The Feeling of History

Islam, Romanticism, and Andalusia

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Charles Hirschkind
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The legacy of medieval Muslim Iberia—al-Andalus—continues to exercise imaginations even into the 21st century, inspiring a range of cultural productions and scholarship as well as animating various social movements in Spain and across Europe, and beyond. Anthropologist Charles Hirschkind’s long-awaited and important The Feeling of History: Islam, Romanticism, and Andalusia explores the lives and thoughts of a group of thinkers (historical and contemporary) who engage with the medieval Muslim legacies in the form of a political, cultural, and aesthetic sensibility known as Andalucismo. These thinkers, whom Hirschkind calls andalucistas, cultivate and promote this sensibility through critical readings of Spain’s complex medieval history and its equally complex current political moment. Hirschkind explores what he calls the “political cartography” of Andalucismo, not as a relapse into nostalgia or atavism, but as a critical reflection on European cultural norms and values based in the appreciation for and embrace of the legacies of Andalucía’s Muslim and Jewish pasts, and their continuing presence.

In a tightly argued and nuanced text, Hirschkind analyzes Andalucismo as a sort of “historical therapeutics” that aims to uncover the buried pasts of Spain’s heterogenous communities. From founders such as Blas Infante, Federico Garcia Lorca, Américo Castro, and Rodolfo Gil Benumeya, to contemporary journalists, writers, artists, and musicians—many members of the Granada Abierta (Open Granada) initiative—these andalucistas promote awareness of a Mediterranean society in which Islamic and Jewish cultural forms are deeply embedded and formative elements of the modern Spanish state, not foreign importations or accretions to be conveniently forgotten. In lieu of church- and state-sanctioned silences, these people instead hear familial relations that link them to others across the sea into an extensive sonic tapestry. Indeed, borrowing from Cristina Cruces Roldán, Hirschkind advances the idea of a fondo sonoro (sonorous foundation) as a both musical and temporal arena of aesthetic and ethical connection between Andalucía and its counterparts around the Mediterranean.

Such ties and connections have been silenced in mainstream Spanish historiography, beginning with the Spanish Inquisition and continuing to the present day—“immunizing,” as Hirschkind writes, “Spain’s national, Catholic soul from any attachments rooted in its Muslim and Jewish past” (4). Through a sensual engagement with the presence of this past (especially in cities such as Cordoba and Granada), the andalucistas confront what Castro calls vivir desviviéndose—“to live while denying the reality of one’s existence.” That is they live in a heterogenous Iberian past (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) that asserts itself in daily life in architectural traces, soundscapes, and modes of thinking. Thus Andalucismo as a sensibility operates against the grain of Spanish and European self-understanding.

Islam plays an important role in this sensibility: as a signifier of the past and its various achievements, but also as a moderator of the present moment. The controversial works of González Ferrín and Ignacio Olagüe, for example, together with the activities of Muslim converts, Muslim immigrants, and Middle Eastern and North African musicians in Granada reveal the warp of Spanish history to be traversed by the weft of Islam, thereby revealing a “third Spain” (84) between the oppressive modern state and its repressed past. Hirschkind’s navigation through the complex texts and practices that uphold this alternative history is especially thoughtful and illuminating.

Is the project of Andalucismo just another version of the now-tired notion of convivencia (living together), or a naive reading of the past to support nostalgic visions of the past, present, and possible futures? Hirschkind argues that it is not. Rather, the andalucistas and their many allies in and outside Spain challenge Spain’s rather tentative and fraught integration into the equally fraught project of Europe. They promote “dangerous histories” (15) that resist the Islamophobia that is an animator of the ongoing silencing and amnesias about Spain’s past (how contemporary Spain handles its Jewish past has its own unique trajectories, also fraught). According to Hirschkind, the andalucistas “walk along a thin edge, trucking in the Oriental while trying to avoid succumbing to its sterile fantasies” (157).

These “sterile fantasies” have animated a significant amount of the popular culture that draws on Spain’s medieval Muslim and Jewish legacies. The trope of convivencia has also exercised a powerful influence on individuals and institutions engaged in cultural production, not only in memory spaces such as Granada and Cordoba but around the Mediterranean. Such productions (most notably in music but also in other forms, and more generally in consumer-oriented public culture) are easy targets for more cynical scholars, who see in them a nostalgic yearning for a past golden age.

Hirschkind’s aversion to reading Andalucismo as (merely) a form of nostalgia offers an important corrective to much recent work (including my own) that does not go far enough to interrogate the analytical work that terms such as sensibility, nostalgia, and memory might be incapable of doing, especially when ultimately tied to modernist European discourses. Instead, Hirschkind’s interlocutors invite us to listen with them to these alternative histories, alternative ways of grappling with space-times of memory and heritage, “even if,” as Hirschkind emphasizes, “this listening disturbs or unravels their [our?] sense of identity as Europeans, Spaniards, or Andalusians” (6).

This work is a welcome addition to the growing literature on medieval Iberia, and an important corrective of many tendencies to explain such local movements using the terms of the hegemonic ideologies they seek to resist. Hirschkind is rightfully wary of using such terms as nostalgia, Romanticism, and “the invention of tradition,” which are commonly deployed in the analysis of such movements. Yet, as Svetlana Boym has taught us, nostalgia can assume many forms, and one may wonder to what extent the andalucistas engage in multiple forms of nostalgia (let alone reinvention), sometimes in the naive sense of the word but perhaps also as a sort of critical historiography.

Hirschkind’s sensorial approach to the philosophical sensibilities at the crossroads of history, memory, and the contested politics of Spain and “Fortress Europe” offers scholars new avenues to approach old questions about belonging, interfaith relations, tradition, heritage, and narrative. The focus on listening and the complex and contested soundscapes of cities such as Granada should open scholars’ ears to new research initiatives; one also wishes for more engagement with other sensual modes of perception. Finally, this text prompts one to contemplate how “the horizons of thought and life [that Andalucismo] opens may be crucial to the task of finding our way beyond the stubborn polarities that continue to threaten our collective existence” (159). In this way this thoughtful text invites us to confront some of the most important challenges of our time.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan H. Shannon is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Hunter College CUNY, New York City.

Date of Review: 
November 2, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charles Hirschkind is associate professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics.


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