by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
1. Any process of reflection on the situation of Filipinos and Philippine society today, post-9/11 and in the midst of intense U.S. surveillance of the world as part of its global war on extremist terrorism, requires sustained historical consciousness. This involves critical self-reflection if we want to intervene in changing our social situation and our everyday lives.
“Historical” implies the passage of time through events from one mode of social relations to another, the past undergoing transformation to produce the next stage of social development, the future. “Consciousness” implies not just individual self-reflection but a grasp of the milieu and its collective self-awareness, the mentality of the epoch, as well as its manifold determinations.
2. The Yolanda catastrophe disclosed the stage we are in: an entrenchment of the neocolonial formation begun in 1946. We witnessed again not only endemic corruption and ineptitude, but more starkly the intervention of foreign actors, in particular, the United States navy and airforce, which offered a pretext for allowing large-scale, more permanent deployment of US forces throughout the country. This in addition to the drone/Special Forces operations already going on in Mindanao, Sulu, and other regions. The protest over pork-barrel thievery is a symptom of growing popular discontent–not enough, however, to spark nationwide insurrection.
3. Part of the symptom of increased deterioration of the neocolonial setup is the impact of the public exposure–on top of other local protests in various regions. esp those affected by mining, demolition of homes,etc. Everyone knows that this has been going on since the US colonial administration parcelled out the bureaucracy and the ideological state apparatus–courts, legislature, military–to the local elite with landlord and comprador roots. This was part of the pacification campaign from 1899 to the Cold War period.
Bourgeois sociologists call this the client-patron relationship, part of the old structures of interdependency. The US cultivated this and institutionalized it in the Quezon Commonwealth regime; it worsened during the Cold War era, systematized by the Marcos dictatorship, and vulgarized in the Estrada and Arroyo regimes.
4. Except for a few stories and novels in the vernacular, literary artists have not thoroughly diagnosed the corruption endemic to a neocolonial, dependent system. One outstanding example is Stevan Javellana’s WITHOUT SEEING THE DAWN. Of course, the classic works of Lope K Santos, Arguilla, Amado V. Hernandez may be cited as allegorical and realist testimonies to the historical contradictions of the period from the early years of US colonial rule to the fifties.
Aside from state censorship and persecution of subversive writers, the use of English and the class-affiliation of the intelligentsia served to reinforce the ideological hegemony of the imperial power in the sphere of culture. Even the most popular vernacular poet of the twenties and thirties of the last century, Jose Corazon de Jesus, who wrote in accessible Tagalog and attacked racist Americans, could not fully escape the individualist conformism of his vocation. He was more effective as a journalistic recorder of folk beliefs and hypnotic entertainer of the plebeian crowd.
5. Our literature in English remains confined to clever imitations and at best genteel parodies of the latest vogue celebrated by US taste-makers and fashion arbiters. The major writer who dared to wrestle with the crises of the collective psyche, more precisely the ordeals of activists, during the Marcos dictatorship and after is Lualhati Bautista, also famous for the films DEKADA 70 & BATA BATA PAANO KA GINAWA? Bautista is a self-declared feminist writer in Filipino who tries to cater to the taste of the bakya crowd and the high-brow aficionados of the Filipino commercial cinema. But her virtuosity seems not to have registered deeply to make her name instantly recognizable as that of Manny Pacquiao or Nora Aunor, star of the recent film THY WOMB.
6. Before I offer a few comments on Bautista’s latest novel, DESAPARECIDOS, I want to say something about the 150th anniversary of Andres Bonifacio’s birth celebrated last year.
7. After World War II, I was seven years old and entered the Andres Bonifacio Elementary School near Blumentritt, Sta Cruz, Manila. I knew more about the 13 martyrs of Cavite than about the Supremo because I acted in a skit about one of them. Later I knew more about Jose Abad Santos when I entered a school named after him.
During grade school and high school, I had only rudimentary notions of Bonifacio’s role in the 1896 revolution. Only in college, after being exposed to Agoncillo’s Revolt of the Masses, did I acquire a fuller understanding of Bonifacio’s importance, albeit a somewhat distorted version due to the prejudiced optic of such commentators as Agoncillo himself, Zaide, Nick Joaquin, etc. It is only through the brave efforts of our kasamas in the national-democratic movement that we can now appreciate Bonifacio’s decisive intervention in that epic of revolt against Spanish colonial domination, an ongoing narrative beginning from Soliman and Dagohoy up to Silang, Apolinario de la Cruz, Burgos, to Rizal, Jaena, Del Pilar, and the Katipunan.
8. From a historical-materialist perspective, Bonifacio is less an individual than an embodiment of collective forces
that were stirred up by the Propagandists, mainly by Rizal’s novels and his failed Liga. The Katipunan is not just a collection of disgruntled individuals but an organized assemblage of conscious minds mobilized for directed, planned action. It laid the ground for constructing the counterhegemonic vision of future national-democratic struggles: the Sakdalista, Huk, NPA/NDF, etc.
9. Unlike the hero-worshipping habits imposed by aristocratic Spain and the utilitarian U.S., the ideology of the Katipunan emphasized cooperation, mutual aid, and the welfare of the community. National solidarity, not individualism. The revolution initiated by Bonifacio’s Katipunan contradicted the cacique mentality of the Aguinaldo circle, petty holding proprietors, titled ilustrados, the Westernized intelligentsia. While Bonifacio and his circle were themselves products of the European Enlightenment, specifically the radical philosophes, they also functioned as organic intellectuals of the workers and peasants. Not the pasyon but the habitus of Indyo artisans and urban workers (Manila then was a collection of neighborhoods) shaped their everyday conduct, a life-form whose virtue inhered in spontaneous feelings, rituals of sharing, emotive gestures and clandestine agitation rather than detached inquiry.
10. All the writings of Bonifacio, as well as the documents of the Katipunan, testify to a massive endeavor to educate workers and peasants in order to raise their political consciousness, not to enhance their talent to promote their individual status or family fortunes. This applied also to the writings of Rizal, Mabini, and others. But Bonifacio used the vernacular and appealed to the organic sensibility of people engaged in daily work and collective struggle against a violent predatory system.
In sum, the narrative of Philippine modernity based on the rational autonomy of each individual talent harnessed for the common good begins with Bonifacio and the Katipunan. Incredulity toward this master-narrative can only sustain the abuses of dynastic warlord families, proprietors of semi-feudal estates, as well as their comprador-bureaucratic networks in government. Consumerist individualism and lumpen criminality are morbid byproducts of this interregnum between the old dying system and the new one still convulsed by birth pangs.
11. We have not yet achieved full sovereign autonomy, given our dependence on US dictates (military, economic, etc.) and IMF/WB and WTO mandates. With over ten million OFWs, the economy depends vitally on the unstable global market hiring migrant labor. Call centers and outsourcing businesses immediately suffer any slight adjustment in global stock exchanges.
Lacking any master-plan for industrialization, food sufficiency, ecological health and sustainable development, our country remains an immiserated appendage of global finance-capital. And if it were not for the remittance of billions of dollars to pay the foreign debt and support the consumerist lifestyles of both the rich and the families of OFWs, we would be like Haiti, a virtual US colony. But an economy based on commodification and export of millions of brown bodies is precariously mortgaged on the cycles of global capitalism, afflicted with periodic calamities and ongoing wars and worsening destruction of the planet’s ecosystem.
12. Bonifacio’s dream of national autonomy, popular sovereignty, and prosperity remains suspended in the sporadic struggles of numerous groups around the country–farmers, indigenous Lumad communities, women, students, OFWs abroad, etc. The moment of systemic breakdown depends on the convergence of all these separate insurrections, movements variably contingent on or affected by the international alignment of blocs of regional forces.
Bonifacio’s execution by the Aguinaldo clique reminds us that unless class divisions, and their attendant ideology of narrow class or familial interests (both of which are maintained by US hegemony) are overcome, we cannot progress as an independent nation and a people with dignity and singular identity. This unity is something to be theorized in consonance with practical organized movements.
13. Bonifacio is being resurrected everyday in the numerous efforts of our countrymen to oppose imperialist diktat and the subserviency to their imperialist patrons of our politicians, compradors, and landlords–the oligarchic elite– whose lives have been molded to maintain a violent system whose grant of “impunity” for torturers and killers is a clear sign of its moral and political bankruptcy.
14. This climate of “impunity” for those responsible for atrocities and barbaric excesses during the long night of the Marcos dictatorship is the theme of Bautista’s novel DESAPARECIDOS. The title itself, derived from the Latin American nightmare of repression of insurgents by military dictators supported by the CIA (as in Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, etc.), betokens the continuing repression of civil liberties and the fascist violence used to impose it. It also symbolizes the vanished, erased or extinguished parts of our memory and consciousness without which we cannot claim responsibility for our actions, or freedom to create our own destiny.
15. Foremost among the disappeared in Panay are Luisa Dominado and Nilo Arado. They were followed by Jonas Burgos, Sherley Cadapan, Karen Empeno, and dozens more. What happened? Can a body just disappear in a society whose laws, whose constitution, presumably seek to guarantee the life and liberty of everyone? Who are the agents of making bodies disappear as if by magic or uncanny and bizarre means? And when bodies surface as corpses, cadavers with stigmata of State coercion (euphemistically called “extra-economic compulsions”), are there risks for anyone who can identify them?
16. Bautista’s novel is both an expressive and communicative act. Expression becomes possible only when communication succeeds (always in contentious or conflicted degrees), enabling the reader to translate ideas/feelings into action. To ask what the novel communicates is to ask how the individual reader is interpellated to become a subject capable of action premised on a certain view of life, a configuration of lived experience, and sense of an intelligible future. We also want to interrogate whether the project of interpellation–making readers not only conscious of their historical situation but also aware of their potential in transforming their world–successful or not. If not, why not?
17. I propose three theses for exploration and discussion: First, this novel attempts to make sense of the terrible disruption of lives, of institutions and traditional beliefs, inflicted by the Marcos dictatorship through the ordeals of two families–three if we include the parents of Jingki, the assasinated traitor to the NPA. Were all those sacrifices worth the cause? Was that period of emergency meaningful, valuable, or necessary?
Second, the attempt to make whole broken bodies, destroyed lives, employs the plight of a mother searching for her lost child, exposing in the process the conflict between political commitment and personal (maternal) need, and the disjunction between devotion to a future-oriented revolutionary ideal and the imperative of immediate or punctual satisfaction of family togetherness and organic harmony among blood kins. Is the conflict resolved, thus allowing for the invention of a different or alternative future? What notion of the future is produced by a reading of this novel?
Third, the argument for revolutionary justice–the revenge of the deaths of others by the sacrifice of Jingki–appears as a wager that a future life free from such raw justice can arise. Absent a providential or transcendent law/god, can humans with their natural vulnerabilities and resources establish a regime honoring each individual member? Again, can the future be born from a spoiled damaged past and guilt-ridden present? Are possibilities offered by the plot of restored child and confessed deed?
18. The plot unfolds the interaction of multiple times. The themes of separation and reunion, distance and intimacy, unravel in the interplay among three zones or layers of experienced temporality: a) time lost/frozen (for Anna fixated on finding her daughter consigned to a lost comrade Karla), b) time present (Roy remembering the burning of his family in front of an NGO group trying to reconstitute the historic truth/authenticity of what happened, and finally confessing his role as party agent of revenge), and (c) time future (duration as continuity), personified by the two daughters: Karla who wants to know/learn about her past, her mother’s homeland; and Lorena whose everyday recording of what is occurring to her parents, etc., registers the symptoms of rupture and displacements, the asynchrony between past and present, thus rendering the future problematic, at best, and amenable to speculative extrapolation.
19. The novel resolves the fixations of Ana and Roy with the return of Karla from Canada, and the confession of Malaya to Ana about her origin. Moved by Ana’s obsession, Karla (whose spatial removal and marriage fills up the lost time wasted during the Marcos years) renounces her claim to Malaya. Malaya in turn reaffirms the biological mother Ana, though she does not reject Karla. Roy finally confesses that he killed Jingki, Karla’s husband, on orders of the party, thus partly purging himself of guilt. One can speculate that revenge on a former comrade Jingki compensates for Roy’s fury and sense of futility or helplessness in leaning of the killing of his parents and sister.
But it can be argued that the reunion of mother and daughter does not fully provide an answer to the lost meaning or import of the anti-imperialist struggle in the lives of these protagonists. The summary of chronological history in between the 9th and 10th chapter, entitled “Once upon a fairy tale…” attests to the problem broached by the politics of time and the disaggregation of space in an unevenly developed, ideologically conjunctural formation.
20. Surely the return of the lost daughter and the vindication of Ana’s persistent effort to find Karla, as well as the retribution inflicted on Jinky for betraying his comrades, do not appease our uneasiness. The narrative voice indicates as much, asking: Was all that enormous sacrifice worth it when the ghost of the past reappears in Arroyo’s Marcos-like authoritarianism?
We assert the proposition that biology, nature as found/received condition, is no answer to the failure of individuals to honor their personal responsibilities, much less their political commitments. We are not absolutely determined by our environment or our heritages which are all subject to contingencies and mutability. But to whom is the individual responsible?
21. Karla’s role is exemplary: she sacrifices her own daughter in order to protect and save her comrade’s child, thus valorizing community over biology. She also proves that though the struggle separates bodies and destroys families, they also open up the space for new forms of belonging, solidarity, and fellowship opposed to alienation and capitalist reification.
Her absence from the scene of carnage and torture allows the passage of time to nourish the seeds of past time (Malaya) and the potential for a new beginning in the conjunction of the two sisters. Her exiled body functions as the positive side to the negativity of disappeared and mutilated bodies, thus allowing the opening for new action, for a future of a new form of society to emerge.
It is in this horizon of expectation that this narration of negation, disavowals and disappeareds produces the realm of possibilities for collective intervention, and therefore the realization of social agency for the victims, all those denied recognition, the disappeared and violated and dispossessed.
22. Fragments of the historical totality of twenty years (comprising the martial law years plus the early disappointing years of the Cory Aquino regime) remain suspended in a narrative replete with moments of intense dramatic confrontations. Lived existential time generates a pressure that prevents clear judgment and discourages any fair evaluation of each person’s role in the events of torture, abduction, and killing. But historical or spatial distance (between Malaya and Lorena, for instance) does not guarantee justice and elucidation of moral or ethical ambiguities, either.
23. So the final question we face is: what does the novel’s interpellation seek to elicit from us? Validating the harmonious reconciliation of Karla and Ana, of Karla and Roy, and the resolution of contradictions between the party and its members who are critical and deviant? Can the recovered daughter Malaya symbolize the future for the split psyche of the mother being healed by their embrace? Consider this: “Nang ibaba ni Ana ang kamay niya ay hindi para yakapin si Malaya kundi para yakapin ang sarili… Hanggang sa si Malaya ang yumakap sa kanya, niyakap siya nang mahigpit, buong higpit, na parang sa yakap na iyon ay sinisikap ibalik ang dalawampu’t isang taon” (p. 220).
24. In Hegel’s philosophy, the dialectic of lord and slave climaxes the process of drawing the lessons of the struggle for recognition. The lesson is the knowledge of historical time, the investigated logic of the process of history. Here the dialectic of time past and time present culminates in mother-daughter embrace, a fusion of blood-streams: nature overcomes history, dissolves memory and the narrative of differential moments into a cosmological continuum. The almost mythical rhythm of maternal/biological annuls the question about the future and with it the possibility of historical agency.
25. The question of agency (faced by Roy in the chapter before the last) involves speculations or anticipations of the future. This is tied also to the theme of violence against women, specifically targeting the body, sexuality (rape, mutilation of genitals, etc.) Ultimately, the chief task of this narrative and other structural projects of plotting (by Filipino writers) is to answer what is the meaning or sense of human actions in history. Put more concretely, what is the purpose or import of Filipino intervention in history, particularly the shaping of the present/future of the nation?
26. Resolving the problem of agency, as well as the meaning of revolutionary action, via affirmation of nature (by identifying the lost child, though Nonong’s cadaver is never publicly identified, despite the father’s torture and sacrifice of his life) is a false and misleading solution. Or it postpones the moment of choice, letting traditional authorities and conventions make the decisions.
Despite the melodramatic reunion of mother and dauther, as well as the bonding between Malaya and Lorie (an allegorical linkage of past and future by the existential present), Bautista suggests an ironical ending in the final two pages about Arroyo’s Proclamation 1017 evoking memories of Marcos’ martial-law declaration. There is a double irony here because the return of the past, even in mock or pantomime version, mimics the return of biology and blood-kinship, Nature.
27. The invocation of Nature returns us to the archaic and feudal stages of the pasyon and mythic rituals. A future shaped by human agency disappears. With it history either vanishes, or becomes the existential present, where “everything solid melts into air.”
We plunge into the narcosis of commodity-fetishism, the deceptive flux and changeability of fashion–the paradisal mirage of global capitalism and its consumerist hallucinations which have seduced us, so ubiquitous in gigantic malls that proliferate in MetroManila, Iloilo, and everywhere. The instant of pleasure or excitement becomes paramount, consumption of ideas or sensations becomes the means for the realization of utopian bliss. The narrative of events and experiences becomes superfluous.
28. Bautista’s novel reminds us that our bodies can be “disappeared” not just by fascist violence, courtesy of the neocolonial state and US panopticon, but also by the inertia of quasi-feudal habits, by the subterranean reflexes of our physical constitutions. If we allow these forces to operate, the “disappeared” will haunt us forever, as they did for our protagonists Ana and Roy, as well as for Karla, Malaya, Lorie and all the victims and victors of this oppressive and brutal system.
The choice is ours: the owl of Minerva (the critical genius) will not fly out into this night of terror unless the vampires and ghouls of the past are challenged and the survivors with their memories intact assert their presence in time and at all times. This is the time of appearance, not disappearance, for Filipinos
29. Finally, this narrative of loss and recovery, inflected with ironic undertones and allegorical resonance, affords a moment for grasping the totality of the Philippine formation at a conjunctural moment: the neocolonial crisis of the Marcos dictatorship. Totalization enables the synthesis of past sacrifices to link present ordeals with visions of the future, expectations of new life-forms.
We as readers might be able to respond to the interpellation of ourselves as potential agents who can identify murdered activists, assassinated traitors, lost or disappeared citizens, who are all part of our own larger selves, vestiges of our own childhood and symbolic tokens of what we desire to become.
As Bautista herself declared after the Feb 1986 revolt: “Panahon na na lumikha ng alternatibong papel ng babae bilang isang tauhan, lala na’t kasama rin naman ang babae sa pagsusulong ng lipunan…sa tunay at ganap na kalayaan” (“Ang Manunulat bilang Babae at ang Babae bilang Manunulat,” Tinig-Titik 2, 2nd issue, 1986-87, p. 6).
Various possibilities are open. If we want, a reflexive understanding of this novel can help us disentangle the barbaric from the civilized elements in the intricate, complex web of our national history–from the aborted insurrection of the Katipunan to the aborted uprisings of the Sakdalistas and Huks to the failed People Power Revolt of 1986, and so on. It can help us understand the ironies of political movements and the tragedies of the past as necessary turning-points in our emergence as a people/nation with its rightful place in the nultifaceted, dissonant, messy evolution of world-history.–2/1/2014