Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue and Mexican Philosophy

I should have added “Tequila” to the title because, sitting here at The Mission Inn in Riverside, CA, I realized that I should drink Mexico’s national drink as I write this entry. (Mezcal should be the national drink, but I’ll save that for another post.)

So I gave my talk at UCR titled “What’s Mexican About Mexican Philosophy” and I was met with a little resistance that I’m starting to feel from more than one corner. The problem with the project that Carlos and I are engaged with is, as I understand it, two-fold.

First, in talking about lo mexicano or what’s Mexican about anything, we run the risk inherent in the task of defining anything – that in trying to unify any group, we are inevitably going to look over, going to have to look over, internal differences and the heterogeneity of any group. And this would be a mistake because social theorists have done so much to free us from various forms of exclusive and hierarchical models. Now we can speak of border politics, liminality, intersectionality, and all other attempts to account for differences within group identities. So, the attempt to define anything monolithic such as “lo mexicano,” “mexicanidad,” or “Mexican identity,” can’t but be racist, classist, and sexist.

Second, this worry is compounded – justifiably – by the fact that, at the center of our project, is a tradition that was both conservative and largely racist, sexist, and classist. So, without much further ado, nothing good can come from a project like ours.

But I would like to respond with a few thoughts.

Most importantly, we all have to move forward under the principle of charity. Carlos and I aren’t anything if not sincere. We expect that this will be a long, increasingly complex process. But I find it strange and a little frustrating to hear that our project would so easily be dismissed by people whom I would consider allies in a common campaign. I could go on about the principle of charity, but let me distill it into its essence, which is this: if you encounter someone with whom you disagree but who you recognize is sincere, the best course of action is to exchange “you’re wrong” with “I must not be understanding you.” As the title of my last post suggests, the goal is to keep the conversation going, not to bring it to an abrupt and unhelpful end. That was the point of Freire’s work, wasn’t it? And Freire was onto something, wasn’t he?

The second thing is that Carlos and I are consciously working within the discipline of philosophy, whose Western tradition is something that we want to complicate as much as we can. My worry here is that disciplinary boundaries can, from both sides, silence real concerns. For instance, I have spoken to more than one professor of Chicano studies who has said that they had to change their research program because their colleagues thought that “philosophy was too elitist,” too “bourgeois,” or not practical or active enough. And that’s, for the most part, right. But I’m not ready to abandon a discipline and a kind of training thatI have found essential to my intellectual development, and that I think is valuable to anyone’s intellectual development, and I don’t feel like I need to for the sake of my very personal, practical, and social goals.

The worry here is that, not only are we at risk of creating a false dichotomy between ideas and reality, or though and politics, but I get a strong sense that we’re at risk of creating new clubs because we don’t like the old clubs, when the problem is not just the old club (that it was racist, elitist, and otherwise exclusive), but the fact that it was a club. What we want in academia – assuming that’s where we choose to stay – is care, dialogue, and a good ol’ fashion bienvenidos – again, for those who are sincerely struggling to make the world and the academy a better place. What we want are Latino/a philosophers standing up as philosophers in a classroom so that students get to choose what they want to major in, so they aren’t pressured into another discipline because that’s where everyone else like them goes. I can’t tell you how surprised my students at UCR have been this quarter – how many of them have come up to me (in just one quarter!) and said, “I didn’t know Latinos/as do philosophy,” “Can you tell me more about this philosophy thing?” “I really liked that logic class but didn’t think this was something I could do,” suggesting that they reconsidered their options after seeing someone like them doing it. Let’s not underestimate the value of simply being there.

I have a lot more to say about the importance of negotiating and twisting – rhizomatically, shall we say? – and repurposing an old tradition that has a lot of potential in a new context, for a new people, with a new horizon. But, I’ll have to save questions about the normative weight of the term “philosophy,” how it has been upheld as a standard of thought, etc., for another post. I’ll move on to my third worry and the reason I mentioned Beethoven. It has to do with the notion of identity.

It seems like part of the worry is that traditional efforts to classify people into groups, and particularly the tradition of lo mexicano, which Bartra among others has torn to shreds, with good reason, is inevitably or intrinsically corrupt. To say what it means to be Mexican is logo-centric, euro-centric, and philo-centric. And it is undeniably true that 19th and 20th century efforts to define “the” Mexican unwittingly – or wittingly – endorsed some version of the project of modernity which is inextricably intertwined with colonialism and free market capitalism. Philosophers, social theorists, historians, anthropologists, were too uncritically seduced by the definite article and, unsurprisingly now, excluded more than they included.

But that was their mistake, not ours … yet. Not only were they not the beneficiaries of the developments of postcolonial and postmodern theory, but they were also just getting started. And their inability to adequately conceptualize Mexican identity – which, I know, is a euphemism for screwing over the very same who have historically been screwed over, which is itself a euphemism for how profound, systematic, and regrettable our colonial history is – does not negate the reality of Mexican or any other identity. Yes, adequately characterizing and/or representing the metaphysical reality of Mexican identity will be infinitely more complex today than it ever was, and yes, that is an infinitely good thing. But then, that’s all we’re doing, isn’t it? We’re trying to keep that conversation going so that we develop, over time, a sophisticated and flexible set of accounts that captures the meaningfulness of “Mexican” without undermining the agency of any particular person.

To be honest, I have no idea what the account or set of accounts looks like, but that’s precisely why I continue to stuggle. And I have concluded that it has to be a collective effort because it requires more sophistication and practice than any one person can give it. We are still at the early stages of demonstrating the internal relations between thought and reason, on the one hand, and social or cultural identity, on the other hand. And it’s simply something we can’t afford to try to do on our own. It would be like trying to write Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue after a couple of music lessons.

The caption of the featured image reads: “Beethoven took a liking to uneuphonious dissonances because his hearing was limited and confused. Accumulations of notes of the most monstrous kind sounded in his head as acceptable and well-balanced combinations.” (1857, Alexander von Oulibicheff) This is definitely a criticism of Beethoven and The Grosse Fugue, but Ouibicheff clearly didn’t appreciate what Beethoven was up to.

3 responses to “Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue and Mexican Philosophy

  1. Thank you, Robert, for your excellent and very thought provoking post. There’s so much I agree with you about….

    To begin – about the “problem” of Mexican Philosophy being essentialist/wrong for seeking to study lo mexicano – I have no problems with it, honestly, but then that’s obvious given my allegiance to this cause. How can I, a Mexican, be deprived of studying Mexican Philosophy and Mexican Identity academically and professionally because it would be a philosophical crime, while yet being hurtfully and mercilessly interrogated at the bridge when I cross the border from Juarez because I am, after all, Mexican?

    About your comment on charity – Yes, Freire was on to a lot. I quote him here from an interview:
    “..In a certain moment of the process of being curious in order to understand the others, I discover that I have to create in myself a certain virtue without which it is difficult for me to understand the others. The virtue of tolerance. It is through the exercise of tolerance that I discover the rich possibility of doing things and learning different things with different people. Being tolerant is not a question of being naive. On the contrary, being tolerant …it is a duty to be tolerant, an ethical duty, an historical duty, a political duty. But it does not demand from me to lose my personality.” I think charity and tolerance and patience are related (more on patience later), and only when one feels confident with one’s own beliefs can we be authentically tolerant. About sincerity – this is one of the points I made when we shared our ideas with each other this past April in Vancouver. So often when the question is asked “Is there such a thing as Mexican-American Philosophy?” the questioner is not being sincere. He/she is not genuinely seeking to learn, but this is rather an underhanded way to put into question the validity of Mexican-American philosophy and to reinforce the Western European / Anglo Saxon traditions as the only ways to practice “legitimate” philosophy.

    I do want to experience that feeling of being bienvenida – welcomed – I don’t think it’s asking for too much, though it evidently is.

    All of this to say that I feel very fortunate to have run into people like you, Carlos and the clica. You are people who are sincerely working from your heart, and who are helpful. It’s a pleasure working with you, and not everyone we work with has had my good luck.

    So maybe part of the problem is one of experience.

    I think that once we have experienced a truly supportive environment or way of relating to people, we don’t settle for anything less. Why would we? It’s a pleasure to be able to work with people who are supportive, and the sense of camaraderie is such that we can tease each other, learn from each other, be happy for each other, laugh, sing, dance, and drink together. This experience transcends the experience of work (alienated work), or even professional work, it’s the experience of feeling at home with yourself and those around you, and authentically caring for those who are your friends – friends that feel like family – we have seen and we are seeing each other grow up. We’ve seen el Magnifico Marxista Moreno in his luchador outfit, you all have seen me with no hair, we’ve seen each other through a couple of divorces and we’re seeing each other’s kids now. This is a blessing !

    About patience. I always think of Dr. King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail…patience, they tell us to be patient… In the meantime, I will enjoy those like you, Robert, with whom it’s a pleasure to work with, and I hope those with whom we still cannot work with, will join us when they learn how to relax and how to work from their hearts, without unhealthy personal agendas but instead be of service and share of their gifts out of true generosity. I feel that I can afford to be patient, for the change in people’s hearts to be authentic, it must come on it’s own time without us rushing it, otherwise it cannot be sustained, it won’t be long-lasting. Because we’re seeing each other grow up & mature, I believe with Freire, that it is our ethical, historical and political duty to be tolerant with each other. In time, my hope is not for mere tolerance of each other, but sincere appreciation and love.

  2. Robert: Thanks for the posting, Robert. You raise lots of good points. I’m wondering, have you considered embracing “strategic essentialism”? Many post-colonial peoples characterize themselves in terms similar to yours, and have pursued strategic essentialism as a way of avoiding at the theoretical level what they regard as an inherently problematic radicalized essentialism (with its roots in racist colonialism) while also at the practical level recognizing, mobilizing around, and building upon their continuing difference from, exclusion from, and outsider status vis a vis the continuing colonialist meta-narrative (even if the latter proclaims its ‘decolonization’).

  3. While I understand the risk of essentialism and other evils….I have always wonder the extent to which they can be exaggerated and become intellectual inhibitions of philosophers. Below are 2 articles were I indirectly make this point (sorry for the “plug”). In one of them I argue against Jorge Gracia and the other one against Samuel Huntington. Huntington makes the essentalist claims to the point of becoming racists; Gracia avoids it to the point of leaving us with a rather formal-empty view about identity. There is an alternative (“middle” view) between these extremes, but that requires understanding “identity” differently (different starting metaphyical assumptions) and one that is context-sensitive-relative.
    “The American Challenge: The Tension between the Values of the Anglo and the Hispanic World” (winning essay of the 2005 APA prize in Latin American Thought), APA Newsletter on Hispanic/Latino Issues in Philosophy 5, no. 2 (spring 2006), 231-45.
    “Jorge Gracia’s Philosophical Perspective on Hispanic Identity,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 27, no. 2 (2001), 20-28.

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