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Home arrow Economics arrow Contingency and commitment : Mexican existentialism and the place of philosophy

Introduction From Prejudice to Violence

tolle lege, tolle lege (take up and read, take up and read)

—Saint Augustine (1991, 187)


Simply, this book deals with an encounter with an event. The event is the brief, yet intense, emergence of el Grupo Hiperion (the Hyperion group), which, between 1948 and 1952, embraced a rigorous philosophical project meant to unconceal, bring to light, expose, and respond to the hidden and given aspects that make up the complex sociohistorical and existential reality that is Mexico. By “encounter” here I refer to my encounter with this event, with my reading of their texts, and my writing about their readings; this encounter was far from passive and “respectful” about those texts and those readings, but was rather an interpretative intervention with transformative intent, conditioned by whatever baggage is attached to my historically constituted, and circumstantially situated, I.

By “baggage,” of course, I refer to my historical, social, economic, and political context—my reliance on ideologies and prejudices, interests and desires, conscious and unconscious. I say this not in an effort to distance myself from any interpretative faults contained in what follows, but because I am painfully aware, at this moment, of my limitations as reader and author. For instance, the chapters that make up this book were written in English (in San Jose, California) but meant for delivery in Spanish (in Morelia, Michoacan). Knowing that translation is inevitable forces me to hesitate before each word, as I think of its meaning and its Spanish equivalent, of its sound and its accent. I experience the limbo of uncertainty with each sentence. This is not an unfamiliar experience: my reality as a Mexican-American has always consisted in hanging on the dash that separates my family, traditions, and my last name from the culture and ideology that has nurtured me from birth. Similarly, the pauses in writing brought about by my worry over a future translation, as both languages compete for attention, reflect that double-consciousness constitutive of my identity as a Mexico-Americano. This is my baggage, my context.

Much has been written in Mexico about the Mexican existentialists (Villegas 1979; Ruanova 1982; Bartra 1987; Hurtado 2006, 2007). The same is not the case elsewhere, especially in the English-speaking world where critically lauded and excellently representative anthologies of twentieth-century existentialism would fail to mention that Jose Gaos, the Spanish exile and mentor to the Mexican existentialists of the 1940s, was the first to translate Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit from the German—a project complete in 1951—much less reference, even in the clutter of footnotes, the Sartrean-inspired works of Emilio Uranga or Ricardo Guerra. So it is not surprising that anyone, inside or outside Latin America, doing a thorough inventory of world philosophies would overlook the intense and committed existentialist movement (however brief) in Mexico halfway through the twentieth century. But if that someone, for historical, cultural, or in any way circumstantial reasons, were to encounter this movement and feel an immediate affinity to it, then chances are that the representativeness of the anthology would be questioned and a case would be made for the inclusion of certain key figures otherwise relegated to philosophical oblivion.

My encounter with the event of Hiperion is, therefore, conditioned by that double consciousness and the baggage of experience that brings with it expectations, desires, and hopes. Thus, my reading of Emilio Ura- nga’s reading of Jean-Paul Sartre or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, for instance, will involve a degree of violence, as I force myself onto his reading with the full weight of mestizaje, demanding a strategy for coping with and overcoming those forms of thought that encroach upon my human potential. More generally, I encroach upon those interpretations of existentialism undertaken, presumably, at a time of crisis and urgency, looking for clues as to how a text was read and not to how closely that reading comes to a “correct” or faithful interpretation. Correct readings interest me on a purely academic level. What interests me on a much broader, one could say existential, level is the value of those readings, and of the philosophy they occasioned, for life—mine and in general.

Because of these always already present expectations I cannot, in good faith as reader and author, adhere to the dogma that philosophy can or should be “pure.” The most rigorous epoche cannot bracket or suspend my subjectivity, or those flaws in my character that will contaminate my readings. In other words, with Paul Ricoeur “I shall distance myself from . . . the ideology of the absolute text” (Valdes 1991, 47), and read philosophy through my circumstance, to paraphrase Jose Ortega y Gasset’s paradigmatic insight in Meditations on Quixote (Ortega 2000), first published in 1914. My aim is to read not for the sake of reading but to read for the sake of problems posited in and by those circumstances. Thus, when encountering the Mexican existentialist, I read their readings unapologetically with a certain set of expectations—expectations for orientation, direction, or pause.

My readings into el Grupo Hiperion could be said to take their cue from the opening lines of Martin Heidegger’s 1942 lecture course on Friedrich Holderlin’s poem “The Ister.” In his introductory remarks, Heidegger announces the limitations of his own reading. These are, he says, “remarks” that accompany, or add, to the text itself; they may not be “contained in” the poem. These remarks, as additives to the textual encounter, are not strictly interpretative, but they are motivated by that encounter. Ultimately, Heidegger’s thoughts arising from the encounter with Holderlin’s poetry serve as “pauses for reflection,” as possible moments for interpretation and for philosophy. He writes:

What this lecture course is able to communicate are remarks on the poetry it has selected. Such remarks are always only an accompaniment. It may therefore be that some, or many, or even all of these remarks are simply imported and are not “contained in” the poetry. The remarks, in that case, are not taken from the poetry, are not presented from out of this poetry. The remarks in no way achieve what in the strict sense of the word could be called an “interpretation” of the poetry. At the risk of missing the truth of Holderlin’s poetry, the remarks merely provide a few markers, signs that call our attention, pauses for reflection. (Heidegger 1996, 2, emphasis mine)

Likewise, the remarks by the Mexican existentialists on the texts they encounter (by Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, or Heidegger) serve as “pauses for reflection,” for themselves as well as for me. Moreover, my own remarks on the readings of those readers, and their remarks on their own readings, are not strictly interpretative, as I will show. The readings (both mine and theirs) are points of departure, encounters that motivate thinking and, the hope is, philosophy.

Significantly, my claim throughout is that the readings here discussed—mine and theirs—are acts of appropriation. I suggest in what follows that appropriation, often defined as the act of taking possession of something without legal right, or to make one’s own without permission, occurs in the act of reading, and in particular, of reading philosophy. Appropriation is not assimilation, or mimicry, but a simultaneous taking and altering for the sake of some end. But the end of the taking- possession-of of appropriation is not to preserve, it is not an embalming of what is possessed; rather, the end is transformation, of world or one’s place in it.

In philosophy, as with the specific case of Latin American thought, the danger with appropriation rests on the fact that past attempts to appropriate a text end up not with appropriation but with totalization. The read text, that is, totalizes the system that invites it in, it overruns and assimilates it (as was the case, for example, with nineteenth-century positivism [cf. Clark 2010]). Thus there is Jacques Derrida’s warning against what he calls the “cultural, colonial, or neocolonial logic of appropriation as expropriation” where one “loses one’s memory by assimilating the memory of the other” (2002, 10). In the act of reading, forgetting the distinction between appropriation—to make one’s own or put one’s own stamp on—and expropriation—where one allows what is properly one’s own (proprius) to be seduced away (ex-)—can easily lead to the loss of one’s identity (one’s memory) in that act. The loss of oneself in the act of reading is further facilitated by what Paul Ricoeur calls “distancia- tion,” where the reader keeps a distance between text and life, refusing to place her own stamp or alter the text in any way, as the aim of reading— especially of reading philosophy—is thought to be complete objectivity (Ricoeur 1991, 87). Thus, appropriation is not distanciation or expropriation, both of which appeal to the logic of authority and objectivity; rather, appropriation, as Ricoeur puts it, has an “existential character,” projecting “the proposal of a mode of being-in-the-world,” revealing “new modes of being,” which “gives the subject new capacities for knowing himself” (97).

With that said, I would like to stress that the readings here discussed appropriate lessons without losing what is truly one’s own, namely, one’s history and one’s identity—Mexican thinkers will not lose their memory, nor will I (they are not expropriations). These are not passive readings that will leave the text unharmed (as with distanciation); they are done without permission and legal right, and so free to be creative and enhancing, loving and violent.

Ultimately, then, my purpose here is not to add to the current exegesis of existentialism in Mexico but rather to explicate a manner of confronting Mexican existentialism. Like the Mexican existentialist confrontation with French existentialism, or John Dewey, or with the strict demands of Eurocentric philosophy, my confrontation with Mexican existentialism is structured by certain ideological prejudices that I cannot ignore: a desire to read on behalf of my circumstance and in my own time, in other words, a desire to appropriate.

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