The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction (kind of)

Here it comes, the post that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for the last couple of weeks.

So, I mentioned in a previous post how the University of the Philippines Open University has an online course on Philippine culture. In the comments, Aries told me about a similar program, where Filipino American university students can travel to the Philippines and take a compressed course in Philippine Studies.

What’s especially fascinating about these courses are that they are specificallly aimed at second generation Filipino Americans. They are an attempt to incorporate Filipinos in diaspora into the story of the Philippine nation-state.

As I’ve mentioned before, in older conceptions of nationalism and the nation-state, the nation is equated with the territory the nation-state controls. Filipinos are people from the Philippines; the Philippines is where Filipinos are from. This circular argument becomes unhinged when you consider that a lot of Filipinos actually live outside the Philippines — 8 million by the last count, or 10 percent of the population of the Philippines, though that estimate only counts Overseas Foreign Workers and not Filipino citizens of those other countries.

This is not a new situation by any means. Diasporas have existed for a long time. Consider that the term “diaspora” originally referred to the Jewish dispersal from Israel by the Romans, which occurred about 2 000 years ago. What is different is the way that diasporas are thought about. Simply a fact of life before, diasporas are now a problem, since they have no place within the ideology of nationalism and the fiction of the nation-state. If a nation-state is supposed to represent a single people, then how does it handle the existence of other people within its territory?

The answer is: “Not very well.” Nation-states, when confronted with the reality of “other” people living in their territory, do everything in their power to make those “other” people invisible. It can be as directly brutal as the way Native Americans have been violently suppressed in the United States, and it can be as subtle as not portraying black people in movies.

But wait, black people are portrayed in American media today. Why, there’s even a channel called Black Entertainment Television. The older form of nationalism (one land, one people) is being replaced with a more complex form called multiculturalism (one land, one people composed of many people). The motto of multiculturalism might be “E Pluribus Unum”: Out of Many, One. That is to say, one nation is constructed out of parts of many others. One people (Americans) composed of many different peoples (African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, etc). There are many criticisms which can be made of multicultural ideology, but one of the things it does is promote the expression of identities beside a single national identity.

Which brings us to the case of Filipino Americans. Here they are, being Filipino outside the Philippines. Here they are, making money, a lot of which they send to the Philippines. If the Philippine nation-state is supposed to represent Filipinos, how does it speak for Filipinos outside the Philippines? More pragmatically, how can the Philippines profit from these outsider Filipinos? I say “outsider”, since calling them overseas Filipinos implies that they’re all from the Philippines, which isn’t the case with the second generation. So, how can these outsider Filipinos be incorporated within the story of the Philippine nation-state?

First, you have to create within outsider Filipinos a sense of connection to the Philippines. The school system is one of the major ways in which residents of a country are taught to become attached to that country, and here it is being used to promote nationalism again. This is not a neutral act, it is suffused with political concerns (then again, a lot of things are). A lot of Filipinos outside the Philippines send money to the country (actually, to their relatives there), but they could also do a lot more. Like, for instance, lobbying on behalf of the Philippines on the government of their host country. These courses on the Philippines are partly strategic investments in second generation Filipino Americans by the Philippine nation-state. One might object by saying that these projects are actually run the University of the Philippines, not the Philippine government. However, UP certainly receives government funding, and even if the university was not directly ordered to create the courses by the government, part of the reason behind the development of these courses was out of a sense of nationalism which inevitably means doing things for the betterment of one’s country. Which is to say that being a Philippine nationalist often means doing things that will benefit the Philippines. None of which is necessarily good or bad, but it’s important to realize the political context of things.

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.

Welcome to the Nation

On July 1, I participated in Canada Day. It’s exactly what the name implies: a holiday celebrating the existence of Canada. There were all kinds of events going on that were organized by the various levels of Canadian government. I went to a 21 gun salute by the Canadian Armed Forces, got free cake at an old British colonial fort (I missed the opening ceremony and free pancake breakfast because I’d decided to sleep in), got free tours of Canadian military vessels, got to hold and inspect various guns and weaponry, then later on watched a fireworks ceremony surrounded by the largest crowd I’ve ever seen in Halifax. Oh, and I wore a red shirt for most of the day (it actually said Atlantic City, but it was still in Canadian colours).

When you get an education in critical thinking, what often happens is that you start analyzing almost everything you come across. I remember shopping for clothes immediately after seeing a documentary film about the material conditions of sweatshop workers and suddenly thinking that the workers I’d just seen describing their exploitation at the hands of multinational corporations were very likely the same ones who’d made the shirts I was pawing through. Suddenly, the abstract concepts of gendered exploitation and flexible labour became a concrete piece of fabric in my hands. I hadn’t planned on buying anything anyway, I was just enjoying the act of shopping itself, but that realization lessened my enjoyment of consumerism.

A similar thing happened to me during Canada Day. While I was being shown a C7 assault rifle and being quoted arcane military jargon, I was also thinking about how I was actively being indoctrinated into the ideology of Canadian nationalism. Go Canada! Canada Kicks Ass! Proud to be Canadian! Those were the slogans on various t-shirts I’d seen, and they were the essential messages I was supposed to be receiving from the whole Canada Day celebration. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about how identity was being manipulated for the purposes of the Canadian government.

Nation-states always manipulate identity, and it is in the interests of the Canadian government to make Canadians feel patriotic (governments and nation-states aren’t exactly the same thing, but they fit together well enough for the purposes of this post). Think of Canada as a hockey team, Canadians as the fans, and the Canadian government as the team’s owner, and you’ll see why marketing Canada is such a big deal. The profit that the Canadian government gets from successfully marketing Canada doesn’t come just from having Canadians pay their taxes and follow the law. No, the Canadian government profits from having Canadians believe that Canada exists.

If you think about it, a country is in many ways a state of mind. If Canadians stopped believing Canada existed, then it would pretty much stop existing. Canadians would stop paying their taxes, following Canadian law, listening to Canadian political leaders, and so on. Not just that, but other countries would also stop respecting those things and might start grabbing pieces of Canada to add to their own territories. This is serious business, which is why governments take national identity so very seriously. So you see, countries are like Tinkerbell: they can only survive if you clap your hands and believe in them (clapping is optional). Except that Tinkerbell doesn’t have cops and soldiers to remind you that she exists and that it would be a very bad idea to forget her.