On Edel Garcellano (1): Philippine Literature and Class War

This is not a lecture note but is a part of a shelved project, a monograph on Edel Garcellano’s criticism which I can’t continue at the moment. I’ll share what I have at hand in the meantime.

Edel Garcellano’s practice of literary criticism centers on locating literature as produced in the Philippines on the larger context of class struggle, or what he specifically calls class war. This follows a clearly articulated political line when it comes to writing: Garcellano invokes the use of Marxism in literary criticism not just an academic exercise but as an extension of the inevitable participation of the author and his words in this war. It is not within discourse, as much as Garcellano himself worried of, that the function of the word will be determined, but of who’s going to claim victory from this war. The class war isn’t invoked here as a merely discursive frame, but in the inverse, it is only through the class war that discourse is possible.

This critical frame follows a materialist approach to history. In this frame, literary production is looked at from the backdrop of what Amado Guerrero identified in his influential book, Philippine Society and Revolution, as the semifeudal and semicolonial society.[1] For Guerrero, this condition determines the relationship between the country’s economic base and superstructural relations. Or essentially, the relations of production. This status is determined by “U.S. imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism” the “three historical evils” which afflict the Philippine Society. Garcellano extends this analysis on his criticism of the function of the literary text under these conditions of imperialist, feudalist and bureaucratic domination as manifested by the institutions which enable the production of such texts. This thought came from a long history of understanding how institutions “enforce the code or ideology of the ruling class,”[2] from Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to Louis Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatuses. These institutions come in the form of workshops, publication networks, academic institutions, etc.

The institutions noted reproduces dominant social (exploitative) practices as much as it reproduces dominant ideology through the literary texts. Literary workshops, for example, reproduces its own “patriarchs” in the form of the workshop “elders.” A veteran writer, for example, also a resident workshop facilitator in a lot of writing soirees, is fond of being called by a word synonymous to “father,” reinforcing the feudal character of the society at large. Tilde Acuna remembered an instance when he was casually asked by someone during his attendance at the 2017 Philippine Writers Festival whether his “father” or “mother” is this or that professor.[3] These “godfathers” and “godmothers” gatekeep the dominant literary aesthetic through their “cult of mentorship.”[4]

Literary wards similarly look at the same gatekeeping. Garcellano looks at awards as “symbolic capital in the economy of exchange”[5] in the same manner as acceptance to literary workshops are a validation of capital as represented by its conveners. Awards and its winners enforces “a canon of what is possibly literature” by virtue of “particular school of writing and philosophizing[.]”[6] Further limiting any possibility of emergence of actually new forms is the gatekeeping under the canons of award-giving bodies what can only be considered and be accepted as literature.

Academic institutions further reproduce these conditions. Recent developments on the education of literature from primary to secondary school-levels solidify the institutionalization of literature by limiting what can be taught to what is identifiable only at the level of acknowledgment in National Artist circles. The Department of Education’s curriculum guideline on teaching the subject 21st Century Literature from the Philippines and the World specifically outlines as one of its goals to have the students learn of the “canonical authors and works of Philippine National Artists in Literature.”[7]

The thread of thought of which Garcellano’s critique of literary institutions flows functions also as an interrogation of the function of writing. The author, as produced by these institutions, also determines what the function of writing is. As already pointed out by Caroline Hau, the author in Garcellano’s critiques functions more as a “principle” which is “responsible for authorizing statements in and about literature.”[8] But this pronouncement of the role of the author does not really work towards his salvation for a possible revolutionary role, as Hau would state, Garcellano “uses the very concept of authorship to debunk the cult of authorial personality.”[9] This stance is reflective of Garcellano’s poststructuralist leanings throughout time but is grounded on the necessities specific to the character of the class struggle in the Philippines.

This practice of questioning the author also questions the function of the word.

As historically seen, writing works in parallel with functioning authority. As taught in primary education, archaeologists devoted a significant amount of time deciphering codes written in fossilized cuneiform and tablets. These codes are laws determining how the population of the earliest of the civilizations will be organized. Most popularly known of these is the Babylonian Law promulgated by the Sumerian King, Hammurabi who began his rule about 1750 BC.[10] The oldest yet discovered writing, is also a code, propagated by Ur-Nammu around 2050 BC.[11] The latest developments on the researches of the origins of writing further illuminate the historical use of writing for the official functions of authority. As one of the earliest written texts from Uruk provides a list of names of authorities and specialists, economic data, political and scholarly writings.[12]

The origins of the better known phonemic writing, the Alphabet, in itself has a similar function. The etymology itself of the term “alphabet” refers to the first two letters of the Greek writing system – the alpha and the beta – which indicates a sequence – a syntax, a rule. The Alphabet song concludes with the lines “Now I know my ABCs” which essentially refer to the basics of knowing by following a set of rules.

Garcellano’s structural critique of literature and literary institutions bears with it a theory of the function of the word: that writing is historically a functionary of authority. The source for the word author itself bears with him this history, the author as the originator, promulgator of laws, similar to the Lacanian name of the father in the oedipal relations of institutions.[13] Garcellano methodologically extended this analysis in three categorizations which he stated in his critique of Azucena Grajo Uranza’s Bamboo in the Wind. For Garcellano, the text must be read as: “1) a legitimate construction of ideological position, which realism dissimulates, or seemingly diffuses, 2) a possible extension and/or subversion of state ideological apparatus, which the establishment has already nullified, anyway, and 3) a perpetuation of universalizing discourse in Philippine hermeneutics.”[14] In this method, Garcellano follows an Althusserian approach to critical discourse analysis, that is, his method isn’t strictly that of the Foucauldian one, which underscores the exposure of structural construction of ideology through discourse, but rather one which brings critical discourse analysis back to a Marxist analysis of class structures.

Ideology, as understood here, isn’t simply a “belief-system” or as Engels’ false consciousness, but leaning towards the Althusserian understanding. For Althusser, ideology functions concretely at “the level of individual ‘subjects:’ that is, people as they exist in their concrete individuality, in their work, daily lives, acts, commitments, hesitations, doubts, and sense of what is most immediately self-evident.”[15] Ben Brewster clarified Althusser’s notion of ideology as “the ‘lived’ relation between men and the world,”[16] which is less of a metaphysical subject.

Mao Tse-tung has noted that “every form of ideology, has its own particular contradiction and particular essence.”[17] Garcellano’s criticism maps out the formations of totalizing and authoritative statements of writers, institutions, and literature as ideologically situated to the specific historical realities of the Philippines (as their particularity). Ideology is not here fleshed out in the writings as if hermeneutically embedded in poetry, but rather as practically manifested in their own words. As a critic, Garcellano underlines: “But where do we start but from the word?”[18]

But this, however, does not invite for a merely formalist mode of reading. As Garcellano continues, “the speaker of the word […] had to be resurrected,” to distance himself from Barthesian structuralism whose author has died (or was killed),[19] “because his pre-mature dissolution […] was, it turned out later, the contradiscourse of detractors who were terrified by the October revolution and those “mobs” that slew the Tzar.”[20] Garcellano here salvages formalism from its vulgarity and resolved it with structural analysis of the text – not with the linguistic structure, but the text as a product of literary labor and hence, being placed on the larger structure of mode of production, of base and superstructure relations. It must be acknowledged here that in Garcellano’s criticisms, the products of literary practice (the literary piece) and the practice of literary production (how one writes) are being scrutinized as one as they are being united by the text. And the text, the material, has its own origin in the author who “articulates from his own specific site/sight, his domain of power[.]”[21]

This site is the location of both the author and the text in the larger map of class structure. In his criticisms, Garcellano often ask, from where does the author/text speak? Garcellano treats literary criticism as “a rendering of reality mediated by a text that must be deconstructed and reconstructed to frame a truth in its own specificity and historic placement,” although, he warned that, “[y]es, every truth is a possible reading [or misreading]” which necessitates for the critic to also be read.[22] Surveying the field of class struggle, the author, critic, and the text are found not arbitrarily, but historically, serving the interest of their own class on their manner of reading/rereading and writing/rewriting.


[1] Amado Guerrero, Philippine Society and Revolution (Manila: Aklat ng Bayan, 2006), ##.

[2] Edel Garcellano, “Marxism, Feminism and the Literary Text: “The Difference of View, The Difference of Standard”” from First Person, Plural, (Quezon City: Edel E. Garcellano, 1987), 138-139.

[3] The complete passage is in strike-through text. See Tilde Acuna and Arlo Mendoza, Terorismo ng Texto & Ang Manunulat sa Panahon ng Sentimentalismo (Quezon City: Tilde Acuna, Arlo Mendoza, 2017), 31.

[4] For a longer discussion of the gangster-esque practice in literary circles, see Rogelo Braga, “Philippine Literary ‘Mafia’,” Facebook, October 7, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/notes/rogelio-braga/philippine-literary-mafia/195693597523775/

[5] Edel Garcellano, “Hopefully, the Last Word,” from Interventions (Manila: Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press, 1998), 159.

[6] Edel Garcellano, “A Reductive Letter to Imaginary Warriors: Or, Minor Subversions for Our Times” from Interventions (Manila: Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press, 1998), 8.

[7] See K to 12 Basic Education Curriculum for 21st Century Literature from the Philippines and the World, 2013. 1. <https://www.deped.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/SHS-Core_21st-Century-Literature-from-the-Philippines-and-the-World-CG.pdf>

[8] Caroline Hau, “Introduction” from Edel Garcellano, Knife’s Edge: Selected Essays (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2001), xvi.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Samuel Noah Kramer, History Begins at Sumer (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 51.

[11] Ibid, 52.

[12] See Ira Spar, “The Origins of Writing,” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–), <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/wrtg/hd_wrtg.htm> (October 2004).

[13] “It is in the name of the father that we must recognize the basis of the symbolic function which, since the dawn of historical time, has identified his person with the figure of the law.” Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2006). 230.

[14] Edel Garcellano, “Bamboo In The Wind and The Strategy of Containment,” from Interventions (Manila: Polytechnic University of the Philippines, 1998), 21.

[15] Louis Althusser, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London: Verso, 2006), 176.

[16] Ben Brewster, “Glossary” from Louis Althusser, For Marx (London: Verso, 2005), 265.

[17] Mao Tse-tung, “On Contradiction” from Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung Vol. 1, (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), 320.

[18] Edel Garcellano, “The Filipino as Critic in a Time of War” from Intertext (Manila: Kalikasan Press, 1990), 107.

[19] See Roland Barthes, “Death of the Author” from Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977) 42-48.

[20] Garcellano, “The Filipino as Critic in a Time of War,” 107

[21] Edel Garcellano, “Hermeneutics for our Time: From Where do We Speak?” from Intertext (Manila: Kalikasan Press, 1990), 46.

[22] Garcellano, “The Filipino as Critic in a Time of War,” 109.

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