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    How Media, Technology, and Pop Culture Affect the 21st Century Literature

    Contemporary texts can be thought about in terms of how they represent the relationships between media, technology, and popular culture. In the humanities, the study of these three aspects of contemporary culture is taken up by cultural studies, and may be further broken down into specialized fields: media studies, which include not just the study of media content (like TV shows and films) but also the apparatuses (TV sets, cinemas) and institutions (TV networks and media outfits) that structure the flow and dissemination of media content; technology studies, which study the cultural impact of technological developments, and includes not just media and internet technologies but also scientific and medical breakthroughs (for instance, how imaging techniques and cosmetic surgery change the way we conceptualize the human body), military and warfare, etc.; and studies of popular culture that look at both what’s generally popular and what’s popular in certain segments of the population (e.g., youth subcultures, fandoms, sports communities, clubs, etc.).

    These three topics are too broad in themselves to be adequately introduced in a short lesson like this, but we can learn a thing or two about them by discussing a Philippine contemporary literary text that juxtaposes contemporary matters of media entertainment with ancient matters of folklore. Towards the end, as we shall see from this short fiction involving a postmodern transnational and transhistorical monster, we will gain insight into how media content and technologies influence popular imagination and consequently, our behavior, values, and aspirations.

    Douglas Candano’s “A Reply to a Query” (2007) starts innocently enough: a student named Jerome Limpe e-mails a professor named Fransisco Lacson of the Applied Folkloristics Program at the Ateneo de Manila University. In real life no such program is offered at the Ateneo, and the name of the humanities building in the story is not the same as that of the real one; the point, however, is that in alluding to an actually existing scholarly institution but making up the names of a building, program, and professor (without the ordinary reader knowing for sure whether they were made up or not), the story is consciously conveying a sense of lifelikeness, underscored by a formal and objective tone to be expected from a student-professor correspondence (to be disrupted later on when the folkloric object of study is revealed, one that resists objective framing). The story opens with a frame narrative (the e-mail reply of the professor on leave for fieldwork in another continent), then proceeds to the contents of the e-mail attachment (a case study closer to home, an urban area in the Philippines). That this student-professor consultation takes place online places the story in contemporary times when advanced communication technologies like e-mail can deliver messages across global time zones in a blink of an eye, just like magic. Along these lines, one of the themes of the story is the disruption of a binary that we tend to draw between magical thinking on the one hand, and realistic/objective thinking on the other.

    The professor’s reply to Jerome’s query, however, is as cryptic as it is scholarly. The professor’s e-mail frames the content of the attachment as a case study of “The Transference and Transformation of Folkloric Themes from Rural to Urban Areas,” and points out the transnational character of the folkloric entity described in the case: a pastiche of the European Bluebeard, the Japanese trickster fox, and the Filipino engkanto (and, as one might add after reading the tale, the incubus and the viscera sucker). As will be gleaned from the case, the creature looks for prey not in the rural areas where such beliefs still abound, but in an urban area near a church surrounded by faith healing stalls (like the church in Quiapo). In such a locale, ancient beliefs coexisting with Catholic religiosity and the trappings of modern urban life combine to influence the sensibility of the young victim in the tale, a teenage girl named Innocencia dela Paz.

    The case study details the professor’s attempts to analyze what happened to Innocencia who after a couple of weeks’ disappearance returned to her parents a crone, and without self-awareness of her physical transformation. Even when faced with a mirror she seems to genuinely see herself as the teenager she once was, brushing her bald head as though she still had hair, wearing the same clothes she liked like shorts and tight-fitting tees that expose her now bony frame, leathery skin, and sagging belly. The professor records his interviews of the parents and the crone, reconstructs Innocencia’s account of her disappearance, and at the end offers no explanation because the case appears to be the first of its kind, without precedent in its combination of various folkloric motifs.

    The professor’s reply to Jerome’s query, however, is as cryptic as it is scholarly. The professor’s e-mail frames the content of the attachment as a case study of “The Transference and Transformation of Folkloric Themes from Rural to Urban Areas,” and points out the transnational character of the folkloric entity described in the case: a pastiche of the European Bluebeard, the Japanese trickster fox, and the Filipino engkanto (and, as one might add after reading the tale, the incubus and the viscera sucker). As will be gleaned from the case, the creature looks for prey not in the rural areas where such beliefs still abound, but in an urban area near a church surrounded by faith healing stalls (like the church in Quiapo). In such a locale, ancient beliefs coexisting with Catholic religiosity and the trappings of modern urban life combine to influence the sensibility of the young victim in the tale, a teenage girl named Innocencia dela Paz.

    The case study details the professor’s attempts to analyze what happened to Innocencia who after a couple of weeks’ disappearance returned to her parents a crone, and without self-awareness of her physical transformation. Even when faced with a mirror she seems to genuinely see herself as the teenager she once was, brushing her bald head as though she still had hair, wearing the same clothes she liked like shorts and tight-fitting tees that expose her now bony frame, leathery skin, and sagging belly. The professor records his interviews of the parents and the crone, reconstructs Innocencia’s account of her disappearance, and at the end offers no explanation because the case appears to be the first of its kind, without precedent in its combination of various folkloric motifs.

    What makes Innocencia’s tale interesting for our purposes is how the engkanto—an entity that looks like a beautiful man or woman seducing its victims into the forest—changes its strategy and location to adapt to the urban victim’s objects of fantasy. Innocencia tells the professor how one day near the Church of the Nativity she was almost hit by a black Mercedes sedan, and how a dashing young mestizo got out of the car to see if she was hurt. Disarmed by his good looks, her response was to ask whether he was a movie star. He offered her a ride home, introduced himself as Juan del Monte on a business trip to Manila from the Del Monte pineapple farms owned by his family, and that for one week as requested by their plantation workers he was to offer daily prayers for them at the Church of the Nativity. Because the young man said going to church alone makes him lonely, Innocencia offered to accompany him to church every day, and thus began the courtship that ended with Innocencia’s eloping with del Monte at the end of the week. 

    As any Filipino reader may recognize, the trope of the accidental first meeting (particularly being hit by a car) is a common one in romantic TV serials, along with the male protagonist being a rich mestizo falling in love with an ordinary girl. In the story, the professor notes Innocencia’s tendency to look at life romantically: she thinks her parents are overly ordinary, that she’s not destined for any of the neighborhood boys. She was obviously taken in by the young man’s (show of) religiosity, the purity of a courtship unfolding at church, and the possibilities of living the hacienda life with the heir—the stuff of melodrama dreams. After her elopement/abduction, Innocencia’s father tells the professor that in his search for Juan del Monte he discovered that Del Monte is not family-owned by Spanish mestizos but a multinational corporation with American roots. Clearly, “Juan del Monte” had chosen a form that girls who grew up watching dramas would recognize as the leading man, with movie-star looks and a recognizable family name (that is, recognizable to young girls whose exposure to business environments is limited to brand names in advertisements, malls, and grocery stores).

    Like literature, popular culture not only reflects but also shapes thoughts and desires. What popular tropes did the engkanto as Juan del Monte use to seduce Innocencia?

    Form a group of three to four members and come up with an alternative version of this engkanto, this time a female one seducing a young male urban victim. Create a (fake) profile of this female “Juan del Monte” on a social media site. Come up with a name, photos (you may use editing software), and other details. Construct a persona based on prevailing boyhood fantasies of what a perfect girl is like. Note how the personal details of this female engkanto are influenced by popular culture and media.

    The story does not draw the line between the engkantos enchanting powers and that of media’s powers to shape desire. One way of thinking about media is how it mediates or filters desire; one can even go so far as to suggest that media manufactures desire—that is, our desires are not “natural” but constructions fed to us to sustain a system of consumption that will keep media and related industries alive. Another way of thinking about media influence is to demarcate “consumer culture’ or “mass culture” from “popular culture.” Mass culture as a term has fallen out of favor in cultural studies because it casts consumer subjects as a mass of dupes, totally beholden to fantasies created for them by advertisements, TV shows, and the like, totally susceptible to media manipulation. Popular culture as a term is more preferred because it offers a people-centered rather than a media-centered perspective, that is, it grants human agency to subjects who can respond to or resist media influence (oftentimes in surprising, indirect, and creative ways). The term “popular culture” enables us to see people as not passive receivers but as active participants in the creation, modification, and popularization of ideas and beliefs. Critiques of mass culture tend to give a low value to entertainment and pleasure, seen as devices of deceit; popular culture, on the other hand, can address serious matters through powerful forms of entertainment and pleasure recognizable by a greater number of people. 

    The story’s use of the engkanto motif factors in the element of choice. In Philippine folklore, engkanto enchantment is never total; all the victim has to do to break the spell is to decide to end the fantasy and leave. Innocencia’s enchantment is not of the “mass culture” kind that leaves no room for active engagement or resistance. After the courtship stage, when del Monte brought Innocencia to his golden mansion at the hacienda (we learn from folklore that the engkanto takes a victim to a golden kingdom and encourages the victim to stay forever), she had every chance to see through the veil of fantasy and break from it. She was able to note how the mansion’s furniture were like sturdier versions of those at her parents’ house, how the floral bedsheets looked exactly like the ones she had unsuccessfully asked her mother to buy, how the clothes in the walk-in closet were replicas of her favorite dresses left at home and of those she had only seen in magazines, how the master’s bedroom was equipped with a projection TV and stacked with all her favorite CDs and DVDs—in all these cases, Innocencia was able to dismiss a feeling of weirdness by taking these as signs of del Monte’s ability to intuitively know her likes and dislikes, signs that they were indeed “meant for each other.” She showed no disbelief upon discovering that the rooms in the mansion magically change in theme to suit whatever she wanted at the moment, e.g., an Indian-themed room for watching Bollywood films, a Japanese-themed room for watching anime, a French-themed room for pretending to be checked-in at a hotel in Paris. Back in her parents’ house and recollecting all of these to the professor, Innocencia seems still unable (or unwilling) to see these as highly suspect, as though the permanency of her sudden physical aging is the mark of a permanent enchantment that she (rather than the engkanto) has chosen to bring upon herself.

    In the engkanto folktale, the victim’s power of choice is greater than the engkanto’s power to enchant. In Innocencia’s case, however, it is her constant consumer choice that keeps her enthralled despite all the chances to leave, which of course meant going back to her ordinary life in suburban Manila. Given these, it is a wonder how she managed to leave the mansion at all. 

    The occasion for her leaving was as accidental as her first meeting with del Monte. To her warped sense of time, she had already spent two years of married life in the mansion, caring for a son (actually, she had only been away for two weeks). She never wanted to leave, even though del Monte resumed taking business trips and leaving her alone with the child for the most time (we surmise what those “business trips” are for—for collecting more victims). In Bluebeard fashion, del Monte gave her the freedom to do anything she wanted in his absence except for one thing. It was family tradition for every newlywed couple in the del Monte clan to spend their honeymoon night in any one of the mansion’s rooms (one can tell from Innocencia’s descriptions of the themed bedrooms a tongue-in-cheek reference to gaudy motels), and under no circumstance was Innocencia or anybody else allowed to disturb the newlyweds’ privacy inside a room. Sounds fair enough, till one night when Innocencia, who had been enduring post-natal headaches and a feeling of dripping blood between her legs (just a feeling, because she couldn’t see any blood), was struck by a particularly painful headache so that she felt compelled to seek help. She broke a taboo by staggering to a room where she knew a newlywed couple were staying, knocked on the door and opened it when nobody replied to her plea.

    Such actions of “choice,” in the engkanto universe, are doorways to freedom. In Innocencia’s case, however, what happened was an unveiling of a fantasy she didn’t want to end, an unveiling forced by circumstance rather than by choice. What she saw in the honeymoon suite is so bizarre yet comprehensible to the reader but not to Innocencia who, recalling all these to the professor, remains unable to interpret what she saw. In the room was the young bride lying on the bed, and standing before her was a crone carrying a fleshly bowling ball, a noseless head with a long tubular tongue extending from where the mouth must be to the bride’s genitals. Shocked by the sight, Innocencia’s reflex was to cover the eyes of her child Dominic, but when she looked down to where he was, what she found instead was a fleshy head the size of a billiard ball, its long tongue going through between her legs drip-ping with blood. She pulled the tubular tongue out of her, passed out, and the next thing she knew she was back in her parents’ house. She barely remembered waking up days before in an open grassy field out-side town and dragging herself up familiar streets to where her parents’ house stood. 

    The astute reader would identify the bridegroom in the chamber to be the big fleshy ball in the crone’s hands. At the moment of procreation, the tongue-like tube that sucks nourishment from the crone would be pulled out of the crone’s genitals and inserted into the bride’s, who will bear another headlike creature that will grow up sucking nourishment from its host, drying out the young mother into another crone. In her enchanted state, Innocencia had never seen the crone carrying the ball who was her husband, nor herself a crone carrying the ball who was her son. At the climactic moment of unveiling, she saw everything as they really were except herself turned into a crone; she even saw the small ball in her own hand but could not make the connection between it and her missing son. To her by now disenchanted mind, the little ball-like creature had taken away her son and attached itself to her. The spell was broken when, thinking the ball to be something other than her son, she pulled the tube out of her body before passing out.

    Aside from references to the engkanto and the Bluebeard motif of a forbidden room, the professor also notes similarities with the kitsune fox which tricks a man into a fourteen-year marriage that transpired for just two weeks. Whereas in Japanese folklore the male victim would return with a damaged mind, Innocencia returned able to fully recall the details surrounding her disappearance, but unable to process them meaningfully, except in the sense that she had brought shame to her family. It’s unclear whether her inability to process them is due to residual engkanto enchantment, or due to a state of mind that made her susceptible to begin with.

    Because of Innocencia’s characterization, the story comes across as a cautionary tale against the pitfalls of vanity and an uncritical, romantic imagination fed by glossy advertising, and this is shown in the story almost to the point of a joke, with Innocencia tragicomically unable to the very end to see through the obvious manipulations of the engkanto. The translocal Bluebeard/trickster/enchanter as a device lays bare the contours of a distinctly local urban Filipino teenage girl’s “false consciousness,” colonially transcultural in her romantic desire for a mestizo partner, with international knowledge of the stereotypical kind (Bollywood for India, anime for Japan), whose idea of upward mobility is marrying into an idle life of watching videos, listening to music, and modeling clothes in front of the mirror all day while the brand-name husband goes on business trips to sustain the lifestyle.

    As mentioned earlier, a nuance made possible by the modern engkanto as a device for critiquing structures of desire is the complex element of choice. Reductive analyses of mass culture tend to see the consumer as a duped subject; the other extreme is a position called cultural populism that (at its best) sees popular culture as an empowering and enabling response to certain forms of institutional domination. In the tale, the engkanto motif ensures the openness of the enchantment to built-in possibilities of resistance. Juan del Monte didn’t force Innocencia to come with him to the hacienda but gave her two days to decide; the golden glow cloaking the hacienda was not without its holes such that it was easy for even a gullible girl like Innocencia to spot incongruities (she in fact did, but refused to entertain them). Ironically too, such opportunities for choosing otherwise may be viewed as soft strategies of control, more powerful than overt forms of control: by giving her two days to decide, Juan del Monte made himself look enticingly democratic, the better to keep her interested in him and ensure his advantageous, parasitical position over her. By allowing Innocencia to spot incongruities, he let her gloss over them by her own reasoning. 

    What is this transnational monster, a master of enchantment that creates victims complicit in their domination? An enchanter that works by exposing the tools of its trade? An enemy that offers opportunities for resistance as a way of preventing resistance itself? Also, to what extent is liberation possible? Innocencia was able to escape, but not of her own doing or desire it seems. What does her case tell us about the complexities involved in making a choice? (The point here is not simply to identify what is this thing that the monster is a metaphor for; the point is to take the monster as a tool for analyzing the dynamics of enchantment, power, and domination, as well as the roles of resistance and human agency in this regard.)

    To conclude, we can think of media technologies as enabling the mass production of fantasies that fuel the consumption engine. Technological developments, far from eradicating magical thinking, actually reinforce it by piquing our tastes for instant gratification and sudden transformations. However, enchantments are not total. Innocencia’s tragedy is in her inability to see that her desires were influenced by her environment, culture, and exposure to media products. Did she really desire a rich mestizo man, or did she desire what the rest of the girls her age were made to desire by popular narratives of love? That tragedy need not be ours.

    From a literary text that tackles media influence, let’s move on to discussing a popular cultural text, interesting not only because it is the most popular TV show (around the time this book is written), but most notably for the way media technologies take center stage in the narrative alongside familiar tropes in parody. The Kalyeserye, which developed as a parody of the teleserye (TV serial), was born from the longest-running noontime show Eat Bulaga as part of a typical segment involving some of its hosts traveling to a barangay to select a lucky resident to receive sponsored prizes. Unlike a canned teleserye, the Kalyeserye is shot live daily on location right under the noontime sun or rain with hosts-turned-actors improvising on a minimal script right on the streets (kalye) with its potholes, smelly canals, drooping spaghetti wires, rusty roofs, and a surrounding wall of bodies from which extras are sometimes picked.

    One prominent feature of the Kalyeserye is the split-screen that simultaneously broadcasts from the studio and the barangay. But one day, an unexpected interaction took place when the young female new-comer actress in the barangay broke character and let slip her interest in one of the studio hosts whom she saw on the other side of the split-screen. The Kalyeserye took a romantic turn with the script by popular demand shifting to the real/reel possibilities of love developing daily on real-time between what is now known as the “accidental” love team AlDub (Alden Richards the TV host and Yaya Dub the female character played by Maine Mendoza).

    The popularity escalated very quickly with the audience taking their observations to social media and eventually breaking the Internet. Their comments and tweets numbering in the millions every day concerned their “close readings” of the show—which parts they think were reel and real (whether Alden Richards is developing feelings for real as he plays a fictional version of himself pursuing Yaya Dub), suggestions for next episodes (which they actually see incorporated in daily developments of the script), and witticisms (like sponsor jokes, e.g., dousing a basher with Zonrox bleach, making do with 555 Sardines because times are hard).

    Another prominent feature is how the Kalyeserye turned into a parody of the teleserye with not just Yaya Dub and Alden serendipitously meeting the winning formula for a love team (ordinary girl gets noticed by a tisoy—though ironically in real life, and the fans know and factor this into their analyses, Maine comes from a wealthy family and Alden is a self-made man who struggled for years in showbiz before this well-deserved career break), but also the script taking on stereotypes and making fun of them: pick-up lines, corny jokes, cliffhangers, romantic clichés like love songs and fairy tales, rich ugly suitor and “New Yorker from Tondo” as villains, diaries and kidnapping (and other formulaic plot devices). The comedy in the parody however is balanced by the seriousness of a didactic voice that came as a later development of the script, when the initially villainous grandmother character (Lola Nidora) transformed into the conservative voice of Filipino tradition, one that emerged to guide the couple’s ligawan sa kalye (both the literal kalye and online kalye of split-screen SMS or webcams). Traditional courtship practices enjoyed a revival in the Kalyeserye in a nonthreatening, entertaining mode that is also metafictional with the fandom as coauthors and not just audience, verisimilitude parodied rather than denied (i.e., there is no pretension of reality in the Kalyeserye with the scriptedness of it always being foregrounded, as. in Lola Nidora’s frequent reminder “Aktingan lang ito”), and media technologies exposed rather than hidden as conditions of possibility for certain fictions (with real-life implications) about romance.

    Answer the questions based on Kalyeserye.

    1. If you’re not familiar with the Kalyeserye, take time to familiarize yourself with a few episodes and articles. If you are so inclined, read the tweets and comments from the Eat Bulaga Facebook page to get a sense of the Kalyeserye’s audience reception. One of the fascinating things about the Kalyeserye is how it brought out the “textual” quality of fandoms—as interpretative communities that draw their readings from shared local sensibility. Look for tweet and comment discussions that reveal:
      • How Maine and Alden are redefining dalagang Pilipina and barako as 21st century gender ideals for their fans.
      • How OFWs away from their families are valuing the Kalyeserye.
      • The fandom AlDubNation’s self-perception.
    2. How is the Kalyeserye representing its setting, the kalye? Answer by considering these: the choice of locality, the material and human elements, the ubiquity of advertisements.
    3. How is the Kalyeserye representing the use of media technologies like split screen, dubsmash, mobile phones, and social media alongside old-school love letters and fan signs?

    Ideas for a report (paper or presentation):

    1. The Kalyeserye inspired not just a burst of fan analyses but also critical essays from academics, including one from Soledad Reyes, a prominent scholar of Philippine popular culture. Read her two essays and search for other critical essays. Produce a report on the concerns raised by academic treatments of the Kalyeserye.
    2. Criticisms of the Kalyeserye and its fandom tend to bring up the “high culture versus low culture” debate, sparking anew elitist reactions as well as impassioned defenses of popular culture. Search for examples of arguments from both sides. Did the Kalyeserye revise the terms of the debate or not? Note down points you find interesting and critical from your sources.

    Idea for a self-reflexive writing exercise:

    Choose a short literary or cultural text that everyone in the class is familiar with. It can be a trending story, a billboard advertisement, a TV series, a magazine, etc. Then, freely write down your reaction or interpretation of the chosen text—don’t overthink this part, just write down what quickly comes to mind. In the next part of your composition, engage in “matecriticism” by critically examining what you have written. Ask yourself what factors (personal, psychological, education level, social experiences, cultural background, etc.) could have influenced your reaction or interpretation of the chosen text. Compare outputs in class, and engage in another level of “metacriticism” by looking at how differences in reactions to a common text reveal more about yourselves than about the text you are reacting to.

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