Modernity Regained: Bolivar Echeverría and the Utopia of the Baroque

By Simi FreundNovember 11, 2019

Modernity Regained: Bolivar Echeverría and the Utopia of the Baroque

Modernity and “Whiteness” by Bolivar Echeverría

IN HIS ATTEMPT TO GRASP the project of “civilization,” Freud discovered that the forward-thinking, optimistic associations it inspires tell only half the story. As much as he would have liked to believe in it, Freud couldn’t help but notice the oppositional forces that inevitably thwarted its realization. Freud painted a picture in which the core aspirations of enlightened European culture were doomed to an endless struggle, trampled by a resurgence of the barbaric, destructive impulses they sought to transcend. The tenacity of these darker impulses, he argued, creates a persistent cloud of malaise around the concept of civilization. Originally published in 1930, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents was an attempt to make sense of the crisis of European civilization that had led to a brutal World War and a rising tide of fascism. For Freud, the European crisis represented a universal crisis of human nature — an eternal conflict between civilization and barbarism, between the life instinct and the death drive.

This is the kind of intellectual leap that Bolivar Echeverría would take issue with. Echeverría attributes the discontent (malestar) subsisting within civilization to the flawed project of modernity: for all its attempts to transcend traditional culture and create a universal model, modernity failed to acknowledge that civilization cannot survive without “traditional” forms of life. And yet, in attempting to rid itself of them, modernity has emptied them of their meaning. Whilst Freud’s engagement with the European crisis of his day led to an analysis of “culture” and “civilization” as universalized concepts, Echeverría moves in the opposite direction, taking the abstract universalism of modernity as the very cause of the crisis he identified in his own Latin American context — that of a modern world purged of connection with traditional values and governed by a European-style capitalism.

Born in Ecuador in 1941, and later naturalized as a Mexican citizen, Bolivar Echeverría initially distinguished himself as a scholar of Marx, before evolving into a more general philosopher of culture, usually taking the concept of modernity as his focal point. It is this work for which he is best known in Latin America, in particular for showing how the seemingly universal concept of modernity has often been confused with its “actually existing” versions, with catastrophic consequences for the indigenous peoples whose cultures have been destroyed in modernity’s name. Though deeply engaged with the problems facing Latin America, Echeverría’s work is wide-ranging, equally comfortable in analyzing Bernini’s sculptures, unpicking the structural linguistics of Roman Jakobson, or interpreting an obscure passage in Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” With very few translations of his work available, however, he remains under-appreciated outside the Spanish-speaking world.

Thankfully, this seems set to change with the publication, by Polity Press, of a collection of his essays published in 2010, Modernity and “Whiteness” (Modernidad y blanquitud), in an English translation by Rodrigo Ferreira.

Growing up in and around Quito, Echeverría was shaped by two intellectual inspirations: existentialism and the on-going revolution in Cuba. Echeverría saw Sartre as a model because of his ability to bring philosophical analysis to bear on the “real” world and his privileging of “the political” as a necessary arena for philosophical thinking. To the young Echeverría, such “engaged” criticism was crucial to support the project of Marxist revolution in Latin America. But Guevara’s revolution seemed to demand an even more radical way of thinking, and this Echeverría found in the work of Martin Heidegger, with its determination to destroy the tradition of Western metaphysics and start afresh. Such an approach promised to link the project of revolution with the goal of decolonization.

Determined to study with Heidegger himself, Echeverría traveled to Freiburg in 1961, only to find out that Heidegger had largely stopped teaching. Resolving to move to West Berlin instead, Echeverría spent the next seven years immersed in the Marxist tradition, with Marx gradually replacing Heidegger as his revolutionary philosopher par excellence. Eventually growing tired of his unofficial role, within the student community, as spokesperson for the entire “Third World,” Echeverría moved to Mexico City in the tumultuous summer of 1968. Having experienced the energy and tensions of the German student movement, Echeverría arrived just in time to witness the mass demonstrations led by Mexican students against the authoritarian government of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). Tragically, rather than curbing its authoritarian impulses, the government opted for a violent response to the unrest, culminating in the massacre of hundreds of people while they protested peacefully in the Tlatelolco district in October 1968, just 10 days before the opening of the summer Olympics in Mexico City, the first Olympic Games to be held in Latin America.

On arriving in Mexico City, Echeverría enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), one of the major centers of the student movement. It was here that he would establish his intellectual home, continuing to lecture and run seminars for the rest of his life. After devoting himself in the 1970s and ’80s to studying and lecturing on Marx within the faculty of Economics, leading to his first book, Marx’s Critical Discourse (El discurso crítico de Marx, 1986), in 1987 he took up a position in the faculty of Philosophy and Letters. From this point he shifted his focus to the study of modernity, with the Latin American context becoming pivotal. This period, which lasted until his death in 2010, is marked by such publications as The Modernity of the Baroque (La modernidad de lo barrocco, 1998), Defining Culture (Definición de la cultura: Curso de filosofía y económia, 1981-1982, 2001), Turn of the Century (Vuelta del siglo, 2006), and finally Modernity and “Whiteness” (Modernidad y blanquitud, 2010).

Though his experience of 1968 seems to have dulled his hopes for a full-scale socialist revolution, Echeverría maintained a utopian belief that another society — indeed, another world — was possible. In his work on modernity, Echeverría consistently draws attention to the contingent nature of events and decisions, urging us to avoid the trap of seeing them as somehow inevitable or necessary. He identifies key moments in world history (and particularly in the history of Mexico and Latin America) where another modernity can be glimpsed, where possibilities opened up that might have shaped the contemporary world in a profoundly different way. It is when exploring these other possibilities that Echeverría comes into his own, in particular when he develops his notion of the Baroque as an ethos — a way of thinking and being — that holds the potential for a different kind of modernity, one that faces up to its internal contradictions rather than trying to suppress them.

When considering modernity in a Latin American context, it is difficult not to begin with the Spanish conquest of the 15th and 16th centuries and the violent introduction of European culture into the “New World.” This catastrophe is crucial for Echeverría: he interprets it as the most devastating manifestation of a shift in the relationship between humanity and “the Other,” whether conceived as the natural world or other human beings. Inspired by Lewis Mumford, Echeverría draws a distinction between the “Neolithic” period (roughly up to the 10th century) and the “Neotechnic” period (from the 10th century to the present), which are marked by fundamentally different models of human/Other relationship. The Neolithic period was defined by scarcity: not only were resources finite, but technological development was limited to spontaneous discoveries copied from nature, and humanity’s productive capacity thus constrained by the patterns and irregularities of the natural world. This particular relationship with nature affected relationships with other humans, too: in order to survive, a community had to develop a blanket intolerance toward any other group, with whom it would have to compete. As Echeverría puts it in Defining Culture, “the plurality of configurations of the cosmos and, equally, of experiences and ‘visions of the world’ must be a plurality of affirmations, each one excluding the others, in permanent hostile confrontation with them.” In other words, the conditions of scarcity made it impossible for humanity to cope with difference, positioning anything deemed “Other” as an immediate threat.

The shift to the Neotechnic period was prompted by technological transformation. No longer a passive imitator of nature, humanity now found itself the master of the forces of production, with nature a means to achieving its ends. As Echeverría writes in Modernity and “Whiteness”:

It was a radical change that involved relocating the key to the productivity of human labor, shifting it toward the capacity to decide on the introduction of new means of production, to promote the transformation of the technical structure of instrumental equipment. With this shift, the secret of productivity in human work ceased to be located, as had happened throughout the Neolithic era, in the fortuitous or spontaneous discovery and use of new instruments copied from nature. Instead it began to reside in the capacity to deliberately undertake the process of inventing new instruments and correspondingly new production techniques.

In the transition to Neotechnics, humanity moved from a realm of scarcity to one of potential abundance. As a result, the antagonistic, destructive relationship between humanity and the Other was no longer necessary. As Echeverría argues in The Modernity of the Baroque, what now became “imaginable — without being an illusion — is a different model, in which the challenge directed towards the Other follows the model of Eros.” He put this another way in a seminar published as What Is Modernity? (¿Qué es la modernidad?) in 2009:

Unlike the archaic construction of civilized life, defined by the necessity of treating nature — the other, the extra-human — as a threatening enemy that must be defeated and dominated, civilized life can now, based in this new technics, rather treat the other as an adversary/collaborator, committed to mutual qualitative enrichment.

In Echeverría’s analysis, the arrival of Neotechnics and its promise of abundance created the conditions for modernity, but it was the way human beings responded to this new situation that determined the type of modernity it was able to achieve. This is one of the crucial insights of Echeverría’s historical utopianism: he frames Neotechnics not merely as a stepping-stone in a fixed narrative of historical development, but as a moment of rupture (another important Echeverrían concept), in which the established order is radically altered and multiple paths forward suddenly opened. Unfortunately, Echeverría sees the path chosen by Europe as a lost opportunity. Far from fulfilling the potential of Neotechnics, European modernity instrumentalized it in order to supercharge the advance of capitalism.

The “capitalist modernity” that emerged became the monolithic modernity that would spread across the world. As Echeverría puts it in Modernity and “Whiteness”:

[T]his chance historical coincidence between a potentiality — modernity — and a realist path towards its realization — capitalism — is the reason why modernity in general seems condemned to always be what actually existing modernity has been up until now — that is, a capitalist modernity.

Going beyond an analysis that simply points to the inextricable connection between modernity and capitalism, Echeverría identifies a utopian potential in modernity that precedes its subjugation by capital.

Just as the Neotechnic transformation opened up a range of potential developments, so Echeverría sees a plethora of options in response to the consolidation of a specifically capitalist modernity. Any adequate response would need to acknowledge the unacceptable valorization of abstract value over use value under capitalist conditions of production and exchange. Of the four ethical-political options Echeverría describes, the Realist and the Baroque are the most important, the former because it is the one that actually took hold, and the latter because it becomes the most fertile model for imagining an alternative modernity.

The Realist ethos fully accepts the validity of capitalist accumulation, making capitalist modernity bearable by convincing us that it is good and right. As Echeverría explains in The Modernity of the Baroque: “[W]e can call this realist because of its affirmative attitude, not only to the efficiency and insuperable goodness of the established or ‘actually existing’ world, but above all to the impossibility of an alternative world.” (In its foreclosure of any possible alternative, Echeverría’s Realist ethos resonates with Mark Fisher’s concept of “Capitalist Realism.”) In Modernity and “Whiteness”, Echeverría sees this Realism as definitional of American-style modernity, where “the progress delivered by the realization of the American Dream, whilst it claims to ‘improve’ human beings and their world, in reality only ‘improves’ or increases the degree of submission of the ‘natural form’ of life to the ‘form of value.’” Simply put, if capitalist modernity is all about making use value subordinate to exchange value, then this process is wholeheartedly promoted in the development of American culture — especially American consumer culture, which Echeverría sees as “a quantitative compensation for the impossibility of reaching qualitative enjoyment.”

If the Realist ethos accepts the world as it is, refusing to engage with the possibility that it might be otherwise, the Baroque ethos is one of absolute contingency. Echeverría’s theorization of the Baroque, while expansive in scope, is ultimately rooted in the familiar properties of the style, most importantly its theatricality. Rather than simply accepting the conditions of capitalist modernity, the Baroque ethos constructs a performance around them, putting them on stage to test their logical limits. For Echeverría, however, this theatrical move should not be confused with an excess of form over content. In fact, the theatrical impulse is an attempt to identify an original vitality that has been lost, echoing the way baroque artists created theatrical versions of the classical canon in order to revive the energies that inspired it. Crucially, the Baroque rendering of modernity ends up revealing the instability of its foundations, an essential contingency that is the opposite of the necessity of the Realist ethos. As Echeverría puts it in The Modernity of the Baroque: “Baroque behavior begins with desperation and ends with vertigo: in experiencing the fullness it was looking for, and whose richness it had hoped to draw from, it reveals only the fruits of its own emptiness.”

For Echeverría, the Baroque ethos makes the imposition of capitalist modernity bearable by exposing the shakiness of its foundations, revealing it to be no more necessary or stable than the culture it has been forced upon. This becomes particularly important when considering the situation of indigenous cultures in Latin America. A Baroque response to the capitalist modernity transplanted in the region by the Spanish conquest would serve to forge a new identity, a hybrid combination of indigenous traditions with aspects of modern capitalism.

Some of the most striking examples Echeverría uses to illustrate this Baroque response are drawn from Mexican history, in particular the story of Malintzin (a.k.a. La Malinche). Malintzin is an ambiguous figure in Mexican history: as the indigenous woman who assisted Hernán Cortés in his conquest of the Aztec Empire, later becoming his wife and the mother of some of the first mestizo children, Malintzin is remembered, by some, as a traitor, a symbol of subservience and self-sabotage in the face of oppression. (Today, the concept of “malinchismo” survives as a way to describe Mexican society’s deference toward Europeans.) Echeverría sees things differently, however. For him, Malintzin was tasked with translating between Cortés and the various indigenous communities his forces encountered, switching between her native Nahuatl, Mayan, and Spanish; behind this linguistic translation lay a greater process of cultural translation between two models of civilization that were diametrically opposed to one another — so different, indeed, as he argues in The Modernity of the Baroque, that a new form of translation had to be created:

Faced with the futility of its efforts to mediate, with the inability to reach an understanding, the act of translation can generate something we might call “the utopia of the interpreter.” This utopia presents the possibility of creating a third language, a bridge-language that, while not really belonging to either of the two in play, and in fact being deceitful to both, would be capable of connecting these two elemental symbolizations and their respective codes via a language woven out of improvised coincidences triggered by the condemnation to misunderstanding.

Put differently, faced with the impossible task of bringing Spanish modernity into communication with the indigenous world around her, Malintzin created a third option — a solution that was neither Spanish nor indigenous, but a mixture of both. This mixing process, which begins from an impossible reconciliation between opposing sides, is what Echeverría calls mestizaje (literally, miscegenation, a mixing of ancestries). Mestizaje is the crucial companion concept to his notion of the Baroque, and it becomes the linchpin of his thinking in the 1990s and 2000s. Only via mestizaje can we find a non-coercive, concrete foundation for “global” concepts like modernity and culture, because only through mestizaje can the abstraction of these ideas become concrete, by opening themselves to the forms of life they encounter outside of the contexts where they were invented. As Echeverría puts it, the project of creating a “New Spain” should rather have aimed at an “Other Spain,” a Spain made “Other” by its intermingling with the new cultural and geographical situation it was entering. As he writes in The Modernity of the Baroque:

If there is a history of culture, then it is really a history of mestizajes. Mestizaje, the interpenetration of codes when circumstances have forced the knots of their absolutisms to loosen, is the way of life of culture. Paradoxically, only to the extent that a culture is put in play, when its “identity” is put in danger and questioned, bringing to light its internal contradiction, only then can it defend its possibilities for giving form to the world, only then can it adequately display its claim to intelligibility.

This, for Echeverría, is the key to the Latin American modernity that could have been but wasn’t. If the response to the Spanish imposition of capitalist modernity had followed the principle of mestizaje, then a uniquely Latin American modernity could have taken form, borrowing from but not reducible to either of its “source” cultures. This modernity would have made good on the promise of Neotechnics — that is, of a collaborative, mutually reinforcing relationship between self and other — and thus would not have seen indigenous cultures as mere obstacles to progress.

Echeverría didn’t live to see Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) become Mexico’s president, its first positioned to the left of the political center. Having consistently criticized the PRI for its Realist response to capitalist modernity, and having supported AMLO when he ran for the presidency in 2006, Echeverría would likely have had a complicated response to AMLO’s first year in power. On the one hand, AMLO’s abandonment of the construction of a second airport in Mexico City, and his selling of the private presidential plane, suggests a new direction for the country. On the other hand, his commitment to the so-called “Mayan Train,” a new transit line that would run along the Yucatán Peninsula, seems problematic. Designed to stimulate the tourist economy in the region, the train has serious ecological implications and, in Chiapas, will run close to the territory controlled by the Zapatistas — an autonomous indigenous community, strongly supported by Echeverría, who have been unambiguous in their opposition to the project. More broadly, is AMLO’s mission of dismantling neoliberal economics a genuine attempt to lead a “fourth transformation” in Mexico, or by positioning himself as an opponent of all things neoliberal is he obscuring those of his own policies which would otherwise surely merit the name (austerity, most notably)?   

As Mexico enters uncharted territory and glimpses the possibility of a different future, it is experiencing one of those moments that Echeverría discovered so frequently in its past — a rupture in the established order and a window of opportunity to break the cycle of capitalist realism. At last, this utopian potential seems to be alive in the present. To grasp how it might be actualized, to ensure that this moment doesn’t simply pass, Echeverría’s work seems more vital than ever.


Simi Freund is an independent writer and cultural researcher, currently based in London.

LARB Contributor

Simi Freund is an independent writer and cultural researcher, currently based in London. He is interested in contemporary theory and cultural studies, with a focus on France, Germany, and Mexico.


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