The Hegel of Coyoacán: In Memoriam, Enrique Dussel

by | 13 Nov 2023

(24 December 1934 – 5 November 2023)

My most enduring image of Enrique Dussel shows him in the role that made him happiest. That of a teacher, maestro in Spanish; with a lowercase ‘m’, as in the mastery of non-mastery.

There he is, in front of a whiteboard on which can be seen what looks like a child-like drawn map of Latin America. It is surrounded by numbers that indicate some of the key events of a poorly told story, or History (with a capital H in this case). The doodle-map is covered over by traces, broken lines, and unfinished circles which look like water whirlpools or the primordial figurations of time as an unending spiral sketched on the hills of the Chiribiquete mountains of Colombia, in the place they call ‘the Sistine Chapel of the Amazon’. These geometrical traces make the figure on the board something more than a text or a map. More like a pictogram.

The place was Pennsylvania, in the USA. The occasion, a symposium organized by Colombian philosopher Eduardo Mendieta, which Dussel had agreed to attend in order to submit generously, as always, to the critical scrutiny of several colleagues who, like me, have learned from him for decades. The speed of his spirit and his active presence animated that meeting, despite his already apparent health problems. As a result of that symposium, a volume entitled Decolonizing Ethics. The Critical Theory of Enrique Dussel was published in a series that also includes Rahel Jaeggi and Rainer Forst among other contemporary practitioners of Critical Theory. 

Although generically identified with the Frankfurt School in Germany, it is not generally known that this cooperative school of thought was established in great part thanks to the financial and intellectual efforts of Félix Weil, born in Argentina to a Jewish father and mother. So, one hundred years after the founding of one of the most influential schools of social, legal-political, and philosophical study, it is appropriate to rank Dussel among the most prominent representatives of today’s critical generation. Not only because, like that founder, he was also born in Argentina, lived in Israel between 1959 and 1961 while learning Hebrew and Arabic to read the sources in their originating context, and was imbued with the progressive current of that culture that today the leaders of the state that claims to defend it seem to want to bury in an act of cleansing. But also, because in this way Critical Theory returns to the global perspective that it had arguably lost. That is, as an approach capable of responding to the persistence of the colonial-imperialist legacy. This being the case, there is nothing more relevant and urgent nowadays than the project developed by Enrique Dussel.

After his death on November 5th in Mexico City, we can say that he is, without a doubt, the most important Latin American philosopher of the last century. His work is extensive – more than seventy books and countless essays. It is systematic, interdisciplinary and of extraordinary global impact, even if this could only be measured by the quantity and quality of translations and pirated editions of his texts. He is recognized as the architect of the so-called Philosophy of Liberation, which emerged from the debates about whether there was such a thing as a Latin American philosophy in the 60s and 70s and was contemporary with the Theology of Liberation – that sort of Second Reformation which took place in the Americas. It grew up in conversation with the political-economic thought of the development of underdevelopment (i. e. Dependency Theory, economic structuralism, and World-Systems Theory) and the so-called sentipensante Sociology of Liberation articulated by Orlando Fals Borda in the Colombian Caribbean. 

When, at the end of the 1990s, together with Santiago Castro-Gómez, Mendieta, Walter Mignolo, Linda Martín-Alcoff and others, we launched from Colombia the so-called “decolonial turn” that is now being debated everywhere around the world, as part of the Modenity/Coloniality research project, we did so largely in the light of the work that Enrique had developed since the mid-1980s. One of the key questions to be debated concerned what could be understood as ‘the people’. For example, are the ‘poor’ of popular religiosity and culture in places like the Americas and elsewhere the same as the proletariat? Or, rather, should we think of the consumer of the spectacle-forms of infotainment and the derivative forms of the financial market, subjected to seemingly endless cycles of wars, not only as a sort of passive and victimized ‘precariat’ but also as an active presence capable of traversing the epistemic funk of our spaces of death? 

As can be seen, these are not merely academic questions. The persistence of colonial and imperial practices in the contemporary moment are apparent in the devaluation of life in everyday political and economic practice, parallel to racial demarcations hidden behind the point of view of a market that claims to have overcome such hierarchies but in fact benefits from them. So, far from being ethereal or abstract, such questions acquire meaning because they emerge from and in the spaces of death that in places like Colombia and Gaza the market in crisis and its fascistic evolution have elevated to the status of a decisive normality. Dussel challenged us to think about the way in which the state of emergency and constant crisis that is imposed on us as if it were normal could be opposed to and by different principles emerging from within. Similar to the way in which practices of healing among our Native and Afro peasants or urbandeans, subjected to the worst violence, do justice by making visible the persistent terror of colonial management and governmental practices hidden behind the foul-smelling fog left by bombings and massacres disguised as ‘the right of self-defense’. 

This has nothing to do with romanticizing the other, or difference, exoticism, or dialectics. Rather, it is about opening ourselves to the way in which, for example, out of practices like these, carried out by concrete and vulnerable bodies riveted to history in specific environments and through specific time trajectories, it is possible to recompose the fragments of the past that in the present show and demonstrate that what currently seems normal, insurmountable, and endless, really is not. And it’s not so because in the past, a past that is not lost, things have been different. The ongoing poetics of these signs is occluded by a cultural logic of the archive that incorrectly sets them in a preservational past tense, but their impact can be seen in the aesthetics and politics of twenty-first century protests and movements. Analogously, at least, the future may also be different. 

Dussel called this form of the poetic and mathematical imagination ‘analectic’, and based on that approach constructively proposed ‘the principle of liberation’. Its formulation is quite simple: because no one can tell us with exactitude that in the future everything will be as it is today or that our transformative efforts today will be in vain (at the very least, such predictions and precision would be pedantic) then we can say, supported by the evidence and precedents of the past, with a higher degree of certainty, that the future is open and will be different. Meaning that the victims of a system that normalizes their death and their living death because it declares them ‘disposable’ or a ‘necessary’ sacrifice, they themselves question such a system and contest its premises in their very existence and articulate in survivance a different, counter-normative validity. Just as we did when we were law students at the height of the war in Colombia and responded to a call to transform the Constitution in 1991, for example. As do those who have been marching around the world in recent weeks, thereby making the unacceptable in Israel and Gaza evident. Such is the lesson of the global history of ethical systems, which, as Enrique argued, serves as a preface to all ethics. Similarly, his life has been the preface to ours. If so, how can we continue to walk the path he opened for us? 

It is a common misconception that in the wake of modernity the age of the image and the pictograph came to an end. The study of politics, law, and literature in the West largely stands on a premise derived from this misconception. Namely, that civic or ‘republican’ politics, law, and literature begin with letters. Anything otherwise, such as the complementary visual and mnemonic cues of pictographic inscription found in bio-cultural sites throughout the native Americas and the texts of image/object/and sound amalgamated in Mesoamerican codices -copies of which featured prominently in Dussel’s library in his house in Coyoacán, Mexico- tends to be relegated to a time and place where history did not happen as it should. Thereafter, they are treated as ruins in a museum exhibit, or as relics from a pre-civic and pre-literary past.

This misconception is the result of what has been termed ‘The Great Bifurcation’. Such is the name for the set of experiential (percepts), epistemological (concepts), and political (normative) operations present at the moment of the emergence of modernity. Dussel sought to index the various elements of such a set under the marker ‘1492’, which can be seen to the left of the pictographic map-image we evoked at the beginning of this piece. 

Obviously, that number marks the date of the so-called ‘discovery’ (descubrimiento, in Spanish) of the Americas by Europeans, which Dussel sardonically termed the ‘concealment (encubrimiento, in Spanish) of the other’.[1] Less obvious, but no less crucial, is the sense of that concealment. 

Appealing to the power of the mathematical imagination, which plays a more pivotal role in Dussel’s critical theory than his readers seem to grasp, for him ‘1492’ was not simply a decisive limit-date in a chronological succession. Rather, it could be seen operating as an aesthetic idea in the Kantian/Foucauldian sense of the term: a historical a priori. The horizon line projected to the ‘zero-point’ of view of a centred observer functions as the imaginary percept underpinning our modern sense of orientation, and, with it, our concepts of time and space, as well the normative-political orders erected on the basis of such perceptions and conceptions. This sense of orientation, based on a supposedly stable line of the horizon, would have been projected as a system of coordinates (axiomatic and even arbitrary) by Europeans upon the rest of the world at the time of their imperial expansion. This set of technical projections and attitudinal orientation made it possible for Europeans to define the space of the world as one which is calculable, navigable, discriminated and classifiable, predictable and, as such, ready to hand or manageable.[2]

Presumably, the stability of such a system would hinge on the stability of an observer (like a painter, or like a composer ‘orchestrator’, as Dussel says) posited on a ground of sorts imagined as more or less immobile -such as a safe shoreline, the interior space of a well-defended walled city, the logic of an archive imagines as final resting place, or Columbus’s boat. A ‘ground’ or framework for a spectator imagined as stable and constant even if in fact it is not. Within it, the things and events of the world could be made visible and made sense of by being posited in their ‘proper’ place. Anything beyond the horizon of that ultimate framework would appear, in contrast, formless and invisible. Even unthinkable or ‘inconstant’. [3]

Such was, precisely, the term used by the first European chroniclers of the Americas (cartographers, missionaries, and jurists) to refer to what they saw as the intemperate or excessive character of ‘nature’ and climate ‘out there’, as well as to the supposedly excessive character of the appetites of those found dwelling in such landscapes, imitating them. The mimetic excess of such intemperate creatures and environs would explain in the mind of those early modern European chroniclers, scientists, and jurists, both the fantastic fertility and riches of América’s environs and its dwellers’ supposed inability to reason or consent -to see God’s revelation and recognise the appearance of a kingly sovereign and their rules. Conversely, such intemperance and inconstancy would ‘justify’ them being governed by the presumably ‘superior’ rationality and masterful mores of Europeans, and their environs and riches being appropriated, managed, and subsequently accumulated by the metropolitan centres of Europe and their imitators.

 So, the operation in question (i. e. ‘discovery’) has in fact been one of concealment, cleansing, and confinement: the cleansing, concealment, or confining ‘bifurcation’ of so-called nature ‘out there’. Cleansing, as in the purge of the unclean. Or, to speak more concretely, as in the killing of countless defenceless peoples and the destruction of their built environs and knowledge to empty out the land, to declare it an object out there ready for the taking and rule the appropriation of whatever portion of wealth that may occur due to the appreciation of [that] pre-existing wealth justified and incontestable. Here, the divide between nature and culture that emerged as a condition for modernity is revealed, according to Dussel, as a singular historical event. Not only akin to what Karl Marx had termed ‘primitive accumulation’, but also the social production of disposable peoples and their environs (or ‘surplus-value’) as the ‘civilizing mission’ expressed in the colonial motto ‘exterminate all the brutes!’[4]

Nature, its processes, and time-motion, come to be effectively occluded by a set of relations between humans (i. e. the cosmo-vision of moderns) that is singular, contingent, and therefore changeable but pretends to be universal, necessary, and therefore ultimate. Behind the anxiety of moderns to seize hold of a philosophy, one which is also ‘a formalist philosophy that distanced itself from a humanistic ethics of life, conceiving reason principally as theoretical, abstract, and formal,’ lies aggression.[5] A predatory mimetic excess, a defensive mindset. Modernity/1492 indexes under its name/number ‘a real, concrete, singular, unique event… about which we have to discover its fundamental ontological structure, which pretends to impose itself as universal.’[6] Upon inspection, this fundamental ontological structure (ditto, a cosmo-vision, more than a cosmo-logy) turns out to be that of mastery: the violent force of ‘the claim of domination itself.’[7]

It is up to us to continue to develop this strand of Dusselian thought. The contemporary importance of which becomes apparent once recognise the fact that capitalism has always presupposed a set of norms governing the appropriation of whatever portion of wealth is due to the appreciation of pre-existing wealth as though it were an uninhabited continent, ready to hand, that will be taken and occupied by someone. Building on Dussel’s analectical approach and Benjaminian attention to the political potency of image-systems, an analogy can be proposed here with Carl Schmitt’s notion of a “nomos of the Earth.”[8] By means of such an analogy, we become able to emphasize that global accumulation of financial wealth and the transfer of environmental costs are, like “discovery,” politically contestable. They can only exist for as long as the outcome of that contestation remains unresolved. 

[1] Enrique Dussel, 1492: El encubrimiento del otro. Hacia el origen del mito de la modernidad (Plural editores, 1994), containing his 1992 Frankfurt Lectures, rendered into English as Invention of the Americas: Eclipse of “the Other” and the Myth of Modernity, trans. Michael D. Barber (New York: Continuum, 1995) especially Part 1, “From the European Ego: The Covering Over.” For Dussel, modernity begins with the question “Are the peoples of the New World human? If so, can they be civilized/evangelized/colonized/enslaved?” debated during the 1550s juntas convened by Charles V. Not only this approach relocates the sources of the modern self to the sixteenth century, including the crucial yet hitherto ignored writings of the Second Scholastic school which were among the first to debate the question of modern slavery and, in relation to it, the emergence of capitalist economics as a global phenomenon. It also recomposes ways of approaching history and anthropology by inventing new points of contact between and beyond the seemingly distinct boundaries of such disciplines as history, anthropology, and political economy as well as legal-political philosophy. These shifts prefigure the “decolonial” and “ontological” turns, re-turning the genealogy of the ethical subject to a wider field which may be conceived as an archaeology of the future.

[2] Enrique Dussel, “Are Many Modernities Possible? A South-South Dialogue,” in Decolonizing Ethics. The Critical Theory of Enrique Dussel, ed. by Amy Allen & Eduardo Mendieta (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2021) 22-42 at 26-8.

[3] Enrique Dussel, “Are Many Modernities Possible? A South-South Dialogue,” 27: “This capacity to read the archives of other great cultures… was made possible by [Europe’s] management of this new centrality (now global…), first by linking hitherto delinked knowledge archives, concealing their origins later, and then ultimately by judging them negatively, because they had originated in what were now considered colonial cultures.” See also, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Inconstancy of the Indian Soul. The Encounter of Catholics and Cannibals in 16th-Century Brazil, trans. G. Duff Morton (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2011) and confront with Theodor W. Adorno, Lectures on Negative Dialectics (Cambridge: Polity, 2008) 144: “Traditional thought and the habits of common-sense thinking that it left behind after its demise as philosophy call for a frame of reference in which everything has its place.”

[4] Enrique Dussel, “The Discovery of the Category of Surplus Value,” in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy 150 Years Later, ed. by Marcello Musto (London & Abingdon: Routledge, 2008) 67-77. 

[5] Enrique Dussel, “Are Many Modernities Possible? A South-South Dialogue,” at 23.

[6] Enrique Dussel, “Are Many Modernities Possible? A South-South Dialogue,” 25-26.

[7] Enrique Dussel, “Are Many Modernities Possible? A South-South Dialogue,” 26.

[8] By “nomos of the Earth” Schmitt, a keen reader of both Hobbes and Spanish Scholastic legal thought, referred to the notion that the newly discovered continents of the Western Hemisphere fell under European control under the assumption that they were an empty “terra nullius.” Although this notion has been taken to task and found wanting in court (e. g. Mabo v. Queensland (No. 2) HCA 23, (1992) 175 CLR 1), the presupposition that it is necessary to sustain the reign of violent terror by recreating the system of the unipolar, homogeneous, unity of the group, which in turn maintains property and the continent of accumulated wealth, remains hidden in plain sight. See on this, Frantz Fanon, “Conducts of Confession in Africa (2)” in Alienation and Freedom, ed. by J. Khalfa & R. J. C. Young (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2018) 411-416 at 414; Robert Meister, Justice Is an Option. A Democratic Theory of Finance for the Twenty-First Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021) 193; and Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy. On Subversion and Negative Reason (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 177-18; 


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