Towards a planetary approach to Western literary cannons
The word ‘planetary’ I know sounds somewhat pompous,but this is actually a development from my use of the term chuch’ejŏk, ‘subjective’ in the sense of independent or self-reliant, which is very hard to translate into English. The word ‘subjectivity’ doesn’t really work in English, the German word Subjektivität does somewhat better. In any case, what we are aiming at is a self-reliant, independent approach to literature which aims to be as objective as possible, and the presence of the term ‘subjectivity’ somehow blurs this attention toward greater objectivity. So I come to adopt the term ‘planetary’ in the sense that this, if successful, would really be the more global and objectively valid readings than what is usually offered by the critics and scholars of the metropolis as the universal readings. The idea is that what they offer is really a parochial Euro-centric version, and we are trying to revise that toward a more truly global or planetary interpretation. There are obvious hazards nowadays of any attempt at a positive appraisal of the canonical works of Western literature. This is doubly so because first, historically, such works have been used to vindicate the so-called universal validity of Western values and to justify colonial domination of the non-western world. Secondly, because the very idea of the cannon as an exclusive set of classics has been challenged by various theorists and practitioners of postmodernism, post-colonialism, cultural studies, and so on.
I think what I have said so far goes for the traditional canonical works of East Asia as well. Here in East Asia with the waning of the exclusive authority of the Confucian and other classical texts, we are facing a situation of great fluidity, even confusion, regarding candidates for a canonical list. And I think this provides a vivid example of the cannon as a site of contestation in the present. In going through this process of contestation, we must beware both any blind adherence to the traditional valuations and the temptation to indulge in the kind of ‘resistant reading’ abetted by a new form of hegemonic discourse of the West, which induces us to disregard the emancipatory potential inherent both in Eastern and Western canonical works precisely at the moment when we have begun to acquire the intellectual and material resources to realize that potential.
Now, one source of confusion regarding the canon in East Asian literatures is the need for acceptance or recognition by the readers in the core areas. But such recognition usually entails incorporation into their ‘universal’ value systems, whether these be of the traditional or post-colonial kind. On the other hand, merely highlighting the inimitable local characteristics, for instance how a particular work specifically reflects the local situations and so on, is no answer, for the hegemonic discourse will either pay no attention at all, or attend to them merely as elucidations of that particular local scene that they choose to take interest in for their own reasons. Only a planetary reading that has proved its mettle by providing a fuller, more persuasive reading of the canonical works of the West, can go beyond the dichotomy of universalism and localism, and mobilize the full, artistic and human potential in our own literary creations, whether these are classics of the past or contemporary productions.
Paik Nak-chung is Professor Emeritus of English at Seoul National University, and the registered editor of The Changbi Quarterly.