My sister’s graduation in Santa Fe is tomorrow, and my dad’s unveiling in Farmington is on Sunday, so I’m going to be gone for the weekend. I’ll be back Monday or Tuesday.
May 23, 2008
May 22, 2008
While I was driving in the northeast heights today I passed a gas station with a sign showing the price of gas at $3.76 a gallon. A few blocks later I passed a bike store with a sign saying “Three tanks of gas buys a bike.”
I’ve been looking around for things to do for the year between the program at Harvard this summer and the time I’ll probably start grad school, and as part of that I applied to a few of the internships offered by the Student Conservation Association in national parks. Today I heard back from one that I applied to at Chaco Canyon, and it looks like that’s where I’m going to be from August through January.
May 19, 2008
I was in Los Lunas today and took some pictures. It’s a pretty depressingly sprawly place, and not at all walkable, but I did manage to capture some of its charms, such as the acequias and the restaurant that is the source of my pseudonym.
May 18, 2008
May 17, 2008
There has long been a tendency for scholars studying Native American history and culture to conceive of their subjects as static and unchanging, whether as brute savages easily overwhelmed by the onslaught of European “civilization” or as romanticized noble savages living in perfect ecological harmony with nature but unable to resist the cruelty and greed of the European invaders. In recent years much scholarship has pointed out the many problems with this perspective, often termed “essentialist,” regardless of what specific agenda it is being used to advance. One area in which there has until very recently been relatively little literature either putting forth or debunking this sort of essentialism, however, is sexuality and gender. This is in some respects unsurprising, since there is quite little information to start with on precolumbian gender and sexuality, and what information there is in colonial sources is both scanty and obviously biased, so there is little foundation to base any sort of analysis on. On the other hand, sexuality and gender are such key elements of any society that it certainly seems like there should be something to say about them, despite the problems with the evidence, and indeed some have tried. Many of the most notable efforts, however, have had definite ideological preconceptions that have tended to lead to an overly romanticized picture.
Such, at least, is the contention of Richard Trexler in Sex and Conquest: Gendered Violence, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas. Trexler’s focus is the berdache, an enigmatic figure found in nearly all known Native American societies. The berdache (the word comes from the Arabic bardaj, meaning an enslaved male prostitute or catamite) was a biological man who permanently took on the clothing, attributes and roles of a woman. This culturally condoned transvestism has made the berdache a key figure for modern homosexual activists, who now prefer the less offensive term two-spirit, and this has led to many scholars interpreting the presence of berdaches in tribes as indicating a societal acceptance of homosexuality and gender ambiguity, a powerful weapon for an argument that modern western gender conceptions are not universal throughout all societies. Berdaches in this view are seen as respected members of their communities who freely chose to change their outward gender, associated not just with standard feminine gender roles but also, in many cases, with magic, divination, and other spiritual practices.
Trexler, however, thinks this is yet another example of romanticism and wishful thinking applied by modern scholars to “exotic” peoples. He argues that, rather than valued members of their societies who freely chose to transvest, berdaches were, at least in precolumbian times, primarily sex slaves whose primary purpose was to be raped and exploited by powerful men to establish and confirm their power. He depends almost entirely on textual evidence from early Spanish observers, with occasional forays into other times and places to find parallels to illuminate conflicting or obscure accounts in the texts. He is well aware of the obvious biases, in various directions, of the Spanish sources, and seeks to counteract them by opening with a detailed examination of homosexuality and attitudes toward it in the ancient and medieval Mediterranean in general and the late medieval Iberian peninsula in particular. Through this he shows that, whatever their protestations of shock at encountering homosexual behavior in America, the conquistadors would have been well aware of the practice in their homeland. This then provides a baseline for him to examine the specific accounts they give of native sexual practices and attempt to deduce what the roles of berdaches really were in these societies.
What he finds, in many different accounts from throughout Latin America but primarily the best-attested areas, Mexico and the Andes, is that berdaches were indeed primarily young adolescents (thought their exact ages are generally impossible to determine, Trexler thinks they generally attained their status around age twelve) used for sexual purposes by the other men of their society. He connects this to a general horror of femininity and thirst for power among men, both European and Indian, that leads them to try to acquire as many dependents as their power will allow, both women and men, and to penetrate them sexually to demonstrate that power. He makes a big deal about the distinction between passive and active homosexuality, and shows (convincingly, I’d say) that the passive role was much more universally derided, at least among Europeans, for being “weak” and “feminine,” while the active role was just seen as a man doing what men do: penetrate. Indeed, he rejects the use of the term “homosexuality” at all for this time period, since he sees it as anachronistic for societies with this attitude toward sexuality, so different from our own. He contrasts this view, which is based on an elaborate theory of the formation of social structures based on the primacy of warfare and masculinist ideology, with what he sees as the wishful romanticism of those scholars who have tried to show that Indian societies were more comfortable with gender ambiguity than our own. Indeed, he sees a male propensity for sexual violence against weaker members of society, whether male or female, as more or less universal, and the main difference between the European and American manifestations of it with regard to male victims as being the fact that it was only in America that this violence was associated with lifelong transvestism.
And, indeed, much of what he argues is convincing. It certainly seems true that, given the similarities in depictions of transvestism and sexual violence in many different colonial sources, the berdache was at least in some places at some times a role filled by victims of rape rather than men of natural homosexual inclination. Trexler is also right, I think, to point out the importance of sexual violence to premodern social structures and the problems with trying to find justification for our current ideas about gender and sexuality in those of past civilizations. It is certainly interesting to think about what the connections might be between his theories about social power being expressed by number of dependents and the much later system of captive exchange, revolving around children of both sexes as well as adult women, in the southwest borderlands described by James F. Brooks.
There are, however, also some problems here. Trexler never really establishes how or why a close look at Spanish sexuality allows him to see through the biases of Spanish observers of Indian sexuality. Indeed, his rather credulous attitude toward Spanish sources makes for a marked contrast with the careful skepticism of John Moffitt and Santiago Sebastián, who even use some of the same sources Trexler does. It is therefore difficult to see how Trexler can put so much faith in the early Spanish sources that document widespread sexual use of berdaches, while dismissing accounts by later mestizo historians claiming that the Aztecs and Incas ruthlessly punished homosexual behavior. I wouldn’t say he’s just accepting the evidence that suits his thesis and rejecting the evidence that doesn’t, since he does at least give plausible reasons for doubting the reliability of the mestizo historians on issues of sexuality, but he is never really able to justify the use he makes of the sources he accepts. If he doesn’t accept the testimony of the Spanish writers, of course, he has no story at all to tell, since there aren’t really any other sources of evidence for precolumbian sexuality. There are later anthropological accounts of berdaches in other areas, especially the western US in the nineteenth century, which are more reliable, and Trexler does use them occasionally to buttress his arguments, while (appropriately) conceding that it is hazardous to use them too much to explain the much earlier situation in precolumbian times, before the dramatic restructuring of the native world in the face of the European threat. Nonetheless, Trexler’s use of his sources is problematic, and tends to inspire skepticism about the validity of the story he tells, plausible though it may be.
An even more serious problem, however, is that, while Trexler sees himself as fighting against romanticization of the Indians, he seems to fall rather deep into essentialism himself. There is little attempt to contextualize any of the sexual behavior he describes, and he instead tends to throw everything he finds into one category, the berdache, no matter how far apart and otherwise culturally distinct the regions his evidence comes from are. Much of his most convincing evidence, for instance, comes from Central America, but it is not at all clear that something attested there but nowhere else in the Americas can be assumed to be a universal aspect of the berdache figure. This doesn’t stop him from assuming just that, however, and the result is a theory that, while plausible, is almost impossibly general and abstract, to the point that it becomes very dubious. Trexler’s tendency to stretch his thin sources this far has the unfortunate result of casting doubt on even his more convincing arguments.
There’s nothing particularly “exoticist” about this essentialism, however. He falls into the same problem when describing European attitudes toward homosexual behavior, where any sort of mention of sodomy in the middle ages gets thrown in to support his thesis, from early Norse epics to late Judeo-Hispanic poetry. His own specialty is Renaissance Florence, and I can’t help but wonder whether the well-attested prevalence of homosexuality there and the resulting societal attitudes toward it have instilled in him a mindset that looks for similar conditions everywhere else (and, of course, finds them).
I would, therefore, be very cautious about using this book to form any conclusions about the subject it addresses. This is not to say, however, that it is totally worthless. It is certainly thought-provoking, and Trexler’s frequent statements that further research should be done on a given issue could well result in more reliable conclusions. The extensive notes, complete with the original text of most of the quotes translated in the body of the book, are also quite helpful in tracing the background of the claims presented, and the sources cited there would be good places to check on some of Trexler’s more dubious arguments.
This is a problematic work, but an interesting one, and while I wouldn’t recommend it to a general audience without serious reservations, it contains quite a bit that could be useful and thought-provoking for those who already have some background knowledge of the subjects covered.
May 11, 2008
On my way back from Budapest I spent a night with a friend of mine who’s a grad student at Penn. I took advantage of this to take a few pictures of a part of Philadelphia I don’t usually see much of.
On my last night in Budapest I went to see Forgetting Sarah Marshall with the friend I was visiting and a couple of her friends from work. Notwithstanding the weirdness of spending my time in a foreign country seeing an American movie, I enjoyed it. I hadn’t seen any of Judd Apatow’s previous films, most of which took on subject matter a little too familiar for comfort, but I thought this was an interesting take on the romantic comedy genre, and while it did hew to some of the conventions of that genre I thought it undermined others in unexpected ways. The main character is oddly unsympathetic, especially at first, and it’s quite an achievement on the part of the filmmakers to make him at least somewhat sympathetic by the end.
I’ve heard that a common criticism of Apatow’s previous films is the lack of depth to the female characters, and while this one is definitely primarily from a male point of view, I think all the characters are presented as real people with real emotions and foibles. Even the new boyfriend, while he is irritating in many ways, isn’t the cardboard villain that many romantic comedies put in this place. Indeed, almost all the characters are pretty sympathetic, some more than others and some more at some times than others.
I do think it ran a bit long, which is typical of pretty much all movies these days, and while I appreciated the relative lack of obvious plot machinery, it could have been a lot more focused. Still, this is an interesting movie, quite funny, and worth seeing if you’re into this sort of thing.
May 8, 2008
According to legend, the Magyars, as the Hungarians call themselves in their language, entered the Hungarian plain in 896 AD. They were pagan invaders from the east at the time, and they terrified the settled Christian inhabitants of eastern Europe until they began to settle down and convert to Christianity in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, a process that culminated with the reign of King Stephen I, canonized as St. Stephen after his death.
Among the early Magyar settlements was one on the west bank of the Danube at the site of the ancient Roman city of Aquincum. This was at first merely a provincial town, but in the late middle ages the kings of Hungary noticed that one of the hills to the south of it had an excellent strategic position right by the river, and they decided to fortify it. A town called Buda grew up around the fortifications, and the older settlement at Aquincum became known as Óbuda (“Old Buda”). Buda soon became the capital of Hungary, and under King Matthias in the late fifteenth century it flourished as a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, with a diverse population. Many minority groups, including Jews, lived in the city under the tolerant regime of Matthias, and each had its own street. This happy situation didn’t last long, however, for soon after the death of Matthias Buda was conquered by the Ottoman Turks along with much of the rest of the Hungarian kingdom. This was not actually much of a problem for the minority groups, who flourished under the tolerant rule of the Ottomans much as they had under Matthias, but for the Hungarian kings and nobility it was a devastating loss of power. The city was finally reconquered by a combined force of Christians in 1686 with the support of Pope Innocent XI, and the victors immediately expelled the minority groups and took possession of what was left of the city, which had been greatly damaged in the fighting.
Buda was rebuilt and recovered some of its prosperity, but it never regained its prominent position within the kingdom, as political and economic power was shifting to the newer city of Pest across the river. Under the Habsburgs, especially, Pest became the capital of Hungary and a bustling, wealthy city with some of the finest architecture in Europe. Then, in 1873, Pest was combined with Buda (along with the oft-overlooked Óbuda) to form a new capital city, Budapest.
And what a city it is. Buda, composed these days largely of residential neighborhoods and tourist attractions, forms a pretty (though not actually very old) counterpoint to the modern excitement of Pest, with its broad boulevards and grand buildings, including the Parliament building and the Basilica of St. Stephen, both of which culminate in domes exactly 96 meters high in commemoration of the date of the entrance of the Magyars into what would become their country.
And, indeed, they consider it very much their country, and are extremely nationalistic. Reading a Hungarian account of the history of Hungary is like seeing a montage of the great humiliations visited upon the Hungarian people by various oppressors, starting with the Turks and the Habsburgs and culminating with the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, which, from the Hungarian perspective, robbed Hungary of a massive portion of the territory it had held under the Double Monarchy and reduced it to its present size. They’re still incredibly bitter about this; I saw many maps of pre-Trianon Hungary in bookstores, and I even saw a holographic one where you could see the loss of territory just by moving your head. I suspect the residents of the areas that were taken away from Hungary, including all of Slovakia and Croatia and a substantial part of Romania, have a different perspective on this event.
Still, it’s an interesting country, and Budapest is a fantastic city. I took a lot of pictures, but they really don’t do it justice. I highly recommend a trip there for anyone, though it would probably help to either learn some Hungarian first or know someone there who can guide you around a bit.
May 5, 2008
My girlfriend is housesitting this week near Whole Foods, so today I had my first experience of that controversial establishment. Now that I’ve seen it, I finally understand both why it’s so expensive and why people like it so much: the stuff all looks like it’s of really high quality. I only had coffee and a muffin, but they were both excellent. I still, of course, abhor the labor practices and such, and I won’t be going there often.
While we were there we noticed that most of the employees were wearing sombreros, which reminded us that it was Cinco de Mayo (and provided me with an excuse to gently chide my companion for getting an almond croissant). Cinco de Mayo occupies an ambiguous place in the cultural landscape of New Mexico. Despite a common misapprehension among Anglos, it is not Mexican Independence Day. That’s September 16, or Dieciséis de Septiembre, which is a major holiday in Mexico but is virtually unheard of in the US except among Mexican immigrants themselves. Cinco de Mayo instead commemorates the battle of Puebla in 1862, a major victory for Mexican forces over an invading French army sent to collect debts owed to France by Mexico. It is not even a federal holiday in Mexico, and it is celebrated primarily in the state of Puebla. Its observance in the US originated in California shortly after the battle, when the Hispanic population, only recently conquered by the US and still having substantial connections to Mexico, began to commemorate the victory as a sign of solidarity with the Mexican people. In recent decades it has become such a major celebration in California that it has spread to other parts of the country, especially those with large Mexican immigrant populations, and it has even begun to occupy a role for Mexican-Americans such as St. Patrick’s Day occupies for Irish-Americans and Columbus Day occupies for Italian-Americans, and like those earlier immigrant holidays it is steadily becoming an excuse to party and drink even for those with no connection to the ethnicity in question. Much tequila is consumed, and underpaid employees at fancy grocery stores wear sombreros.
New Mexico, of course, has a substantial and growing Mexican immigrant population these days, so it’s hardly a surprise that Cinco de Mayo is a big deal here. This is a somewhat recent development, however, and the majority of the Hispanic population in the state is descended from the original settlers who came here under Spanish rule, many of whom make great pains to distinguish themselves from Mexicans and identify more directly with Spain. In many circles the word “Chicano” is a slur. This is starting to change with increasing recent immigration, and among younger generations especially there is a growing sense of a Hispanic identity that includes close ties to Mexico. The increasing prominence of Cinco de Mayo plays a role in this process.
Nevertheless, the distinction between “Mexican” and “New Mexican” (or “Hispano”) in this state is still very much alive, and it is largely the result of the fact that New Mexico was conquered by the US in the 1840s and effectively cut off from Mexico in many ways for several decades after that, ironically including the time when the battle of Puebla actually happened. The same was true for California, of course, but the situation was different there in ways that I don’t know much about. There is no parallel to the development of Cinco de Mayo for New Mexico in this period, and the trend was very much toward less rather than more solidarity with Mexico. There is a lot of scholarly literature on this topic with which I am not very familiar, but certainly the encouragement of increasing distance from Mexico and identification with the US, exemplified most obviously in the movement for statehood, was identified with the elites of the territory, not just the Anglo immigrants who flowed in during the decades after the conquest but their close allies, the wealthy Hispanic families who had amassed great fortunes in agriculture, stockraising and trade under the late colonial and Mexican liberal economic regimes. New Mexico in the nineteenth century was a starkly inegalitarian society, marked by a contrast between a handful of wealthy families who owned vast tracts of land on which they grew crops and herded sheep in order to make huge profits shipping their surplus south to Chihuahua (and, beginning in the 1820s, north to St. Louis as well) and a much larger number of poor farmers and shepherds just barely scraping by on small plots of land. Both groups supplemented their earnings, whether large or small, with occasional expeditions to the edges of the territory to trade with the Indians surrounding on all sides, the most important of which were the Comanches to the east, the Navajos to the west and the Utes to the north. Many of these expeditions were peaceful and oriented toward trade, but there was also a significant amount of raiding, for the livestock that were increasingly important to both the Indian and Hispanic economies in this period but also, and perhaps more importantly for the development of a “borderland” society, for slaves.
Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands by James F. Brooks is a study of just what role this slave trade played in both Indian and Hispanic societies as they interacted and changed over the period of roughly 1700–1850. His basic finding and contention is that while Indian and New Mexican societies were very different in many ways, they also had certain key similarities, most importantly a focus on male honor as expressed in both the capture of dependent women and children from elsewhere and the protection of such dependents, both captive and not, from capture by others. This led to the development of a particular type of reciprocal slave-raiding and other cultural interactions more similar to that found in places such as Africa than the better-known chattel slavery of the American South in this same period. Slaves in the Southwest existed in a hazy zone between the status of property and that of kin, and this odd ambiguity contributed greatly to the dynamic, mixed nature of borderland society. Not that the lot of a slave was that great, of course, or even necessarily better than that of a slave in the South at this time, but there was a great deal of variety in the experiences and conditions of captives throughout the region.
I was reading this book over the course of a couple weeks before I left on my trip, and I finished it on my flight from Philadelphia to Frankfurt on the way to Budapest. It was an interesting experience to read about the understudied and somewhat seamy history of my home state while traveling to a distant continent, but it gave me a lot to think about. There is a lot more to this book than the slave trade, and it serves in some ways as a decent introduction to the social and economic history of the Southwest in the period it covers. Highly recommended for anyone interested in this sort of thing.