Friday, October 06, 2006

Political Literary Criticism (Afterword to Duke Bagulaya's Waray Literature Book)

Political Literary Criticism

One of the most enlightening points for political criticism has been articulated by Terry Eagleton in his conclusion of Literary Theory.[1] Contrary to the dominant notion of literary criticism that elucidates on style and form and/or liberal humanist content, Eagleton argues that whatever kind of approach and theory in literary analysis is itself an equivocation of the politics in which such approach and theory developed and became integral to individuals and society’s own understanding of its way of seeing the world. Literary theory itself is political theory for it espouses a way of seeing the world, analyzing it and prescribing a prognosis to its imperfect state; thus, a way of perpetuating or changing the world. Literature, like artifacts of material life as we experienced it, becomes a prism to look at the very operation of sight and aura, cognition and, in a la Matrix realm, of misrecognition. Literary analysis becomes the veritable mode of expanding the understanding and misunderstanding of the experience of the world. Literary theory is mobilized to become the tool of analysis to reframe the worlding or way of experiencing of the text, literature and society.

While formalists in Philippine academe would object to the intrusion of political criticism in an object constituted as universal as art and literature, they negate the idea of themselves involved in a political act—the maintenance of purity of art and the humanities against the material conditions of massive social inequity and injustice. Literature and arts become the last beacons of hope, thus the paranoia to sustain this turf in all its para-militaristic glory. Epistemic violence becomes the exemplary act of teaching, as the Little Prince has enlightened us, “what is essential [as] invisible to the eye.” Departments of Literature participate in the generation of invisibility of the material condition, aestheticizing pain, suffering and massive poverty as beholden to the literary experience of the human conditions. Is it not the aesthetic of pain that nurtures the condition of fascism, generating a montage of militaristic beauty in the service of the state? These departments also participate in the generation of the visibility of the universal soul and humanity, giving form and content to the abstractions of the reactionary state.

How can one else characterize the Philippine state other than as reactionary or over-protective of its own inadequacies to either provide basic services to the majority of its people or to legitimize pain and suffering of the historically disenfranchised, delivered unto the silver platters of transnational businesses and their local elite cohorts? The Philippine state itself is primarily operationalized to make politics and politicking its cause for being. Borrowing from a comprador business motto, “In the service of the Filipino,” the state retransforms its role from provider of basic services to the masses to these services and the masses as beholden to state functions. Academe in general and literature departments in particular sanitize the state through the depoliticization of art and education. Neoliberal academics would even contend that education and art, like those of any commodity, should be supervised by market forces. How can Communications 1, Social Science 2 or Rizal, therefore, be political as the delaborized commodities, such as Diet Coke, 555 Tuna or Bid Mac? How can all these commodities be political as the systematic deaths of 28 members of the militant Bayan-Muna party list since 2001 or the numbing murders of 71 journalists since 1986?[2]

Yet as Eagleton contends, “the history of modern literary theory is part of the political and ideological history of our epoch.”[3] The sterilization of the political in academe represents the cleansing of the state of both its inadequacies in alleviating the suffering of the masses and its excessive production of violence to overcompensate for these inadequacies and to protect its real economic stakeholders. On the one hand, as Eagleton has quoted of Barthes, “Literature is [simply] what gets taught,” on the other hand, it is also the censuring of divergent modes of experientiation that is fetishicized in literature that does get taught and the literary theory of choice in the teaching of literature.[4] In a nation where the status quo wears its badge off its sleeves—to be Liberal Party, Lakas, Christian Democrats or Partido ng Masa is synonymous to be neo-Aristotlean, Chicago, formalist, humanist and so on—fascism and corruption are produced with so much non-apology as the citizenry’s own path of living. The Philippine literary tradition, as well as Philippine society and nation-state themselves, are products of branding the status quo as continuous reification of fascist ideology for popular support.

For how can literature be unique to the discourse of the state when literature becomes the very apparatus of maintaining forms of state benevolence—from the heralding of the National Artist to the extraction of reading list for literature courses for secondary and tertiary levels of education, to the manner in which these texts are to be taught, to the selection of the guest speaker in the awards’ ceremonies of the premier literary contest. There is very little doubt that even the perceived contraction of funding and the discipline itself of the humanities merely serves as a flawed logic to the perils of neoliberal education that places a greater emphasis not so much on the sciences as to the shift in the educational thrust that will serve the niche market of the nation’s placement in the global and sexual division of labor. Although as part of the ideological state apparatus, literature also forms parcel to a public sphere that is able to interrogate the state, much to what the bourgeois civil society purports to do, but does so without the transformation of the critical mass. Liberal humanist education, after all, might be able to cohere a critical mass of the intellectual kind, but will not be able to be held solely responsible for the transformation of masses of people to better their lives.

Eagleton would even extend the argument by stating that liberal humanist education is the best effort of the state to articulate its own flawed logic. What literature, literary theory and analysis of the dominant liberal humanist type attempt to formulate is the formulation of the state’s aplogia, “the best ideology of the ‘human’ that present bourgeois society can muster.”[5] As the University of the Philippines, a state university, for example, has pioneered neoliberal education in the country through its postmodern pluralism in its Revitalized General Education Program and the abandonment of state subsidy in the financing of higher education in its proposed modernization of the University charter, the progressive politics is at once negated in favor of a pragmatic politics embellished in critical academic jargon. How can one claim neoliberalism as the culprit when the experience of academic transnationals magnify neoliberalism as accounting for both the borderless flow of goods, people and capital and the further depreciation of the historically disenfranchised? What has become of the trace of progressive rhetorics, articulated, for example, by a bureaucrat president in Marxist clothing, is the usurpation of progressive idealism for the pragmatics of neoliberalism. Spoken by a bureaucrat, progress signifies development politics as a way of bettering the community members’ lives. Spoken by a Marxist bureaucrat, it signifies the twisted logic of positivism made more reactionary—what can and cannot be done as validated by the economics of higher education financing. What has become of the academe is to provide academically attuned arguments to the rhetoric of the nation-state. It is not surprising, for example, to find out how the state university has continued to supply various administrations of high-level bureaucrats and apologists. The intellectuals serve as the state’s crown of thorns for its mismanagement of desires of people and institutions. But then again, how can the state mismanage something that is ingrained in its continuity? To think of ideological state apparatuses, like education, media and the arts, is to amplify how these, in the grand schema of things and events, serve the primordial interest of no other entity other than the state. If at all, the state may be forecasted to have withered away, albeit slowly and violently, but it does so with the continuous reconstitution of multinational capital and U.S. imperialism within the national territory. The state does not wither away, it is rejuvenated and reinvented for the purpose of serving the greater economic and political interests of the global hegemon.

The educational institution has been engineered to serve the para-military emphasis of the state. Academe’s production of critics and specialists form part of the vigilante groups, para-military civil organizations that uphold state interests. Departments of literature produce these graduates and postgraduates in forms of literacy campaigns to be able to read and write in “certain ways.” As Eagleton has noted, “Nobody is especially concerned about what you say, with what extreme, moderate, radical or conservative positions you adopt, provided that they are compatible with, and can be articulate within, a specific form of discourse.”[6] On the one hand, academic Marxists or feminists, for example, find equal footing with the formalists in higher education, even as, from their contending points of views, they are mightier bearers of individual and social transformation. On the other hand, the radicality of Marxists or feminists is only perceived to be real within the academic setting. How then to actually transform society is beyond the confines of the academe and higher learning. It is this edge that distinguishes liberal humanist education from a national, scientific and mass-oriented education.

Literary theory, like all artifacts of material social existence, “is really no more than a branch of social ideologies” or an extension of belief systems of contending and dialoging groups, sectors and their interests.[7] If this is true, then the motivation of the critic is to expound on already foregrounded ideologies. The interest of the critic in not only introducing but dwelling on the political—doubly in using the national democratic framework—in literary analysis is to lay bare the vested interest of the critic. Partisan criticism, after all, is the imperative drive of all criticism, be it in politics or in literature. It is along this logos that the critic’s work is to be criticized and metastasized to another text. The journey of carrying a text to another stream flow is invariably a long tedious one. Duke Bagulaya’s critique of the development of Waray poetry is connected to the ways Gelacio Guillermo and Edel Garcellano have a priori articulated the terrain of nationalist democratic literatures. Bagulaya even conjures connections along Bievenido Lumbera’s theorizing of national literature as these earlier studies have in turn negotiated their own place in the critical literary space production. It is in dialog with “fusion criticism” of the Maoist and western marxist variety, and of the related positionality of Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revoltuion. In academic practice, the parochiality of self referentiality is intertwined in another’s self reflexive literary mode as contending and dialoging positionality in the guerrilla warfare of literary criticism.

What Bagulaya interjects is a national democratic renarrativization of the historicity of development of minority poetry, from folk to media driven to movement driven. Like other critics of the pasyon or awit who have renarrativized the context in which it might have been used for nationalist agenda from below, Bagulaya lays bare the social and historical contexts in which the national democratic agenda and poetry have become integral in articulating alternative and parallel visions of the bayan and bansa. This is the placement of Bagulaya’s edge in the schema of competing texts, disciplines and ideologies, allowed in the confines, of among others, the acacia-laden trees, of the state university. Like all literary, humanities and social science analyses, or for that matter, even mathematical and scientific paradigm shifts, Bagulaya’s study articulates a political ideology in ways in which all ideologies are vested upon—“always a way of describing other people’s interests other than one’s own.”[8] Like all social ideologies, the use of utopia is a vital impediment to political analysis whether it be notions of beauty and aesthetics or form and poetics. Like all analyses, Bagulaya articulates a political agenda—a framework of speaking about national democratic ideology and utopia.

When Eagleton published his conclusion in 1983, he estimated that there were over 60,000 nuclear warheads, and the approximate cost of these weapons is $500 billion dollars a year, of which, just five percent of the amount is capable of lifting the Third World against hunger.[9] Some twenty years later, there are an estimated of more than 128,000 nuclear warheads built worldwide since 1945.[10] Total world’s arm expenditure has gone to $800 billion a year or $160 per person.[11] With intensified imperialist globalization that has lead to the U.S. in the post-Iraq War era to be the single global hegemon, human conditions have worsened. The global poverty in 1993 has affected some 1.3 billion people, living on less than $1 per day; and by the end of the second millenium, it has already reached 1.5 billion people.[12] There were some 3 billion people living on less than $2 per day, which was approximately the buying power of $2 in 1985.[13] Just with the economic crisis of 1997, poverty incidence in Indonesia, Thailand and Korea increased to as much as more than twice in a year’s time.[14] India’s 300 million poverty stricken ranks in the 1980s swelled further to 340 million in 1997. It is estimated that 840 million live with chronic hunger and 8.8 million people die of hunger-related causes per year; of which, only 10 percent can be traced to emergency causes, such as war or catastrophic weather.[15] Yet only 44 percent of the world’s potential arable land produces food.[16]

If literature and the humanities have set forth the human spirit free, then why has the material body still experienced excess want and lack? Some 450,000 women still die unnecessarily from childbirth every year, 97 percent of which are from former colonies.[17] There are 35 million unemployed in the developed world and some billions in the developing world.[18] Why does the emphasis in military spending that sustains global hegemony remain so much in place than ever before? How has the humanities reproduced the para-military bent of imperialist globalization? Compared to the $800 billion on arms spending, only $50 billion is needed to support debt repayment of the neocolonial world.[19] Clean water could be offered for $300 million.[20] Some 11.65 million children in the developing world could be saved if these children had the same access as those in the developed world.[21] L3.3 (UK pound) billion per year is needed to ensure that every child gets to go to primary school; L1 billion to feed starving people in Africa for a year, and another L1 billion to feed other starving people elsewhere; L7 billion to fight Aids, tuberculosis, malaria and other infectious diseases.[22]

However, the gap between the world’s poorest 20 percent and the richest 20 percent has more than doubled since 1960.[23] And overcapacity in the industries are as high as 30 percent.[24] Are we better off today with our gadgets in easy reach and academic prestige in pedestals? Suburbanized, as Eagleton claims of liberal humanist ideology, critics in neoliberalism excel in producing the cruelest of studies devoid of the historicity of the material condition. Statisticized, mathematicized, scientificized and humanitastized, the human is devoid of actual pain and suffering as he or she is vilified as both victim and abuser or abjected as a massified entity. Scholarship becomes a testament to both human life in general abstracted ways and its barbarism in its depoliticized mode.

What happens is the production of a quasi-stable identity, devoid of politics, and if at all, the political and political struggle. Eagleton suggests that this, in itself, the distancing of the object of study to its relational field of politics of power relations is cogent to the imperialist project, the imposition of “alien ways of experiencing.” I remember my experience as a panelist in a masteral defense on the topic, oil industry in the country. The thesis had to undergo a long journey to being defended because of a double time-lag bind. The scholar had been off from the program for some years now. But more than a time lapse, there was also a perceived paradigm lag. The scholar was calling for the nationalization of the oil industry at a time when this industry has already been liberalized in the country. The thesis had to be passed on from an economics adviser who espoused neoliberalism as a newer frame to a Philippine Studies adviser whose background in the humanities somehow makes him a more liberal coach. Defended as a Philippine Studies scholarship, the thesis passed and was even conferred with a best masteral thesis award in the humanities.

Given the metanarrative of globalization, any analyses that purports to be a primarily a project of nationalization, nationalism and nationalist agenda would prove detrimental to the student’s cause. Philippine Studies acts as a kind of enclave to the normativizing modality of neoliberal and global researches. But these too provide a limited view of the area concerned. What is actually being undertaken is a project of depoliticization in surrounding the research itself—downgraded when failing to use the rhetoric of globalization as the overarching paradigm to dwell on the necessity of the national to be internationally competitive or upgraded for providing a beacon of utopian capitalism or socialism at a time of great deluge. Thus, the award for best thesis becomes the interjection to the real status of the scholarship, deemed otherwise as impalpable at this globalizing age.

But the political contends as politics always contend. As bearers of political ideologies, criticism asserts not just a vision of a social ideology but also a material practice leading to the vision. To historicize is to politicize, and in our nation’s context, to politicize is to organize.[25] This is the adage of the political in criticism, its intended mobilizing factor to swing people to opinion, consciousness, action and organization. Then literature does not simply become allegorical of the material, a symptom of the historical and social.[26] It then becomes the receptacle of the material in historical and social transformation.


[1] Terry Eagleton, “Conclusion,” Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) in

[2] Quoted in “Letter of Concern of Foreign Church and Development Workers in the Philippines” (unpublished) by Philippine International Forum, 2003.

[3] Eagleton, ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Quoted in “Facts at a Glance,” CDI Nuclear Issues,

[11] “Too many people—Too much poverty?”

[12] “World Bank Updates Global Poverty Report,”

[13] Ibid.

[14] Poverty Incidence

Year Indonesia Thailand Korea

1997 11.0 11.4 8.6

1998 19.9 12.9 19.2


[15] “Global Hunger Alliance,”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Bullions Wasted On Warfare,”

[23] “World Economy: Will There Be A Recovery?”

[24] Ibid.

[25] This is an idea I borrow from Professor Sarah Raymundo on Judy Taguiwalo’s improvement of Fredric Jameson’s idea on the need to historicize via her involvement in political causes.

[26] For a repository on the documents, essays and discourse of the national democratic literature, see “IPASA: Instityut sa Panitikan at Sining ng Sambayanan,”

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