My photo
ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

LOL Literatures in Other Languages: Literariness

08 January 2009
Philosophers get away with answering the question "What is philosophy?" with the serious answer "Philosophy is what philosophers do." Similarly, literary theorists define literariness as "what makes literature literature." The term is usually attributed to the Russian Formalists, who were early 20th century critics, but the concept can be traced all the way back to Aristotle and even to the earlier Chinese literary theorists. Like all ideas, literariness has had its share of detractors, the most common insisting that it does not exist, i.e., that there is nothing particularly unique about literature. Some critics claim that everything written is literature (as in "Review of the Literature" in a scientific journal article). Some claim that even everything not written is literature (as in saying that we can read a silent film or read a person or read the traffic in a city). Some scientists have countered by experimentally proving that it exists (see, for example, Miall and Kuiken 1999). I welcome such empirical moves to defend the notion of literariness, but I prefer to take the logically circular route: literariness is what makes a literary text literary. You cannot argue against a circular definition because there is no way to break into the circle. It is like what the Structuralists used to say about language: take any dictionary of any language and you will realize that a dictionary is always self-referring (if you look up every word in any definition and follow it through every word defining it in turn, you will eventually end up with the original word being defined). What seems clear is that, if there is such a thing as literariness, it must have something to do with language, and if it has to do with language, then using a second language must have something to do with literariness.
Posted by Isagani R. Cruz at 3:19 AM

Albert B. Casuga said...
How must "literariness" be defined for it to mean the quality of some piece of writing? If language is the primary equipment of "literature", what kind of language must be used to express literariness? Is it "charged language"? Is it content "objectified" as "slices of life" in order to "subjectify" an experience that assumes "meaning" in order to engender an aesthetic reaction or appreciation (in various levels of consciousnss or even subconsciousness).

Language, a fortiori, is the primary cause of literariness. Units of meaning in terms of figures of thought and of language shape what is referred to as "achieved content." It seems to me that the better question is whether or not the use of a "second language" can create "literariness" in a piece of literature written by one who has a first language or a "lingua franca".

When I wrote my earliest poems in Ilocano, were they "more literary" than when I used Spanish or English in my later works? Are my aesthetic experiences better nuanced in my childhood language (Ilocano) than in my professional language as a newsman, an academic, and as a creative writer? Are my Ilocano poems more authentic than my Spanish or English poems. Are the latter inchoate because the language used is learned later in life?

As far as I am concerned, I write in the English I learned from school, from reading, from teaching, from writing, and from living in a milieu where it is used to communicate in order to form relationships. I do a better job being "literary" in this second language which has become my first language.

I regret not having acquired proficienecy in Japanese (another colonizer's language) which might have given me a broader dimension of creativity and world view together with the other languages I found myself surrounded with as spoken by my Cartilla-educated abuelos and abuelas, Filipino-American-educational-system-educated parents, and colleagues who tried to write and speak in American as opposed to the King's English I favoured.

Your conclusion about second language having something to do with "literariness" seems to be a tautology -- in that one produces literary literature in whatever language he feels competent in defining whatever phenomena he wishes to use as a manner of "knowing" his "being' and "becoming" as well as shaping up an epistemological construct he could share with any number of audiences/readers. More next time. -- ALBERT B. CASUGA

23 January, 2009 10:24

LOL Literatures in Other Languages: Casuga on literariness

25 January 2009
Casuga on literariness
Canada-based poet and critic Albert Casuga posted a comment on my entry on "Literariness" (8 January 2009). He asked, not necessarily rhetorically, "When I wrote my earliest poems in Ilocano, were they 'more literary' than when I used Spanish or English in my later works?" This is the core issue of interest to this blog. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Albert. Not being competent in Ilocano, I cannot answer the question myself as far as your own works are concerned, but on a theoretical (perhaps, meta-theoretical) plane, I have to say that there must be some way to tell if a work is "more literary" than another, and if language is crucial to literariness, then there must be a general principle that can apply to the literariness of works in non-mother tongues. What that general principle is, I do not know, but I hope that readers, writers, and philosophers around the world will start trying to discover or to formulate it.
Posted by Isagani R. Cruz at 4:41 AM

Albert B. Casuga said...
How is one work "more literary" than another? The use of language, for one, should be indicator. Assuming that the writer is competent in the use of his medium (language in all its forms -- written or oral), his expression must necessarily lead to an aesthetic reaction or appreciation of his "achieved" content. Functions of "literary" literature I alluded to earlier in this blog should be palpable in the work because they are determinable in the empirical form (poem, story, novel, drama, etc.) from the language, structure, and even ideographic presentation on the page, screen, or other visual equipment.

Does the literary work fulfill valuative functions; e.g., focusing on the significance of a human condition, arriving at a precise definition of an aesthetic experience, and fulfilling the ultimate function of "knowing phenomena, realities (essential and existential), truths -- from metaphysical to cosmological -- everything that is relevant to one's sustenance of man's right/privilege to "know" and to "name" circumstances or adjuncts of his essence and existence. Will the literary work help the reader discover facets of his humanity he is otherwise poorer without?

I dare say that these should be enough to make a work more "literary" than another. After all, to use language, to write literature, is an extension of "knowing" and a "reaching out" to dimensions that may not be within the corporeal reach of writer and reader.

The primary equipment of this function is language as it shapes up an objective correlative to house all stimuli to the aesthetic response that only homo sapiens/ homo symbolicus are capable of. Plots, settings, characters, figures of thought and language are all part of this epistemological construct -- the writer's skill in interlacing them into a meaningful "being" that is a sum total of all the processes of "becoming" is an act only the author can conjure.

Is there strong evidence of creation? Is it art not artifice? Is it alive not stale? Is it worth the trouble at all? If the piece of literature precents evidences of these, it must be "more literary" than another. Because language is crucial to literariness, a universal principle of "competence, efficiency, and artistry" must characterize its use by the writer in either mother or borrowed tongue. -- ALBERT B. CASUGA

29 January, 2009