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Bullfighting: Culture and Democracy in Modern Spain

December 15, 2015

Professor William Viestenz in his office.

Professor William Viestenz in his office.
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

In July of 2010, Catalonia became the second province in Spain to place a ban on the centuries old tradition of bullfighting. In 1939, Spain, following the Spanish Civil War, turned to the tourist industry as a primary economic engine. Although bullfighting was historically tied to the southern regions of the country, during the Francoist dictatorship bullfighting was highly touted in tourist literature as a top attraction for visitors to Spain. Bullfighting became a cultural custom that was imposed on many regions, including Catalonia, by the Francoist regime.

William Viestenz, a professor with a joint appointment in the College of Liberal Arts’ Institute for Global Studies and Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, is writing a book entitled Beasts of Burden: Bullfighting and other Eruptions of the Creaturely in Modern Spain. Viestenz’s project investigates the relationship between animal symbolism and political sovereignty, ethics, and human rights.

Professor Viestenz’s initial research on the topic started in 2012 with an article entitled “Sins of the Flesh: Bullfighting as a Model of Power.” In 2013, he developed a course, “The Ethics of Bullfighting,” that was cross-listed by Global Studies and Spanish & Portuguese Studies. Since then, the University has awarded Professor Viestenz a Grant-in-Aid of Research and an Imagine Fund Annual Award to continue investigation of this topic.

Viestenz’s research has shown that bullfighting is much more than just a spectacle or a tourist attraction. Upon investigation, there is evidence that the Catalonian ban on bullfighting “represents a wellspring of democracy in Catalonia, in the sense of people wanting to control how to project themselves culturally.” This political rejection of the symbolic and cultural image of the state that Spain’s central government had promoted for decades has helped serve as a stepping stone to Catalonia’s recent vote for independence. Through his studies at the University and research trips abroad, Viestenz has found that bullfighting is a symbol in a network that encompasses political, bio-ethical, and cultural discourses.

“I hope to be able to show people that this one cultural phenomenon [bullfighting] can speak about political and social realities that far exceeds its normal perception,” says Viestenz. Upon completion of his book, he wants to investigate questions about the practice of democracy in the 21st century and how we construct senses of place based on the intersection of humans and objects.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.