Tuesday April 6, 2021

I read an article about “zozobra,” a concept devised by Mexican philosophers of the early 20th century. Zozobra names a type of anxiety. For the philosopher Emilio Uranga, “Zozobra refers to a mode of being that incessantly oscillates between two possibilities, between two affects, without knowing which one of those to depend on.” “Zozobra,” write the article’s coauthors, “is a soul-sickness,” a “gnawing sense of distress” due to “cracks in the frameworks of meaning that we rely on to make sense of our world.” Figures like Jorge Portilla proposed what the authors call a “nationalist” solution to this crisis, with leadership intervening to construct “a coherent horizon of understanding at the national level…a shared sense of what is real and what matters.” Is the US, as these authors suggest, afflicted with zozobra? Is zozobra another name for what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”? Haven’t frameworks of meaning always been sites of struggle between dominant and subordinate groups — classes, sects, tribes, etc. — as per Gramsci? To understand zozobra as a distinct affect, I hear myself thinking, one needs to situate it amid what was happening in 1950s Mexico, this being the moment and place of the term’s theorization. With spring underway, though, the concept slips away from me and evaporates — for my mood is less one of anxiety than one of excitement.