Sunday ∗ 22 Apr 2012

burn baby burn: the falsity of FB engagement

since this Rogue piece on the literati and mainstream literary system went online, what has infinitely been interesting is how it has revealed the kind of thinking that we have about literature and culture, including but not limited to: (a) “Why write about this at all? What a waste of time!” (b) “bakit hindi ka na lang magsulat?” (c) writing is a solitary enterprise anyway (d) you just moved from one house to the next (e) there is no talking about literature without literary jargon (f) it’s the same everywhere, deal with it (g) you are not being attacked, your work is being engaged in (h) let’s have a conference on this! (i) you are not free.

will respond to most these points in this space, and in that sense this series must begin with the question why here? after all there is this and this from which most of the aforementioned responses come. the answer is simple:

From the New Yorker by Corey Pandolph.

From the New Yorker by Corey Pandolph.

Conchitina Cruz is right, as is Angelo Suarez (in another FB comments thread I can’t find right now): you want limited engagement? do it on Facebook. this is not to put into question what are in all comments threads across the board, on FB and otherwise, but it is to highlight how different a task it is to sit, write a comment, press enter. different, from oh I don’t know, spending days thinking and rethinking a piece, doing too many drafts of it, missing your deadline by a day, passing it through your editors with fingers crossed (as I did with the original Rogue piece). different, from sitting down to respond in as well threshed-out a form and engaging the writing on all its levels, even as you are conscious of limning over certain aspects of it in deciding to only respond to what it says versus how it’s being said versus how it makes you feel, etc. etc.

Marivi Soliven Blanco says that it was “slightly disingenuous” of me to have written the piece and then “take umbrage at the flood of comments that arrive at <my> door.” in fact, i was taking offense at the kinds of comments that these were, engaging with the comments themselves, which barely discussed what it was the original piece was talking about. i was meta-commenting which, i now realize, was just wrong in the face of people who weren’t seeing their own biases in the comments they were so gleefully patronizing me with.

which brings me back to the comments thread as venue for enlightened discussion and why I refuse now to be part of particularly the one that Lila Shahani had started. full disclosure: I worked as teaching assistant to her last year, work that has absolutely nothing to do with the scholarship I (used to) do and the writing I continue to do now. that FB thread, from the beginning, was about generating a response from the writing community, at least those who are part of Lila’s network, where the status that introduces it begins with “I wonder what my literary friends make of Ina Santiago’s recent Rogue magazine piece on the pathological inbreeding of the literary scene here at home?”

that the first set of responses dealt with the tone of that piece is fine, that this prompted patronizing comments is interesting. from Alma Anonas Carpio:

“That essay sounds so bitter – it is full of uncontrolled bitterness that interferes with and obscures the point the author seeks to make. Bitterness is never good for writing unless it is kept under a very tight leash.”

she then goes on to write an FB note where she says:

“<…> the decision was reached after I read a very bitter essay ranting about how hard it is to break into the local literary scene without a patron. <…> Pardon me, but patronage politics exists everywhere in Philippine life like the most cankerous of cancers. Live with it. Rise above it. Do not let it stop you from writing and, for goodness’ sake, do not use it as an excuse for the poor quality of your work or your writer’s block. Get over it and get over yourself. Then, perhaps, when you have stripped away the hubris binding your fingers, you may find your pen flying over paper and your mind fully focused on what it is you want to write.”

that response then goes on to teach me how to be a writer, to which my response really is this: I grew up with Angela writing everyday, I write everyday and have no romance with it at all, and unless i am asked i will never ever start talking about what it is to be a writer, what it’s like to be creative. I don’t know that I’m supposed to get over myself, as Ms. Carpio should be more conscious about her (mis)readings of texts: Burn After Reading was not about “breaking into the literary scene” as it was about the systemic dysfunction that doesn’t allow for criticism or change within this house that the literary scene has kept standing. it was about literary patronage as crisis. true that patronage politics exists everywhere, but pray tell does that make it right? true that this has been assessed before, and yes theorists from Raymond William to Edel Garcellano to Adam David have discussed it in the past, but does this make it any less reason to discuss it again – and again and again?

does that make it unworthy of the task of intervention, even if only in this form of the essay in a popular mainstream magazine like Rogue, which is replete with its own limitations?

and yes, unlike what Lila says in the thread, that piece is my intervention. this is not a matter of hubris, as it is a matter of fact. I did not only write that essay at this point when apparently people think it’s a waste of time, I also suggested that Rogue put it online, as a matter of getting more people to read it given the magazine’s P180-peso prize tag. the only other people who can claim credit for that piece as intervention are my Rogue editors, who wanted me to write that story, and who engaged with me in throwing ideas around and let me write the piece in the form I wanted at this point in time. it goes without saying that reactions to it are but engagements; these don’t make the latter secondary, as it puts people’s comments and reactions in its proper place in the creation of discourse.

from The Melancholy of Edward Cordero by Michael David.

from The Melancholy of Edward Cordero by Michael David.

thinking that a comments thread is the intervention begs the question: had this piece stayed within the pages of Rogue, would anyone, least of all Lila and the rest of the people on that comments thread, have wasted time typing it up and posting it online “to generate discussion”? would anyone have cared that it existed at all in print? the mode of production of that FB comments thread was dependent not on that essay’s mere existence, but on the essay being made accessible online. full stop.

if anything, this comments thread reveals itself to be complicit in the continued existence of this house of literature as critiqued by Burn After Reading, and the notions of power and control it works with. Lila says:

“This discussion has continued elsewhere on the walls of some of the main “protagonists” of this thread, who somewhat passive-agressively disagree with its contents but apparently do not have the courage to engage with us openly.”

and then this:

“there are an increasing number of PMs in my inbox at this point from those who take umbrage at Ina’s refusal to engage. Personally, I am fine with it because I think the discussion is rich enough on its own.”

and too:

“Ina dismissed the writers and the critics who in turn dismissed her.”

why was this discussion not allowed to go on elsewhere? why would my silence on someone else’s comments thread, and my presence in others, be seen as an act of non-courage? why would my silence, or my calling them out on patronizing comments be seen as dismissal? why is there a demand at all for my responses to happen? that Rogue piece was written, and put online, to generate discussion; were it ignored completely that would’ve been fine, too. the pressure to respond did not come from that piece, as it did from Lila who tagged everyone she says are her literary friends — a decision replete with its own notions of relevance and power, online and elsewhere, false and otherwise. in fact we can look at all those people tagged, remove my name, and tadah! the literary establishment, ladies and gentlemen!

meanwhile there is this: my wall is public, my writing online, that is as open an engagement as any. one comments thread is not more valuable than another, one person posting a piece and asking for comments doesn’t require that all of us limit the discussion to that. nor does a list of names from the writing and literary world that decide to respond to the piece through the comments thread, make it any more credible, than say a comments thread that has on it Nelson Bakunawa and his experience with judging a major writing contest, and a bunch of other people who are but names, not friends of whoever, or the mentee of someone else, and who engage with the piece nevertheless.

if there’s anything the comments thread on Lila’s wall proves, it’s that the house of literature doesn’t just have patronage to keep it together, it’s got this kind of criticism to thank for talking about literature the way they do: by quoting and namedropping other critics, by working with language difficult to understand, by looking down on the forms of criticism that are happening beyond the academe, by failing to turn upon themselves and ending each conversation with notions of familiarity and friendship, as if everything is water under the bridge. even better for the literary system, a thread such as this one has a false sense of its own relevance and power in affecting change, by doing what again? talking to each other on Facebook. yeah.

from The Melancholy of Edward Cordero by Michael David.

from The Melancholy of Edward Cordero by Michael David.

the misreadings about my silence and my responses on Lila’s thread prove in fact that here, in what we presume is democratized online space, the patronage and friendship and togetherness of the literary world is alive and well, and it happens through its own critics. the burning house of literature has room for criticism after all, and we now know what kind of criticism it allows to exist, and also know who among these critics finds this space to be comfortable and cozy. look at Lila’s thread, welcome to the house that literature built.

next: jargon and criticism, from Pierre Macherey to Edel Garcellano popular writing versus academic writing. sinong dakila, sino ang tunay na baliw.

Posted in: arts and culture, kultura, panitikan, pulitika

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3 Comments/Pingbacks

  1. BrianB
    April 23, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    Please don’t assume this only happens to you. It happens to a lot of people. It’s not just the literary circle here, but almost everyone. There are two varieties of social control in this country: the male and the female. The father shouts, threatens, while the mother uses passive-aggressive means. These people are using female forms of social control. They know, like we know, that mediocrity rules in contemporary Philippine literature. They know as we know that they do not have the knowledge or even the aptitude to comprehend much of literature. We know too that instead of assiduous study and sincere effort at scholarship, they resort to pretense and politics.

    I believe you were in the right path, but please do not succumb to their uber-personal level of debate. You made some important albeit anecdotal and unsupported observations, like a writer. They were good and accurate observations. Just maintain and strengthen your argument. It’s not enough to shake the foundations of corrupt institutions. You must start building your own as well. This may very well be a very long fight that people much younger than you will take up.

  2. Roberta
    October 21, 2012 at 5:24 pm

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