DILIMAN SOUVENIRS: Charles Sanders Peirce’s Interpretants and the Return of the Suppressed (13 Feb 2018)
by E. San Juan, Jr., Visiting Professor of English, U.P. Diliman, Quezon City (Jan-March 2018)
Magandang Hapon sa ating lahat!
First of all, I would like to thank Chancellor Michael Tan 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 helmsman, the experienced cartographer, charting the troubled waters of our graduate seminar in literary theory. It has been a learning experience for me, rereading Saussure, Jakobson, Lacan, Barthes, Irigaray, Derrida, 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.
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 Alfredo Lagmay, Cesar Majul, etc. After finishing graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I taught again in 1966-67 when famous Amboy 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 snapshot of the Fifties: My first teachers in English 1 were Prof Elmer Ordonez whose memorable assignment was to comment on Ivan Bunin’s “The Gentleman from San Francisco” included in the old pocketbook anthology 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.
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 me as an English major 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 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 writing courses was dominated by one single book, Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, took members of the class to attend the Manila Court hearing of the libel suit againt Estrella Alfon for the obscenity of her story, “Fairy Tale of the City.” That conveyed to me the undeniable embeddedness 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 enraged by my comments.
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–was the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement 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, was still largely traditional formalist commentary, evincing a lag, nonsynchronized with the structuralist and post-structuralist tide that swept the academy from 1968 to 1986.
The influence of the changes that occurred, in particular the revision of the canon, and the transformation of critical standards–the eruption of feminist, ethnic, and subaltern/people-of-color agencies in the social text–overturned my previous empiricist, New Critical horizon.
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 many, it will be reprinted by 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. This will be my excuse to transit to the problem of semiotics based on the Saussurean paradigm that
orients both structuralist and postmodernist thinking (including postcolonial criticism) so fashionable still, though Derrida has been replaced by Butler, in the metropolitan and neocolonized institutions of higher learning
Even before May 1968, the deluge of the dancing signifiers began. A crucial event is the 1967 Johns Hopkins Conference on “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” where the archpriests of poststructuralism (Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, 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 andanti-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 andd submissive to the cool, hedonistic and insubordinate. If there was widespread disaffection, there was also visionary hope” (825).
The present seemed then “the herald of a new future,t he 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.
To understand this re-arrangement of 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 and meaning as produced by systematic differences. Its divorce from objective reality seems assumed, though parole/speech seems somewhere out there defying lawful order and any fixed rule. Bakhtin was unheard of, and Jakobson forgotten. Meanwhiile, the entrance 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.
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 emphasis on 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.
I reminded the 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/Heideggerian theorizing applied by Derrida, De Man, Hartman, Spivak, and their huge academic following. Jakobson’sformula 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 Jacobson and 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 the occasions of language speaking; they are not the author’s psyche, or a representation of its subjectivity. The narrators of Proust’s novel, or of Ulysses, are generated by the textual machine.
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?