Two hours earlier, I presented a paper called “On the Possible Shamness of Academic Conferences” in the beautiful, exoticized islands of the Philippines. I arrived at the conference just hours before the start of the program and after watching all the carbon emissions from the airplane I rode in going here (the experience reminded me of this. I am from the unknown island of Untied Dingcome.
Just after my presentation, I thought of the possible shamness of academic conferences, precisely the title of my paper. Before finally deciding to attend this conference, I had to think not twice but tries—that is, for grammatical purposes, I had to try to swallow my heart and think about the event as an opportunity to meet and listen to people, see a new place, secure a prestigious certificate, taste exotic food and pray that really meaningful conversations will transpire.
I guess I was rattled inside. This is when I resorted to reviewing encouraging messages from my senior classmates. These encouraging messages, ironically, talk about academic conferences in not-so-encouraging terms. That is what made these reminders lovely and spiriting for me!
(One described “a lot of [conferences as] sham” while another is more particularly indicting, using words like “self-serving academics” to refer to the london pips)
I begin with Borges who vilified a simplistic view of reading-as-transaction in The Library of Babel:
“You who read me, are You sure of understanding my language? The methodical task of writing distracts me from the present state of men. The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms. I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves before books and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they do not know how to decipher a single letter.”
The spice of life is not its problems; it is the comedy that we make out of its little agonies.
During the Salamindanaw International Film Festival, on the last day of the Film Criticism Workshop, we had the chance to watch Patay na si Hesus (Villanueva, 2016) which for me was like winning a lottery.
Obviously not in the art itself, not in its formal aspects, not in the way a cinematic shot takes fifteen-minutes long and not the more standard five seconds in Hollywood, not in the way a black square is superimposed on a red rectangle, not in the way sentences are cut short in the midd, not in the way language calls attention to itself, say, by changing mula Filipino to cambiar, grammar notwithstanding.
Pretentious art becomes in the manner of seeing, the tools in analyzing and judging.
Pretentious because there is an expectation of honesty from art, of art knowing what it is trying to achieve, trying to articulate, of art knowing the limits of its powers, harnessing its chosen forms and techniques to match with what it is trying to achieve, trying to articulate. INSTEAD OF SOMETHING THAT PRETENDS TO KNOW WHAT IT IS DOING WITH THE VISUAL POEM? THE ERRATIC MONTAGE IN FILM? THE ABSENCE OF SOUND IN MUSIC?
Less pretentiously on my part, pretentious art is made by the lack of the proper and necessary education and venues for conversation to make sense of, grapple, grasp and fondle such works of art. This kind of education is not a very humble thing to ask given the millions who do not even know how to read or write. Pretentious art is made by the lack, or more aptly the inequality of access to these works of art of cultural works. Access to these things not a very humble thing to ask given the millions who do not even have access to food or clean water.
I see Vice Ganda dancing all day and then one day I see Lav Diaz opening a movie with a scene where nothing happens for 88 minutes.
For some—or most?—“pretentious” art is even an anomaly. Majority of artworks, of cultural works—from a ten-peso rental of a Precious Hearts Romance to Arundhati Roy’s much-awaited The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Kathniel’s kilig flick from Star Cinema to Lars’ Nymphomaniac—are not a pretense to them. It is a luxury.
Recently in Facebook, one N.A. for Literature, F. Sionil Jose, subtly proposed “The way out for Marawi,” where he chastised the “traditional support system” and pinpointed the arrival of immigrants, whom he described as “industrious and enterprising,” in certain Mindanao towns as causing their development. He said that Moros “are also to blame” because “they are indolent, their datu systems inhibits political and economic mobility.”
An uproar ensued. Claims too sweeping, if not uninformed, insensitive not just to actual, grounded realities but grounded and nuanced realities. It is as if the Moros are monolithic. It is as if the continuing operations of and reception to the “traditional system” are standardized. In other words, most of the statements arguably just do not apply.
The quixotic act of questioning the workshop—or making it quixotic, for in reality, I dreamt that it was not only necessary and expected but also tedious.
In cities of the past where a pedantic group of friends converged, we conceived a project that responds to workshop seasons—roughly about this time also. “After the Workshop, one of us tentatively called it. We were supposed, I guess, to collate works which from our own assessment will never pass a workshop application. My memory tells me that we were not really able to talk about that concept face-to-face and with bottles of mountain airs and beers; we mostly talked about it online. Or they did talk about it and I was not there.
Zygmunt Bauman’s conclusion in “Zizek and Morin on monotheism” (from “On Education”) smacks of an intelligently ironic distance which I feel we must adopt more as we find rooms for critique in a neoliberal system touted to be encompassing.
Bauman’s advice: “take the status quo… at its word and so confront it with the full volume of the ambitions it inspires… and endorses—a volume which far exceeds its powers to support it. And so the demands… are bound to accomplish a truly revolutionary feat: to discredit the status quo, lay bare its impotence, and thereby prompts its collapse.”
I was thinking about the resumption of classes and the customary Brigada Eskwela weeks before it when I recall Bauman. Weeks ago, my tita from my mother’s side—one that is dominantly composed of teachers—posted pictures of her and her colleagues doing the typical work done during Brigada. They were designing the classroom, arranging cabinets and chairs, posting class schedules on the doors. My tita used captioned the pictures with #bayanihan, referring to that Filipino value of helping one another and the context of community living.
When there is no distinct feature, no recognizable object or expression is being accentuated in a movie scene, something must be happening elsewhere, by other means. For a medium whose communicative power is mainly visual, blocking out almost completely the visually distinguishable can be very telling.
There is a scene in Lav Diaz’ “Ang Babaeng Humayo” where Horatia first met Hollanda. The former was wearing a cap and a jacket which she will later offer to the ailing cross-dresser. The streets were dark and Hollanda was struggling wildly to move; it was then that Horatia came to help. We see just the outlines of their bodies during this first meeting that flirted with the tender. We do not see the features of their faces as they talked; no faces seen in this first meeting that flirted with the tender. At one point, the camera focused on the jeepney behind them, an inert witness to this first meeting that was tender. In offering this tenderness, Lav went against the primacy of the visage, demonstrating instead the palpable in the auditory. The visual is not utterly negated, for the outlines of their bodies and their movements are still barely perceptible. But in this scene, much of the power of the scene is rendered by what is heard.
In Gaspar Noe’s “Love,” something similar is at work. But here, dialogue is absent; it is mostly the dimmed contours of the characters—the lovers Electra and Murphy—against the accentuated background. It is neither through their facial reactions nor their exchange of words that we witness their reconciliation. The outline of their bodies sufficed.
As much as sight is significant, it also always verge on being overrated. When I can hear the coming of the color red, I will hear it. I wish I can also touch the meaning of redemption. I imagine myself tasting that scene when Summer saw Tom in the parking lot again after she has married. Sometimes, it is good to smell the drums announcing exuberance.
When the protagonists have fallen towards the end of Malraux’s Man’s Fate, I know I can live with less of my eyes apprehending all the noises and meanings. Katov was being sent to her place in the prison, waiting for death. He mused: “all those who were not yet dead were waiting for the whistle.” They were whispering—these people awaiting the whistles of their respective deaths—and there they were able to sense a feeling of oneness, however futile or meaningless. Then Katov lose the cyanide in his hands and in the darkness, struggled to find it on the floor: “Their hands brushed his. And suddenly one of them took his, pressed it, held it. ‘Even if we don’t find it…’ said one of the voices. Katov also pressed his hand, on the verge of tears, held by that pitiful fraternity, without a face, almost without a real voice (all whispers resemble one another).”
Sometimes, I do not want to see faces.
I want to feel fraternity that is pitiful with a hand that is bloody and livened by thick veins.
I want to feel love with tears of two having a union in their places.
I want to touch compassion and kindness, like this summer heat presses on our harrowed napes.
Sometimes I want to see your face in your tired feet, or your paper doodles.
I do not have a confession to make. Or rather, I will derive a confession from a not-too-personal or catchy subject—my current reading. The past days I have been getting a slight fever—not a yellow one—reading Borges. Thankfully, it does not feel like a disease yet. There is no need yet for incubation for me to recover. Back to Borges, there was a rumor that he has “a certain distance towards both ‘Nazism’ and ‘dialectical materialism’ based from his “notorious” Postscript to the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” He lumped together the two as having “symmetry with a semblance of order” (17), a symmetry that will soon be debunked. Decades later, Borges’ indiscriminate juxtaposition of Right-wing and Left-wing tendencies in the political sphere will be echoed by a seemingly insincere but actually very fitting apologist of liberal democracy.