic world, was also a feature in the Spanish-speaking countries. One could even say that the controversies surrounding this point originated in issues that were less visible in the United States or England. These included the view that Machiavelli’s republicanism, instead of converging with liberalism (a reading that, as has been pointed out, did exist), was based rather on anti-liberal principles. This was stated by Alberdi, as well as the Argentine historian José Luis Romero or the Spanish philosopher Francisco Javier Conde (all three writers, incidentally, adhered to political and ideological positions that not only differed but were opposed to each other – classical liberalism, liberal socialism and anti-liberalism close to Francisco Franco’s regime, respectively-). 

However, one may as well argue that perhaps the most unique feature of the Spanish-speaking reception of Machiavelli’s work, at least when compared to what has been written for the English-speaking Atlantic world, was the importance given to his views as a theoretician of the modern state. Such an interpretation also calls for many understandings at odds with each other: there were those who considered him a benchmark of the rule of law, seeing in the prince the figure of a “great legislator” and perceiving in Machiavellian republicanism the centrality of law, while others associated him with an aggressive and militaristic form of state power. In any case, this reading is but an example of the type of intellectual figure most prominent in the reception of Machiavelli in the Spanish-speaking Atlantic world at the time.


Leandro Losada is a researcher at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and Associate Professor at the Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM), where he serves as Director of the Institute for Political Research (CONICET-UNSAM), in Argentina. He is a specialist in Atlantic history, history of elites, and history of political thought. He has been a visiting researcher in Italy (Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, Università degli Studi di Milano, Università per Stranieri di Siena), France (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), Spain (Universidad Complutense, Casa de Velázquez- Madrid Institute for Advanced Study, Universitat de Girona), and Germany (Freie Universität Berlin). His works have granted him awards from the Academia Nacional de la Historia (Argentina), the Ministry of Culture of the City of Buenos Aires, and Argentina’s Presidency. He has published La alta sociedad en la Buenos Aires de la Belle Époque. Sociabilidad, estilos de vida e identidades (2008; second edition, 2021), Historia de las elites en la Argentina. Desde la conquista hasta el surgimiento del peronismo (2009), and Maquiavelo en la Argentina. Usos y lecturas, 1830-1940 (2019), among other books, and many academic articles. Machiavelli in the Spanish-Speaking Atlantic World, 1880-1940. Liberal and Anti-Liberal Political Thought is forthcoming at Edinburgh University Press.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia

Featured Image: Statue of Machiavelli by Lorenzo Bartolini outside the Uffizi, Florence. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Intellectual history Think Piece

Altering the Nation from Within: The Mexican “Working Nation” in the 1840s

By Matias X. Gonzalez

Like most Latin American societies in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mexico spent its first three decades of independent life (1821-1851) in a contentious process of nation-building. Since the 1990’s, scholars have continued to discuss which signifiers were mobilized for the construction of a concept of nation as determined by specific conflicts and alliances. Florencia Mallon’s effort to drift away from a category of nation as an “already defined, integrated community with a territory, language, and accepted set of historical traditions” continues to be especially relevant in these queries. Those who have managed to introduce a greater degree of contingency into the study of Mexican nation-building have, not coincidentally, identified certain groups that destabilize the image of the nation as dependent upon an ex post facto artifact, which corresponds to a Nation-State that was ensued only in the second half of the century. The 1840’s concept of industry was a significant threshold where the world of labor and official industrialization agendas mutually contested their ideas of nation-building. In this piece, the contingency introduced by the former is analyzed.

One might justifiably ask: why analyze the world of labor and these industrial projects to understand the contested nature of the nation? The answer follows the wake of previous efforts to go beyond an “artificial” conception of the nation: the working groups articulate an original project of the nation that is in creative dialogue with other official political projects. Here, two symbolic examples are offered. On the one hand, Lucas Alamán’s Memoria (memory, or report) on the status of agriculture and industry in 1845. On the other, Estévan Guénot’s project for a silk company and some entries in one of the principal newspapers regarding Mexican industry: the Semanario Artístico. These contending figures embody, and thus help explain, the “contested processes of nation-building” in nineteenth century Mexico.

Arguably one of the most prominent thinkers and politicians of post-independence Mexico, Lucas Alamán hallmarked some of the most significant economic proposals that wished to establish a national industry. He was behind the Banco de Avío, the “world’s first national development bank” in 1830, was the head different ministries as well as the Dirección General de Agricultura e Industria (General Direction of Agriculture and Industry) in the 1840’s. Throughout the Memorias he commissioned to the government, an underlying message may be found: Mexico needed an industry that functioned as a “producer of public wealth” which could garner “enough “powerful means for the improvement of the mass of the population’s customs”. Alamán described Mexico’s economy as “backward” because it had not procured the insertion of the real product surplus into a commercial economy. This “backwardness” would only be solved by ensuring consumption of all those products that had been left out of the commercial circuit of production for consumption. The “land’s products” did not have any value if they were not “transformed in products for commerce” by local factories.

As John Tutino shows, Alaman’s proposal for a new cycle of industrial and agricultural production intended to enhance the cheapened commodities and land by increasing the availability of product and its consumption. This would increase the demand for workforce which would in turn benefit from better pay loads that would drive the population to sustain a consumption-driven, commercial economy. After the serious blows to internal finances inflicted by external debt and low mining activity since the wars of independence (1810-1821), for Alamán Mexico’s industrial recovery could only come from the activity that linked agriculture, factory production and manufacture: the burgeoning textile industry.

For Alamán, to foment the industry of spinning and weaving expressly meant producing a greater number of “habits” that could provide “more consumers for [the manufacturer’s] production”. These pieces of clothing would also serve as moral correctors for the working populations, as these individuals would forcibly present themselves in the public sphere with the clothes that had been put at the commercial market’s disposal. By enforcing the use of these habits or pieces of clothing, the rest of the population would imitate them. It was the means for the textile industry to introduce “habits of greater comfort”, a concept that was economic but had moral implications to the extent that it inspired “the taste for certain necessities and conveniences, to the general mass of the population”. Consequently, greater production would be achieved in the textile industry (by then one of the most important industries in the country). By “always appearing dressed in public”, the workers almost instantly installed “civilization” through the promotion of consumption and, therefore, of the demand for a product: a prerequisite for increased productivity.

The metaphor of “habit” as a piece of clothing capitalized to reform the working population’s customs is quite illustrative of the profound intentionality that was built into Alamán’s project of a national industry. If there was a moral dimension to this project, it was conveyed by a correction of “public morality”, which was intended as a space of economic production that, in turn, sought the consumption of habits and their public display by the individuals that inhabited the “public sphere”. If the idea was directed at the working populations, it was because of their significance for Mexico’s industry, by virtue of their number––hence the impact for the rest of society––these groups lodged: more and better habits for the working groups banally meant more and better habits in the public sphere. Reforming their habits meant reforming a great deal of the national customs people would see strolling through Mexico’s streets and plazas. The material aspect of the reformation of their customs was limited to the production of commodities, by turning the worker himself into a display of a product, and the morality it reflected, through the neatness of “economic habits”. The conceptual circuit of national industry is functional, in Alamán’s Memorias, to the cycle of production aimed at the rise of consumption. Ultimately, the construction of a national industry and a national economy was a commodity and commercial-driven transformation of the nation that sought a singular way of insertion into the international capitalist economy.

            It would not be unreasonable to argue that Alamán’s was probably the most important industrial project in 1840’s Mexico. But it would quite naïve to disregard the specificities of his projects. Particularly, to whom they were destined: if at a first glance it may seem as though they were a plight for the insertion of Mexico’s working classes into a capitalistic global market, when treading beyond the first glimpses of his ideals’ consequences, the defining borders of his economic and political theories emerge. Indeed, there is little doubt among recent historians that his industrial projects were quite clearly destined to certain groups of the nation, the so-called hombres de bien: the rising middle and high classes, mainly industrial entrepreneurs and landowners, to which and by which the republican project known as the “Centralist Republic” (1836-1846) was greatly favored. Investments, credit, monopoly over certain products as tobacco, and trade protection were all important mechanisms through which Alamán and the hombres de bien built a particular, in the strict sense of the term, capitalist economy: their very own form of “crony capitalism”. This political and economic class was not exempt of facing a conflictive appreciation by the nation’s other groups, among others by those less advantaged industrials that were more concretely seeking the establishment of industries for the nation.

The difficulties in the establishment of a national industry and a national community emerge quite immediately when the historian minds another set of sources. A Frenchman named Stéphane Guénot, rechristened Estévan, had patiently sought the establishment of a Compañía Michoacana para el Fomento de la Seda (Michoacan Company for the Fomentation of Silk) through a discordant negotiation with the Junta General de Industria (General Council for Industry) in Mexico City. His dissent with the Junta General, and with the official agenda backed by Alamán and the hombres de bien, is quite transparent in an article published in the Semanario Artístico, probably the main newspaper where the idea of the “fomentation” of industry in Mexico was discussed at the time.

In it, he discussed the idea that productivity linked to consumption was the adequate solution for Mexico’s industry immobility. This idea, he argued, was based on a system of competition between the nation’s groups that did not even slightly consider that “not all are what they resemble because of the humble suit that covers them”. In an outright defense of their labor, Guénot warned Mexican manufacturers to beware of how the opulent confusingly “blames you for their shortcomings”. Although they continuously lamented about the need to morally reform the worker’s habits and customs, they did not “employ their riches to occupy you and thus remedy the ills they complain about”, namely, idleness. Instead of accurately distinguishing those that “affectionately embraced idleness” from those that were reduced to idleness because of “lack of work” due to the “current state of affairs”, the rich industrial continuously evaded the real solution to the nation’s industry: giving labor to the working groups. If they gave labor to those in lack of work or employment, the rich would alleviate the worker’s luck while simultaneously increasing “their own wealth”. The hombre de bien, who knew that “his duty was to provide well-being to himself as well as to his like” and did not pursue this affair, was nothing short of a “criminal”.

Guénot was openly criminalizing the crony capitalism that was being built by Alamán and the hombres de bien. Not necessarily because of its corrupt system, but because of the selected advantages their industrial system for consumption enacted. His project did not revile the idea of “material prosperity”: “pecuniary advantages” were not to be preemptively disregarded. Yet the development of national industry involved “conciliating the interests of all social classes”. Indeed, the economic and political conciliation of the nation’s groups was carried out by the participation of the “vast majority of the population”, the “impoverished classes”, in the benefits produced by “material labor”. Labor was thus conceived as the destiny of the “poor classes”, which would ward off the worker from the “hideous egotism of the monopolists”.

Instead of conceiving an industry trapped in the circuit of production for consumption, industry was fueled by labor, which was not the result of commodity production, but of the conciliation and cooperation of the working groups of the nation. This concept was not only his. In 1844, an artisan corporation backed his ideas on industry and labor: “To give a productive industry to the impoverished class is a purpose the governments should not lose sight of”. Noticeably, the contrast between these groups’ industrial projects stems in the principle upon which they were built.

For the hombres de bien industry was erected on the principle of increased consumption in relation to the existing, and potentially growing, productivity of local factories and economic activities. Theirs was an industry destined towards commercial activity understood as the search for “lucre”. Productivity and competitivity between the producing sectors were in contrast with the cooperation and conciliation between the working groups, intended in the broad sense of the word, which includes the hombres de bien, industrialists, as much as the manufacturer and the artisan. In fact, Guénot did not refrain from including the wealthy heads of national industry in his project, albeit with a critical stance. The contrast he conceived between productivity and cooperation is transparent once the historian notices that the class antagonism at the root of these divergent industrial projects is not so much suppressed as displaced. Capitalist competitivity was shifted towards the logic of labor cooperation, hence class antagonism between the “monopolists” and the working groups is not so much “solved” through consumption of the product of labor, as much as it is funneled through the cooperation of the working groups of the nation.

The working groups embodied a concept of industry that was in open “disagreement” with the one imagined by Alamán and other industrial leaders of 1840’s Mexico. Through the practices incorporated into their labor, national industry was repurposed as a guarantee of productivity through the conciliation of hitherto contending parts of their economy. In this sense, they were seeking new political values upon which to organize their society. The motive behind these new set of political-economic values thus utter a concept of nation that was radically alternative to previous and coexistent conceptions of nation. Instead of hampering these groups’ political projects through an ex post facto reconstruction that veils their logics of the nation under the Nation-State, labor historians should conceive their alternativity as radically as the worker and entrepreneur Guénot did. In sum, it should be possible to think of the labor association’s political and industrial projects as capable of epitomizing their very own political, social, and economic imaginaries of the nation, what could be called “Working Nation”[i].


[i] This concept is the product and title of a two-year seminar in the Laboratorio de Investigación sobre Movimientos, Estado y Sociedad (LIMES) in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina. It is thus nothing short of a fruit of collective discussion with colleagues that come from different social sciences backgrounds.


Matias X. Gonzalez is a PhD candidate at the University of Turin, in Italy. His interest in the intercrossed dialogues between conceptual history and social history have taken him from studying Eric Hobsbawm and Isaiah Berlin, to C. H. de Saint-Simon, to currently writing a dissertation on the interconnected history of the Mexican and French working nations in the mid-nineteenth century.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Mexican dresses by Casimiro Castro.

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Think Piece

Nostalgia to (Un)Make the Nation: Partition and Intizar Husain’s Fiction

By Zehra Kazmi

In a remarkable moment in Intizar Husain’s The Sea Lies Ahead (1995), translated into English by the noted critic and translator Rakhshanda Jalil, the narrator Jawad meets an old, frail man called Khairul Bhai, whom he had known before the Partition as a student and fiery supporter of the Pakistan Movement. Despite his avowed espousal for the movement, after 1947, Khairul Bhai decided to remain in his crumbling, solitary family home in Meerut, North India, with only his cat for company. When Jawad probes him about his decision to stay behind despite the pro-Pakistan activism of his youth, he replies: “…But at that time, it was not a country; it was a dream…A dream contains the promise of a morning till it remains a dream, but…”(156). The sentence is left unfinished.

Intizar Husain (1923-2016) is widely recognised as one of Pakistan’s greatest writers. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, Husain narrated the story of Partition and its discontents like few others. His non-linear novels use myth, memory and illusory prose, and dextrously sweep through time and space to investigate ‘the wounds of Partition’ (Jalil)[i]. Born in the village of Dibai in Bulandshahr district of the former United Provinces, British India in 1925, Husain migrated to Lahore in 1947 to edit Nizam, the official magazine of the Progressive Writers’ Movement.[ii]Before his death at the age of 92 in 2016, Husain published six novels, a memoir and several essays and short stories.

My particular interest in Husain’s work lies in his use of nostalgia as a subversive tool to articulate lost histories and possibilities of the subcontinent. Nostalgia has a vexed relationship with the politics of the present, often viewed with suspicion as an attempt to impose or aestheticise oppressive values of a bygone era. As we witness the rise of right-wing populist political leaders who seek to make their nations “great again”, nostalgia is used to rewrite histories, engender hierarchies and counter strides made by sexual, ethnic or gendered minorities. Nostalgia, not always undeservedly, gets a bad rep. However, this uniformly hegemonic perception of nostalgia does not take into account its creative and progressive possibilities. Carrie Hamilton writes in her essay “Happy Memories”:

“The recounting of happy memories need not involve a denial of oppression… or ‘letting go’ of the past…Rather than disabling change, such memories may act as an ingredient in formulating alternative futures. Far from being the prerogative of the privileged, happy memories may be especially important in sustaining political projects of the oppressed” (2007,67).

Many recent scholars like Boym, Bonnet, Walder and Raychaudhuri have influentially theorised about the creative, subversive and progressive forms that nostalgia takes on in different contexts, especially with regards to providing alternative maps towards the future or reaffirming the politics of oppressed identities. Husain’s meditations on memory are suffused with unabashed nostalgic longing, which give a specific pathos-ridded quality to his writing. However, far from simply reproducing trite sentimentality, the deployment of critical nostalgia in his writing creates a unique aesthetic sensibility that informs a deeply subversive politics. The nostalgia of Husain’s writing works on two levels, it is a pastoral elegy for the death of an older, syncretic Indic civilisation and an affective register for articulating the global and local histories of Muslims as a people. Much before recent scholars of nostalgia were viewing nostalgia as a radical, temporally multi-directional force, signalling towards the future as well as the past, Husain distinguished himself as one of the earliest South Asian intellectuals who intuitively recognised the critical potential of nostalgia as a discursive and creative lens.

Within the Indo-Muslim literary tradition, nostalgia and mourning have a particularly rich and complex history as affective modes. From majlis, marsiya, shahr ashob, ghazal or nauha—these are different poetic forms that exist in the cultural lexicon of Muslim South Asia. Husain draws from that legacy to expand it to prose. Amina Yaqin observes that in keeping with Franco Moretti’s ‘law of literary evolution’, the modern Urdu novel arises as triangular whole which is made up of ‘foreign form, local material – and local form’ (Moretti qtd. in Yaqin 380), corresponding to the western novel form, Indic socio-cultural concerns and the incorporation of Urdu lyric/storytelling traditions. M. Asaduddin points out that while the novel is a distinctly Western import mediated by English-educated intelligentsia into the subcontinent’s cultural sphere, the readership familiar with local forms of storytelling like the qissa or dastaan took to it “quite naturally, without any great sense of shock or novelty” (84). However, while novels have conventionally aspired to verisimilitude, dastaans ignored all “laws of probability” to eschew reality “as hermetically as possible” (Asaduddin 78). With the rise of the periodical press of colonial India, these hybrid experimentations in prose “acquired sophistication and realism became a virtue’’ leading to the standardization of the Urdu novel as a genre (84).

What distinguished Husain from other Urdu novelists before him was his (post) modern rejection of linear temporality in storytelling. For Husain, the straightforward realist mode of Urdu novels of yore could not fully articulate the stakes and trauma of the wounds of colonisation, Partition and migration on the Indo-Muslim psyche. Aamer Husain writes, “Subtly and over several decades he drew readers and writers away from the hegemony of foreign influences…into an examination of the subcontinental modes of oral and written storytelling, which had been despised and discounted by many of his predecessors who, indoctrinated by colonial and postcolonial policies of education, lauded and claimed only western influences’’.  Ironically enough, Husain’s BBC obituary stated that he “was part of a powerful literary movement that emerged in India in the 1930s, and that transformed the old moralist and romantic traditions of Indian and Persian-Arabic literature into Western realism’’, mistakenly conflating him with the Progressive Writers and also, perhaps even more egregiously, claiming that Husain was invested in transforming Indo-Persian storytelling narratives into Western realism when, in fact, Husain’s novels are examples of a rejection of Western realism and a re-insertion of the more affective and fantastical elements of traditional Urdu literary culture into the novel. Although, it is worth noting that Husain was admittedly influenced by writers like Franz Kafka and perhaps aware of the frequent comparisons made between him and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These transcultural influences on Husain’s work led him to become the  emblematic creator of the Indo-Muslim modernist fiction.

Husain’s nostalgic vision relies heavily on spatial metaphors allowing us to ‘revisit time like space’ (Boym xv). Recurring spatial motifs in Intizar Husain’s fiction are pastoral idylls, ruins and lost cities. A typical example of Husain’s pastoral idyll is Rupnagar, described in shimmering detail in the opening chapters of his most famous novel Basti (1979) translated into English by Frances Pritchett in 2012. The village of Rupnagar, with a Black Temple and a local Karbala, is presented as an idyllic site of harmonious coexistence between Hindus and Muslims. The narrator, Zakir (whose name literally translates to ‘‘he who remembers’’) vividly recollects the rain-soaked Janamashtami nights and the hum of folk songs about Krishna reverberating through them. This idyllic village, however, now only exists in Zakir’s memory. While Zakir never physically returns to Rupnagar after Partition, his memories simultaneously trap him there; the deferral of return is psychologically compensated for with an imaginative return. In a moment that illustrates Husain’s remarkable knack for combining fragmented, dreamlike imagery with potent symbolism, Zakir’s mother informs him that she still has the key to the store-room of their family home in India, where she locked  up family heirlooms. Zakir then imagines the family home now being turned into an overgrown ruin–a forest of memories. As she worries about termites eating away at the blessed shroud brought by Zakir’s grandfather from a pilgrimage to Karbala, Zakir remarkably wonders if “time (is) a termite, or is a termite time?” (117). Husain often dwells on abandoned spaces—what remains as ruins and what is lost. It is in these remnants of memory that Husain explores spectral possibilities of belonging. As Zakir remarks “Houses never stay empty. When those who live in them go away, the time lives on in these houses.” (189). If any relatives or loved ones stay on, they exist in narrative memory as not really functionally distinct from the long-lost, leftover objects that might be gathering dust in an abandoned house. The material particularities of space may get lost or bleed into other memories, but the fact of inheritance, of legacy, is preserved via memorialization.

Similarly, Husain’s fascination for lost cities is also a key identifying feature of his engagement with nostalgia and memory. A casual turn in a Lahore street-corner transforms into the home that Zakir left behind or the trigger to excavate generational, inherited memory of places. In Basti, as Lahore remains still in the silence of a government-imposed curfew during the Bangladesh War of 1971, Zakir finds himself transported to the “ruined city” of Delhi after the Revolt of 1857, quoting from Ghalib’s letters to say that — “a river of blood is flowing”, which, in the course of that paragraph, transforms into the destroyed city of Jerusalem (162). Cities with associations to Islamic empires like Cordoba, Granada and Delhi have been spectral presences weighing on Muslim writing across history, be it Iqbal or Hali.  Husain, however, distinguishes himself from them by fusing Islamic history with stories from the Mahabharata to invoke stories of mythical cities like Hastinapur and Dwarka. The story of expulsion and return, one that is oft repeated in both Shia and Hindu traditions, and bears strong resonance with Partition narratives, is invoked in Husain’s fiction. The eclectic references to both the sweep of global Islam juxtaposed against local Hindu and Buddhist mythology draw attention to the specificity of Indo-Islamic identity.

In keeping with Husain’s historicizing lens of narrativising the story of exile and loss for the diasporic Muslim, ‘home’ expands cartographies, collapsing distinctions of border, nation and ethnicity in this process. In his intergenerational homecoming, where the home is not always a singular point on a map or some sort of promised land for a community but instead a shared history that is spread across time and geographies. Husain’s historicization of Indo-Muslim identity goes beyond the immediate bloodbath of the Partition, even though it is irrevocably shaped by it, evoking also the roots of Islam and its arrival into South Asia from different parts of the world. His vision is also cognizant of cross-cartographic Muslim legacies, bringing to mind the unique status of South Asian Muslims when it comes to questions of indigeneity, where they are enmeshed into the local topography but have mythic roots westwards. This western, foreign tag that follows Indian Muslims especially until today, as people who came from somewhere else is a pernicious and recurring trope in Indian politics. This is largely ahistorical, as most Indian Muslims are converts to Islam — the ajlaf (middle caste Hindus who converted to Islam) or arzal (previously ‘untouchable’ caste of Hindus who converted into Islam). Caste hierarchies have sustained, so have divisions between ashraf (upper caste Muslims of foreign ancestry) and ajlaf/arzal Muslims. Hence, the obsession with this ‘foreign’ origin of Muslims is an unsubstantiated myth, utilized both by orthodox Hindus and Muslims for different ends. However, the import of the faith from cultures beyond the subcontinent is a factor in how South Asian Islam is practiced and historicized. Husain’s conception of Indo-Muslim identity fervently rejects the binary between the ‘foreign’ and the ‘indigenous’, emphasizing how mutually interdependent the constructed nature of both tags is. Thus, what Aamir Mufti writes of Maulana Azad in another context applies perfectly to Husain’s vision of Indo-Muslim identity as “a reconfiguration of the relationship of the alien to the indigenous, of past to present, and of tradition to modernity” (155).

Husain’s works then offer a consciously syncretic reflection of Indo-Muslim identity as inseparable from Hindu traditions . Can this history be revitalized and mobilised for presenting us with an alternative to the sectarian, puritanical understanding of Hindu and Muslim identity in modern South Asia? Husain’s critical, self-aware nostalgia propagates a certain humility in the face of history’s constant march, mocking the perverse hubris of seeing the nation as a uniform symbol of everlasting glory. A lamentation for the past wherein extinction takes on a life of its own can be a symbol of time’s irreversibility. This irreversibility resists the temptation of perfect restoration and yet eulogizes the values of the past to have a contemporary political function which does not always have to be ‘backward’ in the usual sense. Critically alert nostalgia for a period of history, with a fidelity and commitment to some of its values, can be the foundation for the vision of a new beginning. As Nauman Naqvi writes about melancholia, nostalgia too “ exerts a claim beyond the grave, even as closed options become the condition of possibility of a new imperative and imagination” (210). Critical nostalgia, then, must be aware of the processes of history. By allowing for the powerful hold of nostalgia to be informed by a careful reading of history, Husain gives us the chance to reimagine a culture built on those very best parts of its past.


[i] Jalil, Rakhshanda. ‘Translator’s note’ in The Sea Lies Ahead

[ii] Husain eventually distanced himself from the Progressive Writers’ Movement, largely due to his differences over the extent to which Marxist ideology should define his literature.


Zehra Kazmi is a second year PhD candidate at the School of English, University of St Andrews. Her research looks at historical memory and nostalgia in 20th century South Asian Muslim writing, in the context of the rise of religious nationalism in South Asia and the “long Partition”. She holds an MPhil in English Studies: Criticism and Culture from the University of Cambridge and has previously worked as a Teaching Fellow at Ashoka University. She is also a co-founder of the Tasavvur Collective, a consortium of ECRs interested in contemporary Muslim South Asia.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Cover of the english translation of Intizar Husain’s Urdu novel ‘The Sea Lies Ahead’. (From the author’s personal collection).