Friday, January 10, 2020

Law and the Lettered City

What is the historical relationship between law and writing, legality and literacy? As a guest blogger whose work centers primarily on colonial Latin America, I might be in a good position to offer some reflections on these questions. After all, historians of colonial Latin America have long emphasized the litigiousness of its inhabitants. Many wax poetic about the mountains of yellowing civil suits and vertiginously tall leather-clad notary ledgers held in national archives. Still, the population generally didn’t read and write much. (Even a hundred years ago, the literacy rates in most countries in the region was under 30 percent.) This means there is a lot of law in Latin America’s past but not a lot of traditional literacy. (cont'd)


In his brief but blockbuster 1984 book La ciudad letrada (The Lettered City), Uruguayan theorist Angel Rama observed the wide gulf between the Latin American masses and its ruling classes, created by the elite’s historical monopoly of writing. The gatekeepers of Rama’s urban centers were the “letrados,” educated state bureaucrats who etched their orderly visions of rule onto paper. Of the voluminous legal writing produced over almost four centuries of Spanish and Portuguese rule of America, he wrote: 

Written documents seemed not spring from social life but rather to be imposed upon it and to force it into a mold not at all made to measure. There was a wide and enduring gap between the prescriptive detail of the law codes and the anarchic confusion of the social realities toward which the letrados directed their legislation.

As I’ve puzzled through various types of seventeenth and eighteenth-century legal documentation while researching topics such as legal minority, Indian jurisdiction, and the production of the Enlightenment in the suits for freedom brought by enslaved litigants in Spain’s empire, I mind Rama’s “gap.” But this is not so much because it accurately captures an elite monopoly on legal writing. Rather, it describes our own contemporary insistence that the archive, especially the legal archive, creates a gulf, a barrier—some might say a mausoleum— separating historians from the experience of the masses, the enslaved, the conquered. In this respect, the concept of the Lettered City presaged the postcolonial Archival Turn, that scholarly movement that forces us to confront how the ordering of written records of the past predetermines history’s possibilities. Both share a somber recognition that the West’s sanctification of writing is part and parcel with its desecration of non-Western or marginalized categories of knowing.

Between the Lettered City and the Archival Turn, however, scholarship that demonstrates that literacy cannot be reduced to the ability to read and/or write in European languages has slowly been accumulating into a veritable library of the unlettered. Some of this corpus is being produced by the New Philologists, or historians who focus on colonial-era indigenous-language documents, particularly those produced in Mesoamerica. Dogged inquiries into non-alphabetic writing systems such as the qhipus of the Andes and of visual materials also line the shelves. And, of course, a portion of this work has come from legal historians of colonial Latin America, who have exposed the acumen and political savvy of indigenous intermediaries, enslaved litigants, women and other subordinates who delegated legal writing. That legal writing, in the form of petitions and lawsuits that made their way up the judicial ladder, prompted both colonial and metropolitan legislation. Thus, a wide array of subjects directed peninsular legislation, sometimes without ever picking up a quill. 

So, today, we float in a murky moat encircling the Lettered City, certain that “law” cannot be reduced to top-down, elite projects to write subordinated subjects into oblivion and equally convinced that the archive nestled within the City’s fortressed walls continues its work of sorting out the historically disorderly.

--Bianca Premo

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