Postcolonialism and Filipino Poetics*
by J. Neil C. Garcia

This paper is an abridged version of a chapter from my forthcoming book,Postcolonialism and Filipino Poetics, which itself comes out of my recently completed dissertation in Creative Writing [1] at the UP Diliman. The book is comprised of essays and critiques on poetry—the former being personal reflections on themes, aspects, occasions, influences and concerns of my poems over the course of roughly ten years, the latter being a critical interrogation, from the perspective of postcolonial discourse, into the dominant poetic theories in the Philippines today.

For this presentation, I will attempt to synthesize my critiques of the poetics written by the foremost commentators on Filipino poetries in Tagalog and in English—namely, Virgilio S. Almario and Gémino H. Abad. Here, I summarize their individual “positions” on the question not only of poetry but also of agency and identity. Proposing a reconsideration of my earlier polemic against each, I shall conclude by describing an alternative, postcolonial “frame,” within which to revaluate their respective projects.

First, a statement of the obvious: the foremost critics of Filipino poetry are themselves its producers and/or promoters.

Nonetheless, that the most sustained work in this otherwise scholarly area of Filipino poetic theory has not come from the critics but from the writers to me reveals howroutinary this activity is: it seems, in this country, there’s no division of labor between scholars and artists, so much so that most of them happen to be both. Despite its implications regarding the incestuous insularity of the country’s literary community, still I find this an inspiriting thought. To my mind, it indicates the presence of a measure of reflexivity in our writers, who may be seen to “reflect” on the intricacies of the creative process, now and again.

In engaging the writings of the foremost critic of Tagalog poetry, the poet Virgilio S. Almario, as well as the musings of his counterpart in Filipino poetry in English, another poet, Gémino H. Abad, I have availed myself in this study of a generous helping of theories of postcoloniality. Examining these Filipino critics’ premises and contentions in the dappled light of postcolonial discourse, we discover that while there are clear divergences, there are also, surprisingly enough, convergences between them.

Unlike Almario’s study of twentieth-century Filipino (actually, Tagalog) poetry, Abad’s work [2] has primarily been the anthologizing of what he considers the most “important” poems of the country’s most “important” poets in English. Nonetheless, in his introduction to the anthology’s last volume, he articulates a theory of Filipino poetry. Its intriguing thesis is that Filipino poets have succeeded in Filipinizing, in the course of a hundred years, the otherwise foreign medium of English. To him, the three phases of Filipino poetry in English—Romantic, Formalist and Post-structural—adumbrate the contours of this history of Filipinization. Our poets have accomplished this goal using the power of their imagination, an intuitive faculty which has been guided by a collective desire to return to the Filipino’s “spiritual homeland.” For Abad, a country is how its poets figure her, a nation is nothing if not “a work of imagination.”

By emphasizing the poet’s role not only in the imagining of the nation but also in the decolonizing of English, Abad’s may be called an “expressive” theory of poetry, in the main. He doesn’t much talk about the role of the reader, nor of the reading and writing contexts of Filipino poetry in English, which constitute what are otherwise known as the affective and referential functions of literature.

Crucial elements in his expressive theory are, first, the strangely “Romantic” contention that a “natural” language (like English, Tagalog, French, etc.) is merely a tool or technique which a writer avails herself of, and which she uses and isn’t used by; and second, the reason poetry is able to “decolonize” the language in which it is written is that it is, in fact, another language altogether, whose evocative power enables the writer to “transcend” the cultural and historical ground in which she writes, for every poem is, in the end, not in any natural language but from it.  And yet, despite downplaying the mimetic function of poetry, Abad does emphasize the “Filipinoness” in his selections. What’s significant is that, in his articulation, this Filipinoness would seem to lie not so much in a poem’s stylistic qualities as in its representational content. Thus, his “transcendental” tendencies notwithstanding, Abad views Filipino poetry as having a very real, referential link to Filipino social and historical realities.

On the other hand, Almario’s work, [3] spread out over several books, describes a more dizzyingly plural (as he put it, masalimuot) terrain. His project in his monumental study from 1984 is to attend to the tensions between traditional and Americanized systems of poetic composition, which he calls Balagtasismo andModernismo, respectively. The former is comprised of both indigenous and “naturalized” elements from the Hispanic cultural legacy in the islands, while the latter stands for all the ideologies of modernization introduced into the country from the American period onward. As a whole, we can see his preference for modernist poetry, not the least because of all the verbally invigorating innovations it has wrought on the otherwise stodgy and “backward” tradition of Tagalog prosody that had been codified by and as Balagtasismo. In any case, despite their differences in terms of aesthetic concerns, both ismos are, paradoxically enough, equally committed to various projects of nationalist liberation. (They champion the emergence and spread of a national language, for example.)

It must be clarified that such ideologies and influences have largely been “indigenized” (isinakatutubo) by the Filipino poet, who would seem to be, for Almario, the person best equipped to undertake such a task. In a later book, he assigns to the poet the task of rediscovering what he alternately calls the “Filipino genius” (henyong Filipino) and the “national self” (pambansang kaakuhan). In fact, the method of poetic analysis he endorses—a method he calls “Bagong Pormalismong Filipino”—may be seen to lean toward the examination and celebration of just this “genius/selfhood” In other words: precisely because it is a politically and culturally interested kind of formalism, this criticism’s main mission is to identify and ap/praise all the formal choices which the Filipino poet makes in the process of creating his Filipino poems. Here, we realize that, just like Abad, Almario is pursuing an “expressive” theory of poetry.

Absent in Abad but present in Almario is a lengthy diatribe against the old kind of “colonial” literary criticism that uncritically employed Western theories and concepts in the reading of local texts. Not surprisingly, such criticism found these selfsame texts “wanting.” Almario makes certain intriguing pronouncements in this respect, and they all have to do with his belief in the unassailable agency of the native in the face of the colonial project. For Almario, the cross-cultural “contact” that was imperialism may be described as the invariable victory of the native in its struggle (tunggalian) against the foreign.

In his account of things, the colonized have never lost the power to transform and indigenize the “colonial imposition,” to turn it relevant and responsive to the native situation— needless to say to divest it of its ideological baggage, and thereby make it “originally Filipino.” His own decision to “adapt” Western terminologies and even, in his critiques of individual modernist poets, philosophies like Existentialism, Romanticism and Marxism—in seeming violation of his own declared polemic about the need to abadon all colonial mentality—proceeds from his unflinching confidence in his own ability to nativize, to borrow what is useful, and to throw away what isn’t. Unfortunately, just exactly what cognitive, linguistic and/or cultural mechanism makes this “native opportunism” work remains unclear in his discourse.

Another distinction in Almario’s work is its “programmatic” quality. That all his critical engagements profess an avowed agendum may be witnessed in his discussion of Filipino national culture and the especially fraught question of the national language.

To Almario’s mind, Filipino national culture is fed by three sources, which he calls “constellations”: the Filipinized Hispanic legacy (chiefly Christianity and the colonial system of feudalism); the Reform and Revolutionary movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and finally, the oldest, most important and least acknowledged source of all—the many indigenous cultures, of whose invaluable wisdom the great majority of Filipinos have yet to become aware. In a particular critique, he dramatizes his preference for this third source—this native “constellation” of nationalist awareness or pambansang kamalayan—by lauding the efforts of two young poets in “appropriating” images and objects from various Philippine myths.

Missing in his “conceptual galaxy” is Filipino culture during and after the American conquest—a predictable omission, come to think of it, since in all his books he consistently displays a suspicious if not downright hostile attitude toward Americanization’s most enduring legacy, the English language. It would seem that despite his periodic acknowledgment of the “debt” Filipino Modernists owe the Americanization process—for instance, he surmises that it was precisely because of their colonial education that a number of Filipino writers came to realize the beauty and “greatness” of their own native culture—Almario will not grant the possibility that Filipino writers working in English may, in fact, be “good” nationalists as well.

As compared to Abad, Almario bears the extra burden of “theorizing” not only poetry but also the national language. Thus, while both of them traffic in their own versions of nationalist polemics, Almario’s critical oeuvre covers ground that Abad’s simply cannot. Perhaps as an extension of his “inward-looking” and “indigenizing” perspective on matters of poetic “importation,” Almario defends the idea of a linguistic “standard,” a selfconscious “basis” in the otherwise “natural” and unselfconscious evolution of the supposedly aborning national language, the Philippine lingua franca henceforth to be called “Filipino.”

Unlike the other players in the boisterous game of the pambansang wika, Almario doesn’t mind declaring that Filipino ought to be based on Tagalog, especially as far as its grammatical structures and orthographic principles are concerned. On the other hand, he welcomes the prospect of lexically “enriching” this Tagalog-based Filipino by allowing it to assimilate the culturally unique words (especially nouns and pronouns) of the “regional” languages. Thus, Almario’s belief in the indigenizing power of the Filipino writer is an expression of his generally conservative attitude toward cultural transformation as a whole, both as it occurs in literature and in the broader field of language. In the same way that he insists contemporary poets “go native,” despite their modernist inclinations, Almario prescribes a fidelity to the traditional grammatical and orthographic principles of Tagalog. This prescriptiveness is apparent in his bellicose critiques of Taglish, swardspeak, and all other hybridizing registers of the native language. (The names he calls the words such registers engender are all variations on the “mongrel” theme.)

It should be clear, then, that both Abad and Almario propose comparable theories of agency that do not seem to recognize its historically and culturally constituted and therefore constrained “nature.”  They also make very similar assumptions regarding the essential difference, or “gap,” between the native and the foreign, the colonized and the colonizer, the powerless and the powerful. Their idea of the poem as the logical and extraordinary result of an author’s “formal” decisions bespeaks a humanist attitude toward the unproblematic knowability of the poetic object. They both believe in the all-important role literature plays in national liberation, and apotheosize the Filipino poet as the exemplary kind of writer who can, in Almario’s case, recover the indigenous self, and in Abad’s somewhat “messianic” discourse, lead her people back to their “spiritual homeland.” If only because of their unshakeable faith in the Filipino poet’s ability to successfully “negotiate”  the cultural content of language (among other amazing feats), we may conclude that there appear to be clearly personal and “expressivist” investments being made in their otherwise critical and even  “historiographic” enterprises. This is only to be expected, after all, since Abad and Almario are also poets.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that Almario’s  ambitious study of Tagalog modernist poetry and Abad’s survey of a century’s worth of Filipino poetry in English are primarily accomplishments of a highly deliberate, analytic and critical sort. Thus, as has been my own considered judgment in my critical study, they must finally be treated as such. We must remember that disavowing any theoretical affiliation is itself a theory—”Romanticism” or “Post-Romanticism,” we may for the most part call it—and even as this supposedly “atheoretical” position simply seeks to celebrate the artist’s individual genius and sovereign imagination, in the end it doesn’t offer a personal theory of artistic creativity alone. Romanticism is, despite its humanist claims and the ease with which it seemingly lends itself to the pleasurable use of such claims, also a critical theory. [4] That is to say: it purveys a certain method of “viewing” or “thinking about” literature—an interpretive approach, thus. Nevertheless, the Romantic nostalgia for lost origins is clearly at the heart of both Abad’s and Almario’s theorizings, which purvey comparable notions of an essential Filipino soul, selfhood, etc. that are supposedly pre-social and beyond historical determination. Admittedly, in this respect, it is Almario who has, however, covered a lot more ground. Not only does he purvey a poetics, he also offers a literary history as well as the outlines of a national language policy. 

By virtue of these orientations, Abad’s and Almario’s theorizings evince similar “problems,” especially in relation to postcolonial theory. As my study has demonstrated, these involve questions of hybridity, language, essentialism, universalism, and in Almario’s “pro-Tagalog” case in particular, internal colonialism. Insofar as both of them profess nationalist beliefs, we might say that these problems have a lot to do with the hegemonic discourse and practice of the species of Filipino nationalism to which they subscribe, and of which they probably are, within their own respective “fields,” the most popular proponents.

Central to all these is the question of “agency”; that is, of exactly how colonized peoples are able to respond and resist, given the overwhelming determinations of colonial power. The Algerian revolutionary, Frantz Fanon, believes that there is, in the “cultural nationalist” phase, a teleological movement away from false consciousness toward true consciousness that “naturally” exists in any decolonizing project. [5]

From being utterly and helplessly “enslaved,” the native subject of colonialism awakens from her slumber and progressively becomes more and more aware, until she is able to challenge the imperial dispensation, first through culture, and then, finally, through armed revolution. This Fanonian model isn’t what Almario and Abad obviously believe in—even as it partially accounts for them—for while they assume a similar narrative of cultural national “awakening” and discursive struggle against the foreign aggressors, they do not and perhaps cannot imagine the need for a material revolution to complement what to them is probably a permanent period of cultural nationalism.

Like Fanon, however, who built his model on a refunctioned version of Enlightenment “humanism,” both Abad and Almario forego problematizing the question of agency in their poetics, positing the existence of a native self, consciousness or imagination, that exists apart from the epistemological structures that colonialism set in place, and attributing to this self, as with Fanon, the same humanist hubris of self-determination, sovereignty, and a form of transcendental knowing. In both their reflections, it is the poet who is the exemplary Filipino, for it is she who can decolonize and indigenize the foreign (in Abad’s case, English; in Almario’s all the “modern” ideologies and practices of Americanization, except for the pestiferous scourge of English, which obviously needs to be expunged), as well as recover the erstwhile lost “Filipino homeland,” “country,” or “indigenous self.”

Precisely because of their comparable obsessions with nationalist questions of identity, what  Abad’s and Almario’s poetics will be similarly had put to answer to is the postcolonial critique of essentialist politics, as well as the kind of critique that the late Marxist critic, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, as early as the 1960s, already valiantly proposed: situating all issues of literary and cultural “development” within the context of the Philippine nation-state’s dominant mode of production—which is to say, its socioeconomic system. [6] We might say that in the past century, the class-oriented critique mounted by Daroy and other Filipino Marxist critics against the purely “culturalist” position of nationalists like Almario and Abad offers what may well be one of the strongest and most challenging theories of the Philippine postcolonial situation. In the first place, in Western academe where it was first recognized, postcolonialism represented and continues to represent the return of “class” as an index of analysis, [7] all questions concerning Europe’s former and present colonies being inescapably linked, to the Western critic’s mind, to the issue of political and economic power, after all.

It is in locations within the “non-West”—for instance, the Philippines—that the specifying of class needs to be visibilized inside the broader spectrum of anticolonialist discourse, for in these places power is so dispersed across multiple hierarchies and structures that resistance against colonial domination cannot necessarily be seen as leading to a liberation from all forms of social depredation, inequality, and “poverties.” Fanon may have wisely foreseen that new and oppressive bourgeoisies will continue to hold sway in post-independence nations, which is why he needed to qualify that in the “natural evolution” of things a revolution is unavoidable, despite or precisely because of the intervening period of cultural nationalism. But like many other Marxists of his time, he did not completely realize how issues of identity and subject-positionality other than class—namely, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, etc.—would end up complicating the question of liberation, thereby effectively confounding the “national problem” itself. As I hope to have limned in this study, postcolonialism and its polyvalent critiques and analyses represent such a complication and “confounding.” On a certain level of argument, and especially in relation to the imbricated questions of power and class, postcolonial discourse may be seen as nothing if not an updating or a “reworking” of  Marxist ideals. [8]

Because postcolonialism—despite the singular experience of colonization to which it arose as an oppositional response—isn’t quite a unified movement across the world, postcolonial accounts of agency are admittedly split along the opposite lines of “determination” and “freedom,” as well. In recent years, however, on account of postmodern revisionings of the central precepts of Western hegemony, postcolonial theory has tended toward a more dialectical and complicated rethinking of the problem of resistance and agency. In my analyses of Abad’s and Almario’s poetics, I invoked Homi K. Bhabha’s theory of hybridity, inasmuch as I feel it provides one of the more cogent—not to mention, interesting—explanations for the necessarily “agonistic” relationship between colonizer and colonized in the necessarily ambivalent colonial space. [9]

Bhabha expatiates upon this ambivalence using a recognizably Freudian vocabulary: both the colonizer and the colonized deride and desire each other, and this is because their respective identities are nothing if not fantasies constructed against (and thus founded upon) an Otherness they secretly crave and yet  passionately disavow.[10] Moreover, the mimicry by the latter of the former may be seen as enactments of this ambivalence, for the colonial subject ends up becoming an “approved, revised Other” who embodies both a likeness and an unlikeness, “a difference that is almost the same, but not quite.” [11] Precisely for this reason, colonial mimicry poses a menace to imperialist authority, simply because at its very best it can only amount to a mockery and caricaturizing of the colonial models. Finally, all this leads Bhabha to conclude that “in the very practice of domination the language of the master becomes hybrid—neither the one thing nor the other.” [12]

As I have argued in my critiques, what Bhabha is crucially implying is that no colonial imposition ever maintains its original integrity and no “imported” concept ever stays the same in the context of a local culture that always manages to syncretize, resignify, renew  and “transculturate” them. Thus, colonial power isn’t anything like the monolithic and totalizing mechanism that Edward Said’s Orientalism assumes it to be, for it is always already mimicked and menaced, hated and loved at the exact same moment of its arrival in the “native” space. [13] Obviously, as against the xenophobic and “reverse ethnocentric” dogmatisms of Philippine nativist discourse, Bhabha’s complications of the colonial encounter and its aftermath are necessary if we wish to come to even the remotest understanding of the situation of our ambivalent, helplessly hybridized lives.

The charm the notion of hybridity holds for me is that, precisely, it offers a way of rereading what is otherwise the dominant defeatist narrative of native supremacy as far as the colonial encounter is concerned. I say this is defeatist because, obviously, practically all of Filipino culture cannot be called, short of lying through one’s teeth, native or indigenous anymore, and if we are to follow the dictates of this form of “purist” nationalism then we will have no choice but to reject what is, to all intents and purposes, already, undeniably, us. Almario’s dismissive tirades against “colonial-minded criticism,” for instance, foreclose the possibility that such criticism isn’t hopelessly colonial at all, but rather—as is typically the case in postcolonial literatures—intimately informed by local forms and thus, hybrid. We might say, because he chooses not to benefit from such criticism, Almario ends up depriving himself of a vast repository of local critical sapience.

In a famous study, [14] Isagani R. Cruz discovers that “Formalist” and “New Critical” are misnomers when attributed to even the early critics of Filipino poetry in English, who apparently were performing other, extra-literary tasks alongside what used to be seen as strictly formalist analysis: for instance, myth-making and nationalist polemicizing. And in an anthology of contemporary literary criticism in English, I register a similar realization: judging from the twenty-three essays I selected, it’s clear that no matter the conceptual sophistication and level of verbal difficulty, current literary criticism in the Philippines invariably assumes a social value indissociable from the literary act, thereby preserving, in the critical enterprise, a surprisingly old-fashioned, didactic character. [15] This “feature” obviously derives from and harkens back to earlier, more local traditions in literary appreciation, and thus provides incontrovertible proof, even in the otherwise “advanced” field of theory and criticism, of a kind of “hybridity,” too.

This only goes to show that Almario’s supposedly brave and “principled” perspective redounds, tragically, to summarily surrendering what it  seeks to defend and emancipate. We see a comparable distrust or disdain for hybridity, especially as concerns its linguistic manifestations, between the poetics of Abad and Almario, for they both assume “standards” for English and Filipino (actually, Tagalog) respectively. The latter of course articulated it in his columns for the now-defunctDiario Filipino, which subsequently came out in a book, Filipino ng mga Filipino,[16] while the former’s linguistic orthodoxy, his preference for the grammatically precise and polished poetic language, is implied in his selections for his anthologies.[17]

And then, generally speaking, Almario’s theoretical “quandary” has precisely been the question of how to keep his nativist claims of cultural authenticity and integrity alongside the screamingly obvious syncretism that inheres even in his own subject-position, his own erudition and tastes, needless to say in each and every one of his  “scholarly” utterances. In the absence of a theory that can offer a way of liberating the “colonially contaminated” from its dogmatic rejection and negation, Almario’s puristic species of discursive “nationalizing” is bound to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.

Proposing that we look at our contemporary “transcultural” situation through the lens of cultural hybridity doesn’t mean that we need to overlook those spaces in our local and national life that are obviously still being “governed” by imperialist imperatives. Hybridity doesn’t deny the reality of neocolonialism, even as it seeks to clarify just how possibly it functions as a mode of representation, what its discursive fate most likely is, in the ambivalent context of non-Western cultures. In such settings, as we have seen, Western dualistic logic most likely gets refracted, modulated, deformed, hybridized. The African philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah, writing about contemporary art and literature in his native Africa, acknowledges that “the postulation of a unitary Africa over and against a monolithic West—the binarism of Self and Other—is the last of the shibboleths of the modernizers that we must learn to live without.” [18] He is thus quite skeptical of nativist attempts to retrieve any pure “essence” of a fully indigenous African culture, for, as he says, at this point in global history and owing precisely to the global experience of imperialism “we are already contaminated by each other.” It is the theory of hybridity that can most capably address this “contamination,” and rather than declare it a contagion, refunctions it as one of the more effective grounds of resistance, as a powerful form of postcolonial “cure.” It is this theory that can most convincingly explain the postcoloniality (that is to say, oppositionality) of otherwise colonial literatures, especially those written in the various languages of colonization.

Another African critic, Abdul JanMohamed, makes a related point. His work on imperialism’s “cultural logic” offers the following analysis: the binaries of colonial discourse—Self-Other, inside-outside, civilized-primitive, us-them, etc.—are “Manichean polarities,” and like all dualisms, they are inherently unstable and available to deconstruction. [19] Thus, he proposes that critics locate those moments of anticolonial rupture, those instances of subversion and dissidence in the many contemporary literary texts coming from the “Third World”— relative to the master narratives of which they are “re-inscriptions,” to which they all transgressively “write back.”

Needless to say, in order to ascertain these critical “locations,” the postcolonial critic must first be willing to accept colonial hybridity and its necessarily “complicit” character in those texts that allude to and seemingly revel in the logics and enticements of the imperial center. What’s interesting is that reckoning with cultural hybridity or “impurity” seems to prove difficult not just for our country’s grantedly Romantic and nostalgic poets, but also for its “nationalist” thinkers in general, as Caroline Sy Hau points out in her wonderful and devastating analysis of the cultural and linguistic “turns” in recent Philippine scholarship. [20] In her critical survey, Hau examines the studies written by the most influential Filipino historians in the last three decades—Reynaldo C. Ileto, Vicente L. Rafael and Zeus Salazar—all of whom proceed, to her dismay and despite the scintillating promise of their varied topics and fields of expertise, from the same idealized “linguistic” premise concerning the comparable Philippine national “communities” to which they attend.

Hau suggests that Filipino scholars begin rethinking the issue of language-and of languages-in more dynamic and plural terms. She also recommends that they be sensitive to the uses and limitations of various linguistic approaches, as well as critical of their own privileged position as “intellectuals.” Above all, they must complicate and particularize their theories by focusing on the “structures of everyday life.” Turning their attention to these “micro-exercises of power” entails giving up the search for an “authentic” or “pure” Filipino culture, soul, self, etc.—a foolish obsession, really, that misrepresents and misapprehends Philippine history itself, whose vicissitudes and dynamics cannot be completely appreciated using naively culturalist or indeed “discursive” terms alone. Hau concludes that in order to become truly relevant, Philippine scholarship needs to take greater stock of the tremendous economic and material forces that are constantly shaping and reshaping Philippine realities.  Given that Abad’s and Almario’s poetic theories both intend a nationalist polemics of “postcolonial liberation” exclusively through literary and “culturalist” means, for this very reason their respective theorizings may be said to be oblivious to Hau’s admonishing, which is the call to integrate considerations of political economy in Philippine literary theory and criticism.

As we have seen, Almario also seems quite incapable of successfully accounting for the realities of hybridity and “contamination,” mainly because his nativist dogmatism has deprived him of the ability to read ironically, that is to say, subversively.Because it is the nature of subversion to undermine “from within,” Almario, refusing as he contumaciously does to “enter” the contaminated space of colonial discourse (for instance, Filipino literatures in English),  simply cannot do it. This insular andretardataire position comes in stark contrast to that recently adopted by a companionable nationalist thinker, Bienvenido Lumbera, who in a keynote lecture at the first Iligan National Writers Workshop several years back [21] declared the need for national academe to relax its orthodoxies concerning issues of cultural identity and creative writing, and to allow and encourage the innovations by young Filipino writers—including those writing in English—so that an “authentically Filipino voice” can finally be heard. What Lumbera would seem to be saying is that it is through the subversiveness of “new” or “young” (need we say, hybrid?) Philippine literatures that a less defensively fearful and more confident sense of “Filipinoness” can prosper. Like many other postcolonial thinkers, he must have intuited how, ironically, subversion rather than complete and utter rejection from a purely native space or coign of vantage is the only possible form of resistance, for all anticolonial reactions are necessarily underwritten by the terms laid down by the experience and reality of colonialism itself. Because colonialism is the “constitutive other” of postcolonialism, the postcolonial position that fancies itself the most “native,” may well be the most colonially invested position of all.

On the other hand, while occasionally speaking of the primacy and prevalence of the indigenous “consciousness” or “sensibility” in such poetic phraseologies as “Filipino matter,” “the spiritual homeland,” and “a native clearing,” Abad’s notion of the Filipino imagination comes very, very close to the liberal humanist, for he refuses to recognize how it can be determined by the cultural context in which it historically exists. The struggle this imagination needs to mount against the essential “emptiness of words” sounds very much like a romantic or post-romantic jab at postmodernism’s routinary voiding of language, [22] rather than, perhaps, an anti-imperialist critique of contemporary Western culture’s self-referential epistemology. Admittedly, Abad hasn’t really expounded on his ideas of subjectivity enough, and even offhand, his poetics comes across as being not as nativistic as Almario’s, whose mystical Filipino selfhood regally rides on top of the “carabao” of linguistic determinism. Nonetheless, Abad’s own essentialist beliefs present themselves clearly in his imputing of a singular “sense and sensibility” to all Filipinos, poets or otherwise. Thus, the universalist orientation is more “universal” in Abad, who has absolutely no qualms quoting French, Spanish, and other poets and literary commentators, believing, as he must, that there is, at bottom, an undeniable commonality in the poetic experience across the world. This relative freedom to quote and traffic in global avenues of knowledge and information is an upshot both of humanism and of the new global reality of postmodernism, which strikes me as a supremely ironic thing.

If only because it is within postmodernism that the most radical dissections and re-sections of the monstrous conceptual mother called humanism initially took place, we may need to relate it more fully to the postcolonial question. Postmodernism and postcolonialism have often been confused with one another. This is because they share certain common preoccupations: the deconstruction of Western “master narratives”; the inversion of binaries like center-margin, Self-Other, inside-outside, etc.; the “turn to language” and its rhetorical strategies, like irony and parody; the sophisticated and dialectical analysis of power; the “indeterminacy of textual meaning”; the dismantling of the Self, [23] among many others. And yet, postcolonialism isn’t merely a political deployment of postmodernism, for it is primarily a critique of the colonial enterprise, an analysis of the various material and discursive effects of colonization, a sustained theoretical challenge to Western hegemony which has, of late, taken the form of postmodernism, precisely.

Postcolonial discourse realizes that a good part of the world isn’t leading a postmodern but rather a postcolonial existence, and that should postmodernism be seen as slowly becoming globalized nowadays it is because the old colonial structures of Eurocentrism remain stubbornly in place. In terms of literary studies, postmodernism differs from postcolonialism in that it encourages a return to the Canon (especially the post-Romantic Canon), [24] even as its primary intention for doing so is admittedly a polemical and critical one. On the other hand, because postcolonial challenges to the Western canon problematize the idea of canonicity—and of literature, in general—for this very reason they cannot, indeed may not, ever be confused with the poststructuralist project of decentering meaning for its own sake alone. As we have seen in the discussion of postcolonial literatures written inenglishes across the world, there still are non-Western modalities of meaning of which postmodernism hasn’t fully taken cognizance, and that for this reason the wholesale rejection of the search for meaning cannot be haphazardly carried out by and in postcolonial theory.

The usefulness to postcolonial discourse of postmodern decenterings of the subject and of signification can be seen from the perspective of what they say regarding the question of universality and specificity. That is to say, in the mutually constitutive terms of sameness and difference.  Simon During explains that postmodern thought has two interlocking “moments.” [25] The first recognizes and celebrates difference, the second denies the possibility that difference can ever be fully represented or known. What makes postmodernism germane to the postcolonial project is that it “refuses to turn the Other into the Same.” Meaning, postmodernism opens up a space for alterities, including those which postcolonial societies and “beings” represent.

On the other hand, postmodernism, as a philosophical stance, is also informed by the “crisis of representation” and the peculiarly postmodern concern with meaning’s indeterminate nature, and so it very quickly qualifies that there exists no way for the Other to actually “speak of itself as Other.” (Here Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s caveat concerning the danger and foolhardiness of seeking to make the subaltern speak serenely comes to mind.([26]) This corollary postmodern thought threatens postcolonialism, which in this particular economy of representation is precisely to be seen as an Other that wishes to speak (for) itself.

The only way out I see from this impasse is to qualify that while postcolonial theory has obviously benefited from the postmodern challenge to universalist humanism—quickly appropriating the space it has cleared for all manner of lived and indeed “suffered” difference in the world—it nonetheless needs to insist that there are certain occasions when postmodern assumptions that represent new forms of universalism simply need to be challenged or at least “contextualized.” In the end, despite the obvious postfoundationalist orientation to be found in my critiques of Abad’s and Almario’s poetics, I need to acknowledge that the question of identity and/or agency needs to be seen as one such possible occasion of demurral. To the nationalist question of identity I shall once again recur, for it is obviously the one issue that demands the most careful and sustained reconsideration in the whole of postcolonial discourse.

The tendency of postmodernist criticism is to challenge and dismantle all essentialist notions, precisely because they refuse to allow for the recognition and proliferation of differences that they conceptually subsume into a deluded and finally inequitable “unity.” The “national self” is one such notion, and indeed, in my critique of Abad’s and Almario’s poetics I simply needed to champion the “plurality and difference” of the people whom history has come to call Filipinos, in view of their overeager desire (Almario calls it lunggati) to collapse, summarize, and reduce to an abstraction what really aren’t just bloodless ideas but actual persons and lives. But perhaps, at this point of closure in my disquisition, it is only appropriate that I modify this objection a bit, although I certainly am not saying I am giving it up altogether: as I have already indicated in relation to Spivak’s concept of “strategic essentialism,” perhaps I need to relax the postmodern/postcolonial grip on the handle of the whip called difference for the moment, and seriously admit that, in certain contexts, dwelling and insisting on sameness can have its own felt usefulness.

In his essay dedicated to N.V.M. Gonzalez, Resil B. Mojares decides that the ailing body that is the Filipino nation is haunted by the possibilities it has yet to become, and that its “soul” needs to be rethought and revisioned by its artists and thinkers.[27] He thus carries out a rather wondrous “nationalist poetics of the soul,” which pursues the various indigenous explanations for why the soul is lost or leaves the body:  because of “shock, seduction, and sin.” Using his own soulful “national allegory,” he reads these as the trauma, allure, and depredations of colonialism, and true to the folk belief, insists there is still a way to halt this process of “soul loss” or “soul drift,” and to “call the soul back.”  Mojares then argues that, using the Malay animist conception of the spirit as a guide, we must think of the national soul not as essence but as process, not as fixed but as ambulant, and finally, not as singular but as multiple, and plural.

Mojares’s proffered reimagination of the Filipino soul—his poetics of the Alma Filipina—bespeaks a wish to open up the notion of national unity to the heterogeneity of cultural and local communities, indeed to re-imagine the Filipino nation itself so that it reflects less Mario Vargas Llosa’s view of the nation as being a “malign fantasy,” [28] and illustrate the validity of Benedict Anderson’s faith in “the goodness of nations.” [29]   Thus, we might say that even as he recognizes the abuses that have been committed in the name of such monolithic norms as the Filipino identity, Filipino selfhood, etc., he nonetheless cannot completely turn his back on the ideal of a community that the nation luminously promises. Thus, in his own poetic way, he argues for a strategic essentialism that can recuperate all the lost objects, memories, lives, and indeed souls, from the forgetfulness that is colonialism, back to the healing space of the national present.

Of course, all this is easier said than done, for Mojares’s mystical and soulful poeticizing is itself haunted by that spectral and unspoken truth: what he speaks of as the “national soul” does not and cannot pre-exist the formation of the nation-state, which discursively enforces it and constitutively imagines and narrates it as its transcendental point of origin, even when it is really the other way around. Borrowing the insight of queer theorist Judith Butler on the performative “nature” of gendered identity, [30] and rephrasing it for the purposes of this discussion, we might say that the performance of the Filipino identity retroactively produces the effect of some true or abiding essence behind that identity, when it is really the repetitive and ritualistic performance of the Filipino norm that constitutes the Filipino self, and that socially produces the performative effect Mojares lyrically calls the Filipino soul.

So, it’s not as though Mojares can recover this soul from outside the discourse, facticity, and “performative life” of Filipinos as they presently are—a state which he lamentingly confesses as being “depressing,” “miserable,” and horribly “littered with the unburied dead.” The national soul, if it does exist, is precisely what is present, what is undeniable, what is real in the lives of the people who have helped constitute it as a retroactive and regulatory fiction. The national soul never left the body it supposedly now haunts. Or if it has, then perhaps it simply never was. Thus, even as he argues for a more plural and “less essentialist” (if such can be possible) conception of the Filipino soul, Mojares nonetheless cannot escape the “trauma, seduction, and sin” of nationalist thinking itself, for if indeed it traffics in things soulful and metaphysical, then it naturally forecloses any inquiry into the ground of itsconstructedness, its finite truth inside space and time. Perhaps the violence that shocked the Filipino soul out of place and caused it to wander in strange lands is nothing but the epistemological violence of the Filipino nation itself—a violence that dissimulates itself behind the veil of transcendental unity, a violence that relentlessly turns the other (or rather, the others) into the same.

I suppose all I’m saying is that essentialism is, indeed, “risky business.” And yet, like Mojares and the Peruvian poet, Cesar Vallejo—whom he quotes in his essay’s rather oracular conclusion—I find myself by turns loving and hating the ideal of the Filipino nation. This is because despite my refusal or inability to consciously engage with the question of nationalism in my writing, I suppose I must have had a modicum of awareness of it, after all, as my avidity in reading the works of international writers, in immersing myself in cross-cultural imaginations, in locating alternative forms of community founded on the viscerally irrefutable truth of my bodily libido, was itself motivated by a form of inchoate “nationalist” sentiment. As Fanon puts it, “it is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows.” [31]

I am thus compelled to consider adopting the position at which the Caribbean critic, Stuart Hall, has arrived, after giving the subject of postcolonial identity much thought. According to Hall, there are two distinct ways of understanding the question of identity, ways that should now be familiar to us because of the structuring power they exercise on virtually all thinking: the first defines it in terms of sameness, the second in terms of difference. [32]

In the first, identity is a matter of a common culture, a shared or collective “true self,” that inhabits the artificially imposed “selves” of people who share an ancestry and therefore, a history. This conception of identity is precisely what postcolonial struggles initially upheld¾a nativist search for that pristine point of origin that can unify and “resolve” the contaminated incongruities of the present. This is what Almario and Abad themselves propose, in their appealing to such essentialist abstractions as the “native self” (katutubong kaakuhan) and “the Filipino spiritual country,” and in their niggling willingness to confront the hybridity of the present Filipino realities they seek to understand. And yet, it’s clear, as we’ve seen, that this “search” isn’t so much a rediscovery as an invention. It offers a way not so much of recovering as of retelling the past. This is a very crucial point, certainly: in imaginatively revisiting the Filipino past, nativists like Almario do not so much find it as reconstitute it.  Which makes the whole project all the more dangerous, and a sustained critique of it immensely necessary and important. Needless to say, the past is extremely important because it provides the terms by which the present can be imagined, by which it can be made tolerable, by which it can be “lived.”

The second position on the question of identity begins with the recognition that it isn’t so much sameness as difference that characterizes “who we really are.” To a great extent, it was the intervention of colonial history that brought this about, making being in the postcolonial world a constant state of becoming. As a marker of difference, cultural identity belongs to the future as well as to the past. It doesn’t “really exist”— meaning it isn’t transcendent of history—but is rather always transforming precisely because of the “unfinished” character of that history. Hall believes that only by thinking of identity in this manner can the “traumatic character of the colonial experience” be clearly appreciated.

Like Hall, we might think of postcolonial cultural identity as being “split” along the axes of similarity and difference, of continuity and rupture. We need to realize that our identities as postcolonial peoples are not fixed but rather “subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture, and power.” This is another way of saying that we must accept the hybridity of our identities and lives, and that we should not look to the “recovery” of a glorious past if we wish to discover who we are. Instead, we need to be aware of just how we are using the past in order to find ourselves in the present. Thus, we need to rethink the irremediable gap between that unified vision of the past and our own cloven and hybrid realities in the present. We need to be ever mindful of the provisional and fundamentally fractious character of the “we” that we must always take the utmost care to speak. We must ever be conscious of the fascism our provisional utterance of this “we” is perfectly capable of performing upon the irreducible differences “we” thereby presume to successfully unify, represent, and enflesh. To my mind, Hall puts it perfectly, when he says that “[i]dentities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.” Identity, then, isn’t fixed or inevitable but rather a kind of “self-arrogated fiction” made necessary by an awareness of historical exigency, a choice of identification with a norm that is as much personally expressed as socially ascribed.

In the end, like Hall, I suppose I do not really want to condemn the nativist project per se. As postcolonial critics, we simply must remain sensitive to the contexts within which claims about identity are being made—to understand why they are being made, and to offer alternative conceptions of identity when and where they are so needed. Given the “violent” and fantastical duality that Almario and Abad propose on the question of Filipinoness, I have thus felt it necessary to insert into their poetic discourses the notion of the “Third,” the hybrid space of irresolvable crisis, within which Filipinos tortuously—yet unquestionably—exist. As Bhabha explains it, this is the space of cultural liminality or “difference,” the indeterminate space of translation and negotiation in which authority and signs are not fixed but rather open to reading and re-reading, uniquely vulnerable to appropriation and rehistoricizing by those whom power subordinates. This is the discursive and temporal context where culture is finally located, and where postcolonial peoples “may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of [them]selves.” [33] To repeat what has often been said, nativism—which in its “best” form is the strategic use of essentialist notions of culture in the project of reversing colonialism’s “violent hierarchies”—may be necessary during the initial decolonizing moment, but not any more after that.

It’s just that, already, it feels quite late in the hour of imperialism.

Which is why I refuse to believe we are only now awakening from its charmed gift of sleep.


* Read  by the author at the International Conference on Philippine Studies, Leiden, the Netherlands, 19 July 2004.

[1] J. Neil C. Garcia, “Kaluluwa: Poems and Poetics,” dissertation in English Studies: Creative Writing, College of Arts and Letters, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City, July 2003.

[2] For the purposes of my study, I engaged with the following critical works by Gémino H. Abad: ed., A Habit of Shores: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, 60s to the 90s (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2000); ed., A Native Clearing: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English Since the 50s to the Present (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993); “A Way Through Language.” Keynote Lecture, Iligan National Writers Workshop, May 1996, Jaime An Lim, Christine G. Ortega and Anthony Tan, eds.Where the Water Falls (Iligan: Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Research and Extension, Mindanao State University, Iligan Institute of Technology, 1997); “Mapping our Poetic Terrain: Filipino Poetry in English from 1905 to the Present.” Gemino H. Abad, ed. The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English, from 1900 to the Present (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2002); “One hundred years of Filipino Poetry from English: Language as a Site of Nationhood,” Philippine Literature in English 1. A Course Syllabus in Comparative Literature 150, unpublished manuscript, University of the Philippines, first semester, SY 2001-2002; Gémino H. Abad, “Language: Corral and Ivory Tower or, the Community and the Individual Speaker,” Mithi 20: Filipino Aesthetics and Beyond(Manila: Writers Union of the Philippines, 1989), 12-17; “Writing as Filipino,” Poetry Workshop I: Introduction to the Writing of Poetry, A Course Syllabus in Creative Writing 220, unpublished manuscript,  University of the Philippines, First Semester, SY 2002-2003; and Edna Z. Manlapaz, eds., Man of Earth: An Anthology of Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, 1905 to the mid-50s (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1989).

[3] In particular, my critique focused on the following works by Virgilio S. Almario: Balagtasismo versus Modernismo: Panulaang Tagalog sa Ika-20 Siglo (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1984);  “Kapag Isinangkot ang Pagtula: ang Panulaang Filipino tungo sa Bagong Milenyo.” Bulawan: Journal of Philippine Arts and Culture. No. 2 (2001): 62-79; Mutyang Dilim: Ang Bagong Pormalismong Filipino sa Pagbasa ng Tula (Marikina City: Talingdao Publishing House, 2001); ed.  Parikala.( Quezon City: Kalikasan Press, 1990); Tradisyon at Wikang Filipino (Quezon City:  University of the Philippines, Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, 1997).

[4] More than just critical it is also an “imperialist theory,” in the main. As many postcolonial critics have been eager to point out, one of the distinctions of postcolonialism is that it interrogates the “Romantic Canon” the apolitical varieties of poststructuralism unwittingly espouse, simply because they seem to be strangely fixated on this specific period in European history, and routinely attend to its many, secretly “imperialist” texts. Spivak makes this point rather well in her famous essay on the subject. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism,” in Henry Louis Gates, ed., “Race”: Writing and Difference (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986).

[5] See Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove Press, 1963).

[6] I am referring here to Daroy’s Marxist “siting” of the local debates between “traditionalism” and “modernism,” as they were voiced by the supposedly ideologically “opposite” camps of Filipino writers in English and Filipino writers in Filipino (actually, Tagalog) in the 1950s and 60s. Daroy’s devastating conclusion is that the linguistic and aesthetic divides are moot, for  all “literature… from the 1900 up to the First Quarter Storm was… in the service of US imperialism [and] capitalists,” after all. See Petronilo Bn. Daroy, “On the Eve of the First Quarter Storm: Dialectics, History-Knowledge, and Agency,” in Rizal: Contrary Essays, Dolores Feria and Petronilo Bn. Daroy, eds. (Quezon City: Guro Books, 1968). Quoted in Edel E. Garcellano, “The Arrogance of Imaginary Power,” Knife’s Edge: Selected Essays (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2001), 236-237.

[7] Bart Moore-Gilbert, Gareth Stanton and Willy Maley, eds., “Introduction,” Postcolonial Criticism (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997), 3-4.

[8] Of course, many Marxists don’t think so at all. For instance, Aijaz Ahmad, who may well be the harshest and most persuasive critic of postcolonial discourse today.

In sum, Ahmad sees postcolonialism as the disastrous domestication of “real material struggles” against Western-led globalization. His position is that in the new global order workers across the “Three Worlds” are comparably exploited by a globally entrenched bourgeoisie; thus, rather than nationalism and its allied discourses (including postcolonialism), he advocates the return of Marxism as the sustained critique of global flows of capital. See Aijaz Ahmad, “From In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures,” in Moore-Gilbert et al., 248- 272.

[9] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

[10] Bhabha, 45

[11] Bhabha, 86.

[12] Bhabha, 33.

[13] For more on this point, and for a competent summary of many of Bhabha’s key concepts, see Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory (Hertfordshire: Prentice Hall, 1997), 136.

[14] Isagani R. Cruz, “The Other Other: Towards a Post-colonial Poetics,” The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism (1992-1997), J. Neil C. Garcia, ed. (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2000), 50-61.

[15] See J. Neil C. Garcia, “Introduction,” The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism (1992-1997), x-xi.

[16] Virgilio S. Almario, Filipino ng mga Filipino: Mga Asterisko sa Istandard na Ispeling, Estilo sa Pagsulat at Paraan ng Pagpapayaman sa Wikang Pambansa (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1993).

[17] On the other hand, on a more general level, we may see that Abad does advocate a kind of “hybridity” or impurity too, for his entire poetic project may in fact be summarized as a plea to “nationalist passion” not to “discard” the poems written by Filipinos from English—English being part of what “we have already become.” See Gémino H. Abad, “Introduction: The Language of Our Blood,” Gémino H. Abad, ed., A Native Clearing: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English Since the 50s to the Present (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993), 10.

[18] See Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post in Postcolonial?”, Critical Inquiry 17 (Winter 1991): 336-357.

[19] Abdul R. JanMohamed, Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa (Amherst: University of Massachussets Press, 1983).

[20] Caroline Sy Hau, “The ‘Cultural’ and ‘Linguistic’ Turns in Philippine Scholarship,” Corazon D. Villareal et al., eds. Ruptures and Departures: Language and Culture in Southeast Asia (Quezon City: Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines, Diliman, 2002), 36-70.

[21] Bienvenido Lumbera, “Young Writing and the Subversion of the Academe,” Keynote Lecture, Iligan National Writers Workshop, May 1994. Published in Jaime An Lim and Christine G. Ortega, eds.,Stoking the Fire (Iligan City: Office of the Vice-Chancellor for Research and Extension, Mindanao State University, Iligan Institute of Technology), 5-10.

[22] Interestingly enough, Almario himself notices this in one of Abad’s more “philosophical” poems, and critiques him rather mordantly for it. The problem is, Almario’s position is itself untenable, for while taking Abad to task for denying the representational viability of nonpoetic language, he nonetheless retreats to the extreme nativist position that only the native language—which, if must be strict about what “native” means, most certainly cannot be Almario’s much-vaunted Filipino—can accurately capture and represent native meaning. In the end, we can only conclude that both Abad and Almario succumb to their own kinds of humanism: the former being Western liberal, the latter being nativist. To the degree that they deny hybridity, both are equally complicit with the extension and propagation of neocolonialism. See Virgilio S. Almario, Mutyang Dilim (Marikina City: Talingdao Publishing House, 2001), 140.

[23] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, Helen Tiffin, eds., The Postcolonial Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1995), 117.

[24] Bill Ashcroft et al., 118.

[25] Simon During, “Postmodernism or Post-colonialism Today,”Textual Practrice, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1987): 32-47.

[26] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?: Speculations on Widow Sacrifice,” Wedge 7 (8) (Winter/Spring, 1985): 120-130.

[27] Resil B. Mojares, “The Haunting of the Filipino Writer,” inWaiting for Mariang Makiling (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2002).

[28] Mario Vargas Llosa, Making Waves: Essays (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 300.

[29] Benedict Anderson, “The Goodness of Nations,” The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World(London: Verso, 1998), 360-368.

[30] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 24-25.

[31] Fanon, 247-248.

[32] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Jonathan Rutherford, ed., Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 222-237.

[33] Bhabha, 39.