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


Portilla’s existential nausea permeates his Fenomenologia del relajo (hereafter, Fenomenologia). We read it in his angst toward “those men of talent” who denied their excellences so as to engage in vulgar and senseless acts (Sanchez 2012, 126).1 We read it again in his exasperated description of the relajiento, that individual who refuses to participate in the meaningful process of existence and instead gives himself away to the clamor and the chaos of value suspensions, or relajo. And most importantly, we read it in Portilla the author, who, despite his reverence for the history of philosophy, chooses a theme that has never been taken up philosophically, and chooses not out of a sense of philosophical duty but a duty borne of frustration and a sense of impending calamity.

Portilla confesses that he lives in an age of “irresponsibility” where a lack of seriousness, or relajo, is the defining characteristic; his generation, he says, is “incapable” of “taking anything with real seriousness,” not even, he laments, “their own capabilities and their own destiny” (Sanchez 2012, 125-126). He takes up the philosophical investigation into this lack of seriousness, which he says is phenomenologically a suspension of seriousness toward values, “not so much because of a Pharisee-like desire to warn youth of the dangers of the lack of seriousness, but rather,” he says, “because of the desire to understand” (126). However, the reader will quickly realize that Portilla’s concern with a lack of seriousness toward the common destiny of his generation is the motivating force behind his “desire to understand” relajo as an existential comportment and that, therefore, the Fenomenologia is, in fact or performatively, a plea and a warning to the youth, or to the future of Mexico. The warning is simple and clothed in a hypothetical: if Mexico as a community is to flourish and achieve itself in freedom, then the suspensions and chaos of relajo must be overcome by an action of reason and the “liberating function” of “logos” (126). The hypothetical reveals a certain tension in Portilla’s conception of freedom. In order to enjoy it, one must control it.

Indeed, the axis of Portilla’s existentialism, the pivot on which his thinking revolves, is the concept of freedom. Freedom is not “merely a concept” of philosophical curiosity but “something that occurs” in human life (Sanchez 2012, 160). The philosophical discussions of freedom as either absolute or nonexistent (by biological or historical determinists, for example) are mere “aesthetic” exercises without real effect on the actual lives of persons. If we engage in these thought experiments, we realize that absolute freedom is impossible given our embodiment, and that pure determinism is prima facie false given our “obscure yet firm consciousness of being free” (160). Phenomenologically speaking, a lack of freedom may be observed in a person’s behavior and actions, but, at the same time, phenomenologically speaking, the motives behind those actions and those behaviors are closed off to us. In a telling passage in his short, wonderful text, Portilla writes:

[An action] will always be an event that is understandable within a biographical outline that is personal, internal relative to the person, and not simply a link in a chain of events that are external relative to each other. Between the . . . circumstances and the action that we want to understand there is always a hiatus. . . . Freedom resists being eliminated. No matter how overwhelming the volume of information we contribute to transform our subject into a pure patient or to turn our subject into a link in the series, we will never be able to strip this person of his or her character of author, unless we strip this individual of his or her human quality, something which is, in principle, impossible. (Sanchez 2012, 161)

In this passage, Portilla aims to go through the horns of the freedom- determinism dilemma by proposing that the person is the field wherein converge the determinate forces of circumstance and environment, on the one hand, and an unreadable, ineffable freedom, on the other. The person represents, to borrow from T. S. Eliot’s poem cited at the start of this chapter, “the shadow,” the in-between of the idea (“the human quality”) and the reality (“the circumstance”). The passage also makes clear that the “human quality” that cannot be stripped from the individual, freedom, is unreadable; that is, what is readable in human persons is their actions, their circumstance, or their biographies. This suggests that a genuine philosophical account of the human person will settle for what is given, namely, the actions of that person in his or her particular historical community. This does not make Portilla a determinist or an advocate of free will; it makes him a phenomenologist. It is clear that, as far as Portilla is concerned, human freedom is nonnegotiable in philosophical squabbles. Thus, while Mexicans can be identified as subjects of historical circumstances that defined their biography (i.e., that “overwhelming volume of information”), each of them retains the power of transformation, their human quality, in other words, their freedom.

Practically, and meaningfully speaking, then, we are both free and determined: determined by our circumstances and our bodies, but free to change our circumstance given an irreducible power within. But what does freedom have to do with relajo, that set of behaviors that stand in the way of personal fulfillment and social progress and are characterized by a suspension of seriousness, “nonregulation,” and “disorder” (Sanchez 2012, 159)? Simply put, freedom is the horizon of possibility for all behaviors, both fertile and nihilistic, and thus relajo is itself a possibility of that irreducible power within.

Relajo is a consequence of excessive, unbounded freedom; relajo’s opposite, snobbery, which defines the individual he refers to as the apre- tado, is a manifestation of a radical fear of freedom, and the retreat to the security of absolutes and certainties. Portilla defines the “apretado” as someone who “refuses to take notice of the distance between ‘being’ and ‘value’ . . . [and] considers him or herself valuable” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 87; Sanchez 2012, 191). In other words, the apretado embodies what he or she considers valuable—traditions, moral codes, imperatives of all kinds, law, and so on. The apretado considers these values as impervious to historical raptures or cultural whims and as such sacrosanct, firm, and secure. They thus strengthen an identity otherwise contingent and determinable. The apretado invests his freedom in the values that he thinks define him, and thus chooses to be the value in advance and once and for all, rather than retaining his free choice to choose other identities at other times.

In this dichotomy, the mean, or correct, freedom is a freedom that is neither excessive (relajiento) nor surrendered (apretado) but active and productive within the bounds of modern reason, or modernity. It is a freedom utilized in the service of positive change and liberation, that is, it is a pragmatic and instrumental freedom.

In the first pages of his Fenomenologia, we bear witness to Portilla’s exasperation with his countrymen and we read his exasperation and his desire for an awakening of a consciousness of freedom that will put to correct use that “God-given” endowment while putting an end to the chaos and futility of those everyday practices that, while at times entertaining, perpetuate nothingness and promote servitude to the insanity of repetition (i.e., the chasing-of-one’s-tail in relajo). Ultimately, according to Portilla, a correct use of freedom will bring about “the removal, destruction, or overcoming of an obstacle that is really present in the world,” or, simply put, “a change of attitude” (Sanchez 2012, 168). In either case, a correct use of freedom will bring about change. I refer to it as “instrumental freedom,” as it serves a human and social purpose, namely, freedom in the service of orderly progress or human fulfillment within the bounds of reason.

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