Niccolo Vitug on the Latest Issue of Heights (Vol. 58, no. 2): A Critique of Chroma

On the Latest Issue of Heights
by Niccolo Vitug of the Ateneo English Deparment
Sunday, March 6, 2011 at 9:19am (Facebook)

A Critique of Chroma
(Heights Vol. 58, no. 2)

When I decided to finally write a critique of the Chroma issue of Heights, the official literary and artistic publication and organization of the Ateneo de Manila University, there were many things that came to mind – most of which having to do with how special Heights is to me, having been a member of the organization behind it during my student days and now being a teacher in the English Department. Another thought was my ambivalence about being a critic. There is the desire to intervene in a means intellectual and astute, alongside the desire to truly contribute to the community I belong to. This second aspect prompts many questions having to do with the recipient of this missive. Will I be causing unnecessary distress? Will sharing my thoughts contribute to a greater awareness, or cause more misunderstanding?

However, given what I have seen in Chroma, I believe that it is good time to open a discussion on certain issues that I believe are important. I firmly believe that there is a literary tradition that comes from Loyola Heights. This tradition, to put it in the shortest way possible, is to see things differently and compassionately. It should be known that this visual acuity is something that Ateneo de Manila writers inherit from Ignatius of Loyola, who sought to find God in all things, and to let go of any attachments in order to be in full service of the Divine Majesty. After reading through the pages of Chroma, I knew that was the right time to ask questions about the vision of Heights at this point.

An Atenean learns certain Latin terms early on. Magis (More), Praelectio, Lectio, Repetitio (Before the Lecture, Lecture and Review). An Atenean is taught to give more – to aim to dispose his/her whole self to attain excellence. This excellence is achieved through preparing thoroughly before one’s classes, participating actively during class, and reviewing the lessons after class. What is this excellence for? This is intended to be a path for a person to become God’s instrument in sharing his love, peace and justice in the world. What does this have to do with the capacity to see? When one gives up the self, there is a letting go of inordinate attachments that prevent us from participating in God’s saving action. This is impossibly painful to do if not for the capacity to see that God always loves a person despite everything. This capacity to see has made the world bearable for many who choose to serve it.

As Heights is a literary publication of an institution guided by the Ignatian Spirit, then it accordingly is expected to manifest a predilection to make sure that all its activities are founded on, and introduce to others, the capacity to see beyond what is ordinary. The Ateneo de Manila is an educational institution that is known for being the locus for fields of study that are not usually taken in other Catholic institutions. The Ateneo de Manila is also known for the Ignatian term Cura Personalis – teachers in Jesuit schools are called to be more than teachers; they are given the challenge to teach each student differently from the other, so that the learning is facilitated more effectively. Guess where these visionary actuations come from. These are all enabled by a capacity to see differently.

The question to ask at this point is: Does Chroma, the latest issue of Heights, present a kind of self-reflexivity that makes us aware that it knows of its Atenean and Ignatian traditions? Is there a sense of history and context that is seen in the choice of works, ideas and designs incorporated into the issue? In a world that is currently in the grips of postmodern thought – a kind of thinking that was rooted in disillusionment prompted by the disastrous turnouts of the Second World War all over the world – I believe that historicizing and contextualizing are very frequently forgotten. Has Heights put in consideration that there may be a post-postmodern way of looking at things in the determination of the details of Chroma?

First of all, Chroma has for its cover two blank panels; only the spine indicates the name of the journal and the volume and issue numbers. Moreover, Chroma comes in five colors: flesh, gray, yellow, blue-green and purple. When I went to the Heights office to get a copy, I was generously given copies in four of the above colors, which I appreciated. I admit that the reason I was excited about them was the colors. It was very much like getting a Moleskine notebook in various hues – it was something that appealed to my fancy. However, beyond this, what does the availability of five colors of the same journal signify?

Perhaps, this can be related to other design elements in the issue. The first page has the word “Heights” printed in grid fashion. A page near the beginning is filled with this quote: “The copy and paste function seems to be inconsequential in the face of all the conveniences that the digital age provides for us. Then again, when we examine it, we realize that it allows us to appropriate, to take a single line or idea and pass them off as part of our own work. On the surface, it appears to be different, to be singular and original, but the content is the same.” This page is filled up so that is you look at it from afar, what you see is literally one block of text. Towards the end of the issue, we find a similar page; only that the lines are all overlapping, so that no word can be read at all.

To me the quotation copy and pasted seems to indicate that Heights refuses plagiarism. The editorial supports this idea; Editor-in-Chief Tina del Rosario and Associate Editor Joseph Casimiro write, “In the artistic and literary setting, what is asked from you is play: experimentation with the form, images and metaphors, with the kinds of narratives you explore, with the way you choose to look at things and express that point of view.”

However, the issue of plagiarism is very complex; and the Ateneo de Manila has witnessed very heated context-specific discussions within its faculty because of this very subject. The editors write that Chroma is their “response to plagiarism” and that intended to “(play) with the form in order to present the blurring of the lines between sameness and originality, of old and new.” My question for them is, “Is the playing with form enough in order to continue the discussion on plagiarism, that has been conducted on the level of debate and argumentation?” An experiment on form, as it creates a new form of discourse, may serve to obfuscate rather than help in clarifying points for those who participate in – and those who are directly affected by – the discussion.

Perhaps, Heights should have encouraged members of the Ateneo faculty and studentry to come up with critical papers that present the various facets of plagiarism and literature, and the variety of implications that one will have to confront in the act of literary and artistic production in the face of this issue. It seems to me important to ask that, if the issue is about plagiarism, then why are the critical essays in the issue about the poetic line alone? Yes, Heights did sponsor a talk that had to do with the poetic line this semester – and we should remember that prosody is of the utmost importance in writing poems – but the context of the Chroma issue, I believe, calls for a discussion on plagiarism. In the first place, the editors of Heights took a stand with regards to it in the editorial.

I will now focus on the choice of critical essays in Chroma. The authors of these essays are Mabi David and Mesandel Virtusio Arguelles, members of High Chair and published poets. Having read their critical essays, I can say that Ms. David and Mr. Arguelles are astute thinkers and certainly deliberate practitioners of the craft. However, I now pose this question: if we are inviting guest artists to give their critical commentaries on issues in literary and artistic production, what about the practitioners within the Ateneo de Manila itself, people who know the history and context of Ateneo writing? I find it problematic that members of Heights are able to invite guests to share their critical discourses within the community, while members of the faculty who are also serious practitioners are subjected to deliberations by the staff, and are accordingly silenced when the staff chooses not to publish their works.

Heights, it should be remembered, is a student organization within the university. Is it not fair to say, then, that Heights fulfills an educative function; that through the work one does within the walls of the pub room, one learns skills and ideas that may be well beyond one’s interests and preferences? I am of the opinion that there are current literary trends that are more in fashion than others; but the literary practitioners’ solemn duty is still to know his/her tradition, because – in any case – tradition informs his/her actuations. Editors Del Rosario and Casimiro write, “(I)n literarure and art, there are no new ideas.” This is absolutely true! The question is, are the members of Heights familiar with these old ideas and the works that contain them? Is the exploration of tradition pursued in order to fashion the new that inevitably holds (whether one explores it or not) tradition at the heart of it its origin?

Of all the pieces written by studentry in Chroma, the ones that I commend the most are those of Miss Rachel Marra and Miss Tina del Rosario. My assessment of these is that these manifest the keenness of seeing that Ateneo de Manila writing is known for. Most of the other pieces, on the other hand, seem to be written in a way that experiments on form. A few other pieces seem to follow the line of Ateneo de Manila tradition, but not of the quality that is seen in the works of Miss Marra and Miss del Rosario. Again, Ignatian tradition welcomes new ideas, and we in the Ateneo de Manila follow suit; however, if Heights only welcomes the new and sets aside the old, then we begin to ask, what is all this writing and publishing for? Is this done for the community that has inherited a traditional discourse – one that at the center of it a focus on imagery, metaphoric seeing and philosophical reflection? Is there a dialogue being fostered here, or is there only an imposition of an imagined self – something that seems a kind of inordinate attachment to things, which Ignatius encouraged people to give up for God and the good of others?

To conclude this critique, I would like to recap my main ideas in a few sentences. First: The Ateneo de Manila is the keeper of an Ignatian tradition, which is, briefly, to see things differently and compassionately. Second: this Ignatian tradition, open to both old and new ideas and forms, has at the center of it the call to do everything for the greater glory of God. Third: Heights, a part of the Ateneo de Manila community, is an inheritor of this Ignatian tradition, something that complements the literary arts. Fourth: I am prompted after seeing the Chroma issue – with its inclination to experimentation in form: is Heights still aligned to the Ignatian heritage, which fosters – as I have mentioned – a way of seeing differently and compassionately, a discourse in which members of a community can participate and conduct a dialogue between tradition and innovation?

About Quirino M. Sugon Jr
Theoretical Physicist in Manila Observatory

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