Dutertismo and Neo-Phrenology

Whenever President Rodrigo Duterte justified the war on drugs as a violent offensive against drug addicts and drug pushers, one cannot fail to notice the following argument: based on the observation and studies of scientists and psychologists, constant drug use and addiction damages the brain and decreases its size, wherein any form of rehabilitation becomes impossible.” The argument is solidly based on an assertion that the size of the brain, greatly affected by drug addiction, is the sole evidence for the impossibility of rehabilitation and re-integration into normal society. What we get here is an attempt to provide justification through some form of quasi-phrenology, a neo-phrenology, albeit based on the size and shape of the brain to determine the attitude of a human being.

Phrenology returns as a justification for the distinction between normal and the abnormal, the decent and the indecent, marking the human being with an inevitable physical quality that determined his place in society. Duterte’s neo-phrenology shows the core of Dutertismo as a category of political exclusivity, forming the backdrop of the politics of the drug war and not simply a moral issue. Through the reduction of the addict to the less than human entity with a reduced brain size, what enters to politics is a determination via the formation of a biological category. In this case, the addict loses its humanity through the loss of possession of a brain, short of the normative category for being human. Between the normal and the reduced brain sizes lies the difference between two pre-determined roles. The decent human being is everyone who is not an addict; humanity under Dutertismo is seen from a fundamental point of exclusion. Through the determination of the addict as a category of exclusion, acting as the obstacle for the process of a law-abiding society built on discipline, we encounter the obscene underside of Dutertismo’s project of universality.

Duterte prides himself as a friend to the left and the right that any politics as such is to see that “we are all Filipinos.” Such universal distinction only applies to those who are determined as outside the category of exclusion. The present administration’s attacjment to the law is that of a pure fetishistic disavowal. They know precisely well that the law demands due process, but nonetheless the requirement is lifted so that those who follow it to the letter can enjoy the freedoms it guarantees. Duterte’s “Filipino” is not its citizens, but the other to whom he designates his absolute belief in believing more than he believes in himself. The relegation of confidence and loyalty to the other that believes more than I believe forms the justification for impunity and justification of all forms of police violence and legal excesses.

To say that Duterte is the embodiment of the loss of the rule of law completely misses the point. His administration is the law’s obscene underside that any drive to the universal category of citizenry and the normativity of the law is founded on a prior category of exception. Under the present administration, the addict is the homo sacer at its finest, even worse he isn’t even human nor a sacrificial lamb for the satisfaction of the (legal and national) gods. Through this exception the administration sees itself justified: what it murders are not even human nor will be considered human, but an obstacle that needed to be plucked out in order for the organic unity to be whole. The repression of struggle (as class struggle or the creation of dividing lines) is built around this exception so that organic and holistic unity can be achieved. Fascism in all its brutality will not come with the hatred for a race, but in the mythology of the pseduo-universality of the citizenry. The ideas of the enlightenment are turned on its head.

Dutertismo and Neo-Phrenology

The Return of the Totalitarian Repressed

            Perhaps, the general symptom of to-day’s political milieu is the emergence of highly divisive polarized political situations. The rise of populist politicians under questionable policies has plagued not only the Philippines but also different parts of the world. However, the recent events leading to the Supreme Court decision to bury Ferdinand Marcos under a hero’s grave demands that we look at it not as an isolated case of historical amnesia but as an overall symptom of our incapability and resistance to admit the inherent contradictions within our post-1986 liberal democracy. At the same time, compromises made under the banner of national unity have divided us more than it has actually united different sectors of society.

 

The Failure of the Post-1986 Liberal Democracy: A Manichaeism

Ken Fuller described in The Lost Vision that despite the promises of reform after the Marcos dictatorship, the Aquino administration bearing the constraints of the large debt left by the previous administration and the demand by different sectors to expedite the recovery of the country’s economy, conceded to the neoliberal policies that its predecessors have applied under the brutal hand of the dictatorship. The Cory administration did not shy away at the number of extra judicial killings, suppression of dissent, and concessions to neoliberal policies and economics. The forced choice borne upon the young democracy of the 1987 constitution paved the way for a wide neoliberal deregulation of the economy.

What it basically introduced or reintroduced is the same brand of cronyism with different names and a different sponsor and protector. The oligarchy continued to reap the benefits of neoliberal deregulation, while those who are affected remained in the same poverty-stricken condition as before. Liberal democracy in this case only allowed the formal freedoms guaranteed by the fundamental rights of man, but it did not allow the resistance to the economic dogmatism that the country will be an obedient child to the market, following its oscillations and trends of speculation.

Aside from the continuity of the Marcos neoliberalism—a neoliberalism a la Pinochet—replaced by an Aquino neoliberalism—neoliberalism with a human and motherly face—, the post-1986 liberalism played one dangerous political tactic: the demonization of the Marcos regime. By positing the dictatorship as the face of pure political evil, the Aquino administration have reduced the 1986 EDSA revolution as a battle between the forces of good and evil and that the unified effort to depose Marcos was the triumph of good versus evil led by an agent of change who singlehandedly led us to freedom and gifted us the present democratic constitution. The 1987 constitution became the Holy Scripture and the Aquino family the Holy family to whom we have the utang na loob for our present democracy.

The Manichaean discourse failed miserably as the incompetence of the subsequent administrations proves that the promised democracy did not actually work for the rest of the poverty afflicted people. The obscene effect is not the legitimization of our present liberal democracy, but the nostalgia of the way things were, a return to the old order of things.

 

Nostalgia: Where Authoritarianism Breeds

Authoritarianism is not born out of the non-existence of liberal democracy, but of its fundamental failure to surpass the bureaucratic regime where consensus is constructed among a few members of an elite cadre of policy makers. Furthermore, liberal democracy tried to dispel political passions by placing it within the legal boundaries of the state and the communicative acts that follow from it. What is so radically different in our local liberal democracy is the perpetual authority of the illustrado class, the same dynasties have ruled the country with little to no benefit of the citizens.

As liberal democracy projects are bound to fail as it engages in a Manichaean struggle against the forces of evil, the plan backfires and people, disillusioned with to-day’s political status, turn to the past, looking for a pristine moment that has to be restored. The logic therefore of totalitarianism i.e. right-wing conservative fascism, is the establishment of a mythopoeic conception of the past that in the progression of history and the inevitable changes that will occur, something must be kept in permanent place that must never change, positing an external obstacle that constantly watches the progress of events, prohibiting the renaissance of the golden age. Nostalgia is the emotion that arises out of the authoritarian vision; a justification for everything can be constructed out of one’s romantic relation with the past. The agents and ideologues of fascism thrive in constructing their public discourse on the exemplification of the past and the assertion of an internal unity of society. One should be reminded that the word fascism was derived from fasces, the symbol of power that binds together all of the castes of society and upheld by the legal authorities. Fascism, given such etymology, is far less than the cooptation of revolutionary consciousness, but the combination of cooptation and the re-legitimization of old social relations that was supposed to have been suppressed by liberalism. While the contemporary right-wing populist is against liberals and the values of liberalism, he can only achieve his aims through the mechanisms of liberal democracy, pandering on its logic, system of suffrage, and construction of public opinion. The greatest of fascists, Hitler and Mussolini, did not engage in insurrectionary revolution, but were voted into power through national parliamentary elections. They were presidents in every legal sense of the term, but whose campaign runs under the unity of the people to heal the wounds of the past (in the case of Nazi Germany, to unite the Germans against the wounds of the Versailles treaty and world Jewry).

 

Unity under Dutertismo

We can read President Duterte’s speeches on different occasions in the same manner. When asked by a journalist what he will do after the violent dispersion at the US embassy. Duterte remarked “I’ll call the police and the activists together…there is no left and right. We are all Filipinos.” What is wrong with this remark? Duterte showed not the attitude of a stereotypical authoritarian leader, but the stereotypical liberal who abhors the polarized political situation and demands the unity of the citizens. But, unity for what purpose or goal? Behind the appearance of a liberal lies the fascist core, echoing Marx’s jibe against the party of order in Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Napoleon, liberals act like liberals, but profess fascist ideology among themselves. Authentic fascism in our current time is not entirely the madness of the extremists or the obnoxious presence of trolls on the internet to silence dissenting opinion, but the voice of people who call for unity simply by the sheer mythology of the nation and the perceived obsolescence of old ways of resistance and partisan politics. We should not see authoritarian leaders as the people who are greedy for power, ready to devour the country with its vitriolic speeches. Rather, they are people who see themselves as part of a wide project of restoring a country to its pristine condition. Marcos did not declare martial law and cracked down on communists and activists simply because who was against communism; rather, he saw himself as part of a greater mission to preserve order and unity. The declaration of Martial law was conjured within Marcos’ spiritual exercises asking God for a sign and rid the country of the un-orderly influences and permissiveness.

The difference between the leftist and a believer in right-wing demagoguery is not between passionate revolutionary and the traditionalist or the vulgar populist and the rational liberal; the fundamental difference lies in how both the left and the right deal with struggle. The left sees contradiction everywhere; the most fundamental relationship between things is not the unity of opposites, but that the struggle of opposites is absolute and in constant opposition.[1] The rightist on the other hand sees conflict and opposition within the current political situation, but what must occur at the end of it is not to fight a constant internal struggle and study the class contradictions in society, but that behind the conflict lies an identity that will unite all walks of life. Hence, the struggle of the left and the right is not between the multitudes versus the universal rationality of the right. What we have is the struggle between two universalities. The universality of the right is that of the unity of all social hierarchies, of everything has its proper place, repressing the struggle of opposites for the sake of what is supposed to bind us together as a nation.

 

[1] Mao Tsetung, “On Contradiction,” in Selected Readings from the Works of Mao Tsetung (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1971), pp. 124-125.

The Return of the Totalitarian Repressed

Reading Kimi No Na Wa as an Ideological Text

 

I have a strong cynicism for films that portray the inherent unity of all things that we are connected by some invisible threads where we are destined to be connected with each other. The ontology of holistic unity of things is merely a reverberation of some ecological politic to encompass human politic, to extinguish the fire of partisan struggle, seen as the source both of societal and ecological disasters. The pervading mindset that we can create multi-sectoral solutions sans party politics that divides statecraft politics is explicated within the admiration of nature as beautiful and orderly entity to which we all belong. Hence, social relations are pattered or should be patterened after the connecting threads that connect each and every one of us regardless of race, gender, and political support. Despite its attempt to rid politics of politics (i.e. to be outside of politics), it is fundamentally built on a new age political ontology, albeit refusing to admit it.

The central theme of Makoto Shinkai’s Kimi no na wa (Your Name) lies in its plot wherein two people are connected by single destiny. With the story revolving around the Shakespeare-ish comedy of errors, Taki and Mitsuha’s destiny unfurls in the succeeding scenes as each body swap is a glimpse of each other’s life that they desired. Mitsuha experiences urban life while swapped in Taki’s body eventually landing him a date with a female coworker. Taki, on the other hand, helped Mitsuha deal with the anxieties of rural life and an overbearing political father. The comedy of errors ends with Taki’s attempt to intervene by informing Mitsuha of an impending disaster, involving fragments of a comet hitting Itomori, Mitsuha’s town. Centered around the goal to change what happened three years ago (both characters are apparently three years apart from each other ), the whole message of the film revolved around the internal unity of things and the connections it weaves upon everybody. This unity is deemed sacred that even the gods follow suit. Such was how nature is oriented and that fastidious patience is demanded of people for them to reap the rewards of the divine ordination of things.

As a text within a particular cultural network of Japanese anime, Your Name (regardless of its basic fantasy and sci-fi elements) is simply a one of the many attempts to remove anime from the clichés it was known for. Makoto Shinkai’s works have the indelible mark of being hyper-realistic with a careful attention to small details. Such technique turns anime into a respectable medium on par with the medium of cinematic fiction, something that elitist film makers are wont to accept, isolating it to the confines of animated features or some form of escapism.

However, despite the good intentions to create an animated masterpiece, its themes clearly exhibit our current ideological situation. This is clearly seen from Mitsuha’s relation to her father, Toshiki Miyamizu, and how Taki eventually helps her deal with him and its situation in the progress of the story. The kinship dynamic between daughter and father is the continuation of a feud in the Miyamizu family who were the titular heads of the local Shinto shrine. Hitoha Miyamizu, their grandmother, holds on to the family traditions, passing on the rituals and practices of the Itomori shrine to the Miyamizu daughters despite the loss of the knowledge concerning the purpose of the rituals; furthermore, Hitoha holds Toshiki in contempt for leaving the priesthood and later settled in local politics. Here, two distinct spheres are lined out: the sphere of the political i.e. the sphere of political maneuvering, agonism and technocracy and the (pagan) religious sphere of nature where the traditions echo the divine order and connections of things: they are kept despite our lack of knowledge about them, content with the knowledge that these traditions reflect the place of humans within the order of nature. Politics is the sphere of the father, where he exercises his legal authority over his legal constituents. The sphere of paganism that of the guarding of “the way things are” is the domain of maternal superego; the uncompromising attachment to the unknown and the mere appearance of ritual is the (grand)mother’s ethical stance: it is what keeps the world from what it is and hence to maintain the appearance of the traditions as such. Throughout the film, both the father and grandmother’s disagreements form Mitsuha’s silent resentment both for her father’s authority and the arbitrariness of keeping the appearance of the religious traditions. Clearly, she exercises a form of fetishistic disavowal, when she performs the prescribed sacred ceremonies. The paternal metaphor (legal authority) clashes with the maternal superego; but by going against the maternal authority, the latter re-inscribes itself, attempting to suppress the antagonism between it and politics. Your Name’s background is set on the inherent struggle between the demands of political life (and whatever it stands for) and the realm of the sacred order of things.

The disaster served as the external obstacle to seemingly reconcile the realm of the political and tradition. To read that situation fundamentally, the comet is the objet petit a at its finest, a spectral thing that intrudes constantly with the current state of things. The external thing happens to repress the antagonism inside the object in order to express the conflict as the struggle against something else outside of itself. In the case of the antagonism between politics and tradition, the comet acts as an external threat to re-inscribe the authority of the latter in the social field. A great deal of disaster flicks follow the pattern of conflict—external threat—reconciliation pattern; Slavoj Žižek noted apropos of how disaster films like Armageddon, Deep Impact or War of the Worlds does the same thing of reconciling children to paternal authority. External conflicts serve as the catalyst needed to repress the traumatic element of antagonism inherent in the relation between the two. In the case of Your Name, the comet incident is a suppression of the antagonism inherent in the relation between politics and the realm of nature, stressing the overall importance of the underlying unity that the nature entails.

The return to the authentic realm of nature from the inauthentic and oftentimes exploitative field of technology and politics pervades to-day’s field of struggle from multicultural struggles sans class conflicts to ecological activism that aims to fight technocracy. In anime, Makoto Shinkai’s work responds faithfully to Hayao Miyazaki’s criticism of the prevailing otaku culture  that form most productions of animation and the usual clichés in anime that we know to-day. Perhaps, both Shinkai and Miyazaki (and Studio Ghibili for that matter) form a reaction to the apocalyptic absurdity that pervaded animated classics like Akira or Neon Genesis Evangelion by emphasizing again the greatness of the human spirit and the hope that comes with it, set against the invading force of political upheaval and the impending damages it does not only to man but to nature.

To liberate ourselves from that bleak imagination, anime, just like cinema, attempted to make itself a reflection of everyday life. What the re-inscription of the inherent unity in nature really wants to do is to point towards an authentic sphere outside of the antagonism of political and economic life, where everyone can experience the unity of all things and how it binds us. This way the antagonism remains covered, but we are awarded with the sublime consummation of teenage love or inner peace, blind to the symptoms of the current state of affairs. Despite its attempt to restore hope and the beauty of the human spirit in anime, a medium that grew with the rise of the hikikomori i.e. people who decided to shut themselves in at the failure of integrating into the socio-economic-political demands, to unveil the authentic sphere of being outside of technological enframing is the suppression of the internal conflict within nature and the social field itself. Beneath every attempt at realism is an underlying fascination with the unseen reality, hiding beneath the inauthenticity of technical conceptualization. However, the attempt to exercise distance from the conflicts of social and political relations is to simply repress the antagonism itself, to discredit it merely as a conceptualization, conjured out of the reactionary attempt to escape the realm of the political.

Reading Kimi No Na Wa as an Ideological Text

Of Independent Cinema: Notes on a Critique

Any curious movie goer would eventually have encountered the rise of Filipino Independent cinema industry as a total opposite of mainstream film and whatever it stood for as a mass produced cultural product, meant simply as entertainment with minimal thought provoking elements. Perhaps, the symptomatic evidence of independent cinema’s separation with mainstream cinema can be seen in the work of Brillante Mendoza. While the cinematic tropes and choice of topics that Mendoza chooses dwell on the reality of poverty, one should examine the technical and narrative elements that he chooses to portray poverty. Take for example Lola (Grandmother) which is set in a perpetually flooded community where the characters engage either in legal or illegal underground economies but always end up successfully or unsuccessfully dealing with the struggle of being on the margins of government bureaucracy; these tropes that are apparently the mainstay of Mendoza’s films are presented in a social realist way, progressing in a quasi-documentary manner following the characters in different moments of daily struggle. Given the choice of ways to deal with the source material, Mendoza’s films can be described as following a social realist stance, of describing poverty as it is in its crudeness and the incapability of state mechanisms to curb poverty in an effective way.

However, despite the director’s sensibilities in dealing with poverty as a subject matter, presenting it as the other that requires our immediate authentic response, it is precisely this goal that keeps Mendoza’s films as the very symptom of neoliberalism. By creating the image of the poor as engaging mainly in the underground economy, earning their daily bread by placing themselves at the niches of the status quo, the immediate response is that of providing them an inclusive market space where everyone can properly engage in entrepreneurial ventures. Take for example the NGO Gawad Kalinga, the organization that provides free housing for the urban poor, they organize communities around the original site of the original urban poor communities where uniform single floor houses are constructed (funded by different philanthropic organizations). The condition granted by GK was that the poor who were given free housing are not allowed to rent the refurbished houses and that each family had to undergo a strict catechism in (Filipino) Catholic family values where the authority of the father is emphasized and the determined role of the other members of the family is indicated. While meant as a disciplinary integration to prevent the poor from ripping off their donors, the re-imposition of traditional Catholic values keeps them from the creation of an entirely new coordinates of communal life, remaining only at the level of paragons of Filipino Catholicism. Returning to Mendoza’s films, is not the conservative GK organization the implication of Mendoza’s supposed social realism that an authentic response to poverty is to further bourgeois philanthropy?

Social realist cinema is close to communism as it formed the dogma that dominated Soviet and Chinese film theory. However, the technique of quasi-documentary was inspired by Italian neorealism where real life traumas caused by the war are dealt as everyday problems. The fundamental difference between social realism and neorealism lies not eventually at the technicalities or the choice of topic, but in the way both cinematic movements deal with the source material. Neorealism championed the virtues of individuals in the struggle to make ends meet as historical events played in the background (considering how Rossellini’s neorealist films happen ex post facto of a historical event e.g. World War II). Soviet realist films, on the other hand, explore the role of individual human beings in the making of history (as in Sergei Eisenstein’s films) as they deal with different historical conditions and contradictions. Perhaps, the quintessential realist here is Dziga Vertov whose films do not proceed in a quasi-documentary narrative but removes the narrative element altogether to present Soviet society as a totally different world, a utopia to be but still operated by men. Everyday life in the Soviet Union, for Vertov, is presented like a machine, functioning properly and at the same time the camera is presented merely as a gaze unto the objects of its lens (as seen from his Man with a Movie Camera, where the camera bows to the screen as if to end its visual performance).

Are we then looking for Vertovs and Eisensteins of our time? Definetly not, but the allure of cinema passes as a gaze into objects, an arrangement of what people think, should be, must be and will be, a picture of our current ideological condition. While I do not glance at mainstream cinema as junk food for the sole purpose of entertainment, the entirety of cinema must examined as the symptom of our time. At this point, Edel Garcellano puts it better in his review of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Novecento: the problem is not so much the lack of great technical masterpiece or of epic storylines (two of which can be seen in the delivery of Novecento), but of showing the underlying contradiction that occur within the universe of the film.[1] As such that when Garcellano in the previous essay indicated, both the source material and the technicalities of the film converge to form the cinematic text; however, it is not entirely the technical or the narrative aspect that truly makes the film a liberating art form. “Artistic unity must correlate with historical logic and dialectics.”[2]

We can thus divide the cinematic tendency of our time into two: phenomenological and dialectical. Brillante Mendoza’s films belong to the phenomenological tendency, remaining solely at the level of experiencing (pag-danas) what shows itself in the public as poverty (corresponding to the existentialist notion of “showing what shows itself” and our experience thereof that breaks conceptual trappings). At the side of dialectics is Lav Diaz and his insanely long films such as The Evolution of the Filipino Family and From what was Before that do not deal with what shows itself as poverty but brutally traumatizes the viewer with long shots and still shots showing not what occurs but how the characters create history, culmination in the film Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery as a dialectics of the Revolution of 1898 by dealing with its traumatic corre: the search for the corpse of Andres Bonifacio i.e. the search for the proletarian core of the revolution repressed by bourgeois compromises with colonial powers. What Diaz does is not the typical mastery of technical or narrative emplotment of his pictures, but includes the structure by which the universe of the narrative circulates. Hence, despite the length of Diaz’s films, they are the presentation of deeply ingrained contradictions within society, manifesting in various ways. Take for example the class struggle in Norte: End of History, two main characters are two variations on the character of Dostoyevsky’s Raskolinikov; Fabian, a law student embodying the guilty Raskolinikov, belonging to the upper class, tries to save Joaquin, the patsy Raskolinikov belonging to the working class, by reopening the case of the murder of loan shark Magda and her daughter without implicating himself results in the outburst of sanity. Incapable to place himself again in the (traditional) symbolic register of everyday life, he commits symbolic suicide by raping his own sister. Here, one should reject the new age interpretation, given by the producers of the film (astral travel and so on) and instead see Fabian and Joaquin’s characters as subjects that deal with the symbolic register and the flight thereof. In Fabian, we have the outburst and eventually symbolic suicide and death where the scene culminates in Fabian riding a boat, a clear allusion to the Charon. Joaquin does not find reconciliation with the system but fully begins to transverse the fantasy by dreaming that imprisonment itself became a condition of freedom (as seen in the final scene where he floats in midair, presumably dreaming).

While Diaz’s films dealt with poverty and injustice as source materials for his films. He does not end with the characters reconciling with the inevitability of their plight or the enjoyment despite the ordeal. Thus, he posits that the dialectical structure of social life and the irreconcilable nature of the elements within this dialectic, presented as the failure of the subjects to experience what is as the sole way of fully experiencing the structures as such (i.e. as a traumatic kernel that cannot be symbolized).

Given this difference, returning to Mendoza’s films and perhaps the tendency of most Filipino independent cinema, their approach to the narrative, technical and structural elements present only “what is” as a homogeneous and united entity i.e. as merely showing itself that needs experiencing and so on. It caters to the aesthetic of bourgeois tastes whose place needs to be situated within a fetishistic construction of social life and urban dwelling, offering itself to philanthropic acts, replacing emancipatory politics. Genuine exposition of superstructure and structural elements are replaced by the surplus jouissance of participating in the aesthetics of squalor that in the consumption of its cultural products lies the sole fulfillment of our socio-political duty that is to only know.

 

[1] Edel Garcellano, First Person Plural: Essays, pp. 110-111.

[2] Ibid., 105.

Of Independent Cinema: Notes on a Critique

Against Spirituality

The Specter of Psychology and its Theological Vicissitudes

From someone who has spent an entire college education in a Catholic seminary, following the Augustinian tradition, one of the most repeated words is that of being able to live a spiritual life. It means a life of prayer, contemplation and to construct a spirituality based on a reflection of God’s plan to oneself. We could define spirituality as a form of devotion and discipline, aimed at making any person live a fruitful and faithful life in grace. However, what I find rather difficult in spirituality is how susceptible it is to naively engage with popular fads in psychology, while at the same time condemn the greed of to-day’s technological society. Outside of Christianity, spirituality is sought after as a discipline and a technique of meditation, seen as a counteraction against to-day’s demands and busy lifestyle. It is more popularly associated with new age theosophy and the burgeoning popularity of guided meditative techniques, yoga, oriental medicine, and so on. There is a great market among young people for a less ritualistic and less theologically dogmatic religion that gives the same spiritual benefits. Its current usage is usually tied with a rejection of religious dogmatism and an acceptance of its metaphysical elements that promise a balanced life away from the stress of to-day’s society.

In a Christian (and I can say Catholic) sense, spirituality can be seen as a response to to-day’s fads, given that the words has only seen popular use among Christian of the present generation. At this point, it is necessary to introduce the dichotomy between spirituality and religion and that Christian spirituality must be seen as a response to that growing trend as part of the failure to realize its own ideals and succumb to the ethos presented by popular psychological fads. Let us look into how Christian spirituality is defined apropos of spirituality in general

Spirituality gets traced back to the letters of Paul in which he uses the word pneuma to signal a life in alignment with God’s spirit. Christian spirituality presumes through God’s grace, a human desire and capacity for growing in union with the triune God.[1]

One can immediately see how new age cosmology is at play like how being one with the harmony of the cosmos is replaced with the “growing in union with the triune God.” The only fundamental difference is that while new age spirituality emphasizes the individual effort of a person to attain union with nature, Christian spirituality is an emphasis on one’s alignment with grace. In one of the most divisive debates in Christianity (as divisive as Arianism) i.e. between the Pelagians and the supporters of Augustine, grace, sin, and the nature of free-will were highly contested; the pelagians had a the most optimistic psychology, emphasizing the effort of a believer to attain salvation by himself, making them one of the most ascetic groups during the 5th century, gaining the admiration of a lot of observers including Augustine himself. Hence, even with one of the most optimistic psychology, the effect was of a strict spiritual discipline; Augustinianism on the other hand has a totally pessimistic psychology to the point of being misanthropic. In order to reject the Manichaean dualistic ontology, Augustine emphasized that beings (and subsequently human beings) are created with a fundamental lack in their being, a privation boni as an inevitable consequence of creation. Humanity has a lack that made it possible for him to seek God or choose evil; embodied and capable of liberum arbitrium (translates literally to “freedom to choose” or “free choice of the will” instead of free-will). The post-lapsus made man a being fully identified in the crossroads of good and evil eternally condemned to free difficult choices unless he lives under grace. Here is where Augustine fully employs the dichotomy between libertas (freedom) and liberum arbitrium (free choice of the will) as the pinnacle of human life where freedom is gained through the self-abandonment of free will to the good. Through its surrender to grace, man accepts the incapability to save himself because of the lack it inherently has.[2] Anti-pelagianism entailed a fatalistic psychology, grounded on the importance of the fall and the transfer of Adam’s sin to all men who although individually created by God is inevitably born in the world of sin. This debate is so divisive that although both Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches condemn pelagian teachings only Catholic theology went far with Augustine’s theology of grace and fully integrating it into the doctrinal body of the church (Orthodox Christians do not believe in original sin and have a doctrine of grace radically different from Augustine). The psychological consequence of Augustine’s theology of graced in Catholic and Protestant theology is the fundamental role of inherent guilt and sinfulness of man in the face of God, requiring total surrender to grace. From the downright pessimistic psychology of Augustine emerged his spirituality based on eternally internal turths, expressed in a famous quotation from De Libero Arbitrio: Noli foras ire, in te redi in interiore homine habitat veritas (do not go out, truth lies on the interior man).

Truth lies internally when we search for it from within our heart and discover that it is the one that connects us with God. With Augustine, we see something that resembled a spirituality in the modern sense of the term, but we nonetheless have a picture of two strands of spirituality that present itself to all religious seekers: one, the new age spirituality currently trending on the market; second, Christian spirituality based on the union with God and the attainment of proper spiritual discipline for the salvation of souls. Both options are seen as disciplines, emphasizing prayer life and constant meditation to aid the person in making wise decisions in life as well as being faithful to the a certain set of values. The unsettling fact with both new age spirituality and a Christian response is that both new ageism and Christianity agree on the goal of spirituality as a union with God or the cosmos. I claim—on the accusation of being presumptuous—that Christianity and Judaism are two religions of the book that does not engage with spirituality or does not contain a spiritual tradition or has gone against the attempt of making a spiritual practice out of its religious beliefs.

 

Job: the Proto-Critique of Ideology

Current theoretical works have seen a ray of light in the Book of Job and its uncomfortable place within the body of work of the late Hebraic prophets of the Old Testament. The interesting point raised by contemporary theorists (of whom Slavoj Žižek is included in countless citations) is how the narrative of Job is radically different from other stories of the Old Testament. Instead of the picture of Job as a patient sufferer open to the might of God, the Job we read is that of a cynic who refused all attempts to interpret his predicament to a religio-spiritual values. The discourses of the three friends can be described as a defense of Yahweh’s omnipotence, justice, and wisdom, three pillars upon which Jewish theology is grounded and form the standard stereotype of Hebraic imagination as a having an angry God. In all of these discourses, Job can be read as retorting strongly against their suggestions, giving absurd reasons and violent replies; for example in a reply to Zophar, Job said

Anyone becomes a laughing-stock to his friends if he cries to God and expects an answer. People laugh at anyone who has integrity and is upright. Add insult to injury,’ think the prosperous, ‘strike the fellow now that he is staggering! And yet the tents of brigands are left in peace: those who provoke God dwell secure and so does anyone who makes a god of his fist! (Job 12: 4-6 NJB).

One can imagine this simply as a rant of desperation and utter madness; however, instead of accepting Job’s faith as an exemplar of the faithful (as can be seen later in the gospels where Jesus would make countless statements about exemplary men and women), Yahweh instead enters into a show of force akin to anyone who only wants to make a show, while at the same time unconfident about oneself. What is different in the Book of Job aside from Yahweh’s exhibitionism and Job’s cynicism is the role of the devil at the beginning of the book. Unlike the usual portrayal of Satan as the horned one, tempting Jesus or Eve with wisdom, food and all the fine pleasures of life, the devil in the Book of Job acts as the jester. Here the full conversation deserves full quotation.

One day when the sons of God came to attend on Yahweh, among them came Satan. So Yahweh said to Satan, ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Prowling about on earth,’ he answered, ‘roaming around there.’ So Yahweh asked him, ‘Did you pay any attention to my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth: a sound and honest man who fears God and shuns evil.’ ‘Yes,’ Satan said, ‘but Job is not God-fearing for nothing, is he? Have you not put a wall round him and his house and all his domain? You have blessed all he undertakes, and his flocks throng the countryside. But stretch out your hand and lay a finger on his possessions: then, I warrant you, he will curse you to your face.  ‘Very well,’ Yahweh said to Satan, ‘all he has is in your power. But keep your hands off his person.’ So Satan left the presence of Yahweh. (Job 1: 6-12 NJB)

Instead of a person being tempted, it was Yahweh who was tempted. The whole scenario looked like a royal court where the jester would make absurd observations that would give him a lot of ridicule from the court but sets the plot progression of the whole story. Take for example three of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies notably Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), and Seven Samurai (1954), in all three films, the fool knows more than the other characters the absurdity of any pre-determined set of values that most of the characters have. For example, Kikuchyo, from Seven Samurai, acted more like a samurai than the samurais themselves (who for the most part are ronin, masterless samurai), going on suicidal missions and at one part of the film rouse the villagers when defeat was almost certain. Kyoami acts as the stereotypical jester in Ran (since the film is an indirect adaptation of King Lear), making absurd comments about Lord Ichimonji’s attempts at wise administration of his feudal domain (like giving his sons de facto rule over the castles) blind at his own ruthless seizure of power. The role of the jester coincides with the Lacanian lesion of the big Other’s ignorance, provoking through sarcastic remarks the leader’s body, making him show his nakedness to everyone.

In the case of the devil in the Book of Job, his temptation of Yahweh is a word of provocation, arguing with him about Job’s faith; perhaps, the devil knows that Job would nonetheless keep his faith even with everything taken away from him. The discourse between Yahweh and the devil is not about Job as such, but about Yahweh’s relation to Job. In the end, the result is one of the strangest exchanges between Yahweh and anyone. While everyone from the previous books of the Old Testament saw Yahweh in his absolute omnipotence and wisdom (e.g. the wrestling match with Jacob, the burning bush, the discourse between Yahweh and Moses in Mount Sinai, the discourses on the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and so on); the dialogue between Yahweh and Job is different. Here, we see God not as the wise figure that Freud would later on label as the figurehead of the primal father, but here he sounds like a nagger, telling Job about how he is absent when everything was created. In the face of Job, God acts like the Filipino politician who had to print his names on every corner and every government project just to announce that he is working and that the trust and faith of his constituents is not put into waste.[3] By nagging at Job, Yahweh is fully shown in his impotence; but to save the big Other’s ignorance, Job replies to Yahweh:

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with things that I do not understand things too wonderful for me which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth but now my eye has seen you. Therefore, I disown what I said and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42: 2-6 NAB)

The end of the book does not describe what happened to Job after this event only that he was reinstated to his former position of wealth and influence. However, it is certain that Job did not ascend to some higher form of spiritual understanding or an attainment of greater wisdom. Rather, Job’s final answer to Yahweh cannot be a final affirmation of God’s omnipotence, but simply Job affirming that between him and God is an irreconcilable distance. Here Slavoj Žižek reads the relation between Job and Yahweh as that of the knowledge of the big Other’s non-existence and that his show of force to Job shows his impotence to the faithful Job. Apropos of Chesterton’s comment from Orthodoxy, God in his monologue appears as an atheist, since he himself does not believe in himself and requires the hapless other to recognize his own power. Job’s answer to God should be read as a fetishistic disavowal, an “I know precisely well but…” It is not Job who is engaging a proto-critique of ideology, it is the text that engages in a critique of (spiritual) ideology, showing the vanity of wisdom and spirituality and at the same time that vulgar denial is insufficient in giving an alternative.

In to-day’s discussion, one always finds the sporadic comments about religious devotees and how Filipino religious devotions have laudable devotions to certain religious traditions, but lacked the capacity to transform them into a spirituality that would give them the proper way of life. Sociologists debate about the characteristic of Filipino devotees and are often stuck with dichotomies or a syncretism between Christian baptism and a repressed paganism. One should here take the fetishistic disavowal to its theoretical limit; consider the common Tagalog truism Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa (in God there is mercy, in man there is action), the believer has the unwavering belief in God’s capacity for mercy, but it is supplemented by man’s action. In relation, consider the Jesuit axiom of believing that your success is independent of God…but nonetheless work as if everything depends on God.[4] At this point, spirituality as seen as a body of spiritual and faith based disciplines is rendered irrelevant.

 

The Commune of God is with you, and with thy Spirit!

The conflict between naïve universality (i.e. when everything is united in one consiciousness) which forms around the concept of Nirvana—the liberation from suffering—and the Christian universality—that of inherent conflict, a universality of struggle with the commune of believers—is best demonstrated in the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, forming the film version The End of Evangelion (1997). In the famous final sequences of the film when Third Impact was initiated by the mysterious organization SEELE (comparable to the Illuminati), as starting point of the “Human Instrumentality Project” ( a sci-fi expression for Nirvana and the universalization of human consciousness into one), Shinki Ikari, the series main protagonist who is undoubtedly an Oedipal subject deprived by the father, was given a choice by Rei Ayanami (who by that time was completely united with Adam and Lilith) either to end everything and reduce annihilate everything to end all the pain of existence or endure the pain through a rejection of instrumentality. One has to remember that the intention of instrumentality was to artificially generate mankind’s final evolutionary moment through the unification of everyone within a single being; to achieve that a sacrificial lamb must be slain in the “ego of Eva-01,” Shinji’s evangelion unit. With Rei/Adam/Lilith, only through Shinji’s decision can instrumentality be successful. He chose to endure the pain of consciousness, after a long dialogue between him and Rei, recounting every painful and pleasurable memory; his refusal of instrumentality forms around the dialogue where he is fully immersed in instrumentality (Shinji and Rei floating around the primordial soup), given a choice either to accept it and experience the suffering of consciousness.

Shinji: I don’t know where to find happiness.

Rei: So, you only find happiness in your dreams.

S: Then, this is not reality, this world where no one exists.

R: No, it’s only a dream.

S: Then, I don’t exist here either.

R: This convenient fabrication is your attempt to change reality.

S: is that wrong?

R: You were using fantasy to escape reality.

S: why can’t I dream that I’m alone?

R: That is not a dream. That’s a substitute for reality.

S: But where is my reality?

R: It is at the end of your dream.[5]

When Shinji makes his final decision to endure everything, he was given assurance that everyone would eventually return to their former selves as long as their consciousness is capable of reclaiming themselves. Instrumentality was denied and the film ends with Shinki choking Asuka Langley, with no explanations as to why.

What was denied is instrumentality is a naïve version of universality that everything in the end will unite in a single consciousness, ending all suffering and reach the apex of human evolution. This goal is where occidental and oriental cosmologies converge; both Gnosticism and Buddhism aim at the unification of humanity within the one (which provoked Elaine Pagels to conclude that Gnosticism and Buddhism shared a common ground and even influenced a few gnostic groups). Shinji’s “no” can be seen as a refusal to end the pain; the psychoanalytical lesson here is that Shinji tries go beyond the pleasure principle, fully accepting pain as part of any pleasure seeking activity. In the end, everything does not return to normal and the Earth is reduced in a sea of LCL (the primordial soup), with Rei/Adam/Lilith gigantic body in ruins overwhelming the background. We can describe him as occupying the same place as Job by the end of the Book of Job. Both Job and Shinji witnessed the big Other in its purity—to the point of being too close to it. However, Shinji and Job diverge when it comes to reacting to the show omnipotence. While Job distanced himself from the belief in the other, fetishistically disavowing it and is rewarded for keeping the image, Shinji makes a radical choice by refusing to believe in the other. He fully realizes the non-existence of the big Other and that what we have on Earth is the hopes and dreams of everybody the capacity to realize them despite the enduring the pain of desire. The film engages in a critique of spirituality by showing Shinji’s obstinate attitude towards his superiors, refusing to pilot Eva-01, denying his part in a bigger plan for humanity. Furthermore, through such obstinate attitude, he was able to avert SEELE’s plan to initiate instrumentality. It was this group through their obsession to force the evolution of man through a spiritual sublimation through the unification of all beings into one that we get into the gist of the film’s criticism of spirituality.

There is a small boundary between the burgeoning popularity of exotic spiritual practices and the interests of big businesses. William Davies points out how at a 2014 meeting of the World Economic Forum, aside from the usual attendees (billionaires, bankers, corporation big shots etc.) a Buddhist monk was one of the guests, offering meditative and relaxation techniques. Furthermore, the forum was filled with discussions on mindfulness, where twenty five sessions were about mindfulness and holistic wellness.[6] The big business interest in various spiritual traditions made a large demand for oriental gurus and certified yoga instructors. The appeal of oriental spirituality and syncretic versions of Christianity can be related to the demand by big business companies to have a dynamic workplace ethic. It is necessary to point out that both Christian and Oriental “spiritualties” are two sides of the same coin, providing an individualist trickle down spirituality—improve oneself through this and that and everything follows—; its egotistical element is retained and a banal cosmo-theology in place.

I propose no alternative here and I will not attempt to come up with a “materialist spirituality” to supplement a dialectical materialist theory. With a rejection of spirituality, I am emphasizing the communal aspect that bound Christians in its early days. What they have is not a system of spirituality, but a theology of militant anticipation of the parousia. When Paul tells the church at Ephesus to put on the armor of God, loins girded in truth, the breastplate of righteousness and so on[7], Paul is not telling the Christians at Ephesus that they can already have a cake and eat it; rather, the recourse to martial metaphors is Paul’s reminder that the faith entails a struggle far more difficulty that philosophical and religious ones. Without being nostalgic, to-day’s religious atmosphere has the wonderment at what lies beyond knowledge and the seeming inherent unity of all things. However, one must maintain that the very failure to understand what is out there is inherent in the object being grasped. The Lacanian lesson of the Book of Job and Neon Genesis Evangelion is that when we are face to face with the traumatic real of what is in front of us, realizing how it is void of all value, we either keep appearances and go on or create another reality outside of what has been fetishized. When Christianity only had an appeal with slaves, women, the illiterate and others who are marginalized by the (multi-cultural avant la lettre) Empire, it never kept appearances; instead, their writings were preoccupied with an anticipation of the end, the apocalypse of Imperial domination. The legacy left by the Early Christians is that they left a memory of militancy and communal living. In our neoliberal age, when communal living means exercising identity politics, perhaps, only the religious militant gesture (without being fundamentalist) can provide a proper theoretical stance against to-day’s ideological struggles.

 

[1] Colleen M. Griffith, “Catholic Spirituality in Practice,” C21 Resources (Spring 2009): 1.

[2] Augustine’s debates with Pelagianism spans over a great number of his major writings, sermons, and letters; to start, De Libero Arbitrio (On the Free Choice of the Will), De Natura et Gratia (On Nature and Grace), etc. for a comprehensive source see Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed Philipp Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Ethreal Library, 1886)

[3] However, there are cases when politicians have to blame government bureaucracy to escape the blame from their constituents. For example, in one of the cities of Metro Manila, numerous word works, causing heavy traffic, bore the signs “DPWH [Department of Public Works and Highways] project NOT the City of _____ so that public blame would fall on the bureaucracy of the DPWH and not the City officials who are elected.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, On Belief (London: Routledge, 2002) p. 125.

[5] I am quoting from the English subtitles of the Japanese original.

[6] William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold us Well Being (London: Verso, 2015), pp. 1-3.

[7] Cf. Eph 6: 13-17.

Against Spirituality

Where do we Stand? Responding to Slavoj Zizek’s Remarks on the Failure of the Left

 

From the rise to power of right-wing groups in Europe, the defeat and co-opting of Bernie Sanders in the status quo of the Democratic party and the rising tensions in the West Philippine Sea, such current events will push anyone to ask “where were the leftist movements that passionately fought for everything?” or “why the left continues to fail at its struggles only for far more worse events to take place?”, Slavoj Zizek’s comments on the failure of the left should not be taken as a reactionary jab at current left-wing struggles, but a clear and present practice of criticism and self-criticism. With such a wide ranging movement that the term “left” means, one gets lost in the quagmire of different opinions that contain either a dialectical or un-dialectical understanding of our current situation. The fall of the Soviet Union along with the dissolution of other communist states goaded some leftists the opportunity to re-write and re-consider some of the old ideological stances and replace them with more inclusive theories and affirm the necessity of remaining within the logic of liberal democracy.

Capitalism, in the understanding of a grand system of labor relations and private ownership controlling the flow of commodities and raw materials, is no longer the theoretical bogeyman; the words US Imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism are discredited as merely slogans of a passé passionate politics that have to give way to “rational” liberal democracy. Leftist theory (from the agonistics of Chantal Mouffe to discourse theory of the postmodern and post-colonial left) is less preoccupied with alternatives but with reforming the democratic system to become more “deliberative”, rational and open. The struggles of old make way for cooperation within the cozy offices of the Parliament building and organization of various civil sectors relegated to valid party-list groups or non-government organizations that would function outside of the state system or even function as a gap-filler to what the state lacked. Such a move is justified as a way to integrate the excluded ones into a supposedly more inclusive democracy. To allow such to happen is it not necessary to reject the cliché in the guise of the communists, the last remnants of a bygone era? What is to be affirmed and held with rigor is the multiplicities of reason, various narratives that unfold simultaneously to each other and functioning within a currently established liberal democracy. The enemy in this case is vague; to the post-colonialist, it is Western hegemony; to the identity politician, it is the hegemonic discourse that prevents peoples to exercise their chosen identities (be it Patriarchy or the dominant scientific rationality). It is enough to say that in the dominant reason there is a singularization and an enforcement of certain cultural norms, repressing the uniqueness of one’s own reason. There is no class conflict here, just the struggle against the dominant and the imperative to openness and dialogue, acting as a medicine to our monologue society.

What is wrong with this theory is precisely its mystification of multiplicities; this way we lose sight of what really causes the global phenomena of exploitation under global capitalism. While the proposed alternative is to return to our post-colonial ethos and relation to the earth (recall how our liberal academicians would love to cite Heidegger), seeing ourselves within an immense universe in the great chain of being with a proper place on earth; it fails to see itself within the ideological coordinates of global capitalism. Its attachment to the system of liberal democracy only serves to demonstrate that our current (supposed) left-wing academic theory “wants to have a cake and eat it,” without realizing that any attempt at radically changing our current predicament requires a lot of risks, examination of current conditions, and the courage to organize and resist, while at the same time rejecting obvious alternatives. While conscious of past mistakes, a communist knows that the struggle requires a constant experience of failure and failing better until a successful alternative is achieved. Our current liberal intelligentsia sees the search for an alternative as a futile attempt at achieving a desired utopian end, settling for the vicious circle of democracy’s oscillation. It is evident that with the almost unfettered rise of the right-wing quasi fascist movements, we can no longer rely on the democratic system to decide the fate of nation-states. From a more theoretical level, we can no longer systematically accept the postmodern discourse, rejecting a singular unfolding of narrative. Rather, our singular narrative is contained in the universal struggle of the exploited from the exploiter; at the end of this struggle is the toppling of the very system that allows poverty and exploitation to occur. Global capitalism thrives in multi-culturalism and nationalism, seeing that the attempt to de-colonize our culture keeps the intelligentsia in check i.e. to remain in the universities, exchanging witty philosophical remarks, barking at each other over who can make a more rigorous noise, while pandering on radicals, seen as nostalgically attached to the passé ideologies of old. That is one of the risks being an avowed Marxist-Leninist in the university. When forming the party is seen as militantism and a theory based on class struggle as un-dialogical, closed to the myriads of options out there. Perhaps, being closed and loyal to the convictions of the cause is better than engaging in speechifying sophistry of academically accepted ways of theoretical resistance.

What is basically wrong with the left? It has transformed itself mainly as a university discourse, producing variations on any allowed theme but as long as it remains within the production of essays and commentaries. For that reason, even among bourgeois students of philosophy Karl Marx is admired only by the scope of his research and the applicability of his thought in various research endeavors. However, if we move outside of the production of essays to the actual work of doing theory (i.e. not merely as writing an essay but the actual analysis of material conditions within the exploitative nature of capitalism) in light of informing current revolutionary movements, they are ready to cast it aside as a futile political project. If they (and ourselves included if need be) remain within the confines of their academism, perhaps Zizek is right to reprimand us of our complacency.

Where do we Stand? Responding to Slavoj Zizek’s Remarks on the Failure of the Left

Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (Part 3 of 3)

The Politics of Inherent Transgression

We know proceed to the final point in determining the contours of our present political situation and the hype it has been causing all these times. For the enlightened liberal, a question often hangs in his mind: who are we to blame for the disintegration of our politics into this heap of irrationality and reduction to a mere spectacle of popular support. It is easy for the liberal to blame the poor, the ones who eat away at government welfare, waiting for doleouts, while honest working people have to pay taxes. In this case, the poor is often conceived as the ones who receives all the blame for the difficulties of the country; but at the same time, they are the ones who must occupy the object of our duty to charity.

In our present post-religious milieu (in which religion is only a means for one’s well-being and good vibes), the duty to do charity is already packaged in our consumerist ethos. Zizek always emphasized this aspect in which the commodity already included the fulfillment of one’s duty in giving to the poor, so that one can in turn blame them, if everything does not work. The poor in the character of the squatter, the drug addict, the petty criminal, etc. are seen as the primary problems of society, seeking to corrupt the healthy body of the social body. The response, in this case, is the emergence of someone who believes fully in the symptom of our times, someone who fully takes on the public’s disappointments. Perhaps, this picture is inadequate in describing our present political situation. We are fully aware of the effects of a mismanaged economy upon our political structure and any administration will attempt to save its own image for the sake of maintaining them and at the same time to secure a clam political climate, appeasing the passions of the people. The elections are a better way to appease the passions, sublimating them into something tolerable through the performance of a political play of images. This “play of images” can only be understood in the way bourgeois politics is a politics of inherent transgression, developed through the years of political instability, sustained by academic attachment to a national identity, corrupted by colonialism, the search for a rational state, manned by the educated bourgeoisie capable of public discourse and the compromise with neoliberal global capitalism. The hopes and dreams for a vibrant democracy form the symbolic order, covering the traumatic kernel of our politics through an assertion of the pure social subject (the diligent, working, taxpaying, family centered worker), presupposed by our liberal discourse as prepared to take the ultimate sacrifice in working for the benefit of the family, tradition, and country. The image of the conservative (almost middle class) working man acts as the cover for the traumatic gap from which class struggle emerges.

So far, our own political environment plays on this political spectacle where decency and clean politics are invoked to convince the political agents of the worth of representing them in government. The problem comes from the assertion of decency and the multi-cultural facet of their political machinery. All candidates play along with the omnipotent capacity of the working class to endure the hardships for the sake of the nation, requiring them to cooperate and blamed for the failure as such.

The liberal, on the other hand, responds valiantly to this proposition and affirm the capability and capacity of our present structure to generate a social revolution without going over to its horrible prerequisites (the organization, education of the masses, analyses of material conditions and so on) and instead we relegate the capacity for social transformation in the sheer capacity of someone else, a subject supposed to know. However, Zizek warns us that

The crucial mistake to be avoided here is the notion that this displaced belief is nothing but a reified form of a direct belief, in which case the task of the phenomenological reconstitution of the genesis of reification would be to demonstrate how the original belief was transposed to another (Zizek 1998, 4).

Therefore, we are not dealing here with the leader as the collective expression of our political aspirations; rather, our democratic process depends on the displacement as such. Again, to develop the line of thinking in the second essay, here we encounter the problematic of Mouffe’s struggle for hegemony. Although the Laclau-Mouffe strategy attempts to return politics to its core in the struggle for state power, the latent unexplored consequence here is the lack of the displacement of belief in the cause, as if passion is merely enough in guaranteeing its vibrancy. Our drunkenness for passion will always give way to the sober displacement of political belief, saying to ourselves that we’re already done with our political duty; let us now relegate it to the system to enact what we believe. Such is the horrible outcome of Mouffe’s dependence on passion as the drive for political movements.

The inherent transgression at work in our bourgeois politics emerges from the thrust to maintain the images of a political process and at the same time keep the oligarchical powers intact. Whenever we speak of the spectacle, it is not the direct manipulation of political discourse and the play of images to generate popular support and legitimize the bourgeois political order; but, it is inherent to bourgeois politics as such. We encounter the fundamental lesson that Marx already stressed that the elections are a way by which we choose the leaders to exploit us through the bourgeois controlled elections. To rescue the very ideals of democracy is the emergence of a new political theory that does not begin from any pre-conceived notion and fantasy about the citizen who is prepared to engage in deliberation with anyone and against anyone. Rather, emancipatory politics begins with the resistance to categorization and instead goes into the malevolent sections of the symbolic to unravel the structure divided by class struggle and repressed by bourgeois ideology. To-day’s liberal ideology regulates daily life and everyday political relations, determining what we can say and what counts as politically relevant, cutting through various territories of socio-political relationships. Hence, the relevance of the National Democratic Front’s slogan that the any country whatsoever suffers from the triple entente of Imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism is its capacity to transgress the coordinates of bourgeois liberal politics, unable it is to co-opt this slogan through the open exchange of discourses.

We must break down the territories of the political, set-up by neoliberalism to separate various sectors of socio-political life in its attempt to bureaucratize our everyday activities through the separation of private and public spheres, subjecting us to the mindless activities of everyday labor (and integrated through the quasi-religious activities to ensure our submission). To overturn liberalism is a return to the omnipresence of the political as the constant struggle set against neoliberalism.

Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (Part 3 of 3)

Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (part 2 of 3)

On Fascism: is Duterte a Jacobin?

Fascism is often a word thrown out to denounce a potentially repressive regime. Aside from being the primary slogan against any repressive state and the right-wing ideology that sustains it, any form of totalitarian state from Stalinism to American establishment bureaucracy can be described as a fascist regime. However, for all the horrible outcomes and repressive character, why are neo-fascists and hardline right-wingers gaining ground in our present political landscape? Furthermore, their legitimacy is even cemented through popular elections, gaining power through legal means and not through any form of revolution.

Fascism emerges from a thorough examination of current conditions but its fundamental difference with leftist struggles is the simplicity of its solutions and the pragmatism of its political program. It has always been a conservative revolution to save the capitalist order (Žižek 1999, 138-139). It is a revolution that attempts to keep the current status of class antagonism in place and at the same time posit and external enemy that acts as a parasitic invader that disturbs the pristine nature of the nation. What this account fundamentally misses (since it remains entirely on the level of populism and mass appeal) is how the whole discourse on fascism itself is a mirage played by a small bureaucratic clique that is actually in power. Fascism at its purest is not defined by the brutality of its leaders but in the brutality supplemented by the pragmatism of its bureaucracy that actually defines the contours of a country’s operation. This particular picture of fascism is perfectly described in the political films of Costa-Gavras. In Section Speciale, Z, Etat de Siege and Missing, Costa-Gavras describes fascist (or military regimes) not as they are led by a single leader, driving the country by the sheer magnitude of his will; rather, in all of these films, we see the inner bureaucracy at work, determining all decisions and choosing which groups to suppress and so on. The common pattern of these films (aside from how each film is a metaphor for real events) is the absence of the leader who is supposed to lead everyone by the force of his political will. Costa-Gavras demystifies fascism and describes its aestheticization of politics simply as the attempt of the oligarchy to continue the legitimacy of its regime. The dictator is removed from his privileged position and relegated to the shadows, while the real determinants of its politics are made by the small circle of bureaucrats.

Hence, the logic of fascism is founded the naïve ontological dualism that what lies behind the appearance (of a leader atop triangle leading everyone below him) is the grim reality, what things really are. To understand fascism therefore is to go beyond the charisma of its leader’s cult of personality and turn one’s attention to the ersatz reality of the regime. To overcome the ontological dualism that lies in our previous description, we must see fascism as the culmination of bourgeois politics, playing with the popular dissatisfaction with the present, social, economic, and political condition, then positing them as the struggle between the purity of something against the invasion of another or as problems caused by the intrusion of something impure and pathological to the healthy body of the socius. The antagonism between the external pathology against the pristine body attempts to dispel the latent class antagonisms at work and at the same time establish categories of national identity that attempts to neutralize the boundaries between enemies, to see each other as part of one royal group of people against another.

One can feel the difficulty of classifying the impact of Duterte’s presidential campaign upon the political environment, since he has already classified himself as the sole progressive voice in the entire presidential elections. The problem arises not in his close disregard for political correctness or for is women’s rights problems or his positions about the liquidation of the social pathos, but in the way he characterizes bourgeois politics at its finest. Between a yellow liberal party clique and a PDP-Laban clique, there is no clear difference and that the incompetence of one would only be changed by the recklessness of the other. However, people think that Duterte is leading a genuine revolution, a complete turnaround from our present political conditions. Do we not see the similarities between 2010 and 2016, when the same enemy is called out as the no. 1 enemy of democracy in the guise of corruption and incompetence of the present administration? The subjects speak the same message, coming from two places of enunciation. This way, one can speak of totally the same thing with a predictable outcome, capitalizing on the cult of personality of the established candidate, garnering popular support as a way to externalize the collective passions to democratic ends.

Here lies the fascist consequence of agonistic politics and its attempted sublimation of political passions for democratic ends. In the last century, the left is seen as the passionate political sector that acts out of the pure desire to change the status quo, while the right is the agent of discipline, adherence to traditions, and nationalism. Such dichotomoy however is unusually absent in to-day’s political climate. Left-wingers and right-wingers would often be the most passionate political agents, collecting popular support, while bourgeois cliques (and the third way) pride themselves of embodying rationalist political discourse. Perhaps, our very use of the word discourse is inadequate, presupposing that each cadre has its own discourse that is then communicated to the public sphere. The reduction of political antagonism to mere exchange, opening, and deliberation of discourses only serves to cover the underlying class struggle that discourses try to extinguish. They are salient tolerations of the enemy, while at the same time not taking them seriously, reducing their claims to impractical claims, blind of real political work. In this way, bourgeois politics is able to remain at their positions of privilege and at the same time create an image of a vibrant democracy by manipulating the passions through the spectacle of agonism.

Is Duterte capable of changing the political climate, through an introduction of a radical change in political struggle? It prompts us to ask whether he is ready to pay the iron price to take the country to a thorough political transformation. It is crucial that we shed no illusions about such a popular candidate and see him or anyone as being capable to be Jacobin. The Jacobin is the agent of political transformation, lying outside bourgeois compromising tactics. While the bourgeois can play the hat of a pious republican or a faithful monarchist, the Jacobin at its purest is the dedicated republican, prepared to go through the self-consuming fire of the terror to enact the actualization of the revolution. Unlike the fascist dictator (who sees himself as the pinnacle of a aestheticization of the political), the Jacobin is the proto-Stalinist who sees the immanent failure of the Revolutionary movement as the condition of possibility for the success of the revolution. However, in the same way as the Stalinist, the Jacobin is prepared to pay the price by being the final victim of his own reign of terror. It is precisely this reason why I do not agree with Žižek’s criticism of Stalinism as the expression of failure of any emancipatory political project, a horrible outcome of a betrayal of the original project. What I find problematic in this statement is his own call for a lack of theory to understand Stalinism and Jacobinism and dispel any critique of totalitarianism as a justification of a liberal and bourgeois politics. I am prepared to take this latter step and describe Stalinism and Jacobinism as an attempt to get engage in constant struggle with itself, from which a genuine political process can emerge.

Our present electoral fiasco however does not fit any radical change in our political environment. Duterte’s explicit invocation of corruption and criminality as the fundamental cancer of our political realm simply posits an external enemy, without considering the structure that actually causes the pathos he explicitly mentions; friend and foe alike are simply parts of the symbolic realm that organizes the very way we do politics. Duterte’s revolution (as his supporters want to see it) is simply a way to maintain the actual class antagonism intact, while at the same time generate the illusion of a political agonistic spectacle. Duterte and the elections itself is a theatre for those in power to remain in power and entertain the masses with a candidate they can identify with just like an action star in a telenovella.

 

References

Zizek, Slavoj. Ticklish Subject: the Absent Centre of Political Ontology. London: Verso, 1998.

Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (part 2 of 3)

Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism, and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (Part 1 of 3)

Overture

My previous take on Rodrigo Duterte engaged in a usual psychoanalytic reading of his impact on Philippine democracy, engaging with Jessica Zafra’s naïve description; she claimed that our current situation is an id-ified politics where certain candidates embody the irrational desires of the people, acting as the externalization of our disappointments as such. However, I am more inclined to think that our current situation is simply a variation of rationalist politics, where we simply encounter the inherent transgression of liberal state democracy. At best, what we encounter with Duterte is not irrationality as such, but the expression of pragmatic rationality that our politically correct liberals have been attempting to repress.

I would admit that in the growing literature about to-day’s electoral politics will prompt us to take a more unusual stance; I do not like this usual fear about the emergence of fascism as a form of bribery to justify the status quo and the competence of the administration. In this case, I admire the radical left’s denunciation of Duterte wherein we do not argue for the decency one the other. Hence, to further expand the horizon of the first Duterte essay, I would express it in three themes: populism, fascism and the politics of inherent transgression. With that particular form in mind, I argue that we can understand the traumatic situation of our present predicament.

Democracies in the third world are always in crises specifically because of the intellectual emergence of going back to the pre-colonial identity and built the national discourse from there as a rejection of Western colonial mentality. The problems of the orient kindled by Western discourse of domination, hijacking the natural development of any nation or creating the present ethnic crises that made any form of authentic democracy impossible. Can we then possibly describe Philippine democracy as simply in crises, kindled by colonial antagonism? Here, I think we should proceed in the same manner as the National Democrats; colonialism, imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism are still evident in the economic conditions of any developing country and imperialist agendas continue to play as one of the antagonist agent of a country’s struggle for independence.

In the case of our present electoral events the candidates are mostly moving within the coordinates of satisfying the imperialist masters in allowing the unfettered entrance of foreign businesses to privatize the country under the illusion of GDP growth. Resistance to this trend however can be multi-faceted and the contradictory attitudes of Duterte can be described as a move to renormalize the crisis under the guise of a big political drama.

 

On Populism: Kindling the Mass Base

Philippine politics is a highly complicated affair as seen from its inherent family and gratitude centered politics. The common man cannot be simply convinced by educational attainment, but to the sincerity one gives to the masses. In every election, a candidate becomes prominent by its capability to incur mass support and mass appeal not for good platforms but on the sheer charisma of his cult. The charisma of such a personality is not based on the capability of the person, but simply on his social relations he keeps with the people. This is however a simplistic description that panders on the masses, seeing them simply as reacting to popularity culture rather than in the engagement of a proper democracy. Populism or the popularity trough an invocation of popular sentiment, highlighting simple problems as national problems is not a political expression of irrationality. Rather, populism is simply the expression of a disgruntled populace, finding a way to overcome the failure of a genuine emancipatory project.

In our present situation, the emergence of populism can be described as a form of resistance to bourgeois domination of the political sphere and the prescription that the masses are simply duped into something. For that specific reason, the very idea that there is a rational and irrational vote is way for the bourgeoisie to maintain its upper position in determining the validity of its public use of reason. Populist politics emerge specifically at this point in the attempt to counteract the bourgeois argument by kindling the mass base. In pure Habermasian terms, the communicative act of the populist leader is a way to collect the general disgruntlement of the other parts of the public sphere against those who might want to restrict discourse to a select expert bureaucracy. The populist candidate is simply the “subject supposed to know” our present situation, belonging to the masses and oftentimes engage in their own politically incorrect ways; behind every mass populism however is the latent class struggle appeal of its movements. In the case of Duterte, it is establishment candidates versus someone with no political machinery. During the candidacy of Erap, it was someone from the poor against the bourgeois candidates. However, it might sound as if a genuine class struggle is played out, but one can see the false manipulation of the class struggle discourse. One pursues an external enemy in the guise of the establishment, the calloused ones to the poor, et cetera. In this situation, the enemy is concrete and abstract at the same time as long as he is posited by the populist and exploited as the central node of his policy making.

Do we see this trend in Duterte? Filipino democratic discourse and debates seldom play the struggle strategy, but the supporters are the ones who fundamentally engaged in positing an external enemy. The enemy however in this case is not a person (like GMA in 2010), but a symptom, embodied in the petty criminals who disrupt everyday life. The popularity of enacting summary executions on petty criminals, the hard-hand tactics against drug abusers and pushers, etc. are posited under the basic assumption that getting rid of them would make the country livable for honest and decent citizens, without worrying about the bureaucratic judicial system. The temptation to reduce this belief into mere receding into an id-fication of the public completely misses the point. The tragic aspect of populist discourses is the complete externalization of the symptom, while at the same time argue that the people are pristine, corrupted by some parasitic external supplement that corrupts the honest good people of the nation.

Here, post-colonial discourses and populism intersect at the obscene assertion of an external enemy or supplement that corrupted the present state of things. Both colonialism and the symptom are posited as coming from outside the symbolic arrangement and that the solution is for the emergence of a new social national discourse that is more inclusive to the cultural aspects of our nation in order to unify with consideration for those who are excluded by the external enemy. Furthermore, the intersection of anti-colonial/post-colonial discourse and populist politics has always been practiced in this country and other Asian countries. The whole edifice of Ferdinand Marcos’ politics is the “Filipinization” effort, to create a distinct Filipino nation and identity. This tactic was so popular that the old Filipino Communist Party (the PKP not to be mistaken for the PKP-MLM, the Maoist breakaway group formed by Jose Maria Sison) agreed to collaborate with the Marcos regime and in turn be tolerated by the government as a prize for its silence and complacency (a tolerance that can also be seen in how the PCF and de Gaulle’s government worked together in suppressing the 1968 strike and student uprising). Filipinization and the “Revolution from the Center” (a concept proposed by Marcos as a compromise against communism and oligarchy, believed to have begun with the declaration of Martial Law) are perfect expressions to arrive with a truly ethnic democracy while at the same time establish a bureaucratic (crony) clique that replaced the comprador and oligarchy class with another set of comprador and bourgeois apparatchiks.

Populism for all its attempts to directly deal with the problems of the masses is simply a cover-up, replacing actual democratic action with the spectacle of struggle between pure honest people and the external parasitic symptom. Here lies the point I want to make in my previous Duterte essay, we do not encounter irrational politics here. I think this is rational politics at its purest that arguments have to be accompanied by a form of passion to supplement its effectiveness. Hence, the obscene effect of Chantal Mouffe’s agonistics is its compromising tone to sublimate the passions to the realm of democratic discourse.

 

Duterte: Three Essays on Populism, Fascism, and the Politics of Inherent Transgression (Part 1 of 3)

Duterte: the Politics of the Superego

By now, everyone is already familiar with Jessica Zafra’s article, highlighting Rodrigo Duterte as the expression of the Filipino political Id, the unbridled agency of pleasure-satisfaction, loved by the masses, acting as the return of the repressed, set against the all too decent yet incompetent agents of the status quo. Perhaps, Zafra is arriving at a hasty conclusion, utilizing a simple Freudian analysis. What is problematic in such simplistic analysis is that it would fundamentally miss the point in psychoanalysis , where the id and the superego converge and are not separate.

Applied phylogenetically, the id-superego convergence is not simply the mundane synthesis of a ruthless imperative towards the achievement of a goal; rather, the id-superego intersection is the expression of the superego’s function, confronting its real object: the attainment of pleasure (and not merely the blind obedience to the law that keeps the id in check).

The Obscene Underside of Bureaucratized State

The cliques of the liberal party see themselves as the epitome of decency, rationalization, and intelligent politics. The often cited “intelligent vote” is one thing they want to propagandize themselves to appeal to those who want to be part of the intelligent vote and the university discourse (no wonder in the local university where Habermasian theory is dominant, the Liberal Party is strong, given this self-styled image of decency). To market oneself as the sole voice of intelligence in an already irrational electoral season contributes to the illusion, they seek to establish.

One is too familiar with how even in the mirage of decency and rationality, what is underneath it is the complacency to the bureaucratized state system. The cliques of the LP and UNA only play the opposition and administration card when elections are coming; outside it, these politicians would attend each other’s parties and private events. Hence, conflict between political parties is simply a mirage to cover up the bureaucrat system that operates our political and state system. Bureaucracy and decency diverge at the crucial point, where the spectacle of democracy is to be played out into the public sphere. It is entirely a performative and spectacular show that creates the image of rational choice within the democratic process. At this point, even Habermasian normativity are simply notes on the script with no actual political significance than to maintain good images.

The candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte however challenges the preconceived decency that operates in our political arena; a personality with no censure, insensitive to political correctness, and whose political platforms appeared to those who think they are intelligent as impossible. However, despite the irrationality and the insensitive remarks concerning women, the LGBT, rape, etc., he continues to gain widespread support from the masses who are fed up with the administration. The immediate Freudian presupposition emerges as the id-fication of the political. However, I think such simplistic theorization misses the point. At best, what we fundamentally encounter is the inherent transgression of rational liberal state democracy and its attempt to be universal. The attempt to suppress Duterte’s presidency will simply account to the inherent dictatorship of liberalism itself i.e. in suppressing its own by-products. Like an evil twin it has not tamed, it cannot contain the upsurge of what was initially repressed. The emergence of Duterte’s campaign is not a threat to democracy it is democracy itself that is in crises in the first place. The obsession with a politically clean, participative, and decent government has generated a generation of cynics among the masses and a culture of padrinos among the ruling class.

One can clearly see the class structure emerging from the argument of decency. It is not merely the imperative to decency, but an imperative to imitate and adopt a bourgeois form of decency, following liberal values yet at the same time adopt a patriarchal and feudal system in governing the country, acting as compradors to global capital. Duterte comes not as the breakthrough in the dualist deadlock (between decency and irrationality), but the full incarnation of both aspects. The inherent transgression emerges as someone who can play a double face against the symbolic edifice of the political; somone who is the living and walking contradiction of the structure, facing its own contradictions.

Wo es war, soll Duterte werden

Duterte is not simply the embodiment of irrational Filipino politics; but the candidate to demonstrate the internal crises of liberal state democracy, enculturated by the Filipino bourgeoisie, attempting to repress class conflicts through the spectacular utilization of the political drama. The acceptance of his womanizing ways and tasteless jokes is not an expression of irrational voter’s sentiment over intelligent ones, but an expression of pragmatism, admitting that “yes, he is insensitive but he can get stuff done,” is this not the expression of the superego imperative that one can endure the most painful of obstacles for the future attainment of something? The choice is not between rational democracy under the liberal party and irrational quasi-fascist dictatorship under Duterte (and BBM), but between a clique that does not admit its symptom over someone who has a clear identification with it.

Of course, I am not defending Duterte nor his actions, but what is crucial at this point is to consider how much of our fetishes have political implications and how far we can go just to realize them. We see this tendency in Louise Kaplan’s “fetishism strategy”, where the initial strategy begins with the transformation of something enigmatic and immaterial to something tangible as a defense mechanism against the enigmatic and indecipherable real, necessitating the shift to the symbolic (Kaplan 2006, 5). The Other four, she mentions, are simply variations of the first, creating a complex form of signifying chains, culminating at the death drive as the complete exploitation of the concretized object, replacing the original one (Kaplan 2006, 8). For Kaplan, this is the culmination of fetishism strategy. Applied to our present situation, this implies that Duterte is simply an incarnation of a political fetish i.e. of someone who can get shit done. What Kaplan’s theory does not see is that it entails merely the relegation of political figures as the big other, expressing our desire through them.

Political figures are less than expressions of the big other; but are on the contrary the very products of the big other, the subject supposed to believe (and blamed oftentimes), while we can remain within a cynical attitude with our really existing democracies. The first strategy of fetishism is itself the expression of an initial repression of the gap between the symbolic and the real. This Zizekian theorization establishes that the big other simply represses the gap through the objet petit a. In our experience, the act of repressing the gap is when we affirm the present alternative for us is either a decent government or an irrational one, further repressed to obey the big other in voting for the worse one. The superego and id converge in our choice to undergo legal and bureaucratic pain. Hence, the suitable answer oftentimes is not to choose, just to break the logic of choice and alternatives and the ideology that pervades in both alternatives.

With Duterte, one gets the obscene underside of our democratic process and actually not its savior. With his candidacy, the repressed character of our bureaucrat government emerges as the embodiment of what the establishment wants to tolerate but at the same time keep a populist relation with the public sphere. The public goes into full contact with its own fetishes, with the possibility of its fulfillment; the psychoanalytic lesson here is that when this desire is realized, the experience is a complete nightmare.

 

Reference Cited

Kaplan, Louise. Cultures of Fetishism. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

  

Duterte: the Politics of the Superego