For our inaugural SMAP meeting last week, I wrote a short paper on Vasconcelos’s La raza cósmica. Basically, I wanted to know why we continue to read the text despite its many flaws and politically problematic context and implications, or why we should.
I argued that, if we can salvage anything from the text – and for me, this is still a big “if” – it’s not a specific view about race or mestizaje, its literary value, or even its place in Mexican intellectual history, but rather an underlying critique of the scientization and secularization of modern philosophy and modernity. Pace most commentaries that view the text (correctly) as a critique of positivism, I claimed that the target is much larger. The text is aimed at an entire worldview and its goal is to suggest (1) that racism is “the fundamental problem of humanity”; (2) that it is the result of the absence of a certain strain of speculative metaphysics; and (3) that the text is designed indirectly to inspire the reader to recover a pre-modern mysticism.
One of the advantages of my reading, as I was only able to suggest in 20 minutes, is that it ties together the text’s many loose ends and smooths out many of its contradictions: the disarray of its obvious and not-so-obvious philosophical influences, its underlying Catholicism, its priority and view of aesthetic value, its biological essentialism vis-a-vis its anti-racist remarks, its derogatory remarks about non-white Europeans vis-a-vis its celebration of mestizaje, its anti-colonial remarks with the suggestion that colonialism was a necessity, and so forth. But most of all, my reading would explain why readers return to the text even though it seems to be, as Patrick Romanell put it, “just a propaganda piece masquerading as Mexican philosophy.”
Still, I’m hesitant to pursue this project because, as some of my Mexican colleagues tell me, there’s no saving Vasconcelos and my reading may be “way too charitable.” That dude, they say, was a racist quack completely out of touch with Mexican reality, so the best thing that could come from this project is that I gift the text (and Vasconcelos) a project and success that wasn’t properly his own. That might be true and any effort to defend the text could be a complete waste of time, but the point of pursuing this project would be to find out.
Here’s the thing. Regardless of what is or isn’t in the text, it is still one of the most influential texts in Mexican philosophy, and certainly Vasconcelos’s most influential. Yes, this could be explained away in part by contingent historical accidents: it’s connection to Rodó’s Ariel and Martí’s “Nuestra America,” Vasconcelos’s political influence in the 1920s, the Chicano Movement’s finding inspiration in it in the late 60s and early 70s, and the fact that as early as 1979, it was one of the very few examples of Mexican philosophy available in English. But I don’t think these historical accidents fully explain why La raza cósmica continues to speak to readers, particularly Mexican-Americans.
In any case, even if we decide to leave the text behind, and only given how influential it actually was, we shouldn’t do so without giving it its philosophical day in court – something that critics and defenders alike have failed to do. As for the possibility that I would be developing and attributing my own philosophical worldview to an author and text that didn’t possess it, isn’t that what happens to every enigmatic and provocative philosopher or text? That, at least, is how I understand and read Socrates’ philosophical provocations, the pseudonymous corpus of Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein’s two main texts.
Despite all these hesitancies, here’s what I do know. Whatever the verdict, a critical but charitable commentary of this canonical text in this history of Mexican philosophy will help us to refine our understanding of Mexican philosophy and its potential today. And it may be the case that we can’t fully move forward with our project of making Mexican philosophy available in the US without confronting the elephant in the room.
So maybe I will pursue this project as a monograph. There would be an introductory chapter on its biographical and historical context; a chapter on its philosophical influences, ranging from Plotinus to the Upanishads; an analysis of the text with my reading; a chapter articulating the worldview I think it endorses; perhaps a chapter on the value of mysticism in a racist world; a chapter on the Chicano Movement and the purchase of mestizaje and la raza today; and maybe, finally, a translation of Indología to round out the triumvirate of texts in which Vasconcelos spells out his seemingly wacky views about race (La raza cósmica, Indología, and Aspects of Mexican Civilization.)
Let me know what you think. Right now I have to get started on a paper for Wittgenstein en Español, which will be held in Puebla this October. I think I’ll try to develop my Wittgensteinian understanding of the mystical or the unintelligible.