Wednesday, September 21, 2005

San Juan, E., Jr. "Truth and Inconsequence: Who Speaks Now? For Whom? And for What Purpose?" Rethinking Marxism 11.2 (Summer 1999): 80-85.


Truth and Inconsequence: Who Speaks Now? For Whom? And for What Purpose?

E. San Juan, Jr.

The current controversy over Nobel prizewinner and 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 "culture wars." It serves as a timely reminder that the dispute over truth (now referred to as the "truth-effect," after Foucault) 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, and of 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 use to which such knowledge, whether of the natural world or society, is put. Inflected in the realm of knowledge about culture and society, the problem of representing the world (including its events and personalities) looms large, distilled in such questions as: Who speaks now? for whom? and for what purpose?

One way of responding to such questions is by evasion. The pursuit of truth 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, author of Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans (1999), testifies that Menchu is lying. Seemingly adhering to a traditional positivist standard, he argues that her 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 that their reports vitiate Menchu’s credibility. He accepts quite naively 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 that makes intelligible both Menchu’s narrative and Stoll’s inter-


rogation. Literary critic John Beverley (in Wilson 1999, A16), for example, emphasizes the genre or discursive structure of Menchu’s testimonio, underscoring her ideological agenda and her pragmatic aim of inducing solidarity. On the other hand, Stoll, D’Souza (1991), 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 to be found. In their review of Stoll’s book and Menchu’s recent testimonio (1998), Greg Grandin and Francisco Goldman (1999) cogently show the inconsistencies of Stoll’s position. The two sides, it seems, do not quarrel over certain "givens" that are described in other accounts (see, for example, Galeano [1973]). For instance, 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" (1993, 20). Since Menchu is not expressing this "given," it seems acceptable to all parties.

We are not rehearsing the ancient dictum about objective scientific truth in chronicles and annals. Many members of the academic community are familiar, to one degree or another, with the antithetical modes of historiography and the attendant controversy elucidated some time ago by E. H. Carr. There is a continuing debate between those who espouse a naturalist or scientific point of view (as typified by historians like Marc Bloch) and those who advocate a hermeneutic or interpretive view (as upheld by R. G. Collingwood, Geoffrey Barraclough, and others). Carr himself tried to strike a compromise when he asserted that "the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts," unable to assign primacy to one over the other (1961, 34–5). 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 could one distinguish a fact from a nonfact?

Postmodern thinkers influenced by poststructuralist trends (say, by deconstruction or by Michel de Certeau’s work) 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. Michel 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 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 and Stoll’s texts 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.

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 overvalorized 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.

We confront here an enactment of the subtle politics of Othering, not 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 which concerns the relation between contemporary U.S. scholarship and the production of knowledge about Philippine history.

The centenary celebrations of the 1896–8 Philippine revolution against its former colonial power, Spain, had just ended when interest in Spain’s successor, the United States, was sparked by the U.S. government’s 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 to reinforce in another form, its continuing hegemony over its former colony.

The Philippine revolution that succeeded in defeating the Spaniards ended when the United States 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." Stanley Karnow (1989), the popularizer of U.S. scholarship on the Philippines, cites two hundred thousand Filipinos while the Filipino historian Renato Constantino (1970; see also Ocampo 1998) puts it at six hundred thousand—the number of casualties in Luzon alone as 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 one million (1987, 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 na-


tives 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 28 September 1901, exactly forty-five U.S. 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 or other U.S. historians. Exactly what happened in the numerous cases of U.S. military atrocities against Filipinos investigated by the United States is still a matter of contention. But there is general agreement that the war was characterized by, in the words of Filipino historian Teodoro Agoncillo (Agoncillo and Guerrero 1970), "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.

Of more immediate relevance to the Menchu/Stoll nonexchange is the recent hullabaloo over the stature of the Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio (1863– 97). A U.S. 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. 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 (1992), 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 anticolonial 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 (1998) defense tries to refute the prejudgment. He accuses May of privileging "colonial archives" over oral testimonies, deploying a patron/client tutelage paradigm that prejudices all his views of Filipinos, and one-sidedly discounting any evidence that contradicts his 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 as an apologist for 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. government 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 fact 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 reflection. Should we still insist on 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, and 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 that of Menchu, or on heroic figures of nation-states that claim to be sovereign and independent (including scholars and intellectuals of those nation-states), are both allegories of internal political antagonisms/class warfare and the literal battlefields for recuperating the now attenuated imperial glory of the pax Americana of the cold war days.

Contrary to some pundits of deconstruction, I believe that the subaltern, 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. For the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and other places, the purpose of speech is not just for universally accepted, legitimate cultural reasons -- affirming their identities and their right of selfdetermination -- 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.

A warning by Walter Benjamin may be useful to clarify the notion of "truth" in lived situations where "facts" intermesh with feeling and conviction. In his famous "Theses on the Philosophy of History," Benjamin (1969) expressed reservations about orthodox historians like Leopold von Ranke whom Marx considered "a little rootgrubber" 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.



Agoncillo, T., and M. Guerrero. 1970. History of the Filipino people. Quezon City: R. P. Garcia Publishing Company.

Benjamin. W. 1969. Theses on the philosophy of history. In Illuminations. New York: Schocken.

Carr, E. H. 1961. What is history? New York: Vintage Books.

Childs, J. B. 1993. Global visions. Boston: South End Press.

Constantino, R. 1970. Dissent and counter-consciousness. Quezon City: Malaya Books.

D’Souza, D. 1991. Illiberal education. New York: Free Press.

Francisco, L. 1987. The Philippine-American War. In The Philippines reader, ed. D. B. Schirmer and S. Shalom. Boston: South End Press.

Galeano, E. 1973. Open veins of Latin America. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Grandin, G., and F. Goldman. 1999. Bitter fruit for Rigoberta. The Nation, 8 February, 25–8 [see also additional exchanges in The Nation, 14 June, 2, 67].

Ileto, R. 1998. Filipinos and their revolution. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Karnow, S. 1989. In our image. New York: Random House.

May, G. 1992. Inventing a hero: The posthumous re-creation of Andres Bonifacio. Quezon City: New Day Press.

Menchu, R. 1983. I, Rigoberto Menchu. London: Verso.

———. 1998. Crossing borders. London: Verso.

Ocampo, A. 1998. The centennial countdown. Pasig, Rizal: Anvil Publishing.

Stoll, D. 1999. I, Rigoberto Menchu and the story of all poor Guatemalans. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Wilson, R. 1999. A challenge to the veracity of a multicultural icon. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 January, A14–6.