(M)Existentialism

Carlos Alberto Sánchez scouts the habitat of Emilio Uranga’s thinking

 A controversial figure in the history of twentieth-century Mexican philosophy (a controversy the details of which I cannot get into here), Emilio Uranga (1921-1988) articulates what we could call Existentialism “a la Mexicana”, Mexican existentialism, or (M)existentialism. Uranga’s (M)existentialism, like its French or German varieties, is rooted in the notion that human existence is a never-ending project of precarious and uncertain becoming and overcoming. Also like its European counterparts, (M)existentialism forms itself around certain metaphysical oppositions like identity and difference, university and particularity, and, crucially, essence and existence.

The socio-cultural entity recognised historically and politically as “Mexico” lends a non-negotiable material ground to (M)existentialism. In fact, Uranga’s philosophising emerges from the suspicion that philosophical universality and generality are themselves historical constructs serving the interests of European colonial power. Thus, he says in his Análisis del ser del mexicano (1952), “we are not certain of the existence of man in general …[or of] what passes itself off as man in general, namely, generalized European humanity.” The movement away from this doubtful “man in general” requires a return to origins, that is, to Uranga’s own, particular, lived circumstance, where the generalisations of European philosophy will not always fit.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty visited Mexico City in the spring of 1947 at the invitation of Mexico City’s burgeoning existentialist community. In the aftermath of that occasion, Uranga published a reflection on a conversation with Merleau-Ponty in a Mexico City newspaper of the day. In that column, “Dialogo con Merleau-Ponty,” Uranga writes:

“Definitively, what decides the value of existentialism is its capacity to lend ground to a systematic description of human existence, but not of human existence in the abstract, but of a situated human existence, in a situation, of a human existence located in a determinate geographic habitat, in a social and cultural space also determined and with a precise historical legacy.”

In this brief articulation of the “value of existentialism” we find the reasons as to why and how existentialism appealed to Mexican philosophers, and specifically to Uranga himself. Regarding the “why”, it was the European philosophical position that held the most promise for a proper philosophical encounter with the Mexican circumstance, or what Uranga calls, the “determinate geographic habitat”. That he refers to the circumstance as a “habitat” seeks to suggest the complexity of Mexico as both a national-geographic space and as an idea (for writers, artists, politics, philosophy, etc.). “Habitat”, from Latin, habitare, “to dwell”, or to inhabit, refers to the dwelling-place or habitation of individuals and communities. It is the place where one thinks, builds, lives, and dies. But more than dwelling in or inhabiting the habitat, the habitat itself also inhabits persons through social and cultural sanctions, histories, habits, and the internalisations of experiential modes of being belonging to the determinate habitation. For Uranga, existentialism presents itself as the “capacity” to engage the habitat, in which one dwells and which dwells in one, so as to reveal those modes of being.

With this focus on a determinate habitat, or circumstance, the value of existentialism for Mexican philosophers is thus its promise to legitimate the philosophical concern for Mexico’s uniqueness (reflected primarily in its history and customs). This is, indeed, what Mexican existentialists like Uranga heard in the existentialist mantra that says “essence precedes existence”, namely, that that which is particularly Mexican takes priority over that which is generally human, or, said differently, they heard a justification for the privileging of the concrete over the abstract, the particular over the universal, and the contingent over the permanent.

The truths that existential analysis promised to legitimate would not be those that reason or rational processes would legitimate; these would be truths legitimated in immediately lived experiences, a source of epistemic and philosophical justification Uranga calls “corazonadas”.

Corazonada literally translates to “intuition”, or “a feeling”, or “a presentiment”. However, the word comes from “Corazon”, Spanish for “heart”. Thus, a corazonada is something relating to the heart. More than intuition understood in the philosophical sense, it means a feeling rooted in heartfelt certainty. Unlike in the Western tradition, especially as we find it in Descartes, Kant, and Husserl, the intuition that “corazonada” mirrors is less mental and more bodily, more emotive, reminding one of Pascal’s oft quoted truth that “the heart has its reasons”. A “corazonada” is thus a reason of the heart, a “heartfelt intimation” or, even, an “emotive intuition”.

Corazonadas grant access to the mysteries of Mexican being; they are heartfelt intimations that reveal the secrets of existence. Its echoes to Pascal are not addressed by Uranga or by other Mexican existentialists who gestured to it, but they are certainly clear. The upside of using corazonadas as sources of truth, moreover, is that the emotional habitat or circumstance is as significant as the material habitat or circumstance, so that those modes of being a Mexican are given immediately to anyone who can invest, or inhabit, or dwell, in the Mexican circumstance. Uranga calls his corazonada-influenced methodology “auscultation”, a term that in other contexts refers to the act of carefully listening to the human body so as to reveal its internal processes. In (M)existentialism, auscultation is the method whereby the depths of Mexican being are explored with heartfelt feelings and emotive intuitions.

What existential auscultation reveals is that Mexican being is (1) accidental and (2) insufficient, constituted by (3) nepantla and (4) zozobra.

(1) Accidentality

With “accidentality” or “accidentalidad”, Uranga refers to the way that a being which is not fully substantial manifests itself in the world, namely, as dependence or attachment to something else, something greater than it, or presumed greater than it. Mexican being is accidental in its apparent dependence to Spanish and Indigenous being, in an inability to attach itself to either, and in its shipwreckedness, an intimate floundering in its own world without a steady ground onto which to stand. Mexicans, in their being, thus exist as accidents of European conquest, colonisation, and philosophy; existence shows itself as having been intrinsically and historically determined by a contrast to a European self-conception and worldview that thinks of itself as fully formed, permanent, and substantial. That is, before the Spaniard, who presents himself as stability, permanence, and universality itself, the Mexican is a chance attachment, an incidental part of a greater whole, an accident.

Ultimately, Uranga will conclude that “accidentality” defines all human beings in their being; he concludes that we are all floundering, trying to hold on to something that’s more permanent than we are, trying to find an anchor, seeking to attach ourselves to what deems itself greater than ourselves. Accidentality, it turns out, is an aspect of the human condition. That it shows itself more noticeable in the Mexican is merely a result of Uranga’s subject position and his method, namely, an auscultatory analysis sourced by the most immediate.

(2) Insufficiency

Being aware of one’s accidentality frees one from the false delusion of one’s importance, permanence, or what Uranga calls “substantiality”. The revelation of our accidentality also points to our insubstantiality, to our “insufficiency”. For Uranga, this means that at the root of their being, Mexicans are not sufficient in their being, they are not substantial. The Spaniard, he argues, historically presented himself as permanence itself, as historically sufficient and ontologically substantial -- as lacking nothing. This was a false and misleading self-understanding to be sure, but one rooted in the historical confrontation between colonisers and their subjects. That the Mexican, as indigenous or mestizo, has historically been thought only as a subject of or in relation to a colonising other makes the Mexican an (historical) accidental property of that other. Thus, what is of interest to the Mexican existentialist perspective is not that the Mexican is thrown into a world that he did play a role in creating and for which he must now be responsible; what is of interest is that he is thrown into this world as accident and insufficiency, a situation from which he must then confront the world he did not play a role in creating and to which he must now be responsibly committed.

(3) Nepantla

“Nepantla” refers to an existence that is lived in between two worlds -- between two modes of existence that stand at extremes to one another. Uranga adopts the term from the writings of the sixteenth-century Dominican friar, Diego Durán. The key passage is found as an epigraph to Uranga’s Análisis del ser del mexicano. The epigraph quotes Durán, who records a conversation with an Indigenous man who has squandered all of his hard-earned money on a large, lavish, boda (or wedding) to which he has invited the entire town. Durán, perhaps while taking the man’s confession, reprimands the man for the carelessness of his spending, which could have, perhaps, better served the interests of the church or the poor. The indigenous man replies to Durán as follows: “Father, don’t be alarmed … we are still napantla.” Durán goes on to explain that nepantla translates to “middle”, and that the Indigenous man meant to say that, unlike Durán, they (the Indigenous people) existed in the “middle” of two different cultures, or two “laws”, the Christian and the Pre-Hispanic Indigenous, which meant that they were not (by the middle sixteenth century at least) fully committed to either, that they were “neutral”, and could thus live out actions that would seem alarming to the Western mind, such as squander their resources on a celebration of community (the “boda”) rather than doing with those resources what would be most “reasonable”, namely, dedicating their resources to a more acceptable utilitarian purpose.

Uranga accepts Durán’s translation and interprets nepantla as that middle non-ground in which the modern Mexican exists as constituted by both European and Indigenous forms of life yet uncommitted to neither, a phenomenon that explains a fundamental neutrality to or flight from ideals essential to European life (for instance, essentialism or universalism in philosophy) or those that define Indigenous life and history (for instance, pre-Hispanic theology or metaphysics). Nepantla as the middle, the in-between, or the uncentring centre is the point over which Mexican being hovers as it swings to and fro the different laws and extremes that frame its possibilities. This makes Mexican being and identity dynamic rather than static, defined by a perpetual movement and migration from extremes to center and from center to peripheries, never settled in “one at the expense of the other”. Nepantla thus designates the unsettledness of Mexican being, their in-betweenness regarding two distinct possibilities of existence. Nepantla is a state of being in which one is denied the purity of extremes, the state of being abandoned in the contaminated space of two overlapping modes of existence; nepantla is to be perpetually in the middle.

The movement of a being in who is “still nepantla”, is “zozobra”, a term that Uranga borrows from that the Mexican poet Ramón Lopéz Velarde.

(4) Zozobra

Zozobra is closely related to what European existentialist have called “anxiety”. It is the name for the feeling of being groundless, in the no-where between this and that history, this and that culture, or this and that identity -- a being in nepantla. Zozobra names the anxiety of not knowing where one stands at any one time. Uranga defines zozobra as follows: “a not knowing on which [extreme] to depend on, or what is the same, a dependence on the two extremes [of our identity] … a grasping at both ends of the chain.”

Zozobra constitutes the interiority of Mexican existence. But, it is also an existential characteristic that defines the human being in general as accident. Because Mexicans are in a more familiar and thus proximal position to zozobra (and to accidentaltiy and nepantla), Uranga makes the further point that the being that defines the being of the Mexican is also the being that defines the human, so that the human should model itself (in attitudes and existential comportment) to the Mexican, an affirmation meant to suggest that Mexican existence should be attended to by all.

The concept of zozobra, along with nepantla, is not foreign to philosophy in the Anglophone world. They are operative concepts in contemporary Latina feminism (cf. Gloria Anzaldua) and thematic in Aztec philosophy (see, James Maffie). Although zozobra describes what in European existential phenomenology is referred to as “anxiety” or “angst” (see Heidegger) or “nausea” (Sartre), its untranslatability has to do with the fact that in Uranga and Velarde, zozobra is thought to be more than anxiety or nausea; it is a complex feeling that includes in itself a consciousness of accident, insufficiency, groundlessness and loss; and more than that, it is also the condition for the possibility of these feelings and, as such, it is an aspect of the human condition (he calls it a “bare skeleton” that can be filled with historically or culturally-specific sentiments).

That the Mexican person is accidental and insufficient or that nepantla and zozobra define the Mexican’s manner of being, does not mean that life is meaningless. It is not a reason to forgo the call of existence itself and sink into the hopelessness and despair of those famed existentialist anti-heroes one finds in Camus’ The Stranger or in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. It does not mean that because she is accident the Mexican should forgo all commitment and responsibility. On the contrary, insufficiency and accident, by pointing to the fragility and finitude of human existence, call on us to live fuller, more loving, and more generous lives; that is, consciousness of this insufficiency and accident calls on us to take responsibility for the other by articulating, on her behalf, the urgency to pursue a genuine and authentic existence and the necessity to forgo the impossible assimilation of purity and perfection. Thus, Uranga suggests that Mexicans, in living lives that, in their performance, affirm insufficiency and accidentality as existential truths, are closer than other human beings to authenticity and truth.

Uranga’s (M)existentialism is a project that describes the finitude, fragility, and groundlessness of existence (accident, insufficiency, and napantla), as well as the manner in which this existential condition is navigated and confronted (zozobra). However, it is also meant to bring about a consciousness of generosity that includes within itself, what we could call, a moral orientation. In other words, the move that follows recognition of the Mexican existential condition is a move outward, as he puts it, “the getting out of insular consciousness so as to arrive at community consciousness”.

It does not escape Mexican philosophers that a thinking of totality, a thinking that transcends contingency and place, has been the hallmark of philosophy since it’s naming by the Greeks. But (M)existentialists, among them Uranga, have come to understand that a thinking that thinks totality is ultimately alienated from the specificity of its emergence. In the process of grasping at the universal -- what they are told philosophy has to be -- they’ve discovered that their thoughts are incapable of letting go of their situated existence, an incapacity (call it loyalty) that forces a return of thinking to its place, to the determinate geographic habitat.

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Carlos Alberto Sánchez is professor of philosophy at San José State University. He is the author of Contingency and Commitment: Mexican Existentialism and the Place of Philosophy.