Beyond Our Comfort Zones: On Pagbutlak, Literature and Politics

Tol, pasok ako sa UP!
Pano ba yan, iwan mo na kami?
Malabo, wala naman akong pang-tuition.
TV commercial

The lines from the above-quoted advertisement for TM touches one facet of the crisis afflicting Philippine society, a crisis that we iskolars ng bayan are never detached from: that is, the worsening inaccessibility of education for the Filipino masses.

The telecom company TV ad shows a young man who passes the UPCAT (UP College Admission Test) but who unfortunately cannot afford to enter the university. The protagonist and his friends are forced to join a dance contest in order to earn money to pay for the high tuition in UP, the country’s supposed national state university!

Ten years after the brutal and corrupt Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime and twenty five years after the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1986 popular people’s uprising, foreign domination and unjust social structures continue to exert a negative effect on the Filipino peasant and working masses.

Indeed, even as 64.6 million Filipinos or 70% of the total population subsist on little more than P104 a day, [1] the net worth of the 25 wealthiest Filipinos amounts to US$21.4 billion – roughly equal to the combined earnings of the poorest 55.4 million Filipinos. [2]

Much of this is the result of the subservience of successive regimes – the latest being Noynoy’s – to imperialist impositions and neoliberal policies of deregulation that permits foreign monopolies to relentlessly increase prices, privatization or the government abandonment of social services to the private sector, and liberalization or the opening up of the local economy to further exploitation by foreign companies.

Side by side with foreign domination of the local economy is the persistence of feudal exploitation in the countryside as exemplified by the plight of the peasants and farmworkers of  Cojuangco-Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita. The victims of the Hacienda Luisita Massacre of 2004 and the Mendiola Massacre of 1987 under the first Aquino regime has yet to find justice for their plight.

Notwithstanding the promises of meaningful change and reforms, the Aquino regime continues with a policy of slashing budget for state-run schools in favor of debt servicing which amounts to P823.3 billion for both interest and principal payments this year. State abandonment of its financial responsibility to education and social services are part of the loan conditionalities imposed by the International Monetary Fund-World Bank.

What is the difference between the optimist and the pessimist? “A pessimist,” goes an old Eastern European joke, “thinks that everything is so bad that it can’t get any worse, while an optimist thinks that things can only worsen.”[3] Many Filipinos nowadays hold the same “optimistic” views held by Eastern European victimized by the economic destruction and extreme inequality brought by capitalist restoration, confronted as they are with the same hardships brought by the chronic crisis of the neocolonial ruling social order.

PAGBUTLAK stands against such cynicism. PAGBUTLAK continues to carry the torch of a committed writing that aims to serve the Filipino people and liberate the consciousness of its student readers to unpleasant social realities a full thirty six years after its founding in the midst of the struggle for democratic rights against the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship.

This year, PAGBUTLAK upheld its mandate of informing its constituents of relevant issues that concern them and greater society through the regular publication of tabloids and statements. We launched the BUSAY literary folio last August 2010 during the CAS Linggo ng Wika Celebration.

We also organized a Forum on U.S. Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines with world-renowned literary scholar, cultural critic, Launch of PAGBUTLAK Adviser Prof. Tomasito Talledo’s Songs of War Patriots and Other Poems.

But beyond writing and the propagation of progressive discourse, PAGBUTLAK also took part in the active making of history. We initiated a vigil protest to commemorate the first year anniversary of the Ampatuan Massacre. We joined the December 1 anti-budget cut mobilization as well as the December 10 Human Rights Day protest in the city.

Our critical stance has earned us the ire of some backward, intellectually-deficient, onion-skinned, and reactionary elements in the campus with their baseless and violent outbursts and personal attacks against PAGBUTLAK and its Editorial Board. This is not new. The paper, after all, was born out of courage to confront fear, indifference, and compromise.

We continue to stand against the glorification of praise-hungry individual egos in our pages. We also continue to expose and oppose anti-student and anti-people policies, ideas, personages, and formations. We boldly break the mythology of neutrality without apologies and stand by the principle of giving voice to the voiceless masses.

In the artistic and literary field, PAGBUTLAK  gives more importance, in opposition to the erroneous privileging of the notion of art and literature as beautiful objects that transcend ideologies and politics, to an understanding of cultural texts as either complicit to the perpetuation of an unjust social order or committed to opposing this very system.

We have taken care to consciously choose more texts that use and enrich the language that is understood by the masses all over the nation – Filipino – as well as the regional languages. In this regard, at least half of the texts published in this issue of BUSAY are written in Filipino, Hiligaynon, Cebuano, and Kinaray-a.

But in as much as we understand art and literature’s service to the people as its single most fundamental task, we also recognize that the process of transforming the predominant superficial notions of art as beautiful things that are the sole domain of individual expression cannot but be a gradual one.

The poems, short stories, and essays in the pages that follow hence occupy a twilight zone, an indefinite zone between writings of a more tormented and personal nature that is reflective of youthful alienation and petty bourgeois vacillation and attempts at a more committed writing that aims to trace the contours of prevailing social conditions.

The study and propagation of the papers “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art” and “Message to PAKSA on the Tasks of Cadres in the Cultural Field”[4] can remedy this limitation and help much for the flowering of an art and literature that is reflective of the life, needs, and aspirations of the common people. In this regard, a literary text’s correct political orientation should go side by side with high formal artistic qualities:

What we demand is the unity of politics and art, the unity of content and form, the unity of revolutionary political content and the highest possible perfection of artistic form. Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force, however progressive they are politically. Therefore, we oppose both the tendency to produce works of art with a wrong political viewpoint and the tendency towards the “poster and slogan style” which is correct in political viewpoint but lacking in artistic power. On questions of literature and art we must carry on a struggle on two fronts. [5]

Art and literature should serve the people by aiding the struggle to assert national sovereignty and advance the people’s democratic rights and interests against foreign domination, domestic feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism. Literary enthusiasts in the campus should hence go beyond the confines of their comfort zones and write works that engage in “the uncompromising rejection of illusion, the repudiation of the pact with the status quo, the liberation of consciousness, imagination, perception, and language from its mutilation in the prevailing order”[6] — in short, works that take part in the people’s struggle.

Note: Published as the introduction of the 2010-2011 issue of Busay, the Official Literary Portfolio of the UP Visayas College of Arts and Sciences.

1. 2009 Family Income Expenditure Survey in Praymer sa Pambansang Kalagayan: Mga Pangakong Napako (Quezon City: IBON Foundation Inc., January 2011), 4.
2. Forbes Asia in Mga Pangakong Napako., 5.
3. Renata Salecl, (Per)versions of Love and Hate, (London: Verso, 2000), 80.
4. PAKSA or the Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan is a progressive and patriotic organization of writers, critics, teachers and students of literature. The message was read during PAKSA’s First National Congress on December 18-19, 1971 at the University of the Philippines Diliman, Quezon City.
5. Mao Tse Tung, “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” Selected Works, Volume 3 (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1967), 89-90.
6. Herbert Marcuse, “Society as a Work of Art,” Trans. John Abromeit, in Art and Liberation (New York: Routledge, 2007), 129.


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