Cover image for Transcending Textuality: Quevedo and Political Authority in the Age of Print By Ariadna García-Bryce

Transcending Textuality

Quevedo and Political Authority in the Age of Print

Ariadna García-Bryce


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Penn State Romance Studies

Transcending Textuality

Quevedo and Political Authority in the Age of Print

Ariadna García-Bryce

Transcending Textuality is a fascinating study of the culture of display in early modern Spain. Focusing on the works of Quevedo, Ariadna García-Bryce brings together a multiplicity of approaches in order to provide new insights on his political views and his place in the culture of the Spanish Baroque. She clearly shows how Quevedo diverges from writers such as Saavedra Fajardo and Gracián, undermining the impetus of the emergent state and its uses of rhetorical artifice. Quevedo, in his writings, seeks to exalt art, evincing its prominent social and sacred role. And yet, in so doing, he rejects new mediated forms and the use of rhetorical artifice as exhibition. García-Bryce is able to show not only Quevedo’s conflictive stance toward modernity but also his reaction to the many changes that were taking place in the Spain of the Habsburgs. This is a thoughtful and complex study that will be of great interest to those who study the literature, culture, and history of the Baroque.”


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In Transcending Textuality, Ariadna García-Bryce provides a fresh look at post-Trent political culture and Francisco de Quevedo’s place within it by examining his works in relation to two potentially rival means of transmitting authority: spectacle and print. Quevedo’s highly theatrical conceptions of power are identified with court ceremony, devotional ritual, monarchical and spiritual imagery, and religious and classical oratory. At the same time, his investment in physical and emotional display is shown to be fraught with concern about the decline of body-centered modes of propagating authority in the increasingly impersonalized world of print. Transcending Textuality shows that Quevedo’s poetics are, in great measure, defined by the attempt to retain in writing the qualities of live physical display.
Transcending Textuality is a fascinating study of the culture of display in early modern Spain. Focusing on the works of Quevedo, Ariadna García-Bryce brings together a multiplicity of approaches in order to provide new insights on his political views and his place in the culture of the Spanish Baroque. She clearly shows how Quevedo diverges from writers such as Saavedra Fajardo and Gracián, undermining the impetus of the emergent state and its uses of rhetorical artifice. Quevedo, in his writings, seeks to exalt art, evincing its prominent social and sacred role. And yet, in so doing, he rejects new mediated forms and the use of rhetorical artifice as exhibition. García-Bryce is able to show not only Quevedo’s conflictive stance toward modernity but also his reaction to the many changes that were taking place in the Spain of the Habsburgs. This is a thoughtful and complex study that will be of great interest to those who study the literature, culture, and history of the Baroque.”
“This is an illuminating and beautifully illustrated cross-genre study of Quevedo’s political prose, focusing on the relationship between visual and verbal components in the spectacle of absolute power and his conflicted identification with the republic of letters. Ariadna García-Bryce analyzes Quevedo’s body-centered, mystical conception of performative authority and his loss of faith in the viability of language as an instrument of value in an order that makes it subservient to the power of the state.”
Transcending Textuality is exciting, outstanding scholarship with sophisticated concepts written in a clear and elegant style. Quevedo’s political prose is understudied and underappreciated, and frequently isolated or sidelined from studies of his poetry and prose fiction. But in this welcome book, Ariadna García-Bryce eloquently explores the common threads that unite Quevedo’s political tracts and satire with other facets of his work—his preoccupation with communication, his concern with the sociopolitical role of the spoken and written word, and his engagement with the changing monarchy in a time of tremendous transition. The author has done a splendid job of elucidating what she rightly characterizes as Quevedo’s conflicted relationship with the republic of letters, and in making intelligible Quevedo’s political theory, a daunting corpus of texts. Readers will find the range of Transcending Textuality breathtaking, embracing history, literature, political philosophy, the visual arts, and more. This book will change the way you think of Quevedo, imperial Spain, and the culture of the Baroque.”
“Ariadna García-Bryce’s Transcending Textuality infuses established concepts of body and text, ritual and performance, with new visions informed by the most recent readings of Quevedo’s fundamental treatises. She elegantly synthesizes and deftly engages seemingly disparate lines of thought while taking advantage of her well-honed insights into the political overtones of classical rhetoric and its influence on Quevedo. A clearly spectacular picture of Quevedo’s political thought emerges from this book’s pages.”
“García-Bryce brilliantly contextualizes within a multidiscursive sphere Quevedo’s conception of the arbitrariness of contemporary semiotic systems.”

Ariadna García-Bryce is Professor of Spanish and Humanities at Reed College.


The interconnectedness of written word, oral address, pictorial representation, theatrical performance, and ceremonial act has received considerable attention from scholars of the early modern period, who have approached the subject from a number of disciplinary perspectives, perhaps most notably those of material bibliography (Chartier, Entre poder; Bouza, Del escribano and Imagen), response theory (Freedberg; Stoichita), and festival culture studies (Mulryne and Goldring; López). In dialogue with these approaches and their underlying objective of relating cultural production to social practice, Transcending Textuality examines the post-Tridentine political imagination through the eyes of one of its principal exponents: Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas (1580–1645). Embedded in the languages of court ceremony, monarchical and spiritual imagery, and religious and classical oratory, Quevedo’s political prose imagines politics, arts, and letters as mutually reflecting forms of public exhibition, primordially directed at moving the audience. In the mythical representations of rulership depicted in his royal advice books, as in his satire of Habsburg Spain, which lays bare the fictitious nature of power, Quevedo provides a most productive framework for examining the material and ontological foundations of the culture of display as well as the manner in which it responds to historical change.

From Jorge Luis Borges’s renowned affirmations about Quevedo’s “grandeza [. . .] verbal” (Borges, Otras inquisiciones 61) to recent studies of the ideological and social significance of his conceptismo (Gutiérrez; Clamurro, Language; Peraita, Quevedo), the rhetorical Quevedo has been given fairly consistent consideration. Yet how his verbal craft relates to a larger multidiscursive sphere has, until now, received only scant attention. Linking his political treatises to the visual and plastic arts, to religious and court ritual, and to sacred and secular oratory allows us to unpack an important dimension of his authorial agenda, namely, the attempt to retain in writing the qualities of live performance. Quevedo’s work shows a pronounced proclivity for the spectacular: it participates in an organic cultural vision that treats written expression as an extension of oral performance and material display; at the same time, his extreme resistance to incipient modernization denotes preoccupations about the decline of spectacle.

Quevedo writes at what we might call a transitional moment, an epoch in which the familial or personalized distribution of power within the domestic sphere of the king’s household begins to be complicated by the emergence of an alternative social model arising with the bureaucratic state, which promotes the impersonal allocation of tasks, “based [. . .] on the dissociation of the position and its occupant, the function and the functionary, the public interest and private interests” (Bourdieu, “From the King’s House” 43). Among the significant changes accompanying this trend are the growing protagonism of print and hand-written documents, the increasingly remote or diffuse presence of the king in an expanding state machine, the domestication of the nobility, the rise of the civil servant, the expansion of mediated government, and the appearance of a large-scale public. In contrast with those of his contemporaries who do not see these phenomena as necessarily impeding the effective propagation of authority, Quevedo understands them as signs of social and cultural eclipse.

His bias toward forms of communication predicated upon unmediated control of audience experience and a seamless fusion of cultural and natural bodies is, in fact, consistent both with his belief in feudal models of charismatic leadership and power distribution and with his discomfort vis-à-vis the nascent order based on professional merit, paper communication, the commodification of social capital, and the acceptance of the fabricated nature of culture. Even in the middle years of his career, when he writes the first part of Política de Dios, a text that grants at least some of the pragmatic necessities of rulership, the particular ways in which he transforms worldly acts into mythical events set Quevedo apart from other mirror-of-princes writers. Later in his life, he will altogether reject the practice of prudence in favor of an ethos of ostentatious idealism, as good politics comes to be embodied in scenes of martyrdom, pathos-ridden speech, and brazen public action. There is here an evident correspondence between an intensified communicative energeia and a politically uncompromising posture. Diverging from other notable figures of the antiguo régimen, such as Diego de Saavedra Fajardo and Baltasar Gracián, who negotiate between modern practices and traditional heroic ideals, and who propose forms of prudent conduct that perpetuate established models of authority while adapting to the times, Quevedo harnesses heroism to an aggressive sensoriality that undermines the rationalizing (Weber) and civilizing (Elias) impetus of the emergent state.

If his writing proves a particularly interesting window from which to understand the politics of culture and the culture of politics in Baroque Spain, it is in great measure because, as one of the most belligerent authors of a conflicted time, Quevedo highlights the historical and ideological pressures affecting the performance-centered antiguo régimen. At the same time, the contrast between his exacerbation of these pressures and his contemporaries’ somewhat more fluid attitude toward change sheds light on the varied ways in which Habsburg Spain contends with early modernity.

I cannot mention Quevedo’s conflict with his era without acknowledging my indebtedness to now classic studies. Lía Schwartz Lerner’s foregrounding of the social critical concerns informing his verbal “agudeza” (22), Raimundo Lida’s thoughts on his “‘modernidad’ [. . .] fúnebre” (13), Manuel Durán’s commentaries on his subversion of classical poetics (73), and George Mariscal’s reading of the epochal tensions lying at the heart of his authorial project (90) have long provided a solid contextualization of Quevedo’s cultural program.

Now it is time we made use of the growing body of scholarship on the theatrical qualities of Baroque arts and letters and on the cultural effects of print to further refine our understanding of the profoundly self-conscious manner in which Quevedo’s texts think about the deployment of political symbolism in the age of print. The works on which my analysis focuses, Quevedo’s major treatises on government, Política de Dios: Govierno de Christo (1621–39) and Marco Bruto (1631–44), and his foremost political satire, La Hora de todos y la Fortuna con seso (1633–35), center upon the act of communication as physical performance. The myriad representations of this act contained in the treatises—for example, the masterful Christian ruler instilling fear in his subjects, the messianic king arousing compassion, the embattled republican orator spurring his audience to rebellion—bespeak an uncompromising defense of the “order of the body” (Berger 147), which our author opposes rather strictly to a lapsed world where the live rapport between speaker and audience is no longer the sole means of political and social influence. That Quevedo’s rhetorical ideals involve an alarmist view of emergent modes of circulation is quite blatantly manifest in La Hora de todos, which overtly links the decline of “the order of the body” to the expanded use of writing and print.

In sum, Quevedo’s work operates at two different levels. At one level, it endorses “a mythical-traditional system” in which “an absolute identity exists between the act of transmission and the thing transmitted, in the sense that there is no other ethical, religious, or aesthetic value outside the act itself of transmission” (Agamben, The Man 107). And at another, it points repeatedly and in different ways to the untenability of this ideal in the current political and cultural landscape.

In seventeenth-century Spain, the value of vivid exemplification was widely touted. In direct opposition to a Cartesian grounding of truth in independent thought and negation of “example and custom,” Counter-Reformation culture, in great measure, anchored truth in palpable illustration and public enactment. It is telling, for instance, that mention is so commonly made of the “colores” of arguments, a reference to their descriptive qualities, which are celebrated as a form of conceptual nuance, painterly amplification being equated with signifying density. Also symptomatic in this respect is the wide-ranging meaning of the word “teatro,” both in the ecclesiastical and the secular spheres—Pedro Portocarrero y Guzmán’s Teatro monárquico de España and Gil González Dávila’s Teatro ecclesiástico being relevant examples. The pervasive theatrum mundi allegory can be used to refer to any event, collection of events, or discourse about them.

Tying this emphasis on spectacle to a neofeudal ideology that deliberately set about curbing the secularizing forces of modernization, Antonio Maravall famously understood it as a centralized control mechanism of the Habsburg state. Benefiting from the hindsight of many years of debate about this approach, scholars have had a chance to weigh the merits of dissenting allegations that Maravall’s argument yields a deceptively monolithic view of culture as purely apparatus driven (La Flor), against revisionist claims that deem productive its attempt to articulate a relationship between subject and state (Lewis and Sánchez; Spadaccini and Martín-Estudillo). Drawing from both sides of the debate, I attend to the ways Baroque mentalities respond to a common concern about the material and cultural effects of modernization. Where I would distance myself from Maravall’s idea of a “guided culture” insofar as this means a top-down process buffered from resistance or critical engagement, I approach Baroque works as being permeated by an instrumental or programmatic self-consciousness (Greer, “Constituting”).

Cultural and intellectual endeavors are, indeed, strongly informed by the Ciceronian formula “ut probet, ut delectet, ut flectat” (to prove, to delight, to move) (23) and Augustine’s related principle that knowledge and moral worth are not useful unless accompanied by the power to convey (On Christian 119). Therein lies one of the central theoretical bases for the pervasively championed idea that, at their best, words should wield the sensorial potency of images. The Horatian “ut pictura poesis” is very much alive in the ubiquitous analogies between paintbrush and tongue, paintbrush and pen, colors and words. Just as stories are commonly regarded as collections of exempla that put pictures in motion by threading them into a narrative, pictures are deemed to bring narratives to life by giving them a perceptible shape. Thanks to a wealth of distinguished studies on the relationship between text and image, our understanding of their symbiosis has grown considerably (de Armas, Writing and Quixotic; Ledda; Gallego).

In bringing particular paintings and emblems to bear on Quevedo’s writing, I do not mean to claim that there are implicit references to those specific artworks in his corpus. Rather, my intent is to integrate pictorial works—in terms of their thematic content or their form—in a larger reflection on the mental and social conception of the culture of display, so as to think about Quevedo’s complex role within it. In that spirit, as we turn our attention to how the convergence between image and text is perpetuated in the interpersonal realm, we can begin by noting the direct relationship between the conscious elaboration of imagistically persuasive techniques present in sermon collections or preaching manuals, scenes of parishioners transfixed by an emphatically delivered homily, and introspective meditation programs. All of these venues are premised upon the idea that seeing is believing, that feeling is knowing. The extent to which mental life is consciously centered upon physical stimuli is eloquently summed up in the prologue to the Adnotationes et meditationes in Evangelia, an annotated and pictorially illustrated commentary of key Gospel episodes, by Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s collaborator, Jerónimo Nadal. A literal realization of Loyola’s spiritual program, Nadal’s meditations harness inward contemplation concretely to particular figures and exegetical formulae: “Spend a whole day, even several days, with each image. Read the Annotation and Meditation points slowly. Meditate, contemplate, pray over the whole exercise” (102).

The philosophical and psychological principles underlying this doctrinal method of directing mind and body are equally operative outside of the catechetical sphere. Conduct manuals and political treatises attest to the fact that the vision of life as a sensorially motivated process of fashioning and self-fashioning is deeply entrenched in the secular realm as well. In a variety of different ways, advice books propose what is, at bottom, the same recipe for personal success and social order: the artful use of language and gesture to influence others, or, conversely, the endeavor to perfect oneself through mimicking the language and gesture of ideal social actors.

That an acute bodily awareness is pivotal to this enterprise finds reaffirmation in the current surge of studies on the body in early modernity (Hillman and Mazzio; Harvey; Kern Paster, Rowe, and Floyd-Wilson). Adopting what they refer to as an “interpretive literalism,” several scholars analyze metaphorical representations of the body not as intertextual elaborations, but rather as direct references to somatic sensation (Hillman and Mazzio xx). Much is made of the epoch’s increased awareness of physiology, considerable attention being lent to the connections between literary texts and anatomical treatises. Given the tenuous position of the scientific revolution in Spain, one would have to be careful about determining the applicability of some of these approaches—which focus a good deal on England—in the Spanish context. That said, their materialist grounding is useful here because it accentuates the cultural importance of the sensory world, which is certainly perceptible in Spain (García Santo-Tomás). The initiation of hospital reforms geared toward rationalizing protocols for treating the sick, for instance, attests to the fact that Spain was not impermeable to the mounting prominence of the body as a discrete individual mechanism warranting scientific explanation, a notion that had gained wide impulse with the 1543 publication of Vesalius’s De humani corporis fabrica (Redondo 155). Also a testament to this is the key role given to medical authority in determining the daily care and diet of the king and his family (Redondo 117). However, such developments should not be dissociated from Tridentine religious and political discourses in which the protagonism of the physical body had a long-standing history. Sentient human experience had long been a central component of Catholic devotional practices, relatable, in turn, to Thomistic visions of the world as a text to be deciphered. Hence the renewed corporeal awareness brought about by the advancement of physiological knowledge is intimately fused with these traditional schemes in which the body is the palpable reflection of the soul as well as of divine providence.

In his introductory remarks to Juan de Palafox y Mendoza’s Historia real sagrada, Father Andrés de Valencia notes a hermeneutical linkage between physical matter and divine order: “De suerte, que las palabras de Dios, por lo que tienen de claro, con los ojos se pueden vér, aunque sean palabras, porque son palabras de luz, cuyos rayos son los objetos de la vista” (qtd. in Palafox y Mendoza 282). By articulating a relationship between the seen and the unseen, between words and images, between the divine and the mundane, by intertwining human materiality and transcendental scheme, such providential allegoresis provides an authoritative conceptual basis for political action. A core political trope, the conception of the king as portrait of God on earth, constituted a crucial mechanism for representing the earthly realization of godly design. Moreover, the accompanying notion that order is conserved through the propagation of example radiating out from the king’s person further confirms the actuality of divine plan (Santa María 195).

Those who defend the supposed liberty afforded by impersonal or mechanized means of transmission have argued that such traditional body-centered schemes curtail independent subject formation. Elaborating upon the terms of this opposition between a premodern “order of the body” and a modern “order of texts,” Harry Berger synthesizes some of its main assumptions:

Thus we read about societies in which the bodily signs of gender, genealogy, and age provide the organizing categories of institutional life, so that, for example, economic and political roles are embedded in sexual, domestic, kinship, and lineage roles. [. . .] We characterize embeddedness as a totalizing effect produced by the tendency of the signifying body to expand into all available spaces until it permeates society, nature, the cosmos, and the gods with the resonance of its categories, imagery, and voice. Finally, we attribute to embeddedness an ideological import that derives from a specific signifying power of the body. [. . .] The signature of the body confers the appearance of inevitability, inalienability, and transcendent reality inscribed in it by “nature.” “Nature” in return borrows those forms of being that the human body signifies: person, consciousness, presence, and self-presence. In a word (a Derridean word), both the communicative and semiotic powers of the body, both the performance community and the embedded cosmos, are logocentric. (147–48)

The late moderns would see themselves as liberated from this regressive “logocentrism” and would argue “that the universes of the various sciences were disembedded from the constraining symbolism of the perceptual world; that the technological expansion of sensory and labor power came about by freeing instruments and machines from the limits of the body and its tools, which also meant freeing them from its control” (Berger 148). And yet this argument, Berger goes on to show, is highly suspect because it ignores the power relations also operative in “disembedded” interpretive communities.

Furthermore, the body-centered theological schemes on which the culture of performance rests do not, of themselves, render finite the interpretive process. Thinking specifically about visual culture, André Lascombes remarks that images are a means not only of exerting power by imposing a given meaning, but also of questioning it (29). More generally, the shifting condition of textual interpretation is fully operative in the interactive social realm, as is illustrated in Margaret Greer’s reflection on how the physical mise-en-scène of Calderonian drama plays a key role in generating a nuanced critical view of royal power (The Play).

In post-Tridentine culture, moreover, the practice of patristic exegesis promotes interpretive creativity insofar as the linkages between earthly particulars and divine universals in allegorical and anagogical commentary were subject to constant elaboration and reinterpretation. Already in his foundational theory of reading, Augustine fully recognizes the polysemic life of texts: “So what difficulty is it for me when these words [of Genesis] can be interpreted in various ways, provided only that the interpretations are true?” (Confessions 259). It would be naive to deny the extent to which ecclesiastical and political authorities use both the liberties and the overarching teleological claims inherent in this theory to their instrumental advantage, for instance, when they present the Habsburg monarch as direct descendent of the Davidic line and harbinger of messianic redemption. However, such propagandistic designs do not exert centrifugal force on all cultural productions. Diverging from the position that the antiguo régimen was impervious to progressive thinking, I emphasize the senses in which its discourses are permeated by a markedly pragmatic spirit, which promotes individual initiative (see Maravall 76–77, 92).

The prevalent idea of reading events and people like texts and the corollary principle of managing one’s own conduct and body image so as to control the readings of others, conceptions at the root of prudencia—considered the foremost political and social virtue—presupposes a good deal of behavioral creativity. Indeed, the political appropriations of the sacramental “Word made flesh” reveal that this organic metaphor is variously adapted to secular needs. If there is a unifying feature shared by the anti-Machiavellian writers, it is their transformation of doctrinal theology in accord with the demands of pragmatic statesmanship and their related belief that good speech and gesture are of essential value to successful government. For all their overt repudiation of Machiavelli’s conviction that one must use force and ingenuity to get the better of Fortuna, the Spanish ideologues of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries strongly advocated wily know-how and strategic image construction. There is, at this time, an almost universal recognition of the need for spontaneity and flexibility. As the Count-Duke of Olivares once said, echoing a view widely accepted by his contemporaries, “The first rule of all is to be for ever on the lookout for the unforeseen and accidental” (qtd. in Elliott, The Count-Duke 23). Such promotion of inventive practicality is an important step in the birth of the “detached” subject (Cascardi 80) of later modernity, of which the Baroque discreto is a precursor. Carefully calculating his course of action and controlling his speech, the courtier directs an observer’s eye to society; although embedded in the world of spectacle, he maintains an analytic distance from it. In other words, the “logocentrism” or “symbolic constraints” that, according to Berger, have been attributed to performance-centered communities cannot be said to completely define Quevedo’s epoch. In a milieu that prizes wily resourcefulness, social being comes to be conceived as a deliberately crafted construction, rather than as a natural extension of universal principles.

Along with the sensorially based models of imitative conditioning, alternative paradigms of social order and reform develop that do not center on corporeal presence, for example, the conception of politics as a science (Quijada and Bustamante; Viroli) and the emergence of economic theory (González de Cellorigo; Moncada). Evident in works such as Sancho de Moncada’s Restauración política de España, which proposes that Spain’s problems can be remedied by modifying the financial system and stimulating domestic manufacturing, and Baltasar Álamos de Barrientos’s compendium of Tacitean dictums for political success (Aforismos) is the belief that society can benefit from a pragmatic rationality.

It is against these tendencies that Quevedo’s cultural program is to be understood. Regarding emergent pragmatism as the epitome of social decay, Quevedo upholds the “order of the body” in the most radical sense; that is to say, he views it as incompatible with rationalized or nonmythical praxes. His recipes for Spain’s ongoing political and social problems are steeped in categorically prerational conceptions of knowledge and communication. He thus promotes the deployment of forms of political symbolism that ensure, again as Berger has put it, “the appearance of inevitability, inalienability, and transcendent reality.” Such power is, furthermore, linked, in no uncertain terms, to the illusion of direct presence. It is no coincidence that Quevedo’s writings contain numerous representations of rhetorical performance, such as the Messiah preaching to his disciples, Renaissance statesmen swaying the multitude, poets or playwrights mesmerizing their audiences, and professional men of letters holding forth before their clients. On one level, the situational variety of the rhetorical contexts encompassed in his corpus—ancient and modern, sacred and secular, aesthetic and bureaucratic—attests to Quevedo’s currency with the concrete function and impact of eloquence in early modern society. On another, however, his characterizations of verbal exchange, whether in his satires or in his doctrinal treatises, are, to a large extent, informed by a strong reaction against the compartmentalization of languages set in motion with the development of the state.

I am referring to emergent visions that involve a transition from a traditional order, in which life—political and social—is organized around moral and religious schemes, to a modern order, with its development of distinct forms of practical expertise. One can think of these as denoting a kind of discursive and epistemological fragmentation: notions of ideal good or divinely ordained principles are increasingly relegated to a ceremonial terrain, whereas the running of government is recognized as being dependent upon the application of discrete bodies of pragmatic or technical knowledge (economic, juridical, administrative, political), each having its own specific language and logic, independent from an encompassing mythical order. Quevedo aims to construct a forceful rhetoric to oppose such disciplinary divisions and to stem the growing gap between concrete action and divine authority. In investing word and gesture with great force, his doctrinal treatises reclaim the power of creative invention in the political realm. Far from being relegated to the sphere of pleasurable artifice, art here acquires a leading social and sacred role. Consistent with this, in his satires Quevedo expresses profound aversion toward the use of rhetorical artifice for purely secular exhibitionist purposes.

His royal advice books see political redemption as being entirely contingent upon the conservation of a strong performative praesentia, which restores sole, centrifugal power to the act of transmission itself (again, Agamben, The Man 107). Quevedo thereby counters the growing role of technical or pragmatic languages in the administration of the state and, in the cultural realm, the orientation of aesthetic production away from political action. We note that those at both extremes of the linguistic spectrum, the technocrat and the cultista poet, are equally maligned in his satires.

In essence, then, Quevedo espouses a eucharistic definition of communication that, as I shall show, invites comparison with Hans Georg Gadamer’s organic connection between language, spectacle, and the visual arts as “events of being” (116). The pertinence of the comparison becomes all the more evident when we take into account Gadamer’s critique of the social dominance conceded by modernity to scientific thought and technological expertise and his use of Christian articulations of sacred experience in formulating a theory of knowledge that contests the Enlightenment claim to eliminate prejudice or prejudgment. At the same time, Quevedo’s vision of synesthetic impact as an absolute political instrument clearly contrasts with Gadamer’s stipulation that his ontological approach be used not for political domination, but rather for speculative philosophical investigation (Warnke). “My real concern was and is philosophic: not what we do or what we ought to do, but what happens to us over and above our wanting and doing” (Gadamer xviii).

Meanwhile, the sacramental bias of Quevedo’s poetics evolves into a denunciation of political and social change. Epochal malaise takes shape in his satirical texts as a chaotic expansion of adulterated languages. The various kinds of rhetoric he lampoons are shown to be utterly disembodied formulae, that is, artificial fabrications devoid of any substantive grounding and diametrically opposed to a ritualistic scheme in which the word is an extension of a corporeal divine being. Walter Benjamin’s view of the Baroque individual confronting an explosion of signs is applicable to Quevedo’s nightmarish visions of the arbitrariness of contemporary semiotic systems. In the Origin of German Tragic Drama, the dilemma of the Baroque subject is, precisely, the epistemological confusion produced by a lapsed and ever fluctuating symbolic universe. According to Benjamin, the persistence of death figures in the Trauerspiel emblematizes the perceived tenuousness of the connection between the worldly and the divine realms. Gone, then, is the stability afforded by Renaissance schemes in which observed phenomenal reality is directly inscribed in divine teleologies. What is particularly useful in Benjamin’s formulation for our purposes is that it sees epistemological tensions mirrored in the experiential and social planes. Similarly, Quevedo’s attempts to confer meaning or to bemoan its absence are ciphered in an atomized social body in which people, human ties, and physical matter have become empty or replaceable signifiers (Wolin 68).

Legitimate communication being contingent upon direct contact, disembodied modes of rapport are taken as signs of the degradation of language’s referential and social power. It would be simplistic to claim that, for Quevedo, “aura”—again, a Benjaminean term (“The Work”)—literally resides only in the spoken word. Many a burlesque treatment of oral usage is to be found among his writings, while certain kinds of written language are eulogized. Hence it is more accurate to say that ideal language, spoken or written, is that which communicates its continuity with an executive source, whereas depraved language is that which ill conceals its nature as a merely conventional form. If paper and print are at times evoked as symbols of the breakdown of the relationship between rhetoric and action, it is because they epitomize a dissociation between author and audience, the stripping away of experiential density. There is in these instances an implicit causal link between lack of genuine signifying power and the boundless reproducibility of printed matter; indeed, the uncontrolled expansion of communication across large audiences is likened to social and cultural dismemberment. In this sense, we can compare Quevedo’s preoccupation with modes of circulation to the concern felt by some today that the displacement of books and newspapers by infinite cyberspace means the end of substantive cultural exchange, the opening of a Pandora’s box of free-floating uprooted meanings (Beaudrillard). Diverging from the many eulogies of writing and print as the ultimate vehicles of civilization that begin to crop up in his epoch, Quevedo is ever suspicious of their counterfeit nature.

In sum, as will become evident in the course of this analysis, our author fluctuates between extreme identification with the apparatus of cultural display and its subversive anatomization. In rejecting the negotiations undertaken by many of his contemporaries between body-centered ideals and alternative forms of knowledge and transmission, Quevedo sets himself apart from pacified forms of civic and aesthetic engagement that were instrumental to the birth of the modern subject.

Discussing the first part of Quevedo’s two-volume royal advice book, Política de Dios, chapter 1 illustrates the connections between the spheres of sacred oratory, political ritual, and imperial iconography in Counter-Reformation Spain. It considers how the notion of art as a living enactment, which is thereby capable of a dynamic social and psychological influence over its audience, is ubiquitous in early modern culture. In keeping with this trend, I argue, Quevedo’s political prose conceives of the practice of rulership as active symbolic representation, a conception that approaches Gadamer’s eucharistic definition of perception. I contrast Quevedo’s entirely thaumaturgical depiction of political power, which makes use of the tradition of the royal touch, with the vision of rulership present in other anti-Machiavellian royal advice books that separate the mythical function of the king from his mortal person. In doing so, I show that the degree of synthesis between Christological ritual and political practice depicted in the text is unorthodox for its own time: it violates core contractual principles on which the king’s institutional legitimacy was traditionally founded.

Focusing on the second part of Política de Dios, chapter 2 considers Quevedo’s use of the Passion of Christ as a central allegory of political authority. Situating Quevedo’s emphasis on the suffering Christ and his intensified use of eucharistic metaphors in relation to devotional practices and processional sculpture, I contend that the political symbolism deployed in this later text continues to promote a body-centered notion of government. At the same time, I show that the display of the royal body bears a markedly different semiotic charge from that of part I. The imitatio Christi takes on a new meaning as the rigid corporeal codes of court protocol are displaced by a pathos-ridden political theater. The metaphor of the king’s touch, on which royal communication is modeled in part I, develops into depictions of a prodded, beaten, and tormented king. I read such emphasis on bodily violence, in sociological terms, as a model of communication that runs counter to the “civilizing process” (pace Elias).

Any discussion of early modern political communication would be incomplete without mention of the republican rhetorical tradition that played such a formative role in Counter-Reformation oratory. Chapter 3 reads the representation of Cicero’s death contained at the conclusion of Marco Bruto—a political manual organized as a commentary on Plutarch’s Life of Brutus—as a reflection on the fate of the virtuous orator in the age of the bureaucratic state and the “paper king.” I devote particular attention to the transition from the Quintilian ideal of the “vir bonus dicendi peritus” to a Senecan pointedness. Following contemporary trends, Quevedo abandons the model of the good citizen speaker in favor of the laconic wit. Paradoxically, however, he lays strong emphasis on the Tacitean distinction between useful and entertaining rhetoric, showing a pronounced bias against the autonomy of verbal invention from concrete political action. I highlight Quevedo’s recalcitrant posture through contrast with other contemporary rhetorical theorists and ideologues who reconcile the domestication of arts and letters with Longinean ideals of excellence and preeminence. Divergently, in an attempt to reanimate verbal expression, Quevedo imbues the communicative act with an inordinate aggression that unsettles the civic practice of courtly composure.

Chapter 4 focuses on La Hora de todos, Quevedo’s most important political satire, which serves as a framework to further think about the potential conflict between traditional conceptions of heroic eloquence and emergent early modern manifestations of statehood. I discuss Quevedo’s apocalyptic representation of the general corruption of language in connection with an indictment of the paper culture. I argue that his sweeping denunciation of the linguistic conventions used by all manner of civil servants, men of letters, and poets as debased forms of deceit that bring about social and political collapse serves to magnify the cultural tensions that accompany the displacement of oratorical and performative ideals as exclusive models of societal organization. Approaching the subject of verbal and corporeal display within the sphere of the grotesque and the political pamphlet, my discussion of La Hora de todos illustrates how the conviction that social order depends on the possibility of preserving the exclusive power of mystifying forms of communication is a constant underlying premise across Quevedo’s oeuvre. I contend that the satire imagines the large-scale operation of governmental norms and cultural conventions beyond the self-contained universality of the court as a kind of erratic mass commodification, which brings about a radical loss of authoritative praesentia, thereby shattering the organicity of the body politic. Contrasting the antithesis that Quevedo draws between expanding audiences and sacred presence with Thomas Hobbes’s fusion of state machine and natural and divine bodies, and drawing on Benjamin’s (“The Work”) and Marshall McLuhan’s theories on the sensorial effects of mechanized communication, I expound upon the clash between materialist and metaphysical schemes dramatized in La Hora de todos. I conclude that the flexibility of the allegorical process that allowed the emergent modern state to continue binding its temporal history to a teleological order is severely undercut; the very possibility of perpetuating a symbolic system capable of sustaining Tridentine Spain’s social and political legitimacy is called into question.