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Home arrow Economics arrow Contingency and commitment : Mexican existentialism and the place of philosophy
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Harmony from Seriousness: More on Portilla

In looking at mid-twentieth-century Mexican philosophy for a model to emulate, I am, of course, not saying that we (Latino/as, the disenfranchised, the marginal) will align our enfoques to those of the Mexican philosophers; the point is not to imitate but to make our own the philosophical lessons we find there. This involves beginning our reflections from our own situated, historical, and cultural circumstance. We, like the Mexican thinkers, heed Ortega’s insight from a century ago (1914): “it is through my circumstance that I communicate with the universe” (2000, 41). That we begin with our own circumstance does not mean, however, that we will not uncover similar characteristics constitutive of our character, such as the pervasiveness of attitudes that disrupt moral and social progress (e.g., marginalizing attitudes like desgana or relajo). In the case of Mexican-American Latino/as, given the historical relationship between our circumstance and those of our fellow Mexicans this would not be surprising.

We have seen the lesson that Uranga offers. Let us look now at Jorge Portilla’s. While Uranga teaches that generosity toward self and others is the only proper response to the demands of an uncertain, fractured, and contingent world (lest we give in to the contingency and flee from all responsibility), Jorge Portilla reminds us that life in an uncertain, fractured, and contingent world is meaningless without an attitude of seriousness and commitment toward that which is beyond the uncertain, the fractured, and the contingent, namely, value.

Portilla’s most important contribution to the history of Mexican philosophy is his Fenomenologia del relajo (Portilla [1966] 1984; Sanchez 2012). The lesson there is straightforward and familiar: in order to better ourselves, to perfect our humanity, we must confront those aspects of our everydayness that oppress or marginalize us, that hinder our potential. For Portilla, this meant confronting what he considered the cause of “a slow process of self-destruction” to which the “best representatives” of his generation had succumbed. He calls it “relajo” and defines it as a “suspension of seriousness” (Portilla [1966] 1984, 15, 14, 26)

In his Fenomenologia, Portilla’s focus is on Mexican culture itself, particularly post-World War II Mexico, a time, Portilla tells us, made up of a generation of “serious men” who suffered from a “lack of seriousness” ([1966] 1984, 15). Portilla’s project is motivated by his observation that these serious men who lack seriousness “were afraid of their own excellence and . . . felt obligated to forbid its manifestation” (15). This leads, he concludes, to the situation that ultimately impedes “the constitution of a Mexican community, of a genuine community, and not of a society divided into proprietors and the dispossessed [y no de una socie- dad escindida en propietarios y desposeidos]” (95). Portilla thinks of his task as one of “tak[ing] philosophy out into the street [sacar la filosofia a la calle]” (15) and bringing it face to face with what hinders individual and collective overcoming; with what impedes the revolutionary act; with what threatens seriousness, namely, a consciousness in a state of irresponsibility, that is, relajo.9

Like Uranga, Portilla’s philosophy centers on issues of personal and communal responsibility. He finds that what counts as responsible in any particular culture are behaviors or attitudes linked to values, the realization of which are deemed vitally significant for those cultures and the individuals in them. The level of commitment toward values is thus the ultimate measure of responsibility. Moreover, Portilla’s phenomenology reveals that values have the power to determine our possibilities, as when we simply go along with the value ([1966] 1984, 18), or force us into defiance, as when we refuse to go along with the value. As preestablished, by power or history, these values present themselves to individuals or communities with an air of sanctity, of objectiveness, or as Uranga would say, of substance—with an “essence” that simply cannot be challenged. In the final analysis, values bound one’s freedom, and thus oppress one’s will, but in doing so, they also invite defiance, as defiance is a possibility of freedom, which can never truly be negated. In responsibility or irresponsibility toward values, Portilla concludes, what is at stake is our freedom to create, to respond, to be genuinely human.

In relajo, the possibility of moral perfectionism, the good life, selffulfillment, and mobility (of whatever hue) are nullified. Mexicans, Porti- lla proposes, fall easily into relajo, into a state of purposeless and infertile excitement. The act of relajo lacks direction, orientation, and meaningful intention. Before the demands of value, demands that require seriousness and focus to fulfill, the Mexican instead engages in acts of devaluing and displacement that conclude not with the realization of the proposed value but with the interruption of a meaningful vital process. In relajo the choice is immediately made (in simultaneous acts of disruption) to suspend the seriousness that that process demands and instead unhinge the process from all meaning. For Portilla, relajo must be overcome, as both a personal and communal phenomenon, if we are to transform our reality, (apparently) for the better.

But where do we begin to transform our reality? We begin with ourselves. Portilla writes: “it is a fact of experience that a change in attitude in pure interiority can have and indeed actually does have the effectiveness to change the way the world appears to the person who adopts the new attitude; and the way the world appears is not a negligible factor in lucid and effective action” ([1966] 1984, 63). That is, changing one’s attitude changes one’s circumstance. And when that circumstance prohibits clear and efficient pursuit of meaning or value, changing it becomes necessary in order to exist meaningfully or valuably. And how do we change our attitude? This change in attitude, or change in enfoque, is carried out as a (internal) reevaluation of my present circumstance. This will be a reevaluation in which I align the idea of the best possible world for me with the values that would sustain that possible world. The achieved harmony between these two, the idea of what I want the world to be and the values that would sustain that world, makes seriousness possible; I can be serious only when I respect that harmony. Thus, reality is transformed if and when I change my attitude of nihilism and relajo, where seriousness is suspended, and replace it with an attitude of seriousness toward values, or harmony.

In the Fenomenologia, changing one’s perspective allows one to confront the lure of the “relajo” attitude that seduces the Mexican character (Portilla [1966] 1984, 41). Relajo is overcome, Portilla suggests, by achieving that harmony between one’s self and the instantiated values, which also means that one ought not to overcommit to values, or take values too seriously, as this disrupts the achieved equilibrium. Once the

“change in attitude” takes place, the task is to keep constant vigilance on that harmony, ever mindful that seriousness before values is an existential commitment, a manifestation of “efficient and clear action.”

Achieving such harmony is a form of transcendence, one that takes us beyond our immediate circumstances (i.e., where chaos and uncertainty reign) and to the space of possibility (i.e., a valuable existence). Portilla has faith in the power of the individual to achieve, or transcend, in this way. He writes:

Humans are beings of such a nature that, even if by their cor- porality they participate in the very being of things, they are capable of transcending them. A human is not just one more thing alongside other things, but one which can give things to him- or herself as an object, which can confront him or her, and in so doing, move beyond all of them. Humans are capable of setting goals that can go beyond their own situation and the present state of the world, taken as a whole. By virtue of the form of his or her being itself, a human, each human, is beyond him- or herself and his or her physical boundaries, beyond his or her body and situation. A human is a facticity (body, situation, irrevocable past, etc.) that is at the same time transcendence, in other words, a going beyond all of this, thus giving him or her meaning through a project or him- or herself. ([1966] 1984, 60)

The lesson here is that one is capable of liberating oneself from any situation through the articulation of “an ownmost project” that aims beyond the present state of that situation and to the achievement of that project. A situation in which one’s excellence is stifled by oppressive or dominating processes, states of affairs, ideologies, and other social phenomena (e.g., relajo, nihilistic attitudes, etc.) can be overcome by the serious commitment to values that, if realized, will bring about a new situation where processes, states of affairs, ideologies, or relajo fail to oppress or dominate, if only because of the incorruptibility—and suprasituational character—of the values themselves.

In moving beyond one’s self in proposals that project beyond the immediacy of the circumstantial, now one is able to transcend our current predicaments. Hence, neither the objects that oppose us nor the situations that enclose us can keep us where and how we are, if our goal is to move beyond, toward commitment, and with that, inner harmony.

Transcendence, Portilla concludes, is a condition of our facticity. Ultimately, relajo, just like the unwillingness that Uranga points to, can be transcended by acts of self-examination and confrontation. The path to liberation goes through the capacity (of individuals and communities) to be serious in an otherwise clamorous world.

 
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