Jon Beasley-Murray
Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
M13 9PL

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission

"The Intellectual and the State:
Modernismo and Transculturation from Below"

No actant is so weak that it cannot enlist another. Then the two join together and become one for a third actant, which they can then move more easily. An eddy is formed, and it grows by becoming many others.
-- Latour, 159

If the state is, as Pierre Bourdieu argues, "the central bank of symbolic credit" (The State Nobility 376), then it is not surprising that intellectuals should find it so hard to disinvest or distance themselves from it. After all, the principal currency of intellectual activity is the symbolic, and the principal gesture of intellectual position-taking is an affectation of disinterest in (a "disposition to renounce" [Bourdieu, Distinction 295]) other forms of capital such as the social or the financial. Intellectuals trade in the symbolic, postponing temporal rewards of money and status, or disparaging them should they be achieved. Intellectuals are formed by, and hold more or less ambivalently to, the diplomas attesting to their symbolic worth, the "acts of certification or validation" in schools and universities, museums and learned societies, through which "state magic" (Bourdieu, The State Nobility 376) operates to confer and confirm the virtues of intellectual and cultural labor. It is no wonder that some intellectuals are technocrats or mandarins; this is their traditional function as members of a state-guaranteed secular priesthood. It is more challenging to consider why more are not so.

Despite this, the history of modernism could be written in terms of the attempts by (some) intellectuals to deny this function, and to gain (some measure of) autonomy from the state. Indeed, not only is this the account of modernism provided for us by Bourdieu in his analysis of Flaubert (The Rules of Art); it is also in one way or another the interpretation of modernism provided, for Latin America, by Angel Rama (in La ciudad letrada), Julio Ramos (Desencuentros de la modernidad) and Roberto González Echevarría (Myth and Archive). All these critics agree, however, that modernist and modernista efforts to gain autonomy are only ever at best partially successful. Thus González Echevarría argues that "writing is bound to the founding of cities and to punishment" (3), and his history of Latin American narrative traces the attempts of writers to unbind it from these two eminently stately functions. González Echevarría locates the prototypical modernist moment in Alejo Carpentier’s Los pasos perdidos, in which the attempt "to wipe the slate clean to make a fresh start" and the return "to the beginnings of writing, looking for an empty present wherein to make a first inscription . . . [finds] instead . . . a variety of beginnings at the origin, the most powerful being the language of the law" (4). The state remains an ineluctable presence even (or especially) for those who try to flee or erase it. In modernism, this presence causes particular anxiety for writers who seek to establish their own field of action (and so, for instance, their own means of measuring value). Latin American modernists therefore enter tentatively into the expanding capitalist marketplace, while also trying to distinguish their aesthetic production from the cultural and other commodities (and the means of valuation) dominant in that market. Modernist literature is, therefore, located within a field defined and traversed by the conflicting forces of attraction and repulsion towards the state, and overdetermined by the market. This field is established and its limits explored as intellectuals search for the pure, clean space of autonomy to which González Echevarría refers, and as they discover that this autonomy can only ever be relative.

In this paper I take five representative modernist intellectuals--José Martí, José Enrique Rodó, Rubén Darío, José Vasconcelos, and Fernando Ortiz--and briefly examine some of their key works in the light of this problematic of the intellectual’s relationship with the state. These figures are representative rather than typical, in that they present a range of possible strategies or conceptions of the role of the intellectual. This is less a history of modernist intellectuals (still less a history of the modern state) than it is a typology of relations between the state and intellectuals within modernism. It is also, however, a typology of theories of transculturation in that the idea of transculturation arose within modernism as a conceptual vehicle that stood in for the notion of intellectual relative autonomy from the state. By transculturation, I mean the more or less harmonious resolution of differences effected through culture, that is, through a series of interlinked acculturations and deculturations. The idea of transculturation designates a sphere that is always in-between, criss-crossed by diverse forces and influences that derive from the state, nature, or the market.

Angel Rama ties the idea of transculturation to the drive for autonomy and cultural independence. Rama’s emphasis is upon transculturation as a step towards constructing "a broad literary system, a field of integration and mediation that would be functional and self-regulated" (Transculturación narrativa 56). This desire for self-regulation powers the drive for independence; it is also this idea of self-regulation that enables the concept of transculturation to stand in for or mediate the dream of intellectual autonomy. Reflection upon transculturation is a means by which Latin American writers have marked their distance from the existing powers of symbolic capital, and have attempted to constitute a sphere autonomous from existing systems of evaluating and accrediting symbolic value. Yet every such attempt to construct an autonomous literary field also risks instituting a new set of instruments of symbolic credit and hence a new state system, initiating thereby new cycles of transculturation, but also new parameters of intellectual dependency. Still, my readings of these modernist intellectuals are unashamedly sympathetic as, finally, I suggest that these modernist accounts of autonomy and transculturation can retain their relevance even in our own era of postmodernity.

José Martí: the heroism of statelessness

José Martí is the great intellectual liberator of Latin America, and as such also the pioneer of Latin American modernism. The theme of independence and the attempt to refound symbolic value outside of the state’s field of influence are crucial to him. For Latin American modernism, Martí’s ambition to construct a new field of symbolic inscription is paradigmatic and foundational. Martí’s vision of the intellectual project is as a heroic work of separation, constructing what in Our America (Nuestra América, 1891) he terms the "trenches made out of ideas" that are "worth more than trenches made out of stone" (63). Whereas, he argues, Latin Americans’ temptation is to provincialism and to the petty vanity of the villager for whom "his village is the entire world" (63), Martí calls for a heroic effort to look to the structure of the world system, which will involve an understanding of how Latin America is governed by imported and inappropriate ideas and modes of rule and domination. It will take a certain effort and heroism--modelled for Martí elsewhere by figures such as the liberators Bolívar, Hidalgo and San Martín--to step outside these systems of thought and control.

Martí calls for new constitutions and new systems of rule. But before these political demands can be realized, key issues need to be determined within the intellectual sphere. At the root of Martí’s critique is his identification of an epistemological problem: Latin Americans do not yet know Latin America as they should. The proper governance of Latin America will require new forms of knowledge and understanding. Latin Americans will have to shake off their parochialism, and construct new institutions of education, new modes of thought: "the European university has to give way to the American university" (68) because "the best investigation into the factors of the country in which one lives" (68) requires an act of creation, a refoundation of thought that cannot rely on simple imitation of foreign models. Martí argues that "the key to the Hispanic American enigma has been found in neither European nor Yankee books" (72). A new set of knowledges and approaches are required for a region that will be forever misunderstood using the tools of an alien and intrusive tradition. This new knowledge would then lead to an appropriate mode of rule: "Knowledge is resolution. Knowing the country, and governing according to this knowledge, is the only means to liberate it from all tyrannies" (68).

For Martí, the intellectual has, then, a vanguard role. He or she will lead the way in the foundation of independent Latin American states. But how will this new coupling of knowledge and power differ from the connections between science and government that operate in and for those countries that are already independent (whether in Latin America or elsewhere)? Martí’s conception of the intellectual’s role is not so far removed from the creole impulse (articulated by Bolívar, among others) to recreate a state system in Latin America without necessarily challenging the fundamental principle of state domination inherited from Spanish colonialism. The intellectual may have gained independence from the colonizing state, but he or she is scarcely independent from the state per se. The intellectual function is still overwhelmingly a state function.

But the relation between state and intellectual has been inverted, in that the intellectual (and intellectual knowledge and investigation) founds the state. The intellectual is present at and instrumental in the state’s revolutionary (re)foundation, rather than (as in Europe) legitimating it post hoc. In this early modernist vision, vanguardism is a line of flight that soon becomes the locus for new institutions of consecration and legitimation in which the state will more clearly than ever legitimate intellectual work, rather than the other way around. The new intellectuals are to serve a new functionality, as they will "read for the purposes of application, not imitation" (73) as part of the process through which "the new men and women of the state arise out of the direct study of nature" (73). Intellectuals, in Martí’s conception, function to articulate the relation between nature and the state, by means of a reinvigorated (specifically Latin American) science. Nature precedes but also produces the state--and "the country has to give birth to its own government" (66)--while intellectuals, whose object is this material nature and whose final product is the state, act as privileged mediators and interlocutors between these two realms. Or, to take up Martí’s biological metaphor, intellectuals are the state’s natural (and, hence, legitimate) midwives.

By inverting the priority between nature and the state, Martí also reverses an entire tradition of European political philosophy, from Hobbes’s description of the state as a superior organization opposed to the state of nature (described famously as a "war of all against all") to Hegel’s dictum that only the rational is real. Against this rationalist, contractarian tradition Martí proposes a theory of the state as dependent upon and subservient to the laws of nature: the state is no longer posited as an organization of nature imposed from without, but rather as a form that has to live up to the demands of adequacy to nature : "government is nothing more than the equilibrium of the country’s natural elements" (66). Already Martí here attempts to effect a radical contextualization of power; the independent states of Latin America cannot continue the colonial logic of importation and superposition, but must instead construct their own forms of self-rule. The new state will be immanent, rather than transcendent, to nature.

Yet the state does not simply emanate from nature. The form of the state, in other words, is not a given. Just as Martí warns against imitating European political models, so he also recognizes that there is no natural model of political organization. The state still has to be constituted, and the constitution of self-rule, in the Latin American context at least, has to be truly a creation: "salvation is in creation" (73); "a governor, when you have a new people, is in fact a creator" (67). The fact that adequation is translated into creation--into construction--arises from an appreciation of the contradictory reality of Latin America. Martí’s is no simple romanticism, in that even when he argues for the foundational role of nature, he realizes immediately that nature is not transparently legible. In fact, an "analysis of the peculiar elements of the American peoples" (67) soon shows that prime among these peculiar elements is the mixed, contradictory--in a word, transculturated--nature of Latin American reality. "Our mestizo America" (69) is characterized by a disorderly flow of influences and "factors [that are] so discomposed" (65) that its social body is always composite, its "head white and its body painted like an indian or a creole" (69). It is because Latin American reality is always heterogenous, subject to multiple influences, that there is a need for intellectual work. Transculturation marks the space between nature and the state in which the intellectual finds his or her vocation.

The true heroism of the Latin American intellectual resides less in his or her project to form a new state out of this inevitable and irreducible multiplicity, but rather in the exploration of statelessness that precedes, and in the end undoes, this foundational gesture. For what state form could be truly adequate to a radically multiple reality? This question will pre-occupy Latin American intellectuals, tied as they are to a state project that is necessarily belated. In his reversal of state logic, Martí offers two paths for Latin American intellectuals: on the one hand the populist dream of interpreting the people’s natural desires into a system of state rule; on the other hand, an immanent and disorienting exploration of an unrepresentable and always complex cultural reality that precedes the state. The first path imposes closure upon the process of transculturation, fixes identity, and declares the state to be adequate to that identity. The second path stresses that transculturation remains open, identity unfixed, and the state only a secondary effect of constituent power. One the one hand, Martí’s call for "the heart’s fire [to] unfreeze an America that has seized up" (73); on the other, salutations to "the natural men and women of the state" (73). The history of the reflections upon transculturation encompasses both traditions; in what follows I will try to excavate something of the latter tradition in readings of José Enrique Rodó, Rubén Darío, José Vasconcelos, and Fernando Ortiz.

José Enrique Rodó: the multitude against the state

Famously, for José Enrique Rodó in Ariel (1900), the ostensible threat to Latin American independence comes not from Europe (and from the colonial state) but from growing North American cultural dominance, exercised often beyond or in lieu of the intervention of the U.S. state itself. Indeed, Spain, the former colonial master, was by the turn of the century clearly a power whose direct political influence had now disappeared with the loss of its last colonies, and whose cultural influence was also on the wane. This realization empowered modernista intellectuals such as Rodó to turn to the European cultural tradition, to argue that Latin America was now its not-so-subservient heir , and to claim the right to reinvigorate that tradition, seizing the initiative from a Europe in decline. Faced with the threat of North American dominance, only Latin America was in a position to maintain the fortunes of Western civilization, and so to keep "the life of the spirit" from its "headlong rush towards the disorientation of its ideals and so towards utilitarian egotism" (Rodó 131).

Rodó’s cultural project is also manifestly a state project. His is a pedagogic text (framed as a parting discourse from a revered teacher to representatives of Latin American youth) whose stress is on the importance of popular education: "popular education takes on . . . supreme importance. . . . The state’s obligation is to provide all members of society whatever conditions may be necessary for them to tend towards their own perfection. The state’s obligation consists in making available the appropriate means by which to encourage for all the revelation of human superiorities, wherever they may exist" (100-101). Latin America contains the seeds of its own greatness; it is the role of the state--and of intellectuals as the state’s privileged agents within the sphere of education--to ensure that its potential can develop and bloom.

At first sight, then, Rodó here undoes Martí’s reversal of the relation between (transculturated) nature and the state. Whereas for Martí, nature is prior to the state and the role of intellectuals is to assist in the birth of the state from nature, for Rodó, intellectuals working from within the state help "little by little to incarnate, in the sentiments and customary habits of the people, an idea of necessary inferiorities, the notion of true superiorities, and the conscious yet spontaneous worship of everything that, viewed with the eyes of reason, increases the sum of human worth" (100). By "ensuring that the rough-hewn clay constituted by the crowds passes through the hands of the school" (100) intellectuals bodily, physically, and emotionally shape them in line with "the eyes of reason."

Yet Rodó alludes to Martí in declaring he is among those "who love . . . out of conviction, the work of Revolution, which in our America is intimately connected to the glories of its genesis" (88). Moreover, Rodó is equally fervent in his opposition to "imposing" upon the peoples of Latin America "an imported model to which they would have to sacrifice the irreplaceable originality of their spirit" (111). For Rodó, as much as for Martí, the Latin American state has to be constituted from and by Latin America, rather than imposed from above. Indeed, it is this "irreplaceable" constitutive power that marks Latin America’s distinction from Europe: it is precisely because Latin America has shown its revolutionary power that the region now can inherit the mantle of Western civilization that a decadent Europe, constrained by the remnants of its aristocratic tradition, is losing. Latin America has youth and energy on its side; hence the aged master ventriloquized by Rodó in Ariel declares that "America very much needs its youth. This is why I am addressing myself to you. . . . The energy of your word and your example may come to incorporate the still powerful forces of the past into the work of the future" (55-56). The book as a whole is dedicated to "the youth of America."

The constitutive, creative powers of Latin America are as important to Rodó as they are to Martí. This energy, which unites America north and south, is what gives the south the power to maintain the values of tradition against the utilitarianism propagated by the United States. Yet it is this same energy that makes the United States so dangerous: its "grandeur and force" are so overwhelming that enthusiasm for Americanism is contagious, leading to Rodó’s anxious "vision of an America delatinized by its own will, without the extortion of conquest" (110). The energy, power, and youth of the Americas are equivocal: molded and guided by intellectuals through the state school system and popular education, they can guarantee the survival of "the life of the spirit;" left to their own devices and spread through market expansion, they ensure the triumph of Caliban over Ariel.

For Rodó, intellectuals are mediators, craftsmen working over the "rough-hewn clay" of the crowds. Though intellectuals therefore work for the state, they recognize that the crowds themselves are the bearers of the power upon which both the state and intellectuals depend. The name that Rodó gives to this rough-hewn or "resistant" subjectivity is the multitude, "an enormous, cosmopolitan multitude" (90) that results in part from the late-nineteenth century influx of immigrants from Europe. An earlier generation of politicians had attempted to harness this multitude by following Alberdi’s maxim "to govern is to populate": immigrant settlers would constitute the state by displacing native peoples and occupying the national territory. Rodó realizes, however, that this multitude is as equivocal as is the power it incarnates: the multitude is also a force of deterritorialization that bursts the limits of the nation-state unless (Rodó argues) intellectuals can intervene to guide its energies. Hence "the multitude will be an instrument of barbarism or of civilization depending upon whether or not it lacks the coefficient of a high moral direction" (91). The multitude both makes and breaks the state; the role of the intellectual is to appropriate the force of the multitude on behalf of the state, and reshaping it so as to produce a "people" whose "sentiments and customary habits" (100) will incarnate and propagate the civilizing force of Western culture.

The United States represents the multitude unbound, in all its expansive "robust primitiveness, . . . [with] the precious instrument that is its will . . . its insatiable aspiration to domination and to cultivate the energy of all human activities" (118). All this is admirable: "I admire them, first of all, for their formidable capacity for desire, and I bow before ‘the school of will and work’ . . . that they have instituted" (119; emphasis in original). This American capacity for desire can and will be diverted to support traditional virtue: "the work of North American positivism will serve the cause of Ariel, in the end" (136). The battle is not between north and south, but the multitude against--beyond--the state; and the role of the intellectual is to work directly, almost physically, upon this cosmopolitan multitude, upon their sentiments and their customary habits. The Americas will come into their own once the multitude can be yoked to the state, preserving what Rodó sees as "the original duality of its constitution" (113) with its "two distinct co-present forces that maintain, through the concerted impulses of their opposition, life’s interest and stimulation--both of which would disappear, exhausted, in the quietude of any absolute unity" (114). Intellectuals are to maintain this open transculturation, by preventing bureaucracy or the dead hand of antiquated social hierarchy from repressing fully the forces of the American multitude, while maintaining those forces within appropriate bounds.

"Democracy and science," says Rodó, "are in fact the two irreplaceable supports upon which our civilization rests" (99). Democracy consists in the expression of the multitude’s multiform and cosmopolitan invigorating power; as in Martí, what precedes the state is already a transculturated, shifting field. The intellectual intervenes in this field, through the mechanisms of popular education, to establish the other pole or counter-power of this civilization, so enabling a double articulation, a double transculturation. This doubled movement is to resolve the intellectual’s ambivalence about both the multitude and the state. At the end of his the aged teacher’s discourse, however, Rodó remains unsure about the viability of his project. It is late afternoon and a ray of the setting sun catches on the statue of Ariel that adorns the classroom; this line of light and energy enters the enclosed space of education and seems to animate the statue’s eyes, giving them a spark of life. The students leave in silence, deep in thought. "The only impediment to their ecstasy was the presence of the multitude" (158). Here is the dilemma Rodó faces: he realizes that the state and the tradition it upholds require rejuvenation, and that the necessary energy will only come from outside its structures; on the other hand, he is fearful of the power the multitude may have to disrupt its order.

Rubén Darío: refusal and affirmation

Rubén Darío dedicates the first part of what is perhaps his most accomplished collection of poems, Songs of Life and Hope (Cantos de vida y esperanza, 1905), to Rodó. The collection, and especially the self-reflexive first poem "Yo soy aquel," is often taken to be a response to Rodó, and to Rodó’s criticism (echoed by many others both then and now) that Darío did not embody the spirit of Latin America, being overly concerned with the aesthetic at the expense of the political, and French fashion and rhyme schemes at the expense of home-grown influences. Yet Darío’s prologue manifests an ambivalence (simultaneously an attraction and a repulsion) not unlike that of the departing students of Ariel’s final pages: "I am not much of a poet for crowds. But I know that without fail I have to make my way towards them" (20). Significantly, however, in justifying the inclusion of more specifically political themes, Darío’s conception of politics clearly differs from Rodó’s (or indeed, Martí’s). He writes: "If there is politics in these poems, it is because it appears universal. . . . Tomorrow we could all be Yankees (this is most likely of eventualities); in any case, my protest is written on the wings of the immaculate swans, as illustrious as Jupiter" (21). Much as Darío also protests North American acculturation, his resistance does not take the form of a state project. Politics "appears universal," and can be conducted--perhaps even, is better conducted--in or from the aesthetic sphere, rather than through the state.

Though Darío was in some senses a man of the state--like many intellectuals of the time, he held various diplomatic and other para-state offices, on behalf of Nicaragua but also other Latin American countries--his self-conception is closer to the characteristics of the cosmopolitan, contradictory, expansive multitude as identified by Rodó. Darío describes himself in "Yo soy aquel" as "very eighteenth-century, very old-fashioned but very modern; audacious and cosmopolitan; with Hugo strong and Verlaine ambiguous, and with an infinite thirst for illusion" (25). He presents himself as the very image of the transculturated subject, formed by and making use of diverse influences, "renovating the notes of the Greek Pan, while extracting the core of Latin music" (26). The ethos here is experimentation and experience--even when that is the experience of non-experience, "walled in by silence" (26)--rather than articulation or interpretation, or the careful balance between opposed forces. At one point Darío recalls a youth "mounted on a colt that could not be slowed" (26), while at another he declares the desire "to wall myself up within my own self" (27). There is no resolution of these various impulses, rather a series of gestures towards intensity or extension, of withdrawals and investments mixed, inspired by "life, light, and truth" (29).

Darío’s retreats and interventions do not cancel each other out. The "sacred grove" is both a source of strength, a "fecund source whose virtue defeats destiny," and an "ideal woodland that complicates the real" (28). Darío’s poetry is a withdrawal into aestheticism, but it is also and at the same time an expansive movement of interrogation or exclamation. The majority of the poems here are written as addresses: "The Optimist’s Salutation," "To King Oscar," "Salutation to Leonardo," and so on. The second-person singular is widespread; Darío writes in the vocative. Yet these gestures establishing relations with the subjects of his poetry depend upon an initial refusal of given relations. The entire collection revolves around the emphatic "No" that lies at the heart of "To Roosevelt." Refusing the homogenization threatened by the United States, Darío affirms the existence of "our America. . . . Spanish America lives!" (50-51). The refusal of dependency and the affirmation of autonomy go hand in hand.

Latin American modernism would not usually be regarded as an exercise in affirmation. Even its more obviously political writers are remembered for their critiques rather than for their positive programs--Ariel’s most memorable passages, for instance, are those that condemn the Calibanesque United States rather than those that outline the virtues of Arielism. Hence modernism, when it is not condemned simply as a retreat from politics, is claimed by a variety of political interests. Martí most obviously and dramatically is claimed with equal fervor both by the Castro regime and by its opponents; however, Darío also has been canonized by Sandinistas and by the Nicaraguan right-wing alike. It is clear that Darío offers no coherent social manifesto. Indeed, the web of his political allegiances is as tangled and contradictory as was his notoriously complicated private life. Yet this profligate and dissolute intervention into many different social spheres is itself a form of commitment and affirmation.

Faced with the apparently impossible choice of committing either to the state or to the expanding realm of the market, Darío refuses both options. His most renowned short story, "The Bourgeois King" ("El rey burgués"), with which Azul opens, suggests an identification of state and market: the new king is a representative of the growing bourgeoisie who tries to initiate market exchange with the poet, "a bit of music for a piece of bread" (126). The poet is abandoned in the grounds of the king’s palace (itself a museum of luxurious goods plundered from across the world), left to turn the handle of a barrel organ producing an inane sound, "tiriririn, tiriririn!" (126), until with the arrival of winter "his mind was as good as petrified, the great hymns forgotten, and the poet of the mountain crowned with eagles was nothing but a poor devil who kept on turning the crank of the barrel organ, tiriririn!" (127). Darío suggests that we have finally to imagine the poet’s death as a form of redemption--in what is subtitled a "happy tale," he dies with a "bitter smile on his lips" (128), imagining the coming of dawn and spring--but this is in the context of a fusion of endless circulation and movement (represented by the barrel organ) with a frozen hierarchy set by the state. Here art can only be either trivial entertainment or mummified cultural capital.

The bourgeois king, "a great aficionado of the arts" (119) manifests undoubted "good taste" and "refinement" (121), but this is in the service of a grim, and eventually murderous, hierarchy that is anxiously patrolled. The king’s library is full of "beautiful books on questions of grammar, and pretty little books of criticism. That’s right. He was staunch defender of academic correction when it came to letters, and of the affected style in the arts; his was the sublime soul of a lover of affectation and orthography" (121). The "life and hope" to which Darío will dedicate his poetry is, then, in explicit contrast to the dead hand of this refined cultural categorization. Whatever else may be said about Darío’s sacred grove or the interior spaces (with their images of enclosure and separation) to which he is tempted to repair, they are not the site of precious aestheticism.

The contrast that Darío establishes is between the ordered collection and subsumption of diversity by the state, a subsumption enabled by the market, and what we could call a savage transculturation that (like Martí’s social multiplicity) precedes the state. In "To Roosevelt," Latin America is envisaged as a multitudinous, wild nature defiantly opposed to the great "Huntsman" that is the United States (Cantos de vida y esperanza 49): this is

the America of the great Moctezuma, of the Inca,
the fragrant America of Christopher Columbus . . .
the America in which the noble Guatemoc said
"I am in no bed of roses;" that America
that quakes with hurricanes and is alive with Love;
whose men have Saxon eyes and a barbarous soul, that America lives. . . .
Take care. Spanish America lives!
A thousand cubs of the Spanish lion roam. (51)

Like Rodó, Darío recognizes that North America too possesses its own vibrant power--the threat that the United States poses is not quite that wielded by the bourgeois king. This is a ruddy, expansive capitalism--and elsewhere (in "Salutación al Águila," a poem sometimes cited as a recantation of "Oda a Roosevelt") the power of the U.S. is praised when imagined likewise in the guise of a wild animal, the eagle. North America also contains multitudes. "If there is poetry in our America," it comes from a combination of what is in the "old things: Palenke and Utatlán, the legendary indian . . ." and the democratic force of the new, "the rest is yours: Walt Whitman, democrat," all of which come together in the modern metropolis: "Buenos Aires: Cosmopolis!" (El modernismo 49). But Darío protests and queries interpretations that stress this energy’s unidirectionality, declaring to the great hunter: "You believe that . . . wherever you fire your bullet you impose the future. No." (Cantos de vida y esperanza 50). He denies transcendence--Darío’s own version of the deity incarnates the immanent energy of life itself, "the eternity of God" being (in "The Optimist’s Salutation") equivalent to "infinite activity" (35).

The intellectual’s role, for Darío, is to affirm and participate in this infinite activity, expressed as he sees it in the transnational flows of culture unbound. Certainly Darío himself took an active part in setting up networks and establishing communication between diverse groups across Latin America and between Latin America and Europe. Martí and Rodó also, as we have seen, point to the constitutive importance and power of this savage transculturation, but here this is combined with a gesture of absolute refusal towards the state. Immersing himself in the experience of the real, and inhabiting or claiming subjectivity absolutely, demands an obstinate denial of the state and the market that, in concert, fix and freeze nature, reduce movement to triviality, and establish petty categorizations of taste. Reclaiming the subjectivity that precedes the state requires a strategic exodus from the mundane reality that it conditions. No wonder Darío’s "manifesto" should involve an "anarchist aesthetic" (El modernismo 48).

Affirmation does not preclude pessimism or realism. There is no suggestion that autonomy can be easily, or even completely, achieved. Darío’s poetry is also shot through with melancholy and uncertainty: the "happy tale" of the frozen poet in the grounds of the bourgeois palace allows the most minimal and enclosed space for withdrawal. The subjectivity that Darío stresses is often enough the preserve of the (enlightened) individual, plucked from a relatively small elite. His affirmation is dissolute, less a social project than an outpouring of empathy, and his notion of culture remains rarefied, too quickly metaphorized. But as other groups of intellectuals (such as sociologists and anthropologists) follow in the tracks of modernista poets, to gain their own measure of autonomy, the produce other ways of envisaging that autonomy--and the transculturation that is its terrain.

José Vasconcelos: from necessity to taste

Though José Vasconcelos was strongly identified with the post-revolutionary Mexican state project--especially as Minister of Education from 1921 to 1924--his The Cosmic Race (La raza cósmica, 1925) anticipates that state’s eventual elimination. Vasconcelos identifies the state with a logic of necessity cloaked in reason; by contrast, the coming age of universal mestizaje (which his book announces) ushers in the possibility that unfettered taste (and love) may guide choices that are no longer forced by the dichotomies of rational identity. Mestizaje, in other words, functions (or will function) for Vasconcelos as a version of transculturation, based on racial admixture and integration, whose emphasis is on the power of human, affective (and hence far from natural) selection to supersede the divisive negativity of all borders and all imperialisms. Mestizaje may be promoted by the state, but it ushers in a realm of freedom in which the state becomes increasingly irrelevant.

The Cosmic Race is not, then, a book about race. Or rather, it is a book primarily about the end of race. The cosmic race is not a race distinct in itself, but involves the subsumption of all races; it is "cosmic" in that racial distinctions are no longer relevant. Whereas (for Vasconcelos) all previous races have been natural, biological classifications, the coming of the cosmic race signifies the definitive triumph of civilization (and sentiment) over nature, and therefore over biology. The cosmic race is not a biological construct but a product of human choices, and as such is the ultimate symptom of the transition that Vasconcelos heralds from necessity to freedom. The Cosmic Race is, then, about this transition, sketching the possibility of a liberation from the necessity of nature, on the one hand, and the necessity of the state, on the other, toward "the conquest of freedom" (25), and the liberation of taste and of love.

Vasconcelos sees the contemporary world system as structured by these two laws of necessity, by nature and the state. But these laws are themselves historically produced; they follow on from (and are superior to) an earlier law of territoriality. Historically, each race, by which Vasconcelos means a social organization founded upon biological premises, fulfilled its particular cultural and political destiny within a set geographical confine. Cultures were bound to continental divisions, to territorial units marked by the sign of race. Africa, Asia and indigenous America have had their ages of prosperity, but proved unable to break out of their geographical isolation. The European conquest and settlement of the Americas, however, broke this principle of territoriality, and American independence (as Martí had also observed) broke the illusion of an organic fit between nature and political organization.

Yet limits remain. European culture as it expanded divided into two streams, the Anglo-Saxon and the Hispanic, which uneasily share America between them. Each strain of European culture comes up against and reproduces a specific limit--the one external, the other internal. Vasconcelos suggests that although European culture in its expansion has broken the principle of territoriality and hence dissociated the principles of nature and of the state, these principles continue to function, but now separately, in the histories of Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic colonization. Nature and the state function as continuing limits to the expansion of culture, continuing obstacles to the construction of a universal culture, in that they are historical divisions that are taken to be absolute (and so unbridgeable) by each strain of European expansion. Though European culture has been the most successful instantiation of civilization yet known, it contains fundamental weaknesses. Moreover, it is the Anglo-Saxon and North American strain of European culture that, although currently dominant, exemplifies and reproduces the most significant and most debilitating weakness.

Anglo-Saxon colonists continued to believe that culture was racially bound and racially exclusive--that the torch of civilization passed linearly from one biological race to another--and so acted with "the confessed or tacit intention of cleaning the earth of Indians, Mongolians or Blacks" (19). North American imperialists "committed the sin of destroying those races" (17; emphasis in original). Theirs is also a historical error: "the Anglo-Saxons are gradually becoming more a part of yesterday. The Yankees will end up building the last great empire of a single race, the final empire of White supremacy" (20). The colonization of North America retained an outmoded conception that culture should be tied to race, and therefore maintained nature as necessity, setting up an absolute racial barrier as the outer limit to its construction of civilization. This is "the Anglo-Saxon limitation" (21). North American colonization is tied to the historical past--the "Anglo-Saxon mission . . . was already known to history" and its agents were "mere continuators of Europe" (21)--and blocks creativity or the construction of a new principle of culture. Fundamentally, Anglo-Saxon culture limits transculturation, preserving cultural purity premised upon racial categories. North American imperialism follows an anachronistic compulsion to destroy the cultures it meets.

Vasconcelos argues that Latin civilization, by contrast, the result of Hispanic colonization in the Americas, constitutes a genuinely new historical force. The defining feature of Latin American culture is that it has broken the restrictions of race in its openness to the form of racial transculturation that is mestizaje. Mestizaje results from the fact that "the so-called Latins insist on not taking the ethnic factor too much into account for their sexual relations" (19). Therefore Latin American culture dissolves the absolute exterior limit that characterizes Anglo-Saxon expansion, replacing it with the shifting, porous exterior defined by transculturation. Transculturation defines Latin American creativity, and marks Hispanic culture’s historic originality and strength:

The advantage of our tradition is that it has greater facility of sympathy towards strangers. This implies that our civilization, with all its defects, may be the chosen one to assimilate and to transform mankind into a new type; that within our civilization, the warp, the multiple and rich plasma of future humanity is thus being prepared. This mandate from History is first noticed in that abundance of love that allowed the Spaniard to create a new race with the Indian and the Black . . . . (17)

This is the key assertion of The Cosmic Race. Latin American culture is here defined as a culture of immanence and affect: a culture of "sympathy" that feels its way around obstacles rather than interpreting difference as absolute non-identity. Whereas Anglo-Saxon culture, in Vasconcelos’s understanding, is a culture of almost compulsive destruction, doomed to repeat the most prehistoric of barbarities in the cause of "ethnic barricading" (20), Hispanic culture is defined in terms of an abundance of love. Love is the affect that corresponds to the new world-historical principle of freedom.

But if Latin American culture has overcome the necessity of an exterior limit, through its embrace of mestizaje as racial (or supra-racial) transculturation, it maintains an interior limit. Vasconcelos argues that the continuing power of the nation-state hinders the emergence of the cosmic race. Hispanic civilization remains fragmented, and therefore weak, because it remains under the sway of a series of petty nationalisms. Hispanic civilization has turned in upon itself, limited by "the puerile satisfaction of creating little nations and sovereign principalities, encouraged by mentalities that saw a wall and not a summit in each mountain range" (15). By making political divisions absolute--naturalizing national borders by projecting them upon mountain ranges--Latin American culture constructs its own form of necessity that ties it down as surely as an insistence upon racial difference limits Anglo-Saxon culture. These are the two laws of necessity that structure the contemporary world system: North American civilization remains limited by its construal of race as nature and as absolute limit; Latin American culture takes the state to be a historical necessity that blocks any tendency towards unity or universalization. But if Hispanic civilization could only break its attachment to the nation-state, then it would be in a position to fulfil its historic liberatory mission.

The problem with the state, according to Vasconcelos, is that it imposes limits upon taste, and hence upon the exercise of free choice. These are limits imposed in the name of reason--and the transition from the "law of violence" (28) to the "dictates of reason" (29) is an advance in the "process that is gradually liberating us from the domination of necessity" (28). Yet taste remains imprisoned, subservient to "rule, norm and tyranny" as the state mandates "norms to intelligence, limits to actions, boundaries to the nation, and reins to the emotions" (29). The state regulates and maintains a market system, with customs "organized according to laws derived from reciprocal convenience and logical thinking" (28), but this mercantilism is inimical to the truly free exercise of taste in that it systematically eliminates affect and love from its calculations.

For Vasconcelos, true freedom is characterized by taste conditioned only by affect: "instead of rules, constant inspiration" (29). As we have seen, Latin America here leads the way in that Vasconcelos sees mestizaje as characterized above all by the dominance of sympathy: Latin Americans are "free of spirit and with intense longings" (38). This form of transculturation, therefore, indicates a practice radically different from the state’s celebration of reason and imposition of rules. Like Darío, Vasconcelos sees transculturation as not simply prior to the state, but also opposed to it. Transculturation, at least in its ideal form, is a free play of differences that is neither coerced by the threat of violence, nor measured in line with state accountancy. Transculturation now becomes a principle of autonomy as, at the end of this mystic vision, life is envisaged as the practice of uncontained joy, in which we will be empowered: "to do our whim, not our duty; to follow the path of taste, not of appetite or syllogism; to live joy grounded on love" (29).

In this general ecstatic liberation, the role of the intellectual would seem to fall away; the intellectual is carried off in the tide of passion and joy announced in Vasconcelos’s vision. At the same time, Vasconcelos’s own text models a form of intellectual practice appropriate to this vision: The Cosmic Race, whose subject matter is so often bridges and transitions, purports to act itself as just such a bridge towards higher enlightenment. The text’s hybrid mix of history and myth, science and spiritual invocation, suggests an intellectual passage from arbitration and judgement to something like mystic self-abnegation, via what can only be called prophecy. The state is a transitional formation, between violence and love, and temporary home to the intellectual prophet who speaks out from its parapets (with the authority to "assign [his ideas] symbols in the new Palace of Public Education" [39]), and who will one day cross to the other side and see the promised land.

Fernando Ortiz: the return of the non-human

If Vasconcelos is a mystic, for whom transculturation increasingly represents a form of transportation or rapture, Fernando Ortiz’s distinguishing characteristic is his materialism. Ortiz is also concerned with the weakness (and in the end irrelevance) of the state, but he argues his thesis not by suggesting that the state belongs to history but, quite the contrary, by arguing that the state has never belonged to history. The state, in Ortiz’s account, is but a quasi-cause, a parasite upon history. Transculturation is his way of describing the logic of history as it takes place behind the back of the state. As a result, moreover, the intellectual is also submerged into this microhistory of non-human actants: at best, perhaps, the intellectual may painstakingly describe and reproduce this microhistory. If Vasconcelos takes the position of the prophet, who precedes and points the way towards a coming series of transformations, Ortiz adopts the role of the chronicler, always belatedly recording the forces he describes.

Ortiz’s great achievement in his Cuban Counterpoint (Contrapunteo cubano, 1940) is that, through the concept of transculturation (a term he here coins, and that thus comes into its own), he excavates an entire history of non-human actants. "Tobacco and sugar," he claims, "are the two most important figures in this history of Cuba" (4). The "motives of [Cuba’s] leaders" belatedly arise from and through the heterogeneous processes into which these "amazing plants" enter; they are secondary consequences of the eddies of transculturation and of "agricultural and industrial development" (4) through which tobacco and sugar lend themselves to economic and political interests, and to the constitution of Cuban history and culture. Thus it is that "the real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturations" (98), the process by which the agencies of colonists and colonized, slaves and free, are dissolved and reconfigured in diverse patterns according to their entanglements with these two figures. These non-human actants continually disrupt human narratives of teleology and purpose, especially those that emanate from the state. Tobacco and sugar are here seen issuing a series of demands to their apparent masters, not the least of which being the demand for a global modernization from below. On almost every point the state strongly resists, but is eventually forced to accede.

Whatever the subsequent fortunes of the term (or previous forms of the concept), Ortiz’s use of transculturation is therefore intended as a direct challenge to state-centered historical narratives. The "counterpoint" he describes is that of a "perpetual disharmony" (101) between material conditions and the current structure of society, even as preceding transculturations may in fact determine that structure. Colonizers may arrive drawing for themselves a "parabolic curve" for their planned "bold, swift and temporary" trajectory through the colony (101), a project of imperial geometry inspired by the dream of a perfect alliance with the forces of transculturation; yet it is impossible to read the course of Cuban history from such projections, let alone their retrospective equivalents. Or as Fernando Coronil puts it, Ortiz’s counterfetishism and (what he calls, following Paul Eiss) counterhumanism work to show that commodities are "not merely products of human activity, but active forces which constrain and empower it" (xxx); Ortiz conducts a critique of "humanist and liberal conceptions that ascribe historical agency exclusively to people" (xxx).

People here gain agency through a series of alliances made with non-human agencies, to take on discursive processes such as those produced by the state. In the case of sugar, for example, state discourse emerges from these processes of transculturation as a series of admissions of defeat: "The royal concessions followed one after the other" (274-5). Planters early on gave into the demands that sugar made upon them for capitalization and technical development. They then allied themselves with the plant that had cultivated them, upon whose nourishment they thrived, to take on the colonial state, relaying a series of demands whose presentation and outcome define and chart Ortiz’s non-human narrative from below: "To give an account of the successive royal concessions to the sugar-planters would be to travel the main highway of Cuba’s history during its life as a colony" (280). Ortiz argues that the history of Cuba, subject to the power of transculturation, is a history marked by refusals of or escapes from state discourse: the "Magna Charta of the plantation owners . . . upon [which] was built the whole juridical and social structure of the sugar capitalism of the island" (281) is not a programmatic proclamation to establish a particular regime, but rather a series of "royal decrees of exemption" (281, my emphasis). It is upon the breakdown of state discourse--whose fissures are not accidental, but are forced upon it--that a "juridical and social structure" is established. The state is never a positive project, but is constituted in reaction to the constitutive power of non-human actants.

Likewise, Ortiz’s history of tobacco is a materialist account of a globalization from below, in which tobacco and its products subtend and consolidate the links between center and periphery, in a manner as unpredictable to those who benefit from those links as to those who suffer. For Ortiz, tobacco constituted "the first relation between America and Europe, the very day of the discovery" (187), and subsequently tends towards a universalizing force, enabling transculturations between black and indigenous peoples in "curious forms" of South-South encounter (194), while in Europe it ambivalently serves (as if "sent by the devil" [206]) "to help sick reason" (206) and to "prolong the Renaissance" (207). Thus the history of reason is here ultimately described not on its own terms, but in terms of a contrapuntal narrative in which tobacco features as a force that outshines even sugar’s power to wring concessions from the state. Indeed, tobacco works to bring down the colonial state, provoking "the beginnings of national consciousness" after "trade, political, ecclesiastical, and social monopolies" (252) raise barriers to its eventual "triumph, its universal transculturation" (253).

Realizating of the weakness of an always belated state discourse, intellectuals seek the measure of autonomy that allows them to ally themselves with this process of transculturation from below. As Ortiz notes, for example, even the most revolutionary of intellectuals used such an alliance of forces to strengthen the effort to liberate the land from the state:

It was the Cuban cigar workers who most courageously and unflaggingly supported José Martí’s revolutionary efforts on behalf of Cuban independence. From Key West, rolled in a cigar made by Fernando Figueredo, a great citizen, general, and cigar worker, the order for the revolution for national independence reached Havana in 1895. (91)

We have seen how modernist intellectuals, anxiously or otherwise, continually point to the fact that the state is not enough. Though their various attempts to gain some autonomy from the state may be presented as an abnegation of privilege, they also indicate an acknowledgement of the multitudinous power upon which the state itself also depends, and to which the state is forced to react. Ortiz pushes this analysis close to its limit.

Ortiz offers the possibility of a material history from below. This history is essentially value-neutral--transculturation is here neither to be celebrated nor condemned, just as the moral and political dichotomy that Ortiz initially establishes between sugar and tobacco soon breaks down. Thus although capital generally allies itself with sugar, and labor with tobacco, they do so only contingently and ambivalently. Indeed, Ortiz’s approach has the virtue of emphasizing contingency without falling into relativism, and stressing production without resorting to teleology. Like Darío, however, Ortiz’s tendency is to affirm the process of transculturation. His is an affirmative history of power in that it affirms what gives power to power, rather than submitting to power’s own narrative of self-generation. It is not a critique in that it does not concentrate upon unveiling the gaps or fissures within hegemony (for these are at best symptoms of a clash of forces whose arena is elsewhere); but then nor does it accede to hegemonic claims to fullness, for this is an open social universe that claims neither outside nor limit. Ortiz’s use of the concept of transculturation enables us perhaps to redescribe history and redeploy history against the state’s overcoding of historical processes in terms of the unfolding of identities.

In these terms, intellectuals are less the agents of transculturation than they are its effects. As a history of transculturation replaces a history of hegemony--and all the intellectuals we have examined move in this direction--intellectuals cease to be the lynchpins for social understanding, but rather take up a position which needs itself to be understood, as they convert an open-sided process of power’s constitution and affirmation into the closed world of power’s articulation, translation, and negotiation. Intellectuals explain hegemony, but are finally explained by transculturation. It is in this sense that intellectuals may record transculturation, in so far as they are the product of a whole history of the interactions between non-human actants, and their work may therefore provide a site of inscription or a recording surface for what has come before.


If and when the state speaks, it speaks in large part through intellectuals. And perhaps all intellectuals are to an extent state intellectuals, produced, certified, and championed by a state that they, like it or not, support and legitimate in turn. There is an army of intellectual technicians of the state apparatus, who formulate policy, teach in the universities, or represent the nation, directly through the diplomatic corps or indirectly as "national" writers and thinkers. Yet intellectual positions can seldom be collapsed directly into the state: intellectuals generally maintain an uneasy and ambivalent relation to the state. Those in the intellectual field work for that field’s relative autonomy from the state, even as the resources for such autonomy may also be provided by the state--again, whether directly, as in the case of grants or state subsidies, or indirectly, as with the cultural capital certified by state educational institutions. Moreover, intellectuals do also mark and resist state discourse, as states have always ceded some discursive legitimacy to the intellectual field.

Intellectuals, then, occupy key roles at the intersection of culture and state, that is in the production of politics as such: both in the translation and transmission of cultural demands and desires, and in the conditioning, striation, and regulation of these desires. The intellectual function has frequently been concerned with this double process of translation--of state dicta and of cultural desires. This is not to say that the translation process is in any sense simple or transparent: Martí (whose stress is on articulation) and Rodó (concerned above all with regulation) both point to some of the complexities involved, and in doing so both open up the concept of a transculturation that precedes the state. Intellectuals have been important figures in complicating the processes of managing transculturation and transculturating the state, and so have marked some distance from the state itself. Moreover, there are also numerous means by which the intellectual field appropriates from this function the resources to generate and sustain its distance from both culture and state. Darío incarnates the stance of refusal, while he, Vasconcelos, and Ortiz in different ways affirm the multitude, affect, and the non-human beyond the state.

All too often, however, intellectuals stray little from the state as their source and guarantor of their symbolic credit. Their willingness to take up the task of articulation, translation, or regulation falls into a more or less unreflective populism, in which they claim to speak for or speak to the people--in the end it usually matters little which. The history of transculturation has also encompassed this populist reading of modernism, and more recently led to a populist appropriation of Angel Rama’s writings on modernism (for which see for example Gareth Williams’s essay in this collection). But populism, and the place it assigns intellectuals, is now in crisis. The state tends no longer to speak; the neoliberal state tends rather endlessly to canvass opinion more or less directly and more or less mechanically through polling operations and other mechanisms of what is claimed to be the new, electronic direct democracy. Populism survives only anachronistically in the posturing of some sectors of cultural studies. And the state increasingly sees no need to listen to these self-appointed mediators of popular will. The neoliberal state requires only the services of technocrats who will whisper in its ear, not intellectuals who will make a stand or serve as a bridge between state and people. Given this, it is worth returning to the attempts of modernist intellectuals to achieve autonomy from the state, however apocalyptic, mystical, or self-effacing their efforts turned out to be. Perhaps by returning to the modernist intellectual imaginary we can outline a post-populist position suitable for our current, postmodern era.

works cited

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Rama, Angel. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. Montevideo: Fundación Angel Rama, 1989.

-----. La ciudad letrada. Montevideo: ARCA, 1998.

Ramos, Julio. Desencuentros de la modernidad en América Latina: Literatura y política en el siglo XIX. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1989.

Rodó, José Enrique. Ariel. Madrid: Espesa-Calpe, 1991.

Vasconcelos, José. The Cosmic Race / La raza cósmica. Trans. Didier T. Jaén. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.