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Criticism as a Weapon

by Tomas Talledo Tuesday, Jul. 11, 2006 at 2:04 AM

E. San Juan's recent book, ONLY BY STRUGGLE (Quezon City: Giraffe Books), represents one of the most important progressive voices in the movement for national democracy and liberation in the Philippines. This review highlights some noteworthy themes of the work.


A REVIEW OF: San Juan, E. Only By Struggle. Reflections on Philippine Culture, Politics and Society. Foreword by Barbara Harlow and with Introduction. Quezon City. Giraffe Books. 2002. Second and expanded edition. 237 pages.

This book gathers seventeen (17) essays written by E. San Juan in different circumstances and occasions. Some of these were earlier published but are still worth reading as they resonate today with urgent issues and heated controversies. The others were decisive interventions during significant literary, social and political events sometime in mid-1980s Philippines when the author was actively engaged in the global united front against U.S. imperialism and its comprador agents. Those were euphoric years for victorious participants of the anti-dictatorship movement. Yet looking back at those years now, they are also replete with lessons from missed opportunities. The spirit of those years is captured by San Juan in this collection. The readers can refer to pages 236-237 for the genealogy of the essays. Surely not to be missed by readers is Barbara Harlow's foreword.

With a large number and variety of topics in this collection, as a reviewer, I fashioned four (4) groupings for the 17 essays. The groupings are devised for my convenience, but they can as well serve as as a road-map for readers. My groupings are as follows: first, six (6) essays under the category of cultural politics; second, four (4) specimens of literary hermeneutics; third, three (3) discourses on writers as public intellectuals; and lastly, four (4) interventions in revolutionary debates in the neocolony.

A well-known Filipino scholar-activist based in the United States, San Juan has never severed his link with the predicament of his compatriots. To his constant readers, San Juan's works form as part of the collective endeavor to bring about democracy, social justice, and progress to the Philippines. His writings as instanced in this collection clearly show that criticism with a pedagogical, mobilizing edge is one of the weapons at the disposal of a people working for their liberation.

Cultural Politics

In my classification of groups, six (6) essays congregate around the topic of cultural politics. As I employ the broad sense of this classification, this grouping includes San Juan's writings that deal with the politics of writing practice. The essays here assert that literary writing cannot carve an autonomous space nor a neutral vacuum that is uncontaminated by politics and ideology. Such a myth should have been exploded by the experiences of Filipino writers long ago. Yet its eradication remains as a social responsibility in the realm of identity, language and artistic production. To exemplify San Juan's cultural politics, allow me to deal with three (3) essays below.

In “Inscribing the Nation's History with the Blood of Workers and Peasants” and the “Responsibility of Filipino Intellectuals,” being Filipino, following the author's arguments, cannot be found in some precolonial, almost pure native characteristics of the people but “occur in the process of fighting and overthrowing colonial oppression”. Since “in Filipino literature is inscribed nationhood/identity through the people's awareness of a common plight – shared sufferings, shared struggles, shared defeats and victories” (p. 17 both quotations). Being Filipino, in other words, is not a ready-made fact or some static state of being, but a task that does not exempt writers as intellectuals.

For San Juan, Filipino writers as intellectuals have a social responsibility to grasp “man's social practice,” among others, “class struggle”. This task can only be accomplished if “he/she merges in the storm of revolutionary struggle and disappears as an intellectual by transforming him/herself into praxis, a conscious partisan of the people” (p. 27). Injunctions such as his can easily scare the faint-hearted but boost the morale of the committed writers.

Apart from embracing their social responsibility as intellectuals, the Filipino writers have to settle the language of communication in the light that “English never became the lingua franca of the masses to express national-popular aspirations” (p. 31). Though more importantly, the road ahead of them is a choice between the “Villa path to success” (p. 36) or ones chosen by Carlos Bulosan, Amado V. Hernandez and Francisco Lazaro. It is not that the choice was never made but it was in fact already taken by not a few Filipino writers, as San Juan clarifies in “Reflections on U.S.-Philippine Literary Relations”.

Selected Works Interpreted

There are four (4) essays in this grouping and they become spaces where San Juan deploys the full powers of his literary criticism. The objects of his criticisms are works either attributed to or authored by Fr. Jose Burgos, Jose Rizal, Aida Rivera-Ford, Sinai Hamada and Stevan Javellana. San Juan's reading strategies carefully untangle those meanings, nuances and implications interwoven in the authors' texts. His reading results into dismantling the confining walls of standard textual reading.

In “Prophesying a Filipina Feminism: Foreword to La Loba Negra”, San Juan telescopes the downfall of an oppressive Spanish colonial regime and its replacement in this allegorical, melodramatic narrative attributed to Fr. Jose Burgos. He clarifies that what outwardly appears as personal revenge is not the historical driving energy of individually alienated victims but of the awakened people's collective action for revolution. San Juan sketches the ideological formation of the young Jose Rizal as a discursive subject in “The Sexual Fix in Rizal's Memorias and El Ultimo Adios”. It is as though a sensitive Indio of the ilustrado stratum constructed himself as a project through conscious self-documentation. But within the context of a 19th century Filipinas, such sexual fixation only betrays the privileged position of the petty bourgeois class.

To demonstrate the sharpness of post-New Criticism approaches like structuralism and Marxism, San Juan unveils that the short stories of Aida Rivera-Ford and Sinai Hamada are not harmless, and therefore good read, as they seem because ultimately they affirm the age-old structures of gender and ethnic subordination. Such anomaly he carefully ferrets out for readers in the “Strategies of Reading: Sexual Politics in Philippine Fiction”. But Stevan Javellana's almost neglected novel Without Seeing the Dawn receives words of lucidly etched appreciation: “…this novel is a text of a national allegory that dramatizes how class contradictions are posed only to be sublimated into other oppositions . . . until the war offers the occasion to reposition and resolve the historic class conflicts in the nation's struggle for survival and independence” (pp. 68-69). San Juan leads us to re-cognize this nearly forgotten Ilonggo novelist.

It is when he is harnessing the powers of a historically informed criticism, when he is deploying various contemporary strategies of reading works of fiction from a national-democratic perspective, that San Juan is without rival among Filipino literary critics until now.

Writers as Public Intellectuals

Filipino writers Jose Rizal, Lope K. Santos, and Amado V. Hernandez are not esteemed because they published their unbearable ennui through the clever craft of writing. They are highly regarded since they wrote as they have passionately lived. Writing to them was the medium by which their deep commitments to life were publicly articulated. Readers should keep in mind that Rizal fought Spanish colonialism, Santos rose against U.S. imperialism and Hernandez clashed with state fascism and oligarchy. They are figures that today's activists can draw inspiration from and rally around. Even as writers, they are paradigmatic public intellectuals.

San Juan argues for the junking of our infantile dichotomizing of Rizal's heroic presence. Instead he submits that “Rizal should be viewed as a revolutionary intellectual trying to sum up the historic tendencies immanent in the emergence of the Filipino petty bourgeoisie” (p.78). Moreover, only by properly framing our problematique as a struggling people that a “Rizal for our time” can truly serve our revolutionary end.

In 1906, Lope K. Santos was already a pioneering author of the famous Banaag at Sikat novel. Santos' work, to San Juan, already foreshadowed Marxist-Leninist principles such as a vanguard party, concepts of totality and objective possibility, concrete analysis of situation, and so on, before the October 1917 Russian revolution. More concretely, the writer Santos organized the Union del Trabajo and having served as its president “sustained the continuous fights of the working class against exploitation in the political arena and in art” (p.107).

It cannot be helped that San Juan sings paeans to Amado V. Hernandez. Readers should note that it was San Juan who single-handedly introduced in 1967 this distinguished Tagalog writer to the attention of non-Filipinos via the International Publishers’ edition of his translated poems, Rice Grains. Hernandez the poet, to San Juan, incarnates “the truth of the human condition at a particular period in Philippine annals, suffered it, finally emerged from it and from the daemons of inward agony and outward terror” (pp.115-116). All the more convincing perhaps because Hernandez, as an affiliate of the Communist Party of the Philippines that was established in 1930, appears to San Juan as a guidepost to the future. “[Hernandez's] vocation is to live and create dangerously,” the critic waxes lyrical, “by testifying to the truth of the human condition in a given historical circumstance. And to assume this responsibility is to relinquish all self-deceiving illusions, all pride of ego and pleasure of vanity. Accept the burden of self-sacrifice in order to prove one's manhood and virtu – political conscience – before the eyes of one's fellowmen: that is the challenge of the armed Muse” (p115). As a reviewer, I exult and celebrate both writers in reading these final lines.


In “Toward Socialist Feminism,” San Juan put in proper perspective the Filipino women's predicament within a patriarchal society and under the dictatorial regime of Marcos. While their bodies were treated like commodities locally and abroad, not a few women registered courage in resisting their class and gender location. The theoretical contributions of Delia Aguilar who critically examines the trajectory of the feminist movement are an integral part of this intervention. Both argue that the feminist movement should not be viewed as an unnecessary adjunct nor discordant component of the comprehensive national liberation movement. The promise of emancipation is inclusive when the “woman question” is seriously answered by the national movement for liberation.

The interventions entitled “For a Permanent Cultural Revolution: An Agenda for National Democratic Hegemony” and “Lessons of the February Uprising” clearly confirm San Juan's stake in the final liberation of the Philippines. While they seem to read as acerbic observations of the conventional practices of the national democratic political line, he actually underscores the urgent need for an encompassing grasp of revolutionary politics. Written in late 1980s, reading them today, these interventions already telescope those auto-criticisms undertaken by Filipino revolutionaries during the second rectification movement. San Juan points out that single-sidedness and narrowing of analysis, standpoint and practice incontrovertibly usher failure of the movement. Among others, this is one lesson of the February [1986] uprising worth keeping.

Along the historical project of Filipino revolutionaries, San Juan suggests a multi-angled way of looking: “We should envisage the enlargement of the class war by carrying out the attacks into trenches and fortifications of 'civil society' so as to outflank the superior forces of State power in command of the coercive apparatuses. I envisioned the mobilization of intellectuals (in the large sense of organizational and educational cadres) to conduct guerrilla war on the terrain where stakes are high and decisive, for when hegemony is won, the enemy is irreversibly defeated” (pp. 124-125). Such historical project is a collective endeavor indeed, so enormous a task to be left to a clique of experts and full-timers.

Some Concluding Statements

By way of concluding this review, I would like to engage with one reference that San Juan repeats here and there (examples are pp. 139, 172) in the book. And this is his evident fascination with Antonio Gramsci and the Nicaraguan model of revolution. Both occupy a high status in his estimation, especially when he makes a comparison of them with the revolutionary practice in the mid-1980s Philippines. My view however is that in accomplishing a revolutionary project, the requirement of “concrete analysis of concrete condition” yields more reliable datum than a sweeping comparison can indicate. But since the Sandinistas boldly went into self-criticism after they were out of power in Nicaragua, San Juan may have a different view of them today.

Moreover, I cannot find his qualified appreciation of the large-scale achievement of the revolutionaries in introducing habitus of textuality on what is predominantly a non-modern and oral Filipino culture. Is not a revolutionary Filipino subjectivity being fabricated by almost endless collective production of reflexive texts like auto-ethnography, assessments and summing up in medias res of the struggle? * This and other related questions, in my view, are ready to be taken up by committed Filipino intellectuals including E. San Juan. ###


[E. San Juan comments (7/9/2006): “Talledo has a good point here, but he omits my reference to MAKIBAKA’s descriptions of their work, assessments, and summing-up on pages 201-16 of the book; and a summary of an actual exchange I participated in at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (pp. 165-66). Recent works of mine, in particular Working through the Contradictions (Bucknell University Press, 2004) and other essays, have analyzed the contemporary testimonies and narratives of Overseas Contract Workers, now called Overseas Filipino Workers, and the critical discourses surrounding the emergent Filipino diaspora in the field of globalized capital.]

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