Banality of Local / Global Knowledge in Convulsive London.

By Fernando Gómez Herrero,


Initial Quotes.

For history teaches us that Britain has a track record of underestimating Latin America and neglecting its opportunities. It is this neglect that the current British government is determined to address.

In the eighteenth century British politicians were enticed by the wealth and natural riches of the hemisphere, but were reluctant to weigh in on the side of independence. They saw the region as a piece on a geopolitical chessboard dominated by rivalry with France and Spain, rather than on its own merits.

For much of the twentieth century Latin America was considered to lie within a sphere of influence outside Britain’s traditional interests. It was thought to be predominantly a concern for the United States, and over the last twenty years there has been a steady decline in UK interest and representation (William Hague, “Britain and Latin America: Historic friends, Future Partners,” 9 Nov. 2010)[1].


[T]he situation of LAC [Latin American and Caribbean] studies in the UK should first be understood in the light of the development and situation of area studies generally. This is not least because the original purpose of LAC studies some 50 years ago was fully concomitant with the overall value and purpose of area studies… For the creation of a new subject, Latin American studies (the Caribbean was added much later) was clearly underpinned by the then government’s awareness of the lack of knowledge about the region, particularly at a time of political change, when it became the focus of world attention (2014 LAC Report, pp. 9).

Contrary to the fantasies of the flag-wavers and chest-beaters, Brexit was always going to put the little in Little England rather than the great in Great Britain. But nobody realised our influence would shrink quite this fast and leave us looking quite this small…

Conventional wisdom has now developed a new convention of its own: first it states the uncertain with great certainty, only to be proven wrong by events, and then it embarks upon a period of narrowly tailored and very public retraction. After acknowledging an error of prediction, there are no efforts to address the underlying logic that produced that error. Their contrition only lasts until their next mistake (Gary Younge, “A Shock to the System” (The Guardian, The Long Read Journal Section, pp. 33-35): p. 35.


During my lifetime most of the problems the world has faced have come, in one fashion or another, from mainland Europe, and the solutions from outside it. That generalization is clearly true of the Second World War. (…). But my opening generalization is also in a different sense true of the Cold War. (…) Europe as a whole is fundamentally unreformable (Margaret Thatcher, On Europe (London: William Collins, 2002): pp. 3-4.



Thinking must go on regardless of horrendous events of violence in the metropolis of London. I joined proceedings in what was to be the last event of the season hosted by the Institute of Latin American Studies, part of the School of Advanced Study, at the University of London: the so-called LAGLOBAL/LASS Roundtable Workshop[3], directed by Mark Thurner, U.S. Latinamericanist historian linked to the University of Florida with most of his work credited to the Peruvian context, at least until recently. The Leverhulme Trust was acknowledged in the handout literature. What follows is the rendition of key aspects of this one-day event on 2 June 2017. I follow Chatham House rules of engagement seeking maximum circulation of the intellectual, political and social issues exceeding any individual unit or monad, discipline, academe and institution. To be sure, the issues raised will echo outside London. I follow my own notes and the perspective is undoubtedly, mine. The first person pronoun refers to the author of these pages. It is one succinct account, one truth and one story among others, surely not the whole picture. May others be equally forthcoming with their own versions of things.


Will Brexit Britain Withdraw its Studies Upon Itself?

It is not obvious why any organism would externalise or outsource its critical intelligence, particularly in moments of supreme difficulty, except perhaps in relation to tighter budgets, minor interests and secondary or tertiary set of pressures. Wouldn’t sensible organisations or good-oiled institutions commit their best endeavours to the most pressing needs and pass accordingly to others tasks deemed of lesser value or compromised worth? And we must surely look closer into the logic of outsourcing and assume that institutions qua bureaucratic creatures hide by the fowler behind the stalking horse underneath clouds of mystery and secrecy, unanswered emails and unreturned phone calls. Institutions may say they care very much about doing one thing and turn to doing many other contradictory things before the cock calls for the new day. Nobody’s perfect, as in the happy ending of the funny American comedy: thought and care may be outsourced to outsiders and foreigners who thus come to dominate the social interaction inside ambitious realms officially devoted to the pursuit of knowledge. The K-word is here the operative word, perhaps utopian.


Be as it may: entire areas, big and small, will be consigned to third parties, outsiders or foreigners of various types, hues, accents, distinctions and gradations, provided these will behave properly and no big disruption ensues, no irreparable damage is done unto the cultural furniture, the upholstery is not messed around with, the china is not broken, and Ferdinand, the bull, turns to do what he is reported to like best, to smell the flowers, and enters and leaves peacefully, whilst the topiaries are seasonally tendered. What is there to object? Who would complain? Are exchanges not civil? Aren’t things in the proper place? Will native self-confidence falter with torn ligaments, sore joints, jumpy heart beats? Will homegrown resilience still caress the sterling in the purse, follow the oblique trajectories of global history, feel the weight of a sense of general decline in the stomach after the light sandwich and the tea, still follow the popular-electoral demand to delink from the Continent? What about the other continental units? How many are they?



The immediate circumstance, i.e. Brexit Britain, is one of profound disorientation, born out of repeated violence in the streets, of sustained austerity and sudden General-Election resulting in a hung parliament with a small conservative majority, fog, rain, and record-hot temperatures against the vast landscape of Europe and the ”U.S. and the Americas,” as the aforementioned Chatham House has it. The violent attacks have been endured, I must say, with admirable calmness and the “island race” remains a belligerent one, and with no irony, this is another feather on the cap. Yet, the question is not rhetorical: why should anyone pay good-quality attention to other regions of the world, “Latin America” for example[4], delivering no immediate impact or direct significance over here? Indeed, why look elsewhere?


Foreignness: Early Considerations.

Deictics do not lie. If those foreign regions are indeed “there:” why bother with them over here? Would you go mentally elsewhere when you feel your brain is busy, your wallet, tight, your feet furiously pedalling away in the bicycle high in the air? But whither? How on this earth plan a big adventure when Brexit negotiations beckon? How to ”go foreign” when the domestic or native dimension is so terse, tense? Foreignness is a potentially good abstract category (topos or “place”) to consider not only in relation to holidays, unaccustomed food and expensive luxury products, clothes for example, but also in relation to scholarly and academic matters typically not rendering good monetary value. It is not atypical for foreignness to assume a subaltern place under nativistic assumptions, particularly when things get complicated.



Foreign-native and global-local are two inescapable binaries in the context of this LAGLOBAL roundtable / workshop: the interesting thing will be to see concrete or situated articulations. One early dilemma for the inquisitive mind will be whether to keep the typical binaries going  nicely ventilated under the air-conditioner of hot-weather conditions, also in the insurgent isles, or throw all of these binaries away into the muddy waters of the Thames and make a mess out of them (a río revuelto, ganancia de pescadores, as the saying goes). Consider the conventional partition of the subject of knowledge and the object of the knowledge tangled up among various nationalities: there will be many other mixed stages. Orwellian truth: some (subjects / objects of knowledge) are more foreign than others. Some localities are closer than others. Some languages possess the middle deictic in between here and there (Spanish “ahí,” for example). Some “places” are more crowded than others (the rule of thumb: pre-20th-Century authors and texts emerging from foreign locations will be less immediate or popular). Call this unpopular condition “minor subject.”

A typical defensive move will be to commission the studies of foreign parts to native or quasi-native practitioners (scholars, academics), those who have learned to transverse bureaucratic textures and amiably pass security controls holding the right documents. How decisively? How consistently? And how usable would that knowledge be?: this is the initial triangle of questions surrounding the  “to be or not to be” of what it is that we think we mean when we say we know this or that, and (fail to) say we do not do so at all, and this “negative” point may instead turn out to be a good point of departure to start off to better things in the knowledge department. It is easy to see that xenophilic messages finding limitations or faults with the immediate circumstance will be harder to come by.


The place of knowledge was occupied in the gathering in question by the social sciences, particularly the disciplines of history and anthropology in this stated order of preference. As far as I could see there was at least one uninvited guest, perhaps an interloper following the stalker to the forbidden Zone, according to the inspiration of Tarkovskij, having a look at the (para-) institutional conditions of sociability apropos “minority subjects.” Nothing can be taken for granted. Good kick-off question: what does “knowledge” stand for?


And What Does ”Knowledge”  Stand For?

You may feel inclined to turn nationally inward, become somewhat introspective, yield to defensive localism or resistant parochialism, perhaps even give in to imperial melancholia, as Paul Gilroy insists. And how many nationalities have you got? And is nationality really the defining factor, the fundamental playground where intellectual life also happens?  This existential-retreat reaction is up to a point understandable in the British conjuncture. And the immediate question will be the future configuration of knowledge in relation to its past and present? How would the significant past be reconfigured since the past is always already retrospective reconstruction attending to the fads, fashions, pressures, themes and inclinations of the ephemeral present overshooting its mark into possibilities in the future.



To be persuasive, such retrospective task would require radical contextualization, i.e. the concrete demarcation of the immediate circumstance inside which knowledge producers will be situated. Typically, the intentions of these participants will be inferred. But individual intentionality will only take us so far. Collective forces will be the real dilemma and greatest difficulty. In truth, who would turn in public its back to knowledge, the sapere aude? Indeed, knowledge remained something mysterious in its nominal abstraction, something like a ghost or a cipher, with or without the occasional pluralization, the province of a sub-group, elite, caste, subalterns or pariahs, since it was hardly demarcated by chronology and only summarily regionalized, initially about and from Latin America.


Indeed, the Latin American construct, or Latin America elsewhere, since we rub our eyes and we are still in London, or “timespace other,” ideological or not, within the immediate entities of Britain, Europe and the United States inside North Atlantic flows and tensions already mentioned[5]. Mark the underlined prepositions (about, from): the dual prepositional coexistence has become something of a must delivering the issues of referentiality and perspectivism.


The knowledge of and from Latin America was something that came and went, evanescent and mutational, ethereal, abstract, exotic and other, at least during the proceedings in this workshop, more gossamer than elephant to shoot and kill with white man’s burden, if only according to George Orwell’s famous story and this time with no demonstrative gestures of identity politics, or “native informers” passing reliable information elsewhere. Latin America, irrenounceable grand manner of a colossal timespace, at least by those self-appointed Latin Americanists, was here not interrogated or not properly historicized, except in the New-World. Now, this was to be a curious renaissance of a very old nomenclature reaching us in the new century, almost in the manner of a pristine Venus from the waters of historiography, still attractive and unscathed by the disputations of an Antonello Gerbi and most damagingly by Mexican historiography, Edmundo O’Gorman surely occupying the honorary place of pre-eminence, vis-à-vis his European and U.S. counterparts. “New World” was probably intended as quaint euphemism for the Americas pointing fingers in the direction of the birth of the national formations as we know them today (i.e. the long nineteenth century). My inference: there was the inspiration of the work of Cañizares Esguerra dealing with the Enlightenment until early 20th century, say, also in the effort to mediate the “America” of the U.S. and the América of the Spanish speakers. I would narrow it down to the demarcation of the late-colonial and the post-national moment of the Andes in Latin America reaching contemporary historiographies according to professional historians. It was as though no single sub-regional part and parcel of Latin America could sustain the global interest for the length of time of a morning or afternoon session: the jump was to go from the (sub-)continent to the totality of the history of knowledge, or that giant, the world. Where were its stages in between, its mediations?


Knowledge is the Business at Hand and One Wants to be There at Source.

Other binaries can be brought near knowledge production in its typical envelope: official and non-official, institutional, para-institutional and non-institutional at all. Since we are dealing with processes, it is healthy to consider the latest form of knowledge against obsolete, antiquarian knowledge, even knowledge in ruins, for example inside museums. But there are also challenging processes jumping outside the limitations of the text, (de-)institutionalisations and destructive re-articulations not entirely always to be deplored.


Knowledge is the business at hand and one wants to be there at source, and get it from the horse’s mouth whenever possible, surely more often than not. Will the horse collaborate with us and always tell it straight? Probably not. It will be wise to assume a sociology of bureaucratic dealings apropos knowledge production, the general map of the regions of the world being no exception. The template of “Area Studies” must be summoned as condition sine qua non, particularly in fields of the social sciences. The emphasis was not to make the politics of knowledge production  explicit. But no one doubts that it is “there,” hardly ever coming out into the open, making itself visible and explicit, at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, surrounded by other entities such as Canning House, Chatham House and The Leverhulme Trust among others.


I realize that abstract formulations will be unsatisfactory but this is as far as I will be able to go for now in pointing fingers in the direction of politics of knowledge production. Knowledge may stand for officialdom or at least one of its modalities, perhaps even receiving the adjective “imperial” historically speaking in relation to knowledge practices with a global outreach, that travel and go many places. The meeting offered the suggestion of the encyclopedic and the “imperial” impetus in lexicons put together by John Boag and John Ogilvie, for example, and there will be correlatives in other languages. One can seek into associations and varieties of knowledge practices (knowledge, science, wisdom, wit, saber, sabiduría, conocimiento, ingenio, etc.). Who would be against it, right? Knowledge, but also History, enters the arena surrounded by its brass instruments, against its multiple claims, stories or narratives, and the hesitation happens immediately whether to capitalize or not these grand and venerable nouns, whilst fishing “the humanities” by the tail versus totality or Humanity. But the name in the previous quotation marks is largely odd, quaint and non-idiomatic, of philological pedigree, yet of a different kind to the one mentioned during this one-day gathering, and by its thin presence, unexceptionally negative, negligible field of quasi or non-knowledge also inside the School and University of the immediate metropolis. The humanities will still be making claims for the good thing, i.e. knowledge and one wonders what these foreshortened perspectives will render of significant value. Its predominant modality of being appears to be one of cultural-diversity stance.


Other modalities, non-governmental knowledge and non-statist science, not to mention knowledge that is not for profit, will have to be imagined like the outgrowth of vegetation inside controlled spaces, perhaps not worthy of a second look, a matter of negligible detail, or of personal idiosyncrasy that may refuse to yield to pragmatism. And what to say about practices not blessed with the institutional blessing? The main tune is hesitant, revealing uncertainty in the dance of the disciplines and not only in Great Britain. Brexit exacerbates a certain British moment of global uncertainty apropos the crisis of the university directly caught up in the transatlantic American-European axis. LAGLOBAL (LA stands for Latin America), is the final pick in the conventional binary (global / local): clear sign of the stronger push-and-pull and gravitational direction in case you had any doubts.


The Recurrent Global / Local Binary in the ”Indigenous”  Vicinity.

One fundamental theme: the binary of the global and the local left unresolved in the vicinity of the “indigenous” dimension raising more scepticism than enthusiasm, also left unresolved. And I suppose that short-term gatherings are all about spin-doctor irresolutions or soft lines or borders. This general theme configured the second half of the day. The first half was meant to bring attention to the history of knowledge, called a “new field” of inquiry. So this was a kind of a quinceañera meeting, if not celebration, in relation to one timespace, chronotope or more conventionally “region” called Latin America, albeit blurred in the abbreviated “LA” acronym, which is not Los Angeles, gravitationally pushing and pulling in the “indigenous” direction. The abbreviated LAGLOBAL is perhaps telling of organizational intentionality, a kind of plus-ultra regionalism hitting all other regions, but not quite. No knowledge and no history without its interrogation or critique: the question will be whether the critique will always aim to provide fuel to the operational “pragmatism” of the endeavour in question or not at all. How far in the critique then? And this is a general dilemma. Here, it did not go too far. Peter Burke became the initial name of reference, presented as a kind of lighthouse in these disorienting times, sitting at arms’ length, advocating the new field with impeccable British moderation and fair play.


The proper move is still, how could it not?, to pluralize ipso facto the main nouns involved: critiques or interrogations of the theories or comprehensions of plurality of knowledge or knowledges. One and many, identity and difference, Same and Other: here we are in the abstract tangle of more binary formulations in the age of fragmentation of narratives. The workshop did not quite put its finger on such fragmentation or even collapse.

With or without great conviction, the suggested horizon to contemplate was one of a big reunion of knowledges, a big, virtual Encyclopedia, a Summa Theologica of sorts, knowledges coming to settle together so to speak, leaving their silos (the word was explicitly mentioned more than once), criss-crossing roots and routes, overlapping trajectories, happily jumping fences, intersecting, collaborating, blending, more fusion than fission here. The abstraction to contemplate was one of academic units willing to leave their disciplinary micro-groups behind into the wilderness of ecumenic association (we will see shortly the small letters to these big capitals!). Abstract content of university brochures will give you the same general feeling of knowledge affirmation. Inter- or trans-disciplinarity is what was implied, yet the focus on the disciplines of history and anthropology was retained in this London gathering.


It is easy to see how managers of institutions with a finger on the budget would eagerly jump on all sorts of collaborations in theory left under-verbalized. Better one chair with a few additions and aggregates than separate labels and fields kept separate and distinct. Better a cheaper buffet option than each one with a fully served plate! Better sharing the same plate with one serving than multiple servings by each disciplinary field! The implied suggestion was of plural narrative possibilities, or histories. Better yet, the ghost of a historicism of sorts was summoned, a presentiment rather, almost Hamlet like vis-à-vis an unnamed father figure, who would put global things together, at least for the one-day duration of the workshop, call it short-term happiness, confluence, or “peace resolution” if you wish. But since there was no assigned social group carrying out the together-endeavour in no institution or locality, no working class carrying out the revolution of global liberation say, such “resolution” has to be called by the proper name of utopia. The implied subject position was, I suppose, occupied by historians and to a lesser degree by anthropologists of Latin America, by default occupying the Anglo-American sphere of transatlantic influence.


Such endeavour was begging for a good ideological name that could transcend, crazy idea, the precincts of this or that discipline practiced by few official representatives. But there was never an explicit frame. No chosen Pretorian guard of big-tent pan-disciplinary narrativity being brought to bear arms against other lesser barbarous modalities kept at a distance. I personally thought of the aforementioned “barbaric” humanities particularly in a language different from the one used in this piece of writing. I wonder if I was the only one with such incongruous and excessive thought. No account was to be had among competing options for schools of thought, narrative impulse, political goal, etc. either in the past and the fleeting present. LAGLOBAL delivered an implicit and latent desire for a new historicism, surely not near literary and cultural modalities[6].


When plagued by doubts, the little cherub flying around your eyes will whisper “be polite, particularly in these fast-passing circumstances.” Call it the liberal gesture: the contemplation of plurality of options, and leave the community of readers and interpreters at their wits’ ends, with a do-it-yourself of your own devices. It will be your own maps favourite authors and best bibliography, your own madness and method, your own conclusions, should you wish to reach any, but not so publicly. This is what was done and this is what we all do in transient places, hubs of public transport for instance. The implied ideology of the roundtable was thus in this sense “liberal,” not advancing a sustained narrative, not making preferences, name-dropping a bit, throwing high in the air gossamer-like possibilities whilst keeping repudiations warm under wraps, beyond sight and reach of ear, hidden under the table. Blow it up: such proceeding is quitessentially managerial, a bit like the U.N. against the larger background of the ”liberal West” and the rest. It makes an awful lot of sense within the matrix of development the focus on the indigenous (or non-West) subject position. No one I could see or hear would willingly assume such position at the discussion table of this workshop. And the name of the broker, or at least one of them, Marisol de la Cadena in relation to the Andes. Mediations were not established. Bridges were not built. Yet in another manner of speaking, our moment is one of fractures within this hitherto dominant West, the British context currently one of its most visible sites. Well, here, the construct of Latin America was presented as timespace other, peculiar in-between creature, tug-of-war, minority field of study to be sure, captured by the disciplines of history and anthropology, as well as others, the region that will engage the native-foreign dichotomy in myriad ways. The assumption was one of attention, perhaps assuming the qualifying of benign, to the detail of insubstantial generalities. No body of literature, no textual frame of intelligibility was circumscribed or made accessible, explicit.



The Anthropological Frame of Intelligibility of the Other of Europe: Typically Xenophobic.  

I would therefore generalise by saying that the common frame of intelligibility of this vast timespace synthesized under the rubric of the Other of Europe (Latin America being one sub-section of this vast Other) turned out to be anthropologically Eurocentric, if only by default. The operative invitation to a working assumption was that of the gigantic history of the discipline and where else if not within the rarefied label of the West. Against the generality that such Other than Europe is not uncommonly xenophobic rather than xenophilic, the roundtable would have begged to differ in the latter road less travelled, and would have surely made declarations on the goodness of the relative unconventionality typically situated in such minority fields. But no one has to assume good deeds at face value given there was no textual evidence or warm sociability of scholarly openness. It is by no means obvious what goodness to invoke for such minor-field endeavours: more plurality of cultural-diversity? The reconfiguration of the dominant model ever so slightly? Who would dare welcome the turning upside down of what is declared to be orthodoxy or the norm? We will soon see the momentous claim made.

We are Really Dealing with Foreign Studies.

But we are dealing with foreign studies, or studies of the foreign parts within, if not against the subjacent, implied matrix, call it by the opposing nativism. Neutrality or indifference , or even value-free, I suppose, is possible in relation to dimensions largely considered inconsequential and trivial. The possibility of xenophilia will have to handle to the best of its knowledge the typical declarations of nativism, i.e. xenophobia. One may remember the formulation of the “wound” of the Other coming from existential historicism simply for the mere fact of stubbornly sticking to their ways and refusing to be like us, the observing subject position coincidental with discursive production. Such unavoidable tension brings “home” the web of relations among subject positions, the assumed traditions and dependencies and future interests. These foreign studies have increasingly had to assume the carta de naturaleza of cultural relativity under the presumption of equal worth as long as their practice does not disrupt the pre-established arrangement. Such polite convention is also compensation for unequal representation and dim visibility in the study of the dimension abbreviated as “Other.” One equivalent can indeed be “indigenous” to a more liberal-cosmopolitan “Same” or even “West.” A second generalisation may add the split between “Anglos” and “Latins:” the former would not typically put the said construct of Latin America inside the West, whilst defending the bicontinentality of “America,” adding naturalising or identifying the sign with one of the nationalities of North America, and the astute reader instantly knows which one; whereas ”Latins”  would insert Latin America ever so naturally in the West, not without tensions, and wish to put together North and South in the same continental unit, whilst precisely demarcating such domineering nationality, unless they are already lost in the conventionally imperial and imperious English language with no significant epistemic trace of other languages and cultures. It is to the credit of the roundtable that such drastic split was blurred.


The reader of these pages will pick their side inside this split which cannot be reconciled. The “modern foreign languages” in English-speaking countries follow identical othering anthropological frame of intelligibility vis-à-vis “English.” The Anglo-Latin difference is worth underlining: only very absent-minded Spanish speakers will call U.S. Citizens “Americans,” unlike conventional English speakers on both sides of the Atlantic and efforts such as “the Americas” remain something of an academic affectation failing to give a good shake to the institutional imagination (the immediate history of the Advanced Studies at the University of London being a case in point). Hence, the renaissance of the “New World” makes some sense if you hear the term with conventional English ears and you remain blind and deaf to the strength of Mexican historiography since the middle of last century (and there will be other contesting lines of demarcation I am less familiar with within the Latin American domain). Spatio-temporal demarcations are not to be taken for granted. Neither are resilient misnomers and the typical conditioning of the plural languages versus the lingua franca used in these pages.


Latin America Elsewhere: Perhaps Better Call it “Minority Subject.”

 The anthropological and historical object of knowledge of Latin America is one side of the expression ”minority subject.”  The other side refers to the individuals, the people, engaged in such endeavours of studying such themes and issues and/or the social groups or people theoretically covered, explained or represented in them. This minority-subject condition is, I would argue, particularly the case outside the timespace conventionally demarcated as “Latin America,” or Latin America elsewhere. We may imagine the use of instruments such as binoculars (or a believable second language) covering long distances away from the immediate circumstance, thus relativizing its total importance (the realm of the digital culture may bring timespace distances into question perhaps narrowing them in novel ways). Foreign-Area Studies will cover what is not immediately or easily available. Good reasons are needed for the sustained extra stretch or push in this expansive direction.   Adding some poignancy, bells are tolling (John Donne dixit) for the deliberate Brexit demarcation from its natural European interconnectedness. Will such shift augur greater connectedness with other big units, Latin America for example? Perhaps.



But the linguistic function of referentiality may indeed go in many directions, and it will find reverberations or echoes in other timespaces, the so-called butterfly effect in which the said delicate insect flies around beautiful flowers over here only to become a minor nuisance a bit further away and perhaps a natural disaster, a tornado, a hurricane over there. The academic interest may turn political, bring commotion and even spread unto the streets. Such desire to connect directly was nowhere to be seen in the workshop in question as though academic and political were on two different planes of reality. The global / local dichotomy is really about webs of relations and who gets to circulate in diverse social circles and who does not at all. The issue of referentiality is potentially multi-directional and only operative in relation to that demarcation over there. What about the provenance of the knowledge production? What about the source, the frames of legitimacy, intelligibility?


The productive image is that of a gun carried by any user, even a careless child. The shot can go in many directions. Studies of foreign regions (aka Area Studies) will claim to reveal many things about the timespace over there, but in equal measure it will speak volumes of many things over here. Crucially, there is no need to go with the assumption that there is immediate or direct correlation between the scholar subjects and the subjects studied, no matter the representational claims typically made along the way (in a quick manner of speaking, it is believable to contemplate a U.S. national speaking of old Iberian constructions of Andean subjects in the British context under the rubric of the history of knowledge). It is easy to foresee revolts embedded in unequal conditions of knowledge production inside institutions of higher learning the moment you tinker with the previous adjectives (it is less believable to contemplate an Andean national speaking of old and new constructions of U.S. subjects in the “American” context invoking the rubric of the history of knowledge). Some of these tensions were perceptible during the roundtable, how could they not?, whilst keeping politeness tied to the tail of the dog and the dog tied to the legs of the discussion table.



I was lucky to be surrounded by about twenty-odd colleagues in various configurations of public-private access, yet another binary that will not go away by the end of this piece. There were a couple of absences of the listed names among which the British natives were in the minority. Those present self-assigned themselves largely into the disciplines of history and anthropology. I doubt most individuals knew each other before the meeting. Their self-presentations were brief and professionally based for the most part. There had been no preambles and I doubt there was a common frame of textuality or even mission. We were mostly members of the European West, mostly white non-British, four or five U.S. citizens, no discernible difference either way in quantity of men and women, different ages and most capable of holding conversation in English and Spanish, some also in French, with the ”Latin” contingent (not the old language of the Romans, and also not the U.S. citizens or residents of Latin American extraction) forever young and firmly in the irregular and junior levels in the academic profession. I think I detected one squatter in the congregation, perhaps two. I do not know if there had been any hacking attempts. Will the roundtable prove to be long-lasting and decisive or entirely ephemeral? Will the organisation seek greater fraternity? LAGLOBAL was typical happenstance sociability in the world-famous Bloomsbury area of London.


History and anthropology were the disciplinary nouns of collective congregation, at least for some present, surely with awareness of its own different schools and subdivisions and possible overlaps, which were not made explicit. This social-science tandem, minus sociology, was the foreshortened disciplinary perspective, the little star in the sky-high constellation of the disciplines if you wish, making claims for the foregone conclusion of a grandiose synthesis surely to land in front of the eyes in the foreseeable future. Oasis by the University of London or purely fast and furious passing through this institution?



Yet, we can think of this synthesis in terms of any significant noun in the radical singular form, with or without the call for plurality of liberal options: all roads lead to Rome. We can perhaps make the connection between this God-like synthesis and the Freudian “oceanic feeling” of union with the Universe the Viennese thinker endeavoured to problematize as a form of immaturity or infantilism. And who would dare offer a big vision of the relations among the sciences (natural, social, human) in curricular offerings? But this was not the time and place for such monumental task. In relation to this concrete LAGLOBAL roundtable / workshop, inference of the comments exchanged takes me to the predominance of a ”history -of -ideas”  type of history, framed by the orthodoxy of the  comparative or cultural-relativistic type of anthropology in the vicinity of names such as Clifford and Geertz. There was the sprinkling of other names such as the French Levi Strauss and to a lesser degree, there was a deferential inclusion of the Mexican Manuel Gamio in relation to an organization of international impact. The spectre of Latin America that emerged here was not that of the Southern Cone, or the Mexican, or the Caribbean. It was the Andes, not exactly within an easy flight from London.


There was a Bit of “Othering” Going On.

 There was undoubtedly a bit of ”othering” going on, and perhaps we can think of the term in quotation marks as one public face of foreignness in which foreignness remains distant and far away with no immediate or direct impact in the immediacy. Latin America was “over there,” detached apparently from political events of significance, disinclined to do business transactions, largely “de-humanized.” Its content, thin. Its inevitability, theoretical.  It did not relate to its previous reincarnations. It was not entirely different Latin America or Latin America “otherwise.” No one should expect miracles from one-day roundtables failing to make explicit connections with agendas out there.

One super-big claim made was that “Latin America” may well constitute a desirable disruption to the matrix of intelligibility or history of knowledge. With some tweaking the Dusselian formulation may be warranted, but here? Such abstract or generic formulation invites to the valid assumption that we were dealing with the Eurocentrism of such history of knowledge (the conventional formula is that conventional “America” or the United States, is mere, late extension, offshoot, military-power and popular-culture version of capital accumulation, of the European West). I would have bet my money that we were in this ideological universe with or without its necessary restlessness. The sign “Latin America” showed teething troubles. It had no bite. The construct remained dangling by the skin of the teeth of discursive generality.

It is perhaps fair to say that the foreignness of these (Latin American) studies was not attenuated in the end, given the ties remained loose, the connections ever so discreet and even ephemeral, with any assumed “nativity” of persistent significance, be it England, Britain, Europe, the United States, this or that discipline or this or that “ground.” Interestingly, the U.S. remain in discreet second plane, yet ominous. Thin presence of the dominant English-speaking world and Britain throws the additional peculiarity of the official divide of “foreign and commonwealth,” the latter term referring to (closer, directly post-colonial and immigrant) parts of the historical British Empire; Latin America is thus foreign in this precise British way outside its direct area of purchase of imperial history.


The message passed to us was that Latin America was indeed fertile terrain for the anthropological type of knowledge, the typical knowledge about the “Third World” historically inherited division of intellectual labour vigorously since World War II, hegemonic things turning “American” since the 1950s[7]. Third world or more euphemistically, the developing world, that is where we were quickly perambulating imaginatively with or without the Latinization of the region born again as the new world. Truism: no single name will ever be good, trans-political name to everyone’s liking among those involved in (the politics of) knowledge production. Names and areas of coverage and partition will remain contentious. Misnomers abound: the sign “Latin America” for sure, ”Europe” was also talked about as being problematic. The “United States” was the white elephant in the room, how could it not?, and not only in relation to the nationality of a few participants. Yet this “America” entity was mostly missing in action as source of funding or part of the network of the LAGLOBAL initiative run by an American scholar with the main institutional site still listed at the University of Florida. How representative was this diasporic “American” Latin Americanism jumping up to catch the twigs of the global history of knowledge? I cannot possibly say but the U.S.-centric pull of world coverage is beyond doubt. Is this also the case for the world of university-level studies? And perhaps we are all adjusting at least in the transatlantic West to a transitional period of “American” retreat and gradual decline, which does not augur well for the “special relationship” with Brexit Britain.


Whose Protestations about Divisions Of Intellectual / Academic Labour?

The roundtable workshop offered few noticeable protestations pro or con. The general tone remained matter or fact, ever so tentative and discreet, polite and calm about general unequal access of knowledge production inside the division of social scientific labour in our immediate present. We were furnished with no map. We were tendered no cartographies or bibliographic corpus. There were no signs to no roads. There was no Rome to reach, no Cuzco, no Tenochtitlán. With no common origin and no teleology: where to go and what to do about it passing fast and furious through the institutions. It was as though the “stealing” of the “modernity” of these (foreign area) studies by the “Americans,” one among many, and some tongue-in-cheek is appropriate, since we were all operating in the lingua franca, did not exclude tact and tacit agreement by the guests playing nice to the hosts.


I missed something along the lines of a Pletschian rendering of the division of labour in the conjuncture. It was not to be had. I also missed something along the lines of Wallersteinian sociology of the reconfiguring of the social sciences. I wish I had had greater definition of what constitutes the good history as opposed to less good varieties. No attempt at periodising the possible histories of knowledges was forthcoming, except the referenced Peter Burke, one of his books cited in the preamble: beginnings matter. Who else will be around the birth of this “not yet field”?

I suppose this LAGLOBAL roundtable workshop would be happy to throw its weight around a new variety of the historical discipline and pick it up among other labels and subfields (global history, history of ideas, intellectual history, international thought, stepping ahead of what used to be called imperial or commonwealth history, international history, world history, social history, etc.). “Latin America” still has to contend with the default position, typically assumed, implicit or dominant, historically central or dominant, call it Europe if you wish, but there are other categories (the West, the English language, the “white” ethno-racial category, operative in the U.S., and the U.K., etc.). Pace the alliteration: how discordant, dissonant, indeed dissident did the workshop prove to be?



The Study of the Past May Register Discontent with the Present.

A promising expression of discontent was made in passing: the study of the past means, at least potentially to some, the discontent with the present in so far as the past is a world different and alternative to our present means and ways. The past is the Other, potentially disruptive force, besides evasion, nostalgia or antiquarian disposition. But here the wish was clear: the past is indeed foreign country in the famous expression of L. P. Hartley. The past is not even past yet, with the twist of the great writer Faulkner, in its destabilizing kernel, I suppose, comparatively speaking with our immediacy.

 The articulation of this disruptive potential of the construction of the past was left tantalizingly underdeveloped, stimulating the appetite. Its abstraction, also its ghost of the subject position following no discernible interpellation in the Althusserian sense of the term, does not take anything away from the grand possibility of the upset of the here-and-now that is negatively accordingly not the best of all possible worlds, not utopian at all, but paltry, niggardly, wanting. With no faces, names, geographies, it is impossible to say for certain how to take this provocation: the other timespace, the time and place other, will perhaps deliver things you have not yet imagined. Is this “other” compensatory function responding to our miseries and allowing us to cope better with our (un-)acknowledged failures? Is “Latin America” the continental sign of condemnation of the insufficiencies of other timespaces (Europe, the U.S., etc.)? Is such insinuation of a construct of an alternative world instead entirely delusory, desultory sign of weakness to look at reality in the face and change it, feeble coping mechanism, perhaps privatized mirage and angelic sublimation? Apolitical heaven of earthly delights? Projection of sunny sky under unpredictable weather? Externality of sorry interiority? Escapism? There will be many possibilities.


The part re-arranges the whole picture: LAGLOBAL wanted to push in the direction of this provocation. The engagement with the region in question will re-arrange the totality. This reconstruction of the past will find fault in the present and change it for the better in the near future. The workshop perhaps attempted to propose a possibility of liberation that did not dare speak its name making its way as anyone would cheerfully do caught up in throngs of people in the metropolis, perhaps safely released into the vomitorium of the business of knowledge production. With no proper names invoked, no concrete social groups alluded to, no proliferation of images, with politics seemingly evaporated, it is impossible to say for certain what to do with any of this. Allegorically speaking, seduction and persuasion were not seen riding in tandem around the brutalist skyscraper of the University of London. One example of visual decoration of the LAGLOBAL roundtable may release extra information. It refers to a rare cultural object, to be disclosed soon, within the Hispanic encyclopedic tradition hiding away in a Madrid Museum.



Rare Instances of Academic Declaration of Belief or Intent.

It is rare to witness strong declarations of intent and belief, also among academics and scholars, and only the brave and the free, I suppose, will publicize intellectual tensions and repudiations, I am of course ironically referencing the lyrics of the U.S. anthem. Such decisiviness was not to be had the 2 June 2017. The LAGLOBAL roundtable was no exception in this regard towards explicitness of intent and genuine belief in the pursuit of “regional” studies. The matrix of intelligibility was never made explicit; ergo, one must always already assume the default or hegemonic position (the West, Europe & the U.S., the category of “white,” the sciences minus the human sciences, the foreign-policy priority of interest among geopolitically influential nation-states, etc.).


There was a supremely cautious attitude on the organizational front keeping faith with the proceedings of the day apolitically moving the conversation along so to speak until the safe landing in irresolution to maps and routes left undisclosed. Let us instead carve out some tensions, areas of difference and demarcations. One, the humanities, or the liberal arts. Two, Area Studies and its connections with state or government interests. ”Culture”  was not a term often invoked.  Neither was ”cultural studies,” perhaps too compromised and militant for some on either side of the Atlantic[8]. There was none of this literature-and-culture “stuff” flying around the University of London this time.


And there was some resistance to what was called the ”colonial divide.” The why was not clear to me. Was it  because such binary demarcations (West and non-West, or First and Third Worlds, say) were typically poorly historicised? Would this be too crude, too elementary, too pedagogic a heuristic device? I did not perceive receptivity to the postcolonial-school suggestions. Few and oblique were the references to the legacy of post-structuralism with thick silences. The apprehensive philosophical dimension, not quite the natural habitat, or happy purchase, in this type of conventional social-science congregation tied up somehow somewhat to the region of Latin America, despite or because of the sprinkling of names such as Foucault and Derrida.  Were we conscious to be in the premiership level of the national football competitions, to use the sports analogy?


About Amiable Collaborations with the History of Science.

There was mention of collaborations with the history of science, here clearly differentiated from knowledge. And this is perceptible tendency in recent years among “humanists,” perhaps it is still valid to use the old word, not without too much self-loathing, who come out into the open and allegedly give a hand to the history of medicine, for example. Acronyms such as “STEM” (previously SMET) give fair warning of official constructions of requirements embedded in collaborative endeavours which will bring fragile disciplines to the tight embrace of the natural sciences and to a lesser degree of the social sciences. Would this survival strategy hold for the length of time?

The University setting was naturalized in the workshop; that is, such was the only space contemplated, yet without playing out national demarcations and differences. There was no insinuation of the comparative problematization of knowledge production (structures, requirements) in Britain, Latin America or elsewhere (Latin American Studies will be largely  inside an ideology of Foreign Area Studies in Britain, idem in the U.S., but not inside Latin America, changing clothes and credentials at the national ports of entry and one can easily play with labels and studies as they get to circulate in different locations; somehow I doubt that English studies outside Anglophone societies will be labelled Area Studies in quite the same way as the situation we have got in our hands here with LAGLOBAL passing quickly through the University of London). One excellent reference was made in relation to the direction of influences and contacts in relation to the visibility of the indigenous category via Mexican anthropology, passing through French anthropology and reaching the world thanks to UNESCO funding.


Yet again, is this seeking umbrage in the history of the sciences fatigue duty of the beleaguered humanitie? Are they trying to “pass” for ancillary support system to something more serious than just the mere human sciences or the liberal arts? The alert reader will not miss the wry humour in italics.  But the option that caught more interest and echo, if not the most fire, was the call for a “new philology,” which meant nothing less than the desirable accomplishment of global textual rigour. Was this new-philology promise the best option for the fusion between history and anthropology in the context of Latin American studies? Is this invocation to the ghost of the possible apparition, this ”new philology,”  the small-letter concretisation of the aforementioned Summa Theologica, some unassuming stitching together of minor subjects with or without loud disruptive claims?


Did You Say “New Philology”?

This invocation to a “new philology” felt to me to be polite and tentative apolitical road to follow in uncertain times. Politeness is no a priori virtue to celebrate irrespective of the situational exchanges that may be taking place in diverse cultural settings. The immediate context was here, the one-day LAGLOBAL workshop, offered no open-access to its digital archives to help us out with the invocation to the return of the living dead of the old discipline (philology) from the limbo of banal inexistence in the European domain where I come from. The call was made by the Americans in the room and the situation is all the more paradoxical, given the dire straits since the 1980s-1990s (aforementioned Paul W. Drake and Lisa Hilbink dixit in the context of Area Studies, you only have to turn to the carcass of the Modern Language Association and its statistics for amiable companionship).Philology was / is indeed the old-fashioned, generic name of the degree one would receive in the humanities inside which rhetoric, linguistics, classical and modern languages, etc. would be housed. In my experience, the term is certainly not common or typical, little understood in relation to the historicist impulse embedded in the discipline of letters, preferably old. The older, the better. Philology, unless I am very much mistaken, was

never really the cup of tea in the English-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic I encountered in departments of “English” and of “Romance Studies.” And comparative literature was the purview of expatriates typically coming from non-dominant nations. In London, I was sitting not among those with a philology degree who could invoke foreign names such as Francisco Rico in the Spanish-language tradition among others. There was something of a feeble “cultural appropriation” going on here which was trying to impress but who, with the dusting of the archaic noun, sounding to some a poly-syllable Latinate, indeed a neologism, adorned with the feather on the cap of the “new.”


Someone was doing this new philology elsewhere. I will have to investigate. There was something of a hearsay account. I suspect it comes from the U.S. since it was the Americans in the room with the advocacy. I bet my little humanist money on the intuition that this “new philology” is tactical invocation aimed at ruffling no feathers, tickling no funny bones of funding entities. Could it be that we are dealing with an attempt at a jargon of authenticity particularly when things are ever so political? This “new philology,” let us run with the intuition, is tactful discourse, a captatio benevolentiae of sorts, pallid dictum for parlous posts, wanting to go through as resoundingly apolitical across the channel, called English, and the Atlantic ocean, affectionately called pond. “New philology” sounds like a resuscitated neologism among those non-humanists (Rico is tout court humanist in the Early Italian near Dante kind of way and I doubt my interlocutors would have early Italian Humanism in mind!). The coupling: the not yet field of the history of knowledge with the new philology. In case of doubt, invoke the new or the modern or the latest thing and that will suffice. How did such invocation relate to the legacy of (post-)structuralism, they gave no indication of this alleged textual rigour (as opposed to loose or lazy textual violations?) in this context of area-studies of a big region typically underrepresented in international fora.


Calls for the “philological revival” and of a “decentring” kind were made. The name of James Turner was mentioned here, also the “World philology” approach by Sheldon Pollock et al, and the advocacy of “close reading of texts,” in which Chinese and Indian examples, etc. also have their own philologies inside some type of ecumenical tent of theoretical zero exclusion. The Derridian difference was mentioned in what felt to me to be unstoppable proliferation of irresolvable, unmeltable, also desirable cultural differences. I almost turned around to see if the ghost of old philologists from the old country, Francisco Rico being a dignified example still kicking around, would show up from behind the door. How to take this invocation to a new philology not made by trained philologists, but by (ethno-)historians in a dire moment of slim numbers of students in the humanities and surely the social sciences as well[9]? The invocation was to disciplinary rigour.



But this ”new philology” emerging apparently from nowhere may indeed be the most pragmatic and neutral way of seeking institutional acceptability circling around red-yellow-green signs of stop-pass-and-trespass in what appears to be conservative revival in the conjuncture. This post-cultural-studies conservative ethos can be imagined as “consolidation,” one euphemism among others, also retreat from making explicitly diverse ideological positions among competing schools of thought, generally shrinking to smaller dimensions deemed more manageable or spaces more bearable. Aren’t we all “just about managing” in the formula of the conservative Prime Minister? Why going for the outstretch, the overloading, the complexifying of the studies?

A certain institutional rigidification has undoubtedly taken place. And it is as though a number of disciplines had been prompted to hold hands with a feigned cultural-relativist all-welcome inclusion gesture, call it United Nations if you wish, peacefully sharing dwindling plateaus, playing musical chairs and entertaining each other sitting round the floor around the campfire, occasionally holding hands, eating marshmallows, talking past each other under the ecumenical tent of the total history of knowledge, which may or may not be called science. Aren’t disciplines instead more like cats and dogs of diverse stock, provenance, class, race and gender? Such is the liberal fallacy of theoretical all-inclusiveness vanishing as soon as something is at stake and risks are to be assumed.


The polite fallacy will however keep itself going, pedalling in its own imaginary vehicle in the thin air, as long as the knowledge button is not pressed hard, and knowledge is banalized and trivialized, deconcretized and desocialized, ornament in the official cap, decoration and little else and there is no threat and institutional things remain largely in place with or without occasional initiatives such as the one that concerns me here passing through the institution typically failing to make good local connections with perceptible disruptions in the House of Commons, the streets and the disciplines inside higher learning spaces undergoing “reorganizations,” as the euphemism has it.

Perhaps Americanization at least in relation to labour relations and privatizations is one valid synthesis for these transformations and we are all in it together “just about managing,” but some are more so than others. Using culinary language, there was here no cut to the bone of knowledge, sumum bonum no one can do without, but it is certain that the closer you get to it, things become funnier and more ticklish, almost more unpleasant and real and your favourite type of knowledge will be my source of curiosity and my favourite knowledge is your permanent state of ignorance, your hobby horse is not mine, and you despise my obsession as much as I despise yours, my pain is mine and yours is yours and my freedom fighter is your terrorist and your favourite drink is my poison, etc. In short, the door is open for the “us versus them,” or the politics of knowledge production, and I would rather look in the horizon illuminated by Szanton and others. Truism: it will not be a case of understanding at first sight, the political formula will not be grasped ipso facto, but even after a few hours you get an idea sifting the grain and husk, the things said and unsaid.


Probing attempts were kept out of sight of the LAGLOBAL workshop. The point was not to “bite” too much, too hard. Continuing with the culinary language: critical knives were kept under the table so to speak. The “meat” was not presented. It was tenderized. There was no time to make things more sustainable and substantial, more definite and biting. Isn’t time, or the lack of it, always the problem? There was accordingly an inescapable feeling in the air that the proceedings were of enormous inconsequence and Latin America, surely one vast timespace among others, did not leave the walking boots of the evanescent Other to go for a good walk in the immediate London circumstance. LAGLOBAL was mostly, at least from my foreshortened perspective, a publicity exercise of discreet face-to-face impact put together for the main purpose of individual circulation from place to place, as though one could really do it solo convincingly, winningly as in those early aviation attempts in sci-fi-looking vehicles giving it a go in prime instances of real science or perhaps knowledge.

Note: This is half of the entire piece of writing. For any comments, suggestions, criticisms, do not hesitate to get in touch with Fernando Game Herrero,

Warwick, Great Britain 20 July 2017


[1] The complete official record was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government; Foreign Secretary William Hague in the Cameron-Clegg era discussed the UK’s relationship with Latin America (Canning House Lecture, 9 Nov 2010): (access 14 July 2017).


[4] See the “Report on the state of UK-based research on Latin America and the Caribbean 2014” edited by Antoni Kapcia and Linda Newson (Institute of Latin American Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 2014). The study includes the words of Foreign Secretary William Hague, Conservative figure serving under PM David Cameron, aiming at ending the diplomatic retreat and improving British relations with Latin America, citing the scarcely 1% of international exports. Lib-Dem ex-MP Nick Clegg is mentioned in relation to a delegation to Mexico to export the “British success story” of the “educational industry.” The insertion of LAC (Latin America and the Caribbean) is firmly within the shadow of State interests and correspondingly of Area Studies, typically in the context of business investments and of “official” politics in organizations such as Canning House and Chatham House. It is clear that the ties between U.S. and Latin America are closer, tighter, bigger, and many more than the ones between the Latin region and the U.K., historically in more intimate, if awkward relationship with Europe (see the Thatcher quote), made ever so evident with Brexit. This English channel still is where the proximity, the bulk of economic ties and of diplomacy, politics, culture and commerce, the alliances and demarcations have played central role. Correspondingly, the unbalance between America-based and U.K.-based studies on the Latin American region is clear within the Western-bound sphere of influence invoking the name of “special relationship” reaching until Theresa May’s government. Will the gradual detachment from Europe (Brexit) mean a more convincing opening up to other regions? Following the official line of communication, I am not aware of proclamations about reinvigorating relations with Latin America that could correspondingly support such studies. The pre-Brexit 2014 Report offers a sober register of institutional reorganizations, funding cuts, declining numbers of staff and students in the appropriate languages, etc.


[5] See the panoramic vision furnished by “Latin American Studies: Theory and Practice” by Paul W. Drake and Lisa Hilbink, in David Szanton’s The Politics of Knowledge: Area Studies and the Disciplines (U of California, Berkeley: GAIA Books, 2002): pp. 1-27. It is not a rosy picture: the authors speak of a severe decline in intellectual and material support, of threatened specialization in the immediate future, of extremely difficult time for scholars in the subfield, of heavy cuts in funding already in the 1980s-1990s, etc.  See the panorama and policy proposals on U.S.-Latin America relations until the first term of the Obama administration in “Depening Regionalism and the US response” by Victor Bulmer Thomas, included in America and a Changed World: A Question of Leadership, credited to the current director of the Chatham House, Robin Niblett (Chatham House & Wiley, Blackwell: May 2010): pp. 1-17. See the complementary vision included in my “The U.S. Area Studies’ Frame of Intelligibility of Latin American Studies (Or, Tanto Monta, Monta Tanto, Rolena como Fernando),”

[6] See one historicist option and my critique, “On Stephen Greenblatt’s historicism: Double Take;”

[7] See the panorama laid out by Carl Pletsch’s “The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labor, circa 1950-1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (1981): pp. 565-590. I do not know if Pletsch has done any follow-ups to this superb article post 1975.

[8] See three possibilities: Fredric Jameson’s “On Cultural Studies,” Social Text No. 34 (1993): pp. 17-52; a second, Stuart Hall and a third, John Beverley, in my blog,

[9] See the so-called “Humanities Indicators,” the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, State of the Humanities: Higher Education 2015; date July 2017), also the “Enrollments in Languages other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009,” by Nelly Furman, David Goldberg and Natalia Lusin (Web publication, December 2010), Modern Language Association (2010): hardly a cheerful read. I suppose there will be comparable collective data appertaining to Great Britain somewhere. Is it fair to assume smaller numbers tout court in the second smaller Anglophone country not historically dealing with massive migrations? Is it fair to assume USA-gravitational pull within Area Studies and also the liberal studies & cultural studies at least since mid-20th century? Will Brexit change things drastically towards a radical openness to other larger dimensions, without letting go of the European dimension not anymore in a position of historical dominance? We will all climb up to our best observation platforms holding tight to our binoculars.

What follows is an abbreviated version of a longer critical interrogation of the (un-)making of the meaningfulness of historical life in direct relation to the most recent piece titled History in the Making (2012), by the eighty-seven-year-old English historian John Huxtable Elliott. This will be a necessary departure from the conventional praises typically circling Elliott, almost like an exaltation of larks, but you can pick your favorite choice of collective allegorical animal apropos cultures of historical and cultural scholarship in our most pressing times. The hope is to provoke critical thought not only among self-appointed guardians of professional-history visions, likely to be direct progeny of our main historian in question. The historical knowledge production appertains here directly to Spain among other localities, and this one is surely caught up firmly, still by this late date, between Anglophone powers of both sides of the Atlantic, Great Britain and the United States. This is our imaginary Bermuda triangle of vortex and vertigo, disappearances and shipwrecks, whilst attempts at the revival of the “special relationship” are being broadcast urbi et orbi by the popular political media. We must all go on exploring possibilities beyond any type of national (-istic) demarcations never entirely following the directions provided by official interpellations.


Diligence and longevity must have their due: the career of our professional historian, English born and trained, covers the last fifty-odd years, starting say from the 1960s, about thirteen books against the background of Franco Spain, the Marshall Plan for post-WWII Europe, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill in power, in alternation with Clement Attlee, until 1955, the “swinging sixties,” etc. A lot of rain has fallen and not only in the plains of Spain ever since . Our celebrated historian’s good fortune has been to invest in the Early Modern and colonial legacies of the somewhat peripheral country of Spain, the so-called “Imperial Spain” moment of its history (say, 1500-1700; move a few decades up and down starting from the emblematic 1492 and reach the 1800 or 1830, the beginning of the Latin American nation formation, I suppose, and the beginning of “modernity” proper). This is surely a daunting landscape of vast imaginary presences to cover.

Three initial questions: What is the global impact or legacy of such “imperial Spain”? Why should anyone bother and pay attention today centuries later in the midst of a certain crisis of the profession of “history” and of the “humanities” against the larger constellations provided by the governments of Theresa May’s Brexit Britain, Trump’s U.S.A. and Rajoy’s Spain in the 21st century (it is the ghost of Winston Churchill passing back and forth the Atlantic as well, together with Margaret Thatcher, trying to blow new official life into the “special relationship”)? Elliott’s shopkeeping has been done quietly and dutifully, without inclination towards stridencies and no apparent appetite for polemics, at least outside the Iberian-peninsula circles (we will see soon his endorsement of a certain orthodoxy about the “myth” of the Catalans). Therefore, no one can fault him for revolutionary articulations. I fail to see major rewrites in the last two panoramic books covering the wider Atlantic world, inside which the nation still called Spain is to be included. But it is the latest work that directly concerns us here.


The already four-year-old History in the Making is a rather quiet affair afforded to the undisturbed perspective of a professional historian. If the dawn promised no big deeds, the horizon offers no vistas outside plural options for professionalism with no comments on the present tensions and dilemmas. Loyalty is to the arts and crafts of a professional historian the way he understand the social role to be. This is no avant-garde movement. The reader will not find mind-blowing events. Are there any storms in the teacups? Are there no elephants in the room? We are dealing with the no-frill, no-shrill, no-fuss, ever-so-gradual scaffolding of the profession of history according to a historian devoting his best energies to the foreign periphery of Europe, the focus is always on Spain, for the consumption of Anglophone readers on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a certain construction of orthodoxy, a certain manufacture of consent (Chomsky’s formula) apropos Elliott’s work, a quintessential-English calm, mood-free collation of visions landing on the “foreign country” and staying, so it appears, safely anchored there. This must have required strategy and brokering, keeping up the collaboration with British institutions of higher learning, Oxford University mainly I suppose, whilst securing the American platform since the Princeton years, and the sustained cultivation Spanish officialdom, its successive governments and a rich variety of cultural institutions (Casa América, Madrid; Duques de Soria; Fundación Consejo España – EEUU; Real Instituto Elcano, Royal Institute; José María Aznar’s Fundación FAES, etc.). There is in principle nothing wrong with this active public profile. One may defend a flexible, facultative dimension responding to various circumstances. Yet, let us underline the officialist and institutionalist imprint to this “imperial Spain.” Birds of a feather…


The chapter headings are: 1/ Why Spain?; 2/ National and transnational history; 3/ Political history and biography; 4/ Perception of decline; 5/ Art and cultural history; 6/ Comparative history; 7/ The wider picture. The title phrasing is reader-friendly unassuming: we are dealing with modalities of types of history with a dissenting middle section addressing the theme of decline. There is no Saint George and no dragons in sight, no big fights or wars. There is a wish for impersonality, a bit surprising for someone so public at least in the context of Spain. Elliott largely eschews from defining historiographic debates, also avoids battles among theories and quarrels among philosophies (no need to beat the theoretical drum). History in the Making is a bit of a peace-keeping mission into historical domains. Predictably, there will be no explicit, self-aware invocation of ideology either, much less self-positioning among plural options, and the intelligent response is to assume tacit self-awareness on his part. In the end, Elliott does not hesitate to espouse the values seemingly of another time and place, of sobriety and pragmatism, of concrete-timespace demarcations of objects of study made clear by textual evidence, of “facts” needing no quotation marks, of being closer to being “a splitter” than “a lumper” (J.H. Hexter), and more of “a truffle hunter” than “a parachutist” (Emmanuel Le Roy); yet he is willing, he says, to give it a try and try both, to “have its cake and eat it too” (recent line of larger Brexit-Britain reverberations), in direct relation to the more Atlanticist and ambitious works written in the second half of the 2000s. Yet, for all the magnificent canvas of imperial histories, our historian remains fundamentally anchored in the continental-European part of the world both feet on the Iberian-peninsula offshoot. And he does so whilst defending the high standards of the British historians, call the gesture “red, white and blue.” The divide between “one’s own” and “foreign” is not mine, is his. It remains a constant in this book until the end. The preface, probably written last, is vivid declaration of lack of faith in the need for greater abstractions, or theories. It is genuinely unconvincing:

“I believe that theory is of less importance for the writing of good history than the ability to enter imaginatively into the life of a society remote in time or place, and produce a plausible explanations of why its inhabitants thought and behaved as they did” (p. xi).

The sentence is spurious and banal. It means nothing sustainable. Elliott is on the side of “good history” and the dis-relationship between the imaginary reconstruction of “their” thoughts and behaviors with ours begs the interrogation that will here not happen. This is like flying with nothing as though the imagination had no epistemological parachute, or theory. And where are you standing, on what “earth”? And why going there? What are you looking for? Why bother? What would that do? Why Spain?, indeed, is the initial chapter title and the question is, for him, non-rhetorical. The answer turns out to be a combination of youthful trips, fortuitous circumstances, personal predilections, early professional intentions and intersections and taciturn, if not tacit (ideological) interests. The nominal list includes: “temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation” (p. 4).


“Why Spain?” conveys, in quick-brush strokes, early student-trip encounters with Franco Spain in the summer of 1950. In what is probably the most detailed, sunny and biographical, also the most distant in time and less polemical, section of History in the Making, the author remembers his own shadow, the twenty-plus-years-old student from Cambridge travelling with his mates to a geography full of misery and poverty and yet of “enormous dignity” (p. 2). Spanish will not come first choice of the cafeteria menu at Cambridge and elsewhere, during 1950s, trailing the most significant impact of other modern foreign languages of power and prestige such as French and German, and perhaps this is still true today . Spanish history was, and is still, a less crowded field of professional endeavor in Anglophone countries, its Golden Age still customarily decorated with “Black-Legend” rubrics. “Why Spain?” paints the brisk portrait of a historian as a young man in foreign lands. The defining connection is the chance encounter with Museo-del-Prado Velázquez’s Conde Duque de Olivares imposing equestrian portrait. The two moments are put together: the Franco Spain in the 1950s and the 1640s society of “economic and technological backwardness, religious obscurantism and a general torpor that left it behind lagging far behind its European rivals” (p. 7). The approach to art and politics is in general term not that of recently deceased John Berger (his Ways of Seeing, first published in 1972 after a very successful BBC series), but is instead indeed closer to the Princeton colleague, the American art-historian Jonathan Brown’s Kenneth Clarkesque civilizational stance of high-culture-high-power Europe with whom there has been collaboration at least since 2002. One historical precedent in the Golden Age of archeology: the three-dimensional transplant, the Patio from the Renaissance Castle of Vélez Blanco (1506-1515), set up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city, eloquent example of the cultural appetites of a minority American elite in the age of the robber barons.


The promising combination theme of aesthetics and politics is not, I firmly believe, fully explored here, not even hinted at. There is the perception of a retraction from explaining why the study of absolutism still merits time and effort. Contemporaneity is not talked about, remaining stuck in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no future release. Elliott does not point fingers in the best direction for the future for others to follow suit. He never goes in the direction of ambitious comparativism of political theory of absolutism, a la Perry Anderson say , much less in the relatively recent fashion of the “political theology” of a Carl Schmitt brought to life via Agamben’s “state of exception” among others . This is very hot water for almost all of us, not leaving the immediate global scene intact. Elliott historicizes the age of absolutism whilst no doing political theory, much less comparative political theory among different national modalities, leaving the immediate circumstances, its pressures and preferences, un-developed. There is the valid charge of cogito interruptus. What is history without politics? What is politics without history? Both terms go hand in hand and the demand must be, surely, for the explicit rendition of both in a life trajectory recollecting itself in tranquility after having spent considerable time in at least three nations in the West.

Yet, what Elliot is after is the patient reconstruction of the sensibilities of the political figures of power and privilege in the age of Absolutism, with or without the patient rendering of the certainly imposing and demanding Baroque aesthetic. His typical public presentation will be the history of mentalities of figures such as Count-Duke of Olivares, Hernán Cortés or Philip II, trying to imagine “their” world from “their” perspective, or so he says. Elliott is much less interested in other perspectives not necessarily being subsumed under such privileged examples, aesthetics remaining a rather thin dimension never fully strutting its stuff convincingly, despite the usual story of high achievement and embarrassment of riches for others to enjoy.

Our young man, historian in embryo, had still to navigate a series of figures (Butterfield, Plumb, Runciman, Knowles). There is also the presence of the scholar-diplomat Marañón, historiographic precedent in relation to Count Duque of Olivares, and of course the reference has to be to two towering figures of French historiography such as Febvre and Braudel (pp. 7-9). Past and Present is counterpoint to the Annales school, and our non-Marxian member of the English-historian collective no doubts in the doubling of the “Marxist and marxisant [sic, in italics in the original)” inclinations of the always more revolutionary French side he admired at some distance (national stereotypes can be played up, amusingly, also in relation to historians). The French do “total history” without compunction, hesitation and false guilt like they do their wines and cheeses and other delights in life, willingly and happily hereafter, and one cannot but feel that they are the true big players at least in the mid-twentieth-century Cold-War European vicinity.

Our more modest author does not get carried away. He declares his resistance to “a deterministic approach” of economic and social history (p. 9) in a gesture that clears the dust of impeachment away from the big wigs and the elegant jackets of their French counterparts ambitiously cutting a big swathe through human avatars . The theme was then as it is now, yet somewhat mitigated, that of the “difference” (p. 5) within the European terrain . Elliott is happy to oblige. How so? He is always keen to mitigate all the claims to (radical) difference and exceptionalism (he does not dwell on the debate between Sánchez Albornoz and Américo Castro raging during those decades, deferring to Peter Russell’s 1959 review, pp. 128 & 228). One may be allowed to wonder out loud how big the difference is between the two singularities, specificity and exceptionalism: is the latter too absolute, extreme, absolute burning holes into all comparative grids of intelligibility?

Elliott speaks of his acquaintance with the Archive of Simancas and with Catalonia in 1953. Archival pursuits no longer appear later in the text as though the digital world had made them obsolete. The theme of the revolt of the Catalans emerges. Here there is an uneven combination of sympathy for the Catalans under Franco by the “genuine outsider” status, neither Catalan nor Castilian (p. 19) against the historical legacy of the legacy of the centralist measures of Conde Duque de Olivares in congruence with the conventional theme of the centralized bureaucracy of historical absolutism (Anderson’s account within theoretical historical materialism is extraordinarily rich in this regard). How such centralization plays out in the 1700s, how that finds an echo during Franco years, and how that becomes the current cacophony in contemporary Spain, is a tight-rope walking blindfolded in between tall buildings. One wishes there had been a bit more explicit development.

His is also a “tricky balancing act… not being able to “claim to have been consistently successful in preserving [his] stance” (p. 20); yet, this is retroactively applied to the dominant figure of Vicens Vives, who worked from within dispelling internal Catalan myths (“myth” being false ideas held by others in historical matters, or otherwise, in informal conventional parlance). Again, there is no elaboration, which is a pity, so we may all surmise what those myths might have been perhaps still are and what consistency in relation to what might have looked like, or whether it is still lagging behind tense contemporary avatars. The anecdote with the policeman in the street who tells a Catalan-speaking Elliott to “speak in the language of the empire… [I]t seemed as though, in spite of the passage of three centuries, time had stood still” (p. 25). We do not know how the anecdote developed, and it must be contextualized today with his presentations for the virulently centralist former Prime Minister for Partido Popular José María Aznar’s FAES organization (his former Ph.D. student acting as mediator). One may wonder if any of this internal tension will have any great repercussions at all beyond the borders of the Iberian peninsula.


The work on the secretary (valido) of Philip IV points towards the centralization implemented and the defeat of the periphery to the center of the constituted nation . There are no easy, direct equivalences between these rapid-changing negotations standing in the quicksands of Iberian-peninsula politics with other domains inside the larger continental release or outlet . There is nothing about the recent Blair-epoch devolutions of Britain for example. Our historian puts himself solely as the “foreign scholar,” using “imperial Spain” phraseology, but keeping his distance from Francoist celebrations of a glorious past. All of this is very attenuated in the democratic decades, as though it was white noise to current predicaments. Books may still have an effect, even if unread and never opened. Such admission of retroactive incongruence must have played well with the ghost of the past holding hands with Vicens Vives, but not now against the complicated themes of regime centralization, and the Golden-Past title, with or without the necessary nuances. The Franco’s authoritarian regime in the 1950s and 1960s, ever so slowly unfreezes and opens itself up to the “free” West during the Cold War moment, the closer cultural domination of France gradually loses gradually its grip over the “Anglo-Saxon” nations, in the old nomenclature. General things appear to go in the right direction, accordingly. Elliott is 45, already looking at things from the American platform, by the official year of Spanish Democracy in 1975.

The self-description is that of an outsider perfectly willing to keep the foreign status. It is repeated more than once (pp. 19, 29, 30, 31, 32, 171, etc.); and the term of outsider is here, undoubtedly, to be understood with none of the counter-cultural connotations of popular-culture, scandalous swinging sixties, or turning the tables upside down in the historiography (would postcolonial historiography qualify?). Wake up and smell the coffee: this self-assignation does not wish to strike a dissonant note or a strident chord. There is no tongue sticking out of no rolling stone mouth throwing no brick at no winter palace, or Casa del Buen Retiro where the Monarchs would have enjoyed the good retreat from official duties. The “outsider” and “foreign” self-assignations here rest on the quiet “virtues” of neutrality, impartiality and the pragmatism of the balancing of fact against evidence, and thus building imaginary pasts according to the reconstruction textual evidence always circumscribed in time and place according to the archive, but there is no need to turn Derridian in the interrogation of what the archive means.

The rejection of what is called “essentialism,” still no need for appeals to the tools of deconstruction, goes hand in hand with the skepticism towards excessive comparativism of big trans- or international units. Radical, seemingly unmeltable, incomparable or exceptional particularity and the impossibly, unwieldy big units: how small is small and how big is big. Gradation and contextualism may do away with this false dilemma since we are all always already putting social units in relation with each other, and what would the matrix of comparativism ever be in the first place., where the vantage point of observation allowing and preventing a good observation for what community of readers or observers. The crucial issue is also how convincingly and what for. The good side of the coin: there is no xenophobia in Elliott’s scholarship; there are no intractable repudiation of schools of thought foreign to him; and perhaps it is simply a matter of “good manners” and not talking about what you dislike. The less good side is also the no apparent xenophilia, as though the nationalized demarcated object of study (Spain) did not manage to produce many instances worthy of emulation, also in relation to historiographic pursuits that could be exported to other localities. There is under-verbalization here. There is also mood neutrality, even if there is a certain (professional) proximity, a certain warmth even “love for Spain”, not atypically announced by state officials in public events. It is not clear what the fundamental intellectual merchandise is being delivered in the end of History in the Making. Or is it perhaps the case that we must all avoid such grandiloquent proclamations?

Our English historian has made his living and sticking to it with a keen sense of duty and diligence, making the most out of the aforementioned combination of “temperament, upbringing, chance and calculation.” There is no pushing the buttons of any type of orthodoxy, either British or Spanish; neither of “going-native” assimilation, no incidents with no policemen in a chronology closer to ours. There is no moment of being carried away emotionally in any one direction in particular as though the matters at hand warranted no big fuss . There is perceptible demarcation, the “been in it, but not of it,” as it is often said of English side of Britain, the Irish and Scots being different, versus continental Europe, and there is also something of a gentleman-like preservation of a distance, intellectual and emotional by the subject of study from the object of study, “Spain” indeed among other national entities (one is reminded in this regard of the English Prologue of the Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset). There is no sustained historical reconstruction of sensibilities of any social groups other than the ones in historical power and privilege as though they managed to monopolize all knowledge and all virtue. Identical charge can apply to the immediate here and now and there are oceans of immense neglect here.


I am developing a summary of an existential, historicist argumentation about the habitation of a “home,” or even possibilities for the vindication of expatriation, or theoretical exile, or migration, or “cultural translation,” as some scholarly tendencies have put it forth for the last two decades or so, in relation to the empiricist historicism informing History in the Making. There are no transculturations here and no apparent need for any of that. The “same-foreign” binary undergoes no fusion. The game of nationalities remains the same song along the chorus of existing United Nations with no gestures towards its insufficiencies, tensions, possible mutations. There are no desirable higher or lower planes, apparently, for the pursuit of interactions of these national/istic demarcations. “America,” with or without question marks, whether expansively or reductively understood to signify only the United States, represents no escape route, no alternative model, no desirability, no dilemma, no conundrum, for other, better knowledge production bringing into question the naturalness of Eurocentrism. Elliott has no commerce with Mexican intellectuals of the stature of Leopoldo Zea and this slow passing of ships in the night is telling. And why would he when this has not been his natural habitat, professional or otherwise? His history in the making is thus firmly in the antipodes of “postcolonial” endeavors provincializing the universalist claims of (post-)imperial Europe within the temptations of the West, currently monopolized internationally by the United States, and for how long.

But this line of thought would take us into the expansive geopolitical dimensions of cultures of historical and cultural study. Let us rein the signs of “history” and “making” and keep them tied up to the immediate dealings by our English historian in relation to his latest work. This making of history keeps history historical, out there, foreign; this is about the deeds of foreigners imaginatively inscribed in a society that is described as not ours. This making of history is mostly according to the making of Western historians, with majority-vote of Europeans, and Anglophone club of privilege among them, with rare incursions by other types, with the rare occasion of the anthropologists mostly delivering “cultural” dimensions of a certain relativism surely mitigating one and all claims towards essentialism (Geertz, p. 31ff). It is in this vicinity that our English historian provides a further twist to this screw in relation to the word of “hispanista,” which, to him, appears non-problematic (p. 35, 171). It is his vehicle, but “hispanism by itself is not enough” (p. 39). It must still fit into proper history, as the longer initial quote has it. I confess I do not know anyone who proudly shouts this self-definition from the tall buildings of his own native or adopted society. “Hispanista” here overlaps with the already clichéd anthropological divide between identity or sameness and difference or the “other,” and the nouns fall like chips on two separate camps or demarcations not to be blended. There is no crossing of lines. We remain in the binary, the dichotomy, no going higher and no going under, with an implied, implicit positive balance towards “one’s own society,” yet politely left under-verbalized and unresolved in History in the Making. “Spain” is here largely a “place” of heterotopia: a “foreignness” one goes to from time to time, or perhaps often, to get business done, perhaps to get a “good deal,” in the ominous language of the immediate present, but which delivers no fundamentals. Mutatis mutandis: the intelligent reader is invited to substitute the name of the country for another closer to his/her skin to feel the impact, if not the drama, of this cognitive situation. Would antiquarianism do as valid characterization?

Between my society and a society not my own, there is no return or two-way ticket; there is no “return of the gaze,” no apparent impulse to “turn the tables,” and no blowback either. There is no acknowledgement of the inequality of social forces involved. There is no interrogation of institutionality building bridges or walls between the various social groups in question. No declared or undeclared wars either. God forbid there is any invocation of ideological forces blowing fast and furious in the wings of these social agents, perhaps sitting rubbing thighs and shoulders during the public presentation, be in Madrid, London or elsewhere. There is, predictably, the easy fall into the conventional narrative of the “Black Legend” (p. 37ff). Play the song again, historicize and relativize it, give it a light touch, nuance it a bit or as much as you wish, and the song still remains the same, but without the energy of a Led Zeppelin. Explicitly, there is balanced exegesis and what else will be said publicly surrounded by state officials: “The persistence challenge is to make Spain comprehensible to an international readership” (p. 38). Elliott’s career has been mostly about brokering such collaborative comprehension. And yet these findings can be extrapolated to other nations (endlessly fascinating country with successes and failures, of universal importance, in perennial (re-, de-) construction and deconstruction in the vicinity of religious beliefs (the three big monotheistic religions), conqueror of an overseas empire, unity-and-diversity tensions within its own territory, “enormously rich if often controversial contribution to human civilization”). No one’s pulse will beat faster upon hearing this type of generic national performance.

There is something in History in the Making that remind me of the figure of the entomologist who keeps his facts and pieces of textual evidence nicely typed and labeled, and promptly updates the record of specimens within the taxonomies keeping them neatly in the collection boxes losing no composure while the strong winds are hurling all around out there beyond the closed blinds of a house not deemed in serious trouble. This history that is “there” does not appear to relate to the history “here” at any meaningful level of economics, politics, culture and aesthetics (but perhaps, the word “culture” must always be kept framed, after the impact of cultural studies, the impact of which our English historian does not give evidence he fully wants to follow or understand). A repetition is perhaps needed: the subject position keeps taciturnly, tacitly his own set of values, beliefs, predilections intact in the study of the history of the past of the object of study nationally, conventionally demarcated as “Spain.” There are no fundamental changes in trajectory and focus in the last fifty years, except crucially opening the lens and cover perhaps with soft eyes wider territory than the once central foreign mono-national entity. But the very division of subject and object of study is been kept here for pedagogic purposes: it has been long lost its hermeneutic plausibility at least since the hey day of positivism about a century ago. History in the Making walks the path of epistemological vistas without giving us big landscapes, a bit like the stubborn impulse following the blinkered vision fixated on the dangling carrot in front of the nose, call it Spain if you wish.

Embarrassing questions accordingly may follow the gallop along the pathways: what about the aetiology, the teleology of the study of history? What is the point of it all? What set of circumstances causes the study? Whither is it going? Any withering at all, perhaps? Are there any problems at all with “history,” as professional and non-professional endeavors? What is the intended audience of readers and interpreters of this “good history”? Where is the explicit political background of contemporary Britain and Spain? History in the Making does not want to rise up to the higher occasion of the epistemological justification of the importance of these historical studies for the societies directly implicated. Who is doing the promotion of these historical studies? Where is the explicit rendition of the social texture, or the “culture,” almost understood in the predominant sense of the biological sciences, (i.e. the cultivation, the preparation of nutrients, the husbandry of ideas), inside which these studies have emerged with such visibility? What ideas are being discarded like broken furniture; what new tools with which to move forward? History in the Making wants no drama. It is genuinely wanting and unsatisfactory work, intellectually speaking. This deliberate, dreadful silence on the part of the historian has been no obstacle for the conferring of many honorific degrees, at least fifteen according to unreliable Wikipedia information on him. Who would dare flick these tassels and pull from these infulae?

Chapter two is titled “national and transnational history,” and our “middle-class mid-twentieth century English man” (p. 40) reconstructs his Catalan years, summoning the unfamiliar, provincial ghosts of Ferran Soldevila, Vicens Vives, and Rovira i Virgili (pp. 42ff). Vives is called “dominant, if controversial” (p. 43) in the demythologizing of Catalan history (since “myth” is “bad” in the conventional English sense that it will be the erroneous belief system of other; let us underline the polite distancing of “controversial,” and the tactful withdrawal from the explicit rendition of the controversy). Conventionally therefore, the Catalans are “nationalist” in relation to their own historiography in a way that others, let us call them Spanish-nationalists perhaps, are less so or perhaps not at all. Elliott takes this “bad” nationalism via the famous formula of Benedict-Anderson’s “imagined communities,” all the way to (bad) “exceptionalism,” or “chosen nation syndrome” (p. 45, sic in quotes in the original), which can perhaps be better deciphered as stubbornly resistant particularity or unbelievably exceptional specificity, perhaps even messianic.

It is circumstantial evidence that will make the position clearer. Elliott’s distance is not elaborated. The implication is the encomium of medias res akin to the liberal-bourgeois narrative of the desirable occupation of the tightly held center between fascism and communism during the Cold War moment of history of the West that appears to be making a comeback, or the Suárez’s UCD transition to democracy with the tactful incorporation of the Franco regime finding its place on the right of the political spectrum, its following generations regaining power since the Aznar government (who remembers the notorious photo of the Azores with Blair and Bush and the launching of the Iraq war?). Inevitably, we are dealing with intellectual pursuits, knowledge production and ideological alliances and a variety of interests in environments that cannot be circumscribed to any one nationality in question, Britain and the U.S. included, and perhaps all imperial nations have made claims to exceptionalism, and we can also think of the Jewish community, and its claims to being the “chosen people” by the terrible God who did not spare them the horror of the Holocaust. We may imagine our English historian shaking his head in displeasure and disbelief at these explicit presentations of a firm conviction or declarative belief, in the self-important national, imperial specificity. His mood and mode always appear to walk away from exaggerated temptations of continued relevance challenging time passing, as though “history” would not inevitably fail to cut us all to size and deliver the flattening out in the possibility of comparativism in theory.

Elliott keeps his distance from the contemporary revolts of the Catalans and a certain independentist historiography (p. 47), not made explicit. Elliott receives praise from being “fair to all the parties” (p. 48), and he behaves a bit like a blue-helmet member of the United Nations officially deployed in areas of (intellectual, social) conflict. He can afford to do so, appearing, a bit unbelievably if you asked me, as though he had no axe to grind on this earth. Our good representative of the nation of Saint George has no ugly dragon to slay (Catalonia and England share patron saint!, would he mediate amiably for both possibilities, would his historical scholarship be handmaiden to this or that party, contingency, etc.?). The reader has been forewarned: the “outsider [was] of course” less emotionally involved than natives such as Vicens Vives indulging in his myths. The name of Pierre Vilar (1906-2003) is mentioned at this conjuncture in what appears a compliment, with “a more positive story to tell” (p. 49). Again, the curious reader may scratch the skull about the constituents of such positivity since the prose remains generally ungiving amid natives and outsiders, revisionist histories, gains and losses inside a trajectory that can be generally described, not without a good doses of healthy sense of humor, as the civilizational march with no major crises and existential dilemmas. Elliott returns to Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities, and the generalized importance of myths and legends and of the understandable fears and anxieties of being devoid of symbols for national-community construction. This is no code, but a series of banalities that amount to siding with centralist-nationalist histories without ever engaging in social groups fighting for power and privilege in a demarcated territory. Our historian puts forth the generality of not “clinging too tightly to an invented or distorted past [that] can all too easily lead to disaster” (p. 49). And the jump is to the equation of a bad qua mythological Catalanist history and the criminal Serbia (pp. 49-50). The analytical scissors cut no persuasive cloth. The comparativism is too timid, predictable and “safe.” The calculations of the tailor are “unionist” and “conservative.”

These are major, multi-directional issues, whether played in the Catalan domain or elsewhere: the perforce teleological and reductive national history (p. 51), and perhaps one should quickly add the more appropriate notion of the nation-state, which is the looming shadow that our English historian has fundamentally chased for most of his career. The inclusion of the more localized enclaves such as the patria (p. 55) does not appear to resolve the political tensions alluded to, neither in relation to the early-modern dimensions or the “modern” issues (Elliott avoids entirely and systematically the languages of the postmodern and of the (post-)colonial and this double avoidance is profoundly revelatory). Elliott says he shares the preoccupation of younger historians for a look into the state that is “less purely institutional” (p. 65), and the realization of the “inadequacy” of the aggregation of single countries adding up to the larger domain of European history (p. 73). He speaks of “cutting across” national boundaries, hence the advocacy of contact zones or “transnational history.” In relation to the seventeenth century, Elliot conventionally speaks of the two models, the Anglo-Dutch of near-republican model, greater representation and more plurality of creeds, and the more authoritarian and centralized and more religious uniformity, or the French model (p. 74): the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707 (no broaching of nationalism here) is compared to the more centralized and repressive Castilian-centric Bourbon dynasty.

The “greater resilience” of the Anglo-Dutch model finds what I would describe to be an economic-deterministic apologia pro longa vita sua:

“Liberty and representative institutions proved in the long run to offer a better recipe for raising revenues and ensuring credit-worthiness than government decrees and royal promises” (p. 75), and Elliott leans on Roland Mousnier for such pillar of justification. The privileging of the dominant narrative of the centralized nation-state is brought into sharper relief, if only one pays attention to other darker areas, complexities and paths not taken. There are quite a few of these. Unions bring with themselves the “negative” opposite of disunion, or fragmentation, or even difference and diversity. Elliot closes this second chapter by proposing that the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Spanish composite state under the Austrias may still have new things to say to the historians of the nation-state (p. 79). In the end he will go further east, via good old Ranke, to the Ottoman Empire (p. 217), for others to pursue, as though by strong implication what Leopoldo Zea called “core [Carolingian Empire] Europe,” minus the British Isles, had nothing new to add to these burning issues anymore. Bringing none of this “home,” Elliott has nothing to add.

“Political history and biography” is the rather “British-populist” title of chapter 3. If the previous chapter attempted a relative depoliticization of his own foreign professional-historian position, this chapter will not dwell at all in political theory or contemporary politics (the geopolitics of transnational or international levels is something our scholar does not ever wish to contemplate in relation to pressures or fashions informing historical studies). Elliott remains committed to a history largely from above, hence his focus is typically always on the institutional-official archive of the nation-state history punctuated by a few good men in power preferably painted by recognizably famous painters . Biography remains a very popular British genre, and one that is only gender-neutral initially. Be it Conde Duque de Olivares, Hernán Cortés or Philip II, Cardinal Richelieu, Elliot’s natural tendency is in the antipodes of those with no history, or on the darker side of the Renaissance. There is no big space for ethno-history or “social history” from the more humble or subaltern or below. Extra-European domains acquire a wallpaper background decoration to more important avatars elsewhere. And this is fine at least for a certain type of historical craftsmanship which no longer appears to occupy center stage in the profession, and it is no secret that some globalize from here in the new century still holding tight to the banner of toleration and pluralism: I am mostly circumscribing the most immediate type of “history in the making” that will present no revolutionary findings in the course of a lifetime. Elliott appears to lose inspiration and emphasis once we begin to contemplate social spaces not covered by the looming shade of the nation-state. Where to go then: to the preoccupations of religious dimensions? To the intricacies of aesthetics? Both dimensions appear secondary or even tertiary to Elliott’s interests. There is no inclusion of religious belief and the Baroque is but the thinnest of presences. Marañón and Cánovas del Castillo helped him initially with Conde Duque de Olivares, who here appears to signify little more than Iberian-peninsula centralization program proper to absolutism.

But we are in the mental world of 1973 and Elliott crosses the pond to settle down in Princeton, New Jersey where he will reside for 17 years. It is in strong contrast to the French Annals colleagues that he sees the potential of a Spanish counterpoint to the “strong man” personality of Gaspar de Guzmán y Pimentel Ribera y Velasco de Tovar, Cardinal Richelieu. I recall the great line by John Beverley that most historians have been invested in telling the biography of the nation-state, with or without crises or detours . Elliott is to be included here, with or without his American vistas. The throwaway lines of Braudel open a big window of opportunity for Elliott (p. 88). Our English historian values what the Annals authors leave firmly behind: biography. He defends the power of human agency and he appears to open up warmly to the hegemony of the “culture” approach, leaning even closer to “cultural conditioning,” including his own (p. 93). He chooses Butterfield over Marxist or marxisant (sic, always in italics) interpretations of the past (p. 93): human agency and MacMillan’s “events, dear boy, events” over Braudel’s longue durée. It is impossible not to see a certain intellectual “nationalism” here against larger vistas provided by the United Nations of Spanish, French and American colleagues.

The follow-up is vastly unpersuasive: the history writing of the ambitious historian is about capturing an age, making human actions comprehensible in a narrative flow. History is a reconstruction that draws the reader in. The crucial aspect is the biography of the main or a principal actor, with or without the awareness of the “dangers of the ‘great man’ approach to the study of the past” (p. 96). And from what perspective is this executed, if not from that of the nation-state with its official resources, archives, etc.? You get the official public-intellectual profile of the English professor in contemporary debates in the Iberian peninsula about the legacy of empire and of the revolt of the Catalans to be contained, and what are other topics emerge forcefully? Two names are mentioned with appreciation: Domínguez Ortiz and Ruiz Martín open the historical age to him (p. 94). And a third one is added, the “leading historian of ideas” Maravall, credited with the top position in the podium of “Golden Age Literature;” yet his famous Baroque studies remain “controversial” (pp. 95 & 150); and here we go again: Elliot’s charge is that of a (narrow) Baroque functionalism. History in the Making provides no dealings with the monumental historiography of the Baroque sensibility.

There is no one single quote from Golden Age literature and culture colleagues in the humanities handling the “controversial” legacy of the Baroque inside Spanish-speaking nations and outside. Elliott appears never to have crossed paths with Golden-Age specialists, much less Latin American colonial specialists agonizingly making his meager living in the U.S. where he resided for nearly two decades. It is therefore not surprising that upon hearing of the “linguistic turn” (pp. 104-5), he turns to, who else, but a second anthropologist, Geertz, and the importance of symbols in the “theater-stage” in the context of 19th century Bali in Indonesia, which is not exactly close to Gibraltar. Isn’t our English historian “kicking the ball on the pitch a bit defensively”? (remember the aforementioned analogy of the footballer simply telling us that he is playing good football). This is a bit of a long boomerang throw, away from his favorite disciplinary and his most familiar geographies, particularly for someone who has expressed his skepticism of long-range comparativisms. Elliott wants to play catch-up with a certain culturalism promoted by American anthropology about the importance of symbolic production. He takes it back into Early Modernity, but the Spaniards are not returning to the fold of “their own” Golden Age, but the period remains lifeless, demanding no urgency, so stereotypically pinnacle of excellence in the arts, if not politics, so supremely excellent in achievement that quotations and explorations are unworthy scholarly behavior. History in the Making invites piety and abstract encomium to the uninitiated for whom, as the beautiful line by Walter Benjamin has it, this beauty untested, has nothing at all alienating.

There is a quick, solitary reference to Kantorowicz inside this reference to thick symbology. But where are the Spanish specialists in the immediate Museo-del-Prado vicinity and their open love for Velázquez? Perhaps there are all hiding in the shade of the sole statue of Jonathan Brown. The tone is light but the issues are vital in relation to a historical scholarship that does not wish to contemplate international disparities, much less decolonization of knowledge practices. It appears that the Spanish colleagues remain circumscribed there in their own corral and do not travel far, fast and furious with their intellectual merchandise officially speaking to foreign places such as Indonesia, America, Britain, etc., not even with the entire official apparatus also in the Mariano Rajoy years! There is no detectable crisis of identity in Elliott. There is instead an impressive continuity: the chapter concludes with the possibility of a return to the lingering validity of the biographical approach, one that is not, pay attention to the adverbs, “purely biographical” (p. 112) or done in “narrow[ly]” institutional terms. “Imagination, empathy, the ability to master a wide range of diverse kinds of evidence” are declared to be ineluctable cardinal virtues needed in the arts and crafts of the challenging reconstruction of “political actors” shaping and being shaped by the political world. Mutatis mutandis: the professional historians too.


These pages wish to constitute a critical acknowledgement of the historical work done about old Spain. National labels and demarcations will not go away tomorrow, even by and about those who, with or without exiles, do not feel particularly nationalistic. Others will nationalize you and your visa papers will tell the bureaucratic truth. Another matter altogether is whether historical and literary studies must yield smilingly to this Procrustean bed cutting short your legs, arms and a portion of the thinking headpiece. We will all have to deal with the concert of nations since the a-national condition of global universality, or cosmopolitanism, does not yet its effective recognition. The Brexit Britain / Trump Era appear to bring to visibility a resurgence in virulent nationalism. We all need good luck with that one.

History in the Making has been our chance to pay critical tribute to Elliott. It has also been excuse and pretext to address the mirage of the singularity of the foreign-nation object of study and point in the direction of institutionality and ideology. Elliott’s historical studies of old Spain showing the virtues of diligence, perseverance and longevity must have their place of honor, but this cannot not be the final word, particularly in the Age of Brexit Britain and Trump (the presence of Rajoy must take a subordinate role, despite the apparent warmth between both European conservative leaders). History in the Making is indeed brief introspective account of the historical reconstruction of foreign dimensions of the secondary-tier nation-state of Spain within the European platform. This historical reconstruction gradually expands to cover to reach “America” over a big Atlantic dimension. With or without reticence, there is no pulling back from this big scenario.


This is historians’ history and it is of the “conservative” antiquarian kind, never mounting, as far as I can see, a contradiction to official discourse, at least publicly. There is nothing in Elliott’s literature that will ruffle feathers to the Spanish authorities as far as I can tell. But perhaps these sensibilities remain subtle and delicate like peacocks’. Our synthesis: the ideological configuration of this historical narrative is that of the march of the “liberal West,” and as such it is fundamentally Hegelian frame, with or without extensive readings of the big German and this is not “externality” to the intrinsic value of the historical studies, with or without the declared toleration of the plurality of takes. History in the Making is insufficient hybrid account, part-memoir, part-summary of a fifty-year professional-historian “travel” leaving more questions open in the end than closing them already in the second decade of the new century. Elliott’s explorations have gone ever so naturally, almost like mothballs mesmerized by the light and the dust in the official archive, in the direction of the mindset of the man in power, king, administrator or colonizer (Hernán Cortés, Philip II, Conde Duque de Olivares, etc.). And where would the need come to want to complicate this mental picture with darker, mixed and in-between states of being (Inés de la Cruz, Guaman Poma de Ayala, Olaudah Equiano, Fredrick Douglass… )? History in the Making offers no regrets. Our English historian is entitled to his predilections inside the big tent of “Atlantic history.” And who would dispute his many honorary awards? Yet, let us not close our eyes to the immense distance from disruptive cultural studies and belligerent postcolonial studies to name but two (the legacy of Marxism of Past and Present must have vanished from sight like a fast-moving ghost with no trace!). You are defined by your immediate interests and by the other ones persistently kept in others’ studios. This history making is the relative loosening from the moorings provided by old-fashioned positivism, British empiricism and antiquarianism, the invocation of facts and events give him away. But it is still not far away, not far enough into the other side of foreignness, Spanish or otherwise, to the darker side of the Renaissance, the thick textures of the Baroque, even the Moon or beyond the demarcation line where America becomes a central preoccupation, or this social group claiming this sort of thing must be given priority, or the inequality of access to knowledge production must be fought against, etc. Hence, the provocative call has been suggested to the need to Americanize and even Mexicanize the expansive Eurocentric historiography provided by Elliott, which remains a certain ideological type of liberal orthodoxy . The large narrative is largely implied, yet falls within the expansive progress of the liberal West. This is Eurocentric consciousness with American expansiveness without ever bringing itself about unpleasant phenomena such as Western universalism, barbarization and marginalization, not his own problem. These reconstructions of old Spain are put to good use by officialdom in the promotion of the good modern name of Spain, or “marca España,” with the easy, full collaboration of our historian. History in the Making is the closing of the books of the dutiful shopkeeper. There are no frills. There is no fuss. There is also a laudable flexibility and openness of mind in the end and a certain loosening of the tie and the shoelaces in the leaving a bit behind the singularity of the foreign nation of object of study. Historical linearities are all theoretically suspended: there is no need to go back to absolutist origins or Platonic causes leading to myriad effects. The belief in the teleological meanings appears to have been eroded to the core, nagging doubts nest in the holes there and I am recreating Ortega y Gasset’s language. Will the catastrophic ends of the West hold sustainable meanings for us? There are no figures of this immediate future and the specific references to proper names and facts stopped in the 1970s.

Elliott has collaborated with a thick institutional texture in Spain (Casa Real, Casa América, Duques de Soria, Fundación Consejo España – EEUU, Real Instituto Elcano, Royal Institute, Ministries of Culture of various governments, under Aznar and Rajoy, the FAES Institute of former President Aznar, etc.). This social function defines his scholarship, if it does not of course determine or exhaust it. The social impact is less visible in Britain and the U.S., it is after all about the foreign nation, “America” being background to other more important facts and thoughts happening mostly on the European side of the Atlantic. Such institutional proximity is not conducive to send alarmist messages. It has instead resulted into putting bad press to bed, of tactful presentation of different perspectives without reaching civil war among historians, and in essence of dispelling the myths of others and speaking of the modernity of the nation in consort with others. The English historian has put his old-Spain history to good use on behalf of the Spanish officialdom, keeping the post-Spanish-Civil-War present-tense tensions at bay. In this sense he has behaved dutifully like a good civil servant fulfilling his civic duty, and when parts of the egg are proven to be rotten, they will be declared to be indeed excellent publicly. Remember the curate and the bishop in the classic Punch cartoon? Is it fair to extend this civic lesson to parts of History in the Making? And what about the considerable production of Elliott?

Elliot has limited traffic with “theory” or philosophy of history. This historian does history like the football player simply plays football, refusing the talk about tactics, strategies, history of the competition, the club, the finances, the intellectual and scholarly needs… History in the Making sticks to its own business without getting distracted about the “wider picture,” as the title in the thinnest chapter, the last one, has it. History in the Making amounts to some introspection about the sustained trajectory and the work produced, and the emphasis must be placed on the “some.” The prose never gets too close for comfort. There are no confessions. Potentially provocative awkward moments, as with Américo Castro, are not explored. There is supreme caution here. History in the Making is sustained exercise in diplomacy, later years treated summarily with not many proper names and meaningful events. The prose is neither distracting nor arresting: serviceable. There are typically no stylistic flights of fancy, and when these occur, as for example the brief inclusion of T.S. Eliot’s poetry in the end, readers are entitled to wonder what the major point about wisdom is after all. Perhaps the whole point of History in the Making is to say that history, with or without capital letters, is not really about making big statements whatsoever about anything. This business is instead about, so it appears, the dutiful book-keeping of antiquarianism apropos the national object of (obscure) desire, not one’s own, call it Spain if you wish.


Note: This is abbreviated version of a longer piece.