Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan
ay hindi makararating sa paroroonan.
[One who does not look back to where he came
from will not reach his destination.]
–Ancient Tagalog proverb
By Way of Prologue
“Inside and outside my country, tyranny reigns….” Thus began the unforgettable narrative of Florante at Laura (1838) by Francisco Balagtas, a poem recognized as the inaugural discourse of Filipino nationalism. It inspired popular and ilustrado agitation, including the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 which led to the execution of the three martyr-priests Jose Burgos, Mariano Gomez, and Jacinto Zamora. In his travels in Europe, Jose Rizal, the national hero, constantly read Balagtas’ awit which inspired his novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo; smuggled into the islands, Rizal’s writings acted as “emergency signals” that sparked the Katipunan revolt of 1896. Charged for being filibusteros in the wake of the Cavite Mutiny, influential Filipino intellectuals were deported by the Spanish colonial government to Marianas Islands. Rizal himself was exiled to Dapitan, Mindanao, in 1892 four years before being shot on December 29, 1896 in Manila, the capital city.
During Spanish rule, the physical movement of the Indios was tightly regulated, under strict surveillance by both secular and spiritual authorities. Outside and inside the colony, the Filipino subaltern was a marked man. Women of course were confined to domestic and institutional “prisons” and their disciplinary regimes. Space was systematically policed, monitored, and demarcated. After Marianas Islands, Guam (not counting the prison of Montjuich in Barcelona where Rizal and Isabelo de los Reyes were once interned) became the next destination for insurgents. After the United States crushed the revolutionary forces of the first Philippine Republic, it sent the most distinguished Filipino insurgent Apolinario Mabini to Guam for refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Others chose Hong Kong, Japan, or recalcitrant solipsism as alternative surrogates for the occupied homeland.
In the period of direct U.S. imperial domination, space came under the rule of market capital and commodity exchange. The practice of removal or transporting Filipinos from their regional habitat to other parts of the Empire would no longer be called deportation or exile but recruitment or migrant passage—mainly to the Hawaii sugar plantations. Although Filipinos were now U.S. “wards,” still, Pedro Calosa, leader of the Tayug revolt, was banished from Hawaii to the Philippine Islands territory for the “crime” of union organizing. In the next decades, the generation of Carlos Bulosan and Philip Vera Cruz—thousands of dispossessed peasants and workers—shifted their port of entry to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle to become the migrant farmworkers and cannery workers who would pioneer the heroic project of mobilizing the multiethnic U.S. proletariat from the thirties to the sixties, ending with the formation of the United Farmworkers of America.
Meanwhile, subaltern pensionados, some schooled by the soldiers who defeated Aguinaldo, traveled to U.S. universities under contract. They returned to serve as bureaucrats and propagandists in the U.S. administration and, afterwards, in the Commonwealth experiment of neocolonialism under Manuel Quezon and in the post-World War II Republic. A lonely deviant was Jose Garcia Villa. His revolt against hypocritical bourgeois morality (which the pensionados symbolized) and surviving feudal mores led to his self-exile, first in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as a melancholy soul, and then to New York City as a kind of hybrid denizen of the “internal colonies” of the metropole. Although celebrated today by a few isolated Filipino writers, Villa has never really been admitted to the canon of American literature, so that no country or people can really grant him any credential or status of belonging to a distinct cultural heritage except the Philippine nation-state and the handful of Filipinos who care about a national culture. Cosmopolitanism or the universal citizenship of globalization is still a mirage for neocolonials.
Today, Filipinos count unofficially as the largest Asian American group—more than three million—in the United States. They no longer work in the agribusiness of California or the plantations of Hawaii—some argue that General Cesar Taguba of recent fame as investigator of the Abu Ghraib prison scandals, may testify to the distance Filipinos have come from being cooks in the White House or stewards in the U.S. Navy. But, as everyone notes, the community is more scattered and divided politically, certainly economically (social class), than other nationalities, owing chiefly to the unsettled neocolonial condition of their country of origin. What is more ominous is that after September 11, 2001, several hundred Filipinos have been summarily deported, and many more are threatened by exclusion or expulsion, under the controversial USA Patriot Act. We seem to be returning to the time when Filipinos were hunted and lynched by white vigilantes in Washington and California, or else exhibited as exotic specimens in Exposition Centers or safely policed shopping bazaars. We are again an important target population.
Of more consequence today is the unprecedented “diaspora” of ten million Filipinos around the world, mainly as domestics, semi-skilled workers, caregivers, entertainers, and professionals—the Philippines has surpassed other countries in becoming the largest supplier of contract labor (the infamous Guantanamo detention cells were built by Filipino workers). But this has also meant that the image of the Filipino has become that of “servants of globalization,” as one textbook puts it.
The following reflections—in truth, fragments from an exile’s journals— were written in the mid-nineties to address this altered situation of the Filipino abroad, at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the era of what is now labeled the “clash of civilizations” with the “war on terrorism” as its offshoot. It is coincidentally the era of the homeless, the displaced, the refugee of genocidal wars. For us, it is the era of the Overseas Filipino Worker, of Flor Contemplacion, and the contrived scourge of the “Abu Sayyaf.” Individual or personal cases of Filipino exile have metamorphosed into the generalized plight of economic refugees or of political asylum (like Benigno Aquino Jr. in the period of the Marcos dictatorship), émigrés, expatriates, and into some kind of diaspora sponsored by the World Bank/International Monetary Fund—of course, a diaspora with Filipino specific characteristics, not to be confused with the prototypical Jewish diaspora, or subsequent replicas (Chinese, Indian, African).
Exile has now assumed multiple masks. Victim of Zionism and Western imperialism, the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said describes exile as “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted” (Reflections in Exile and Other Essays, 2000). He is echoing the great Dante’s elegy of the exile in Divina Commedia: “You will leave everything loved most dearly; and this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first….” Bewailing the predicament of millions of Palestinians, and by extension, millions of refugees all over the world (now including Filipinos), Said attests to the pathos of exile in “the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of earth.” This pathos of alienation does not, I think, befit the examples offered by Rizal, Mabini, or sacrificed representatives of the Filipino nation/people-in-the-making. Nonetheless, my “untimely” intervention in the book From Exile to Diaspora (Westview Press, 1998) can be considered an attempt to recover the solidity of Filipino “earth” via the route of the Filipino proverb cited as epigraph and its allusion to the nascent reality of beleaguered but liberated zones in the homeland (homecoming is thus always a permanent possibility wherever and whenever we commit ourselves to the principles of social justice and communal-democratic sovereignty) which are the places of hope and eventual reunion. Despite local differences and multiple languages, the submerged rallying cry of all Filipinos abroad, of all Filipinos overseas, is: “Tomorrow, see you in Manila!”
It has been almost 40 years now, to this longest day, 21 June 1996, of my sojourn here in the United States ever since we left Manila. The time of departure can no longer be read in the number of passports discarded, visas stamped over and over again. A palimpsest to be deciphered, to be sure. But you can always foretell and anticipate certain things. For example, when someone meets you for the first time, this Caucasian–in general, Western–stranger would irresistibly and perhaps innocently (a reflex of common-sensical wisdom) always ask: “And where are you from?” Alas, from the red planet Mars, from the volcanic terra of the as yet undiscovered satellite of Andromeda, from the alleys of Tondo and the labyrinths of Avenida Rizal….
The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman delineates the possible life-strategies that denizens of the postmodern era can choose: stroller, vagabond, tourist, player. In a world inhospitable to pilgrims, I opt for the now obsolete persona of the exile disguised as itinerant and peripatetic student without credentials or references, sojourning in places where new experiences may occur. No destination nor destiny, only a succession of detours and displacements.
Apropos of the sojourner, Cesar Vallejo writes during his exile in Paris, 12 November 1937: Acaba de pasar sin haber venido. [“He just passed without having come. “] A cryptic and gnomic utterance. One can interpret this thus: for the sake of a sustained bliss of journeying, the “passenger” (the heroine of the passage) forfeits the grace or climax of homecoming. But where is home? Home is neither on the range nor valley nor distant shores—it is no longer a “place” but rather a site or locus to which you can return no more, as Thomas Wolfe once elegized. We have not yet reached this stage, the desperate act of switching identities (as in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, where the protagonist’s itinerary ends in the ad hoc, repetitious, inconsequential passage into anonymous death) so as to claim the spurious originality of an “I,” the monadic ego, a.k.a. the foundation of all Western metaphysics. Our post-deconstructionist malaise forbids this detour, this escape. Antonioni’s existential “stranger” forswears the loved one’s offer of trust, finding danger even boring and trivial. After all, you are only the creature—not yet a cyborg—shunted from one terminus to another, bracketed by an a-methodical doubt and aleatory suspicion.
So here we are, “here” being merely a trope, a figure without referent or denotation. To such a denouement has Western consumerized technological society come, trivializing even Third World revolutions and violence as cinematic fare.
Beyond Rangoon is the latest of such commodities in the high-cultural supermarket of the Western metropolis. The setting is no longer Burma but Myamar. The names don’t matter; what is needed is some exotic location on which to transplant a white American woman’s psyche suffering a horrendous trauma: discovering the murdered bodies of her husband and son upon coming home from work. Desperate to put this horror behind her, she and her sister then join a tour to Myamar. Soon she gets involved in the popular resistance against a ruthless military dictatorship. So what happens? Carnage, melodramatic escapades, incredible violence and slaughter, until our heroine begins to empathize with the unruly folk and arguably finds her identity by rediscovering her vocation; as physician, at the end of the film, without much ado she begins to attend to the victims without thought of her own safety or pleasure. She is reconciled with the past, finding substitutes for the dead in “Third World” mutilated bodies. And so white humanity redeems itself again in the person of this caring, brave, daring woman whose “rite of passage” is the thematic burden of the film. It is a passage from death to life, not exactly a trans-migration from scenes of bloodletting to moments of peace and harmony; nonetheless, strange “Third World” peoples remain transfixed in the background, waiting for rescue and redemption. So for the other part of humanity, there is no movement but simply a varying of intensity of suffering, punctuated by resigned smiles or bitter tears.
So the “beyond” is staged here as the realization of hope for the West. But what is in it for us who are inhabiting (to use a cliche) the “belly of the beast”? But let us go back to Vallejo, or to wherever his imagination has been translocated. Come to think of it, even the translation of Vallejo’s line is an escape: there is no pronoun there. Precisely the absence of the phallus (if we follow our Lacanian guides) guarantees its infinite circulation as the wandering, nomadic signifier. Unsettled, travelling, the intractable vagrant….
Lost in the desert or in some wilderness, are we looking for a city of which we are unacknowledged citizens? Which city, Babylon or Jerusalem? St. Augustine reminds us: “Because of our desire we are already there, we have already cast our hope like an anchor on these shores….” By the logic of desire, the separation of our souls from our bodies is finally healed by identification with a figure like Christ who, in Pauline theology, symbolizes the transit to liberation from within the concrete, suffering body. What is foreign or alien becomes transubstantiated into a world-encompassing Ecclesia, a new polis in which we, you and I, find ourselves embedded.
Stranger no more, I am recognized by others whom I have yet to identify and know. Instead of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (which in my youth served as a fetish for our bohemian revolt against the provincial Cold War milieu of the Manila of the ’50s), Georg Simmel’s “The Stranger” has become of late the focus of my meditation. It is an enigmatic text whose profound implications cannot really be spelled out in words, only in lived experiences, in praxis.
Simmel conceives “the stranger” as the unity of two opposites: mutating between “the liberation from every given point in space” and “the conceptual opposite to fixation at such a point,” hence the wanderer defined as “the person who comes today and stays tomorrow.” Note that the staying is indefinite, almost a promise, not a certainty. But where is the space of staying, or maybe of malingering?
Simmel’s notion of space tries to bridge potentiality and actuality: “…although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries.” The wanderer is an outsider, not originally belonging to this group, importing something into it. Simmel’s dialectic of inside/outside spheres is tricky here; it may be an instance of wanting to have one’s cake and also eat it:
The unity of nearness and remoteness involved in every human relation is organized, in the phenomenon of the stranger, in a way which may be most briefly formulated by saying that in the relationship to him, distance means that he, who is close by, is far, and strangeness means that he, who also is far, is actually near. For, to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction. The inhabitants of Sirius are not really strangers to us, at least not in any sociologically relevant sense: they do not exist for us at all; they are beyond far and near. The stranger, like the poor and like sundry “inner enemies,” is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it. (footnote omitted)
And so, following this line of speculation, the query “Where are you from?” is in effect a token of intimacy. For the element which increases distance and repels, according to Simmel, is the one that establishes the pattern of coordination and consistent interaction that is the foundation of coherent sociality. Neither paradox nor aporia, this theme needs pursuing up to its logical or illogical end.
Between the essentialist mystique of the Volk/nation and the libertarian utopia of laissez-faire capitalism, the “stranger” subsists as a catalyzing agent of change. In other words, the subversive function of the stranger inheres in his being a mediator of two or more worlds. Is this the hybrid and in-between diasporic character of postcoloniality? Is this the indeterminate species bridging multiple worlds? Or is it more like the morbid specimens of the twilight world that Antonio Gramsci, languishing in prison, once alluded to, creatures caught between the ancien regime slowly dying and a social order that has not yet fully emerged from the womb of the old?
We are brought back to the milieu of transition, of vicissitudes, suspended in the proverbial conundrum of the tortoise overtaking the hare in Zeno’s paradox. This may be the site where space is transcended by time. The stranger’s emblematic message may be what one black musician has already captured in this memorable manifesto by Paul Gilroy: “It aint where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”
Historically, the stranger in Simmel’s discourse emerged first as the trader. When a society needs products from outside its borders, a middleman is then summoned who will mediate the exchange. (If a god is needed, as the old adage goes, there will always be someone to invent him.) But what happens when those products coming from outside its territory begin to be produced inside, when a middleman role is no longer required, i.e. when the economy is closed, land divided up, and handicrafts formed to insure some kind of autarky? Then the stranger, who is the supernumerary (Simmel cites European Jews as the classic example), becomes the settler whose protean talent or sensibility distinguishes him. This sensibility springs from the habitus (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s term) of trading “which alone makes possible unlimited combinations,” where “intelligence always finds expansions and new territories,” because the trader is not fixed or tied to a particular location; he doesn’t own land or soil or any ideal point in the social environment. Whence originates his mystery? From the medium of money, the instrument of exchange:
Restriction to intermediary trade, and often (as though sublimated from it) to pure finance, gives him the specific character of mobility. If mobility takes place within a closed group, it embodies that synthesis of nearness and distance which constitutes the formal position of the stranger. For the fundamentally mobile person comes in contact, at one time or another, with every individual, but is not organically connected, through established ties of kinship, locality, and occupation, with any single one.
From this paradoxical site of intimacy and detachment, estrangement and communion, is born the quality of “objectivity” which allows the fashioning of superior knowledge. This does not imply passivity alone, Simmel argues: “it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement.” For instance, the dominant position of the stranger is exemplified in the practice of those Italian cities that chose judges from outside the city because “no native was free from entanglement in family and party interests.” Can the court system in the Philippines ever contemplate this practice, courts which are literally family sinecures, nests of clan patronage and patriarchal gratuities? Only, I suppose, when there is a threat of interminable feuds, a cycle of vindictive retribution. Otherwise, legitimacy is always based on force underwritten by custom, tradition, the inertia of what’s familiar. So strangeness is subversive when it challenges the familiar and normal, the hegemony of sameness.
On the other hand, it may also be conservative. The stranger then, like Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, becomes the occasion for a public display of intimacies. He becomes the hieratic vessel or receiver of confessions performed in public, of confidential information, secrets, rumors, etc. He is the bearer of guilt and purgation, the stigmata of communal responsibility and its catharsis. His objectivity is then a full-blown participation which, obeying its own laws, thus eliminates–Simmel theorizes–“accidental dislocations and emphases, whose individual and subjective differences would produce different pictures of the same object.” From this standpoint, the Prince is a stranger not because he is not Russian but because he “idiotically” or naively bares whatever he thinks–he says it like it is. Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t hesitate or entertain reservations, judgments, etc. Dostoevsky invents his escape hatch in the Prince’s epileptic seizures which become symptomatic of the whole society’s disintegrated totality.
We begin to become more acquainted with this stranger as the spiritual ideal embedded in contingent reality. Part of the stranger’s objectivity is his freedom: “the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.” Is this possible: a person without commitments, open to every passing opportunity? Baruch Spinoza, G. E. Moore, Mikhail Bakhtin are not wanted here. Ethics be damned.
At this juncture I think Simmel is conjuring up the image of the value-free sociologist who has completely deceived himself even of the historical inscription of his discipline, finally succumbing to the wish-fulfillment of becoming the all-knowing scientist of historical laws and social processes. Simmel is quick to exonerate the stranger, the middleman-trader, from charges of being a fifth columnist, an instigator or provocateur paid by outsiders. On the other hand, Simmel insists that the stranger “is freer, practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent.” The stranger has become some kind of omniscient deity, someone like the god of Flaubert and Joyce paring his fingernails behind the clouds while humanity agonizes down below.
Finally, Simmel points out the abstract nature of the relation of others to the stranger. This is because “one has only certain more general qualities in common,” not organic ties that are empirically specific to inhabitants sharing a common historical past, culture, kinship, etc. The humanity which connects stranger and host is precisely the one that separates, the element that cannot be invoked to unify the stranger with the group of which he is an integral part. So nearness and distance coalesce again: “to the extent to which the common features are general, they add, to the warmth of the relation founded on them, an element of coolness, a feeling of the contingency of precisely this relation—the connecting forces have lost their specific and centripetal character.”
One may interpose at this point: Why is Simmel formulating the predicament of the stranger as a paradox that too rapidly resolves the contradictions inherent in it? The dialectic is shortcircuited, the tension evaporated, by this poetic reflection: “The stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they cannot connect a great many people.” What generalizes, estranges; what binds us together, individualizes each one. A symmetrical truism, or another liberal platitude?
We witness an immanent dialectical configuration shaping up here. Every intimate relationship then harbors the seeds of its own disintegration. The aborigine and the settler are fused in their contradictions and interdependencies. For what is common to two, Simmel continues to insist, “is never common to them alone but is subsumed under a general idea which includes much else besides, many possibilities of commonness.” This, I think, applies to any erotic relationship which, in the beginning, compels the lovers to make their relationship unique, unrepeatable, even idiosyncratic. Then estrangement ensues; the feeling of uniqueness is replaced by skepticism and indifference, by the thought that the lovers are only instances of a general human destiny. In short, the lovers graduate into philosophers reflecting on themselves as only one of the infinite series of lovers in all of history. These possibilities act like a corrosive agent that destroys nearness, intimacy, communal togetherness:
No matter how little these possibilities become real and how often we forget them, here and there, nevertheless, they thrust themselves between us like shadows, like a mist which escapes every word noted, but which must coagulate into a solid bodily form before it can be called jealousy…. similarity, harmony, and nearness are accompanied by the feeling that they are not really the unique property of this particular relationship. They are something more general, something which potentially prevails between the partners and an indeterminate number of others, and therefore gives the relation, which alone was realized, no inner and exclusive necessity.
Perhaps in Gunnar Myrdal’s “America,” where a universalistic creed, once apostrophized by that wandering French philosophe De Tocqueville, prevails, this privileging of the general and the common obtains. But this “perhaps” dissolves because we see, in the history of the last five decades, that cultural pluralism is merely the mask of a “common culture” of market individualism, of class war inflected into the routine of racial politics. Witness the victims of the civil rights struggles, the assassination of Black Panther Party members, violence inflicted on Vincent Chin and other Asians, and so on.
As antidote to the mystification of hybridity and in-betweeness, we need therefore to historicize, to come down to the ground of economic and political reality. What collectivities of power/knowledge are intersecting and colliding? In a political economy where racial differentiation is the fundamental principle of accumulation, where profit and the private extraction of surplus value is the generalizing principle, it is difficult to accept Simmel’s concept of strangeness as premised on an initial condition of intimacy and mutual reciprocity in a mythical level playing field. Simmel is caught in a bind. He says that the Greek attitude to the barbarians illustrates a mind-frame that denies to the Other attributes which are specifically human. But in that case the barbarians are not strangers; the relation to them is a non-relation. Whereas the stranger is “a member of the group,” not an outsider. Simmel arrives at this concluding insight:
As a group member, the stranger is near and far at the same time as is characteristic of relations founded only on general human commonness. But between nearness and distance, there arises a specific tension when the consciousness that only the quite general is common stresses that which is not common. [Here is the kernel of Simmel’s thesis.] In the case of the person who is a stranger to the country, the city, the race, etc., however, this non-common element is once more nothing individual, but merely the strangeness of origin, which is or could be common to many strangers. For this reason, strangers are not really conceived as individuals, but as strangers of a particular type: the element of distance is no less general in regard to them than the element of nearness.
Examples might illuminate these refined distinctions. Simmel cites the case of categorization of the Jew in medieval times which remained permanent, despite the changes in the laws of taxation: the Jew was always taxed as a Jew, his ethnic identity fixed his social position, whereas the Christian was “the bearer of certain objective contents” which changed in accordance with the fluctuation of his fortune (ownership of property, wealth). If this invariant element disappeared, then all strangers by virtue of being strangers would pay “an equal headtax.” In spite of this, the stranger is “an organic member of the group which dictates the conditions of his existence”—except that this membership is precisely different in that, while it shares some similarities with all human relationships, a special proportion and reciprocal tension produce the particular, formal relation to the “stranger.”
An alternative to Simmel’s hypothesis is the historical case of Baruch Spinoza, the archetypal exile. A child of the Marrano community of Jews in Amsterdam, Holland, who were driven from Portugal and Spain in the 14th and 15th centuries, Spinoza was eventually excommunicated and expelled by the elders of the community. Banned as a heretic, Spinoza became an “exile within an exile.” It was, however, a felix culpa since that became the condition of possibility for the composition of the magnificent Ethics, a space of redemption in which deus/natura becomes accessible to ordinary mortals provided they can cultivate a special form of rationality called scientia intuitiva. The “impure blood” of this “Marrano of Reason” affords us a created world of secular reason that, if we so choose, can become a permanent home for the diasporic intellect. Unfortunately, except for a handful of recalcitrant spirits, Filipinos have not yet discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I suspect, however, that Rizal and the Propagandists, Isabelo de Los Reyes, Mabini, S.P. Lopez, and Angel Baking, were not unaware of its dissemination in the radical anarchist and socialist tradition of the Enlightenment.
You will leave everything loved most dearly;
And this is the arrow
That the bow of exile shoots first….
So where are we now in mapping this terra incognita of the nomadic monster, the deviant, the alien, the stranger, the Filipino subaltern?
We are unquestionably in the borderline, the hymen, the margin of difference that is constituted by that simultaneous absence and presence which Jacques Derrida was the first to theorize in his strategy of suspicion. It is, one might suggest, an epileptic seizure that is regularized, as the character of Prince Myshkin (in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot,1868) demonstrates. When asked by that unforgettable mother, Mrs. Yepanchin, what he wrote to her daughter Aglaya—a confession of need of the other person, a communication of desire for the other to be happy as the gist of the message, Prince Myshkin replied that when he wrote it, he had “great hopes.” He explains: “Hopes—well, in short, hopes of the future and perhaps a feeling of joy that I was not a stranger, not a foreigner, there. I was suddenly very pleased to be back in my own country. One sunny morning I took up a pen and wrote a letter to her. Why to her, I don’t know. Sometimes, you know, one feels like having a friend at one’s side….”
Dear friend, where are you?
* * * * *
Since we are in the mode of a “rectification of names,” a semantic interlude is appropriate here. Just as our current hermeneutic trend seeks etymologies and obsolete usages for traces of the itinerary of meanings, let us look at what Webster offers us for the word “exile”: it means banished or expelled from one’s native country or place of residence by authority, and forbidden to return, either for a limited time or for life; abandonment of one’s country by choice or necessity. “The Exile” originally refers to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the 6th century B.C.
The Latin exilium denotes banishment; the Latin exilis denotes slender, fine, thin; “exilition,” now obsolete, “a sudden springing or leaping out.” This “sudden springing or leaping out” offers room for all kinds of speculation on wandering strangers inhabiting borderlines, boundaries, frontiers, all manner of refusals and evasions. But the movement involved in exile is not accidental or happenstance; it has a telos underlying it. It implicates wills and purposes demarcating the beginning and end of movement. As Spinoza teaches us, everything can be grasped as modalities of rest and motion, of varying speed. Even here ambiguity pursues us: rest is relative to motion, motion to rest. If everyone is migrating, then who is the native and who the settler?
Another word should supplement “exile,” and that word is “migration.” The movement from place to place that this word signifies in one usage is quite circumscribed: it is the movement from one region to another with the change in seasons, as many birds and some fishes follow, e.g., “migratory locust,” “migratory” worker: “one who travels from harvest to harvest, working until each crop is gathered or processed,” to wit, the Filipino “Manongs” and their Mexican counterparts. The species of homo sapiens pursues the line of flight instinctively followed by bird and fish, but this calibration of the instinct itself is drawn by the rhythm of the seasons, by earth’s ecological mutation. So exile betrays political will, while migration still obscures or occludes the play of secular forces by the halo of naturalness, the aura of cosmic fate and divine decree. The fate of Bulosan and compatriots of the “warm body export” trade today—all ten million bodies, with at least five of them returning daily at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport as cadavers—offers the kairos of an exemplum. The “disappeared” in the era of martial law has now been replaced by the “returned” in the era of transnational corporate globalization.
* * * * *
The life-history of the national hero Jose Rizal offers one viable paradigm for Filipino intellectuals in self-exile.
When this leading anticolonial propagandist-agitator was banished to Dapitan, in the southern island of Mindanao, in 1892, he assured his family that “wherever I might go I should always be in the hands of God who holds in them the destinies of men.” Despite this unabashed deistic faith, Rizal immediately applied himself to diverse preoccupations: horticulture, eye surgery, collecting butterflies for study, teaching, civic construction, composing a multilingual dictionary, and trying out a liaison with an “alien” woman, a stranger. He also maintained a voluminous correspondence with scientists and scholars in Europe and Manila. Even though the Spanish authorities were lenient, Rizal had no utopian illusions: “To live is to be among men, and to be among men is to struggle…. It is a struggle with them but also with one’s self, with their passions, but also with one’s own, with errors and with anxieties.”
The anguish of Rizal’s exile was assuaged somewhat by his female companion, Josephine Bracken, an Irish Catholic from Hong Kong. But he could not deny that his being transported to Dapitan was demoralizing, unsettling, given “the uncertainty of the future.” This is why he seized the opportunity to volunteer his medical skills to the Spanish army engaged in suppressing the revolution in Cuba. Amplifying distance and alienation, he could resign himself to the demands of duty, of the necessity “to make progress through suffering.” Fatalism and service to the cause of humanity coalesced to distinguish the ethos of this exile at a time when rumblings of popular discontent had not yet climaxed in irreversible rupture. When Rizal was executed in December 1896, the revolution had already exploded, concentrating scattered energies in the fight against a common enemy, first Spain and then the United States. Homecoming was near.
* * * * *
In the context of globalized capitalism today, the Filipino diaspora acquires a distinctive physiognomy and temper. We can exercise a thought-experiment of syncretism and cross-fertilization. The Pinoy diaspora is a fusion of exile and migration: the scattering of a people, not yet a fully synthesized nation, to the ends of the earth, across the planet throughout the ’60s and ’70s, continuing up to the present. We are now a quasi-wandering people, pilgrims or prospectors staking our lives and futures all over the world—in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, North and South America, in Australia and all of Asia, in every nook and cranny of this seemingly godforsaken earth. Explorers and adventurers all. No one yet has performed a “cognitive mapping” of these movements, their geometry and velocity, across national boundaries, mocking the carnivalesque borderland hallucinations glorified by postmodernist academics of color.
Who cares for the Filipino anyway? Not even the Philippine government and its otiose consulates—unless compelled by massive demonstrations of anger such as the one that followed the execution of Flor Contemplacion in Singapore. What can you expect from parasitic oligarchs and flunkeys of finance-capital? We are a nation in search of a national-democratic sovereign state that will care for the welfare of every citizen, particularly those historically oppressed (Moros, women, indigenous communities). When Benigno Aquino was killed, the slogan “the Filipino is worth dying for” became fashionable for a brief interval between the calamity of the Marcos dictatorship and the mendacity of Corazon Aquino’s rule and her even more unconscionable successors. But today Filipinos are dying—for what? For the status quo? For more self-sacrifices for parasites?
In 1983 alone, there were 300,000 Filipinos in the Middle East and close to a hundred thousand in Europe. I met hundreds of Filipinos, men and women, in the city park in Rome, in front of the train station, during their days off as domestics and semi-skilled workers. I met Filipinos hanging around the post office in Tripoli, Libya in 1980. And in trips back and forth I’ve met them in London, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Hong Kong, Taipeh, Montreal and of course everywhere in the United States—a dispersed nationality, perhaps a little better than Bulosan and Philip Vera Cruz and his compatriots during the ’30s and ’40s, field hands and laborers migrating from harvest to harvest from California through Oregon to Washington and Alaska. A whole people dispersed, displaced, dislocated. A woman from Negros watched her husband flying to Saudi Arabia in 1981: “Even the men cry on leaving and cling to their children at the airport. When the airplane lifted off, I felt as though my own body was being dislocated.” Like birthpangs, the separation of loved ones generates a new experience, a nascent “structure of feeling,” for which we have not yet discovered the appropriate plots, rhetorical idioms, discursive registers, and architectonic of representation. Indeed, this late-capitalist diaspora demands a new language and symbolism for rendition. As picaresque fable? Epic saga? Or as tragic-comic spectacle?
The cult hero of postcolonial postmodernity, Salman Rushdie, offers us a harvest of ideas on this global phenomenon in his novel, Shame. The migrant has conquered the force of gravity, Rushdie writes, the force of belonging; like birds, he has flown. Roots that have trammeled and tied us down have been torn. The conservative myth of roots (exile, to my mind, is a problem of mapping routes, not digging for roots) and gravity has been displaced by the reality of flight, for now to fly and to flee are ways of seeking individual freedom—a flight of escape for more profound engagements?
When individuals come unstuck from their native land, they are called migrants. When nations do the same thing (Bangladesh), the act is called secession. What is the best thing about migrant peoples and seceded nations? I think it is their hopefulness. Look into the eyes of such folk in old photographs. Hope blazes undimmed through the fading sepia tints. And what’s the worst thing? It is the emptiness of one’s luggage. I’m speaking of invisible suitcases, not the physical, perhaps cardboard, variety containing a few meaning-drained mementoes: we have come unstuck from more than land. We have floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time.
Rushdie finds himself caught not only in the no-man’s-land between warring territories, but also between different periods of time. He considers Pakistan a palimpsest souvenir dreamed up by immigrants in Britain, its history written and rewritten, insufficiently conjured and extrapolated. Translated into a text, what was once a homeland becomes a product of the imagination. Every exile or deracinated subaltern shares Rushdie’s position, or at least his invented habits: “I, too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist. I, too, face the problem of history: what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change.” We select the construction materials of our salvaging vessel from the driftwords of memory, shipwrecked souvenirs—emergency signals flashing from flotsam and jetsam, the wreckage of dreams, promises, wagers risked.
And so this is the existential dilemma. For all those forced out of one’s homeland—by choice of necessity, it doesn’t really make a difference—the vocation of freedom becomes the act of inventing the history of one’s life, which is equivalent to founding and inhabiting that terra incognita which only becomes known, mapped, named as one creates it partly from memory, partly from dream, partly from hope. Therefore the stranger is the discoverer of that region which becomes home in the process whose termination coincides with the life of the planet Earth, the stranger dissolving the estranging homelessness of our galaxy.
* * * * *
At this crossroad, let us seek pedagogical counsel from the mentor of the Palestinian diaspora, Edward Said, who has poignantly described the agon of exile. Said cited the Philippines’ colonial dependency in his magisterial study, Culture and Imperialism (1993). Caught in medias res and deprived of geographical stability or continuity of events, Said elaborates, the Palestinian narrator of the diaspora has to negotiate between the twin perils of fetishism and nostalgia:
Intimate mementoes of a past irrevocably lost circulate among us, like the genealogies and fables severed from their original locale, the rituals of speech and custom. Much reproduced, enlarged, thematized, embroidered and passed around, they are strands in the web of affiliations we Palestinians use to tie ourselves to our identity and to each other… We endure the difficulties of dispersion without being forced (or able) to struggle to change our circumstances…. Whatever the claim may be that we make on the world—and certainly on ourselves as people who have become restless in the fixed place to which we have been assigned—in fact our truest reality is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another. We are migrants and perhaps hybrids in, but not of, any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move….
Said’s hermeneutic strives to decipher the condition of exile as the struggle to recover integrity and reestablish community not in any viable physical location but in the space of cultural production and exchange. Despite its cogency and the eloquence of its truth-bearing signs, Said’s discourse can only articulate the pathos of a select few, the elite intelligentsia. Meanwhile, the intifada partisan has indeed gone beyond the irony of Said’s humanism and the hubris of Derrida’s difference to challenge U.S.-supported Zionist occupation.
We Filipinos need a cartography and a geopolitical project for the masses in diaspora, not for the elite in exile. Many of our fellow expatriates, however, are obsessed with beginnings.
Speaking of who arrived here first on this continent, our “born-again” compatriots are celebrating the first men from the archipelago who landed one foggy morning of October 21, 1587 at Morro Bay, California. These sailors from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Buena Esperanza were of course colonial subjects, not “Filipinos,” a term that in those days only referred to Spaniards born in the Philippines (in contrast to the Peninsulares, those born in the European metropolis). But no matter, they have become symbolic of the renewed search for identity. Any relic seems useful.
Such “roots” seem to assimilated Fil-Americans a prerequisite for claiming an original and authentic identity as a singular people. After all, how can the organic community grow and multiply without such attachments? Margie Talaugon of the Filipino American Historical National Society points to Morro Bay as the spot “where Filipino American history started” (Sacramento Bee, 19 May 1996). If so, then it started with the Spaniards expropriating the land of the Indians for the Cross and the Spanish crown. Do we want to be part of the gang of bloody conquistadors (whether Spanish, French, or Anglo-Saxon Puritans) guilty of the genocide of Native Americans?
Under the command of Pedro de Unamuno, “a few Luzon Indians” acting as scouts (because of their color) accompanied the exploring party into the California interior. Lo and behold, they were ambushed by the natives who failed to correctly interpret their offerings. In the skirmish born of misrecognition, one Filipino lost his life and Unamuno withdrew. Other expeditions followed—all for the purpose of finding out possible ports along the California coast where galleons sailing from Manila to Acapulco could seek refuge in case of attack from pirates. When the Franciscan missionaries joined the troops from Mexico, mandated to establish missions from San Diego to Monterey that would serve as way stations for the Manila galleons, Filipinos accompanied them as menials in colonizing Indian territory in what is now California. Do we need to cherish this memorial of complicity with blood-thirsty conquest?
* * * * *
Anxiety underlying the claim to be first in setting foot on the North American continent also accounts for the revival of interest in the fabled “Manillamen.” The rubric designates the Malay subjects of the archipelago who allegedly jumped ship off Spanish galleons and found their way into the bayous of Louisiana as early as 1765. In contrast to the early Luzon “Indians,” these were rebels protesting brutal conditions of indenture; they were not knowing accomplices or accessories to colonial rampage. There is even a rumor that they signed up with the French buccaneer Jean Baptiste Lafitte ; if true, they then took part in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812. These fugitives settled in several villages outside New Orleans, in Manila Village on Barataria Bay. They engaged chiefly in shrimp-fishing and hunting.
The most well-known settlement (circa 1825) was St. Malo which was destroyed by a hurricane in 1915. The Filipino swamp settlers of St. Malo were memorialized by one of the first “Orientalists,” Lafcadio Hearn, whose life-configuration appears as amphibious and rhizomatic as the transplanted Malays he sought to romanticize. Hearn loved all things Japanese, and all things that can be exoticized. Here is an excerpt from his article, “Saint Malo: A Lacustrine Village in Louisiana” (Harper’s Weekly, 31 March 1883):
For nearly fifty years, there has existed in the southern swamp lands of Louisiana a certain strange settlement of Malay fishermen—Tagalas from the Philippine Islands. The place of their lacustrine village is not precisely mentioned upon maps, and the world in general ignored until a few days ago the bare fact of their amphibious existence. Even the United States mail service has never found its way thither, and even the great city of New Orleans, less than a hundred miles distant, the people were far better informed about the Carboniferous Era than concerning the swampy affairs of the Manila village….
Out of the shuddering reeds and grass on either side rise the fantastic houses of the Malay fishermen, poised upon slender support above the marsh, like cranes watching for scaly prey…. There is no woman in the settlement, nor has the treble of a female voice been heard along the bayou for many a long year…. How, then, comes it that in spite of the connection with civilized life, the Malay settlement of Lake Borgne has been so long unknown? Perhaps because of the natural reticence of the people…
What is curious is that Hearn, in another “take” of this landscape (in Times-Democrat, 18 March 1883), shifts our attention to the mood and atmosphere of the place in order to foreground his verbal artistry. The need to know these strange swamp dwellers is now subsumed into the program of a self-indulgent aestheticizing drive; the will to defamiliarize turns the inhabitants, the “outlandish colony of Orientals,” into performers of fin-de-siecle decadence. Voyeurism feeds on invidious contrasts and innuendoes that weakly recall Baudelaire’s posture of worldly ennui:
Louisiana is full of mysteries and surprises. Within fifty miles of this huge city, in a bee line southwest, lies a place as wild and weird as the most fervent seekers after the curious could wish to behold—a lake village constructed in true Oriental style, and equally worthy of prehistoric Switzerland or modern Malacca…. The like isolation of our Malay settlement is due to natural causes alone, but of a stranger sort. It is situated in a peculiarly chaotic part of the world, where definition between earth and water ceases—an amphibious land full of quiverings and quagmires, suited rather to reptile life than to human existence—a region wan and doubtful and mutable as that described in “The Passing of Arthur,” where fragments of forgotten peoples dwell…a coast of ever shifting sand, and, far away, the phantom circle of a moaning sea.
…Nature, by day, seems to be afraid to speak in a loud voice there; she whispers only. And the brown Malays—forever face to face with her solitude—also talk in low tones as through sympathy—tones taught by the lapping of sluggish waters, the whispering of grasses, the murmuring of the vast marsh. Unless an alligator show his head—then it is a shout of “Miro! cuidado!”
Since the voices captured are in Spanish, we know that these brown settlers have been Hispanicized and estranged from their original surroundings. But never mind: the sounds blend with the other creatures of the bayous, a cacophony of organic life orchestrated by Hearn’s precious craft. St. Malo’s miasma is domesticated for the elegant French salons of New Orleans and the adjoining plantations. Unlike the foggy, damp and rainy Siberia of Chekhov’s story “In Exile” (written in 1892), which becomes the site of epiphanic disclosures and cathartic confessions, Hearn’s theater affords no such possibility. Old Semyon, Chekhov’s choric observer, can demonstrate his toughness and fortitude all at once in the face of Czarist inhumanity: “Even in Siberia people can live—can li-ive!”
The repressed always returns, but in serendipitous disguise. Hearn would be surprised to learn that St. Malo’s descendants, now in their eighth generation, are alive and well, telling their stories, musing: “Well, if we don’t know where we come from how do we know where we are going?” The indefatigable filmmaker Renee Tajima interviewed the Burtanog sisters in New Orleans and notes that “there are no mahjongg games and trans-Pacific memories here in the Burtanog household. The defining cultural equation is Five-card Stud and six-pack of Bud (Lite). The talk is ex-husbands, voodoo curses, and the complicated racial design of New Orleans society.”
Out of the mists exuding from Hearn’s prose, the Burtanog sisters speak about anti-miscegenation and Jim Crow laws, the hierarchical ranking and crossing-over of the races in Louisiana. But, in conformity with the Southern ethos, they consider themselves “white.” These exuberant women certainly do not belong to Bienvenido Santos’ tribe of “lovely people”—a patronizing epithet—whose consolation is that they (like artists) presumably have ready and immediate access to the eternal verities. No such luck. Not even for internal exiles like Mikhail Bakhtin, Ann Akhmatova, Ding Ling, or for “beautiful” souls like Jose Garcia Villa and their epigones in the miasmic salons of the Empire.
* * * * *
Why this obsessive quest for who came first? Is precedence a claim to authenticity and autochthonous originality? What if we came last, not “fresh off the boats,” clinging to the anchors or even floating on driftwood? Does this entitle us less to “citizenship” or the right to inhabit our constructed place here? Who owns this land, this continent, anyway? Weren’t the American Indians the stewards of communal land before the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci was recast as the name-giver to a whole continent?
In his semantic genealogy, Raymond Williams (in Keywords, 1983) traces the etymology of “native” to the Latin nasci (to be born); nativus means innate, natural; hence, “naive” as artless and simple. After the period of conquest and domination, “native” became equivalent to “bondman” or “villein,” born in bondage. This negative usage—the ascription of inferiority to locals, to non-Europeans—existed alongside the positive usage when applied to one’s own place or person. Williams observes further:
Indigenous has served both as a euphemism and as a more neutral term. In English it is more difficult to use in the sense which converts all others to inferiors (to go indigenous is obviously less plausible than to go native). In French, however, indigenes went through the same development as English natives, and is now often replaced by autochtones [sic].
We may therefore be truly naifs if we ignore the advent of United States power in Manila Bay (not Morro Bay) in 1898. This is the inaugural event that started the process of deracination, the primordial event that unfolded in the phenomena of pensionados and the recruits of the Hawaiian Sugar Plantation up to the “brain drain” of the seventies, the political opportunists who sought asylum during the Marcos dictatorship, and the present influx of this branch of the Filipino diaspora. To shift to the romance of the Spanish Galleons is to repress this birth of the Filipino in the womb of the imperial body, a birth which—to invoke the terms in which Petrarch conceived his exile as the physical separation from the mother’s body—implies liberation. This is probably why Jose Marti, the revolutionary Cuban who lived in exile in the United States while Spain tyrannized over his Motherland, spoke of living in the “belly of the beast.”
Here the metaphor becomes fertile for all kinds of movements, of embarkations and departures. For Petrarch, exile served as the fantasy of discontinuity that allowed the poet immense relief from the tremendous anxiety he felt because of his “belatedness,” his advent after the decline of classic Roman civilization. Petrarch was “wounded” by his Greek precursors; he resolved to heal the wound by conceiving the act of writing as a process of digestion, of engulfing, regurgitating, and absorption. We find analogous strategies of sublimation in Virgil, Dante, Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, and so on. This displacement of the original trauma, which assumed earlier Gnostic resonance as the imprisonment of the soul within the body, may perhaps explain the preponderance of oral and gustatory images, eating and digesting activities, in the fiction of Jessica Hagedorn, R. Zamora Linmark, and others.
Are Filipinos condemned to this fantasy of cannibalism as a means of compensation for the loss of the mother? Are we in perpetual mourning, unable to eject the lost beloved that is still embedded in the psyche and forever memorialized there? Are we, Filipinos scattered throughout the planet, bound to the curse of a repetition compulsion, worshipping fetishes (like aging veterans of some forgotten or mythical battle) that forever remind us of the absent, forgotten, and unrecuperated Others?
That is perhaps the permanent stance of the exile, the act of desiring what is neither here nor there. This paradigm is exemplified in the last speech of Richard Rowan, the writer-hero of James Joyce’s Exiles, addressing Bertha but also someone else, an absent person:
I have wounded my soul for you—a deep wound of doubt which can never be healed. I can never know, never in this world. I do not wish to know or to believe. I do not care. It is not in the darkness of belief that I desire you. But in restless living wounding doubt. To hold you by no bonds, even of love, to be united with you in body and soul in utter nakedness—for this I longed.
The quest for the mother as the cure for jealousy, for the illness accompanying the discovery that one cannot completely possess the body of the loved one (the mother-surrogate), is given an ironic twist by Joyce’s meditation on women’s liberation in his notes to Exiles:
It is a fact that for nearly two thousand years the women of Christendom have prayed to and kissed the naked image of one who had neither wife nor mistress nor sister and would scarcely have been associated with his mother had it not been that the Italian church discovered, with its infallible practical instinct, the rich possibilities of the figure of the Madonna.
I recall somewhere that photo or drawing of Rizal’s mother Teodora Alonzo contemplating the urn containing the remains of her son. This pieta attitude symbolizes the longed-for fulfillment of the exile’s wish to return to the homeland’s bosom, the completion of his earthly journey.
* * * * *
Come now, are we serious in all these melancholy reflections? Was Jose Rizal indulging in this when, in exile at Dapitan, he was preoccupied not just with Josephine Bracken but with a thousand projects of cultivation, teaching, polemical arguments with his Jesuit mentors, correspondence with scholars in Europe, ophthalmological practice, and so on? “What do I have to do with thee, woman?” Or Isabelo de los Reyes—our own socialist forebear—hurled not into the Heideggerian banality of our quotidian world but into the dark dungeon of Montjuich prison near Barcelona for his anarchist and subversive connections: was he troubled by porous and shifting boundaries? And that perchance he was not really inside but outside, something like the in-between hybrid of postcolonial orthodoxy? Indeed, one may ask: for General Artemio Ricarte, self-exiled in Japan after the victory of the Yankee invaders, is imagining the lost nation a labor of mourning too?
Let us leave this topos of Freudian melancholia and ground our speculations on actual circumstances. Such postmodern quandaries concerning the modalities of displacement of time by space, of essences by contingencies, could not have cajoled the tempered will of Apolinario Mabini into acquiescence. A brilliant adviser to General Emilio Aguinaldo, president of the first Philippine Republic, the captured Mabini refused to swear allegiance to the sovereign power of the United States. This “sublime paralytic” conceived deportation as a crucible of his insurrectionary soul. Intransigent, he preferred the challenge of physical removal to Guam where he was incarcerated for two years.
Imagine the paralyzed Mabini being carried in a hammock along the shores of Guam at the threshold of the storm-wracked twentieth century. Scouring the horizon for a glimpse of his beloved las islas Filipinas across the Pacific Ocean, Mabini must have felt that we needed to bide our time because surrender/defeat was not compromise but a strategy of waiting for the next opportunity. He envisioned a long march, a protracted journey, toward emancipation. One can only surmise that Mabini’s shrewd and proud spirit was able to endure the pain of banishment because he was busy forging in his mind “the conscience of his race,” writing his memoirs of the revolution, his wit and cunning deployed to bridge the distance between that melancholy island and the other godforsaken islands he was not really able to leave. Who cares now for Mabini? Or for Macario Sakay and the countless “brigands” whom the U.S. hanged for sedition?
At this point in our journey, we can’t stop to savor the pleasure of nostalgia. We are on the way home—“Tomorrow, Manila!”
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion….
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
– PSALM 137
Exile then is a ruse, a subterfuge of the temporarily weak subaltern against the master. It is a problem of deploying time against space—the classic guerilla stratagem against superior firepower. It is the cunning of conviction, of hope.
We thus have a replay of Hegel’s choreography of master and slave in a new context. Long before Foucault and Michel de Certeau came around to theorize the performance of everyday resistance, Bertolt Brecht had already explored in his Lehrstucke the theme of Schweikian evasions and underminings. The moment of suspended regularity, the interruption of the normal and habitual, becomes the occasion to vindicate the sacrifices of all those forgotten, invisible, silenced. In Peter Weiss’ play Trotsky in Exile, in the scene before his execution, Trotsky expresses this hope amid setbacks, defeats, losses of all kinds:
I can’t stop believing in reason, in human solidarity…. Failures and disappointments can’t stop me from seeing beyond the present defeat to a rising of the oppressed everywhere. This is no Utopian prophecy. It is the sober prediction of a dialectical materialist. I have never lost my faith in the revolutionary power of the masses. But we must be prepared for a long fight. For years, maybe decades, of revolts, civil wars, new revolts, new wars.
In times of emergency, Trotsky’s waiting in exile proves to be the time of pregnancy, of gestation and the emergence of new things.
Apart from being a symptom of defeat, exile then can also serve as a weapon of resistance. After the Jewish diaspora in the sixth century B.C., the captivity in Babylon, and the centuries of imperial devastation, now we have the situation of the Palestinians, deprived of their native habitat, finally on the way, in transit, to—we don’t know yet. A nation-state: is that the harbor, the terminal, of the passage from darkness to light? Unless the transnational bourgeoisie conspire together in this post-Cold War era of inter-capitalist rivalry, I hazard that after so much sacrifices the new social formation will not be a simple mimicry of the bourgeois nation-state. Let us hope so.
For so many years after World War II, the Palestinians were the “wandering Jews,” also known as “terrorists” by their enemies. One of the most eloquent poets of this diaspora, Fawaz Turki, described how Palestinians in exile attest to “the transcendence…in the banal,” how they agonized “over who is really in exile:/they or their homeland,/who left who/who will come back to the/other first/where will they meet….” Exiles are like lovers then who yearn not for homecoming but for a meeting, another tryst, the long-awaited encounter and reunion. At first, the land was the loved one; later on, the land metamorphoses into events, places, encounters, defeats and victories.
For Edward Said, however, exile is the space of the “extraterritorial” where the Baudelairean streetwalker of modernity finally arrives. Said celebrates exile with a vengeance. In After the Last Sky, he recognizes the pain, bitter sorrow, and despair but also the unsettling and decentering force of the exile’s plight, its revolutionary potential. Even though Said believes that “the pathos of exile is in the loss of contact with the solidity and the satisfaction of earth: homecoming is out of the question,” he seems to counterpoint to it a Gnostic, even neo-Platonic, response by invoking Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century monk from Saxony:
It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.
On second thought, this asceticism may be culture-bound, or it may be peculiar to a continental mentality overshadowed by surrounding mountains. Like our brothers in the Caribbean, we Filipinos are archipelagic creatures trained to navigate treacherous waters and irregular shoals. Our epistemic loyalty is to islands with their distinctive auras, vibrations, trajectory, fault lines. John Fowles is one of the few shrewd minds who can discern the difference between the continental and the archipelagic sensorium:
Island communities are the original alternative societies. That is why so many islanders envy them. Of their nature they break down the multiple alienations of industrial and suburban man. Some vision of Utopian belonging, of social blessedness, of an independence based on cooperation, haunts them all.
Islands signify our solidarity.
With this Utopian motif, we may recall Shevek, in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, for whom exile is the symbol for inhabiting an unfinished, incomplete world. It is a site where fulfillment (happiness, reunion, homecoming) is forever postponed. This sustained deferral is what exile means: “There was process: process was all. You could go in a promising direction or you could go wrong, but you did not set out with the expectation of ever stopping anywhere.”
Meanwhile, consider the fate of partisans of the South African struggle now allowed re-entry into their homeland. Exile for them always entailed a return to a national space to exercise the rights of reclamation and restitution. Yet when the “rendezvous of victory” arrived in 1992, we find “translated persons” and partisans of metissage at the entry points. Commenting on Bessie Head’s achievement, Rob Nixon considers the exiles as an invaluable asset for the construction of a new South Africa: “Re-entering exiles should thus be recognized as cross-border creations, incurable cultural misfits who can be claimed as a resource, rather than spurned as alien, suspect, or irrelevant.”
Toward the predicament of uprooting, one can assume polarized stances. One is the sentimental kind expressed poignantly by Bienvenido Santos:
All exiles want to go home. Although many of them never return, in their imagination they make their journey a thousand times, taking the slowest boats because in their dream world time is not as urgent as actual time passing, quicker than arrows, kneading on their flesh, crying on their bones.
The antithesis to that is the understated, self-estranged gesture of Bertolt Brecht. Driven from Europe by Hitler’s storm-troopers, the path-breaking dramatist found himself a refugee, neither an expatriate nomad nor border-crossing immigrant. Crossing the Japanese Sea, he watched “the grayish bodies of dolphins” in the gaiety of dawn. In “Landscape of Exile,” Brecht cast himself in the role of the fugitive who “beheld with joy…the little horsecarts with gilt decorations / and the pink sleeves of the matrons / in the alleys of doomed Manila.” His visit to the Philippines was short-lived, like those of Hemingway and Faulkner in the years of the Cold War. Situated on the edge of disaster, Brecht discovered that the oil derricks, the thirsty gardens of Los Angeles, the ravines and fruit market of California “did not leave the messenger of misfortune unmoved.” By analogy, were the Pinoys and other Asians at the turn of the century messengers of a messianic faith, underwriting visions of apocalypse long before Brecht sighted the coast of the North American continent?
* * * * *
From these excursions into delinquent and wayward paths, we return to the idea of transit, passage, a movement of reconnaissance in search of a home everywhere, that is, wherever materials are available for building a shelter for work and community. This may be the ultimate philosophical mission in our time whose most provocative prophet is John Berger. Berger’s meditations on home, migration, and exile in And our faces, my heart, brief as photos deserve careful pondering. By way of provisional conclusion to these notes, I want to summarize here a few of his insights on the complex phenomenology of exile.
You can never go home again, Thomas Wolfe counseled us. But what do you mean by home? we respond. Berger speculates on what happens after the loss of home when the migrant leaves, when the continuity with the ancestral dead is broken. The first substitute for the lost, mourned object (kins, home) is passionate erotic love that transcends history. Romantic love unites two displaced persons, linking beginnings and origins, because it pre-dates experience and allows memory and imagination free play. Such passion inspired the project of completing what was incomplete, of healing the division of the sexes—a substitute for homecoming. But romantic love, like religion and the sacramental instinct, has suffered attenuation and transmogrification in the modern world of secular rationality. It has been displaced by commodity-fetishism, the cash-nexus, and the cult of simulacra and spectacles. Berger then expounds on the other alternative historical hope of completion:
Every migrant knows in his heart of hearts that it is impossible to return. Even if he is physically able to return, he does not truly return, because he himself has been so deeply changed by his emigration. It is equally impossible to return to that historical state in which every village was the center of the world. One hope of recreating a center is now to make it the entire earth. Only world-wide solidarity can transcend modern homelessness. Fraternity is too easy a term; forgetting Cain and Abel, it somehow promises that all problems can be soluble. In reality many are insoluble—hence the never-ending need for solidarity.
Today, as soon as very early childhood is over, the house can never again be home, as it was in other epochs. This century, for all its wealth and with all its communication systems, is the century of banishment. Eventually perhaps the promise, of which Marx was the great prophet, will be fulfilled, and then the substitute for the shelter of a home will not just be our personal names, but our collective conscious presence in history, and we will live again at the heart of the real. Despite everything, I can imagine it.
Meanwhile, we live not just our own lives but the longings of our century.
Revolution, then, is the way out through the stagnant repetition of suffering and deprivation in everyday business life. It is Walter Benjamin’s Jetzt-Zeit, Now-Time, that will blast the continuum of reified history. It is an ever-present apocalypse whose presiding spirit in the past, Joachim da Fiore, finds many incarnations in the present: for one, the Filipino overseas contract worker and his unpredictable, unlicensed peregrinations.
Meanwhile look, stranger, on this planet Earth belonging to no single individual, our mother whom no one possesses. We find solidarity with indigenous peoples an inexhaustible source of comfort, inspiration, and creative renewal. The aboriginal Indians, dispossessed of their homelands and victimized by those merchants—agents of Faust and Mephistopheles—obsessed by private ownership and solitary hedonism, express for us also what I think can be the only ultimate resolution for human exile and diaspora for Filipinos as well as for other peoples: “We and the earth, our mother, are of one mind.”