Essays and autonomy in Latin America The role of Hispanic-American modernism in critical thinking in the region

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Simón Puerta

This paper aims to point out some elements concerning the importance of the essay in shaping Latin-American critical thinking. Because of the peculiarity of its form, that is, its fragmentary and open nature, this form of writing is circumscribed in a pertinent way to the nascent Latin-American mentality. It allows an exploratory attitude and a disposition to confrontation regarding the determinations which, naturally, attached essentialisms in the definition of the region and the experience of its contexts. All the same, the essay was the means to enabling thought to be focused on intellectual autonomy, and to enable a departure from the stances of the dichotomous isolation of indigenism and Hispanism.

In order to present this argument, I propose to interweave two specific elements, namely, the theoretical consideration of the epistemological value of the essay proposed by the Frankfurt School Critical Theory, and its particular function for Latin America. In doing so I draw on the historical context of Hispanic-American modernism, which covers the period of transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Georg Lukács and Theodor W. Adorno maintained a discussion of great relevance about the particularity of the essay and its critical potential. It was Lukács who first developed an argument that, beyond specifying that which characterizes the essay, places it midway between the artistic and scientific methodologies; the essay, in its form, contributes to an approach to that which is expressed and has no other way of doing it. Adorno, following the initiative of Lukács, discussed with him, and made explicit, the critical potential of that form: the essay resists the autarchy of the concept, it is contradictory, and, in this way, is of great epistemological value to dialectic thought.

In Latin America, Hispanic modernism adopted, not by chance, this essayistic practice as an intellectual bastion. José Martí, José Enrique Rodó, Pedro Henríquez Ureña and Alfonso Reyes, to name just some of the most relevant thinkers, insisted, from their writings, on that indeterminacy of the Latin-American experience and on the necessity of persistently relating that which appeared as opposite and isolated. This way of proceeding not only allowed for the reconstruction of a different concept of mestizaje from that which operated in the colonial context, but also the confluence with political and historical reflections which placed emphasis on regional unity and the necessity to strengthen the countries. American experience, considered from the mediation of the essay, recognizes the European historical process in America, and also the difference that, based on that historical presence, Americans must establish. It recognizes indigenous heritage as well, and the process of violence; there is a need for synthesis that, from a concrete negation, is thought to produce the promise of America, this achieves Nuestra América (our America) in its own distinctiveness.

What is asserted, by means of this relational procedure, is that the use of the essay, a form of knowledge linked to the process of European Enlightenment, was paramount to establishing both the lines of action and the very distinctiveness of this region as well as forming the basis of what can be considered a form of Latin-American critical thinking. Additionally, this paper argues that its use was a matter of historical awareness.

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