Asia's Christian-Latin Nation? - Postcolonial Reconfigurations in the Literature of the Philippines

By Ney, Stephen | Cross / Cultures, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Asia's Christian-Latin Nation? - Postcolonial Reconfigurations in the Literature of the Philippines


Ney, Stephen, Cross / Cultures


A POSTCOLONIAL CRITIQUE OF LITERATURE - EVEN, IRONICALLY, of postcolonial literature - is easy to formulate. An oft-cited text in this regard is Gauri Viswanathan's MasL· of Conquests (1989), which argues that English literature, as a body of texts associated with a certain morality, history, and educational system, was not just deployed but actually formed as part of the British colonial project in India. Viswanathan shows that Christian missionaries in India also had a hand in defining what English literature came to mean in India and, ultimately, internationally. Viswanathan's argument here recalls the work of her teacher Edward Said, in that it urges us to read literary texts as worldly; and the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in that it urges us to insist on teaching novels, plays, or poems in the light of the histories of domination that have left their mark on the texts, and to which the texts themselves have at times contributed. Walter Mignolo adds to this postcolonial critique of postcolonial literature by charging literary educators that

instead of assuming that there is something called literature [they should strive, when they compare literary works, to] illuminate the processes by which certain aural and visual practices came to be conceived as literature and bestowed with the coloniality of power.1

In this essay, I raise the question of the place of Christianity in those processes.

Jacques Derrida, in his later years, gave this question some thought as he meditated on the cultural institutions that define Europe. Is there not something undeniably Christian about the institution that we call literature? Like the scholars I have already mentioned, Derrida wants to show that the category of literature is contingent, not necessary, and that it has a specific history. In Demeure: Fiction and Testimony he works to de-universalize 'literature' by suggesting that it may only exist because of the universalizing thrust of Christian latinity - which is to say, of Christendom.2 Derrida is responding here to the word 'literature', which in European languages can be traced back to the Latin litterae, the intellectual resources of a literate elite. Literature, then, names texts that comprise a reference point for, and a mode of transmission of, the aesthetic, moral, and historical judgments that Matthew Arnold would call culture. In the view Derrida suggests, literature does not go back to the first Homo sapiens but does go back further than the German Romantics who promoted the idea of a national canon and the Protestant Reformers who promoted the printed text. It arose side-by-side with the Christian-Roman empire, and for that reason Derrida notes that what we today call "Japanese literature" or "Third World literature" is a radical redefinition of the word. In Donner la mort, Derrida acknowledges what many call the secularization of literature - for few texts in today's literature classes are committed to a Christian orthodoxy or a latinate global civilization - but insists nonetheless that literature remains one of the remains of religion, a link to and a substitute for sacrosanctity in a society without God.3 Modern literature is therefore, Derrida says elsewhere, always asking for forgiveness "for having forgotten or betrayed the Christian origin of literature, of writing."4

If there's any truth to this, how does the field of postcolonial literary studies respond? Resist literature? Recuperate literature from Christian latinity? We have worked hard on recuperating literature from latinity. Our strategies have been, on one hand, to demonstrate that writing that situates itself outside the genealogy of European classics is not necessarily deficient in any of the qualities taken as defining literature and, on the other, to expose the canon of so-called great literature as by and large a construct, the product of a particular context, subject to the influence of various political and social powers. …

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