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Sovereign Cultural Analysis

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It is unfortunate that Anvil’s reprints of Nick Joaquin’s Culture and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming (1988) appear without the original’s subtitle, because the idea of becoming is the very key to Joaquin’s work. After all, history is the story of becoming, of the grounding for transformations of the time to come, of evolution and development. In the absence of it, you are among folks without history.

It is deplorable that much that is taught as ‘history’ in school and in the mind of the general public, is political through and through: a succession of reigns, wars and exploits that are all ephemeral to the substance of becoming. In the steps of McLuhan – the means is the message – Joaquin’s approach privileges the dynamics of culture. It is the changes of the extensions of man – tools, technology – that give birth to history as an open-ended process. Think of the wheel, the plow, roads, bridges, new crops, the printing press and, nowadays, the internet and mobile phones! All these new extensions of man changed the worlds of the people concerned, and with it, their world view and mentality. Once established, there is no return to the previous condition; they are the motor of history in the true sense of the word.

With the idea of Philippine becoming, the reader lands immediately in the contentious field of the official school-representation of Filipino history (Mulder 2000; 2014). Besides, people are comfortable with the ensuing self-deception, a kind of masochism that blames outsiders for anything wrong. It was the colonizers’ fault; they robbed the Filipino of his pristine condition and dressed him up in foreign apparel. ‘We are a hopeless case’; ‘This going-nowhere country’; ‘I do not deserve to have been born here’, or, in Joaquin’s own words, ‘Why are we as a people so disinclined to face up to challenges?’ The list of self-flagellating statements is endless.

With the advent of Spain, a state came into being that placed country and people in the orbit of both Asia and the West. More importantly, during the long Spanish period,  a Filipino sense of identity and nation was formed that, toward the end of the 19th century, culminated in the writings of José Rizal, Apolinario Mabini, Isabelo de los Reyes, etc. Whereas contemporary Filipinos are heirs of this early becoming – for instance, expressed in the preference for mestiza looking women, the prominence of hybridity, a culture of hospitality and a general cosmopolitanism – they are unaware of its sources. On the contrary, to attribute the dynamics of change and its results to early colonization does not sit well with the multitude that has been taught to take American deceit for benevolence and that glorifies the second colonizer for placing the Philippines in the modern world. As a result, a well-known fellow-social critic accused Joaquin of being pro-Spanish!

In my outsider’s view, Culture and History should be required reading for all who teach, study or are interested in the history of the country and its people. Alas, this is not precisely what educators and even some notable scholars desire. The first stick to the chronology of political events; the second aspire to relive and substantiate identity through revealing the pristine and unchanging essence of the ‘true Filipino’. As I see it, both feel comfortable in avoiding the challenge of history and of being a self-confident partner in the modern world. Why?

Whereas many of us are familiar with the quest for their deep past of certain prominent ilustrados, such as Rizal, de los Reyes and Pedro Paterno, these did not convey the idea that they were persons without self-confidence or satisfactory selfhood. Of course, if we take the identity we derive from our collectivity seriously, all of us, like the aforementioned ilustrados, need the feel of its becoming if we are to connect the past to our present. Somehow, this simple truth was lost during the American and post-colonial days; the past was irretrievably cut off by the change in language and educational brainwashing that taught Filipinos to disdain what they had become as ‘Spanish colonial’ and to pattern themselves after the second colonial master. At the time independence was granted, educated Filipinos found themselves to be without identity as a free nation and, as they felt comfortable in leaning on the great United States, they were reluctant to face the challenge of nation building.

The history of becoming is irreversible, and I never met a bumptious nationalist who proposed to give up Catholicism or who refused to drive a car because the ‘original Filipino’ worshipped other statues and was without the wheel. After all, and in agreement with the historian Horacio de la Costa, S.J. and outstanding essayist Nick Joaquin, identity is substantiated in what we have become today. This being as it is, educated Filipinos may characteristically suffer from a measure of identity insecurity for which they blame the foreign intrusion into their original condition.

The Ateneo de Manila-based psychologist Jaime Bulatao, S.J. firmly rejects this blaming of the foreign intrusion. To him, insecure personal identity in the big, big world outside results from typical family relationships, socialization practices and inescapable togetherness that foster the experience of being a part of an encompassing whole or a part of a closed group (Bulatao, 1964). As a result, the Filipino is characterized by a low-level of ‘individuation’ (if compared to members of other nations) and lives in an interpersonal world that is his primary source of emotional gratification, reassurance, recognition and acceptance (L. Lapuz, 1972). Accordingly, one's self-esteem depends on how one is regarded by relevant others, thus making for conformity to group opinions, timidity and unassertiveness (or what is known as ‘Filipino tolerance’), while leading to the satisfaction of role fulfilment. As Bulatao surmises, this situation, in which the self finds no room for development, often results in a low level of self-esteem or an inferiority complex that has nothing to do with colonial intrusions (Bulatao, 1964).

The American intervention destroyed the memory of becoming and pride in the nation – the first Asian country to defeat a western power! – among people who, from a culture-and-personality perspective, score low in self-confidence. Next to these factors, Joaquin notes the tendency to shy away from innovation, thus rutting in the familiar way of doing things and to be content with ‘a heritage of smallness’. He illustrates this, among others, with examples taken from the arts, whether in pottery, sculpture or literature. Once forms have developed, they will be repeated over and over again. In sculpture, the Filipino shies away from the challenge of hard materials (stone, marble, ivory) and repeats – to perfection and ad nauseum – what he has done before. In literature, it is short story upon short story; the challenge of the novel is not met.

In the essay ‘Our Heart’s in the Highlands?’ Joaquin notes that, in the quest for ‘true identity’, ‘We are haunted by aboriginal purity’ and thus go up into the highlands to find our pristine selves. So, a party was formed to travel around and visit a variety of up-country people and to sample their tribal way of life. They were struck by the timelessness of their ways, the endless repetition of what they had done before, and, especially among the Igorot males, a total lack of drive and comfort in an indolence that left all work to women. Stuck in the atavistic ways, these peoples of the highlands give the impression of a people without a history. After this confrontation with ‘aboriginal purity’, the members of the party breathed with relief when they were back in the lowlands and rejoiced at the dynamism of the Christian way of life!

The 1960s, however, inspired hope. In the middle of that decade, Joaquin wrote ‘Junking the Heritage’ in which he confidently predicted that the nation was breaking out of the vicious circle of stagnation and resignation, of self-deception and masochism. Alas, in September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos smothered the hope-giving vistas that had resulted from the Second National Awakening, or Second Propaganda, of the 1950s, and that culminated in the First Quarter Storm (1971). Now, some 50 years further on, with the Philippines lagging behind most of its neighbours and with millions of Filipinos taking refuge on foreign shores, the nation does not live up to the challenge of the times but is caught in the treadmill of merely plodding on. It is sheer irony that this seemingly confirms the track of those who construct the mythology of the sinaunang Pilipino, of the history-less original Filipino who sticks to his primordial essence.

Bulatao, J. C. (1964) Hiya. Philippine Studies 12: 424-38.
Lapuz, L. V. (1972) A study of psychopathology in a group of Filipino patients. In: Lebra, W. P. (ed.) Transcultural Research in Mental Health. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill.
Mulder, Niels (2000) Filipino Images; Culture of the Public World. Quezon City: New Day Publishers, 72-102.
Mulder, Niels (2014) The Filipino social imagination in regional context. Asia-Pacific Social Science Review 14(2): 112-26.

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