This paper examines Jessica Hagedorn’s postmodern novel
The mixed reception of Jessica Hagedorn’s 1990 novel
Critics who find Hagedorn’s novel problematic are mainly concerned with its postmodern mode of representation. They are worried that postmodernism’s tendency to destabilize any prescribed social meaning will return as a boomerang to foreclose any positive engagement with the concrete historical world. Delineating postmodern literary techniques employed in
Represented as a cinematic spectacle, the Philippines of the novel could be any Third-World society floating in the familiar image-world of America, unmoored from specific historical contexts. Embedded in “a rich multilayered discourse” and empowered by “the capitalist principle of repetition,” he argues, this work of the “culture of repetition” reduces “even parody, satire, and irony to aspects of a relativistic and redundant cosmos,” against which any intimation of resistance can only be “a stylized gesture of protest” (126).
Similarly, Myra Mendible sees Hagedorn as a kind of native informant, as it were, who displays her characters for the scrutinizing gaze of the Western reader: They are “the object of scrutiny, the exotic spectacle presented for our information and knowledge, the natives as imagined (theorized) by the ‘nativist’” (292). The novel as a postmodern enactment of spectacle is ultimately self-undermining because in “creating a space for repressed or marginalized histories by destabilizing the epistemological bases of power,” it also denies “those histories any credibility” (301). In dissolving all claims of knowledge into the world of simulacrum, according to her, it simultaneously dismisses the feasibility of a coherent subject to make any meaningful engagement with history and culture.
As Louis Althusser laid out, social hegemony is ensured by the reproduction of the conditions of production, which include both the productive forces and the existing relations of production. In this light, the above two critiques are pertinent in warning against postmodern “culture of repetition” reproducing dominant social relations, especially, in the form of US-normative pluralism, which celebrates differences in cultures and lifestyles while obscuring the real social relations of domination and subordination. Due to uneven development, however, a totalizing reproduction of hegemony is impossible and, as San Juan, Jr. himself acknowledges, “[c]onjunctural opportunities” can be seized in gaps, fissures, and cleavages opened up in the field of negotiating positions; hence, “the ambiguous, equivocal effect” of
Other critics, on the other hand, propose postmodernism as a useful tool to critique modernist agendas and to articulate transnational cultures. Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan read postmodernism as the symptom of postmodernity, illuminating the ways in which “a culture of modernity is produced in diverse locations” (5). As “cultural expressions” of “scattered hegemonies,” postmodern works of art problematize the mystification process of Western culture as “modern” and “original” and simultaneously disrupt the reification of non-Western cultures as “primitive” and “traditional” (7). Similarly for Lisa Lowe, postmodern writing can be “decolonizing” (103) through “horizontal” or “metonymic” contagion that ruptures the “vertical” or “metaphorical” hierarchization, exploring instead an alternative to the developmental narrative of the realist novel (115).
Also, contrary to the critical suspicion about postmodern denial of history and agency, some scholars find in
Still other critics suggest that we read Hagedorn’s text “beyond” and “between” the meta-narratives of postmodernism and postcolonialism in order to explore the possibilities of political agency as well as to expose the violence of colonial rationality. For Kristen Twelbeck,
If the bildungsroman represents the narrative regime of identity or “a cultural institution of subject formation” (Lowe 103),
The interpellation of the subject by the socialization process is premised upon the Cartesian idea of identity whereas for Merleau-Ponty, disidentity is inherent in and constitutive of subjectivity itself. The Cartesian subject is disembodied reason, which simply contemplates an objective world from outside of it, presupposing the correspondence between an independently existing reality and its meaning supposedly garnered “scientifically” and “objectively” by the knowing subject. The Cartesian subject presupposes the opposition between the subject and the world, and this opposition actually assumes the sameness between the two because the subject believes he can construct the world/the other as he knows it. This is how the ideology of subject formation in general proceeds, and Hagedorn illustrates how modern Filipino subjects get constructed according to Marcos-era nationalism and US neocolonialism. But her first-person narrators are quite conscious of this process and deliberately disidentify with it. The process of their critical distancing or disidentification is made possible because Rio and Joey always see themselves and others around them in relations to one another, in the complex field of inter-relations; that is, their subjectivities are formed always as intersubjectivity.
For Merleau-Ponty, subjects are always intersubjects. They are not disembodied reason but bodily beings living in the world, and as embodied beings, they have to use their bodily perceptions to perceive not only the outside world but also themselves: I hear myself speak, so I am both the subject that speaks and the object that is heard by myself. Also, this process of self-perception occurs in space and time, and it entails a time lag as I come to myself not only from inside but also from outside. When I hear myself speak, for example, do I hear it from inside or outside? When I hold both my hands, am I touching or being touched? I am an object-body perceived by my sensory organs from outside while I am the subject that perceives it from inside. I almost simultaneously speak and hear myself, which happens in a circle of time and space—a circle that never closes into a circle. So there is this splitting/time lag between myself as the object-body perceived from outside in and my inner self-perception, and this splitting occurs over time in the realm of the material world. Through this process, the human subject comes into existence, or she is formed as intersubject—always in the world, in relation to other subjects and over the passage of time.
In Merleau-Ponty’s words, the subject is “destined to the world” (xii): the subject is the
This slippage inherent in the constitution of subjectivity enables the self to place herself in relation to other subjects as intersubjects, and this self-consciousness of oneself as an object in a complex field of relations allows the subject to see and possibly resist the interpellation. This opening in the moment of self-relation, when the subject perceives herself perceiving, can be exposed to invasive others—stipulations of racist society, for example—alienating the subject’s self-relation and triggering tormented self-consciousness and distorted self-perception, even self-loathing. This is how Merleau-Ponty’s intersubjective phenomenology, according to Doyle, is embedded in W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” and Franz Fanon’s notion of “third-person consciousness”—“this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” In a dialectic inversion, however, the alienated subject is simultaneously enabled to situate herself within the onto-social relations, see the contradictions between self-relation and the intrusive world, and possibly choose to resist and disidentify with the interpellation.
As outlined in the beginning, the bifurcated critical receptions of
The Opposition between Identity and Difference is premised upon the idea of the Cartesian subject insisting upon the sameness from the other whereas Opposition unveiled as Contradiction points to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the intersubject constituted out of the inherent slippage or contradiction of identity and nonidentity. Transnational intersubjectivity opens up this chasm of incommensurability to place subjects and nations in dialectical relations across global capitalist space and neocolonial time. In
Hagedorn dramatizes in
Narrative enactments of contradictions in representation are further developed by a web of intricate characterization. Vicente L. Rafael argues that the US colonization project under President McKinley’s rhetoric of “benevolent assimilation” was a homogenization process of transforming “the native races into a people,” of producing and reassembling their differences into a totality (196). The novel, however, reveals the “untotalizable totality” (Jameson xii) inherent in the colonial project: it displays the process of neocolonial subject formation only to disrupt it with disidentifying double consciousness. The coherent subject that identifies with the hailing of neocolonial injunctions becomes re-conditioned as a socially encircled intersubject, co-formed through the horizontal dialectics across the field of plural relations. Rio and Joey double-consciously observe Pucha and Romeo, respectively, identify with neocolonial spectacles only to disidentify with them in disgust, rupturing open the mystification process of neocolonial subject formation.
The novel opens with a scene of Rio and her cousin, Pucha, in the Avenue Theater—“Foremost! First-Run! English Movies Only!”—with
A similar dialectic informs the interrelationship between Joey, the other first-person narrator, and Romeo, a working-class Filipino who avidly watches local films, feeding on the dream of himself becoming a movie star someday. Like Pucha, Romeo faithfully mimics the spectacle of neocolonial subjectivity. They never meet in person, but Joey watches Romeo perform on a TV talent show, finding him “pretty cute, but corny”: “Romeo whoever-he-is starts belting out ‘Feelings,’ only he sounds like he’s saying ‘
The dialectics of subjectivities occur not only across horizontal space but also over time since persons as a whole are perceiving subjects that make contact with the world and simultaneously, they are “
The neocolonial construction of a unitary Filipino national identity, disrupted when positioned in circumferential dynamics of intersubjects, is further ruptured when cast in historical perspectives. Multiply-interpellated modern Filipino identities are symbolically traceable in Rio’s and Joey’s family genealogies, which reflect centuries of colonial legacies from Spanish to American.
Rio’s family represents the white mestizo high society of Spanish and American descent. Her paternal relatives claim to be “direct descendants of Christopher Columbus,” while her paternal great-grandfather, allegedly Chinese from Macao, is discreetly silenced. Her maternal grandfather was from “somewhere in the Midwest” and her mother’s grandmother was an “illegitimate and beautiful offspring” of a Spanish missionary and his Filipina lover (238-9). Out of this nexus of colonial histories, Rio’s father, Freddie Gonzaga, is (trans)formed into a neocolonial subject with “flexible citizenship” (Ong 19): “a ‘guest’ in his own country,” he believes in “dual citizenships, dual passports, as many allegiances to as many countries as possible at any one given time” (7). Along with the Gonzagas, Severo Alacran, another Spanish mestizo with “flexible” capital, represents the postcolonial Filipino elites who collaborate with the authoritarian state and transnational capital: Alacran owns “
Rio’s present consciousness, inseparable from these past memories, is co-formed as part of “a continuing life history” (Matthews 60). In the end, Rio becomes a transnational nomad, “anxious and restless, at home only in airports,” constantly “fly[ing] around in circles” in her “futile attempts to reach what surely must be heaven” (247). Pucha, in fact, accuses her for “mix[ing] things up on purpose,” “trying to prove” something, and suggests that “if I were you,
On the opposite side of Rio’s elite status, Joey represents the underside of the neocolonial Philippines. He is a hybrid of an unknown African American GI and a Filipina “whore-mother,” Zenaida. Embodying the “excess” of the neocolonial state, his mother committed suicide in the river, “a watery grave black with human shit, every dead thing and piece of garbage imaginable” (42). She is simultaneously the “mother of a whore” and a “whore of a mother” (203), who not only reproduces illegitimately (Joey) but also reproduces illegitimacy (military prostitution): “her reproductive labor is disavowed as illegitimate; yet this disavowed labor enables the reproduction of sexual labor for the military-tourist industries” (Chang 655). Himself a surplus product of the neocolonial state and transnational capital, Joey is co-constituted as part of the “continuing life history” (Matthews 60).
Unlike Romeo, who always wanted to be looked at but never learned how to observe and critically read the world, Joey watches out, always conscious of his neocolonial genealogy. He performs as the racialized queer body, double-consciously seeing himself as the fetishized object of the neocolonial gaze of his First-World clients such as Neil, a white American GI, and Rainer, a German film director. Always perceiving himself as concurrently the object being perceived in the intersubjective neocolonial relations, he constantly assures himself that “[he’s] in control,” and that “[he’s]
Rio’s deliberate making-up of stories indicates her desire to create her own history as a Filipino American; Joey desperately holds onto his personal history in order to survive; in this vein, as Twelbeck puts,
The contradiction inherent in Identity/Difference dichotomy is further played out as Hagedorn tackles postmodernism itself as a problematic mode of social critique. She professes what critical end she had in mind in writing the novel:
“[B]rainwashed from infancy” by “the Spaniards with their imperialist Christianity” and “the Americans with their pseudo-rescue missions and insidious media,” she confesses she was taught to take whatever was “Made in the U.S.A.” as superior and Filipinos as “inherently lazy, shiftless, and undependable,” whose only talent is for “mimicry” (“Conference” 147). As her resistance to “the empire of white supremacy,” Hagedorn appropriates or
Reflecting the conditions of its own production,
This mimicked self-image of Filipina women as obedient, well-disciplined, neocolonial subjects is evoked, however, only to expose the cracks and fissures inherent in the molded subjectivity. These pious women, Lola Narcisa and the servants, are the marginalized even within the peripheral Philippines, and their sacrosanct image-world reveals itself alienated from their reality— indeed a simulacrum for which the original never existed. These conflated images of Christian iconography and pop cultural idolatry mediate female subjugation, preaching “the virtue of passive suffering” and sanctifying oppression with the “promise of empowerment,” but Hagedorn “usurps and exploits” them, especially in the “Kundiman” chapter, to conjure up “sacred images of woman as a figure of redemption and hope” and to “defame the name of the Father and impugn the rule of the patriarchy” (Mendible 301-2).
Hagedorn begins the final chapter of her novel with a parody of the Lord’s Prayer by evoking the figure of the Mother in the place of the Father, and ends it with another twist to the Hail Mary:
The Mother’s will has not been realized and her kingdom failed to materialize; instead, she has been “defiled, belittled, and diminished” by what was overwriting this prayer to the Holy Mother—the patriarchal rule of the Father. The mother figure evoked is not Holy Mary, who is simultaneously a virgin and a mother and whose empowerment comes solely from “the fruit of [her] womb, Jesus”; rather, she is the “mother of revenge” and her blood is “menstrual, ephemeral, carnal,” and “eternal” all at the same time, carrying literally “the fruits” of the natural world in her womb instead of the son of God. The mother figure, in other words, evokes a fertility goddess as “awesome, powerful, transcendent” (Mendible 302), in the pre-patriarchal, pre-Christian phases of religious worship. Moreover, her image is contradictory— “sacred and profane, defiled and revered, sacrilegious and sacrosanct,” and Hagedorn, in this way, “not only rewrites classical patriarchal hagiography but also blasts apart the discourse of the modern, rational, secular subject” (Chang 659). Far from the docile subject, faithfully mimicking the sanctioned image and shouldering the burden of “beautiful suffering and insane endurance” (251) of neocolonial subjectivity, the evoked figure of the mother reveals the insistence of splitting, the constitutive incommensurability in which our embodied-being-in-the-world exists, revolting against and disidentifying with the injunctions of sameness.
As such, Hagedorne’s