Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Comparison of Colonial Experience: The Case of Philippines and Australia

(This is a reaction / critique of John Docker's The Neocolonial Assumption in University Teaching of English. Yes, I do have a summary of Docker's article. If interested, just email me so I could post it on the blog.) 

Like Australia, there is also a ruling anglocentric assumption in university teaching of English in the Philippines. The difference, however, is that our situation is much worse. This anglocentric assumption imposed upon us is twice sorrier than what Australia has actually experienced. Philippine history has been marred by centuries of colonial exploitations by major colonial powers, namely, Spain and the United States. Worse, in our long period of colonial and neocolonial history, Filipinos, unlike Australian settlers, are native inhabitants of the islands.  

Looking at Fanon’s “hierarchy of culture”, it can be inferred that during the Spanish colonial period, the Insulares who settled in the country can be compared to Australian settlers while native Filipinos can be likened to aborigines of Australia. When the Insulares came to the Philippines to establish Spanish colonial government, they do so by the “virtue of superiority” of metropolitan culture that is mainland Spain. However, because of their removal from Madre EspaƱa, these Insulares (also included in the group were hispanized Filipinos called Ilustrados) are forced into a “necessary inferiority before the metropolitan culture’s necessary superiority”.

What white colonial settlers in Australia have experienced must have also been felt by the Insulares and Ilustrados in the Philippines who, as John Docker aptly described, are “metropolitan-derived, but not metropolitan, both European and not European”. In the Philippines, both the Insulares and Ilustrados lived and behaved like Spaniards, mastering the language and identifying themselves with the Spanish metropolitan culture – since, according to Docker, they are always “striving to become what they cannot be”. This futile attempt by Insulares and Ilustrados to assimilate with Spain was evident during the Propaganda Movement when group Filipino reformists insisted on annexing the Philippines as part of Spain and asking for Philippine representation in the Spanish government. 

However, throughout the centuries of Spanish colonial period it was perhaps the native Filipinos suffered the worst “psychological disturbance” inflicted by Spanish colonizers. Native Filipinos or indios were looked down upon both by Insulares and Ilustrados, destroying their native culture and excluding them from government and education. Spanish, as a colonial language, can only be restrictedly learned by the affluent. 

(This is not to say that the inability for the population to master Spanish is something to lament about. What I am saying is that, at this present time, Filipinos are becoming more detached in learning our hybrid history during the Spanish occupation. We cannot even access the language of Filipino writers who all wrote in Spanish! It would have been interesting if common Filipinos could directly appreciate the original language used by Rizal or read Spanish texts about how the Philippines was portrayed by Spaniards.)

Once more, during the American occupation, we were again subjected to psychological disturbance when the Americans imposed English as a medium instruction in our educational system. True to Fanon’s insight, it was the still the elite and middle class Filipinos, many of whom are descendants of Spanish mestizos, who first acquired the English language. As a result, they held key positions in government and the academe. 

Because the American government was using the education as its neocolonialist tool, Filipinos have eventually acquired and incorporated English into its learning system. English assured our access to everything American – western films, books, culture, and products. This acquisition of colonial language became the very foundation of our undying colonial mentality or the start of our so-called “white love”.  

When it comes to the situation in the academe, Philippine learning institutions, like Australian universities, suffer too from forced imposition of canonical texts by American and English writers. But worse than Australia, Filipino students’ linguistic diversity hampers their learning because they have to at least learn three languages – the native, national (Tagalog), and colonial (English) languages both for academic and social survival. Also, English canonical texts contain Western themes and context that are irrelevant and inapplicable to the lives of common Filipinos such that, in school, for instance, students had to learn more about winter before they could appreciate Robert Frost’s Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening. 

Indeed, the comparison between Australia and Philippines as postcolonial nations is established through Docker’s revelation that anglocentric assumptions produce detrimental effects to learners in the academe. But perhaps, it would be a meaningful gesture to inform Docker that anglocentric assumption is suffered in many places – native inhabitants suffer worse than colonial settlers; Filipinos in twice sorrier state than Australians. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Reading from Hell: A Reaction/Critique of Sangari's Politics of the Possible

(Still undecided if I should post my own summary and understanding of the "The Politics of the Possible" on this blog because of its "fantastically realistic" length. You can personally request a copy from me if you want.) 

I used to appreciate postmodernism until I read Kumkum Sangari, whom I am tempted to call the writer from hell. But if hell keeps such a critic, then there is a reason why she was placed there – that is to play devil’s advocate to postmodernism’s imperious role in the contemporary world order. While I was condemned to understand Sangari’s almost indecipherable language, postmodernism’s punishment was its blatant exposure as “another form of internalization of the international role of the West”.

Postmodernism appealed to me because my mind was naively framed into understanding postmodern concepts within the Euro-American sociocultural movement. Reading Kumkum Sangari however, made realize that postmodernism cannot contain the emergence the nonmimetic writings by postcolonial writers within its epistemological framework. The social, cultural, and historical formation of colonized subjects who gave rise to nonmimetic fiction is just too rich and distinct to be part of postmodern preoccupation.

Nonmimetic fiction is nonmimetic fiction. Postcolonial writers inhabit a distinctively rich historical placement that it is almost ironic and inconceivable to categorize nonmimetic, non-western texts into Western epistemological lens. Sangari could not have been more correct when she suggested that perhaps it might be a “meaningful gesture” for postmodernism not to reclassify nonmimetic writings into its epistemological preoccupation until the monologue of the self and other are replaced by a “genuinely dialogic and dialectic history that can account for the formation of different selves and construction of different epistemologies”. 

But the question is: is it possible to construct an epistemology that can genuinely articulate and confine the profundity of colonial experience?

In my view, the answer to this question lies in the very title of the article, The Politics of the Possible. Nonmimetic writing is a catalytic attempt to articulate the almost unimaginable havoc brought about by imperialism to the lives of people in colonized countries. In other words, the differentiation between what is real or marvelous cannot be ascertained in marvelous realism precisely because the effects of colonial experience are unthinkably real to indigenous subjects. 

For Sangari, marvelous realism is attached to both “the real and the possible”. For hybrid writers of nonmimetic fiction, the depiction of their simultaneous existence within the “national and international, political and cultural systems of colonialism and neocolonialism” can only be made sense by presenting what is unimaginable and real through nonmimetic narrative modes of writing. 

Indeed, marvelous realism becomes a space of possibilities for postcolonial writers. For them, it is possible to emphasize “qualitative differences”, especially in the concept of time, between postmodernism’s historical singularity and non-mimetic fiction’s richness in time quality. It is also possible to make sense and depict the brutalities and devastation caused by colonialism through non-Western narrative texts.  

It is possible to liberate themselves from the conventions of the West and convey their aspirations for national change through their fiction. Most importantly, it is highly possible for the postcolonial writers to produce a “genuinely dialogic and dialectic history and epistemology” that can articulate, account, and contain colonial experiences of indigenous subjects. 

However, the task in producing such epistemological framework should definitely come from among us and not from the West. For Sangari, her task was to point out the dangers of Western classification and give postmodernism hell. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Unlearning Western Mathematics? Mind the Language First

(CRITIQUE / REACTION to Alan J. Bishop's "Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism" which I previously summarized on my previous blog post.)

By the end of his essay, Bishop poses a broader question to readers: should there not be more resistance to this cultural hegemony (by Western mathematics)? The answer, though full of cynicism, is that there really is nothing much that the world can do about it. When I think about Western mathematics, I think about how deeply ingrained it is in our logic and ways of thinking that it is almost impossible to make the subconscious be consciously aware about its existence and implication in our system of thought.

The values associated with Western mathematics – rationalism, objectism, power, and control – are all reflected on how the global society thinks and moves at this present time. For instance, the emphasis on superiority of reason is present in our standardized school system where people are measured and categorized based on their capacity to reason. Also, success, assessed based largely on materialism, judges people according to what they have at a computed price or value. Moreover, the drive to achieve infinite progress for human civilization through science, mathematics, and technology enables us to think that we can control both our social and physical environment.  

Indeed, there is virtually no escape from adopting and employing Western mathematics within the world system. Resisting something that is totally ingrained within us has deep consequences. The process of unlearning mathematics is almost unthinkably impossible for a global society that has largely been shaped and influenced by it. 

However, if, in his essay, Bishop is opening the question of resistance to gather ideas on how to repel cultural hegemony brought about by the imposition of Western mathematics on indigenous communities, then his very work has already provided a possible answer for such resistance. Creating awareness is a form of resistance. The process of unlearning cultural hegemony starts not by outright rejection of Western mathematics, but by inculcating "critical mindfulness" about its presence, impact, and implication in our society, in our ways of thinking.

The problem with Western mathematics’ cultural hegemony is that it dwells deeply within our subconscious both as a seemingly harmless and “culture-free” knowledge. As such, the initial step to combat its deceptively pervasive existence is to be conscious about it and to inform the subconscious about its effect to our ways of thinking. Teaching ethno-mathematics in schools, for instance, helps activate our remembrance of the indigenous concepts lost during the imposition and domination of colonial mathematics. As a mathematico-anthropological subject, ethno-mathematics can reconstruct cultural memories about our past logic and ways of thinking. It does not have to entirely push Western mathematics aside, but only to accommodate diverse mathematical methods from all over the world and gain appreciation of our rich cultural knowledge. 

While accommodating ethno-mathematics in the already well-established system of Western mathematics, it is also strategic to consider teaching Western mathematics using the indigenous language to contextualize the abstract concepts and learnings for students. One of the perils of teaching mathematics in colonial language is that it alienates learners from understanding abstract ideas being introduced in mathematical problems. The language itself splits the consciousness of learners who are trying to grasp analytical and situational concepts in mathematics that are contextually foreign and oftentimes irrelevant to their lives.

With this, I am talking about my bitter love affair with mathematics mainly from grade school up to high school. English, my third language, is the medium of instruction in textbooks and classroom instruction.  Specifically, my problems were comprehension and analysis of lengthy word problems, some of which are contextualized based on foreign situations. This process of linguistically filtering thoughts for a student is unimaginably agonizing because one has to overcome the barriers of language in order to comprehend and, in the process, become a “rational” being. 

In my case, I was only fortunate to have met a teacher who defied teaching instructions and never imposed English and Tagalog in teaching us mathematics. Instead, my mentor encouraged everyone to speak Bisaya, my native tongue, in order to clarify our thoughts and understand mathematical methods properly. Eventually, her technique worked. Although I still dreaded math subjects in university, I passed both calculus and statistics with satisfying marks. It would never have been possible without the support of a mentor who believed that understanding lies deeply in language and critical examination of what is being imposed on us.

Bishop, Alan J. 'Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism'. Race and Class 32(2), 1990 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Summary of Alan J. Bishop's "Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism"

Western mathematics, as part of western European culture that perpetuate imperialist goals, is seen as a secret weapon which maintains the imposition and domination of western cultural values on indigenous cultures around the world. Bishop used the term “secret weapon” to reveal how, even today, the belief that mathematics is a culturally neutral knowledge persists in contemporary schools.

This perception stems from the fact that universal validity of mathematical truths, which are abstractions from the real world, seemingly makes the knowledge as though it is neutral and context-free. To say, for instance, that a kilo of wild bananas harvested in Guinea Bissau equates to 2.20462 pounds is valid everywhere. However, it should be noted why kilo and pounds are used for standard measurement of mass and why the conversion from kilo to pound always equates to 2.20462.

The answer to these questions, according to Bishop, essentially points to an authority that determines the standardization of measurement and other mathematical ideas which, like any other ideas, are a product of cultural history and human construction. Mathematics, as Bishop argues, is a cultural product present not only in contemporary schools that uses standard Western mathematics but also in indigenous communities all over the world.

As shown in anthropological literature, alternative mathematical systems exist through the study of ethno-mathematics, defined as “a localized and specific set of mathematical ideas which may not aim to be as general or as systematized as ‘mainstream’ mathematics”. Through ethno-mathematics, we find out that different counting systems in the world exist; for instance, in Papua New Guinea, 600 various cycles of numbers and body-part counting system are documented (Lean, 1991). Also, even the conception of space differs from one culture to another; for instance, Menninger (1969) observed that in contrast to Euclidean geometry which relies on the object-oriented ideas of points, lines, planes, and solids, the Navajos perceive space as something that cannot be divided or objectified. Moreover, in contrast with western hierarchical classification matrix, people of Papua New Guinea adopt a linear form of classification resulting to a different logic and ways of relating to phenomena.

In the Philippines, a study on ethno-mathematics conducted by UP College of Baguio (1991) reveals the existence of algebra in the weaving patterns, gong music, and kinship system of the Kankana-ey in Mountain Province. These studies on ethno-mathematics provide us with better understanding of mathematics as a pan-cultural phenomenon. However, western mathematics, as part of western European culture, has succeeded in internationalizing and standardizing math for indigenous communities around the world for more than three hundred years.

With this, Bishop points to three major mediating agents in the cultural invasion of western mathematics in colonized countries: 1.) trade and commerce, 2.) administration and government, and 3.) education. The commercial field serves as the area where western currencies, measures, and units are employed and imposed on trade and business transactions. In the government, western numerical procedures are used for computation on tracking numbers of people and commodities. Most importantly, it is through education that western mathematical ideas and western culture are propagated. As Bishop views it, western mathematics is “abstract, irrelevant, and elitist” for indigenous students who are educated “away from their culture and away from their society”.

The adaptation of western mathematics by indigenous cultures has had and continues to have powerful implications in the indigenous culture when it comes to education, national development and continuation of cultural imperialism. The clusters of values associated by this system of knowledge have had tremendous impact their logic and ways of thinking. First, western mathematics embrace rationalism as its spirit which invigorates and drive human minds. Second, the value of objectism found in western mathematics forces indigenous cultures to decontextualize the way discrete objects are perceived and abstracted. Lastly, western mathematics emphasizes man’s power and control over his physical and social environment in contrast to other indigenous thinking.

Indeed, western mathematics has remained a powerful and useful tool for almost every country in the world. The mathematico-technological culture has rapidly grown and its implications are now being understood. As Bishop suggests, our responses to the domination of western mathematics should be that: 1.) we create interest in ethno-mathematics, 2.) produce greater awareness of one’s culture, and 3.) re-examine the history of western mathematics. In this way, even as the world has generally accepted western mathematics in its system, recognizing and understanding its implications on indigenous cultures is important for critical debate in education and resistance to cultural hegemony and imperialism.


Bishop, Alan J. 'Western Mathematics: The Secret Weapon of Cultural Imperialism'. Race and Class 32(2), 1990

UP College of Baguio. The Algebra of the Weaving Patterns, Music, and Kinship System of the Kankana-ey of Mountain Province, 1996.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to Poetry (#1 - UP Diliman Series)

Strange, Stranger Gazes

In the library 
where books become walls
to people
whose looks resemble
their thoughts:
of finishing homework
and killing time,
of learning ahead
and spacing out.

In this place,
where silence and noise
become idle sounds,
my eyes are lost
among pages and spaces
you move around:
between the shelves,
behind the counter,
beside me.

But these walls keep
its rule of silence
my eyes have to defy.
I learn to speak
your language of gazes:
those tug of wars,
those hits and misses,
those stolen glances
that mock the silence
of this place.

In the library
where walls avenge
the foes of silence,
our gazes are muted
like words of pages 
housed in this place.
We do not belong here –
and words are blind
to the language of our eyes.

 09/10/2012, Sovesal
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