Todorov: La conquête de l’Amérique, La question de l’autre

La conquête de l'Amérique
Todorov: La conquête de l'Amérique

Todorov, Tzvetan. La conquête de l’Amérique : la question de l’autre. Paris: Seuil, 1982.

In this book, Tzvetan Todorov, renowned Franco-Bulgarian writer and director of research at the Centre National de Recherches (CNRS) in Paris, investigates the Spanish conquest of Central America (the Caribbean and Mexico) during the sixteenth century. His research topic is the perception of the ‘Indians’ by the Spaniards. What Todorov wants to investigate is ‘how to behave towards the other?’ The Spanish conquest, which is responsible of the death of 40-70 million people, is a good example of behaviour in front of otherness, since 1492 marks the date ‘our’ medieval minds enter modernity through the discovery of a new world. How did Europeans behave towards people who may have seemed to be from a different planet? Todorov sketches different types of behaviour, based on historical actors of the conquest.

Todorov sums up his study of various historical writings with his own ‘Typologies of relationships with others’, which constitutes an axis of research of the different levels on which behaviours towards otherness is based:
1. Axiologic plan: value judgement (good/bad, love/hate).
2. Praxeologic plan: closeness or foreignness (identification/ignorance, assimilation/rejection)
3. Epistemic plan: acknowledgement or indifference.

On these levels, Todorov studied the following historical figures:

Cristobal Colon
Cristobal Colón

Colombus: no identification, no knowledge, negative attitude. Christopher Colombus was primarily moved by his fanatic religious faith. He did not want to discover a new route to the Indies for his own glory, for gold, nor for the Queen of Spain. What motivated him was the celebration of God’s glory. Indians were just as the lands newly discovered, a blank sheet ready to be written upon by the Spaniards for their own benefit. He painted an idyllic portrait of the Indians upon his arrival, based on his own fantasies more than reality: beautiful people in the inside on the outside, good-hearted and kind, generous and indifferent to money, but cowards and fragile — easy to conquer. He wants Indians to be like him, and in that he is a naive assimilationist. His project is to Christianise the Indians, and in that he sees things the way he pleases by observing that the Indians already bare Christian characteristics. In doing so, Colombus becomes a pro-slaver and from the principle of Christian equality he unconsciously considers Indians to be inferior in order to be exploited materially and colonised spiritually. The propagation of faith and the submission to slavery are two sides of the same coin for Colombus. Even outside this project, Indians are considered as innate objects for his own ‘ethnological’ studies: he denies them to possess individual will. For Todorov thus, ‘Colombus discovered America, not the Americans’ (p. 54).

Bartolome de las Casas
Bartolome de las Casas

Las Casas: no knowledge, love for ‘Indians.’ Las Casas was touched by the massacres committed towards the ‘Indians’ and decided to attempt at protecting them. He did not however developed a great knowledge of them nor did he learn their language. He even attempted to justify the human sacrifices they were committing through arguing about ‘natural reason’ and that it is their way to adore God, by giving the greatest sacrifice of all: human life. According to Las Casas, thus there is a universal love of God, but all religious expressions of this love are culturally specific, and as such relative. As a consequence, Christianity is not the only nor the best way to God. Barbarism is a relative notion as well. One is always a barbarian to others, and vice versa as long as one does not recognise the language being spoken. Whereas for some the Christian principle of the equality of men ensues the assimilation of ‘Indians’ because they are similar to us, Las Casas deduces the perspectivism of it. Las Casas’ political solution to the ‘Indians’ is to maintain previous states with their Kings and governors, with catholic preaches but without the military, and if the Kings express this wish, to establish a sort of federation presided by the King of Spain. They must be given their original freedom back and be reinstated in their sovereignty.

Vasco de Quiroga
Vasco de Quiroga

Vasco de Quirioga: no knowledge of ‘Indians’ and no identification, but a positive attitude. For him, Spaniards are a declining culture, whereas Indians constitute a rising civilisation in history. However, they are not perfect and must be worked upon. Instead of asking kings, Vasco de Quirioga acts directly upon Indians, and is inspired in this by Thomas Moore’s Utopia. He organised two utopian villages around Mexico.  He is an assimilationist.

Gonzalo Guerrero
Gonzalo Guerrero

Gonzalo Guerrero: After a shipwreck, he was the one of the survivors who reached the Mexican shores in 1511. He was taken by the Indians and sold as a slave. He learned the language and managed to acquire a high social status by teaching war, and winning quite a few of them. He married a woman from the nobility and painted himself in the manner of the Indians, let his hair grow and pierced his ears. Having established his life with the Indians, he transformed himself into a complete identification. He even fought against the Spaniards during which battle he lost his life.

Hernán Cortés

Cortés: great knowledge, negative attitude. Cortés wants primarily to understand, and in that he differs from other conquistadores in that he has a historical and political consciousness of his actions. In that, his first difficulty is to find an interpreter. During one conquest, a woman is given to the Spaniards, named Malintzin — the frequent name given being La Malinche. Her talent for languages places her as interpreter to Cortés, and also her lover from whom he will have a kid, one of the first mixed child. He will use all the information gathered to his advantage in conquering the Indians. He will have a deep understanding of the Indians’ use of signs and exploit them to his advantage in order to inspire fear and appear as a hero. The Indians would even ask Cortés to act on their favour to fight their own enemies. Cortés’ principal preoccupation is what the Indians will interpret from his actions and speeches. The message he wants to give is strategically planned — it is an information warfare, one could say. He wants to control all details of communication, and even regarding the image of his army. Indian tells confirms the success of Cortés’ communication warfare: the Aztec King, Moctezuma, believed that Cortés was the return of Quetzalcoatl to take his empire. This communication warfare will extend beyond Cortés in the imposition by the Spaniards of Nahuatl as the official Mexican language at first, and then the Hispanic of the country through the study of local languages, and the teaching of Spanish. The first Grammar book of a European language would be produce at that time: Spanish grammar by Antonio de Nebrija who wrote in his introduction: ‘… siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio…’

La Malinche
La Malinche

La Malinche: complete identification with the Spaniards and assimilation to their culture. Worked as a translator to Cortés and a bridge between the two cultures. As such she acquired a high status in the Indian collective mind. She exemplifies mixture, melting rather than purity. She studies Spanish culture in order to also better understand her own — even if it is to destroy it. She became essential to Cortés’ business, and also acquired a particular place in Indians’ myths, which is testified by all the cartoons drawn of her in a central place in between Indians and Spaniards.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca: This conquistador was forced to live with the Indians after a shipwreck. In order to survive he practised two professions: trade, and shaman or doctor. In doing so he imitates the local healers, and adds some catholic prayers. He adopts their trades, customs, clothing, but never forgets his identity. As soon as he found his way, he took the first ship back to Spain, and ‘civilisation.’ He helds the Indians with great esteem and does not want to do them harm. The evangelisation must be conducted without violence. He acquires a precise knowledge of their way of life, in order to act upon them for their conversion, and also to pass this knowledge to other conquistadors who will use it to sumbit them. His identification is thus deep but without implication. He wrote Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan a great historical monument on Mayas’ past, but he also decided the autodafe of all Mayan books. There is however no contradiction as he was an assimilationist in Yucatan and burned books, and wrote this historical book in Spain as a scholar in order to defend himself of his acts in a court of law.

Durán Codex
Durán Codex

Durán: Also known as the ‘Durán Codex,’ The History of the Indies of New Spain was published c. 1581. Durán also wrote Book of the Gods and Rites (1574-1576), and Ancient Calendar, (c. 1579). He gathered a great and deep knowledge of the Indians for the purpose of imposing Catholic religion and erase all traces of pagan rites. ‘Know thy enemy’ seems to be his motto. In this quest he is radical in the elimination of all idolatry: confession of the dreams, prevention of religious syncretism, destruction of all related monuments. All ancient customs must disappear. However, Durán tries to explain the Mexican realities to the Europeans through analogies and comparisons. Some Mexican religious customs are compared to the Christian ones. In Durán’s mind this comparison serves to argue that the Indians are indeed Christians. The Aztec are thus a lost tribe of Israel. So this religious syncretism that he tries so hard to eradicate, he practices it with his gaze upon the Indians. He shares the Indian way of life in order to understand them, he understands both cultures, and as such, his work is enlightening. Throughout his books he clearly separates the Aztec point of view from his own, but at some point he is losing this separation and claims the point of view of the historian telling the tale of heroes and the glory of Mexico. In other words, he loses these two identities (Spanish and Aztec) and creates the very first new Mexican identity. With La Malinche he is one of the first Mexicans.


Sahagun: Franciscan ‘linguist’, not part of the aristocracy or high ranked religious — who dispised having to lower themselves to learning Indian culture and language, so he learned the language — Nahuatl — and learned to live together with the ‘indians.’ He was professor of Latin grammar in the Franciscan college of Tlatelolco dedicated to forming the Mexican elite from the former nobility. In order to propagate better Christianism he projected to write the history of the ancient Mexican religion. His Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España would occupy him for forty years. However, his project was also dedicated to develop knowledge of and preserve the Nahuatl culture. In order to do so, he chose to report faithfully the testimonies he collected with a translation, instead of replacing them by it.This translation constitutes more an interpretation
from the original text. His interventions in the text are not only rare, but clearly separated from the rest. They are characterised by an intention to avoid moral judgements and attempt to explain from other known civilisations such as Ancient Rome. Obviously, however, the knowledge is organised in a European way through answers to a European-made questionnaire. Sahagun saw the terrible consequences of the replacement of the Aztec civilisation by the Spaniards. He dreamt of the creation of an ideal state that would be Mexican and Christian — a city of God.

From Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España

Todorov categorises Sahagun in his ‘typology of relationships to otherness’ as a believer of the Christian doctrine of equality between men. However, even if he learns the language and the culture of the ‘Indians,’ he maintains his identity, and even idealise the ‘Indians.’ What is interesting in his work for Todorov, is the massive knowledge that he accumulated without perpetrating any qualitative judgement. His work can be qualified as ‘ethnography’ as he is just collecting information without interpretation, and making only a timid comparison with Ancient Rome, but without being comparative. For him, cultures cannot be hybrid nor should they be; cultures stay in their own rights untouched. Nonetheless, Todorov sees there the embryo to any future dialogue between civilisations that we today experience.

Todorov’s book is highly recommandable for an introduction to reflexion on our behaviour towards other people in early modernity. In our world of reflexiv modernity, these have changed very much. The question of identity is not fixed but flexible, the question of hybridisation is not an impossible thought but a daily reality. This is the heart of all problems for cosmopolitan theory: how to form universal standards if all standards are by definition locally situated? Even if one is fluent in two or three or more cultures, it cannot possibly encompass all of them to grasp some commonality or acceptable form of universality for all. The debate is currently set on human rights as the smallest common denominator, but even they are Western-based. Of course, human rights are a good thing, but they mean a Western imposition nonetheless, even if for the greater good.’ Are ‘we’ ready to accept other forms of imposition on ‘our’ mentality if they are potentially ‘good’ for humankind? After all, one should reflect upon the fact that in all our exchanges with ‘foreigners’ we are acting in a historical manner, even if playing a tiny part as a tourist.

Armenian Iranian refugees in Vienna

In Vienna I have been living in a student hall of residence for two years. Not all rooms are rented to students. Some are also rented to Iranian refugees of Armenian decent — the most important Christian minority in Iran. The manager of the house is Armenian himself. But apparently there is no philanthropy there, these refugees even have to pay a higher price than we do. They are a non-Muslim minority in Iran, they speak Armenian, and it is for them incredibly difficult to live there because of social and economical discriminations, not to mention the very strict Shi’a-Muslim way of life that they must follow. They all go to the USA, and have been doing so for decades now, with the blessing of the Iranian authorities of course.

Until now I have been caught up in my studies and my work and have not gotten time to exchange much with any of them. I have seen them coming and going, some rather swiftly, others waiting longer. However I am on holidays now and all the students are gone, being replaced by tourists. I am living in one room only with a couple of other floor mates, and two rooms occupied by four Armenians, two girls and two guys. They are very kind and open people and as we are often in the kitchen together we are talking, although their English is not always too good yet (but mine is not that perfect either). We form a little community by our immediate proximity and common use of the kitchen. I began to think then in terms of international relations, and wondered about the application of different frames of thinking. The kitchen is then the geopolitical zone of interaction, we have a common interest in keeping it clean and functional for the benefit of all. It is also the place where we exchange by using it: communicating, cooking, observing each others.

I am thus learning something about a group of peoples I did not even know existed. I am interrogating them a lot about Iran, life conditions there, the refugee process etc. I hope they do not see me as a policeman of some kind. Armenian Iranians mostly live in Tehran. But then again most Iranians do: 15 million people inhabit this over-polluted city! Forget everything about Beijing. The smog of pollution is so dense there you need to decrease your speed by half when you are walking and use a GPS.  I find it very worrying this automatic granting of asylum to them. Of course it is much better for them, they are off to a country that will allow them to reach their capabilities fully, and where they will not suffer from discriminations and be imposed certain restricting rules in their daily life. But the country is also slowly emptying itself of this age-old minority. It is a kind of asylum ethnic cleansing. Dreadful. And there is no hope for change. Even if the Muslim youth is despising the regime and aspire to more liberal rules and relaxed social , they too are quitting the sinking boat to live a more fulfilling life abroad. So only people without resource, members of the establishment, or sympathetic elite stay in the country.

One of the guys I am discussing with the most, Arbi (who with his shaved head looks like Agassi, another American of Armenian Iranian descent), tells me that they all go to the USA rather than Europe because they already have a community and relatives there, and that they can. It is really a slow massive population displacement in a way — a community is being displaced from one location to another. I cannot help but think about the sadness of this process. Obviously it is a great gesture on the part of the USA to accept all these refugees.

They all go to California, mainly because of the weather and the already established community. They have nothing to do here in Vienna all day but to wait for the process to be processed. At some point they are simply bored — no money, no job, all the sightseeing done, nothing left to do. Apparently the process takes about two years, and I am told that the real difficulties first arrive in the USA as they have to run for about a month from one bureaucracy to the other to get all their papers and permits in order. Arbi, has a degree in bio-chemistry that he will have to pass again. But he says it does not matter, nothing of all the troubles he is going through by moving to a new country, filling tons of applications, red tapes, passing the same exams again, nothing is worse than the troubles they suffer by staying in Iran.

Idea for a wiki project site on cosmopolitanism

Andrew Weldon
Illustration: Andrew Weldon

I am fairly new to the blogosphere, and I found a cool blog for academics, especially in the humanities, advising on the latest NICTs for educational purpose–academhack, which is listed in my blog links on the right navigation bar. There’s a post about some interesting research tools. Among them, a link to “the state of wikis in education” an interview of Stewart Mader who wrote two books and is dedicating this same blog to the use of wiki in education.

This way of teaching and interacting with students and researchers seems very promising. I have decided to build one of these for cosmopolitanism instead of just this blog, since it truly allows for interactivity and exchange. I have first to build a network and if I get a job as teaching assistant or something similar I will definitely put something together. I imagine that people could have separate projects to work on, assignments on themes, post some links, add to some articles and researches, etc. First, I have to learn about wikis.

This is an exciting way to approach knowledge and research. Organising a web site also allows me to think in terms of structures and framework to place how all the elements of research fit and connect to each other. I think that such a web site is much more appropriate to the teaching of knowledge, and in particular with such interconnected discourses as in the history of ideas. Why was I not taught with the use of these tools at university? Definitely worth developing and researching.

Obama in Berlin: ich bin ein Weltbürger?

Senator Barack Obama was Thursday 24 July 2008 in Berlin where he delivered his much anticipated speech in front of a massive crowd. Of course the reference to “ich bin ein Berliner” was obvious and too easy to mention. He opened his speech toning down expectations, stating he was there as a simple US citizen, and a “citizen of the world.” Rhetorically he is leaving it up to the media coverage to make the link: “ich bin ein Weltbürger.”

To my knowledge, this must be one of the very first time a politician declares so openly a cosmopolitan ideal to be his. There is certainly much to celebrate for a cosmopolitan in this speech, but I would like to present a few remarks as to the alleged cosmopolitan nature of his commitment.

Barack Obama is strongly emphasising history. His narrative is mixing his own individual history with History, and the former influences the latter. For the first time, a politician takes it as a positive and self-promoting way to underline a transnational and transcontinental heritage: European, African, and North American. However, his own individual narrative is American, and hence his historical narrative is also emphasising an American view of the world. Obama thus retold Berlin’s past in the cold war. “People of the world – look at Berlin!” he asks. In fact, he asks them to look at how the USA has helped and fought the 20th century enemy – communism. For the 21st century the enemy is terrorism, and then other foes such as undemocratic regimes, nuclear threats, and global environmental challenges. For these reasons Europe and America must pass their differences and work together because “… the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.” Only through partnership and cooperation between Americans and Europeans is it possible “to protect our common security and advance our common humanity.”

I cannot but be enthusiastic about such a speech. Clearly a cosmopolitan agenda is on the making. However, I recall Dunn’s words about the role of intellectual history in politics: “Where the history of political theory remains of decisive significance … is in the clarification and assessment of political goals and in the appraisal of political action.” Since I am studying cosmopolitanism as a political doctrine, both epistemologically and ontologically, I feel compelled to a few remarks to America’s potential next president.

Perhaps it was just Lacanian to connect in the same sentence the idea of “common security” and “common humanity.” Whose humanity is that anyway? Clearly it is a Western security connected to a Western conception of “our humanity.” We know since Anderson’s book on nation, that these are imagined communities. As Robbins states it “worlds too are ‘imagined.'” Or as Pollock et al. argues, there are many versions of cosmopolitanism, many cosmopolitanisms and not just one. This means that when we reflect upon our common humanity we do so necessarily in our own rooted local discourse. For Obama, it is the American discourse, and more widely the Western discourse.

In the Western discourse of cosmopolitanism, the vision of a common humanity sharing a common world emerged as a dominant discourse during the Enlightenment. Inherited from the humanist reactions against the atrocities committed in the name of religion against the “Indians” in America and between protestants and catholics in Europe, enlightened philosophes started to state political and moral theories based on a vision of a common humankind. Doing so, they opened the possibility to place oneself as a subject speaking for humankind. This was rhetorically done through the concept of universal reason. Since reason is what defines humankind, one using reason is necessarily speaking for humankind. Thus, laws of morality could be induced from using reason and observing man: moral and political “sciences” were born.

Obviously the danger of this modern positivist account of cosmopolitanism is the absence of consideration that by speaking for humankind on the behalf of humankind, one is in fact speaking for the humankind one would like to see, and from one’s own local perception of it. Of course, fighting terrorism, promoting human rights, and cooperating to fight global warming are policies everyone should endorse because they are for the benefit of humankind. What I want to underline is that “we” (“Westerners”) should do so by understanding that “others” have a saying and should be included in discussing how and why to do so. Otherwise, it is pure imperialism or universalism, and not cosmopolitanism.

Of course I feel enthusiastic to be included as a potential political force of the 21st century: “It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation – our generation – must make our mark on the world.” However, I would like to warn presidential candidate Obama and “our generation” about making “our mark on the world”: we must learn to include others, listen and engage dialogues with the world, because “worlds too are imagined.” It is during the eighteenth century that the expression “citizen of the word” became fashionable; until some abused the word to pretend to philosophical truths and objectivity they did not possibly mean; until the French revolution attempted to export real kosmopolitik to Europe by claiming to fight for human rights; until the word “cosmopolitan” became associated with a uniform imperialism.

Works cited:

Anderson, Benedict.  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991 rev. ed. [1983] .

Dunn, John. “The History of Political Theory.” In The History of Political Theory and Other Essays, by John Dunn, 11-38. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Pollock, Sheldon, Homi K. Bhabha, Carol A. Breckenridge, and Dipesh Chakrabarty. “Cosmopolitanisms.” In Cosmopolitanism, edited by Carol A. Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi K. Bhabha and Dipesh Chakrabarty, 1-14. Durham, NC & London: A Millennial Quartet Book, 2002.

Robbins, Bruce. “Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism.” In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, 1-19. Minneapolis, MN & London: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Foucault and the academe

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault

Personally I do not understand at all where most of the people who write about Foucault or use Foucault in their studies (particularly in the fields of sociology and philosophy) get their interpretation of Foucault from.

When I started to get interested in Foucault I had an odd reflex of getting my hand on secondary literature introducing Foucault to the dilettante that I wish I had not. The reason I did so was that I heard so much about how difficult his ideas were and how difficult he was to read. Actually the difficulty had perhaps more to do with the fact that I heard this in the Anglo-American literature, which has a tradition for concise prose and clearly structured books. Not only did I waste vastly my time trying to understand what they meant, but I also almost got a completely spoiled understanding of his work. Luckily, I decided to try to read him on my own. Looking back I realise that most of what people write about Foucault or using Foucault is really a lot of nonsense. I do not claim to be the only one who understands Foucault on this planet, but it seems to me that there is a big hype about his work, which is totally unjustified. I read Foucault in French, and I guess that it probably helps to understand better, since one is less conditioned by conventional political literature written in English (this concise and structured thing).

I think that the best way to introduce Foucault to students is to dedramatise the Foucault hype completely. One has to convince them that Foucault is not a difficult author, mysterious and impenetrable to the infidel. One must have a punk attitude and dare to confront one’s mind to any other one’s. However, it does take a while to read him, and one must be patient with his writing. But it does pay off in the end if one has taken careful notes on the readings of The Archaeology of Knowledge and The Order of Discourse.

A great companion to read alongside Foucault is Using Foucault’s Methods by Gavin Kendal and Gary M. Wickham. The first two chapters at least can be very useful, especially the passages explaining the differences between archaeology and genealogy and the idea about “suspending second order judgements” in applying the method.

However, there is absolutely no better way to understand Foucault, and particularly his archaeological method (from which the rest is based on, especially genealogy, which merely adds power as an element of explanation), than applying his method concretely to the analysis of a discourse in history. I am strongly sceptical towards any other applications of Foucault’s “tools” to other fields than the history of ideas.

In order to do so, the students should first read the methods as described in The Archaeology of Knowledge, The Order of Discourse, and the short text “What is an Author?”. Bullet points, and definitions of Foucault’s key concepts are very important. Then attempting to apply them to historical “facts” or “monuments” is the most effective way to actually understand what Foucault meant by “discours”, “fonction énonciative”, “objet”, “concept”, “stratégie”, etc.

I would really love to teach Foucault my own way, since nobody taught me Foucault. I truly believe also that it is in Foucault’s spirit of approaching any research, like Kant’s enlightened vision of a lamp in the dark, to approach Foucault completely without judgements, with the brain as blank as an empty sheet of paper.

MA thesis abstract

I have now finished writing my thesis, which only needs a very last light-editing touch. As a teaser, I publish here the abstract:

Cosmopolitanism is not a well-known entity in political theory. Therefore, a history of this political doctrine is needed. However, such epistemological enquiry faces an ontological conundrum. Not only is it difficult to identify cosmopolitanism, but doing so might prove to be an ‘uncosmopolitan thing to do.’ This thesis employs a contextualist archaeology — marrying Foucault with the ‘Cambridge school’ — in order to conciliate an epistemological approach with a fairly ontologically neutral status. Cosmopolitanism is thus envisaged as a located discourse in the West, problematising the local and the general, and squeezed in between (inter)nationalism and universalism. How did cosmopolitanism enter political thought alongside these two other doctrines? To contemporary cosmopolitanism, eighteenth-century French political thought constitutes a ‘return’ to the humanist foundations on which our modern political vocabulary got formed. Its study reveals that a hitherto-considered nationalist vocabulary — the nation, the patrie — was indeed formulated in cosmopolitan terms. It also reveals that the conception of humanity structured communautarian contractualist theories despite the universality of human rights. This thesis shows the common archive of these three discourses around a rediscovered and yet unanswered question in political thought: the proper sovereign authority to govern ‘universally free and equal’ humankind.

Everyone is very welcome to provide a feedback regarding the quality of the abstract in itself and/or the content.

Blog at

Up ↑