O`Hara Project Description



O`Hara Project Description
The History of the Future in Mexico
Historians of Latin America have spent a great deal of energy studying historical legacies. Whether
examining how the colonial past shaped the new republics of the nineteenth century or the role of
historical memory in contemporary politics, the notion that "the past weighs heavily on the
present" is a standard mode of historical analysis. While Latin American history offers one of the
best examples of the "imposing past" narrative, it is an organizing concept for many academic
disciplines and historical fields.
Moving beyond this paradigm, my proposed project turns our attention to the understudied
practices of "futuremaking" and their relationship to the religious and cultural traditions of
Christianity. Over the course of a five-chapter book, I examine how Mexicans thought about,
planned for, and manipulated a future full of risk from the early colonial period into the early
republic (roughly 1550-1850). Slicing time in this way allows me to gauge how ideas and practices
related to the future changed in the face of dramatic imperial reforms and political ruptures, most
notably Mexico's independence from Spain in 1821. It also helps to capture the more subtle
changes to cultural norms that only appear when observed over the long run. Based primarily on
archival materials, I consider a range of practices, from topics that we usually associate with
religious studies (prayer, divination, preaching) to others that are typically the domain of economic
historians (credit, futures markets, price theory). Bringing together these diverse cases, which have
never been grouped in one monograph, is meant to demonstrate the utility of organizing research
around the problem of time experience, future imaginaries, and the human urge to enhance life,
rather than the methods or concerns of traditional historical subfields. While my research is
ongoing, the early findings are intriguing: colonial Mexico developed a culture of innovation,
human aspiration, and futuremaking that was subsequently forgotten, in part because it did not fit
with later definitions of modernity and innovation as secular phenomena. Through its methodology
and case studies, this work foregrounds the project goal of examining "religious and cultural
traditions [that] provide rich repositories of ideas about the enhancement of life, theories of
transformation over time and visions of the future."
Of course, historians, ethnohistorians, and historical anthropologists of Mexico and Latin America
have long investigated events and incidents that we might call future oriented. Studies of utopian
or millenarian religious, social, and political movements come immediately to mind. But even in
these cases, rarely have the qualities of historical futures been scrutinized like those of historical
pasts. Indeed, some of the best work on millenarianism privileges pastmaking, that is, the crafting
of historical memory, over futuremaking. Perhaps the most celebrated book on historical time in
New Spain (colonial Mexico), for example, positioned itself as a study "dedicated to recovering
the diverse images of Mexico’s past created by the successive generations that have reconstructed,
mythicized, hidden, deformed, invented, ideologized, or explained the past."1 Historical memory,
in this and many other examples, has received the lion’s share of scholarly attention. While this
Enrique Florescano, Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico: From the Aztecs to Independence (Austin:
University of Texas Press, 1994), 228, emphasis mine.
frame of analysis has opened up diverse and important lines of inquiry, it has foreclosed others,
including the meaning of the future and its relationship to religious thought and practice.2
What emerges when we examine Mexico's futuremaking and why is it of interest to non-specialists
and the Enhancing Life Project? Let me highlight two initial findings. First, it is clear that some of
the dominant frameworks for understanding the experience of time fail to explain the role that
religious cultures play in imagining and bringing into being potential futures. One of the foremost
theorists of time experience, Reinhart Koselleck, defined modernity as the moment when the past
is no longer a source of guidance for the future.3 By emphasizing the apocalyptic tradition in
Christianity, he also framed religious counter-worlds as purely teleological, as traditions of thought
and practice that foreclosed the future by focusing on the end of days. What is lost in such an
approach are the many ways that counter-worlds could influence the strategies and technologies of
enhancing life in the current world. As the Project Description notes, "when cultures or individuals
begin to implement plans based on a vision of the future, unanticipated consequences and new
possibilities result."
Let me offer an example of how my work foregrounds this project element. In my research, some
of the most forward-looking individuals and groups of the period self-consciously looked to
religious traditions as a vehicle for innovation. One of my case studies examines a unique religious
sodality, the Holy Schools of Christ, that flourished during the eighteenth-century Mexican
Enlightenment (Chapter 4, "Prayers"). These groups combined traditional forms of piety
(discipline, self-mortification) with an ethos of individual and collective self-improvement. The
everyday futuremaking in these brotherhoods created a new form of religious practice where the
individual emerged as a more important subject of piety and reform, and where members focused
on their material and spiritual improvement, but not at the expense of collective Catholicism. In
fact, while the brotherhoods helped their members gain purchase on the uncertain future, they
could only do so through access to cultural and religious resources, such as ritual texts, devotions,
and orthodoxy, that supported and patterned the groups’ long-term reproduction. Indeed, the
relatively large body of documents left by the Holy Schools offer not just a historian’s window
onto their activities, but also provides part of the explanation for the type of religious innovation
that occurred in New Spain. The ties that linked old and new forms of futuremaking were
traditional religious resources: documents that authorized and placed boundaries around orthodox
and inherited forms of piety, the rituals those texts described, and the array of practices
This holds true for the attempts of earlier generations of Latin American intellectuals to pinpoint the deep
roots of “national identities” but also more recent academic interventions in Latin America and the United
States. For the former, see Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura
Económica 1981 (1950)); Guillermo Bonfil Batalla, México profundo (Mexico City: SEP, 1987); Gilberto
Freyre, Casa-grande & Senzala (Recife: Imprensa Official, 1966 (1933)); José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete
ensayos de interpretación de la realidad peruana (Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979 (1928)). A good
introduction to more recent treatments of the topic can be found in Jeremy Adelman, ed., Colonial
Legacies: The Problem of Persistence in Latin American History (New York: Routledge, 1999).
See his Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985) and The
Practice of Conceptual History (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2002).
surrounding the rituals.4 The vector of historical change, in other words, moved outward from the
same point that fostered stability and continuity, a dynamic sometimes obscured by more abrupt
changes that punctuate the historical record.5
What happens if we try to interpret such groups through the modernity paradigm, whether
Koselleck's version or the many competing definitions, most of which assume a similar temporal
rupture between past and future? In most accounts, the Holy Schools would be interpreted as antimodern, or at best held up as an example of an alternative modernity that fused backward elements
of the past with new ideas from the present. My research has made clear that the entire modernity
paradigm and similar models based on an implied opposition between past, present and future fail
to capture how many historical subjects navigated through time. Previous interpretive frameworks
have also obscured how religious culture could act as an engine of innovation and human
Second, historians have struggled to understand futuremaking in the past because we have tended
to examine future-oriented events purely through the study of ideas. Such methods foreground an
imagined future, which of course is part of human futuremaking, but they overlook the concrete
steps involved in attaining the future. In work on Latin American history, moreover, this analytic
move tends to devolve into an implied conflict between the future-oriented ideas imported from
outside, such as eighteenth-century enlightenment thought or nineteenth-century liberalism, and
the supposedly past-oriented ideas indigenous to the region. While paying careful attention to the
development of ideas, my work also analyzes historical practices of futuremaking—such as habits
of individual self-improvement or the religious foundations of capital markets, but also local
devotions and prophecy—that at times could be quite mundane and thus escape the historian's
gaze.6 Creative futuremaking, it turns out, usually took place through common, everyday practices,
These are what William Sewell has referred to as “resources,” which are “read like texts, to recover the
cultural schemas that they instantiate ... [and] can be used by actors to generate power.” Sewell, “A Theory
of Structure,” 13, emphasis in original. In Sewell’s terminology, “schemas” refer to the informal and
sometimes unconscious “rules” and assumptions that guide action in the world. I have found Sewell’s
framework a useful hermeneutic, in part because his notion of resources is broad enough to include the
diverse range of texts, practices, and traditions of the Holy Schools, but also because it captures the
simultaneous constraint and agency of historical actors who drew upon such resources.
5 As
David Sabean pointed out in his study of German peasant communities, “reproduction is also a process
and as much subject to historical effort an any other process.” Power in the Blood: Popular Culture and
Village Discourse in Early Modern Germany (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 30.
Following the work of sociologist Ann Swidler and other practice theorists, I assume that culture provides
a repertoire or toolkit that historical actors can draw upon to solve various kinds of problems. In this model,
cultural analysis examines persistent "strategies of action," that is, behaviors and practices that take
advantage of existing "cultural competencies." Ann Swidler, "Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies,"
American Sociological Review 51 (1986): 276-277. See also, Richard Biernacki, The Fabrication of Labor:
Germany and Britain, 1640-1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Sherry B. Ortner,
Anthropology and Social Theory: Culture, Power, and the Acting Subject (Durham, 2006); William H.
Sewell, "A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation," American Journal of Sociology 98
rather than the occasional, radical idea. By bringing such techniques into view, this book will
provide a more robust model for the study of time experience and its relationship to cultural
practices that were meant to enhance life.7 Indeed, my attention to strategies and practices has
revealed a social and cultural grammar of futuremaking, based in part on Catholic law and
theology, including its popular interpretation, which was shared across class and ethnic lines. This
methodology and its insights will help develop one of the project goals of understanding how
societies and cultures "reshape ideas and institutions already present in the socio-cultural
I recently completed work on a group of sermons from New Spain, for example, which
collectively grappled with the political uncertainties caused by the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in
1808 (Chapter 5, "Prayers"). French meddling in Spanish politics, and eventually an invasion of
the Iberian peninsula by French troops, led to the successive abdication of the Spanish crown by
the father and son Charles IV and Ferdinand VII. These events, in turn, led to a wide variety of
adjustments in the American colonies, from relatively localized jockeying for political power to
autonomy movements with much grander aspirations.8 For many preachers at the time,
contemplating the future fostered intense feelings of apprehension and fear, a layered emotional
response that we would call anxiety. When these clerics interpreted time through the temporal lens
of Catholicism, however, past, present, and future could be read, if only imperfectly, through
biblical exegesis and prophecy.9 In this form of historical practice, New Spain’s uncertain future
simultaneously generated fear and confidence, because the hand of Providence ultimately shaped
human history (and its future) and could provide a measure of hope in times of great turmoil. New
Spain's preachers, making use of this perspective, grappled with anxiety primarily as a collective
phenomenon, quite unlike our understanding of the emotion as afflicting individuals, and assumed
that a shared response to current events could help advance the work of God on earth. Thus, the
rampant "anxiety" during Mexico's independence era did not necessarily produce hopelessness or
inertia, with severe dread overwhelming one’s ability to act in the world; at times, it activated
feelings of comfort and efficacy that could, in turn, lead to political action.
For suggestive work related to futurism and futuremaking, see among others, Daniel Rosenberg and Susan
Harding, eds., Histories of the Future (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); J.A. Burrow and Ian P. Wei,
eds., Medieval Futures: Attitudes to the Future in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000);
Susan Juster, Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: Univ. of
Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Carlos Eire, A Very Brief History of Eternity (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 2009).
For an insightful discussion of these events, see Jaime E. Rodríguez O., The Independence of Spanish
America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
In Spanish America, such interpretations of time leaned heavily on typology, or the reading of biblical
events as prefigurations of later occurrences. See Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Puritan Conquistadors:
Iberianizing the Atlantic, 1550-1700 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006) and David Brading,
Mexican Phoenix: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Image and Tradition Across Five Centuries (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Another chapter, in a very different domain, examines the emergence of new attitudes towards
credit and market relations in the eighteenth century (Chapter 3, "Money"). By 1800 an
increasingly liberal market for credit and a new understanding of risk and just pricing could be
found throughout much of New Spain. Innovative financial instruments created opportunities for
sophisticated financial hedging and risk management. Above all, fresh ideas had emerged about
what constituted fair economic practices and an individual's or group's economic rights. Yet
custom and values strongly influenced these innovations. They grew out of a tradition in Christian
theology in which the Church carved a role for itself as a protector of the poor, and where in
theory, if not always in practice, its regulatory authority over economic transactions ensured some
basic level of market justice.
Such technologies of Christian futuremaking have subsequently been overshadowed by the
economic and political turbulence Mexico experienced in the nineteenth century and its weak
aggregate growth compared to the United States and many North Atlantic economies. By placing
these religious and economic topics into direct dialog my book provides a history of the future that
takes Mexico’s past on its own terms, rather than viewing it through a prism of relative
underdevelopment. It foregrounds the role of Christianity in opening up pathways of human
aspiration, rather than treating these visions of the future with the condescension of later political
thought that equated modern with secular.
The book consists of five body chapters framed by an introduction and conclusion. The following
are the working chapter titles, and a rough description of topics:
Chapter 1: Souls [on confession and preparing for the afterlife]
Chapter 2: Stars [on prophecy, divination, and popular understanding of theology]
Chapter 3: Money [evolving credit/market practices and their relationship to the law and
theology of usury, just price, and profit]
Chapter 4: Prayers [on eighteenth-century piety and self-improvement]
Chapter 5: Promises [on religious discourse, Biblical typology, and their relationship to
political mobilization]
Work Plan and Outputs
I am at an ideal stage to participate in the Enhancing Life project. On the one hand, I will
contribute a developed research trajectory, both in terms of my previous scholarship and the
proposed book project. On the other, my work is still very much in progress and I am eager to
explore the ways in which it will benefit from the scholarly conversations that are at the center of
the Enhancing Life Project. My previous book improved enormously based on similar
interdisciplinary discussions at residential seminars (the International Seminar on the History of
the Atlantic World; the John Carter Brown and Newberry Library Fellows' Seminars).
My work on the new book is well underway. Using collections in Mexico, Spain, and the United
States, I have completed the bulk of the archival work required for the project. I now have drafts of
three of the five body chapters and, with the proposed support of the Enhancing Life Project, I will
complete my remaining research, drafting and revisions over the next year. As a result, I expect the
book to be published around the time that the Enhancing Life Project wraps up in 2017. I will
present my most recent findings at the American Historical Association annual meeting in January
As discussed above, my research is mainly archival, and I have budgeted for a number of short
research trips to Spanish and Mexican archives. In Seville’s Archivo General de Indias, I will
examine account books, legal treatises, and theological opinions. In Mexico City’s Archivo
General de la Nación and Archivo Histórico del Arzobispado de México, I am reading Inquisition
files, ecclesiastical and civil debt contracts, confession manuals, and religious sodality records. I
have worked on previous projects in all of these archives. My fluency in Spanish and expertise in
early-modern and nineteenth-century paleography allow me to work expeditiously through this
source material. My proposed timeline for the additional work on the book is as follows:
Summer/Fall, 2015: archival research, Mexico City (for penultimate body chapter)
Spring, 2016: course buyout, finish draft of penultimate body chapter
Summer 2016: archival research, Mexico City and Sevilla, Spain (for final body chapter)
Summer 2016: draft final body chapter
Fall 2016: course buyout, draft introduction and conclusion; polish other chapters; submit
to publisher
Winter 2017: complete revisions/resubmit to publisher
Fall 2017: book publication
I also plan to teach two courses related to the themes of the Enhancing Life Project. Titled the
History of the Future, the course will draw on theoretical interventions and historical case studies
to examine the many ways that historical subjects have thought about, planned for, and accessed
the future, from the early modern period to the present. A key goal of the class is for students to
analyze the future and human strategies of futuremaking as historical phenomena. I want them to
grapple with the possibility that the future has a history. When they come to grips with that
somewhat paradoxical proposition, I expect they will begin to think historically about a much
broader range of concepts that they previously understood to be timeless. I also hope they will
approach the topic of contemporary social imaginaries, including futuremaking, with a more
critical mindset. I plan to offer the course in the Winter quarters of 2015 and 2016.
Finally, I would be delighted to complete a blog post about my archival research and book
manuscript for the Enhancing Life Project website. I would be ready to write a post as early as the
fall of 2015.
With a track record of bringing book projects to timely completion, and successful collaborations
at previous short-term seminars, I am eager to bring my expertise to this exciting project.
I thank the review committee for its consideration.