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.