The lettered city, Angel Rama


The map above, produced by an indigenous mapmaker in 1581 in response to the Relaciones Geográficas, depicts the town of Cholula in Mexico, an important Tolteca-Chichimeca religious and political site and one of the largest population centers in Mesoamerica at the time of Cortes’s conequest of Mexico.  (See this blog for more info)
In a nutshell (from the Duke University Press Description):
Angel Rama’s groundbreaking study—presented here in its first English translation—provides an overview of the power of written discourse in the historical formation of Latin American societies, and highlights the central role of cities in deploying and reproducing that power. To impose order on a vast New World empire, the Iberian monarchs created carefully planned cities where institutional and legal powers were administered through a specialized cadre of elite men called letrados; it is the urban nexus of lettered culture and state power that Rama calls “the lettered city.” Rama explores the place of writing and urbanization in the imperial designs of the Iberian colonialists and views the city both as a rational order of signs representative of Enlightenment progress and as the site where the Old World is transformed—according to detailed written instructions—in the New. His analysis continues by recounting the social and political challenges faced by the letrados as their roles in society widened to include those of journalist, fiction writer, essayist, and political leader, and how those roles changed through the independence movements of the nineteenth century. The coming of the twentieth century, and especially the gradual emergence of a mass reading public, brought further challenges. Through a discussion of the currents and countercurrents in turn-of-the-century literary life, Rama shows how the city of letters was finally “revolutionized.”

Chapter 1: The ordered city
Rama is concerned with how order is imposed through sign systems specifically through the imposition of the Baroque city and through the hegemony of the written word.  He says that economy developed around cities instead of cities developing around economy as they had in Europe.  Rama calls the cities in Europe ”organic” while in the Americas they are “ordered”.  The conquerors felt that the Americas were a blank slate and they wanted cities to be organized mathematically and geometrically (Descartes) because they felt  that this would create social order.

Chapter 2: The lettered city
Rama defines here the lettered city and the letrados.  The letrados are a specialized social group that produce, transmit, execute and dominate a universe of signs.  Many of the letrados were religious people like the Jesuits who attended to the needs of the Creole elites (youth).  The monarchy thought that they would need the Creole elites in order to administer the colonies, but once they didn’t believe this anymore, they expelled the Jesuits (1572-1767).  The letrados had the role of evangelizing and managing the colony.  Two main intellectuals of the era were Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Carlos Siguena y Gongora.  Rama says that they used art to talk about politics (24).  The lettered city acted upon the order of signs and had a sacred aura to it; this was the Baroque cultural dimension of the colonial power structure.  Rama argues that there was a mass communication aspect to the lettered city and that they were trying to ideologize the masses with full programmatic rigor (19).  Rama ends this chapter with an example of the imagined colonial city, gridlike and mathematical as an example of the way the letrados ordered colonial life through a sign system.  The city could often be read because street names and corners represented the important historical events and people of the city.  In contrast with prior cities whose streets were names of things that were close by and practical.  Rama argues that there were two cities; one that existed on the physical plane and the other that existed on the symbolic plane (lettered city) and that needed cultural capital in order to be deciphered. 

Chapter 3: The city of protocols
The letrados made up an exclusive and sacred colonial hierarchy that provided the colony with laws regulations, proclamations, certificates, propaganda, and ideology.  Two distinct languages existed in colonial society; diglossia-vernacular and public, formal Baroque Spanish (peninsular).  Still, despite the best attempts of the letrados, a new American Spanish emerged that was a blend of both and emerged along with a Creole elite that substituted the peninsular elite.  Bolivar says that official writing creates an “airy republic” that is out of touch with the realities of social life.  Graffiti was a written language outside of the lettered city.  I am not sure how much graffiti was an issue in the colony.  El periquillo sarniento Joaquín Fernandez de Lizardi (1810) 1st Latin American novel had a new audience.  Sarmiento-Liberty was impossible without writing and so Sarmiento pushed for spelling reforms that would simplify Spanish and make it more organic instead of imported.  They tied this national language with a national literature.  Bolivar’s tutor Simón Rodríguez wrote about a parallelism between government and language, both must be native and not European imports.  He pushed for an American Organic “art of thinking” and subordinated writing to this.

Chapter 4: The modernized city (and the disappearing cultures of the “primitive people”)
As cities like Buenos Aires grew (population exploded after 1880 doubling or tripling in population from 1880-1930) the lettered city gained in importance and power.  Educational reforms were enacted so that everyone had access to being an intellectual and to break up the hegemony of power associated with the letrado figure.  The university became a way to access the lettered city.  Still, as more people tried to become letrados, they were frustrated by a lack of opportunities and an inability to penetrate the inner circles of power.  Reading and writing played a central part in helping society to imagine urban myths such as the self-made man, the messiah and the rebel.

Costumbrista writers preserved the past that seemed on the verge of extinction.  Writers like Hernandez of Martín Fierro preserved the “memory” of the customs and rural traditions in the service of a literate and urban audience.  Martín Fierro in particular since it became so famous reached an illiterate audience as well as a literate audience.  These books crystalized oral production fixing a phenomenon normally characterized by permanent transformation (63). 

19thc. costumbrista and realist novels responsible for the collection and preservation of the present and past created national literatures and histories (66).  National identities were imagined and written within the lettered city.  National identity was defined by the lettered city as a result of modernization.  It seems very ironic that urban sign system constructed the rural past.  Letrados coopted rural orality in poetry and marginalized the subalterns.  This reminds me of Juri Lotman and how the marginal displaces the core eventually, but here the content is displaced but not the people in power. 

As cities became more modernized they became non-spaces and lost all connection with organic place and identity.  No emotional attachment to places, forward oriented spaces, not for or about the past, disorienting spaces, society in search of firm footing.  (reminds me of marc augé-supermodernity).  The written word came to the rescue and reconstructed and preserved the past in writing in an often idealized way.  The dreams of identity were forged in the lettered city by letrados.  For example, Tradiciones peruanas Ricardo de la palma is a nostalgic 19th c reconstruction.  And yet this can be thought of as not a preservation of the past but a construction of a national identity.  The past was encoded in word and image.  The lettered city won the right to define past and future.  Readers were absorbed into a universe of signs.

Chapter 5: The politicized polis
In the 20th century letrados became more specialized; anthropologists, historians, etc.  The role of the letrados was very much tied to politics and letters and politics seemed to go hand in hand.  Think of Rodó, Vasconcelos and José Martí for example. In the late nineteenth century, specialization leads to a split between what Rama calls the letrado and the literato (the writer/poet). As the power of the church begins to wane, the literatos come to conceive of themselves, in the words of José Enrique Rodó, as the “keepers of souls” (79)

It was José Martí who developed, during his time in exile in the United States, the idea of “nuestroamericanismo” – the necessity of Latin American unification in defense against U.S. expansionism. For Rama, the application of this concept has radical consequences for Latin America during the years of revolution (from the Mexican revolution of 1910 to the military coups of the 1950s-70s). It leads to what he refers to as democratic cesarianism or democratic authoritarianism – the continuation of caudillo politics into presumably democratic systems. And it results in what he considers an inexcusable complicity between the literatos and the policies of the dictators.

Chapter 6: The city revolutionized
This chapter focuses on the 20th century and on how the relationship between the state and the letrado changed.  Even though Latin American politics were still strongly shaped by caudillismo like with the Mexican Revolution, there is an increasing democratization of society and there were mass programs to educate people and to make education free and accessible to all (early 1900s).  There was also a focus on popular culture and folk traditions become hegemonic for example the tango in Argentina.  This also goes along with an increasing sense of nationalism that was based on these popular cultures.  Rama says that this popular culture was not romanticized as much as it was the gritty urban culture.  There are more self educated letrados.  There seems to be a break between the state power and the letrado.  The chapter ends with the example of Los de abajo de Mariano Azuela and shows the conflict between letrados and the underclasses in the Mexican revolution. The letrado now writes sometimes in opposition to the state.