Code: PD-6

In Search of the Americas

In the tradition of Edmundo O’Gorman, Leopoldo Zea, Octavio Paz, and numerous others, we will take up questions concerning the invention of America and the re-invention of the Americas. This shift from the singular to the plural is of fundamental significance, for its marks a decisive step in the direction of philosophical pluralism and intercultural dialogue (two of the hallmarks of philosophy in the Americas). Though the tradition of O’Gorman, Zea, Paz, et al has rarely (if ever) been represented at the annual meetings of SAAP, these questions are of undeniable relevance to advancing the philosophical understanding of the actual circumstances in which we carry on our work. In addition, it accords with John Dewey’s conception of philosophy: "If American civilization does not eventuate in an imaginative formulation of itself, if it merely rearranges the figures already named and place – in playing an inherited European game – that fact is itself the measure of the culture which we have achieved" ("Philosophy and Civilization" [LW 3:9]; emphasis added). How are we to imagine or, more precisely, re-imagine ourselves at this juncture of our histories?

In addressing this and related questions, we are guided by O’Gorman’s insistence that America is not so much a geographical region as a historical affair: it is, still today, "an invention of the European spirit", a utopia (as paraphrased by Octavio Paz in The Labyrinth of Solitude, p. 170). America is Europe’s dream of itself, freed in imagination from the particularities and hence constraints of its history. We are also guided by Zea’s insight that, until recently, "America was Europe’s monologue, one of the historical forms in which its thought was embodied" (Paz, p. 170). Finally, we are guided by Paz’s efforts to transform the Americas into sites wherein Europe’s monologue might become the Americas’ dialogues and also to win a hearing for the voice of poetry within the discourses of philosophy and other disciplines (Paz in The Other Voice: "Between revolution and religion poetry is the other voice. Its voice is other because it is the voice of passions and vision. It is otherworldly and this-worldly, of days long gone and this very day, an antiquity without dates" [p. 151]).

Paz contends, "tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present" (1990 Nobel Lecture, p. 52). This will however take shape and exert influence only through the deliberate, concerted efforts of thinkers from various fields who (to borrow an expression from Jürgen Habermas) take aim at the heart of the present. The historical present is not only a contested territory but also, paradoxically, a densely sedimented actuality distant from contemporary consciousness. That is, the dense actuality of the historical present is not immediately given to the awareness of those immersed in it: our comprehension of it is not a datum but an achievement. Moreover, our descriptions, accounts, and genealogies of the historical present hardly ever go uncontested. Hence, we must (in Octavio Paz’s telling expression) go in search of the present: "The search for the present is not the pursuit of an earthly paradise or of a timeless eternity: it is the search for reality" (In Search of the Present, 1990 Nobel Lecture, p. 16) or actuality. The "present requires much more than attention to immediate needs: it demands global soul-searching. …[T]he twilight of the future heralds the advent of the now. To think about the now means first of all to recover the critical vista" (Nobel Lecture, p. 30).

"Modernity is," according to Octavio Paz, "a word in search of its meaning" (Nobel Lecture, p. 17). But, then, so too are the Americas, though the plural is more appropriate here not only in reference to the irreducible plurality of geographical regions and national cultures but also their meanings. These meanings are at once immanent in the historical present and indicative of intersecting histories, intermingling pasts (as Michel Foucault notes in "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History", history is a land of interminglings and bastardy).

The European explorers and conquistadors came in search of the Americas and, as a result of their discoveries and conquests (cf. Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other [1984], chapters 1 & 2), we are today compelled also to go in search of the Americas, the buried histories of ancient civilizations, of archaic cultures, presumed long dead, along with the contemporary appropriations of European practices, discourses, and institutions.

In conclusion, the actuality of being located in one of the Americas, at this specific moment, compels us to go in search of the Americas. The significance of being inhabitants of these places at this time (better, at these times) is neither immediately apprehended nor easily ascertained: it needs to be won. Yet it can only be won by being wrested from the hands of those who, though historically deaf to our varied voices and often blind to our physical presence (except when they sense we are a threat), presume the authority to define our being. This significance must be claimed. But since our present is contested and indeed colonized by others it is more accurate to say that this present must be reclaimed. "The world is," as Paz suggests in The Other Voice, "a world of names. If the names are taken away from us, our world is taken away from us" (p. 56). The reclamation of our world encompasses the recovery of our own voices, including our ancestral voices. The pragmatic reconstruction of culture thus must itself be reconstructed to include, in a more central and self-conscious way, the reclamation of cultural practices so long eclipsed by the frenzied drive of European modernity (hence, Eurocentric postmodernity). A premise of such reclamation is that modernity is itself a tradition, that the self-understanding of modern thinkers (wherein modernity is conceived as the antithesis of tradition, i.e., wherein modern is defined as post-traditional) is largely a self-deception. As Paz insists, "between tradition and modernity there is a bridge. When they are mutually isolated, tradition stagnates and modernity vaporizes; when joined, modernity breathes life into tradition, and tradition responds by providing depth and gravity" (Nobel Lecture, 20). Part of our task, consequently, will be to conjoin the two. At present, the critique of modernity drives toward the reclamation of traditions long discredited, of perspectives long precluded. It demands owning up to the finitude and historicity of the defining ideals of the modern epoch (e.g., rationality, freedom, and progress). In particular, it means progressing beyond the modern ideal of progress, without retreating into an anti-modern celebration of tradition. The critique of modernity compels us to go in search of the present, of our present, hence in search of the meanings of the Americas.

In the context of this panel, this critique and the search it inaugurates specifically mean (1) a critical examination of Octavio Paz’s important but neglected notion of thinking a la intemperie; (2) Paz’s attempt to recover the voice of poetry as a means of transforming our experience of things present, particularly as our modern American societies become increasingly technological; and (3) a multi-cultural reflection on the meaning of wilderness in America, or more precisely, on the plurality of meanings of various wildernesses across the Americas.

Abstract of 1st Paper: Thinking a la Intemperie

Octavio Paz argues in the Search for the Present that, as modernity approaches the end of its historiographic trajectory, humanity lives in a state of intemperie espiritual, We find ourselves without comprehensive religious or philosophical systems to guide us, to deliver us from solitude, to make sense of our particular time in history. In this Mexican, American and universal context of intemperie espiritual, Octavio Paz summons us to authentic philosophical reflection.

I propose to bring into focus for discussion the character of authentic philosophical reflection according to the thought of Octavio Paz. In defining such a mode of reflection he writes, "[t]oda reflexión filosófica debe poseer autenticidad, esto es, debe ser un pensar a la intemperie." This crucial passage from the Labyrinth of Solitude tells us that authentic philosophical reflection means thinking a la intemperie. Unfortunately, the passage is completely omitted from the English translation of this work. It is reasonable to speculate that this conspicuous omission is due to the difficulty in translating intemperie, as there is no precise English term to render its meaning. Intemperie means being at the mercy of el tiempo. It implies a lack of protection from the elements, a lack of refuge from the forceful action of earth, wind, water, and fire. In a poetical sense that accords with Paz’s thought, intemperie also suggests being unsheltered in the free, open, ever-present flow of time. Given the dual meaning of this term, I put forth that thinking a la intemperie takes philosophical reflection along a two-fold trajectory.

Along the first fold, this mode of thinking means to stand nude at the mercy of the natural elements, wearing our ideas on our skin, so as to allow wind and water to shed from us those that have become dust and to cleanse and refresh those that remain alive. Thinking a la intemperie means thinking in free, wild spaces without taking refuge under petrified ideas. It means thinking while standing barefoot on rugged terrain, amidst a land and its people. In this sense, I suggest that the Americas, with their remaining wild, open spaces, are particularly well suited for this mode of reflection.

Along the second fold, thinking a la intemperie means moving from the barren historiographic time of late modernity towards what Paz calls the ever-flowing present of poetic time. Accordingly, this thinking becomes a search for the present, a search that we enact through pagan and religious rituals, through love and poetry, that is, through ways of living mythological or poetical time, a more human form of time. Rituals, love and poetry are ways of encountering our fellow men and women, of moving from solitude to communion. Since this second aspect of thinking a la intemperie involves enacted rituals, consummations of love, and poetic experiences, it does not require a complete rupture with our origins; it rather calls for us to stand on the ground of a tradition, of a mythology and a literature, while thinking anew.

Abstract of 2nd Paper: The Search for Ordinary Things:

Octavio Paz and the Complicity between Poetry and Technology

In Latin America solitude is inseparable from historical consciousness. Solitude, the feeling of being severed from our past and exposed to a foreign future, inevitably blends with the historical consciousness of colonized peoples. In this blending, solitude is externalized and becomes the ‘content’ of historical settings: it permeates particular places and times and comes to be experienced in ordinary things, which appear severed from reality, fictional. At the same time, history becomes the ‘content’ of solitude: even in its most intimate manifestations, solitude cannot be experienced outside of the force of colonializing structures. I will propose for discussion that this interplay between solitude and history enables the basic movement of Paz’s thought: turning Latin American ‘historical solitude’ into a sensibility for the coming to presence of ordinary things—a poetical sensibility that both transforms the experience of time and history, and attests to the most improbable of complicities: that between poetry and technology.

This basic movement in Paz’s thought, which he explores in The Dialectic of Solitude, will orient our reading of the essay The New Analogy: Poetry and Technology (from Convergences). In this essay, Paz finds that technological societies—societies determined by industrial modes of production and by the immediate access to information—do not experience the presence of things. In these societies, among which Paz locates the United States as a prime example, ordinary things are hidden both theoretically, when conceived either in terms of utility or beauty, and practically, when subjected to uniform and indifferent modes of manufacture and disposal. In Paz’s thought, technology, in its blindness for ordinary things, is analogous to ‘historical solitude’, where things always present themselves as illusory, inasmuch as they both are basic human comportments that try to experience time without a present. Paz’s insight is that these two comportments can enter into a dialogue with each other through which ordinary things are released to their present. In other words, the basic movement of Paz’s thought, turning ‘historical solitude’ into a sensibility for the presence of things, necessitates the confrontation between ‘historical solitude’ and technology—it necessitates letting the Americas cross-fertilize and search together for ordinary things, for a shared historical time in the horizon of the present. In this cross-fertilization poetry appropriates technology, which allows poetry to undergo a double movement: out of the fringes of history to constitute historical time and back to its original manifestation as mythology.

Abstract of 3rd Paper: Searching for American Wildernesses

Henry David Thoreau and Henry Bugbee, as Americans of European descent, both honored wilderness in its actuality for the work it could do for human lives. They also each conceived of wilderness as an important metaphor for a well-lived human life. For them, wilderness should be doubly honored. Ironically, what they took to be actual wilderness was for some, namely for Native Americans, already an actual home. And for other "European-American" cultures, including the French- and Spanish-American, the actual wilderness was not something to be honored but something to be lived with or overcome. What I hope to do in this paper is to sketch out the complexity of the American picture of wilderness—across North, Central, and South America—and then return to the ideas of Thoreau and Bugbee. (In this respect, I will mainly draw upon Thoreau’s essay Walking and Bugbee’s On Wilderness.) My aim will not be merely to relativize the meaning of wilderness but, on the model of James’ Varieties, to try to show the thickness of its importance for human existence by way of the variety of its meanings.

Confirmed Participants

Co-organizers:

Vincent Colapietro (vxc5@psu.edu)

and Daniel G. Campos (dgc3@psu.edu)

Panel moderator:

Vincent Colapietro

Panel Participants:

Daniel G. Campos

Douglas Anderson

Omar Rivera

All participants are from:

Department of Philosophy

The Pennsylvania State University

240 Sparks Building

University Park, PA 16802