Monday, November 15, 2010

Todorov and Signs

Todorov takes an interesting approach to the quote, “Did the Spaniards defeat the Indians by means of signs?” Since the word ‘sign’ is ambiguous, it holds many forms of interpretations. Todorov continues to expand on this idea by proposing some options: signs in the form of religious emblems, through communication, through divination, astronomy etc. Because the natives on the Americas were so intuned to nature and the gods, a small bump would cause a shift. In other words, the arrival of the Spaniards was so out of the ordinary that the alignments of the stars were different as well as other forms of divinity. He writes, “Every event the least bit out of the ordinary , departing from the established order, will be interpreted as the herald of another event, generally an unlucky one, still to come (‘which implies that nothing in this world happens randomly’) (64). The indigenous quickly picked up on these occurrences and responded to them. Because they spent more time on this, then building up an army, they were materially less advantaged. The Spaniards were the opposite, and instead, spent time building an army and a navy. Todorov asserts that by utilizing these techniques, the Indians backed away (in some regards), superstitiously.

Though he makes a strong argument, I still feel there are some loopholes. The indigenous acknowledged the signs, but they had options as to how they would respond. They have enough knowledge of the land to stage surprise attacks and undermine the Europeans. They could be sly and fight back. But sadly, the Spaniards were stronger and carried with them unstoppable diseases. As we can see, the Indians were defeated because the odds were against them.

Despite this missing link, it’s important not to undermine the theology of the Indians. Due to the era and the mindset of Columbus in 15th century Spain, he was not able to fully appreciate their culture. Because of this, he inevitably missed the ‘signs’. This references another questions brought up in class, “What is the ‘it’ we are accusing Columbus of?’ I believe there are many, but in regards to the signs, I think the ‘it’ is his ignorance. He is ignorant of their mindset and their perspectives. Yes, he comes from a society that isn’t aware of other cultures or religions. But he does and can see their “perplexed and doubtful” faces when he lands; and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that he should have stopped and think rationally. He doesn’t, and that is when things fall apart. Perhaps I am an optimist, but if he had approached the natives more reasonably and equally, the signs might have been different. Would the Indians have lost then if the signs were different?


  1. I disagree with your argument because Cortez had La Malinche to decifer signs. He was able to read the signs and in the process he was able to manipulate the situation. He told Moctezuma that he was not tired while walking 140 some stares while Moctezuma was tired and Cortez illustrated his dominance and that he is full of power. He read the signs. He just manipulated them. It is not ignorance. The IT you are talking about is manipulation and the sentiment of conquest.

  2. One thing I want to note is that manipulation cannot take place without one side's ignorance. So in response to the above comment, I would suggest that ignorance and manipulation is not mutually exclusive, but rather has some interesting relationship.

    The interesting thing about your suggestion that "they had the options as to how they would respond" is that "they" did, but "he" didn't want to. What I mean by this is that perhaps the people were aware of possible options, but Montezuma, the leader, wasn't. I must say that his "ignorance" led to the downfall of the Aztec, and not necessarily the Spanish manipulation of the signs. Even without the Spanish manipulation, Montezuma's indecision kept the people in check long enough for Spanish to gain the upper hand in other areas. Perhaps this is not what you were referring to, but it certainly makes me wonder whether it was the usage of the signs by the Spanish that led to downfall, or simply Montezuma's indecision and "ignorance."

  3. I'm not sure that I agree with you that the "it" we accuse Columbus of is his ignorance. Now I do think he saw that the confused and perplexed looks on the Indians faces but choose to ignore them because he was a desperate man. I also think he should have stopped and thought rationally, but he was desperate to make a good name after being banished from Portugal. He was a man on a mission with two goals: get a trade route to the far east and acquire a lot of wealth to fund another crusade.