Zine qua non
In the precolonial Philippines, the most comprehensive works of literature that capture the ways of living of respective indigenous communities were ethno-epics, from which novels and poetry draw themes that arbiters of taste shall essentially label “Filipino.” Whoever controls the mode of production most probably controls cultural institutions that — to some extent — possess relative autonomy. Factoring in colonialism further complicates matters: three hundred years under Spain (with the Church) and about fifty under the United States (with the School) produced, through ideological state apparatuses, loyal subjects from amongst the local elite — aptly called Hispanistas and Americanistas. At the turn of the century until the thirties, colonial hegemonic powers manufactured Filipino nationality and the Philippine nation’s official symbols. Therefore, to be grounded, any claim at a “Filipino soul” or a national identity shall be situated in the dynamic and ongoing antagonism between the imperial project and anticolonial struggles. Such is reflected in literary production and texts as contested spaces.
Owners of printing presses moderate and circulate texts. The Catholic Church during the Spanish colonial period published religious tracts in the vernacular through the cooperation of Ladino poets. The public education system during the American colonial period mass-produced textbooks in English to execute “benevolent assimilation” through the cooptation of technocrats. Now, award-giving bodies, fellowship-granting workshops, commercial publishing houses and other literary institutions driven by the profit motive validate writers for niche markets. Though prone to commodification like everything else, zines are means towards and sites of resistance, whether freely distributed or sold at a hefty price for the enjoyment of connoisseurs or commoners or particular communities. I try to dabble wherever and whenever I can. For instance, my column (which I uncomfortably had to hyperlink from time to time to elaborate the Philippine context due to space constraints) and zines I authored run the danger of being misunderstood and taken at face value. The Tagpo zine takes chances at collective production — somewhat compromising the form that formal training prescribed in exchange for the content that signifies and indexes radical potentials.
Writers and intellectuals remain instrumental in maintaining and subverting the status quo, though the latter often takes the limelight. Whether official or covert, poets serving as functionaries of bureaucrat capitalist regimes subservient to imperialists and landlords weaponize chauvinist nationalism and romanticized impressions of literature to conflate and confound substantial issues of the day. 2018 opened with the revocation of corporate media Rappler’s permit to operate — an act condemned by a number of writers’ organizations (mostly based in the so-called “imperial Manila”: the National Capital Region) as violation of press freedom. Echoing the nationalist rhetoric of Philippine president Duterte and implying a nationwide scope in contrast to the limited ambit of writers from “imperial Manila,” a group of “Concerned Writers in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao” condemned the condemnation by releasing “Freedom and Responsibility.” The 1986 “Declaration of the Coalition of Writers and Artists for Freedom and Democracy” in support of the late dictator president Marcos’s reelection resurfaced in my Facebook newsfeed. The declaration painted Marcos as “our only guarantee for survival” and advocate of “new cultural renaissance.” Included in the Agenda for Culture were National Artist Awards and national writing workshops organized by University of the Philippines and Silliman University.
Marcos and Duterte both playact as father figures on the national stage: the former mythologized as the Filipino ancestor, “Malakas” (Strong), while the latter is endearingly referred to “Tatay Digong” (Father Digong), who wants nothing but the best for his children. Marcos’s Ilocos region seems resolute enough to gain the reputation of a “solid north” electoral stronghold — a posturing devastated when his ninety-nine-foot Mount-Rushmore-hopeful monument in La Union was blasted, and his bust in Laoag vandalized. Meanwhile, to dispel the Davao of Duterte’s “solid south,” “Southern Writers” in “Against New Fascism” implicated the “Concerned Writers” as fascist enablers. Some writers then, needless to say, were complicit with Marcos’s nationwide martial law and Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao (and de facto all over the archipelago).
The “Concerned Writers” will later proclaim themselves as “Writers for Sovereignty.” Through a supposed series of interviews, they expose their influences and agenda. For instance, Christine Godinez-Ortega, one of their figureheads, commenced by mentioning the Tiempos as mentors and almost concluded by responding to a leading question as if a cued apologia for the excesses of the overkill in the aforementioned Rappler issue (“[w]e’ve never been freer”) and the Marawi Siege (“[t]he military presence comforts us”). The first person plural, I supposed, is an exclusive-we (“kami,” in Filipino; inclusive-we: “tayo”), because the divisive strategies of the Duterte regime include highlighting the regional divide and, it follows, telling “imperial Manila” to mind its own business.
Ortega began her journal article with a somewhat defensive “Mindanao is not on fire,” followed by “[t]oday, she is peaceful” and resorted to nativist blather that reeks of reductive identity politics. One should suspect untimely recourses to cultural education and uncritical racial politics. For instance, a certain Miyako Izabel, contributor to the “new protest” poetry anthology Bloodlust (2017), has been vocal via social media in demanding that the communist guerrillas and the soldiers of the Philippine government let the lumad (general term for different indigenous peoples of Mindanao) thrive on their own. As a self-proclaimed lumad, Izabel banks on her identity to discredit collective peoples’ struggles, while Ortega validates her claims as a “settler” in Iligan.
Our circles of lives intersect, and no one shall be left alone to fend for themselves, especially against government-sanctioned mining corporations. The tragicomic false dichotomy in contemporary Philippine politics may be approximated by poets Ortega and Izabel: the former a “DDS” and the latter a “dilawan.” Though both camps serve traditional politicians subservient to the interests of imperialists and compradors, the neoliberal “dilawan” is quick to red-tag and to wallow in reactionary dialogue and to calculatedly murder in the countryside, while the “DDS” is quick to relentlessly violate and to shamelessly wipe out “drugs,” known in the Philippines as the notorious Oplan Tokhang. Both steal, kill, destroy, and incite violence to voices of dissent. One may opt not to choose between the two and join mass movements that shall, of course, produce its own literature (such as an antifeudal comics series) and lists, and later, its own institutions.
Is a literature of resistance possible? Thinking of my attempted acts of literary transgression and some interventions from the cultural to the political field prompts reflecting on the pith of the word “malversation.” Synonyms of “malversate” include “defalcate,” “embezzle,” “misappropriate,” and “peculate” that pertain to fraudulent, often unlawful, appropriation of property, a method also utilized in conceptual writing, something that I too have been practicing to violate texts I deem violent. Strip down the verb “malversate” further and we have an English nonword, perhaps a noun: “malverse,” a case of bad poetry or a converse of literature, aimed not at a chitchat of a feel-good conversation about aesthetic but rather a dialectic that synthesizes and sublates.
With trillions of pesos of foreign debts and exorbitant taxes that affect the poorest of the poor, the aforementioned appropriative malversation in the literary and cultural field is incomparable to the corruption facilitated by bureaucrat capitalism and enjoyed by corporations and compradors. Perhaps, only green guerrillas (and similar comrades that try to make the world a better place for the dispossessed) are able to protect the environment, defend the people, and sentence the plunderers. Prose writers may compose, while poets may malverse.
“DDS” poets in the Philippines blush at their president’s expletives and express sighs of relief upon hearing the rhythm of helicopter blades rhyming with the cadence of military boots to “liberate” Mindanao from “terrorists.” These daydreamers waving the banner of official nationalism are no more than literate trolls who probably know caesuras and enjambments that cut short not just lines for aesthetic pauses but also lives. In the name of liberal democracy, they support a regime that redefines “bagani” (approximately “hero”) and “magahat” (approximately “peacekeeper”) as paramilitaries trained to kill fellow lumad (approximately “natives”) to defend state nationalism founded on corpses and to provide transnational logging and mining companies the peace of mind they have bought with resources they have been plundering, a more sinister case of plagiarism that takes not just words, but worlds — ways of lives — of others (worse, of the already dispossessed).
Their lumad accomplices (or paid cosplayers or deputized chieftains) cry foul at indigenous costumes allegedly used as mere props in protest actions against foreign corporate thieves, as if the lumad activists pervert their untainted culture. Such collaborators divorce culture from life, to the point that they shrug off displacement as consequence and sacrifice for the modernization advocated by their Mindanaon president. As if rust-tinctured bodies of water due to corporate toxic wastes preserve “local color.” Like the bagani and magahat paramilitary troops, some poets serve as reserve mercenary forces tasked to compose perverses of praise, concoct theses that reject anti-theses just because, issue statements of support, and flaunt their identities that exist independently of other identities and sectors so they can contradict legitimate grievances:
“I am from Mindanao and I approve martial law here; I am from rehab and I approve of the drug war; I am a commuter and I approve traffic jams; I am a consumer and I approve the price hike of jams so I can discipline my sugar consumption; I am gay and I approve mandatory military training in highschool; I am a woman and I giggled when the president jokingly told the army to shoot amazons or female guerrillas in the vagina; I am a Filipino and I approve of the president’s ‘anti-US’ nationalist policies, the Chinese annexation is a funny joke.” As if personal opinions are universal truths. Sometimes, one cannot tell if these fentanihilists are parodying themselves or just plain being themselves. The former communications secretary, for instance, explained “pederalismo” (federalismo) by dancing and mock-singing its first two syllables as “pepe” (vagina) and “dede” (breasts); and the agriculture secretary encourages rice smuggling to alleviate the food crises and ensures weevil-infested grains are safe and tasty. Now, what culture and literature are we speaking of, when state functionaries themselves have sunk this low?
Perversions, malversations, and misappropriations are never value-free. One shall ask, not just “for whom?” but also “against whom?,” and even whose property is being desecrated, bastardized, and modified, and for what purpose. Words are not everything. Image, music, context, among others, add to the meaning of the text. Punchlines, like enjambments, purposively exclude, cut, draw the necessary lines. Inside jokes necessarily bind those who get the gag and blind the object of ridicule.
Sometimes, uncomfortably eerie humor triggers critical thought and makes joke-tellers and joke-work-decipherers realize truths revealed through disconcerting methodologies. For instance: imagine a slower rendition of the Beatles’s “Across the Universe” that feature authoritarian iconography, from little Nazi drummer boys to Aryan Olympiads, citizens, wives. Imagine national anthems sung with subtle irony and a sarcastic seemingly good-willed tone that wants to nationalize the rest of the world through different degrees of colonialism and imperialism. Those are Laibach strategies, sometimes called subversive affirmation, overidentification, paradoxical intervention, oftentimes mistaken as mere violative, sick, twisted, reactionary propaganda.
Such is something I employed in Apo sa Ika-22 Siglo: Mga Abstrak (approximately, Patriarch in the 22nd Century: Abstracts) (2017), a book of abstracts that celebrates two hundred years of greatness of almighty Marcos, former president of the golden age of the Philippine republic accused as despotic and later ousted. Among the faux academic papers in the “conference” connects the genealogy of Marcos Studies to Hitler Studies and Axis Studies, referencing Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise. Lest I be taken seriously, I had to restrict access, hence the controlled distribution of the “book” as an emailed PDF (for free) or a hand-sold zine (with two editions that differ in terms of quality of paper: commoner version that costs about $1.25 and a crony version at about $2.00 — something a minimum wage earner would rather not buy).
Such malversations may be dismissed as unnecessarily avant-gardist, therefore, elitist and at the disposal a selected few. But reconsider: trespassing presumed heavily-guarded territories of the bourgeoisie — art and literature — interrogate their institutionalized safe spaces. Functioning as a weaponization of sorts, however limited, malverses in a book of abstracts for a fictional but not improbable academic conference in the future perform the self-righteousness of the awe-stricken devotees of the Right; the performance turns the activity meant to be a venue to exchange breakthroughs in knowledge production into a carnival, where the punchlines are the very reactionaries themselves (of the past, the present, the future) and their unsuspecting adherents.
These assumed offensives are nothing compared with actual deathblows rightists inflict on common people via fascist state violence and neoliberal policies. Thus, the organized imperative for the left to actually occupy concrete spaces of resistance against state-sponsored violence.
Isolated individual malversations amid an ongoing class war are nothing but blank ammo shot in the air, a noise pollutant, no more than a stray bullet aimed at nothing. The aforementioned zine of abstracts aims at itself: it is a ventriloquism with the rightists as the puppets, its performance an attempted murder (or perhaps frustrated suicide) of pulling the strings to give voice to the already vocal reactionaries so they can detonate themselves in the process. Examples of abstracts include: a defense of martial law, an apotheosis of Marcos clan, and a fascist rendition of the “myth of metals” by Plato. The last “paper” is titled “Midas, Kamay na Bakal at Taong-Bato” (approx. Midas, Hand of Steel, and Stone-age Man) speculating that if Marcos was not ousted, the Philippines could have reached the Golden Age of Midas through Marcos. This directed reactionary performance is a contrast to the somewhat perverse practice of giving voice to the voiceless, the ones deemed vulnerable. Instead of defending them like damsels in distress by knights in shining armor, why not discard such a worn-out medieval plot by providing and equipping them with the arsenal of weapons so they can defend themselves and not depend on others?
In defense of Marxism, Terry Eagleton mentioned that Marxists dream of a world wherein Marxists would not be needed anymore. Self-proclaimed writers and artists should also consider such a notion in their professed disciplines. Such is the contradiction I oftentimes encountered in helping out with the Sandugo folio and Tagpo zine, in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The publication initiated by Save Our Schools (SOS) Network and SOS University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman and other allied organizations — was part of Lakbayan, an almost annual national caravan of indigenous people temporarily evacuating the militarized countryside and trooping from all over the Philippines to Quezon City and other parts of the nation-state’s capital to demand the national government to remove armed troops in their communities and to protect their ancestral domains from foreign corporate plunder. Lakbayanis, or the caravan participants, construct kampuhans (campouts) in schools that serve not just as headquarters but also as sanctuaries from the offensives of state forces employed under the payroll of mining companies.
For the Sandugo folio, I often find writing for others suspect; hence the suggestion to let the lumad write their verses and narratives. Practical matters, like fatigue and maybe lack of confidence to write, got in the way, so we had writers’ groups and individuals who expressed solidarity with the lumad to write their stories for them. Language has always been a barrier. In the capital, where Filipino and English are predominantly spoken, the lumad then requested committed writers to write for them, since these allies are more fluent in the capital’s spoken and written language. It was all good, as it was collaborative and integrative. We work with what we have and what we can with the best efforts.
For the Tagpo zine, I facilitated a writing workshop, so that the bylines will be lumad students’, and university students will just serve as their secretaries or consultants. A hybrid of images and words combining the tarot and a lumad epic were used as prompts. Beforehand, their elders were consulted. They asked that the verses be removed, maybe so the students can tell the pressing, contemporary issues and refrain from the burden perhaps of the folk narrative. Whatever the reasons were, I obliged. Like redefinitions of words “bagani” and “magahat,” the lumad people too gave new meaning to age-old words. Thus, ethno-epics are indeed not static, exotic museum artifacts like sentimental preservers of culture aver. For instance, “busao” in the epic refers to malevolent spirits but not necessarily “evil” ones; now, “busao” means soldiers.
In the transaction of purchasing the zines (the Sandugo folio was just shared with advocates and not sold), buyer-advocates participate in a malversation of funds: the generated cash, however meager, combines with other resources to suffice so that the lumad may continue their campaign in the city in defense of the countryside (i.e., their ancestral domains). At that moment, there was an abundance of food donations, so the fund generated by the zines probably went to operating expenditures such as transportation and camp supplies. The struggle to reclaim what is rightfully theirs — but legally the mining corporations’, thanks to bureaucrat capitalism that works hand in hand with imperialism and feudalism to legitimize the largescale rape and robbery — is far from over.
That the lumad communities’ campout is in the realm of an educational institution designed to propagate neoliberal ideas is a far greater feat than an individual literary work seizing the pages of a literary journal that still values organic unity and other aesthetic standards of the feudal, imperial, quasi-apolitical, nonpartisan school of New Criticism that still dominates the institutionalized literary field to this day through workshops and awards (though total autonomy of the writer is, of course, a delusion). That Kadamay (Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap, an association of the urban poor) and different peasants’ organizations occupied Mendiola, the frontyard of Malacanang Palace (the abode of the president) is a transgression that reveals the perverse distribution of wealth in a nation where unoccupied apartments outnumber the homeless and where agricultural lands belong to the landed classes that mire the country in recurring food crises that then affect tillers who ironically starve.
This retrospective of my attempted acts of literary transgressions shall serve as its own undoing, emphasizing how impotent its impact has been and shall be, compared with the strategic gains of the lumad, the peasants, the workers, the urban poor. Word-wars waged or vandalisms within colonial feudal bureaucratic literary institutions remain significant, but not too significant, because the future lies in malversations that correct perversions: ones that occupy and seize not just pages, but spaces and territories and weapons and ammunitions; ones that ambush class enemies who refuse conversations, ones that envision a society where activists, writers, and artists, even self-proclaimed ones who glamorize suffering for the sake of personal acquisition of cultural capital, will be of no use because each have the option of shifting to other disciplines to push the boundaries of human potential.
But as Alexander Bogdanov imagined, such a society, even in a neighboring planet with less complex geographical features to ease the complexities of transitioning to a more advanced mode of production, is not without its troubles. It is still burdened with problems, but ones more sophisticated than the election of a trigger-happy macho as a head of a state cheered by “feminist” supporter-poets who ignore misogynistic jokes as a characteristic humor of a good-willed, charismatic father figure who wanted nothing but the good of his children. The lumad, the urban poor, the peasants, and the working class have another future in mind, and I think we shall trust their instincts, not out of romanticizing their suffering, but out of acknowledging the creativity and criticality of their intuitive detournements as demonstrated in their histories and their struggles, that are nothing less than malversations that subvert perverse orders.
4. The Tiempos institutionalized the Silliman University National Writing Workshop, which propagates aesthetics and politics that may be linked to the pedagogy of New Criticism and machinations of Cold War propaganda. See Conchitina Cruz, “The (Mis)Education of the Filipino Writer: The Tiempo Age and Institutionalized Creative Writing in the Philippines,” Kritika Kultura 28 (2017), 3–34.
5. The weekend of May 26, 2019, there was an outrage regarding the recent development (or regression) in the curricula of universities and colleges: the removal of Wika or Filipino (national language) and Panitikan (Philippine literature) from the required subjects, via CHED (Commission on Higher Education) Memo #20. While most educators resist, and the group Tanggol Wika (Defend Wika) filed a motion for reconsideration that was found “unmeritorious” by the Supreme Court, some writers subscribing to the imperial Manila–regional margins dichotomy celebrate, as if CHED Memo #20 is a victory for the regions.
6. Acronym originally means “Duterte Death Squad,” pertaining to a vigilante group in Davao City that “punishes” criminals. Allegedly under Duterte when he was still the city’s mayor, “DDS” later referred to his supporters.
7. Literally “yellow-colored.” Originally refers to “yellow” unions that capitulate to the demands of the capitalist. Later, pertains to the allies of the Liberal party and the Aquino clan — which lost in the previous elections.
9. Other similiar strategies were employed in zines Klasiko Katalogo (2018) and PI081 (2019?); the former is a catalog of fascist books sold in a future Filipinorth, while the latter is a draft syllabus for an introductory course on Marcos Studies. Possibly not suited too for the general reader’s patience is “Postscript to a Transmutation” in the forthcoming Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines (editors: Paolo Enrico Melendez, Kristine Ong Muslim, Mia Tijam).
12. Similar efforts are the comics documentation or retelling of Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA; approximately, Collective of Artists for Agrarian Movement) for Negros 14, peasants in the Visayas region massacred by military elements, and workshops for San Roque residents by Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX). If SOS consolidates a network of advocates of the national minorities for producing independent zines, SAKA and BLTX links cultural producers, such as komix creators, to the peasant sector and the ubran poor, respectively.
14. A line “divides art from life” and poets’ “words on the page simply cannot stand-in for [their] bodies [in street protests].” See “Archiving the Present: Ivy Alvarez interviews Conchitina Cruz.”