Defining and celebrating the peripheries

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Are you promdi? If you identify with the metropolitan capital, most probably you will object to this term being applied to you. If you identify with a province, which suggests that you hail from beyond the metropolis, how will you respond?”

Dr. Filomeno V. Aguilar is talking by way of his introduction to the book, Peripheries: Histories of Anti-Marginality. The lines are easy to read—pop in appeal. The technique works, if one can call it a technique, because the book is engaging, highly readable.

Aguilar goes on to explain the word promdi as “coming from the province.” But the word is not merely derivative because, according to the author, it makes the word “province” unmentionable, “associated as it is with rurality, backwardness and unmodernity.”

Promdi becomes thus the shorthand for understanding that old debate about center and the periphery.

The promdi may be a concept but it is also an act. It is an act that is reproduced by the people who, because they are viewed as inferior, respond to the marginalization by feeling marginalized. In Aguilar’s words, marginalization can be “insidious enough to generate feelings of marginality.”

For fear of rendering this discourse on “peripheries” intensely, and limitedly, psychological or psychosocial, Aguilar looks as well on the social. He mentions Benedict Anderson and his notion of how the “markers of difference are inimical to nationhood.” From the man responsible for coining the construct of nations as “imagined communities,” the presence of different, i.e., unequal statuses in societies, presents a barrier to generating a nation.

Articulating Anderson’s ideas, Aguilar renders his ideas in a powerful paragraph: “Emanating from a sense of shared history, nationhood rests on the powerful idea of community of equals—despite the harsh realities of class, ethnic, gender, and other social divides that in practice rend the collectivity apart, propping up some while marginalizing others.” The book insists, and rightfully so, that “nationhood demands that the histories of the peripheries are not consigned to the margins of society. In the interest of nationhood, Philippine history must accord comparable significance to histories of the capital and the peripheries.” The book goes a long way from the treatises on big people and little people. In the early works of the Jesuit anthropologist, Frank Lynch, S.J., communities are formed by the mutual dependency of the rich and the poor.

In peripheries, the relationships move away from the simple binaries to dialogical, or, more precisely following the language of Aguilar, relational.

To understand the marginal, we need to take into consideration the one located in the center, the origin of ascribed power. To learn about the peripheral, one must know the might of the mainstream. If one wants to maintain the binary, Aguilar quotes Tony Fry, a social scientist who looks into geographies, politics and power, and what he proposes about how “marginality has most commonly been configured in a binary model in which it is the other ‘centrality.’”

One of the most interesting insights presented by Aguilar in his book is how the peripheries are not inchoate, primitive states but are, in fact, sites of changes and developments. In citing the peripheries of a nation-state as centers of historical change and dynamism, Aguilar mentions the current obsession of some writers with local histories. In propping up the local, it seems to be the desire of the practitioners to celebrate being away from the centers and, at least, elevate the margins. But, this should not be the point because the histories of the margins make sense the histories of the centers.

Aguilar notes how the distinction between the local histories from the national histories as ambiguous. For him, the events taking place in the peripheries are not cut off from the events marked as national by historians: “Some events in the provinces are inevitably reverberations and consequences of the politics and decisions reached at the political center.” The narratives of the historical accounts in the provinces can be reverberations or refractions of the decisions or actions occurring in the center. The politics of the peripheries can also light up the way for us to grasp the lessons of the powers in the center.

The book, Peripheries: Histories of Anti-Marginality argues the limitation of a nationalist discourse that merely spotlights the works and achievements of those in the center. And yet, Aguilar clarifies that, while he underscores the value of the peripheral in the making of the nation, he does not uphold “localism, much less isolationism.”

Aguilar’s book comes at a point in our histories when we are beginning to reckon with gaps in how we tell the stories of this nation, or the nations in our mind. Aguilar reminds us to listen to the long-silenced voices of the margins in this book that attempts to “lend visibility to what are geographically and socially unseen from the vantage point of the center.”

Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. is a professor at the Department of History, School of Social Sciences, Ateneo de Manila University. He is the chief editor of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints. He is the author of Clash of Spirits: The History of Power and Sugar Planter Hegemony on a Visayan Island (1998); Maalwang Buhay: Family Overseas Migration, and Cultures of Relatedness in Barangay Paraiso (2009); and Migration Revolution: Philippine Nationhood and Class Relations in a Globalized Village (2014).

The book, Peripheries: Histories of Anti-Marginality is published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press. On March 12, 2019, the book was launched at the Richie Hall of the Ateneo de Naga University. Aguilar, a Bicolano and alumnus of Ateneo de Naga High School, came home  to grace the event. In attendance was Fr. Roberto Exequiel N. Rivera, S.J, University president, who gave a brief critical overview of the book.        

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