Review of From Scenarios to Networks: Performing the Intercultural in Colonial Mexico by Leo Cabranes-Grant, Northwestern University Press, 2016, pp. 209.
Oscar Serquiña, Jr.
University of the Philippines
In From Scenarios to Networks: Performing the Intercultural in Colonial Mexico, Leo Cabranes-Grant constellates a creative analysis of the movements, entanglements, and rearrangements of objects, identities, and environments in Mexico between 1566 and 1690. His study employs what he calls a “materialist critique with a poesies of emergence” (88), which questions the ontological constitution of persons and their surroundings and, more importantly, examines the epistemologies of their making, unmaking, and remaking. Here, critical attention rests on an insurrection, a festival of bones, gilded Aztec drums and the performances instigated through and around them, and a Corpus Christi play.
Cabranes-Grant challenges easy formulations of essentialism and mestizaje prevalent in Mexico. Exposing the limits of these concepts that foreground the enduring core of persons and things, or that ride on reductive statist discourses of assimilation, Cabranes-Grant presents a thicker and more robust conceptualization of interculturalism through the trope of networking. For him, essentialist notions need to be nuanced in light of what he calls the “alterative reshuffles of repetition, [or] how performances change things by bringing them back” (15). Furthermore, the notion of mestizaje has to reckon with the intricate flows of identities within already tense and thick environments that have already been in full operation even or especially prior to the commencement of much-vaunted life-changing occurrences, such as conquest and colonization.
What is instructive in this conceptual inflection is the emphasis that Cabranes-Grant gives to the process of becoming. With this reformulation, another layer is added to the nature of the objects we see and the performances we do; within and through the entities and activities in our midst, we can remap a whole landscape, rewrite a whole history, and reconfigure a whole identity. They are, indeed, “networking devices” that do not rest on stability but instead open up opportunities where we can study what have preceded them, what they have captured, and what they can make possible. That said, Cabranes-Grant proffers a way to digest intercultural performances and encounters right at the moment of their unfolding.
Chapter one centers on masquerades, pageants, and the perambulations of Martin Cortés in 1566 through the streets of Mexico City. Cabranes-Grant’s main argument in this chapter deals with how these scenarios were put together and how they unfolded in various ways. He demonstrates this point through an analysis not only of performances but also of the objects that they implicated as well as the labors that went into the creation of these objects. These scenarios, therefore, did not simply rehash the Spanish conquest of Mexico to compel creoles into surrendering to the Church or to the Crown. Nor did they merely construct imperial authority within a changing and emerging social order. Rather, they unfolded the systems and operations of colonial power that men in Mexico have amassed and enacted. They, then, are performing and in performance to the degree that their presence and circulation — or better still, their circulating presence — invoked the relations and procedures that put them together or the realities that they made possible to begin with.
Chapter two examines the display of saintly relics by the newly arrived Jesuits in 1572. This festival is juxtaposed with the dramatic text Triumpho de los Santos, produced on the first and last Sundays of the festival of the bones; the ceremonial parade of students of the Colegio de San Pedro y San Pablo; a detailed relación or carta describing the festival that welcomed the bones; and literary contests. All of these, according to Cabranes-Grant, “implied a deliberate effort” from the Jesuits “to remap their surroundings” as well as to emplace themselves in their new landscape through their own vectors. In this chapter, Cabranes-Grant seeks to tease out the labor that the participants in the festival carried out as well as the opportunities that they participated in, which produced various semiotic and experiential changes in the environment. To him, public rituals of intercultural inclination might serve as points of inquiry into the historical emergence of Mexico City and the process of becoming of New Spain. These public performances reconfigured the formation of the community that accommodated it. As fundamental features of Mexico, they depicted and actualized “moments of intercultural creativity” (60). Especially for the festival of bones, they “replay[ed] and redirect[ed] an ongoing affective economy in which expenditures and beliefs were densely intertwined” (79-80).
Chapter three explores gilded drums, particularly their role in a 1564 wedding celebration and their appearance or depiction in the Cantares Mexicanos. Cabranes-Grant analyzes the Aztec drums and the distance of performing people and other objects within the vicinity of the drums as affective moments. The singing and dancing, writes Cabranes-Grant, were “spatial and temporal coordinates” that invoked the past in the present, on the one hand, and situated the present in the past, on the other, to the degree that dancers and singers and the objects they bore simultaneously embodied and supplemented a kinesthetic tradition. In this regard, Cantares Mexicanos’ documentation of the singing, dancing, movements, and festivities that took place around and through the Aztec drums might be seen as an “affective spectacle of prepositional transportation” (104). To Cabranes-Grant, this chronicle limned an intercultural milieu where men, their possessions, their surroundings, and their social labors might be seen as entwined embodied performances. It is crucial to consider analytically the affects that emanate from objects, like the Aztec drums, used by and therefore that animated the collective energies of human bodies and sociocultural life.
Chapter four examines Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s published Corpus Christi play, or auto sacramental, titled El divino Narciso or The Divine Narcissus (1689). While Cabranes-Grant admits that there’s not much extant information about the play, a historical absence that makes tracking down the labors and investments that went into its production difficult, he nonetheless conducts a close reading of de la Cruz’s work, particularly of its rhetorical underpinnings, in order to lay bare how a dramatic script served as a “conveyer of translocalized energy” and participated in the “material reassemblings of our experience” (115). He combines philological analysis and affective historiography to unpack “how the force of past embodiments was reinscribed in Sor Juana’s text” (116). Like the Cantares Mexicanos, de la Cruz’s The Divine Narcissus, especially its song-dances and the liturgies, paid attention to how kinesthetic bodies re-assembled time and space. In this regard, according to Cabranes-Grant, the auto sacramental chronicled cultural performances that reassembled the vectors of the milieu from which this play emerged. Moreover, the Nahuatl song-dances in this dramatic piece foregrounded, in the words of Cabranes-Grant, “the ways in which geography molds the itineraries of identity” (118).
It is not difficult to recognize the achievement of Cabranes-Grant’s project. Particularly impressive are his interrogations of existing theories through the analysis of objects and performances in intercultural Mexico. Cabranes-Grant adroitly intermixes theories of affect and performativity with his network analysis. He takes into critical consideration not only acts, artifacts, and actors in Mexico but also the wide vicinity to which they belong and which they, in turn, shape and reshape. What we see, therefore, in this study is a comprehension of what Cabranes-Grant calls “a presence in process” (122) and of a life-world whose various compositions emerge or disappear in place and time simultaneously.
Cabranes-Grant has undeniably offered methodological propositions, analytical arguments, and historiographical accounts of Mexico other scholars may want to take up and subsequently explore using their own sites of scholarship, or their own social, political, and historical realities in present or future times.