chapter  4
The Archipelagos of Taiwan literature: comparative methods and island writings in Taiwan
Pages 20

We compare literatures somewhat like Charles Darwin’s islands. In his travel in the Galapagos Archipelago, Darwin notices how finches on different islands develop different beaks in accordance to their environments. Comparing, and searching for a rule of differences, Darwin then develops the theory explaining the origin of species. Yet he needs first to recognize the islands. He recounts his first impression of the archipelago thus: “I never dreamed that islands, about fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them in sight of each other, formed of precisely the same rocks, placed under a quite similar climate, rising to a nearly equal height, would have been differently tenanted” (1845: 394).1 Thus he does not initially comprehend the useful units of comparison until he realizes later that the variations of finches are consistent with their island locations, and that “each variety is constant in its own Island,” as Darwin remarks in his notebook (qtd. in Sulloway 1982: 12). This realization makes islands the ideal laboratories for his theory. Isolated and small, an island seems to secure coherence and consistency among its specimens. The ostensible similarities between the islands prove a further advantage for him to locate simple variables that determine differences.2

Islands are the perfect units of comparison. We compare in the same way; we locate islands of comparability and seek

new forms of knowledge from the rules of differences and similarities. Here, by islands as allegorical models for comparison, I mean all manageable entities of bounds. The island may be Taiwan, Taiwan literature, Sinophone literature, etc, wherever we establish certain consistency within the unit-where all finches have the same kind of beak. Like Darwin’s islands, then, these conceptual islands may meet others in comparison, through which comparatists aspire for a new theory. “Comparatizing Taiwan” assumes such consistency in the term “Taiwan,”

if we understand the verb “to comparatize” as to put Taiwan in comparison with an other. However, if a comparison is always between several things or several “islands,” the singular attention we place on “Taiwan” demonstrates also a particular investment. As I will argue more fully later, in “comparatizing Taiwan,” we are hoping to gain recognition for Taiwan in the process of comparison. Conceiving comparison this way, we encounter two related

presuppositions: 1) that Taiwan is a stable entity, an island of consistency and 2) that, in comparing Taiwan with other entities, we seek further recognition for Taiwan. In the following pages I will examine and eventually critique these pre-

suppositions. I first look at the promises and problems of seeking recognition in comparison, both by examining a comparative project involving Taiwan and by parsing through theoretical contemplations of Pheng Cheah, R. Radhakrishnan, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. The project I undertake to examine concerns the possible comparison between Taiwan’s island writings with those from the Pacific. I will look at the rewards of such a project as well as the pitfalls, including misrecognition and misrepresentation, along with readings of Cheah, Radhakrishnan, and Spivak. I argue that we will find ourselves in a dilemma, in which we need to either give up comparison and recognition in order to preserve the integrity and stability of the comparative entity, or surrender some degree of integrity, allowing the comparative entity to be reconfigured in accordance with the dynamics of comparison and recognition. This dilemma points to the problematic nature of the first presumption,

that Taiwan, or any comparative entity, has a stability and coherence independent of the comparative process, that we should treat them as islands of bounds. Continuing to take the island writings of Taiwan as an example, I will first refute this presumption on the ground of its inaccuracy. Taiwan is not a singular island, allegorically or literally. The geopolitical term, Taiwan, includes marginal islands such as the Green Island, the P’eng-hu archipelago, Lan-yu, or the clusters of military islets close to its sea borders. Allegorically, the literary culture of Taiwan does not possess a coherent unity either. The three writers of islands that I read in this paper-indigenous Tao writer Syaman Rapongan,3 Sinophone Malaysian writer Ng Kim-chew, and Han Taiwanese writer Wang Ts’ung-wei-attest to the contestation of meaning and the rejection of center in Taiwan literature. The three writers approach islands and the island of Taiwan from distinct positions that cannot be cohered into singular understandings of islands and Taiwan. Their writings depict islands in fluctuating relations that are variously embodied, nihilistic, or pathetic. The presumption of coherence thus seems facile and affected. As an alternative, I propose that we imagine comparative entities, no longer

as islands, but as archipelagos. This is to say that we see those involved in comparison as fields of relations, containing various elements, where the fields’ characteristics and integrity arise through shifting negotiations and ongoing comparisons among their internal elements. My proposition here serves the dual purpose of allowing instability and complexity within each term, while maintaining its positive identity that makes comparison with others still meaningful. An archipelago is a group of islands that, while allowing singularities in each island, connects the islands into relations across the stretch of water. An archipelago is arbitrary and malleable; while similarities or proximity may dictate the groupings of islands in an archipelago, politics, cultures, languages, or histories have equal sway over our perceptions on the

formulation of an archipelago. The model of the archipelago both affirms existing relations and allows negotiations; it is both a positive term and an open field of negotiation. My model of archipelago therefore suggests a second process of compar-

ison, which searches inside each term for relational networks among its participating elements. The relation between islands in an archipelago as I define above constitutes an essential comparativity. If comparison creates a new plane of knowledge through juxtaposing different terms, each term emerges already as such a plane of exchange where the relation between its participants may be understood comparatively. In this sense, “comparatizing Taiwan” may mean understanding Taiwan as such a field of comparison, or an archipelago of relations. I will argue that the three writers examined in this approach Taiwan by circuitous routes that approximate this understanding. For them, Taiwan seems to emerge only when they sketch complex relations around and within it. At the end of the chapter, I will work through the interactions between the

internal comparison I propose here and the external comparison with which I open the chapter. I will propose new ways to think about recognition, arguing that the concept of archipelagos frees us from limitations in the politics of recognition and allows for more fluid and potentially more egalitarian processes of comparison. Before we move into these projections, however, we will first take a closer look at the nature and problems of external comparisons through the theories of recognition and the comparative project between island writings of Taiwan and the Pacific. In the 2009 special issue of New Literary History on comparison, several

critics qestion how comparison contributes to or hinders recognition. As recognition involves the relation between self and other, and inevitably the power structure of validation and membership, for these critics, comparative methods constitute political acts that aspire to equalize power. It is on this ground that comparison is both valued and cautioned against. Through his reading of continental philosophy and Southeast Asian anti-

colonial novels, Cheah suggests how comparison affects different modes of political consciousness in regard to self and other. The continental philosophers of his reading posit that the encounter with an other and the act of comparison enable self-reflection in the originally enclosed consciousness, enforcing the egotistical consciousness to admit the valid presence of others. Although, according to Cheah’s reading, for Rousseau the dialectics of mutual recognition and validation implies the accompanying possibility of vanity and self-centeredness as the drives for comparison, the German idealists resolve the issue with the teleological projection of universal collectivity: comparison, however motivated, contributes to collective historical progress. For Kant and Hegel, therefore, comparison enables the inclusion and recognition of others in cosmopolitan knowledge, creating a utopian commonality that Hegel (1977) terms Weltgeist. While these philosophies may apply most obviously to the already privileged and the powerful, Cheah argues that

comparison also allows the powerless to gain self-awareness and the desire for equality. According to Cheah, the colonized subjects become aware of inequality, oppression, and power structure only in comparison. In the novels he examines, the ability for the colonized to compare the differences between native conditions and European ideals is the first spark of revolutionary consciousness. Allowing the colonized to recognize their oppression, comparison then urges the colonized subjects to spread that recognition among other colonized as well as to insist on recognition from the colonizers through acts of rebellion. While Radhakrishnan also comments on the self-other dynamics in com-

parison, he proposes another process of recognition. He argues that, in the ideal scenario of comparison, “the two works to be compared are deterritorialized from their ‘original’ milieu and then reterritorialized so that they may become cospatial, epistemologically speaking” (2009: 457). Assuming that, before comparison, each work belongs to distinct contexts, to make comparison between the two implies the creation of a new plane of understanding on which both may produce meaning together. In this sense, to participate in comparison implies an initial degree of recognition, although the specific rules of recognition will depend on the negotiations between each participant on this new plane of comparison. However, the centrality of recognition in comparison also implies its risk.

While comparison desires to correct the imbalance of power through recognition, the existing hierarchy of power may more effectively dominate comparison, subsuming the process of recognition to enforce the status quo. As Spivak puts it: