English Not for Critical Theory20 March 2008 at 9:22 PM | Posted in News | 4 Comments
Anvil Publishing has been after me for more than a decade to compile my columns into books. Perhaps one way to force me to do that is to upload as many of my old columns as I can, thus enabling me to revise the columns for book publication, as well as to gauge reader reaction. Here, then, is the first of what should be a series of uploaded, updated old columns.
Why English will not do as our language for critical theory
I was not going to reprint in this column the comments I delivered on July 14, 1989, during the Round-Table on Critical Theory of the Third International Philippine Studies Conference held at the Philippine Social Science Center. Although a number of Starweek’s readers are English teachers, I felt originally that the general reader may find the jargon of literary theorists opaque, if not altogether weird.
On August 28, 1989, however, in another newspaper, Arnold Molina Azurin, in a feature article entitled “Who is storming the Ivory Tower?”, quoted my comments sympathetically at some length. If readers of a feature article can get through jargon, I said to myself, then readers of columns (particularly this column!) should have a chance to find out what I delivered that evening in Quezon City.
Here, then, are substantial portions of my paper, entitled “Deconstructing English as a Language for Philippine Theory.” Judge for yourselves if theorists, speaking to other theorists, still have some relation to your real world.
My field is literature – in other words, words. I want to start with a quibble about words.
I think we should be grateful to Edward Said et al. for introducing into English-language critical discourse such terms as orientalism, The Other, and minority discourse. We should not, however, let gratitude blind us to the blindness even of well-meaning American and British theorists.
I want to talk particularly about three terms as used in literary critical discourse: West, Third World, and The Other.
We know that many residents of the United States of America, particularly those in New York City, like to think of themselves as being at the center of the world. Let us indulge them and draw a map of the earth with the Americas in the middle, Asia on the left, and Europe on the right. On such a map, we can easily see that the Philippines is west of America and Europe. We are The West. Our literature, in other words, is Western literature. The literature of America and Europe, then, is Eastern or “Oriental” literature.
The origins of the term “Third World” in literary discourse are lost in political and economic history. The adjective third implies a first and a second numerically, and it also implies a pecking order in terms of value. A first-rate piece of literature is clearly better than a third-rate piece of literature. As all card-carrying New Critics know, words carry with them all their previous meanings; we cannot dissociate the term “third world” from “third-rate.” I ask: why are we in the Third World? Who gave anybody the right to call us the Third World? If I start counting from where I am – which is the accepted way since Descartes – I am the first person, therefore the First World, and all others have to content themselves with being the Second, Third, or nth Worlds. Philippine literature, in other words, from my point of view (using Henry James’s definition of that technical term), is First World literature, and American literature is Third World literature.
Now, The Other. You or even Thou are Other than me, but I don’t see why I should not enumerate pronouns starting from myself. In terms of gender, feminists are now beginning to see that calling the Woman the Other naively accepts the patriarchal Weltanschauung; Woman is Other only to Man. Gayatri Spivak has had a lot of fun deconstructing the term Wo-man. Similarly, in terms of race and geography, we are Other only to Said and company who live in the United States. I prefer to see America and Europe as The Other.
Why, then, do we not call Philippine literature Western, First World, and The One – or whatever is the binary opposite of The Other? I’ll tell you why. Because the English language prevents us from doing so.
Here is where race theorists can learn from gender theorists. Feminists know that the English language has a built-in bias for patriarchy, starting with the generic term for mankind. Feminists have succeeded, in some way, in eroding that bias. If we too, English-speaking non-Americans and non-Europeans work at it, we may yet, one day, put our mouths where our politics is.
Just as feminists have identified language as a key battleground in the war against patriarchy, we must also see the English language as a crucial space in our fight to tilt the balance of power in literary theory. Just as feminists are seeking to demasculinize language, we must seek to deethnicize English.
There is no use denying it, but the ruling paradigm in Philippine literary circles today is still New Criticism, or at least that non-ontological part of it not debunked by the neo-Aristotelian Chicago alumni among the English professors at the University of the Philippines. Teachers and critics still routinely talk about imagery, tone, point of view, metaphor, symbol, irony, theme, organic unity, and the other things made fashionable before the Pacific War by the American Southern Agrarian critics. Structuralist, even post-structuralist, concepts are seen in the Philippines as mere footnotes – albeit jargonized, frenchified, trendy – of formalist close reading. Even Marxists or Maoist-Marxists who explicitly disavow New Criticism invariably read literary texts in the expressive realist, pre-Saussurean, text-centered fashion so ably caricatured by Catherine Belsey. Mao’s aesthetic yardstick, for example, is widely (mis)interpreted to refer to form or craft.
Some critics, of course, while using New Criticism as their everyday method in classroom teaching, in judging literary contests, and in reviewing books and other texts, give the appearance of living in the heady world of foreign trendsetters, but there is little appreciation of the mutual incompatibility of many contemporary critical theories. The word eclectic is used to mask massive ignorance or, at least, muddled theoretical thinking. Nothing electic, strictly speaking, can be called a theory, but that philosophical quibble does not bother even our leading literary critics.
My own theoretical position is blatantly anti-Theoretical. I mean by Theory with the capital T the growing institution – should I say the gradual movement from emergent to dominant ideology? – of theory in British and American universities. Theory has become almost entirely divorced from reading practice.
I believe that the way we theorize should derive from the way we read texts, not the other way around. This has important implications for the linguistic quibble I have with the English language. We tend to read Philippine texts the way we read European or American texts. We call Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere a novel, for instance, thereby immediately implying that we have to apply to it theories of the novel derived entirely from European novels. I know that Rizal thought he was writing a European novel, but that has no bearing on the problem, particularly in these death-of-the-author days. Edgar Allan Poe thought that he was writing British magazine stories, but that has not changed the way American critics read “The Cask of Amontillado.” Soledad Reyes has already pointed the way to more sympathetic readings of so-called sentimental – or worse, “romantic” – Philippine novels, and Emmanuel Reyes has done a similar thing for Philippine films, but we still denounce Philippine serialized novels and films as melodramatic.
That’s about as much as I can get into this column. If you want more of the same, do write me, and I’ll gladly send you a complete copy of my comments. (By the way, I delivered the paper in Filipino, with the English translation given out to the foreign participants.)
(First published in Starweek, August, 1989.)