Inside Notes from the Outside

Caroline Joan S. Picart
January 01, 1997

OUTLOOK:

A truly post-modern philosophy must abandon the notion of a universal "human nature" and instead assume a complex web of differences that binds and separates us to varying degrees. Such a philosophy must locate itself within the prevailing socio-politico-economic conditions. To me, that entails a commitment to trying to understand and participate in the broader framework of the political and ethical struggles of the marginalized—in a still primarily patriarchal, neo-colonial world.

To illustrate how I see myself beginning to enter into this arena as both a philosopher and an artist, I wish to present one of the pen-and-ink sketches I have worked on and displayed in various exhibitions during the seven-year period I have been shuttling across the Philippines, England, South Korea, and the United States.

The title of the piece, "Nurturance?," flows from two springs. First, it draws from one of the most distinctive mythological motifs that inhabits the Filipino imagination, as expressed in its literature, films, and visual and plastic arts. That myth is of Ina, the immortal image of Mother as eternal fount of life; source of milk, blood, and heat; the ultimate bastion of protection and nurturance within an environment where minor demons, like dwendes (cantankerous dwarfs living underground), tikbalangs (horse-like creatures capable of aerial flight and deeds of malice), and aswangs (female vampires who look like innocent country lasses or irresistible beauty queens by day), inhabit the ant hills, trees, and caves one meets everyday. Second, it problematizes the political effectiveness of this myth, particularly against the backdrop of the persisting neo-colonial condition of the Philippines. "Nurturance," within the context of neo-colonialism is a double-edged sword. The myth of Ina becomes protean, used to suit various ideological ends: to perpetuate the myth of the benevolent West as well as the helpless and blameless East, resulting in tyrannies of enclosure and exclusion. The complex and ambiguous interplay of culture and nature, or savagery and civility, often leads to rivaling wills to resentment, with the outsider dismissing the insider as "primitive," and the insider labeling the outsider "peke" (literally, "fake" or "artificial," metaphorically, "someone who has forgotten how to live genuinely").

The drawing's central image is ambiguous and often elicits conflicting interpretations. One viewer saw it as the image of caritas—the total, unselfish generosity with which a mother gives herself to all who are vulnerable and in need. Yet another viewed it as an image of rivaling oppositions, since it appears that the woman's act of suckling the wild boar deprives the child, whose back, elbow, and legs seem in-between nestling within and struggling against the mother's embrace. Yet another viewer pointed out the fact that the mother's gesture gently supports the child, while the grip with which she supports the suckling boar is much tighter and more restrictive. Ultimately, as the larger social setting is that of a primitive tribe in a wilderness, the question of what the woman intends to do with the boar later comes up—nurture it as a pet, set it free when it is mature enough to fend for itself, or eventually prepare it as a meal for her family?

Yet another viewer claimed to see the outlines of a hidden self-portrait of myself in this drawing. For him, the left side, with its image of the suckling boar, signifies my Filipino background, with its topicality, its spontaneous fusion with nature. The right side, to him, was emblematic of the Western-inspired conflicting aspirations both to career and motherhood, and its tendency to disjunct me from my Filipino background.

Notwithstanding the exoticizing/Orientalizing tendencies of some of the responses this particular drawing has elicited, the ambiguity of the image is particularly appealing to me. The drawing was an attempt to address several issues that have repeatedly surfaced in my experiences as a perpetual insider-outsider to both Eastern and Western cultures. What does it mean to be characterized as a "Filipino" woman—a woman whose mother tongue was English and whose name reveals my lack of racial purity? What does it entail, having the label "Filipino" emblazoned across my very being—a label applied, with ease, to overseas maids and factory workers; to dancers and prostitutes; to mail-order brides; to the opulent and corrupt Marcoses; to the image of a tropical paradise? What does it mean, longing for and being suspicious of the gender roles inscribed in the Catholic tradition I have been raised in? What realms of being/becoming are allowed by looking "Asian" to non-Asians and "not-quite-Asian" to Asians? What mechanisms of power are in play for one who is shaped by both East and West, in language, values, and experiences?

Caught within the interstices of being cross-cultural and female, Nurturance? is, to me, an image that captures the power and beauty of that dangerous, nostalgic longing for the archetypal, ancestral home: a vision that often hardens into a political desire for absolute enclosure within a constructed notion of racial purity and of clear dividing lines between what is within (Same) as opposed to what is without (Other).

Naturally, this image must be located within the boundaries of a larger project, if it is to rise above the merely incidental and individual. For now, I envisage myself continuing to explore how my interests in philosophy and art may converge to address concrete issues of artistic representation that have political, gendered, and mythological dimensions. Ultimately, this ongoing project aims to move towards developing what may be termed an "ocular politics"—a politics of the gaze. Such a perspective frames and re-frames questions like: What mechanisms of empowerment and disempowerment are at play when one is categorized as an exotic "other" to cultures one is both part of and apart from? What enables the act of gazing to become an expression of power, particularly within the context of tourism? What myths are at work in the war of fictions re-presenting the "masculine" and "feminine" across various cultures, and how do these myths function to reify a politics and aesthetics of resentment?

While this project is certainly far from flawlessly conceptualized, it does confront the problem of the persistence of the "Modern" stance. What I would like to do, as a philosopher-artist who is is also a woman and of mixed ancestry, is to resist the abstract and neutral stance of Modern philosophy and to get involved in actively and vigilantly reconfiguring the fluctuating boundaries of the political, aesthetic, mythological, and gendered web that differentially encloses each of us. I believe that it is only when questions of philosophy are grounded in concrete everyday experiences and in cross-cultural and gendered figurations of power and beauty that philosophy can genuinely aspire to the title "post-Modern."

Caroline Joan S. Picart received her Ph.D. in philosophy in May 1996; this essay was excerpted from her dissertation. Her adviser was Irene Harvey, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy, 202 Sparks Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1684.

Last Updated January 01, 1997