May 19, 2012

In 500 words or less #002: The Filipinos' love affair with Jessica Sanchez

With American Idol entering its final week, Jessica Sanchez-mania in the Philippines has hit fever pitch. Social networking sites have been flooded by Pinoy Pride campaigns about the AI finalist. She was the banner story in the news program State of the Nation where Jessica Soho called her as our kababayan. News about and pictures of Sanchez hogged the front pages of broadsheets. Even Malacañang jumped on the bandwagon, with Abigail Valte urging Filipinos to “please show your support in any way possible for Jessica Sanchez. This is the last stretch and we know that when Filipinos gather and put their minds into it, it will happen.”

Is Jessica Sanchez a Filipino? The legal system obviously does not distinguish her to be one. Mainstream pop culture does not recognize her as Filipino as well. She is competing as an American idol after all. But for her millions of adoring Filipino fans, these distinctions don't matter. To their mind, she is one of their own as blood and kinship lines are salient. For them, Jessica is as much a Filipino as naturalized basketball player Marcus Douthit is not, legal distinctions of citizenship notwithstanding.

Some say that this is just another expression of a Filipino penchant to reclaim foreign celebrities as one of our own. We have our love affairs with, Nicole Scherzinger, Bruno Mars and other Hollywood celebrities with fractions of Filipino blood. The claim, however, that this is a distinctively Filipino attempt to desperately reclaim national pride is bullshit as other countries and cultures have engaged in similar reclamation projects as well. Kenya and the rest of the African continent celebrated Barack Obama's presidency as the ascent of one of their own into the height of political power. More recently, Jeremy Lin's out-of-nowhere rise to basketball stardom captured the imagination of East Asian - Taiwan and China in particular – as a fairy tale of a son that has done right to overcome the obstacles of living in a foreign land.

These various attempts by people to construct connections along ethnic lines look surprising only in the context of modernity's self-description of having overcome such “traditional” distinctions. Modern society fancies itself as rationally guided by a functional world view as opposed to the personalistic world view of traditional society. In making a choice between modalities of a social object, the modern professes using performance and achievement instead of attributes and qualities as guides to action and choice. The modern would ask, “can't we just admire Jessica Sanchez because she's a good singer and not because of some imagined transcendental connection?” But this is naive modernity, because the reality is that people still find meaning using these personalistic distinctions. Behind its rational veneer of modernity, our society still rests on foundations shaped by practices of ascription. Life chances – including one's fate in a talent contest – are shaped not just by some instrumental performance-based criteria but also by personal attributes, networks and a dose of serendipity.

May 13, 2012

In 500 words or less #001: The airport incident and Big Brother

Amidst the brouhaha over the airport incident which gripped the Filipino imagination like a national disaster, I have been watching with amusement how the broadcast media has been observing the event. One could feel a sense of discomfort from media personalities whenever somebody brings up the right to privacy vs. right to know debate that underlies the argument between Ramon Tulfo and the Santiagos. After all, TV news outlets have been actively promoting snooping into other people's business and capturing them on video for public consumption as a legitimate journalistic enterprise. This voyeuristic practice has even been given a respectable veneer as citizen journalism: audiovisual tsismis repackaged with hip titles like YouScoop, Bayan Patrol and JournalisMo.

It is really ironic that a fight provoked by an unsolicited photo grab has been brought to our attention by an unsolicited video grab that has gone viral. The ultimate irony rests with the Santiago couple who saw hellish intrusion in Tulfo's cellphone camera but, in seeking vindication, hoped that the incident was captured by the airport's CCTV cameras. We know by now that their hopes were misplaced as the CCTV cameras turned out to be blind. But the interesting point is that the Santiago couple's protestations of invasion of privacy stems not from the fact that they were caught on camera but rather that they were caught at an unflattering angle. Invasion of privacy has been reduced to not asking permission to make people look bad in public.

 Our long love affair with television and movies has made us oblivious – most of the time even welcoming - to the gaze of the camera. We find comfort, not fear, when surveillance and CCTV cameras watch over us like an all-seeing security guard. We take pictures in the dining table as if the food's taste would linger less in our mouths if we forget to take snapshots of our meals. We spend half of our vacation time in photo and video documentation as if the happiness we felt would be less real if we entrust our experience only to our memories. We take pictures and videos while giving birth, dining out with friends, singing in karaoke, grieving the dead, sleeping, praying, reviewing for an exam, recovering in a hospital bed, taking a bath, copulating, and everything else in between. We live not a life of lived experiences but a life of audio/visual files stored in memory cards, hard disks and internet clouds.

 When the novel 1984 was published, George Orwell sent chills down the spine with his vision of a negative utopia called Oceania where everybody is subjected to the videotaping surveillance of a totalitarian regime. “Big Brother is watching you,” was the dictatorial party's constant reminder to the populace of their encompassing gaze. Half a century thereafter, we have become an Orwellian world turned upside down. Big Brother is not needed anymore to engage in the voyeuristic documentation of our everyday actions. We are already busy taking care of that by ourselves.