27 Sept. 2019 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

 Jorge Canizares-Esguerra (UT)

 Inventing Humboldt and Reinventing Epistemic Colonialism

The 250th anniversary of Alexander von Humboldt’s birth has been marked by dozens of meetings, conferences, and books. The sage who spent five years traveling in Spanish America appears as the inventor of everything. The German “gay” scholar allegedly was the father of modern psychology, aesthetics, cultural anthropology, ecological criticism, and good taste. He not only appears as a radical republican (who drew his income from a Prussian despot) but also as an anti-colonialist and vocal abolitionist (whose trips in Cuba were financed by leading slavers and who upon arrival in Venezuela purchased an Indian to carry his barometer around for five years). The plants, minerals, clouds and heights of Chimborazo inspired the sage; Goethe, Kant, and Jefferson made him think. These hagiographies have invented a Humboldt that epitomizes the larger problem of academia: in the geopolitics of epistemological authority the global south has tarantulas and the north ideas. The scholarship on Humboldt has reproduced what the German sage deliberately did: conceal, obfuscate, and erase his many intellectual debts to Mexican, Quiteños, Bogotanos, and Limeños antiquarians, botanists, physicists, librarians, mineralogists, and cosmographers. Humboldt took from Spanish America not just cute, aristocratic gay companions and desiccated hummingbirds. The contemporary scholarship on Humboldt continues to be fixated on the trope of the heroic genius who by thinking hard single-handedly invented the “tropics.”


Jorge Canizares-Esguerra is the Alice Drysdale Sheffield Professor of History at UT-Austin. Like Humboldt, he likes to think hard. He also has cute companions.