- Legitimizing Empire: Filipino American and U.S. Puerto Rican Cultural Critique by Faye Caronan
Legitimizing Empire: Filipino American and U.S. Puerto Rican Cultural Critique
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 208 pages.
Why compare? And why now? In the wake of the transnational turn in area studies wherein borders that constrain knowledge are opened up, such questions may appear outdated. Their implications, however, remain robust especially for the future of comparison in the Global South. Faye Caronan's Legitimizing Empire: Filipino American and U.S. Puerto Rican Cultural Critique shows us why.
In the West the comparative imagination has a relatively long history. The discipline of comparative literature, for example, flourished in the US after the Second World War, a development that coincided with the escalation of the Cold War, during which the culture of others became an integral part of statecraft and international diplomacy. More recently, American studies—the larger field within which Caronan's work is situated—has seen the rise of transnationalism, expanding the investigation of US history and culture to include those of other state formations in the age of globalization. The literature embodying such developments that put comparison front and center is too broad to be enumerated here.
But such breadth cannot be said about Philippine studies, a field that Legitimizing Empire also addresses, whose emergence as an academic domain corresponded with the rise of comparative literature on US shores after the Second World War. It is not unfair to say that comparison has yet to find its rightful place in the study of Philippine society, history, and culture. The late Benedict Anderson, himself a comparatist, gestured toward this possibility in The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World (Verso, 2001). The title of his book comes from no less than José Rizal, a point that may suggest the deep roots of comparative imagination in Filipino consciousness. But comparative scholarly studies done by local scholars are still hard to come by in the Philippines.
This lack is ironic given the ecological and cultural diversity of the archipelago, a condition that suggests quite the opposite. Given such a diverse ecology and culture, the lay of the Filipino mind should be comparative, so to speak. The reality, however, could not be more untrue. Consider the lack of comparison in literary studies, which is rather bizarre given the fact [End Page 395] that Filipino scholars—Bienvenido Lumbera comes to mind—had been formally trained in comparative literature at American universities as early as the 1960s. Indeed, comparative literary studies remains marginal in Filipino scholarship, especially those that tackle American themes alongside Filipino questions. Since the publication of Lucilla Hosillos's Philippine–American Literary Relations, 1898–1941 (University of the Philippines Press) in 1969, for example, nothing similar has been done by a Filipino scholar on this side of the Pacific.
Such a lack is a scandal given the prominence of American influence on Philippine history in the last hundred or so years. Caronan's work is accordingly significant in that it throws open the underlying principles that define cultural relations between the Philippines and the US. What is more, she includes another dimension that expands the scope of comparison—the case of Puerto Rico, a US Commonwealth.
The origins of Legitimizing Empire go back to Caronan's undergraduate years at Cornell University, when she heard fellow students in the Latino Studies Resource Center talking about US colonialism in Puerto Rico while she was poring over an article by E. San Juan Jr in the nearby Asian American Resource Center. Caronan would later pursue the connections between the Philippines and Puerto Rico while completing her dissertation at the University of California, San Diego. The final product is Legitimizing Empire, Caronan's first book.
Legitimizing Empire argues that US exceptionalism has delegitimized, and therefore neutralized, the critiques that are expressed in cultural texts produced by people of color, primarily Filipino American and US Puerto Rican. Looking comparatively at novels, documentary films, performance poetry, travelogues, and travel guides, Caronan illuminates the workings of US exceptionalism and highlights the deep but concealed connections that not only bind the two diasporic communities with...