Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 139-146
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Puerto Rican Studies in a German Philosophy Context
An Interview with Juan Flores
Linda Martín Alcoff
The work of Juan Flores, professor of black and Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College, combines sociological training, an extensive background in social theory, and immense cultural knowledge to analyze the political implications of a wide range of cultural phenomena, from hybrid musical and dance forms to intraethnic conflicts to the debates over Spanglish. In books like From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Identity and Latino Identity (2000), Flores develops, from these local and specific analyses, a general account of how ethnic identity should be approached as an object of study, and draws persuasive conclusions concerning the current debates over assimilation, Puerto Rican “exceptionalism,” the emergence of a pan-Latino identity, and the commercial appropriation of Nuyorican artistic expression, among other issues.
What is perhaps less known about Flores is his background in German philosophy, which he studied in Berlin and at Stanford. This training gives his work much of its depth and its resonance with contemporary social theory, since he makes connections between the commercialization of salsa and the debates between Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, between street-level social critique and Bertolt Brecht's theory of engagement, in addition to introducing readers outside of Latino studies to the wealth and originality of Latin American theorists like Edouard Glissant, Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, Carlos Pabón, and many others who have developed analyses of culture from within conditions of colonialism (thus contributing an essential element that the European social theorists have uniformly ignored). [End Page 139]
Flores began his teaching career as a Germanist at Stanford University during the Vietnam War, in a period when Stanford came under serious attack because of its direct institutional contributions to the technological and strategic development of that war. Due to his support of and involvement in the protests, the university summarily fired him. Soon, however, he found himself transplanted back to his hometown, teaching Puerto Rican and black studies at the City University of New York. Some colleagues interpreted this as a large drop in status but, in reality, Flores simply moved from one area studies to another. He has argued that, in fact, Puerto Rico, in spite of its purported “exceptionalism,” provides, together with the Nuyorican community, a rich perspective from which to analyze global phenomena such as cultural imperialism, urbanization, identity formations, and cultural politics, as well as the process of globalization itself. And yet, he insistently focuses on local arenas of political contestation and cultural expression, rarely moving toward the broad generalizations often found in social theory. Perhaps the lesson he learned from German studies was mainly a negative example.
Nonetheless, in this interview Flores discusses questions of culture both in a general sense and in relation to particular contemporary problems. He also sheds light on the role philosophy has to play in relation to cultural studies.
——L. M. A.
Linda Martín Alcoff: Could you first tell us about your educational biography, especially in relation to philosophy?
Juan Flores: My formal educational preparation was in German literature, not philosophy, though “Germanistik” has always had a strong philosophical bent. The major Dichter were also formidable Denker, and you could hardly come to terms with the classical tradition without Kant and Hegel, Heine or Büchner without Marx and Feuerbach, Mann and Kafka without Weber and Freud, Brecht without Benjamin and Lukács. A Fulbright dissertation year in Berlin in 1967 exposed me to the activist potential of philosophy, as German student militants plotted their anti–Vietnam War and anti-Shah movements by citing chapter and verse from the philosophical tradition. Speakers at the overflowing meetings included the likes of Marcuse, Adorno, Habermas, and Ernst Bloch, and for weighty philosophical reasons they were not always welcomed with the expected deference. [End Page 140] But those electric years propelled me further toward philosophy than my Yale literary training, during the waning stage of New Criticism...