Intellectual history Think Piece

Romanticism before Romanticism?: Anglo-Rioplatense Cultural Encounters in the Early Nineteenth-Century (1806-1834)

By Daniela Paolini

Chronologies do not necessarily match among different societies, and the variation in Romantic periods across the globe is a good example of that. We could say that Britain, along with Germany, was the birthplace of Romanticism, an aesthetic tendency that emerged at the end of the 18th century, spread through Europe during the first decades of the next century, until it reached the Río de la Plata region –most of which would become present-day Argentina and Uruguay– thanks to the poet Esteban Echeverría, who brought the literary novelties from his trip to Paris. Thus, influenced by French Romanticism, Echeverría published Los consuelos, usually considered the first Rioplatense romantic work, in 1834, at a time when British Romanticism was extinguishing. This is a general but well-established approach to the diffusion of Romanticism as a literary movement, which goes from the center of Western culture to its margins with a certain delay, as if the “denial of coevalness” –the distancing in time of contemporary cultures made by the anthropological observer– could also be applied to processes of transculturation. However, before the alleged incorporation of French Romanticism via Echeverría, the creole elite of the Río de la Plata saw Britain as a desirable ally and model for the future nation; furthermore, economic, political, and cultural relations were frequent between the two during Britain’s Romantic period. Is it possible then to think that the cultural practices and discourses of Romanticism could have had an earlier impact in this part of Latin America, through the bonds that Rioplatenses and Britons forged in the first third of the 19th century?

This question is the starting point of my research on the cultural encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata between 1806 and 1834, in which I consider the synchrony of these encounters with the rising of British Romanticism. Taking this into account, I turn to the analysis of periodicals, letters, poems, memoirs, biographies, historical essays, and travel narratives that deal with these Anglo-Rioplatense networks and that indicate changes in Río de la Plata’s ways of perceiving, understanding, and feeling, which can be related to the cultural sensibility emerging in Britain during the Romantic age. The chronological frame covers the period of British Romanticism’s major activity and ends up before the rise of the avowedly Romantic 1837 Generation, a group of young intellectuals led by Echeverría, whose literary and political programs would be tied to the fight against the second government of Juan Manuel de Rosas (1835-1852). Prioritizing direct encounters –i.e., those that occur by in situ contacts through wars, travels and settlements– and readings that are not mediated by other cultures –in English and in Spanish, or in translations between these two–, I focus on four contact zones: the British occupations of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (1806-1807), the diplomatic journeys to London during the revolutionary years (1810-1816), the British residences in Río de la Plata since the British Invasions until the beginning of Rosas’s second government (1806-1835), and Rudolph Ackermann’s publications for Latin America, which circulated in Rioplatense society through this period (1823-1829).

The British invasions into the Río de la Plata marks a first contact zone, a concept that emphasizes the interactive, unforeseen, and mutually significant aspects of cultural encounters, even if they are determined by asymmetrical relations. While Britain turned its imperial ambitions to this part of Spanish America –conceiving the capture of Buenos Aires on the 27th of June 1806 as a chivalric enterprise, part of its crusade against Napoleonic expansion– the Rioplatenses experienced the loss of the Viceroyalty’s capital as a shock of modernity that disrupted the peaceful and stable course of colonial life. After forty-six days in which Buenos Aires belonged to the British Crown, the locals gathered in newly formed militias that recaptured the city on the 12th of August, a victory that infused, in the words of the British Major Alexander Gillespie, a “new spirit of chivalry” (Gleanings and Remarks, 1818) among the Rioplatenses, so initiating a militarization process that would later be crucial in the emancipation of the Spanish American colonies. In this sense, the war with the Britons modified the self-perception of the people of Buenos Aires as patriots and warriors, in a similar way as how Romantic Britain saw its fight in the Napoleonic wars through an imaginary recovery of Medieval values, like bravery, honor, and spiritual devotion. The second British attempt to take Buenos Aires over in July 1807, made while seizing control of Montevideo, brought with it a new media and visual experience, expressed in the circulation of British propaganda and of a bilingual periodical, The Southern Star (1807), which inaugurated the print culture of the Banda Oriental (present-day Uruguay). These materials politicized the Rioplatense public sphere by spreading ideas of free trade, freedom of expression and religious tolerance that advocated for new ways of living and engaging with the world, challenging the foundations of the colonial system.

After this frustrated enterprise, Britain became an important supporter of Spanish American emancipation, which was a means to expand its commercial and political power through alliance rather than formal imperial dominance. During the revolutionary years that led towards independence in the Río de la Plata (1810-1816), London was a key destination –and lieu of the second contact zone– as a negotiation center to open the local economy to the British and international markets, as a place of mediation in the disputes between the former colonies and the metropolis, and as a meeting point with other Spanish-American revolutionaries. However, far from being an ideal scenario, the English capital presented a complex situation, because the British government was trying to appear neutral in the conflict between Spain and its colonies, among other circumstances that hindered diplomatic relations. In this context, Rioplatenses envoys like Manuel Moreno and Vicente Pazos Kanki found another way to fulfill their missions through their insertion in the London periodical press and book market, partaking in the same cultural scene in which the British Romantics intervened. After the failure of the mission assigned to Mariano Moreno, who died at sea before reaching London, his brother Manuel Moreno had to find other means to fulfill the trip’s purpose and vindicate the memory of Mariano, accused by his opponents of being a Rioplatense version of Robespierre. With that in mind, he wrote and published in London the biography of his brother, Vida y memorias del Dr. Don Mariano Moreno (1812), where he depicts a moderate concept of the 1810 May Revolution more attractive to the conservative British eye, and an image of the deceased revolutionary that consecrates him as a civic hero, who sacrificed himself for an ideal. For Vicente Pazos Silva, the London experience meant an identity transformation, because during his stay he converted to Anglicanism, and on his return to Buenos Aires he adopted his mother’s indigenous name, replacing “Silva” for “Kanki”. This transformation can be linked with his future role as a cultural organizer in the Rioplatense press and with his way of recovering the past, customs, and languages of the Native-Americans in his Letters on the United Provinces of South America (1819), which manifests his interest in historical reconstruction to better understand the contemporary situation of the South American countries. Thus, Moreno’s and Pazos’s literary operations can be associated to the formation of Romantic culture in Britain, characterized by the disenchantment with concrete political action, the propagation of nationalist sentiments and historicist discourses, and the construction of the Romantic hero as a misunderstood and sacrificed genius.

In the 1820s, British interest in Spanish America began to increase as a result of invitations to emigrate and to invest economically in the promising new republics. In the Río de la Plata, the Minister of Government in Buenos Aires, Bernardino Rivadavia, applied a modernization plan that encouraged a considerable number of British foreigners to reside and establish their businesses in the region, whose residences shaped the third contact zone of this research. A group of them, including Santiago Spencer Wilde, financed the creation of a park inspired by London’s Vauxhall Garden, the Parque Argentino, where people could promenade in an environment adorned with exotic plants and be entertained by theatrical and circus performances. British merchants influenced the acquisition of a local taste for foreign commodities, popularizing tableware patterns with rural and exotic motifs, which embodied the feeling of romantic nostalgia in the face of advancing industrialization. The social ties between Britons like John and William Parish Robertson (Letters on South America, 1843) and members of the Rioplatense elite like Ignacio Núñez (Noticias Históricas de la República Argentina, 1857)and Mariquita Sánchez de Thompson (Recuerdos de la Buenos Aires Virreinal, c.1860) inspired the adoption of new habits and manners, such as greeting each other at the table with a glass or walking arm in arm, practices that are associated with the shape of a more modern and liberal society. These changes in customs and fashions and in ways of inhabiting the land which separates work and leisure, public and private, rural and urban spaces are sustained by a romantic experience of the visual, leading to a gradual awareness that the visible depends as much on the perceptible as on the imagined.

Rudolph Ackermann’s cultural project for Latin America is the last contact zone of this series. The German publisher, bookseller, inventor, and businessman, settled in London since 1787, was a relevant figure that contributed to the shaping of middle-class culture in Early 19th century Britain. He saw works of art as commodities that could facilitate the democratization of good taste, and his colorful plates and engravings, magazines, and other publications meant to teach cultural literacy to their audience. This type of undertaking attracted the attention of Spanish-American representatives in London that wanted to civilize their countries through the dissemination of enlightened knowledge, like Rivadavia, who attended Ackermann’s literary meetings in the 1810s. Rivadavia, who later became the first president of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (1826-1827), arranged with the businessman the importation of magazines (e.g. Variedades o el mensajero de Londres, 1823-1825), books (e.g. Spanish Translation of Ivanhoe, 1825), literary annuals (No me olvides, 1824-1829), and secular catechisms made by a group of liberal Spaniards exiled in London, among them José María Blanco White and José Joaquín de Mora. These writers –often included in what is called Transatlantic Romanticism– managed to use Ackermann’s publications to disseminate their aesthetic and ideological interests, which contrasted with what they considered “frivolous” aspects of sections dedicated to fashion or picturesque travel. Such contrasts materialized the disputes at stake in Romantic era Britain, transmitting tensions between high culture and mass culture, knowledge and entertainment, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, to the Rioplatense reading public.  

These encounters between Great Britain and the Río de la Plata show the many forms in which cultural connections can be manifested, such as through sociability, intervention in the public sphere, taste acquisition, or cultural ventures. This way, we seek to detect unexpected phenomena of transculturation, that are affected by an emerging state of new experiences –which we can critically described as “romantic”– in a period of Argentine and Uruguayan cultural history considered predominantly Neoclassical. By looking for transformations in sensibility –changes in ideas and concepts, but also in emotions, beliefs, values, and perceptions that are not necessarily defined or rationalized at the moment they are experienced– we can explore how contact with British culture prepared the sociocultural setting of the Río de la Plata for the assimilation of Romantic sensibility at a time prior to its appearance as a literary movement.

Daniela Paolini is a doctoral candidate at the Universidad de Buenos Aires working on cultural encounters between the Río de la Plata area and Great Britain during Britain’s Romantic Period. Currently, she also teaches 19th century Argentine Literature at this university and, as a doctoral fellow, she develops her research at the Instituto de Literatura Hispanoamericana. She has published an article on Mariano Moreno’s biography in Cuadernos de Ilustración y Romanticismo and a chapter in a book on Gothic Fiction in Argentine Literature, both in open access.

Edited by Pablo Martínez Gramuglia.

Featured Image: La Reconquista de Buenos Aires (1909) by Charles Fouqueray. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Intellectual history

Classes and Masses in the History of Political Thought: 13th Annual London Graduate Conference

By David Klemperer

The history of ideas has something of a reputational issue. Within the world of historical scholarship, it is all too commonly seen as irredeemably elitist and idealist – narrowly focused on small groups of canonical intellectuals and ignoring the broader social reality of their eras. With these criticisms in mind, the London political thought graduate committee chose “Classes and Masses” as the theme for our 2022 annual conference: we wanted to bring social context and mass politics into the foreground of the history of political thought. We also wanted to bring in contributions from students outside of the history of political thought as traditionally conceived – those who might not see themselves as intellectual historians but whose research nonetheless engages with the formation, articulation, and diffusion of political ideas.

The result was a conference that featured an impressive array of disciplines, approaches, and methodologies – ranging from political theory and ideology studies, through “Cambridge-school” intellectual history and “new” political history, to social history, cultural history, and subaltern studies. Notably, the presentations drew on a highly diverse range of sources – not just the usual books, journals, articles, and letters, but also sociological research archives, prisoner manifestos, pedagogical manuals, and police reports of pub conversations. Although varying widely in geographic and temporal scope, many papers addressed some shared core themes: examining how ideas and intellectuals operate within mass politics; showing how ideas have been shaped by social context; and exploring the different languages through which class and other social divisions have been expressed.


This was certainly no return to crude socio-economic determinism. After opening the conference with Manic Street Preachers song “The masses against the classes” – the title of which is a quotation from William Gladstone – Gareth Stedman-Jones used his wide-ranging introductory address to lay out how the interplay of class division and mass participation was central to nineteenth-century politics. His argument, however, was that class conflict was more about constitutional doctrines than capitalism, with the proletariat defined by political exclusion rather than economic exploitation. Likewise, in her address on the mass politics of Garveyism, keynote speaker Adom Getachew drew on Adam Przeworksi to insist that both classes and races must be understood as effects, not causes, of political struggle. She argued the task of historians is to investigate how these categories were constructed intellectually and through cultural practice.

Ideas then, are not epiphenomenal. But nor do they constitute a sphere apart. What both speakers provided was an insistence that ideas are central to politics, and that they must be studied as part-and-parcel of its rough-and-tumble. Ideas operate at all levels of society, and not merely through an elite standing above it.


Indeed, a key theme that emerged from the conference was the idea that we can and should approach political thought as a mass phenomenon. Perhaps most notable in this regard was Rebecca Goldsmith’s paper on vernacular languages of class in the English town of Bolton in the interwar period. Arguing that we can and should “place official political language and everyday speech in the same analytical frame,” she drew on Mass Observation archives to reconstruct the “informal political thought of the masses” as related to class politics. At the same time, there was a distinct lack of emphasis across the papers on traditional canonical figures: to give one arresting example, although several presenters addressed Marxism, not one focused on Marx himself: instead, participants discussed the ideas that emerged from Marxist mass movements.

Successive speakers creatively engaged with issues of how ideas were transmitted within political movements, and how these processes of transmission reshaped them: Emily Evans called our attention to the importance of political pedagogy, arguing that Rosa Luxemburg’s experience at the German Social Democratic Party’s cadre-school shaped her intellectual project, and that her economics textbooks should be accorded a central place in her corpus; Edoardo Vaccari’s paper on 1930s Italian socialism emphasized how exile journals functioned as sites of intellectual collaboration for decentralized underground resistance networks; Molly Carlin showed how manifestos smuggled between prisons came to provide the foundations for the “incarcerated class” as a political identity in the post-war United States. Most explicitly, Julia Damphouse used her presentation on anti-colonial attitudes within the German Empire’s working classes to challenge the notion that such ideas were purely the product of downwards transmission from intellectual elites.

Some papers honed in directly on this question of how intellectuals related to political movements: Tanroop Sandhu’s discussion of Shapurji Saklatvala and Rajani Palme Dutt explored how these anti-colonial Marxist activists exiled in London conceived of their place both within the broader struggle for Indian independence, and within international communism; Nick Garland meanwhile examined how Labour Party-aligned intellectuals in 1970s and 1980s Britain imagined the “radical intelligentsia,” demonstrating how both social democratic revisionists and the New Left ultimately ended up sharing a similar conception of progressive politics – one in which an educated middle-class strata would provide leadership to a mass working class base.


Beyond mass movements, several participants highlighted how concrete socio-economic context can be key to making sense of intellectual constructs. For instance, Sam Harrison’s brilliant dissection of the constitutional distinction between “active” and “passive” citizens in the French Revolution demonstrated the importance of understanding the internal economic migration, and the concurrent changes to the social composition of France’s urban centers, that occurred over the eighteenth century; by examining precisely who was and was not included in various Revolution-era franchises, he made a boldly revisionist case for seeing suffrage restrictions on so-called “passive citizens” as based not on horror of poverty, but on suspicion of the geographically mobile. Similarly, by showing how François Guizot’s liberalism was rooted in a unique historical analysis of how France’s social structure had evolved, Madeleine Rouot’s paper successfully presented the nineteenth-century politician as more anti-authoritarian than traditionally assumed.

Perhaps most striking in this regard was Matteo Rossi’s paper on the famous and influential idea of the United States as a “classless society.” Tracing the origins of this notion to the writings of political economists in 1820s and 1830s Philadelphia, he reconstructed the social and political context of the city in the era to show how it was developed as a specific political response – to the egalitarian claims of radical agitators in a period of heightened labor unrest. The concept of “classlessness” was thus a product of intense class conflict, and we should therefore see it not as a neutral term of analysis, but as a deliberate ideological weapon in the hands of the opponents of the nascent trade union movement.


A final key theme of the conference was that many papers explored the different rhetorical means through which social divisions have been expressed – the various “languages of class” (as Gareth Stedman-Jones entitled his 1983 book). Joan O’Bryan and Madeleine Rouot both emphasized the significance of (often speculative) historical “origin stories”: the former in the case of second-wave American feminists who provided creative accounts of humanity’s division into sex-classes; the latter in the case of François Guizot, who sought to explain the historical significance of the aristocracy. More surprisingly, Rida Vaquas set out how twentieth-century German catholic socialist Walter Dirks developed a concept of the proletariat that was above all theological, and largely expressed through a Christian language of suffering.

Importantly, several papers drew attention to how ethnic or place-based identities frequently served as an ideological proxy for class, and to the political impacts that this could have. Adom Getachew’s keynote discussed how Marcus Garvey assigned Africans the status of the “universal race,” essentially taking over the role of the “universal class” assigned by Marx to the proletariat. Rebecca Goldsmith meanwhile showed how in 1930s Bolton, rhetoric of local experience and regional identity proved to be the most politically effective languages of class politics for the local Labour Party; crucially, they proved to have far more electoral resonance than overt appeals to economic status. Most dramatically, Tom Musgrove’s account of British responses to the Macedonian “Folk War” in the early 1900s showed how socialist “experts” on the Balkans came to equate a national conflict between Greeks and Bulgarians with urban-rural class struggle, ultimately leading them to justify ethnic cleansing as progressive.

Taken together, the papers at the conference (of which those discussed here are only some!) highlighted the historical plurality of how class has been articulated and the persistent importance of social divisions to political thought. They also showed the value of engaging with social context, and the utility of considering how ideas function within the framework of mass politics. But perhaps most importantly, this conference demonstrated the importance of an outward-facing approach to the history of political thought.  The most productive conversations are to be had through looking beyond our disciplinary boundaries, and by engaging with the wider historical community to put different methodologies and focuses into dialogue. This conference has served as an example of what can achieved when we do so.

David Klemperer is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London, researching the political and intellectual history of interwar French socialism. He is a member of the Organising Committee for the Annual London Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought, and a Contributing Editor at Tocqueville21. He writes here in a personal capacity. He can be found on Twitter at @dmk1793.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: 13th Annual London Graduate Conference poster.

In Theory: The JHI Podcast Intellectual history

Samuel Moyn on Cold War Liberalism and Humanitarian Warfare

In this latest episode of In Theory, Tom Furse, one the primary editors at the JHI Blog, interviewed Samuel Moyn, Professor at Yale University about his Carlyle Lectures, “The Cold War and the Canon of Liberalism,” and his latest book, Human: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (Verso, 2022). We discussed how liberal acceptance of war came through putting humanity at the center and that the 1970s were a turning point in the politics of justification for war. Following this, we go through Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling as a canon of liberal thinkers. In particular, we talk about their thought on neoconservatism, fascism, socialism, and communism, the tensions between liberty and equality, and how the Enlightenment, Cold War fears, and Christianity influenced their works.

Thomas Furse is a primary editor at the JHI Blog and a PhD candidate at City, the University of London. He researches the connections between strategic thought, the social sciences, management theory and political economy.

Edited by Kristin Engelhardt

Featured Image: Antiwar March outside Crisler Arena on the University of Michigan Campus, September 20, 1969. Courtesy of The Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Intellectual history Think Piece

The Fragility of Ideas: Intellectual History viewed from the South

By Jerónimo Rilla

Medea’s challenge

In his article “Dewey, between Hegel and Darwin,” Richard Rorty identifies tensions between John Dewey’s pragmatism and his idealism, asserting that his pragmatism has the more substantial legacy and is therefore more relevant to the modern reader. Rorty therefore develops an “anachronistic reading of Dewey” which sifts out “what is living” from “what… is dead in Dewey’s thought” (DHD, p. 292). In other words, this method emphasizes Dewey’s pragmatist, positivist, and historicist tendencies over his idealist, panpsychist, or vitalist affiliations. As a pragmatist, Rorty claims that this reading “works better by reference to our purposes, our particular situation in intellectual history” (DHD, p. 303). In Derek Parfit‘s terms, which distinguish between archaeologists, who worry about authorial intention, and grave-robbers, who are only interested in “whatever […] works to the argument,” Rorty operated as a grave-robber, scavenging for nuggets of value in the cemetery of ideas.

When I read Rorty as an undergraduate, I remember thinking “but what about the ‘dead’ remnant?”. Later I discovered contextualism, which would answer that the apparently outdated components of philosophical systems can also be seen as instruments with which we may reconstruct the big picture, revealing the historical meanings at stake, situated in the controversies of the time.

Figure 1. Medea Deceiving the Daughters of  King Pelias into Murdering their Father. NonCommercial license granted by Egisto Sani.

But is that all? What if the dead remnant can be the raw material for the concocting of something fresh? Perhaps Medea’s deception of Pelias’s daughters should warn us against this. Medea told the young women that she could turn an old ram into a lamb by boiling it, and demonstrated this with a magic trick, dismembering a ram and casting it into her cauldron, in which a living lamb indeed appeared. Eager to restore their ailing father to health, the girls likewise chopped their father to pieces and put his remains in the iron pot. Medea had deceived them, and no rejuvenation happened. But are we sure that intellectual rejuvenation is likewise an illusion?  

Two Carloses: Real de Azúa and Roxlo

Figure 2. Carlos Real de Azúa in 1962 via Wikimedia Commons

Carlos Real de Azúa (1916-1977), a Uruguayan intellectual historian, took up this challenge in his 1961 essay “Carlos Roxlo: A popular nationalism [Un nacionalismo popular].” The piece is a scrupulous analysis of the thought of his countryman Carlos Roxlo (1861-1926), the poet (or poetaster), literary critic, ideologue, and politician. Anticipating the accusation that he has devoted undue attention to someone who “falls with nearly his whole weight into the heap of forgettable authors” (CR, p. 42), Real de Azúa asks: Must ideas and authors necessarily be studied in light of their “present relevance [vigencia]” or “timeliness [actualidad]” (CR, p. 43)?

Anyone who has had to fill out a fellowship application will empathize with Real de Azúa’s annoyance at the unspoken injunction to highlight the present value of historical research.

Figure 3. Carlos Roxlo in 1892 via Wikimedia Commons.

[Beyond centenaries and other posthumous symposia] I believe that th[e] obsession with calibrating the current value of a name overlooks a more level-headed approach, which is also more fertile. It forgets that a personality can be valued  –  and valuable – […] because of the simple and modest fact of having become part – the person, their oeuvre, their labors –  of the history of the community to which they belonged (CR, p. 43).

Even “buried” by history, obsolete authors are worthy of consideration, because their ideas have become sediment in the collective past.

At first, we may believe that Real de Azúa is suggesting an exercise of memory conducted sympathetically, with the humane interest of the town chronicler. Pierre Michon attempts a similar kind of benevolent archaeology in Small Lives [Vies Minuscules], evoking local tales, family jewels, and “name[s that] can no longer call up living beings,” [Michon, p. 42] to resuscitate “the dead, the poor dead” [Michon, p. 136] of a little town in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

But Real de Azúa goes a step further. He wishes to vindicate the exploration of ideas that are not only dead now but were already dead when articulated. “Roxlo represented − and he must have known that − the case of one who is born too late for his ways to have been undeniably current, but too soon to have adopted others” (CR, p. 59). Real de Azúa’s interest lies in the mismatch between thought and context, in the “constant offness, the permanent lack of focus that accompanies Roxlo” (CR, p. 54). Real de Azúa does not seek some past idea, discourse, or language, but the viewpoint of a failed intellectual effort and its “tragic” but inevitable “obsolescence” (CR, p. 37).

Real de Azúa emphasizes Roxlo’s eccentricity throughout. Eccentricity in the strictest sense, a displacement from the center of the timeline. Politically, Roxlo adhered to an “epilogistic romanticism,” “already nearly defeated” (CR, p. 51) in Uruguay at the beginning of the twentieth century. A “tense and deliberate” if “impassioned” nationalist, Roxlo had in fact been born in Spain, never dropping his stark European accent, forever doomed to “watch the collectivity from the outside” (CR, p. 51).

Moreover, “politics and intellectual work seemed to overlap in him in a particularly uneasy way,” the latter “infusing the former with a note sometimes naïve, sometimes pedantic, and almost always ineffectual” (CR, p. 58). Roxlo’s inability to influence in the way he desired was symptomatic of a broader historical phenomenon: the disappearance of “a human type with ever less circulation, an ever smaller audience,” the “politician-intellectual” (CR, p. 57).

An intellectual with no formal training, Roxlo resorted to “a strident prolificness to prove his cultural credentials and compensate for the stinging pits of inferiority” (CR, p. 41). As a poet, literary critic, and ideologue, Roxlo suffered from an “irrepressible vein of emotional display” that never managed to settle on an “irreplaceable, definitive, effective word” (CR, p. 38). He shared these traits with Jorge Luis Borges’ deuteragonist in “The Aleph”, Carlos Argentino Daneri. A clumsy writer, “whose mental activity was continuous, deeply felt, far-ranging, and – all in all – meaningless,” Daneri becomes the gateway to infinitude. He is despite everything the one who reveals the Aleph, “the point where all points meet,” the peephole into numberless universes, to Borges in the depressing basement of his house in Buenos Aires.

Where do the points meet?

Unlike Borges, however, Real de Azúa does not seek to ridicule his object of study. Instead, Roxlo’s outdatedness served as an opportunity to reflect about his own position in the intellectual field of his time.

Figure 4. Borges in 1963 via Wikimedia Commons

Real de Azúa was an eccentric himself, “hardly circumscribable [mal circuible]” (Bernardo Berro, a Puritan in the Storm [un puritan en la tormenta], p. 102) a solecism which he coined to describe the subject of another tragic biography. Real de Azúa was a devout Catholic and a Falangist, if eventually a disenchanted one, in a country that made secularism its trademark. After travelling to Spain and witnessing the Franco regime for himself he wrote a devastating review: Spain from Close Up and from Afar [España, de cerca y de lejos] (1943). “To look at the real,” he pondered, “you have to look at it from an outside perspective. And, when the real is a field of anguish, from an even higher vantage point” (España, p. 10).

As historian, Real de Azúa was continually drawn to characters with a “sorrowful awareness of their singularity” (Bernardo Berro, p. 103), probably because he identified with them. In his introduction to Visible History and Esoteric History [Historia visible e historia esotérica] (1975), Real de Azúa confessed the fear that his texts, “instead of approaches to the history of ideas, were themselves, in their humbleness, objects for the history of ideas, historicizable, dated and superseded without recourse” (Historia visible, p. 11). It is hard not to conclude that Real de Azúa saw himself in Roxlo.

Real de Azúa’s temporal unease had a geographic counterpart. His essay is also an exercise in self-deconstruction as a Latin American thinker. Real de Azúa doubtless experienced, as he says of Roxlo, the “insecurity of the South American intellectual in the face of the omnipresent European comparison” (CR, p. 41). Like Roxlo, Real de Azúa’s only safeguard was his “solid erudition”. He felt obliged to exercise an “omnivorous proficiency” in matters of culture (CR, p. 41). Nonetheless, his “spiritual life always needed orthopedic fittings” (p. 54), the “authorizing prestige” of Europe, to “dignify even the most insignificant acts” (CR, p. 55).

This sense of urgent dependency was a sort of tradition in the Southern Cone: Ricardo Piglia has noted that Domingo Sarmiento’s Facundo, the foundational text of Argentine political thought, begins with a “prophetic” gesture: a French epigraph, and, what is worse, a falsely cited one. “A clear sign… of a second-hand, ostentatious culture.”

Just as Daneri is Borges’s gateway to the Aleph, Roxlo is our gateway to the Latin American intelligentsia. He is synecdochic for a continent whose marginality cannot readily be identified either as an irredeemable “condition” or as a surmountable “situation” (Historia visible, p. 42). In Real de Azúa’s words, Latin “America, [a] wounded, incomplete reality; a radiant mud” (España, p. 293).

The fragility of ideas

Back to the initial question: why should we study the untimely, the out of place, the “inexpedient”? Shouldn’t we “make sure that old philosophical ideas do not block the road of inquiry” (DHD, p. 306), as Rorty puts it? Real de Azúa’s answer is not encouraging, but perhaps it is compelling. We explore obsolete ideas in order to unravel the fragility of our craft.

To be sure, Real de Azúa’s object of inquiry, Carlos Roxlo, was parochial, a Latin American ideologue interred in a “double periphery” (CR, p. 52): his own peripheral status and his country’s.

But there is universality. The sophistication and care with which Real de Azúa embarks on the reconstruction of this minor character bear witness to the potential misfortune to which any intellectual undertaking is liable. Real de Azúa’s endeavor points to how difficult it is ever to intervene in the “dialectic of palimpsests” (Historia visible, p. 11) that constitutes the history of ideas. As Real de Azúa has it, even in “geniuses” there is a mismatch between the “diamond core” of their inventiveness and the “set of fragilities” (CR, p. 35), of contingencies, that afflict their real lives and works.

This is also a Borgesian theme. Real de Azúa’s exploration of the tragedy of all intellectual endeavor resembles Rabbi Judah Loew’s exertions in the poem The Golem, culminating in the moment of regret in which he asks: “How could I […]give up my leisure, surely the wisest thing? What made me supplement the endless series of symbols with one more?”

What if all our creativity comes to nothing more than a “drowsy” “simulacrum,” a coarse sally at reproducing inherited ideas? This danger seems to loom especially over Latin American intellectual endeavors, but it is universal.

Real de Azúa’s essay finishes on a gloomy note, alluding to Roxlo’s suicide letter, “the first time in his life he wrote concisely” (CR, p. 60). Roxlo asked to be placed “in a pine coffin, carried in a poor man’s car, and interred in a common grave” (CR, p. 60). His final requests were as little heeded as his ideas had been.

In this way Roxlo’s thought (and Real de Azúa’s?), after a long series of failures, closes the door on itself. Victims of the temptation offered by Medea to the daughters of Pelias, we have accomplished nothing more than to consign Latin American intellectual activity to untimeliness and misplacement once again.

Be that as it may, I prefer a cheerier conclusion: a football analogy. Like Real de Azúa’s tragic heroes, provincial football players lack a suitable present and a fitting place. Their talent is always refracted: they are either exportable commodities, unproven, full of promise, or relics of past glory on a shameful return journey after going off-piste in Europe. And yet, for all that we know that the real game is always somewhere else, their dribbles and feints shine on under the stadium lights. In those fragile moments, no matter how deeply buried, they seem briefly to belong, as Brunetto Latini, to the victors, not to the losers.

Jerónimo Rilla is a postdoctoral fellow at the Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Argentina. He completed his PhD in 2018 at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. His research deals with Hobbes’ political philosophy and with contemporary theories of collective action.

Edited by Elsa Costa

Featured Image: Diego Maradona scoring for Argentinos Juniors against NY Cosmos, 1980, via Wikimedia Commons

Intellectual history Think Piece

Manufacturing “Internationalism From Below”: Saumyendranath Tagore on Fascism and Ultra-Nationalism

By Manaswini Sen

The rise of authoritarian regimes across the world in the last few decades demands meticulous re-evaluation of the genesis of “authoritarianism” as a system. Considering that the nature and face of fascism have changed considerably over the course of the twentieth century, Ian Kershaw has commented that, “Trying to define “Fascism” is like trying to nail jelly to the wall.” The erstwhile dictators of early twentieth century have given way to our present day strongmen. These politicians have established their totalitarian regimes as leaders of conservative parties which have managed to garner electoral hegemony. This has in turn caused a veritable crisis evident through curtailment of free speech, and a systematic erasure of dissent rendering any sort of opposition a virtual impossibility. Therefore, not only is it imperative to revisit the rich corpus of anti-fascist literature, but it is also crucial to analyze its vernacular reception and reconceptualization, in the works of Indian anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist political thinkers such as Saumyendranath Tagore. This piece contemplates how anti-colonial narratives from the Global South transcended the narrow confines of nationalism, as anti-Fascism and communism was getting intimately entwined with the vision of decolonization generating a truly global discourse.

Tagore was born in 1901 and belonged to the elite upper caste-class group of intellectuals in colonial Bengal, known as the bhadralok. He was the grand-nephew of the renowned poet, artist, and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and because of the tremendous cultural capital which the Tagore clan offered him he was trained in performing arts and literature. The Tagores represented a strong voice of dissent against the colonial injustices. The pen was their preferred weapon of offensive; however Saumyendranath broke this stereotype when he joined active mass politics during the heyday of the Gandhian Non-Cooperation Movement in the 1920s.  His disillusionment with the movement was inevitable as it was  called off in 1922  over a spontaneous incident at Chauri Chaura, Gorakhpur in Bihar where a group of protesters were fired upon by the police and in retaliation they set the police station on fire killing all its occupants. . Tagore belonged to the newer brand of trade union vanguards who were caught up in the ebb and flow of mainstream anti-colonial struggle characterized by the Indian National Congress which was essentially a bastion of upper-caste Hindu bhadralok. The general disillusionment with appeasement politics laced with heavy overtures of Hindu revivalism and enchantment towards a new egalitarian world pushed them towards communism. Their transformed political ambitions and visions barely found any niche in an organization hegemonized by upper-class bureaucrats, barristers, and white-collar clerical conglomerates. This disenchantment ensued his acquaintance with the “Language of the class”.  He chanced upon a journal with a fairly unwonted name while traversing the by lanes of Harrison Road in North Calcutta. The unusual nomenclature, Langal (The Plough) triggered his interest, and by writing a letter to its editor, Shamshuddin Ahmad, Tagore’s tryst with Indian communism began. Soon after he joined The Labour Swaraj Party in 1925, Tagore was on the radar of the intelligence officers as “a zealous and dangerous Communist and revolutionary”. However, the Commissioner of Bengal Police, Charles Tegart knew that there would be tremendous public criticism of the British government, if they arrested a member of a Tagore family. In May 1927 Saumyendranath left for the Soviet Union where he attended the Sixth International of the Comintern in 1928. He left for Berlin right after, where his close association with the League Against Imperialism and direct exposure to contemporary European politics led to the sagacious comprehension of the multifarious ways in which “ultra nationalism” can manifest itself and exacerbate the social inequalities besides the political and economic ones.

Saumyndranath became a prolific writer engaging himself in active propaganda against Nazism during this time. The transcontinental ties and the budding solidarities to combat the rising tide of fascism marked an epoch of vibrancy in intellectual and ideological exchange. The inexorable repression from the Gestapo and the Nazi state culminated in his arrest in 1933 on the absurd ground of conspiring to assassinate the Fuhrer. After his release from the prison in Munich, he headed straight to Paris. Paris in the 1930s was a refuge to exiled revolutionaries from different corners of the globe. Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of the range of their ideological adherence, erecting a proletariat front against fascist onslaught was the call of the times. In the bid to counter fascism with communism he became overtly active in the Anti-fascist circles of Paris. These intellectual encounters shaped his political thought and praxis profoundly. The year also marked the release of Hitlarism: the Aryan Rule in Germany, an anthology of his essays written between April and December, divulging the sinister face of Nazism and the racial apartheid engendered by it.

In the article, Who Paved the Way for Fascism in Germany?, he highlighted how the German socialists had betrayed the interests of the working-class. In the garb of stabilizing the economy of the country after the First World War, they had systematically deprived workers of their basic rights as unemployment and fall in the standard of living became rampant. This essay was a scathing attack on Socialists like Ebert Noske and their pivotal role in the assassination of dissenting communist voices like Karl Liebrecht and Rosa Luxemburg. He critiqued the counter-revolutionary nature of the Socialists and pointed out their capitalist roots which caused them to launch a flagrant onslaught on the communists.  Their sheer apathy towards the downtrodden led to the displacement of the International theory of ‘solidarity of the working class’ with the bourgeois theory of ‘solidarity of all classes’. Tagore, like many of his contemporary socialists and communists were conflicted on the question of  class collaboration with the Bourgeoisie to launch any revolutionary struggle due to the intrinsic dialectical relationship between the classes, denouncing the theory of “solidarity of all classes” against “solidarity of the working class”.   What transpired was the most vicious of crimes against humanity orchestrated by the authoritarian German state in the form of Anti-Semitic violence. In his speech delivered at a protest meet in Paris around September 1933 against the Reichstag Fire, Tagore emphasized that racial bigotry against Jews served two specific purposes, ‘one is to divert the class struggle of working-class into blind alleys of racial struggle’, and second was holding the Jews accountable for the economic distresses of the German mass. He described the Nazi regime as a diabolical ‘racial cannibalism’ and called for condemnation by any “civilized individual. Scholars have dealt with his views on Nazism whilst assessing the broader Indian intellectual response to, and ties with, the Third Reich. However his deliberations on Italian Fascism often get overlooked in these works though, his monograph titled, Fascism (1934) written in Bengali, was one of the earliest Bengali critiques of an authoritarian state. This tract encapsulates conscientiously his perspective on fascism anchored in Imperialism, expansionism, and ultra nationalism (‘ugro-jatiyotabad’).  Through a careful dissection of the body politic of the Italian fascist state, he analyzed how Fascism effectively used jingoism, and insecurities of the petty bourgeoisie to create and legitimize a centralized government which aimed at erasing individual dissent and agency. In the preface, he writes,

 with the imminent crisis of the 20th-century dawning upon us never before in the history of mankind the world has been polarized into two specific camps: the Communists and the Bourgeoisie. Despite coming from disparate backgrounds all sections of the bourgeoisie ultimately have the common goal of saving capitalism, and hence pits itself as the class enemy of the proletariat. As the decisive moment of the Working-class revolution is nearing, the insecurities among these various sections of the Bourgeoisie are making them endorse various fascist groups. The days of saving capitalism through bourgeois liberalism are long gone. Hence, they have given up the facade of democracy and liberalism and have resorted to the use of brute force. (Tagore, Fascism, p.7)

His ‘longue duree’ approach towards analyzing the genesis of fascism can be seen in his essay, Mussolini, in which he makes a comparative study of the dictator’s writing before and after the initiation of The First World War(1914-19).  By looking at Mussolini’s pieces in socialist mouthpieces like Avanti and later Il Popolo d’Italia, Tagore illustrated how he used the veil of socialism to win the trust of the working-class and recruit them in an imperialist bourgeoisie war to serve the interests of their class enemies.  He advised the masses to stay neutral during Italy’s war efforts against Austria in the initial days, but by the end of 1914 he engaged in vigorous war propaganda inciting popular sentiments through the tool of ‘patriotism’ and ‘love and sacrifice for the motherland’. The anthology stands out owing to its range, encompassing theoretical rumination on fascism as well as analysis which emerged from his punctilious observations of the regime during his stay in Italy. Critiquing Mussolini’s false claim that he will improve the standard of living of the Italian mass, despite the Global Depression of 1929, Tagore wrote Fascism and the Labor-Peasant problem. The essay is not only contingent upon statistical data but also a testament to how political praxis and political thought shape one another. He pointed out that smaller cities like Naples were swarmed with destitutes in public places, whilst Rome, the capital, had its streets sanitized of such manifestations of poverty and pain. The Italian Government had orchestrated the coerced evacuation of the streets of Rome, and it was made out of bounds for beggars. He unmasked the true nature of the fascist state as it continued to engage in false propaganda maintained an outward show of political might, while the economy was plummeting. In Tagore’s eyes, “the deplorable state of the working-class living quarters” in Naples, was comparable to the “indigence in a colony, like India”. (Fascism, pp. 56-57)

Tagore implemented fascism as an analytical tool to comprehend colonialism and the systematic inequalities engineered by it. Introspected through the twin lenses of militarism and expansionism, he expounded how cultural movements such as Futurism aggravated the existing crisis caused by colonialism along with fascism.  Tagore, encountered the Italian futurist figurehead, Filippo T. Marinetti, and extensively engaged with the Futurist Manifesto which upheld and celebrated war as the sole source of regeneration for a moribund nation. This proposition made Tagore conclude how fascism was the perfect tool in the hands of warmongering capitalists to  forward their colonial extractivist designs.  He remarked,

‘Futurism, far from insinuating cultural efflorescence have been commemorating anti-intellectualism and anti-egalitarianism since decades. The only difference being they are doing it adorning the fascist blackshirts now’. (Fascism, p.72)

Throughout the length of the book, Tagore interrogated extensively how fascism and colonialism were intricately connected and analysed the ways in which the trope of ‘mystic nationalism’ was conveniently appropriated to justify brazen expansionism.

Tagore never saw the rise of fascism in isolation or as a strictly European phenomenon and stressed upon the possibility of upsurge of this vicious trend within the anti-colonial struggle in India.  He dreaded the efforts towards national liberation which elicited from unfettered and uncritical patriotism. Referring to professors from Calcutta University like Promotho Roy and Sunitikumar Chattopadhyay and their efforts at translating the speeches of Mussolini and eulogizing him, he was unveiling the reactionary nature of the Nationalist Bourgeoisie. The sojourn in Europe further nuanced his vision on trade unionism, a discourse that primarily emerged as a fierce polemic against Gandhian mass politics embedded in the rhetoric of spiritualism and non-violence. Saumyendranath wrote, Gandhism and the Labour Peasant Problem, in Europe commenting on the absurdity of the Gandhian tactics of arbitration as the ideal strategy for wage bargaining instead of striking. Drawing a parallel between the German state under the Social Democrats at the verge of transforming into a fascist state and their coercive action which made arbitration compulsory and Gandhi’s enticement with the same, he stressed how Arbitration was becoming ‘a mighty weapon in the hands of the capitalists’. The critical insight that the Gandhian tenet of ‘class collaboration’ was intrinsically flawed as dialectically the two classes harbor opposite interests was a reflection of his interaction with officials of fascist industrial trade unions in Italy. Tagore divulged how these unions were instrumental in the depletion of the ideal of ‘class struggle’, and supplanting it with one of collaboration and total submission to the profit-driven whims of the capitalists through systematic propaganda.  

One might argue that Fascism, was simultaneously published with British communist R.P. Dutt’s Fascism and Social Revolution and coincided with the occurrence of the 17th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, which officially considered fascism as a terrorist onslaught of the most vicious of the reactionary capitalists, and reflected similar arguments as that of Tagore’s. However, Saumyendranath far from being a full-fledged left theorist was a labor activist, whose appraisals emanated from his first-hand encounter as a colonized subject in the European heartland of fascism. Hence, it was a veritable local response to a global crisis, where the employment of the vernacular, riddled with scintillating metaphors was making Tagore’s ideas accessible to a wider population. His endeavor democratized the constricted space of ideological introspection monopolized by the anglicized upper-class intellectuals.

Tagore’s crusade against fascism found expression in his effort to open a branch of League Against Fascism and War in India in 1936, when Spain was ravaged by a horrific Civil War insinuated by fascist elements in the country. Addressing several working-class meetings he stressed how the Spanish struggle for democracy was an extended fight for Indian independence. In a conflict where the revolutionary was pitted against the reactionary, he called for collective action by the workers, peasants, and youths from India against it in a bid for manufacturing internationalism from below. Saumyndranath’s discourse on fascism transcended the confines of nationalism as proletarian internationalism was his answer to the onslaughts of totalitarianism. The most enduring of his contribution, however, is the provision of an alternative vision of anti-colonialism, which is grafted not in the orthodox trope of nationalism. Saumyndranath’s anti-fascist championing thus indeed led to the recovery of globalism within a history of eternal localism.

Manaswini Sen is an early career researcher and a Ph.D. candidate currently enrolled at the University of Hyderabad, India. Her thesis, tentatively titled, ‘The Unsettling Decades: Mapping the Changing Trends in the Trade Union Movement of Late Colonial Calcutta (1930-1947)’, will help in establishing why the period between 1930 -1947 was a decisive break in Labour Politics of Bengal and how it finally turned into a full-fledged radical Trade Union Movement. Her research interests straddle the fields of Labour History, History of Decolonisation in South and Southeast Asia, Intellectual History, History of Surveillance, and History of Communism in the Global South. She is the Grantee of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellowship (2022-23). She is also an Asian Graduate Student Fellow at National University of Singapore for 2022. Her article titled, “Mapping the Changing Notions Inequality Among the Trade Union Leaders of Colonial Bengal”, has recently been published in The Journal of Global Intellectual History, Taylor & Francis (ISSN:2380-1891).

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Saumyendranath Tagore, Courtesy of the Revolutionary Communist Party of India.

Intellectual history Think Piece

The Architecture of Confinement: A Cross-Disciplinary Conference at Princeton University

By Victoria Bergbauer

What is the architecture of confinement? In what ways do spaces of confinement materialize? How do individuals live the experience of being confined? Survivors, activists, architects, designers, artists, and scholars from history and law gathered to discuss these questions at Princeton University on April 14.

When my fellow organizer Basile Baudez, assistant professor at Princeton University, and I embarked on the organization of a conference on the architecture of confinement, we had hoped that this gathering of perspectives would bring into one space individuals and their ideas, rarely found in one dialogue. The result exceeded our expectations. Engaging speakers in a cross-disciplinary conversation through individual sessions and round tables, the event shed light on the architecture of confinement from a multitude of perspectives. The broad reach of the speakers’ presentations was mirrored by the enthusiastic reactions from the in-person audience, as well as viewers that followed the event remotely. Themes of site, time, care, and the individual framed this exchange. Acting as guiding threads, they framed a day that sampled the presentations of a diversity of speakers, ideas, and initiatives located across the US.

Formerly incarcerated individuals Nafeesah Goldsmith, chair of New Jersey Prison Watch, Ibrahim Sulaimani, executive director of Transformative Justice Initiative, and Een Jabriel, regional manager of the Petey Greene Program in New Jersey, opened the conference by sharing their experiences. Moderated by Jill Stockwell, director of Princeton’s Prison Teaching Initiative, the panelists’ exchange stressed ties between time and architecture. A carceral setting radically changes the ways in which people experience the passage of time, the three panelists agreed. The architecture of confinement restricts sensorial responses; individuals lose the common awareness of time, constructed by the surrounding built environment. Being confined inside a jail, while waiting for a trial, leads to a different experience than finding oneself in a prison space that is tied to a sentence, set post-trial. Not counting the days, carving out special moments to mark time, setting goals for oneself, reading body language, and acquiring skills, such as lip reading, become defense mechanisms to environments that seek to suppress the senses. Environments that extend beyond the walls of confinement, haunting individuals as shadow-spaces of trauma.

Is a future, free of such spaces of trauma, conceivable? Architect Annie Kountz and designer Tamara Jamil from MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) Design Group discussed this question in their illuminating presentation. Tracing the violent history of mass incarceration, they showed that this phenomenon is rooted in the history of slavery, linked through a persisting ideology of human caging and a racially oppressive construct of ideas. They, then imagined a prison-free future and presented possible ways of ending spaces of in-carceration by designing for de-carceration. The audience followed plans of reconceived, communal-based settings. Spaces appeared that stressed human interrelatedness rather than broken relations and isolation. By insisting that architecture was never neutral, the speakers sketched out plans, such as the recasting of a traditional court layout as an environment that put notions of oneness at the fore and decentralized power. A jail setting appeared in new light through the inclusion of community infrastructure. Rather than replacing a prison space with another space of confinement, innovative and imaginative architectural projects, like the conception of a healing justice retreat center, could contribute to the reimagining of societies that moved beyond mass incarceration.

A further way of recasting and breaking with spaces of confinement arose with the conference’s second panel session. In a conversation moderated by Miriam Taylor, PhD student at Tulane University, Syrita Steib, director of Operation Restoration, Dolfinette Martin, Operation Restoration’s housing director, and artist Anastasia Pelias, shared the curation process of Per (Sister): Incarcerated Women. In this exhibition, which opened at the Newcomb Art Museum in 2019 and which is now travelling across the country, thirty formerly incarcerated women were partnered with thirty artists, as well as community organizations, stakeholders, and those directly impacted by the prison system to share the stories of currently and formerly incarcerated women in Louisiana. Syrita Steib and Dolfinette Martin shared their stories of persistence and experiences of confinement in interviews that resounded through the exhibition space and allowed artists to create works reflecting that experience of pain, resilience, and power. To defy the spatial strategies of prison spaces – settings of “re-trauma” in the words of Dolfinette Martin – curtains replaced walls. The exhibition incorporated an interactive sensory room that broke with architectures of confinement in their aims of suppressing emotions and senses. Formerly incarcerated women acted within and through space to own their individual stories.

Individual stories continued to arise in the contributions of historians Wendy Warren, associate professor at Princeton University, and Sowande’ Mustakeem, associate professor at Washington University. Mustakeem saw the lives of three women, incarcerated in nineteenth-century Missouri, as windows into the worlds of confinement. These individuals became the object of wide media coverage, shocked, and were part of a public memory that sought to manage the unruly. Shedding light on carceral spaces that detonated networks of power, making and unmaking people and their everyday lives, Mustakeem traced the trajectories of three women, “three interlinked shadows of death,” in her words. Individual voices were heard in Warren’s presentation, Building the Colonial Prison. Her reading of letters sent by families on behalf of women and girls, accused in the 1692-Salem-Witchcraft trials shed light on spatial aspects in colonial times. While materials, sites, and individual circumstances varied, the prison appeared as a constant across colonial, regional variances. Warren countered considerations of today’s prison as being separated from premodern spaces of confinement and highlighted the continuing throughlines in the history of the prison. Its persisting strangeness took shape in the seemingly distant voices of families and their condemnations of the witch trials of the seventeenth century.

As the conference pressured chronological boundaries, the interrelated nature of the architecture of confinement also became apparent through a rupture between the inside and outside of confinement. New-York-based architect Ibrahim Greenidge’s presentation “Home – Spatial Experiences of Confinement” drew out the ways in which spatial strategies of confinement act both inside and outside prisons and jails. The audience followed the materialization of exclusionary-built environment and their functioning as modes of control across places, like New York, Detroit, and South Africa. Greenidge pointed to passive, discriminatory strategies that could materialize in the use of algorithms in mortgage applications as part of government redlining policies. These denied applicants the possibility of building a home, when the neighborhoods, often constituted of racial and ethnic minorities, they resided in, were classified as hazardous to investment. Stressing the varied nature of confinement, Greenidge went on to trace individual mechanisms that contributed to spatial segregation, referring to the example of the post-WWII constructed Levittown. Active forms of excluding groups in their everyday lives, extending from the emplacement of fences or buffers to relocation, emerged, as Greenidge shared images of avenues and expressways separating two communities, canals that were purposefully left without a bridge to deny crossing, or roads that were cut off in the middle. Rural landscapes, urban settings, suburb towns, built environments manifest and perpetuate strategies of exclusion and confinement.

Andrea Armstrong, professor of law at Loyola University, continued to break with dichotomies in her presentation on healthcare and deaths in carceral spaces. Making the invisible visible, Armstrong shed light on prison and jail spaces. She shared reports that showed the lack of healthcare provisions within these hidden settings of confinement. Viewers could follow images that Andrea Armstrong took within carceral settings in Louisiana during her work on, a database and website that tracks death inside jails and prisons. Healthcare is mostly delivered to cell sites and not in specialized medical spaces. Making conditions of healthcare visible across Louisiana’s correctional facilities, her research showed that within these architectures of confinement, illness remained the leading cause of death. As access, delivery, and administration of health care are insufficient, care is particularly lacking within solitary confinement and isolation cells, seemingly the most surveilled spaces, yet marking the highest number of suicides.

In the subsequent session on care, Anna Arabindan-Kesson, assistant professor at Princeton University, and Princeton-University PhD candidate Jessica Womack presented their work on Art Hx, a digital platform of object-based narratives on medicine, art, race, and their ties in the British Empire. Their presentation visualized the architecture of confinement in yet another way. How have histories of colonialism sustained medicine? In what ways did medicine and race shape colonial expansion? How was the access to care for some predicated on the inaccessibility for others? How was difference articulated? The strong ties between medicine, colonialism, and Empire took shape in Arabindan-Kesson’s and Womack’s presentation, as they showed how forms of medical care were used to discipline and manage in the colonial conquest: conquered landscapes would be transformed to care for Europeans’ health in their expansion of empires. The project of colonialism relied on the exploitation of certain groups. This reliance emerged, for example, from their discussion of a 1787-etching by the British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson that showed well-dressed British elites receiving new sets of teeth after these had been extracted from poor children. In evoking such questions, their presentation drew out the ways in which the historical archive becomes itself an architecture of confinement. Art Hx breaks common lines of confinement by reading anew objects that reveal the deeply flawed practices of care in colonial settings. Rethinking ethics and methodology, this collaborative project recasts the archive and maps connections between different stories.

A retracing of connections across places and spaces marked the conference’s closing session. Heather Ann Thompson, professor of history at the University of Michigan, underlined the persistence of the past. “Why are we still here”, Thompson asked in her discussion of the age of carceral crisis. Referring to her Pulitzer-prize winning Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, Thompson questioned the persisting spatial logics and conditions of spaces of confinement. Demands made by the Attica Brothers fifty years ago for the end of solitary confinement, for the elimination of unfair labor conditions, or for the improvement of health care, remain unheard. Practices of punishment are interrelated with place and space. Concrete conditions within carceral settings are unchanged or have worsened.

The themes of site, time, care, and the individual, were not confined to individual sections but represented across all of them. Rather than offering a reductive definition of “the architecture of confinement,” each session broke with confining lines of demarcation. Comprising spaces, places, archives, language, the built environment, landscape strategies, the architecture of confinement and its far-reaching and changing contours took shape in the conference. The following day, presenters and invited guests continued their dialogue on this diversity during an interactive workshop. Princeton-University PhD candidates Spencer Weinreich on the history of solitary confinement, Jeremy Lee Wolin on the immigration station Angel Island, and myself on the reintegration of formerly incarcerated adolescents, began the workshop with lighting talks. Amy Mielke and Kurtis Tanaka opened another perspective on spaces of confinement by presenting their project, co-led by Ennead Lab and Ithaka S+R, on the rethinking of educational spaces in prisons.

This conference brought perspectives from history, law, architecture, design, and the lived experience of individuals into one space. Crossing disciplinary boundaries, this dialogue showed the wide nature of the architecture of confinement. As different kinds of architecture have taken shape throughout history, these built environments have always relied on a construct of ideas. Spaces of confinement have materialized ideas and ideologies of individuals and collectives. The architecture of confinement was and is never neutral, ever tied to the history of ideas, as this conference’s cross-disciplinary exchange drew out. This emerging platform shall continue to open new perspectives on the effects and features of the architecture of confinement. We hope to undertake new projects, like the organization of an association, annual conference meetings incorporating themes, such as family, geography, food, and immigration, and building digital platforms to foster further communication. As the conference sessions and the workshop discussions promised, the dialogue between formerly incarcerated people, designers, architects, artists, and scholars will last. A gathering of voices that breaks with the structural strategies of the architecture of confinement and its confining spaces.  

Victoria Bergbauer is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. Her dissertation traces the fate of incarcerated adolescent boys and girls and their life beyond prison in nineteenth-century Europe. Studying French and European history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, her interests focus on the relationship between disease, criminality, and architecture. In April 2022, Victoria co-organized the Architecture of Confinement Conference alongside Professor Basile Baudez that hosted survivors, activists, scholars, architects, designers, and artists at Princeton University.

Edited by Nick Barone

Featured Image: Princeton University, Architecture of Confinement poster.