Vasconcelos

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 cósmicaIndología, 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.

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4 responses to “Vasconcelos

  1. Great post – I think it sums up a lot of concerns nicely.

    I am pretty sympathetic to the idea that Mexican philosophy in the US won’t be able to progress without addressing the elephant in the room. This thought particularly reminds me of Habermas when he writes about the Historian’s debate in Germany, that “There is the obligation incumbent upon us in Germany … to keep alive, without distortion, and not only in an intellectual form, the memory of the sufferings of those who we murdered by German hands … if we were to brush aside this Benjaminian legacy, our fellow Jewish citizens and the sons, daughters, and grandchildren of all those who were murdered would feel themselves unable to breathe in our country.” This also reminds me of philosophers of race who seek to make the US become post-racial, without considering the objection that the US can’t become post-racial until it moves INTO race and deals with its racial past.

    My concern is that if we don’t confront Vasconcelos’ problematic thought head on, Mexican philosophy might alienate Mexicans who do not identify as mestizo (afro-latino/as and asian latino/as). This all deals with the politics of memory and history.

    I also think you’re right to suspect that Vasconcelos’ far-reaching influence can’t be denied. Which makes though – even if Vasconcelos’ work was put in “philosophy trial” would it even be possible for him to lose a seat at the table? The table here being the canon of Mexican philosophy.

    One question I had – what do you mean exactly by a critical but charitable commentary? These two words, “critical” and “charitable”, are thrown around a lot in discussions of what proper philosophical etiquette is, but I’m not entirely sure what they mean. By critical do you mean, willing to dissect and acknowledge the text’s problematic claims and their potentially negative effects? And by charitable do you mean that as we read the text we should be looking out for what can be salvaged from it? This is just a guess. Any clarification here would be appreciated.

    • Thanks for the response, Victor. By “critical but charitable,” I just mean that we have a responsibility to be both. On the one hand, we should present the text in its best light before criticizing it. At the same time, we shouldn’t uncritically adopt it for our own purposes. Most of what I’ve been reading about the text does one or the other but not both. (And again, I think we owe this much to the text only because it has been so influential. Some texts and authors are simply crazy or evil and don’t deserve such attention.)

      Also, I don’t see this call to be both as a matter of etiquette so much as a requirement of good philosophy. Anything less is sophistry or begging the question, i.e., just trying to make a case for what you already believe. We may conclude that it’s time to leave this text behind, but only after we give it a fair and balanced trial.

      In short, I’m gonna give it my best shot, knowing full well that I might discover that the text is unsalvageable.

      If your question is, What does it mean to read a philosophical or canonical text charitably, that’s probably something I’ll have to explain in the introduction. But think about it this way: how to apply Larry’s “principle of charity” to historical texts.

  2. Yo,

    I think it is high time a translation of Indologia gets put out there in English. Awhile back, I was going to recommend throwing down something from Indologia in the book, but (alas) I wasnt sure which specific text to recommend. (Ultimately, I think it will have to be combed through to pull out salient/interesting remarks he makes in the middle of otherwise drawn out discussions on random shit. His writing is obviously philosophically rich (IMO), even if seemingly (and/or actually) incoherent.

    Julio

    • Yeah, man. If nothing else, his thought is philosophically rich and/or – and this is what I think I can show he was aiming for – provocative. We were going to translate Indología for the anthology (and actually have a draft of a translation), but it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons (and I would have to start the translation over). In any case, thanks for the encouragement to give it another shot.

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