Otra Vez, Beethoven and Mexican Philosophy

First off, I want to thank Carlos for several important reminders and for his suggestion that I should be less troubled than I am. (This thought was echoed recently in conversation with Roberto Cantú, professor of Chicano/a Studies at CSULA, who told me about the resistance he faced coming up. From the Chicano/a activists, his interest in Mexican philosophy was too bourgeois; from philosophers, too active. His last word on the matter was, “Don’t listen to them.”)

Carlos and Roberto are probably right that it’s best just to do your own work, that these are old disciplinary divides not worth paying attention to, that it is an ego-driven turf war that is – ironically enough regarding those who lean further toward activism – very conservative, and that in any case, so much depends on the timing which is beyond anyone’s control. But I’m not sure I’m ready to completely turn my back on my critics, and here’s why. Back to Beethoven.

It seems like the dichotomy between essentialism and eliminativism is just the old philosophical tension between chaos and order, change and permanence, static and dynamic, and so forth. To put it another way, I think it’s fair to say that the problem of identity, in one form or another, is the essence of the (Western) philosophical tradition, which underlies all our disciplinary divides. (As I say, it’s not “Ph.D.” for nothing.) And, finally, it seems like the effort to tame the problem of identity has been, and always will be, exclusive. (This is true even of lo mexicano, part of whose significance is not just the meaning of being Mexican, but the effort to distinguish the Mexican from the non-Mexican.) By contrast, the effort to be more inclusive – which is where the majority of resistance comes from – requires letting the problem of identity “run wild,” as we see in certain postmodern, post-structuralist, and de-colonial theories. So, by switching from the key of identity to the key of diversity, we run the risk of devolving into chaos or some kind of theoretical nihilism, a sphere in which the desire to be accurate becomes irreconcilably ambiguous, complex, and “untamable.” Consistency and clarity can always be achieved, these theorists will say, but often at the expense of reality.

Thus, the challenge of “solving” the problem of identity, in all its philosophical forms, amounts to achieving a balance between similarities and differences, consonance and dissonance, academic and creative. It is not unlike pulling music down from the void and arranging independent notes into something meaningful and provocative – one of life’s greatest mystery to me. There will always be a certain amount of tradition – not sure if there was, or could have been, a first musician – and a certain amount of insanity or rebellion. And this is why I picked Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. It seems to me to distill the essence of music into a little over 14 minutes because it hovers just above that line chaos and beauty. Its genius is the product of training and creativity; it is almost equal parts structure and chaos. When one listens to the Grosse Fugue, it’s often unclear if it is just dissonance or simply the most challenging consonance (i.e. barely on the other side of dissonance).

Of course, Beethoven was a genius and I’m not. And even if I were – even if I were another Wittgenstein, who struggled with this as well – I wouldn’t pretend to be able to solve all the problems of philosophy (as Wittgenstein had). All I’m trying to say is that we are smack dab in the middle of the problem of identity. Before there were so many disciplines (so not so long before the US Civil War) we would have just called this conversation philosophy. But now that we are tempted to waste our time on these turf wars, we are asked to distinguish what’s philosophical from what’s not. In the end, all I want to say is that we’re just struggling with the same tension between order and chaos. Those of us who are more active today are pushing toward more instability, complexity, heterogeneity, internal differences, diversity, intersectionality; those of us who are more abstract are pushing toward more order, structure, sameness, and identity.

But, like the best music of the world, we are looking for the perfect synthesis of both. And – and this is why I’m still a little troubled by my critics – because the former tendencies have become the cornerstone of many of the newer critical theories, and the latter tendencies are considered the traditional and conservative ways of philosophy, we need, now more than ever, an active and productive dialogue between all these disciplines. Again, I would have been happy 200 years ago just calling this philosophy, so long as we got to do it our own way and not just under the Western traditional model, and I would have been happy calling all of my more active colleagues, not to mention that part of me which is more active, philosophers. But since we have to distinguish ourselves for the sake of tenure, I am forced to say that the solution to the problem of identity will be the product of interdisciplinarity, and that we have to do our part to facilitate a cross-disciplinary conversation.

So I find myself feeling the need to keep people talking to each other. (Freire)

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