Smooth and striated space in the decline of Spain: a quasi-theory of Revolution

In 1520, Charles Habsburg inherited from his grandfather Maximilian the Holy Roman Empire, which his successors would in turn inherit until the 1700. During their rule as both Holy Roman Emperors and Kings of Spain, the Habsburgs were generally reluctant to integrate all of their possessions into a single, monolithic political entity. This means that all of their estates preserved their structures, institutions and legal codes. They held all of their many titles separately: King of Castile, King of Aragon and Sicily, King of Naples, King of the Romans, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Brabant, Count of Barcelona, and so on.

The practical government of every region often fell on the shoulders of specially appointed Viceroys, who ruled on behalf of His Catholic Majesty. This was true especially for the overseas territories that were incorporated into the crown after 1492, and which contrary to common knowledge, were of legal status equal to their European counterparts. The name of “Spanish Empire” is, after all, a modern anachronism: the status distinction between metropolis and colony was not officially sanctioned in any way, and the massive political entity was simply known as Hispanic Monarchy to its contemporaries.

In the somewhat en vogue Deleuzo-Guattarian parlance, the Hispanic Monarchy’s vast lands in Europe were composed of mostly striated space. As explained in Chapter 14 of “A Thousand Plateaus”, striated space is made up of formed and perceived elements, hierarchical and measurable. It’s the organized space of the State, which contrasts with the smooth space of the nomad and the war machine: the realm of possibility, in contrast with striated actuality. Smooth space is occupied freely, as if by water on a surface, without regard for previous barriers and codes. Its archetypal landscapes are the desert, the steppe and the open seas: uncharted land, equally a source of potentialities and a prize ripe for conquest, like the New World discovered in 1492.

Immediately after Christopher Columbus’ finding, a single fief was created in America: the Viceroyalty of the Indies, given to him and his descendants with the adjunct title of Admiralty of the Ocean Sea. It gave the holder authority over the soon-to-be-discovered territories, which were of unproven existence and unknown extension at that point. Talk about potential. The enormity of the continent being discovered led to the addition of two more domains: the Viceroyalty of New Spain (1521), including much of North America, the Philippines and Guam; and the Viceroyalty of Peru (1542), containing most of the South American landmass.

Of course, this space was in fact occupied by indigenous civilizations, which imposed on the land their own codes and rules. The Conquistadores’ ambition, though, saw only a smooth America, and exploratory efforts flowed freely from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and then beyond, overriding Inca, Maya and Aztec concretions (deterritorialization). The smoothening process prepared the continent for a new striation: one that made it homogenous with the rest of the Hispanic Monarchy (reterritorialization).

The limes between striated Hispanic territories and smooth frontier would only disappear when the continent’s contour was fully mapped, well into the 18th century, with the Bourbons. It was replaced by a different thing altogether: a set of borders between striated structures, in a similar vein to Europe’s intricate system of feudal allegiances, inherited from the Middle Ages. The New World, loaded with possibilities, became another part of the Old World, increasingly becoming subject to its rules and forms. The disappearance of material smooth space would pave the way for a new frontier: the cultural and ideological. This was the Era of Revolution, and the mind became the new home of the Nomad.

The Pacific Northwest was one of the last regions to experience this change. The Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, a shorter sea route to Asia, became the holy grail of European sailors and explorers. A handful of Russian fur traders had crossed the Bering Strait and reached the Aleutians by the 1740s, making up the only non-indigenous population in the barren Alaskan lands. Spain had a de jure claim over the region since 1493, thanks to Pope Alexander VI’s bull Inter caetera. The claim was unenforceable due to the lack of a real presence, either civilian or military. When news came of the Russian, American and British lucrative fur trade in the area, however, Spain decided to act, quickly building a garrison and launching ships from California to assert its rights.

This action led to the Nootka crisis of 1789, an incident in which Spanish mariner José Esteban Martínez arrested the crews of three British ships trading furs with Canton. The ships had sailed under a false Portuguese flag, and were a private enterprise commanded by James Colnett, of the Royal Navy. Martínez sent Colnett to Mexico to be judged, and forced the Chinese laborers he had brought with him to build a fort in Nootka Sound. Since Colnett was, after all, a British officer, his arrest quickly ruined diplomatic relations between the two powers.

It was all a matter of optics. Britain demanded “satisfaction” for the affront to its flag, while Spain struggled to be seen still as a world power. Threats of war were exchanged, and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger’s saw his prestige increase as he probed for weaknesses in the Bourbon Family Compact, the alliance between the French and Spanish dynasties. France was at the time in full revolutionary turmoil. Louis XVI still reigned, but wasn’t ready to materialize his vocal support for the Spanish, despite the rampant Anglophobia of the Assemblée nationale.

The affair would eventually become a significant loss of face for Spain, which was forced to concede the British trading and fishing rights, never again trying to assert its sovereignty north of San Francisco. The recently founded United States, which had benefited from Bourbon help during its Revolution, also played a small role in the crisis by not supporting their former allies so as to not get entangled into an European war: a policy that would be maintained until 1918, when the meme of an isolationist America died of old age.

The crisis set a precedent for established settlement as the main source of sovereignty, in contrast to historical legal claims and rights of discovery. It also was a further proof that intra-European territorial competition had gone global in a shrinking world. The smoothness of uncharted territory progressively mutated into the striated actuality of international borders: manageable, countable and tradeable. The State slowly overtook the space of the Nomad. By 1793, the patchwork logic of Europe had been transferred overseas, and Britain and Spain were jointly declaring an ideological war against the French Republic, now completely in the hands of the radicals.

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