Workshop: Archives and Animalicity
Zeb Tortorici, NYU
Centering on an anonymously penned eighteenth-century archival document found in Mexico’s national historical archive—the Discurso Filosofico Sobre el Lenguage de los Animales (“Philosophical Discourse on the Language of Animals”)—this talk traces my increasingly complex encounters with animals in the historical archives of the Spanish empire, from the early sixteenth century until the early nineteenth. By focusing on my own struggles to historically and theoretically contextualize this particularly quixotic document, I discuss the ways in which animal meaning is produced through archival practices. The Discurso Filosofico, which broaches the topics of animal sentience, language, communication, and souls, forces scholars to reconsider the disjuncture between textual representations of animals and real animals that lived in the past.
Building on anthropologist Neil L. Whitehead's recent definition of historicity as “the investigation of cultural schema and subjective attitudes that make the past meaningful," here I put forth the term animalicity as a productive category through which to think about the cultural schema and subjective attitudes that make the animal meaningful in the past. Animalicity, as I take it, encompasses a methodology of how the animal may be written or otherwise expressed in historical documentation, while simultaneously pointing to the disjunctive space between textual representations of animals, archival narratives about animals, and the once living sentient animals of the past. I argue that in order to more meaningfully "center animals" in the past, we need not only to search for physical and textual traces of animals in archives, but also to expand our notion of the archive as a complex zoopolitical space—a space where animal meaning is produced, where animalicity abounds, and where the specter of the animal haunts historical documentation.
Animals, Human Reproduction, and Shape-Shifting Sorcery in Colonial Guatemala
Martha Few, University of Arizona
In colonial Guatemala, sources describing magical violence and malevolent witchcraft in community conflicts portrayed exceptional women and men as having the power to shape-shift-- to transform their own bodies into animals and natural objects. This has been called nagualismo in the ethnohistorical literature, and though local variations have been noted, shape-changing ability has generally been attributed to the most successful and feared ritual specialists. This essay continues to explore the issue of shape-shifting as an example of Mesoamerican ritual power during the colonial period, but I expand my historical investigations to consider depictions of the shape shifter's ability to both cross and manipulate human-animal boundaries, and how these transformations played out in cultural understandings of animals in relation to human reproduction and fetal development. The essay analyzes a series of case studies where ritual specialists transformed their own bodies and the bodies of others, targeting sexual organs as sites for the physical display of their powers to disrupt human reproduction. I probe the issue of the permeability of human-animal boundaries further by analyzing sources that depict the fetus as shape-shifter, portrayed as capable of transformation during fetal development in utero within a continuum of human, animal, and hybrid human-animal. Together, these examples allow me to explore representations of flexible and unstable binaries of human/animal and male/female, as well as the fragility of the category of human, within historical understandings of shape-shifting and malevolent sorcery in colonial Mesoamerican ritual cultures. In this way I attempt to rethink the links between gendered ritual power and reproduction, and how these links provide clues to understanding the categories of human and animal as a continuum rather than as binary categories in colonial Mesoamerica.
About the Speakers
Zeb Tortorici is Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University. He received his Ph.D. in History from UCLA, and has published articles in Ethnohistory, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, History Compass, e-misférica, and has an article forthcoming in GLQ. He has chapters in the edited volumes Death and Dying in Colonial Spanish America and Queer Youth Cultures. With Martha Few, he recently co-edited Centering Animals in Latin American History (Duke University Press, 2013). With Daniel Marshall and Kevin Murphy, he is currently co-editing two special issues of Radical History Review on the topic of “queering archives,” and with Pete Sigal and Erika Robb Larkins, he is co-editing Ethnopornography: Sexuality, Colonialism, and Anthropological Knowing.
Martha Few is Associate Professor of colonial Latin American history at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is author of Women Who Live Evil Lives: Gender, Religion, and the Politics of Power in Colonial Guatemala (2002) and, with Zeb Tortorici, Centering Animals in Latin American History (2013). Prof. Few has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and has held research fellowships at the Newberry Library, the John Carter Brown Library, and the Huntington Library. She is currently finishing a new book, Signs of Life: Mesoamerican and Colonial Medicine in Enlightenment Guatemala.