Thursday, November 3, 2016

Caroline Winterer's "American Enlightenments"

Caroline Winterer is Anthony P. Meier Family Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Humanities Center. The author of three previous books, she received an American Ingenuity Award from the Smithsonian Institution.

Winterer applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason, and reported the following:
This section of the book is called “The Calendar Stone, Symbol of the Enlightened Aztecs.” It starts like this:
Just as Clavigero’s Mexican history was suggesting the possibility of enlightenment in America, another ancient Mexican artifact came to light that added fuel to the debate about the future promise of the Americas for civilization. In 1790, workers in Mexico City lifted an elaborately carved twenty-four-ton basalt stone from the mud in the main plaza of the city. Buried sometime in the century after the Spanish conquest as a symbol of Indian idolatry, the basalt sculpture reemerged in the eighteenth century to become a cause célèbre around the Atlantic, igniting new theories about the sophisticated astronomical achievements of the early Mexicans. Called the piedra del sol (sun stone) in Spanish, the sculpture became known in English as the Aztec Calendar Stone. In the hands of its eighteenth-century Mexican and U.S. interpreters, the Aztec Calendar Stone became an example of what a modern anthropologist has called ‘the defining sample’: the single object that is believed to sum up a whole civilization.
The page 99 passage captures my two major arguments in American Enlightenments: Pursuing Happiness in the Age of Reason. First, by talking about the city-building, codex-writing Aztecs, it decenters our idea of what enlightenment in America was. Until now, accounts of “the American Enlightenment” have been centered on the American Revolution, and especially the thirteen colonies that became the United States. My book shows that many topics discussed by enlightened people were concerned with the New World generally; only a subset were specifically concerned with the political and economic disputes that led to the American Revolution. People living in the Americas liked to use the Aztecs as a rebuke to the popular European theory that all life forms—plants, animals, and people—degenerated in the allegedly cold and humid climate of the Americas. If the Aztecs could be enlightened, so could anyone living in the Americas.

Second, this passage helps to overturn what I call the “diffusionist” paradigm of enlightenment in America that historians have promoted since the World War II era. The diffusionist paradigm—which you can find in such justifiably influential books as Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment (2 vols., 1966, 1969) and Henry May’s The American Enlightenment (1976)—argued that the Enlightenment was invented in Europe and then “realized” or fulfilled in the United States. By contrast, the New World conversation about whether the Aztecs were enlightened or not shows that the populations of the New World pressed deeply on the central conversations of the Enlightenment. There were a number of conditions that were unique to the Americas in the eighteenth century: a large population of indigenous peoples; plantation-based chattel slavery; a colonial economic and political status; and, in British North America, a Protestant majority. These conditions were not incidental to enlightenment, but were rather central to both the European and American experience of what it meant to become enlightened. My book shows that we cannot understand enlightenment in Europe as a self-contained, autonomous process, with the imperial project tacked on as an afterthought. We have to consider the rest of the world as central to enlightenment discourses and processes.
Learn more about American Enlightenments at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue