Today’s New APPS interview is with Eduardo Mendieta, Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook.
Thank you for doing this interview with us today, Eduardo. You’ve been an interviewer yourself, I believe.
Yes, indeed, so let me begin by thanking you, John, for the invitation to do this interview. It is a great honor and pleasure, and also an interesting reversal for me. I have interviewed Angela Davis, and in fact we did a small book of interviews, around the question of torture, prisons and imperialism [Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Torture and Prisons (Seven Stories, 2005)]. I have also interviewed Richard Rorty [Take Care of Freedom and Truth Will Take Care of Itself (Stanford, 2006)], Jürgen Habermas, and Cornel West.
A very impressive set of people! Tell us a little about your daily practice of philosophy, if you would.
How does your reading in different languages affect your philosophy?
I think we in the US are spoiled by the linguistic hegemony of English, and the warping weight of the US editorials and journals. We have become very provincial and even philosophically chauvinistic. I fight this kind of institutional inertia all the time. I stay in contact with colleagues in Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Spain, and England. I read Spanish, German, Portuguese, and lately, I began to teach myself Italian.
How about your travel?
I frequent Latin American congresses of philosophy, and have over the last two decades tried to go to as many of the Inter-American congresses of philosophy, as well as the Mexican National Philosophical Congresses, which rival in attendance and internationalism the APA. I don’t, therefore, think of myself as working alone. Not only because I remain in contact with a wide, very international, group of philosophers and colleagues, but also because I feel that I have to read other colleagues. I am always very pleasantly surprised when I am somewhere in Spain, or Venezuela, or Mexico and someone comes to me and says: “I read our work” or, my “I thought Mendieta was older.”
That would be good to hear!
In any event, I also work very closely with my graduate students. I read their work, learn from it, but I also write to them long responses to their chapters, which means I have both a personal and written dialogue with them.
Tell us about your teaching a little.
And, without question, I do research to teach. My teaching and research are very woven. I use my lectures as laboratories to work out ideas. Over the last couple of year, the last decade, more or less, I began to formalize this laboratory by writing my lecture and using power points. Now, my graduate seminars are not formally written, but I spent a lot of time preparing seminars. My undergraduate lectures, on the other hand, are written. So, I feel like I have all these people I am in contact with all the time.
You’ve also been very active as an editor.
Yes, I have edited, or co-edited, over twenty volumes, with different colleagues, or graduate students. I have done this deliberately because I think part of my philosophical practice and commitments have to do with creating a community of thinkers. So, for me, philosophy has always been a very collective, communal, dialogic and collaborative undertaking.
Do you have a set routine in your work life?
I have two children, who are now teenagers, so I have had to change my working habits over the last decade and half, as my kids have grown. I wrote my dissertation while swapping childcare duties with my wife. I am an early riser, and my wife hates mornings. So, I do the morning shift, and the commute, while she does the afternoon and early evening shifts.
This way of balancing domestic and professional work seems to suit you well.
I wrote some of my best stuff while taking care of my daughter when she was a new born. She would play next to my desk while I wrote on Kant, Peirce, and Apel. When our second child came, my mother came to help for two years…but I still did a lot of the childcare. I had a routine when I worked at the University of San Francisco …drive the kids to the Presidio Child Care Facility there, an amazing experience for our kids, and then I would go the office, do my courses, hold office hours, go to meetings, etc; then I would pick them up and drive home.
How have things changed with your move to Stony Brook?
But, since we have moved to Long Island, now ten years ago, we have a new routine. Now, I have to get them to the school bus, or drive them 5 minutes to school, on the way to the gym or an early meeting, and then call around 3 pm to make sure they are home, working on homework. Still, when I am not traveling, I am the morning shift. I make breakfast and make sure the kids take showers, etc.
When do you write, then?
Depends, I write in hotels when I am travelling, and I have written some fine essays in hotel rooms, or on the plane. I get up really early, 3 or 4 am, and write for two hours, get the kids off, and then sit back down to do some more writing. I sometimes force myself to work after dinner, but that takes a lot of preparing. I like to leave the evenings for reading, or proof reading, or editing—you know, grunt work.
How do you keep yourself going with that kind of demanding daily schedule?
My stimulants are coffee and the gym. Sometimes a strenuous and lengthy workout out is the best thing to get the mental sweat going – isn’t that what philosophy is, mental sweat?
The great sportswriter Red Smith once said, “writing’s easy: I just sit there with a blank sheet of paper until little drops of blood appear on my forehead.”
For me, there is no day in which there is no writing. I try to divide days in which I write letters, reply to e-mails, write comments for my grad students, and grade my undergraduates, and days when I only write my essays or chapter of books, or edit, or do reading. There is no science to this, but a professor at a US university knows the cycle: early fall is about putting together syllabi and catch up on the reading you assigned. October and November are consumed by mid-term grading and conference papers that got forgotten or delayed; late fall, and winter, more grading, but now lots of letters. The spring, similar, but in what seems a reversal of the process. And, yes, I still do pull some all-nighters or very late nights. Sometimes I have a deadline and I stay up through the night, or take a nap and get up really early and try to finish.
In what ways, if any, do you integrate art, science, politics, and other areas of life such as cooking, or listening to music, or physical / spiritual exercise – what have you – into your philosophy?
My friend Linda Alcoff called me a “gym rat” one time and that pretty much summarizes it. My work and vocation are to read, and write, so I do something that is very sedentary and conducive to both bad health habits and bad posture. So, I do some sort of exercise every day. It could be a jog for an hour, the Gym, or Karate. I started Karate in order to spent time with my son, and to get him into good body habits. So, we both do the sport three times a week. My daughter is a swimmer, although now that she is in high school she is with the varsity team, which is not as intense as her swimming club use to be. I think sports, with lots of music, are key to my staying focused, and also being able to keep a writing regime. But, it is also important for my modeling to my kids, and my students.
Was anyone a similar model for you?
One of my intellectual heroes is Habermas, and although I have known him for almost two decades, only recently I found out why he is so vibrant philosophically and physically energetic. He walks every day for an hour. He is over eighty and is surely going to reach Gadamerian heights in terms of years. He is an amazingly fit man, as I come to know from the many walks we have had. On the other hand, a seminar with Habermas is also a task of endurance, as were seminars with Derrida. But, if I get to be that old, I would like to remain as energetic, vibrant, and simply curious about people and the world as Habermas has remained. To do that, you can’t let your body became a burden, but instead have it become your strongest ally. And that takes a certain askesis, a certain care of the self.
How do you integrate teaching and research? How long did it take you to find the most productive practices here?
I think this is a great question. For whom do we philosophize? And what is the role of our philosophizing in the world? I taught for many years at a Jesuit institution, which was a wonderful way for a philosopher to get his feet wet in the challenges and rewards of teaching. I managed, without any prior mentoring from my own graduate school years, to find my style. But, I attribute this to the wonderful students I had at the University of San Francisco. Catholic educated kids have a spark that makes you want to be prepared and to teach to the best, and not to the medium or average. I think my students taught me how to be a teacher, and to this day, I take my teaching very seriously.
And this motivation has continued?
I also feel that I am becoming even more committed to my teaching. I never teach the same class the same way. I always add something new, something that is going to force me to do some new reading and learning in areas where I have not previously looked. When I am writing on Habermas, Foucault, Dussel, Davis, Peirce, James, Rorty, I ask myself how can I translate this abstract discussion into a lecture at the 100 or 200 levels? Conversely, I test my work against my teaching practices. Why should I invest time on this particular type of work if I can’t related it to what is crucial to my general work and can’t be translated into some insight that I can communicate to my undergraduates. This is one reason my writing is not pedantic, or at least I hope it is not, and why my essays, and books, have a very distinct pedagogical character.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but due to my father’s work, we moved around a lot. When I was quite young my mother divorced my father, and married someone else, with whom she had a daughter. That marriage didn’t work either. She came to the United States to make a living for us. She was away most of our childhoods. When she had her papers, she requested us. I must simply state that I am very lucky to have had my mother, who ventured to the States, and gave us the gift of US citizenship. Yeah, I am still trying to wrap my mind around what that means both existentially but also as a philosophical issue—that someone gives you membership, that we come to a world by way of a gift, a gift that has been granted at someone else’s expense and sacrifice. But I digress.
Not at all.
We moved to the States when I was 13, after having moved around a lot, as different aunts took turns taking care of us. I think that the longest stretch of time I lived in one town or city is my present house, where we have lived for over ten years now. I think it was this picking up and leaving that led me to become bookish. I love to read, and I read all kinds of things, from Nietzsche to Marx.
But not right from the start!
As I was growing up I also developed a taste for science fiction. One my earliest reads was by an author who has remained one of my favorites, Stanislaw Lem. But, I read Marx, when I was 11 or 12, or some such age.
Wow. I was reading comic books then.
I read the Eighteenth Brumaire, and remember thinking: I am a historical materialist. I also read Lenin, The State and Revolution, and the Philosophical Notebooks. I also read Ernesto Che Guevara.
So, politics very early.
Yes, but I also read Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – I read all the time, as a way to create a world of my own, and as an act of defiance towards my situation. Anyway, to this day I can’t go anywhere without a bag full of books. My kids make fun of me when we pack up for a trip---I make an excuse, I am writing an essay, etc. But, the fact is that I got the last laugh—they also can’t go anywhere without a pile of books.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
OK. I can’t take all the credit. My wife is also a bookworm. We took turns reading out loud to our kids. She did Harry Potter, and I did “A Series of Unfortunate Events” both the most literary of children’s book.
What about high school?
I did my high school at Passaic High, New Jersey. I wanted to go to college badly, so I took every class I could. I skipped lunch. I took evening classes, and I did summers. I graduated in two years. I applied to two universities: Princeton and Rutgers: Princeton because that is where Einstein taught; Rutgers was a backup. I wanted to study “plasma physics” and “theoretical physics.” I did not get into Princeton –what was I thinking!--, but I got into Rutgers, where I began my studies with a Math and Physics major, and a minor in philosophy.
But that didn’t last.
However, by my junior year, I decided to swap my majors. I discovered that if I continued in physics, I would end up working for the state or the military. And, as I took my classes in philosophy, and politics, I discovered I liked more philosophy than the truly lonely working on equations that I would have been consigned to had I became a physicist.
Tell us about your Rutgers teachers if you would.
At Rutgers I had some very impressive teachers. A couple stood out: Bruce Wilshire, Amelie Rorty, John Yolton. But, there is one professor who really was significant in how I would mature intellectually and that was Stephen Eric Bronner. I took from him many, many classes. He was very charismatic, irreverent, but also very knowledgeable and above all encouraging and empowering. I learned from him Western Marxism: Lukàcs, Gramsci, Korsch, Marcuse, Bloch, Benjamin, Habermas, etc. Bronner had a way of nurturing community, and a whole bunch of us would hang out after his seminars. We would go to a bar and stay until one or two in the morning, talking philosophy, politics, and about transforming the world.
The world has been fixed many times in many late night bars!
Eventually, we all got involved in student activism. These were the years of divestment from South Africa, and also the years of the Nicaraguan Revolution and the US backed counter-insurgency of the Contras. I was involved with CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), the Peace Network, and Anti-Nuclear group. I was also an activist for the Women’s Center on Campus, which was working on improving security and developing a help-line for women who had been victims of sexual violence. I was also very active in the school paper, writing essays, reviews, etc. My college years were packed with activity, work, but also a lot of learning.
How did you pick your graduate school?
After college, I decided I wanted to study “liberation theology,” not because I was particularly interested in theology, but because my activism around Central America, and the US interventions there, had introduced me to liberation theology, and the work of the “comunidades de base” or base communities. Then, and still to this day, I believe that liberation theology is the most original and transformative social and intellectual movement to come out of Latin America—a veritable Second Reformation. There was one place in the United State where I could study liberation theology, and that was Union Theological Seminary –an amazing educational institution, with a long and venerable history.
Indeed. Who did you work with there?
There I had the opportunity to study with James Cone, father of Black Liberation Theology; James M. Washington, a historian of the black church, but also a Martin Luther King scholar. There I met Cornel West, and most importantly Enrique Dussel. Union Theological Seminary was part of consortium, so I was able to take classes at Columbia University and the New School. This is how I studied with Carolyn Bynum and Richard Bernstein. Eventually, I got an MA in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary and decided to go on for a Ph.D.
What were your thoughts at that time about where to go for the PhD?
I was going to go to Harvard Divinity School, to study with the Fiorenzas there, but Bernstein convinced me to come to the New School for a PhD in philosophy. In any event, at the New School I had some very important teachers and mentors: Seyla Benhabib, Agnes Heller, Reiner Schürmann, Joel Whitebook, and Andrew Arato. While at the New School, I applied for a Fulbright and that is how I ended up in Frankfurt, at the Goethe University there. I attended the last lectures and seminar by Habermas before he retired that year. While I was in Frankfurt, I edited and translated a book by Dussel [The Underside of Modernity] of his debates with Apel, Ricoeur, Rorty and Taylor. I also translated some essays by Habermas and Apel. I had already edited two volumes of essays by Karl-Otto Apel, a philosopher whose impact on and importance for the transformation of German philosophy after the war is not widely known or acknowledged in the US, even though he is one of the most important C.S. Peirce scholars anywhere.
What was your early professional life like?
While I was in Germany, a wonderful administrator from the New School kept sending me information about jobs or fellowships. This is how I ended up applying for a fellowship that took me to the University of San Francisco. The James Irvine Fellowship aimed at bringing underrepresented groups to higher education in California. The idea was that I would teach, while finishing my dissertation, and then the school would offer me a tenure track job if I had done well.
How was your experience there?
At USF, I had an amazing mentor, Gerardo Marin, who is the example of how you can do major, national and international work, at a college, rather than at a university. There I also met a great group of scholars, with whom I did several early projects: David Batstone, Lois Lorentzen, and Pedro Lange-Churión. My teaching load was 3 / 3, but I got involved in several projects that granted me some time off. I had never taught before, so I had to learn a lot of things on my own. But, as I said before, I learned from my students. And I had some great students. I have very fond memories of USF, and sometimes we wished were back there.
What were your first publications?
I was in a peculiar situation early on in my career. Before I defended my dissertation, I already had published three edited books, and had published several essays, many reviews, translations, and had new projects already under way. Through Bronner I had met Keith Ashfield, who used to head Humanities Press. I presented a project for three volumes on Apel, which involved editing, translating and introducing his work. Two of the three volumes did come out—the third was never finished because Humanities went out of business, and languished before it was bought over by a different conglomerate. It was with Humanities that I also did my book with Dussel.
Is there one that stands out as your breakout piece?
But, in any event, there are two early pieces of which I am proud. Both I wrote while in Germany. One was an analysis of West, Robison and Dussel, on Marx. What I wanted to do in that piece was to show how a distinctly subaltern reading of Marx was being proposed by these different thinkers. It was also a way for me to introduce to the English speaking work the substantive work on Marx by Enrique Dussel.
And the other?
The other essay was a study of the differences between Dussel’s liberation ethics and Apel’s version of discourse ethics. In general, all this early work was related. My dissertation was on Apel, so everything I was publishing related in one way or another to it.
What were your colleagues like at USF?
I was fortunate to have someone like Gerardo Marin, at USF, who mentored me. But the Dean there, Stanley Nel, was also very, very instrumental in getting me through the tenure process. We would meet once a year, and he would go over my teaching, research and service. Evidently, I did not have to worry about research—at that point I had published more than many faculty in the department who had been there twenty or thirty years. But, I think my situation was not very different from what recent PhDs in philosophy face today.
I think that we are going through a change in the cultures and expectations of faculty at most departments. A lot of my early and present colleagues got their jobs in the sixties and early seventies, when the expectations were very different than those more recent philosophers face. I think the recent economic crisis has made it even more difficult for recent graduate to get jobs. What is interesting is that I got tenured twice. The same year I got tenured at USF, I had a job offer from Stony Brook University, and I had to re-submit my tenure file, but for a different tenure committee.
The relation of continental and analytic philosophy has been fraught with tension for many years. How do you negotiate this conflict?
For me this is an interesting question. I can very honestly say that I did not know about this so-called “fraught with tension” relation during my BA, or even during my Ph.D. years. While at Rutgers, we would go down to Princeton for the Friday philosophy seminar. There I got to hear seminar and lectures by the most important philosophers of the day: Kripke, Dummet, Rorty. Rutgers was and remained very analytic, and in fact they had Donald Davidson there for a while. The department hosted a major international event on Davidson’s work.
But you also took other sorts of courses at Rutgers, I assume.
Yes, I was also taking classes from Amelie Rorty, on the history of philosophy—and with Wilshire, on phenomenology, but also with Bronnner, on Western Marxism. I did not see it as a division, but as different ways of doing philosophy. Eventually, when I studied Richard Rorty, and at his urging I got to study Brandom, I came to realize that the division is more about departmental politics and less about philosophy itself. The division is really an ideological Cold War phenomenon that we are finally beginning to get over.
Let’s hope so.
The work of Brandom, for instance, is indicative of a new way of doing philosophy that is post-Analytic and post-Continental. Still, the most interesting work for me is being produced by so-called Continental Philosophers: Habermas, Honneth, Rancière, Nancy, and some who have died recently Derrida, Gadamer. I have also done a lot of work on Foucault. I think this division, for me, boils down to this: you do philosophy as though philosophy had no history, or you do philosophy as though philosophy is its history. However, I think there is no way to do philosophize without attending to its history, and above all, to philosophize is to philosophize about that history.
Philosophy and other humanities are under increasing pressure to justify their existence in universities on short-term economic criteria, sometimes in number of majors or tuition income, sometimes in terms of outside grants. How is this pressure manifest at your university? How do you respond to it, practically and theoretically?
Yes, yes, I know what you mean, precisely because I have been living through these institutional changes and challenges. The fact is that we are living through a difficult period for the university in general, and the public university in particular. But it is public universities that are facing the most severe challenges.
Why is that?
Above all, I think we have to make this distinction. Education has taken on more of a commodity form. Some people have even used the expression: education is a commodity, or an asset, an investment. Yes, it is to an extent, but such monetary reductionism conceals something about education that goes beyond how well one does in a market economy. I think education is indispensable to the intellectual, spiritual, economic and political well being of citizens, and by the same token, for the well being of our democracy. Education is the nourishment of all vibrant and maturing democracies.
So we have to thematize and nourish the political side of higher education, the citizenship side.
The role of the humanities in the modern universities is key to the mission to provide citizens with the resources for their own personal development and their meaningful participation in the growth of democracy. Engineers, computer programmers, chemists, physicists, accountants, are needed if we are going to remain at the cutting edge of scientific and technological development. But they are not necessarily prepared to be good citizens, nor do they prepare good citizens. Engineers can engineer good trains, bridges and ovens, but they are not educated to know when what they created should be use to enhance our humanity or to dehumanize us.
So the humanities are essential on the citizenship model.
On the other hand, the humanities teach not simply Shakespeare, Faulkner, Coetzee, and Anzaldua, but how to read a film, how to interpret the changing representations of women and blacks in American culture. The humanities provide us with a lingua franca and access to a cultural archive that allows us to share in a common culture or that allows us to engage in a creative and critical dialogue about ourselves as a distinct nation with a unique memory and history of accomplishment and defeats.
How has the situation at Stony Brook reflected these challenges?
Since we moved to Stony Brook University, in NY, we have been in a continuous race to the bottom. Our university, an amazing public institution, has seen its budget allocations cut by twenty five percent, and more. Each year, we have had to make more and more cuts to our base budgets. At the same time, we have fewer and fewer resources to conduct our research, and we have more and more students to teach. When I began teaching here, my largest lecture was of seventy-five students; five years ago, I had one hundred and twenty. The last couple of years, I have lecture halls of two hundred and thirty.
How did you react to these changes?
I faced this situation as an opportunity to develop new pedagogical approaches. I use power points, have lecture notes posted on Black Board, use clickers to engage two hundred students in my lectures, and give them a sense that they can still participate. Yet, I still require essay exams, with text identifications, and knowledge of basic “facts” of philosophy: what does “ontology” mean, and what were Locke’s arguments for the natural right to property, etc.
What about outside the classroom?
I have responded, more concretely, to this defunding of the public university by getting involved in governance. I have worked through the different senates of my university to make sure that the needs of faculty, staff and students are kept always in mind by the administration. On a more personal level, I have begun to do more interdisciplinary work that grants me access to different sources of funding. I am sanguine about the challenges we face.
That’s not an easy attitude to maintain!
I think the sixties and seventies were the golden age of the humanities in both public and private institutions mostly because of a trickle down effect. The universities were flush with Cold War money. Now, we face a different geopolitical situation. We also face a different cultural climate. I think the neoliberalism championed by presidents and politicians over the last four decades, beginning with Nixon, all the way to Obama (excluding Carter), has seeped through the consciousness of the American body politic like some toxic spill, slowly polluting and making barren what use to be a fertile ground.
That’s a vivid image.
We are less politically generous. We are less civically minded. I get the sense that the average US citizen is so besieged by economic anxiety that they have become cold, calculative, Hobbesian docile subjects. We can’t agree on a national healthcare program. We seat shocked into obedience as we bail out banks, but the president can’t pass anything through Congress to help the economy to increase jobs because it may entail taxing the wealthy. That Obama is considered a socialist by many is an indication of how conservative, egotistical and narrowly self-interested the American electorate has become.
I think this Hobbesian mentality is reflected in how university presidents and governors look at the university not as a right, not as a duty, but as a liability, as an expense. And of course, within that liability is what is taken to be an unjustifiable luxury – the reading of books, the studying of ideas that would lead students, citizens, to challenge the present values of our culture. I am ranting now.
I do it all the time. Who doesn’t?
Still, I meet plenty of students who have not been poisoned by this general cultural outlook. Kids who are moved by ideas, who want to major in philosophy, although they have no idea how this is going to pay for anything in their future. And when I meet those kids, my passion for teaching is renewed.
Yes, but they face difficult times. How has the falling percentage of tenure-track positions relative to graduate assistants, part-timers, postdocs, and permanent instructors affected the strategies your department uses in graduate student placement? What does your department do with regard to preparing graduate students for non-academic work?
As I said, I was fortunate to get a post-doc fellowship that allowed me to transition into a tenure track job. I got excellent mentoring, and was able to work with colleagues who were around my age, with whom I developed a working group. But already early on I had set for myself the goal of teaching at a graduate program where I could mentor graduate students, of different backgrounds with different priorities and intellectual goals. For about four or five years I applied, and applied, and never succeed in getting a job at a major Ph.D. program, until I was recruited to Stony Brook University. I was elated at the opportunity, although in retrospect, the last decade has probably been the worst this program has seen, due to the economic woes of the state of New York.
Be careful what you wish for!
Still, I think our program takes very seriously the careful mentoring of graduate students. My colleagues are superlative, in their pedagogy and their own research. But we take very seriously preparing our graduate students to teach very well and across the spectrum. We also have a placement committee that works closely with students on their CVs, their statements of research and teaching, and their letters. I wish I had had the kind of mentoring we give our student when I was coming through my own program. I am sure I would have saved myself some mishaps and would have done better at placing myself in a graduate program from the outset – but then, I would have had a different experience about teaching.
But even with all the help available the market situation has been terrible since the effects of the Global Financial Crisis.
The last three years have been particularly hard for all graduate students. I am beginning to think American philosophy Ph.D. programs are producing too many Ph.Ds. I remember having a conversation about this with Anthony Appiah, on a train ride from Washington to New York.
What was the outcome of the discussion?
I think we agreed that it is almost impossible to regulate the supply and demand of PhDs. My only response to this challenging situation is to devote a lot of time and attention preparing very well my own PhDs. I work closely with them on everything, from their vitae, to how to interview and how to present their research and their teaching, etc. Well, beyond that, I hesitate to say much here. There is too much economic turmoil now to even hazard a prognostic, other than things are going to remain tight and bleak for the foreseeable future.
Let’s conclude by coming back to your individual situation. Looking back on your career so far, have you developed a single core idea, or have you significantly changed your perspective?
Uhmm! I think that my work has remained fairly focused, and while it is diverse and wide ranging, it has a coherence that has been sustained over the last twenty years of my professional career. I still do some of the same themes and thinkers. But, over the last five years I have taken on a couple of projects that are new, and which are very exciting to me.
What are they?
I am finishing a book on animals. The title of the book at the moment is The Philosophical Animal. I have all the chapters ready, all I need to do is write the introduction and copy edit the manuscript to send to the editorial team at the press I’m working with.
I also have three quarters of a book on Philosophy and War, which I began before my book on animals, but which has gotten delayed because of other project. And I just began what I think is going to be a long term interdisciplinary project on “Latin American Cities.” The theme of cities, and the ‘city,’ has been very important to me, as can be seen in my book Global Fragments (SUNY Press, 2008). I have worked with two journals that are important in geography, City and Society and Space. In fact, I flirted with the idea of writing something on “Philosophy and the City.” But, for now I want to take a step in that direction by writing a book on “The Latin American City,” by focusing on a group of cities: Medellin, Bogota, Caracas, La Habana, Mexico City, maybe Brazilia, and either Ciudad Juarez or Tijuana.
What is your approach going to be in the city book?
I begin with a couple of basic intuitions: first, there is a distinct Latin American urbanization process, dictated by conquest, colonization, and the rapid urbanization due to modern growth in the 20th century. Second, Latin American cities have become laboratories of modernism, as we can see with Mexico, Caracas, Brazilia, and Rio de Jainero, which are hyper-modern cities, with all their gigantic urban utopian dreams, and the underbellies of massive urban concentrations. Third, in may ways Latin American cities have become archives, the traces, and scars of imperial, neoliberal, globalization from above which at the same time has been resisted and confronted from below, by what we can call an urbanization from below.
Yes, I think this sort of working with concrete examples is an extremely important and fruitful method.
I am concerned with the fact that most of the urban growth in most Latin American cities in the last fifty years has been growth in the informal urban sector, in what we call the favellas, or popular barrios, the shanty towns of modernity. In Caracas, Venezuela, for instance, urban theorists talk about the “hacedores de ciudad” --- the makers of the city—when referring to these urban dwellers who have woven their own urban textures, have mapped their own urban territories, with their hands and unschooled ingenuity. Anyway, these key points of reference give you an idea of what the project is about.
Yes, I see where you’re coming from here.
But, behind it, or really, as a source of inspiration, is the intuition that philosophy was born of the city. Athena is the Goddess of Athens, but philosophy is the child of the city—from the presocratics to Habermas—we are all children of some city, not just metaphorically, but materially, in the sense that universities are sustained by a city, county, boroughs, state, or federal government budgets.
At the same time, I also think philosophy as a discipline in the US, as a Fach, as Rorty used to say, has yet to face this new fundamental fact of the human condition, namely that most of humanity now lives in cities. We have finally become an urban animal. At one time we were homo necans, then we became homo erectus, then we became zoon politikon, then we became homo laborans, then homo walmart.
But the key is that we are homo urbanus, homo civicus. We are faced with an, ontological question: what does it mean that we have entered this new stage in the history of our species, in general, and globalized society in particular? You have thinkers like Lefebvre, de Certeau, Foucault, Habermas, Stuart Elden, Iris Young, and Gail Weiss, to mention the ones that come to mind right away, who have thought about these issues in very original ways. And of course, then there are the scholars we don’t read or can’t read, because they are not translated, who are original and who are addressing this very fundamental issue: what does it mean that our entire ontological and existential matrix is now an entirely urban one?
I can see how this will be an important and interesting book, and I certainly look forward to its appearance. Thank you, Eduardo, for this most stimulating interview.