The Cultural Politics of Entertainment in The Philippines

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Before Postcolonial Studies and Cultural Analysis were introduced in the universities in the Philippines, the national hero Jose Rizal had already indicated somewhat passingly in his novel Noli Me Tangere what Antonio Gramsci termed as cultural hegemony.

“The realization of a hegemonic apparatus, in so far as it creates a new ideological terrain, determines a reform of consciousness and of methods of knowledge,” Gramsci noted in his prison notebooks.

In the chapter, Right and Might of the said novel is a passage which illustrates an essential change in the consciousness of the people that is entailed by colonialism. Let me quote the entire passage, this is the conversation between old Tasio the scholar and Don Filipo the Vice Mayor:

“‘Don’t you want to see the show?’

‘No, thank you. I can make up my own dreams and nonsense,’ replied the scholar with a sarcastic chuckle. ‘But, come to think of it, hasn’t it ever struck you that our people, peaceful by nature, love warlike spectacles and bloody battles; that, being democratic, they yet adore emperors, kings, and princes; that, while irreligious, they cheerfully ruin themselves over pompous rites; that our women, so gentle by nature, scream with joy when a princess brandishes a spear? Do you know why this is so?’”

Old Tasio’s disturbing account of the gradual change of consciousness of his people under colonialism provides a frame of critique within the expanding influence of entertainment in our society today. Ingrained in the colonial and imperial structure is a cultural bias or “a hegemonic apparatus” that dominates traditional values and undermines the varied indigenous cultural influences. What we see today is an immensely powerful component of mass culture which has established itself by undermining the local distinctiveness of indigenous cultures, monopolizing and transforming areas of culture into settings of profit-making, invading all aspects of cultural life. The triumph of entertainment.

I argue that the culture of entertainment imposed on the public is a product of consumerist ideology, which is an invention of the West. I do not mean that any foreign or external influence is harmful or is bad. Quite the opposite. The generous interaction of different cultures and societies is indispensable for human understanding and development. But what was imposed on the public, what has dominated and persisted in the contemporary culture, and we have uncritically embraced, is that which is harmful to the moral and intellectual life of communities at large.

A chronological explanation as to how modern entertainment developed in the Philippines and followed the Western pattern of crass commercialism swamping varied areas of culture is not discussed here; rather I use that particular passage from Rizal’s novel as my point of reference to establish an argument against an existing culture which not only deserves serious criticism but must be replaced by a more generous, humane, and creative national culture. A culture which deserves to be called, in the words of the American writer, Susan Sontag, “an expression of human dignity.”

An appropriate base for analysis of entertainment is the most pervasive medium it deploys namely, the television, considered as the national medium, the great instrument of the national culture. In the Philippines, television-watching is an integral part of the popular culture. Millions watch television on a daily basis. To watch is to be entertained; to be entertained is to be consoled from the hardships of daily life. Noontime shows and television dramas are the favorites. They are the embodiment of what is “entertaining.” What is entertaining is simply defined by the vague notion that it adds to the general happiness of the public. We often hear the claim that entertainers are here to make us happy. For a country like the Philippines afflicted with serious economic and social ills entertainment is deemed as a way of coping; in other words, a distraction from the difficult present reality. Let me illustrate the persuasive power of distraction buttressed by a regular noontime show:

Good-looking actors perform on camera, they sing, they dance, they flatter us, they smile at us… they invent phony contests in which mainly the poor participate as contestants; in such contests the latter are forced to be competitive and look ridiculous (because the more ridiculous they look the higher the rating of the show); they are asked to dance, sing, jump, scream, or play whatever the hosts have assigned them to do; and the winner (who ends up as the most ridiculous) takes home the badly needed prize-money.

Apologists for this kind of entertainment defend it as a service to the poor by rewarding them a substantial amount of money plus the opportunity of publicity. But this depleted notion of “service” to the poor through entertainment is only possible at the cost of personal dignity of the contestants in question: by degrading them, treating them as playthings without regard for their personal integrity and sufferings and the cruelties of their social circumstances. A degradation of this kind is not one way. The TV presenters and others involved are degraded albeit in a different degree. The influential anarchist thinker, Paul Goodman in his groundbreaking book, Growing Up Absurd, lamented the degrading nature of this enterprise:

“Consider the men and women in TV advertisements, demonstrating the product and singing the jingle. They are clowns and mannequins, in grimace, speech, and action. And again, what I want to call attention to in this advertising is not the economic problem of synthetic demand, and not the cultural problem of Popular culture, but the human problem that these are human beings working as clowns; that the writers and designers of it are human beings thinking like idiots; and the broadcasters and underwriters know and abet what goes on.”

The danger in this industry is the belief it reinforces that purports the invariable goodness of entertainment that promises fulfillment through passive spectatorship and proclaims the superficial need for distraction as an indispensable mode of escape from harsh reality. Entertainment has become an effective blindfold to prevent the people from understanding and dealing with real issues that affect their lives. If any issue of importance is somehow dealt with it takes the form of entertainment. “The problem,” noted the social critic, Neil Postman, “is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertainment.” Karl Marx famously remarked that religion was the opium of the masses. Today, it is apt to say that entertainment is the opium of the public

The atomization of society can be established in two ways. In a classic totalitarian state fear and force are used to fragment communities. In a democratic-corporate-capitalist state constant distraction is the main mechanism to keep the people from engaging in public affairs.

The courageous American public intellectual, Noam Chomsky wrote:

“Control of thought is more important for governments that are free and popular than for despotic and military states. The logic is straightforward: a despotic state can control its domestic enemies by force, but as the state loses this weapon, other devices are required to prevent the ignorant masses from interfering with public affairs, which are none of their business…the public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products.”

Control of thought and behaviour through entertainment. Television being the main medium of information with its heterogenous and representative mass audience approaches as the best candidate for states and private corporations to consolidate their interests by transforming all public discourse in the form of entertainment. “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce,” observes Postman, “have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.”

Entertainment’s encroachment on the intellectual culture has altered not only the habits and activities of intellectual engagement but also the image and function of intellectuals as well. As the influence of the printed word is gradually moving to the periphery and the rise of (moving) images as the source of information and knowledge the shift of intellectuals’ position into TV personalities has come about.

 Antonio Gramsci declared that “All men are intellectuals… but all men do not have the function of intellectuals in society.”

The Filipino public now looks upon TV personalities like Kris Aquino, Boy Abunda, Vice Ganda, etc.– including politicians because they are given an equal amount of media coverage– as intellectuals. Although the average people may refuse to use the word intellectuals, these celebrated personalities function as such because of their influence and authority in the media. They have become the “sources” of ideas, meanings, interpretations, and identification for the general public in the 21st century.

Compare this phenomenon to the second half of the 19th century in the Philippines where an outburst of unprecedented creativity and intellectual accomplishments marked a new era in the intellectual and cultural history of the country.

Filipino scholar, Resil Mojares remarked that “No period in Philippine intellectual history has been as productive and consequential as the 1880s. This period saw the appearance of Rizal’s novels, Noli me Tangere (1887) and El Filibusterismo (1891), and his critical edition of his Morga’s Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1890); the books of [Pedro] Paterno, [Trinidad] Pardo de Tavera, and [Isabelo] de los Reyes; [Marcelo] del Pilar’s La Soberania Monacal en Filipinas (1889) and La Frailocracia Filipina (1889), [Graciano] Lopez Jaena’s Discursos y Articulos Varios (1891), and an important mass of periodical and ephemeral literature… What Rizal (and others) wished to make visible was a formation of Filipino intellectuals staking out their claim over knowledge and its enabling power, exercising intellectual authority over their country.”

If Rizal and his contemporaries were alive today, they would be dismayed by the lapse of “intellectual authority” into mindless entertainment. A television style of performance art that does not require the viewers critical thinking, but passive consumption of spectacle.

On the individual level, a defining effect of entertainment is the drive towards the narcissistic. Narcissism, in its contemporary sense, is the voyeuristic desire to see oneself through the electronic lens of various media: one’s self-image produced and measured by the superficial standards of mass media. The reality shows that crowd the television and our growing obsession with digital exhibitionism testify to the narcissistic states of mind developing in our media-saturated society. The American journalist, Chris Hedges believes that our “generation has fallen down the rabbit hole of electronic hallucinations—with images often dominated by violence and pornography. They have become, in the words of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, ‘atomized,’ sucked alone into systems of information and entertainment that cater to America’s prurient fascination with the tawdry, the cruel and the deadening cult of the self.” It is not hyperbole to say that we are living in an unprecedented period of voyeurism: the addictive and passive experience of seeing and knowing everything in the virtual world.

The link between narcissistic attitudes and celebrity culture is best explained by the mass media’s excessive endorsement of “celebrities”– the uncritical idolization of a media-produced personality. The transformation of celebrities into cultural icons, cult heroes, and role models is evident by the way people identify with them. Their private lives are magnified as though issues of national interest. Every detail of a celebrity’s private life is dragged before the eyes of the public as a spectacle. An aura of myth is invented by the media around celebrities to make them look extraordinary, special, and a separate class of their own very different from average individuals. For that they are called superstars. Stars as metaphor: distant, unreachable, elegant, full of themselves. Very little thought is given to their artistic, moral, and intellectual contribution to the general culture and the values they represent, and yet they are showered with popular adulation and granted unmerited artistic stature.

Entertainment has also committed a powerful assault on electoral politics in ways that the image or presentation of the political candidate counts more than the content of his political record and accomplishment. In the Philippines, the criteria by which to determine the end result of a political election is entertainment: the more entertaining the presentation of a candidate the more convincing to the popular taste regardless of the aspirations and programs the candidate wishes to enact. A celebrity who decides to run for office has more chance of accumulating votes than say an ordinary, local politician. Even a terrain as crucial as politics entertainment has triumphantly trivialized what Sontag calls, “the standards of seriousness.” No wonder the public views politics the way they watch a television drama. To reduce politics into entertainment is to reduce the people, the historical agent, into passive spectators. This situation takes us back to old Tasio’s anxiety: How did we end up loving the trivial, the sensational, the glib, the bogus, the half-hearted?

(To be a Filipino is to be gifted with inexhaustible cultural possibilities. – quote)

The principal implication for a country like the Philippines of the power and persuasiveness of entertainment is the erosion of other alternative cultural influences which our country is highly blessed. To be a Filipino is to be gifted with inexhaustible cultural possibilities. The numerous islands’ cultural heritage, the countless indigenous groups and subgroups and local communities each possessing a history, a tradition, and a rich set of values, skills, knowledge and wisdom. It is this infinite multiplicity and diversity of indigenous worldview that we must rediscover, revivify, and renew in this dangerous period of life-denying commercialism where people are reduced to obedient spectators, transformed into atomized consumers, and the environment looked upon as a mere source of raw materials to be exploited.

The anthropologist Katrin de Guia articulated in a paper called, Indigenous Filipino Values: A foundation for a Culture of Non-Violence the significance of indigenous values embedded in the term, kapwa:

“The core value of Filipino personhood is kapwa. This idea of a “shared self” opens up the heart-doors of the I to include the Other… Kapwa and Filipino personhood emphasize the function of the whole plus its isolated parts. Such a worldview seems quite handy in our over-crowding planet, where we have to learn how to tolerate each other and live together, lest owning an armalite becomes our only option. Better, kapwa and the including orientation of Filipino personhood, which trains us how to blend and collaborate, how to enhance and support one another. Kapwa coaches people to pool their strength and achieve common goals by working together. It teaches how to share surplus, instead of hoarding and racketeering. The Filipino value kapwa makes sure the heart is also full, not just the stomach or the bank account.”

To ignore the vast cultural landscape of indigenous reality is to limit human potentialities. Illiterate of our cultural traditions we succumb to the destructive forces of materialistic Western culture which is moving inevitably towards the collapse of the environment.

CONCLUSION

The answer to the question whether entertainment is helping to create a more educated society and a more serious culture seems to lie on the content and quality of the programs themselves. As long as cultural critics and the spectators in general ignore the deleterious influence of television and the internet private corporations with a monopoly on commercial broadcasting will continue unabated its institutional duty to accumulate profits by producing and creating biased, low quality, intelligence-destroying programs just to amuse the viewers. It would be outrageous to claim the elimination of the culture of entertainment in the future but one can hope for, as are already taking place, constructive and creative alternatives locally and nationally. Artistic and activist projects initiated by grassroots and youth movements of various communities stand as a challenge to the passivity and cynicism of the entertainment industry. Another significant factor and urgently needed is the cultivation of criticism, particularly media criticism because “only through a deep and unfailing awareness,” explains Neil Postman, “of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”

The values and attitudes the entertainment industry is producing should cause anxiety to any citizen concerned with the intellectual and moral traditions of his country whose identity is founded on the richly diverse ensemble of cultures and communities.

Katrin de Guia in the same paper underscores the cultural struggle set before us:

“In today’s Philippine society, there is a need for men and women who practice what they believe. For people who manage to resist the cultural erosion that swamps this country since the large-scale adoption of imported lifestyles. Vital for survival are individuals who have the strength to inspire future generations— to contribute to a Filipino nation of citizens whose worldview is nurtured by both, the tribal wisdom of the past and the vision of global unity in the future.”

The neglect of the “indigenous element” by the Spanish Church’s hegemony in the islands is what triggered Rizal and his contemporaries to initiate a cultural revolution that would reclaim Filipino identity through the laborious and failed enterprise of nation-building. Today, any existing cultural struggle must base itself on the unfinished struggles of our ancestors or, what Paul Goodman termed as “missed revolutions of modern times.” The struggle should be aimed at the destabilization of entertainment’s infiltration in various fields of social and cultural life. To re-work on the failings of the past and emphasize the values and dreams our ancestors have embodied. To embrace indigenous reality and the values they represent which are being discriminated today by soulless commercialism and consumerism.

We need a culture that values human beings and communities as kapwa, respects, preserves and protects indigenous cultures, and cultivates the natural capacities of the young. A culture that is “a daring and passionate culture.” The revolutionary possibilities in all areas of culture are enormous. In the field of arts and letters for instance, Paul Goodman remarked:

“In arts and letters, there is a right balance between the customary social standard and creative novelty, and between popular entertainment and esthetic experience. Then, to offset Hollywood and Madison Avenue, we must have hundreds of new little theatres, little magazines, and journals of dissenting opinion with means of circulation; because it is only in such that new things can develop and begin to win their way in the world.”

The point is to redefine entertainment and the values it represents and to constantly and boldly create through solidarity local alternatives that would undermine and ridicule the blind defenders of the market-driven TINA (there is no alternative) culture. For such an immense and painstaking enterprise our country will need the collective efforts of young men and young women and their communities called for by Rizal in the last pages of his second novel, El Filibusterismo. They are perhaps the most ethically painful, the most morally agonizing, and the most heartbreaking passages to read in all of Rizal’s writings:

“Where are the youths who will dedicate their innocence, their idealism, their enthusiasm to the good of the country?… Where are you, young men and young women, who are to embody in yourselves the life-force that has been drained from our veins, the pure ideals that have grown stained in our minds, the fiery enthusiasm that has been quenched in our hearts? We await you, come for we await you!”

Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino, born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy.

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