In Memoriam: Fernando Coronil

“Dear Fernando”

by Gary Wilder
Director, the Committee on Globalization and Social Change
CUNY Graduate Center

August 24, 2011

On Tuesday August 16, 2011 our cherished friend and colleague Fernando Coronil died of lung cancer at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital. His wife Julie Skurski and their daughters Mariana and Andrea were at his side.

It is telling that one of Fernando Coronil’s favorite authors was Jorge Luis Borges. The characteristic mix of intellectual intensity, playful humor, and open-eyed attention to the deep existential issues that runs through Borges’ work also radiated across Fernando’s writing and teaching and friendships. A gifted intellectual, a passionate teacher, and a long committed man of the left, Fernando exemplified Antonio Gramsci’s famous dictum about possessing a pessimism of the intellect and an optimism of the will. As Fernando often reminded me, regardless of the situation, “we need to expect the worst and hope for the best.” To enter his charmed orbit was to be struck and inspired by his capacity for humor, hope, and warmth, despite all.

During his awful months of struggle with the quickly advancing illness, which he insisted on calling a dance rather than a fight, he regularly remarked on how lucky and blessed he felt by the care and support that he received from his family, friends, and colleagues – especially his wife and daughters. But this massive and spontaneous outpouring was a mere echo of the conviviality and hospitality that flowed always from Fernando in his encounters and relations. (It was no surprise that he gave unforgettable introductions at public events. And he was quick to suggest that a dinner party at his house replace this or that generic reception that had been planned.)

Fernando’s yes to life was evident in his attachment to New York. Despite living in Jackson Heights for three years, he continued to marvel at the diversity and vitality of this neighborhood which he truly loved. Every time I visited him, without fail, he would ask, “Did you walk up on 74th street? Isn’t it incredible! You must walk back to the train down 74th!” Again and again when we would step out of the CUNY Graduate Center where we were colleagues in the anthropology department, whatever the time of day and in all seasons, he would tilt his head up at the Empire State building and scan the surrounding midtown towers, flash a smile at me, and declare, “Look where we are! It’s amazing.” And whenever we walked through the stunning courtyard garden of the 1924 building in which he lived, he would sigh and say, “It’s heaven, no?” His wonder, joy, and gratitude at the spectacle of life seemed to be without limit.

Before moving to New York and the Graduate Center, Fernando spent decades in Ann Arbor where he and Julie raised their daughters and taught on the faculty at University of Michigan. There they played an integral role in building the legendary Doctoral Program in Anthropology and History. Moreover they helped to make Michigan the dynamic center of an insurgent movement within historical anthropology and colonial studies whose impact resonated across the human sciences. A Venezuelan citizen, Fernando was a specialist in Latin American society and politics. But at Michigan he trained multiple generations of graduate students in a wide range of fields, so many of whom are now important scholars. During these years, he also produced a body of extraordinary work that has made signal contributions to numerous fields.

Fernando’s interventions have resonated with special force in Latin American history and politics, colonial studies and postcolonial theory, Third World state formations, historical anthropology, and Marxist geography and state theory. He was part of the innovative Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. He engaged forcefully with contemporary Venezuelan state politics and oil policies while also introducing synthetic and comparative frameworks for understanding the Latin American left today and the history of empire in the Southern Hemisphere. He argued persuasively that the field of colonial studies was too focused on Northern Europe and the modern period. He insisted that scholars of empire integrate into their analytic frameworks the history of early modern Iberian imperialism as well as the precocious experiments in decolonization and national emancipation that unfolded in nineteenth-century Latin America. His work demonstrated that political economy, historical geography, state forms, and political discourses cannot be studied in isolation from one another. He developed a path breaking approach to what we might call a political anthropology of nature (or a natural history of politics). He reminded us that social and political elites were as important to understand as the disenfranchised communities that motivated his own scholarship and political commitments. And he believed passionately that anthropology must be a heterogeneous and heterodox enterprise.

At the time of his death, Fernando was working on an eagerly awaited book on Hugo Chavez and the U.S.-supported coup attempt against him in 2002. He also had plans to collect his important essays into a single volume and to co-author, with Julie, a memoir of their dramatic and absurdist Cold War experiences of being deported from the U.S. because of their association with and research in Cuba. He was caught short in the middle of it all. That he had been an expert in the art of living well and fully is no compensation.

Fernando read capaciously in neighboring fields and eagerly sought out work, whether or not academic, that he found to be creative and provocative. He was especially captivated by first-rate writing, whether distinguished by its clarity or its beauty. (His own inimitable dada-ish emails were infamous among his circle.) He recognized that scholarship was only one method of discovering truths, and one that often paled in comparison to those disclosed by visual arts, performance, music, film, and poetry. His and Julie’s home is filled with paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture. Most of them are accompanied by extraordinary stories about his personal relationships with the artists or the complex family lineages through which the pieces found their way into his care. Both of his daughters, it should be said, are artists.

In the coming months and years, I am sure, his work will be explored carefully by a wide range of scholars in the many fields that his writings engaged. This is not the place to elaborate on it. But it should be emphasized that his work truly transdiciplinary. His inquiries proceeded boldly according to the questions and problems with which they began, whether or not they conformed to disciplinary norms and professional protocols. In our many discussions about his work, he seemed to be especially proud of essays in which he experimented with writing style and paid special attention to poetics (such as “Pieces for Anthrohistory: A Puzzle to be Assembled Together”) and in articles that were explicit critiques of other scholars’ work. Informed by his belief that one should only critique work that one takes seriously and in a respectful way, these were exemplary acts of critical engagement that were based on careful reading and analytic, not personal, disagreements. That he often received positive notes from the targets of his most critical essays underscores the care and skill that he employed. To say that Fernando was an open and generous thinker is not simply to say that he was a nice guy or everybody’s friend. He did not back down from either political or intellectual confrontation. He repeatedly threw himself into struggles that he believed had to be fought, struggles he could not allow himself to ignore, even if there would be little reward or even high costs associated with entering the fray. Whenever I consulted with him about whether or not to take those kinds of risks in print, he would quickly insist, “But you must.”

Fernando’s deep intellect, broad interests, and unorthodox orientations as well as his commitment to critical exchange, genuine dialogue, and frequent face-to-face encounters meant that his work addressed and has been engaged by a wide range of scholars, journalists, and activists. Never motivated by academic careerism, Fernando was a genuine intellectual who happily found a home in the U.S. academy which he loved, in part, because of the endless opportunities to create connections, contribute to workshops, and participate in symposia. He cherished his colleagues, his many study and working groups, and especially his students.

Among my graduate student friends at the University of Chicago, where, an academic generation earlier, Fernando also received his Ph.D., the arrival of his book The Magical State was a significant event. For those of us interested in doing empirically grounded and theoretically sophisticated work that related history and social science in order to understand state politics and political economy on the imperial periphery this book was a beacon. To see this concrete example of the kind of rigorous, critical, and transdiciplinary scholarship to which we aspired was thrilling and nourishing. And only one of our group was a Latin Americanist! To later discover that its author was so warm, generous, open-minded, and respectful of students and younger academics defied belief.

An embarrassing (for me) anecdote about my first meeting with Fernando reveals much about his character and ethos. He had visited Chicago to give a public lecture, a version of what would become his important essay “Beyond Occidentalism.” After the challenging talk, I approached him to offer a number of “comments and suggestions for revision.” Fernando did not, as he surely should have, dismiss this impertinent and presumptuous graduate student from a different field who had not published a single academic article. Despite the fact that he was surrounded by interested colleagues and old friends, he listened respectfully to a few of my suggestions and then proposed that I write them up and send them to him so he could consider them with greater attention. Whether or not he found these comments useful (he claimed that he did), that encounter led to an email correspondence about his essay and then to an enduring if episodic intellectual connection. Our brief exchanges and occasional meetings over the years, which included a crucial moment when he supported the publication of my book, were certainly trivial for him. But for a young academic they were meaningful and unforgettable. To be taken seriously by a senior scholar whose writing I admired and whose critical spirit and unconventional approach I hoped in some way to emulate was an experience for which I was ever grateful. It was also an example of Fernando’s deep commitment to non-hierarchical, ideas-first, human-to-human exchange.

For the past two years I have had the pleasure and privilege of being Fernando’s colleague at the CUNY Graduate Center. Co-teaching the first-year theory course with him was one of the great intellectual treats of my career. I was able to watch up close his unadorned pedagogic style in which the immediate and unscripted experience of talking, thinking, and learning together outweighed all other considerations. He preferred discussion to lecture and encouraged dialogue and dissent. At some point in the semester, he began to worry that it was not good for the students that he and I agreed too often about fundamental methodological and theoretical issues. So he began to question and challenge me in class in a way that was earnest, provocative, respectful, and playful. Our performative but sincere exchanges, in which we discovered and tried to work through pockets of real disagreement, became integral to the task of training first year students to think analytically, critically, and theoretically.

In the classroom as in his writing and his life, Fernando believed that risks were worth taking and that seeming tangents often, if not always, lead to unexpected pots of gold. He prized creativity over organization and contingency over choreography. For me, his remarkable ability to think without a net, on the fly and in the moment, to take the leap and learn from the experience was a central component of his sharp-minded and open-hearted approach to the task of being a fully human and truly creative intellectual. His preference for thinking over knowledge, connection over distance, humor over bitterness, and political engagement over scholastic performance have left a deep impression on me.

When I moved with my family from Los Angeles to New York, it was not only to accept a position at the Graduate Center but to work closely with Fernando. During these brief years as colleagues here, I was fortunate to benefit from his ethic of engagement. He invited me to present drafts of my essays in his classes. We read and discussed each other’s current work in a way that reminded me of the best moments of graduate school. A week before he entered the hospital for the last time, compromised by cancer and laid low by chemotherapy, he managed, though I insisted against it, to send me comments on a draft of an essay that he had been encouraging me to write.

In New York, with ambitious plans for this new phase of his career at the Graduate Center, he had set about investing in the future of the program and the public life of the institution, by serving on admissions and hiring committees, teaching first-year theory courses, organizing the weekly colloquium series, attending as many talks and events as he could, reaching out to colleagues in other departments, and building bridges to scholars throughout New York. He quickly attracted a group of wonderful graduate students into his orbit and set the kind of tone – easy-going, warm, and sincere – in his relations with students and colleagues that had attracted him to CUNY. I was not the only new arrival whose positive experience of the Graduate Center was bound up with Fernando’s enthusiasm for the place.

I was always struck by the integrated character of Fernando’s life. His scholarly convictions and political commitments, academic writing and public interventions, his professional and personal relationships, his social life and family life seemed to fit together and nourish each other in rich and enviable ways. Difficult to pull off anywhere, given the fragmented and overloaded lives we tend to lead, such integration is especially rare in the centrifugal force-field of New York City. His and Julie’s home was a frequent gathering place, as I gather all of their homes have been.

It was deeply moving, if not at all surprising, to witness wave after wave of family members, old friends, and former students who flowed into New York these past months to spend time with him after his diagnosis last April. Fernando is the only person I know who would have spent such a dark and difficult stretch attending (and often hosting!) a steady stream of gatherings of his people from near and far. And he did so while at the same time devoting his deepest and most sustained attention to his wife and daughters. It was a true (and heartbreaking) gift to see how closely and lovingly and happily connected the four of them were. And it is testament to the Coronils that they were willing to share so much of their precious time left with him with the many people whose lives he touched.

I have not long known Fernando well, but his example, respect, and friendship have meant the world to me. From the moment I arrived in New York he made me feel like a dear friend. He was like that with his people. (Who else would invite a job candidate to stay at his home during the campus visit?) I can barely imagine the loss that those who have known and loved him forever must be feeling, including all of the students whose lives and futures he helped to shape. We who knew Fernando cannot imagine inhabiting a world from which he is absent. I am sure we all plan to visit with him regularly, by reading his words, conjuring his spirit, emulating his example – saying yes to life – even if the fact of his not being here now is simply inassimilable.

Sadly, Fernando’s illness kept us from keeping our date to discuss his ambitious essay on the contemporary leftward turn in Latin American politics and their imaginaries of the future ( “The Future in Question: History and Utopia in Latin America (1989-2010)”). It’s stirring final paragraph may serve as an inadequate epitaph for these scattered and grief muddled reflections. Or at least another chance to listen to our dear Fernando:

“Of course, given the unequal structures of power within which this leftward turn has taken place, it is possible that its new imaginings may be co-opted or crushed. But given that these imaginaries now unite South and North in a politics that fuses the pursuit of well-being and sheer global survival, it is likely that a counterpoint between the embers of the past and the poetry of the future will continue to conjure up images of worlds free from the horrors of history. Politics will remain a battle of desires waged on an uneven terrain. But as long as people find themselves without a safe and dignified home in the world, utopian dreams will continue to proliferate, energizing struggles to build a world made of many worlds, where people can dream their futures without fear of waking up.”

N.B.: While editing these scattered thoughts about the world no longer being right without Fernando, I had an uncanny experience of the objective correlative as my building in Queens suddenly shook and swayed during the recent East Coast earthquake.

For other posts on Fernando Coronil, see: