Blue Jeans

Reclaiming Historical Agency

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Talking about history in the Filipino public sphere has become a fascinating phenomenon especially today when forces ideological, cultural, and political have prodded the rethinking of our national destiny. Representative of the political force would be the supposed attempt by Marcos loyalists and apologists in revising history which has continually impelled this university to protest forcefully against such a sinister agendum. Of the cultural are the many ways in which history-as-subject have been integrated into works of art, in particular the successful and seamless marriage of film and history in Heneral Luna (dir. Jerrold Tarog, 2015) and the musical adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s Ang Larawan (dir. Loy Arcenas, 2017). Lastly, the recent shift in iconography in the five peso coin from Aguinaldo to Bonifacio, and in the ten peso coin from Mabini to Luna represents the pedagogical nature of nationalist ideology in the omnipresence of money. Hence, public discourse is replete with historical reflection, in addition to the often burdensome and boredom-inducing study of history in school.

Being aware of history, however, is never enough. Merely talking about history is rubbish. And defending historical truth—as the perceived solution to “revision” or distortion—is equally futile and, taken to a higher degree, impetuous. This tripartite separation of awareness leading to discourse and eventually to praxis is an absolute abstraction that attempts to escape the thrownness (geworfenheit) of the human person into a temporal and discursively variegated world. Learning history should not propel us into “action” as if these are different acts being merged by youthful idealism; awareness, discourse, and action constitute a singular act which is the act of the human person-as-agent-of-history.

Various theories made fashionable in the university have been deterrents to our understanding of ourselves as active participants in the historical narrative. The indiscriminate obsession with postcolonial trauma and bourgeois persecution—the bifurcation of oppressor and oppressed—completely obscures the capability of the human person to enact change. Here we see the emasculation of agency and the relegation of the historical agent to helplessness, which is a distortion of history if we really regard it as truthful. Ileto’s thesis in Pasyon and Revolution (1979) brings back agency to the passive masses: that they had inverted the meaning of the passion narrative as an idiom of revolt. More so, social and deconstructivist histories such as Filomeno Aguilar’s Clash of Spirits (1998) and Vicente Rafael’s Contracting Colonialism (1988), respectively, dispute the prevailing notion of victimisation so pervasive in the reading of Philippine history—a notion that asserts that we have been completely passive in the face of intrusion.

I think the invitation for us in the university is to not merely spread “awareness” and to act on that awareness—indeed, the classic distinction between theory and praxis. Oftentimes we are so enamoured with spreading awareness, with discoursing, and with acting (in separate specificity) that we often forget that we are historical beings ourselves. This stems from a highly transactional conception of education where we are expected to act after being deposited with knowledge. History, in this context, becomes merely an object to be studied in its pristine veracity and untainted coherence which must induce us into act; a didactic apparatus for the immature. However, more than just an object of study, history impels us to realize our primordial unity with it. We do not study history as if we throw it before us as an object. We have a dynamic relationship with history because time is ineluctable, but human agency counters the fatality of time.

In this way, history becomes a lived experience—the place of our inquiry and its resolution where we realize our possibilities of being. It becomes not a closed book of the past, but one that opens into the future, and most especially is hospitable of the present. It accommodates all peoples within its sweep: that our ancestors were not passive receptors of change, nor are we subjects of oppression, but part of the dynamic historical movement that looks to a future full of hope (Jer. 9, 11).

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