Tag Archives: Spain

In the name of the ROSE

17 Apr
Cover of "The Name of the Rose"

The Name of the Rose

Life in Spanish academia echoes the intransigent mentality of the Inquisition, writes expatriate Dutch academic Maarten Renes. Some Australian academics will relate.

To grasp Spain’s commitment with its academia, it’s useful to go back to Umberto Eco’s 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, a medieval murder mystery set in an Italian monastery which simultaneously functions as a scholarly treatise on semiotics and literary studies. It was translated into English in 1983, became an international bestseller and, made into a film by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1986, also a box-office success.

In the novel’s postscript, Eco explains that its title’s cryptic central image, the rose, is so rich in symbolism that it has virtually turned into a semiotic wildcard. In the novel’s case, it is easy to read the rose as the monastery’s hidden library, stocked with copies of the Classics, some lost nowadays. Its location is painstakingly maintained secret to prevent its forbidden knowledge, at odds with reigning church beliefs, from being read and divulged.

The criminal investigation carried out by the travelling monk and scholar William of Baskerville so as to uncover the reasons for the inexplicable murders taking place at this location of Roman Catholic worship, worldly retreat and dedication to scholarly study finds an apt twist in the filmed version. It is ex-Bond Sean Connery who stars as the medial detective in a crossover between Sherlock Holmes and the 14th century monk William of Ockham, who laid down the rational principle of Ockham’s Razor—the simplest explanation for the facts is often the most reasonable, accurate and correct. This principle is also a major guideline for Holmes’ deductive reasoning, and applied by Baskerville to the logical unravelling of the monastery’s secrets.

The homonymous film largely does away with Eco’s semiotics, and concentrates on the mystery plot and the clash between modern notions of science and religious backwardness that underpins the former. A notion that is literally and metaphorically proffered to the film audience is that knowledge poisons the mind, and thus: the body. It is, ironically, a notion promoted by an old blind monk who has applied mortal venom to the corners of the last, nowadays lost copy of Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics, causing havoc among his overcurious companions.

The film shows how Jorge’s lethal interventions, founded on an ardent defence of the Christian model of the universe and civil society, ties in with the general drift of medieval times; the Roman-Catholic Inquisition arrives at the monastery to take over from William’s successful logical probing into the community’s ills, and ‘solves’ the mystery through a regime of violence and fear without scruples.

Spanish Inquisition

The Inquisitor rapidly condemns the most vulnerable characters on the scene in order to exorcise heretic—read: unacceptable because unorthodox—behaviour: two monks, one mentally disabled and the other with an obscure sectarian past, and a hungry, thieving peasant girl are taken to the stakes after a violent session of torture that preys the desired confession and presumed guilt out of them. In a rebellious response to this barbaric regime, the poor girl is saved by the local population and the cloister burnt down to the ground, the wealth of knowledge guarded in its entrails forever destroyed—knowledge that would only be retrieved by the Renaissance fervour for Arab, Latin and Greek texts.

The rigour of the medieval Italian Inquisition was brought to further extremes by the Spanish Empire in Early-Modern times under the reign of King Philip II, who waged a Roman-Catholic crusade on Protestant Northern Europe. I still remember the patriotic history lessons I received as a teenager on the long Dutch War of Independence against Spain from 1568 to 1648, when the Dutch republic was finally recognised as an independent country, presumably to thrive as never before.

The reigning climate of religious and intellectual intolerance under Philip II was said to provoke the escape of many free-thinking intellectuals from territories under Spanish control to the Netherlands; this then would have contributed to the onset of an economic boom, famous Dutch ‘tolerance’ (far to be sought nowadays) and the Dutch Golden Age in literature, the arts, science etc. in the 17th century, boasting the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer, Spinoza and Huygens.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt (1642)

My country’s nationalistic tale of rebellion and resistance in defence of tolerance and open-mindedness forms part of the dark myth of Inquisitional Spain: in the latter, the self-defeating intellectual bleeding that took place in this period, which had started with the expulsion of the Moors and Jews by the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) in 1492, is seen as a strategic error from which Spain never fully recovered and which, for better or for worse, hampered its participation in Modernity. No doubt Renaissance reality must have been more complex than this.

Nowadays, Spain is a puzzle of political factions cultures on the national and regional level, some more progressive and cosmopolitan others more conservative and provincial. There does survive, however, a strong reactionary undercurrent in civil society that is extremely wary of change and cultural difference which revives the spectre of La España Profunda or Negra—the orthodox ‘Deep or Dark Spain’ that won the Civil War (1936-39) against the Republicans, installed a fascist regime in connivance with the church and legal authorities that lasted for four decades, and survived the advent of democracy after Franco’s death in 1975.

The concept of ‘Deep Spain’ is echoed in the blind religious fervour and concomitant intolerance and distrust of worldly knowledge displayed in The Name of the Rose, whose reading/watching offers an apt metaphor for what is happening in Spanish universities nowadays. Drawing on the flower’s flexible semiotics, I take the rose to stand for the policing of academia in the name of a new Spanish creed: the Religion Of Scholarly Excellence or the ROSE—which aims not to improve but purge university staff through a confessional model of accreditation.

In the development towards a common European space of higher education (the Bolonia process), the Spanish government now forces all contracted university staff without tenure to go through the central filter of a specialised agency (ANECA) at the Ministry of Education and Science (MEC) in Madrid so as to be eligible for their current, temporary posts as well as for higher academic rank.

This centralised bid for scholarly excellence sounds laudable but proves arduous, time-consuming, patronising and counterproductive. It imposes a constant pressure to re/train, do research, lecture, participate in congresses and projects, and publish, which inevitably replaces quality with quantity through inoperable red tape requirements. Any item mentioned on a demanding, extremely detailed CV form has to be seamlessly certified with official documentation, in most cases provided with stamps and seals from the pertinent institutions, and with backup of supplementary photocopies of abstracts and first and last pages of book chapters, congress and journal papers and so on.

The results of this red tape ordeal are converted in points on a rather arbitrary scale reminiscent of the worst in quantitative science so as to decide the applicant’s luck in commissions of obscure composition. The time and energy lost in this arbitrary process of assessment, both before and after submitting your papers, is horrendous and unimaginable.

The Inquisitional distrust displayed is enormous. Most of us that have to go through this torturous act of confession have many years of academic dedication to boast and therefore certify. One can understand some kind of independent inquiry into candidates’ qualifications, skills and experience for university posts in order to prevent favouritism and provincial backwardness in local universities, but not the kind of quasi-religious bureaucratic scrutiny engaged at present.

I concede that lack of academic mobility amongst universities is a typical Spanish ill, but mostly inspired by inadequate state funding, which binds upcoming scholars to the safety of their home (universities) to establish their careers. It is, unfortunately, the poison that has made the system ‘work’—up to now. Structural lack of funding is also revelatory of Spanish society’s deep distrust of academic knowledge and its fundamental adherence to a Roman-Catholic top-down organisation of civil society where a select few hold the keys to truth, resources and power.

No need to ask yourself why the Roman-Catholic church receives ample state funding by an undemocratic Constitutional pact between Spain and the Vatican, which turns the church into a state within the state. Imagine what we could achieve if this money were invested in academic research and innovation! There is a straight line from religious straight-jacketing to the confessional cross-examination now of people who have long proven their academic worth and dedication in return for appalling contractual conditions.

The blind criminalisation that is currently taking place in the name of the ROSE demands irrefutable, hairsplitting, multiple proof of academic activity reaching up to sometimes 20 years back. It is in the name of the ROSE that the intransigent mentality of the Spanish Inquisition has been resurrected against the most vulnerable factions of university staff.

In short, having been in close contact with the poison of worldly knowledge, you are guilty of heresy until proven otherwise, and pestered until you have conformed to the ROSE’s truth—the bible of scholarly excellence as the Ministry perceives it. Confess your sins and you might be absolved but burn at the stake if you resist. On paper Spain made the shift from religion to science as the referential model for understanding the world in the Modern Age but it appears old structures of thinking are difficult to defeat in a confessional state, even in these postmodern times, as they are re-applied to Science-as-Religion.

A lot of this harks back to the age-old problem of the centre and the margins, of effective democracy and self-management on the local levels. Franco is dead but his spectre haunts the margins relentlessly from the central state location and pulls them back into the national panopticum.

Javier Pérez Royo, a columnist in a widely-read national newspaper, recently addressed centralisation as one of Spain’s greatest endemic ills, hampering the country’s development. In his article “Incomprehensible prestige” he writes that “in Spain we have tended to equal centralisation to order, rationality and rigour in the management of public affairs while we have tended to associate decentralisation with the opposite.” Yet, empirical evidence shows that “[t]he unified and centralist state has been a disaster in our political, constitutional history … It has been an enormously authoritarian state … and consequently … very inefficient” (El País 19 March 2011: p.23, my translation). Why this has been so is not hard to guess.

Yet, my (and some of Javier’s) prayers for release may have been heard. We do have local assessment agencies for academic accreditation as well, set up by the autonomous, semi-federal regions of Spain. In the case of Catalonia, where I live, the procedure is simple: you hand in a standard CV stating all your academic merits, some basic documentation to support it—no stamps or seals required—some academic assessment reports and a signed statement of truthfulness.

The funny thing is that this does not lead to better but worse results: only 30% of the applications is granted a pass by the AQU, considerably less than in the case of the national agency, ANECA. How to read this? Are Catalan applicants really that badly prepared? Or is the initial vote of confidence just a smoke screen, and the civil servant’s ingrained distrust resurfaces when CVs are actually assessed? Or is the Catalan agency so strict in its criteria just to prove itself more serious than the central agency—a case of exalted regional nationalism, of being more Catholic than the Pope?

The result is that many of my colleagues believe it is a waste of time to go through the AQU. Theoretically this and the central agency do the same job, and should have similar results—but they don’t. A profound reflection on their (mal)functioning is due to rationalise things.

My solution: the new Spanish creed of scholarly excellence requires the intervention of the likes of Sean Connery. In the best of the Scottish tradition, he shares Sherlock Holmes’ genius, efficiency and quick-wittedness and, on top, he’s well alive and frequently shows up in Marbella on Spain’s south coast, where he owns a villa. He’d be easy to approach over a good malt whiskey and probably willing to do us a favour for the good cause in between his games of golf and sunbathing. I know it’s heresy but I’d even clone him in his 00-Ockham part: having that kind of deductive reasoning and attitude pour over our CVs rather than local zealots applying bureaucratic and confessional procedures would provide better results.

He would certainly suffice to deal with the kind of academic check that is required on the local level. It’d also be more cost-effective and beneficial for an institution which is hard up for freedom of movement and qualified academic staff, chronically underfunded but ear-marked to lead the way out of Spain’s economic slump. ANECA and AQU should have no licence to kill, so let’s leave patronizing models behind and provide scholars with the means to realise their potential for the benefit of all. Ten years on the university payroll should owe me some credit rather than discredit; the only thing I’ll confess in the name of the ROSE is that I have little if nothing to prove after a decade in the academic trenches.

Dr Maarten Renes

Maarten Renes is an expatriate Dutchman who has lived and worked in Bacelona since 1987. He holds a PhD in English by the University of Barcelona and is assistant lecturer for the literature section of its Department of English. He is vice-director of the University of Barcelona’s interdisciplinary Observatory: Australian Studies Centre.

Making country: FC Barcelona and Real Madrid

13 Mar

My friend and colleague, Dr Maarten Renes from Universitat de Barcelona, is guest columnist this week with this intriguing piece on the Catalonian struggle for autonomy as it is played out on the football fields of Spain.

Martin and Jennifer, Universitat de Barcelona

Barcelona has turned into an attractive holiday destination for many Australians: its generally good weather, cultural amenities (Gaudí architecture, Picasso and Miró museums, Roman remains etc.), gastronomic wealth and intense beach and night life have forged its reputation as a hospitable town.

Many know that Barcelona is the second-largest city of Spain, but how many realise it is also the capital of Catalonia, a so-called ‘autonomous community’ or quasi-federal region within the larger political framework of the Spanish state?

To understand what is at stake in the war of politico-legal definitions surrounding the term, one only has to observe the intensely lived competition between the two major Spanish football teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, which neatly delineates the amount of feeling invested in state and regional nationalism—or ‘central’ and ‘marginal’ nationalism, españolismo and catalanisme, as they like to say here. At present, the score Madrid-Barcelona is five-nil in the political, but the reverse where football is concerned.

Indeed, Barça coach Pep Guardiola is the most popular expression of fer país or ‘making country’, an apt phrase denoting the forging of local identity coined by the conservative regional-nationalist and ex-president of the Catalan government, Jordi Pujol.

Guardiola’s project perfects the seeds sown by former Dutch international Johan Cruyff, who has made Catalonia his home and used to play for and later coach the Barça team which boosted Guardiola himself as an excellent midfield player.

Whereas Real Madrid spends huge amounts of money buying the best players on the market, creating some sort of a mercenary army unit (but no unity), Guardiola draws on the club’s young, upcoming players to build a competitive, synergetic team of ‘local lads’ who have imbued the club’s collective philosophy of playing football from an early age on.

To highlight the regional-nationalist importance of this, a similar strategy has been quite successfully followed by several professional Basque football clubs playing in the Spanish liga or premier league. That this strategy has been very effective in the case of Barça is shown in the team’s results and international recognition.

Barca fans by atomicShed via flickr

Pep Guardiola forges a sense of ‘country’ by appealing to solidarity, hard work and modesty as he likes to proclaim himself, and has come to represent a role model for current Catalan self-perception. As such, Barça articulates a claim for the political significance of the city (and region/country/nation) that hosts it, and is of capital importance in the economic, political, legal and cultural conflict that the town has been engaged in with Madrid ever since the advent of democracy in 1978.

Should it surprise anyone that when Barça’s last president, Joan Laporta, stepped down last year after serving his two statutory mandates, he took charge of a new independence party, Solidaritat, in the last Catalan elections, managed to obtain several seats in the Catalan parliament, and now considers running for mayor in Barcelona?

Traditional Castell, Barcelona by Jane Bronotte

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 laid down the rules to play the political game in Spanish state territory, and attempted to accommodate the ‘historical nationalities’ of Galicia, The Basque Country, Navarra and Catalonia in a quasi-federal structure of ‘autonomous communities’ in which all Spanish regions were incorporated as equals—an arrangement now often disparagingly referred to as ‘café para todos’ or ‘coffee for all’, that is, all regions would be ‘served’ the same.

The historical nationalities’ distribution on the map actually reflects the way Christians organised themselves into kingdoms in the north of medieval Spain to fight back the Moorish occupants of the peninsula. Whereas Portugal remained its independency on the Atlantic fringe, all other regions were eventually brought under the control of the Castilian kings, although the other former kingdoms from the north of Spain would retain some rights of old and strong regional identities, despite the fragmentation of their territories under Spanish and French rule in modern times.

The most belligerent and successful of the historical nationalities has been The Basque Country, both because of its fully-recognised historical rights and its still-active terrorist movement ETA, which was actually founded in the Basque-speaking northern fringe of Navarra. Catalonia has played a slightly more accommodating role towards the central government; hampered by a more limited interpretation of its historical rights, it insistently complains about the lack of ‘completion’ of the 1978 Statute of Autonomy. It claims that the legal possibilities for Catalan self-government and self-management have still not been exhausted and need further filling out to reach a full-fledged federal make-up, comparable to the German Länder or the Australian states for that matter.

Voices for complete independence from Spain are also increasingly heard and represented in the Catalan Parliament.

The struggle for self-government ties in with wider objectives of economic reactivation and cultural survival. On the one hand it is often felt that there is a serious financial and economic drain-off towards Madrid, held in place by state control and plunging Catalonia back into ‘underdevelopment’. No doubt Catalonia, once a rich area of strong industrial development whose republican aspirations were thwarted by the fascist outcome of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), pays comparatively more taxes than most other autonomous regions and receives less money back from the central government.

Mural: Catalonian Independence Movement via Wikimedia

Many Catalans feel this has been going on too long and has led to an unjustifiable disequilibrium with the rest of Spain—and especially Madrid, which has enjoyed spectacular economic growth hand in hand with the (post)Franco accumulation of political power.

On the other hand, cultural survival focuses on the Catalan language, theoretically spoken by six to seven million people but under constant threat by the legal and demographic pressure of Spanish, co-official and spoken by 46 million people in the peninsula alone and 500 millions worldwide. In Barcelona capital, with four million inhabitants if one includes its area of metropolitan influence, the languages often mix, and most immigrants, formerly from the south and west of Spain but nowadays often South-American, prefer to learn and/or speak Spanish over Catalan for reasons of convenience.

Although the vehicle language in official contexts, Catalan remains a minority language which also suffers from the onslaught of artificial fragmentation by its renaming in adjoining territories where local varieties are spoken. Thus, in Valencia people speak Spanish and ‘Valencian’, which is clearly distinguishable as a dialectal variant of Catalan but officially defined by its neo-con government as a different language.

The Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca etc.) are proud of their ‘Balearic’, a similar case in question. Neither should one forget the two varieties spoken in the Pyrenean valleys of Andorra and Aran, which also boast their linguistic ‘difference’. Last but not least, the presence of Catalan in the old Catalunya Nord, the area around Perpignan in the South of France, is more and more anecdotic and ‘folkloric’ everyday.

Tango Dancers in Las Ramblas Barcelona. by Carlos Lorenzo via flickr

Unlike Canberra, which in theory is a physical and political space beyond local strife, Barcelona is capital territory in many other senses. It is (a) capital to visit as one of the major tourist towns in Europe—or at least of the Mediterranean—because of its attractive combination of good weather, a accessible beaches, attractive architecture, historical and cultural amenities going back 2,000 years, and round-the-clock bar, club and restaurant scene.

It is also the capital of the historical nationality of Catalonia, and offers a myriad of possibilities to get to know this culture forged as of the Middle Ages, both in town as well as outside—whether you go to other major cities such as Tarragona, Lleida or Girona; to the mountain resorts of Montserrat, Montseny or the Pyrenees; or the beach resorts of the Costa Daurada or the Costa Brava.

It is, next, a capital postcolonial space in which the ongoing politico-economic conflict between the centre and the margins is played out and marketed as antagonising nationalisms, and whose outcome remains unwritten, even more so in times of economic slump and general conservative European backlash against the celebration of cultural difference. It is, in this sense, one of the capital locations in the Old Continent where the configuration of a new Europeanness is torn between the narrow-mindedly provincial or broadmindedly cosmopolitan. It is, last but not least, a capital which I, though not from here, would like to keep calling my home.

Dr Maarten Renes

Maarten Renes is an expatriate Dutchman who has lived and worked in Bacelona since 1987. He holds a PhD in English by the University of Barcelona and is assistant lecturer for the literature section of its Department of English. He is vice-director of the University of Barcelona’s interdisciplinary Observatory: Australian Studies Centre.

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