Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Jeepney Spirituality
—for John Giordano

Two Cities

John Giordano describes two views of the city in his essay, ‘Confessions of a Flaneur:’ the datascape and the organic undergrowth of the shantytown—what Michel de Certeau calls the ‘proper space’ and the ‘fact’ of the city (82). He prints a graphic of two exemplary cities built along a waterfront: carefully laid out streets and straightened waterways gently correct the natural contours of the coast line, or else they just violently cube off a new mechanical boundary. Seen from the air, the city represents development and commercialization. But zoom in closer, look into the places where people actually live and work, and you will see something quite different.

Abstract systems and datascapes would emphasize an uprooting, a loss of place and space, a destruction of time and nature. But the shantytown embeds itself along those very areas most exposed to Nature (rivers, ocean fronts, flood-prone areas, typhoon-prone areas). It deploys waste material in its construction and emerges in a tangle of fascinating organic architecture. It follows an older logic of what Levi-Strauss calls the bricoleur as opposed to the engineer. It falls back upon older forms of transportation such as boats, the rail-car. It fosters a real community, a down-to-earth logic and rationality (79-80).


A billboard is an odd thing, isn’t it? A gaunt, skeletal structure holds images of lush, idyllic life up against an empty sky. The contrast between its mechanism and its message, content and effect is absolute. Delicate skin pop-riveted onto angle-iron frames. Ice cold halo-halo baked onto the side of a concrete building. Supple flesh draped over a bony skeleton.

And then you will see, nailed to an improvised corner post in a squatter’s shack, the ruggedly handsome face of the Marlboro Man. And it is not upside-down either. It serves as a wall in the stead of an engineer’s store-bought building materials; but it is not haphazardly chosen either. It is as if a bricoleur is another kind of engineer who riffles through the garbage for just the thing, prefabricated for just this use. It has an honorific place now, as an object of beauty after its ‘proper,’ commercial value has expired. The residents of this ‘Marlboro Country’ may not even smoke, and if they do they are not necessarily loyal to the Marlboro brand. They just know fine finish when they see it. Striking landscapes, colorful and handsome letters (belles-lettres), pretty faces, nice horses. America.

Commercial façade is brought interior to the impoverished domicile. The effect is like an Andy Warhol detail of religious Renaissance painting: the exaggerated size of a small portion of the original, dislocated into a new context, leaves to the viewer to supply the rest of the scene.

The Object of Allegory

Advertising is a great example of the opacity of allegory. In the popular notion of allegory, the image(ry) is nothing more than a hieroglyphic. You could just as well replace the image used to represent its concept with a linguistic description. But for Walter Benjamin, the logos-character of allegory is not a liability. Instead, the language of allegory acquires a shape and body of its own, alongside the concept it represents.

Jacqueline Hitchon and Jerzy Jura point out that advertising is becoming more and more intertextual (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3669/is_199707/ai_n8759377/print). Where it used to directly reference the qualities of the product, postmodern advertising is seldom connected to an ‘out-of-text reality;’ more and more so it references other texts: movies, popular events, or even other advertisements.

Ilong Ranger

Recently Neozep has utilized the visual space of public mega taxis in Metro Manila to advertise nasal decongestants. What is postmodern and allegorical about them is that they work intertextually between American and Filipino culture, assuming a grasp of both English and Filipino as well as foreign cultural material. Hitchon and Jura point out the distance added between such a text’s signifier and its signified. ‘The implied picture of the consumer of such ads bears striking similarities to the image of a reader pictured by Roland Barthes, a reader willing to engage in a complex and elaborate play with the text.’ Indeed, if co-commuters were not familiar with both English and Filipino, or if they didn’t know American popular culture, the advertisement would be a confusing failure.

Time for Allegory

In contrast to the symbol, where form and content are indivisibly united in the mystical moment of happening, allegory exacerbates the lapse between form and content. Like an outline waiting to be shaded in, the object of allegory can appear without a referent, without meaning. Not only can its form persist without its dialectical opposite, it can be trans-formed from one content to another. ‘The basic characteristic of allegory,’ says Hermann Cole (quoted by Benjamin), ‘is ambiguity, multiplicity of meaning.’

In the context of allegory the image is only a signature, only the monogram of essence, not the essence itself in a mask. But there is nothing subordinate about written script; it is not cast away in reading, like dross. It is absorbed along with what is read, as its ‘pattern.’ The printers and indeed the writers of the baroque, paid the closest possible attention to the pattern of the words on the page (Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, 214-15).

Instead of being a dispensable description of the promoted product, the language of allegory is opaque; it takes on a bodily life of its own, as an object. It is not so much that allegory is added value to the object, but that it becomes itself another object alongside what it represents.

Practical Eclecticism

In the eclectic urban domicile, advertisement materials have become objects indeed. A wall made of a discarded billboard may hold family photographs interspersed with depictions of saints. Votive candles may flicker electric among blinking Christmas lights; religious iconography may be peppered with Precious Moments figurines. And it doesn’t mean either good or bad Catholicism. People know when something is useful to them. Objects are granted intrinsic, almost interchangeable value; collected for their material worth, they have exchanged original, intended meanings for a new, decorative value.

Exchange of Economies

A pack of Marlboro cigarettes costs eighteen pesos in Manila. That is a very small fraction of their cost in a developed country. And it is usual to complain that the cigarette companies are exploiting the poor by making their products available at such a low cost. But I wonder what they think about people buying cigarettes by the stick. I like to smoke when I am with a friend or walking downtown. And you can buy Marlboro’s on the street for P2 each. I don’t want to be addicted, so I have a rule: never buy a pack of cigarettes. If I had a pack, I would smoke them. But if I have to buy a stick every time I light up, it has a self-limiting effect. People, too, who can’t afford it, can buy cigarettes one stick at a time, and it surely makes habitual smoking less convenient. I tell people who smoke all the time that I enjoy cigarettes more than they do because I only allow myself one a week. And hasn’t the advertising campaign of backfired when we can enjoy their cigarettes at no practical cost and without coming to depend on them?

Commercial Organicism I

Isn’t there something of a full circle described in the return of advertising materials to their materiality in the form of building supplies? A man finds discarded advertising canvas and turns it upside-down to make a labyrinth for prayer. He walks over the grinning faces of model Jollibee customers reciting the Our Father.

Landscape I

An American service jeep is made for four people. And its rugged angularity is basically militaristic, even when it is used for leisure. But a ‘service’ vehicle in the Philippines is a family vehicle. When something is borrowed to Philippine culture it will inevitably be domesticated. So, when the Americans left surplus jeeps here, they were extended—the back seats were turned sideways so that passengers could scarcely see out, but sat facing one another—so that they could hold more people.

And then the camouflage has to be changed for another kind of jungle. The inside and outside are decorated with colorful words and pictures of unimaginable eclecticism. Scripture and pornography, family portraits and pop stars, wildlife and science fiction, confederate flags and advertising for weight loss/gain programs are all brought together into the same public space.

Each one of these represents a system of value in its own rights. And their marketing depends (to one extent or another) on mutual exclusivity.

Jeepney Spirituality

Growing up a Christian in Canada, one of the favorite topics for youth is the challenge of Christian witness in a secular society. It is simply not cool there to express Christian conviction. And, of course, if you do then you are expected to avoid conflicting expressions. A vehicle’s bumper stickers will almost always represent a morally coherent view, if not an express theme. What would the Filipino jeepney do to Western piety?

Western piety is a kind of corrected datascape. It is a kind of conviction by demographics. Political elections are the aerial schematic where the contours of individuals’ convictions and personal experience are straightened or simplified, mechanized or commercialized into politically recognizable identities. Candidates are chosen on the basis of their careful, usually enigmatic responses to the current moral issues. A ‘pro-life’ stance gets a person elected without regard for the rest of their policy (or lack thereof).

What is patently obvious is that an individual is more complicated than a demographic. The human person is more like a jeepney than a billboard. Our symbols fail us in their pretension to collect all our energies under one heading. Even ‘God’ is ‘dead.’ There is no absolute so absolute as to deserve all my worship. Or, perhaps he does deserve it; but the ‘fact’ of my worship (as opposed to the datascape of a liturgy) is that much of what I perhaps feel should be reserved for the absolute is fizzled away on the lesser gods of education, personal advancement, even just bacchanal pleasure.

I feel self-consciously blasphemous writing these lines, but I also know that to write differently would be hypocritical. Perhaps there is a kind of faith that misses expression in a catechism. Perhaps the jeepney represents a confidence that praise will emerge of itself from a dynamism, a phenomenon in the human heart. That if we keep silent, even the /jeepneys/ will break forth in song (cf. Luke 19:40 and Matthew 21:16). Perhaps this is a protean faith that, like allegory, draws meaning from whatever context it is in. Protean and organic, faith is emergent rather than demographic.

Landscape II

We cannot imagine the jeepney as simply once-more-practical than the American jeep. We have to see in it another form of practicality. The domestication of the jeep does more than just fit more people into it; it transforms the orientation of public space from an individual looking out onto a quadrant of the horizon into a shared (if smaller) space of people facing one another. This communitarian, collective orientation is as basic to the modification of the jeep into the jeepney as is the expansion of passenger capacity.

We could imagine this by saying that the jeepney’s sides are extended (and enclosed) for the aesthetic purpose of creating more canvas space, more surface for the convergence of disparate symbolisms. In this way, a jeepney is more than just an inexpensive mode of public transportation; it represents a mode of public space that incorporates rather than excludes difference.

The jeepney, then, is a resource for peaceful-oriented being-together. People do not have to agree or even converse any more than images need to be thematically coherent. They can simply cohabitate as precious idiosyncrasies. It is partly our uniqueness from one anther that makes each person valuable to others.

Symbol or Allegory?

The jeepney could represent the transubstantiative character of symbolism over against the homo-substantiative character of allegory. Allegory would correspond to the datascape of mega-development, while symbolism could correspond to the organic, the living and magical character of street-level thinking. A symbol does not bear meaning the way a word can be thought to represent a signified; it enacts meaning, bringing it to life in ways that are always surprisingly connected to the situation it emerges from.

The meaning of a symbol emerges from the symbol itself. In contrast, the allegory is without meaning in itself, and colonizes its meaning from its surroundings. This is why Benjamin says they expire (183). Advertisements lose their efficacy over time as the popular culture they refer to passes out of memory. But the object-character of allegory outlives the memory of its referent. The opacity of allegory means that it can be re-inscribed with new meaning in a new situation. The time lapse—while the corpse of an allegory awaits new assignment; perhaps in a private home—is hopeful for the emergence of new value, value that is not tied to the marketplace.

Effective Allegory

Benjamin’s separation of the allegorical from the symbolic, which represents a kind of failure of symbolism, leads to an important and interesting critique of history. But on the other hand, this approach aggressively distances the intellectual from the manner that symbols are still operating, still alive, and still have something divine about them (Giordano 88).

The billboard that has become building material has not ceased ‘operating,’ it is ‘still alive’ and still has ‘something divine’ about it. It represents the beyond brought into the center of the place and way we live. If this has not been the purpose of our imagery from the beginning, then it has already failed and become preaching, propaganda, terrorism. And it is ironic, but perhaps advertising, with its inherently practical raison d’être, with its allegorical intertextuality, is uniquely adapted to persist in a disposable economy. People know what is useful to them. They know phony sentiment. They know when something will not help them.

Commercial Organicism II

Perhaps it is the wealthy and not the poor who are exploited by mass advertising incentives. Jeepney drivers and lavenderas do not buy cell phones for status symbols. To sell their phones in the developing world, companies like Nokia have to parcel out their product in few-peso packages. Ironically, this means that the poor—as if subsidized by the wealthy consumer—use of the product exactly as much as they want, while leaving its ‘surplus value’ on the shelf. There is a fissure that runs through the totalizing systems of globalization where another economy grows organically.

Two Cities (Reprise)

There is a difference of perspective from the level of the street and from the separation of a high-rise or an academe. Giordano quotes from The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism by David Korten:

Neon signs and sumptuous window displays deck the storefronts. But the alleys between the buildings look like human beehives, or termite colonies, with thousands of tiny cellular dwellings plastered precariously against the high brick walls. In each alleyway, a narrow central path, about two feet wide separates the shacks on either side. Made of bamboo slats and cardboard, most of the shacks consist of a single room, about six by eight feet square. Each shack lodges a whole family. On top of the first layer of shacks balances another layer of similar shacks, then another and another. In some alleys the shacks are stacked precariously five or six stories high (p. 80, qtd. by Giordano, 78).

There’s a danger for the academic, that ‘He never enters the interesting dwellings he describes from a distance, he never talks with the people he frames in his depictions. One never hears the voices of the city, the city is voiced only through the reflections of the detached academic’ (85). If academia can only analyze the city from the aerial view of the datascape, it has not yet engaged the city as an organism. The ‘fact’ of the city ‘finds expression through organic architectures, streets with no name, ephemeral cityscapes periodically destroyed by fires or washed away by floods, but always re-embedding, reconstructing themselves’ (79).

The ‘fact’ of the city is, like the Foucauldian subject, ‘repeatedly produced,’ which, Judith Butler says, ‘is not the same as being produced anew again and again.’ There is no cataclysmic rebeginning for the organism. It repeatedly produces itself out of a repetition of the same needs. Likewise, it is never finished, but continues to form itself as regularly as an organism must feed. The facts of existence are simply too bare, too immediate and demanding to allow the distanciation of global reflection. The city is always hungry, and eating, it always grows. Growing, it always changes. But this change is not like development so much as it is like staving off annihilation. The dynamism of the city is great because its need is great. The practical, eclectic thinking of the billboard and jeepney are examples for us of thinking that works from the street level. It is only a dramatically practical philosophy which proceeds from and toward utility that is of any audibility in the din of the city.