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Rigoberta Menchu, The Philippine Revolution, and US Production of Knowledge: Speaking Truth to Power?
by E. San Juan, Jr.
January 10, 2005

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The recent controversy over Nobel prizewinning Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchu and her authority as an indigenous spokesperson brings into sharp relief the substantive issues of objectivity versus human interest in what has come to be known as the current “Culture Wars.”  It serves as a timely reminder that the dispute over truth (now referred to as “truth effect,” after Foucault and postmodern nominalists) and its representation is transnational in scope and perennial in nature. It evokes the memory of some durable controversies in the humanities and social science disciplines that have assumed new disguises since the “two cultures” of C.P. Snow, or much earlier, the anarchy/culture polarity of Matthew Arnold. Should the tale be trusted over the teller, as D.H. Lawrence once advised? Or is it the case that if there is no teller, there is no worthwhile tale?

Obviously the question of knowledge of what is real, its legitimacy and relevance, occupies center stage. Much more than this, however, in the secular/technological milieu of late modernity, what concerns us is the usage to which such knowledge, whether of the natural world and society, is put. Inflected in the realm of knowledge about culture and society, the problem of representing the world (events, personalities) looms large, distilled in such questions as: Who speaks now? For whom? And for what purpose?

Who Speaks?  For Whom in the Name of What?

One way of responding to such questions is by evasion. The pursuit of truth, objectively detached from the perspective of the truth-seeker, ironically dispenses with speaker, circumstance, and addressee. It displaces what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the dialogic scene of communication. The truth-seeker interested in the content of the tale asks: Is Rigoberta Menchu telling the truth, that is, conveying accurately the objective facts about the torture of her family?

Anthropologist David Stoll, the author of Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans, testifies that Menchu is lying. Seemingly adhering to a traditional positivist standard, Stoll argues that Menchu's testimonio “cannot be the eyewitness account it purports to be” because he compares it with the reports of his informants in Guatemala. No one, however, has checked the veracity of these informants. Are they more reliable? Under what criteria? Stoll contends that Mayans who did not side with the guerillas are more trustworthy, or at least their reports vitiate Menchu's credibility. Stoll accepts quite naively the other versions of what happened in Guatemala, and for him they are more authentic, if not more veridical. Those versions invalidate the truth-telling authority of Menchu's autobiography.

Protagonists on either side do not stake their positions on details but on the theoretical framework which makes intelligible both Menchu's narrative and Stoll's interrogation. Literary critic John Beverley, for example, emphasizes the genre or discursive structure of Menchu's testimonio. He underscores Menchu's ideological agenda and her pragmatic aim of inducing solidarity. On the other hand, Stoll, D'Souza and other detractors try to counter Menchu's revolutionary agenda by their politically-correct demand for truth regardless of genre or stylistic form in which such truth is found. In a review (The Nation Feb. 8, 2000) of Stoll's book and Menchu's recent testimonio, I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldman cogently show the inconsistencies of Stoll's position. Both sides, it seems, do not quarrel over certain “givens” which are described in other accounts (see, for example, Eduardo Galeano's Guatemala Occupied Country). In an essay in Global Visions (1993, p.20), sociologist John Brown Childs writes: “At least 100,000 indigenous peoples have been murdered by (U.S. supported) government forces; at least 40,000 have ‘disappeared’, which is to say they have been murdered; 450 villages have been destroyed; and 250,000 people have been turned into refugees because of government  ‘anti-guerilla’ campaigns aimed at the Mayan population.”  Since Menchu is not expressing this “given”, it seems acceptable to all parties.

Truth Versus Reality?

We are not rehearsing the ancient dictum about objective scientific truth in chronicles and annals versus reality based on individual experience. Many members of the academic community are familiar, to one degree or another, with the antithetical modes of historiography and the attendant controversy elucidated sometime ago by E.H. Carr (What is History?). There is a continuing debate between those who espouse a naturalist or scientific point of view typified by historians like Marc Bloch, and those who advocate a hermeneutic or interpretive view upheld by R.G. Collingwood, Barraclough, and others. Carr himself tried to strike a compromise when he asserted that "the historian is engaged on a continuous process of molding the facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts," unable to assign primacy to one over the other. But what are the facts? Obviously one cannot search for the facts without some orientation or guideline concerning the totality of social relations and circumstances where those "facts" are located; otherwise, how can one distinguish a fact from a non-fact?

Postmodern thinkers influenced by poststructuralist trends (deconstruction; de Certeau, Rorty, Clifford) contend that objective truth in historical writing is impossible. History is not a body of incontrovertible, retrievable solid facts (in Mr. Gradgrind's sense) but a text open to various, disparate interpretations. Although I am not a “fan” of Michel Foucault, it may be useful to insert him into this debate. Foucault's lesson for us is that historical accounts are problematic representations of life because they are constituted by heterogeneous cultural codes and complex social networks entailing shifting power differentials. Knowledge, in short, is always complicit with power. Ultimately, questions of truth reflect conflicting ideologies and political interests associated with unstable agencies. Not that reality is a mere invention or fiction, but that its meanings and significances are, to use the current phrase, “social constructions” that need to be contextualized and estimated for their historically contingent validity. Such constructions are open to critique and change. From this angle, both Menchu’s testimony and Stoll's debunking are riddled with ambiguities and undecidables that cannot be resolved by mere arbitration over facts--such arbitration and facts are themselves texts or discourses that need to be accounted for, and so on. In the end, it's all a question of power and hegemony. Or is it?

The excesses of postmodernist reductionism are now being acknowledged even by its practitioners. What discipline or method of inquiry can claim to be justified by a thoroughgoing skepticism and relativism? While I do not subscribe to an over valorized notion of power, whether decentered or negotiated through an “infinite chain of signifiers,” a power not embedded in concrete sociopolitical formations, I think the stress on historical grounding is salutary. This is perhaps a commonplace. But I mention it nevertheless to foreground the need to be more critical about the contemporary resonance of what is involved in historical representation of non-Western groups, collectivities, and peoples by intellectuals of the economically powerful North. Self-awareness of the limits of one's mode of knowing Others is now a precondition for any engagement with subjects that once were defined or constituted by ethnocentric, preemptive, and often exploitative world-views and their coercive apparatuses.

Politics of Mis-recognizing the Other: The Case of the Philippines

We confront here an enactment of the subtle politics of Othering, an ubiquitous theme of the now banal identity politics, when Stoll subjects Menchu to interrogation. When “first world” producers of knowledge of indigenous peoples claim to offer the "truth" or the credible representation of people of color inhabiting colonized, “postcolonial” or neocolonial regions and internal dependencies, shouldn't we stop and ask what is going on, who is speaking to whom and for what purpose? There are no pure languages of inquiry where traces or resonances of the intonation, words, idioms and tones of the Others cannot be found. I want to cite a recent and somewhat analogous case here that concerns the relation between contemporary American scholarship and the production of knowledge about Philippine history.

The centenary celebrations of the 1896-98 Philippine revolution against its former colonial power, Spain, have just ended when interest in Spain's successor, the United States, was sparked by the U. S. government's recent demand for virtually unlimited rights of military access to Philippine territory. With the loss of its military bases in 1992, the United States is trying to regain, and reinforce in another form, its continuing hegemony over its former colony.

The Philippine revolution which succeeded in defeating the Spaniards ended when the U.S. intervened in 1898. The Filipino American War broke out in February 1898 and lasted for at least a decade. A lingering dispute exists as to how many Filipinos actually died in this “first Vietnam.” The exact description of the Filipino genocide is still lacking. Stanley Karnow, the popularizer of U.S. scholarship on the Philippines, cites two hundred thousand Filipinos while the Filipino historian Renato Constantino puts it at 600,000, the number of casualties in Luzon alone, given by General Bell, one of the military planners of the “pacification” campaigns. Another scholar, Luzviminda Francisco, concludes that if we take into account the other campaigns in Batangas, Panay, Albay, and Mindanao, the total could easily be a million (The Philippines Reader, 1987, p. 19). Do we count the victims of “collateral damage,” civilians not involved in direct fighting? The U.S. strategy in fighting a guerilla war then was to force all the natives into concentration camps in which many died of starvation, disease, and brutal treatment. What is the truth and who has it? Where are the reliable informants who can provide authentic narratives? Whom are we to believe?

In the Balangiga, Samar, incident of September 28, 1901, exactly forty-five American soldiers were killed by Filipino guerilla partisans. The Filipinos suffered 250 casualties during the attack and another twenty soon after. In retaliation, General Jacob Smith ordered the killing of all Filipinos above the age of ten; in a few months, the whole of Samar was reduced to a “howling wilderness.” No exact figures of total Filipino deaths are given by Karnow and other American historians. Exactly what happened in the numerous cases of American military atrocities against Filipinos investigated by the U.S. is still a matter of contention. But there is general agreement that the war was distinguished by, in the words of Filipino historian Teodoro Agoncillo, “extreme barbarity.” Exactly how many died in the Samar campaign, or during the entire war, is again a matter of who is doing the counting, what are the criteria employed, and for what purpose. Historiographic methodology by itself cannot answer our demand for a sense of the whole, a cognitive grasp or mapping of the total situation. Other processes of discovery and logic of confirming belief are required.

Myth-Making or Historical Speculation?

Of more immediate relevance to the Menchu/Stoll non-exchange is the recent hullabaloo over the stature of the Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio (1863-1897). An American specialist in area studies, Glenn May, acquired instant notoriety when his book Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-creation of Andres Bonifacio came out in 1992.  In a supercilious tone, May questioned the veracity of certain documents attributed to Bonifacio by Filipino intellectuals and political leaders. Without any actual examination of the documents in question, May, hedging with numerous “maybes” and “perhaps”, accused Filipino historians -- from Agoncillo to Reynaldo Ileto -- of either forging documents or fraudulently assigning to Bonifacio certain texts responsible for his heroic aura and reputation.

Except for evincing the customary and pedestrian rationale for the academic profession, this exercise in debunking an anti-colonial hero lends itself to being construed as a cautionary tale. It can be interpreted as a more systematic attempt by a member of the superior group to discredit certain Filipino nationalist historians who are judged guilty of fraud and other underhanded practices unworthy of civilized intellectuals. Ileto's defense tries to refute the prejudgment. He accuses May of privileging “colonial archives” over oral testimonies, of deploying the patron-client/tutelage paradigm which prejudices all of May's views of Filipinos, and one-sidedly discounting any evidence that contradicted May's thesis that the Philippine revolution was really a revolt of the elites, not of the masses. In short, May's version of the “truth” cannot be trusted because he functions (whether he is aware of it or not) as an apologist of U.S. imperial policy, a role that has a venerable genealogy of scholars from the anthropologist Dean Worcester to academic bureaucrats like David Steinberg, Theodore Friend, and Peter Stanley. Their scholarly authority cannot be divorced from the continuing involvement of the U.S. corporate elite in asserting its control, however indirect or covert, over Philippine political, cultural, and economic affairs. I suppose that joining this group of luminaries is enough compensation for May and other “disinterested” seekers of facts and truth.

As in the Menchu/Stoll confrontation, May's outright condemnation of at least four generations of Filipino scholars and intellectuals is revealing in many ways.  The following heuristic questions may be offered for further reflection and discussion: Should we still insist in the axiomatic dualism of objective truth and subjective interpretation in accounts of fraught events? Shouldn't we consider the exigencies of the dialogic communication: who are the parties involved? In what historical moments? In what arena or set of circumstances can a citizen of a dominant global power question the veracity of a citizen/subject of a subordinated country without this act being considered an imperial intrusion and imposition? Can the investigation of individual facts or events in these dependent polities be considered legitimate as sources of “objective” knowledge without taking into account the hierarchical ordering of nation-state relations? What attitude should researchers from these powerful centers of learning adopt that will dispel the suspicion of “third world” peoples that they are partisans of a neocolonizing program, if not unwitting instruments of their government? Obviously, the more immediate stakes in the ongoing “culture wars” are social policies and programs within the United States, with secondary implications in terms of foreign policy and academic priorities. Still, we cannot ignore how the attacks on indigenous testimonios like Menchu, or heroic figures of nation-states that claim to be sovereign and independent (including scholars and intellectuals of these nation-states), are both allegories of internal political antagonisms/class warfare and the literal battlefields for recuperating the now attenuated imperial glory of Pax Americana of the Cold War days. After Abu Ghraib and the revelations about outrageous torture procedures in Guantanamo, reality has now superseded the truth-telling propaganda of the Bush administration and its apologists.

At Last, the Subaltern Speaks

Contrary to some pundits of deconstruction, I believe the subaltern or the colonized subject, whether Menchu or Agoncillo (now deceased), can perform the role of witness and “speak truth to power.” Menchu can and has indeed ably struggled to represent herself and her people in times of emergency and crisis. Her Nobel Prize award may be considered an index of her effectiveness. For the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and other dependent formations, the purpose of speech is not just for universally accepted legitimate cultural reasons -- affirming their identities and their right of self-determination -- but, more crucially, for their physical survival. Such speech entails responsibility, hence the need to respond to criticisms or questions about “truth” and its grounding. In particular, it entails judgment about justice and accountability.

A warning by Walter Benjamin may be useful to clarify the notion of “truth” in lived situations where “facts” -- the gritty incalculables of reality --intermesh with feeling and conviction. In his famous “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin expressed reservations about orthodox historians like Leopold von Ranke whom Marx considered “a little root-grubber” who reduced history to “facile anecdote-mongering and the attribution of all great events to petty and mean causes.” Benjamin speculated that the “truth” of the past can be seized only as an image, as a memory “as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” I believe this moment of danger is always with us when, in a time of settling accounts in the name of justice, we see the Stolls and Mays suddenly come up with their credentials and entitlements in order to put the “upstart” subalterns in their proper place. This is also the moment for us to take sides.

Other Articles by E. San Juan, Jr.

* Imperialist War Against Terrorism & Revolution in the Philippines