CULTURAL POLITICS IN THE PHILIPPINES
by E. San Juan, Jr. Saturday, Nov. 13, 2004 at 11:38 AM
Various strategies of consciousness-raising and political education in the national-democratic movement are possible in theory, but they should all be discussed, analyzed and contextualized in the concrete historical conditions of our society. This essay explores the tensions and possibilities, the objective and subjective poles, in this field of cultural politics.
PROBLEMS OF CULTURAL POLITICS IN VIGILANTE TERRITORY
By E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
The little horsecarts with gilt decorations
And the pink sleeves of the matrons
In the alleys of doomed Manila
The fugitive beheld with joy.
–BERTOLT BRECHT, “Landscape of Exile” (1940)
In September 1987 I was invited to give a talk on contemporary trends in critical theory at a colloquium sponsored by the research office of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. After summarizing recent philosophical and aesthetic developments in the West, and focusing on reader-response (Rezeptionsaesthetik) theory in particular, I was suddenly plunged into what I discovered later on as an ongoing shouting match on the topic of whether we should junk Rizal or not in our curriculum. The upshot of it was that it was as if I never spoke at all. In the melee I became a pretext for continuing the factional squabble among the faculty, the “always already” situation I found myself in. All my refined discriminations about historical specification of any text or discursive practice, about the multiple and dispersed readings possible from the readers’ interactions with a given text–all the rhetoric of scrupulous qualifications and reservations quickly evaporated. The fundamental lesson of the cultural materialism which I emphasized, namely, the historically concrete contextualization of any social practice like writing, as well as
the dialectical exchange of reader’s and text’s repertoires in the production of meaning–or, more precisely, the conditions of possibility of meanings–seemed to have gotten lost in the babel of opinions and slogans. In brief, the scene became a veritable marketplace of laissez-faire protagonists for which one can only venture the warning: “Caveat emptor!”
It was, to say the least, extremely instructive. Little did I know that I would now write about it here as a prime exhibit of the post-structuralist thesis that everything is, indeed, always already given or inscribed before one has even written or said anything. One cannot begin from a clean blank slate, as Locke thought. Unfortunately, there is no longer any innocent speaker, writer, or reader anywhere.
Fortunately, however, one young faculty member who graduated from the University of the Philippines had read Toward a People’s Literature and asked me if I still subscribed to my unorthodox view of Rizal which was elaborated in one chapter of my book (San Juan 1984, 1997). To which I replied yes, with minor qualifications. I reiterated again the value of the strategic intervention of the reader’s will (itself a collective agenda embedded in a specific existential situation) which can map the possibilities of articulating Rizal’s texts, in particular the novels, to achieve nationalist, democratic goals. Other strategies can be pursued, depending on the constraints and susceptibilities of a given position.
For those who insisted on an either-or dualistic position, it was difficult to refuse the seduction of a mechanical materialism which either totally condemned Rizal as counter-revolutionary temporizer and thus abandoned his writings (and the example of his deeds) to the reactionaries, or supported a Rizal cult which only glorified the elite dispensation. I switched tactics and offered a parable: Assuming that in your factory, a union has been formed which, later on, members discovered was actually led by “yellow” leaders, what would you do? Would you as a militant worker bolt out and form another union consisting of a handful of believers, thus isolating yourself effectively from the majority, and as compensation boast of your vanguard role? Or would you remain in the “yellow” union and patiently try to win over honest members through education and persuasion and example so that you could generate changes, even though gradually and incrementally? This was offered as an on-the-spot analogy chiefly to provoke a process of dialectical reflection. But I am afraid that nobody then seemed to grasp what I was trying to communicate. Now, in retrospect, I am skeptical whether I did the right thing or not instead of withdrawing from the partisan fray and assuming the proverbial academic detachment of the bourgeoise philosopher.
Since it is a truism that the terrain of political consciousness at any given time is uneven, highly stratified, and suffer unpredictable mutations–cracks and fissures suddenly appear, altering contours and boundaries–the strategy of dual unionism poses the twin dangers of sectarianism and left opportunism. But this truism seems to have escaped our local super-revolutionaries inured to a style of dogmatic self-righteousness. What the “theology of liberation” in Latin America has done, or our Filipino version of “theology of struggle” has so far accomplished in its reading and performance of Biblical texts, should already have provided an invaluable lesson to those stricken with what Lenin called “leftwing infantilism.” But all those lessons seemed also to have been lost, or have not yet been assimilated. What I would suggest therefore is the learning of those lessons and their concrete application to our specific conjuncture, not separatism or vanguardism, if we don’t want to re-invent the upturned wheel of Hegelian dialectics over again.
This, I now suspect, functioned as my first learning situation, an initiating rite which can serve as an emblem to configure the archeology of a milieu and spell out later on the genealogy of an unfolding critique. But let me recall, following this allegorical mapping of our discourse, another incident whose testimonial value will, I hope, become exemplary toward the end of this commentary.
Last August 27, I gave a lecture on the theme of Third World Cultural Revolution in a program sponsored by the University of the Philippines Creative Writing Center and the Department of History (San Juan 1988). On that occasion I emphasized how “writing is a kind of complex social practice involving a specific point of view on selected materials.” In short, writing is a profoundly powerful mode of ideological practice. Writing–conceived in the large sense of the differential narrativizing of experience in time/space–cannot be divorced from the concrete historical conditions of its enactment, its embeddedness in the thickness of discriminations involving gender, race, class, region, and so forth, which ultimately constitute the enabling condition that makes writing, all art, possible. For her part the reader performs a rewriting of the text and thereby releases the play of semiotic difference. Because writer, text (as a form of social practice imbricated in fixed codes and mutable conventions), and reader are all historically interpellated or subjected–i.e., transformed into subjects, writing/reading cannot but be an ideological act par excellence. It is an action, a strategic will intervening in the world, deploying the power of Desire, marshalling the forces of the Unconscious and Tradition, unleashing unsuspected energies that then proceed to catalyze and precipitate changes all around.
Writing is a form of practice, of labor: what Macherey, following Althusser, designates as a process of production. What the imagination works on is the general repertoire of beliefs, assumptions, values, rituals–the ideological itself–from which it fashions its singular repertoire called “the text.” In this connection, I quoted Franz Kafka on the necessarily political complicity of writers, especially those engaged in a “minor practice of a major language” (Deleuze and Guattari 1975). This fits perfectly the predicament of Filipino writers who use English–even English “of a sort” (as Senator Jose Diokno used to refer to our urban vernacular). Kafka argued: “What each author says individually already constitutes a common action, and what he or she says or does is necessarily political.” What a remarkable statement coming from the classic artist-hero worshipped by bourgeois modernists as the high priest of mystification, avatar of the transcendental Absurd. It’s a blanket indictment of all our postmodernizing aesthetes.
During the open forum, one professor of English asked whether a writer needs an ideology to be revolutionary. I answered that a writer need not be conscious of operating with an ideology or any idea at all (recall what Henry James said of the artist’s mind: it’s too fine to be violated by ideas), although one can be a Tolstoy who was quite convinced of the moral imperatives of Christian activist pacifism from which part of the didactic and thematic repertoire of his narrative material derives. But, on second thought, I missed the real point of the question.
Perhaps because a previous speaker equated “ideology” (a contentious and problematic term if not defined as concretely as possible, with all its determinations) with national democratic politics, particularly with the creed of the National Democratic Front, the term was then interpreted as a codeword for “communist” or “Marxist” and therefore became pejorative. More precisely, it became a euphemism for everything bad, negative, repulsive. In such an already staged arena, a persisting legacy of Cold War politics still endemic in our society, one has to backtrack and maneuver to clear the ground, so to speak, as already prefigured in my first anecdote.
What I was trying to emphasize at great length–the inscription of writer/reader in a historical palimpsest not of any individual’s making–was completely lost to the articulate members of the audience more interested in questions of “how to,” techniques, methods, instrumentalities–although I must confess that some listeners told me they understood exactly what I was trying to say. Shades of “elective affinities”? In any case I felt that because of the peripheral or utilitarian thrust of the inquiries, it seemed that the basic theoretical questions had already been answered for them (maybe in the latest issue of Ang Bayan, or in the latest pronouncement from Establishment ideologues or mass media pundits) so that all we need to do now, after heaving a sigh of relief, is to act as the proverbial “transmission belts” if not functionaries to implement the latest shift of the party line. Or else we are ostracized, shunned, ignored.
A trivializing and marginalizing modus operandi and its effects may be discerned in this not untypical situation. Minds and bodies conduct themselves to devise formulas and “get-rich-quick-schemes” to implement directives, codes, instructions that are never quite understood, much less questioned or criticized. It cannot all be attributed to hiya, or the presumed “non-confrontational” style of Filipinos. In public forums and exchanges, I have noticed a recurrent syndrome. While some speakers may broach questions of first principles and thus succeed in elevating the exchange to a level of theoretical concreteness, the participants (mostly from the intelligentsia defined loosely in the Philippine context) display a consciousness that operates strictly within the realm of the empirical, the impressionistic and anecdotal level. This is not a shortcoming in itself, as long as it is taken simply as a heuristic point of departure. But the inadequacy of empiricism soon reveals itself. Even when policies or conceptual frameworks informing an administrative decision happen by chance to be introduced for review, people interject with grievances on particular matters (such as allocation of money, incidents illustrating bureaucratic neglect or departmental inefficiency, minutiae of official abuses) as though all those items are equally important, flattened onto one dimension of significance. Somehow the majority of participants are not able to question the rationale of the institution itself, to distance themselves from their involvement so as to critique the structure of power and interrogate its exercise in promoting or eroding the ends of justice, freedom and equality. In brief, it seems that there is a customary, unspoken habitus (to use Bourdieu’s term; Bourdieu 2000) of avoiding conflict over fundamentals, of shirking the challenge of wrestling with the basic inescapable contradictions. Is this the fabled phenomenon of “smooth interpersonal relations” beloved by our sociologists and psychologists?
I venture to suggest that my two anecdotes (I plead complicity in this habit) can be construed in such a way as to betray the symptom of a general impoverishment of ideas, a condition grounded in the hierarchic and patriarchal reification of our neocolonized society, the powerlessness of the majority (including the organic intellectuals of the dispossessed classes) excluded from the crucial decision-making processes, the willing subservience of the masses to the elite whose charisma and weapons depend chiefly on U.S. patronage–a moribund contradictory system accountable to centuries of colonial conditioning whereby attitudes and behavior, “structures of feeling,” are reproduced daily in habitual practices, traditional rituals, in the routine patterns of everyday life. Witness the interplay here of “commodity aesthetics” (to use Haug’s phrase; Haug 1986) purveyed by the transnational corporations, machismo, religion, and the psychology of ressentiment.
I am not just referring here to the result of imperialist subject-ion and manipulation, although that is the context of this somewhat banal diagnosis of our putatively “damaged” culture. If one explains the lack of a climate of serious, open-ended, and informed public exchanges whether in the universities, mass media and other civic forums, by invoking the formula of “colonial mentality,” one is sure to trigger a violent nativist or xenophobic response. (If you happen to be an exiled Filipino or a migrant intellectual who ventures to speak her mind, you are bound to be condemned as an intruder meddling in local affairs, a pariah who knows nothing of local circumstances.) This reflex defensive gesture then immediately prides itself on our self-acclaimed, ingratiating virtues of pakikisama, bayanihan (the Marcos regime was quite skillful in exploiting the resonance and libidinal charge of these populist motifs)–precisely those practices that continue to reproduce the repressive harmony of the terrain our culturalist scholars inhabit. A claim of authentic immediacy–“I know the personalities involved,” “I have inside information,” “I was there and went through it all….”–is made to compensate for lack of intelligence, honesty, tact or simple prudence. Reproducing ways of acting and thinking sanctified by time and the supernatural, the hegemonic culture of the propertied classes cannot foster critical thinking but only consolidate mindless routine. Its hierarchical and authoritarian paradigm will never generate the consciousness and will for popular democratic transformations, for releasing the potential of each individual within the framework of a truly independent nation by guaranteeing (within the constraints of our underdevelopment) the freedom and material security of all.
Lest I be misinterpreted, I hasten to add that there have been significant and perhaps irreversible changes since the Magsaysay period, certainly since the First Quarter Storm. Whatever vicissitudes the popular democratic movement has suffered since February 1986, those mutations of sensibility have been registered deeply enough to generate prophetic reverberations, delayed reactions, nomadic adventures, even nostalgic recuperations. Changes there certainly will be in the coming decades; the urgent question is, who will direct these changes and for whose benefit?
I hazard to state that from Rizal’s time to the present, the nationalist movement has succeeded in introducing the elements of a historical materialist orientation to our cultural life. They may be discerned in mixed plebeian manifestations of opposition and resistance to U.S. hegemonic values and elite mimicries, from the millenial sects to the parodic allegories in comic books, games and jokes, including a variety of satiric and utopian expressions dramatized in folk and popular culture. Owing to various exigencies not to be easily wished away, however, the tendency has led to a one-sided emphasis on the crudely material or economic factors conceived in a deterministic fashion. This tendency to vulgarization–part of the carnivalesque disruption of monologic official culture, as Bakhtin (in his work on Rabelais, for example) has documented for medieval Europe–may have been made necessary by the need to counter the heavy indoctrination of our people with obscurantist metaphysics and religious superstition during the long ascendancy of Spain. This in turn was reinforced by a disciplinary regime of empirical, positivist thinking propagated by U.S. educators and bureaucrats at the time when social Darwinism and racist “common sense” gripped U.S. society at the turn of the century, a miasma of servile habits, petty chicanery, schizoid resentment, and business gangsterism that since then have corrupted the fabric of our psychic life.
In the process of decolonization begun by the Propagandists, however, errors have been committed for the sake of rapid mobilization. The politicization of the Seventies may have been impressively swift but it proved shallow and ephemeral, as the instructive and somewhat tragic plight of the Partido ng Bayan testifies. Formulas and slogans have been memorized, manuals and handbooks produced and disseminated; but the habit of critical thinking has not been instilled despite the skeptical materialist thrust of propaganda. Thus we see mirrored in the actions of people who mouth Marxist or left slogans merely a transmogrification, an unintended mirror-image, of the old ways: feudal patronage disguised in bureaucratic and commandist ways have ruined any attempt at inventing genuine coalitions or trustworthy alliances. Dogmatism and empiricism have replaced dialectics, breeding caricatures of elite machinations without even any pretense of mimicking hypocritical “good taste.” It is too easy to say that all these are caused by Stalinism, our convenient bogeyman, proofs of the excesses of Maoism. Such “bad faith” accusations, however, cannot be condoned. All these have to be analyzed in a concrete historical manner as the result of a dynamic interaction of actors and objectively limiting situations, of intentions and contexts, of creative wills and circumscribing boundaries. This is not meant to excuse or explain away mistakes and perversions. Here I am submitting a modest proposal to initiate a surveying of the field of conjunctural politics and the forces involved to find out why such symptoms recur, a foregrounding of ideology and culture as pivotal mediations at the crux of the problem.
As a reaction to mechanical materialist thinking and its variants diffused in the left, among technocrats, and in that compound of half-truths and superstition that we call the “common sense” of the ordinary citizen, a trend to correct the imbalance has emerged in the wake of the February 1986 insurrection. “Culture” has now become the magic watchword. There are notable scholarly advances in this field, particularly by historians and critics of the theater like Tiongson and Mojares. Such works are meant to supplement and rectify the still prevailing prejudice (born of that famous but misleading base-superstructure metaphor which Marx used only once) that culture is an epiphenomenal outgrowth, a simple reflection of the more important activities in the sphere of economic production. A misreading fortuitously begot the prejudice. This productivist schematism has not only reduced culture and ideology, the kernel of politics, to second rank, but has also distorted Marx and Engels’ conception of the overdetermined structured totality of any society, that is, the indivisibility of the production and reproduction of social life.
Notes from the Underground
From a dialectical perspective, all individuals are social, that is, humanized in society. The measure of what is human is social and implies a “species-being” correlated to work, sensuous practice, which functions as the key to judging the freedom and integrity of any society. This central insight stems from the dialectics of thought and action, of consciousness and the body, signified by the term “praxis.” I should like to stress here the concept of reproduction which involves the vital regions of gender, family, sexual division of labor, religious practices, age, and other determinants not usually comprehended under the category of class. Western socialists, as well as the revolutionaries of Cuba, Nicaragua and other Third World countries, are now re-evaluating the traditional Marxist problematic to take into account the salutary if controversial interventions of Althusser and Gramsci, among others, in particular the latter’s theorizing of hegemony and the decisive function of intellectuals. [I add that especially after the unprecedented changes in Eastern Europe in 1989, this rethinking has now become more urgent and obligatory for Filipino progressives who aim to rediscover, revitalize and enrich our own indigenous socialist tradition; San Juan 1989, 1990, 2000]
We have now proceeded to the point where we can detect in this revisionist trend the opposite error that can be denominated “culturalism.” In order to explain the EDSA upheaval, commentators like Nick Joaquin (otherwise a technological determinist in his apologetics for the long-buried Spanish empire) emphasize the notion of a kapit-bisig custom in a society which has not yet fully evolved from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft (to use Tonnies’ terms). One can appreciate this mode of explanation as a reaction to the economistic approach. But by itself it can only regurgitate a formalist and idealist mode of thinking which replicates the platitudes of a doctrinaire functionalist sociology–unless the historical contextualization of such a practice is properly articulated.
Allow me to cite, as an example, one essay exploring “the culture of revolution” which illustrates the limits of the culturalist response to the purely economistic approach. The author employs as her coordinates the functionalist notions of pakikisama and kapitbisig and other symptoms of client-patron relations in a pre-capitalist mode of production. This not only begs the question, but also vitiates the emphasis on culture by conceiving it as a positivistic phenomenon. Consider such observations:
The culture of Philippine revolution is the culture of the countryside, of the agricultural community…. The culture of revolution, Philippine style, is the culture of sharing, of pakikisama and tulungan rather than of ideology….
The counter-positioning of “culture” to “ideology” not only muddles the problem, but creates the impression that “culture” is the pure, honorific term whereas “ideology” connotes something negative, derogatory, un-Filipino. This ultimately atavistic usage can only authorize a mystique of cultural practice based on the problematic of a unified, homogeneous community (elaborated by the Lynch-Hollnsteiner group and acutely criticized by Virgilio Enriquez) that eliminates other categories (like class, gender, etc.) and therefore any dis-integrative contradiction. It invents the myth of a harmoniously functioning, homeostatic society beloved by Parsons, Merton and their followers. It works in the service of the existing repressive law and order. It renders obeisance to normative integration. It pays homage to authority and hierarchy, bows down to patriarchy. It offers easy rationalization for the continued hegemony of the dominant classes in control of the state ideological apparatuses (schools, media, bureaucracy) and the ascendancy of the institutional church, a lynchpin of the status quo.
What is ironic for our liberal culturalists–and I consider the quote only as a symptom of a general drift–is their unwitting emasculation of the complex term “culture” (whose historical provenance Raymond Williams has so fully substantiated), its reduction to a set of practices which are neither dominant nor emergent, but actually residual (the tributary or feudal mode of reproduction), thus transforming otherwise conflict-ridden individuals into one-dimensional subjects conforming to the universalizing norms of the dominant elite. The “culture of tradition” cannot be isolated and bracketed as identical to the subalterns’ acceptance of their position, as consensus, for this cancels out the oppositional impulse defining their ambivalent subordination to their masters; moreover, that tradition is imposed from above and normalized by years of conformity. In due time, given the uneven and non-synchronized mutation of co-existing but divergent modes of production, those “picturesque” habits of pakikisama or the rituals of the pasyon can be articulated to serve as vehicles for resistance. But it is simplistic to identify the “culture of tradition” as the determinant practice of a monolithic and homogeneous society which makes it somehow “revolutionary.” This culture is precisely what enabled conservative and reactionary forces to dominate Congress and the bureaucracy once again, entrenching themselves there on the pretext of having participated in one way or another in overthrowing the tyranny of the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship. Instead of taking into account the diversity, multiplicity and heterogeneity of the social formation, this deployment of a static notion of culture proves to be not only as reductivist but also brutally instrumentalist, perpetrating the error it seeks to remedy in the first place. Such reductionism becomes clearly obfuscating when, for example, “women power” is inferred from the proposition that “the culture of the agricultural community” produces “strong women” who participate in production, etc. This mystique of peasant vitality and female fertility, one might recall, occupies center stage in German fascist doctrine and in the program of any reactionary irrationalism that glorifies “blood and soil,” Fuhrerprinzip, the organic ties of community, family, and mystical hierarchy.
The term “ideology” is indeed one of those contentious words that have been made equivalent, under the current repressive climate, to everything reprehensible and demonic and therefore anti-Filipino. I have noted this usage proliferate in many scholarly and polemical tracts. This is demonstrated, for example, in Gemino Abad’s conclusion to his introduction to a forthcoming anthology of Filipino poetry in English. He writes: “Their sensibility [the poets from 1905 to 1955], which loves freedom above all, is inherently anti-ideological even against the very grain of thought.” Again, ideology becomes the scapegoat, the stigmata of the accursed and untouchable. To emancipate oneself from ideology, Filipino poets (according to Abad) have to master the nuances and potential of the English language: “Through poetry, after the mastery of its medium and its tradition, the Filipino writer in English has his revenge as it were on the ideology, the very way of thinking and feeling, which the adopted language secretes. English in Filipino hands, under the pressure of his own milieu and sensibility, becomes not English but Filipino. If he is at first possessed, he comes also in time to possess both the medium and the message in his own way, by the language of his own blood.” Notice how the use of “language” suffers slippage into metaphor, a naked ideological maneuver if ever there is one.
While Abad considers “formalism” a trap, just like Romanticism and Populism (which is wrongly equated with “proletarian”), that prevents the poet to “break and create meanings,” and while he does acknowledge language as “the most powerful of ideological machines,” he believes the Filipino poet can transform the machine of language to “a point of crisis, of break-up and judgment.” By postulating the binary opposition of poetry (good) versus ideology (bad), the strategy of ideological resolution in favor of one of the terms is easily carried out.
One can detect in this modified neoAristotelianism the influence of a mystification of language inspired by Heidegger, the privileging of language as combined “medium and message” with demiurgic powers. Just like the hackneyed aestheticism of the “founding father” Jose Garcia Villa and his epigones, this latter-day valorization of the poet as the magical manipulator of the language-machine entraps the critic, and the poet, alas, in what turns out to be the “prison-house of language” (Nietzsche).
A similar fascination for this prison-house afflicts the argument of Resil Mojares in his 1986 lecture “Imagining the Nation: Language and Politics Today.” Invoking this time not Heidegger but Orwell, darling of end-of-ideology prophets and ideologist of 1984 par excellence, Mojares pontificates:
With the expansion of media, the writer appears today in more guises than in Rizal’s time. It is still he, however, who is the keeper of language, the one whose life-interest it is to keep watch over language, preserving that clarity, precision, power, and rootedness in our social and moral life that language must possess if it must continue to define for us both our nationality and humanity.
Here, taking a cue from Pound and Eliot, the critic openly espouses the fetishism of a language which once exorcised of worldly pollution becomes the magic cure for the national wasteland. The Flaubertian ideal of the artist, a reaction to the bourgeois commodification of culture in 19th century industrial capitalism, surfaces–but anachronistically, in a consumerist neocolonial society where this erstwhile “virginal” language is slowly exchanged into petty cash, devalued counters floating in the infinite circulation of simulacra and computer debris, not to speak of the noises issuing from Malacanang and the pandemonium of coups and Congressional blabbering. One doubts whether the writer for Mojares speaks in Taglish, or one of the vernaculars which the writers are still unable to master, let alone keep watch over.
We are confronted with a particular recurrent conjuncture. The privileging of the aesthetic as the space of authentic human value has been analyzed rigorously by Marcuse and other Frankfurt critical theorists and exposed as a symptom of the capitalist reduction of culture to a noumenal, transcendental realm. Commodification and exchange value turns the aesthetic into an anaesthetic. Given the dominance of the culture industry of Hollywood and Madison avenue, this fetishizing of the aesthetic is the inaugurating premise of New Critical essentialism. If ideology were not so stigmatized as demonic and our local critics were more open to the vast horizon of materialist hermeneutics enabled by the renaissance of a creative Marxism and its interface with other postmodernist explorations, in particular structuralist linguistics and deconstructive psychoanalysis, it is possible that they could have avoided such pitfalls that, in the first place, they have been trying to evade. They could have employed such categories as “linguistic work” or “symbolic capital” introduced by thinkers like Ferrucio Rossi-Landi (1983) and Pierre Bourdieu (1991). They could also have availed of the seminal discoveries of Bakhtin whose reading of how “the sign becomes an arena of the class struggle” opens up an immense field of possibilities for constructing a materialist semiotics under the aegis of an emancipatory cultural politics.
All these are telltale signs that we have not even begun to understand the insidious legacy of colonialism–three centuries of feudal indoctrination, about ninety years of U.S. “tutelage” in the self-aggrandizing hubris of entrepreneurial liberalism. We have not really grasped the effects of reification and “commodity aesthetics” in mass consumer society so as to be able to critique and dialectically transcend it in counter-hegemonic praxis. Hence versions of functionalism, positivism, and empiricism persist in crippling the sensibility of otherwise well-meaning scholars, exacerbating the schizoid mentality of those affected by them, and at the same time propagating the illusion that we are enjoying full freedom to write and create what we want, freely able to partake in the postmodernist sublimity of the U.S.-Japanese-European supermall.
Part of the problem, of course, is fear of “ideology” and radical thought as an imperialist trick, an imposition by the alien outsider. A more intractable bias is the notion that the activity of theoretical analysis is an ivory-tower luxury completely removed from social practice, and practice itself is seen as day-to-day activity devoid of any conceptual underpinning. This dichotomy of theory and practice is in fact a product of what Lukacs calls bourgeois reification. Without a theorizing of, or second-degree reflection on, the contingencies of lived experience, such experience remains unintelligible. Experience as mechanical action or instinctual response remains locked within the most rigid biological and environmental determinism, the antithesis of what revolutionaries call “praxis.” Without a critical theorizing of the whole process, Mao’s pear-eater (in On Practice) remains an abstract enigma, neither here nor there–another Chinese conundrum.
In my view, the practice of theoretical criticism is the contextualizing of action in history, the endeavor to control our environment (including ourselves) by understanding and grasping the concepts and categories that will guide action toward humanly intelligible ends and purposes. This fear of critical understanding which I have remarked above may explain the paucity of focused intellectual exchange in our society, the lack of healthy supra-personal debate on ideas, ethics, and alternative visions of society. Dissent evolves according to cliches and conspiratorial fiat. Because our intelligentsia cannot separate ideas from personalities, so enmeshed are they with self-reproducing tribal decorums, familial piety and honor, etc., they continue to stagnate in self-congratulating coteries, incestuous barkadas, and mutual admiration clubs. This apprentice milieu is a peculiar byproduct of our peripheral or dependent formation, an outgrowth of the articulation of discordant modes of production with temporalities of the archaic, modern, and futuristic all mixed in one incandescent brew.
I suggest that we conceive theoretical practice for the moment as a critical reflection on the agendas of diverse cultural politics representing a plurality of sectors, constituencies, classes. This plurality of inscriptions falls under the rubric of conjuncture or milieu. By “milieu” here I don’t mean merely a geographical setting or environment but, more importantly, the categories which allow us to comprehend individual phenomena as part of a network of differences, of institutions, belief-systems, socially-defined practices (habitus, in Bourdieu’s terminology). Milieu is thus best understood as a dialectical interaction between contradictory forces, between what one projects in the mind and what the given stage of development of society and its constraints allow to be accomplished. Here I would like to enter a parenthesis–a brief but not irrelevant comment on the recently published second volume of Writers and Their Milieu.
This collaboration of Doreen Fernandez and Eddie Alegre is highly commendable in preserving the memories of our writers in English most of whom are now in an advanced stage of being completely forgotten. I confine my remarks here to the question of milieu, the level of social consciousness and ethico-political commitment of writers in English. With the first generation of writers that included Villa, Lopez and Bienvenido Santos, one can perceive the signs of innovative albeit limited experimentation and rudiments of a critical interrogation of society which are starkly absent in the second generation. This of course can be historically understood in a figural sense as the delayed effects of the 1896 revolution, specifically the fierce mass resistance against U.S. genocidal barbarism in its first Vietnam.
With a few exceptions, the succeeding generation which includes Gonzalez and Arcellana, perhaps as an Oedipal rebellion against their progenitors, manifests a certain self-satisfied fascination with art as a self-sufficient craft. Their outlook is, in general, characterized by the narrow calculations of an artisanal mentality that aborted the rise of any critical awareness of the colonial parameters determining the subordinate status of their writing practice. We know that this can be partly elucidated by the influence of Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and the gratifications offered by a technically-oriented New Criticism.
Part of the explanation foregrounds the artist’s social position in the pacified imperial outpost of the Commonwealth. While the writers in English withdrew into their private workshops, the vernacular writers (with the exception of S. P. Lopez and his colleagues) surpassed their provincialism and acquired global awareness as they registered in their class-conflicted texts the international discourse of resistance against capitalist decay and fascist insurgence in Europe and Asia. One can observe how the younger contemporaries of Arcellana and Gonzalez, like the Tiempos, visibly suffered from the stifling domination of mentors like Paul Engle and the sterility of New Critical formalism during the Cold War period. Its sequel, postcolonial deconstruction and other postalities, has severely damaged the sensibility of Filipino academics since the late seventies up to the present (for the U.S. scene, see Zavarzadeh and Morton 1991). We don’t even find any trace of a naive, parochial nativism, any hint of the virile pastoral realism that once flickered in Arguilla, Laya and Javellana. Except for outright apologists like E. Aguilar Cruz, who pathetically wants to forget the whole sad affair of his collaboration with the Marcos machine of corruption and brutality, the second generation testifies to a loss of that elan or expansive pioneering spirit that its predecessors flaunted even if only to impress their U.S. tutors. Because of limited space, I cannot elaborate here on the complex overdetermining contexts of these generational shifts. Just to give a token of the undiagnosed malaise afflicting the Cold War writers, consider this exchange between the interviewer and Demetillo:
DGF: What is your wife’s role with regards to your being a poet? Does she read your poetry and discuss it with you?
RD: Well, I discuss my books with her a little, but I think the virtue of my wife is that she leaves me largely alone, and does not talk too much of this and that. She’s very faithful in the kitchen and in the dining room, and she is more practical than I am….She is the better man in the family.
Now I think the problem of evoking less than what might have been disclosed from the writers’ answers by a different strategy of questioning lies in the theoretical narrowness of the concept of “milieu” which informs the framework and implicit methodology of the interviewers. While information about such sociological data like schooling, family, influences of writers, travels abroad, etc. are interesting for future biographers and curiosity-seekers, they subsist on the level of raw empirical data (the one on Jacinto is a model of triviality and trivialization) lacking a more rigorous and sophisticated critical theorizing of codes, both literary and social. What is lacking is the failure to consistently connect the writer’s work (themes, forms, genres) with the major social concerns of the nation and the world (for example, the Huk problem, Cold War politics)–an avoidance of ideology similar to those pointed out earlier, or simply its marginalization. There is scarcely any deliberate investigation of the ethical and moral issues affecting the practice of individual writers, not to speak of the political role some of them played. Such issues, I would like to insist here, are urgently crucial to the task of clarifying the function of literature in a colonial society such as the Philippines, a nation distinguished by a living tradition of revolutionary struggle against imperial oppression.
That, I suggest, is the most serious inadequacy of the interviews, a lacuna which in turn induces a complacency and misplaced pride in the really meager, somewhat dilettantish productions of such highly-touted and bemedalled artisans like Carlos Angeles, among others. (We wonder why some writers who have not really written anything worthwhile were included; meanwhile, a whole generation of truly incomparable writers in Pilipino and other vernacular tongues have passed and are passing away without benefit of tape-recorder and video.) Perhaps the nullity of their accomplishment is made up by their gossipy, congenial manner of confession, which of course doesn’t in the least compensate for the failure to intuit, much less comprehend, the large sociohistoric forces that have shaped and determined the contour of their writing lives. The pathos of this generation of writers can perhaps be epitomized by the touching disclosure of Manuel Viray, the only one who insinuates the power of the “political unconscious” which renders inutile the bulk of the writings alluded to: “I don’t know why I went into it [literary criticism]. This literary criticism, does it have any validity?” Responding to Alegre’s sympathetic urging that Viray continue to write, Viray says: “No, that is not enough. That is not enough.” Could this admonition not be taken both as a summing-up of the unresolved predicament of Filipino writers in their Babylonian captivity to the language of the colonizer, and as a much delayed stirring of their uneasy conscience?
I would like to suggest, at this juncture, that the origin of left and right opportunisms–whether the crude mechanical materialism of the traditional left, or the voluntarist and wrongheaded culturalism of those reacting against the former–may be traced to the theoretical roots of economism: the misleading base-superstructure analogy. That analogy or metaphor privileges invariably the economic base (in the narrow sense) and reduces everything to class. Every other category–gender, race, ethnicity, religious belief, etc.–is subsumed in the totalizing concept of class defined in relation to the ownership or control of the means of production. From this reckoning, ideology and politics, all culture in general, are conceived as a directly or immediately reflected superstructure and thus labelled “false consciousness,” deprived of any autonomous effectivity. To conceal this dogmatism, qualifications are entered. But these token gestures–for example, the superstructure (art or literature) reacts on the base–only re-validate the primacy of the economic instance construed in the most crude empirical fashion, always asserting itself “in the last analysis.” Not even Althusser (in Lenin and Philosophy) was able to escape the fallacy of “determination in the last instance”–one reading is that this instance never comes, never arrives; it is the absent cause that enables the structure in dominance to produce its effects. In any case, we witness progressive cultural groups who, unaware of the fatal blindness of economist assumptions so ingrained in their everyday conduct, treat official documents from above as sacred scriptures, thus reproducing all the reductionist one-sidedness, fatalist resignation to objective determinations, apotheosis of the wisdom of the organization’s elite, and corporatist self-righteousness and apologetics which have historically characterized the oppositional movement since its inception. From this follows defeats, betrayals, setbacks, and demoralization–unless a demand for rectification from the “unlettered masses” and recalcitrant critics interposes to save the faithful. Does this indigenous sound and fury signify anything?
These symptoms of the fate that this Western import–the philosophy of historical materialism–suffers particularly in a Third World formation like the Philippines can be transcoded to signify the peculiarities of the conjuncture we are living in/through. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci has acutely analyzed the hetrogeneous and overdetermined nature of any conjuncture. He writes: “…the philosophy of a period cannot be any one individual or tendentious system; it is the totality of all the individual or tendentious philosophies, plus scientific opinions, plus religion and plus common sense.” Now, in the Philippines unlike Italy where Crocean idealism prevailed as the dominant current of thought side by side with Catholicism, the ascendant tendency in the majority of Filipino intellectuals (whether progressive or reactionary) is bourgeois empiricism and pragmatism sanctioned by the authority and prestige of U.S. cultural institutions and ideological apparatuses represented by our subservient economy and politics, cultural exchanges, scientific publications, doctorates gained in U.S. universities, etc. This constellation of ideas, attitudes and sensibility, a habitus reinforced by disciplinary regimes and collective practices of everyday life, continues to exercise a powerful influence on the intelligentsia and the middle strata as well as on the general population. It is the hegemonic ideology which underwrites property relations, the alienated nature of work, the iniquitous distribution of wealth, manipulated political representation, etc. This hegemony, as I’ve discussed earlier, exists precisely because it is able to accomodate the crude materialism of folk-religion, Christian rituals, libertarian impulses, reformist programs, and metaphysics of all kinds. It promotes individualist competition above all and allows certain forms of communal ownership so long as it does not threaten or outlaw the elite’s (and foreign corporate’s) extraction of surplus value from the working people.
In the case of the national democratic movement, we have observed that every political impulse or intellectual trend is subordinated to the class-oriented program of the basic masses (workers and peasants). It may be that of late there has been some revision of this formula for public consumption. At any rate, this prioritizing obstructs precisely that hegemony (moral-intellectual consent as the matrix of leadership voluntarily given) which the political party of the proletariat can win only by sacrificing its narrow corporate interests for the sake of a national-popular, broadly based consensus identified with a historic social bloc that transcends any one class interest and succeeds in articulating all interests (specifically gender, race, ethnic and religious ones) under one nationwide program. I submit that this program can only be the project of attaining genuine independence from foreign (in particular U. S.) domination. In struggling for self-determination, the participating masses become consciously transformed as a historic agency into a sovereign, autonomous nation [see Part Two of this book]. So far this hegemony, as an ongoing project, remains still utopian despite heroic efforts to construct it which was inspired in the past decades by, among others, Claro Recto, Lorenzo Tanada, and Jose Diokno.
One other evidence I might cite here of vulgar materialism in its pragmatic-empiricist version is the knee-jerk attitude of cadres and even some “responsible” leaders that you don’t need to do any theoretical study–“those are only for academic pettybourgeois individuals not fit for ‘the long march’ in the countryside”–or engage in discussions over philosophical categories and methods. In fact all you need to do, if you don’t want to be chided as an ivory-tower intellectual or unreconstructed book-worshipper, is to plunge into the slums, immerse yourself in the life of the basic masses in factories, plantations, guerilla zones, so that you can get the necessary practice that will earn you the honorific title of “revolutionary.” Here, obviously, theory and practice are conceived in the metaphysical dichotomizing fashion as two separate realms in contrast to the concept of “praxis” in Theses on Feuerbach. Of course this should be diagnosed and criticized as “expressions of historical development,” as Gramsci advises. The cardinal Marxist principle of historical specification and its dialectical concretization (spelled out, for example, by Lukacs and Korsch) must be pursued if we are going to correct the distortions in the drawing up of strategy and tactics. In this connection Gramsci acutely perceived our unresolved dilemma: that “remnants of mechanicalism still persist, since theory is spoken of as a ‘complement,’ an accessory of practice, as an ancillary of practice.” Although formulated for the political situation in Italy of the early Thirties, these remarks target the roots of corporatism and sectarianism that still characterizes segments of the radical left today. This charge of “mechanicalism” may explain why, conversely, for intellectuals who are entrenched in Establishment circles, the term “ideologue” and “ideology” remain derogatory and pejorative while “pure theory” (formerly the preserve of the experts) has now, caught in the antagonisms of the moment, been irretrievably sullied by the hands of “dirty” practical interests.
It would take a long treatise to anatomize in detail the sociohistorical determinations of economism in the left (dating back to Crisanto Evangelista’s workerist orientation to the opportunist pragmatism of the Lavas and Tarucs). But a step toward carrying out that task can begin by taking seriously this insight from Gramsci’s instructive essay “Marxism and Modern Culture” where the need for organic intellectuals of the proletariat is addressed. These intellectuals (not all party hacks or frontmen) take on the challenge of evolving and elaborating a coherent, systematic philosophy that will sublate (that is, cancel, preserve and elevate–aufheben) remnants of both materialism and idealism in society into a hegemonic culture representing a new historic bloc of popular forces capable of articulating the emerging identity of the Filipino nation. Gramsci writes:
Marxism was confronted with two tasks: to combat modern ideologies in their most refined form in order to create its own core of independent intellectuals; and to educate the masses of the people whose level of culture was medieval. Given the nature of the new philosophy the second and basic task absorbed all its strength, both quantitatively and qualitatively. For “didactic” reasons the new philosophy developed in a cultural form only slightly higher than the popular average (which was very low), and as such was absolutely inadequate for overcoming the ideology of the educated classes, despite the fact that the new philosophy had been expressly created to supersede the highest cultural manifestation of the period, classical German philosophy, and in order to recruit into the new social class whose world view it was a group of intellectuals of its own. On the other hand, modern culture, particularly the idealist, has been unable to elaborate a popular culture and has failed to provide a moral and scientific content to its own educational programmes, which still remain abstract and theoretical schemes. It is still the culture of a narrow intellectual aristocracy which is able to attract the youth only when it becomes immediately and topically political (Gramsci 1957, 85).
This mode of grounding thought in concrete social reality, the axiomatic desideratum of historicizing the object of analysis required by dialectical thinking, may also provide a clue to answering why, in general, the majority of our intellectuals (note that generalizations like this must always be qualified) remain marginal in the current struggles. But they prove in effect to be unwitting agents of re-colonization because of their uncritical parroting of received ideas (sanctified by years of military and economic coercion) and what passes for “common sense,” a brew of myths and mystifications like “Philippine society is matriarchal” or “The Filipino is essentially this and that….” This superfluous and peripheral status of the intellectual may also be taken as an index of the dogmatism and sectarianism afflicting the progressive movement which has been unable to remold and educate them. Despite claims of opening up, democratization, etc., the problem persists especially among the ranks of those who abstractly privilege armed struggle as the principal or primary path of radical social transformation, and among those who conversely cry peace at any price.
So far the now legendary “democratic space” has been evenly divided into these two camps while Fr. Ed de la Torre and others keep busy eluding vigilante death squads. We are still caught between the horns of the dilemma outlined by Gramsci, still in the interregnum between the old dying order and the new struggling painfully to be born, an interlude when morbid symptoms continue to torment and haunt our waking hours.
To conclude provisionally these “low intensity” notes on the cultural battlefront, allow me to recount finally one last incident which took place last year in Metro Manila. I had (in retrospect) the misfortune of having been invited again for the second time by a woman’s group to participate in a forum on “feminism.” Today, of course, it is no longer permissible to have a male (however sympathetic his fellow-travelling may be) represent women–Filipinas today can and do represent themselves. Let there be no doubt about this. However, the woman (biologically speaking) invited to react or oppose me–a “female” writer whose reputation as an aggressive hustler and self-promoter now based in Manhattan is exceeded only by her arrogant claim to be the sole trusted representative of the party–exhibited a paleolithic mentality when, unable to grasp what I was saying, puzzled angrily and maliciously over my simple statement that “gender is a social construct.” This notorious party flunkey typifies the froth of bohemia once patronized by the Marcos cultural commissars, born-again opportunists to whom revolution is also grist to the egocentric mill. This anti-feminist female’s mentality is admittedly a notch above the usual ilustrado personalities gracing the panel of WOMANWATCH, but certainly an embarrassment to Maria Lorena Barros and others who have struggled and died not just to glamorize themselves. The mainly feminist audience saw nothing wrong with this egotism or its inverted machismo. Feminists, beware of saboteurs in the fold. I cite this incident only for its value as a symptomatic index that even so-called progressive comrades cannot escape the reductionism of the movement bureaucrats and their offensive elitist style, with all its horrible political consequences. Is class struggle nothing but an elaborate power game or ego trip, a mirror image of traditional clientele politics? Well, then, in this game who can match Cory and Gringo? Or Cardinal Sin with the Church’s heritage of thousands of years of gorgeous theatrical hallucinations, epic carnivals of miracles, luxuriant visions, phantasmagoric arabesques, transgressive thrills of catharsis, kaleidoscopes spinning pleasures–deaths and resurrections and transfigurations!–ecstasies exploding beyond the reach of any mortal’s fantastic dreams!
E. SAN JUAN is co-director of Philippine Forum, New York City, and heads the Philippine Cultural Studies Center in Connecticut, USA He is at present visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at the National Tsing Hua University and Academia Sinica fellow in Taiwan. He was 2003 professor of American Studies at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Among his recent books are RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press) and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press). Two books in Filipino were launched last July: HIMAGSIK (De La Salle University Press) and TINIK SA KALULUWA (Anvil).