14 August 2013

Notes on a journal of subculture

BAKA NG INA MO!: O bakit hindi palaging mother knows best ... by Ronaldo Vivo Jr., Erwin Dayrit, Danell Arquero, Earl Palma, Ronnel Vivo, and Christian De Jesus (UngazPress, 2013)

Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure, I will do with you as the ancients of old did with their afflicted: expose them on the steps of the temple so that each one who would come to invoke the Divine, would propose a cure for them.

And to this end, I will attempt to faithfully reproduce your condition without much ado. I will lift part of the shroud that conceals your illness, sacrificing to the truth everything, even my own self-respect, for, as your son, I also suffer your defects and failings.

– J. R.

Sir, confirm ko lang, dalawang baka po ba? O isang pak u journal at isang baka?

– UngazPress

1 Shrapnel

UngazPress detonated its second bomb a couple of months ago. But the aftershocks were still being felt. The victims were still reeling from pain and suffering. The shrapnel was still embedded in the mutilated bodies of readers. There's no surgical operation which can remove its traces in the living tissues. The blast leveled the whole establishment. It has colonized the comfortable and sleazy mindset. The scars were here to stay, tattooed in the consciousness of readers. The bomb's label was a literal bombshell: YOUR MOTHER'S COW!: Or why it's not always mother knows best ... Its covers were still blatant eyesores. In front: a defiant fetus inhaling some noxious substance inside a giant cow's udder. At the back: a naked man having congress with a cow. The same terrorists as those in the previous exercise in literary anarchy were to blame in this latest state of emergency. The five authors collectively known as Ungaz Boys, plus an additional co-conspirator. One was hardly ever prepared for the invasion of mind snatchers.

2 Axiom

"Mother knows best." Our instincts tell us to respect this time-tested axiom. The figure of the mother has always been associated with compassion, kindness, unconditional love. Anyone who dared question the idea ... But precisely it is this very notion of "mother knows best" that the authors interrogate, albeit beyond its literal rendering. To question the absolutes. Things we take for granted as true and those that appeared or are accepted as so obvious we don't even pause, take notice, take stock, and assess these givens. Things we swallow whole like imperishable religions and superstitions. Things like "Practice makes perfect" or "Better late than never", etc. Things like "etc."

3 Cower

At the level of language and humor, there's a lot to admire in this sophomore-that-really-was-like-junior-or-senior effort. It presents a trap for the reader in every page. Readers trapped by their own class trappings and prejudices. BAKA is a pun in Filipino. It means the livestock "cow" and also: "doubt", "perhaps", "maybe", "hesitation", "uncertainty", "unknown", "unknowingness", "unknowability", "uncharted territory", "terra incognita". Your mother's cow might as well be your mother's cowed. Cowed by cowardice, cowering, coward acts, cowardly actions. A mother cowed by apprehensions. A mother's love cowed by worries for her prodigal children. The journal's foreword once again gives ample warning to unsuspecting readers as it poses and then answers the central question, Bakit hindi palaging mother knows best?

Simple lang. Dahil hindi naman lahat ng bata ay may Ina, hindi naman lahat ng bata ay may bahay, marami ang palaboy at lumaki sa kalsada. Kalsadang nagturo sakanila kung ano ang reyalidad ng buhay, mga batang hindi inaruga mg  mga BAKA ni Ina kundi binuhay ng kanilang mga araw-araw na BAKA-sakali at pakikipagsapalaran. Tulad sa dyornal na ito na may turing na anak(ng diyos) sa labas, walang kinikilalang mga pyudal na magulang at lumaki-nabuo ang mga kwento rito sa marahas at malagim na kalsada. Oo, kalsada ang nagluwal at nagturo sa dyornal na ito kung paano tumindig at mabuhay. Ang  panulat namin ay tulad sa mga batang laman ng kalsada na hindi giniya ng mga values at manners ng isang ama o ina sa loob ng bahay, hindi rin ng mga aral ng akademya at simbahan. Wala ring t.v. o internet sa kalsada para mauto sila ng mass media. BAKA trip mo silang pakinggan. BAKA lang naman. 

Simple. Because not all kids have Mothers, not all kids have homes, a lot were strays wandering the streets. The streets taughtthem what's real and not, kids not weaned i in Mother's COUCH but sustained by their daily COW-ering and tribulations. Like this journal which considers itself a bastard child(of god), who doesn't recognize any feudal parents, the stories here gestated-formed in the violent and terrifying streets. Yes, streets bore out and instructed this journal how to stand on its own and survive. Our writing is like the street kids who weren't guided by the values and manners of a house father or mother, not by sacred lessons in the academe and church. No t.v. or internet in the streets, no mass media to trick them. COUGH, you might want to hear them out. COUGH.

4 Foreskin

Take the first story, "Saklob" (Foreskin) by Erwin Dayrit. One could overanalyze the premise and consider the fact of being circumcised or uncircumcised as a satire or allegory on masculinity. One can see it as a representation of an alternative/altered reality. In Philippine society, men who remain uncircumcised were often made fun of. Mocked. It is a taboo, a shame to retain the foreskin. In the story, it's the reverse. The circumcised became the butt of jokes. As a rite of passage, circumcision of young Filipino men is usually associated with his sexual awakening. But the story seems to reject this arbitrary standard of manhood. It doesn't matter if one is uncut or not. The foreskin is here a symbolic covering of labels. Labels like uncut/cut, black/white, male/female, Christian/Muslim. We have to circumcise these extraneous labels.

5 Gamin: Sub(Cult)ure

At the risk of being simplistic, one may consider the journals of UngazPress as an expression of a subculture. This is a subculture who proudly identifies with those who are far from the center of power. Side by side with the dregs of society, the common tao, batang hamog (street urchins), les misérables, Victor Hugo's gamin, God's bastards. The cult of the subculture wants to overturn the larger culture that is inherently hostile to equality and equal opportunity for all individuals of society. It aligns itself with social justice and proletarian movement, but with a more cynical and acid-tongue vociferation. The "high society" ignores the homeless and the urban poor, is particularly hostile to persons with disabilities and children, and as such is soulless and without depth. Those refined people who populate this high society are called "sellouts". Ken Gelder (via wiki) provides the markers for the identification of subculture. It includes: negative relations to work; negative or ambivalent relation to class; association with territory (i.e., kalsada, the 'street'); movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family); stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration; and refusal of the banalities of ordinary life and massification. While several aspects of subculture are satisfied, there is a novel variation in Ungaz in terms of class consciousness. Because the Ungaz subculture delineates power imbalance, a Marxist reading is inevitable. While some stories may depress readers as characters wallow in utter dejectedness ("poverty porn", a friend of mine called them), the "stylistic excess", lexical richness, and over-the-top comedy of subculture lifts them up to liberating heights. I may be guilty of boxing up an idea with this talk of subculture. But I acknowledge the limitations of the term; it is only used for convenience (I can't think of a more appropriate conceptual framework at this point). But then even genre labels like transgressive fiction also delimit the ambit of a work.

6 Fractured

"Nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art." I'm quoting César Aira on conceptual art. "This radicality is precisely what distinguishes authentic art from mere language use." I want to make an argument that the stories in BAKA constitute a procedural and schematic investigation into the psyche of a subculture. And it is radical because it employs no procedure. The lack of procedure is its own procedure. The stories of BAKA are the living, breathing drafts of an untidy reality. The style of this reality must be uncompromising. Hence, capitalization of proper nouns is ignored 90% of the time. (In his final novel Cain, José Saramago has put all proper names in small caps. The Ungaz collective is too inconsistent for that trick. But what S. and the Ungaz probably have in common: nonconformism and atheism.) Proper punctuations are not a concern. Typo errors litter the text. Spell check and grammar are foundation myths. Style guidelines are encrypted in undeciphered Dead Sea Scroll. Editorial interventions must have been downplayed, save for assembling and arranging the order of stories, inserting drawings, and deciding on the text font and cover art. This (hap)hazard(ous) practice of un-proofread publication promotes a kind of hyperrealism in the stories. Because 100% raw reality is unclean, unpolished, unedited, and irreverent. Because this is pseudo-pop reality, absurd and capricious, headbanging in protest. The stories are episodic, almost to a fault. They are fractured (e.g., "DSC", "Tagtuyot sa Buhay ng Isang Agwador", "Iisa lang ba ang putahe ng Jollibee aurora at mga jolibee sa'n mang dako ng bansa?", "Nata ni Coco", "Mga kwentong gusto kong ikwento sa kin ni mom tuwing bedtime"), a pastiche of wordplays and sectioned heartbreaks, silly Sisyphean cyber/virtual struggles. Shattered fragments of a vase, the criminal intents assembled in the mind. Shards that form a whole, with the cracks and glue proudly showing.

7 Motherland

The first epigraph above is from "To My Motherland" (1886), José Rizal's dedication to his novel. It has nothing to do with this post.


The second quote is a text message from UngazPress confirming my order. Copies of the two journals, BAKA and PAK U, are not available in major bookstores, only in one independent book seller in Manila. To reserve the goods, one needed to contact the writer-publishers through a mobile number or a message in Facebook. Copies are either given through personal meet-ups or sent via courier. It is an emerging publishing model for Manila-based indie writers and publishers of printed works that may or may not have ISBNs. Eschew traditional publishing practices. The vanity press Ungaz brings the books directly into the hands of readers. The form is the content is the means of production and consumption is the base and superstructure. A PDF copy of the first journal was recently made available for free download. Facebook was the main base of operations and dedicated platform for advertising, book reservation, and Bernhardian rants and polemics. And yet the transaction will not end with the buying and receiving. The UngazPress deems their readers completely responsible for the way they approach the book. This is indeed a peculiar publishing venture. Let me mention that there's a sorry incident involving an online group of readers (where I belong) and the writers. The discussion of the book became heated; strong views and opinions were exchanged. On the upside, everyone learns he is a passionate reader. Long live arts and letters! After the gladiators took rest and the dust settled, a modus vivendi was (I think) reached.

9 Noir

Nagpapatuloy ang Ungaz Boys sa kanilang malupit na pagkatha ng mga kuwentong sumasalunga sa agos ng kumbensyon at sigwa ng panahon. Pinupuntirya nito ang bestyal na supot na kultura na nagpapalawig sa kapangyarihan ng mga mapang-api, mapang-abuso, at mga evil na puwersa. Di natin yon want. Kung kaya ang BAKA NG INA MO! ay dapat na maging required reading sa mga nakatira sa loob at labas ng Malacañang. Ang BAKA ang tunay na estado ng bansa. Ang BAKA ang tunay na Manila Noir.

10 (Sub)Culture

Because the alternate reality is the reality. And the subculture is the culture.

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