Chapter 7 of forthcoming book CRITICAL INTERVENTIONS

by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.




Very probably the Philippines will defend [against US aggression] with indescribable ardor the liberty she has bought at the cost of so much blood and sacrifice.

–Jose Rizal

No uprising fails.  Each one is a step in the right direction….

–Salud Algabre

[a leader of the 1930 Sakdal rebellion]



The post-modern era has finally come of age. Inaugurated by the United Nation’s bombing of Iraq for occupying the territory of another nation (Kuwait), the post-Cold War era we inhabit today, and its post 9/11 sequel, appears bizarre and utterly disorienting  It seems certainly as far removed from the Enlightenment vision of a cosmopolitan world culture (expressed, for example, in Goethe’s notion of a Weltliteratur) as the years when this century opened with the Boer Wars in South Africa, the Boxer rebellion against foreign incursions in China, and the Spanish-American War. Our postmodern conjuncture is in fact distinguished by ethnic particularisms and by the valorization of the aleatory, contingent, and heterogeneous. Indeed, the ideal of internationalism presupposes a plurality of nation-states asymmetrically ranked in a conflict-ridden global market. It thrives on national differences since “world interdependence has diffused balance of power considerations and transformed them into a balance of terror” (Smith 1979, 196). As long as the ethnic archive persists amid the homogenizing secular ideals of modernization and liberal individualism that subtend the policies of most states, an order grounded on exchange-value and the logic of capital accumulation, nationalism will remain a major if not decisive force shaping the economic, political, and ideological contours of the “New World Order” now reconfigured circa 2010 as the age of the United States’ wars against terrorism/extremism.

Nationalism as a world phenomenon is thus a historically determinate process of group-identity formation with diverse manifestations and ramifications. How is writing as a cultural  practice and habitus (Bourdieu 1993) in the Philippines configured in this dialectic of identity and difference?

Snapshots from the Past

While the western world has labored since the French Revolution under the destructive forces of commodifying alienation and capitalist exploitation, the Philippines, ever since its colonization by Spain in the seventeenth century and then more ferociously by US invasion in 1899, has been searching for its integral image as a nation in which the material forces of production/reproduction in all aspects of life are organically sutured to the spcies-being of all its citizens. Originally social in conception and practice, its indigenous culture was once destined to lend the masses the virtue of its reconciling, regenerative power. But this culture and its foundations were destroyed by almost four hundred years of colonial occupation, lasting up to now. Only a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation of the political economy can reinstall the material infrastructure for its recovery.

Of the revolutionary spirits of the nineteenth century, Francisco Balagtas (1788-1862) first established the image of the poet as a tribune of the masses, a leader of popular revolt. He perceived that only by working within the dominant social structure and its ideological norms, as reflected by the public taste for escapist romances and zarzuelas (moro-moro plays), could he succeed in penetrating and seizing basic motivations, potentially charged but implicit, of the oppressed peasantry and nascent working-class. Indeed, such a vision of conflict between the productive and the parasitic ranks of society served a pivotal role in his art. Despite Balagtas’ grasp of an intuitive dialectic, he could not transcend the reigning conventions of medieval/feudal sentimentalism. His art was nourished by peasant and soil, by an archaic “structure of feeling,” and the natural elements (see the essays in Melendrez-Cruz 1988). He could thus purely lyricize—this is itself a mode of sublimation and release under the feudal setup—icons and indices that were utterly agonizing, recalcitrant and raw:

Sa loob at labas ng bayan kong sawi kaliluha’y siyang nangyayaring


kagalinga’t bait ay nalulugami, ininis sa hukay ng dusa’t pighati. (1950, 44)

[Within and without my fallen country, injustice reigns supreme. Downtrodden are virtue and integrity, pushed down loaded with mockery into the pit of grief and hopelessness.]

Using a subtle kind of allegorical indirection and thinly disguised narrative plot in crafting his masterpiece, Florante at Laura (1838), Balagtas plays on the theme of usurpation: a young Albanian prince, condemned to die in the jungle by usurpers of his father’s throne, laments his plight, his beloved, his country. By a gracious deus ex machina, a device that falls within the decorum of the genre, a Moorish prince climactically saves him. With the commonplace fairly-tale epilogue, Florante at Laura ends on a note that is the distinctive chord of all “capitalist-oriented” art, what Kenneth Burke (1957) calls its purgative or discharging effect. It also falls within William Empson’s ingenious conceptualization of the pastoral as an artistic mode of reconciling political/ideological conflicts via fusing the humble and heroic, instituting “a feeling of solidarity between classes (1950, 18).

Balagtas is now generally regarded as “the father of Tagalog poetry” (Lumbera 1986; San Juan 1971). Criticism of his work, however, has been hitherto superficial and altogether disillusioning. Chauvinist bureaucrats have instrumentalized him in a sectarian fashion to promote Tagalog as a national language. In the Philippines, language has predominantly tended to mirror underlying class antagonisms. However, we have witnessed recently (more below) a revival of the old zarzuelas, and this provincial archaism contributes to the discharge of fantasy and frustrations, which the movies, TV, and religious ceremony (both the Catholic and evangelical kinds) accomplish daily. Searching for an identity of its own, for a justifying poetics, Filipino writing meanwhile finally arrives at a crisis. Should it go on forever affirming eternal abstract truths and self-serving blissful sentiments? Or should it devote itself to the refinement of its own self-contained formal properties? Is there any other alternative?

From the publication of the first book printed in the Philippines, the Doctrina Christiana (1593) up to the end of the nineteenth century, the native consciousness acted out its dreams and daylight fantasies in comintangs and native poetical jousts; it performed its nightmare in aborted uprisings and mute suffering. This span of time, of course, demands a complex retelling of its own which we cannot offer here. When the first Philippine Republic failed to sustain itself before American might, it was felt that a new epoch had begun in a century of international upheavals. Only with the 1898 revolution did Filipinos really achieve for the first time what may be considered the historical and existential awareness, a communal insight, in which the human person figures as the agent of his own freedom or his own servitude. It was at this crossing-point that the  scholar Epifanio de los Santos y Cristobal theorized Philippine history as a dialectical movement founded on the complicated clash of distinct social relationships. This is implied in his Nuestra literature a traves de los siglos (1914), an eloquent testimony to the Filipino quest for articulate collective identity, as intimated in this observation on the native theater:

De rechazo lanzose al descubrimiento de nuevos mundos el teatro Tagalo, y con base historica contemporanea, y por Io mismo, no muy depurada y sujeta a contencion, y con tendencia a simbolismos, pero con orientacion restauradora hasta cierto punto de los netamente nacional (1914, 56).

(Then the Tagalog theater went forth in quest of new worlds to conquer. Its plays now were based on contemporaneous history; these plays, not deriving from an established order, now   reflect the changes of the times. They showed also a tendency toward symbolism and, to a certain degree, toward the restoration of everything purely national.)

Vernacular writing, de los Santos surmised, now began to reflect “la unidad de ideas y sentimientos del pueblo filipino, infundiendole ese espiritu de critica que le distingue” (“the unity of ideas and sentiments of the Filipinos, which is infused by the spirit of criticism that distinguishes it”). But what makes de los Santos’s reckoning a document of profound historical value lies in his perception, quite rare in his time, of the developing wholeness of collective life which is an incontrovertible proof of mass solidarity, a national ethos (Rizal and Mabini only gave voice to a condition beyond the sway of their finite, historically determined wills and characters). This collective “structure of feeling” (to use Raymond William’s term) deploying its own spontaneous judgment suggests its defining quality as a manifestation of the historical spirit which assumes phenomenal proportions in mass insurrection against established authority. De los Santos describes the Zeitgeist in these terms:

Como entonces desconocianse las castas dominantes (que aparecieron en pleno siglo XIX), y el gobernalle de los pueblos Io manejaban buenos hombres de la tierra, la influencia de las campanas no podia ser entonces mis edificante y democratica. Por esto, las ideas y cuanto agita, intriga, y regocija la vida universitaria se reproducia en los pueblos, encontrando eco la cabana del labriego …. Del caso de la poblacion, la disputa de la lira emigraba a los bantayanes y huertos; de estos, de un respingo, salia disparada para la choza rustica, y de esta al parrado del pastor que sestea el ganado (1914, 59-60).

(As the dominant castes—which did not appear until the middle of the 19th century—were then unknown and the government of the pueblos was in the hands of the good sons of the soil, the influence of the country could not have been more edifying and democratic than it was in those days. The ideas and everything that agitates, worries and cheers university life were reproduced in the pueblos and found an echo in the hut of the husband-man…. From the town proper the lyrical discussion migrated to the outlying barrios, and thence, by a bound it would translate itself to the rustic hut and from it to the shelter of the herder tending the cattle.)

What de los Santos understood in a direct though groping, exploratory mode was in fact an important historical movement of the collective spirit which found incarnation in the revolution against Spain and against the American invasion, against rampant abusive landlordism and corrupt comprador/ bureaucrats. Its implications still reverberate today. But despite his keen intuition, de los Santos’s ideational approach and his moralistic judgments were sorely limited by his ilustrado affiliation and patrician asceticism. He was not without a certain Castilian haughtiness, an ivory-towerish detachment, when it came to confronting the unlettered underdogs and the emergent proletariat of the tobacco and rope factories. Perhaps he was too discriminating, genteel, even chivalric. Events developed with a vengeance, for eventually the peasant Sakdalista uprising of the Thirties usurped the role that the native scribes had abandoned for nostalgic indulgence in a more naïve pastoralism represented by the paintings of Fernando Amorsolo and Fabian de la Rosa.

With the appearance of Lope K. Santos’ classic anarcho-syndicalist novel Banaag at Sikat (1904), an era of chagrin and abortive dreams ended; an era of self-scrutiny and examination of conscience began. According to Julian Cruz Balmaceda (1938), the “Age of Change” had run full circle; the “Age of Prosperity,” he optimistically predicts, had now begun. Apparently the period of the Commonwealth in which Balmaceda matured had blinded him into accepting vapid metaphysical absolutes divorced from the crucible of social changes. For to conceive of progress or prosperity in literature is certainly to nourish a concept without factual basis; consequently, the historian succumbs to his own self-serving epigonism. I submit that it is precisely in the task of destroying illusions, deceit, and injustice that Filipino writing has periodically assumed its traditional but hitherto eclipsed function of being totally committed to the evolving, dynamic specificities of the human condition in its concrete historical setting.

A breakthrough occurred in the Thirties, as already indicated. It was the global crisis of Wall Street capitalism and the intense peasant dissidence throughout the islands that impelled Salvador P. Lopez, Teodoro Agoncillo, Angel Baking, and others to mount a challenge to U.S. hegemonic authority and the threat of fascism by establishing the Philippine Writers League (1939-41). For them, nation signified the working people, the producers of social wealth, whose alignment with the anti-fascist insurgency in Europe and Asia invested with apocalyptic Jetztzeit (Walter Benjamin’s term) the solidarity of all the victims of capital. For the first time, the insurrectionary legacy of 1896 was rediscovered and utilized for grassroots empowerment. We find this stance of nationalist internationalism in the fiction of Manuel Arguilla and Arturo Rotor, in the novels of Juan C. Laya, in the essays of Jose Lansang, S. P. Lopez, Angel Baking, Renato Constantino, and the massive testimonies of Carlos Bulosan. For the first time, writers in English rallied together with the vernacular artists (among others, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Benigno Ramos, and Amado V. Hernandez) to affirm the dialectical interaction between spiritual creativity and radical grass-roots mobilization, even though the protest against continuing U.S. domination had to be sublimated into the worldwide united front against fascism. The praxis of Filipino national allegory was thus born in the fraught boundaries of what was desired and what was exigent. It was conceived in this hiatus between the project of liberating the homeland (from Japanese invaders) and the defense of popular democracy everywhere. Consequently, it sublated 19th-century bourgeois nationalism in the condense, emblematic trope of what came to be known as “national democratic revolution.”  We are still in the midst of the labor of interpreting/actualizing this trope.

From Peasantry to Proletariat: Carlos Bulosan

The exemplary practitioner of this allegorical mode was Carlos Bulosan, a worker-exile in the U.S. from the early Depression to the beginning of the Cold War. His now classic ethnobiography, America Is in the Heart (1948), synthesized the indigenous tradition of antifeudal revolt in the Philippines with the multiracial workers’ uprising in the West Coast and Hawaii against racist exploitation. Bulosan’s art expressed his partisanship for popular/radical democracy. It demonstrated his faith in the intelligence of people of color–Reason’s cunning, in the old adage–rooted in cooperative labor. His sympathy with the international united front defending Republican Spain beleaguered by fascism coincided with his union organizing against racist violence in the U.S. and Japanese militarism ravaging his homeland.

Because Bulosan’s sensibility was deeply anchored to the proletarian struggles of his time, he was able to capture the latent transformative impulses in his milieu as well as the emancipatory resonance of the realist-populist trend in U.S. literature: from Whitman to Twain, Dreiser to Richard Wright. The prime exhibit here is Bulosan’s novel The Power of the People (1972), later re-issued with its original title, The Cry and the Dedication. Its thematic burden was to render in concrete incidents the reciprocal dynamics between the Huk uprising in the Fifties against U.S. imperialism and its comprador allies, and the farm workers’ agitation in the U.S. for equality and justice. In contrast, the aesthetes who emulated Villa could only gesture toward, or parody, U.S. neoconservative styles and banalities ranging from the compromised liberalism of the welfare state to the slogans of religious fundamentalism, laissez-faire utilitarianism, and packaged postmodern fads fresh from the dream-factories of California.

Despite Bulosan’s formidable achievement, it remains the case that the vision of a nation-in-the-making sedimented in Filipino writing in English cannot be fully assayed except in antithesis to the metropolis. Since the Sixties, however, the U.S. Establishment claim of truthfully representing the Filipino has entered a period of protracted crisis. For U.S. scholarship, Filipino writing in whatever language remains invisible, at best peripheral and certainly second-rate. Because Filipino writers challenging the realism of the center and the pathos of the status quo have not refused to abandon the theme of national/class emancipation, the now contested project of modernity given a subaltern inflection, they have not been so easily coopted by paternalistic praises and assimilated to the tokenized, nominally diversified canon. U.S. neoliberal ideology may accord formal rights to Filipino cultural identity, but does so only to deny recognition of its substantive worth.

This view has even influenced oppositional trends. While theorists of postcolonial letters celebrate their difference as the part of Commonwealth/British literature that really matters, they have so far not claimed to appropriate Philippine writing in English as an illustration of what the authors of The Empire Writes Back call a “hybridized” or “syncretic” phenomenon” (Ashcroft et al 1989, 180, 196). The reason is not far to seek: whether in the U.S. or in the Philippines, Filipino writers cannot escape the vocation of resistance against neo(not post)colonial forces gravitating around the World Bank-IMF, guarantors of transnational US hegemony. They cannot shirk the task of reinventing the nation anew in a world where the eclectic pragmatism of the transnational corporate bosses seeks to impose everywhere the authoritarian mandate of Eurocentric supremacy. This program of reimagining the national-popular (in Gramsci’s terminology), not the state which has instrumentalized the nation, is not nationalist in the vulgar sense of seeking to preserve ethnic purity or instigate a cult of linguistic uniqueness; rather, it is “nationalist” in defense of the integrity of the collective work-process in a specific time-place. This nationalism inheres in affirming the dignity and worth of workers and peasants that constitute the nation-people for-itself in the ultimate analysis.

Whenever U.S. experts on the Philippines pronounce judgment on our literature, the implicit standard may be seen to originate from the notion of “tutelage.”  In sum, U.S. knowledge-production of the truth about the “Filipino” rests in part on the organic metaphors of parent-child and tributary-stream, a figural strategy whose repetition endows U.S. representational authority with sacramental aura. Let me cite one example. In the 1969 Area Handbook for the Philippines, an official government Baedeker, we read: “For the first two decades of the American occupation the short story suffered from a stiltedness of style when written in English, but, after the authors went through a period of practice in acquiring the idiom, excellent writing began to emerge” (Chaffee 1969, 140). This is repeated in subsequent editions, together with the citation of authors (Villa, Romulo, Nick Joaquin, N.V.M. Gonzalez) who acquired importance by being published in the United States. In addition to such marginalizing techniques, U.S. critical discourse also occluded the reality of resistance to its client regime (the Marcos dictatorship) by the tactic of omission. One evidence, among others: after 1972, “themes shifted from social comment to a search for self-awareness and personal identification” (Vreeland 1976, 148). What actually happened was that “social comment” faced with government censorship either stopped, turned Aesopean, or went underground. Further, U.S. “postcolonial” will to categorize and subjugate its clients can be illustrated by the well-intentioned but patronizing comments of Donald Keene (in a review of an anthology of modern Filipino short stories): “…we are certainly fortunate that there are now Filipinos who can speak to us beautifully in our own language…[this collection] is an admirable testimony to the emergence of another important branch of English literature” (1962, 44). At last, Filipinos speaking “beautifully,” alas!

Vicissitudes of Filipinizing English

One response to this strategy of incorporation by subsumption is the privileging of contradictions inscribed in the site of what is alter/native, alias the monstrous, the other of paranoid mastery. I submit that Philippine writing is not a “branch” of American or English literature; it is sui generis. This is not just a matter of “differences ‘within’ English writing”  or embedded national traditions which Bill Ashcroft and the postcolonial choir consider “the first and most vital stage in the process of rejecting the claims of the centre to exclusivity” (1989, 17). Nick Joaquin, the most acclaimed portrait-painter of the petty-bourgeois Filipino, formulates the genealogy of his maturation as a process of awakening to the exuberant rituals of the folk and the pious gentry. After describing the itinerary of his education in the reading of American and British authors (from Dickens to Willa Cather), he finally discovers the Philippine folk-Catholic milieu of ceremonies and festivals  that provide the raw materials for his imagination (“The Way” 4-5). While rightly denouncing the mechanical imitation of U.S. standards and styles, Joaquin seeks to locate the authenticity of Filipino creativity in a populist version of Christianity lodged in the psyche of characters resisting commodity fetishism–in The Woman Who Had Two Navels, Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, and Cave and Shadows.

But there’s another scandalous claim. More problematic than this essentialist quest for an indigenous genius loci subordinated to Eurocentric Christianity is Joaquin’s idea of tradition as a cumulative inventory of the colonial past: Rizal was produced by 300 years of Spanish culture, Villa by 400 years (add about 100 years of American colonial tutelage) of Westernization, a frame of reference which includes for Joaquin “Adam and Eve, Abraham, Venus, St. Peter, Cinderella and the Doce Pares” (1982, 42). So Joaquin contends that “if Philippine writing in English is to be justified at all, it will have to assert its continuity with that particular process and development” of absorbing the Western episteme, however violent and barbaric, and the problematic of the Cartesian ego. Rather than a radical rupture with the past, Joaquin’s empiricist naivete legitimizes a syncretic adaptation of European forms, values, knowledge–an internationalism that replicates the less subtle conditionalities of the WB-IMF and the Wall Street financial consortium. Such a mimicry of colonial icons and paradigms springs from a myth of self-apprehension characterized by syncretism and hybridity, signs of “differance” so highly prized by the current theoreticians of postcolonial or minority discourse reacting to the master narratives of bourgeois freedom and progress.

A few pressing questions demand attention here. What would differentiate this axiom of syncretism from the doctrine of liberal pluralism (either postKeynesian or postFordist) under which the “New World Order” of the U.S., Japan, and the European Community seeks to redivide the world into their respective spheres of influence? Is nationalism, interpreted recently as a mode of “ethnic cleansing,” a non-threatening feasible alternative?  Is ethnocentric nativism (a return to the pasyon, various tribal mores, and other sectarian or autarchic practices) a viable option?  How have Filipino writers succeeded in transcending the either/or dilemma of choosing between abrogation through appropriation, or unilaterally privileging the indigenous?  Is Samir Amin’s universalist resolution of this predicament (proposed in his book Eurocentrism) a cogent way of breaking through the impasse?

Initiatives for a renewal of national allegory (as mentioned earlier), the renaissance of the national-popular imagination, might be witnessed in a critique of what I might call instrumental or culinary nationalism–the ideology and culture of the “New Society” of the Marcos regime drawn up by progressive intellectuals just after the February 1986 insurrection. It might be instructive to recall, in this context, how in Africa and Asia after the sixties, the triumph of elite nationalism led to the catastrophic disillusionment of writers who expected the radical transformation of society after independence. What the “passive revolution” (see Chatterjee 1986) ushered in was neocolonialism, not release from the bondage to capital. During the Marcos dictatorship, pseudohistorical propaganda and self-serving kitsch that manipulated symbols of the archaic tributary/feudal past tried to project a state obsessed with “national security” and anti-communism and at the same time an embodiment of the nation’s “authentic identity.” This was allowed within the parameters of the Cold War and its aftermath. Nicanor Tiongson (1986) and his colleagues exposed how the ethos of communal cooperation called bayanihan or kapitbahayan was ascribed by the state to the barangay (the pre-Spanish village government) as its “soul.” This ethnic locus would then function as the political base for the authoritarian political party, Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.

The despots can claim to be lovers of culture. In 1969 Mrs. Imelda Marcos raided the public treasury to realize her fantasy, the aristocratic and fetishized edifice called the “Cultural Center of the Philippines” which she designated as the “Sanctuary of the Filipino Soul.” Those hoary icons, symbols, and rituals of Marcos’ “Filipino Ideology” might have fooled his narrow circle of cronies and fellow compradors, but it was easily grasped by most Filipinos as mystification and apologetics for corrupt oligarchic despotism as well as marks of subservience to Western and Japanese transnational interests. Lino Brocka, the leading progressive filmmaker then, pointed out that such “nation-building means trying to give a ‘beautiful’ picture of the country, trying not to disturb people, not to make them angry by depicting the truth to them” (Tiongson 1986, 57). This understanding was shared by most artists who sympathized with the platform and principles of the underground coalition, the National Democratic Front (NDF). The NDF’s (National Democratic Front) alter/native project of constructing a “democratic and scientific culture” via participation of the broad masses insured that nationalism of the kind that disappointed many African writers like Chinua Achebe and Ayi Kwei Armah would not be a substitute for the thoroughgoing transformation that would be brought about by a change in property-relations and the redistribution of social wealth/power. Such a change would by necessity entail the assertion of national sovereignty against U.S. impositions. Above all it would prioritize the democratic control of a circumscribed space or territory without which the Filipino people cannot make any contribution to the community of states claiming to represent singular, incommensurable nations.

Thus we come back to the paradox that the internationalism of Goethe, Condorcet, and Marx conjured: for “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness” (to quote the Communist Manifesto) to be eradicated, what is required is precisely nationalism conceived not just as a collective primordial sentiment but also as a mode of organizing a community of participant citizens. It is not the concept of the nation-people that is problematic but the comprador or dependent state that manipulates the “nation” as its instrument for accumulation. There are nations galore, but which one promotes our material integrity and spiritual flourishing? Let us not forget the guiding maxim: From each according to her capability, to each according to her needs.

The National Question Once More

Within the Marxian tradition one finds a rich archive of inquiries into and controversies on “the national question,” from Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Otto Bauer to Mao Tse-tung, C.L.R. James, Che Guevara, Edward Kardelj, and  Amilcar Cabral. Surveying this field, Michael Lowy (1998) concludes that the principle of self-determination centers on a given community’s act of deciding consciously to constitute itself as a nation. But before judging one nationalism as legitimate and another as suspect if not reactionary, Lowy advises us to undertake “concrete analysis of each concrete situation” relative to the goal of defeating international capitalism. In his study of ethnonationalism in Britain, Tom Nairn (1977) counseled us about the enigmatic Janus-faced nature of historical nationalisms.

Whatever the ambiguity of this phenomenon, the idea of the nation cannot be exorcised from thought without negating the historicist temper of modernity. As noted before, nationalism and its corollary, the nation-state, are energized by a teleology of the conquest of necessity by reason, of humanity’s progress toward freedom and self-fulfillment of all. This radically historical-materialist position has been questioned by postmodern thinking, as I’ve suggested in the beginning. It is also questioned by Regis Debray who believes that the idea (or ideal-type) of the nation, which for Marxists will be rendered obsolete by the advent of communism, is permanent and irreducible. For Debray, the idea of a nation is necessary to thwart entropy and death. It performs this function by establishing boundaries and thus generating identity through difference. Claiming to be more materialist than Marx, Debray insists that the universalizing thrust of bourgeois-analytic reason (as instanced by Amin’s book mentioned earlier, or the messianic thrust of Frantz Fanon’s Third World advocacy) ignores the reality of contemporary developments, specifically the resurgence of identity politics in the forms of ethnic separatism, nationalist or regional schisms, etc. We are witnessing “a growing interdependence of the conditions of economic production and exchange, comporting a trend towards uniformity; yet this is dialectically accompanied by a new multiplication of cultural diversity…. Equality is never identity…. What we are seeing now is indeed a growing divergence of cultural identities, a search for specificity as the other face of emerging globalism” (1977, 31).

I submit a more dialectical rearticulation of the topic. Such a schematic mapping of the present world-system, a recapitulation of the principle of “uneven and unequal development,” is enabled by the very contradictions of late capitalism. In this totalizing regime of exchange value, there are multiple overdetermined antagonisms. However, the primary contradiction from the perspective of oppressed people of color is still between the advanced industrial centers negotiating alliances and compromises on the one hand, and their victims within and outside their borders. And while these victims (whole groups and populations) are heterogeneous, their commonality of sharing the collective fate of domination by mainly Western capital underpins the sociolibidinal economy of their individual quests for recognition as world-historical nations.

On the terrain of an extremely uneven social formation, writing in the Philippines stages in rhetoric and narrative an emergent popular agenda or “structure of feeling.” It proceeds by refunctioning residual forms (such as the dupluhan and zarzuela, folk theatrical genres) and marginalized conventions in order to subvert the aestheticist formalism authorized by U.S.  disciplinary regimes as well as by the commodified imports and imitations from Japan, Europe, and elsewhere. By the logic of opposing an exploitative and alienating force, the resistance assumes the modality of revitalizing indigenous cultural practices so as to constitute an allegorical narrative of their return with new effectivities. What distinguishes this tendency  is a cosmopolitan selectiveness demonstrated not just in the adaptation of Western genres (for example, Brecht’s epic distancing retooled in PETA productions like Buwan at Baril), or in the feminist abrogation of neocolonial/feudal patriarchy (as in Lualhati Bautista’s Bata, Bata…Paano Ka Ginawa? and other vernacular experiments). Nor is it fully registered in the invention of a new style of tracking the metamorphosis of the migratory sensibility, as in Jose Dalisay, Jr.’s intriguing novel Killing Time in a Warm Place. Rather, it can be discerned in the process of contriving a national-popular idiom addressed not to the Volk (Herder, Fichte) but to a resurgent sambayanan (populus). An allegorizing strategy of storytelling is explored. Its point of departure is an alter/native sensibility rooted in acts of decolonizing intransigence, in a rigorous and uncompromising critique of the illusions propagated by the world-system of transnational capital.

Transitional  Praxis

The Filipino praxis of alter/native writing interrogates the “post” in “postcolonial” theory. We observe this in the partisan texts of Ave Perez Jacob, Roland Tolentino, Joi Barrios, Bienvenido Lumbera, Efren Abueg, Jose Lacaba, and others. They all strive to actualize what Fr. Ed de la Torre once called “incarnation politics,” a theology of liberation indivisible from the daily acts of resistance against a client state that has sacrificed the nation-people to profitmaking (San Juan 2007, 2010). This project of articulating the subject denominated as “becoming-Filipino” is not nationalist in the orthodox construal of the term. For one, it rejects a state where the nation is hostage to brokers and entrepreneurs ready to sell it to the highest bidder. Its nationalism is prophetic because it materializes in everyday acts of popular resistance. The nation appealed to here would then signify a “concrete universal” embodying solidarity with other oppressed communities engaged in fighting the same enemy; such unity with others is premised on the cultural differences of peoples, including those whose histories have not yet been written; or those whose narratives have been either preempted or interrupted by the West’s “civilizing mission,” otherwise known as “the White Man’s Burden”. We comprehend and appreciate differences invested with identity-drives to the extent that they can be translated for the re-cognition of others and our mutual enrichment. How is the Other fully recognized? By transposing the mimesis of the Self (the parasitic colonizer within) into an allegory of its own constitution and self-reproduction.               What I have in mind can perhaps be suggested by Edward Said’s hermeneutics of the culminating moment of the decolonization process plotted by Fanon. This is the moment of liberation–“a transformation of social consciousness beyond national consciousness”– (Said 1994, 83) enunciated, for example, in Pablo Neruda’s materialist poetics (see Chapter 4), in Aime Cesaire’s Cahier d’un retour, and actualized in the life of the Filipino revolutionary writer, Amado V. Hernandez. Because of the general reification of social life today, we cannot as yet fully understand the dynamics of these complex mutations without the mediation of allegory and other surrealist techniques: Neruda evokes through Machu Picchu the heroic resistance of the aborigines, while Cesaire’s Caribbean locus evokes the promise of Negritude in dissonant, utopian rhythms.

What does the Philippines offer?  We have so far charted the discursive terrain where the salient contradictions of our time involving race, ethnicity, class, gender, etc., are refracted in a multilayered textuality open for interpretation, critique, and ecumenical dialogue. My intervention here should be deemed a prologue to a substantial and more nuanced inventory of the historical specificities of the Philippine social formation that would determine the various modes of cultural production and appropriation pivoting around the event called “becoming-Filipino.” Less ethnogenesis than alter/native poiesis, the goal is to convert the “state-nation” (Smith 1979) to an evolving national-popular site of dialogue and praxis. Such a reconnaissance of a third-world people’s struggle to define and validate its agency is in effect a task of reconstituting the nation and its position in the world community of nation-states. In doing so, we encounter ourselves in others. We engage in a catalyzing exchange with voices from other societies using a constantly revised lexicon of “communicative reason” (to borrow Habermas’ phrase), an exchange oriented toward a fusion of counterpointing horizons where all can equally participate in the creation of intelligible meaning and universal value.

My proposal of an alter/native poetics as a hypothetical paradigm for decolonizing, subalternized cultures depends of course on the peculiarities of each nation’s history. One last example from the Philippines may be adduced here to illustrate the dialectic of metropolis and periphery that informs the ever-changing configuration of the nation-people in the former colonies. When Arturo Rotor wrote his essay “Our Literary Heritage” in 1940 to exhort his fellow writers to respond to the needs of the working masses, he invoked as models of committed intellectuals the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson who publicly combated slavery and Thomas Mann who admonished artists to seek [Right, Good and Truth not only in art but also] in the politico-social sphere as well, and establish a relation between his thought and the political will of his time” (1973, 21). Rotor ended his nationalist and by the same token inter-nationalist manifesto vindicating literature’s raison d’etre by quoting the Soviet communist playwright and novelist, Maxim Gorki. Gorki declared that “[literature] must at last embark upon its epic role, the role of an inner force which firmly welds people in the knowledge of the community of their suffering and desires, the awareness of the unity of their striving for a beautiful free life” (Rotor 1973, 23). In this way, Philippine vernacular allegory may be said to harmonize its pitch and rhythm with others from North and South (now replacing East and West) speaking tongues whose intelligibility and efficacy are guaranteed by our sharing common planetary needs, the political unconscious of all art. Before concluding this section, I want to offer some timely reflections on the language question that epitomizes the urgency of the whole crisis.

Language Trauma

In this current situation of portentous upheaval in the Philippines, any discussion of the “language question,” like the “woman question,” is bound to be iincendiary and contentious. The issue of language is always explosive, a crux of symptoms afflicting the body politic. It is like a fuse or trigger that ignites a whole bundle of inflammable issues, scandalously questioning the existence of God in front of an audience of believers. Or the immortality of souls among the faithful. Perhaps my saying outright that I am a partisan for a national language, Filipino, may outrage the postmodernists and cosmopolites among you—how can you say such a thing when you are speaking in English? Or, as Senator Diokno once said, “English of a sort.” How dare I infuriate the loyal speakers of Cebuano, Ilocano, Pampagueno, Ilonggo, Taglish, Filipino English, and a hundred or more languages used in these seven hundred islands. One gives up: it can’t be helped. Let it be, as the Beatles sang it; let it be. Or we can help lift the ideological smog and draw the lines of demarcation in the battleground more lucidly and productively.

One suspects that this is almost unavoidable, in a society where to raise the need for one national language, say “Filipino” (as mandated by the Constitution) is bound to arouse immediate opposition. Or, if not immediately, it is deferred and sublimated into other pretexts for debate and argumentation. Fortunately, we have not reached the point of armed skirmishes and violent confrontations for the sake of our mother-father tongue, as in India and other countries.  My partisanship for Filipino (not Tagalog) is bound to inflame Cebuanos, Bicolanos, Ilocanos, and so on, including Filipino speakers/writers of English, or Filipino English. We are given to trying to defuse any brewing conflict quickly by using the colonizer’s tongue, or compromise babel-wise to maintain a semblance of harmony. It’s called “smooth interpersonal relations,” My view is that only a resolutely scientific historical analysis can help explain the present contradictory conjuncture, and disclose the options it offers us.  Only protracted engagement in the current political struggles can resolve the linguistic imbroglio/impasse and clarify the import and consequence of the controversy over the national language, over the fate of Filipino, English, and other working languages in our society.

One would expect that this issue could have been resolved a long time ago. But, given the dire condition of the Philippine political economy in this epoch of globalized terrorism led by the U.S. hegemon, a plight that is the product of more than a century of colonial/neocolonial domination, all the controversies surrounding this proposal of a national language since the time of the Philippine Commonwealth when Quezon convened the Institute of National Language under Jaime de Veyra, have risen again like ravenous ghouls. I believe this specter can never be properly laid to rest until we have acquired genuine sovereignty, until national self-determination has been fully exercised, and the Filipino people—three thousand everyday, more than a million every year–will no longer be leaving in droves as OFWs, the whole nation becoming a pliant subaltern to the megacorporations, to the IMF, WB, WTO, and the predatory bankers of the global North. We cannot help but be interpellated by the sirens of the neoliberal market and transformed into exchangeable warm bodies, we can at least interrogate the conditions of our subordination—if only as a gesture of resistance by a nascent, irrepressible spirit within us that will not tolerate the punishment and wretchedness of the body.

In the hope of avoiding such a situation, which is almost ineluctable, I would like to offer the following seven theses that may initiate a new approach to the question, if not offer catalyzing points of departure for reflection. In contrast to the dominant idealist-culturalist, individualistic approach, I apply a historical materialist one whose method is not only historicizing and dialectical—not merely deploying the Aufhebung of Hegel within an eclectic, neoWeberian framework (e.g., Zialcita 2005)—but also, as Marx said, standing it on its head in the vortex of changing social relations of production within concrete historical settings. The materialist dialectic offers a method of analysis and elucidation of the larger context in which questions about a national language can be clarified and the nuances of its practical implications elaborated and tested.

Thesis 1: Language is not an entity or phenomenon in itself but a component of the social forms of consciousness of any given social formation. As such, it can only be properly addressed within the historical specificity of a given mode of production and attendant social-political formation. It has no history of its own but is a constituent and constitutive force of the ideological terrain on which the struggle of classes and historic blocs are fought, always in an uneven and combined mode of development. It forms part of the conflicted evolution of the integral state, as Gramsci conceived it as the combination of political society and civil society. The issue of language is located right at the heart  of the construction of this integral state. Hence not only its synchronic but also diachronic dimensions should be dialectically comprehended in grasping its worth and contribution to the liberation and fulfillment of the human potential.

Thesis 2:  The function and nature of language then cannot be adequately discussed in a neutral and positivistic-empiricist way, given its insertion into conflicted relations of production, at least since the emergence of class-divided societies in history. In the Philippines, the status and function of various languages—Spanish, English, and the numerous vernaculars or regional languages—cannot be assayed without inscribing them in the history of colonial and neocolonial domination of the peoples in these islands. In this regard, the terms “national-popular” and “nation-people”—as Gramsci employed them in a historical-materialist discourse–should be used in referring to Filipinos in the process of expressing themselves as diverse communities, interpellating other nationalities, and conducting dialogue with themselves and other conversers/interlocutors.

It is necessary to assert the fundamental premise of the “national-popular,” the nation as constituted by the working masses (in our country, workers, women, peasants, middle strata), not the landlords, bankers, and big proprietors. We stipulate this specific conception of “nation-people.” Otherwise, the nation (in the archive of Eurocentric historians) is usually identified with the elite, the propertied classes, the national bourgeoisie, or the comprador bourgeoisie and its allies, the bureaucrats and feudal landlords and their retinue of gangsters, private armies, paramilitary thugs, lumpen criminals, etc. Actually, today, we inhabit a policed territory dominated by a comprador-bureaucratic bloc of the propertied classes allied with and supported in manifold ways by the U.S. hegemon and its regional accomplices.

Thesis 3: The Filipino nation is an unfinished and continuing project, an unfinished work, constantly being re-invented but not under conditions of its own making. Becoming Filipinos is a process of decolonization and radical democratization of the social formation, a sequence of collective choices. This is almost a cliché among the progressive forces with a nationalist orientation. It bears repeating that Filipino sovereignty is a dynamic totality whose premises are political independence and economy self-sufficiency. We have not yet achieved those premises, much less the preconditions for thinking about them.

Given the current alignment of nation-states in the world-system under U.S. hegemony, whose authority is unstable, precarious, sustained by manifold antagonisms, and perpetually challenged by other regional blocs, becoming Filipino is an ever-renewing trajectory of creation and re-creation. It is a process overdetermined by legacies of the past and unpredictable incidences of the present and the future. Within this configuration, an evolving, emergent Filipino language may be conceived as both a medium and substantive element in fashioning this sequence of becoming-Filipino, a sequence grasped not as a cultural essence but a network of dynamic political affiliations and commitments. It is also an aesthetic modality of hegemonic expression.

Thesis 4: Only within the project of achieving genuine, substantive national independence and egalitarian democracy can we argue for the need for one national language as an effective means of unifying the masses of peasants, workers and middle strata and mobilizing their potencies for integral participation in forging a counter-hegemonic united front. Note that this is not just a question of cultural identity because it implicates material modes of production and cognate political institutions.

Without changing the unequal and unjust property/power relations, a distinctive Filipino culture incorporating all the diverse elements that have entered everyday lives of the masses can not be defined and allowed to flourish. Without the prosperous development of the material resources and political instrumentalities, a Filipino cultural identity can only be an artificial, incoherent fabrication of the elite—an excrescence of global consumerism, a symptom of the power of transnationalized commodity-fetishism that, right now, dominates the popular consciousness via the ubiquitous mass media, in particular television, films, the Internet, music, sports, food, fashion, packaged life-styles that permeate  the everyday practices of ordinary Filipinos across class, ethnicities, age, gender, sexuality, and localities.

The consumerist habitus (to use Bourdieu’s concept) acquired from decades of colonial education and indoctrination has almost entirely occupied the psyche of every Filipino, except for those consciously aware of it and collectively resisting it. With the rise of globalization, it has been a fashionable if tendentious practice among the floating litterateurs, mostly resident in colleges and universities, to advocate the maintenance of the status quo; that is, English as the prestigious medium of discussion, Taglish as the media lingua franca, and Filipino and the other vernaculars as utilitarian devices for specific tasks. But soon we find that this ersatz pluralistic/multiculturalist stand only functions as the ready-made ploy of neoliberal finance capital. This seemingly pragmatist, accomodationist stance ultimately serves repressive goals: the Filipino as world-citizen used to compensate for the lack of effective national sovereignty. Its obverse is regional/ethnic separatism. The culturalist or civilizationalist program, often linked to NGOs and deceptive philanthropic schemes, skips the required dialectical mediation and posits an abstract universality. It is alluring because it is disguised in a self-satisfied particularism now in vogue among postcolonial deconstructionists eulogizing the importance of place, locality, indigeneity, ethnic roots, blood ties, descent, homeland.

We discover in time that this trend serves as a useful adjunct for enhancing the festishistic magic, aura, and seductive lure of commodities—from brand-name luxury goods to the whole galaxy of images, sounds, and multimedia confections manufactured by the transnational culture industry and marketed as symbolic capital and epistemic prophylaxis for the petty bourgeoisie of the periphery and other subalternized sectors within the metropole.

Thesis 5: Spanish and English are global languages needed for communication and participation in world affairs. They are recognized as richly developed languages of aesthetic and intellectual power useful for certain purposes—English particularly in the scientific and technical fields. But they have a political history and resonance for “third world peoples” who have suffered from their uses. Its sedimented patterns of thought and action cannot be so easily ignored or elided. The discursive genres of law, business, etc. in English (as well as Spanish) and their institutionalized instrumentalities cannot be judged on their own terms without understanding the political role they played as effective instruments in the colonial domination of the various peoples in the Philippines and their total subordination to the political-cultural hegemony of the Spanish empire, and then of the American empire from 1899 to 1946, and of U.S. neocolonial control after formal independence in 1946.  Everyone knows that while Rizal used Spanish to reach an enlightened public in Spain and an ilustrado-influenced local audience, the masses who participated in the Malolos Republic and the war against the US military used Tagalog, and other vernaculars, in fighting for cultural autonomy and political independence.  Historically the national and democratic project of the Philippine revolution—still unfinished and continuing—provides the only viable perspective within which we can explore the need for a national language as a means of uniting and mobilizing the people for this project.

Thesis 6:  The use and promotion of a national language does not imply the neglect, elimination, or inferiorization of other regional languages spoken and used by diverse communities involved in the national-democratic struggle. In fact, it implies their preservation and cultivation.  But that is contingent on the attainment of genuine national sovereignty and the emancipation of the masses, their integration into active participation in governance. Meanwhile, in the course of the national-liberation struggle, all languages should and are being used for mobilization, political education, and cultural self-affirmation.  Simultaneously, the dissemination and development of one national language becomes a political and economic-cultural necessity for unifying the diverse communities under a common political program—which does not imply a monolithic ideological unity– in front of the monstrous power of finance-capital using English, or its proxies, as an instrument of subordination and neocolonial aggression. Even the United Nations reinforces this linguistic regime.

In this regard, I would argue that the spiritual bond and collective pride attendant on the use of one national language provides the groundwork and fundamental requisite for the promotion and development of other ethnic/regional languages within the national polity. This is a psychological-ideological imperative that cannot be vacated or deferred.

Thesis 7:  Hegemony, the moral and intellectual leadership of the Filipino working masses, the scaffold within which an authentic Filipino identity can grow, assumes the rise of organic Filipino intellectuals who will use and develop Filipino as the evolving national language. Again, this does not mean suppressing other regional languages. Nor does it mean prohibiting the use and teaching of English or other international languages (Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.). It simply means the establishment of a required platform, basis or foundation, without which the productive forces of the people within this particular geopolitical boundary can be harnessed, refined, and released  in order primarily to benefit the physical and spritual health of Filipinos, repair and recover the damage inflicted by centuries of colonial oppression and exploitation, so that all would  be able to contribute to the cultural heritage of humankind.  Without national self-determination, there is no way Filipinos can contribute their distinctive share in global culture. In fact, it is impossible to be a global citizen unless you have fully grown and matured as a rational, educated  civic participant in the making of a prosperous, egalitarian nation-people in a historically specific territory defined by a whole concretely differentiated sequence of events not replicated elsewhere.

Historical examples are often misleading, but sometimes elucidatory. It may be irrelevant and even Eurocentric to invoke the examples of Italy and Germany as nations that experienced unified mobilization through the affirmation of national-popular languages, Italy vis-à-vis the Papal ascendancy, and Germany vis-à-vis Latin/Roman Catholic hegemony. In any case, again, the social and historical function and character of language cannot be adequately grasped without situating them in the complex dynamics of the conflict of social classes and states in history since the break-up of the communal tribes in the hunting-gathering stage and the rise of private property in the means of production, providing the stage for the intricate dialectics of culture and collective psyche in the political economy of any social formation.

In short, language is not just a permanently undecidable chain of signifiers, always deconstructing itself and falling into abysmal meaninglessness. Rather, it is a social convention and a site of struggle, the signifier as “an arena of class struggle,” to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s phrase. I believe that only  from this historical materialist perspective, and within the parameters of the political project of attaining genuine autonomy as a nation-people, can the discussion of a Filipino national language be intelligible and productive. But, again, such a discussion finds its value and validity as part of the total engagement of the people for justice, equality, and all-sided emancipation from the nightmares of the past and the terrorist fascism of the present.

Recapitulation and Forecast

The Philippines has been the United States’ longest held colony (as William Blum noted), annexed by conquest in 1899, together with Puerto Rico and Cuba, in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. After the savagely fought Filipino-American War (1899-1913) and the slaughter of 1.4 Filipinos, the US transformed the Philippines into a laboratory for creating a modified colony or neocolonial dependency in the process of competing for world-supremacy.

Americanization of subalterns proceeded along both traditional and innovative lines. Using a variety of methods, ranging from the violent suppression of revolts to educational/pedagogical schemes, legal reforms, etc., the US shaped the neocolony into a “showcase of democracy” for Asia during the Cold War. The preservation of the semi-feudal landholdings allowed a landlord, comprador, and bureaucratic oligarchy to welcome US control after the formal granting of independence in 1946. After the horrors of World War II, the US continued to dominate the Philippines by means of treaties, secret agreements, extra-judicial killings, and other covert ways, including an illegal Visiting Forces Agreement which allows hundreds of U.S. Special Forces, US Navy and US Air Force personnel (together with civilian security agents) to operate in the Philippines after the scrapping of huge US military bases in 1992. No wonder the country is considered a reliable and secure appendage of the White House, the US State Department, and the Pentagon.

With the Philippines converted into the second front after Afghanistan in the ongoing U.S. anti-terrorist war and the 40-year old “Maoist” insurgency in the islands officially declared “terrorist” by Secretary of State Colin Powell, this former direct colony and (by all accounts) persisting neocolony of the U.S. takes center-stage again in the public sphere, especially in the light of two facts: first, diasporic Filipinos constitute today the largest of the Asian American ethnic group in the U.S., and about ten million Filipinos constitute the largest body of migrant workers (domestics and other  semi-skilled labor) in the entire world; and second, the Philippines is the “Achilles heel” of U.S. strategic plans to dominate Southeast Asia because of a durable, resurgent nationalism epitomized by the 15,000-strong New People’s Army and a more formidable Muslim separatist rebellion with about 35,000 armed combatants supported by over six million Muslims, the Bangsa Moro Nation. Despite these invincible antagonists, U.S. official discourse on the Philippines continues to uphold the neocolony as an exemplary creation of U.S. liberal democracy. Maybe that irony succinctly conveys the whole truth.

Despite the 1993 publication of Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease’s Cultures of United States Imperialism and recent works by Michael Salman, Alfred McCoy, Paul Kramer, and others, and my own revisionary account of U.S.-Philippines relations, After Postcolonialism (2000) and US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (2007), canonical American Studies continues to follow a neo-exceptionalist orientation. It has reconfigured “Manifest Destiny” in the postmodernist idiom of transnational multiculturalism and other cosmopolitanist variations. Notwithstanding its versatile renovations, nothing in the  American Studies industry today can give even a minimally cogent explanation of the Abu Sayyaf phenomenon in the Philippines.

Both the highly destructive Muslim insurgency and the national-democratic revolution in the Philippines find their legitimacy articulated in a complex genealogy beginning with the U.S. massacre of thousands of Filipino Muslims in the first two decades of the twenty-first century (justly indicted by Mark Twain), and the 1.4 million Filipino casualties of the Filipino-American War (1898-1903) that continued on up to 1916 with the ruthless pacification of the Moro people. That Anglo-Saxon “civilizing mission,” which led to the violent annexation of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and eventually Hawaii, manifested itself again in the Cold War apotheosis of the U.S. as “exceptional” leader of the “free world,” refurbished after 9/11 in its “humanitarian” war against the “axis of evil,” including the Abu Sayyaf gang (created by the CIA) and Filipino “Maoist” guerillas.

As I broached in my 1997 contribution to the Crossroads Internet exchange on “critical internationalism” in American Studies, scholastic American Studies can renew its critical energies by its regrounding in an egalitarian, internationalist perspective (this time, in the wake of 9/11 neo-exceptionalism). And one way of accomplishing that project is by revisiting that historical conjuncture in which U.S. racializing state-power, called by some “benevolent” imperialism, acquired superordinate authority in the violent occupation of the Philippines, and how this colonial encounter with Filipino nationalism reshaped in turn some crucial aspects of U.S. institutions (law, mass media, anthropology, and other fields of American national identity formation), including its policies on immigration and internal dissent.   Perhaps it is partial or distorted knowledge rather than primordial ignorance that explains the marginality of the Philippines to the American educated public. A respected expert on Asian culture, A. Owen Aldridge, remarks on the multiplicity of languages in the Philippines: “A small country such as the Philippines—not much larger than the state of Rhode Island—uses four languages, Chinese, English, Spanish, and the native Tagalog, and its literature is written in the latter three” (1986, 20). The facts are otherwise: Chinese is not really counted as one of the major languages, Spanish is now effectively obsolete, and Filipino, based on Tagalog, is an evolving lingua franca, drawing from the substantial textual reservoir of more than eight major languages. Aldridge’s errors may be taken as a revealing index of the dominant scholastic view of the Philippines in the humanities and social sciences, one which unwittingly debunks a century of US scholarship on the Philippines, its past, present, and future.

Today, manifold contradictions are challenging U.S. imperialist hegemony in this Southeast Asian formation. The logic of a national liberation struggle in the age of finance capital follows Lenin’s analysis of its function as part of world socialist revolution. The unresolved “land question” involving 75% of a hundred million Filipinos is being addressed within the anti-US imperialist struggle for genuine sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Filipino diaspora has spread around the planet, with at least three million Filipinos residing in North America.

Current US  geopolitical strategy to confront China and maintain control of Japan and other Asian countries has positioned the Philippines as a bulwark of reaction. With a resurgent nationalist movement in civil society, the Philippines has become a “weak link” for US imperialism. With an implacable Muslim separatist struggle, led by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and a revitalized communist-led New People’s Army, the Philippines is challenging the U.S. and its local allies to a stalemate, if not outright confrontation. To understand the future of this social formation, one needs to elucidate the current lines of political forces, the internal divisions in the ruling bloc, the emerging united front of sectors and classes, and the ongoing peace talks between the neocolonial regime and the National Democratic Front-Philippines, as well as the current government negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Socialist revolution in the Philippines manifests distinct singularities and possibilities that may prove useful for other popular liberatory struggles against U.S. corporate, militarist aggressions today and in the future. Summarizing the vicissitudes of the nationalist struggle in the cultural domain from the thirties to the last decades of the twentieth century, this chapter endeavored to describe in broad strokes the problems and prospects of radical democratic change in the Philippines amid the post-9/11 “war on terror”  and the initial stages of capitalist globalization.



A single motive underlies all my work and defines my intention as a serious artist: the search for the metaphysical meaning of man’s life in the Universe–the finding of man’s selfhood and identity in the mystery of Creation.

—Jose Garcia Villa

Jose Garcia Villa, avant-garde and modernist poet from the Philippines, died in New York on February 7, 1997.  Now virtually unknown, he is probably one of the most neglected twentieth-century writers in the English-speaking world. He is being publicized by astute cultural impresarios and hawkers of the New York Establishment, thanks to an eclectic multiculturalist ethos that functions as the “benign” face of predatory neoliberal finance-capital. In spite of this, Villa’s achievement may be said to encapsulate the conflicted, dynamic interaction between U.S. imperial hegemony and a “third world” dependency, the former U.S. colony (now a neocolony) in Southeast Asia, the Philippines. Hypothetically his work represents an emergent Filipino American culture on the margins of the canonical Eurocentric mainstream, a product of U.S. “tutelage” and the peculiar hybrid–the postcolonial trademark term–conjuncture of Spanish, Asian, and Malayan sociocultural strains, perhaps the missing “third text” of the ventriloquial subaltern. Anyone undertaking a genealogical anatomy of Villa’s life and works is bound to raise scandalous questions of national autonomy, colonial subjugation, cross-cultural linkages, and the possibilities of a Weltliteratur in the epoch of cyber-globalizatiion. Ultimately Villa may turn out to be, as some have generously speculated, the unknown avatar of Goethe’s world citizen-artist, and impressing many as an unspoiled, autochthonous spirit from the colonial hinterlands—what the Cuban hero Jose Marti called “the belly of the beast”—materializing in the heart of the technocratic metropolis at the end of the “American” century.

Tracking A Curriculum Vitae

On 5 August 1908, Villa was born in Manila, Philippines, the son of Colonel Simeon Villa, the physician to General Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of the first Philippine Republic overthrown by U.S. invading forces in the Filipino-American War (1899-1913). He studied at the state University of the Philippines where he was suspended for writing what the college authorities deemed to be erotic poems. In 1929 he won a prize for a short story, “Mir-I-Nisa,” published in the Philippines Free Press. With the prize money, he left for the U.S. in 1930 and attended classes at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Soon thereafter he moved to New York City where he resided until his death.

In 1933, Villa’s collection of short stories, Footnote to Youth, was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, with an introduction by the anthologist Edward J. O’Brien. His first collection of poems, Have Come, Am Here, appeared in 1942, followed by Volume Two in 1949. The latter book was nominated for the Bollingen Prize. In these two volumes, Villa introduced his controversial innovations: the comma poems, and reversed consonance. Villa explained that the commas after every word in the poem “are an integral and essential part of the medium: regulating the poem’s verbal density and time movement, enabling each word to attain a fuller tonal value and the line movement to become more measured.” On reversed consonance, presumably “a new method of rhyming,” Villa states that “the last sounded consonants of the last syllable, or the last principal consonants of a word, are reversed for the corresponding rime”—thus, “near” would rime with “run,” “rain,” “green,” or “reign” (quoted in Lucero and Lacuesta 2009). Three other collections of Villa’s poems may be cited here: Selected Poems and New (1958); Poems 55 (1962) published in the Philippines; and Appasionata: Poems in Praise of Love (1979)—most of these are now included in the Penguin edition, Doveglion: Collected Poems (2008).

Through the sponsorship of the American poet Conrad Aiken, Villa was granted a Guggenheim fellowship. Among his other honors are the following: American Academy of Arts and Letters Poetry Award; the Shelley Memorial Award; Rizal Pro Patria Award; the Philippine Republic’s Cultural Heritage Award. On 12 June 1973, during the Marcos dictatorship, Villa was named National Artist in Literature. Aside from his work in the Philippine diplomatic mission office, Villa conducted classes in creative writing in the New School, New York. Although he lived for 67 years in the U.S., Villa remained a Filipino citizen.

The poet’s life exudes a captivating aura. Long an exponent of the “art for art’s sake” school, Villa, the petty-bourgeois sojourner, also cultivated a notorious life-style to outrage the conventional bourgeois gentilhomme, a kind of theatrical re-enactment of his revolt against his father and the philistine Victorian society of colonial Philippines in the first two decades of the last century.  In effect, he struggled to fashion in words and deeds “a beautiful soul’ not in Europe or North America but somewhere in between, in the “occult zone of instability” (to quote Fanon) inhabited by diasporic artists, exiles, émigrés, deracinated or declasse intellectuals wandering the arcades of the metropoles’ culture-industry and subterranean art-world. Was it a choice or a fate imposed by historical circumstances?

We are faced with an interesting philosophical object lesson. Both Hegel and Kierkegaard wrote about the “beautiful soul” of the “unhappy consciousness,” an adolescent stage in the development of the human psyche. Hegel foresaw its dialectical supersession in a more concrete historical understanding of life; whereas Kierkegaard, repudiating Hegel, wanted to sacrifice the aesthetic sensibility to a higher ethical mode of existence. Villa rejected the Hegelian alternative, but instead of moving on to the ethical stage, he opted for a permanent aesthetic beatitude. The 2008 publication of Villa’s Doveglion: Collected Poems by Penguin Books, edited by his literary executor and introduced by a devotee, clearly shows the itinerary of the poet from the colonial adolescence of rejection of the “Name of the Father” (to use the Lacanian term) and the ethical dilemma to a preference for erotic bliss in semiotic indeterminacy. But this rejection of symbolic differentiation also equals death, the repetition-compulsion of a mannerist style. The “beautiful soul” of infantile repetition self-destructs into a dead-end: the cutting and splicing of commodified prose, an ironic parody of the comma poems and reversed consonance. Thus, the publication of this volume of Doveglion’s corpus may be said to mark not “a growing revival of interest” in Villa’s work—as Luis Francia claims—but rather the final nail on his coffin. It may, however, arouse antiquarian interest and nostalgia for the posthumous return of the repressed.

Villa died in solitary circumstances, literally unknown. His last volume, Selected Poems and New, was published in 1958, in which he preserved (as though he were a museum curator) those poems he wrote in the twenty years (1937-1957) that saw his maturation in New York City. No resurgence of interest greeted that last collection. Its centerpiece was “The Anchored Angel,” selected by feudal-vintage impresarios Osbert and Edith Sitwell for inclusion in a 1954 issue of the London-based The Times Literary Supplement.

From then on Villa ceased to be a publicly acknowledged creative writer. In fact, even when he was actively publishing, his recognition was quite limited and confined to a narrow circle of friends and patrons. Except for Conrad Aiken’s 1944 anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, no anthology of significance—not even of minority or ethnic writers—has included Villa’s poems. In effect, Villa remains an unknown writer for most Americans, let alone readers of American or English literature around the world. In the country of his birth, today, only a few aficionados and college-trained professionals are acquainted with Villa’s writings. He remains to be discovered and fully recognized by all in this age of globalized taste and globalizing sensibility.

A Peer Among Equals?

Where is the Villa file in the Western archive? Francia celebrates Villa’s arrival to the New York literary scene dominated by white Anglo-European writers with the famous 1948 Life magazine photograph (easily accessible in Google Media and can be downloaded gratis). The photo, taken by e.e. cumming’s wife, is a palimpsest or telltale rebus in itself. Aside from patricians Osbert and Edith Sitwell, whom Villa courted slavishly, we see left-wing or Marxist-inspired poets such as Delmore Schwartz, Horace Gregory, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Marya Zaturenska, Randall Jarrell, and certainly non-conformist writers like Tennesse Williams, William Rose Benet, Richard Eberhart, Marianne Moore, and Gore Vidal–Vidal would eventually prove to be the most anti-imperialist maverick of them all, and the most sympathetic to the Filipino cause. There are no African Americans or other person of color except Villa. E.e. cummings, Villa’s model and idol, is remarkably missing.

In the photo, one may discern some allegorical innuendo which may be happenstance: Villa is sandwiched between the young Vidal and the mature Auden, whose anti-fascist sympathies explicit in his eloquent attacks against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini were quoted and broadcast around the world. In short, the major American and British writers in the photo were mostly veterans of the global campaign against fascism in Europe and also against Japanese militarist aggression one of whose main victims were millions of Filipinos in the only U.S. colony in Asia, the Philippine Commonwealth. Villa was and remained a Filipino citizen throughout his life, and was the only colonial, subaltern subject in the photo. As far as the public records show, he did not participate in the New York rallies in support of the beleaguered Spanish Republic during the late thirties, nor did he express any sentiments against fascism in Europe or Japanese militarism in Asia.

The Penguin Classic biographical note on Villa cites Villa’s employment as a cultural attaché to the Philippine mission to the UN from 1952 to 1963, at the height of the Cold War, and his position, from 1968 on, as adviser on cultural affairs to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Indeed, Villa was made a National Artist for Literature in 1973, the year after Marcos imposed martial law and began 14 years of bloody and ruthless rampage. This may be merely a trivial footnote to worshippers of Villa’s aura. But it is cynical not to document this connection of the National Artist to the neocolonial state and its oligarchic retainers/clients for the U.S. imperial power. The title of National Artist carried with it public funds given as monthly allowances to cover part of subsistence, medical care, and official funeral. I assume that there is some public responsibility or expectation entailed by the acceptance of the honor.

The Gotham Book reception for the Sitwells, however, already took place in the second year of the Cold War, which Churchill and Truman inaugurated in 1947 with their shrewd incarceration of the Soviet Union in a fabled “Iron Curtain.”  The Philippines counted itself America’s most trusted ally in the “Free World” crusade against world communism. The next year, 1949, witnessed the victory of Mao Tse-tung against Chiang Kai-shek in China, the outbreak of the Korean War, and the savage repression of the Huks in the Philippines led by Col. Edward Lansdale of the CIA, adviser to then President Ramon Magsaysay. Lansdale used the Philippines as an experimental laboratory for the systematic “Phoenix” assassination of communists in Vietnam in the Sixties and Seventies.

None of these historical facts and contexts is mentioned by Francia. Villa’s itinerary of success, traced by Francia from the beginning of the poet’s migration to the US in 1930 up to his death in 1997, follows an evolutionary and teleological scheme. There seems to be no real break or interruption in the route to fame. Villa’s journey ends in his finally “belonging to the pantheon of Asian American literature,” despite minor violations of Eurocentric norms. Nonetheless, he remains for the most part excluded by the gatekeepers of the Asian American canon. Villa received prestigious awards from the usual Establishment sources: Guggenheim, Bollingen, Rockefeller, and other groups. But such prizes did not result in the class-defined distinction of a “world-class writer” only reserved for EuroAmericans for the greater part of the twentieth century.

Now monumentalized, however, Villa—Francia continues his accolade—was “a creature of his age.”  In other words, he conformed to the conventional, standard pattern—Villa’s models were all European, traditional, and respectable. In what way then did he demonstrate his originality, his bold deviation from the norms, so as to earn or deserve admission to the mausoleum of modernism?  Aside from his technical innovations, not always appreciated or accepted by the arbiters of the Anglo-American mainstream canon, in what way was Villa a rebel, a dissident writer, who challenged the standards of his day and initiated a new, radically innovative aesthetics and world-view?

Technician of the Sacred

As time has proved, the technical innovations of “reversed consonance” and “comma poems” were too idiosyncratic and problematic to stimulate much concern among younger writers or academic scholars. Unlike sprung rhythm or Ezra Pound’s imagist movement, they were not associated with a substantial body of work that displayed social and historical breadth and resonance. Villa’s themes of angelic rebellion, the solitary genius, and artistic exceptionality that have also preoccupied contemporary poets such as Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Charles Olson, and others, have proved too rarefied or linguistically constricted as to appeal to readers who expect more elaboration in terms of concrete determinations and cultural or social exemplification. Villa was perhaps just too rarefied or volatilized for worldly consumption.

For this occasion, I will not dwell on the rather familiar and tedious recitation of Villa’s debt to the canonical texts of the Western literary tradition, from the Bible to the Metaphysicals, Hopkins, e.e.cummings, etc. This has been thoroughly explored by numerous essays by American critics, including Villa’s sponsors, from Edward O’Brien to Babette Deutsch and Mark Van Doren. In my previous essay on Villa in The Philippine Temptation and elsewhere, I surveyed the ambivalent and often duplicitous tenor and implication of the existing commentary on Villa. Many of them are actually ironic or backhanded compliments, both subtly or openly condescending and certainly patronizing in a rather sly and coy manner. No Filipino critic in the Philippines or North America is acknowledged as contributing worthwhile knowledge about Villa.

In any case, Francia quotes Timothy Yu, a Chinese-American scholar at Stanford University, as an authority on the poet. Yu argues that while Villa was heavily Orientalized by his critics and patrons—Sitwell’s insulting portrait of Villa as a “green iguana” is certainly unprecedented—and thus fixated or reified, Villa resisted this placing of his work in the Western canonical hierarchy. In fact, Yu contends that Villa “threatens to overturn the Orientalist hierarchy at the heart of modernism.” After much specious and speculative argument, Yu suggests that Villa is not really Asian American but a transnational writer, one bridging the Philippines and the U.S., a transmigrant artist belonging to several continents, in effect a writer with universal or global appeal, such as that exerted by Salman Rushdie or V.S. Naipaul, by the authors of  Sargasso Sea and The English Patient. We are thus faced with a conundrum: Villa belongs to no country but to every country.

Francia contends that Villa is that kind of universal writer, despite the critic’s praise of his command of English as a foreign language to him, because he resembles Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov in his mastery of the “imperial language.”  This is quite a plea. First of all, like Yu, Francia commits the fundamental mistake of ignoring the colonial and neocolonial status of the Philippines in the international hierarchy of nation-states and national cultures. Conrad’s Poland and Nabokov’s Russia are not in the same subordinated position as the Philippines, nor are they exactly identical as socioeconomic formations with specific modes of production. Like most of the proponents of transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, and kindred neologisms, Yu and Francia do not really understand the historical and political subordination of a U.S. colony to the quite complex and subtle strategies of a U.S. imperial hegemon distinguished for claiming “exceptionalism.”  If they have some inkling of it, it is superficial and not integral to their evaluation of Villa.

In fact, Yu and Francia have willy-nilly, without being aware of it, endorsed  “American exceptionalism,” despite their gestures of being against imperialism or colonialism as such. Why? By equating Villa with Conrad or other postcolonial writers now in vogue, they convert the Philippines into an independent entity, if not equal partner, with the colonizer. It is as if Conrad and Nabokov were natives of Puerto Rico, or Guam, or even Hawaii.  Transnationalism is the alibi of special pleading for a subaltern poet who made good in the metropolitan center, who proved an exceptional pupil of colonial tutelage and demonstrated agency for postcolonial mimicry. But these will not hide the facts nor erase the reality of prejudices and prejudgments.

Francia’s exorbitant claim that Villa was fluent in all three languages, Tagalog and Spanish and English, makes his other judgments suspect. Without even alluding to the deeply subjugated position of the Filipino body-soul after centuries of Spanish, U.S. and Japanese domination, and the ideological utility of English as a weapon of colonial manipulation, Francia ends up mystifying the situation of Villa as a Filipino subject, ascribing to him the identity of  a “prophet” and an “unusual man,” thus belonging to no country or culture—in effect, a universal creature for all, or a nullity for none. This overweening rescue of Villa strikes us as a hubristic act of “salvaging,” as the term was used during the dark days of the Marcos “martial law” regime.

Yu is to be credited with analyzing the covert and patent mode in which American and British patrons or handlers really colonized and neocolonized Villa without scruples. Yu aptly focuses on Edith Sitwell’s heavily racialized depiction of Villa as “this presumably minute, dark green creature, the colour of New Zealand jade, spinning these sharp flame-like poems,” some of which are bad in Sitwell’s view. Yu also notes that apart from the Orientalizing distortion, his patrons reduced or inflated Villa into an alien mystic, a foreign body, an outlandish race. As Sitwell emphasized, “But Villa is a Filipino” to excuse the unacceptable nature of his comma poems. That confession is worth quoting and repeating, condensing an entire history of East-West, North-South relations.

Yu, however, overestimates Villa’s proto-transnational status. He completely ignores the political and cultural changes that have occurred in the Philippines from the time of Marcos’ despotic rule to the present, believing that Chua’s volume marks a nationwide resurgence of interest in Villa. Interest in Villa today is confined to marginal pockets in the academy, if at all.

There is, however,  an iota of legitimacy in estimating that Villa’s work and its reception is a “trans-Pacific phenomenon.” But that is not a simple geographical placing but a geopolitical one that the equalizing and leveling inference borne by the prefix “trans” occludes and even expunges from our critical intelligence.  In short, Yu is ignorant of the profound anti-colonial and anti-imperialist history of the  Filipino people from the time it resisted U.S. invasion in 1899 at the outset of the Filipino-American War through the peasant uprisings in the first twenty years, to the Sakdalista and Huk rebellions in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, up to the New People’s Army and Communist resurgence in the sixties up to the present.  Unfortunately, Yu is blind or insensitive to the long durable history of revolutionary action that has formed the physiognomy and cultural tradition of the Filipino people from the time of Magellan up to the present.

Lacking this historical trajectory of the political-cultural transformation of a whole people, its national-popular habitus and sensibility, it is unwise to calculate Villa’s current worth—both his use-value and exchange-value as a producer of cultural artifacts such as books like the Penguin Classics—and future value, if any. It is unwise, that is, to measure Villa as a Filipino poet worthy of the national-popular tradition of asserting national integrity and autonomy, let alone a claim to distinctively outstanding transnational status.

Problems of Valorization

Villa can indeed be used for cosmopolitan exchange, but his use-value remains unassayed or hypothetical so far. Now that I have introduced the twin sides of value—use and exchange—I want to quickly delineate the historical contexts necessary to appraise Villa’s writings as produced carriers or bearers of value. Such value is necessarily social and implicated in the multilayered social, political and cultural conflicts of his time.

The hypothesis often posited by devotees of Villa, as illustrated by Francia’s allegation that “Villa had no fashionable cause to advance or defend except that of poetry itself” is no doubt self-serving and apologetic, to say the least. It is meant to justify Villa’s naïve aestheticism. But what it does is to eviscerate whatever surviving element of worth remains in these highly mannered, stylized, and deliberately antiquated poetic discourse. It fails to contextualize Villa’s calculated and reflexive essentialism and aesthetic purism.

To say that Villa is concerned only with art or poetry is to say nothing much, unless you compartmentalize culture in a Byzantine fashion and artificially exaggerate the division of social labor and products of that labor into really specialized niches. In that case, poetry is a freakish and weird sport, a disease whose etiology is unknown or an accidental product of labor that nobody really understands and appreciates. What is poetry in itself? Can one define an essence by itself without locating the totality from which it is distinguished?  From Plato up to Hegel, metaphysics never postulates an essence without the intermediary surroundings and the whole structure from which it acquires its status/definition as an essence, or a distinctive if distilled element. I want to call attention again to Theodor Adorno’s essay, “Lyric Poetry and Society,” and also to Pierre Bourdieu’s genealogy of European aestheticism in The Rules of Art to demonstrate how “art for art’s sake” is a historical symptom of the bourgeois artist’s alienation from a commodified, reifying milieu. By charting the concrete sociohistorical location of the artwork, we can proceed to establish the rules of the conversation and reach agreement on our findings.

I suggest a historical-materialist standpoint by situating Villa’s labor as part of social labor occurring at definite periods of history. Of course, it is assumed that such labor is artistic—the shaping of materials into a sensuously stratified and formally specific product, its formal characteristics being already given as a distinctive quality of his work.  But the hermeneutic process does not end at the level of formal analysis; rather, that serves as a point of departure for further empirical and functional analysis and theorizing. I suggest the following large contexts, what might be described as “conditions of possibility,” lived collective situations that can frame Villa’s work and allow the further specification of its qualities and  possible effects. What Villa’s response to these contexts were, remains unknown, and what has been documented need to be further specified by class analysis of Philippine and US society and the cultural and intellectual formations in which the texts and the circumstances of their production and reception are inscribed.

Look Homeward, Angel, Now

The Philippines into which Villa was born may be described as a tributary socioeconomic formation produced by three hundred years of Spanish colonization. The Filipino nation was in the process of being born from the collective endeavors of Filipino propagandists and agitators in the nineteenth century, an offshoot of numerous peasant-worker revolts and indigenous insurrections throughout the islands culminating in the Katipunan revolt of 1896. This process was aborted by US imperialist intervention in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American War and the defeat of Spanish imperial forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Villa’s father was a high military officer and adviser to General Emilio Aguinaldo, the president of the first Philippine Republic, who succumbed to US military and political power. Villa welcomed the invaders and in fact assimilated to US metropolitan culture, despite weak oppositional or disrespectful impulses and tendencies.

When Villa was born in 1908, the US military and civil administrators were in the process of stifling the survivors of Aguinaldo’s revolutionary army. Macario Sakay, one of Aguinaldo’s officers, and his comrades were hanged a few years earlier; but the insurrectos would continue up to the second decade, with the Moro resistance proving the most resilient and formidable.  Villa grew up in this milieu of cruel terror against seditious, recalcitrant natives. Later on, with strong nationalist protests, Villa saw the accomodationist and conciliatory policies of the Americans winning over Quezon and the oligarchs. Villa’s Oedipal dissension with his father did not extend to the patriarchal order of the polity. Villa left before the Commonwealth was established in 1935.

When Villa was an adolescent, Filipino nationalism smoldered in the organizing efforts of workers in Manila and peasants in Central Luzon, primarily those involved in the Colorum insurrections of Tayug and other towns in the twenties, and later the Sakdalista uprising in the Thirties led by Salud Algabre and others. By the time Villa was a medical and law student in 1929, just a year before his move to the U.S. in 1930, the Communist Party of the Philippines had already been founded after years of agitation, propaganda, and mobilization of union workers and peasants. This occurred even as Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmena and other members of the Filipino oligarchy, through parliamentary and legal means, continued to demand immediate independence from the colonial power. Villa left at the time of heated debates on how that demand was to be articulated locally and in the metropolitan heartland.

Meanwhile, Filipinos contract workers struck an autonomous path in the U.S. They had been organizing and agitating in the Hawaii plantations, and later in the West Coast and Alaskan salmon canneries, since their advent in the first decade of this century. Carlos Bulosan narrated their odyssey in his 1948 chronicle America Is in the Heart. Their efforts culminated in bloody strikes together with Japanese and other ethnic workers in the first two decades of the twentieth century, through the Bolshevik revolution of 1918 and the fascistic Palmer raids before and after World War I. Pedro Calosa was expelled from Hawaii only to lead the Tayug revolt in Pangasinan a few years later.

Villa Agonistes

The era of the “Great Depression” in the US after the 1929 Wall Street collapse, up through the Communist-led organizing of workers in the Thirties and early Forties, to the beginning of World War II—this is the main arena in which Villa found himself struggling for recognition as a serious poet. The Depression was symptomatically recorded in the experiences of his deracination and isolation in New Mexico represented in traumatic epiphanies in his 1933 short stories collection, Footnote to Youth, modeled after Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. By 1933 he was residing in New York City where he experienced the nadir of the Depression. None of Villa’s works indicates that he expressed or registered any visible sustained response to the massive mobilization of American writers and artists in support of Republican Spain, against Franco’s fascist military supported by Hitler and Mussolini. His compatriots, Salvador Lopez, Manuel Arguilla and others in the Philippine Writers League, were active in that worldwide solidarity campaign, just as Auden, Spender, Orwell, Malraux, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and others were contributing their share to that united front of democratic, anarchist, and socialist partisan resistance. Arguilla and other Filipino writers and intellectuals, Villa’s contemporaries, sacrificed their lives to free the Philippines from brutal Japanese oppression.

One can also submit that the Depression years and the mobilization of Filipinos against Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines constitute the time period in which we should judge Villa’s major works found in Have Come Am Here (1942) and Volume Two (1949).  It is interesting to speculate how e.e. cummings, with his exploits in World War I and its aftermath, might have influenced Villa by his erasure from Villa’s texts; and how the New York critics and their dissident or leftist inclinations might have aroused in Villa either negative or positive reactions. This is a project for future Villa scholars.

Meanwhile, I would underscore a salient contextual parameter for appraising Villa’s intellectual genealogy. It was this period of Villa’s apprenticeship in New York City (circa 1933-1940) that, across more than 6,000 miles of the continental-Pacific divide, witnessed the most fertile dissemination and cultivation of radical, socialist, Marxist-inspired ideas in the Philippines. This decade culminated in the founding of the Philippine Writers League on February 26, 1939, and the institution of the Commonwealth Literary Award by President Manuel Quezon on March 25, 1939. Unprecedented in the annals of Filipino cultural life, the debates sparked by these two events (recorded in a slim volume entitled Literature Under the Commonwealth edited by Manuel E. Arguilla, Esteban Nedruda, and Teodoro A. Agoncillo) need to be juxtaposed with Villa’s reflections on art and its place in society and its humanistic horizon.

Villa’s absent presence, as it were, functions as the subtext of those exchanges. It may be inferred from the ideological conflict between the partisans of the “art-for-art’s sake” camp and the socialist or left-wing group of A.B. Rotor, Salvador P. Lopez, Federico Mangahas, Jose Lansang, M. De Gracia Concepcion, and others. While Villa’s aestheticism was indirectly defended by A.E. Litiatco and J. Lardizabal, the majority of participants in the exchange subscribed to a committed and ethically conscientious stand, even though personalities like Carlos P. Romulo, Leopoldo Yabes and R. Zulueta da Costa expressed mediating, reformist or conciliatory views in response to Rotor’s call for a populist, worker-oriented literature (invoking the authority of Plekhanov and Gorki). Clearly, only a united-front consensus was possible, not a workerist and infantile ultra-leftist assault against the US-Quezon regime.

Lopez’s essay on “Proletarian Literature: A Definition” laid out the classic and more dialectical perspective than Rotor’s programmatic appeal for partisanship. But Rotor’s citation of Thomas Mann, who was an exile in the U.S. (like Brecht and countless European artists), stressed the need for writers removed from their homelands to join in active struggle against anti-humanist terror. Rotor was actually a moderate voice, not sectarian or dogmatist. The author of such masterpieces as The Magic Mountain and “Death in Venice” stated that “it is not enough today to concern himself with Right, Good and Truth only within the limits of his art. He must seek these qualities in the politico-social sphere as well, and establish  a relation between his thought and the political will of his time”  (1973, 21).

Sacrifice Without Redemption

The beginning of World War II and the entire period of Japanese occupation of the Philippines saw Villa either employed or in close contact with the exiled government of the Commonwealth, via writers connected with the government (Carlos Romulo, Bienvenido Santos, and others). Villa’s contemporaries in the Philippines either fought with the American colonizers in Bataan and Corregidor, and later in the underground resistance to Japanese occupation; while others in exile, such as Bulosan, described Filipino anguish at the plight of their families back home and Filipino eagerness to join the US army to help liberate the homeland from the unmitigated oppression of the Japanese aggressors and their Filipino collaborators.

How did Villa interpret this agonizing interregnum between US colonial rule and the second Philippine Republic emerging from the ruins and rubble of Manila, the city of his birth and of his ancestors?  His rebellion against gods and surrogate authorities, against literal and symbolic patriarchs, and his refusal to belong to any physical/real country may be an expression of his fear, obsessive fantasies, fixations, and hope of liberation from all family entanglements and sociopolitical constraints.  It is not clear whether Villa married Rosemary Lamb during this period, whether he raised his children during these years of the beginning of global pax Americana and the Cold War, and what particular ordeals of his personal life configured and contoured his cultural politics. The impact on Villa of the Cold War vicissitudes remains a blank in the critical commentary on his career.

It is also curious to note that Francia and other commentators are silent on Villa’s 1955 autobiographical statement found in Stanley Kunitz’s edited reference work, Twentieth Century Authors. Was that a hoax or forgery perpetrated by Villa and his acolytes? While confirming certain facts about the author’s career, no one seems to want to quote Villa’s own ventriloquial characterization of his general artistic, philosophical creed embodied in the last paragraph of the entry. While I used this previously in The Philippine Temptation, let me quote it again for those not familiar with it or with access to good libraries:

Recently someone remarked to Villa that he found Villa’s poetry ‘abstract,’ contrary to the general feeling for detail and particularity that characterizes most contemporary poetry. Villa comments: “I realize now that this is true; I had not thought of my work in that light before. The reason for it must be that I am not at all interested in description or outward appearance, nor in the contemporary scene, but in essence. A single motive underlies all my work and defines my intention as a serious artist: The search for the metaphysical meaning of man’s life in the Universe—the finding of man’s selfhood and identity in the mystery of Creation.  I use the term metaphysical to denote the ethic-philosophic force behind all essential living. The development and unification of the human personality I consider the highest achievement a man can do (1955, 1035-1036).

Actually, if one examines carefully Villa’s 1940 essay “Literary Criticism in the Philippines” or the 1953-54 essay “The Condition of Philippine Verse,” one will easily find abundant recurrent motifs about essence, unity, synthesis, etc. For example, he contrasts the “essence of prose” as substance, inferior or secondary to poetry’s essence, which is “magic and magic of utterance” (2002, 291). Antithetical to a dialectical mode (as in Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas), Villa’s thought exhibits close affinities to an Augustinian dualism (positing binaries such as sacred intellect versus profane body), which manifests a Manichean tendency that leads to a Gnostic conception of life and a Neoplatonic cosmology. That was a heresy to orthodox Catholicism and its doctrine of incarnation. If only the soul can transcend or do away with the body without so much “expenditure of the spirit”—that was Villa’s devoutly wished consummation. Christ then would be absurd, if not ridiculous.

Another way to elucidate the Villa problematic, the articulation of possibility and necessity in the poet’s life, may be performed by way of a symptomatic reading of Mir-I-Nisa, adjudged the best short story of 1929 by the Philippines Free Press. A reading of the story will reveal the pre-Oedipal ground of Villa’s aestheticism and its self-indulgent conservatism premised on the artist’s superiority. It is said that the prize money of P1,000 from this story enabled Villa to escape his father’s tyranny and leave for Albuquerque, New Mexico. The story exploits Moro/Muslim ethnographic material to dramatize an allegory of judgment via an ordeal. Distant, exotically strange, alien yet somehow familiar, the donee of the story offers a thickness of semantic possibilities.

At the outset, Moro family structure, kinship, courtship ritual, and martrimonial arrangments revolve around the political economy of fishing and pearl-diving, which in turn is centered on male supremacy.  On the surface, the patriarch determines the lovers’ choices and the distribution of sexual power. In the contest to determine who is the more worthwhile husband for his daughter Mir-I-Nisa, the father Ulka plays the trickster and rigs the game: Achmed falls into the trap of conventional expectations, coming up with the pearl that was never thrown into the sea by the father, while Tasmi confesses failure. Achmed who follows the conventional pattern loses, while Tasmi who yields to masculine pride wins the contest and becomes the father’s choice for surrendering/exchanging the reproductive power of his daughter. What actually happened was not revealed to the community of Wawa-Ojot, the scene of mystification and Moro enigmatic behavior, nor was it also disclosed to the father, Tasmi.

Villa the poet sympathetically aligns himself with Jakaria, the son of Mir-I-Nisa and Tasmi, who concludes the story with the revelation that the father, Ulka, did not drop the pearl but only an illusory copy: a small ball of salt. This fooled both suitors as well as the whole community. The mother confesses the secret to her son, reinforcing the umbilical tie between mother and child, and re-enacting the scene of seduction. She enjoins her son not to reveal the secret to the father: “She said it very softly, and her face was radiantly sweet and beautiful. And because I have always loved my mother, I promised her never to let my father know” (Villa 1950, 381). The father, the symbolic Name-of-the-Father (in Lacan’s scheme), versus the Imaginary (the mirror-phase tied to the pre-Oedipal mother), is cancelled and negated in favor of the maternal complicity between creator and created.  Ironically, the mother’s duty is meant to preserve the honor and authority of her father, the patriarch, who judges honesty (obedience to the prevailing hierarchical order) as a preferable virtue compared to masculine prowess/deceit undermining conventional rules.

By analogy, the artist (Villa) seeks to preserve that love (fulfillment, jouissance, artistic integrity) by privileging an arcane linguistic game whose pleasure and benefits are confined exclusively to a select circle of cult-followers and an elite audience with access to education and the cultivation of refined tastes.  But the supreme irony is that Villa’s revolt against his father, and by extension the dominant norms of conventional art and taste, together with the ostensible privileging of the mother—the mother’s body offering pleasure from the polymorphously perverse, erotic target of desire objectified into the poetic art-object, the ludic verbal fantasy–results in the affirmation of the patriarchal order: the Philippine neocolonial order, U.S. imperialist hegemony, white male supremacy in the global system.

In a sense, Villa proved himself honest and faithful to his “mother,” a neoromantic, anti-commercial conception of an artisanal kind of art/poetry, in the face of deceit, pretense, fraud, hypocrisy, and feudal violence that pervaded the petty-bourgeois world of Filipino mimicries of Bouvard and Pecuchet (in Flaubert’s novel). Such honesty, however, only maintained the status quo as usual even though it gave the illusion that a dialectical twist had occurred, with modern art redeeming the fallen world of commodity-fetishism, alienated labor, and colonial subjugation. By extension, Villa’s modernity becomes possible by underwriting the aristocratic tributary enclave (in “Mir-I-Nisa,” the pre-Christian, Muslim-ordered village economy) of the metropolitan cultural milieu fed and supported by the labor of millions of Filipino colonial subjects and other serfs and helots in the U.S. empire.

There is thus no doubt that Villa remained uncannily faithful to his earliest fundamental convictions about art and poetry.  His belief in some essential property of language that is inherently “poetic” resembles the belief of romantic poets in some divine or supernatural inspiration. This is an old notion already proved fallacious by modern linguistics. In the early decades of the last century. Aside from Charles Sanders Peirce, Roman Jakobson, Louis Hjelmslev, Roland Barthes and others laid to rest both the romanticist and Russian formalist’s search for the poetic essence of language as something separate from its communicative and pragmatic functions.  Nonetheless, the continuity of Villa’s error is premised on a habitus or entrenched mentality of aristocratic individualism sprung from a tributary, archaic social formation, a belief that some incommensurable virtu or thaumaturgic mana inheres in the poet’s psyche that the human body and worldly reality cannot fully realize, hence the singular identity of the poet transcends time and space, biographical particulars, sociohistorical specificity. It floats as a monadic presence, angelic in cast but parasitic on the immanent forms that somehow fail to achieve rising to the level of transcendence. This, together with the concrete specificities about Villa’s positioning in Philippine society and his U.S. situation, contributes to explaining the roots of his opinionated stance in his criticism and peculiar views about society and ordinary life. Further research into the influences and crucial turning points of Villa’s life is needed to confirm this hypothesis.

Negative Beatification?

Finally, we are left with the marked stagnation of Villa’s poetics, its  fixation in the ludic verbal experimentation modeled after e.e. cummings, whose own career suffered a traumatic paralysis  after the experience of the Soviet nightmare in Eimi (1933). The other model, Sitwell, exacerbates the claustrophobic, narcissist obduracy of a Cartesian nominalism underlying Villa’s world-view. What is more crucial is the historical conjuncture that defines the framework of closure. Indeed, the framing sequence of the Cold War from 1947 to  Villa’s death in 1997 is a fifty-year enclosure that spells the exhaustion of Villa’s style and idiom of mystical lyricism and theatrical self-dramatization. Note that in the Fifties and Sixties, New York witnessed the beginning of the Beat generation (Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, and others), aside from the profound and radical influence of Charles Olson and other resourceful, inventive poetic theories that replaced Eliot and Pound’s New Critical formalism.

One may hazard the guess that the influence and support of e.e.cummings and other formalist New Critics may have reinforced Villa’s insulation/distance from movements such as objectivism, the narrative and historical epic experiments of William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane,  the populist drive of the Beatniks, and the more expressionistic work of Robert Lowell, John Ashberry, and their epigones in the Sixties and Seventies. Villa seemed detached or removed from the actualities of the New York cultural milieu, not to speak of the whole North American continent and Europe.  Note that Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Cesar Vallejo, and others were deep in surrealism and cubism and bold cinematic innovations in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.

Villa’s 1949 book Volume Two and his 1958 Selected Poems and New were all produced in the shadow of the Cold War, the Korean War, and the raging civil war between the puppet Republics of Roxas, Quirino, Magsaysay, and Garcia against the Huks and their millions of sympathizers. With the relatively stabilized world of the Fifties under Eisenhower, Villa virtually terminates his active career and lapses into the typographical doodles and ludic calisthenics of the “Adaptations” and “Xocerisms.” It is indeed the distinctive impulse of modernism to “make it new” (in Ezra Pound’s terms), to break the traditional pattern, disrupt the conventional mold, and strike out on new ground. But Villa’s innovations, whether the comma poems, reversed consonance, or adaptations, are superficial attempts to mimic the novelties of Mallarme, Rilke, e.e. cummings, or Marianne Moore. The Cold War created the vacuum of universalized exchange-value in which Villa’s spasmodic, highly refined use-value—his dialogue with god and angels—became superfluous or fungible. It became mere paper not acceptable as legal tender because its use-value had evaporated.

Anatomy of a Suicide

Villa’s value resembles those expunged “derivatives” of October 2008 and their hedge-fund prestidigitators. What I mean by the “evaporation” of use-value is precisely the drive to purity, to the conquest of the sublime, which underlies Villa’s poetic theology. That was already epitomized in the Kunitz testament cited earlier. This obsessive metaphysics of transcendence, the diametrical opposite of secular humanism, may also be discerned in the abstract expressionism that swept the United States in the halcyon days of post-World War II prosperity, the beginning of the Cold War. The key figure here is Jackson Pollock. And the most perceptive historical-materialist analysis of Pollock’s art, its logic of metaphysical violence so uncannily replicated by Villa, is that by John Berger (see also T. J. Clark’s perceptive critique of Clement Greenberg, the chief exponent of American abstract expressionism, in Clark 1982).

Berger quotes Harold Rosenberg’s insight that Pollock’s modernism begins with “nothingness,” which he copies; the rest he invents. Berger then delineates the sociohistorical context of that “nothingness” in the Cold War politics of McCarthyism, CIA propaganda  about the “freedom of the market” (ancestral spirit of neoliberalism), and the will to impose an American vision of democracy born of Hiroshima and executed in Vietnam (earlier, in the Filipino-American War of 1899-1913). Berger perceives in the American ethos that shaped Villa “an inarticulate sense of loss, often expressed with anger and violence.” Berger explains Pollock’s nihilism: In traditional painting,

the act of faith consisted of believing that the visible contained hidden secrets,…a presence behind an appearance….Jackson Pollock was driven by a despair which was partly his and partly that of the times which nourished him, to refuse this act of faith: to insist, with all his brilliance as a painter, that there was nothing behind, that there was only that which was done to the canvas on the side facing us. This simple, terrible reversal, born of an individualism which was frenetic, constituted the suicide (1991, 115-16)

With some modification, this judgment can be applied to Villa’s art: the drive to avant-garde purity and novelty and the desire to free oneself from all historic determinants and material trappings, apotheosizing the imagination as the creator/demiurge of one’s world, reflect Villa’s fatal imbrication in the vicissitudes of U.S. monopoly capitalism from the 1930s Depression to the brief rebirth of bourgeois liberal democracy in the war against fascism, and the advent of the terrrible U.S. pax Americana through the Cold War and the imperial brutalities in Korea and Vietnam. Villa’s fatality may ironically serve to revive him in this transitional period of the U.S. decline as an unchallenged world power as a prophet of this horrendous planetary wasteland.

It is in the era of neoliberal globalization, the unchallenged reign of commodity-fetishism and the deregulated, privatizing “free market” (now undergoing serious meltdown), that Villa finally becomes a “classic” author.  One of Villa’s Xocerisms may provide a clue to the exhaustion of his linguistic register, poetic lexicon, and mannered style: “To reinvent God is unnecessary; all He needs today is a designer name.” Indeed, Villa may have been reduced by his editor and cult followers as a “designer name” useful to build prestige, firm up a reputation or aura, and promote status-conscious careers.  It is indeed ironic to find a poet obsessed with uniqueness, singularity, essence, genius, angels, exceptionality, gods, now being swallowed up in the homogenizing universe of cultural commodities and the homogenizing culture industry. But perhaps this is a fitting and appropriate end: the dissolution of genius, the angelic imagination, in the totality of exchange whose value, while pretending to be absolute, is also absolutely zero.  Nihilism may be the authentic vocation of Villa, a nihilism that may abolish art and all poetry, as well as nations, identities, etc.  If so, then Villa has finally succeeded and conquered the last bastion of meaning and intelligibility: language that means and signifies nothing. Is our conversation about him also null, nada, devoid of sense or import? If so, then the only logical alternative (to follow Wittgenstein) is silence.

About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.


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