Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Response to 1986 "Declaration of the Coalition of Writers and Artists" for the Marcos Dictatorship

DILIMAN SOUVENIRS--Public Lecture, U.P. English Dept., 3/13/2018

DILIMAN SOUVENIRS: Charles Sanders Peirce's Interpretants and the Return of the Suppressed(Draft)

by E. San Juan, Jr.

Magandang Hapon sa ating lahat!

First of all, I would like to thank Chancellor Michael Tan, Vice President Maria Cynthia Banzon Bautista, Dean Maria Amihan Ramolete, and  Dr. Lily Rose Tope for giving me the privilege of teaching again in the classroom of my alma mater, and for Dr. Ruth Pison for being the helmswoman, the experienced cartographer, charting the troubled waters of our graduate seminar in literary theory. Also thanks to our diligent students who are nurturing youth who will hopefully refuse to be the future generations of OFWs.

It has been a learning experience for me, rereading Saussure, Jakobson, Lacan, Barthes, Irigaray, Derrida, Said, Foucault, etc. who have provoked, alarmed, or bewildered our smart students.---one of them coming all the way from Nueva Ecija to attend our Wednesday sessions. If I use the personal pronoun here, please consider it also as an allegorical stand-in for the generation that grew up after Liberation, from 1945 to 1965.

Of course, the speaking subject here cannot be enclosed in that time-space. So it's puzzling who is speaking, from the viewpoint of the hermeneutics of suspicion. One suspects that every act of remembering, esp. one linked to institutional memory, like attempts at translation, is an act of betrayal of sorts.

Historicizing from the Dustbin

This is not the first time I have engaged in teaching here. After I graduated in 1958, the patriarchs of the Department Prof Cristino Jamias and Leopoldo Yabes hired me as an instructor from 1958 to 1960.  In due time, the patriarchal order was fortuitously changed; my contemporaries Pete Daroy, Ernie Manalo, Max Ramos Jr. and others departed long ago for the other shore; and so too, mentors like Ricardo Pascual, Alfredo Lagmay, Cesar Majul, etc. After finishing graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I taught again in 1966-67 when world-famous  Carlos P. Romulo was president. I taught again here in 1987-88 as a Fulbright teaching fellow, and in 2008 sheperded the theory seminar with Prof. Preachy Legasto. This may be my last stint, a memorable one, thanks to all our colleagues and assistants in the Department.

Just a few snapshot of the Fifties: My first teachers in English 1 were Prof Elmer Ordonez whose memorable assignment was for us to interpret Ivan Bunin's  classic story"The Gentleman from San Francisco" included in the old WW2 pocketbook collection of short stories; and Prof. Franz Arcellana, who wrote slowly on the blackboard, with his left hand, the definition of "precis" taken from the big Harry Shaw textbook in Freshman English.

But it was the textbook Approach to Literature by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, the archpriests of American New Criticism, which, I think, made a lasting impact on us as English majors then. After that, I switched my interest to philosophy (Alfred Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic became our treasured scripture, which did not prevent me from reading Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Malraux, etc.), having made friends with students and teachers in that department, in particular Armando Bonifacio, Gerry Acay, and other heretics, whose periodical Inquiry published Franz's comment on my poem which I will refer to later.

A short parenthesis: my textbook learning faded, but one lesson that stuck was the time Prof. N.V.M. Gonzalez, whose creative writing course was dominated by one single book, Herbert Read's English Prose Style--Prof Gonzalez  took members of the class to attend the Manila Trial Court in City Hall to witness the drama of the libel suit againt Estrella Alfon for the obscenity of her story, "Fairy Tale of the City." That excursion outside the classroom conveyed to me the undeniable entanglement of art, disciplinary institutions (aside from the classroom), and the sociopolitical regime affecting human conduct. Later on, when I wrote a review of Signatures (edited by colleagues Alex Hufana and Rony Diaa) at  Franz's request, I was threatened with a lawsuit filed by the poet Oscar de Zuniga who was offended by my unkindly comment on his contribution to the review.

One scenario sticks out from my years of sitting at the table at the far end of the Dept: Prof Pascual Capiz, sitting at the opposite end, always finding the opportunity to advise me: "Read Spinoza, Sonny, don't forget Spinoza." Four decades after, I read a paper on "What we can learn about racism from Benedict Spinoza" to an audience at the University of Texas, Austin, in 2002.


What intervened after my apprenticeship with formalist New Criticism--my book on Oscar Wilde, despite the philological-historicist bent of my advisers Jerome Buckley and Douglas Bush, is basically formalist, not really contextualized in the gender wars then brewing in the early sixties--anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements culminating in May 1968--as well as the First Quarter Storm, the Diliman Commune, and the imposition of the Marcos dictatorship in 1972. My U.P. Press book, Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle (released a day or two before Marcos declared martial law), was still largely a formalist commentary of Bulosan's writing. Notwithstanding the title, it was a symptom of a cultural lag, typical of our backward or underdeveloped social formation, unsynchronized with the structuralist and post-structuralist tide that swept the Western academy from 1968 to 1986.  Nothing strange for a neocolony, not postcolony, experiencing the turbulence of the crisis of global capitalism via the Marcos authoritarian interlude.

The influence of the changes that occurred, in particular the revision of the canon, and the transformation of critical frameworks/paradigms--the eruption of feminist, ethnic, and subaltern/people-of-color agencies in the social text--overlaid/reconfigured my previous New Critical horizon. I did not jettison my formalist training--how could one do that? One's consciousness is determined by one's social conditioning. Adjustments had to be made, resulting into a palimpsest of texts that requires an inventory (to heed Gramsci's advice).

One's identity is always the site of an intertextuality traversing the dialectic of base and superstructure, often overshooting it. Marks of its effect may be found in the much-attacked book from left and right, Subversions of Desire: Prolegomena to Nick Joaquin in 1988.

Unbeknowst to the public, it will be reprinted by the Dominicans of the University of Santo Tomas, since the Jesuits are no longer interested in the unorthodox, difficult and eclectic discourse filled with references to Lacan, Foucault, Benjamin, Jameson, Deleuze-Guattari. and Kristeva. They prefer the Nazi sympathizer Heidegger and the Jewish mystic Emmanuel Levinas. This will be my excuse, at this juncture,  to transit to the problem of semiotics based on the Saussurean premise that orients both structuralist and postmodernist thinking (including postcolonial criticism) so fashionable still, though Derrida has been replaced by Butler, Ranciere, Badiou, Agamben, and other European imports to the metropole of the declining but still ferocious American Leviathan of the Trump era.

Signifiers Galore

     Even before May 1968, the deluge of the dancing signifiers had begun to wreak havoc on the conservative bastions of higher humanistic learning. As everyone knows, a crucial event was the 1967 Johns Hopkins Conference on "The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man," where the archpriests of poststructuralism (Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Goldman, Todorov, etc.) entered the scene, literary theory and criticism suffered a sea-change, as it were.

In After Theory, Terry Eagleton summed up the historic contexts of 1965-1980--"the age of civil rights and student insurgency, national liberation fronts, anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigns, the emergence of the women's movement, and the heyday of cultural liberation," in which the sensibility of society had "shifted from the earnest, self-disciplined and submissive to the cool, hedonistic and insubordinate. If there was widespread disaffection, there was also visionary hope" (825) in consumerist, narcissitic society of the spectacle.

The present conjuncture seemed then "the herald of a new future, the portal to a land of  boundless possibility"--until 1989, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, shock therapy for the Soviet system, followed closely by the Iraq War, 9 /11 and the global war on terrorism, and the erosion of the Neoliberal dispensation from the 2008 global capitalist earthquake and the explosions in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and the entire Middle East. We are still living the aftershock of those events. For some, the age of identity politics aka the culture of neoconservative reaction began, overshadowing the fall of the Berlin Wall, demise of the Soviet Union, Tiananman Square, 9/11, and the 2008 neoliberal capitalist meltdown, and the election of Trump and his neofascist "America First" agenda.

To understand this re-arrangement of the furniture in the landscape, I urged our graduate students to review Saussure's foundational remarks on the dyadic structure of the sign, and the larger frame of Jakobson's six functions of language in communication.  What has become salient is the arbitrary nature of the signifier-signified nexus, with the inference that meaning is produced by systematic differences. Its divorce from objective reality seems assumed, though parole/speech thrives somewhere out there defying lawful order and any fixed rule. The Russian Marxist Mikhail Bakhtin was unheard of, and Roman Jakobson forgotten. Meanwhile, the enigmatic influence of Lacan signaled the advent of deconstruction, with signifiers shifting over the signified, meaning not only deferred or undecidable, but virtually impossible to pin down. For Lacan, actually, the Name-of-the-Father terminates the sliding of signifiers, thus his infamous phallocentrism overheard in chic salon conversations.

Another parenthesis: when I took a class with I.A. Richards in poetics in my first year at Harvard--I recall Ching Dadufalza exulting over her acquaintance with the founder of close formalist reading--he of course
assigned his book Coleridge on Imagination, as expected. But what surprised me was his strong recommendation that we study carefully Jakobson's 1958 landmark essay, "Linguistics and Poetics," given at a conference in Indiana University, but only published later in 1960 in the book Style in Language, which Richards also assigned. Contrary to the canonical views, Richards was not really a formalist but a neoHegelian pedagogue informed by the entire Western heritage and enriched by borrowings from Mencius and then current behavior psychology.

I reminded our students not to forget Jakobson's linguistic analysis. If Jakobson's diagram on the functions of language were absorbed and popularized, it would have exerted some brake on the prevalence of Nietzschean/ theorizing applied by Derrida, De Man, Hartman, Spivak, and their huge academic following. Jakobson's formula on the axis of similarity (metaphor) imposed on the axis of contiguity (metonymy), remains unexplored. To quote Jakobson: "The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination" (39). But instead of this linguistic knowledge used by teachers, it is Lacan's "floating signifiers" that have ruled the day ever since it was given in 1957 and publicized in translation in 1966. Students' perplexity over Lacan persists, despite Jakobson and the salutary warnings of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.

Absent the Author

      It is no longer news to learn of the author's demise (announced by Roland Barthes) in between the interstitial locus of differance. By author, Barthes referred to the empiricist and rationalist conception of the individual origin of the text, its final signified. This classical idea of author presumably encloses the text within a single meaning enshrined in the author's biography, instead of allowing its intertextuality to induce a variety of readers to produce multiple readings. From the modernist, avantgarde perspective, the texts of Mallarme, Joyce, etc. are considered the occasions of language, the circuit of signifiers speaking; they are not the author's psyche, or a representation of its subjectivity, its interiority. Presumably the narrators of Proust's novel, or of Ulysses, are generated by the textual machine without anyone programming it--it's DNA is the differential logic operating within it.

In "What is an Author?" Michel Foucault has also informed us that the author-function is historically variable. It is defined by a variety of discourses and institutions (for example, copyright laws). Ancient epics or medieval romances do not have authors in the modern construal of individual originators or artificers. Foucault's argument is tied to the death of the human subject, the Cartesian ego, determined not by conscience but by historically specific structures circumscribing its socio-political existence. Thus writing is not something that can be completed and appropriated but an interminable practice, a postmodern theme epitomized by Samuel Beckett's character saying: "What does it matter who is speaking," someone said, what does it matter who is speaking?"

Can Peirce's Intervention Identify the Speaker?

    On second thought, it matters who is being addressed, who is listening or overhearing these utterances.

For now, I  will quickly summarize Peirce's semiotic triad so as to get to the prime exhibit for today, the putatively notorious poem "Man is a Political Animal."

For Peirce, meaning is produced by the triad of signifier (representamen), the object signified, and the interpretant which connects signifier and signified. The representamen is something which stands to somebody for something; it addresses someone and creates in the mind an equivalent sign, the interpretant of the first sign, and this too stands for something, namely, the object or idea of that first sign. Communication is the result of the interplay between representamen, interpretant, and object/idea.

This mediating item in Peirce's theory of signification,or meaning-production, namely, the interpretant, is missing or invisible in the Saussurean dyadic scheme. Without this interpretant, it is impossible to figure out what connects the signifier and the hypothetical signified. Robert Scholes remarks that, following Saussure, signs do not refer to things, "they signify concept, concepts are aspects of thought, not of reality." We move then into the realm of thought.

Peirce is recognized as the founder of pragmaticism, not the psychologistic version of pragmatism popularized by his friend William James, or the postmodern version of antifoundationalism propagated by Richard Rorty. Peirce's maxim or principle was first fomulated in his 1878 essay "How to Make Our Ideras Clear": "In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception we should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception."  Peirce explained that the "sum of these consequences" is equivalent to a process of rational conduct open to fallibilistic inquiry. The early Peirce may have speculated on infinite semiosis, as Eco and Derrida supposed. Later on he concluded that we should strive for a "concrete reasonableness" and its embodiment in a community of inquirers open to the impact of experience, the intractable factuality of an objective world, the historicity of life, and the inflluence of traditions" (Hoopes).

     To go back to the connection between the signifier and the signified, namely, the interpretant, Peirce enumerates three possible forms of interpretant (in his "Letters to Lady Welby"):  "the interpretant as represented or meant to be understood, its interpretant as it is produced; and its interpretant in itself." There are two main kinds of interpretants: the dynamic interpretant, and immediate interpretant. Later in his life, Peirce speculated on the third kind of interpretant, the logical or final interpretant that would sum up the finidings of the first two. The dynamic interpretant can treat the sign/signifiers as something the reasonableness of which will be acknowledged; or as an act of insistence; or something for contemplation.  Meanwhile, the immediate interpretant considers the signifiers into three kinds: 1) those interpretable in thoughts or other signs of the same kind in infinite series; 2) those which are interpretable in actual experiences; and 3) those which are interpretable in qualities or feelings.

Examine the published reactions to the poem in question. If we look at the three interpretants you have, those by Amador Daguio, Ramon Tapales, and Franz Arcellana, the first two can be classified as examples of immediate interpretants: they translate the poem into actual experiences that are morally censurable, invoking convention and disciplinary codes or instruments of punishment. Meanwhile the third would exemplify the dynamic interpretant that treat the poem as something reasonable, but would judge its performance as lacking in qualities or feelings--not actual experiences--ascribable to an accomplished work of art. It would invoke the institution of like-minded arbiters of taste. In short the first two interpretants draw inferences outside the parameter of aesthetics, while the third confines itself to the value of the signifiers/representamen as inadequate to expressing a hypothetical idea of art implied by the critic.

I would like to read my 2008 reflection on this incident in my book BALIKBAYANG SINTA (pp. 249-252) as one more proof that the subject is indeed constructed through difference. Or, if not bifurcated, the subject-in-question is pluralized by time-space mutations.  The subject speaking/writing in 2008 differs/defers from the subject playing author in 1957. Likewise, the subject now speaking today, March 13, 2018.

However, despite this disjunctions, this does not imply that meaning is forever deferred, even though the context is unstable, unfixed, relational, or essentially undecidable. Indeed, one may discern an aporia in the rhetoric of the poem,  the rubric "political animal" of Aristotelian origin clashing with the Browningesque dramatic monologue imitated from model poems of Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, editor of avantgarde publications like BLAST in the London milieu of the first two decades of last century.  Of all the reactors, Franz Arcellana, who never really censored the poem as adviser of the Collegian then--Franz confessed to me in 1987 that he was a "fall guy" during that time, as if to exonerate himself.

Provisional  Epilogue

I am deeply grateful to Franz Arcellana for encouraging me during my undergraduate days, and as a token of this gratitude I wrote the commmentary on his short story about Christmas, and on "The Yellow Shawl" in the concluding pages of Toward a People's Literature (pp. 170-173). Personally I did not associate him at all with my suspension--there was no written statement from the UP administration, except a verbal notice from the Editor that they won't print anything from me for a while--because this whole incident was sympatomatic of the religious-secular conflict in the University at that time arising from the role of Father John Delaney and Prof. J.D. Constantino charging Prof Ricardo Pascual and his cohort of agnostics and atheists of communistic leanings.  There are other historic pressures one can notice in this complex conjuncture.

In retrospect, the whole affair was a repercussion of the Cold War and McCarthyism particularized in the neocolonial situation of the Philippines during the regimes of Magsaysay and its successors. Indeed, from 1954 to 1960, the Cold War and its local manifestations (the Huk uprising, local McCarthyism, the violence between local oligarchs, the endemic corruption, gangsterism everywhere) constitute the condition of possibility for the poem and its programmed reactions.

One can perhaps locate somewhere the lesson of this incident in this abstract of the talk: With the death of the "author," the subject-position framed in postmodern critical theory becomes a field of contestation. The linguistic turn in literary studies has made even this subject precarious, repute to be a victim of the perpetual sliding of the Lacanian signifier. As a performing subject of this public discourse, I hope to recover the position of the "author" by recollection of my U.P. experience in the fifties, specifically as the suspended student-writer of a controversial poem. The narration of this event is mediated through various interpretants. With a slight detour through Charles Sanders Peirce's triadic theory of signs, this brief intervention hopes to rescue the protagonists of that field, temporarily stabilized here, from being swallowed forever in the "vertiginous abyss" of socio-cultural "underdevelopment."

As for the  identity of the subject-in-process, or subject-on-trial, as Julia Kristeva would put it, I seek your indulgence in ending this talk with my 1986 comment on the now historic document,"Declaration of the Coalition of Writers and Artists for Freedom and Democracy." [ See reproduction below of my commentary from Philippine News (October 22-28, 1986) ]  --


Friday, March 02, 2018



Translated from the original Filipino by E. San Juan, Jr.

Are you awake? What animal creeps under the floor? Why is it darkening? Did you feel it? Was it painful? Or ticklish? Soft? Or hard? Is someone knocking? Are they here? Why are bells tolling for the dead this morning? Do you like it? You don't? Are the toilet pipes choked? Are you drowsy? What am I doing here?


Translated from the original Filipino by E. San Juan, Jr.

Are you awake? What animal creeps under the floor? Why is it darkening? Did you feel it? Was it painful? Or ticklish? Soft? Or hard? Is someone knocking? Are they here? Why are bells tolling for the dead this morning? Do you like it? You don't? Are the toilet pipes choked? Are you drowsy? What am I doing here?

[See original Filipino in AMBIL]

Saturday, February 03, 2018

SAUSSURE VERSUS PEIRCE" "The sign is the arena of class struggle"--Bakhtin


by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Dept of English & Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines

 Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men.

--Karl Marx, The German Ideology (1845-46)

General principles are really operative in nature.... Words [such as Patrick Henry's on liberty] then do produce physical effects. It is madness to deny it. The very denial of it involves a belief in it....
---C.S. Peirce, "Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism" (1903)

The era of Saussure is dying, the epoch of Peirce is just struggling to be born. Although pragmatism has been experiencing a renaissance in philosophy in general in the last few decades, Charles Sanders Peirce, the "inventor" of this anti-Cartesian, scientific-realist method of clarifying meaning still remains unacknowledged as a seminal genius, a polymath master-thinker. William James's vulgarized version has overshadowed Peirce's highly original theory of "pragmaticism"  grounded on a singular conception of semiotics. Now recognized as more comprehensive and heuristically fertile than Saussure's binary semiology (the foundation of post-structuralist textualisms) which Cold War politics endorsed and popularized, Peirce's "semeiotics" (his preferred rubric) is bound to exert a profound revolutionary influence.  Peirce's triadic sign-theory operates within a critical-realist framework opposed to nominalism and relativist nihilism (Liszka 1996). I endeavor to outline here a general schema of Peirce's semeiotics and initiate a hypothetical frame for interpreting Michael Ondaatje's Anil's' Ghost, an exploratory or experimental sketch of the possible uses of Peirce's still untried approach to interpreting literary texts and discourse in general.

In an article entitled “The State of Literary Theory,” Francois Cusset reported that though the tragedy of 9/11 revealed the bankruptcy of French-inspired theory as practiced by American scholars, a new flourishing of “theory” may be around the corner. Of course, when the global market collapsed in 2008, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and company became instantly fungible. Nonetheless, Cusset believes that  political resistance and intellectual autonomy today depends on “the undecidability of meaning,” the “tricks of hermeneutical action” rejecting essentialist texts and unquestioned canons. He argues the partyline: “Where interpretation is obvious, where it is not [in] question, power reigns supreme; where it is wavering, flickering, opening its uncertainty to unpredictable uses, empowerment of the powerless may be finally possible" (2012, 1). Undecidability or ambiguity, for Cusset, spells the apocalyptic salvation of Fanon's "wretched of the earth." Nonetheless, the paramount authority that can interpret the U.S. Constitution against the "whistleblowers" Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and their partisans, and impose its judgment rests not with deconstructionists but with the corporate elite controlling the State apparatus (White House, Pentagon, Supreme Court)

Despite the full assault launched by Fredric Jameson (1972) and others to expose the dire limitations of Saussure's dyadic theory of meaning, mainstream humanistic conversations are still dominated by this research paradigm as applied by Levi-Strauss, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Lacan, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou and others. Meanwhile postcolonial academics and other "third-world" subalterns in the humanities and social sciences blindly follow the EuroAmerican trend. Why? Besides the imperial hegemony of Eurocentric theory, the distortion if not wrongheaded ascription of utilitarian "cash-value" to it (solely based on James's "radical empiricist" take on Peirce's "pragmatic maxim") turned off many intellectuals and has prevented serious appraisal of Peirce's theory as a fallibilistic alternative to Sausure's. Recently, however, the commentaries of Cornelis de Waal (2013), Susan Haack (2008), Merrell (1997), Leroy Seale (1994), and others have revived interest in Peirce's philosophy amid its notorious parodization by Richard Rorty and other apologists of neoliberal globalizing capitalism. Marxist-oriented philosophy has also failed to derive lessons from Peirce, as Hans Joas noted in their historic encounters in Pragmatism and Social Theory (1993; see also San Juan 2013).

Saussure's Scourge

Saussure's Course in General LInguistics (1916) was the Pandora's box that offered the notion of meaning as arbitrary or purely conventional. Saussure defined the sign as a psychic entity composed of signifier (acoustic image) and signified (concept), without any logical or necessary relationship between the two. Although a sound or image, the signifier is also a phenomenon in consciousness, not an extra-mental object (unlike Peirce's icons and indices). The same goes between sign and referent (the extra-linguistic object to which the sign refers), which has disappeared in the synchronic and systematic dimension of langue (in contrast to parole, the act of speech). Based on their differences, signs acquire value and meaning (for a Saussurean-based semiotics, see Culler 1981).

Post-structuralism and deconstruction operate on the dogma of the non-coincidence of signifier and signified, with Lacan arguing that signifiers always slide over their signified in a perpetual chain of signification. Derrida (1986) posits differance (both deferral and difference) as the reason why meaning has no origin or end; because textual differentiality is temporal, it unsettles binary oppositions by disclosing the undecidable aporia enabling structures and truthful claims. Given the Saussurean doctrine that language is a system of differences, Derrida was driven to the belief that all signifieds are in jeopardy; they cannot escape “the play of signifying references that constitute language,” and, with the advent of writing,  the circulation of signs finally destroys the concept of sign and its entire logic” (1978, 7). Writing trumps speech-acts and its historical contexts which are reduced to textual discourse (ecriture). In any case, for post-structuralisms, as Mario Valdes remarks, at best  "order is an open-ended catalytic agent rather than than isomorphic referential parallel" (1995, 188).

The arbitrary tie between signified and signifier, for Saussure, does not allow for what Peirce calls the interpretant, the congnizable mediation between sign and object/phenomenon represented. Indeed, the arbitrary linkage allows Saussure to posit the transcendental signified, the concept being separate from or outside the system of diacritical signifiers. While Saussure may not have fully subscribed to this view, his interpreters have used the axiom of difference as the basis for poststructuralist formalisms in which the object or referent, what is signified, has been abolished as “too materialistic and simpleminded,” to quote Robert Scholes. Scholes upholds the “unbridgeable gap between words and things… Signs do not refer to things, they signify concepts, and concepts are aspects of thought, not of reality” (24). This theory of signs entails philosophical idealism, or nominalism for which there are only names, no generalities or laws in any realm of cognizable reality.

From the onset of the Cold War up to now, under the aegis of the Saussurean dyadic schema of signifier-signified, meaning has been unfixed, shifting, undecidable. Semantic indeterminacy prevails: the signifier is always in danger of slipping, falling into the “vertiginous abyss,” losing its signified, evaporating. We can capture the experience of instability, flux, disjuncture, aporia, etc. in two aphorisms of Franz Kafka, first in “The Tower of Babel”: “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would hae been permitted.” In “The Pit of Babel,” Kafka writes: “What are you building?—I want to dig a subterranean passage.  Some progress must be made.  My station up there is much too high.  We are digging the pit of Babel” (171). Freud’s suggestion that “dreams are not somatic but psychical phenomena” (100) is not much help since the intrusion of the psyche leads to either conventionalism or irresolvable disagreements about the nature of the “psyche.” But this is precisely what Peirce wants to avoid: the alternative of either relativist contingency or irrationalist, Nietzschean-inspired psychologism--Nietszche famously proclaimed there is no objective reality, only multiple interpretations by decentered subjects. How did Peirce demonstrate the nullity of those alternatives?

Discriminating Pragmatisms

First, a caveat and some observations. Although Peirce is recognized correctly as the founder of pragmatism—he calls his own theory “pragmaticism” to distinguish it from those of James, F. Schiller and John Dewey—we need to stress that orthodox antifoundationalist or anti-essentialist neopragmatism of Rorty or Fish is diametrically opposed to Peirce’s. Rorty and Fish, for example, believe that truth has nothing to do with any correspondent reality; and whatever beliefs they come to have, they have either no consequences or are wholly subjective and private. Meanwhile, the old Soviet Dictionary of Philosophy, for example, defines pragmatism as a subjective idealist trend in philosophy in which truth is determined by “its practical utility” (357), this latter phrase being construed as “not confirmation of objective truth by the criterion of pratice, but what meets the subjective interests of the individual” (Rosenthal and Yudin 1967, 357-58). 

Recent clarifications have rectified such misleading opinions, to some extent. According to The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, pragmatism emphasizes the close proximity of theory to praxis. It “takes the continuity of experience and nature as revealed through the  outcome of directed action as the starting point for reflection”  (1995, 638). While reality is known through experience, “truth claims can be justified only as the fulfillment of conditions that are experimentally determined, i.e., the outcome of inquiry.” This comes closer to Peirce’s understanding of his own conception which is distilled in the maxim or principle stated in his early work, "How to Make Our Ideas Clear":  "In order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception we should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception; and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception" (Peirce 1998, 146; for later reformulations, see Peirce 1958, 204 and 1991, 247; Audi 1995, 566). Peirce elucidated his pragmaticist axiom as a logical method of inquiry in later lectures, specifically in the 1903 "Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism" (Peirce 1998a, 133-241).

 Anatomy of the Sign

In this essay, I want to limit my focus on Peirce’s theory of signs (semeiotic) and its possible application to literary criticism and critical theory in general. A sign is always a relation of three parts: the sign itself, its object (what it stands for), and an interpretant. This latter is of utmost importance: the interpretant determines how the sign represents the object. It is the meaning of the sign. While Saussure  constructed his theory based on the analysis of language, Peirce's theory springs from this analysis of thought (thought conceived as an interpretive relation) and "posits within the signifying process not only an object and its sign but also a third element, the interpretant, or thought [for Saussure, the signified], to which the sign gives rise. The meaning of the sign is not necessarily arbitrary but may be as logical as the thought that interprets it" (Hoopes 1991, 11-12). For example, interpretants called indices (e.g., weathercock, red stop light) can represent determinate, not undecidable, relations between signs and their objects.

In his early speculations, Peirce surmised that this interpretant is another sign which in turn elicits its own interpretant  and so on; later on, he theorized that semiosis (meaning-production, generator of significations) culminates in an”ultimate logical interpretant,” namely, “a change of habit of conduct,” a new pattern of belief, which is no longer a sign (de Waal 2013, 83). This implies that meaning can now be located outside the mind, identified in fact with events in the world and actions of individuals. We are directed to observe behavior and reactions in the domain of experience, to spatiotemporally determined schemes of action which we can perform for the purpose of seeing how objects will behave. Meaning resides in the operation of testing hypotheses and the sensible effects recorded; “those effects are the meaning of the idea in question” (Smith 9; see also Gallie 1952; Hilpinen 1995).

     On the basis of the triadic character of the sign, Peirce distinguished three divisions based on 1) the character of the sign itself; 2)  the relation between the signs and its object; and 3) the way in which the interpretant represents the object. These divisions reflect Peirce’s system of three ontological categories that fundamentally grasps reality: 1) Quality or Firstness; 2) Relation or Secondness; and 3) Representation or Thirdness.  According to the first division, a sign can be 1) a qualisign, a mere quality or appearance; 2) a sinsign, a token or individual object or event (distinguished from types); and 3) legisign, or general type.  Signs can be divided into icons, indices, and symbols, on the basis of their relations to their objects.  An icon refers to an object on the ground of its similarity to the object in some respect.   An index stands in a dynamic or causal relation to its object.  A symbol functions as the sign of an object by virtue of a rule or habit of interpretation.  Peirce’s third division, Thirdness, divides signs into: 1) Rhemes or predicative signs; 2) Propositional signs (distinguished from assertions), and 3) arguments (Liszka 1996; Peirce 1991).

     In Peirce’s metaphysics, Thirdness is irreducible in the sense that general phenomena (general laws) are real, not reducible to mere conjunctions of actual individual instances, as nominalists would hold. Generality subtends continuity, the notion of synechism. Peirce’s critical realism is tied with his synechism, the view that the world contains genuinely continuous phenomena, something analogous to the doctrine of Scholastic realism.  In the field of modalities, Peirce’s basic categories are possibility, actuality and necessity.  Peirce argued that reality cannot be identified with existence (or actuality), but comprises real (objective) possibilities. The future holds the validation of truth, the practical confirmation of hypotheses. This is so because Peirce realized that many conditional statements (e.g. the practical conditionals expressing the empirical import of a proposition, as in the pragmatic maxim), cannot be construed as material or truth-functional conditionals, but must be regarded as modal (subjunctive) conditionals. Peirce’s cosmology holds the doctrine of tychism—absolute chance exists in the universe—and the basic laws of nature are probabilistic and inexact (Murphey 1993; Apel 1995).  Contingency, the realm of chance, evolves into law-governed nature and law-circumscribed history, as implied by Thirdness or the mediatory function of signs. So much for this brief excursus into Peirce's cosmological speculations.

Articulating Icon and Index

Now, from the perspective of Peirce’s semiotics, every art-object is an icon (Firstness) whose aesthetic value resides in the harmony of its intrinsic qualities. Peirce’s concept of art, however, accented the “play of Musement,” the active invention of hypotheses, reminiscent of Schiller’s Spieltrieb (Brent 1998, 53). Abduction also transpires in the creative dynamics of the imagination. The interpretant of the art/icon is a feeling or complex of emotions, the subjective correlative of the objective properties embodied in the art-work. E. F. Kaelin argues that the aesthetic sign is a rhematic iconic qualisign, “a quality, or a work of art under the aspect of its qualitative wholeness, serving as a sign of a distinct qualitative possibility by virtue of a similarity between the two” (1983, 226).

In John Sheriff’s view, for Peirce, literary art is “a representamen of possibility experienced as Rhematic Symbol” (1989, 78). A novel, poem or story presents us with signs of immediate consciousness, feelings, qualities, rhemes, in instants of time, as we read without sustained reflection or analysis. However, while the interpretant of an art-object are signs of ontological Firstness (Rheme), separated phenomenal elements which are merely potential, this aesthetic experience becomes an object of reflection, inference, thought. The interpretant (Rheme) becomes a new representamen that determines a new interpretant (another Rheme, Proposition or Argument). So the reader undergoes the experience of immediate consciousness in the first moment, then transforms this sign-process into a new sign, and so on.

     Given the dynamic nature of signs constituting a literary text, the text as we read will continue to generate a series of interpretants within specific parameters, frames of intelligibility, or “language-games.” A sentence in a text such as “Cain killed Abel” can be read as a Rheme or Proposition depending on what ground the sign relates to its interpretant. The sentence may have the form of a proposition, but they do not refer to facts or actual existents; they function as signs of immediate consciousness registering aspects of the “It,” the knowable reality subtending experience. They are, as Peirce asserts, “symbols for a level of reality which cannot be reached in any other way...So the poet in our days—and the true poet is the true prophet—personifies everything, not rhetorically but in his own feelings. He tells us that he feels an affinity for nature, and loves the stone or the drop of water” (1958, 13). Art is therefore not just a set of formal properties or a repertoire of sensory data separated from the real; experience is broader than the signs in our conscious thought, an experience in the world of signs whose complex apprehension or transcription of reality is made more accessible by artistic mediation.

     In reading a literary text, we move from Rheme (Firstness) to Dicent Sign (Secondness) and Argument (Thirdness). We can reason and argue on the basis of interpretants that translate the rhematic symbol, even though, following Peirce’s doctrine of fallibilism, we cannot arrive at “absolute certainty concerning questions of fact” (CSP 1:149). While there are no rules or objective standards to determine the grounds for choosing interpretants, the practice of reading/interpretation is not wholly subjective, relativist or nominalist. Why we choose a certain framework, paradigm or language-game can be explained by prior choices and commitments that can be rationally examined and evaluated. Questioning and analysis, at some point, must come to an end for us to act on certain beliefs “and begin from there as rational human beings” (Sheriff 1989, 94).

      For Peirce, the terminal goal of semiosis is the emergence of “concrete reasonableness” and its embodiment in a community of inquirers open to the impact of experience, the intractable factuality of an objective world, the historicity of life, and the influence of traditions (Hoopes 1991; Merrell 1997). This follows from Peirce’s insight that the ultimate foundation of meaning is not found in arbitrary conventions but in the rectifiable process of interpretation. Interpretation then may be viewed as a mode of historical reasoning, a process of abduction or discovery of testable hypotheses. Such a process leads to the shaping of general habits and the correction and improvement of traditions based on a “critical common-sensism” (Rochberg-Halton 1986, 50).

Narrative as Semiotic Process

      Let us turn now to Anil’s Ghost and deploy Peirce’s experimental optic.  Ondaatje’s novel centers on the pursuit of truth—the structure and totality of social conditions and personal relationships in their spatiotemporal unfolding. The fable we can extrapolate from the diegetic sequence deals with the search for the identity of victims of state or collective terrorism, a quest that also uncovers the history (archaeology, genealogy) of the protagonists in the national crisis of Sri Lanka. Individual identities have so far been muddled or truncated by global and national disasters. What can be salvaged and identified? Can the ruined Buddha be restored?  Yes, as the concluding section shows by describing Ananda Udugama’s performance of an ancient ritual of restoration.

The focalization of this conceptualized fable in the mise en scene or actual plot translates rheme and dicent sign to argument, the realm of legisign and symbol. One interpretant of the whole novel’s purport is that truth can be discovered by sacrifice and dissolution of identity in the cultural complex which survives through ordeals of civil war and internecine conflict. That, I think, is the central thematic argument of the narrative.

      Anil Tissera, the western-trained forensic scientist sent by the UN to investigate human rights abuses, becomes involved with (among others) two brothers, Sarath Diyasena, an archaeologist, and his brother Gamini, a doctor treating the victims of the civil war in Sri Lanka. She has been away for fifteen years, tied to her birthplace less by memory than by a passion to help and serve a larger good. Both brothers know first-hand the violence of torture, cruel murders, and other humiliations.

But beneath the kinship solidarity of our three protagonists, we discern the tensions and disparities complicating their relations, conflicts emblematic of the larger determining ethnic and class war raging around them. Towards the end of the novel, the anonymous skeleton of a victim that Anil and Sarath had recovered is identified as Ruwan Kumara, a rebel sympathizer. The novel does not end there; after presenting their findings before a government panel, and before the episode when Gamini confronts the corpse of his brother, a victim of official treachery and revenge, we have a short scene where the two brothers succeed in talking comfortably to each other “because of her presence. So it had seemed to her.” The point of view in this passage, that of the expatriate Anil, allows her a synthesizing angle or vantage point from which to make sense of her own detached but also involved relation with what is going on in her once beloved homeland, to her past as well as to her future:

It was their conversation about the war in their country and what each of them had done during it and what each would not do. They were, in retrospect, closer than they imagined.
     If she were to step into another life now, back to the adopted country of her choice, how much would Gamini and the memory of Sarath be a part of her life? Would she talk to intimates about them, the two Colombo brothers? And she in some way like a sister between them, keeping them from mauling each other’s worlds?  Wherever she might be, would she think of them? Consider the strange middle-class pair who were born into one world and in mid-life stepped waist-deep into another?
     At one point that night, she remembered, they spoke of how much they loved their country. In spite of everything. No Westerner would understand the love they had for the place. ‘But I could never leave here,’ Gamini had whispered.
     ‘American movies, English books—remember how they all end?’ Gamini asked that night. ‘The American or the Englishman gets on a plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing.  Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.’  (Ondaatje 2000, 285-86)

Discovering the Interpretant

     Some readers have applied Gamini’s sardonic remarks on the novel itself. This choice of an interpretant is grounded on the expectation that postmodern artists are more self-conscious and reflexive. But this is to dismiss the framing angle of Anil, the vehicle through which Gamini’s voice is registered, preventing it from being a utopian free-flowing signifier. There is some ambiguity as to whom Gamini is directing his utterance, to his brother or to Anil;  the combination “American movies, English books,” a complex quasi-indexical dicent sign for Western consumer voyeurism, metonymically implicates Anil and her European sponsor. The whole scene, however, may be taken as symbolic of the novel’s attempt to construct a community, beginning with the restoration of ties between the brothers up to the problematic reinscription of Anil’s visit into her own life-history as an uprooted Sri Lankan, into the disrupted lives of her compatriots. We are faced with examining the novel as a legisign of the artist’s (including Ananda Udugama) endeavor to oppose the terror of isolation and separation, alienation, ethnic exclusion, demonization of any person as “terrorist,” and, last but not least, anonymous disappearance/death.

     What needs underscoring here is the rheme of speculation, that feeling of quasi-nostalgia and regret, that Anil is experiencing as she muses on what it would be like to be already distant and removed from the scene. It is a moment of suspension that we are witnessing here, the interpretant of these signs rendering the poignant situation of Anil listening (playing the addressee) to words exchanged between the brothers. Sarath is not quoted, but Gamini is given the last words about his love for his country, and how Western visitors claiming to be experts only reveal their stupidity and arrogance. Or is that depiction of the scene from Hollywood movies and pulp fiction simply a critique of cultural taste and artifacts, not of the societies that nourish and consume them?

If we have to choose a ground that will take into account as much of the expressive and referential properties of the text, I would say that the semiotic ground has to center-stage Anil’s role, her recording sensibility, and her own “take” on the fraught relationship of the brothers. Anil's sensorium as narrative point of view registers the subtle, subterranean nuances of historical vicissitudes. My view is that the ground of our interpretation needs to connect this scene with what comes after, as well as what has happened already up to this point. In that expanded horizon, Anil’s mediation here prepares for Gamini’s reception of his brother’s body in the morgue in the next section, and her eventual disappearance from the novel.

Historicizing  Exegesis

      A concluding remark may return us to the quest for knowledge and truth via representation. What then is the rationale for structuring the narrative in this specific manner?  Numerous reviews and commentaries have converged on the judgment that the novel does not explicitly choose any side. One writer observes that Ondaatje “ensures that no side emerges unstained: the government, the Tamil separatists, or the insurgents to the south” (Singh 2000); another commends the author when he “reveals the depths of his homeland’s adversity with a scientist’s distance” (Barnett 2000). Another reviewer contends that the author “has no clear political position...and appeals to conscience only by depicting he extremes of fear and violence that war engenders” (Champeon 2003).

These opinions diverge from signs of partisanship which are ignored for the sake of endorsing a putative neutrality, for example: “Yet the darkest Greek tragedies were innocent compared with what was happening here. Heads on stakes. Skeletons dug out of a cocoa pit in Matale” (Ondaatje 2000, 11). Consider also Gamini’s psychic condition as he examines his brother’s lifeless body after he discovered the shattered hands: “He had seen cases where every tooth had been removed, the nose cut apart, the eyes humiliated with liquids, the ears entered. He had been, as he ran down the hospital hallway, most frightened of seeing his brother’s face. It was the face they went for in some cases. They could in their hideous skills sniff out vanity” (2000, 289-90). Here, the signs of  “terror,” “terrorism,” and their cognates find their charged sensory manifestations in these rhematic symbols and their conceivable interpretants.

    We can of course allude further to numerous historical and documentary accounts of the situation in Sri Lanka in the mid-1980 to early 1990s, the time period circumscribing the events of the novel. We can consult an early commentary such as Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After (1984) by L. Piyadasa to test the truth-claims of propositions enunciated in the narrative.While a 1987 peace accord was signed granting regional autonomy to the embattled Tamils, the rebellion continued and worsened because the Tamil nationalists were excluded by both the Indian and Sri Lankan governments (Gurr 1993, 301). By 1998, an estimated 50,000 persons have died since the war began in the eighties (Instituto del Tercer Mundo 1999, 521).

     The relevant context for understanding this art-work can be enlarged and offered for further investigation. The final interpretant—in Peirce’s view, “the effect the Sign would produce upon any mind upon which circumstances [history, artistic techniques, biography, and other contextual information] should permit it to work out its full effect” (1985, 413; see Fitzgerald  1966, 124-25)—would deploy such information provided by historical accounts as elements of the hermeneutic circle or horizon to help us appraise the cogency of  all the “possibles” rendered in the narrative. As inquiry proceeds, a set of political beliefs or appropriate habits of conduct will emerge from this hermeneutic exercise, later to be revised or transformed as befits the requirement for implementing agreed social purposes, norms, programs, and moral/political objectives.

Concretizing Reason

     We can indeed anticipate a range of possible meanings/interpretants we can formulate for this particular scene, or for any other pivotal episode, as a representamen in a sequence of signifiers, and for the novel as a whole. As I have argued, however, that range can not be infinite nor arbitrary since the over-all principle of “concrete reasonableness” (the logic of abduction) imposes a provisional end to this phase of the inquiry (Eco 1984; 1995). The knowable reality which the art of the novel strives to represent is not an indeterminable, mysterious, noumenal “something”; to the extent that the representation exhibits the “power to live down all opposition,” the interpretant can grasp the “true character of the object... The very entelechy of being lies in being representable,” Peirce insists; indeed, “a symbol is an embryonic reality endowed with power of growth into the very truth, the very entelechy of reality” mediated through the community of interpreters (1976, 262; Apel 1995). Inquiry conduces to the habit of thought/action that mobilizes society for specific projects and programs in accord with scientific progress and sociohistorical evolution.

      Knowledge and reality, “cognizability” and being, are synonymous terms for Pierce (CSP 5:257). His critique of meaning ultimately directs us to fix our attention on the habits of thinking and action precipitated by our act of reading, effects with practical bearings in everyday life. Perceptions and habits of inference generating knowledge/truth always take place within the domain of semiotic representation and rational self-controlled behavior (Habermas 1971, 98; Moore and Robin 1994). Aesthetics, for Peirce, is nothing else but “the theory of the deliberate formation of such habits of feeling (i.e., of the ideal)” which he also called “the play of Musement” after Schiller’s Spieltrieb (Brent 1998, 53;  Feibleman 1969, 392; Schusterman 1972). 

Reading Anil’s Ghost and analyzing the repertoire of interpretants of politically loaded terms such as “terrorism” may be said to constitute those significant practices that challenge not only our hermeneutic skills and capabilities of construing perceptions and translating perceptual judgments; they also elicit signs of whether we, and others in the collaborative enterprise, embody what Peirce calls “an intelligence capable of learning by experience” (1955, 98; Sheriff 1994; Skagestad 2004). Peirce's "semeiotic" organon offers a powerful instrument for renewing critical inquiry into the conservative foundation of current humanistic studies and social sciences that needs urgent radical transformation.


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Friday, January 26, 2018



University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City

     Claims that “Luzon Indios” from the Spanish possessions of Las Islas Filipinas first landed in Morro Bay, California, in the 16th century and “Manillamen” settled near what is now New Orleans, Louisiana, in the 18th century are made to preempt or mimic the Puritan settlement of the United States. But they cannot overshadow the historical fact that Filipinos, unevenly hispanized Malays with dark brown skin, first entered the American consciousness with their colonial subjugation as a result of the Spanish-American War at the turn of the century.
     After the defeat of the first Philippine Republic in the Filipino-American War of 1898-1902, this southeast Asian archipelago became a source of raw materials and reservoir of  human capital.  Peasants were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association as cheap contract labor when the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1908 cut off the Japanese supply. Feudal oppression and colonial brutality drove rural Filipinos from their homes while the lure of adventure and easy wealth blurred the hardships formerly endured by Mexican farmhands now restricted by the Immigration Act of 1924.
      About 400 students (called pensionados) on U.S. government scholarship are often cited as the first “wave” of immigrants (1903-1924). In reality, the new rulers invested in their education so that they could return to serve as the middle stratum of loyal natives who, subordinated to landlords and compradors, would legitimize U.S. domination. From this segment would come the bureaucrat-capitalists of the Commonwealth and the postwar Republic. An ironic sequel to this initial moment of the Filipino diaspora is the influx of "brain drain" professionals (doctors, nurses, technicians) in the sixties and seventies who now function as part of the “buffer race” displacing tensions between whites and blacks. Meanwhile, the political exiles and economic refugees during the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1968), like president Corazon Aquino, returned home to further reinforce Filipino subalternity and promote the massive export of Filipino “Overseas Contract Workers.”
Over one hundred thousand “Pinoys/Pinays” and “Manongs” (affectionate terms of address) helped build the infrastructure of U.S. industrial capitalism as the major labor force in agribusiness in Hawaii and the West Coast. From 1907 to 1933, Filipino “nationals,” neither citizens nor aliens, numbered 118, 436--seven out of ten percent of  Hawaii plantation workers. Severely exploited and confined to squalid barracks, Filipinos joined with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and other nationalities in a series of militant strikes in 1920 and 1924. One of these agitators, Pedro Calosa, was forced to return to the islands where he figured prominently in the Sakdal insurrection in 1935 against feudal exploitation and U.S. imperial rule.
     As late as 1949, 600 workers from the independent Republic of the Philippines were imported by the sugar planters to break up strikes led by the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. The 1990 census indicates that 168,682 Filipinos reside in Hawaii, most of them employed in the service industries (restaurants, hotels, tourist agencies, entertainment) as low-paid semi-skilled labor. The election of Benjamin Cayetano as governor of Hawaii offers a signal lesson: his success depends more on Japanese and white support than on the political mobilization of his own fractious ethnic constituency.

      The theory of “migration waves” breaks down when sizeable numbers of Filipinos moved from Hawaii to California, Oregon and Washington according to the business cycle and local contingencies. Predominantly male (only one out of fourteen Filipinos were women), a majority of 30,000 Filipinos in bachelor communities circulated from farm to farm in seasonal rhythm. Others worked in the Alaskan canneries, as Pullman porters in Chicago, volunteers in the U.S. Navy, and more frequently as domestics--janitors, kitchen helpers, cooks, house cleaners, and hospital attendants. Stoop labor generally received $2.50 a day for 6 days, half of what factory workers got in the late twenties. Without benevolent associations or credit cooperatives like other Asians, Filipinos participated with other groups in union organizing and other progressive, multicultural initiatives in the thirties and forties.

The Depression aggravated the racism toward Filipinos, already victimized by previous anti-"Oriental" legislation. Up to 1942, longtime residents were denied the right to own land, marry whites, or apply for welfare. Citizenship was still reserved for “white persons,” as stipulated by a 1934 court ruling which upheld the 1790 naturalization law. Racist violence culminated in the 1930 riots at Exeter, Watsonville, and Stockton, California. These attacks were motivated by the belief that Filipinos lowered the standard of living while also enjoying "the society of white girls." Carlos Bulosan, the radical writer-activist, captured the saga of Filipino resistance from the thirties to the outbreak of World War II in his testimony, America Is in the Heart. Displacing the fixation on taxi-dance hall, bar, poolroom, and Manilatown, union organizer Philip Vera Cruz memorialized the evolution of the indeterminate sojourner to the pioneer militant of the United Farm Workers of America in the sixties.

      Immigration was virtually halted by the Philippine Independence Act of 1934. Enormous Filipino sacrifices in Bataan and Corregidor fighting with their American comrades had a positive effect on public opinion. In 1942, Filipinos became eligible for naturalization. Thousands volunteered for military service. Due to unequal power relations between the two countries, however, about 70,000 veterans of World War II are still awaiting full benefits. The liberation of the Philippines from Japanese Occupation (1942-45) restored the unjust social structure on top of the incalculable physical and spiritual damage wrought by the war. Neocolonial "Americanization" plus a continuation of "free trade" and privileges for a minority elite intensified the impoverishment of the peasantry, women, pettybourgeois entrepreneurs, government employees, and urban workers, hence the push to search for jobs in the United States and elsewhere.

      From 1946 to 1965, 35,700 Filipinos entered as immigrants. Most of these families,  residing in the big cities of Hawaii, California, Washington, New York and Chicago, earned their livelihood from industrial occupations and blue collar work. The post-1965 contingent of Filipinos decisively altered the character of the Filipino community: 85 percent were high school graduates, most were professionals and highly skilled personnel who fitted the demands of the U.S. economy. But because of race-biased licensing and hiring practices, they found themselves underemployed or marginalized. Family reunification fostered by new legislation conributed to the leap from a total of 343,000 in 1970 to more than a million in the early 90s. Today Filipinos number nearly three million, with over 70,000 coming every year--the largest of the Asian Pacific Islander category.

     The Filipino American community at present occupies a peculiar position in the socioeconomic landscape. Although highly educated, with professional, military or technical backgrounds, fluent in English and nestled in large relatively stable families (average households include 5.4 persons of which two at least are employed), Filipinos in general earn less than whites and all other Asian groups, except the Vietnamese. With women workers in the majority, Filipinos are invisible or absent in the prestigious managerial positions. Erroneously considered part of the mythical "model minority," they are denied benefits under Affirmative Action and "equal opportunity" state laws. Labor market segmentation, cultural assimilation under U.S. neocolonial hegemony, and persistent institutional racism explain the inferior status of Filipinos.

    Owing to the rise of anti-imperialist mass movements in the Philippines since the sixties and the recent outburst of nationalist insurgency, the Filipino community has undergone profound changes. While the "politics of identity" born in the Civil Rights struggles finds resonance among the informed middle sector, Filipino Americans as a whole tend to identify with mainstream society. Despite antagonisms arising from linguistic and regional diversity, Filipino youth are wrestling with the limitations of patriarchal authority, family togetherness, kinship, and filial piety. They are beginning to problematize and explore their commonality with other racialized communities (African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Arab Americans, and others).

     A reciprocal interaction between ethnic consciousness and historical determination characterizes the subjectivity or social behavior of Filipino Americans. Generalizations can only be haphazardly ventured here. While intermarriage continues, particularly worsened by the "mail-order bride" business, and while ethnic enclaves are being eroded amid residential segregation, Filipinos--both U.S. born and “foreign born”--are acquiring a more sophisticated sense of themselves as a historically specific nationality. In the last two decades, Filipino American intellectuals have begun to articulate a unique dissident sensibility based not on nostalgia, nativism, or ethnocentrism but on the long durable revolutionary tradition of the Filipino masses and the emancipatory projects of grassroots movements in the Philippines where their parents and relatives came from.

Claims that Filipino uniqueness spring from a cooperative family structure and egalitarian gender relation need to be questioned on the face of internal class conflicts, sexism, individualist competition, and color prejudice. It is impossible to divorce Filipinos from the problems of the larger class-divided society and from the effects of the global power conflicts configuring U.S.-Philippine relations. What needs more critical inquiry is not the supposed easy adaptation or integration of Filipinos in U.S. society, but the received consensus that Filipinos remain unassimilable if not recalcitrant elements. That is, they are not quite "oriental" nor hispanic, at best they appear as hybrid diasporic subjects (more than 7 million of 70 million Filipinos are now scattered around the planet) with suspect loyalties. Filipinos, however, cannot be called the fashionable “transnationals” because of racialized, ascribed markers (physical appearance, accent, peculiar non-white folkways) that are needed to sustain and reproduce Eurocentric white supremacy. Ultimately, Filipino agency in the era of global capitalism depends not only on the vicissitudes of social transformation in the U.S. but, more crucially, on the fate of the struggle for autonomy and popular-democratic sovereignty in the homeland.


Aguilar-San Juan, Karin, ed., The State of Asian America (South End
Press 1992).
Bulosan, Carlos, On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings  (Temple University Press 1995).
Chan, Sucheng, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Twayne 1991).
San Juan, E.,  Carlos Bulosan: Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States. A Critical Appraisal.  New York: Peter Lang, 2017.
-----.  From Exile to Diaspora: Versions of the Filipino Experience in the United States (Westview Press 1998).
----.  The Philippine Temptation  (Temple University Press 1996).
Vera Cruz, Philip,  Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movements ( UCLA Labor Center and Asian American Studies Center 1992).

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Carlos Bulosan—Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States: A Critical Appraisal By E. San Juan, Jr.  (New York: Peter Lang, 2017)

  • Reviewed by Jeffrey Arellano Cabusao,  
  • Department of English and Cultural Studies, Bryant University, Smithfield, Rhode Island 

Carlos Bulosan, one of our most significant Filipino writers of the twentieth century, is the focus of a new book by one of our most significant and prolific Filipino literary/cultural theorists and public intellectuals today—E. San Juan, Jr.  According to American Studies scholar Michael Denning, San Juan is listed as one of the “most important New Left intellectuals [teaching and writing]… during the great student uprisings of the late 1960s and early 1970s” (Culture in the Age of Three Worlds, NY: Verso, 2004).  It was during this period that San Juan published his pathbreaking book-length study titled Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1972) which introduced Bulosan as a revolutionary working class author to the fields of Asian American studies, American literary studies, and Philippine studies.  
Before his early work on Bulosan in 1972, San Juan was already active in radical Filipino cultural politics as a collaborator with Philippine national artist Amado V. Hernandez in Ang Masa and with Alejandro Abadilla in Panitikan.  San Juan first introduced Hernandez’s poems to an international audience with Rice Grains (NY: International Publishers, 1966).  His edited volume of Georg Lukacs’ essays, Marxism and Human Liberation (NY: Dell, 1972), circulated among orthodox socialist and New Left activists in the 1970s and 1980s.  Aside from his sustained inquiries into racism and ethnic relations, San Juan initiated the first book-length study of the major literary works of Nick Joaquin in his 1988 treatise Subversions of Desire: Prolegomena to Nick Joaquin (Quezon City: Ateneo University Press), more relevant now with the sanctification of Joaquin as a Penguin Classic.
San Juan’s dedicated research and committed work within radical Filipino cultural politics have paved the way for Carlos Bulosan to become a canonized figure in the academy and an iconic figure of Filipino labor militancy throughout the Filipino diaspora.  The publication of Carlos Bulosan—Revolutionary Filipino Writer in the United States: A Critical Appraisal (hereafter Bulosan-RFWUS) provides an opportunity for San Juan to reflect upon (and assess) the development of Bulosan scholarship within the U.S. academy as well as to provide suggestions for reading and engaging with Bulosan’s body of work in ways that move beyond the walls of the contemporary academic industrial complex.  One of the central concerns with regard to achieving canonical status as a progressive writer is the risk of being misread—of having one’s body of work emptied of radical content so as to serve the interests of the neoliberal academy (an ideological state apparatus).  
The prevailing mode of reading Bulosan (from Asian American/Ethnic studies to American literary studies) has been through the immigrant-assimilationist paradigm—one that replicates the model-minority myth while simultaneously erasing the fact that Filipinos in the United States are not immigrants.  Given the long, brutal history of U.S.-Philippines colonial and neocolonial relations, Filipinos in the United States inhabit the position of colonial/neocolonial subjects.  The specificity of the racial-national subordination of Filipinos is also obscured when Bulosan is transformed into a reified icon for mass consumption (like the Malcolm X baseball caps of the early 1990s).  The two modes of consuming Bulosan (immigrant-assimilationist paradigm and reified icon) are combined in a recent video produced by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (November 29, 2017).  The brief video, which features readings from Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart by Junot Díaz, Hasan Minhaj, and Ivy Quicho, appropriates the text’s sentimental Popular Front Americanism to situate the Filipino experience in the United States within a narrative of immigrant assimilation.  The video ends with the following statement: “Since America Is in the Heart was published, at least 45 million immigrants have become Americans.”    
To be sure, if Bulosan were alive today, as Peter McLaren posits in his foreword to Bulosan-RFWUS, he would courageously protest eruptions of “nativism, misogyny, a deepening racism, environmental catastrophe and virulent mobilizations against immigrants” in the United States since the election of Trump last November 2016.  San Juan asserts that Bulosan would simultaneously contribute to mobilizing Filipinos to speak out against Duterte’s shameless “demagoguery and… collusion with the oligarchic exploiters of millions of peasants and workers” in the Philippines.  The silencing, however, of Bulosan as revolutionary anti-imperialist artist by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center is symptomatic of the canonization (or institutionalization) of Bulosan.  San Juan’s central argument in Bulosan-RFWUS is the following: Bulosan’s “body of writing cannot be fully understood without respecting his ethico-artistic motivations.”  Leaning upon Fredric Jameson’s advice to “historicize, historicize, historicize,” San Juan reminds his readers that the liberatory potential of Bulosan can be grasped only when his writing is situated within the context of U.S. colonial conquest and neocolonial control of the Philippines. 
  In Bulosan-RFWUS, San Juan challenges the institutionalization of Bulosan by shifting the center of the Bulosan canon from America Is in the Heart to the posthumously published The Cry and the Dedication, a novel written during the Cold War period about the anti-imperialist Hukbalahap peasant rebellion in the Philippines.  San Juan’s historicizing approach enables us to appreciate the complexity of a collective Filipino “protest consciousness” (here I’m rearticulating a concept used by Angela Davis in her reading of Blues women) that resides at the heart of Bulosan’s diverse body of work—poems, short stories, novels, essays, letters. Throughout Bulosan-RFWUS, San Juan offers insightful close readings of a wide variety of texts within the Bulosan archive—from “The Romance of Magno Rubio” to letters written by Bulosan, from essays on cultural production to satirical stories collected in The Laughter of My Father and The Philippines Is in the Heart.  In urging us to rethink Bulosan’s use of satire in his short stories, San Juan examines the use of “carnivalesque discourse in Bakhtin’s dialogic conceptualization” that illuminates Bulosan’s method for tapping into our collective Filipino “protest consciousness”—more specifically, “Bulosan’s use of the popular-anarchist predispositions in folk-culture.”  Subsequently, a new direction for research on Bulosan, according to San Juan, is to delve deeper into Bulosan’s use of “common [Filipino] folklore, tradition, and history” in his body of work.  
In addition to enriching our understanding of the complexity of Bulosan’s revolutionary imagination, an historicizing approach enables San Juan to excavate deeper within the Bulosan archive.  San Juan’s research on the Sanora Babb papers (held at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin) not only situates Bulosan within a vast network of progressive artists and writers (which includes pioneering Bulosan scholar and activist Dolores Feria), but also raises questions about the authorship of All the Conspirators, which Caroline Hau and Benedict Anderson have introduced as a recovered manuscript from the Bulosan archive.  While much has been accomplished due to San Juan’s work over the decades, more research is necessary to properly inventory the Bulosan archive.   
Finally, another direction for further research suggested by San Juan is a Janus-faced approach—to read Bulosan in relation to historical and contemporary figures of the Filipino diaspora, specifically Philip Vera Cruz (founding member of the United Farm Workers) and Jose Antonio Vargas (Filipino journalist, courageous activist for undocumented immigrants, and CEO of Define American, a non-profit that defends immigrant rights in the United States).  With regard to the former, San Juan examines the ways in which Vera Cruz’s work as a militant labor organizer functions as a bridge that connects Bulosan with the development of Filipino labor militancy during the New Left period.  With regard to the latter, San Juan examines how the lives of Bulosan and Vargas converge and simultaneously diverge as a way of assessing the contemporary situation (and future possibilities) of the Filipino presence in the United States.    
  Over the past four decades, San Juan has worked tirelessly on expanding how we read and engage Carlos Bulosan—by introducing new writings from the Bulosan archive and by offering dynamic and fresh theoretical perspectives rooted in a tradition of historical materialist thought.  I’ve attempted to document San Juan’s sustained commitment to reading, researching, and expanding upon Bulosan’s ethico-artistic motivations from the New Left period to our contemporary period of globalized “war on terror”/ecological disaster in Writer in Exile/Writer in Revolt: Critical Perspectives on Carlos Bulosan (Lanham: UPA, 2016).  The publication of Bulosan-RFWUS is a reminder of the inexhaustible possibilities of the Bulosan archive that surface when one heeds the call to “always historicize!” It is San Juan’s offering for a new generation of Filipino activists and intellectuals—a text that provides the necessary theoretical tools and methodological approaches to continue to make Bulosan relevant for (and present within) our lives in the twenty-first century.