​This is a position paper about a subject position. A new project I am beginning to work on examines the con­sis­tency of the role played by the White bour­geois female subject in the modern social imag­inary. This con­sis­tency is so marked that (for example) key theses from a  book pub­lished just last month by Kyla Schuller, which ana­lyzes White women’s enti­tlement in the nine­teenth and twen­tieth cen­turies, describes, nearly to the gesture, the behavior of a great number of char­acters in early modern lit­er­ature. In the writing of Cer­vantes and Maria de Zayas, in dra­matic works by Lope and Calderón, in writings by sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (somewhat more ambiva­lently), White bour­geois women appro­priate the emo­tional labor of Black women, Indigenous women, and women of color; they propose alliances that cross bound­aries of class, caste, race, and eth­nicity, only to realign them­selves with the dom­inant orderonce they have achieved their ends; they collude with patri­archy at the expense of women’s interests, such as the safety of female bodies, the pro­tection and support of girls, the affir­mation of the value of female human life. Anchored in con­tem­porary research on whiteness, and on the identity and agency of the White bour­geois woman as a subset within that cat­egory, this project, which I am ten­ta­tively calling, Damas in Dis­tress, extends an analysis of White bour­geois fem­i­ninity “back” to the 16th and 17th cen­turies (the “early modern period”) to demon­strate that “White, bour­geois female” is a subject position which is fun­da­mental to and coeval with a Western modernity struc­tured by cap­i­talism, impe­ri­alism, extrac­tivism, and coa­lescing dis­courses of whiteness.

​Before I move on, I should emphasize that my interest here is in a subject position. That is, I draw a dis­tinction in this project (and gen­erally) between living human beings (people); char­acters (who are set at play in a nov­el­istic field); and subject posi­tions (which are func­tions of dis­cursive regimes orga­nized to support spe­cific political frame­works and dis­po­si­tions of power). The reading prac­tices I am devel­oping in this project seek to expand our capacity to think through women’s expe­rience and women’s lives by holding the latter (the subject position of the White, bour­geois female) sep­arate from the former (women, char­acters). A growing facility with this analysis weakens the dom­i­nance of this subject position as the norm that struc­tures how female life is rep­re­sented, rec­og­nized, talked, and written about (perhaps espe­cially in academia and schol­arship). Evi­dence of female life as it is lived in its mul­ti­plicity and variety can come into focus and make new sense for us, show us new dimen­sions of an early modern world we might think we know. I rec­ognize that this is not a new aspi­ration; it follows Gender Trouble fairly closely. But there is still sig­nif­icant work to do in the area of early modern lit­erary studies; moreover, that work offers to con­tribute to twenty-first century Fem­inist projects, even as it opens up rich new terrain in our own fields. 

This project is in its pre­lim­inary stages, but I can offer two examples, both from Don Quijote:

Marcela, the free-spirited, intel­ligent, and self-confident woman we encounter in chapters 12–14 of Part 1, rejects the terms upon which her society rec­og­nizes female agency. She makes her case against a willful mis­reading of her desires and her behavior on the part of Grisóstomo, Anselmo, and their com­munity; and she explains, patiently and in a well-crafted argument, the life she seeks to pursue. After making her speech, she van­ishes from the novel.

My next example is Dorotea, a char­acter who bears resem­blance to her fore­runner, in that she is witty, beau­tiful, wealthy (all qual­ities Marcela pos­sesses). Like Marcela, Doroteafeels entitled by those qual­ities to seek to both control her own nar­rative and exercise agency over the shape and direction of her life.

In other ways, Dorotea is more con­ser­v­ative. Whereas Marcela seeks a life free from the burdens and the con­straints society imposes on women, Dorotea actively seeks them out.Rosilie Hernández has ana­lyzed Dorotea’s con­struction as a subject and points out that her most pressing desire is not simply that Don Fer­nando fulfill his promise to marry her, but rather that she be pub­licly rec­og­nized as Don Fernando’s wife.Building from Hernández, I would suggest that what Dorotea is seeking in this novel is cap­tured by the term “subjectivation,”the English word Judith Butler coined to describe Foucault’s (asu­jetissement), a word rel­evant to Dorotea because the agency and ful­fillment she enjoys by the time she exits the nar­rative in chapter 47 are not entirely of her own con­juring. Rather, they cor­re­spond to what Butler calls, “power on loan”: the limited agency granted to sub­jects when they accept primary sub­or­di­nation to a dom­inant regime and receive, in return, mea­sures of power, and the authority to sub­or­dinate others.

Dorotea’s tra­jectory follows this process: she demon­strates an embrace of sub­or­di­nation on the basis of her gender, her social rank, and her sex­u­ality (she is not a virgin), while she cannily assesses how and where she can prevail, given the con­straints that delimit (but also define) her power and mobility. And she suc­cess­fully uses those she observes to be her infe­ri­orsin the social hier­archy to advance her progress toward her goals.

For example: in speeches in chapters 28, 29, and 36, Dorotea crafts deft rhetorical per­for­mances in which she con­cedes the authority of social codes and accepts them with prudent grace, humility, and charm. As a result, she wins sym­pathy, assis­tance, and a position within the com­munity she seeks to join. In chapter 30, however, Dorotea re-assesses the hier­ar­chies that shape this com­munity and makes a cal­cu­lated decision to align herself with social norms and sub­or­dinate don Quijote and Sancho, respectively.

The second element of Dorotea’s journey (and the one that links her most evi­dently to the topics under dis­cussion in our seminar today), has to do with the strange detour she takes —a detour she is required to take? A detour she vol­un­teers to take? The terms under which Dorotea assumes the role of Micomi­conaare as ambivalent as the process of sub­jec­ti­vation itself. But in order to accom­plish her goal, Dorotea travels through an identity not her own. She assumes the role of Micomicona, the African princess, an identity the priest con­ceives of as a ruse, pre­sented as the trick by which to bring Don Quijote home, and one Dorotea appro­priates in chapter 29, perhaps because she rec­og­nizes that playing Micomicona will inte­grate her into a group who will help her in her search for don Fer­nando. She con­tinues this mas­querade, moving in and out of Micomicona as an alternate identity, until she and don Fer­nando exit the novel inchapter 47.

A number of ques­tions arise for me here; chief among them: Why is Africa intro­duced at this juncture of the novel, and why via Dorotea?

My own answer, as might be foreseen, given the ori­en­tation of my project, is whiteness. Dorotea enters the novel at a crucial point in the nov­el­ization of the text, a lit­erary feat she helps accom­plish when she suc­cess­fully “crosses over” from a side plot to the main one. She joins Car­denio in expanding the story’s scope, but unlike Car­denio, Dorotea plays an addi­tion­alin­stru­mental by assisting in the worlding of the novel. In her expanded role as Dorotea-Micomicona, she trans­forms a tale whose scope up to this point has been con­fined to regional, Castilian affairs, sup­ple­mented by Alonso Quejana’s chivalric fan­tasies, into one that encom­passes the African con­tinent and, shortly there­after, the Mediter­ranean and the Spanish American vice realms, as Zoraida and the members of the Viedma family find their way to the Inn over the course of chapters 37- 42. Dorotea con­tributes actively to accom­mo­dating these char­acters and their stories within the novel’s digesis: the res­o­lution of the Car­denio — don Fer­nando — Lus­cinda love tri­angle inau­gu­rates the series of rec­on­cil­i­a­tions through which Zoraida, Ruy Pérez de Viedma, Pedro de Aguilar, Juan Pérez de Viedma, doñaClara, and don Luis find their places in a rapidly expanding nov­el­istic habitus. In addition, Dorotea extends herself to draw the erst­while strangers into com­munity. As a con­se­quence, she is instru­mental in incor­po­rating the various regions (León, North Africa, Greece, Albania, Mexico) — as well as the colonial, imperial, and merchant-trader rela­tion­ships by which the members of the company engage with those regions— into the com­munity of the Inn, Cervantes’s metaphor for imperial Spain.

Within this cos­mopolitan, imperial Hapsburg habitus, the subject position of the bour­geois female incor­po­rates a new dimension: Dorotea becomes Christian and White, the latter con letra mayúscula because it is an identity that overlaps with but is not fully or even prin­ci­pally accounted for by skin color. This is a power rela­tionship, or what might also be thought of as a caste rela­tionship, in terms broached by Isabel Wilk­erson (and before her, by Anthony J. Cas­cardi, albeit with dif­ferent emphasis and focus). But it is the voyage through the identity of an African princess that inscribes color and Chris­tianity as dimen­sions of this subject position.

So if we keep our focus trained on Dorotea, the Micomicona mas­querade adds com­plexity to this character’s journey to ful­fillment, to sub­jec­ti­vation, and to the sat­is­faction (whatever the com­pro­mises) of her desire: what is required of her is not simply an initial sub­or­di­nation to power, fol­lowed byac­cep­tance of the terms the power scheme offers her for acting and being. She must also con­tribute to the elab­o­ration of a dom­inant political caste, the Christian, White Spaniards who by virtue of divine grace, as well as enhanced reason and sober judgement, rule over the diverse peoples and regions of the Mediter­ranean and the globe, including Africa.

But here we encounter both an aporia in my critical approach and an ethical impasse. The aporia is that my analysis and method­ology reproduce the gesture my larger project seeks to dis­mantle. In framing Dorotea as Cervantes’s way of inscribing a subject position he intuits or rec­og­nizes as fun­da­mental to the political appa­ratus that under­writes Hapsburg early modernity (the White, bour­geois female subject), I exclude a pos­si­bility of female Iberian life —a life, moreover, whose signs are omnipresent throughout these chapters: the black African-descended Iberian woman. That is, there is evi­dence in Don Quijote that Micomicona points to a spe­cific modality of Iberian/Spanish life, if we know how to read her.

Fol­lowing on this self-reflection, the ethical sit­u­ation emerges: the con­ven­tions of academia favor single-author pub­li­cation; however, the ques­tions I have found myself asking about Dorotea would not have emerged if I had not been working with some very smart graduate stu­dents, among them, Cor­nesha Tweede, who in her dis­ser­tation grapples with the affor­dances and the lim­i­ta­tions of what she calls the “white lens” that tends to determine how we approach early modern Iberian texts. Tweede’s reading prac­tices, which follow on the ground-breaking the­o­retical and method­ological inter­ven­tions intro­duced by Nicholas R. Jones in his recent work, open the way to drawing Micomicona forward as a char­acter in her own right, one who incor­po­rates traces of black African female presence and life in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Iberia.

It is pos­sible to cite Jones’s work, because it has appeared in print. When working with unpub­lished scholars and method­ologies; however, the sit­u­ation is more del­icate. Cor­nesha Tweede’s and my solution —and I am indebted to her gen­erosity and good will here— is a co-authored pub­li­cation, DoroMicona, in which we employ a dia­logic structure to call attention to reality of both char­acters, the White bour­geois woman and the black African one. So I will leave off my remarks here, to make way for the dif­ferent and spe­cific dis­cussion Micomicona requires.