'Intimate' texts against the state as emergency

“The ridiculous theatricality of deploying the occasion of death, and the personification of the door, a peripheral detail in the student protests, demands the audience to rethink the limits of its accidental shattering […] in the space transformed into a solemn funeral, no person is exempt from the gravity and intimacy of a death’s trauma.” Above: Magpies performing “In Loving Memory of ___________: Eulogies to the Library Door.” Image courtesy of Mannie Cagatulla.

Thousands of people in white started arriving in groups outside the building where Magpies, my self-publishing collective, was reading eulogies amid somber music, wreaths, candles, and donation envelopes in front of a small crowd in the University of the Philippines Los Baños. But we were not mourning the same loss. We were performing the reading of a zine called “In Loving Memory of __________: Eulogies to the Library Door” in a community art expo, and the crowd of thousands were looking for their share of Marcos’s gold.

Because of the uncanny presence of thousands, our small performance in September 2017 turned into a much larger event. This happened in the wake of events following Rodrigo Duterte’s election in June 2016: the controversial burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Heroes’ Cemetery, the Commission of Human Rights’ release of the twelve thousand death toll[1] from Duterte’s Drug War, the occupation of Marawi City by ISIL-affiliated militants that led to the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, the President’s rape jokes, territorial and economic incursions by China, and the succession of nationwide protests against  these. We were thrown into the reality of these events that forced us to rethink our poetics as a self-publishing collective and to question the conditions of authoring during such emergencies: does not writing in the midst of emergency demand critical distance but also immediate and intimate response? 

The performance was a staging of a funeral where eulogies from a zine published and distributed during the community expo were addressed to “the library door” in response to the student protest that took place in the university library and administrative building just weeks before the expo, where a glass door shattered when protesters pushed against it after being refused dialogue by the administrators. The “First Day Rage” protest, which got media coverage and became a viral Facebook video, called on the university to take action on the breakdown of the enrollment system, the obscure tuition fee policies, and the poor services. This was not the first of such protests: that very same door shattered when the students rallied the same issues the previous year.

The performance interrupted the proceedings of the art expo when the funeral host abruptly urged artists, audience, and passersby to gather in commemoration of the deceased door, who despite being recently resurrected (repaired again after the second demonstration) is forecast to be killed again in future protests. The eulogies are composed as speeches of people who knew the deceased and their contrasting interpretations of the death: a loyal library staff member outraged by the passing of her colleague, a student activist extolling her necessary sacrifice for free education, a bystander for whom the door’s death means nothing, and a library guard with an infatuation for the door and hatred for the student rallyists.


Performance setup of "In Loving Memory of ___________: Eulogies to the Library Door." Image courtesy of Mannie Cagatulla.
Performance setup of “In Loving Memory of ___________: Eulogies to the Library Door.” Image courtesy of Mannie Cagatulla.

The ridiculous theatricality of deploying the occasion of death, and the personification of the door,  a peripheral detail in the student protests, demands the audience to rethink the limits of its accidental shattering: the shattered door is hardly representative of the students’ issues, yet here, in the space transformed into a solemn funeral, no person is exempt from the gravity and intimacy of a death’s trauma. Is the death of the library door the culmination of the students’ disgruntlement with the university? Is not the hysterical anticipation of the door’s second death also the anticipation of the state university’s failure to once again fulfill its role in providing genuine accessible and quality education, a statement of the cyclicality of these systemic conditions?[2] And is this anticipation not a comment on how the very response to crisis situations like university system breakdowns and state service failures become part of the norm? Have protests not become a monthly, weekly activity, hardly perturbing the daily routine?[3

The zine 'In Loving Memory of ___________: Eulogies to the Library Door' was distributed with mass cards, a memorial photo of the library door, and funeral donation envelopes. Image courtesy Mac Arboleda.
The zine In Loving Memory of ___________: Eulogies to the Library Door was distributed with mass cards, a memorial photo of the library door, and funeral donation envelopes. Image courtesy Mac Arboleda.

After the performance, we learned that the swarming of people in white causing panic and confusion among spectators and performers was so sudden and massive that it interrupted traffic and activities in the university and the nearby towns. According to students and residents who were around the campus, the visitors who came from all over Luzon clutched booklets of “The Life and Achievements of Ferdinand E. Marcos” after being told to attend the redistribution of the wealth corrupted by the dictator from taxpayers’ money. Later on it was learned that they were scammed by Bullion Buyers, Ltd., which asked for a fee in exchange of promising to sign the scammed parties to a cash redistribution program by the Marcoses to be held in the university grounds. Despite widespread protests against President Duterte’s endorsement of Marcos’s burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery, the late dictator’s spectral authority manifests itself in the hundred thousand bodies driven to a precise time and place by the mention of his name and his gold, protesting nothing. Those still surprised at this perversity do not take into account that this event took place during Duterte’s terror regime, within which the country’s state of human rights, foreign policy, and economy is in crisis. Even more worth noting perhaps is that Duterte is often cited as the people’s reaction to his successor former President Benigno Aquino III, who just so happened to be son of 1986 People Power icons slain senator Benigno Aquino Sr. and late president Cory Aquino. Benigno Aquino III replaced charged plunderer former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was elected into presidency by People Power II in 2001.

Screenshot from the video in “Thousands flock to UPLB to get P1M each ‘from Marcos wealth'” by Kimmy Baraoidan & Maricar Cinco, published in Inquirer.net on September 24, 2017.
Screenshot from the video in “Thousands flock to UPLB to get P1M each ‘from Marcos wealth’” by Kimmy Baraoidan and Maricar Cinco, published on Inquirer.net on September 24, 2017.

The conflation of the current extreme political climate with the Marcos martial law years via the mass of a hundred thousand people, ironically in what is called the university’s Freedom Park, while a funeral is being held for a personified casualty of repressive state university policies, demonstrated what Walter Benjamin wrote: “[t]he tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”[4] For Benjamin, what we perceive to be present moments of crisis — like the unprecedented mass rally for Marcos’ millions, the failed educational system, the Marawi battle, and the rapid death toll rise under Duterte — are no longer exceptions because they have become the norm.

That these supposed emergencies have occurred before, are still occurring, and will continue to occur is fascism at work. Art and literature helps in this fascist work. In 1986, around eighty Filipino writers and artists published a signed declaration stating their desire to “preserve what has already been achieved in terms of cultural advancement and to proceed further under an enlightened and transformed national leadership”[5] under Marcos. Recently, a “Freedom and Responsibility of the Press”[6] manifesto published as a Facebook note signed by writers called denounced the demands for freedom of the press under Duterte, after an online news outlet that critiqued him was threatened to be shut down.Both the 1986 and 2017 manifestos include signatories that are National Artists and Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards[7] awardees, and some names appear on both lists. That the Marcos years present themselves now in the time of Duterte’s ultraviolent regime as a juncture in our collective memory, evidenced by the need to assert Never Again, reveals how the anticipation of the library door’s death and the artists’ justification of state violence, are not so much hysterical but historical. Much of this terror regime’s power comes from its appropriation of radical and extreme positions for fascism.[8]

The declaration of support for Marcos by the group of writers and artists that later on came to be known as COWARD. Image courtesy of the twitter user @highreaching, published on January 22, 2018.
The declaration of support for Marcos by the group of writers and artists that later on came to be known as COWARD. Image courtesy of @highreaching, published January 22, 2018.  

The influx of people that interrupted the usual campus affairs that day revealed to us not an anomaly, but the norm through which the university administration allowed Bullion Buyers Ltd. to hold the Marcos gathering that turned out to be a scam. The norm makes the emergency. The state is the emergency. We are urged to position our poetics and practice in consideration of this state where the production of literature and art is ever threatened to be devoured by the status quo and then spat out as its rationalization. What kind of literary, artistic responses to this state as emergency can evade the same regulating and normalizing forces? What is necessary is not only a kind of collaborative creative production that would allow already existing forms, spaces, and bodies to relate to each other while preserving their distinctness, but also a production of texts that precisely operates through this collaboration, in the margins of traditional and mainstream production, in the in-betweens of form and authority. In the collective production of self-publishing, collaborative work allows an engagement between artists and authors, between forms and media, while maintaining critical distance and resisting hierarchical relations. Because it challenges authority and the profit-oriented market logic, the collectively produced self-published work is illegitimate, liminal, awkward.

Two recent works by Magpies explore this kind of collaboration that attempts to balance critical and intimate distance. Released May 2016, “Los BaNews” is a satirical community paper set three years into the Duterte presidency that grapples with the crisis in journalism marked by the collapse of the separation of fake news, sensationalized news, (state-)paid trolling, and traditional reporting. Among the predictions made in Los BaNews, all of which seem to be one way or another coming true way before the three-year mark, were the unnoticeable slip into an undeclared martial law and a declaration of a “Democracy Month” as a ruse, the seeping of the Drug War as school shootings, public transportation policy breakdowns, an all-time high in casual work as colleges begin to offer courses on Freelancing, and a people power that would merely reappoint the omnipotent Duterte. In this work the then-looming horrors brought by the newly elected president are confronted as a fully realized present. 

The editorial page of "Los Banews." Image courtesy of Magpies.
The editorial page of “Los Banews.” Image courtesy of Magpies.

“Para sa Alaala ng Yumao Nating Ama: Daddy Digong Issues” (In the Memory of Our Departed Father: Daddy Digong Issues), released November 2017, is a handmade photo album compiling childhood photos of our collective’s members with Duterte’s face photoshopped onto fathers’ faces at the back of which are fondest anecdotes of him handwritten to make it look like a memento for an endeared departed father. The anecdotes are recollections of childhood that allude to current national issues; for example a happy memory of the father-and-son’s neighborhood dog purge to rid it of rabies, or a message of a daughter’s thanks to her father for teaching her independence when he deprived her of allowance money. Taking after Duterte’s term of endearment “Tatay Digong” (Daddy Digong) to his supporters and by using (fabricated) personal memory against the regime’s ongoing violent imposition of a “national” memory, the dictator Duterte is denigrated as an impotent, dead father after whom his children’s scars take. 

A spread from "Para sa Alaala ng Yumao Nating Ama: Daddy Digong Issues." Image courtesy of the author.
A spread from “Para sa Alaala ng Yumao Nating Ama: Daddy Digong Issues.” Image courtesy of the author.

The works force the present crises into a distance several places removed by the text’s fictionalizing, and several places more accessible by the satirical manner of apprehending them. Both works refuse the clean-cut aesthetic of mainstream literary production and easy categorization as artistic or literary products: the first is mass-reproduced and distributed to the local community as a tabloid, and the second is a handcrafted work with the text taking less space than the photographs. The works are also attempts at collaborations of different media and forms, and different modes of making sense of the present that make it possible to completely grab hold of the situation, toy with, and exhaust the ways by which to relate to it, much like how the eulogists in “In Loving Memory of __________” each claimed a particular relation to the library door. 

Self-published texts, produced and distributed away from the bureaucracy of big publishing houses, are instead dependent on their immediate community, thus affording an urgency that is not the main concern of traditionally published texts. The zine’s nature as a “fast read” and its defiance against its collection and documentation, is consistent with its awkwardness as a literary work: it does not promote seriousness, it makes no insistent statement on the universal human condition, it claims no authority to speak for anyone, on anything. The self-published zine makes itself obvious as a documentation of a personal experience, it responds only to very specific concerns of its local community, here, now. The self-published work cannot thrive in permanent consignment spaces. It needs to exist always near conversations, in events like community art expos, to insist on the human relations of producer, reader, community. These limitations in its production also open its potential to create new definitions of writing in the state of emergency.

1. To date, the latest figure is twenty thousand, from the government’s own year-end report in 2017.

2. A year after the protests, in August 2018, three students of the University of the Philippines Los Banos were served formal charges for damages on the Main Library door by the Student Disciplinary Tribunal.

3. There is a Wikipedia page of the timeline of protests under Duterte.

4. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Conception of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, Penguin Random House, 2007), 257.

5. Declaration of the Coalition of Writers and Artists for Democracy,” Bulletin Today, January 28, 1986, 11. 

6. “Kalayaan at Responsibilidad sa Pamamahayag” was published as a Facebook note in 2017. The signatory list continues to be updated. 

7. The Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards are the “longest-running and most prestigious literary contest” in the country. 

8. Like Duterte’s claim that he is a socialist and not a communist when criticized for “coddling and supporting” the New People’s Army.