Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins. Beyond the Lettered City.

Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins.  Beyond the Lettered City. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012.  370 pp.

Beyond the Lettered City by Joanne Rappaport and Tom Cummins is a book of 370 pages divided into an introduction, six chapters, a conclusion and a glossary of terms.  In Beyond the Lettered City Rappaport and Cummins take up and respond to the work of other colonial scholars, especially Ángel Rama, who have framed colonial society as two separate republics; one Spanish and “lettered” and another, indigenous and illiterate.  Instead of the model of a colonial society divided by the written word, the authors propose that literacy functioned as a core infrastructure that organized a multifaceted colonial culture.  They show that the native population participated in and were subject to literacy and its forms to the same extent as the Spanish population.  

Early on Rappaport and Cummins set out the question of how to understand the confrontation of Spanish and native cultures.  The authors dispute the notion of colonial “hybridity” which emphasizes a singular “moment of confrontation and mixing” of the Spanish and the native and argue instead for using the term “colonial culture” to highlight the wholeness of the new culture.  Additionally, they argue that the term “hybrid” builds on unrealistic notions of the confrontation of two primordial cultures when in reality “Spanish culture” is a blend of the entanglements of Iberian, Moorish and Jewish cultures.

The authors argue that literacy, particularly in its legal forms, is a tool of colonization, but also a tool that was harnessed by indios to position themselves as best as they could within colonial society.  In Chapter 2 they argue that Western arts are not a place for creative expression, but rather a critical element of the subject formation of the native population where indios learned how to see and how others saw them.  The authors present this split subjectivity as a “double-consciousness” that manifests as a persistent awareness of the hegemonic perspective.  In Chapter 3, for example, the authors argue that indigenous elites quickly realized the importance of alphabetic writing after the Spanish invasion and that a parallel lettered city developed within the República de indios (115).  At the same time, the book moves beyond a focus on the strata of literate native elites to examine how the majority of the indigenous population participated in the spaces and in the rituals that surrounded writing as a medium of power.  For example, in Chapter 5 there is a discussion of how the king’s seal on documents carried authority that did not require the ability to decode the message, but that still was based in the written word.  Chapter 6 discusses how both literate and illiterate members of society were impacted by the discursive push to impose order on colonial space and on colonial bodies.  The authors argue that daily life was organized according to standards that were transmitted through images and writing.  Indigenous towns or reducciones, for example, were organized into an orderly grid pattern based on Augustine’s City of God (222).  The audience of colonial literacy included men of letters and also the indio that made the sign of the cross over his body (258).

The types of genres of literacy that Rapapport and Cummins focus on are primarily legal documents such as petitions to the crown, wills, and land titles.  The authors show that these legal literacies provide a space for examining “colonial culture.”  The flavor of “colonial culture” is evident in the orality of legal documents.  In one public auction, for example, a pregonero repeats thirty times his announcement of a parcel of land that will be reassigned, as is legally prescribed, and the announcement is reproduced in painstaking detail in the written record each of the thirty times, word for word (119).  Testaments, in the colonial period, are tied to the Catholic cult and are a spiritual act meant to acknowledge the worldliness of material objects and to direct one’s energies toward salvation.  At the same time, many of the items that are bestowed to loved ones are both Andean and European objects showing the juxtaposition of these cultural objects in colonial culture.  Land titles are a Spanish legal norm that also preserves traditional native ways of understanding space and ownership like zanja boundary markers (121).  Rappaport and Cummins argue that while indios accepted the authority of Spanish forms and began to trust in Spanish legal documents, their use of these forms changed Western art forms, the Spanish written word, and European legal standards into colonial literacies.

In sum, Rapapport and Cummins’ Beyond the Lettered City is a helpful book with many examples that illustrate the nuances of “colonial culture.”  The authors respond to Angel Rama’s The Lettered City with the argument that colonial society cannot be thought of as two parallel societies divided by literacy.  Instead, they show that literacy was the core infrastructure that organized colonial life and that native elites participated directly in Spanish literate society.  Illiterate indios also participated in literate society even if though the fact that they could not read and write meant that they were more marginalized in colonial life.  Illiterate indios were subject to the authority of the written word and the discourses that organized daily life, but did not have the same ability as native elites to engage in dialogue and negotiate colonial power structures.