Reactionary Form, Revolutionary Criticism: Taking Pop Culture Seriously

Philippine telenovelas have been, as a genre, denounced and then ignored as wishful thinking, classless, and poor taste; it doesn’t empower the poor, and so on. But because of, among other things, the erasure of the boundaries between high and low culture, some scholars have treated telenovelas, and other forms of popular culture, with all the seriousness that had previously been given to, say, the greats and classics of literature.

The academic study of popular literature in the Philippines was given great impetus and direction by Soledad Reyes and other scholars who did related work on folklore, popular theater,  indigenous psychology, and the like. Today, this sympathetic but serious criticism of popular culture carries on in the work of, among others, Rolando Tolentino (media, etc.), Louie Jon Sanchez (teleseryes), and the contributors to the former’s edited volume on popular culture. Their works have done much to advance the study of and our appreciation of popular culture.

I see myself in this scholarly tradition, and I agree that any radical and progressive should take popular culture seriously, not dismiss it out of hand. It is ironic for people to espouse democratic ideals while dismissing other people’s taste in entertainment and media. A truly radical, progressive, and even revolutionary politics must come to terms with popular culture, and some of its practitioners must set aside their views of it as crass and jologs.

Marxist, radical criticism of popular culture has several tasks; one is to uncover how literary and cultural artifacts—films, novels, art works, etc.— reflect and engage in, through different ways, social, political, and economic issues. This is usually done by situating a work in its historical context, though it must be said doing so is not a province unique to Marxists and like-minded critics. Marxist, radical criticism  also looks for and champions the radical, subversive elements in art forms and literary works, but it should not force the issue, seeing radicalism when there is none. It is anxious to point that a poem or novel is, for instance, an attack against commodification, an exposé of inequalities, violence, and a host of other social and political ills. But not all popular culture fits this mold.

Most importantly, in discussing how popular culture tackles such matters, this kind of criticism must ultimately and—simply—help people understand the society they live in, why it is the way it is, and so on. The task is not directly to call people to change, incite revolution or urge them to take to the stress, but to educate in ways that revolution and change can eventually happen. The road to change and revolution is long, complex, and arduous. But it cannot be done and attained without understanding of the society we are trying to change.

It is true that popular culture can be progressive, sometimes even more so, than high culture. And this character has to be unearthed and elaborated, as has been done by various scholars mentioned above. But what of its “reactionary,” “conservative” or “apolitical” aspects?  Should Criticism dismiss and denounce such forms, or can one salvage a radical purpose therein?

Certainly, one should decry piece of popular culture if it, say, advocates racism, and the like. And as to the seemingly apolitical or conservative TV shows or films — like romantic comedies, love stories, and Aldub, it must be said that they are not really so at all. Love stories are as political and social as a movie about Heneral Luna; they encode and register social issues, and notions of gender, among others, that affect the daily life of Filipinos. Critics have to discuss and debate these issues with the public.

For instance, the poor-girl, rich-daughter motif in much of Filipino soap operas, films, and teleseryes, is not exactly a call for revolution, the social redistribution of wealth, or even self- empowerment, especially of women. On the contrary, it teaches people that you can be wealthy, not by working hard, but by having an affair with a rich man and bearing a child that then has an unassailable claim to the family.

This is not something any self-respecting critic will want to endorse. Even so, we can learn and appreciate that the motif is, among other things, an imaginary solution to the concentration of political and economic power within families in the Philippines. In this kind of society, which affords little in the way of social mobility, only by being born into wealth can one escape poverty. This reading does not paint a flattering picture; nor does it incite any revolution, but it shows us what kind of society we are in: one beholden to the oligarchy, where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few families.

In this sense, engaging popular culture gives progressives, radicals, and reformers a pedagogical and polemical tool that can help them reach out to the public, raise awareness, or even better, initiate a debate with themselves and others. By teaching Filipinos about their society through popular culture, critics establish common ground with their audience, by which they can educate, learn from, and debate with each other. And perhaps such common ground can eventually form a basis for community and solidarity, a la Habermas’ concept of the Public Sphere. For better or worse, more people watch TV and go on Social Media than read books nowadays, let alone academic stuff. Some radicals may bemoan this, but they have to take advantage of the fact, or at least, make the most out of it.  The pervasiveness  of TV, social media, and the internet is as much boon as bane to progressive politics.

Not many people have the time, inclination, or privilege to study Philippine society more deeply than do scholars and the like. Apart from several books, many have jobs and other interests that will keep them from reading and gaining insights from the seminal texts of, say, Philippine political science. And not everyone is so inclined to read such “scholarly, nosebleed” stuff, anyway.

This brings us to the question of writing and language. Some academic works are heavy reading indeed, and it is the task of critics or even the academics themselves to write as clearly as possible. Using popular culture to educate and debate with Filipinos on Philippine society is already advantageous; it serves as an icebreaker and common ground between critics and their audience.

But such a common ground is undercut if critics write in an academic jargon that not everyone can understand. Such specialized language has its uses, not least in peer-reviewed journals, but certainly not for popularization, public education, and public debate. Cultural critics are creative enough, so they can presumably find a way to write in a style that many people will understand.

This much has been asked of academics, but the call has neglected the fact that scholars or critics can promote their discipline’s insights through popular culture. People will arguably be less receptive to even a direct and simply written exposition of patronage politics, even when it pertains to a concrete issue, like a scandal. But when you discuss it through an analysis of a teleserye, you have, I hope and assume, greater effect and impact.

Despite the advantages of using popular culture for pedagogical purposes, there are still obstacles, not least the fact that it can also serve counterrevolutionary purposes. But this duality comes with the territory, and is part of pop culture’s utility. The task, meanwhile, is to resist and for critics to do their thing.

Another, more pressing problem is the question of anti-intellectualism: the notion of “walang basagang ng trip.” For some people, the scholarly, serious study of pop culture kills its value as such.  People watch movies and TV not to learn but to be entertained; critics and radicals cannot denounce the public for their “shallowness”  and “anti-intellectualism, ” not least because it is the same public they are fighting for. They have to respect this stance; only then will they be able to work with—and through— it eventually. That, indeed, is a challenge.

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