Print is dead, long live the mass media
By Randy David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
11:08 pm | Saturday, October 20th, 2012
The announcement that Newsweek, the magazine, will cease publication at the end of the year, and will henceforth be available only in digital form, is seen by media observers as marking the end of an era. It has revived talk about the impending death of the print media. But I suspect the issue goes much deeper. I think we are looking at the end of the mass media, as we know them, and their reinvention as communication forms of the Internet.
If Newsweek goes, can Time, its older rival, be so far behind? For much of the 21st century, these two weekly American news magazines summed up and interpreted world events with an air of authority that no other publication had been able to match. Their combined perspective is the closest equivalent one can find to the American liberal world view. The first real challenge to their supremacy came from another medium—television. Global networks like CNN and BBC, empowered by advances in satellite communications, offered not only the news in real time, but also instantaneous analyses of breaking stories. But, television could not replace the thoughtful, well-written, and comprehensive articles by which these two magazines dominated global public opinion.
Everything, however, changed with the Internet. The complex system of communications that this network of computers hosts—the Web—has permanently altered the terrain of the mass media. Countless new magazines containing great writing and wonderful photography have come out in digital form. They are typically offered free, wholly or partly, or they sometimes charge a small fee for the privilege of accessing the content of an entire issue.
In addition, a netizen may turn to any of the free apps (e.g., Flip, Pulse, and Zite) designed for tablets and smart phones to obtain access to reading fare culled from various online sources. Using these, one can access a mind-boggling selection of articles chosen according to one’s own indicated personal interests. Since the selection changes every day, one may choose to save an article for later reading. This completely restructures the reading habits that were shaped by the long-standing preeminence of the print media.
Much easier and cheaper to assemble, online magazines rely mostly on advertising to subsist. A reader has the option to pay if he wants a reading experience free from advertisements. In any event, he will find the digital version to be a lot cheaper than the printed version. I myself prefer to hold the “real” book or magazine in my hands instead of reading a digital copy on a Kindle or an iPad screen. But it is a fetish I don’t see in my granddaughter, who finds reading from her iPad more pleasant and enormously more appropriate to her multitasking inclinations.
But, apart from all this, what online publications have achieved is to put an end to the one-way flow of opinion and ideas that has been the hallmark of the traditional mass media. Today, almost all online magazines and news websites encourage their readers to post comments and engage the author and other readers in a sustained discussion of the issues. Printed magazines and newspapers, in contrast, offer very limited space for reader feedback. The editor’s absolute discretion over what gets printed serves as a deterrent to extended discussions.
Perhaps, more significantly, the Internet has given every member of the public a chance to publish or broadcast his/her own ideas. It is as if, with every purchase of a tablet or smart phone, a citizen also receives as a gift a television network and a printing press with global reach. This power—which is rooted in the technology of mass dissemination—used to belong exclusively to media moguls. The personal computer and the Internet democratized that power, thus ending the control of the mass media as a source of social and political power.
Out of the concerted efforts of online communities, the Internet has evolved its own rules in order to deal with its ever growing complexity. But the system remains vulnerable to attack. And those who recognize its value and fragility as a democratized resource cannot but see every attempt to centrally regulate cyberspace as a threat to the Internet’s viability as a medium of mass communication. This may explain why many Filipinos vehemently reacted to innocent-looking provisions of the recently passed cybercrime law.
The law proceeds from premises appropriate to the traditional mass media. Niklas Luhmann characterized such media thus: “Interaction [between sender and receivers] is ruled out by the interposition of technology, and this has far-reaching consequences which define for us the concept of mass media.” In the absence of the possibility of a quick reply, it made sense, for example, that victims of defamatory messages in the press or on TV would seek redress through the courts. But, given that an Internet post can now almost instantaneously be countered by any recipient of the communication, including the victim, the idea of irreparable injury arising from publication is surely mitigated.
More significantly, existing libel laws take off from conventional notions of the right to privacy. Public figures give up a large chunk of this right in exchange for media exposure. But, in this respect, Facebook’s nearly a billion account holders would not be so different. The mass dissemination of a billion personal profiles through the new media does make privacy somewhat passé. A new medium is indeed upon us, and, as with early forms of mass media, its long-term social value ultimately rests upon responsible and restrained use by its owners.
FRIENDS LANG KAMI
Novel debunks common beliefs
By Boy Abunda
(The Philippine Star) | Updated January 8, 2013 - 12:00am
Every nation’s history needs to be retold and passed on from generation to generation. More than promulgating the heroism of our forefathers, history imparts the wisdom of the ages. For there in the historical blunders and victories of our ancestors lie significant lessons that, if given much regard, can guide us in charting a better future for our nation.
I am saying this now because I came across a new nonfiction novel that bravely debunks some of our common beliefs on what transpired during the Philippine-American War. The novel — titled The Devil’s Causeway and written by Matthew Westfall — tells the real story about how a group of US Navy men were captured by Filipino insurgents and became the first American prisoners of war in the Philippines. If you read the book, you will have a whole new perspective on who should be regarded as true heroes and villains in that crucial incident in our history.
Most of the history books we read in school portrayed Filipinos as helpless victims and underdogs. Filipinos were disgraced, tortured and killed in their own land. While it’s true that our forebears suffered inhuman cruelties in the hands of foreign conquerors, thorough research reveals that a group of American sailors was also punished mercilessly by Filipino captors in the ambush of April 1899.
The hapless U.S. soldiers were on a Philippine pacification mission gone wrong, reportedly due to the incompetence and “reckless grasp for glory” of their naval commander, the famed Lt. James C. Gillmore Jr. (No, that is not a typographical error. The lieutenant’s name is really spelled with double L. The street name in Quezon City and even the historical marker in Baler to honor him have been misspelled.)
This is what’s revealed in The Devil’s Causeway. Some startling revelations. These are not just information plucked from nowhere. It took the author and a fulltime group of researchers more than five years of meticulously studying military archives and doing in-depth investigations across three continents. They not only unearthed the most surprising historical facts but also pieced together a heartrending story that will make you look back on the Philippine-American War with renewed understanding and sympathy.
The novel presents Lt. Gillmore’s major blunder and the tragedy that followed when he defied orders and put his men in the line of fire. Some of them were killed when they were ambushed by a group of Filipino insurgents. One young naval apprentice, 17-year-old Denzel George Arthur Venville, struggled to survive though severely wounded and left behind. After he was held in captivity and eventually sold by his captors, he met an ill-fated death among the Ilonggot headhunters. Notably, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, Capt. Teodorico Novicio and their comrades also prominently figure in this shocking true-to-life narrative.
I believe that it’s not enough for these new findings to be merely confined in book-form and discussed only within literary circles. No, this is serious and significant knowledge that needs to be shared with a greater audience. This is one story worthy of a film version. And I’m personally thrilled to know that our good friend, noted film producer Butch Jimenez, is showing great interest in the captivating story of The Devil’s Causeway.
I have very good reason to be thrilled because saying The Devil’s Causeway and Butch in one breath conjures an exciting possibility of the next film classic that can spawn both national interest and worldwide acclaim. Think Jose Rizal, Muro-ami, Deathrow, Sa Pusod ng Dagat and a whole line of multi-awarded movies — all made possible by the cinematic acumen of Butch.
With such illustrious track record in producing timeless and highly-acclaimed film masterpieces, I can only sit in eager anticipation for Butch to officially say, “Yes, I will be involved in the film adaptation of The Devil’s Causeway.”
I could just imagine how epic a film The Devil’s Causeway would be. Truly, there is reason for me to be thrilled.
There are lessons in history that must be learned and re-learned as there are known historical facts that must be re-written. Like, does everyone know that Ferdinand Magellan landed in Homonhon Island in Eastern Samar? Or that President John F. Kennedy was once assigned in the US Navy and was stationed in the island of Guiuan (a town of my province Eastern Samar) during World War II? Or that Russians populated Tubabao during World War II? These are facts that we have learned from our Samarnon forebears but little is known about them.
Well, I continue to be a student of history. And I love it that people like Butch are going out of their way to spread the word in books and maybe in a film like the story of The Devil’s Causeway.
FRIENDS LANG KAMI
The death of the ‘graphic novel’
THESE AREN’T THE DROIDS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
By Jiggy and Jonty Cruz
(The Philippine Star) | Updated March 1, 2013 - 12:00am
Fake geek is fake: If you hear someone talk about comics and all they know is Sandman, you have every right to punch them.
The last time we used the term “graphic novel” was several years ago, when our grandmother asked what we were reading. We answered her with those two words and immediately felt sick afterwards. It’s the same feeling one should get after watching Entourage or deciding to wear either Von Dutch or Ed Hardy. Meaning to say, we felt like the biggest d-bags, using the term “graphic novels” instead of “comics” because we didn’t want to seem immature.
Originally, “graphic novel” was used to describe a comic meant to be read as one long experience unlike the standard serial comic. Today, it has become the term used by people who are too embarrassed to say “comics.” For years now, the term “graphic novel” has been a term used by people who claim to love comics yet know next to nothing about it.
Fans of comics hate the term “graphic novel.” By fans, we don’t mean people who just read Sandman or comics only written by Alan Moore (we’ll get to him in a bit) or Grant Morrison. Those people aren’t comic book fans. Not in the truest sense at least. Real comic book fans are too busy arguing which Joker story is the best or planning how we can get more people to read Y: The Last Man. It’s for people who prefer critiquing comics than actually reading them. It’s for the snobs who only exclusively like a particular brand of comics like that of Adrian Tomine and who have no idea what a cosmic cube is. Don’t be that person.
If you are that person, take a moment to let what follows sink in. You can’t brag about how one comic is better than all the rest if you haven’t read all the rest. Before you tweet that Fables and Trese are changing the landscape of comics, make sure you know what the actual landscape of comics is. You can’t possibly proclaim something is good if you don’t know what bad is. You are not an evolved and superior form of comic geek just because you call them “graphic novels” while you stroke yourself at night.
The comic book community is so small that it’s impossible to pretend you’re a part of it when you aren’t. And trust us, no one rants more than comic geeks, so it’s best to stay on our good side.The worst offense is that of people who think that comics and graphic novels should be separate.
Take what Jared Keller wrote for The Atlantic when he interviewed The Walking Dead creator, Robert Kirkman, and insisted that comics and graphic novels are not one and the same. “Films like Watchmen, Persepolis, From Hell, A History of Violence, and Sin City all had their origins in ‘graphic novels,’ a middle ground between the conventional comic book and the full-on novel.” He’d rattle on about this, even making it the first question to ask Kirkman. To which Kirkman replied, “I’m of the mind that comic book and graphic novel are interchangeable terms for the same thing these days.” That’s a nice way of saying a graphic novel was and is a comic, you ignorant prick. Now back to Alan Moore. There are a lot of people who’ve only read his work like Watchmen as if it’s the only comic book out there. They keep referring to it as a “graphic novel” and you can tell they think themselves smart every time they do. The truth is they aren’t smarter than the average bear and Moore might even consider them stupid for even saying the words “graphic novel.”
In an interview he did back in 2000, Moore was asked what he thought of the term and this is what he answered, “The term ‘comic’ does just as well for me. The term ‘graphic novel’ was something that was thought up in the ‘80s by marketing people… The problem is that ‘graphic novel’ just came to mean ‘expensive comic book.’” The enjoyment of comics should not be determined by whether or not you feel smarter after. It is not meant for you to work on your vanity. If that is your end goal for reading Green Lantern, then we are telling you right now, you are doing it wrong.
A comic book, like all things in popular culture, is both art and entertainment. It is escapism. Like that song you could listen to over and over again or that movie you love more than any other, a comic book lets you let yourself go. It is something that requires an instant emotion from you after it is read. It should not be used as a step in your social ladder to gain acceptance in whatever cool group you want to be a part of. You read comics because you like them and that’s it.
Debating on whether or not it’s a graphic novel shouldn’t be stressed over. If you like comics, take each as it is. Read it and judge it according to your own prejudices and opinions. Whether it’s Archie or V for Vendetta, the enjoyment should be based on what it is and not on what others claim it should be. The term itself is not the issue but how it is being used. We understand that there are books worthy of being called graphic novels but it should not be at the cost of the medium. It should not be used to differentiate yourself as superior to other readers.
Going on a crusade that comics should be called “graphic novels” is like us talking about how Lost should have ended. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter. Calling it whatever name you can think of should not stop you from appreciating what it essentially is. It’s not only pointless but it is one that hurts the industry. It does not in any way encourage new readers and it insults the audience it already has. It alienates rather than accepts, and the longer it continues, the weaker the industry gets. End of discussion.
The perks of reading deeply
IN A NUTSHELL
By Samantha King
(The Philippine Star) | Updated March 1, 2013 - 12:00am
For whom the Bella tolls: You can read stuff like Twilight for fun. Nothing wrong with that. But why don’t you challenge yourself instead?
We live in an age of reading.
The Internet, bastion of democratic space that it is, manages to make reading an almost effortless act of consumption. And while parents may forgivably assume that computers and the Internet reduce their children to sun-allergic, outdoors-shying hermits with no love for the written word, the fact is, social media has vastly changed the landscape of literacy.
Twitter teaches one the economy of words and the value of concise and proper phrasing; Facebook has the gaze of a real-time audience to instill in its users a conscious effort to, at the very least, be grammatical in their status updates. Then there’s the proliferation of personal blogs, online magazines, e-books, online journals, encyclopedias, file sharing sites… the list goes on.
Just like that, surfing the Internet is already an act of reading.
Which is not to say, however, that print publishing has been left to languish on its own. Popular literature, for instance, has capitalized on the power of the film industry, where all that is solid melts into cinema. In short: tell me what book is being made into film, and I’ll tell you what’s at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The movie industry, instead of dissuading people from reading the original text, actually encourages consumers to go out and buy the book. Two factors come into play: first, the populist notion of not wanting to be left in the dark; and second, a thorough enjoyment of the movie which, in turn, warrants a reading of the work itself.
Stranger than fiction
How many picked up The Hunger Games when news broke out that it was headed for the big screen? How many started reading Twilight after witnessing Edward, Bella, and Jacob’s implausible love triangle? How many plan to get themselves a copy of Beautiful Creatures now that the movie’s almost out? And how many plan to devour Fifty Shades of Grey while confirmation of the final cast remains anyone’s guess?
Indeed, the movie industry plays a major role in the consumption of a particular work — both popular and canonical — and this, at least in the interest of wider reading and literacy, is not at all a bad thing. But in the case of popular literature, books from this category are the ones that generally attract a constant readership, leaving the more ambitious works tucked away in the folds of a bookshop, noticed only by literature professors, coerced college students, and the random, if not lost, bookworm.
The evolution of reading as an internet-mediated, cinema-influenced activity seems so apt to us now, so naturally suited to the market ideology of today, that the art of ambitious reading comes off as anachronistic, with no place in the lives of our contemporary readership. Reading is now a social pastime, and if no one understands your reference to Raskolnikov and neurotic obsession in a tweet, then it’s your own problem.
Selfish not social
But the point of reading has always been to strengthen the self, to partake in the great pleasures that solitude can afford you. And the pleasures of reading have always been selfish, not social. Selfish, but not self-centered. For even if you can’t directly uplift anyone’s life by reading ambitiously, or offer the pleasures derived from solitary reading to the public good, there’s always the deeper hope that, in reading, a concern for others may be developed. Empathy, after all, is stimulated by the growth of a worldly imagination, and by the translation of this imagination into action. Of course, you may find this worldly imagination in books such as Twilight; but then, when it boils down to it, you really can’t. As Harold Bloom says, we read frequently, if unknowingly, in search of a mind more original than our own.
The challenge for all of us, then, is to read ambitiously, to read deeply. As an activity of the mind, we owe it to ourselves to swallow books that impart not just knowledge, but also wisdom. After all, self-improvement, and the pursuit of difficult pleasure that comes with it, should be a main consideration of any ambitious reader.
And that’s “reader,” with a capital R.
Three excellent books
By Alfred A. Yuson
(The Philippine Star) | Updated March 18, 2013 - 12:00am
My apologies to all the author-friends and publishers who have added weight to my library in the past several months — while the planet seemed to have assumed a faster spin than usual, so that hectic-ity of quotidian matters rose inordinately to a peak towards the yearend holidays.
In brief, so spry, I got too preoccupied to read through all of the wonderful new books that kept coming my way. That’s why it’s been sometime since I last reviewed or plugged Filipiniana titles in this space.
Forgive me further as you must, for now that the Divine Taskmaster has mercifully allowed me a weekend to practice my speed-reading skills on your literary works, I will still have to compress my remarks on a first few of them — all together now. Well, not quite. Let’s see how much today’s space can fit in.
I start with an important novel, Gun Dealer’s Daughter, the third by my good friend and wonderful writer Gina Apostol who has been based for some time in New York City. My hardbound copy was a gift from her, handed personally, signed, with a dedication dated Aug. 3 of last year. That night we dined together with other usual Fil-Am suspects — at the Peruvian Pio Pio resto in Hell’s Kitchen. Now you see why this book takes precedence in this omnibus review. Obviously, Gina took care of the meals and drinks bill that night, as we were in her very own neighborhood.
Published by the reputable W.W. Norton & Company, Gina’s novel has done exceedingly well in the US, earning her positive reviews and reading/signing tours. Fellow Asian-American author Han Ong blurbs: “There is Didion in the female protagonist with the fractured consciousness and there is Naipaul in the sharp portrait of a third world where revolution battles privilege, but Apostol performs her own unique alchemy: she fuses poetic language with a thriller story to create a mesmerizing slow-burn of a book.”
“Rebellion and romance,” the synopsis has it, “set in the Marcos-era Philippines,” where Soledad Soliman “transforms herself from bookish rich girl to communist rebel.” But does she commit herself to the movement just for the man she falls in love with?
Writing for Los Angeles Review of Books, Brian Collins calls the novel brilliant: “… a tour de force tale about late 20th century Manila, but… also a book for our times.” Of the protagonist, “one of the most compelling characters in recent fiction,” Collins notes: “Soledad’s verbal intensity we grasp as that of a bookish only child with a cosmopolitan upbringing. Apostol even allows her to overwrite here and there, to slip into a precious or self-indulgent style, sharpening our image of Soledad as a stunted character.”
Occasionally too poetic might be a quibble from among readers who want their narratives straightforward. But as has been noted, this felicity of prose mode is rationalized by reliance on a 1st-person POV, that of the main character who happens to have a faux-maven character.
Indeed, this POV can also mesmerize with passages simultaneously taut and lissome, even of scenes that recall Pinoy movie affectations: “I saw the blood dripping from my thighs, thick like wax. I discovered the blood in the bathroom. Before I did anything, I watched to see how far the blood would drip, down from the pubis through the thigh, veering over flesh to run crooked above the knee, thinning and grinning about the kneecap, then in a bright vein narrowing to a hair-width, which trickled down my calf. It didn’t quite reach the ankle.”
A good read is what we’re assured of whenever an Apostol book lands in our hands. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy (1997, UP Press) and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (2010, Anvil), won the National Book Award for Fiction.
Another book I received that night in Manhattan was longtime buddy Fidelito C. Cortes’ Everyday Things (2010, UST Publishing House), his long overdue second poetry collection. He couldn’t join us that night, was nursing an everyday flu in Long Island. But his ever-trusty spouse (oh, she’ll hate this) Nerissa Balce, writer-critic and fellow Dumaguete fellow, did the honors for the literary transaction.
Well, the personal dedication made up for Fidelito’s absence, and so I’ll rave about the 40 poems collected here, grouped into four sections: “Housekeeping”; “Santa Claus and Venus at the Mall”; “Homesickness; and “The End.”
In the poem “Housekeeping, Manila,” Section 2 — “Sweeping” — there’s this stanza: “I run to my wife. Is it my wrist action,/ I ask her, or simply a generic failing of the/ masculine wrist? Is this a gender problem?/ Wordlessly, she picks up the broom and with one/ flick of the wrist, the corner is clean.”
Cortes’ diurnal corners of concern are swept of any mawkishness. What is left is quiet elegance in the simplicity of his clean lines. As for the nocturnal angles of repose, here’s what he blows my appreciative ruler/spatula with:
“Moon Blues” — “Dreaming and waking to a song/ forlorn and triste, I could not tell/ where the dream left off and where the blues began// because the dream more real than the waking/ remembered the words full of desire/ full of the memory that is sleep// the lyrics of an old song grown/ suddenly clear and obvious on a moonless night./ Plangencies of the bossa nova and beguine// as love cheeses up all available light/ and cheddars the dark rye of night/ and spreads the moon full.”
Tercets play on the very edges of senti/emo, press the curds of imagistic milk into subtle send-up of the trite and halfway true cliché. This is efficacious poetry — as what Fidelito Cortes has been blessing us with all this time, since his first collection, Waiting for the Exterminator (1989, Kalikasan Press).
Here he ratchets up the thematic domesticity, even while it still avoids rasping or screeching. As when he essays in full calm and quietude in the title poem:
“… But even the soundest of marriages/ have their rough spots, when we make such deadly/ assaults on civility out of petty slights,/ and words are exchanged, and there are tears in the end./…// But the house has to be cleaned, letters and cards/ to be posted, a check to be put in the bank./ There is cooking and laundry. And we settle/ into our tasks with a method that finally/ approaches the normal. It seems these everyday things/ are stronger than us and more durable,/ as they soothe through the plain and homely/ imperative of what needs doing must be done./ And over and over, if we are to keep house.”
It’s a good house and a fine home that Cortes’ poetry keeps.
Darryl Delgado has been so underrated among our contemporary fiction writers. I’m glad that she finally came up with her first collection of short stories last year: After the Body Displaces Water (UST Publishing House).
In these 13 pieces (or are there only 11?), we are treated to a gamut of fictive forms — 1st-person, 2nd-person and 3rd-person points of view, omniscient, epistolary, meta, 3-in-1 variations like a choose-your-own Rashomon adventure…
The writing is consummate: cerebral, controlled, carefully polished without calling attention to its carats, however we sense an objective correlative here, a pound of psychological flesh there, a template of a picture puzzle resolved to its last jigsaw, but barely so, just so.
Form follows function, readability coevals imagination, with characters sliding not jumping out of boxes, and all situations unfolding with supreme sentience.
The afterword by Rosario Cruz Lucero says it: “For each story, however, she doesn’t confine herself to the conventions of one subgenre; instead, she makes two or more of these subgenres fold into each other to create improbably neat works of fiction.”
I like best the story “In Remission,” where a cancer patient of diminishing hopes, a 39-year-old virgin, spends time at a resort hotel and finds her senses awakened, to the smell of oysters, for one, and a drink called Deluge (antidote to her drought), until she is deflowered by a much younger chef.
Sorry: no spoiler alert. Much more ambiguity happens, in her thoughts as well as in her own resolve that determines whether the jigsaw pieces fit. When she consults her doctor, she arrives at epiphany — that of her own awakened strength.
It’s all splendid storytelling, with shifts in central consciousness jostling gently with environments of both dreamtime and hyper-reality. In “In Remission,” poignance pre-empts pathos, owing to such assiduous craft. The shy lady’s humor is said to be “of dry variety”; we hope her tumor goes the same way.
Ultimately, the prose is exemplary:
“He was fanning the grill, turning huge, stuffed squid over hot coals, and smiling most sweetly at the guests, many of whom were matrons dressed for the ballroom at the hotel’s basement. He looked up briefly and waved greasy tongs at her. She pretended not to see him, as seeing him had the immediate effect of fever and a general weakening on the vague area of her groin which, as it were, seemed as raw and tender as a freshly-scraped, open wound. An ugly gangrene.”
From greasy tongs to gangrene, all the judicious elements of imagistic detail, motifs, tone, diction, and tropes of purpose hit the G-spot of narrative exultation. Brava!
An international labor rights NGO careerist, Darryl Delgado should also be pressed into service soon as a creative writing workshop panelist. She can certainly teach young writers how to woman up with all the quiet bells and whistles.
1st anthology of Bicol fiction published
By Juan Escandor Jr. 11:25 pm | Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013
Hot off the press featuring 22 writers, the first anthology of Bicol fiction stories in varying dialects is making a buzz since it was launched at Ateneo de Naga University in Naga City recently.
“Hagong, Mga Osipon (Buzz, Fiction Pieces)” is the first volume ever published in the 21st century, according to Paz Verdades M. Santos, who edited the book in tandem with Francisco V. Peñones Jr.
Santos said the term osipon was adopted in reference to Bicol fiction as it is the Bikol word for “a tale, to tell, tell on, squeal, gossip, accuse and complain about.” The term was used in the early 20th century of Bicol publication.
Over the decade, she said, the resurgence of Bicol literature has been characterized by a flood of rawitdawit (Bicol poems) with many books already published, but by a dearth of osipon. “Not one volume of good short stories in Bikol had appeared,” she added.
Santos, a literature professor at De La Salle University for 10 years and currently teaches at Ateneo de Naga, has been on the forefront of collecting Bicol literature pieces and publishing them into books, such as “Hagkus (Girdle) Twentieth Century Bikol Women Writers” (2003) and “Maharang Mahamis na Literatura sa Mga Tataramon sa Bikol” (Spicy Sweet Literature in Bikol Language (2010).
In the 183-page anthology, 22 osipon chosen from more than 100 submitted, have won awards and seen publication in campus and local publications, Santos said.
“Some are definitely worth critiquing and studying, and eventually translating and submitting to national and international anthologies to represent contemporary fiction in Bikol,” she added.
Two stories in mythical forms make use of local legends and four pieces in historical fiction, but the bulk deal with harsh social realities.
Peñones said the book title was chosen because the osipon would most likely resonate among Bicol readers who will recognize their own stories in the collection.
The stories provide significant pieces of experience helpful for the new generation to understand the entire sphere of Bicol spirit, said Bernadette T. Dayan, chair of Ateneo de Naga’s literature and language studies department.
“Hagong, Mga Osipon” is published by Ateneo de Naga University Press headed by Fr. Wilmer Tria.
The Essayification of Everything
By CHRISTY WAMPOLE
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
Lately, you may have noticed the spate of articles and books that take interest in the essay as a flexible and very human literary form. These include “The Wayward Essay” and Phillip Lopate’s reflections on the relationship between essay and doubt, and books such as “How to Live,” Sarah Bakewell’s elegant portrait of Montaigne, the 16th-century patriarch of the genre, and an edited volume by Carl H. Klaus and Ned Stuckey-French called “Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time.”
It seems that, even in the proliferation of new forms of writing and communication before us, the essay has become a talisman of our times. What is behind our attraction to it? Is it the essay’s therapeutic properties? Because it brings miniature joys to its writer and its reader? Because it is small enough to fit in our pocket, portable like our own experiences?
I believe that the essay owes its longevity today mainly to this fact: the genre and its spirit provide an alternative to the dogmatic thinking that dominates much of social and political life in contemporary America. In fact, I would advocate a conscious and more reflective deployment of the essay’s spirit in all aspects of life as a resistance against the zealous closed-endedness of the rigid mind. I’ll call this deployment “the essayification of everything.”
What do I mean with this lofty expression?
Let’s start with form’s beginning. The word Michel de Montaigne chose to describe his prose ruminations published in 1580 was “Essais,” which, at the time, meant merely “Attempts,” as no such genre had yet been codified. This etymology is significant, as it points toward the experimental nature of essayistic writing: it involves the nuanced process of trying something out. Later on, at the end of the 16th century, Francis Bacon imported the French term into English as a title for his more boxy and solemn prose. The deal was thus sealed: essays they were and essays they would stay. There was just one problem: the discrepancy in style and substance between the texts of Michel and Francis was, like the English Channel that separated them, deep enough to drown in. I’ve always been on Team Michel, that guy who would probably show you his rash, tell you some dirty jokes, and ask you what you thought about death. I imagine, perhaps erroneously, that Team Francis tends to attract a more cocksure, buttoned-up fan base, what with all the “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises,” and whatnot.
With such divergent progenitors, the essay has never recovered from this chronic undecidability. As a genre that emerged to accommodate the expressive needs of the Renaissance Man, the essay necessarily keeps all tools and skills at its disposal. The essayist samples more than a D.J.: a loop of the epic here, a little lyric replay there, a polyvocal break and citations from greatnesses past, all with a signature scratch on top.
There is certainly disagreement on the wobbly matter of what counts as an essay and what does not. I have generally found that for every rule I could establish about the essay, a dozen exceptions scuttle up. I recently taught a graduate seminar on the topic and, at the end of the course, to the question “What can we say of the essay with absolute certainty?,” all of us, armed with our panoply of canonical essay theories and our own conjectures, had to admit that the answer is: “Almost nothing.” But this is the force of the essay: it impels you to face the undecidable. It asks you to get comfortable with ambivalence.
When I say “essay,” I mean short nonfiction prose with a meditative subject at its center and a tendency away from certitude. Much of the writing encountered today that is labeled as “essay” or “essay-like” is anything but. These texts include the kind of writing expected on the SAT, in seminar papers, dissertations, professional criticism or other scholarly writing; politically engaged texts or other forms of peremptory writing that insist upon their theses and leave no room for uncertainty; or other short prose forms in which the author’s subjectivity is purposely erased or disguised. What these texts often have in common is, first, their self-conscious hiding of the “I” under a shroud of objectivity. One has to pretend that one’s opinions or findings have emanated from some office of higher truth where rigor and science are the managers on duty.
Second, these texts are untentative: they know what they want to argue before they begin, stealthily making their case, anticipating any objections, aiming for air-tightness. These texts are not attempts; they are obstinacies. They are fortresses. Leaving the reader uninvited to this textual engagement, the writer makes it clear he or she would rather drink alone.
What is perhaps most interesting about the essay is what happens when it cannot be contained by its generic borders, leaking outside the short prose form into other formats such as the essayistic novel, the essay-film, the photo-essay, and life itself. In his unfinished novel “The Man Without Qualities,” the early 20th-century Austrian writer Robert Musil coined a term for this leakage. He called it “essayism” (Essayismus in German) and he called those who live by it “possibilitarians” (Möglichkeitsmenschen). This mode is defined by contingency and trying things out digressively, following this or that forking path, feeling around life without a specific ambition: not for discovery’s sake, not for conquest’s sake, not for proof’s sake, but simply for the sake of trying.
The possibilitarian is a virtuoso of the hypothetical. One of my dissertation advisers Thomas Harrison wrote a handsome book on the topic called “Essayism: Conrad, Musil, and Pirandello,” in which he argues that the essayism Musil sought to describe was a “solution in the absence of a solution,” a fuzzy response to Europe’s precarity during the years he worked on his unfinishable masterpiece. I would argue that many of us in contemporary America these days are prone to essayism, in various guises, but always in the spirit of open-endedness and with serious reservations about committing to any one thing.
Essayism consists in a self-absorbed subject feeling around life, exercising what Theodor Adorno called the “essay’s groping intention,” approaching everything tentatively and with short attention, drawing analogies between the particular and the universal. Banal, everyday phenomena — what we eat, things upon which we stumble, things that Pinterest us — rub elbows implicitly with the Big Questions: What are the implications of the human experience? What is the meaning of life? Why something rather than nothing? Like the Father of the Essay, we let the mind and body flit from thing to thing, clicking around from mental hyperlink to mental hyperlink: if Montaigne were alive today, maybe he too would be diagnosed with A.D.H.D.
The essayist is interested in thinking about himself thinking about things. We believe our opinions on everything from politics to pizza parlors to be of great import. This explains our generosity in volunteering them to complete strangers. And as D.I.Y. culture finds its own language today, we can recognize in it Arthur Benson’s dictum from 1922 that, “An essay is a thing which someone does himself.”
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In Italian, the word for essay is “saggio” and contains the same root as the term “assaggiare,” which means to sample, taste or nibble food. Today, we like to sample, taste or nibble experiences: Internet dating, speed dating, online shopping and buy-and-try consumerism, mash-ups and digital sampling, the money-back guarantee, the temporary tattoo, the test-drive, shareware. If you are not satisfied with your product, your writing, your husband, you may return/delete/divorce it. The essay, like many of us, is notoriously noncommittal.
I certainly don’t argue that no one is committing these days; it only takes a few moments of exposure to contemporary American political discourse to realize the extent of dogmatic commitment to this or that party, to this or that platform. However, for many, the certainty with which the dogmatists make their pronouncements feels increasingly like a bothersome vestige of the past. We can either cling rigidly to dissolving categories or we can let ambivalence wash over us, allowing its tide to carry us toward new life configurations that were inconceivable even 20 years ago. Essayism, when imagined as a constructive approach to existence, is a blanket of possibilities draped consciously on the world.
Essayism is predicated on at least three things: personal stability, technocratic stability and societal instability.
Michel de MontaigneHulton Archive/Getty Images Michel de Montaigne
Montaigne certainly possessed the first. He grew up in a privileged family, spoke Latin before French, had the educational, financial and social means to lead a life of civic engagement and writing. While most of us probably didn’t know fluent Latin as children (and never will) and aren’t in a position to become high-ranking civil servants, we have a relatively high literacy rate and unprecedented access to technologies of communication and reserves of knowledge. Furthermore, as a counter-narrative to our supposed busy-ness, there’s lots of evidence that we have plenty of idle time on our hands. Despite our search for distractions in any form, these empty hours give us time to contemplate the hardships of contemporary life. The thoughts just creep in if given the means.
Regarding technocracy, the maturation of print culture during the Renaissance meant that the great texts of Antiquity and newer philosophical, literary and scientific materials could reach a wider audience, albeit mainly composed of people of privilege. The experts of science and technology at that time siphoned some of the power that had been monopolized by the church and the crown. We could draw a similar analogy today: Silicon Valley and the technocratic business class still force the church and the state to share much of their cultural power. The essay thrives under these conditions.
As for societal instability, life outside Montaigne’s château was not rosy: the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants raged in France starting in the 1560s. Turmoil and uncertainty, dogmatism and blood: such circumstances make one reflect on the meaning of life, but it is sometimes too hard to look such a question right in the face. Instead, one asks it obliquely by wondering about those smallnesses that make up the human experience. Today, unresolved issues of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation and other categories have created a volatile social dynamic, and, with our current economic instability to boot, it is no wonder that throwing oneself wholeheartedly toward any particular idea or endeavor seems a risky proposition to many of us. Finally, the bloody wars of religion and ideology continue to rage on in our time. In the early 20th century, when the French writer André Malraux predicted that the 21st century would be a century of renewed mysticism, he perhaps did not imagine that the pursuit of God would take such a politically volatile form.
Essayism, as an expressive mode and as a way of life, accommodates our insecurities, our self-absorption, our simple pleasures, our unnerving questions and the need to compare and share our experiences with other humans. I would argue that the weakest component in today’s nontextual essayism is its meditative deficiency. Without the meditative aspect, essayism tends toward empty egotism and an unwillingness or incapacity to commit, a timid deferral of the moment of choice. Our often unreflective quickness means that little time is spent interrogating things we’ve touched upon. The experiences are simply had and then abandoned. The true essayist prefers a more cumulative approach; nothing is ever really left behind, only put aside temporarily until her digressive mind summons it up again, turning it this way and that in a different light, seeing what sense it makes. She offers a model of humanism that isn’t about profit or progress and does not propose a solution to life but rather puts endless questions to it.
We need a cogent response to the renewed dogmatism of today’s political and social landscape and our intuitive attraction to the essay could be pointing us toward this genre and its spirit as a provisional solution. Today’s essayistic tendency — a series of often superficial attempts relatively devoid of thought — doesn’t live up to this potential in its current iteration, but a more meditative and measured version à la Montaigne would nudge us toward a calm taking into account of life without the knee-jerk reflex to be unshakeably right. The essayification of everything means turning life itself into a protracted attempt.
The essay, like this one, is a form for trying out the heretofore untried. Its spirit resists closed-ended, hierarchical thinking and encourages both writer and reader to postpone their verdict on life. It is an invitation to maintain the elasticity of mind and to get comfortable with the world’s inherent ambivalence. And, most importantly, it is an imaginative rehearsal of what isn’t but could be.
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On Borges, Particles and the Paradox of the Perceived
By WILLIAM EGGINTON
The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless.
In 1927 a young German physicist published a paper that would turn the scientific world on its head. Until that time, classical physics had assumed that when a particle’s position and velocity were known, its future trajectory could be calculated. Werner Heisenberg demonstrated that this condition was actually impossible: we cannot know with precision both a particle’s location and its velocity, and the more precisely we know the one, the less we can know the other. Five years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for having laid the foundations of quantum physics.
This discovery has all the hallmarks of a modern scientific breakthrough; so it may be surprising to learn that the uncertainty principle was intuited by Heisenberg’s contemporary, the Argentine poet and fiction writer Jorge Luis Borges, and predicted by philosophers centuries and even millenniums before him.
While Borges did not comment on the revolution in physics that was occurring during his lifetime, he was obsessively concerned with paradoxes, and in particular those of the Greek philosopher Zeno. As he wrote in one of his essays: “Let us admit what all the idealists admit: the hallucinatory character of the world. Let us do what no idealist has done: let us look for unrealities that confirm that character. We will find them, I believe, in the antinomies of Kant and in the dialectic of Zeno.”
Kant’s antinomies are paradoxes that are inevitably produced when our reason overreaches the boundaries of what we can learn through our senses and makes pronouncements about the world as it is in itself, independent of how it appears to us. His second antinomy, which deals with the divisibility of space, shows that we can infallibly reason both that the basic components of nature are simple, indivisible substances, and that all substances are infinitely divisible, despite the fact that each of these positions blatantly contradicts the other.
On the one hand, Kant says, our reason tells us that as we home in on a substance we will eventually come to a unit that cannot be further divided, for if we didn’t, there would be nothing out of which the world and everything in it is composed. On the other hand, our reason also tells us that such a simple substance, if we find it, occupies space; and if it occupies space, that space must be divisible.
In formulating the antinomies, Kant was inspired by Zeno. Zeno’s paradoxes purport to prove the impossibility of motion. To get from Point A to Point B, a traveler must first cross to a Point C halfway between them. Prior to that, though, he or she must cross Point D halfway between A and C, and so on infinitely, such that the traveler never in fact moves.
In both Zeno’s paradoxes and Kant’s antinomies, an act of observation engenders an apparent contradiction in the very knowledge it produces. As it turns out, it is this very same apparent contradiction that we see at work in the uncertainty principle. While any and all observations contain this inherent paradox, it becomes visible only when pushed to the extreme, either of logic or of the physical world.
In a story published in his 1941 collection “Fictions,” Borges created just such an extreme scenario. His character in that story, Funes, has a memory so perfect that he perceives every moment in time as entirely distinct, unrelated to those coming before or after. Consequently, he is incapable of overlooking minor differences in order to connect the impressions of one moment in time to those of the next. He becomes frustrated at our how language generalizes, at how we use the same word, “dog,” to refer to a four-legged creature facing one direction at 3:14 and facing another direction at 3:15.
While Borges may have been inspired by examples of prodigious memory, pushed to such impossible extremes the example of Funes reveals the paradox at the heart of any and all knowledge of the world: namely, that there can be no such thing as a pure observation, one free of the changes imposed by time.
What Funes shows is that, at its most basic level, any observation requires a synthesis of impressions over time. Furthermore, the process by which the synthesis takes place, the media through which it is processed, and the entity doing the synthesizing are all essential aspects of the knowledge being produced. This is, in a nutshell, the first part of Kant’s 1781 opus magnum, “The Critique of Pure Reason.”
Kant had been challenged — awoken from his dogmatic slumber, as he said — by the empiricist David Hume’s assertion that we could never infer any certain knowledge about, for instance, laws of causality, because we are limited to knowing what our senses can learn about the world at any given moment. We may know that the sun is rising now, he famously argued, but cannot infer with any certainty that it will rise again tomorrow.
Kant’s insight was that, in order for the knowledge we get from our senses at any given moment in time to mean anything, our minds must already be distinguishing it and combining it with the information we get in prior and subsequent moments in time. Thus there is no such thing as a pure impression in time — no absolute, frozen moment in which we know the sun is rising now without being able to infer anything from it — because such a pure moment without a before or after would be nothing at all. Funes from Borges’s story could have a concept of “dog” in the first place only if it included the four-legged creature changing positions over time — which is exactly what Borges concludes when he points out that Funes can’t really be said to be thinking at all, because to think means to “forget differences, generalize, make abstractions.” Not only is it entirely possible to infer from our momentary impressions to prior and later events, but we are in fact always doing so.
For an observer to perceive an entity, he or she must be capable of distinguishing it from the succession of impressions preceding and following it; in order to grasp those impressions as pertaining to the same entity, however, the same observer must be able to take them as a unity despite the differences that succession implies.
This ineluctable fact of observation underlies the paradoxes of motion, the antinomies, and the uncertainty principle. For in all cases, some minimum of motion, distance or velocity — namely, change over time — is required for any observation to take place, even as the observer posits an unchanged point or particle as being subject to that change.
At the level of normal, physical sensation, the fact that these necessary elements of observation exclude one another passes unnoticed. It is only at the highly focused, granular level of quantum physics or in the extreme situations of philosophical fictions that this mutual exclusivity emerges.
Borges continues the passage I quoted at the outset by writing: “we have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it resistant, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and firm in time; but we have left in its architecture tenuous and eternal interstices of unreason, so that we know it is false.”
It may well be that the uncertainty principle, along with other curious aspects of quantum theory, is another such interstice of unreason, a reminder not that the world we know is false, but that it is always the world as we observe it.
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