New & Noteworthy

April 27, 2009

The Conquest on Trial: Carvajal’s Complaint of the Indians in the Court of Death by Carlos A. Jáuregui, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008, 144 pp., $22 (paperback)

A group of converted Indians and their chiefs, having traveled from the New World to Europe, appear before a tribunal over which Death presides. As they recount the horrors they have suffered at the hands of the conquistadors and colonizers, they petition the court to either strip the evildoers of their power or let Death end their lives and relieve them of their misery. Instead, they receive only platitudes from Death and a trio of New World evangelical saints: Have faith in divine justice, they are told. Keep working and trust in God. Justice is shunted off to the afterlife, and by the play’s end, Satan, Flesh, and World have all pointed out, with cynicism and even wit, that self-interested, rather than evangelical, motives underpin the conquest.

Published in 1557, this play by Michael de Carvajal is the first known published Spanish play about the conquest of America. With its allegorical treatment of the rise, cruelty, and justifications of the Spanish empire, the divine right to annihilate the Indians, the exploitation of native labor, and the right to resist, the work reflected and encapsulated the crucial debates of its day. This first English translation, accompanied by a thorough introduction, offers a rare and important new perspective on the Spanish conquest.

Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas by Zita Nunes, University of Minnesota Press, 2008, 218 pp., $22.50 (paperback)

In assimilation there will be blood, and the metaphor par excellence for both colonial encounters and constructing the idealized nation has been cannibalism, according to literary historian Zita Nunes. From Brazilian modernism to the first contact between the Tupinambá and the Portuguese, from Mário de Andrade’s trickster figure of Macunaíma to Freud’s description of the oral stage of psychosexual development, Nunes considers what’s left when the racial other remains only as residue of disavowed Africanness and indigeneity.

After all, cannibalism, both real and symbolic, is only made visible by the bones left unconsumed. Exploring the complex interactions among Caribbean, North American, and South American writers and artists, including Andrade, Gilberto Freyre, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Gilroy, and Toni Morrison, along with black press journalists across the Atlantic and visual artists like Magdalena Campos-Pons, the author tracks the metaphor through discussions about race and democracy at the beginning and end of the 20th century. In a provocative chapter on the New Negro’s South American turn, she argues that transnational black liberatory projects depended on each others’ racial misrepresentations as much as on their commonalities, ultimately suggesting a future in which complete identification or understanding is neither expected nor required.

Twenty Theses on Politics by Enrique Dussel, Duke University Press, 2008, 162 pp., $19.95 (paperback)

This is a distillation of three volumes of recent work by arguably Latin America’s best-known living philosopher. The book draws on a half-century of concern for the philosophy and ethics of liberation that has produced some of the most important critical engagements with Marx’s political economy in the last quarter of the 20th century. Inspired by the rise of new social movements and leaders in Latin America, Dussel attempts nothing less than to construct a planetary basis for just and sustainable political systems—a new theory for the complete renewal of the left that the region’s “political spring” demands.

For Dussel, ethics is grounded in survival; at its root lies a simple concern with the solicitude and respect that our relations to others and ourselves require. Ambitious in both scope and concision, and aimed at young readers (or “those who need to understand that the noble vocation of politics is a thrilling patriotic and collective task,” as the author puts it; his emphasis), these 20 succinct theses take on the purpose of politics and the fetishization of power, the liberation praxis of movements, reform and revolution—while engaging with political projects like the World Social Forum, ultimately developing a moral and political foundation contrary to that of neoliberal globalization.


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