A few years ago, a friend from college climbed to the mountains of the North and settled in the bosom of the tribes who were nestling in the hinterlands as an activist cultural worker. She fled the metropolitan life in Manila with the desire and ambition that indigenous peoples will find liberation in the knowledges she will impart, along with the promise of a future progress given what she was about to implement in the community which she understood to be radical politics. She went to the mountains with the vision of teaching indigenous peoples to defy the impending invasion of mining corporations, real estate businesses, and other investors who wanted to turn the vast greenery into private investment. She thought the conflict would be just between the local communities and these local investors who were penetrating their sanctuaries.
But when her days yielded into months, and those turned into years, her messianic views dissipated. At every house she knocked on, across the breakfast and dinner tables she shared, the local liquor she passed around with the town’s doctor, elder, singer, and hero—day-by-day she witnessed how their lives, which had been traditionally reared in the ways of the folk, were diminished by the appeal and promise of Western modernity.
Instead of listening to the folk music, some preferred karaoke machines. Others would crave McDonald’s ketchup instead of the traditional sauce. Many children joined the mass exodus from the mountains to the city, aspiring to get a university education that will eventually make their tradition of tilling land a thing in the primitive past. The changing paradigm of the community was not only a challenge but a reality that she grappled with, as the figures and ideas she wanted to defeat had already penetrated the pores of their existence. As her knees brought her to the ground, the seeming insurmountable truth became clear: capital had gradually eaten up their culture until their ways of life became the same detritus of capital.
In the pursuit of launching campaigns against mining and land conversion, my friend needed to also allow herself to live in the thickness of their everyday, and all of the goals she wanted to achieve were merely laced in the grace and kindness of the folk. She allowed the community to lead her in the struggle she was trying to articulate, and allowed the fight against capitalist invasion to fall in sync with the harmony of the dwellers, now articulated in the language they understood.
The wager of cultural activism at this point argues that an impending crisis in the cultural sector is about to come. The core of the battle cry is the absence of a democratic public sphere where—apart from the practitioners in the cultural industry, including the lives not reified as cultural but indigenous, primitive, and atavistic — are in dialogues and debates with one another.
The necessity of constituting such an interim platform—as opposed to allowing the people whose presence are
merely legislated by state gratuity—is one way of enabling a democratic procedure in which the inhibitions and individual attachments are filtered, as all would enter an arena of competing ideas and diversified world views. It is why the cultural sector must calibrate the political economy of capital by functioning as a figure that would unsettle the convenient union between state and capital, while at the same time ensuring the state’s self-critique, and perpetually compelling the state to deconstruct what the government deems to be absolute.
Culture, in fact, would always remind the state and government that a tyrannical force in constituting the culture and state would always be portentous of one’s weakness and eventual downfall. Thus, the patronage politics and opportunism of some political factions in the cultural sector are not signs of advancement in the realm of social struggle and the veracity to one’s cause, but symptoms of one’s disintegrating integrity.
The everyday of the people in their communities provides an ethnography where people’s literacy and education are taught by nature and by following the dynamics of an ecosystem. A democracy is formed in the opening of a cave, the edge of the cliff, the shores of the seas, and beneath the canopy of the trees.
As my friend left the community she thought she would heroically save, an organic system unfolded before her, one which naturally limits people from abusing the resources of nature, and one where labyrinthine laws and government become unnecessary. With the practices of the folk, a culture emerges, and its persistence—even at odds with modernity and industrialization—continues to be dissident for they will not embrace industrial science, but will continue to live among the dwellers of the hinterlands, as well as the people who take abode in an urban landscape.
As such, in defining the cultural agenda of the state, or by simply defining what is cultural in a state, it is always a process of weeding out one’s capricious attachments, subjecting the metropolitan ways to the persistence of the folklore, and allowing ourselves, along with our rabid politics, to be filtered and changed in a democratic consensus.
Jomar Cuartero teaches literature at Ateneo de Manila University and is editorial staff of Kritika Kultura Journal.