New culture? The 16th century Radical Spanish Empire in the Indies
The Radical Spanish Empire explores in great archival detail the intense “democratic” social mobility triggered by the conquest. The category of “absolutism” as the antithesis of liberal modernity has rendered historiographically invisible the “participatory”, bottom-up, bitterly contested creation of all legal codes and categories (local, regional, and imperial) in colonial Spanish America. It has also blinded historians to the epistemological dynamism that shaped knowledge production, particularly in the sixteenth century. The concept of “liberal modernity” works as cluster of cognates, including among them “print culture,” “public sphere,” “Protestantism,” “Scientific Revolution,” “parliamentary democracy,” and “Enlightenment,” that render invisible other potential combinations and paths of historical transformation. Spanish America appears always as the inverted mirror image of these clusters.
The sixteenth-century Spanish Indies were characterized by intense degrees of technological and scientific innovation that transformed the global economy. This massive transformation, akin to an industrial-cum-scientific revolution in the highlands of Mexico and Peru, was not the result of new “modern” forms of sociability (the public sphere and printing press) but of traditional forms of bottom-up (even secretive and thus coded) justice paperwork and vertical communication with regional and imperial authorities, both lay and ecclesiastical.
Francesca Orsini, Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Colonial impact and local response?
This keynote lecture is generously supported by the Braj and Yamuna Kachru lecture series endowment fund, which honors Braj and Yamuna Kachru’s professional legacy, focusing on their areas of research including World Englishes, Language in South Asian Culture and Society, and Indian and South Asian Linguistics.
In comparative and world literature we are used to thinking of the movement across languages as always involving a spatial move and a crossing of boundaries (typically national ones), and of the relation between languages as strongly hierarchical. Moreover, literary histories tend to focus on literary innovations and only on one language and on what people wrote in that language, making what people also spoke, sang, read, or studied in other languages drop out of focus. Translingual traffic is considered only in terms of (formal) translation, missing the many other ways in which multilingualism shapes literary cultures. A located and multilingual approach, by contrast, explores the ways in which people and literature ordinarily operate across languages in the same multilingual location. It considers the hierarchies—but also the aesthetics and affective power—of languages and artistic forms, the meanings with which people endow them, and the world (or worlds) they imagine and to which they connect. It is a kind of comparative/world literature from the ground up, located and looking outwards for connections rather than making sweeping global or transnational gestures. The result is a different kind of literary history, which focuses on literary practices and multiple “communities of taste;” on the transmission of tastes and stories across languages and communities rather than the translation of texts; on genres that are locally significant; and on non-linear narratives of change that trace realignments and new configurations rather than drastic epistemic and aesthetic breaks.
In this lecture I revisit the narrative of “colonial impact and Indian response” that frames literary modernity Indian as engineered by colonial initiatives, a reaction to colonial action. According to this view, popular now as it was among nineteenth and early-twentieth critics, literary modernity happened (and could only happen) by imitating, translating, and assimilating metropolitan models, whether of lyric poetry or the novel. While historiography has come to a more gradual view of the colonial takeover and emphasises the dynamic role played by local groups and individuals who took advantage of the political vacuum in competition and collaboration with the increasingly powerful East India Company (EIC), literary historiography still narrates the turn from pre-colonial to colonial culture as a complete epistemic shift. According to systemic models of world literature (like Franco Moretti’s), colonialism entailed the cultural hegemony of English and the “stable subordination” in literary terms of India to the imperial centre. But how does a “located and multilingual” approach to literature practices and changes in the colonial period (1757-1947) shift such a narrative, which finds echoes in many other colonial contexts?
Francesca Orsini is Professor emerita of Hindi and South Asian Literature at SOAS, University of London, a Fellow of the British Academy, and the author of The Hindi Public Sphere (2002) and Print and Pleasure (2009). She is interested in literary multilingualism in the longue durée and has just finished a book on the multilingual literary history of North India, a research project (funded by the European Research Council) called Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies: for a new approach to world literature from the perspective of North India, the Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa, and an edited volume on Hinglish (with Ravikant). She co-edits with Debjani Ganguly the Cambridge Studies in World Literatures and Cultures, and is an editor of the Journal of World Literature.