Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Rafael, Vicente L. Review of Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-creation of Andres Bonifacio, by Glenn Anthony May. The American Historical Review 103.4 (October 1998): 1304-6.


Glenn Anthony May. Inventing a Hero: The Posthumous Re-creation of Andres Bonifacio. Madison: University of Wisconsin Center for Southeast Asian Studies. 1996. Pp. x, 200. Cloth $40.00, paper $19.95.

This book argues that nearly all of what we know about Andres Bonifacio -- one of the major figures of the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and long idolized by the nationalist left as the militant leader of a populist anti-colonial revolution -- is based on spurious sources of unknown or doubtful origins. Claims about his early life and his revolutionary involvement were most likely based on hearsay, unsubstantiated anecdotes, and willfully duplicitous accounts by Filipino nationalist writers -- in particular, Manuel Artigas; Epifanio de los Santos; his son, José P. Santos; and the revolutionary general, Artemio Ricarte -- motivated by a mix of personal and political agendas in the period before World War II. It is also likely that the writings long attributed to Bonifacio, from newspaper articles and nationalist poems to personal correspondence with other leaders, were actually penned by his contemporaries or, worse, forged in an effort to secure Bonifacio's place in the pantheon of national heroes.

Given this bogus evidentiary foundation, Glenn Anthony May claims that all subsequent attempts at understanding Bonifacio's role in the revolution, especially those of Teodoro Agoncillo in the immediate postcolonial period (1948) and Reynaldo Ileto in the midst of the martial law era (1979), require serious revision and perhaps even rejection. Finally, May


attempts to situate the Bonifacio myth in relation to the nationalist tendency to manufacture the past in the interest of establishing a single, progressive narrative with which to celebrate the birth of the nation. This often requires the repression of contradictions, the mystification of personalities, and in certain cases, the fraudulent concoction of historical documents.

May's book has stirred considerable interest, coming as it does in the midst of the centennial of the Philippine Revolution and the war against the United States. It has already ignited intense debate in Filipino academic circles, in part because it is a book that is as much about what we know -- or better yet, cannot know -- about one of the key figures of the revolution as it is a kind of critical history of nationalist thought. Scholars who may not be wholly convinced of May's conclusions, or who may be skeptical of what he calls his "pedestrian and theoretically innocent" (p. 44) approach to the texts he examines, can still find in his work materials with which to raise questions about the nature of nationalism and its historiographic projects.

One might ask, for example, about the task of historical writing at a time and a place where professional historians did not yet exist. Such was the case in the U.S.-occupied Philippines, when conventions of historical writing, authorship, and "proper" documentation of evidence were quite different from those that existed in the United States and in postwar Philippine universities. Yet, May assumes that the popular and largely journalistic and linguistically complex accounts of Bonifacio's life written by such non-professionals should be subjected to the standards and expectations of contemporary academic historical scholarship. Such writers had other priorities and a different readership, facts which May admits but sets aside at the same time.

One wonders if a different understanding of the work of nationalist writers might emerge if we were to see them not as failed historians incapable of even the most rudimentary scholarly protocol (such as supplying footnotes to their texts) but as aspiring storytellers seeking to transmit something of the possibilities they may have seen or heard of from others now gone or slipping away. As storytellers they may have been less concerned with the accuracy of their sources or authenticity of their facts (for indeed these were matters of little interest to tellers and hearers of a tale) than with the correspondences between the affective states of their listeners and the characters in their stories. Perhaps their interest lay less in conveying the "truth" of what actually happened (for that in itself would be a practical impossibility) than with the "truth" of a certain structure of feeling about the revolutionary past and the moral counsel that such stories might hold for the present. Rather than denounce them for duplicity, fraud, and ideological bias, might it not also be possible to look upon the mythical status of their accounts as a starting point for inquiring into the forms and politics of nationalist narratives under American colonial rule?

Indeed, one of the most curious aspects surrounding the manufacture of the Bonifacio myth -- which May skirts around -- is that the "culprits" he holds responsible were conservative elites who, with the exception of Ricarte, avoided the revolution and readily collaborated with the Spanish and, later, the U.S. colonial state. To what extent did their proximity to colonial power draw them to rehabilitate the revolution as the work of certain powerful figures? In constructing their pantheon of national heroes, were they not also situating themselves as their legitimate heirs? Materially dependent on the technologies of colonial government, could the attempts among Filipino elites to arrive at a coherent narrative of the revolution in Spanish and Tagalog, as distinct from the English of their American overlords, constitute a tactic of disavowing the fact of their collaboration: simultaneously distancing themselves from those on top while imaginatively identifying themselves with those below the colonial hierarchy? To what extent did U.S. occupation furnish the conditions of possibility for the production of nationalist myths among the nationalist elite?

Similarly, in the postcolonial era, might it be possible to think of Filipino academics who bought into the Bonifacio myth as other than dupes and victims? We might, for example, understand their receptiveness to Bonifacio and the revolution as a means by which to consolidate their marginal positions as cultural brokers between the state and the "people." For instance, in his epic retelling of the revolution, Agoncillo engaged in a politics of storytelling, seeking to transmit the aura of dying or dead revolutionaries for the benefit of those who would listen. His fascination with the revolution as a mass uprising may have had something to do with the eruption of the Huk rebellion in the late 1940s and growing middle-class anxieties about peasant challenges to the social hierarchy.

Reassessing the cultural logic of nationalist historiography should not confine us to a positivist epistemology. Rather, we might think of nationalist historiography as a set of uneven and problematic responses to the pressures of colonial modernity and the social upheavals that result from such conditions. In such a case, the "invention" of Bonifacio might amount not merely, as May sees it, to a history of dishonesty and delusion at the basis of the "crime" of nationalist historiography. It also points to the persistence of alternative modes of communicating with the past mediated by the colonial legacy of Spanish Catholicism and European Enlightenment ideas on the one hand and vernacular notions of power and submission on the other.

That May's book studiously avoids such questions is not surprising, given the methodological and theoretical limits he imposes on himself. But that his work provokes these queries is an indication of its significance not only for historians of the Philippines and


Southeast Asia but also for those interested in the comparative histories of nationalism.

Vicente L. Rafael
University of California, San Diego