OUR UNFINISHED PAST
by UP Press Director Dr. J. Neil C. Garcia
President Alfredo Pascual, Vice-President Giselle Padilla Concepcion, university officials, members of the university faculty, students, our beloved authors, guests, ladies and gentlemen: a pleasant afternoon, and welcome to our year-end Paglulunsad.
This has undoubtedly been a most stressful and tragic year, but as we celebrate the launching of nineteen new books, we cannot help but feel hopeful, heartened, and full of gratitude.
As we know, a book—as well as the literacy it both presumes and promotes—not only palliates the pain of all of the losses that we have suffered as an academic community and as a nation; in many ways a book also possesses the unique ability to transfigure and ennoble it.
Writing and/or reading—what a book performatively is—presupposes as well as cultivates the ability to enact consciousness, and to do so repetitively and enduringly. It extends and proliferates memory, creating a public discourse through which new ways of seeing and speaking—new modes of agency—may be said unfold. Literacy has most certainly been one of the great civilizational milestones, on whose cosmologizing narratives modern social formations like the nation are founded.
Of course, books were also among the casualties of the past year, as many of us who lost precious libraries and collections to the Faculty Center fire last April only too harrowingly know. However, as was my “message” in our collective launch earlier this year, being “print redundancies” books are very seldom ever definitively or altogether lost: as long as there’s a copy of a particular tome existing out there—or as long as it’s actually been read by someone—in a manner of speaking, despite its cellulose-and-ink fragility, the book will always endure.
In other words, what literacy does, what books do, is help establish a culture of mindfulness and remembering—a culture that sadly only precariously exists in our country, constitutively determined as it still is, as we still are, by an immemorial orality, whose residual but staunchly powerful presence persists to this day.
I’ve been making and speechifying about this particular “cultural reading” from my very first “opening remarks,” back in the middle of 2011: literacy is our nation’s most important and unfinished project, that’s actually its “condition of possibility.” Modernity and all its productions—including if not especially the national—are made possible by the cognitive turn away from orality toward textuality, whose powerful and socially binding fictions (or myths) are no longer clan-centered, regional, or parochial, but rather much vaster—more capacious.
The nation as the consolidation of individuals and diverse local and linguistic groupings is necessarily a literate or text-based allegory, an accomplishment of the imaginal and imaginative sort that distinguishes itself from the myths of oral lore because the community to which it refers (and that it discursively enacts) is in many ways a grand and aspirational abstraction, whose essence is both here and not-here, at once present and ever-aborning.
Like our launching back in May, our celebration this afternoon bids us to be thankful for the harvest of ethical knowledges and aesthetic experiences that these new and wonderful titles must occasion. As always, these latest offerings from the official publishing house of our country’s one and only national university range across the natural and social sciences and the humanities, and they represent the best thoughts of the best minds of an eminent gathering of local and translocal critics, scholars, and writers.
It’s of course interesting to note that in our country, the identity of the “artist-critic” has been synonymous with the identity of the public intellectual. Easily the imposing figure of our country’s founding father, Jose Rizal, comes to mind: both a creative writer and an astute social commentator and critic, Rizal couched his copious writings in the poetic and novelistic forms on one hand, and in the polemically essayistic, epistolary, and annotative, on the other.
While offhand this would seem to indicate the complexity of this role, to my mind the fact that it persists to this day points to the same potent orality—which is to say, the same textually preliminary and delicate state—that Rizal’s own heroic commitment to scripturality struggled with. An extremely literate and in the Filipinas of the nineteenth century uniquely exceptional and socially alienated man, Rizal obviously—literally—wrote against the grain of his “transitional” native culture.
More than a century hence we are still, more or less, transitioning—grappling with the same cognitive dispensation that’s characterized by an abiding resistance against the impersonality of categories as well as the persistence of clientelist ties and familial or regional devotions, many of which militate against the ideals of genuine national solidarity and therefore prevent the culture of meritocracy from taking tenacious root. In many cases, our literary writers are still also incestuously our critics because given the enormity of the task—as well as the absence of any sustained or widespread readership—they simply must hunker down and work double-time in order to frantically produce readings and critiques for creative texts that, ideally, somebody else should be analyzing.
Indeed, the evidence of an abiding oral dispensation abounds in and surrounds us, perhaps never more glaringly than in the recent months. What’s “populism” if not the sway of unexamined sentiment and the paucity of reflective thought? What are the shame and impunity of historical forgetting if not the manifestations of an uneven and superficial literacy, that’s simply not inclined—simply not equipped—to read complexly, in order to remember and understand the increasingly beleaguered archives of witness and testimony? What’s the absence of righteous indignation if not the general inability to think in categorical terms and, where necessary, to pass categorical judgment?
And yet, it’s also true that because much of what defines us as a people remains situationally and orally coded, this very same abiding orality cannot be disowned by us, for indeed it’s where the largely undiscovered wealth of our folk knowledges resides.
One of the titles we are launching here today is our fifth installment of the complete epic corpus of the Panay Bukidnon people. A colossal accomplishment of the team of UP Visayas researchers and translators admirably headed by Professor Emeritus Alicia P. Magos, the thirteen-volume sugidanon and its publication represent a signal event in the history of Philippine academic publishing. It’s certainly one of the UP Press projects that I’m happiest and proudest about. In fact, I consider it my own great fortune that this series commenced during my watch as its Director.
As I discovered soon enough, one of the most gratifying personal perks of this post has to do with being able to get first dibs on manuscripts. Every so often I do some copyediting as well, which provides a perfect opportunity for me to practice using the proofreader’s marks that I first learned to use back in high school, when I served as an editor for our school paper.
One of the greatest reading pleasures I’ve had the privilege of relishing these past years has been courtesy of this epic series, whose marvelous stories have been intoned and sung from communal Kinaray-a memory by, among others, the Caballero family of chanters. Because these different epics tell the adventures of genealogies of related and allied folk heroes and gods, we can consider them as components not of multiple but rather of one singular and masterful Epic—a breathtakingly majestic story that, all told, matches the sweep and depth of the other great epics of the world.
It strikes me that the epics of our peoples, because they are myths, can be read in both allegorical and sociological ways. As mythology, these stories are temporal expressions whose referent is transcendent. They thus inform both the rituals and the symbols that the Panay Bukidnon have created in order to understand human existence in its all stages. From this perspective, these archetypal tales of departure, transformation, and return are not false at all. They are, rather, about accessing the knowledge and experience of the deepest kinds of truth.
We can call this function “mystical,” and what it implies is that myths ultimately elicit a sense of wonder and awe, as they urge us to realize the mystery of our selves, and of the universe we live in—the mystery implicit in all the forms of creation. Reading and experiencing myths, we come to see that our actual situations, like the different situations of the characters of these stories, are underpinned by a transcendent truth. Clearly, for the Panay Bukidnon, this truth is the Unity that they recognize as the foundation of all being. While these stories acknowledge the inescapability of duality—male and female, sky and earth, young and old, one and many, friend and foe, living and dead, and of course, good and evil—again and again their intuition yearns toward transcending such differences by dreaming into the Oneness that radiates from the heart of their innermost Source.
This is an intuition that, because it’s expressed metaphorically, urges a complex appreciation of the world. Like all other instances of the poetic imagination, it eschews simplistic logic and apprehends many things—shadow and light—all at once. The hero Labaw Donggon can be a thief; a monstrous-looking and cave-dwelling sorceress can be a nurturing mother; the dead can be resurrected; mortals can ascend into the abode of the gods, or descend into the realm of the spirits; enemies can turn out to be long-lost relatives or friends; and denizens of the sky-world (from whom earthly creatures may trace their ultimate ancestry) can deign to intervene in human affairs, especially when these are proving to be foolish or unproductive. Indeed, again and again, Nature is recognized to be irrefutably Divine by these tales, as is the humanity that springs and is inextricable from it.
Clearly, there’s much to be gained from the revisiting of our folk knowledges, if only for the mystical insights that they proffer—insights that can possibly help contemporary artists think in nondualistic and complex ways. As an antidote to the binaristic agonies imposed on us by the arrival of colonial (metaphysical) religion, these primordial stories of initiation, death, and restoration can rekindle astonishment in us. Contemporary artists who engage in the business of “mythopoesis” or mythopoeia—the creative appropriation of folkloric material—will of course need to translate these oral themes into textual media, thereby lending them a shapeliness and a categorical “newness” that their original tellers couldn’t have anticipated.
And yet, we need to realize that mythology has other functions, too, and it is in regard to these that we can take reflective stock. As historical documents or artifacts, our people’s native myths can describe for us elements and “qualities” of the past that, in our case, may still not be quite finished, and may still animate and influence our lives in the present time.
Myths are representational in that they, like science, offer descriptions of reality. Of course, we need to say that, in this regard, myths have most certainly been nullified or rendered obsolete by much of mainstream or “classical” science (we do need to also quickly say that the cutting-edge and more theoretical sciences of today are already moving toward the recognition of indeterminacy—even occasionally acceding to the old mythological intuition that what’s real is, quite possibly, ultimately unknowable). Finally, and quite crucially, mythology also serves to legitimate the social order, as it exists. It’s in this sense that myths are culturally bound as well as place-specific: they are entirely the products of their own time and circumstance.
The problem of fundamentalism is precisely its literalist reduction of mythology—which is, by the way, what scriptural religions really are—to its representational function, to the neglect of the rest. And yet, just now it occurs to me that it’s by reading the Panay Bukidnon epics sociologically that I believe it may be possible to embrace as well as register specific demurrals against the oral mind that generated them. This exercise will force us to locate these stories in their social and empirical worlds, within which they arose, and made sense, and functioned in a variety of didactic, spiritual, and practical ways.
Needless to say, to the degree that these worlds no longer effectively obtain, we need to see just how specific the efficacy of this form of thinking inevitably is. Hence, we may need to shed off or at least selectively reject it, if only to better recognize—as well as cope with—the contours of our own present-day exigencies.
The book Pahagunong, whose presentation copy we are launching today, is named after the character of a powerful sorcerer, who is smitten with desire for the lovely Matan-Ayon, the beloved first wife of the hero, Labaw Donggon. We need to say that just before this, Labaw Donggon had been magically transformed into a pawikan or sea turtle because he had chewed on betel nut that his mischievous second wife had given him. This spiteful woman wanted to punish him for refusing to take her with him in his sea voyage, and so she mixed into the quid bits of ground tortoiseshell, over which she secretly intoned her wicked enchantment.
The metamorphosis isn’t all of a sudden, however, and just before Abaw (one of Labaw Donggon’s many epithets) becomes completely transformed and lured by his new and abyssal nature into the heart of the ocean, he is able to instruct his younger brother—the devoted and teenaged Paubari—to protect the beautiful Ayon at all cost.
Husbandless and peerless in her pulchritude, Ayon indeed catches—soon enough—the covetous eye of the powerful Pahagunong, who lives somewhere in the upper regions. Paubari duels with the shameless interloper, and their battle is a spectacular display of martial and magical prowess, involving the wielding—as well as the invoking—of weapons as varied as gigantic bolos and majestic shields, fearful tempests, the sudden descent of midnight-bleakness in the middle of the day, and pestilential swarms of belligerent bees. (It’s rather funny but also telling of our culture’s love for “kibitzing” that entire villages serve as the enraptured audience for this supernatural joust).
Because Paubari is young, his strength starts to flag after a few months of nonstop fighting (that sees both their formerly impeccable battle garments turning ratty and mildewed). An enchantress in her own right (who had apprenticed with her foster-mother, the magical monster Amburukay), Ayon transforms herself into a lordly young male warrior, and takes over from her exhausted brother-in-law. She offers comparable resistance to the lustful invader, who is now and again disoriented by his opponent’s uncharacteristically female—because disarmingly floral—scent. An ally of Labaw Donggon arrives to take over from Ayon, but Pahagunong simply will not concede, nor be beaten. Finally, Labaw Donggon himself returns just in time, to do battle with the dastardly intruder. He has reverted to his human shape after Laon Sina, the grandmother of all the gods and Panay’s supreme deity, decided to step in and intervene.
The duel goes on unabated, with the magical repartees coming at an ever fiercer and more fantastical rate. Because it’s clear that Pahagunong and Abaw are equals in miraculous prowess, and that neither can vanquish the other, Laon Sina decides to simply declare a truce and restore the status quo, recalling the little-known truth that both parties had, after all, shared the same ancestors in the remote past.
This “pacifist” ending, this kind of resolution, isn’t actually unique to this epic: it gets repeated, in various but comparable guises, in many other episodes (in a subsequent book, the envious usurper, Sinagnayan, after a protracted swordfight gets beheaded by Labaw Donggon, and Laon Sina once again descends to the battle scene, this time to reprimand the hero for unknowingly killing his own older and long-lost brother, who had been kind enough not to corrupt their mother’s womb and therefore made it possible for him to be subsequently born; whereupon she instructs Abaw to resurrect him by reattaching the severed head to its neck and intoning a magical spell).
I was surprised to discover, reading these epics, that what I had taken to be a “telenovela-derived” melodramatic plot convention—involving changelings and the game-changing revelation of long-kept family secrets—is actually pretty “indigenous.” But what’s truly astonishing (and troubling) is the insight on the peaceful resolution of dispute and conflict that these stories urged upon the communities that they symbolized and served—a resolution that argued for the primacy of sameness despite the mediation of apparent difference, even or especially when it concerned social iniquity or the willful commission of injustice by one party against another.
Doubtless, a transcendental and “unifying” intuition informs this notion of justice, but sociologically it also makes sense, inasmuch as this ancient people lived in a world comprised only of one island, whose villages and settlements were all connected with one another through alliances of marriage or trade. It made sense to appeal to reconciliation based on clan-mediated affinities and devotions inasmuch as the society concerned was monocultural, demographically small, and therefore, in many ways, endogamously manageable.
The orality that constituted the form and substance of these myths efficiently served its purpose because this world was not remotely a nation in the modern sense: its idea of community was not so much imagined as ritually performed—each and every time the villagers gathered around the chanter to listen to the public performance of these tales, whose referents were identifiably themselves.
Just now it occurs to me: the self that the oral mind emanated from, enacted, and nourished was a communal and not an individual self. This was a self that interpreted its locality’s familiar stories in collectively performed and public ways. This was a self whose interest was inseparable from the interest of the community to which it belonged. In other words, oral subjectivity emerged out of a personalistic and mostly socially cohesive world, where interrelationships were directly mediated through elders and clan leaders, and where meanings were of necessity ritualistically performed and shared.
The nation, by contrast, finds its cogency in its being imaginatively proposed across gulfs of diversity and numerousness. In its modern form it has flourished through the private and public experiences of literacy—from Constitutions and nationally endorsed narratives, to newspapers and novels—negotiated as these have been through the emergence and eventual hegemony of print capitalism and all the imaginative and national-language-based literatures it has spawned. The literate mind is necessarily individualistic: reading/writing is a solitary experience, that repeats the self to itself, instating and congealing its ontological separateness from others.
And yet, despite or precisely because of such literate “individuations,” textual meanings within this episteme can be and indeed are stabilized, precisely because unlike the spoken word the written text is a portable artifact that can be passed on from hand to hand—from reader to reader—and stay more or less the same. Among other things the written text has come to embody a form of attentiveness and semantic uniformity that have allowed textual consciousness to explore syntactical structures that move past the iterative, additive, and conservative sentence patterns to which orality—if only to stanch and “organize” the ebb and flow of memory—is, of necessity, committed.
I guess what I’m driving at with this strange little “excursion” into our country’s mythological heritage is that reading and knowing about our folklore can be instructive of the oral habits of thought that persist in our own troubled time. Our periodically revisable memory; the ease with which we can push categorical decisions aside in favor of regionalist or sentimental loyalties; our public yearning for heroic figures that manifests itself in our obstinately personality-oriented politics; even the populism that eschews careful and deliberate forms of critical thinking, and finds its home in the secondary or tertiary orality that approximates and conditions the distracted obliviousness of cyberspace (and all its “hypertextualities”): these are nothing if not the manifestations, or “symptoms,” of our residually oral present, whose wellspring is our powerfully oral and, in various syncretic ways, unfinished and continuing past…
The irony of course is that the digitality as a cognitive technique is a mode of symbolization that derived directly from chirography and script, exceeding and nullifying them in its ability to utterly decouple referent from sign, primarily by the unimaginable speed (and iterative volume) through which the latter has come to codify the former, effectively supplanting it. As we know the virtual is now, in many ways, the real. The digitization of knowledge, the reduction even of humanity itself to bits (and bytes) of binary-coded data, has amounted not so much to the promotion of truth as to its post-ing or supersession, producing mis/information “dumps” that overwhelm and displace the verifiable and the veridical, eventuating in what can only be described as an epistemological crisis unique to our own informationally overwhelmed, inattentive, and profoundly distracted time.
This, among other reasons, is why we must continue to champion old-fashioned print or book-based literacy—especially where it is of the creative and/or imaginative sort. Only through its sustained and luminous acts of attention can our memory finally persist, and can we begin to think more categorically—and yet at the same time also more complexly—as we endeavor to envision and actualize the intuitions of democratic life, for which our true and authentic heroes (almost all of them widely-read bookworms and intellectuals) sacrificed themselves.
Our oral inheritance and its gifts of numinous awareness will, hopefully, always be with us—since orality, if it cannot survive as a cultural mode, will most certainly persist as a cognitive orientation—but we clearly need to nurture the modicum of functional literacy we already (arguably) have, and resolve to deepen and transform it into a habit of mind and heart, a kind of textual or “archival” consciousness. As scientific studies are now increasingly revealing, democratic ideals are all premised on empathy, which we in the arts have long known to be best nourished through immersion in the slow and painstaking “soul-work” of reading and writing, which are, of course, the matter and form of the humanities. An all-embracing empathy is the bequest of the inspiring—and “inspiriting”—local, national, and global stories, images, and myths that literature and the rest of the humanities continue to embody and offer to Life’s inquisitive and never-ending student…
And so, once again, allow me to welcome you all to our year-end Paglulunsad.
To conclude these rather weird (yet again) opening remarks, I’d like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the administration of President Alfredo E. Pascual; to my beautifully indefatigable, complex, and complexity-loving boss, Vice-President for Academic Affairs Giselle Padilla Concepcion; to the members of the happily crazy OVPAA family; to the wonderfully hard-working, dedicated, and gorgeous Team UP Press; and to all our partner printers, artists, and many others, who have helped us carry out our publishing—which is to say, our literacy—campaign across the past half-decade. As you may have noticed, this campaign has seen the UP Press endeavoring past its traditional role as producer and marketer and taking on the role of “academic partner.” In our efforts to create both a social and a critical life for our books, we have sponsored book forums, symposiums, and contests, and have carried out a variety of creative “multiplatform” programs and promotions, on- and offline.
Many thanks and congratulations to all the authors whose books we are today celebrating and letting loose upon the world.
Many thanks and congratulations to all the wonderful authors of the UP Press—and of course, to all our loyal and avid readers.
A warm and pleasant afternoon to everyone.[Delivered, in abridged form, at the year-end book launching of the University of the Philippines Press, 25 November 2016, Balay Kalinaw, University of the Philippines Diliman]