- Reclaiming Left Baggage:Some Early Sources for Minority Studies
Stanford brings back memories, personal, political and intellectual associations very meaningful to me today as I reflect on the future of minority studies. Thirty years ago I was on the faculty here at Stanford, a budding young assistant professor in the prestigious German department. Yes, I spent my '68 here, a steady fixture in the antiwar movement, which—for those with shorter memories—was to some degree directed against the doings of Stanford itself.
I was not to cash in on my Yale and Stanford pedigree in Germanistik, and landed in "minority studies," Puerto Rican studies in particular, and at the City University of New York instead of Stanford. My academic career after Stanford would appear to have been an extreme and protracted demotion, or self-demotion, a sharp downward mobility from center to margins, from prestige to the undervalued, from the universal to the particular. I remember colleagues in the humanities and social science disciplines asking me, "Puerto Rican studies? How can you limit yourself to just one group?" And I thought of Germanistik, its place firmly ensconced among the established disciplines, the home of "humanistische Bildung," yet its field of inquiry cautiously circumscribed to one central national experience. From the vantage of Puerto Rican and minority studies, as I came to find out, the traditional European disciplines are also severely limited in their methodological and theoretical reach. The U.S. brand of Germanistik I had been groomed in was about philology and literary history, with only occasional dabbling, where pertinent, in broader philosophical or social issues. Fortunately for me, Stanford's German department was among the most enlightened in the country in those [End Page 187] years, one of the first, in fact, to refer to itself as "German Studies," and in having complemented its language and literature offerings with a third branch or curricular sequence in intellectual history, Geistesgeschichte. For my colleagues, students, and me, that meant complementing our Thomas Mann with Nietzsche and Freud, our Goethe with Kant and Hegel, our Heinrich Heine with Marx and Feuerbach, our Kafka and Brecht with Walter Benjamin. It was a stimulating intellectual feast, a countercanon that articulated easily with the fervent student radicalism and rebellious sensibility of the times.
Yet even this opening to Geistesgeschichte and our chance to study the great Denker along with the Dichter had its obvious limitations. It was still well-bounded humanities, a kind of extended belletristics, for we generally studied little of the history of music or the arts and of course barely reflected on the multiplicity of German identities or the cultural experiences of the huge German diaspora in the United States. Most notably, though, social science inquiry was fully excluded: economic, political, even social history remained outside the purview of an education in German culture. Most relevant perhaps for current debates, the issues of German national identity were rarely addressed in any direct or genealogical way, so that the mighty Dichter and Denker were left dangling, disengaged from the larger sweep of social and cultural history.
The historical formations and trajectories of group identity are of course central to minority studies, which is what accounts for its transdisciplinary imperative. In this respect, my migration from German to Puerto Rican studies was not a demotion or diminution at all, but rather an expansion of intellectual field and a widening of methodological and theoretical range. The focus on a single national experience is as true of the established disciplines as for minority studies, but because interest in the problematic of identity is so integral to an area like Puerto Rican studies, all aspects of Puerto Rican life, across all the varied academic demarcations, are of direct analytical concern.
Yes, but what about the move from German to Puerto Rican? Surely that's a shrinking in scale, at least, from the big to the small, from the richly complex to the simple and stunted, from a modern culture of world significance and impact to a derivative subculture of only minor or particularist interest to the study of modernity. As [End Page 188] nationally circumscribed as Germanistik might be, its universalist claim is...