What’s in a Question?

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My question about the waning of custom and the rise of the law is intimately connected with the tensions between the country and the city, the rural and the urban, the local and the national, and the particular and the universal.

To those trained in literary study through close reading and historical contextualization, using a computer for analysis may seem like a fine idea, but just framing the research question can be altogether bewildering. Because of this unfamiliarity in framing a question appropriate for distant reading, my foray into digital humanities was a rather naïve one, by which I mean that I committed myself to how I would analyze culture without knowing what I would study. Almost every paper I’ve ever written started off as an observation or association I made between a word, a description, or allusion and a text’s theme and/or a topic significant to me. I might even say that the association was between a text and an important theme for me that I at first sensed and then corroborated by tracing a pattern across a text or a few texts. In other words, analysis for me starts with a particular example in a particular text, not with a question applied to a large corpus of texts (most of which I had never read before).

Thus, it took me a while to develop what I still believe is a great project: documenting the interrelationship between genres of music and how they have come to be mixed in the musical laboratories of Latin America, specifically the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, through a network analysis (see here for a fuller explanation). However, as I detail here, I did not have the technical skills to compile an appropriate dataset, which led me to reexamine a closing speculation of my doctoral dissertation. The bulk of that thesis was on the relationship of the custom sketch genre to key 19th century Latin American and U.S. novels, two of which (Sab and Cecilia Valdés) are explicitly antislavery narratives. A key finding of my work was that the custom sketch within these novels represented an idealized yet inherently conservative vision of how life should be, except for Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which posits a break from custom altogether while at the same time being anxious on what exactly to use as the bedrock for U.S. culture. Based on my reading of The Scarlet Letter, and its introduction “The Custom-House,” I speculated that with the consolidation of the state apparatus in the United States, fiction would question custom as an organizing principle for society in favor of the law and legal frameworks (Jimenez 134).

This speculation brings together several threads. Though the idea about the tension between custom and the law in the 19th century United States emerged from a reading of “The Custom-House,” that reading came through my knowledge of the tensions between local custom and feudal laws as exhibited in classical Spanish works such as: 1) Alfonso X’s Las siete partidas, a treatise in monarchical power that used Roman law, a priori written law as opposed to law derived from precedent (common law), as a model to argue that the law flowed from the crown as opposed from regional or local laws (some of which were derived from customs in existence prior to the Roman conquest of Iberia) that posited the king’s laws (or national laws) as opposed to regional or local laws; and 2) Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna, a 1612/1614 play that staged a dramatic revolt in 1476 in which villagers killed a royal official and each villager claimed responsibility for his death, forcing King Ferdinand to pardon the entire village. This first thread has informed me the ways in which I understand local vs national laws borne out of Medieval history and theories of monarchical and feudal power.

The second thread that informs my consideration of custom and the law is the 19th century historical context in Latin America, which is one is of independence from Spain. In this context, the young republics’ new constitutions, most using the U.S. constitution and/or the Declaration of the Rights of Man as models, were being used to forge new states whose power was often at odds with, and dependent upon, powerful landed elites. In other words, laws were literally ideals, power was wielded by landowners controlling vast tracts of land, and society was bound together by the power of the church and customs developed from Spanish traditions that had changed over time in their new American contexts.

Lastly, the United States itself was a young nation, and the American “character” was still being defined and/or debated in texts such as Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The latter two texts specifically speak of laws, but a great deal of their exposition focuses on the character of the American people. All three texts remark upon the customs that Americans had developed particularly through their organization of space and their harnessing of the land’s productive power. My point is that the law as we know it and feel it had not yet taken hold in the Americas and that social custom had as much or more to play in how society functioned than either laws or a coherent legal system or framework. In a very real sense, then, my question about the waning of custom and the rise of the law is intimately connected with the tensions between the country and the city, the rural and the urban, the local and the national, and the particular and the universal.

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