Friday, July 26, 2013

To move and be moved: On Xu Kun’s "Last Tango in the Square One Midsummer Night"

Dancing calls for movement. For its performers, to dance is to move; for the onlookers, to see the act is to be moved. In China, where the state regulates movement – whether individual, social, or political – by its people, dancing becomes a subversive performance — a subtle art form to express forbidden desires and passion between two people. 

This subtle demonstration, in Xu Kun’s story, of converting what is presumably an unlawful romance into an aesthetic movement is performed by an old and nameless pair, whose passion and brilliance in the dance rouses attention of the masses in the square. Indeed, the pair’s commanding presence at the center of a public square highlights the place, not as an image of China’s urban modernity, but as a historically significant and symbolic antigovernment space, where the state clashes, curbs, and curtails emotionally charged sentiments of its people. 

While the square entices old and lower income citizens usually for leisure, it also draws borders on what these people can do within the square. Though decorated with an amalgam of foreign-inspired structures, the square remains witness to how the state continues to uphold conservative values while permeating into the private lives of its citizen. In response to the state’s curtailment of expressive freedom, the pair subtly performs their subversion through dance — an art form which exposes heatedly raw passion between a man and a woman. 

Through the particularly complex steps and styles of tango, a foreign dance, the pair demonstrates, to the “unfeeling” masses, the emotional core of romance which is freedom: the desire to be seen, to effortlessly expel energy in each other, and to freely unite the bodies under one rhythm. For the pair, their unique mastery of tango genuinely attests the sensuous connection and physical knowledge of each other; by getting lost into the private realm of dance, the pair is able to symbolically transcend the imaginary and restrictive borders of the square. 

Here, the fluidity of dance as an aesthetic practice mirrors the double-edged nature of art — playful in its function to compose beauty while inspiring subtle resistance to permit changes to occur in society. Take for instance the transformed attitude of the masses towards the pair. Notably at first, the masses in the story are appalled by the “two bewitching yet vulgar strangers intruding onto their space”. However, since the pair reveals the absence of modeled desire and impassioned romance in their lives, they eventually turn the couple into lead stars of the square. 

Now, the pair – through the charismatic and artistic appeal of their dance – eventually becomes the central figure, the source of inspiration for common folks to emulate expressive moves, to lose their shyness, to combat timidity, and to learn complicated steps. From here, we ask: isn’t this a picture of how China is also led by charismatic and traditional figures throughout the course of its tumultuous history?

In Xu Kun’s narrative, the social dance in the square – without the commanding and inspiring presence of the pair – is likened to a “vast mass revelry, like a dragon without its head is but a chaotic blur without its leader”. Here, we are somewhat reminded of Max Weber’s conception of charismatic authority which transformed China’s old, imperial rule into a single party socialist state because of inspirational figures like Confucius and Mao Tse Tung. In particular, the combination of rational, charismatic, and traditional authority molds China into its modern “emotionless” and unfeeling nation, which is seen as the key problem of the current Chinese society. 

Interestingly however, the reformative solutions to this suggest that expressive freedom can be performed subversively through art to provoke societal changes. Indeed, what is suggested in the story is the need for bold appearances of “stars in the square”, who are expected to subversively perform, aesthetically educate, and fervently inspire the masses to change their ways and resist state control and oppression. 

China, like any other ancient civilizations, is a product of movements; hence, it can be said that the complex and revolutionized steps it execute in present times are comprised of successive dances it has performed and borrowed from other nations throughout its historical time. As Xu Kun brilliantly suggests in the text, to dance passionately in China’s symbolic square is to call for movement — and the message is clear: the masses wait for its stars to move and be moved by their steps. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Of Romance and Exotic Beings: A Review of André Béteille's "Some Observations on the Comparative Method"

While André Béteille’s discussion on the employment of comparative analysis in social anthropology presents the inherent complexities and difficulties encountered in the method, it somehow overlooks how these scholarships on culture and society have in fact vastly contributed to the Orientalist discourse that enabled the West to shape its invention of the Other. 

As Western anthropological studies devote its attention both in classifying and typifying non-western societies, its byproduct reflects a purely imaginative endeavor to understand the exotic Other and to produce a system of (interested) knowledge that asserts Europe’s intellectual authority to study non-Western, “primitive” societies. 

Anthropology, for literary critic Edward Said, is just one of the many Western disciplines that capitalize, through hegemony, on knowledge production and representation of Oriental cultures to – simply put – fulfill its desire to “demystify” what is exotic and hence dominate it. In other words, it is no coincidence that when Said describes the Orient as a Western constructed place for “romance and exotic beings”, cultural anthropologist Levi-Strauss too, as cited by Béteille, refers to anthropology as a discipline that “combines science with romance”. 

I contend, in this paper however, that the love affair does not end there — that this imaginative and fatal attraction for the Other results in what Spivak termed as an “epistemic upheaval” that aids in the construction of our present-day “postcolonial, neo-colonized world”. 

It is crucial to elaborate, at this point, how anthropology has historically been complicit – through its theoretical illustrations and interpretations of “primitive” cultures – in generating interests to warrant “civilizing missions” as a rationale for colonization of non-Western societies. 

Since the Philippines is evidently a product of American civilizing mission; I cannot help but wonder: how much anthropology is involved in rousing American interest in “civilizing” the undeveloped Other, as showcased for instance by ethnic “savagery” of Filipinos at the 1904 St. Louis Fair? 

As pointed by Béteille himself, it is undeniable that, because of the discipline’s “strong emphasis on Otherness”, anthropologists develop an ambivalent attitude towards the Other and end up valorizing their own culture. Worse, this valorization of Western culture was sustained by scholarly publications of anthropological studies that legitimized and even reinforced the long history of “scientific racism” in the West.

Racial bias that affirmed superiority of the white race, for instance, was largely perpetuated by anthropological studies around 18th century, that measured intelligence and degree of savagery by skull and penis sizes. Though these anthropological productions of myths are now debunked, it is still relevant to examine how the discipline can easily become an instrument for Western colonial domination. 

As the West presently moves towards universalizing the influence of globalization, it is only right to remain critical towards how social anthropology might again be deployed to unlock the complexities of cultural “interpenetration” of societies around the world. 

Social anthropology’s role becomes even more significant since – again, through institutionalized scholarship – it aims not only to reveal the growing intricacies of “globalized” culture, but it can also be used to penetrate the fusion of identities, languages, and practices in our increasingly cartographed globe. 

Social anthropology, therefore, is aware of its potent force in today’s world; but this reality Béteille mildly obscures in the essay as he speaks for the institution devoted particularly to an interested understanding of non-Western cultures by the West.    

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Camels of Beiping in Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi

Xiangzi is the metaphoric camel — the camel, Xiangzi. For Lao She, to introduce Xiangzi’s tragic fate entails a comparison between camels and his life. Both, needless to say, share the harshest environment known to mankind: as one bears the deathly condition of the desert heat, the other suffers the socioeconomic realities of Chinese society in the 1920s. This association between Xiangzi and the camels is first introduced in the novel when Xiangzi is abducted by a band of soldiers who, after stripping him off his belongings including his rickshaw, are leading camels as they wander in unfamiliar land. The presence of camels, however, awakens Xiangzi’s familiarity of the rural area. As he succeeds in escaping from the soldiers one night, Xiangzi brings the camels with him, though not knowing what to do with them. 

In the deep and total darkness of the countryside, Xiangzi – enlightened by his “uncertainty and utter loneliness” – realizes he cannot exist in isolation. That he needs another life form to reach a nameless village reveals two things about him: 1.) it gives a hint of the looming failure of his individualist stance against the uncertainties and instability of his socioeconomic setting; and 2.) it suggests his favoring attitude towards ownership and its promised “freedom”. Overnight, as can be noted in the novel, his treatment of the camel shifts from viewing them as living companions when he is in the dark, into treating them as objects of ownership as he moves towards daylight when the village is in sight. 

The idea of marketing the camels continues to occupy his thoughts; this despite the fact that Xiangzi’s own nature meshes well with that of the camels: well-behaved and meek, alone and rootless, assessed and valued for their strength. Indeed, his decision to sell these camels – his only true possession notably without his toil – demonstrates the irony of his participation in the ownership trade: determining the value and affecting the fate of these “working animals”; in the same way that his worth as a rickshaw puller is determined by the social forces around him. The act of selling camels, moreover, in the hopes of buying another rickshaw not only reveals his attachment to possessing a material object, but most importantly, misrecognizing this entity as the means to achieve individual freedom.

Unbeknownst to Xiangzi, this encounter with camels already prefigures the series of misfortunes that spells his fate. And so, what he describes as the “huge beggars of the animal kingdom” is an ironic representation of himself — a “laboring animal” too, who belongs to a class of rickshaw pullers, occupying one of the lowest strata in urban society. Xiangzi, in inhabiting Beiping’s economic life, participates as a cheap source of labor, involved crucially in the interconnection and movement of people and goods all over the city. To partake in this economic system, Xiangzi uses his body as a capital to earn fares through his labor.  In the process, his body then becomes “alienated” from him; precisely since the meager profit, which he earns from capitalizing on his physical strength, is again invested in purchasing a material object – the rickshaw, a property which he again misrecognizes for freedom and release from poverty.

As Xiangzi keeps on performing alienated and dehumanized labor, the existing structures of the urban society continues to reiterate that he neither owns his body, nor has control over his fate. The body depreciates in strength and value; worse, it is susceptible to irrational desires and sickness. Indeed, similar to the camels he once possessed and sold, there is no freedom for “working animals” belonging to his class. But perhaps, this is only because Xiangzi lives like a camel, unconscious on the existence and solidarity of his pack.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Celebrating the Death of my Existentialist Self

Tonight, I am high. I am floating. I am free. I can fly. It's surreal to have these feelings exist at once; all because I have freed myself from a particular Western philosophy that has guided my view of existence for a very long time. This philosophical belief is called EXISTENTIALISM.

My love affair with existentialist thought started when I suffered from depressive anxiety seven years ago. Alone and romantically depressed, I sought books which I thought would help me understand the emptiness of my condition. The "booksale" at a mall became my refuge as I scouted for Western authors whose names I'd just find from the usual content of an English literature book. The mentality was "ok, they said this is good, so I'll read it" or "ok this author's name sounds familiar, he must be good".

An Affair with Sartre

One of these books I picked from the books sale was an old copy of Jean Paul-Sartre's No Exit (Hois Clos). I didn't know how to read a play then (AND I STILL DON'T KNOW HOW UNTIL NOW!). But because one of my college professors said that Sartre is an important thinker, then I thought he must be interesting. At the back of my mind, I thought I should just keep reading his works and perhaps I'd find something significant. 

And so for days, I labored in imagining the narratives of two characters trapped in a room which was actually after-life version hell. Now these two characters knew and hated each other while they were alive; but then they're put together in an enclosed space which represents hell precisely because for Sartre, HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE. The impact of that play is that I was able to imagine a world without the Christian conception of heaven and hell. For me, it was about LIFE BEING "HERE AND NOW"; there is no afterlife, so all we must do is make the most out of life here and now.

Existentialism in a Nutshell

After reading Sartre's No Exit, I read up more on existentialism. In other words, my view of existentialism expanded because of my interest in the idea that the philosophy emphasizes the loneliness of existence. It appealed to me because it nullifies the existence of afterlife and supports my atheistic mindset that there is no outside force; there is only human who exercises his full potential in a given lifetime. Moreover, the basic tenent of existentialism tells us that EXISTENCE PRECEDES ESSENCE; this means that we "exist" first -- tabula rasa -- and then our essence (depending on how we live our life) will come later as we carve our individual selves and meaning. 

Now this idea is very appealing because it contradicts practically the very catholic concept of ESSENCE PRECEDES EXISTENCE; meaning this God(s) already gave us an essence (e.g. we are born unique and special in his eyes etc) before we even existed! This Christian concept sounded really ridiculous for my atheistic self and hence I found existentialism the best philosophy to counter this  backward and defeatist thought of Christianity. In a way, for me, existentialism suits my need as a depressed and lonely individual at the time. 

Atheism and Existentialism

An atheist who could not grasp the existence of a supernatural being must naturally turn to philosphy to answer his basic questions in life. This is what I love about atheism. I gives me freedom to explore philosophy and not merely subscribe on the given "essence" prescribed by religion. And so, existentialism undeniably fits my needs to cling on a philosophy which negates religious conception of God and afterlife as well as celebrates the freedom of an individual by reflecting deeply into the self and create meaning within it. 

I am an atheist because I am free. I am an atheist because I revere philosophy and because I treat idea as an ever-changing evolution and exercise of the mind as one looks deeply into the self over time. The best thing about being an atheist is that you are challenged to look deeply for that ESSENCE or MEANING within you -- just you alone.. without confessions, without spirits, without mediator priests, without a God. Merging that atheistic idea with existentialism meshes well in providing VALUE to one's self -- particularly as an individual, brave enough to face the solitariness of existence without God(s). 

An Affair with Comparative Literature

Now, let's fast forward: 2011. I started my MA in Comparative Literature in UP. I had a crisis, I must admit, when I first entered into the program; I asked myself: am I really fit to be in this course? Do I belong here? However, a year has passed and, having fairly good remarks from my profs, it convinced that I must be studying the right field. What I love about Comparative Literature (CL) is that it allows me to merge my "first-loves" in life: philosophy and literature. 

Sometimes, I'd end up feeling "so high" after my classes because I have learned a lot from my professors. I have read numerous books (sometimes I read 3 books in a week). Now of course it has also affected my health because I get obsessive in my quest for knowledge. But the greatest aspect about the program is that it allows me to celebrate my identity, first and foremost, as a Filipino and secondly, my being Southeast Asian. It expanded my world and knowledge which started from a very Western-oriented individual to embracing my Asian philosophical and literary roots. 

Asian Literature

I come from the "exoticized" Mindanao; so why choose Asian Literature as a major? The answer is I want to expand my niche and learn more about our neighbors. In CL, as much as possible, there is a need to be critical about the Western philosophies we have learned over time. I myself is a product of this very western thought. It is very painful to empty myself of it but it is necessary to understand my  true self, to understand where I come from. Through my numerous readings in CL, I must say that I am postcolonially trained; meaning I have been taught to DECONSTRUCT or participate in what Spivak calls "EPISTEMIC UPHEAVAL" in order to understand literary texts and (Western) philosophies. 

I have studied bits of Western philosophy; now is the time to explore an Asian counterpart or even perhaps VARIANTS of these philosophies. Right now, I am very fascinated about the idea of a hybridized knowledge, the conception of the third space,  and the insterteces of ideas. With the rapid globalization, I am interested in how knowledges are merged and reflected into a particular literary tradition or, just perhaps a basic piece of literature. It was the theorist HOMI BHABHA who said (this is not the exact phrase) : ONCE SITUATED, NO KNOWLEDGE IS EVER ABSOLUTE. This means that, once a thought is decontextualized from its origin (usually from its Western beginnings) and diffused to another setting (for instance, the colonized Philippines) then this concept/idea is transformed to particularly fit to realities of the Filipino setting. I think these metamorphoses of knowledge are very interesting to look at!

Back to Existentialism!

As I have claimed in this blog, I have officially freed myself from an existentialist view of the world. Because of Asian literature, I am able now to slowly distance myself from Western philosophy and beginning to explore Eastern/Asian thoughts. Now that I am beginning to familiarize and analyze with Asian texts, I am compelled to review my deeply rooted belief in Western philosophy and one of which is to examine my established notion of exitentialism. Last week , I read an early modern novel from China entitled Camel Xiangzi by a social realist writer, Lao She. Portrayed in the text is the fate of a rickshaw driver who, no matter what he does in life, is marred by misfortunes of poverty and the realities of his socioeconomic background.

Lao She, in this novel, wanted to examine the individualistic and existentialist self that has entered modern China in the early 20th century. Xiangzi is a rickshaw puller who believes that he has control over his life and that by just doing all good things, then he can achieve what he wants in his lifetime. This appeals to be an existentialist thought because it advocates that the character believes that with his individual toil and honesty/goodness (innate) in his behavior, he will be able to derive and achieve a meaningful life -- a life he  perceives to be within his control.

Death of Existentialism in Asian Context

However, it seems that Lao She wanted to negate existentialist concept with the fate of the character in the novel. Though this is not much highlighted in the book, it seems that individualism is discouraged simply because oppressed people need each other to rise up against the abuses of capitalist industries. EXISTENTIALISM therefore cannot exist when a country, like the Philippines for instance, do not present the right condition or environment for the possiblity of the philosophy's existence. In other words, PEOPLE MUST BE FREE FIRST FROM THEIR SOCIOECONOMIC CHAINS THAT IMPRISONS THEM AND THE COLONIAL OUTLOOK WHICH HINDERS THEIR WAYS OF THINKING BEFORE EXISTENTIALISM CAN POSSIBLY BE EVEN THOUGHT OF!

Existentialism was possible in Europe because the EXISTING ENVIRONMENT permits it to be PRACTICED within that specific context, where people are able to realize and freely exercise their potentials; for instance, they are well-off to explore what they want to do in life or they are FREE from colonial exploits unlike postcolonial nations who are in trouble with their shattered cultural identities. Existentialism is NOT APPLICABLE in a poverty stricken Philippines where, no matter how the poor WANTS TO CREATE MEANING IN LIFE AND ESSENCE -- THEY CANNOT; particularly because socioeconomic circumstances hinders them from exercising a deeper look into the self. EXISTENTIALISM, which is also very individualist, forgets that there are those (esp. coming poor peripheral contries) whose EXISTENCE are not even RECOGNIZED precisely because they belong to one of the lowest strata in society (e.g. subaltern minorities).

Finally, because today's awakening enables me to contextualize a particularly European philosophy, now I am back from the start in searching another view of existence. I am happy because I have freed myself from a particular dogma or philosophical chain. It is liberating, really. The challenge now for me is to again, participate in the quest for meaning (not propelled of course by religious dogma) and to find out truth about life and the self. Back to zero, as they say. But whatever, I do not refuse learning! So for now, I am taking a break -- celebrating and writing with drunken happiness about the death of my existentialist self. 

(P.S. Right now, I am really interested still in looking at how existentialism is being accomodated, perceived,and reflected in Asian literary texts. Now that Western philosophy is practically dispersed around the world, then it is just right to look at the metamorphoses of these philosophies as they are particularized in Asian texts and context; my interest in particular is SE Asian lit, of course. Exciting dba!). 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Back to Poetry (#5 - UP Diliman Series)

(Poem for Arne's birthday)

With light, the darkest blue
not of sea or sky, but of earth
viewed from space, conscious
of its life.

In darkness, the deepest green
not of leaves or moss, but of jade
bought from trade, precious
on the palm.

Light or dark, the pale world
of your face is hued for life:

of earth and jade, they say
light plays with color, but only I
of course, can speak of hues
altering brightness; of colors
changing nights to life 

for life, all
for life.

til Arne 07/08/13

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"To talk planet-talk" in Spivak's Death of a Discipline

In Robert Clements's Introduction to Comparative Literature, I pointed  as a critique of his work – that the attempt to trace the genealogy of comparative literature lacks explication on the very purpose of comparing national literatures worldwide. Why, I asked, is there a need juxtapose bodies of literature when it merely echoes the dominance and hegemonic influence of the West? 

Interestingly, Spivak’s Death of a Discipline provides possibility to free ourselves from that question. It provides an account that traces the origin of the institutionalization of comparative literature vis-à-vis area/cultural/postcolonial studies as a product of “forces of people moving about the world” (e.g the cold war, the flight of intellectuals from oppressive regimes, and the rise of Asian migration in the US). Moreover, globalizing forces, with its exploitative and dominating qualities, have inescapably mapped the computerized world in the “gridwork of electronic capital”. 

In facing this reality, Spivak compels us to overwrite the globe and think “planetarity”. The appeal of this idea, in my view, lies in our capacity to imagine: to visualize an escape of what seemingly is an inescapable cartography by capitalists of the computerized globe. Thinking “planetarity” means imagining ourselves not as global subjects, but as planetary species that dwell on the planet being loaned to us. 

In Spivak’s words, “to talk planet talk” in the “undivided ‘natural’ space rather than a differentiated political space” involves visualization of the earth as a “paranational image” (72). While this idea seems absurdly abstract and utopian, it remains a radically challenging concept that provides hope for resistance when everything seems inescapable in the globalizing earth. 

But then, how to ensure that this abstract imagining of the planet will not be again charted by capitalist cartographers of the globe? 

Of course nothing escapes the imagination, especially not the canniest uncanny thought of resistance and action. As I recall in Nietzchean philosophy – On the Genealogy of Morals – there is an instance in history where the “imaginary” triumphs over the dominant and oppressive. It is through the concept of ressentiment or resentment where the oppressed (Judeo-Christian slaves) stage an “imaginary revolt” against the oppressors (Roman masters) by labeling their values of strength and power as “evil”. 

Because of its symbolic and imagined qualities, ressentiment or internalized hatred is central to the later ascendance of the slave’s “good” morality. I can only assume that Spivak’s “planetarity” also believes in the kind of power that imagination leads society to resist and triumph over the destructiveness of capitalist cartography. 

The challenge though is to outmatch capitalist creativity, for it too has its own ability to materialize what is abstract and what is intangible. For instance, our imaginings of love, freedom, and nationhood are already unable to escape the capitalistic commodification of the abstract; how much more the imagination of the planet? 

Of course, Spivak provides us with strategies, from the obscurity of her writing to letting ourselves be imagined by others, without guarantees. But then, talking “planet-talk” will, sooner or later, be expectedly subjected to decoding and appropriation, by which capitalists are notorious for. And so, inasmuch as Spivak tells us that the outcome is “uncertain” or “to come”, it must arrive in haste before everything is too late.

Reference: Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.  
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