Response to Memory, History, and Forgetting: Literature as Antidote

[These are the comments I gave as reactor to the “Ang Unyon ug ang Katawhan Lecture” by Dr. Rose Arong about “History, memory, and forgetting: Literature as an antidote” on July 31, 2020.]

I thank Dr. Regz Imbong and the event’s organizers from All-UP Academic Employees Union-Cebu, our main speaker Dr. Rose Arong and my fellow reactors Ms. Dee Supelanas and Sir Anthony Kintanar for the insightful and relevant discussion this afternoon.

Dr. Rose’s citing the claim of Resil Mojares (2002) that colonialism is the trauma of Philippine literature and extending this to include Martial Law under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos is on spot.

If we see colonialism as persisting in new form — what several “Third World” intellectuals call neocolonialism or the indirect foreign control over a subjected country’s economy, politics, and culture — then we can analyze the Martial Law regime not just as an extension but the crystallization of the logic of colonialism. The brain drain, unequal exchange, the debt burden, illicit capital flows, and other imperialist mechanisms all intensified under Marcos rule.

As was true under Marcos and now under Duterte, there is always a strong link between fascism and foreign domination as force is needed to enforce the economic plunder of the peripheral country for the benefit of the imperialist center.

The discussion by Dr. Rose and my fellow reactors on history, memory, and the power of literature reminds me of a crucial text by German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht: “Writing the Truth: 5 Difficulties” (1966). In the essay, Brecht points out five difficulties that writers must confront if they are to combat lies and ignorance propagated by those in power:

  • First is having “the courage to write the truth”, which is not that easy under extremely repressive conditions.
  • Second is developing “the keenness to recognize the truth”, not just scratching the surface of banal realities but unearthing the systemic roots of social injustice and the silenced voices of the oppressed.
  • Third is honing “the skill to use the truth as a weapon”, “with the view to the results it will produce in the sphere of action.”
  • Fourth is having the judgement to select the readers “in whose hands the truth will be effective”, especially those who are most exploited and oppressed.
  • Fifth is attaining “the cunning to spread the truth among the many”, by getting around efforts by those in power to suppress and conceal the truth.

Brecht’s insights, I contend, are crucial for our times as he also wrote amidst the darkest years of fascist rule in Germany. Brecht was forced to go to exile in the US after the Nazis came to power. Later on he was again forced to leave the US amidst the McCarthyite anti-communist witchhunts in the 1950s.

In the Philippines, American colonialism and what Renato Constantino (1970) called the “Miseducation of the Filipino” has produced a dominant literary tradition that is colonial-minded, formalist and largely devoid of concern for social ills. During Martial Law, this turned towards apologizing and glorifying dictatorship. But this did not prevent, as Dr. Rose points out, the use of literature as an Aesopean means for resistance. This also did not stop the development of what Sir Kintanar called a UG literature that not only opposed the dictatorship but called for a social revolution.

If literature is to partake in the transformation of society, it must speak of the realities, experiences, and struggles of the working masses. In order to endure and have influence beyond a small circle of intellectuals, these texts have to be linked to social movements for system change. In other words, this is a matter of democratization in the field of culture: an expansion of our view of literature beyond the center, established institutions, and personalities towards the peripheries, grassroots, and masses.

I agree with my fellow reactor, Ms. Dee, that a large part of the problem has to do with the education system. As Sir Kintanar pointed out, the social ills of the Marcos regime persisted beyond the EDSA uprising. This includes the education sector which did not institute efforts to educate the people on the evils of the dictatorship. Institutions like the university must thus be seen as sites of contestation where a progressive agenda must be advanced. The teaching of subjects like the Philippine Studies 21, the General Education subject on language, literature, and culture under Martial Law, is a step in this direction.

Developed by Philippine Studies faculty at the Departmento ng Filipino at Panitikan ng Pilipinas, PS 21 was taught for the first time in UP Diliman last semester. We are very happy that UP Cebu will be adopting the course through the efforts of Dr. Rose and fellow educators. The subject is the application in concrete practice of what the lecture forwarded: making literature serve as antidote to the twisting of truths made by those in power. There are important efforts to bring the subject to other UP campuses. I hope this can be extended outside the UP system.

Going back to the question of literature as antidote, it is imperative to think of social practices and modes of producing, distributing, and re-mediating literature. Or as Brecht formulated the question: of making the truth reach a critical mass that have the power to collectively transform unjust social structures. This remains the classic problem of raising the standards and popularization among the working masses. To illustrate this concretely, allow me to share two events:

  • I remember in one Philippine Studies course I attended in 2017 encountering an anthology of poems and short stories by workers of PHILACOR published in 1976. The company held a regular literary competition for its employees and compiled the winning entries. What struck me was that one of the poems was in fact Amado Hernandez’s “Bayani” honoring the working class but published under the winning employee’s name.
  • Back in 2014, I attended an assembly of Tumandok indigenous peoples organizations in the hinterland barangays of Calinog, Iloilo. The Tumandok present then discussed the challenges of the construction of the Jalaur Mega Dam and militarization displacing their communities. During the cultural night on the last day of the assembly, I was awed to hear one Tumandok reciting line by line “Kung Tuyo na ang Luha mo, Aking Bayan” by Amado Hernandez (1996, but originally penned in 1930) among a repertoire of indigenous chants, dances, and performances.

Literature in-itself, however, is not enough to effect social change. To repeat Marx (1844), ideas can indeed be a material force if they are embraced by the masses. But ultimately, the weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of the weapon for material for can only be overthrown by material force.

Nevertheless, in these two instances we see how the poems of Hernandez, nationalist writer and working class leader, helped in the conscientization of their readers. Indeed, it is these narratives and truths about the abuses of the dictatorship and the various acts of resistance across the nation, among various classes and sectors that must be popularized to challenge the dominant narratives propagated by the state and ruling factions in social media, mass media, and textbooks.

References

Brecht, Bertolt. 1966. Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties. In Galileo. New York: Grove Press.

Calixto, Jess. Ed. 1976. May awit ang bakal: Kalipunan ng mga tula, sanaysay at maikling kuwento na sinulat ng mga manggagawa at empleyado ng PHILACOR.

Constantino, Renato. 1970. The Miseducation of the Filipino. In Communication and Class Struggle 1. Capitalism, Imperialism, eds. Armand Mattelart and Seth Siegelaub. Bagnolet: International Mass Media Research Center.

Hernandez, Amado. 1996. Isang Dipang Langit: Katipunan ng mga tula ni Amado V. Hernandez. Quezon City: Ken Inc.

Marx, Karl. 1844. Introduction. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

Mojares, Resil. 2002. Waiting for Mariang Makiling: Essays in Cultural History. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University.

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