A Blog by Virgilio Rivas

History as Text (Part 1) by Virgilio A. Rivas

 Course Study in Philippine Literature

     I. Introduction

A.    A Look at Philippine History

B.     The Development of Philippine History in terms of Discursive Practices

C.    Literature as Discourse

Note for my OU class: The following essay covers the discussion for item A under the Introduction to the course. Read additional and/or related references for further discussion. Footnotes include references that you may look up for clarification.  Discussion 1 is on a brief  discursive analysis of Philippine History, which I intend to form the background of the course in Philippine Literature.


If or when a historian decides to achieve a fair grounding of Philippine History, s/he shall almost find the political end of historical development a decidedly given framework of investigation. History, without a doubt, is largely shaped by conflicts and  contradictions, such that it cannot be helped to speak of a ‘history of struggles,’ a ‘history of conflicts,’ etc.  Subsequently, what would turn up from this familiar view of our history is the political dimension of these struggles, defining what could be the most discernible framework 1 of interpreting our progress as a nation from the last 485 years. This common view of our history is, of course, a legitimate framework from which we interpret historical phenomena.

As a third world 2 or developing nation, this view of our historical progress accords well with observable patterns according to which our history may be regarded as consistently moving, and, one may say, logically determining its course.  The more than 300 years of Spain’s colonial rule; the less than 50 years of being a ‘forced beneficiary’ of US benevolent assimilation policy (wherefrom, the image of the sweet victim is conjured as in the opinion that without the US we would have never known democracy as a crucial juncture in our formal ingress to the civilized world); and the short aborted Japanese imperial ambition—all provide incontestable support that a decisively political framework of interpretation is consistent and in line with the objective demands upon social scientific research. In this light, colonialism is a legitimate and valid area of discourse that relates well with a projective view that utilizes the ‘political eye’ of interpretation. (We shall return to this matter in the succeeding discussion) 

At this point, I would like to employ an anecdotal example of the extensiveness of political interpretation, if only to emphasize the novelty of our familiarity with the spectacle of the political. This is an anecdote that bears out the vitality of political interpretation in a rather subtle, or shall I say, distinctively comic way of putting it. 

“One day an angel in the house of the Lord took the courage to ask his master about what he perceived to be a chink in the whole creation, which the angel would prefer to say ‘an unintended outcome of the benevolent working of his master’.  The angel asked God why He seemed to have unfairly gifted the Philippine Islands with all the natural resources there were in the whole planet; bordered the islands with abundant oceans, covered them with a fair weather, made their soil fertile for tropical trees to grow like mushrooms, and littered the islands with rich mineral deposits and springs, not to mention the mountains and the lush forests, and finally, as if alluding to God’s majestic final moment when He was regarding the result of His creation after 6 days of working on the elements, made the islands appear like a solitary figure resting on his humps, from a view on the clouds up high.

But God did not feel disturbed by the angel’s uncalled-for intrusion.  And God told him: “It’s not at all fair, I agree, but from a different standpoint, which you’re too involved to see.  Truth is, I have given them more than enough politicians that the rest of the world would ever want in their midst.” 

This story, although it may be considered too weak even as a purely anecdotal support to the decisiveness of political phenomena in shaping history, is nonetheless one way or the other an attempt to ground our history from the standpoint of a marginal, non-academic observer.  Needless to say, history is not an exclusive area of academic concern.  In the opinion, for instance, of a noted Western thinker Michel Foucault, historical interpretation is not absolutely based on a seamless chain of progress where every period could be accounted for like every point traversed by a ruler on a study table3.  There are disruptions, disjunctions and discontinuities 4 that are normally ignored by the historian just to be able to achieve an idea of history that is infallibly proceeding from a single unquestioned starting point.  This way the historian achieves a smooth result where even the slightest sign of deviation from the rule that he would permit as ‘naturally possible’, in the spirit of academic fairness, can be perfectly drawn from the inherent nature of the rule to solve its own self-imposed difficulties.  

We have learned of several historical reconstructive claims, for instance, that our national hero is not at all the type of a historical character depicted in elementary, high school  and college history textbooks.  That the almost mythical and super-human status attributed to him as a learned man, and as a great inspiration to his countrymen, has been fairly contested by contemporary historians and scholars like Renato Constantino 5 and Ambeth Ocampo 6,  to name some of the most important local scholars arriving at this view.  To them, Dr. Rizal should be viewed as an exceptional talent who contributed to the vitality of Philippine Revolution, but not at all perfectly guaranteeing his eminent place vis-à-vis other heroes of the revolution, most of them, neglected by historians hoping to find emulatory lessons from our past.  Indeed, the past is a critical aspect of viewing the present. The past is a powerful tool also to project a future.  It is a moralizing principle that influences people’s behavior on how they ought to accomplish that.  In this sense, the process of reconstructing our past goes down to the question of ‘which material’ from the past is worth considering 7 as a significant model for the future and as a field of study that will ensure that ‘this past’ will continue to have a captive audience.  Drawing lessons from the past has become more of a political choice than of scholarly and objective study.  The circumstances under which, for instance, Dr. Rizal was favored by the American colonizers worthy of the honor accorded to a national hero apply to this fair re-interpretation of a particular period in our troubled  history.

What we can learn further from these attempts to re-orient our understanding of the past is the undeniable role of discursive practice.  We mean by discursive practice as that which involves a serious commitment to discover the truth, which the ancient Greeks were acknowledged to be its earliest practitioners.  Discourse (thus, discursive) involves a passionate commitment to truth, so to speak.  Discourse may mean oral or speech as in verbal explanation, or written as in treatises, books, demonstrative tables in mathematics, for instance.  In the modern age, starting from the invention of the printing press 8, up to the more contemporary period with all the hype around the vast potentials of information technology, discourse has decisively penetrated the written language.  It means to most sensible scholars a turning point in the history of human civilization when truth is fought out in the battlefield of ideas which are explored in printed materials, a real advance from the situation of the ancients where truth was fought out in real absolute conflicts involving arms, and you could imagine, verbal tussles that often were the source of misunderstanding. A failure in language, in short 9

We can mention the example of Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses as a case of failure in language.  Salman Rushdie’s provocative novel was a controversial bestseller that played around an imaginative stretch that the writer laid out according to the alleged rouge verses that Mohammed uttered in his rejection of Muslim deities revered by the Arabs of his time.  These verses reiterated the One God of Islam (Al-lah) as against the plurality of divinities that pagan Muslims worshipped.  According to one account 10, Mohammed was piqued by the insistence of other Muslims to worship pagan deities and, as a consequence, recited satanic verses in a lambasting criticism of this practice.  When the novel came out, it reached the Arab world then widely influenced by a revered Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran) who ordered the killing of Rushdie on account of his blaspheming Islam and its prophet.  But an analytical look at the formal cultural meaning of the satanic in Quran, the Islamic bible, could have easily defused the tension, if only the true practice of discourse was allowed to make its mark.  As a fiction, the novel is an art-form that deals with the imaginative and creative potential of larger social, cultural, political, moral and historical phenomena that lie buried in the academic, and most often, sanitized accounts of the historian in order to present an alternative view in the spirit of discourse.  As a discourse, the novel staked out to explain a view in Quran where satanic refers to “human temper” (Armstrong, p. 148) from which, certainly, not even a messenger of God, is totally immune.  Shaitan from which satan is frequently referred to in the Quran means a propensity to produce ‘slips’ (like slips of the tongue in Freudian psychoanalysis) that one never intended to say.  Simply put, Mohammed never intended to say rogue words to his brethren, an ethical offense in Islam.

The response of the Islamic world to Rushdie’s misunderstood blasphemy is an example of how history can be decided in terms of the political and the ideological.  In world history, the pervasive influence of sacred texts to influence people’s behavior is unmistakably a reference to how the written discourse, which is better than oral tradition in terms of the former’s efficacy to bear at least a normative presence for an indefinite period of time, could wield historic power.  This bears witness to the power of the written discourse to construct permanent structures of agreement or rules of correct interpretation, right reasoning, normative codes of communication, etc.  The overwhelming success, for instance, of Christianity in Europe can be considered to be the powerful outcome of the tradition of textual scholarship in the interpretation of the scriptures which commanded a strong following by “words”.  The gospel of John 11 (In the Beginning was the Word…) is an attestation to the historical drawing power of the written discourse that crystallizes in the Bible 12. All major world religions have fallen prey to the seduction of the word, so to speak. These religions still continue to exert enormous influence in the way history should  be decided.

Our history as a nation is itself inscribed within this historical-making ingenuity of textual discourse. If language is such as it is “an internal field created and accomplished by language users among themselves” (Anderson, 2003, p. 70), and history is a symbolic achievement in the sense of the written discourse that legitimates its presence in both the language of the expert and the lay, then our history, as an instance of the universal symbolic realization of language, is the result of a collective (reference to language users) textual achievement.  However, language itself enacts a definable order within which speech or the written word ought to be communicated. Language is not anybody’s ball game, so to speak. The rules are in force, for instance, in correct grammatical and syntactical usage.  There are legitimate and governing rules of speech acts that ensure that intelligibility is attained to achieve understanding. But understanding is not just about conveying intelligible words or performing speech acts along the lines of normative usage (where norms guarantee that words are attached to their meanings), but more than a matter of usage, understanding has to be enforced to secure the infallibility or the permanence of the rules governing language use.  Meanwhile, rules of language 12 are made, they do not acquire a character independent of the actual contingencies of the world.  Like the rules of a game, language is played around rules that are borne of the actual material reality that shapes what rules are applicable to the game (called history, in the sense of connecting history to a symbolic act).   History is a symbolic act, for it could only say so much and not achieve a true sense of it in terms of its purest objective status.  The process, for instance, of reconstructing our past should be viewed not as the past magically revealing itself in perfectly discernible hues and shades, but as a past reconceptualized13.  The cogent power of the mind to choose which point in the past should satisfy its curiosity to re-learn history is the most telling revelation of historical reconstruction as a symbolic act, an act that can never reach past a contingent or tentative status.  Needless to say, the Real 14 (that is, our real past) can never be recovered.

Our history is therefore a text that is open to multiple meanings, and diverse symbolic interpretations, if we grant that the Real is out of reach.  One enabling result of this interpretative view of the Real is that it allows for many players frequently neglected in history as well as in the academic milieu of specialists who mistake, consciously or naively, the Real as a graspable source of true knowledge (true knowledge of our past).   Still, while it engenders a kind of historical discursive practice that licenses non-homogeneous groups of stakeholders to shed light on the Real, what has been so far ignored is the fact that the play has yet to transcend its rules. Otherwise, the Real remains the object of textual chase.

Philippine historians are guilty of this failure to transcend the intrinsic play of their discursive practice in the light of the Real. More often, they pose different and radical postulates that intend to correct existing historical interpretations, update or modify extant validations of what they deem as already shedding important lights but lack more than a methodical approach.  Others would rather problematize the practice of translation in historical texts, which to a degree similar to a misunderstanding of a particular word (for instance, satanic) is critical in shaping the destiny of peoples as the anthropologist James T. Siegel correctly discerned that there is a “pervasive connection between translation and the formation, breakdown, and subsequent reformulation of social order”15.

The example of defining the Filipino 16 in terms of looking back to our historical roots carries the elusive effort of tracing the hoof marks of an otherwise disorganized, fragmented, and aimless trajectories of previous periods marking out our differently configured past.  That the past is differently configured postulates an unfamiliar terrain of discourse where language has yet to penetrate. The past would apply as an alien category that discourse seeks to render accessible to speech or the written word, an alien equation in the algorithm of existing routes to retrace the past.  The past carries a ransom equal to the price of achieving a future. However, the most disquieting aspect of this trail rears its head as soon as the historian comes face to face with the fact that the price of the ransom is not worth his salt. There are no maps that will guide him in search of  the fabled places, rumored safehouses, clandestine locations, or flashpoints of actions; no compass will work in a time-travel into the past as it not only violates the known laws of physics, but more seriously, it is just about a time-construct, a fiction that he is to re-tell in a different light.  Even if there are available maps, the location is to be re-located in the consoling spheres of concepts, ideas, or intuitions about its exact importance, its precise defining influence on the actors who shaped that particular juncture in the past. And since those actors are no longer capable of speech, the maps are only important as for there to serve as a background material in the re-working of a story’s plot.  The dead will speak in the language of the present, in the language they did not speak. 

Not only are the dead made to speak in an impossible language, but moreso, they are to be reborn to be held gratuitously responsible for what is happening in the present, and if the logic works, for what is to become a future. And if one finds the present materially linked to the colonial history of the past, the more the language in which the dead will be inscribed becomes a difficult symbolic transcription. For in this new light, language will be more antagonistically configured which Foucault detects in all modern histories— 

“The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations of power, not relations of meaning (Foucault, 1983, p. 56; italics mine).”  

The Text as a Battlefield of Meanings: History as Power over the Symbolic ( to be continued in Part II) July 2, 2006Quezon City, Philippines

1 Fredric Jameson in his work The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (New York: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1986) favors the “priority of the political interpretation of literary texts ( 17).”  Although we are not treating purely literary texts but of history as a larger symbolic achievement of a certain community of people, the fact that history may be considered a text satisfies the association that we are trying to make here.  Jameson continues:  “history…is inaccessible to us except in textual form” ( 35). 

2  The term Third World was introduced by a French demographer, Alfred Sauvy,  who described a part of the world that is “ignored, scorned, exploited” (7). See Priscelina Patajo-Legasto in Philippine Postcolonial Studies: Essays on Language and Literature, ed. Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo and Priscelina Patajo-Legasto, Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press,  2004.

3 Michel Foucault, is a French thinker, whose famous works include The Order of Things where he undertakes to show how history escapes even the most capable language of interpretation.  Elsewhere, he observes that “History has no “meaning,” though this is not to say that it is absurd or incoherent (56).” See Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow, New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

4 In the observation of Neferti Xina M. Tadiar, “History is deeply contested at every moment of its expression down to the very assertion of the ‘facts’.  Hence numerous controversies over the authenticity of documents, over the dates and places of specific events—not only over the interpretation of historical records and events but of their very existence—plaque the writing of Philippine history (155).” See Neferti Xina Tadiar, Fantasy Production. Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Order, Quezon City,: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 2004.

5 Foremost of Constantino’s work along this line is the popular Veneration Without Understanding that aims to shed light on the national hero’s true importance in the Philippine Revolution beyond the mythical attributes that his rather undiscerning followers and defenders choose to grant the martyr, most often, with Andres Bonifacio in mind as his exact opposite, and therefore, unworthy to be acknowledged as an acceptable alternative to the iconic title of a national hero. 

6 Ambeth Ocampo is known for his “ironizing regard”, for instance, of the national hero in his columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.  Vicente Rafael in his work White Love and Other Events in Filipino History (Ateneo De Manila University Press, Quezon City, 2000) describes Ocampo’s method as  looking out “less for evidence of Filipino greatness than for signs of its human limitations” (194).  Meanwhile, Ocampo’s exposition of Dr. Rizal is quite in line with Ante Radaic’s belief that “Rizal was afflicted by a fatal inferiority complex because of his puny body and short stature (34).”  See E. San Juan, History and Form: Selected Essays, Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 1996. See also Ante Radaic, Roma’ntico Realista, Novel Publishing, Manila, 1961.

7 Tadiar  (2004) emphasizes the ideological cast behind the process of historical interpretation in the guises of reconstructions, or “invocations, instantiations and symbolic enactments of Philippine history” (155).  These guises are “more than simply representational gestures made to motivate, mask or legitimate material actions and practices” (Ibid.) but can also obtain commanding hold on how we ought to project our future as a nation. 

8 In the year 1500 alone, there were “at least 20,000,000 books that had already been printed (37)” See Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Quezon City: Anvil, , 2003). 

9 Although it is still very much a matter-of-fact in the way some of the problems of modern civilization are settled through conventional warfare, what qualitatively distinguishes the past from the present along antagonistic lines is the fact that war is now fought in symbolic acts as compared to the past when it was unilaterally decided by absolute physical contradictions. We mean symbolic acts as those relating to the assertion of power over the Real.  The symbolic would connote an act usurping the function of the Real, the really real, the absolute place of knowledge, in terms of imagining it has been ‘there’ already.  Thus, for instance, the supremacy of the US over the rest of the world.  As a lone superpower, the US has to imagine its place in the place of the Real; and if the enemy of the Real is Untruth, this self-existing real has to obviously produce its own enemy, imagine it has been there already challenging the real.  The specter of terrorism haunting the US today may apply into this category, an invisible enemy that is adjudged more capable of ruin than the visible evil we see everyday.

10 That is, from Abu Jafar at-Tabari (d. 923), a tenth century historian, who told of this account in Mohammed’s life.  See Karen Armstrong, A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Ballantine Books, New York.

11 John 1: 1 (King James Bible)—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

12 Jameson (1986) shows us an example of the word-ing of history, that is, how history is considered to be an actual work of words, as in the case of the Old Testament.  “At the same time, its (Old Testament) availability as a system of figures, above and beyond this literal historical reference, is grounded in the conception of history itself as God’s book, which we may study and gloss for signs and traces of the prophetic message the Author is supposed to have inscribed within it” ( 29; parenthetical note and italics mine).


13 Renato Constantino’s Past Revisited, in a nutshell, is an attempt to reconceptualize history vis-à-vis what he perceived as a colonial, nay, prejudicial US-inspired interpretation of our national history. Meanwhile Teodoro Agoncillo’s Revolt of the Masses seeks to reconstruct the history of the Katipunan along the framework of psychologizing the Supremo, and its ubiquitous influence upon the fate of the early phase of Philippine Revolution. This effort to review Bonifacio met its counterpart in Glenn May’s rather disparaging reconstruction of the Supremo’s class and personal history, which takes a low opinion of the capability of the murdered leader  to advance the enlightenment causes of the revolt against Spain.

14 In a similar vein Slavoj Zizek (2002) would expostulate with philosophers seeking to comprehend the essence of things, as if things have a natural originary source of determination, whence the illusion of understanding the Real from the metaphysical (that is, beyond the intelligible) world.  Instead, the only permissible standpoint from which the Real or the Truth itself can be understood is “by stepping back, by resisting the temptation to penetrate it (Truth) directly (p. 145; parenthetical note mine)”.  See Slavoj Zizek, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, New York: Verso, 2002.

15 Vicente Rafael, Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule (Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, , 1988,), 210.

16 It is interesting to cite Rafael’s (2000) research on the origin of the term Filipino:

                “As late as the end of the nineteenth century, it referred to the sons and daughters of Spanish parents born in Filipinas…Indeed, the very term Filipino emerges in the first place as a way of accounting for the existence of those who, looking like Spaniards, were in actuality born outside of Spain…

                Las islas Filipinas, in short, existed for more than three centuries before there were any Filipinos who would lay claim to its reality and proclaim loyalty to its existence (7).”

                Of  course, it will be an excessive reminder  to emphasize that the natives of the islands were called indios.

                A ‘double displacement’ is therefore achieved in the reformist campaign of enlightened members of the Philippine illustrado during Rizal’s time: the campaign for Spain to recognize the civil rights of the people of the islands, and eventually, guarantee annexation came at a point when the illustrado class appeared ready to claim Filipino-hood, that is, as enlightened and educated natives (who were intellectually more advanced and capable to imitate European values than the peasants and the lowly populace of the islands who continued to bear the actual physical brunt of Spanish colonialism) much like the creoles who were only distanced by geographical boundaries but retained their ancestry in Spain.  First, the concept of native is displaced in the act of representing the non-representational natives according to the high-handed European standards. Second, the natives who owned up to this representation were poor duplicates of an otherwise incomplete Spanish citizen, the creole.


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