Nationalism and its discontents

I’ve just come across this article about the University of the Philippines Open University’s course, Filipiniana Online, which from what I gather is a sort of quick immersion in Philippine “culture”. There are several things I find interesting about this course.

First, the course seems to define culture as art: the student studies, among other things, “Filipino paintings and other forms of visual arts . . . Philippine rituals, dances, musical forms, plays and films.” Well and good, but the implicit message is that culture is superficial. How much of daily life do you spend dancing or watching films? Not a lot, so this culture as art idea seems to be saying that Philippine culture is just something Filipinos indulge in every now and then, but it otherwise doesn’t impact their everyday lives.

The course also seems to define culture as being prestigious. Notice that tv shows aren’t mentioned, and I suspect the films being reviewed are serious stuff like Lino Brocka’s work and not trashy like, say, Darna. Wouldn’t the stuff with popular appeal impact on more people, and therefore reflect the concerns of more Filipinos than high-minded artistic fare? If the purpose of the course is to understand the Philippines, you would think understanding the vast majority of Filipinos would be a very high goal.

The course also focuses on the spectacular instead of the everyday. Dances and plays are certainly nice to watch and participate in, but as I said, they don’t really influence that many Filipinos and aren’t a concern for most. Filipinos in the Philippines, ask yourselves this, when was the last time you danced the tinikling? Probably when you were still kids in school, right? Now, when was the last time you sent a text message? The Philippines has been claimed by some to be the most texting-crazy country in the world. I would argue that studying the use of texting in the Philippines would give someone a greater understanding of Filipinos than studying any number of dances would. The same for studying the demographic composition of the Philippines or the way social class works in the country (for example, how most middle class Filipinos have maids, and how that is not the same among the middle class in, say, Australia). However, if you define culture as being spectacular, then this kind of stuff would not apply, since it is just the boring everyday stuff which also happens to be the stuff that most Filipinos deal with everyday.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t mind enrolling in the course if I had the time. I certainly have the money, which is no small thing when you consider that quite a lot of Filipinos in the Philippines don’t. I’m curious to see exactly what this course would say about the Philippines. Would the course mention that Emilio Aguinaldo, the official first president of the Philippines, had his rival Andres Bonifacio shot because of Bonifacio’s popular appeal despite the fact that they were both supposed to be on the same side? Would it also mention that Aguinaldo collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation of the Philippines in the Second World War?

I’m not trying to be overly critical of the Philippines, I’m just pointing out that all countries have things they shouldn’t be proud of, and I wonder whether the course would take this harsh realist approach instead of the nationalist rhapsodizing that I expect.

Still, this kind of whitewashing should be placed in its context. The Philippines is a country of multiple languages, ethnicities, and religions. It doesn’t fit too well into the ideal of “one country, one people” that nation-states aspire to. It’s a lot harder to sustain the fiction of a Philippine nation when there are so many obvious divisions within the population, and the constant efforts by the Philippine nation-state and its intellectuals to promote the Philippines should be understandable from this perspective. To put it simply, Filipinos have to be constantly reminded that the Philippines exists because they get so many reminders everyday that it doesn’t.

The focus of the course on traditional dances and such reminds me of how the Germans invented Germany. What we know as Germany today was divided into several different principalities, kingdoms, bishoprics, and city-states until the middle of the 19th century. Sure, the people all spoke the same language (in the same way that Scottish people and Texans speak the same language, i.e., with varying degrees of intelligibility), but they had different rulers, somewhat different customs, and even different religions. “Germany” was a mishmash of different peoples. However, once German unification started, the commonalities between these different peoples also started to be highlighted. One of these projects of cultural unification involved the collection of folk tales. “See, Germans, this is something we all have in common — Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, the Pied Piper of Hamlin.” That was part of what the project was saying. The collection of folk tales was one of the ways in which the German Volk was constructed, the German people. And we see the same process taking place in the Philippines with the Filipiniana Online course today.

Anyway, I have more critical analyses of this Filipiniana Online course, but they’ll have to wait for another day.