THE CHALLENGES – AND IMPERATIVES – OF IMAGINING (AND RE-IMAGINING) THE PHILIPPINES
By Dr. Ben S. Malayang III, President,Silliman University
(Keynote, International Conference on Philippine Studies 2016, Silliman University, Dumaguete City, Philippines)
A classmate from the University of the Philippines, Dr. Zosimo Lee, recently posted on Facebook that “What we believe determines what we do.” “We have difficulty,” he says, “imagining what others’ beliefs are and cannot accept that there are other ways of believing and doing aside from ours”.
This seems appropos at the moment. And so I thought of sharing this with you before I start on my task today.
Truth Value of Imaginations
To “imagine” is to construct a mental picture of something. The contruction may be deliberate, like making disciplined inferences from elaborate sequences of observations as often done in science. Or it may be inspired like depicting on canvas, in poetry, novel, play or music something about human beings and their fears and hopes. Or it can be serendipitous, a “eureka moment”, like when one suddenly gains insights from an extraordinary experience.
How mental images are constructed is one thing. There’s the other thing about the truth value of an image. In the sciences, there’s the constant trepidation that conclusions are not valid inferences from facts. An incorrect inference can be a disaster in truth. In the arts, there’s always the anxiety (which justifies criticism) that an image may not be a cogent or accurate depiction of human behaviors and emotions.
Imagining a country or nation as Benedict Anderson suggests may suffer from the same fears. There’s the fear that an image, even if carefully constructed can prove false. Or it may prove not quite true across all places and circumstances of the imagined nation. Or that it is only true for a part of those that one sees in the country.
There’s the challenge to correctly and truthfully imagine a nation. There are issues to be addressed so that imagining (or re-imagining) a nation could be confidently true and correct. The imperative it seems to me is to construct truthful images of a country and people.
I suspect that this is your interest in this conference today. You desire to discuss issues and challenges to constructing truthful and correct images of my country.
A Suggested Framework for Imagining the Philippines
May I put forward for your consideration a framework for assessing the truth and accuracy of an image of a nation, in this case the Philippines. I propose to use a “4-sided prism” of the concepts of domain, range, averages and deviations in math and statistics. I propose to use these as linked concepts for filtering the truth and accuracy of an imagination of the Philippines.
I propose to use domain to refer to the outer limits of a nation being imagined. And range would be the inclusions within a domain. These could be objects, events or phenomena within an imagined domain of a nation. I propose to use the concept of average to refer to the extent that the phenomena seen in the imagined nation approximate similar phenomena that have not been seen. I propose to use deviations to refer to the extent that unseen phenomena are near or far from those that have been seen.
Domain may refer to a spatial reach of an imagined nation. It can refer to the outer edges of the universe of phenomena that are parts of and included in the imagination of the nation. One example of domain is territory. One may imagine the Philippines being bounded by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, but slightly different if the country were imagined to be bounded by the Treaty of Washington in 1900. It would be even more different if it were imagined to include Sabah that was once part of the Sulu Sultanate leased to a British Company and now part of Malaysia. Imagined territorial domains can become contentious like in the South China and West Philippine Seas when different imagining entities conjure overlapping physical domains. It can become more contentious and complex if an imagined domain is not a geodetic boundary and but to encompass the global reach of a nation’s people. Succinctly, domain defines the compass and outer limits of an imagined nation. One imagined domain can lead to a different universe of inclusions of an imagined nation from another.
Range may include the peoples, races, arts, cultures, politics, sciences, education systems, religions, technologies, ethnolinguistic unities and divides, local histories, police, military, ecosystems, economies and conflicts within an imagined nation. The range of phenomena that can be imagined to be composite and organic to the Philippines may differ depending on its imagined domain. They would be different if the imagined territorial domain of the Philippines were to include or exclude Sabah. If the imagined domain were to go beyond territory and include places where Filipinos are found, the range of events and phenomena comprising the imagined Filipino nationality could shift.
The concept of averages is crucial to the truth value of observations about a nation. Anderson contends that one can’t see all the people that comprise a country. One can only imagine their totality, unity and dis-unities based on (and conjured from) those that one has seen. Indeed, I can imagine the Badjao as Filipinos from those I’ve met. I could only hope that those I’ve met are representative (the “average”) of all Badjao that I’ve not met. Otherwise, my imagination of the Badjao would not be quite true. Such would be also the case if I imagine the indigenous engineering capabilities of the people in the Cordilleras from the rice terraces I’ve seen. I could only assume that the terraces I’ve seen are represenative of the technical prowess of the Cordilleran Filipino. An “average” that shifts to right or left of “actual” could lead to a less correct (and so less true) image of a nation. This would be true when imagining people, and it would be similarly true when imagining traditions, habits, norms, politics, environments, and other phenomena distinguishing a nation.
The concept of deviation is likewise crucial to the truth value of a mental image of a nation. The “true” Badjao community, for example, may be quite off from those I’ve conjured them to be because the “average” Badjao I’ve met may have been already exposed to urban and other influences while most of those I’ve not met haven’t been exposed in the same way. Or, in my Cordillera example, if terracing as technique is actually a “leftside outlier” of the actual technical range and know-how of the Cordillerans, it would not be a good (“average”) representation of what might be in fact their more sophisticated technical capabilities.
If these premises are correct, I submit that the truth value of any imagination of the Philippines will be eventually anchored on the rightness or wrongness of what an imagining entity imagines is its domain, range of inclusions, the extent that those seen approach actual averages of those not seen, and the deviations of those not seen are far or near from those that’s been seen.
Re-Imagining the Philippines
Re-imagining the Philippines may involve modifying any or all of its imagined domain, range, averages and deviations of present images of the Filipino people nation.
It will involve, I suppose, any or all of the following:
- A re-imagination of its domain from which we might conjure a whole new range of peoples, arts, cultures, languages, economy, ecosystems, education systems, religions, security, politics, local histories, sciences and technologies of the nation;
- A re-imagination of how Filipinos and their cultures, capacities and communities define it as a nation;
- A re-imagination of the nation’s conditions and states, its politics, economy, environments and capacities and potentials, based on what’s been seen in the country; and
- A re-imagination of how those not seen in the country may fall far or near from those seen so far.
Let me please suggest a few examples.
Re-Imagination of Domain
I can re-imagine a Philippines from one being bounded by territory to one being bounded by presence. That is, a Philippines that’s imagined to be a nation of communities located within a political map, to one conjured out of where reside individuals who imagine themselves to be Filipinos and actively engaged in the affairs and imaginings of the communities they now reside. This is along Appadurai’s concept of “deterritorialization of identities” when one can take away a Filipino from the Philippines, but not the Philippines from the Filipino.
Re-Imagination of Range
A domain based on presence subsequently entails a re-imagining of the composite phenomena that define the Filipino nation. They might shift from those existing within a territory to those that include the fusion of erstwhile native entities and behaviors with those of other communities in the world. My re-imagination of the Filipino nation may include persons who first imagined themselves to be Filipinos but now also imagine themselves to be Europeans, Americans or Africans. This is a wholly different re-imagination of the Filipino, but I suppose not really new nor surprising. This is, especially when I hear of cases in California of Filipinos suing in American courts using the American jury system to adjudicate on who shall have custody of the Virgin Mary of their local Catholic neighborhood, or in the Middle East when “Filipino ways” are used to settle conflicts among Filipino nationals and not local Shariah laws and regulations.
Re-Imagination of Averages
A re-imagination of my nation’s domain and range entails retaking stock of the universe of phenomena that define our nationhood. Suddenly, the “average” Ilocano cannot be confined to the Ilocanos one knows in the Northern Philippines, but must include Ilocanos you know in Hawaii and in many other parts of the world where they are active participants in imagining and re-imagining their new communities. Suddenly, the “average” technical capacities of a Filipino cannot be confined to those you know in the country but shall need to also include Filipinos in Silicon Valley, the oilfields of the Middle East, and in the high seas of the world. Conjuring Filipino electoral and political behavior cannot be confined to those seen within the Philippines, but shall have to extend to how overseas Filipinos affect the votes and dynamics of governance and politics in our country and in the countries they now reside. The resulting new imagination of the Filipino nation will dramatically be different from previous.
Re-Imagination of Deviations
Extending domain and range also entails re-imagining what’s likely be higher deviations from what might have been seen of the nation’s distinguishing phenomena. If the images of “average” Ilokanos, for example, are to extend to other places outside the Philippines, it is likely that there’ll be many more deviations of these images of the Ilokano than previously realized. The same would be true of images of the technical capabilities of Filipinos, or of how overseas Filipinos influence electoral and political processes in the Philippines and elsewhere.
The Challenges and Imperatives
The truth or falsity of a reconjured image of the Philippines – as would be probably true anywhere – depends on the truth value of its reconjured domain and range of distinguishing phenomena, and the extent that the re-images approach what’s true across distinguishing phenomena that’s seen and unseen. Else, I would suspect that the reconjured image will lack the power to reshape nationality and nationhood, and the energy to create history.
The challenge, I suppose, is one of research. We’ll need more and better research to determine if our images of the Philippines are true and correct. We need more and better research to assess how our images of the Philippines might be shared (or not) across the nation. And we need more and better research to understand how our images and continuing re-imagination of the Filipino nation is in fact so true and correct so that it is able to propel Filipino nationality, nationhood and history.
This is an imperative for my country because I fear that when we cease to correctly and truthfully imagine (and re-imagine) the Filipino nation, the nation itself may cease to exist. Please, welcome to Silliman!
 Anderson, B. (Verso, 1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.
 See “deterritorialization of identities” in Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernization at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.