Books and Catastrophe

[Closing remarks of J. Neil C. Garcia, UP Press Director, during the UP Press year-end launch last November 29, 2013 at the West Wing Gallery, UP Vargas Museum]

Okay, team UP Press: that’s three book launchings in 2013.

Meaning: three times the panic and glorious exhaustion, but also three times the sense of accomplishment for a job well and cheerfully done (a job that—we never for a moment forget—is a singular and immensely relevant one).

For me, in specific: three launchings means that much more speechifying! Seriously, I can’t help but regard this obligatory part of the program with a sense of immense privilege, but also of trepidation and, well, plain and simple anxiety: just what am I going to talk about, this time?

Let’s see… Over the past couple of years I’ve already covered such geeky and clumsily polemical topics as literacy and orality, the cognitive superiority of reading over viewing, the difficulties of marketing print material in an increasingly digital age, and the advantages (as well as the responsibilities) of being a nationally mandated and government-subsidized academic press…

This time—seeing as how the world seems to be literally crumbling all around us—I suppose there’s no better (or, at least, timelier) topic than the calamitous, and what books can do for us as we face the increasingly bleak prospect of an apocalyptic fault suddenly snapping and swallowing the ground under our feet, and of more preternaturally violent storms unleashing the ocean into our homes and blasting the roofs over our luckless heads…

This is, of course, an entirely serious matter, and aside from the familiar rituals of trauma and recovery we as a people need to give ourselves some credit—and pat ourselves on the back: quite possibly, we are the only nation on the planet that has to worry about the imminence of doomsday events as a matter of everyday conversation (over lunch or dinner), as Facebook updates, or as the last quivering thought in our brains just before we drift off into fretful slumber—all the while mightily striving to keep our sense of humor relatively (if not perversely) intact…

Suffice it to say that we are not new to cataclysm in this tempest-tossed country, whose jagged islands are perched on the lip of the restive abyss. Just now I’m reminded of my first speech as director of our university Press: how theatrically I bewailed the residual but altogether powerful orality that permeates our lives as a recently literate country, simply because this cultural feature (characterized by a provisional, fluid, and mutable memory) has, all too sadly, prevented us from remembering and thinking categorically about things. As we know, this is precisely the kind of skill that we need in order to set aright so much of what is wrong about our political, economic, and moral systems, all of which are blighted by exactly the kinds of feudal and clientelist ties premised on the personalistic and anti-meritocratic logic that orality breeds and requires.

And so, as we’ve been told, our memories are not quite long, enduring or solid enough, and this is why we never seem to learn the ‘lessons’—bitter and many and repetitious—of our mostly anguished history. However, in light of all these recent and positively horrific environmental catastrophes, we may begin to understand that maybe all this is so, for a reason: in the face of the depredations of cyclical misery in this corner of a hostile earth, who indeed wants to keep recalling such repetitive and unremitting loss? On the other hand, because orality brooks no easy remembering, we now and then also forget, along with most others things, just how courageous, strong and (in the words of the great writer and friend, Ninotchka Rosca), ‘metamorphic’ we are, even as, in the end, we probably don’t really need to remember any of this—we only need to be so, for ourselves and for each other.

These ‘misgivings’ concerning the burden of an enduring memory aside, we of course must champion reading and writing, as well as the literacy that they presuppose and cultivate, not only because textual and categorical mentality is something our country vitally needs, but also because it is especially through these acts of the mind that an ethical intuition can take root. Simply put: literacy suspends us inside the consciousness of others—rendering us responsible for our ways of relating with them, who affirm our sense of self precisely by being irreducible to it, and with whom we simply must share this imperiled and perilous world. Immersing ourselves in a book, we leave behind the safety of the familiar, the known, the commonplace and the same, in order to confront, respect, and relate to strangeness, difference, otherness. It is through literacy and its imaginative flights—its ability to endow us a point of view distinct from our own, to ‘incarnate’ us, as it were—that we bring our sense of identity, our very self, to a state of beautiful crisis, from which we may emerge not only more aware and appreciative of the existence of others, but more importantly, as fundamentally different from or ‘other’ to ourselves.

Allow me to extend my gratitude, then, to all our authors, whose books—the children of their best selves, bequests of their generous consciousness—are nothing if not invitations to the ethical life, manifestos against the shame and impunity of forgetting. Allow me to thank also the members of the editorial, marketing and administrative sections of the Press, as well as our artists and partner printers, for their untiring dedication to the task of helping to create our nation’s abiding memory. And finally, I would like to thank the administration of President Alfredo Pascual, especially my immediate and tireless boss, the complexity expert Vice-President Gisela Concepcion, for their unwavering support of the activities and initiatives of UP Press, as it forges ahead into the ever-catastrophic future. The world may be on the brink of ending any day now—perhaps it has always been so—but as long as we are reading and writing (these two gestures are, to the mind, finally indistinguishable), I believe it’s also equally true that the world is beginning anew, bright and lovely and brimming with extraordinary hope.

And we all shall be all right.

Thank you for coming. Mabuhay ang Pilipinas. Mabuhay ang Pilipinong mambabasa at manunulat. Magandang gabi po sa ating lahat.

J. Neil C. Garcia


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