working through the contradictions

working through the contradictions

E. SAN JUAN’S new book: WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press)

Cultural Theory and Critical Practice in the age of Globalization

Dept of English
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

At the beginning of his witty and thought-provoking _After Theory_, Terry Eagleton inventories the ways in which the “cultural turn” in theory has unfolded and centered on localized, consuming bodies:

“Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics they were. What is sexy instead is sex. On the wilder shores of academia, an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing. In some cultural circles, the politics of masturbation exert far more fascination than the politics of the Middle East. Socialism has lost out to sado-masochism. Among students of culture, the body is an immensely fashionable topic, but it is usually the erotic body, not the famished one. There is a keen interest in coupling bodies, but not in labouring ones. Quietly spoken middle-class students huddle diligently in libraries, at work on sensationalist subject like vampirism and eye-gouging, cyborgs and porno movies” (2-3).

According to Eagleton, this particular development in theory has enabled teachers and students of Cultural Studies to engage the pleasures (the politics of consumption) of everyday life, “only at the risk of losing their ability to subject it to critique.” Given the current state of theory, Eagleton asks, “[w]hat kind of fresh thinking does this new era demand?”

In response to the nihilism of our current post-9-11 period-- the age of corporate capitalism and intensified U.S. imperial hegemony-- prolific Filipino cultural theorist E. San Juan, Jr. offers _Working through the Contradictions: From Cultural Theory to Critical Practice_, a collection of classic and new essays.

San Juan provides insightful, innovative, and fresh thinking that opens critical spaces for us to imagine new ways of resituating desire beyond the boundaries of individual consumption and toward the realm of collective social transformation and spiritual renewal. What marks San Juan’s project as “different” in our contemporary intellectual landscape of “end-isms” (end of theory, end of history, end of ideology, etc.) is its commitment to a liberatory vision for genuine social change and freedom.

In his introduction, San Juan explains: “My project here is to affirm [that]… alternatives exit… We face hard choices every day as we shoulder the nightmarish burden of history. Although there are no guarantees one way or the other, it bears repeating that the world is open for us to re-invent or construct anew, and the future is here for us to shape if we dare imagine it, in accord with our collective desire for equality, justice, happiness, and liberation.”

_Working through the Contradictions_ is divided into three parts: Embarkations, Trajectories, and Rendezvous. In part one, San Juan embarks on the project of dialectically seizing the contradictions of contemporary globalization in relation to the current state of Cultural Studies and American Studies. Examining Marx, Engels (his unique contribution to theorizing aesthetics and cultural politics), Lukacs, Gramsci, and Raymond Williams, San Juan generates a genealogy of historical materialist thought, which provides the foundation for an insurgent model of Cultural Studies. In the final chapter of this section, San Juan meditates on “Third World” articulations of surrealism (Cesaire, Vallejo, etc.), an aesthetics of subversion.

In part two, San Juan turns to Frantz Fanon as a cultural critic, whose writings enable us to confront racial injustice on a global scale (or what African American scholar-activist Manning Marable calls global apartheid) as well as to engage the on-going necessity of national liberation and self-determination for those in the Global South and in the internal colonies of the United States.

Pushing against orthodox postcolonialism, San Juan’s re-assessment of Fanon brings the U.S. Empire to the fore in a way that sheds light on the repressed history of U.S.-Philippines relations-- the latter was brutally colonized by the former at the turn of the 20th century (Spanish American War, 1898; Filipino American War, 1899-1914).

Part three reveals various ways in which subalterns have always spoken. Currently, 10 million Filipino migrant workers (female and male laboring bodies) are dispersed around the globe. In this final section of the book, San Juan concretizes his insurgent model of Cultural Studies by examining the counterhegemonic narratives of Filipino migrant workers; assessing the works of Toni Morrison, Kiana Davenport, David Henry Hwang; considering philosopher Benedict de Spinoza’s “principle of the inalienability of human rights [which] can renew the impulse for reaffirming the ideal of radical, popular democracy.” San Juan uses Spinoza to help us understand new forms of racialization in our post 9-11 era, especially with regard to multiple forms of racist violence (racial profiling, deportations, violations of civil liberties) directed at Asian American communities.

In the Afterword, San Juan explores how the work of progressive African American writer and journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal (imprisoned on death row since 1982) embodies Spinoza’s concept of freedom: “Genuine freedom always involves a collective process of becoming-free.”

In this stunning collection of essays, E. San Juan, Jr. -- one of our most important Filipino/Asian American critical thinkers and scholar-activists-- addresses an astoundingly wide range of issues and debates within Cultural Studies in our age of globalization.

_Working through the Contradictions_ (with a Foreword by literary critic Barbara Harlow) is useful for all teachers and students in Cultural Studies, U.S. Ethnic and Racial Studies, American Studies, Comparative Literary Studies, Critical Theory, Globalization Studies, Women’s Studies, and U.S. Empire Studies. We may find answers to Eagleton’s question about the future of theory in _Working through the Contradictions_.