New Ways of Saying “Revolt! Change the System” as an ambil for the National Democratic Movement: a reading of Epifanio San Juan Jr.’s Ambil: mga pagsubok pahiwatig & interbensiyon tungo sa pagbabagong-buhay
by Ivan Emil A. Labayne
In the Summary of Mark Angeles’ Poetics (2014) which Virgilio Almario moderated during the 2014 UP National Writers’ Workshop, a recurring point resurfaced regarding the hackneyed images of ‘political’ or ‘protest’ literature.
For instance, Eugene Evasco had a challenge for Angeles: “pwede ba tayong sumulat ng mga protesta ngayon na higit na sariwa ang pagkakasulat? Sa tulang ‘Fortuna,’ narito ang mga imahen ng masong bumayo, umaasong bakal, piring, uhay ng katarungan—kumbaga, kung gumawa tayo ng katalogo ng mga tula ng protesta noong 70s, gamit na gamit ito. Ang teorya ko, ang mga problema noon, problema pa rin ngayon—pero hindi naman kailangang pareho parin ang mga imahen” (2014). Clearly, Evasco finds Angeles’ works as wanting. Ferdinand Jarin had a different concern, the audience: “Bagamat hindi pa rin nagbabago ang lipunan, sa ganitong tula, are we still writing for our fellow activists? Paano ang masa na hindi organized? Paano ka makaka-reach-out sa ganun?” (2014). The same issue troubled Eusebio-Abad although she cited the more personal dimension on the part of the audience: “Ang gusto kong isa pang i-target mo na reader ay ang middle class; ang hindi pinaka-naaapi pero nararanasan rin ang oppression” (2014).
All these questions and points raised—from Evasco and company regarding Angeles’ poetics will be kept in mind as I proceed to my main object of analysis: Epifanio San Juan Jr’s 2014 anthology of poems dubbed Ambil: mga pagsubok pahiwatig & interbensiyon tungo sa pagbabagong-buhay. My premise is that Angeles’s and San Juan’s works can be grouped together in the more general category of ‘political,’ socially committed or protest literature if not informed by the same, specific political line: that of National Democracy (ND) in the Philippines.
In this anthology, at least on a cursory reading, San Juan appears to put same-old realities and topics in a novel, more palatable and unpredictable garb. There were pictures and paintings, cut-outs from dictionary page and citations of a journal, a testimony and a dictionary which cannot help but to recall avant-garde poetic techniques innovated in the West. We need to interrogate this further for at this point there might be a flirtation with the thought that this is Dada all over again, or Surrealism all over again, where linguistic plays are equated to “a desire for apocalypse, the instantaneous transcendence—and denial—of the historical reality in which political revolutionaries struggled” (Russell 1985, 162). A closer look into this anthology can reveal that its kernel is still the same—‘pagpapanibagong-buhay’ in the subtitle—and what else could this be but a new way of life in a new social system—only with more invigorating literary experimentations and explorations, in order to prove that political literature’s, if not the ND’s well of metaphors and ways of expressing are far from exhausted.
This analysis then aims to expound on how San Juan’s Ambil was able to maintain its experimental literary expressions while articulating a message that has been articulated since the revival of the new Communist Party of the Philippines in 1964 and keeps on being articulated in various venues and media—the streets, student papers, literary collections, personal blogs, Facebook and the social media in general (will the revolution be tweeted?) among others—up to now. Furthermore, these innovations in articulating this ‘pagpapanibagong buhay’ message can be contributory in dueling common conceptions of the ND Movement as stuck-in-the mud and uncreative dogmatic people. As such, this book and what it is performing can be considered an ambil of political literature and the ND Movement itself; a new attribution to and interpretation of a Movement that calls for a systemic change in society.
I grouped selected works under a certain theme or topic which I found in this anthology in order to facilitate the discussion. Five categories are based on content: (1) the theme of exceeding or overcoming, (2) the theme of wager or taking a chance, (3) resistance (of course, how can this be left out?), (4) repression and (5) the primacy of the material. My proposition is that all of these categories point to the general, underlying idea of social transformation, the ‘pagpapanibagong-buhay’ in the anthology’s subtitle. Now, we can see how San Juan was able to do this.
This System as End Point, This History as End? Go Beyond!
A recurring exhortation in Ambil relates with overcoming, with exceeding or surpassing. This can be found twice in these series of words one can find every now and then coming in between two poems. For instance, after the poem ‘Ambil’ which consists of a cut-out of a dictionary definition of the word ‘ambil,’ we can find the following:
KAHIT IKINULONG KUMIKILOS
UMAPAW (2015, 15)
The four um- verbs precede a line that indicates a background for their actions: being imprisoned. Actually, the phrase pertaining to this background “kahit ikinulong” is immediately followed by an -um- verb, only that it is in the present progressive, unlike the next four which are all in the past tense. Notably, the verb pertaining to the background condition is in the past as well: ‘ikinulong.’ What could this nuance signify? My reading is that the present progressive ‘kumikilos’ aims to point out the generality and the continuity of the action (as verb) and of the state of being in action as well.
I also speculate that the word ‘kumikilos,’ unique not just in terms of tense but also in terms of its position to the background condition (‘ikinulong’)—it is placed at the same level as, not below ‘ikinulong’—has a special place in the entirety of this set of words. What I suspect is that it roughly corresponds to the idea of ‘praxis’ which is esteemed in Marxist theory as the prime mover of both ideas (philosophy, literature) and events (history, with its economic, political and cultural dimensions). In addition, this word in present progressive which denotes continuity and regularity bridges the two ‘parts’ found in this series: the first (‘kahit ikinulong’) which is the negative state of things and background condition for the second (the um- verbs) which seek to go beyond the condition stated in the first. In other words, in order for one to surpass or overcome the state of imprisonment/repression, one needs to act continually, one needs to be involved in praxis. Relevant here is Badiou’s description of agency:
“not… how a subject can initiate an action in an autonomous manner but how a subject emerges through an autonomous chain of actions within a changing situation… not everyday actions or decisions…but those extraordinary decisions and actions which isolate an actor from their context, those actions which show that a human can actually be a free agent that supports new chains of actions and reactions” (2003, 6, emphases are mine).
The second part of the divide, the um- verbs, I posit, are attempts to launch ‘new chains of actions’ which can ‘isolate’ the actors from a repressive context. In between the yucky and repressive present condition and the actions that can point to a new future is the general idea of praxis and its continuous enactment.
Lastly, I think it was Zizek (in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012)) who mentioned something like the outburst (‘pag-apaw’) of discontent among the people leading to a kind of violence that serves both as the expression and containment—the latter is needed in order to prevent one’s self from breaking down—of this discontent, this repulsion towards the current scheme of things (We’ve had enough!). The riots in England last 2011 is a great example here. Such outbursts can be seen as a critical voice raised against the present way of things. However, it is not always that this critique is coupled with a systematic alternative and a corresponding program, as the 2011 riots evinced. In such case, the actions are likely to fizzle, falling short to its supposed regularity and continuity, weakening “kumikilos” by turning it into “kumilos.”
Then we see again this idea of overcoming and surpassing in the very last series of words in the last page of the book, apt final words for the reader to chew on before leaving the book behind:
DUMARAGSA SA HANGGAHAN
SUMAGAD SA VEKTOR NG GUHIT-TAGPUAN
SA IYONG BALINTATAW (2015, 92)
Rolling the dice
Badiou begins a Chapter in Infinite Thought with a quotation from Mallarme which goes like this: “All thought begets a throw of the dice” (Badiou 2003, 39). Any idea and action will involve some morsel of uncertainty, and hence a degree of risk: deciding to court someone, buying an imitation Samsung phone without warranty, voting for a Presidential candidate. The same is true when it comes to aspiring and working for a new social setting. There is no certitude as regards when the current system will be replaced by a more humane one; how will the alternative exactly look like and if it will not just repeat the ugliness of the system it toppled, or if one will be able to witness the emergence of the new system. But this incertitude does not stop one from aspiring, from holding on to an ideal, and more vitally, from doing things towards its accomplishment. At least, this is how San Juan approached this uncertainty, this need for rolling the dice.
In “Akdang Walang Pamagat” (71), he wrote:
hinalang unti-unting lumilitaw
kinakapa sa malay
The uncertainty here is obviously marked in the end of the poem which left us perhaps gawking, perhaps awaiting impatiently, “binhi ng ano?” But let us trace how the poem has come to arrive at this uncertainty at the end which, with the word “binhi,” also spells out the potential of something growing, something emerging. It begins with a guess, a suspicion, an assumption. This eventually took form and then groped by the consciousness. After this: the possibility, the likelihood (the word in the poem is “maaari). Then: the unspecified to-come, to-sprout.
I think this parallels with the differentiation between the two French equivalents of the English “future” —futur and avenir—which Zizek cited in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012). Said Zizek, “Futur stands for future as the continuation of the present, as the full actualization of the tendencies which are already here, while avenir points more towards a radical break, a discontinuity with the present—avenir is what is to come /a venir/, not just what will be” (2012, 134). I argue that the uncertainty, a productive one (we will make what we don’t know yet now!), is teeming in the future-as-avenir, the future that will be radically different from the present. It is up to us—via our extrapolations, our suspicions and our doings—to enunciate and bring about this to-sprout, this to-emerge thing. Maybe this is the message of “Akdang Walang Pamagat,” with this ‘title’ alone resembling an absence of certainty, an absence of exact designation. Can this not bring to mind Badiou’s words which seems to lambast discourses and ideologies, including Stalinism—a favorite in discrediting Marxism and the socialist possibility—that claim to say everything?: “the effect of the undecidable, of the indiscernible and of the generic, or, the effect of the event, the subject and the truth must recognize the unnameable as a limitation of its path” (Badiou 2003, 67). No one can give voice to everything, not even the most radical cadres and practitioners of Marxist theory or the most prolific of revolutionary poets. If all history and all possibilities have been known and articulated and done, what is the use of arousing, organizing and mobilizing, to utilize the ND’s parlance? Thankfully, that is not the case. This Movement aiming for social transformation is still taking shape, day-by-day, assessment-after-assessment; and this uncertainty shall prod nothing else but continuous movement, both in theory and practice.
In “Bagamat Walang Katiyakan o Kahihinatnan, Umaasa Pa Rin” (8-9), we can see the idea of wager in the last line, a wager that is tied to a change of life (“pagpusta sa pagbabagong-buhay”). Mallarme is hovering here again. This comes after the series of two-liners whose first words relate to failure or losing: bigo, paltos, mintis, palyado, kulang-palad and so on. But interesting as well is the shift when it comes to the words following the first word. For instance, after bigo in the first line is a grim announcement of the absence of god and salvation: “walang bathalang liligtas o sasagip sa iyo sukat na ipagsamo.” This was followed by “anong tadhanang nagbabanta sa pagliko ng daan” which comes with paltos. This trend continues up to the fifth two-liner (Kulang-palad, saan patutungo na walang paralumang gagabay) until some semblance of hope and inspiration was supplied by the sixth two-liner: “Amis, patnubay mo ang anino’t larawang nakapinta sa pader.” Interesting to note is the subtle shifting of the source of guidance from the ‘paraluman’ to the ‘anino’t larawang nakapinta sa pader.” It seems to make more concrete and palpable this source of desired guidance. Then the seventh and eighth add welcome relief after the series of questions in the first five two-liners: “Sawi, siguradong may wakas sa hanggahan ng landas/ Bagsak, bumukal ang pag-asa sa kawalan at sa paglisan.” The words “sigurado” and “pag-asa” seem to negate all hesitations and incertitude described earlier. In the ninth two-liner, chance beckons again and in the tenth, a hint of activity: “Talo na, di sinasadya’y tinutukso ka ng pagkakataon/ Laos, nakuha pang lumingon upang mapagsino ang sumusunod.” If fear that there is someone following you creeps in, the best thing to do is to make a move: look behind you and check! In the thirteenth two-liner, productivity and movement continue to persist, this time with regards to imagination, to the mind, to ideas: “Bigo man, sige pa rin ang galaw ng imahinasyong nakatiwangwang.” Imagining is a crusade against barrenness, against mental stagnation and the resignation to things which this inability to imagine new things causes. In the fifteenth and sixteenth two-liners, we can visualize the hard work involved in waging for a new way of life: “Sandali, dumaplis muntik na, walang suwerte walang tagumpay/ Saglit, kapurit lamang, halos wala, masusulyapan mo sa pagitan ng rehas.” The repressive background returns here via the “rehas” and this background informs the wager being made. Hence, if the bet is for a new way of life, we can assert that the current way of life is typified by the “rehas.” Tons of work will be required; and yet success will not come by without sweat. But as the title states, one keeps on hoping, and even more than that, one keeps on wagering and working for a better life-situation.
The primacy of the material
As Marxists, the ND movement gives high premium to materiality. Against abstractions, they value the concrete, the tangible, the materially manifested. This prizing informs some of its basic tenets such as “Walang karapatang magsalita ang walang kongkretong pagsusuri.” Another basic contradistinction occasionally made between the idealist “essence precedes existence” and the materialist “existence precedes essence” also typifies this primacy.
In Ambil, we can likewise see this notion being propounded, put poetically. In “Diskarteng Pag-urirat sa Cogito Ergo-Sum ni Descartes” (27), we can sense a progression from the state of just being conscious to being in more active and material positions and doing actions. The poem’s first two lines are as follows: “Nagkamalay ako, samakatwid ako ay/ Naghinala ako, samakatwid ako ay/. The doubt expressed in the second line is quite prompt in destabilizing the ‘consciousness’ announced right at the onset. Starting on the third line, the instability encapsulated by the “naghinala ako” continued and even intensified. On the third line, “naghangad ako;” on the fourth, “nagulat ako;” on the fifth, “natuliro ako,” on the sixth and so on: “nagmura ako,” “nanaginip ako,” “nalibugan ako,” “nadaya ako,” “nainggit ako.” Matters such as sexuality and competition, economic or not, are implied here. Consciousness recedes to welcome the bodily and the material to the foreground. On the fifteenth line: “Tumutol ako’ nakibaka, samakatwid ako ay.” Two lines after that, this: “Naghihingalo, samakatwid ako/ Humingi ng saklolo, samakatwid/ Wala nang hininga, sama ka.” The first person gradually became muted here until help from others was needed. The move from the existence-defining consciousness/thought to the body which spells the boundaries of existence occurs side by side the move from the individual to the non-individual, if not the collective. Descartes’ philosophy is clubbed here and this paved the way for propping up the Marxist viewpoint.
Repression is always there
The repressive background has already been mentioned in some of the previous works. But usually, it works there to motivate the awakening of a critical consciousness and then the enactment of actions. In two poems however, the focal point is on the repression itself, arguably done in order to accentuate their inhumanity and nefariousness.
“Aanhin pa ang Damo ng Grasya Kung…” (77) uses as its material the military operation that actually happened in Lacub, Abra September of last year. The torture and death of civilians and rebels alike were described in this poem. Notably, the persona in the poem was actually in Portugal together with band of tourists learning about the Fatima which is believed to be a “dambanang alay sa kapayapaan, sa kapatiran ng sangkatauhan.” This belief started when the Fatima was said to have appeared to three beggars and ordered them to pray on 1917 during the War. The poem seems to be mocking this tale, making an incomplete analogy between the 1917 War and the contemporary violence in Abra and the Fatima which is told to ‘intervene’ during the former. Now, the poem asks, what intervention is needed for the latter: Kapayapaan at kapatiran sa Lacub, Abra, a similar heavenly appearance? Clearly, the poem has a distaste for this suggestion: “Magdasal upang matapos ang kalupitan at magpenitensya?/ Sa halip magdasal, nag-piket ang pamilya’t kamag-anak ng mga nasawi sa harap ng AFP Headquarters Camp Aguinaldo at hukuman.” The poem gives its vote to direct action, not to some religious succor. Is this a rehashing of the old-type critique of religion once again in the face of state brutalities? Is this “religion is the opium of the people” of 19th century, narrowly interpreted and then recycled for the 21st century? Yes, it is still “religion is the opium of the people” but not the one that is sequestrated from its surrounding text and then crudely bandied about. Let us look back on A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” the book from which this famous passage was taken:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of heartless soul…. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (1844, 3).
What is being critiqued is not religion per se; it is the state of affairs, the unhappy, gruesome state of affairs that make people turn to religion, and so can be said to justify the existence of religion. It is the repressive state of affairs that needs to be mainly combated, not the religious fervency which is only its offshoot. If for anything, one task is not to antagonize religious sectors but rather to sharply draw the connection between religious pining and devotion and the material conditions that reinforce them. Surely, citing “religion is the opium of the people” quite mindlessly does not help in making such connection.
Next, in “Hindi Madala sa Dalahira” (18), the series of “dahil” lines end with a subtle reference to repression: “Dahil dakdak ka nang dakdak siguradong/ dadalihin ka ng darling mong Maykapal” (19). Talking is not very much encouraged unless it flatters the authority, unless it licks their asses and feet, unless it supports the status quo. Related to this is one of Zizek’s anecdotes states that “When those in power replies ‘But what do you want?’ to our ‘hysterical’ protests, they really mean ‘Say it in my terms or shut up!’” (Zizek 2012, 84). If we do not shut up and use our voice to condemn their atrocities or call for a new scheme of things, we can be dead in the hands of the powers-that-be, our “darling na Maykapal.” Is this cariño brutal or a concretization of some philosophical postulations working out the idea that to love is to render one’s self vulnerable to hurt or a poetic kind of violence? I guess neither; this is simply the State loving us so much, its dear constituents, promising to lead us to better paths and then ends up letting private companies manage services that should be affordable, if not free for us, and persecuting us when we complain. So what to do then: maybe just shut up? Maybe. Although, how about this?:
What else but to resist
Of course: this. How else to advance, to initiate change but through the challenging and the contesting of what is here, what is now. In “Pagtutuos sa Hinulugang Taktak, Antipolo” (21), the situation is that of a visit to Camp Bagong Diwa prisoners which are also comrades of the persona. Here, the jail reappears. In the face of such background situation, the persona was inspiring a moment of reflection, one that does not conceal its hesitations and fears: “Balisa, alinlangan—dahil alanganin? Anong dapat/ gawin sa labas ng rehas at pader alang-/alang sa mga nakapiit?” After this comes a description of the wicked regime which one can suspect is responsible for the detention of the persona’s comrades: “alaalang di natigatig, tayo’y nahulog sa bangin ng/ rehimeng sakim at malupit;/ sinugpo ang pagkatao’t sinupil, dinuhagi,/inalipusta – ilang dantaon na… (22). Suddenly, the laments in relation to the regime was followed by a description of the nature’s bounty: “Kagila-gilalas ang biyaya ng kalikasan, pinapawi/ang sindak, balisa, kutob, bagabag…/ Walang ipinagkakait ang kalikasan, walang pagbabawal, pinagbibigyan,/ ipinagkakaloob/ kahit hindi lumuhod o magdasal.” Here, we can posit that the brutalities and deprivations of the regime are being opposed to the providence of Nature. Nature offers its bounties even if one does not pray for it—this recalls the earlier note on religion since with Nature, one can afford not to invoke the name of Gods for providing people’s needs. Then the motif of flow and unfinished-ness recur: “Di pa ganap sila, tayo….patuloy ang agos, daloy–/. The poem ends with an affirmation of binding, a unity based on dissent: “Walang alinlangang magtatagpo muli tayong lahat/ sa sangandaan ng Antipolo/ hanggang mga kaluluwang nais tumutol,/ bumaklas,/ umigpaw,/ diwang nasang yapusin ang hibong/ pumupulandit sa/ talong marahas,/ lakas ng pangarap/ at pithayang rumaragasa’t/ dumadaloy/ sa ating pinagbuklod na dibdib.
In “Nadinig na Bigkas ng Isang Akda ni Amado V. Hernandez” (26), San Juan simply writes the title of Hernandez’ poem, “Kung Tuyo na ang Luha mo Aking Bayan” in a way that “Kung tuyo na ang luha mo” appears in ten succeeding times and thus creating five exactly identical lines. These are followed by three “aking bayan” put together in a single line. After this series of words is an image of two people holding a hammer and a sickle. What else could this image represent but the socialist possibility and the devoted struggle needed to forge such path? The poem literally repeats Hernandez and then cuts him just in time to propound the socialist hint via the two figures. Going back to the repetitious series of words, we can cite Warhol in order to make sense of this technique. This artist commonly associated with the postmodern in art once said: “I don’t want it to be essentially the same. I want it to be exactly the same” (Foster 1996, 131, emphasis mine). One can read Warhol’s statement as a response to capitalist production this way: you give us ‘new’ fads and objects to consume but in reality, they are all the same; everything is peddled by capitalism for consumption whose profits return principally to those powerful in the system. In place of a mode of production (whether economic or cultural) that shrouds the all-the-same origination and feigns novelty in the process, Warhol calls for a similarity that is really the same. This is evidently at work in “Nadinig sa Bigkas ng Isang Akda ni Amado V. Hernandez.” It is the same line from the first to the tenth line while the last line is comprised of three, similar phrases: “aking bayan.” The repetitious also performs a semantic function. The repeating lines seem to build up towards the concluding image in the end: one that bears a socialist possibility, or at least, the possibility of a socialist revolt. Why an image then, not another string of words as the previous components of the work? My surmise: this possibility delivered by the image must be set apart from the dismal present articulated repeatedly in words. Following this, the socialist possibility is rendered totally ‘new’ in relation to the present background it tries to surpass.
Lastly, we can see in “Transkripsyon ng Ilang Bytes ng NASA Kompyuter, Washington, DC” (30) a series of questions that pull references in real life to itself. There is mention of Yolanda, of the Abu Sayyaf group, of Camp Bagong Diwa. In between them, there are seemingly innocent questions which upon cogitation can be read as discreet parodies or critiques of some notions: “Makibaka ba, huwag matakot?” “Pwede ka bang sumagot?” “Paano tayo makatatakas?” “Bakit bumaligtad?” “Na-etsa puwera ba sila?” “Ano ang kahulugan nito?” “Masaklap ba ang nangyari?” “Sino ang humihiyaw ng ‘saklolo’?” “Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?” “Pag-ibig ba raw ang makalulutas ng lahat?” “Niloloko ba tayo?” “Malikmata ba ito?” “Bakit wala kang imik?” The Edward Snowden epigraph could lead one to think of torture as the scenario occurring in this “interrogation.” Therefore the last question, “Bakit wala kang imik?” can signify either that the person being interrogated has already got numbed from the beatings she received or that she just does not want to spill anything. But if we make an ‘ambil’ out of this; that is, play around the meaning of this last question, we can also propose that the poem is putting the burden to the reader. This statement can be a questioning of an immobile, unresponsive and indifferent stance. After the series of questions that can spur the mind into thinking, the poem ends with a nudge on those who neither utter a word nor do anything.
That is why it cannot be merely coincidental that this poem was followed by another of those intervals composed of short series of words:
SA TULONG NG ANUMANG NAIWAN
NAMAGITAN // HANGGANG MABUO /
ANG HUGIS ANYO
SIKAPING MANGARAP NGAYON
KUNG HINDI NGAYON, KAILAN PA?
WALANG MAWAWALA KUNDI
ANG MGA TANIKALA
Yes, we have here those famous passages again, passages that incite action, and more than that, underlines its urgency. They have been communicated many times and in different venues. Here, as we have seen in “Nadinig na Bigkas ng Isang Akda ni Amado V. Hernandez” and “Transkripsyon ng Ilang Bytes ng NASA Kompyuter, Washington, DC,” the same calls can be articulated in more surprising manners. This could be done by way of a repetition that really repeats—and thus makes it easier for the readers to follow—unlike the sort of predictable poetic attempts of some ND poetry that tinkers with some images and analogies only to hoist the red flag in the end or announce the reddening of the eastern sky. Or by way of a series of questions which seem to approximate speed and ceaselessness and hence, I guess, also work better in keeping the reader engaged. The use of the second person singular pronoun in the poem can also function to directly latch onto the attention of the reader. This second person trick culminates aptly in “Bakit wala kang imik?” which at that point may have already shoved the reader into thinking, Is this poem addressing me? In the face of the inequalities and injustices that continue to be stark and pronounced in today’s system, calling for resistance in one’s poetry, especially among the ND people, would appear not just necessary but also unavoidable. But the comment about delivering this point of resistance as being “gasgas” is valid. Moreover, a movement that calls for the most substantial kind of New—a new overall social scheme of things—must also practice this birthing of the New even in ‘little’ things such as literary production. I would like to believe San Juan was able to do this, or at least, tried to. He will not tell you, “Sumampa sa kanayunan” or “Kundenahin ang rehimeng US-Aquino!” Instead, he will ask you, Bakit wala kang imik?, when students are being tortured and jailed and people’s homes are being demolished. Directness is loosened a bit in favor of some creative fanciness, some exploratory route that can lead to new possibilities and more effective strategies. After all, as Charles Bernstein put it: “the shortest distance between two points is a digression” (Paris 2012, 196). This is apt not just because it is poetry we are talking about here. More importantly, in a time when the current system presents some key notions—Consume!; Nothing is impossible so long as you work hard, and pray!; Inequalities are solely caused by individual differences – that sustain the wicked imbalance where it obtains life in so innovative, wily and convincing fashion, to the point of hiding the negatives and maintaining an appearance of being harmless and even beautiful and true, I argue that the Movement proposing a systemic alternative must contend with such creativity and innovation in terms of expression. For the ND movement, this must be true not just in relation to literary production but also to other materials such as those used for overt propaganda. Achieving this can only evince that the ND movement, in harmony with the principles of dialectical and historical materialism, evolves in terms of theory and practice and in ways of articulating and doing. After that, we can posit that it could be more effective in doing what is has been doing for decades now.
In the end, I would say that Ambil flirted enough with refreshing and potentially yummy literary experimentations—conceptualist cut-outs, dialogues among characters, myriad images and even a mural(in page 33)—in order to create a mishmash of work that is far from the often-maligned ‘propagandistic’ ND writings and yet does not fail to grasp and keep its rather solid and simple overarching message: the need to battle existing society’s structures and replace it with a new one where justice and equality is truly alive. In addition, it also stays in step with Charles Bernstein’s thoughts on the later works and reflected sensibility of Wittgenstein: “one is not left sealed off from the world with only ‘markings’ to ‘decipher’ but rather located in a world with meanings to respond to” (Perloff 2013, 25). At times, Ambil may appear postmodern in manner but certainly never upheld itself as yet another fancy procedure on words in the ‘prison house of language.’ Its sense of and actual take on history and society is evident and thus invites the readers to delve into the materiality of this history and society as well. It is socially engaged while also earnest in expanding the aesthetics easily identified with the ND movement—and aptly so. The current system can say ‘There’s no alternative society’ in copious ways: bombarding us with beguiling jewelries and condominiums; tapping our tired, arched backs by way of Christmas bonuses or plenty of holidays; showing us politicians and celebrities that says everything is fine, there is nothing to worry about. The challenge for the ND Movement is to call for a system-change with the same creativity and by taking advantage of myriad resources—that is, beyond the image of the hammer and sickle and without directly citing Marx’s “You have nothing to lose but your chains!”
Also: by not ending any write-up – a statement, a book, a critical essay, a work of fiction—with that Marx passage.
San Juan did that do that in Ambil, and then more is to be done in our lives, for these, all our lives, to be made new; towards pagpapanibagong-buhay.
Badiou, Alain. 2003. Infinite thought: truth and return to philosophy. London: Continuum.
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Ivan Emil Labayne is part of Pedantic Pedestrians, a Baguio-based art group which has already done a Book Launch without a book, conducted Rengga sa Kalsada, published four folios, an Oncept Series, a Torture Manual among others online. They also ‘exhibited’ “Itong mga Kinahihiya,” “May Taong Nawawala” at “Ngayon ay Buwan ng Wika” at UP Baguio. Ivan is striving to finish his MA in Language and Literature at UP Baguio this year.