The Meek [Geek] Shall not Inherit the Earth
16/02/2012 § Mag-iwan ng puna
“And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth” might sound something new yet familiar to many readers – since it really is both. The term “geek” is somehow really new and perhaps Carljoe Javier is the first to use it as a term in Philippine Literature, the geek as a character, however is not. We have always known the “geek,” it is in fact an archetype which is often present in our local TV soap operas, romance pocket books, and novels aimed for teenagers. And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth does not present a fundamentally different geek, it only highlights the often tossed aside geek without in the end changing him/her (or turning him/her in a normal cool guy/gal, as most do).
“I am rarely taken seriously, or taken as a serious writer.” writes Carljoe in his post entitled “Making the Most of my Midi-chlorian Count: Geek Consciousness, Identity, and Humor in Creative Non-Fiction” on his blog. I cannot know up to what extent that is true (if at all), but Javier, as all writers do, deserves serious criticism. And that is exactly what this paper will attempt to accomplish. I will be criticizing Carljoe Javier’s first book, “And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth,” by looking at its implied class positions. The insights and symbolisms utilized in the book will be contextualized with the reality that Philippine society (as with all the countries of the world) currently has an ongoing class war; with the more numerous labor-slaved working class and land-depraved peasants on one side, the few profit-motivated ruling class* on the other, and the middle class, petit-bourgeoisie[*] at the center – as an important force that can be used by both sides.
“The political is personal,” says Carol Hanisch, and since the And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth (hereafter referred to as And the Geek) is a collection of deeply personal creative non-fictions, its form will also be scrutinized with special focus on its effectiveness to articulate the political message/ideal of the works. No one may ever know what a work intends to deliver – even if we ask the author, we can only know what he does – but we can interpret what it actually delivers. And since all human activity (or inactivity, for that matter) has political biases/implications, this critique will be working with a heavy bias against the view that literature is a field autonomous from society (or that it should, or even ‘can,’ be objective or neutral). Quite the opposite, literary works are undoubtedly a product of, in the case of the Philippines, a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country; and therefore these same works will inevitably be consumed by individuals who grew in such a type of society.
“Disheveled and Fat”
That is how Javier, in “My Secret Vanity,” described himself physically; but it can also be used to describe his book’s cover: disheveled in the sense that icons are randomly scattered, and fat since that exact show of creativity perhaps helps the book be profitable. This is not the only case that the book’s content complements its cover. The title itself, “And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth,” seems to be a distortion of one of the Eight Beatitudes of the New Testament (“Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” from Matthew 5:5), and it is, in this sense, the same with the entire book: a romantic distortion of Western norms, culture, and ideas. Moreover, the front and back covers both feature icons of Western origins (Mythbusters hosts), popular in nature (Superman logo), and seems to be dedicated to the macho male (image of a fantastically curvaceous woman) – all of which perfectly fit the book’s contents.
And aligned with the theme of being personal or even intimate, the book, at 7 by 8 inches and not even half-an-inch thick (physically smaller than a regular notebook and lighter than a cellular phone), makes it easy to bring – in the same manner that all our personal stuff (toothbrushes, handkerchiefs, etc.) are all made portable. This consideration for the audience is again seen after noticing that the essays therein average only from four to six pages – perhaps acknowledging that most books are read not in one sitting. This brevity, coupled with only the “geek” factor binding all these essays together, makes the book seem to have multiple fragments, again, compatible with the fact that those are supposedly fragments of Javier’s life.
Between Fact and Fiction
Creative non-fiction (CNF) or literary non-fiction is a relatively young genre. According to Stephen Minot, in “Literary Nonfiction: The Fourth Genre,” CNF is distinct from other literary forms because it is based on verifiable and factual events (nonfiction) but written with a special concern for language and execution (creative). Contrary to news writing which is necessarily factual and uncreative, and fiction writing which is imagined hence creative. Lee Gutkind, in “The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality,” adds that CNF often goals to provoke the interest of the general public to read about a specific topic. He then cited his work “Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation” an example of carefully handling the fact and fiction aspects of CNF (or at least an attempt to). In it, according to him, he talked about the dark realities of illegal organ-for-cosmetic-surgery trade in their hometown; and so, while revealing real situations, he amplifies the effectiveness by not aiming to be objective (which what normal journalistic writing would do).
Factuality and verifiability is therefore one CNF’s strengths. And the Geek, however seem not to focus on truth. In the earlier example, had the organ trade been all made-up, the work would greatly lose its appeal, but that is not the case with Javier’s essays. It loses nothing had all of it been imagined. Also, most of the essays are unverifiable, leaving the readers to either blindly accept the presented situations as real or be left hanging with speculation. In relation to this, the essays which are more grounded in verifiable reality are the ones which are generally better works. “Celebrity Panties and Other Passing Fashions,” “My Memory’s Gone,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” and “My Rock and Roll Lifestyle” all let the readers into worlds which are often inaccessible yet are familiar and known. Most of the other essays however, are too personal and therefore may be foreign to an average reader (albeit perhaps not for the geeks). Most notably is “My Mutant Powers” which is merely an enumeration of the geeky Western “mutant powers” that Javier wanted to manifest in the real world, in him in fact. There is not even an attempt at its end to connect with the general audience with a romantic ideal (as most of the essays end with), hence the reader may often be left asking Is that it? or/and So what?. There are of course attempts, and successful ones, at ending with insights which are graspable for a wider range of audience. These insights serve to differentiate the essays from being mere journal/diary entry.
“I’ll keep trying to make people laugh.”
That is again quoted from Javier’s Midi-Chlorian Count post, preceded by an explanation of his use of humor in his writings:
“I often write these situations as funny. But if one thinks about it, these are based on sad occurrences, on instances of failure. These situations might include a dilemma while buying DVDs, not having a date at a wedding, or a breakup. All of these are obviously dwarfed when it comes to the larger social conditions that we have to contend with in this world, and particularly in the third world. But these are small tragedies, containing gravitas and pathos, wrapped up in a sense of humor. Which is to say that while I may be making jokes, I am serious about them.”
This then, as much as Javier is serious about using humor, immediately makes it a serious matter to look at.
Even though, as E. B. White said, “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog: few people are interested and the frog dies of it,” several theories had already been developed exactly for that purpose. An emerging one, pioneered by A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, is the Benign Violation Theory. The theory posits that humor is achieved as a reaction to violations of social/moral norms that are possibly made benign, by one or more of the following ways: (1) the existence of another norm which makes the violation possible or even acceptable, (2) the subject being not that much committed to the violated norm, (3) and having psychological distance from the said violation. “Peelemma” here is a good example which made use of all three. “Peelemma” is a pun, a word play, a distortion of spelling, a violation of language and yet, as Javier himself ended the said essay, since “man is a social animal… it only makes sense that we try and apply our faculty for language” and create new terms – the violation is made benign. Adding to this, is there really anyone who is that much committed to spelling/grammar that will find this violation offending? Lastly, even if there was such a strict individual, the violation is still psychologically distant from him/her since it is only in the confines of a book, unused by people.
Aside from puns, Javier successfully made other humorous benign-violations. The violations are often made by talking about taboo sexual relations and other too-personal topics, while they are made benign by being mere literary devices. However, that is just the first level of the use of humor – which is relatively easier to accomplish (in the sense that slapstick humor or tickling, being false violence and false threats respectively, are also humorous in the same ways). The real challenge at humor is not being humorous per se, but being insightful and sensible in spite of. A fitting example of this is Jun Cruz Reyes’ novel “Tutubi, Tutubi, ‘Wag kang Magpapahulis sa Mamang Salbahe” where he successfully expresses subversive ideas/messages about the Martial Law hidden inside humorous commentaries. Most of Javier’s CNFs also accomplishes this. One of which is “Celebrity Panties and Other Passing Fashions,” which, while humorously (for non-gender-sensitive readers) talking about sexual desires, he successfully articulates how the Imaginary is destroyed/opposed by an encounter with the Real. This theme (the Imaginary’s encounter with and subsequent crumble caused by the Real), is recurring in the book’s better essays: “My Rock and Roll Lifestyle,” “Girls, Girls, Girls,” and “Sum of My Fears.” It is however disappointing that Javier often expresses dismay instead of feeling enlightened after seeing the Real, and gives the tone that it is still desirable to remain ignorant in exchange of blind bliss.
However, not all the essays transcend humor, some fell short at expressing an insight. These are “Peelemma,” “My Mutant Powers,” “Life of the Party,” and “A Question of Fidelity;” these essays feels more like funny journal entries than CNFs.
“Ah, Geeks. What’s not to love?”
The geek is what the collection is all about, but what is it really? A geek, as used in the book, is (1) of the intelligentsia (educated bourgeoisie), (2) shy/socially inept, (3) fond of fringe Western and modern popular cultural products, and (4) lacks notable physical skills. What all these characteristics show is the passiveness of the geek. Although a member of the critically-minded intelligentsia, the geek’s potentials are neutralized by being socially inept, suppressed further by his/her adulation of Western culture and ideas which in total makes his/her critical observations of society doused. This is vividly shown in the essay “It is Easier to Talk about Bird and Bees” where Javier is asked by her younger sister why there are poor and rich people. After displaying his awareness of the exploitative capitalist system, Javier still preferred the equally no-explaining-power (for his young sister) answer, that there are many kinds of wealth – in effect coupling the girl’s alienation from production with the romanticism of property (both reactionary bourgeoisie traits).
Another manifestation of the inclination to fall short at analysis is “My Memory’s Gone.” Here, Javier successfully dramatizes (humorously) the damage that computer virus-infection does. It is noteworthy that this is the only essay where he ended with a rather aggressive tone, albeit directed at the wrong people… Although he had the idea that virus programmers and anti-virus companies might be conspiring, it is disappointing however that in the end, he focuses on the individuals who do not care for their “system integrity” as the culprits to blame for the destruction viruses do, instead of acknowledging that these individuals, like him are merely victims too, and that their common offender is the virus programmer – if not the operating system programmers who allow such destructive viruses be made and propagated through the systems they wrote and get profit from.
Javier’s knowledge of the ills that the profit-motivation cause is again seen with “The Sum of my Fears,” wherein near the end he talks about his fear of ‘buying belongingness’ – hence his fear of salespeople. Again, it is disappointing that after seeing the dehumanization the salespeople has to go through (if buying belongingness is scary, how more is to be forced to sell it?), Javier does not see it as something wrong but instead, considers his fear of them as the anomaly – in effect expressing that this situation wherein an individual trades his/her affection (however little and unreal) for minimum wage is just right.
Javier had successfully portrayed the geek’s critical faculties, but instead of rationally adopting its revolutionary tendency and push the material questioning further and further; he had, so far, instead focused on the opposite, of the geek just as a keen observer, able to extract humor out of otherwise sad realities, but stops there and is content with the amusement that he/she is able to. Aside from rejecting the geek’s potentials for being a radical force for political change, Javier also seems to reject even cultural change.
The CNFs are of course written in English, and there is no problem with that (even Gelacio Guillermo says that this foreign language can also be used for our nation’s interests), but what cries foul is that the works also tend to favor Western cultural supremacy. Writing in the language of our colonizers is one thing but, still, writing about, and perhaps ‘for,’ the benefit of its cultural dominans in our country is another. The book is filled with Western popular cultural references: John Connor, DeLorean, Harrison Ford, House, Hunter Thompson, Sith Lords, Star Trek, Star Wars, Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, Final Fight, Yodaspeak, Groucho Marx, Tiffany Amber-Thiessen, and a whole separate essay (“My Mutant Powers”). This large amount of Western details goes to show the book’s promotion of Western culture. In fact, even Javier himself knows this. He even had a post in his blog entitled “Am I a Traitor to my Nation (Culturally?),”in which the first sentence reads: “To which the simple answer is: YES.”In the said blog post, Javier admits his preference of “big rock or bouncing hip-hop over our local ethnic and folk stylings,” and goes on to defend this stand with liberal individualism (“Ultimately I believe it comes down to how we honor our country. And I think we find ways to honor our country by doing right as individuals and as citizens”) – another Western and reactionary ideology. I claim however that being in to Western culture per se is not what constitute a betrayal of our nation. Since, the petit-bourgeoisie had really no choice to what culture it will grow in – we are all forced to consume the ruling/oppressing class/nation’s culture. However, this same culture is what the petit-bourgeoisie can use to resist the prevailing oppressive class structures. An example of this would be several fan fictions written by Vladimeir Gonzales wherein he parallels Western or at least foreign cultural elements with the Philippine setting (e. g. the Toguro brothers from Ghost Fighters as fascist agents of the government, Full Metal Alchemist’s government as the State, etc.).
Another alarming tendency is that some of the pieces implicitly promotes self-conceit, not of the author, but of the general reactionary bourgeois/ruling class. This is seen most in the essays “A Question of Fidelity,” “Life of the Party,” and the aptly titled “My Secret Vanity.” Fidelity outright proclaims that the consumer (the author) is being fought for, where in fact, closely reading the text, we never see any action from the two Ates which prove this – the reader is only given such idea by author. The closest to such an action, the old Ate tugging his cloth, is far from what the author dramatizes. Also, here is where the author runs away from his problem, as if it is big enough as he makes it be. Life of the Party on the other hand is the perfect essay that showed the geek’s shyness, however it also shows a certain level of narcissism since while the author keeps on talking about how hard it is for him to fit in and belong, he never makes an attempt to adapt – as if saying that what needs to adapt is the environment and not him (true enough, his friend-bride tried to). It is also interesting that once drunk, he becomes in; which can only mean that it is only his attitude that needs to change, or get loose. But he also knows what things might “scare-off “other people, yet does not seem to effort to change those. And if the author simply does not want to modify his personality for the acceptance others, which is understandable, then why hide it? This conscious refusal to engage in social activities reminds us of what Andre Dubus once said: “Shyness has a strange element of narcissism, a belief that how we look, how we perform, is truly important to other people.”
This seeming belief of self-importance is best demonstrated by the worst essay in the collection: “My Mutant Powers”. Reactions from this essay can range from being sympathetically funny to awkwardly annoying; mine dwells closer to the latter.
Putting class criticisms aside, most of the essays also contain traces of gender bias against women. As had been earlier said, a gender-sensitive reader would not find “Celebrity Panties and Other Passing Fashions” funny because of its consistent reinforcement of the view that women, by nature are men’s mere objects of desire/lust; or that women have to look sexy for men. Mentioning that the sexy women he interviewed were “brainless beauties” did not help either. Most sexist perhaps is the dismay expressed because the real women did not fit with the porn-fueled imagination of them. “Girls, Girls, Girls” on the other hand might be the most uncomfortable to read, since it is about a turning-thirties man talking about his dismay at being in a “sea of skirts” but unable to “make contact” – the sea of skirts that he wants to make contact with being underage high school girls. In this essay is where the desire for a harem is also most pronounced (also seen in “My Rock and Roll Lifestyle,” “A Question of Fidelity,” and “Life of the Party”); this is extremely sexist – we have to admit, the premise of “being surrounded by the opposite sex” wouldn’t sound as much as desirable for a female.
I have not talked much about the last essay “More Real than Real: One Day as Reality TV Contestant,” since it seems fundamentally different from the rest. This essay is distinct since it is the only one which talked about a specific topic (reality TV shows) and is the least personal. And I think that these are positive divergences. Firstly, it had made use of the “fact” aspect of CNF to inform the readers about insights about popular reality TV shows, this is a more direct show of critical faculty, and hence, might provoke the reader’s interest to learn more about popular culture analyses; the goal now is not just presenting the geek but recruiting a geek. Secondly, geek-ness is not the main focus here but just a point-of-view, hence making it less personal yet more effective. Most essays up to this one are necessarily personal because the author is talking about himself. But Reality TV, can be impersonal since the topic is not the author himself, but the experience he had during the show, and the insights he and other writers have about it, but still it is personal; which is what makes this otherwise boring-popular-culture-critique-paper be an engaging CNF. This can be considered the best of all the works in the collection.
What Philippine Literature Shall Inherit from the Geek
After thousands of words of criticism, what is then the ultimate contribution of Carljoe Javier’s “And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth” to Philippine Literature? It would be shallow and disrespectful, after all this, to just hastily pronounce, as what it appears so, that the contribution lies with giving voice to the Pinoy geek or by attracting the bibliophilic youth to literature – both of which are ultimately false; the first since, as Javier himself in his blog wrote: “The true Filipino geek does not exist,” and even so, the geek is a member of the intelligentsia hence has enough cultural power to express his/her interests; and the second because the geek, as the books primary audience, by-definition already reads. It can also be argued that the CNFs in this collection has contributed by revealing blunt realities of life and in effect humorously stripping moral and social norms off their untouchable statuses (specifically on sexual taboos). However, that can only be partly true since most of the essays simply replace the attacked social norm with another without any real, significant, or fundamental difference.
What the collection undeniably accomplished is the light portrayal of the geek’s aforementioned qualities, roles in society, and possible ideas.
The geek, as a subject of popular culture has big revolutionary potentials. And although this is shown in “And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth,” the collection falls short when it comes to making use of these potentials; of pushing the humorously violated social norms into more serious questioning; of showing what change the targeted intelligentsia audience would be capable of with the cultural/political/economic machinery at their disposal; and of showing that, indeed, with critical praxis, the geek shall inherit the earth –not the meek.
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[*] The petit-bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie class both has means, other than selling their labor, for survival. But they are different from each other such that, the former’s limited means of production cannot be amplified (and therefore doomed to fall a class lower) to the extent the latter’s can. In this paper, however, the “petit-bourgeoisie” will be generalized as the “bourgeoisie” for simplicity; while the higher bourgeoisie class will be referred to as the “ruling class.”
[Unang bahagi ng 2011; para sa Comparative Literature 50; ang layunin dapat ng papel ay tukuyin ang kontribusyon ng isang manunulat sa panitikang Pilipino sa Ingles, kaya ganoon ang tono sa huli; may pagka-apologetic ang tono ng ilang parte dahil sa tangkang ipaliwanag ang ilang puntong pinuna ni Prof. Pison sa unang draft ng papel; at wala nang ibang maisip na pamagat kaya korni!X_x]