A Note on Donatella di Cesare’s Marranos. The Other of the Other

What, then, remains of the marrano and of the Jew?  There remains the fidelity to the secret that they have not chosen.  “It is for this reason that I call myself marrano: not out of the pilgrimages of a wandering Jew, not out of the series of exiles, but out of the clandestine search for a secret bigger and older than I am.”

Marranos 107

In the last pages of her book Marranos.  The Other of the Other (Cambridge: Polity, 2020) Donatella Di Cesare says, as rendered by her translator, David Broder:  “One highly controversial question concerns whether, as some historians claim, the phenomenon of marranism ought to be archived forever, or if one ought instead to speak of a marrano condition that transcends the limits of any historical definition” (117).  And she continues: “Risky . . . is the tendency to make the marrano into a metaphor, as happens here and there in some essays, especially works of comparative literature” (118).  It would seem that Di Cesare leans towards the ban: “Do not speak of marranos, do not even speak marrano, unless you speak of the literal phenomenon.”  But it may only seem so, since she starts her book by claiming that marrano history is “unarchivable” (4).  How would you then proceed to archiving the unarchiveable?  And, were you to manage to do so, would that not immediately turn you into another inquisitor, doomed to spend the rest of your time on earth policing the resurgence of marrano metaphors, or of the marrano as metaphor?  Even in literature, brought in as a especially propitious field for metaphoric proliferation, which would not be all that surprising.[i]

It is “risky” to make marrano metaphors, Di Cesare says, but there is usually a risk to metaphor, so there is nothing new there.  Except that the risk is meant to be political: by turning the marrano into a metaphor, by speaking about the “marrano condition” as unmoored to its historical referent, one might be stealing someone else’s property, even someone else’s proper name.  And yet one needs to wonder under what if any conceivable definition it is or it would be legitimate to consider “marrano” something like a proper name.  Remember that “marrano” was originally an insult and an accusation, or an accusation and an insult.  In that case, marrano would be proper to whom?  To the accused?  Are we certain we ought to allow the accusers the power of proper nomination?  I prefer to take those sentences by Di Cesare as themselves a marrano symptom, a marrano dissimulation, a marrano strategy.  The marrano, that is, someone who has discovered in herself a marrano condition, says: “it is improper to use the term marrano, only some dead people can claim it legitimately, and we know very few of them, most of them remain and have remained unknown.  Only the dead, the marrano dead, should we know who they are but even if we do not, have the right to the proper name. The rest of us are impostors.”  But then we know that all marranos have been impostors, we know that marrano can only name an impostor’s position.  So those words are already an imposture; a dissimulation; something like a negative metaphor, where the figural plane is denied only in order to provide it with a secret and free life.  It is an interesting figure, the non-literal marrano: a figure where the risk is produced through its very disavowal. 

Di Cesare has already taken the risk: “How many marranos still exist?  How many know they are marranos and have always known it, and how many are so well hidden that they don’t know it or, rather, have never suspected as much?  And who can say that they are not a marrano?” (102).  If you cannot say that you are not a marrano, and if, by the same token, you can never be quite certain that you are one, then all talk of marrano metaphoricity flounders: it is not that we have risked a metaphor, we have rather ruined the metaphorical field.  And the political risk shifts then to the definition one uses, and dictating it is no longer the function of any inquisitorial master of words.  Let me however say that, a few years ago, when some friends of mine and I attempted to propose a book series under the name “Marrano Hispanisms,” we were censored, we were not allowed to do it.  The term, they said, carried too much risk.  It is better to do it, if you want, without saying it, without admitting it.  So there must be something to Di Cesare’s caveat that one must perhaps attend to.  The question, and it seems to me a decisive one, is whether the proper marrano position is to flaunt the risk, to let the chips fall where they might, or to submit to the injunction, to obey the inquisitorial mandate, which is always of the order of a negation:  “Don”t!”

So let me cut to the chase and propose a marrano metaphor of sorts, taking my own risks.  At its most extreme, which of course nobody can or does hold existentially, if being black in the US, in terms of the imperative of “becoming who you are,” is accepting the “invitation to social death,” as Frank Wilderson puts it, let me posit that being a US Latinx is marked, again at its most extreme, which I unashamedly tend to consider its position of truth, by the “marrano condition” of double exclusion.  Over the last few years mainstream Latinx writing has blessedly, for the most part, abandoned the thematics of familial and group identity, although not yet enough.  Instead there is a growing focus on the border, on crossing the border, on immigrant narratives.  Which seems to me something like double exclusion degree zero.  Let me produce a random list of books on the US Mexico/Border as an example (the list is random to the extent those books happen to on my bookshelves and I did not search for them): Luis Alberto Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway; Fernando Flores’ Tears of the Truffle Pig; A K Sandoval-Strausz’s Barrio America; Stephanie Elizondo’s All the Agents and Saints; Ana Castillo’s So Far From God; Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home; Oscar Casares’ Where We Come From; Aura Xilonen’s The Gringo Champion; Alfredo Corchado’s Homelands.  Are these not marrano works, all of them crossed by a more or less explicit autographic drive (but one no longer identitarian)?  I would claim they are. 

And I will make a second claim, based on Di Cesare’s words: “There is nothing to say that politics must be the site of the total apparition of the human–all the more so if this is taken to mean the exteriority commanded by the state, which would then be the sole principle for ordering and articulating humanity. The marranos stood opposed to this” (96).  Yes, the marranos and the US Latinxs, always at its most extreme, that is, at the moment of maximum self-consciousness.  These words, which apparently or in principle seem to deny a certain politicity to the marrano condition, are words that, on the contrary, inaugurate the possibility of an archipolitics that is always already an infrapolitics.  They reject the metaphor that equates politics and humanity, the “becoming-subject of the citizen as the becoming-citizen of the subject,” as someone has recently put it.   By denying or disavowing the non-literal meaning of politics, which is its equation with the humanity of the human, they perform an archipolitical cathexis, as they simultaneously call for a different articulation of the notion of politics.  And, by denying or disavowing the non-literal meaning of humanity, which is its equation with politics, they perform an infrapolitical gesture, they indeed open an infrapolitics, as they simultaneously call for a different understanding of the human. 


[i] I understand that I should be providing the definitions Di Cesare offers regarding the “marrano condition,” “double exclusion,” and other necessary precisions for the reader to understand what it is that Di Cesare’s book brings to the discussion.  But this is only a blog note, to be continued with a fuller review of the book, whose reading I really recommend to anyone interested in these issues, at some point in the near future. 

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