by E. San Juan, Jr.

Given the rise of “englisches” in the shadow of Global/World English, is it possible to draw up a provisional account of Filipino writing in English from the orthodox formalistic and aestheticist point-of-view without self-incrimination? It surely is possible, but whether it is intelligible or useful for whatever reason, remains to be seen. Given the commodification of postmodernist and post-structuralist dogmas, we cannot engage in this task by invoking universalist paradigms and meta-narratives without provoking the high priests of sikolohiyang pantayo (“psychology for us,” an academic style of doing local psychology), the pasyon/sinakulo historicism of would-be populist academics, and the gatekeepers of assorted prizes, awards, and official honors that have made writing in English in the Philippines not only an elite luxury but ultimately a self-congratulating hedonistic orgy of nullity and irrelevance in Manila and isolated academic circles elsewhere (for an earlier diagnosis, see my "Decline of Philippine Writing").

Despite this, I offer the following sketch indeed as a mode of provocation in the hope of initiating a new inventory of the collective "self" that (as Antonio Gramsci advised) is needed to launch any counter-hegemonic struggle to construct the foundations for socialist democracy and genuine national independence. We re-visit the old inquiry into what does writing signify, for whom does one write, why write at all, and so on.

Exploding the Canon

A dialogic or polyphonic approach might be heuristic at the outset. Mikhail Bakhtin's central insight that complex political, ideological, and social conflicts in any society permeate and constitute the play of language and discourse in and between societies offers a heuristic point of departure for "postcolonial" inquiry into the field of world literature written in English, or "englishes." It has become academic consensus by now that the canonical language of Shakespeare and Milton and its literary conventions cannot be imposed as a universal standard for appraising the value of writing in ex-colonized formations (for instance, Australia, Canada, India, among others) without resurrecting the specter of imperial domination and racial subordination. Notwithstanding the notion of "American exceptionalism," this applies also to the American English of Hawthorne, Whitman, and Henry James as the canonical standard for judging and evaluating the works of the racialized "minorities" in North America: African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

In 1898, the Philippines became U.S. territory open for the "tutelage" of its self-appointed civilizing mission. Among other ideological apparatuses, the English language and American literary texts, as well as the pedagogical agencies for propagating and teaching them, were mobilized to constitute the natives of the Philippine archipelago as subjects of the U.S. nation-state.The natives eventually became neocolonized subalterns without any distinct sovereignty. In sum, then, American English was used by the colonial authorities when the United States military suppressed the Filipino revolutionary forces and its Republic while waging war against the moribund Spanish empire. Language became an adjunct of the imperial machinery of conquest and subjugation.

In this context, Bakhtin's notions of monoglossia and heteroglossia can be deployed to elucidate how language functions as the vehicle for enforcing the hegemonic rule of a social bloc over a polyglot mass of subjects. The "otherness" of Filipinos comprised of multiple speech-genres and semantic worlds eventually yielded to a unitary medium of communication enforced in government, business, media, and the public sphere. American English became the language of prestige and aspiration while the numerous vernaculars served as media of ventriloquist self-identification, otherwise known as postcolonial mimicry.

Imperialist Interdiction

When the United States occupied the Philippines by military force in 1898-1903, a Filipino nation had already been germinating in over 200 revolts against Spanish colonialism. This is now a commonplace topic in official textbooks. Filipino intellectuals of the Propaganda Movement (1872-1896) had already implanted among advanced elements of the peasantry and proletariat the Enlightenment principles of rationality, civic humanism, and autonomy (sovereignty of all citizens) in the program of the revolutionary forces of the Katipunan and the first Philippine Republic. See the writings of Emilio Jacinto, Marcelo del Pilar, Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini, and others. At the outset, the propagandists--Jose Rizal, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Graciano Lopez Jaena, etc.--used the Spanish language to appeal to an enlightened local and European audience in demanding reforms within the Empire. With the aim of conscientization, Rizal's novels, Noli Me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891), incorporated all the resources of irony, satire, heteroglossia (inspired by Cervantes and Rabelais) and the conventions of European realism to criticize the abuses of the Church and arouse the spirit of self-reliance and sense of dignity in the subjugated natives. For his subversive and heretical imagination, Rizal was executed--a sacrifice which serves as the foundational event for all Filipino writing. For nativists, this event figures only as one token of the metanarrative dramatized in the pasyon and other folk-Catholic rituals. Although a whole generation of insurrectionist writers (the most distinguished is Claro Recto) created a "minor" literature in Spanish, only Rizal registered in the minds of Spaniards like Miguel de Unamuno. In effect, Hispanization failed. In 1985, when I visited Havana, Cuba, I found Rizal's two novels newly reprinted and avidly read--a crosscultural recuperation, it seems, of a popular memory shared by two peoples inhabiting two distant continents but victimized by the same Western powers. Neither Rizal nor Recto are included in current Spanish history or literature textbooks.

Just as a Filipino nation was being born harnessing the vernacular speech of peasants and workers, U.S. imperial hubris intervened. Its conquest of hegemony or consensual rule was literally accomplished through the deployment of English as the official medium of business, schooling and government. This pedagogical strategy was designed to cultivate an intelligentsia, a middle strata divorced from its roots in the plebian masses, who would service the ideological apparatus of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Americanization was mediated through English sanctioned as the language of prestige and aspiration.

Meanwhile, the vernacular writers (the true organic intellectuals of an emergent populus), who voiced the majority will for national sovereignty against U.S. "Manifest Destiny," sustained the libertarian Jacobin heritage of the Propagandists. Witness to this were Lope K. Santos, author of the first "social realist"--more precisely, anarcho-syndicalist--novel Banaag at Sikat (1906), and Isabelo de los Reyes, founder of the first labor union and of the Philippine Independent Church, both of whom were deeply influenced by Victor Hugo, Proudhon, Bakunin, and the socialist movement inspired by Marx and Engels. As I argued in my book Reading the West/Writing the East, "vernacular discourse articulated a process of dissolving the interiority of the coherent, unitary subject" (91) in texts that dramatized the breakdown of taboos (what Deleuze and Guattari call territorializing codes) and the release of Desire in the sociolibidinal economy of violence and collective delirium.

Speaking With Forked Tongues

A mutant appeared in the interstices of polarized languages and cultures. While U.S. imperial power preserved the tributary order via the institutionalization of patronage in all levels of society, the use of English by apprentice-writers fostered individualism through the modality of aesthetic vanguardism. Individual liberation displaced the dream of national sovereignty. The overt and subterranean influence of the "Lost Generation" (Anderson, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein) on Jose Garcia Villa and his contemporaries shaped the content and direction of Philippine writing in English from the twenties to the sixties. Internationalism in this case took the form of imitation of U.S. styles of personal revolt against alienation in bourgeois society. While Villa enacted the role of the native as Prometheus and achieved a measure of belated recognition by the U.S. New Criticism in the fifties, he has never been included in the U.S. literary canon (Lopez 11). That seems a logical effect of white supremacy in culture. In encyclopedias and other reference books, Villa has always been identified as a "Filipino" writer. Interred in the pantheon of formalist mannerism, his ethnic signature survives only in his name.

But the victory of English over the vernacular speeches of Filipinos (a heterogenous mass of ethnic and religious communities artificially unified by Spanish and U.S. colonialism) could not be unilateral and definitive. The power of language precisely inheres in its ability to coopt, absorb, or incorporate others, in a precarious and unstable synchronic order. This is because language is itself a transitory and mutable balance of multiple conflicting forces whose integrity is contingent on the shifting configuration of heterogeneous socioeconomic forces. Bakhtin writes in The Dialogic Imagination: "At any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth." Alterity then defines the nationalized usage system of English (or any language, for that matter) even as it is used to constitute and instrumentalize unitary subjects for colonial administrative ends. Political conflict ultimately determines language use, including the architectonics of the artistic text.

If there is structure imposed on subjects, can some kind of agency be far behind? While Filipinos had no choice except to submit to the imposition of American English in order to survive and gain a measure of autonomy, their use of English in literary and public discourse demonstrates an ethics of utterance that challenges colonial power. The colonizer's language is then abrogated and reappropriated for the purpose of critique and transformation.

In what follows, I analyze examples of early and later modernist writings (prose and poetry) in English by Filipinos to illustrate the carnivalesque potential of English, the discovery of multiaccentual signifiers, what Bakhtin calls "double-voiced" words or words with loopholes. In various modalities of communication, Filipino mimicry of American English sought to explode the "Ptolemaic" universe of colonial regimentation and release the "Galilean" potential of language to articulate contradictions and incommensurable differences. Within the sign as an arena of struggle, a Filipino "english"--a sport, mutant, or freakish life-form--is born.


It might be instructive to briefly sketch the phenomenal crossbreeding between the autochtonous tradition and modern Filipino writing in English with three examples. I would like to suggest that contrary to the common argument of positing a dichotomy between native sensibility and alien tongue, a subtle intertextual symbiosis actually obtains in the play of locutionary forces. In this sense Jose Garcia Villa's poetic art, long held to be an exercise in imitation of modernist styles to the point of mannerism and parody, cannot be reduced to a matter of eccentric prosody such as "reversed consonance" or "sprung rhythm." Again, here, form and substance cannot be so easily disjoined.

Villa is the exemplary case of the offspring of ilustrado gentry who rejects his class origin but paradoxically, as a reaction formation, glorifies the caste privilege of the artist. This cannot be understood except as a revolt principally against the commercial, materialistic, philistine mores and manners of colonial society. Despite his ultra-vanguardist exhibitionism, Villa's art cannot deny the influence of over three hundred years of Spanish-Malayan cultural interaction. If we compare the design and texture of Villa's representative texts in Selected Poems and New, with its characteristic surface of aphoristic verbal play and quasi-parody (even pastiche) of metaphysical conceits, with the native tradition of didactic and allegorical indirection--from the pre-Christian riddles, oratory, song, and dagli (vignette) to Balagtas' epic Florante at Laura to the satires of Rizal and M. H. Del Pilar, we can begin to understand how and why his individualist revolt in the sterile ambience of the twenties and thirties assumed the form it took: exile, adoption of masks, aristocratic ventriloquism, and other eccentric poses.

Whatever the merits of Villa's response to his dilemma, the persistence of generic conventions in his poetry seems to override changing social contexts. As a heuristic orientation, it may be helpful to illustrate a still undefined genealogy of modernist Filipino writing by comparing the tropological scheme of the first stanza of Villa's poem No. 123:

What,is,defeat? Broken,victory. Darkest,sanctuary, But,solider,far, Than,the,triumphal,star. (Villa 101)

with a poem (transcribed by a Spanish priest/lexicographer) dating back to pre-colonial times when Indian, Arabic, and Chinese cultural currents blended in the Malayan aesthetic intelligence:

Ang sugat ay kung tinanggap di daramdamin ang antak ang aayaw at di mayag galos lamang magnanaknak. (Lumbera 9)

(Freely translated: When one submits himself/to wounding,/the intensest pain is bearable;/when one is unwilling,/even the merest scratch/can fester.)

Recognizing Our Own Voices

As for the invention of an authentic Filipino discourse in the short story anchored in the peasant habitus (Bourdieu's term) and the forms of subjectivity in a kinship-based organic community, it might be sufficient to present a synecdochic specimen. Consider the nuanced tonality and figurative resonance of this passage from Manuel Arguilla's "A Son is Born" whose peculiar mix would be difficult to find in Chekhov, Maupassant, D. H. Lawrence, or any other Western practitioner of this art:

My mother's face was small in the growing dusk of the evening, small and lined, wisps of straight, dry hair falling across it from her head. I could see the brown specks on my mother's cheekbones, the result of working long under the sun. She looked down upon Berting and me and her eyes held a light that I dimly felt sprung from the love she bore us, her children. I could not bear her gaze any longer. It filled me with a longing to be good and kind to her. I looked down at my arms and I was full of shame and of regret. (Lumbera 177)

This is not the occasion to engage in specialized semiotic calibrations (see my "Semiotics and Fiction"). Suffice it to underscore the almost theatrical and self-conscious rhythm of the last sentence in the quoted paragraph.

My third example of the amphibious but recuperative nature of neocolonial discourse production is different from the first two instances. Here the linguistic code of English is seized, dismantled, and then refunctioned to serve emancipatory ends, when it is incorporated into a modernized form of the sarsuwela, a theatrical spectacle mixing songs and dances, with a melodramatic plot of threatened love sutured to the unravelled "thickness" of contemporary social and political issues. Introduced by the Spaniards in the nineteenth century as a popular form of entertainment, it has been Filipinized by major artists like Severino Reyes, Vicente Soto, Mena Pecson Crisologo, and others.

As a contemporary specimen, examine this passage from Nicanor Tiongson's Pilipinas Circa 1907, a rewriting or adaptation of Reyes' 1907 play of the same title which has been cross-fertilized by the "seditious" drama and novels of the first decade, the paramount cultural signifiers of anti-colonial resistance to U.S. aggression. In Tiongson's script, the anticipated overcoming of American economic-political power is symbolically enacted by the ironic chorus of modernizing "girls" part of which I quote below. The second stanza may be read as an emblematic specimen of counter-hegemonic renegotiation of the dominant linguistic code:

Ba't nga ba may Pilipino [Why are there Filipinos] Na masyadong atrasado [Who are still so backward] Dumaong na'ng Amerikano [The Americans have already landed] Ay! pusakal pa ring Indio! [But my, they're still wild Indios!] I do not know to them I do not know to them We do not know to them! Kundi kay William Mckinley [If not for William McKinley] We are still swinging from a tree Walang statue of liberty [We wouldn't have a statue of....] (Tiongson 46-47)

Praxis of Language Games

Given this complex historical background absent in most literary histories, writing in English in the Philippines is no doubt an ideological practice firmly imbricated in the conflicts and ambiguities of subaltern existence. If we deploy a historical contextualization of the field of writing practices, we will see that English is only one "language game," or one choice in the means of cultural production amid a space where electronic visual communication (television, video, cinema), together with its protean "commodity aesthetics" (Haug), predominates. In fact, Filipino English can be construed as only one kind of vernacular with a fairly limited, and even shrinking, audience within a decolonizing but assuredly not yet postcolonial site of multifarious antagonisms. Filipino and other vernacular utterances have now overshadowed or, more precisely, drowned the sounds of an impostor english used by Nick Joaquin, Wilfredo Nolledo, F.Sionil Jose, and others. The sign and its utterance, indeed, has become a highly fraught strategic arena of political and ideological struggle.

Writing finds itself historicized, so to speak, without knowing it. Unless the production of such discourse is historically situated, one cannot grasp its power of producing meaning and also comprehend what Foucault calls the knowledge/power combinatoire and its dual effects of inhibiting and in the same breath mobilizing people into action. This imperative of contextualizing aesthetic form becomes more compelling if we accept Earl Miner's theory that Asian poetics is fundamentally affective-expressive rather than mimetic or dramatic like European poetics in general, a distinction originating from unbridgeable cultural-social disparities (82-87). Conversely Third World mimesis, unlike the Western kind, can be deciphered as ultimately allegorical and collective in meaning and motivation, as Fredric Jameson has so persuasively argued.

Situating Poetics. Embodying Speech

This is why I suggest that it is important to situate Filipino literary expression in the specific historical convergence of political, economic, and ideological forces--the transition from colonial dependency to the initial stages of national-popular autonomy--I have outlined above. While everyone recognizes the axiom that the linguistic system (Saussure's langue) is self-contained, a differential system of signifiers structured in binary oppositions, it is also the case that (as Voloshinov/Bakhtin has shown) parole or speech is what sets the system in motion and generates meaning among interlocutors in the speech community (65-106).

Speech acts or performances of enunciation are social, not individual phenomena. In other words, discourse is always intertextual and complicit; the world, the concrete historical life-situation of speakers and horizon of listeners, is a necessary constitutive element of the semantic structure of any utterance (Todorov 41-45). Consequently, it follows that the character of any discourse cannot be fully understood without reference to its intertextuality, its axiological embeddedness in social process, its circumstantial filiations and networks. To separate code from the context of enunciation is thus to annul discourse, to negate utterance in its modalities of communication and artistic expression. In the social text foregrounded here, namely, the conjuncture of colonial occupation, the twin aspects of U.S. hegemony and Filipino resistance are two moments or phases of the same event.

This is the reason why I would endorse the deployment of what Mary Louise Pratt calls a linguistics of contact instead of the conventional linguistics of community (or its late-capitalist variant, Habermas' "communicative action") in order to displace the "normative vision of a unified and homogeneous social world" and accentuate instead "the relationality of social differentiation" (59). This linguistics recalls Bakhtin's idea of intertextuality, the triad of speaker/theme/addressee, as constitutive of the act of communication.

Dialectics then instead of functional empiricism. This mode of linguistic comprehension would decenter a self-identical community, foregrounding instead "the operation of language across lines of social differentiation." It would focus on modes and zones of contact between dominant and dominated groups and on "how such speakers [with multiple identities] constitute each other relationally and in difference, how they enact differences in language" (60). Tiongson's sarsuwela, Villa's poems, and Bulosan's fiction may thus be conceived as attempts to explore the operation of an aesthetics of contact and disjunction between U.S. hegemonic apparatuses and the corresponding Filipino artistic responses.

Indigenizing English?

Within the Filipino community in the United States, the use of American English registers the confluence of residual, dominant, and emergent oppositional trends. In the works of Jessica Hagedorn, R. Zamora Linmark, Nick Carbo, and Al Robles, to cite only the most recent authors, the power of language as hegemonic agency for constituting postcolonial subjects is parodied and subverted. Two Filipino-American writers may be cited here briefly.

R. Zamora Linmark's Rolling the R's (1996) may be taken as one example of a polyglotic or multiaccentual exercise in heteroglossia, syncopating idioms, stylistic registers, rhetorical figures, and imagery to project the bewildering ethnic mix of Hawaii in a postmodern pastiche. The colonizer's "English" undergoes a grilling, an interrogation from the subalterns, from which it comes out no longer the same--no longer with a superior messianic mission. Such is the power of these peripheralized language-users to change the rules of the game, or at least some of the moves. Aside from satiric humor, irony, and other idioms of equivocal intonation, the re-invention of the colonizer's speech into a "postcolonial" vernacular proceeds in other Asian-American communities (as, for example, in Frank Chin's recent novel Gunga Din Highway) influenced by African American, Latino, and Native American voices.

A divergent if somewhat experimental practice of inflecting English may be found in Jessica Hagedorn’s fiction. Having schooled herself in the San Francisco beatnik/hippie discourse of Kenneth Rexroth and the punk subculture, Hagedorn has easily assimilated a chic bohemian idiom discernible in her first novel, Dogeaters (1990), and the subsequent quasi-autobiographical The Gangster of Love (1996). The style of both novels seek to imitate the Latin-American “magic realism” popularized in translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, and others. This replica is then mixed with either the cynical and/or patronizing outlook of Manhattan liberals, with a sprinkling of witticisms from African American and Latino performance artists. In the process, the youthful anarchist radicalism of her earlier writings collected in Danger and Beauty (1993) suffer a pathetic neutralization by a recursive technique of exoticising her chosen materials pivoting around the hybrid subculture of middle and elite class Filipinos struggling to assert itself amid the commodified pastiche of US fin-de-siecle cosmopolitanism. Lacking a genuinely critical understanding of alienation in colonial society and its transmogrification in the exiled, transplanted milieu of the metropole, Hagedorn can only glamorize the “others” as cute, naïve, earthy specimens of syncretic culture-contacts. This was less obvious, perhaps, in the parodic irreverence and satire of Dogeaters; but it became pronounced in her latest bravura performance, Dream Jungle (2003).

In this work, the standard technique of code-switching (from English to Filipino to Spanish, etc.) has been displaced by the methods of montage and collage in the structuring of scenes and chapters. These are then deployed to convey the idea of Filipino history as a multi-levelled non-linear aleatory narrative replete with idiosyncratic characters, multiple voices, and grotesque “primitive” practices. Intertextuality runs amok against the background of the filming of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and the shenanigans of the Marcos dictatorship in exploiting a “stone-age” tribe in the southern Philippines. Focused on episodes in the life of mestizo aristocrat Zamora Lopez de Legaspo (based on the corrupt Marcos bureaucrat Manda Elizalde), Hagedorn’s novel seeks to explore the traumatic after-effects of the clash of cultures and their syncretic amalgamation: elements from European (Spanish, German), feudal Malayan, Chinese, pagan or animistic tribe, and American cultures interact in this clever splicing of technocratic modernity and archaic mores. What results, however, is not simply an innocent playful confection, but a kind of discourse that delivers a cynical apology for a moribund order whose final signature may be the mestizo’s mock-ironic farewell to his family and group in three languages:

Here, helpless. Heap of dust,
heap of ash, dirt, bone, dung.
Zamora Lopez de Legaspi Jr.
Fuck me.
Fuck you.
Putang ina ninyong lahat.
Que se vayan todos a la mierda! (324)

A mannered and exhibitionist kind of English as evinced here seems to be Hagedorn’s forte, a byproduct of the fact of the Philippines (ten million of whose citizens now comprise the largest contingent of migrant workers abroad from any country) persisting as a backward neocolony of the United States and its global corporate suzerains. On the whole, Filipino-American writers are to be credited for inventing a unique heteroglotic stylization of English in consonance with its historical predicament as an “internal colony” from a neocolonial dependency, immigrants subjected currently to the pressures of the USA Patriot Act and covert/overt modes of institutionalized racism.

In haphazardly surveying this evolving multicultural canon, I suggest that we deploy Voloshinov/Bakhtin's theory of utterance and of speech-genres as theoretical tools for interrogating the limits of what is now the official discourse of liberal multiculturalism premised on "cultural diversity," on the "free market" of decentered and cyborg identities. Of course, whether these new experiments can really liberate Filipinos from neocolonial domination, whether literary texts can by themselves free millions of peasants and workers--not to mention the ten million diaspora of Filipino migrant workers around the world--from globalized exploitation by capital and the U.S. imperial war on terror, remains to be seen (see my Philippine Temptation, After Postcolonialism, and Only by Struggle).


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ABOUT THE AUTHORE. SAN JUAN, Jr. was recently visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and lecturer in seven universities in the Republic of China. He was previously Fulbright professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and fellow of the Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University. Among his recent books are BEYOND POSTCOLONIAL THEORY (Palgrave), RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press), and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press). Two books in Filipino were launched in 2004: HIMAGSIK (De La Salle University Press) and TINIK SA KALULUWA (Anvil); his new collection of poems in Filipino, SAPAGKAT INIIBIG KITA AT MGA BAGONG TULA, was recently released by the University of the Philippines Press.


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