Identity in the Age of Hybridity and Fragmentation: Maria Romina Gonzales’ short stories as representations of modernity in the Philippine urban realities

 

Reading contemporary fiction has been my pastime these past few days, so meeting some hot chick in the library is really an event I look forward too. Lucky that I came to meet one. Getting to Maria Romina Gonzales’ book of short fiction is indeed another interesting find in my nerdy ‘book-watching’ hours.

I will analyze four stories that I find representative of her fictional work from the collection Welostit.  These are “Till There Was You,” “Metropole Valentine,” “Elevator,” and “Welostit.” Two objectives will be laid in this paper: First, to give a picture of Gonzales’ narrative techniques and the literary devices she employ in her fiction. Second, to give criticism in a thematic approach, mainly on the social implications of modernity

Using a mixture of Lacanian psychoanalysis, postcolonial theory and postmodern theory, this paper will both be a dive into the psychology of the characters and an inquiry into the dynamics of modern Filipino urban society in a globalized world. Lacanian psychoanalysis will undertake the task of uncovering the complexities of adolescent and post-adolescent Filipino identities in an urban context. Postcolonial theory will try to extend this psyche in a postcolonial context. Finally, postmodern theory will explain each phenomena in light of the era of late capitalism, the fragmentation and play in every postmodern ‘pocket’ in the Filipino urban areas and how Gonzales tries to picture this situation and adapts her stories to project a certain reaction to this fragmenting phenomenon.

 

 

A fascination with the Other

Gonzales’ four stories echo a postcolonial phenomenon of hybridization and mimicry: all are attempts of the characters to stabilize the ego through negatively identifying themself with the other/s and vainly stopping the flux of signification.

This vain search for identity can be seen in two levels: first, on the individual level of characterization and second on the imaginary, collective ‘Filipino’ identity, or what Homi Bhabha brands as ‘imaginary homeland’, following Benedict Anderson (Huddart 47).

One of the most notable traits of Gonzales’ stories are that they often resonate fascination with foreign (pop) culture, specifically the Beatles, French Cuisine, metropolitan lifestyle and other hints of foreign acculturation ( for instance, “Till There Was You” was a nod to the song of the same title, the main character/s in “Till There Was You” were pretending to be Paul McCartney and John Lennon, “Metropole Valentine”s main character can’t ‘outgrow the Beatles,’ the husband of the protagonist of “Metropole Valentines” fascination with Western literature, visual art and film, ‘Welosit”s main character’s love for Simon and Garfunkel, Michael Jackson, etc, the janitor’s use of Lysol disinfectant in his cleaning chores, the use of “Mrs. Robinson” by the Beatles, among others). However, in contrast to these allusions are the efforts to juxtapose traditional ‘Filipino’ values and local culture. This can be seen in the four stories, in which local urban elements such as cigarette vendors (“Elevator”), local TV commercials (“Metropole Valentine”) cursillo and the Catholic Christian religion (“Till There Was You”), an allusion to the ‘East’ (‘Elevator”) and many other hints are used to project the local culture amidst the powers of globalized culture.

This fascination with foreign culture is a perversion, a fascination with the Other, which is the colonial ‘West’. This West, or its ‘Western’ cultural counterpart, however, is an unstable category and is a hybridized conglomerate of cultures that was imposed (the colonizer’s Gaze) on the Filipinos. On the other hand, local culture/s was relegated to oppositions that inferiorate itself. This tension between the self (the local Filipino culture) and the Other is one of the most utilized conflicts in Gonzales’ stories. For instance, in “Metropole Valentine”, the main character expressed her unease over her husband’s newly acquired ‘taste’. Her husband, after coming back from Chicago to the Philippines has been heavily acculturated to the American taste for cultural products such as films, music, etc. Her husband has also lost his literal taste for Filipino cuisine. The main character, on the other hand, felt being a ‘dumb-dumb’, a woman with no taste for good music—indeed, a woman with uncivilized perception of art in general, an ‘uncultured woman.’ This lack, which is the asymmetry between the projected image of her husband before going to the US and the new, Othered image he acquired after going back to the Philippines, has caused anxiety to the main character. Because of the Orientalizing powers of colonial power, she has relegated her Filipino identity as inferior and undesirable to the modern, American way of living.

On the other hand, ‘Till There Was You”, a very schizophrenic story, encapsulated this anxiety (or escape from anxiety) in a literal bottle of beer. The main character was fascinated by the magical, hallucinatory effects of alcohol (or any similar substance, depending on the interpretation) and was led to a physical but also psychological suicide. The main character met his ‘friend’ through a balikbayan who has long hair and a cool, ‘state-side’ outfit. This balikbayan friend is again asymmetrical to the image of the main character—he is very different,

and other-looking, but due to colonial discourse, was redeemed to a higher position. The balikbayan character, metonymically speaking, extended his identity and its accompanying symbols to the bottle of beer. The main character’s playing with beer (and again , its accompanied symbols, for the beer is nothing but a semantic void with no immanent meaning and whose importance is only based relationally to the meanings stuffed in it, e.g. ‘cool’-ness) is hence an attempt to take on the identity of the superior, colonial image. This hybridization, the effort to create a stable identity that one may call as a stable ego in Lacanian terms, is then deemed as an unsuccessful attempt. The beer brought nothing but delinquency and sentimentality in the part of the main character, leaving him to conclude that the beer (or rather the foreign image that he wanted to emulate) could only make him ‘smile, though coldly’. This coldness is in fact the alienation, the Othering anxiety, that the main character cannot comprehend.

This can be seen more lucidly in light of the fact that Gonzales’ favorite characters are adolescent and post-adolescent/ pre-adult Filipinos, the age-frame wherein people are becoming more anxious to project their own singular identities. For instance, in “Welosit”, the female main character was characterized as a not-your-typical-Filipina. She was characterized as adventurous (she listened to Juan Dela Cruz Band while others listen to VST and Company, she is living independently, has her own job, etc), free-wheeling and has more ‘liberated’ morals. However, when she became unintendedly pregnant outside of marriage, she was verbally abused by the mother of her boyfriend:

As she smiled to you and your father from the other side of the large living room, she told me in the simplest language, in the softest voice, that I should be locked up for seducing

her son. There should be an amendment to the crime of pedophilia, she said in a hissing

whisper; it should apply to older women preying on much younger men. (89)

The main character, then, is left in limbo. In this case, the Oriental orientation was radically reversed. From the gaze of the Christian mother, the main character is a whore reeking with earthly lust, which is the direct opposition of the Christian Maria Clara. This Maria Clara, despite its claims to be ‘local’ is only a relational category constructed upon the very idea of a foreign (or Western) woman. The main character claims to be neither of these two Orientalized categories, and hence is Othered by both poles, leaving her a woman who has no identity, which of course she is not.

With the different cultural (colonial) materials at their easy disposal, Gonzales’ projected a picture of modern, urban young people who do not want to be othered but on the other hand cannot isolate their individualities and the culture they were brought up. Gonzales’ texts, summarily then, are pictures of the stresses of hybridization.

Pictures of colonial discourse in the age of globalization and postmodern fragmentation

            Colonial discourse has become more complex and its dynamics has become more intricate due to economic globalization and the flexibility of culture/ the elimination of its geopolitical borders (Said 1978). As a contemporary work, Gonzales’ works reflect this system and its effects in the creation of multiple fragmented realities, especially pockets of postmodern space in Philippine metropolises.

In “Elevator”, a low-profile janitor pees from the top of the 76-floor building, the highest

in the city. His pee inspires different reactions from different kinds of people below. This act, however, manifest a recalcitrance from the alienating and fragmenting powers of modernity within a dominantly capitalist system. In illustration, this janitor is a silenced element in the diurnal rush of a dehumanized work system. For instance, the cigarette vendor works without cease for his daily survival. In the same manner, the tired and abused office woman wanted rest in the hustle of her numbing office work. The couple that the janitor saw doing some ‘non-office business’ were spending their free hours by comforting each other after a day’s work. In general contrast, the janitor works behind the scenes, cleaning the whole building after all the mental and physical mess that her fellow humans have left behind. This physical (for he is literally alone in the building after office hours) and social alienation silences even his very existence— for his very existence is reduced to his labor, or efficiency, in the Lytordian sense — and this silenced labor stresses the fragmentation he experiences (Lyotard. 1984). He is then not different from his fellow Filipinos in this sense.

However, since his very presence is silenced, the desire to redeem his identity (or identity other than being a mere janitor) and his capacity for the insistence of his humanity is lessened. He then contents himself to a very symbolic, yet psychologically fulfilling ritual—which is pissing in the top of the highest building in the city. The building, being the highest, has a symbolic effect: he is in physical terms the highest of all the people, much like a god. The piss is also described by Gonzales as being like a blessing from a priest. The symbolically sacred (yet, of course, at the same time obscene) act of blessing is an act to redeem his humanity among the fragmented automatons of the normal Filipino working class. This is to create a shallow identity (given that it is an identity) within a dehumanizing system of labor.

“Till There Was You” is a same effort with a very different narrative device. In this story, Gonzales manages to project identity not only in opposition to the Other but also in the systemic machine of a cultural simulacrum. The identity is the perpetually decaying Real (Huddart 1986); it is forever elusive, and, as in the case of this story, shallowly schizophrenic in nature (and therefore is a non-identity). The self (the narrator) is first isolated from the projected image of ‘coolness’ embodied in the beer bottle. After a chronological jump (at the end of the story), the narrator reveals the other-ness of the beer bottle. In the middle of the story, which is the chronological ‘ending’ of the story, the self assimilates himself to the simulacrum of the beer bottle, defacing the Real from his identity and totally assuming the identity of the simulacrum (which is of course not the true representation) and hence becoming the simulacrum himself. This simulacrum is the tempting picture of ‘cool-ness’, epitomized by allusions to personalities such as Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, and even his balikbayan pinsan, all of which are imported through the smooth train of globalization. This schizophrenia is a symptom of play in identity in a discombobulating world where identity is as elusive as the Real, identity is fragmented, and identity is impossible.

Gonzales: fictions of representation in an unrepresentable world

In these plays in the juxtaposition of ‘local’ and ‘other’ discourses in the context of globalization, Gonzales’ fiction tried to give a very human and safely untotalizing picture of the Filipino youth psyche in the age of globalized culture. The incorporation of the Filipino ‘touch’ and the presentation of the conflicts and stress that the youth faces is a tough and risky thing to do, since the very idea of ‘Filipino identity’ is in fact a very tricky, if not non-existent as Bhabha may claim, thing to conceptualized especially in a postcolonial context.

Other than this, Gonzales took on the task of creating the confusing picture of modernity in the Philippine urban areas, mainly the Philippines and evaded the traps of categorized ‘resistance’ to it, as expressed vividly in “Elevator.” Gonzales stories played with the idea that the fragmentation of individuals in an efficiency-centric social system requires mapping of these different realities, a method elaborated by Fredric Jameson in his idea of “cognitive mapping” (Jameson 1988), rather than creating and asserting a totalized identity against the colonial Other and the fragmenting effects of modernity.

In summary, it would be less than a flattery to say that Gonzales did a good work in humanizing his fiction and creating realistic representations of these characters and conflicts.

 

Works Cited

Gonzales, Ma. Romina. 2003. Welostit. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

Homer, Sean. 2005. Jacques Lacan: Routledge critical thinkers. London: Routledge.

Huddart, David. 2006. Homi K. Bhabha: Routledge critical thinkers. London: Routledge.

Jameson, Fredric. 1988. “Cognitive mapping.” From Marxism and the interpretation of culture.” Ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Lyotard, Jean Francois. 1984. The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage.

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