12.12.10, Folger, Writing as Poaching

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John Slater

The Medieval Review 12.12.10

Folger, Robert. Writing as Poaching: Interpellation and Self-Fashioning in Colonial relaciones de méritos y servicios. The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World, 44. Leiden: Brill, 2011. Pp. x, 156. ISBN: 978-90-04-21109-4.

Reviewed by:
John Slater
University of Colorado at Boulder

The colonial bureaucracy of early modern Spain generated thousands upon thousands of documents. In many such documents, subjects of the Crown seeking privileges or offices described their services to the king in a way that might loosely be considered autobiographical; these petitions were called "relaciones de méritos y servicios." Folger's Writing as Poaching examines the genres of bureaucratic writing, with particular attention to these "relaciones," giving us a map to the maze of colonial petitions and reports. The book's most important contribution is to make comprehensible documents and accounts that modern scholars either do not know how to read or read poorly, by elucidating "the pragmatics of early modern Spanish colonial 'auto-biographical' writing" (9). Folger's subject is very broad; he tells the story of a vast information-gathering apparatus, how information was standardized in official works of historiography, and how these works later served as models for the production of further documents, such as the "relaciones." It is, however, a very short book of 138 pages, plus bibliography. The condensation of such an ambitious argument into such a small space often leaves things feeling hurried and cramped.

This is unfortunate because Writing as Poaching is often illuminating and always theoretically sophisticated, albeit in a strangely old-fashioned way. Folger's most important arguments are about the intentions of colonial writers; he claims that figures as well-known as Rodríguez Frayle "aim at being integrated, at a superior level, into the bureaucratic hierarchy" (113). In other words, Folger considers a number of familiar and neglected works, primarily from 1550-1650, and reads them as if they were extra-official petitions or "relaciones." This approach indicates the ways in which the codes and values of bureaucratic writing seeped into other forms of textual production. His interest in the echoes of officialdom and what we might call bureaucratized fiction make gray areas important; Folger examines with particular attention the "proto-legal" and "semi-official," messy, hybrid works and failed attempts, textual deficiencies, and infelicities of composition. Folger concerns himself with writing that has been branded strange, derivative, and simply bad--in the case of Alonso Borregán, whose work was a "linguistic disaster"--and demonstrates that we have been reading for the wrong reasons (95).

The subtitle, Interpellation and Self-Fashioning in colonial relaciones de méritos y servicios, identifies some of Foger's theoretical commitments but belies the contents. The book is not a study of a significant number of the thousands of "relaciones" written during the colonial period. Instead, it is about how the generic characteristics of the "relaciones" were dictated by the bureaucracy and incorporated into "tactical" forms of writing. Tactical writing in the this book most often functions as a subject's extra-official request for redress (made in lieu of a formal petition before the Crown), when the informal petitioner cannot or is ineligible to follow official requirements.

Writing as Poaching has three chapters: a theoretical introduction that draws heavily upon Certeau, Althusser, and Foucault; a second chapter on the "relaciones," colonial historiography, and subject constitution; a final chapter on works that are not official petitions but adopt the codes and aspirations of the "relaciones"; all followed by a brief epilogue. The introduction poses some interesting theoretical conundrums, prompted by the fact that the ethical dimension of Folger's approach is not always clear. The language of the introduction and the book in general--"poaching," "despoiling," "faking," and so on--would seem to imply that some ethical critique is at work. But in passages such as the following, Folger perceptibly sidesteps ethical issues: "Colonial bureaucracy forced--or better, invited--Spaniards in the Colonies to scrutinize their personal memories..."(39). "Forcing," of course, implies something quite different than "inviting." In other instances, this ambiguity is clarified; for example, here the "forced" and "invited" are changed to "pressed" and "lured": "Sumaria relación is an important testimony of how the bureaucratic apparatus pressed or lured individuals into predetermined social roles and subject positions" (94). The reasons for this ambivalence may lie in the fact that Certeau, Althusser, and Foucault were educated and employed by French state bureaucracies and institutions that historically defined themselves in opposition to their Spanish counterparts. The way that Folger understands the influence of bureaucratic writing is thus doubly refracted through the demands, conventions, and institutional climates of two state cultures shaped by centuries of mutual animosity.

The theoretical contests at work in Writing as Poaching illuminate some processes and obscure others. For example, Folger's use of "the Archive," an "imagined totality of information accumulated by state apparatuses," is quite a wonderful tool for describing the ways that writers perceived the demands of the state and shaped their texts accordingly (10-11). But "the Archive," as opposed to "the archives," is in practice a fairly static image, one not particularly apt for describing historical change. Folger sometimes leaves readers with the impression that neither bureaucratic practices nor their imagined weight changed after the death of Philip II in 1598. Given that "[h]istoriographical works were one of the benchmarks against which the allegations made in relaciones de méritos y servicios were measured," and the fact that historiography changed a great deal between the beginning of Philip's reign in 1556 and the end of Habsburg rule in Spain in 1700, a more thoroughgoing analysis of the development of the Archive's "imagined totality" would be welcome (57). Some of the theoretical toiling can be onerously helpful, as well. By the second involved explanation of "interpellation," dyed-in-the-wool structural Marxists and those who have never heard of Althusser will be equally annoyed. Some orthographic tics sit better than others--"discoursive productivity" (39), "his/story" (102), and "it(s)self" (40)--while a few passages seem hamstrung by theoretical hedging: "Sumaria relación is a synopsis, as it were, of a series of interpellations and, at the same time, a hypomnêmaton of sorts" (79).

Many readers will appreciate the second chapter's lucid explanation of the bureaucratic process by which one might obtain favors from the king. Folger demonstrates how the institutions such as the Council of Indies "invited" the participation of would-be petitioners; he then examines the strategies and tactics used by petitioners to constitute themselves as worthy subjects. The passages that explore the particularities of the conventions of bureaucratic writing are excellent and show how writers were rewarded for their ability to adopt the idiom of the bureaucracy.

The third chapter, dedicated to Dorantes de Carranza's Sumaria relación, Borregán's Crónica, and Rodríguez Frayle's El Carnero, is the most speculative--dealing explicitly with the intentionality of works--and the most suggestive. The chapter is about tactical writing, a process by which those without a place, without even the right to displacement, create a geography of subjectivity through the manipulation of bureaucratic topoi. Folger shows how bureaucratic codes were utilized successfully even by those who had little hope of a successful petition. The failed attempts are often revealing because they do not follow official procedures but rather mimic the language of the Archive. The success of Folger's approach is apparent in his explication of difficult or neglected works. Folger shows that the totality of El Carnero, a work often drastically abridged in modern editions, makes sense when read as an extra-official petition akin to a "relación." In the case of the Crónica, Folger persuasively argues that Borregán can be understood as a "pale and grotesquely distorted specular image of Bernal Díaz del Castillo" (106). The daring of this exercise is justified by the usefulness of the results; the works Folger examines may not be transcendent in a literary sense, they may even be bad, but Writing as Poaching allows us to appreciate their strangeness.

Ultimately, this feels like the germ of a much longer, more satisfying book. Block quotes taken from documents are sometimes asked to do a lot of work on their own, without much explanation from Folger. He writes, for example, "royal officials in the colonies had two principal tools to verify the truth of the supplicants' claims: the interrogation of witnesses and the Archive" (26). This is followed by a quote from colonial law that makes pellucid how interrogation was used, but does not allow us to understand the enactment of the Archive. In instances such as this, I am not tempted to disagree with Folger, I just wish he took more delight in explaining his ideas as they were manifested in the texts he cites. Because, however, Writing as Poaching allows us to understand the context of struggle and bureaucratic coercion that gave rise to many different kinds of colonial writing, it will be of great interest to scholars working on Spain's colonies in the early modern period

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John Slater

University of Colorado at Boulder