Wednesday, August 20, 2008

INTERVENTION INTO THE LANGUAGE QUESTION IN THE PHILIPPINES



INTERVENTION INTO THE LANGUAGE QUESTION AGAIN

Notes for a lecture, March 12, at Ateneo University on the launching of BALIKBAYANG SINTA: AN E. SAN JUAN READER

--E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
Dept of English & Comparative Literature
University of the Philippines
Diliman, Quezon City


In this current situation of portentous upheaval in the Philippines, any discussion of the “language question,” like the “woman question,” is bound to be imcendiary and contentious. The issue of language is always explosive, a crux of symptoms afflicting the body politic. It is like a fuse or trigger that ignites a whole bundle of inflammable issues, scandalously questioning the existence of God in front of an audience of believers. Or the immortality of souls among the faithful. Perhaps my saying outright that I am a partisan for a national language, Filipino, may outrage the postmodernists and cosmopolites among you—how can you say such a thing when you are speaking in English? Or, as Senator Diokno once said, “English of a sort.” How dare I infuriate the loyal speakers of Cebuano, Ilocano, Pampagueno, Ilonggo, Taglish, Filipino English, and a hundred or more languages used in these seven hundred islands. One gives up: it can’t be helped. Or we can help lift the ideological smog and draw the lines of demarcation in the battleground more lucidly.

One suspects that this is almost unavoidable, in a society where to raise the need for one national language, say “Filipino” (as mandated by the Constitution) is bound to arouse immediate opposition. Or, if not immediately, it is deferred and sublimated into other pretexts for debate and argumentation. Fortunately, we have not reached the point of armed skirmishes and violent confrontations for the sake of our mother-father tongue, as in India and other countries. My partisanship for Filipino (not Tagalog) is bound to inflame Cebuanos, Bicolanos, Ilocanos, and so on, including Filipino speakers-writers of English, or Filipino English. We probably try to defuse any brewing conflict quickly by using the colonizer’s tongue, or compromise babel-wise. My viewis that only a continuing historical analysis can help explain the present contradictory conjuncture, and disclose the options it offers us. Only engagement in the current political struggles can resolve the linguistic aporia/antinomy and clarify the import and consequence of the controversy over the national language, over the fate of Filipino and English in our society.

One would expect that this issue has been resolved a long time ago. But, given the dire condition of the Philippine political economy in this epoch of globalized terrorism of the U.S. hegemon, a plight that is the product of more than a century of colonial/neocolonial domination, all the controversies surrounding this proposal of a national language since the time of the Philippine Commonwealth when Quezon convened the Institute of National Language under Jaime de Veyra, have risen again like ravenous ghouls. I believe this specter can never be properly laid to rest until we have acquired genuine sovereignty, until national self-determination has been fully exercised, and the Filipino people—three thousand everyday, more than a million every year--will no longer be leaving in droves as Overseas Contract Workers, the whole nation becoming a global subaltern to the transnational corporations, to the World Bank-World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the predatory finance capital of the global North. We cannot help but be interpellated by the sirens of the global market and transformed into exchangeable warm bodies, we can at least interrogate the conditions of our subordination—if only as a gesture of resistance by a nascent, irrepressible agency.

In the hope of avoiding such a situation, which is almost ineluctable, I would like to offer the following seven theses that may initiate a new approach to the question, if not offer heuristic points of departure for reflection. In contrast to the dominant neoliberal idealist-culturalist, metaphysical approach, I apply a historical materialist one whose method is not only historicizing and dialectical—not merely deploying the “Aufhebung” of Hegel within an eclectic, neoWeberian framework (as Fernando Zialcita does in his provocative book--Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity (2005)—but also, as Marx said, standing it on its head in the complex and changing social relations of production within concrete historical settings. The materialist dialectic offers a method of analysis and elucidation of the context in which questions about a national language can be clarified and the nuances of its practical implications elaborated.

Thesis 1: Language is not an entity or phenomenon in itself but a component of the social forms of consciousness of any given social formation. As such, it can only be properly addressed within the historical specificity of a given mode of production and attendant social-political formation. It has no history of its own but is a constituent and constitutive of the ideological terrain on which the struggle of classes and historic blocs are fought, always in an uneven and combined mode of development. It forms part of the conflicted evolution of the integral state, as Gramsci conceived it as the combination of political society and civil society. The issue of language is located right at the heart of the construction of this integral state. Hence not only its synchronic but also diachronic dimensions should be dialectically comprehended in grasping its worth and contribution to the liberation and fulfillment of the human potential.

Thesis 2: The function and nature of language then cannot be adequately discussed in a neutral and positivistic-empiricist way, given its insertion into conflicted relations of production, at least since the emergence of class-divided societies in history. In the Philippines, the status and function of various languages—Spanish, English, and the numerous vernaculars or regional languages—cannot be assayed without inscribing them in the history of colonial and neocolonial domination of the peoples in these islands. In this regard, the terms “national-popular” and “nation-people”—as Gramsci employed them in a historical-materialist discourse--should be used in referring to Filipinos in the process of expressing themselves as diverse communities, interpellating other nationalities, and conducting dialogue with themselves and other conversers.
It is necessary to assert the fundamental premise of the “national-popular,” the nation as constituted by the working masses (in our country, workers and peasants), not the patricians. Otherwise, the nation (in the archive of Western-oriented or Eurocentric history) is usually identified with the elite, the propertied classes, the national bourgeoisie, or the comprador bourgeoisie and its allies, the bureaucrats and feudal landlords and their retinue of gangsters, private armies, paramilitary thugs, etc. Actually, today, we inhabit a neocolony dominated by a comprador-bureaucratic bloc of the propertied classes allied with and supported in manifold ways by the U.S. hegemon and its regional accomplices.

Thesis 3: The Filipino nation is an unfinished and continuing project, an unfinished work, constantly being re-invented but not under conditions of its own making. Becoming Filipinos is a process of decolonization and radical democratization of the social formation, a sequence of collective choices. This is almost a cliché among the progressive forces with a nationalist orientation. It bears repeating that Filipino sovereignty is a dynamic totality whose premises are political independence and economy self-sufficiency. We have not yet achieved those premises.
Given the current alignment of nation-states in the world-system under U.S. hegemony, whose hegemony is unstable, precarious, sustained by manifold antagonisms, and perpetually challenged by other regional blocs, becoming Filipino is an ever-renewing trajectory of creation and re-creation, a process overdetermined by legacies of the past and unpredictable incidences of the present and the future. Within this configuration, an evolving, emergent Filipino language may be conceived as both a medium and substantive element in fashioning this sequence of becoming-Filipino, a sequence grasped not as a cultural essence but a network of dynamic political affiliations and commitments. It is also an aesthetic modality of hegemonic expression.

Thesis 4: Only within the project of achieving genuine, substantive national independence and egalitarian democracy can we argue for the need for one national language as an effective means of unifying the masses of peasants, workers and middle strata and allowing them integral participation in a hegemonic process.
Note that this is not just a question of cultural identity.
Without changing the unequal and unjust property/power relations, a distinctive Filipino culture incorporating all the diverse elements that have entered everyday lives of the masses can not be defined and allowed to flourish. Without the prosperous development of the material resources and political instrumentalities, a Filipino cultural identity can only be an artificial, hybrid fabrication of the elite—an excrescence of global consumerism, a symptom of the power of transnationalized commodity-fetishism that, right now, dominates the popular consciousness via the mass media, in particular television, films, music, food and fashion styles, packaged life-styles that permeate the everyday practices of ordinary Filipinos across class, ethnicities, age and localities.

The consumerist habitus (to use Bourdieu’s concept) acquired from decades of colonial education and indoctrination has almost entirely occupied the psyche of every Filipino, except for those consciously aware of it and collectively resisting it. With the rise of globalization, it has been a fashionable if tendentious practice among the floating litterateurs, mostly resident in colleges and universities, to advocate the maintenance of the status quo; that is, English as the prestigious language, Taglish as the media lingua franca, and Filipino and the other languages as utilitarian devices for specific tasks. But soon we find that this imitated pluralistic/multiculturalist stand only functions as the effective ploy of neoliberal finance capital. This seemingly pragmatist, accomodationist stance ultimately serves neocolonial goals: the Filipino as world-citizen as compensation for its lack of effective national sovereignty. Its obverse is regional/ethnic separatism. The culturalist or civilizationalist program, often linked to NGOs and deceptive philanthropic schemes, skips the required dialectical mediation and posits an abstract universality, though disguised in a self-satisfied particularism now in vogue among postcolonial deconstructionists eulogizing the importance of place, locality, indigeneity, organic roots, etc.
We discover in time that this trend serves as a useful adjunct for enhancing the festishistic magic, aura and seductive lure of commodities—from brand-name luxury goods to the whole world of images, sounds and multimedia confections manufactured by the transnational culture industry and marketed as symbolic capital for the pettybourgeoisie of the periphery and other subalternized sectors within the metropole.

Thesis 5: Spanish and English are global languages needed for communication and participation in world affairs. They are recognized as richly developed languages of aesthetic and intellectual power useful for certain purposes—English particularly in the scientific and technical fields. But they have a political history and resonance for “third world peoples” who have suffered from their uses. Its sedimented patterns of thought and action cannot so easily be ignored or elided. The discursive genres of law, business, etc. in English and their institutionalized instrumentalities cannot be judged on their own terms without understanding the political role they played as effective instruments in the colonial domination of the various peoples in the Philippines and their total subordination to the political-cultural hegemony of the Spanish empire, and then of the American empire from 1899 to 1946, and of U.S. neocolonial control after formal independence in 1946. Everyone knows that while Rizal used Spanish to reach an enlightened Spanish public and an ilustrado-influenced audience, the masses who participated in the Malolos Republic and the war against the Americans used Tagalog, and other vernaculars, in fighting for cultural autonomy and national independence. Historically the national and democratic project of the Philippine revolution—still unfinished and continuing—provides the only viable perspective within which we can explore the need for a national language as a means of uniting and mobilizing the people for this project.

Thesis 6: The use and promotion of a national language does not imply the neglect, elimination, or inferiorization of other regional languages spoken and used by diverse communities involved in the national-democratic struggle. In fact, it implies their preservation and cultivation. But that is contingent on the attainment of genuine national sovereignty and the emancipation of the masses, their integration into active participation in governance. Meanwhile, in the course of the national-liberation struggle, all languages should and are being used for mobilization, political education, and cultural self-affirmation. Simultaneously, the dissemination and development of one national language becomes a political and economic-cultural necessity for unifying the diverse communities under a common political program—which does not imply a monolithic ideological unity-- in front of the monstrous power of finance-capital using English as an instrument of subordination and neocolonial aggression.
In this regard, I would argue that the unity and collective pride attendant on the use of one national language provides the groundwork and fundamental requisite for the promotion and development of other ethnic/regional languages within the national polity. This is a psychological-ideological imperative that cannot be deferred.

Thesis 7: Hegemony, the moral and intellectual leadership of the Filipino working masses, the scaffold within which an authentic Filipino identity can grow, assumes the rise of organic Filipino intellectuals who will use and develop Filipino as the evolving national language. Again, this does not mean suppressing other regional languages. Nor does it mean prohibiting the use and teaching of English or other international languages (Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.). It simply means the establishment of a required platform, basis or foundation, without which the productive forces of the people within this particular geopolitical boundary can be harnessed, refined, and released in order to, first, benefit the physical and spritual health of Filipinos, repair and recover the damage inflicted by centuries of colonial oppression and exploitation, and thus be able to contribute to the cultural heritage of humankind. Without national self-determination, there is no way Filipinos can contribute their distinctive share in global culture. In fact, it is impossible to be a global citizen unless you have fully grown and matured as an effective democratic participant in the making of a prosperous, egalitarian nation-people in a historically specific territory defined by a whole concretely differentiated sequence of events not replicated elsewhere.

Historical examples are often misleading, but sometimes elucidatory. It may be irrelevant and even Eurocentric to invoke the examples of Italy and Germany as nations that experienced unified mobilization through the affirmation of national-popular languages, Italy vis-à-vis the Papal ascendancy, and Germany vis-à-vis Latin/Roman Catholic hegemony. In any case, again, the social and historical function and character of language cannot be adequately grasped without situating them in the complex dynamics of the conflict of social classes in history since the break-up of the communal tribes in the hunting-gathering stage, since the rise of private property in the means of production, and the intricate dialectics of culture and collective psyche in the political economy of any social formation. In short, language is not just a permanently undecidable chain of signifiers, always deconstructing itself and falling into abysmal meaninglessness, but a social convention and a site of struggle, the signifier as “an arena of class struggle,” to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s phrase. I believe that only from this historical materialist perspective, and within the parameters of the political project of attaining genuine autonomy as a nation-people, can the discussion of a Filipino national language be intelligible and productive. But, again, such a discussion finds its value and validity as part of the total engagement of the people for justice, equality, and all-sided emancipation from the nightmares of the past and the terrorist fascism of the present.

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