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Spiritual Subjecthood and Institutional Legibility in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America

  • Author(s): Borowitz, Molly Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): del Valle, Ivonne
  • et al.
Abstract

My dissertation, “Spiritual Subjecthood and Institutional Legibility in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America,” argues that early modern subjects of the Spanish Empire respond intentionally and strategically to institutional interpellation, representing their subjection in ways that advance their own spiritual and political agendas. The project traces subjects’ efforts to shape, limit, and exploit their legibility to spiritual and political institutions through texts by Teresa of Ávila, Ignatius of Loyola, Martín de Azpilcueta, fray Luís de Granada, and the Third Provincial Council of Lima.

The concept of institutional legibility originates with James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State (Yale UP, 1998). Scott argues that institutions in early modern Europe develop “state simplifications”—shorthands by which they assimilate local variations in language, practice, or record-keeping to a state-wide standard—in order to distill from their subject populations the information they need for operations like taxation and political control. State simplifications make local activities “legible” to institutions by producing homogeneous data that reflects their interests. I invert Scott’s definition of legibility, focusing on local subject formation rather than institutional data collection. Following Althusser, I contend that the attempt to render oneself legible is a response to interpellation; it entails self-subjection to the relevant institution. However, I argue with Butler that self-subjection occurs not once, but continually; it is a constant and evolving performance, a creative act as well as a compelled response to authority.

The first chapter, “Limited Legibility in Teresa de Jesús’ Las Moradas del castillo interior,” shows how Teresa promotes the suspect practice of mental prayer by establishing a shorthand for assessing the orthodoxy of practicing mystics while also obscuring the content of her own mystical encounters. She provides confessors with ready-made state simplifications to determine the provenance of a mystic’s visions, but then sidesteps the obligation to describe the content of her own visions by allegorizing her relationship to God as a spiritual marriage, recasting their encounters as moments of spousal intimacy that good Christian wives should never discuss.

The second chapter, “Making mystic texts: Jesuit subject formation in the Spiritual Exercises,” argues that, through the Exercises, Ignatius of Loyola teaches Jesuits not only how to make their own mystical experiences, but also how to translate those experiences into mystic “texts”—verbal accounts of their immediate encounters with divinity—expressed in a standard, Society-wide language. The mutual legibility of Jesuit superiors and subordinates through the creation of mystic texts fosters the organizational cohesion and hierarchical stability that each individual Jesuit’s power to make mystical experience puts at risk.

The third chapter, “Sacramental confession and institutional strategy in sixteenth-century Spain and Peru,” suggests that confession works to maintain imperial hegemony by teaching penitents to police their behavior for sins that undermine the Crown’s projects of cultural homogenization and political compliance. Confessional manuals by Martín de Azpilcueta, fray Luís de Granada, and the Third Lima Council show how the sacrament controls the penitent’s conscience through the inspiration of guilt, the obligation to self-examination, and the expansion of the categories of sin to encompass social, political, and economic activities that contravene imperial interests.

Constructing legibility as a process of subject formation illuminates the agency of institutional subjects. Though compulsory, legibility affords the early modern subject some room to negotiate with the institution, and can create opportunities for her to advance her individual agenda.

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