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.
The silent — though uncontainable – feeling is that the final fifteen, sixteen, seventeen days remaining in 20166 will be Baguio. As much as you want to EEWW the ‘looking-back’ stuff happening as the year ends, you also see some of its value: something cliched: putting the past to a thought-process in order to set fire to the future)
(This is not just nostalgia trip, and is that not a bit rude to the word ‘nostalgia,’ using it in reference to events just in the past months? You counter yourself, 2016 feels so big, the months seemed like the bookshelves of Calvino and the deaths in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ in our country)
Goodreads made me review my “Year in Books,” and the Baguio-to-Manila plotline is alive there and evil, wounding, adding salt to the wound, licking the wound with a salted tongue.
The books you’ve read, they speak of memories that in turn speak of specific locus, concrete locations, situations. I was reading Eagleton’s “The Function of Criticism” upon waking up – 7am, 8am – in our Parisas home, and it was January and you know how Baguio is when it’s January, and we are not talking of city centers but a semi-secluded village in the fringes of Bakakeng. Bauman’s “Towards A Critical Sociology,” I remember bringing to Mt. Cloud’s Third Monday from the Sun and I almost left it, almost. F. Sionil’s “Vibora” I cram-read as I cram-conceptualized a paper for KRITIKA’s call for submissions. I finished the novelette in two days, I guess, but did not find it worthy of writing at least a ten-page paper about. Kruger’s “Remote Control,” Jameson’s “Marxism and Form,” Graff’s “Literature Against Itself,” all these man, I read them with brewed coffee and our Parisas windows which offered calmness and gathering dogs sometimes, sometimes a goat, sometimes a sheep, and always, the unassuming but pretty trees. All these three I borrowed from UP Baguio’s library, while I was a graduating Graduate student, erratically prolonging thesis completion mainly to continue availing of the library’s sexy books. Malabou’s “Changing Difference,” Mao’s essays, Gamalinda’s “Empire of Memory” were all borrowed from UP Baguio’s library, through Mam Brenda, through the cheery librarians of the campus (Sometimes, they will ask me, O kelan ka ga-gradaute? Thesis na lang ba? something).
“The Critical Villa” edited by Jonathan Chua is the bridge. I started reading it in Baguio, did not finish there, was able to finish it in – surprise – Manila, courtesy of Adamson’s library, the university where I am now teaching. “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” I remember reading at Silahis, 100 meters away from NCCA’s office at Intramuros, while I was waiting for Jesa. Wark’s “The Spectacle of Disintegration” I remember reading during the dull moments of our retooling seminar, again at Adamson.”Days of War, Nights of Love,” I mostly read during LRT rides to and from work (I suspect my eyesight has to say “fuck you” to me about this, for I can feel it is deteriorating). Adamson’s library is not without its sweetness. I was able to read Badiou and Engelmann’s “Philosophy and the Idea of Communism” here, and Raymond Williams work on Modernism, and Kerouac’s “Tristessa” and Almario’s thick “Balagtasismo versus Modernismo” which was reserved at UP Baguio (and which curiously I hardly bothered to even check when I was there). Yesterday I finished in one sitting, Marquez’ short “Memories of my Melancholy Whores,” while I was eating time in the last week of school this year. I remember doing that to Apol Sta. Maria’s “Alamat ng Panget” too, only that, again, I was wearing boxers, and long-sleeves and exhaling fog even as Baguio’s own fogginess engulfs me some eleven months ago.
My writings will also make me cry about this (big) city shift. January, I was taking writing for Baguio Chronicle quite seriously, contributing essays about Whang-od and Panagbenga or reviews of an exhibit about film at Baguio Cinematheque. December, I find myself writing a riposte to a lampoon article published in the Adamson Chronicle. Last night, I just returned the revised draft of a paper on Session in Bloom. Nights ago, not only the writings were about Baguio; they were IN Baguio.
Here, right now, I try to chronicle 2016 via the books I’ve read and where I have read them and where I have sweated for them and via the writings I’ve done and there is Baguio, like God (and if there would be blasphemy here, it will be with respect to the former, not the latter): all-powerful, all-present, all-known (not “knowing).
Will I end this piece the way Cesar Ruiz Aquino ended his “Proheme to Zamboanga” (All you were amoeba-fashion Zamboanga Zamboanga Zamboanga)? Enough to put it there because I will not.
My tears for Baguio are so big I sort of bled for almost 1000 words and an earlier plan is yet to be carried out: I will write about Baguio, bearing in mind Cesar’s “Proheme” to his city and Umberto Eco’s own cry for his “Alessandra” – which he described thus, “Alessandria is made up of great spaces. It is empty.”
I almost cried man, while reading Eco’s piece on Alessandra, his city, his place, the locations that make him throb. I was having brewed coffee – still bought in Baguio’s dirty and yet somehow fragrant and charming public market (all markets are dirty, rarely are they eerily fragrant and charming) – in our apartment in coughing Pasay when I almost cried on Eco’s Alessandra, and though the sad thing is that that brewed coffee is the only Baguio remnant I had, the happy, dazzling thing is that Baguio is 256 kilometers away, six hours via Genesis, four hours via Joybus (we are very near the Pasay terminals). Baguio is away like that, just some kilometric count, and another big decision away, another city-shift, (more aptly, a reversal, a return), one that is most surely a lovelier and less agonizing one.
The camera thus makes a great deal in capturing us standing cheerily beside a tourist spot’s landmark. Encompassing De Certeau and Andre Bazin (“the charm of family albums… no longer traditional family portraits but rather the disturbing presence of the lives halted at a set moment in their duration, freed from their destiny….”) and feminists insisting on the politics of the body, the photograph, with its ironically frozen materiality, serves as a scintillating piece of object that designates our previous, but also in a way, eternalized situation. We ARE in, say, Camp John Hay, or the gondolas in Venice, or in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; we (care of our body) are in these tourist attractions (care of the markers of these attractions, following De Certeau). And this is a plus especially since we are a people who are proud of going to places, of making experiences.
Even with the passing of the weekend highlighting the Panagbenga festival, the start of Session in Bloom does not remit the raping of Baguio City in different ways.
It was a little hapless for my friends and I who were compelled by the tasks awaiting us outside to leave our homes last weekend because we were not able to completely escape the festivities we would know no better than to loathe and criticize. The dulcet of Panagbenga does not yet appear to be fading and year after year, it continues to attract nearly a million of tourists and spectators who most likely expect to experience the “Baguio” advertised since they were children by various media (the “It’s more fun…” tourism campaign being one of the most recent). I surmise that most of them, especially the tourists are disgruntled afterwards; whatever satisfaction they might have gleaned from attending the festivities is tremendously offset less by fatigue and the expenses than the fact that the Baguio they came to see (cool, clean, green, poetic, convenient) is far from the Baguio they actually expended money to be in. The longer I stay in Baguio and the more Panagbengas that pass by the calendars, it appears that Baguio becomes less and less of the paradise that it is being broadcasted in the dominant media. However, its appeal lingers. And the quietly irksome experience my friends and I had to grapple with over the weekend when we were going home – the flood of people, the hills of trash everywhere, and the resulting wheezing of the atmosphere with the volume of vehicles – is very telling: people still go and rave about the Panagbenga.
The power of festivities
Following Raymond Williams, one of the most-read Cultural critics of the 20th century, festivities are powerful rituals ingrained in one’s culture and as such, ingraining particular ways of looking at the world. With their repetition, these festivities have an appeal to normalcy which the members of the community and also the other participants can mindlessly experience as they occur again and again. From what I know, the Panagbenga tradition was supposed to be inspired by the idea of celebrating the springing of flowers in the region. This is the logic behind the weekend highlight events: the float parade and the street dance. As I have seen from the pictures (in my seven-year stay here, I have never attended any Panagbenga ceremony live, and I am very proud and gleeful to admit and do just that), these events are suffused with flowers, natural or otherwise, in line with the cause (or: cost) of celebration. However, contradictions need to be pointed out in order to elucidate the key, underlying politics of Panagbenga.
For one, the floral industry, as far as geography is concerned, is more vigorous in La Trinidad and other parts of Benguet than in Baguio. In my entire stay here, I have associated Baguio with deceptively fancy restaurants and establishments and the “center of ‘commerce’ in the North” tag more than anything else, certainly more than a blooming floral industry. Apparently too, its old prestige as the pristine “Summer Capital” mode has been slowly blotted by the increasing population (yes, including me), increasing pollution (noise, waste and air) and the decreasing verdure (the SM case being the recent straw that seemed to finally slap those who can claim to love the city). Hence, I assert that the Panagbenga festival, aside from being spurred by its cultural function, is also motivated by its commercial function. It is at this point that tourism becomes a more glaring point. However, at the expense of added coffers for the local government are multiple truckloads of garbage and the less obvious contributions to the deterioration of the environment – something that Baguio, as the OLD Summer Capital, used to enshrine and was supposed to nurture.
The crumbling of the glossy Baguio and de Certeau’s wise advice
Part of the discourse of tourism concerning Panagbenga is the entire city where the festivities are done and which undeniably enjoys a likewise strong potential for tourism – Baguio. The Summer capital tag, the pine trees, the cool weather, the “booming” “industries,” the educational centers – all of these contribute to the popularity of Baguio as a destination both for tourists and eventual migrants. This positive tourism baggage which Baguio carries is certainly a plus factor in selling Panagbenga to highlanders and lowlanders alike. After the holiday season, most of the peoples’ attention and buzz shift to the forthcoming Panagbenga. This is egged and further reinforced by the dominant media’s share in building the hype for the festivities. From the television to the pamphlets on the streets being distributed to the tourists, the idea is to design Baguio and its Panagbenga festival as a delectable experience that one should not miss. These images of Baguio and Panagbenga being circulated leading to the date of the festivities are part of what Michel de Certeau calls “legends” that we utilize in navigating a city. Mostly, these legends glamorize the city and they do this for various reasons (for commerce, for culturally fixing a well-defined image of the city), but primarily for one thing: to hide something else. In his popular essay, “Walking in the City,” de Certeau hails the process of walking as something that we can utilize in order to annul the “legends” circulated about the city we are in. As he puts it, “Travel is a substitute for the legends that used to open up space to something different.”
Utilizing this framework, I am highly confident that the ambulants in last weekend’s highlights, and of the continuing Session in Bloom of the Panagbenga did not fail to notice the swarming garbage around them, and around the reputed “clean and green” city up North (unless they have selective sight), and the morning-to-afternoon heat which might have not squared with their expectations of the weather when they came here. These sun-soaked experiences should be more than sufficient to erase the images promulgated in the “legends” and images of Baguio and Panagbenga. To compound on the propositions of de Certeau, I believe that the living ground where we and the Panagbenga proceedings are, is self-evident in calling our attention and encourage us to defamiliarize the normative projections of Baguio City and its much-touted celebrations every February. Because ultimately, what should define the city and everything that transpires inside it should not be the task of pamphlets and other images to determine; that task is ours, the people breathing in late afternoon smog and parched by the late morning heat, forging survival in a Baguio City departing from the self-motivated idealizations by the dominant media.
The afternoon is inhaling us. And its chest we fill with our loudmouth of whines and skinny perspirations. In its heart, we are gobbled by patties of bloody meat and a shrine of peso dollar euro meccas. Until we are spent, until we are diving in frigid quick sundaes and we are fat enough to be eaten just like Hansel in the fairy tale. The city breathed us in and from its mouth, we go out restless and dusty.
What if one day, people in long sleeves and slacks put themselves in the streets begging not for mere coins but for a sheaf of bills among the passersby? Last Monday, that What If just happened.
The package was quite simple: A bunch of kids will dress up as “rich people,” or at least, people who do not resemble beggars. They would beg for a minimum of P5000 from ordinary people on the streets to cover the expenses for the condominium they purport to construct. There would be poetry, too, for I forgot to mention, this venture is launched by people who believe in the power of poetry to reconstruct our everyday experiences – from the more minute like taking a bath or looking at 6pm rush hours to the more immense like the crappiness of bureaucracy and the calling for social change.
Every day, the rich are making money out of the poor. With their massive control of the big businesses, the media, the vast areas of land and most government positions, they make the best out of the poor’s economic contributions in a social make-up that benefits only them in major ways. A simple drop-by and buying at a gargantuan mall which splays itself almost in the entire archipelago (Would we be surprised at the rise of an SM Palawan?) means even the littlest contribution to the profits raised by such business. Over at the National Government, most people execute tasks that protect their interests at the expense of the poor. This is manifested in the laws written and approved, the Presidential orders made and so on. Of course, there are the big landlords exploiting the labor of small farmers who till the land but get scarce share in the production.
The people need to reconstitute these facts and their everyday realities as existing, actually dominant coordinates that largely shape their living. The streets are a suitable venue to forge such push for reconstitution since it is the heart of public life. Here, people of all kinds stroll every day, to and from work, or school, or just in their enforced loitering. Here are located the groceries, the churches, the medical centers, the clothing shops – most of what people need, from the literal food to food of the soul, and most of what is told for them to want.
Most certainly, such reconstitution cannot be spurred by mere verbiage. One can actually argue that verbal communications are always reliable to some extent. But the case for this one, entails otherwise. One can appear sermonizing about the ills of capitalism and how they seep down through our behaviors and cultural choices. Yet this is likely to be ineffective. People are already fatigued of these types of communicating to them. If worse, they no longer pay attention. “Political” verbals teem with words that mostly sound appear ragged and alien to their target audience. They usually lack the novelty, the color and the vivacity that precisely abound in popular culture fads. The point here is to render the same content of political messages in more diverse, more jolting manners that are likely to engage the target audience more. This is what Pedantic Pedestrians tried to achieve with its first venture in Street Poetry last Monday.
We believe that the crispness of the message of political engagement and critical thinking should still ring in the people’s ears especially now that more stomachs are unfed and more rights are violated. But the people need new forms of engagement. The mainstream culture is already infested with a pacifying, delusive happiness that new, if not shocking forms must be explored in order to reach them again.
Kidlat Tahimik, the renowned filmmaker from Baguio City, is arguably most famously known from his 1977 movie Perfumed Nightmare which is also often considered as one of the first Filipino indie films. Perfumed Nigtmare treated the idea of development as it was exported to the Philippines by its then American colonizers. In the end, Kidlat, who was also the main character in the film, met disillusionment instead of satisfaction.
We should ask: what has happened to the idea of progress Kidlat Tahimik both filmed and lived with and came up in the name of Perfumed Nightmare? When the storm blows the cocoon, the butterfly embraces the sun and more or less got burned, and hence, must opt for a new path and a new destination. A path and destination that are both self-set, as the film would tell towards its end. The bridges were either left unfinished or destroyed and so Kidlat’s and the film’s exhortations: choosing one’s own vehicle; choosing one’s own bridge. The capitalistic monster continues to haunt and more terrifyingly so as it commences its late stage and purports to construct avenues for human development in the name of its genuine objective: perpetual growth of capital and profit for the weal of the few at the expense of the majority. Classical slogan-ish message adroitly transformed by the film into a clean narrative profuse with well-placed, mostly bricolaged images.
Tahimik was President of the Wernher von Braun Fan Club, an individual harboring the American dream in a manner and for reasons we very much certainly know. The film is not scarce with interesting and meaningful opposites: the title (Perfumed Nightmare) itself intrigues with its play on opposites. During the opening credits, we could see the words “Isang film ni Kidlat Tahimik.”
What I read is that at the onset, the film is preparing the audience to the tricky ironies it will present and perhaps it wished for them to ruminate intently on. Kidlat is captivated by the American Radio Show and the Miss Universe and perhaps we were already dismissing him as the typical Americanized rural Filipino. Still, Kidlat’s roots are firmly Filipino: the insular atmosphere, the bamboo nuts which they plod on, I think these hardly mutable spatial configurations and elements keep Kidlat from being totally drawn to barbaric Americanization. He lives with fellow Filipino probinsyanos, drives the uniquely Filipino jeepney across the locality and ultimately, as I wish to look at it, these engagements within his lived reality constantly posed the threat to complete Americanization and likewise sustained the potential of revealing the actual motivations behind this process.
Kidlat got an offer to work abroad and refusal seemed unfeasible. The film exploits its own narrative to show how America dwells in spirit both in another physical land and in that land’s people’s hearts and minds. On their journey, Kidlat and a female companion had to stop in order to pee and then the camera pans to the right to reveal a landscape and eventually a Marlboro country billboard. The connotations are rich and this richness can be situated tenably in several contexts. Through brands like Marlboro, the American spirit proves to continue to thrive in its former colony. Arriving at the airport, Kidlat appeared insane with joy. Disillusionment will arrive in a matter of one flight.
Cracked Paradise: Tahimik abroad
This is how the commencement of the stint abroad can be put in words: America is paradise. Kidlat was yet to reach America, but his initial exposures to Europe evidently already thrilled him. However, the series of events led him to his realization of his perfumed nightmare. Some words I caught which perhaps foretold or signified such realization are as follows: If small markets work, why build supermarkets? If small planes work, why super flying machines? An answer might have been already stated in a genius or lunacy of analyzing the course of history of society: production is dedicated not to needs but to profit.
As an ending, Kidlat resigned not only as President but member of the club. The message of his indictments can be read simplistically: I choose my vehicle. I choose my bridge. However, one can always probe possible complications. How can this not be read as wayward individualism? To what extent does it espouse the enforcement of self-agency in the face of socio-economic forces and their concomitant narratives? As Kidlat was disillusioned by the American dream, how can we gauge his ensuing change of understanding of the realities outside himself? Is it still significant? One can propound that we can settle at where the film settles: Kidlat seeing first-hand the thing with foreign countries which ultimately curtailed his zealous desire to go to America, and shatter his lofty ideas about the country. This was furthered with valid and thought-provoking questions and insights, but how can one formulate a more solid understanding of the whole?
These are questions emerging from evaluative purposes, which are not entirely what I aim to do here. As Terry Eagleton said, we speak of ourselves when we do evaluation while we speak of the text when we do criticism. Still, I believe evaluation and criticism cannot wholly exist without the other and this is something that shall be welcomed.
As a final note, Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare masterfully exploits its formal properties, particularly the narrative itself, the point of view and the editing to come up with an artistic whole delivering a coherent point. Through the ways of seeing of Kidlat the Club President and the screwy juxtapositions of images in a number of frames and sequencing of clashing images, Perfumed Nightmare reveals the stink of the American-glossed idea of “development” we have been dreaming about. It is something one would not want to be into, as evinced in the end by Kidlat resigning from the Club and returning to the Philippines.
*This poem is part of the second issue of the Pedantic Pedestrians, a beginning group of young writers from Baguio City, Philippines striving to bring out poetry and literature in general from the academy, bars and cafes and into the streets and the wider public.
Last Thursday, while my friend and I were walking from the city market and going up the footbridge at Maharlika, she was helplessly victimized by a pickpocket who worked, as I assume, so nonchalantly, so deftly, in order for both my friend and I to be hardly aware of what he was just doing. Suddenly gone were my friend’s favorite Dinosaurman purse which included inside it some bills totaling to nearly a thousand pesos, her school ID and ATM card.
It was sort of funny, how in a matter of seconds, we can become poorer by a thousand pesos, and also temporarily disabled to enter the school library and full of anxiety and regret after just losing valuables in a busy, crowded place. In a society where every day we find it more difficult to survive and cope with the price of living, incidents like this are just sufficient to make us judge a day to be a bad one and make us learn a lesson in the hard way.
At the beginning, it was easy to get mad at the poor stealer. Especially when after what he has done, you felt like you have just been a bad child to your parents who break their backs in the day and hardly get a rest in the night just to send you to school and send cash allowance that you need in order to live in a far city. It was easy to blame the thief and others like him who turn to doing things like that instead of doing something more decent and lawful in order to cope with their own lives.
Then there could be a phase of self-blaming too. How, for instance, we could have been more careful with our belongings, more watchful and guarded of seemingly naïve pickpockets who are just waiting for the perfect timing while we are all rushing through the unsleeping parts of the city. How we could have tucked our wallets and gadgets inside our pockets where they are less likely to be taken by people with wrong intentions. How we could have refrained from withdrawing money from the ATM and hence, give away a lesser amount to a thief who is an expert of his “craft” when all is said and done.
However, a clearer thought can allow us to look at the roots of incidents like that and might keep us from blaming either the thief or ourselves and our carelessness. We all know how widespread and how countless are the thieves lurking in the streets we pass by every day. The fact that they have devised ways to make themselves appear less suspicious requires us to be even more cautious and careful. For all we know, that stranger sitting beside in a jeepney or that person behind us in a grocery counter is planning to steal something from us. Not even the fact that we are in a public place can assure us that we are completely shielded from those who have intents of stealing something from us.
In our society where poverty reeks at every corner, where people struggle to feed themselves, and much more send their children to school or their sick relatives to the hospital, we have all learned a variety of ways just to get through every day and find ways to live. Unluckily, stealing, among other crimes like kidnapping for ransom, smuggling goods and gambling, are just some of the means we have utilized for the sake of providing for our needs. In that sense, we are not inherently to blame at all; resorting to lawless tactics just to survive is not entirely unforgivable given the circumstances that always pressure us to do the things we do.
What we must pay more attention to is this pervading social condition that breeds thieves, smugglers, kidnappers among others. It is a social condition where people can hardly afford the things they need because they do not have jobs that can enable them to pay for what they need. We are all in a society where even having a job does not secure us to obtain all our basic needs. For in this society, most of the jobs do not provide payments commensurate to the work done by the individuals and likewise to the expenses entailed by a daily, decent living. For the record, the 426 peso minimum wage in Metro Manila is not even half of the 993 peso cost of daily living allowance for a family of six members. Given these conditions, how can we be so surprised when a lot of people turn to stealing and other lawless acts just to provide for themselves.
In the end, this is not to condone what the pickpockets do. This is just a reminder that behind these acts are larger conditions and operations in the society that force them to resort to such acts and make anyone of us all prone to be victimized. Hence, more than cursing these criminals, we must rage against and strive to adjust the social setting where these kinds of people are bred.
As for my friend, both of us just opt to think in more humane terms: Isipin na lang natin, may sakit ‘yung nanay nung magnanakaw tapos kailangan niya ng pambili ng gamot.
This is how we succumb to funny tragedies. And unless the conditions that can force us to resort to lawlessness are terminated, we cannot stop from consoling ourselves with such humane thoughts.