WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

I.

Agustin Rodriguez wrote, back in 2009, that representing the marginalized will remain problematic as long as we do not recognize that they operate on a different rationality, a reality starkly different from our dominant modes of representing social reality (especially its noticeably Western and cosmopolitan modes of representation). The context behind his observation was the aftermath of the second EDSA People Power Revolution of 2001 which caused the downfall of President Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada, a president who ran on a clear populist platform, claiming his close affinity and genuine concern for the masses.[1] The downfall of President Estrada saw a wave of reactionary protests by supporters of the deposed president who, by then, was facing multiple cases of graft and corruption. Supporters flocked to Erap’s residence to stage a vigil for the deposed president and denounce the prosecution as a vindictive act of selective justice imposed by the political elite against the ally of the masses. This political drama reached its climax when the supporters of the deposed president tried to stage their own EDSA People Power Revolution (mockingly referred to as “EDSA Tres”) and their own storming of Malacañan palace, an event marked by violence when police and security forces fired on the demonstrators. For Rodriguez, the reactionary demonstration at the aftermath of the second EDSA Revolution were attempts by the marginalized to express itself according to its own terms and assert its autonomy from an elite-led dominant mode of social representation.

The political language of the time was filled with appeals to the “masses”. President Estrada is an ally and defender of the masses (despite being part of the social elite and that the only semblance of Erap being a defender of the masses was of him portraying poor people in action movies); his political supporters call themselves the “Puwersa ng Masa” (Power of the People); EDSA Tres was the “EDSA Revolution of the masses”, led by the masses for the masses. The popular appeal of Erap’s presidency owed itself to the populist appropriation of leftist rhetoric. This historical malady became significant because of the reaction from the political mainstream: liberals and social democrats event the communist left denounced the demonstrations and disowned its participants.[2] For Rodriguez, the disparity between the masses who supported Erap and the reactions of the political mainstream prove that the masses by itself have their own modes of thinking—one that is characterized by its repressed outrage against the political system and a distinctively rural conservatism where social relations are built by system of mutual reciprocity and patriarchal and filial patronage. This is a mass totally different from the organized sector of workers, farmers, and urban poor who are part of the progressive and leftist sectors of Filipino politics. I leave it to sociologists and anthropologists to better described the specific details of the ethnic character of the “masses”. My primary concern lies on Rodriguez specific point: the masses, as the wholly Other of our political discourse, operate on a rationality (which in Lacanian terms can be read as a distinct symbolic system) that is different from the one that forms the set of representations of our democratic institutions. This resulted in the masses seeing the state as an intrusive entity that oppresses its daily life with concepts that it could not understand much less participate in.[3]

Between the state and the marginalized masses is an irreconcilable gap, wherein a minimal correlation can only be established by a fragile discursive action based on mutual respect and recognition that the Other could never be fully assimilated within the dominant system. Rodriguez is clearly aware of the place of his theory’s enunciation i.e. as a university discourse trying to produce a discourse of the unknowable and inconsistent entity that stands in clear contrast to dominant forms of political representation. For that reason, he is content with a simple ethical solution that maintains the otherness of the other (that it cannot be totalized) as a political constant.

I find this both problematic and radical at the same time. Rodriguez’s theory of the masses is problematic primarily because it sees the masses as a “hyperobject”. Speculative realists define hyperobjects as objects whose magnitude and properties always exceed human cognition and its structuring abilities (Timothy Morton); objects, therefore, have their own realities and sets of relations acting independently of cognitive and epistemological structures (Graham Harman). The same can be said of the marginalized masses: “a marginalized majority comprehends the world through the optics of its various rationalities.”[4] The masses possess their own cognitive mapping and, thus, have their own object-world, containing its own inside and outside.[5] This implies that we do not merely have multiplicities of rationalities, but multiplicities of technically irreconcilable realities in perpetual contradiction with each other.

Thus, when Rodriguez writes of the state, bureaucracy, and government mechanisms as being alien to the marginalized, he makes a disavowed admission of the contradiction between the marginalized and the democratic institutions that represent them. This is where we can find the radical aspect of Rodriguez’s position. He describes an uncomfortable political reality: we can no longer speak of the masses as the political agent capable of knowing its objective conditions and who can, based on such knowledge, properly express its demands and aspirations. Unfortunately, the masses exhibit a kind of masochistic jouissance that Jean-Francois Lyotard found in the English unemployed. “They enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening.”[6] Income inequality, precarious labor conditions, and the lack of robust systems of public services have made poverty an inescapable reality for the masses especially in the city and the provinces (intensified by feudal land ownership and primitive accumulation); faced with this grim reality the masses, limited by their cognitive mapping based on popular religiosity, traditional values, and filial patronage, see their condition as a vicious circle of temporary pleasures and constant poverty, a reality enforced by an unwavering faith in spiritual reward or with a fatal nihilism that builds up their repressed outrage against the system finding its expression in anti-social resentment.

For the above reasons, we can no longer ascribe to the masses the privileged political agency of insurrectionary and millenarian justice. The theoretical twist of the 21st century is that the much maligned populist wave gained its political legitimacy from the masses.

II.

            Poverty does not make the masses unaware of the objective conditions of their place in the capitalist economy; on the contrary, they fully know and experience the objective conditions of their situation, but they nonetheless see it as inevitable and unchanging reality that can only be altered by a power beyond themselves.

Thus what we lack is a proper conception of subjectivity. It could not be ascribed to the masses in its present condition, but in what it can be in the face of present political situations. A theory of subjectivity rejects any notion of political spontaneity from the margins. There is more to political agency that the act of intervention into the present state of things, it is a process by which agents, as a community, formulate and assert a conceptual structure for itself, one that it builds in clear contradiction from its present state.

Subjectivity as a technique of conceptual production holds that any act or a program for action, always emerges from the struggle of a community of subjects to build a conceptual notion for itself. Hence, neither an event nor the logic of the non-all can guarantee a subjective position; it is in the difficult struggle to define and maintain a communal stable conceptual notion that they become subjects. Consider the struggle of the urban poor led by members of Kadamay advocating for public housing, the struggle of the organized workers combatting precarious labor, unsafe work conditions, and low wages, or the struggle of the disenfranchised farmers demanding agrarian reform and access to agricultural technology; these struggles are not simply defined by the events that turn them to political subjects or by the mere discovery of their place as part of no part of the neoliberal economy. Their act of struggle by which the transcendental unity of capitalist ideology is destabilized, is formed by their struggle to conceptualize themselves in relation to the changes and conditions of political reality. Moments of failure and small success become points of struggle for subjects to examine and strengthen the conceptual notions of their communal identity.

Subjectivity as the constant struggle of a community to create and perceive themselves as conceptual artefacts demands more political hard work and competency among political agents. But isn’t the hard work and constant militancy the essence of emancipatory politics?

[1] This political rhetoric worked in 1998 when, during the administration of Fidel Ramos, a policy of privatization of public utilities (like water distribution, power generation and distribution) and economic deregulation led to the enrichment of the both the entrenched oligarchy and the new oligarchs (who emerged wealthy and politically absolved after the Marcos dictatorship) at the expense of the urban poor who face precarious employment and stagnant wages, made worst by weak public services.

[2] Agustin Martin Rodriguez, Governing the Other: Exploring the Discourse of Democracy in a Multiverse of Reason (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2009), p. 200.

[3] Rodriguez 2009, 11.

[4] Rodriguez 2009, 42.

[5] Francis Wolff, Dire le Monde, pp. 11-12 quoted from Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 6.

[6] Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton-Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 214.

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WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

MORO-MORO: COLOUR AND THE ANTAGONISMS OF FILIPINO CULTURE

In a classic Filipino Moro-Moro, a pale skinned Christian hero combats a brown skinned savage Moro (a Muslim warrior). The end is always a victory for the Christian hero after which a litany of invocations to the Christian God is made. The prayers consist of an invocation to the Holy Spirit and a litany of thanksgiving to the three persons of the trinity, thanking them for the success in battling the forces of evil and bringing good back to the community. This binary discourse—that of us and other evil other—reaches its apex in the European and American exceptionalism in which the ideals of the enlightenment and American industry are gospel truths set against the barbaric and savage peoples of the Orient. This discourse lost to a new reversal of roles and a re-writing of the old Moro-Moro discourse. Gone were the days when the pale skinned liberator comes from the West, freeing us from the savage brown skinned people of a barbarian faith. In our politically correct times, it is the brown skinned savage that must win but not through conquest but by preventing the physical antagonism while at the same time maintain the antagonism in allowing the other remain as other. There is no victory in this case but the outcome of the story is that the pale skinned Christian warrior tolerates and shakes hands with a “supposed” enemy, while singing some version of Beethoven’s Ninth or Billy Bragg’s version of the Internationale.

Transgressing this ideological discourse unlashes a myriad of antagonisms inherenent in liberal politically correct discourses of the West. With the rise of Islam and the decline of Christianity, Western discontent over its own legacy gathers up to an extreme case of self pity, ignoring the emancipator potentials of its own universe. Ignoring the place upon which they view the other and the tiring search for alternatives, the west is sooner going to collapse under the weight of its own artificially imposed guilt, leaving the place for far-right extremists to provide a hermeneutic reference point to a vacuum left by liberal complacency. Are we in the Philippines lagging behind the western search for alternatives? Is it apparent in how we approach history and how secular interpreters of Filipino history tend to condemn the Spanish colonial era as the country’s own Dark Ages? The search for an ethnic golden age of pure Filipino tribal values and pure Filipino religious world view, untainted by Colonialism drives the intellectual drive towards  self-pity against the present order and an unwarranted nihilism maintaining a distance between my supposedly enlightened vision and the gullible masses. Among “Asian values” capitalisms (including Vietnam and China), following a mixture of liberal or communist forms of economy and governance, the Philippines with its virulent anti-left mass culture, created by an Americanized social institution and government is the candidate for the most Western-like society with its dislike for socialism and communism and an almost religious admiration of democracy and non-violent revolutions. While Singapore and Chine have created its own economic paradigm in authoritarian forms of capitalism, Filipino society is resilient in its belief in free-market economy and the practice of exceptionalism and individualism.

Despite attempts to be like its Western compatriots, it fails to achieve a Western liberal democracy. With an “Extramuros-Intramuros” mentality that transcends the adobe walls of the historic Fort Santiago, the walls separating peoples in Filipino Society are worse than any form of racism. The common thinking is that educated petit bourgeois families (with pale to yellow skin and small Chinese eyes) are always on top of the brown skinned big eyed citizens; any commentary by a university degree holder is viewed as aloof, offering little to nothing to the plight of the poor. The rich are always Chinese, white and educated, wearing their tailored suits and speak straight English with an American (or English) accent. The popularity of the Binay family can be traced back to thins thinking. To those who support the Binays, the Binay family is part of the “other” class, doing their part in the service of the poor and bullied by the elite for being successful at that. The problem is that we are confusing the cause of the illness with the illness itself. Far from being a “rags to riches” story, the Binays are only popular because of the circumstances around the colour of their skin and the exigencies at play with crowd identification. While to a great majority, the Aquinos remain as the poster family for freedom and what stands as the success of democracy post-1986. To critical theorists, the democratic project needs to be expolored given the multicultural circumstances of having 7,107 islands. All of these—for the bottom dwellers—are mere calculations and instruments of elite domination. There is a gist of truth from the criticism of Filipino independent films that they have exploited poverty as a concept, transforming it into a marvellous celluloid spectacle. From the popularity of Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag and Insiang to Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay, the aesthetic of the ugly has prevailed to a certain extent in the films of these directors. Called by critics as “pornography of the poor,” the topic of poverty in independent films makes it a matter of suspicion for common taste. Thus, the black humour in Babae sa Septic Tank perfectly satirizes the excesses of independent filmmakers.

Antagonisms therefore are between academically posh educated theorists of the universities and the common sense mindsets of the urban and rural poor. The task of theory is to present an educational program for the advancement of peoples; but when the theory itself bolsters the antagonism between the educated and the urban and rural classes, the task of criticism and self-criticism remains a burden for all. It is enough to say that democracy, liberalism and the like remain theories that separate the educated from the uneducated. Belief in the “equality before the law” and the “secular liberal state” are privileged positions made by someone who is detached from the community and has the presupposition of freedom within this theoretical state. There is an old joke from the Martial Law period: “in the Philippines, everything is relative, you have to be related.” Is this joke still applicable today in the distrust in any notions of free market capitalism? Clearly, it reflects the notion that free market capitalism is not “free” at all but controlled by a few people inside a meeting room, calling the shots in the control of supply and demand and the economic laws. In this case, there is nothing “free” or a-political in capitalism. Its assertion of apathy to politics is its very inclusion within the political. The pattern provided by telenovellas suggest that participation in the liberal democratic discourse of the law and the market requires economic constraints: from struggling to pay for a lawyer to the payments to the court proceedings, to be even allowed justice, the poor characters are pushed to their economic capacities, driving them to absolute poverty while achieving no justice at all. The rich with the capability to hire the most unscrupulous of lawyers can achieve justice and confidently believe in the democratic notions of due process and the equality before the law. Within the preconceived notions of justice, the economically downtrodden are unable to participate in the Western dominant discourse of liberal democracy. Are they simply bitter in remaining within the sidelines of the minor discourse, seeking participation only at some moments in history?

Here is where advocates of Habermasian theory of dominant discourses and its application in our society find an inevitable impasse. Their effort is: to legislate the denial in the participation in the dominant discourse as the very participation in the dominant discourse of those who are outside it. They are considered other, as outside the legal jurisdiction whose being other is their sole participation in the dominant discourse. They remain as edifices of a resistance to the dominant discourse but at the same time their resistance solidifies the status quo since their very existence is granted by the dominant discourse itself.[1]   The boundary between the dominant discourse and those outside it is separated by class conflict and the refusal to acknowledge this antagonism in the exchange of discourses only proves the weakness of such theory.

Is it not clear in the investigations against the Binay family? The allegations thrown by Sen. Trillanes only bolstered by the popularity of the Binay family and their refusal to appear in the Senate stand as the singularized refusal to participate in the dominant discourse of liberal democracy and its notions of justice and equality before the law. the antagonism between the liberal party, President Aquino, the Senate and Binay as well as the whole media fiasco surrounding it serve as symptoms of a greater rift in Filipino society and democracy. The refusal to accept a materialist approach to the antagonisms in our society proves the bankruptcy of our intellectuals and great admiration is given to the activists who fervently believe in the futile bourgeois attempts to cement its relevance into society.

[1] I am reminded of a passage from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations where in order for ethnology to live it must posit its object as something before it came to study it. Therefore, ethnology and its methods posit pre-ethnology as a constant and that the very method of ethnology is to study its object as a pre-ethnological object. Hence, what it does is to make its own model and retain the old as old, a living museum for the efforts of ethnology. Is it not the same with the Husserlian project of “going back to the things themselves?” In order for phenomenology to work, it must posit as a constant the suspension of any conceptualization in order for the object to appear which means the phenomenologist must consider himself not doing phenomenology (in the epoche) in order for phenomenology to work as a (rigorous) method.

MORO-MORO: COLOUR AND THE ANTAGONISMS OF FILIPINO CULTURE