The writing of this essay is occasioned by discontent. Discontent not only w/ the dominant practice in Philippine poetry that carelessly conflates the New Critical imperative of organic unity w/ a monologic poetic persona or speaker, notorious for having earned Bakhtin’s bile, who usually yields towards the end of the text—comprised mostly of imagery that tends to render the persona as possessing either a tender fixation on nature or an urbane shrewdness that exalts the city, or either a deep-seated loneliness masked as wisdom masked as loneliness or an unquenchable anger over the idiocy of consumerist culture masquerading as nostalgia for an irretrievable innocence compounded by social conscience masquerading as anger over the idiocy of consumerist culture—some kind of melodiously wrought insight into the Human Condition sharpened by bittersweet ambivalence that transforms the bruised or outraged persona into an unwitting seer experiencing or bestowing illumination; but also discontent w/ how the marginal phenomenon of “the social turn”—a term instituted by Claire Bishop that this essay wrenches from the context of the visual arts—in Philippine poetry has been framed by the nevertheless laudable anthological effort exerted by Adam David, Conchitina Cruz, & Mark Anthony Cayanan in their groundbreaking Kritika Kultura Anthology of New Philippine Writing in English, published by Ateneo de Manila University in 2011.
Allow me to begin w/ the latter: The KK Anthology is a brave, thoughtful, & indispensable tome that functions as a counter-canon, if not an anti-canon, committed to, as their introduction explains, “de-compartmentalization to trigger the cross-pollination of genres and increase the chances of heterogeneity,” a respectful attack against cultural institutions such as university-based workshops (most notably the Writers Workshop in Dumaguete founded by Edith & Edilberto Tiempo half a century ago) that oddly disavow New Criticism but nonetheless uphold New Critical imperatives. In its bold problematization of & valiant argument for the new, like a terrible 21st century spawn of Pound, Villa, & Abadilla in modernist threesome, it maps out a penchant for “the wayward possibilities of calculated messiness” & the “cultivat[ion of] imaginatively muscular hybrids” exhibited by a considerable, & growing, population of young Filipino writers—where youth is defined not by age but by the amount of literary work they have previously released as such into the world—whose writings in English the editors have surveyed. & properly so, unlike the editors of other recent anthologies to have shrouded their tastes w/ the cloak of claimed objectivity—w/ the exception of J. Neil Garcia’s epistemologically radical anthology At Home in Unhomeliness: An Anthology of Philippine Postcolonial Poetry w/c privileges the task of reading over the task of composition; the foremost of these lamentable anthological exercises being Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry, edited by Joel Toledo & Khavn de la Cruz, whose introduction, despite its polemic against polemicizing, carries out the self-imposed task of calling for plurality (w/c they frame in opposition to polarization) in surveying the landscape of Philippine contemporary poetry while irresponsibly managing to ignore the task of mapping out at least the formal qualities that have guided the editors in excluding submissions in order to come up w/ their selection of 150 poems—David, Cruz, & Cayanan foreground the compositional strategies they favor in their curatorial process: “Parataxis and provisionality are positioned in this anthology as aesthetic options more cognizant of the contemporary condition.” The Internet being the major social & cultural force that is both contributor to & symptom of the contemporary, the KK Anthology comes in a downloadable electronic format that sidesteps, if not undermines to implicitly critique, the bureaucracy of publishing machinery whose academic vanity privileges the physicality of book production in meatspace more than the physicality of book production in cyberspace. “That this anthology is part of an internationally-refereed journal of an esteemed university is an irony that does not escape us,” the editors append their quick caveat, cutting short a potentially politicized—if off-topic tho tangentially relevant—discussion of the difference between university-based publishers such as Ateneo Press & commercial publishers such as Anvil, as well as what contemporary modes of bureaucracy, gatekeeping, & capital-accumulation are constructed in & entangled w/ the production of books in this electronic format. One must note that, while Cruz & Cayanan are university instructors, all 3 editors are more publicly affiliated as writers w/ artist-run platforms for publishing whose practices of book production are more commonly referred to in such unwieldy terms as “self-publication” &, more dangerously, “vanity publication” & “independent/indie publication”—affiliations that inform their critico-anthological thrust.
The editors themselves are the 1st to admit that the so-called “trustworthy lyric speaker whose train of thought oscillates between beauty and truth, truth and beauty still resides in this anthology,” but that also the contemporary context has made of the speaker one who “lives in a rambunctious neighborhood populated by skeptics who can barely even trust themselves.” The skepticism towards the unified poetic persona as a fountainhead of insight is compounded by recent ruptures in the social fabric—each more heavily mediated by the Media than the last—such as the Maguindanao Massacre & the Quirino Grandstand Hostage Crisis that underscore the constructed nature of such a subjectivity performed thru/in text: “Whether confronting the Maguindanao Massacre or monitoring the Ondoy catastrophe, whether exploring the displacement of the expat/OFW or the slipperiness of meaning in polyglot encounters or the complexities of sexual desire, the self toils in uncertainties, often divided between solidarity with and immanent alienation from the causes she holds dear, estranged not only from the other but also herself.” The poetic persona thus emerges a fractured one—“multiple in loyalties and simultaneous in preoccupations—begetting fissured forms,” fragmentation turning out to be “a preferred tool in this anthology.”
This preference is best embodied by Vincenz Serrano’s “From Short Walks.” The work juxtaposes 3 discrete bodies of text that weave into each other primarily thru their violent juxtaposition per se (what clearer connexion can they possess if not the most obvious: the fact that they all exist on the same page) & secondarily thru their allusions to each other (sometimes enforced by the reader in moments of gestalt)—the 1st being a couplet, the 3rd being a prose block, the 2nd being a black-&-white photograph that fences the couplet from the prose block to prevent a fully vertical experience of reading (from top of page to bottom of page) & index the horizontality of the work’s paginal structure (from one page to another page). While fragmentation is apparent in that there is no immediately clear link between one photograph & another, & occasionally between one sentence & another—the links being clearest between couplets & between prose blocks that otherwise have been physically fissured into or interrupted by page breaks—the fragmentation achieves its most visceral effect of disorientation when one attempts to read the work vertically. This readerly disorientation is akin to that of the wide-eyed flaneur who ambles thru alien streets where sites are juxtaposed against each other arbitrarily like couplets against photographs against prose blocks on a page—as if to whisper in implied metacommentary that to read is to walk thru a city of text. While “From Short Walks” tends to be a delightful read for being so adroitly wrought, it having constructed the conditions of possibility whereby the reader is framed as flaneur figuring into the polis of the text renders the tactic of fragmentation not so much inutile as being still at the service of organic unity, such that what keeps “From Short Walks” united is precisely its abandonment of unity because such is the logical itinerary of the flaneur as explorer w/o itinerary—w/c in the 1st place is false, given that “From Short Walks” has been sequentially arranged in an arbitrary design or itinerary (no matter how hidden) decided upon by Serrano as author. The effect, hence, is the simulation of disorder in an otherwise densely ordered text, certainly an instance of what the editors refer to as “calculated messiness.”
Let it be made clear that this essay neither calls for a radical break w/ organic unity in poetic production nor seeks to chastise the bulk of the work in the KK Anthology for falling short of the promise of fragmentation. Instead, it demands that hasty disavowals of organic unity be put to a halt—for unities are inevitable in any work of literary production due to its designation as such. Taking Rauschenberg’s performative cue from his portrait of Iris Clert, one can argue that organic unity is illocutionary: to declare a text literary is to give it a locus where the text performs its unity, performs the functionality of its every component; such that should one find a component w/o any function, the logical question that follows is for what end does this particular component have no end, what function w/in the context of the literary text does this functionlessness serve. Or the question reframed thus: In what way is this fragment rendered whole, how does this fragment qua fragment subsist as a literary work that precludes wholeness—‘this fragment is complete insofar as it remains a fragment’—in a way that renders any textual supplement that attempts to complete it excessive?
Having demanded such a halt, the essay thus argues for a shameless embrace of organic unity in the light of performativity—in that the wholeness of a literary work subsists primarily in what the author declares to be the work’s limits (the work’s scope, what the work includes & excludes, where the work ends & begins, etc.)—& in doing so attempts to salvage the author out of his Barthesian grave. But “to salvage” here is meant to carry the load of irony this infinitive has had on its shoulders since the Marcos dictatorship: Just as it denotes “to save” in the sense of allowing the author to grant the literary work an indispensable hermeneutic horizon w/in w/c to historically locate the work, it also connotes “to kill” in the sense that the author is not the work’s absolute horizon of meaning but exists as a parallel text constructed primarily by the literary work & secondarily by the myriad cultural texts (the dynamic between the dominant literary history & the myriad literary histories that cross w/ or contest it; publishing machinery & the gatekeeping bureaucracies that go w/ it; trans/national institutions, whether private or public, w/ either nepotistic or diplomatic, parochial or cosmopolitan objectives; etc.) that move w/in the social coordinates that allow literature to exist as such. It is only by raising the corpse of the author can one raise the accompanying question w/c, according to Walter Benjamin, “directly concerns the function the work has w/in the literary relations of its time.” He declares, “Rather than ask, ‘What is the attitude of a work to the relations of production of its time?’ I should like to ask, ‘What is its position in them?’”
It cannot be denied that the KK Anthology has indeed mapped out—& rather successfully so—a growing propensity, albeit marginal, for surface effects that convey not so much fragmentation but the appearance of fragmentation (one is tempted to ask from the sidelines: but is not fragmentation inherently about appearance, is not unity wholly about the appearance of unity in the 1st place)—humorously referred to in writing circles moving on from the aesthetic of fragmentation as “disjunctivitis”—that serves as a kind of analog to the illusion of multiculturalism & racial-religious tolerance fostered by a neoliberal democracy such as that of the Philippine context where this mode of poetic production is entrenched. In addition to Serrano’s work, a curious symptom of this entrenchment is Arbeen Acuña’s “Entry Taken from the Encyclopedia of Biomechanical Convertebrates” given the way the editors have framed it, hailed by the anthology introduction as “what you get” when one “[puts] the maxim show don’t tell on crack” & a “work that won’t simply reference Wikipedia but be Wikipedia itself.” It needs to be pointed out that, despite such claims by the editors, the work indeed references Wikipedia but is not at all an actual entry in Wikipedia, let alone a text that solely constitutes, as the previous quote promises, an entire encyclopedic database that either supplants Wikipedia or serves at least as its doppelganger. While, like Serrano’s work in the anthology, it tends to be a delightful read for its craftsmanship attuned to the demands of rigorously miming a mode of discourse such as that of the exhaustive online encyclopedia, like Serrano’s work it also tends to make no genuine contribution to that specific wing of Philippine literature that attempts in the spirit of the phantasmatic avant-garde to seek out the new—the new as this essay frames it simultaneously being a deliberate confrontation w/ the question raised by Benjamin on a work’s position in the relations of production of its time & a rejection of the postmodernist seduction of the irrelevance of the new due to postmodernity’s fantasy of the dissolution of metanarratives. If one were to remedy Acuña’s otherwise virtuoso work for it to find its place in this oxymoronic tradition of the new, it will have to take on either an interventionist form that entails the authorial performance of insisting that his text become an actual entry in the electronic annals of Wikipedia to challenge Wikipedia’s faux anarcho-utopian vision of becoming a repository of purely user-generated content, or a Duchampian gesture of taking an already existent Wikipedia entry & sterilizing the appropriated text by its very means of displacement from Wikipedia replete w/ functional hyperlinks to the electronic pages of the KK Anthology that ironically deploy no use of hyperlinks—recalling Kosuth displacing dictionary entries by way of phototexts of definitions of words pertinent to art & its dematerialization displayed w/in a gallery context.
Despite the above, this essay is far from dismissing the KK Anthology as unproductive, because in truth the anthology is far from being unproductive. What this essay sets out to accomplish is to isolate the radical kernel at the core of this surge of aberrant texts that is more in tune w/ the Poundian imperative to “make it new”—an imperative beholden to writers whose praxes find sustenance in the exclusionary modernisms of the West that despite their cultural specificities continue to be presented as a sustained series of internationalist avant-garde moments (one can even posit that this sustenance is derived by the postcolonial writer qua Filipino poet w/ avant-garde predilections qua pervert precisely from the very tension of this exclusion: when a door opens, find a window that is closed) that include, among others, both Italian & Russian futurisms, ‘Pataphysics, the cubism of Stein as an American writer-in-exile’s misappropriation of the French compositional construct, the myriad strains of dada including Merz, the Situationist International, constructivism, Brazilian concretism, Fluxus, OuLiPo, the language-oriented realism of Silliman & Watten et al, even the reification of the primitive under the exoticizing gaze of Western ethnopoetics as propounded by Rothenberg & anchored on Fenellosa & Pound’s fascination for the Chinese ideogram, not to mention the relation to these of the experimental climate of diasporic conditions in w/c the poetry of Villa thrived—texts that resort to the social turn as a paradigmatic shift in poetic composition where attention is drawn away from the object that is the literary text per se & towards the relations that comprise the coordinates that render a text literary, rendering these relations at once textual & formal. Such a formal reflexivity, w/c is impossible w/o an overt awareness of textual materiality—where language is characterized as pliable; physically manipulable; occupying space; possessing literal weight; w/ aural, visual, textural aspects; &, more importantly, produced by physical processes that, like literary institutions themselves, are not autonomous from the dictates of market forces, conditions of labor, the exchange of cultural capital, & contemporary relations of production—constitutes the social turn in Philippine poetry. In the light of the rest of the paragraph w/c this long, convoluted sentence caps, it is worth not only echoing Lukacs that “the truly social element in literature is the form”—any engagement w/ art &/or literature is, therefore, an engagement w/ form; an engagement w/ any non-/text, non-/object, non-/event, non-/situation, or any construction w/o any consideration for its aesthetico-formal performance is to not engage w/ the said construction as art &/or literature—but also inverting Lukacs’ dictum: the truly formal element in literature is its socius, the network of social coordinates that frame a work of engagement w/ text/textuality as literary.
In the sense that this essay subsumes the social under the formal—or, more accurately, in the sense that this essay calls for the subsumption of the social under the formal w/in a purely literary context—the use here of the term coined by Bishop is a departure from her formulation of the social as separate from—if not favored over—the formal. While she has lamented that, unfortunately, considerations of the ethical in the evaluation of works rooted in the visual arts taking on the social turn have overtaken considerations of the formal & of the aesthetic, what this essay proposes is that, like the social, the ethical may also be subsumed under the formal, that issues of ethics in the production of a literary work are issues of form. Lawrence Bernabe’s mesmerizing “Local Colour: A Study in Line Cuts” stands out as an exemplary work in the KK Anthology that takes the above into consideration. Presented initially as text clusters littered w/o design (or, rather, in a design that conveys the suppression of design) over the course of 5 pages—the conceit being “a study in line cuts”—the work segues into a 2-page explication of the principles to have governed the composition of the said text clusters, the explication possessing no immunity from Bernabe’s arbitrary line-cut frenzy. What is interesting in “Local Colour: A Study in Line Cuts” is Bernabe deliberately writes himself into the work—not as mere persona but as author qua persona—to construct an image of the author as one who aims for transparency to the extent that he himself, for example, admits w/in the body of his own work that he has “exercised certain gatekeeping liberties” that may be construed as a kind of lack of fidelity to the constraint his composition is supposed to have been submitted to. Bernabe extends the Cagean construct of poetry—“I have nothing to say & I am saying it”—by refusing to feign the naivety that purports to believe that nothingness in poetry is even achievable, that poetry is a linguistic escape-hatch into the romanticized unrepresentable; such that instead of merely saying that Bernabe has nothing to say, Bernabe says that he has failed to say that he has nothing to say or, even further, that he says that he has said that he has failed to say that he has nothing to say.
An equally virtuoso work of saying that she is failing to say that she has nothing to say is “ADHD,” an 8-page disappearing act by Petra Magno. The 1st page is a force-justified, rectangular block of text crafted as a kind of verbal ouroboros, w/ a Joycean mid-sentence opening (“the same reason: she forgot to take her meds today.”) that slithers toward a mid-sentence close (“…from lover to lover who dared to ask, she is always giving”) that can be read as snaking back into the opening as in a loop. But the loop is ruptured, ironically, by repetition: What keeps the reader from going back from the end of the page to the start of the same page is the very act of turning the page, the next page containing the exact same discursive content as the previous one but visually manipulated to appear lighter as in a photocopy. The reader, then, instead of going back to the start of page 1 after the end of page 1, goes to the start of page 2 w/c, altho visually lighter than page 1, discursively has the same content as the start of page 1—as if page 2 of “ADHD” were a photocopy of page 1, page 3 a photocopy of page 2, page 4 a photocopy of page 3, page 5 a photocopy of page 4, page 6 a photocopy of page 5, page 7 a photocopy of page 6, & page 8 a photocopy of page 7. Because the text becomes lighter & lighter w/ the turn of every page, page 8 ends up becoming completely devoid of text, the consummation of a literalization of a Benjaminian loss of aura; & yet this consummation yields remains that signal Magno’s work to be undeniably part of the KK Anthology, remains such as the page number in red, the title’s work w/ the author’s surname on the upper left corner of the page in red, among other anthological design elements that at 1st may appear either extra-textual or even extra-literary but are ultimately indexed as components that contribute to the literariness of “ADHD” given that there no longer are other visible elements on the page other than these. If not for such extra-textual/-literary elements, in fact, one might mistake the 8th page of Magno’s work, designated as page 309 of the anthology, being blank, to be an extra page that may have mistakenly found its way into the anthology—as in a book-binding error, had the KK Anthology been a tangible book in meatspace—except that these same elements, precisely by keeping the page from being completely empty, confirm that the page is indeed empty. “[Art] is too superficial to be truly null & void,” declares Baudrillard—but one ought to take this more as a statement of fact than insipid lamentation: No work of art ever achieves the modernist-conceptualist goal of radical dematerialization—of becoming nothing—because one is always left in the end w/ the social coordinates that render this nothingness as art or literature. This fact is only underscored by the technological irony inherent in “ADHD”: Despite the deployment of dated photocopying technology, its pages, like the rest of the anthology’s, are electronic, playing up a nostalgia for the tangible physicality of the page in meatspace. Magno’s text, after all, may not have repeated itself to dissolution had all reproduction been carried out digitally—via copy-paste, for instance—instead of thru a photocopier. The process of repetition is thus itself repeated, tho not exactly: What reproduction has been performed by the photocopying machine has also been re-performed by the computer, & while in the former what is lost is the discursive content of the text (reproduction from one page to another, from page 1 to page 2), in the latter what is lost is the physical tactility of every page (reproduction from one medium to another, from tangible page to electronic page). One wonders how many mediums reproduction will have to take till Magno’s “ADHD” completely dematerializes to extinction—but even such a process still leaves one w/ the abovementioned social coordinates that perform the locution that designates the text as literary, coordinates whose aura does not seem to diminish w/ reproduction. It is not by coincidence that the social turn in literature also entails indexing not just the reproduction of texts but more importantly, in a crucial nod to Althusser, the reproduction of the relations of literary production.
Despite the above, the following passage from Baudrillard cannot be dismissed as merely quaint for its inescapable valorization of the void: “Therein lies the duplicity of contemporary art: asserting nullity, insignificance, meaninglessness, striving for nullity when already null and void. Striving for emptiness when already empty. Claiming superficiality in superficial terms. Nullity, however, is a secret quality that cannot be claimed by just anyone. Insignificance—real insignificance, the victorious challenge to meaning, the shedding of sense, the art of the disappearance of meaning—is the rare quality of a few exceptional works that never strive for it.” For it isn’t that there are works of literature that truly succeed at becoming completely empty, but that to court emptiness is to court becoming no longer literary. Following this train of thought, one may reformulate the work of literature qua poetry as the struggle of literary texts to cease being literary texts—the struggle to construct the literary text that is autonomous from the social coordinates that make it literary in the 1st place. This is the exquisite failure of Adam David’s own Crows and Rages, a book of erasure published by the Youth & Beauty Brigade in 2010, just a few months before the release of the KK Anthology w/c David is co-editor of. Unlike, for example, in Jackson Mac Low’s seminal Stanzas for Iris Lezak, there are no clear procedures in this interventionist work by David that may have guided the author in carrying out every gesture of erasure, no mapped-out methods of treating the found text toward the assisted readymade that it is. But far from being a mere symptom of sloppiness, this lack of method is in itself David’s method for deliberately diverting the reader’s attention away from what is left of the text past erasure towards the originary textual corpus upon w/c the violence of erasure has been inflicted. The title provides a clue: the words “Crows and Rages” have been derived from “Crowns and Oranges,” the title of an anthology of poems in English by young Filipino poets edited by Ken Ishikawa, himself a young poet, & Cirilo F. Bautista, a veteran poet known for his push for the epic over the decades, & published by Anvil in 2009. Just to be clear about it, David’s work even ends w/ a dedication: “Without malice—but much candour—this book was for Ken Ishikawa.”
There is much to be gleaned from David’s reference to, reverence for, & irreverence towards the source text, the quality that sets it apart from other works of erasure that of late have been cropping up among writers who fashionably position themselves as formally innovative. Unlike, for example, Marc Gaba’s cop-out in the poem “Placido” (from his book Noveau Bored) of erasing from a text as canonical as the first English translation of Rizal’s El Filibusterismo—a book so significant in literary history that to touch it (the tangential irony cannot be overlooked: El Filibusterismo is a sequel to Noli Me Tangere w/c means Touch Me Not) flags the self-importance of the work of erasing it (one can imagine a sarcastic voice in one’s head: “He’s erasing Rizal; it must be no less than Art”)—David’s choice of what to erase strategically fulfills the task of calling attention to the reproduction of the relations of literary production at work within the literary community that is enacted by Ishikawa & Bautista’s anthological effort—in this instance, that of the dubious process hinted at by the very title Crowns and Oranges, where ‘passing on the crown’ (and the fruit) of prestige from seasoned writers such as Bautista to younger writers such as Ishikawa is still largely a practice fostered by local literary machinery that include not only anthologies but also writing workshops, not to mention literary conferences—organized by institutions that range from the NBDB (National Book Development Board) the Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets & Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists)—that suspiciously have not been including David in their roster of resource speakers. If there is anything to fault Crows and Rages w/, it’s that its individual instances of content oscillate too much between interesting & bland, an oscillation that’s symptomatic of a lack of singularity necessary for the book to successfully court emptiness, & to risk courting this emptiness is to risk the critical agency that makes David’s project exquisitely exemplary. One such instance of interest is his erasure of Ramil Digal Gulle’s “Brasserie Speak” where the ruins—resisting the construction of any semantic sense—end up becoming a more enjoyable read than the source text can aspire to be: “b a aa / b c a / a f f a aa / b f a / a b a / a b f / a b b / dd a d a / c a c / f a push-up / aa d aa / aa c a d / aa f c a c / f d aa a c f / f b a dd a / b f a c d aa over their heads / their heads padded with / surprise or solitude finally”. Another instance is his erasure of my own poem “At the Train Station” w/c sports a persona at the train station meditating on the relationship between signifier & signified as being more complicated than that between trains transporting content & terminals of meaning, his erasure having enacted the trite redundancy of the persona’s dated meditation: “Is that a flower a flower a / flower a flower a flyer over / & over a flower?” The inconsistent labor David has exerted over the individual poems—while each can on its own be a well-oiled machine of words—tends to obfuscate instead of prop up the bigger task of social critique accomplished by the entirety of Crows and Rages.
Another work that carries out this task even more pointedly than David’s is Buen Calubayan’s Decision—the artist’s 1st foray into literature in the midst of his vigorous work in visual art. Produced in a format that is similar to Crows and Rages—photocopied & stapled in the tradition of zines—Decision is nothing more than a miniaturized reproduction of a legal document (w/c itself is headlined “Decision”) that gives a glimpse into a legal battle fought by the artist w/ his former employer, the University of Santo Tomas—a legal battle that, as narrated by the legal document, Calubayan has only partly won. A former instructor at the Catholic university’s College of Fine Arts & Design, Calubayan had been relieved of any teaching load for the school-year 2007-2008—w/c was cause for the artist to seek legal assistance—for the following reasons, problematically articulated thence quoted in his 12-page work: “open disregard for the school regulations and defiant regard for set conventional norms on propriety and decorum” & “open display of distorted ideas and atheistic beliefs in art form that is both morally and spiritually offensive.” The fact that UST—also my alma mater—was where Victorio Edades, considered by mainstream Philippine art history as the father of Philippine modern art, headed the Fine Arts department in the 1930s, & where Roberto Chabet, currently being presented by varying art institutions as the father of Philippine conceptual art, acquired his degree in architecture is an irony much of Calubayan’s work operates w/. The book’s cover is a reproduction of a poster that deploys an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus wearing a stenciled gas mask on its face—an image that is hardly surprising for anyone familiar w/ the iconography often deployed by this artist whose works of institutional critique, exhibited in venues that include university grounds, often examine Catholic institutions as themselves constitutive of art institutions functioning as ideological apparatuses operating w/in art as a field of social practice in & thru w/c they can exert influence—below w/c is information that indexes one of his works to be a “live installation at d back of UST bldg” titled “TOMAS’ PIGGERY: inventive fuck garrage.” Just above the title is a text by a fellow instructor—the poster had been originally hung inside the faculty room w/c was the common space shared by all instructors in their department—that presciently states “Di ka dapat nagtuturo dito sa UST!” (“You shouldn’t be teaching here at UST!”) in hastily-scrawled letters.
By making accessible a text that usually has no audience outside of those working in law, Decision reveals a point of intersection between institutions of law, institutions of art, & institutions of pedagogy that sheds light on the coordinates of the creative industry w/in w/c a laborer like the artist—who makes use of teaching not only as an extension of his art praxis but, more importantly, as a means of earning money that enables him to pursue his art praxis—operates & maneuvers. Consider the following excerpt as an example of how instructive his text is in depicting how these coordinates cope w/ the multiplicity of subjectivities inhabited by such a laborer:
“While it may seem that UST sanctioned the publication and the display of the subject paintings, we must distinguish between the twin-persona of petitioner, first as an artist, and second as a teacher. The exhibit and publication fall part of petitioner’s persona as an artist. What was allowed by UST was the display of petitioner’s artworks he created as an artist, and not as a teacher. For UST to disavow the same by hindering its publication and exhibition would be tantamount to what petitioner insists as violation of his freedom of speech, a right he most definitely enjoys as an artist. However, it must be borne to mind that petitioner is not merely an artist, but more importantly, a teacher; an instructor at UST, a Catholic university. As such, he is bound to uphold its Catholic and religious ideals, or to at least respect the same if these are contrary to his own beliefs and convictions. Furthermore, petitioner is responsible in the formation and shaping not only the intellect of his students, but likewise their moral convictions. And UST, as an institution of higher and Catholic learning which enjoys academic freedom as to who shall teach therein, has the right to terminate an educator, such as petitioner, which it deems unfit to convey its kind of education to its students.”
Calubayan writes absolutely nothing in his textual work, nor does he erase anything; instead, his authorship consists of the sheer redistribution of this text w/c would have remained inaccessible outside of the circles reviewing his legal case if not for his critico-creative intervention in this instance framed as a work of literature—a very palpable instance of the social turn at work in Philippine poetry where the author is salvaged.
The astute reader might notice the problematic employment of the terms “literature” & “poetry” in this essay as apparently interchangeable. They are not. Literature is taken here as a body of social practice constituted by the production, distribution, & exchange of texts that have been designated literary by the network of institutions of literature. Poetry, on the other hand, is a body of social practice w/in literature constituted by the production, distribution, & exchange of texts that have been designated as poetry by the network of institutions of literature. However, as a species of literature, poetry is endowed w/ a tradition of destabilizing what constitutes the literary & therefore also what constitutes the poetic—a tradition it cannot turn its back on: Just as no literature exists outside of the institutions that frame it as such, no poetry exists outside of the institutions that frame it as such either, such that poetry can be reduced to the very act of (re-)framing a work as literary &/or poetic; but considering poetry’s task of destabilization—this strategy being nothing more than the Russian Formalist notion of defamiliarization taken to its ontological & epistemic extreme—it may be more accurate to say that no poetry exists outside of the process of destabilizing the manner by w/c it is framed by institutions of literature. Based on this, one may conclude that as a social practice whose preoccupation is form—w/c includes not only the construction & the destabilization of form but also the form of such constructions & destabilizations—poetry is necessarily a tautological undertaking that self-reflexively points toward its own artificiality, its own arbitrary construction as a social practice that perversely agonizes over & critiques its own complicity w/ & legitimization by institutions of literature. In this sense, one can call poetry any work of literature that is formally destabilatory—for as long as it fails at total destabilization, for total destabilization will deconstruct the ontology of poetry to the point of having no frames of reference that can even allow it to be recognized as such; & to cease being poetry, it ceases being able to destabilize as a work of literature. To reiterate what has been mentioned above, the work of poetry is the struggle of literary texts to cease being literary texts—that is, the struggle of the literary text to be autonomous. & as has been painstakingly argued for by this essay, the autonomy of poetry is performed not thru the separation of the formal from the social, but from the subsumption of the social under the formal. Recalling Keith Waldrop—“I have tried to keep / context from claiming you”—one may posit that a poem’s sociality is measured neither by the extent of its imprisonment w/in context nor by the extent of its freedom from context but by its unfreedom from context. One might notice that this formulation runs parallel to what Ranciere refers to as the “aesthetic regime of art” where works of art, in keeping w/ the destabilization of the ontology of art, appear less & less like works of art; one may as well say that the aesthetic regime w/in the context of literature has found its materialization in contemporary poetry.
This attention to keeping poetry distinct from the other genres of literature—that is, this attention to positioning poetry as a kind of metagenre—is in direct opposition to & disagreement w/ the curatorial strategy decided upon by the editors of the KK Anthology to do away w/ genre-related distinctions. According to them, “This anthology is not arranged according to genre; nor does it identify the labels affixed by the authors to their work: these are pointed omissions. At the very least, in the most disorienting of works, this silence seeks to provoke in the reader some engagement with genre as interpretive lens—that is, for the reader less inclined to take the text for whatever it is—sans the unproductive attachment to a degree zero of genre.” While it is of course the prerogative of the editors to hide or reveal the tradition w/in w/c each author participating in their anthology has chosen to locate his/her work for whatever effect or affect they wish to elicit or experiment w/, it is nonetheless crucial to point out that “the text for whatever it is” will always be tied up w/ genre: No text exists w/in a vacuum, no text that is tradition-less & w/o context can exist. The very suppression of genre carried out by the editors constitutes a genre in itself—one that has its own history, be it in the realm of hybrid writing w/c nevertheless gravitates toward poetry in the way it has been framed by documents related to the historical avant-garde or in the realm of outsider literature w/c, too, gravitates toward poetry as framed by similar documents—& prevents any of the texts presented outside of their intended contexts & traditions to enrich the contexts & traditions of composition they were authorially intended to be read against & engaged in. Against the belief of the editors that “[t]he order imposed by taxonomy, when stripped of negotiability, breeds artistic ossification more than anything else,” this essay argues that overlooking how distinctions of genre complicate a text’s composition & reception is what ossifies already existing genres, each of them dynamic until unfortunately abandoned by its practitioners under the aegis of innovation. Instead, what this essay proposes is the notion that, once designated w/in a particular genre by its author, a text’s genre-designation ceases to be extratextual, becoming as much a component of its form as the words that constitute its content & the patterns in w/c these words have been deployed. Following the logic mapped out in the previous paragraphs, unless designated otherwise, texts positioned w/in the lack of genre tend to be read w/in the tradition of poetry historically preoccupied w/ engaging not only the boundaries between genres, but also those between the literary & non-literary, & eventually those between art & life.
In my introduction to Batch ’97 Haiku, a collection of procedurally-composed haiku self-published & released in 2011 & itself in instantiation of the social turn, it was argued that “[t]he writer's labor of writing, especially w/in the framework of poetry, is comprised of the attempt itself to divorce writing from labor; that is, the poet's work is to strip poetry of work; that is, the poet can neither be considered poet nor laborer when decontextualized from a history of poetry that detaches itself from the history of class struggle.” In reaction to this introduction, David complains in “Alienation, Alma Mater, and Artbooks as Art in Angelo Suarez’s Batch ’97 Haiku,” a review published in his blog Oblique Strategies, that not only is this formulation of poetry unnecessarily convoluted in its deployment of “three successive negatives,” it also commits the facile ideological crime of making an analogy between poets & laborers, “spit[ting] on the faces of all the uncredited labourers who actually assembled this book[.]” The introduction was not, however, making such an analogy; the deployment of 3 successive negatives was meant to craft w/ precision the argument that while no conflation between poet & laborer may & should be made—that while the poet can only inhabit the subjectivity of either poet or laborer when positioned w/in a history of text-production that is separate from the history of class struggle—the poet’s position w/in the relations of production nevertheless cannot be ignored. “It seems to be saying that poets cannot/should not claim themselves to be poets or, even more pointedly, to be labourers, if their poetry is not generated from the position of doing it purely for itself.” No poetry is ever done purely for itself after all, but poets working w/in the social turn are faced w/ a history of poetry that leads to a fiction of autonomy—a fiction of distinction between the spheres of social practice known as literature & labor—w/c is a fiction that needs to be engaged w/ a strategy other than neglect.
While it is not untrue that all poetry is political, to end there will make the politicization of poetry as simplistic & unproductively mechanistic (& deliberately “mechanistic” here needs to be qualified as unproductive for indeed there exist forms of mechanistic writing that examine how the very avoidance of the mechanistic in favor of the apparent humanistic has itself become mechanistic) as the claim that everything, even breathing, is political. In order to account for the politics of poetry, one must 1st of all account for the fiction of its autonomy; it is only by admitting to this fiction of autonomy can one call attention to it, unmasking an entire network of social relations that sustain this fiction that allows one working w/in the field of poetry that is truly contemporary to ask, going back to Benjamin: What is the work of poetry’s position w/in the relations of production? It is the task of the poem operating w/in the social turn to address & engage this question, the social turn being the radical kernel currently on the rise in Philippine contemporary poetry that is hinted at in the KK Anthology but unfortunately critically abandoned.