By E. San Juan, Jr.
Dept of English,  University of the Philippines

The re-election of Barack Obama to a second term as president of the United States signals a need to rethink the overpowering influence of that metropolis on the Philippines as formally an independent nation-state but in reality still a neocolonial domain of the declining Empire. The Obama presidency recently reasserted U.S. geopolitical power in Asia and the Pacific by reinforcing its troop and navy deployment in the Philippines in view of increasing tensions over territorial disputes in the China Sea and adjacent areas by multiple parties (China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines).
Meanwhile, despite its weakened economic stature, the predominance of U.S. media fashions and pedagogical norms enables the eclectic, neopragmatist style of Cultural Studies (CS) to deflect critical attention from urgent social problems: rampant pauperization of the majority of over a hundred million Filipinos, the endemic violation of human rights, ethnic/racial degradation of indigenous communities, the inferiorization of women, unprecedented ecological disasters, and the reduction of the whole nation-people to a globally subservient role: as supplier of cheap migrant labor (mainly women domestics) to the global capitalist market, including regional power-centers as Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. One may ask: can CS of Western provenance be reconfigured to serve a democratic and egalitarian constituency beyond that served by its traditional practitioners in Europe and North America? In brief, can CS establish a more democratic. egalitarian community of practitioners in both Global North and South?

For A Re-cognitive Mapping

A historical overview of its genealogy may be useful here. The academic discipline of CS originating from UK and refined in North America focuses on the complex relations of “power” and “knowledge” (knowledge-production) at a specific historical conjuncture (Seventies and Eighties). Its axioms include the rejection of Enlightenment modernity/progress, metanarratives (paradigms; world-views), and universals premised on the rational subject. Symptomatic of the alienation of Western intellectuals from technocratic market-society during the Cold War, CS reflects the crisis of finance/monopoly capitalism in its imperialist stage. It seeks to transcend reified systems by way of privileging the differend or differance (Lyotard; Derrida), diffuse power (Foucault; Deleuze), life-world and quotidian life (Habermas; de Certeau) inspired by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Freud, and Saussure.
To be sure, that epitomizing portrait elides nuances, shades, and subtle differences immanent in CS’s complex history and theoretical lineage which has been fully surveyed in Chris Barker’s Cultural Studies Theory and Practice (2003), among others. But the main thrust coincides with his central narrative. Barker traces CS’s trajectory from the Gramscianism of Stuart Hall and early progenitors, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, to the post-structuralist moment signalled by Laclau and Mouffe’s articulation theory and Tony Bennett’s deployment of Foucault’s notion of “governmentality.” Taking account of critiques of discourse-oriented CS, Barker notes the multiperspectival approaches proposed by Jim McGuigan (1996) and Douglas Kellner (2006) as well as the attendant cultural policy debates. Overall, cultural politics centered on the struggle over and within meaning, difference, articulation, representation, and so on, away from a dialectical organon of political economy (Rochberg-Halton 1986) or a totalizing realist critique of global-capitalist culture (for example, Ebert 2009).
Qualifications can be inserted here. In his recent introduction to A Companion to Cultural Studies, Toby Miller has assured us that today an “organic disciplinarity” among the humanities, arts, sciences, and communication/media studies is thriving due to CS practitioners who blend political economy and CS. CS combines the humanities’ criteria of quality and meaning with the social sciences’ focus on socio-political norms. Miller’s prognosis of the future of CS’ “nimble, hybrid approach,” addressing the vital question of who benefits, who complains, and for whose good is culture, functions as a countervailing riposte to my reservations (2006, xxii-xxiii).
On the other hand, Chris Rojek cautions against reliance on statistics and innovative technologies. Privileging personal experience, on-location practice, embodiment, emplacement and context, he revalidates the study of ideology, coding, theming and representation. Rojek believes CS has gone successfully beyond the issues of national/popular (Gramsci), textual/representational (Williams; Althusser), Global/Post-Essentialism (Hall; Lyotard), and Governmentality/Policy (Foucault, Bennett) and returned to “culturally enmeshed” personal experience (2007, 5). His foregrounding the themes of culture as hegemonic authority (elite narratives of legitimation) and as agency of resistance and opposition by the oppressed dovetails with my own emphasis here on the inequality of power among cultural regions/blocs, the power imbalance encapsulated in the overdetermined dynamics of uneven-and-combined development pervading the Global South as contrasted with the Global North. Both Miller and Rojek forecast a renaissance of CS, one I would eagerly concur with provided that the preoccupation with the “field of cultural production” and consumption or the “market of symbolic goods” (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s terms) do not expunge the power of the economy and the political apparatuses/institutions that traverse both interacting field and market (Bourdieu 1993).

Triangulating the Terrain

Orthodox CS identifies modernity with capitalism, hence its postmodernist temper. The principle of indeterminacy, undecidability or contingency seems to reign supreme. Despite acknowledging the historicity of the discipline, postmodernist academics (Geertz, Grossberg, Clifford) give primacy to “the flow of social discourse” and the “essentially contestable” genealogy of culture. Engaged with the singularity of events centering on love, sentiments, conscience, and the existential or ethical moment in order to “bring us in touch with strangers,” with Others, postmodern CS seeks to interrogate the foundational aims of linguistics (Jakobson), psychoanalysis (Freud), philosophy (Kant, Hegel) and political economy (Marx) by substituting the ambivalence, contingency, and hybridity of “lived experience” for labor/social praxis as the focus of investigation. Focused on what escapes language and discursive ratiocination, CS has fallen into the dualism it ritualistically condemns, complete with the mystique of a neoliberal individualism enabled by presumably value-free, normative “free market” absolutism–either Stuart Cunningham’s (1993) social democratic citizenship or Richard Rorty’s neopragmatic conformism (2007).

Anti-foundationalism and anti-metanarrativity distinguish orthodox CS operating on a neopositivist, nominalist (as contradistinguished from a critical realist) platform. Rejecting classical scientific reason, CS refuses any grounding in political action for system-change deemed as a perversion of knowledge for the ends of power. Valuing negative critique as an antidote to ideology, CS leads up to a fetishism of the Void, the deconstructive “Sublime” as a substitute for a thoroughgoing critique of the authority of received values and institutions. Decentered authority eludes materialist critique. By various ruses of irony, uncanny cynicism and “sly mimicry,” It ends up apologizing for the status quo. Anti-authoritarianism is trivialized in careerist anecdotes, and CS becomes reduced to conferences and publicity about fantasies of truly radical, subversive social movements. Such observations have been made already by others (Denning 1992; Jameson 1993), lately by Paul Smith (2006) and Simon During (2010), but I recast them with a more anti-ethnocentric provocative edge in the wake of the 2008 collapse of finance-capital and the abortive “Occupy Wall Street” insurrection.
Are we trapped in some mirror-stage of CS’ postmodern self-reflexiveness? Submerged and eventually displaced, the critical dimension of CS drawn from Western Marxism (Gramsci, Althusser, Barthes, Frankfurt Critical Theory) seems to have disappeared in the neoconservative tide that began with Reagan/Thatcher in the Eighties. This neoconservatism unfortunately continues to this day under the slogan of the “global war on terrorism.” Meanwhile, attention to racism, gender, sexism and other non-class contradictions, particularly in the colonized and peripheral formations, sharpened with the Civil Rights struggles in the US, the youth revolt, and the worldwide opposition to the Vietnam war and the current if precarious hegemony of the Global North. Sub-Commandante Marcos and Osama bin laden are gone, but the furies of the Syrian civil war and the Islamic explosions in Libya and Mali may portend sharper political and socioeconomic catastrophes.

Approaching a Conjunctural Transition

Establishment or mainstream CS today (notwithstanding the qualifications cited earlier) focuses preponderantly on consumption, audience response, Deleuzian desire, affects, irony, together with a refusal to interrogate systematically neoliberal ideology, the culture industry, and the unequal division of social labor throughout the planet. For all its sharp critical insights, Simon During’s (2010) expurgated version of CS retreats to a nostalgic individualism whose innocence about the bloody origins of democracy in chattel slavery and booty colonialism vitiates its denunciation of capitalism’s excesses. However, heterodox versions of CS invoke Simone de Beauvoir, Fanon, CLR James, W.E.B.Du Bois, Rosa Luxemburg, Paulo Freire and other “third world” activists in an effort to renew its original vocation of contributing to fundamental structural transformation. Its retooled notion of “specific intellectuals” addressing a “conjunctural constituency” may call attention to the need to address state violence and hegemonic apparatuses of public control and repression already foreshadowed by Foucault’s disciples engaged in feminist and anti-racist campaigns.
The Philippines as a neocolonial social formation remains singular in having gone through at least three epochs of subjugation by Western powers. The Spaniards ruled the country from 1561 to 1899, disciplining the natives to the normative operations of theocratic Catholicism; from 1899 to 1946, the United States “Americanized” the christianized natives and Muslims, installing a cacique or oligarchic democracy based on a hegemonic bloc of feudal warlords, compradors, and bureaucrat capitalists (Agoncillo & Alfonso 1967; Constantino 1975). While the Japanese troops conquered the Philippines in 1942, their instrumentalist Pan-Asian “Co-Prosperity Sphere” failed to de-Westernize the majority except for some elite collaborators whose opportunism dates back to the days of William McKinley’s “Benevolent Assimilation.” With the return of U.S. control in 1945 and its refunctioning as the master-tutor behind the scenes, especially after suppressing the Communist-led Huk uprisings in the late forties and early fifties, the United States continues to exercise paramount influence in the state ideological apparatuses, esp. education, mass media, security agencies, etc. Cultural policies and research in the Philippines virtually replicate or imitate those in the US, even including the influence of the Indian subaltern historians on local scholars (in particular, Reynaldo Ileto) filtered through their English-speaking (Australian; Singaporean) disciples.
The publication of Chen Kuan-hsing’s Asia As Method: Toward Deimperialization (2010) has been hailed as a breakthrough toward reorienting CS toward a recovery of its original roots in left-wing radicalism. He calls for decolonization, de-imperialization and “de-Cold War” of knowledge production. His colleague Prasenjit Duara praises Chen’s project of re-inventing Asia as “desiring imagination,” no longer a mere cartographic identity but a “transcendent signifier, partly taking the place of disappointed ideals from the Enlightenment such as communism, nationalism and democracy, which in turn took over the role of religious transcendence, at least for intellectuals. In a transcendent position, Asia allows us to imagine a different future, one which can draw selectively from global historical resources in order to shape a more just society” (2011). I hope the hubris of this Asian-izing “method” will overcome the barbaric legacies of “Orientalism” and imperialism that Edward Said (1994) tried to expose and extirpate throughout his life.
To be sure, who would refuse an interdependent and integrated Asia as a product of “critical syncretism”? So far this target subject-position is not located on any physical map, as yet, since its ideal-typical status elevates it into a Messianic end-goal. It seems to be a prophetic metaphor or trope for the good, true and beautiful. Syncretism can go any which way, depending on who has command of the whole research program and resources for implementation. Moreover, isn’t this reconfiguration of a heterogeneous network of cultures, peoples, histories a throwback to the stigmatized totalization syndrome (alias metanarratives, essentialism, logocentrism, etc.) that mainstream CS scholars have rejected from the start? Let there be no mistake; personally I appreciate Chen’s criticism of all the evils condensed in colonialism and imperialist Cold War realpolitik, including the triumphalism of the ”Asian Tigers.” However, other countries cannot be so easily conflated tout court with Taiwan or Singapore. As many commentators (among others, William McCord 1996) have discerned, the economic leap of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea to “tigerhood” was enabled by the draconian tactics of the Cold War and the despotic bureaucrats-technocrats of each society which ironically established the breeding-ground for their cosmopolitan dissidents. Shouldn’t the critical method of these intellectuals now address the excesses of their respective sub-imperialist bourgeoisie as well as their patrons in Washington DC and the Pentagon?
Filipino Exceptionalism?

Like Bangladesh or Indonesia, the Philippines was left behind when those “Tigers” took off in the late sixties; Philippine per capita GNP is scarcely a tenth of Taiwan in the last decade (Chant & McIlwaine 1995, 46) and far far behind affluent Hong Kong and Singapore. Two revolutionary movements of long standing, the 40-year old New People’s Army insurgency, and the more massive Moro guerilla groups (after years of fierce resistance, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has forced the government to negotiate), have effectively challenged the neocolonial State with its U.S. backers (San Juan 2008b). Overall, the Philippines functions as a parodic image of Taiwan. Precisely because Chen’s putative model is Taiwan (by extension, Singapore) for reconstituting a new collective subjectivity, this paradigm-shift should give us pause and open up more dialectical, self-reflexive dialogues. Otherwise, it will just be self-serving rhetoric designed to coax token recognition of their uncanny symbolic capital from their sponsors in the Global North. Here I can imagine Chen charging me guilty of Nietzschean ressentiment and even petty-bourgeois bad faith.
My personal memories of visiting Taiwan on more than half a dozen occasions (as lecturer at the Academia Sinica and other universities) have always confirmed Taiwan’s position as a wealthy industrializing country on par with its neighbors South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, with their variegated sub-imperialist policies. In Taiwan’s airport, one cannot miss the long lines of bedraggled Filipino and Thai workers hired by Taiwanese companies as cheap migrant labor. My visit to a prison outside Taipei showed the barbaric condition in which Filipino, Indonesian and African workers with visa problems were treated. Flor Contemplacion, the domestic worker unjustly hanged in Singapore in 1995, continues to be a rallying point (together with numerous victims of Japanese and Hong Kong employers) for Filipino nationalism.
While Chen’s valorization of local knowledge and mass mobilizations within what Habermas calls “public sphere” is salutary, his apriorist rejection of all nationalisms (classified into nativism and civilizationism) without historical specificity and ethical nuancing contradicts precisely his wish that “societies in Asia can become each other’s points of reference” (2010, 212). This is a noble ideal of regional harmony and ecumenical cooperation, but it flies in the face of the injustice of “uneven-and-combined development” fully theorized by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, David Harvey, etc. and substantively documented in all non-Establishment critical discourse on globalization (for a recent example, see Medley and Carroll 2011; also Hoogvelt 1997; Jameson and Miyoshi 1999). The not so hidden trade wars, disputes over immigration, and territorial conflicts attest to the fact that Asia as “desiring imagination” remains a transcendental aspiration.
In Chen’s utopianesque Asia, the Philippines looms behind as a weird specter, an enigmatic sport. While geographically located in Asia, the Philippines has not exactly fitted the subalternist, homogenizing paradigm of Asia that Global North theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, Aihwa Ong and Rey Chow have privileged in their mandarin discourses about transnationalization and cosmopolitanism. The uncomfortable reason is that the Philippines remains a neocolony of the imperial powers, chiefly the United States and subimperial allies (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore) and thus evokes the ghosts of nineteenth and early 20th century aborted or coopted revolutions.

A Return to Foundations?

One of the early inspiring slogans of CS is Raymond Willliam’s statement, “culture and education are ordinary” (1989, 18), culture grasped as lived experience and institutions cognized as “structures of feeling.” CS pioneers intended to “view the whole complex of social change from the point of culture, ‘to make intelligible the real movement of culture as it registered in social life, in group and class relations, in politics and institutions, in values and ideas” (Macey 2000, 77). The focus on the theme of change and transformation entails cognitive historicizing maneuvers. Like any global trend, CS can be adapted to Philippine situations (in short, “Filipinized”) by the creative application of its original critique of ideology, the demystification of structural norms or “common sense” habits in official and mass/popular cultures as contingent, complicit with particularistic interests and power blocs.
Various forms of CS, as mediated by “subalternists” and other “third world” conduits, have influenced Filipino cultural critics and historians concerned with the marginalized Others (peasants, women, gays and lesbians, religious and ethnic communities, etc.). But except for the Latin American “theology of liberation” as a form of CS, they have all wrongly assumed that the Philippines is no longer a neocolonial, dependent formation, replete with diverse contradictions centering on the oligarchic-comprador domination of the majority of the people (workers, peasants, middle strata, Moros and other indigenous groups). The question of a singular Filipino modernity—genuine national sovereignty, autonomous individuals free from Spanish or American tutelage, a public sphere inhabiting the zone between state and civil society—persists as a problematic site of contestation. This is so despite attempts to muddle and transmogrify it by insidious postmodern mystifications legitimized by the illusory promise of emancipation by avid consumption and participation in the Internet’s pleasure-filled Celebrity bazaar. In a way, CS’ openness to populist eclecticism has almost displaced the omnipresent profit-centered culture industry, valorizing subcultures and kitsch that undergirds the consumerist ethos and allows the hegemonic power bloc to dictate the “laws” of the “free market” (the stakes are spelled out in Storey 1993).
Clearly what is needed is a selective appropriation of CS methods and repertoire of interdisciplinary tools in consonance with the project of decolonization and national liberation in the Philippines. To be sure, this is not a new order or discovery. One of my students, Virgilio Enriquez (1977) initiated such a process in psychology by situating the essentially behavioristic discipline of U.S. provenance in the crisis of the Sixties which culminated in the brutal Marcos dictatorship supported by the United States. Inspired by “third world” resistance in IndoChina, Latin America and Africa in the Sixties and early Seventies, Enriquez was catalyzed by the nationalist resurgence of the Fifties spearheaded by Senators Claro Recto and Lorenzo Tanada, by historians Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino, and Marxist intellectuals such as Jose Lansang, Amado V. Hernandez, and Jose Maria Sison. After surveying the limits of cross-cutural experiments in psychology during the Cold War, Enriquez
urged that “psychology has to be rewritten so as to reflect the different bodies of psychological knowledge, formal or informal, found in the different cultures of the world” (1977, 15). At the same time, he underscored the need to use the local languages and cultures in constructing a flexible indigenizing theory, method and praxis suited to the historical needs of the community. The aim of this emergent Filipino CS is not alien to the standards of Eurocentric humanities and social sciences: generalizability of findings and testable, fallibilistic hypotheses applicable to the urgent problems of the working masses (San Juan 2006; 2008).
Enriquez’ theoretical strategy (by hypothesis and induction) was not entirely unprecedented in the Filipino setting. The exemplars of what I consider the inventors of Filipino cultural studies—Jose Rizal (in “The Indolence of Filipinos” and “The Philippines a Century Hence”), Isabelo de los Reyes (folklore and ethnic studies), countless vernacular novelists, poets, and playwrights; and memoir-writers (Mabini, veterans of 1896 and the Huk uprising)—applied criticial principles derived from Europe to the specific political and socioeconomic situations in the colony/neocolony. In the process, the power/knowledge complex acquired concrete elaboration in terms of how “everyday life”—culture as ordinary habits or patterns (Raymond Williams)–cannot escape its over-determination by the historical institutions and practices imposed by the colonial powers and mediated by regional/local ruling blocs. Time and space offer intelligible meanings by way of the contradictions between the colonial/neocolonial hegemonic institutions and the acceptance/resistance of the colonized natives. Such meanings can be found in the narratives of individuals/collectives in which the notion of subjectivity defined by various levels of contradictions (Filipino versus American, patriarchal power versus women, “civilized” versus indigenous,etc.) can be discerned embedded in the totality of social relations at specific historical moments. I am thinking of a “knowable community” with institutions and habitual practices and dispositions, constellations of power relations, not just a “structure of feeling” constituted by heterogeneous experiences.

From Method to Praxis

The Filipino national hero Jose Rizal is distinguished for engaging in a polemical CS that harnessed historically situated ethnography for political ends. He was not infected with the value-free claim of Weberian inquiry. His essay “On the Indolence of Filipinos” recounted the testimonies of Spanish explorers and witnesses to demonstrate the incommensurable gap between the past and the present, arguing that colonial subjugation stood in between. Anatomizing the cause of the lethargic body politic is only a propaedeutic for invoking a cure: “The lack of national sentiment brings with it another evil, which is the absence of opposition to any of the measures that are harmful to the people and the non-existence of any intiative for their own good. The man in the Philippines is a mere individual, and not a member of a nation. He is deprived of, and denied the right of association, and thus he is weak and motionless” (1979, 83; for elaboration on Rizal’s historical dialectics, see San Juan 2011). The historian Ambeth Ocampo (1998) ascribes an intuitive prophetic rigor to Rizal’s method of suturing of past and present strands of Philippine history in order to mobiize the victims and reconstitute them as thinking subjects. Critique combines with analysis to produce a partisan CS, a generator of a liberatory agency, a “conscienticized” (to use Paulo Freire’s term) transformative subject.
Another specimen of early Filipino CS (mediated through folklore) may be found in Isabelo de los Reyes’ inventory of local habits and practices in Ilocos during the latter part of Spanish rule. As Benedict Anderson sums it up, Reyes’ ethnology had three aims: 1) provoke a local cultural renaissance among the colonized natives; 2) subvert the dominance of the reactionary Church; and 3) engage in political self-criticism. Anderson describes this latter task:

Isabelo wrote that he was trying to show, through his systematic display of el saber popular, those reforms in the ideas and everyday practices of the pueblo that must be undertaken in a self-critical spirit. He spoke of his work as being about “something much more serious than mocking my paisanos, who actually will learn to correct themselves once they see themselves described.” In this light, folklore would be a mirror held up before a people, so that, in the future they could move steadily along the road toward human emancipation. It is clear, then, that Isabelo was writing for one and a half audiences: Spanish, whose language he was using, and his own pueblo, whose language he was not using, and of whom only a tiny minority could read his work” (2005, 20).

Reyes was not just an adventurous eclectic scholar. He was imprisoned for his sympathy with the masses who demanded independence, expulsion of the friars, and basic civil rights. He participated vigorously in European progressive and anarchist propaganda when he was released from the Barcelona prison. What needs to be recalled here, aside from the intertextuality of Reyes’ discourse, is his involvement in the popular revolution against Spain, his alliance with Father Gregorio Aglipay to form a grass-rooted popular-national church, and his efforts as journalist and public intellectual to organize the first militant unions with a socialist program during the early American occupation. His practice of folkloric-directed CS was an outgrowth and response to the position of the organic intellectual active in the daily mobilization of the masses, in sustained pedagogical and agitational activities, addressing and interacting with both the local public and an international multilingual audience (for another appraisal of Reyes’ career, see Mojares 2006).

The Centrality of Language

Both Reyes and Jose Rizal wrote in Spanish in order to appeal to the Filipino ilustrado (educated) class and the Spanish-speaking world. That was a deliberate communication strategy. Learning Spanish was a divisive tactic of dividing the ruled; the American colonial administrators pursued the same policy, with the English language (as medium of business and government) separating the nationalist generation of Rizal and Reyes from a new generation whose mentalities would promote individualist competition and a consumerist ethos. Speaking English would function as symbolic capital both for assimilation to the colonial order and separation from the proletarian and plebeian masses.
In Philippine CS, English versus the vernacular languages, more precisely the evolving Filipino lingua franca, becomes symptomatic of the whole field of culture as fraught lived experience (San Juan 2007b). Indigenizing psychological inquiry, as Enriquez found out, required giving primacy to the vernacular, the speech-acts of public and private language-games. The question of language assumes primacy because intellectual discourse and exchanges cannot sidetrack the problem of conversing with and influencing the larger public. Democratizing the means of communication is an integral part of the process of overthrowing the oligarchic elite and the reproduction of class and gender inequality. Such a public needs to be developed by the pedagogical program of an evolving CS curriculum responsive to disenfranchised speakers and inferiorized learners/practitioners. The prevalence of English as an elite marker/imprimatur of privileged status will prevent a dialogic public sphere from emerging. Linked to this is the position of a plebeian, vernacular culture which has always radicalized CS by eliminating the divide between the elite/canonical culture and the marginalized culture of impoverished peasants and workers–the majority of citizens. Control of the means of communication and agencies of dissemination needs to be addressed as well as the participation of a wider public in academic dialogues and other intellectual exchanges.
The lesson is clear. CS, if it aspires to actualize its critical transformative potential for specific socioeconomic formations needs to address consistently the salient economic-political contradictions of each society within a differentially, asymmetrically ordered planet. In the Philippines if not in other peripheral formations of the Global South, the neoliberal market ideology that pervades everyday life militates against the growth of a critical sensibility and the development of the faculties of the species. The inordinately toxic effect of consumerism and the spectacle has consigned what Jacques Ranciere (2006) calls “the distribution of the sensible” to a police order determining those included and excluded. In this damaged milieu, CS needs to focus its analytic instruments on the commodification of the life-world and everyday life by the culture industries and international agencies of the oligopolistic capitalist order. In the Philippines, the unprecedented diaspora of domestics and overseas contract workers around the world constitutes the prime specimen for empirical inquiry and structural critique (see, for example, Anderson 2000; Aguilar 2000; San Juan 2007b). This involves not only the symbolic violence of language use but also the material violence of hunger, disease, State-sanctioned torture and extra-judicial killings in a “culture of impunity.”

Problematizing Knowledge-Production

We are challenged by both the obscurantist legacies of the past and the humanitarian emergencies of the present. In a critique mainly focused on the aborted promise of academic CS, it is neither wise nor propitious to describe in detail what the adaptation–or indigenization, if you like–of a Eurocentric paradigm would look like attuned to the needs and demands of neocolonized subjects in the Global South. Parts of that description may be examined in my previous works (San Juan 1996; 2000; 2009). It would certainly require a longer, sustained mapping of the sociopolitical terrain of six decades after the Philippines’ formal independence in 1946. A political economy of group consensus and habits of belief such as, for example, the inventory of contradictions drawn up by social scientist Kenneth Bauzon (1991), would be useful to calculate the scale and degree of continued Filipino mimicry of technocratic social-engineering models to perpetuate inequity, clientelist subservience to foreign corporations, and starkly unsustainable exploitation by transnational capital and its autocratic agencies.
My task here is circumscribed: to indicate in broad strokes the limitations and inadequacies of CS’ pedagogical framework for subjugated, dependent constituencies of the Empire. It is foolhardy to undertake this task until we have cleared up crucial theoretical hurdles. The first is the problem of naming the would-be candidates for nation-forming agency. Obviously the identification of “Filipino” and “Filipino nation” proceeds experimentally, pursuing an unsettled and intractable course. The narrative script constituting the nation remains sedimented in fragments of scenarios from memory, customary rituals, idiomatic speech-acts, recursive practices. At best we can only handle the “interpretants” (construed in Charles Sanders Peirce’s semiotic perspective) of those signifiers provisionally, until the coordinates are specified. This is so because not only the existence of heterogeneous components of that hypothetically signified subject-position labeled “Filipino” remains to be verified and agreed upon, but also because the whole ethos (moral, aesthetic, evaluative) of Filipino culture, not to speak of its cognitive and existential aspects, remains inchoate, susceptible of diverse inflections, suspended in the undecided battlefields of an ongoing national-democratic, anti-imperialist revolution. Mutating modes of inclusion and exclusion of group actors prevail. We can only stipulate our parameters of discourse in the light of what has been accomplished so far in liberating ourselves, commodified and reified subjects, from imperialist political, sociocultural, economic strangleholds.

Beyond Populist Identity Politics

For now, suffice it to remark on the need to adhere to the axiom of historical specificity (Korsch 1971) and a measure of radical hope in defining such parameters. Above all, the question of ideology and the political economy of knowledge-production cannot be ignored. We cannot escape both the rules of our own communities and that of the totalizing diplomatic-technological state apparatuses of empire that modify, coopt and sublimate those rules. The uncharted laws (call them trends or tendencies) of motion of interlocked asymmetrical nation-states cannot be dismissed as simply reactive or aprioristic.
In this light, as already mentioned, Enriquez’s project of inventing sikolohiyang Pilipino during the nationalist resurgence of the 1960s and early 1970s was both spontaneous and expected. It may be symptomatically read as a culmination of all previous decolonizing initiatives (from Rizal and the Propagandistas to Recto, Constantino, and Sison) to articulate a program and world-view for the masses struggling for social justice, popular democracy, and genuine independence. It was institutionally predictable but also serendipituous and prefigured by the writers already mentioned earlier.
An analogous clarification can be offered for the roles that Filipino historians adopted before, during, and after the Marcos dictatorship. While inspired by Indian subalternist historians (laboring under the aegis of post-structuralist theory) to de-center what was perceived as bourgeois-oriented chronicles such as those by Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino, Rafael Ileto (1998) succeeded to some extent in re-valorizing the role of popular culture (the pasyon, etc.) and other marginal practices in the construction of a “non-linear” narrative of Filipino events before and after the 1896 revolution. It is doubtful whether Agoncillo or Constantino really pursued a linear, one-directional bias.
Nevertheless, this revisionist method of invoking the input of the plebeian masses is not an original “native” discovery. Even before the late-twentieth century diaspora, the Filipino intelligentsia (such as Rizal, Reyes, and others) has been open-minded, highly susceptible to global influences. Subalternist historiography is the product of a long record of countering the positivist, Comte-Rankean version of historicism, from the British social-history tradition (Samuel 1981) to the French Annales school and its evolutionist/functionalist offshoot in the Alfred McCoy-Ben Kerkvliet interventions in re-writing Philippine history in a more sophisticated way than Stanley Karnow’s apologetic product, In Our Image (1989).
Meanwhile, the Marcos Establishment chronicler Zeus Salazar tried to retool Enriquez’s sikolohiya by purging it of its liberatory impulse and anchoring a populist version of the past in an evolving Filipino idiom via his pantayong pananaw scheme. It may be premature to judge the reformist efficacy of this effort in rehabilitating the fields of local historiography and moribund anthropology. Salazar’s disciples seem resigned to the Cold War-era patronage system of the post-Marcos order, ensconced in the commerce of fabricating idiosyncratic terminology for neoconservative, even reactionary, ideas.

We Versus They?

The problem of thematizing local knowledge offers both theoretical and political conundrums. Ramon Guillermo (2003) has provided us a useful inventory of Salazar’s heroic effort, together with proposals for improving its method and scope. But both Salazar and Guillermo have so far sidestepped the fundamental issue (which transcends the old emic/etic binary) of how the notion of rationality–communicative action, in another framework–central to the intellectual metier of a global community of scientific inquirers to understand and appraise cultures can be surpassed or transcended. This issue has been elaborated in the volume Rationality (Wilson 1970)—just to cite one compilation–in which a survey of the conflicting arguments prompted Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that “the understanding of a people in terms of their own concepts and beliefs does in fact tend to preclude understanding them in any other terms” (1970, 130). One-sidedness cannot be corrected by simply inverting the poles of the binary, or establishing a pseudo-reconciliatory equilibrium.
MacIntyre does not fully endorse the functionalist view that institutions must be grasped not in terms of what they mean for the agents, but in terms of what necessary needs and purposes they serve; however, he does not fully agree with Peter Winch’s untenable belief that communities can only be properly understood and judged in terms of their own internally generated norms and beliefs–a proposition that pantayong pananaw advocates seem to favor, despite earnest denials (see Sta. Maria 2000). But obviously responsibility cannot be shirked in the face of brutal consequences.
The problem is one of rigidly counterposing interpretation (subjectivist) and explanation (objectivist) without any dialectical mediation. Even assuming that isolated communities in a capitalist-gobalized world is possible, long after Max Weber took time off from “value-free” pursuits to distinguish explanation from interpretation, proponents of the primacy of hermeneutic understanding still need the benefit of analytic explanation if they want to avoid circularity and self-serving solipsism. After all, why bother understanding Others? Oppositional American thinkers such as Marcus Raskin, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Susan Buck-Morss and others have begun to engage with the antinomies of knowledge-production faced earlier by the British in the context of the challenges of the postmodern era (Raskin 1987), an engagement coopted by the debates on terrorism, Islamophobia, and other alibis of Empire.
My own position strives to be a historical-materialist stance that privileges multidetermined specificity and counterhegemonic imperatives on the question of adapting ideas originating from other sources (San Juan 2007). This is not the same as the multiperspectivist metatheoretical approach suggested by Douglas Kellner (2006) far removed from the arenas of life-and-death struggles. In my view, language is only one of the criteria for hypothesizing the nation as “imagined community,” more precisely the nation conceived as a solidarity actualized or performed in communal practices and communicative acts. However, the quest becomes more problematic when the language at issue, “Filipino” based on Tagalog, is still a matter disputed by other participants of the polity such as disgruntled Cebuanos, assorted Moro groups, and by the U.S.-fixated English-speaking intelligentsia and bureaucracy.
More seriously, it is not possible to conceive of the notions of “pantayo” and “pangkami” without the whole dynamic network of differences first outlined by Saussure but complicated by the wide-ranging semiotic modalities explored by C.S. Peirce, Lev Vygotsky, Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and Roman Jakobson, far beyond the findings of Whorf, Sapir, Humboldt, Frobenius, etc. The linguistic symbol, as Jakobson reminds us, is not only a vehicle of the sedimented past (icons) or the present (indices) but also of the future. He quotes Peirce’s speculation premised on the triadic theory of the sign: “The being of a symbol consists in the real fact that something surely will be experienced if certain conditions be satisfied….The value of a symbol is that it serves to make thought and conduct rational and enables us to predict the future” (1987,427). A CS research program based on Peirce’s semiotics with its drive toward a coherent and concrete reasonableness appears as a more promising alternative to the current deconstructivist (Deleuze, Lyotart) and neopragmatic (Rorty) alternatives, or the moralizing biographical excursion suggested by patrician sage, Fred Inglis (1993), at the tail-end of the Cold War and the advent of the Middle East turmoil.
Language is, to be sure, only one signifier of national identity, not an absolute qualifier, whose correlation with other practices and collective actions needs delicate orchestration (Yinger 1976, 200-02). Earlier (San Juan 2008), I registered my discomfort with the logocentric tendency in Enriquez’s otherwise conscientious indigenization attempt. In the total program of liberating the majority of Filipinos (workers, peasants, women) from market exploitation and alien oppression, an emancipatory platform should prioritize the act of foregrounding democratic national rights and collective welfare. Hence we need an internationalist worldview such as that provided by a historical materialist theory such as Marxism (articulated, of course, to our specific conditions) with its universalistic, critical position grounded on a “concrete universal,” with all the richness of the particular social-formation in the Philippines, in creating a sense of Filipino nationhood (Lowy 2000).
We can begin to hypothesize with more intelligibility the linguistic parameters of this indigenization project if viewed as part of a global ecumenical conversation on intercultural understanding. Filipinizing CS thus requires not merely linguistic readjustment but, more importantly, reconceiving the sense of rationality, justice, equality and democratic participation that cannot be circumscribed within the bounds of a single Filipino language-in-the-making. This reconceptualization involves reconstructing habits of conduct geared toward “concrete reasonableness” (Peirce 1998) within a humanist-socialist framework.
My firm conviction is that no indigenization project in the Philippines will fully succeed unless it includes a program of systematic decolonization, particularly an uncompromising indictment of U.S. colonialism/neocolonialism in its totality, together with its complicit transnational allies. Neither postcolonial hybridity, managerial technocratic pragmatism, nor transnational pluralism and multiculturalism will do. We need a measure of dialectical cunning and a bricoleur’s resourcefulness in taking advantage of what our forebears–Rizal, Mabini, Recto, Agoncillo, Constantino, Hernandez, and others–have already won for us. After all, the enemy can also speak in Filipino and even dance the tinikling and sing “Dahil sa Iyo” in more seductive, self-ingratiating ways. We need to combine specifics and universals in both strategic and tactical modalities that precisely cannot be learned at this time from institutionally entrenched CS and its postcolonial. transnationalist variations.

Alternative Cultural Politics

A tentative summing-up is in order. Conceived as a reaction to capitalist high culture in the late twentieth century, CS initially challenged Cold War norms and the more flagrantly racist and sexist aspects of Western hegemony. It promised a democratic, even radical, renaissance of thought and sensibility inside and outside the academy. Its early practitioners drew heavily from the secularizing Enlightenment tradition and its radical critics. But when it became institutionalized in the Eighties and Nineties, CS distanced itself rapidly from mass political struggles in the metropoles and the “third world.” It reverted to ethical individualism, aestheticism, Nietzschean performative displays, and the fetishism of differences/hybridity, becoming in the process a defensive ideology for predatory finance capitalism and technocratic globalization. The reasons for the change are complex but comprehensible, as demonstrated by many commentators in numerous anthologies, among others Grossberg, Nelson and Treichler (1992), Storey (1996),During (1998), Miller (2006), and others.
At the outset of the millennium, Terry Eagleton registered his complaint against the postmodernist inflection of CS toward identity politics and other narrow culturalist concerns. He blames mainstream CS for its anti-universalism: “Cultural studies today, writes Francis Mulhern, ‘leaves no room for politics beyond cultural practice, or for political solidarities beyond the particularisms of cultural difference.’ It fails to see not only that not all political issues are cultural, but that not all cultural differences are political. And in thus subordinating issues of state, class, political organization and the rest to cultural questions, it end up rehearsing the prejudices of the very traditional Kulturkritik it rejects, which had little enough time itself for such mundane political matters” (2000, 43). This objection has been repeated often. If CS tried out, for example, Bourdieu’s (1984) attempt to dialectically fuse the hermeneutic (subjectivist) and structural (objectivist) approaches, perhaps the inflation of culture to encompass everything would have been prevented. Or if the analysis of consumption of cultural products/practices took into account W.F. Haug’s (1986) theory of commodity aesthetics, the sphere of political economy would have been factored in the evaluation of pleasure, performative reception, etc. Situated in this wider context, our endeavor to indigenize EuroAmerican CS is not a campaign for multiculturalist identity politics but an attempt to renew its universalist impulse of demystification and humanist reclamation of creative agency, rationality and informed caring.
Should one hundred million Filipinos care about the plight of CS? If we want CS to be meaningful to the majority, not just the educated sector, it needs to address the urgent realities of Philippine society and contribute to the democratic and egalitarian ideals of its revolutionary history. In the Philippines and other subordinated formations, CS can be regenerated by renewing its anticolonial, popular and democratic inspiration and re-engaging in a radical, transformative critique of oligopolistic corporate power, the legitimizing ideology of global finance capital and its commodified/commodifying culture. It can endeavor to challenge US imperialism and its accomplices in its current modality of warring against “terrorism”or extremism (codewords for anti-imperialists) by returning to, first, the primacy of social labor; second, the complex historical articulations of the mode of production and social relations; and, third, the importance of the materialist critique of norms, assumptions and premises underlying existing inequalities, injustices, and oppressions.

Agendas and Prospects

We still have to reckon with the contradictions between the Global North and the Global South in view of the looming debt crisis in Europe, the antagonism toward Iran and the continuing war on whoever the US State Department and NATO label as “extremists.” The shocking official policy of torture by many governments, and execution of citizens without trial, by unmanned drones and other clandestine ways, still remains terra incognita for future CS scholars.
In the Asian geopolitical theater, we have to take into account an emergent nationalism in the People’s Republic of China in the wake of border conflicts with its neighbors, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. In assessing the continuing hegemonic influence of the Western tradition, notwithstanding its dissenting faction in Frankfurt Critical Theory or Latin American liberation theology, Filipino scholars and intellectuals have to address the persistent domination of the whole society and culture by the inherited U.S. model of competitive individualism and market logic overlaid over a residual but sturdy feudal/authoritarian pattern of social interaction. This complex milieu cannot be ignored as simply socioeconomic or factored in as implicitly given parameters of discourse and exchange.
To Filipinize CS is to reconfigure the modality and thrust of CS (complicit in its origins with patriarchy and white supremacy) in order to address the persistent, urgent problems of the exploitation of Filipino labor worldwide, the lack of genuine sovereignty and national independence, and the profound class, gender and ethnic inequalities that have plagued the country for so long. What is needed is the invention of new forms of praxis of knowledge-production and pedagogy that can generate meaningful change based on justice, accountability, dignity and ecological sustainability. Stephen Gill urges public intellectuals not to be constrained by “the horizons of necessity” that seek to limit thought to imperial and neoliberal common sense. Paraphrasing Gill’s recommendation, CS scholars “should operate according to ‘horizons of desire,’ collectively imagining to be desirable, necessary and possible what had previously been thought to be politically impossible” (2012, 520). Extrapolating this insight to the whole field of cultural production and its forms of habitus (as Bourdieu [1993] understood the discipline), intellectuals engaged in CS need to situate their practice and vocation in the actual conflicted society that underwrites their labor and provides it with some measure of intelligibility and significance. Otherwise, they will continue to serve the interests of global capital and undermine their own claims to integrity and independence, not to speak of “academic freedom,” humanistic ideals, and even the truth-claims or “warranted assertibility” of their pronouncements.


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From a Filipino perspective, this speculative commentary ventures a brief critique of Eurocentric Cultural Studies by examining its theoretical premises and their ideological resonance. The resurgence of “third world” resistance with its focus on racial/gender negativity (as evidenced in multiethnic writing by people of color within and outside the United States and Europe) has exposed the limitations of the academic discipline. Indigenization attempts may signal a return to the original radical vision of Cultural Studies. However, such indigenization (as exemplified by the Philippine example) requires a separate critique that would reinvigorate the dialectical interface of local subaltern practice and the concrete universal of an anti-capitalist liberation project that would connect the crisis of the global North with the emancipatory aspirations of the global South.


E. SAN JUAN, Jr. is currently humanities fellow of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin; he was recently fellow of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University; and Fulbright professor of American Studies, Leuven University, Belgium. He is emeritus professor of English, Comparative Literature and Ethnic Studies from several U.S. universities. His recent books are IN THE WAKE OF TERROR (Lexington), CRITIQUE AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION (Mellen), CRITICAL INTERVENTIONS (Lambert), BALIKBAYANG SINTA; AN E. SAN JUAN READER (Ateneo U Press) and US IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN THE PHILIPPINES (Palgrave). He is completing a book on the singularlity of Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticist semiotics.

About philcsc

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