POSTMODERN PREMONITIONS

Relajo is an expression of freedom, but freedom in the service of a will to not-will, a choosing not to choose among the various possibilities that a life-moment might present. In this way, relajo is the impossibility of genuine commitment and meaningful progress, or, as I put it earlier, an obstacle for the proper, instrumental use of freedom, and with that, a proper, instrumental use of reason. Portilla, in his reading of Thomas Mann, interprets the existentialist proposal of absolute freedom and irrationality as somehow justificatory of certain twentieth-century evils (specifically, the Holocaust). He suggests that what is needed to counteract the negative consequences of absolute freedom is the regulative function of reason, the use of reason as instrument. However, as will be shown, reason instrumentalized is more directly related to the achievement of those evils than is absolute freedom. This last point—that an extreme consequence of reason instrumentalized is the possibility of monstrous evil—forces us to reread Portilla’s critique of relajo and imagine that if only that disruptive phenomenon was more socially pervasive, then those evils would not have been perpetrated at all, that, in fact, and in spite of Portilla’s angst, destructive phenomena appear in modernity for which reason is not a solution but the problem.

The last few statements challenge a previous reading of Portilla. In The Suspension of Seriousness (Sanchez 2012), I argue that Portilla was a “critic of modernity.”

The tell-tale signs that Portilla’s target of criticism is modernity, rather than a simple everyday behavior witnessed in modern Mexican life, are the various ways in which he criticizes the relajiento as unproductive, lacking a future, and oppressed by her own behaviors. “Modernity” is a consumer-driven, future- oriented, existential-political condition grounded in market capitalism and industrial production, where what’s important is productivity, efficiency, and individual freedom. If modernity has given rise to the relajiento, then maybe there is something wrong with modernity. (2012, 117)

I now realize that I had Portilla on his head. As I read Portilla now, I see that it is not modernity that he blames for the rise of the relajiento, or of the nonsubject terrorizing stability and order through value disruptions and the suspension of seriousness; rather, what is to blame for the rise of this phenomenon are the subject-destabilizing forces of an antimodernity, namely, irrationalism and atheism. The relajiento, or relajo itself, represents the end of modernity and the ordered rationality that is its essence. While relajo is experienced as a symptom of modernity, or exists within modern culture, experiencing it thus is merely due to the fact that modernity is the horizon in which it appears. Modernity is the circumstance, and relajo its threat. Portilla has faith in reason, and in the power of reason (“logos”) to overcome nihilism and chaos; given this faith, I venture to say, now, that Portilla’s critique of relajo is meant as a defense of modernity and all that it represents, especially rational control over excessive, unchecked freedom in all of its forms.

The “essence” of modernity, according to Anthony Giddens, is “to bring the social and material worlds under human control” (1993, 289). Said differently, modernity is defined by power, particularly by humanity’s power to subdue nature and its own instincts. Thus, the age beyond modernity, the postmodern age, promises to be chaotic and spontaneous, its agents radically free, and their actions instinctual and irrational, beyond the power of rational imperatives. A critic of modernity, according to this conception, is someone who either believes modernity has failed to reign in the chaos or sees something wrong with controlling the disorder and subduing the instincts. Portilla, in the present reading, then, is not a critic of modernity, since he considers reigning in rampant freedom necessary for overcoming relajo. Following Giddens’s definition, Portilla would say that “the irrationalities of social life [are] to be overcome by rational management. Spontaneity [is] meaningless and chaotic, the antithesis of an order constructed by means of legislative control” (Giddens 1993, 289). Portilla’s critical dissection of relajo as spontaneous and chaotic is ultimately a veiled proposal for modernity as the supreme value that orders and legislates control. Moreover, Portilla suggests, legislative control will have to come from somewhere, either the state (for the management of communities) or God (for the management of self), which will be further discussed later in this chapter.

In Portilla’s Fenomenologia, the challenge to modernity comes from relajo and other behaviors that disrupt our responsibility to the realization of social, communal, and otherwise existential values. Value is understood by Portilla as what “underscores and organizes the things in the world” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 32; Sanchez 2012, 140). Values mediate our relation to objects, states of affairs, and others (Sanchez 2012, 40); but, more importantly, values are experienced as “surrounded by an aura of demands . . . [that] demand . . . to be realized,” and obeying the call of value, through corresponding acts, is imposed upon us as a “duty” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 18; Sanchez 2012, 129). Understood in such a way, values represent the social or cultural or historical forces of control and propriety. An attack on values is thus an attack on these forces of control, experienced by Portilla and his generation as “modernity.”

Challenges to modernity, as a system of values, will thus come from all sides and in a myriad of forms, from technologies that disrupt the value of interpersonal communication (e.g., telephones or social media) to philosophies that threaten the value of the unified self (e.g., Lacanian psychoanalysis). More specifically, for our purposes, the challenge to modernity can come from readers who devalue the authority of texts and the totalitarianism of “foremost” interpreters. Portilla himself held to the notion that texts had their own rational authority. Juan Jose Reyes, modern-day chronicler of the Hyperion generation, writes that Portilla believed that “words have a specific value that ought not to be lost, a force that cannot be relaxed [relajarse]” (2004, 79). This suggests that Portilla recognized the possibility of violent readings, and also that this violence must not take place; words are kept alive, or meaningful, by a “force that cannot be relaxed,” namely, their value, what can be called the rationality of the text itself. Violent readings are thus relajo-readings, and vice versa, since they are not duty-bound to the demands of any value whatsoever. “In the negatively defined situation (the nonsituation of relajo),” Reyes explains, “words would lose not only their original meanings or their probable sense but all sense” (79).

While the meaning of words will change depending on their specific linguistic contexts, that is, depending on the text in which we find them, that same context, as a horizon of possibilities of sense, protects those words and their interpretation through rational rules that govern their silences and their accents. Portilla saw that we have arrived at an age where those rules, as values, are not respected, where the legitimacy of the context is suspended, for example, in relajo, or, more to the point, where the reader reads texts through unsanctioned motives (what I am claiming we do with Mexican philosophy or Mexicans did with existentialism); at the edge of modernity, in other words, the stability of meaning, of value, or proper readings, is left unprotected.

The postmodern condition, as that blurred boundary between modernity and whatever comes next, represents the end of order and the pervasiveness of threats and disruptions. Portilla clearly perceived these threats in the form of relajo as “the systematic negation of value [that] is a movement of self-destruction” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 41; Sanchez 2012, 149). This perception surely instilled in the Mexican thinker a certain fear of the postmodern, the trauma of existence in the absence of foundations. Giddens best describes the condition at the conclusion of modernity as follows: “the end of modernity is traumatic. Adrift in a world which, as a collective humanity, we cannot master, we incur enormous costs, psychic and material” (1993, 289). We hear echoes of Portilla’s sensitivity to the “collective” trauma, to the powerlessness over the speed and force of uncontrollable change, in his challenge to the “hypothesis” of atheism and his defense of the sanctity of values.

 
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