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The Age Of Utopia: Alfonso Reyes, Deep Time And The Critique Of Colonial Modernity

From: Romance Notes
Volume 53, Number 1, 2013
pp. 93-104 | 10.1353/rmc.2013.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Utopias, those ideals both revered and disdained, inhabit crucial corners of the literary canon. One can certainly remember the elaborate utopias that filled the advent of cultural modernity, from the delusional dreams of El Dorado and the New Jerusalem, passing through Thomas More's excessively normative world, all the way to Jonathan Swift's brilliant but ultimately obnoxious archipelago. Still, those comprehensive utopias are only a part of the complex history of the idea, particularly when one considers that, at least in many cases, it carried nothing less than colonialism in its underbelly. Still, more promising utopias remain in the forgotten corners of textual traditions, buried in the marginal writings of major figures, ignored by the critical whirlwind that monumentalizes their authors. I want to start this note by one such moment, a striking assertion that promises a utopia without describing it, and an engagement with centuries of political and literary thinking that leads to a crucial statement:

El estado normal puede ser el de pasividad; pero el estado frecuente, constante, el que da su sello a la humanidad, y que, por lo mismo, merece llamarse - siquiera prácticamente - el estado humano, es el de protesta. Si el hombre no hubiera protestado, no habría historia - historia en el sentido común de la palabra. El albor de la historia es un desequilibrio entre el medio y la voluntad humana, así como el albor de la conciencia fue un desequilibrio entre el espectáculo del mundo y el espectador humano. El hombre sonríe: brota la conciencia. Y el hombre se nutre de los elementos que le da el miedo. ¿Sonríe por segunda vez? Protesta, no le basta ya la naturaleza. ¿Emigra, o siembra, o conquista, o forma las carretas en círculo como una trinchera de la tribu contra los ataques de las fieras? Pues entonces funda la civilización y empieza con ella la historia. Mientras no se duda del amo no sucede nada. Cuando el esclavo ha sonreído comienza el duelo de la historia.

(Reyes III, 242).

The master and the slave in this passage come from a familiar source, Hegel's Phenomenology (111-19), except that in here the consciousness of the slave does not emerge at the end of the dialectic, but at its outset, a smile that marks the consciousness of the slave as the foundational act not only of civilization, but of history itself. In this assertion we do not see utopia defined, but the necessary gesture at the beginning of every utopian intervention.

The source of this paragraph is a little-known essay entitled "La sonrisa," originally published in a 1917 book called El suicida. Its author is Alfonso Reyes, a foundational figure of the tradition of thinking known as Latin Americanism, which may be defined as the constant assertion of Latin America as a site of critical thinking and as an articulation of projects of emancipation vis-á-vis modernity and colonialism. The historical background of Reyes's essay is not trivial either: "La sonrisa" was written in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, from a self-imposed exile in Spain and France, as one of the first attempts to theorize the emergence of a large array of social sectors into a form of historical agency and subjectivity previously denied by the national elites. The historical implications go even further: it is important to note that Reyes, the son of a prominent Porfirian general who died in the revolt that overthrew the first Revolutionary regime in 1913, was nonetheless ideologically sympathetic to the Revolution. Being a man of letters, Reyes was part of a group of intellectuals, the "Ateneo de la Juventud," strongly committed to translate the social force of the Revolution into a spiritual transformation of Mexico at large. In these terms, "La sonrisa" is an almost unique effort to understand the Mexican Revolution as a philosophical event of ontological emancipation, thus departing from the work of many of his contemporaries, like José Vasconcelos, who understood it in racial terms, as the triumph of the mestizo. "La sonrisa", despite a very recent wave of critical interest (Escalante 40-58; Lund; Sánchez Prado), became a minor text in part...


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