Against Pamimintana: Writing in the Age of Facebook

Nonfiction by | November 1, 2015

This afternoon I will talk about the phenomenon that has influenced my own writing the most, both in terms of theme, sensibility, and the way I process the world. I do not think I will ever be capable of writing anything without this phenomenon as a pervasive backdrop. Globalization assaults us in many fronts. Political, economic, military, cultural, even technological, which is linked to both the economic and cultural brands, which shows the systematic quality of this phenomenon. For our purposes today my usage of the term will refer almost always to the cultural brand of globalization.

The most direct and least complicated influence of globalization in this generation of writers is in terms of thematic, material, and sensibility. A cosmopolitan worldview that is a result of being exposed to a wealth of information and experiences suddenly accessible. Superficially, this can mean having characters who listen to John Legend, make jokes about Game of Thrones, or religiously maintain a tumblr account—all terrible examples. My current project, if I may use my own work as example, is about the call center industry. It attempts to show how outsourcing typifies a new global configuration that is merely a continuation and a new stage of colonialism, only this time there is no battlefield, at least not in the literal sense. It as a storyline that could only have been produced by a highly globalized reality.

In an early story, I remembering taking on the voice of an old Spanish woman who has migrated to Australia. So I told the narrative from her point of view. In hindsight, the brashness and foolishness of such a move could have only come from thinking—foolishly—that the psychology of such a character would be accessible to me simply because I was able to relate to Jack Nicholson’s character in the movie About Schmidt. How hard could it be, right? When that story was critiqued in a workshop, one disgruntled panelist asked: “Do we need this character? Do we need a story like this in Philippine literature?” I wanted to apologize to her right there and then and concede that maybe she was right, maybe these stories needed to be told from the point of view of a Filipino. But the following year the story was accepted for publication in Likhaan so I withheld my apology.

That is one way. Thematic, material, and sensibility. Aside from this, I would like to suggest a more subtle, a more insidious way in which globalization influences the way we think about the world and, in the case of writers, what they write about and how they write. And I would like to use the experience of using Facebook to illustrate this, because I am egalitarian and populist that way. I have always thought that the way we use Facebook today is the modern-day equivalent of “pagtunganga.” Unless you are a very intense person, you do both activities almost mechanically, without much thought. The very configuration of Facebook invites this act of mindlessly scrolling down, and it allows nothing more than a cursory and superficial engagement of the world outside it. It is like “pamimintana” in this sense, too, like passively watching the world go by, only Facebook offers an infinitely and monstrously bigger window. It is the smorgasbord of items, the vertical spread and sprawl that Facebook offers that, in my opinion, precisely creates this inattentiveness to detail, this aversion to depth. There is simply too much to see! As a result, it has created a generation with a severely diminished attention span. To me, this is diametrically opposed to the act of writing, which requires a meditative and even obsessive quality of thinking about the world. The critic James Wood has paralleled the rise in the use of details in realism to the act of noticing. The abiding attention to reality that writing fiction teaches is to me more than enough reward for writing it.

Tangentially, the way Facebook “arranges” and presents its version of reality is also worth looking at. I am sure there is a complicated algorithm behind the ordering of your friends’ posts in your newsfeed, but by and large there is an appearance of randomness in how such posts are sequenced. Meaning, you will see, one after the other, a link to a news story on the bombing of children and innocent civilians in Gaza, a clip of the trailer for the latest episode of Game of Thrones, and a picture of the fried chicken that your needy friend had for dinner. For the sake of argument, let us just say that it is the picture of the food that will get the most likes, then the Game of Thrones trailer, then the news story on Gaza, because that is such a downer. The impression of this arrangement is primarily randomness. Unless you actively choose otherwise, the impression is that each hold the same weight, are equally important, which of course is not the case. The configuration of Facebook, to my mind, lends itself to the delusion that all these things carry the same value, that a friend’s fried chicken, which exists in the same universe as one where children are systematically slaughtered, deserves equal consideration. That, to me, is the same illusion of globalization, a pluralistic worldview that sacrifices potentially important things in favor of inane things. I think that should be opposed.

But I am not going to be fascist and actively demand “relevance” in other people’s works. I am sure there is a beautiful and meaningful way in which writers can write about the proverbial fried chicken. Here I will quote the notoriously acerbic critic Anis Shivani, who essentially writes how banal and superficial much of American fiction is, and disparages anyone from Junot Diaz to Amy Tan, Jorie Graham to John Ashberry, and even Michiko Kakutani. He writes: “The individual fiction writer would have to be strong enough to take the moral offensive against writing that deludes the reader into thinking that his private ignominies are worth celebration and memorialization.”

This critic calls it morality; I prefer to think of it as ethics and, to a certain extent, responsibility. I will also say that a certain measure of awareness in this regard will probably go a long way. An awareness that, as in the case of Facebook, there is an unseen infrastructure that governs how we experience the world. From a marketing standpoint, the ultimate triumph of Facebook is how it has seemingly effaced itself, how it has made its own apparatus invisible. What we normally do is we log in automatically and see the buffet of information and experiences laid out before us, and often we do not see, much less scrutinize, the mechanism at work behind it, which is what makes the platform so successful and potent as both medium and symptom of globalization.

In the Philippines, our experience of globalization is really Americanization. Every now and then, there would be outliers. Like the song “Gangnam Style.” The show Sherlock. The milk tea craze, which I think originated from East Asia. Silly examples all. By and large, our version of globalization emanates from Washington. We no longer question the fact that the most popular sport here is basketball, that this very sentence I am uttering right now is in English. These things are excused as normal, as par for the course. The turbulent historical circumstances that gave birth to them are often made invisible. The result is, of course, that Filipinos are among the biggest fans of America. On one hand it is an almost blind fanaticism; on the other it is the result of a highly complex colonial strategy that began when the Thomasites sailed forth from San Franciso, so complex that I will no longer talk about it. It always depresses me.

To end, I will say that I would like to think that writers are in the business of interrogating man’s relationship with the world, and globalization has shaped and continues to shape this relationship in a very fundamental fashion. Sometimes it is direct, and sometimes it is oblique. I have never been an intuitive writer, I am not gifted that way, so to compensate, I become obsessively mindful about writing. I have always been convinced that it is a good place, as in any other, to start.

Glenn Paul L. Diaz has an MA in creative writing from the University of the Philippines. He is the 2013 recipient of the M Literary Residency in Bangalore, India. He lives in Manila. This was delivered for Kritika Kultura Reading Series on September 29, 2014 at Rizal Library, Ateneo de Manila University.

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