By SARAH RAYMUNDO
What might the pabebe phenomenon tell us about the constructs of resistance, containment in our age? How does it paint the relationship between self, freedom, and technology? What does it allow us to think about, and how? In the following, these untimely questions are addressed if only to show how much of the sad truths about contemporary society are contained and disseminated in the most everyday practices of people.
Reflections on such practices to many might appear to be a waste of time. How can one be bothered by popular culture whose only function is to distract people away from things that matter? This field is even vaguely perceived as culture proper. Why should it be the proper subject of knowledge production? Ideology critique of popular culture hardly serves the cause of some apparent bid for progress. Therefore, it is useless as much as its object is devoid of any political or social substance. Reflections on the popular are fine examples of overthinking.
The same things have been said about literature, philosophy and theoretical mathematics. One must deny the tools of social analysis and the act of making sense of the world to actually say that a dominant mode of relating to the world which has become so ridiculously popular is not worth thinking or writing about. I beg to disagree.
Democracy and Private Property
Democracy is one of the most naturalized and dehistoricized concept there is. So is the ownership of land and capital. A democratic government ruled by landlords and brokers of big foreign business is in itself a mockery of democracy. But such is the function of ideology—to make contradictions and inconsistencies recognizable and acceptable, thereby producing the cynical subject.
The cynic knows what is wrong. S/he treats this knowledge as a moment of freedom, a subtraction from the social field, a bird’s eye view of the fray. It is precisely this sense of autonomy that disallows her/him to see that cynical reason glues the social field together. Not being into the fray is none other than the dominant ideology that partly constitutes the fray’s coordinates.
It is within this social and political anchor called democracy and the cultural hierarchies produced by private property as a social relation that I wish to think through the cynical reason behind the pabebe girl phenomenon.
Mobile gadgets and the internet have been more accessible in the last ten years than they were before. Some say that this is proof for democracy being alive and well worldwide. But that can’t be more than just a manufactured impression. But then again, one cannot dismiss the power of manufactured impression, especially one that comes from the onrush of images and sensations—the internet.
As one of the most consequential speed-up of our time, the internet, with the magnifying reinforcement of traditional media, have popularized Pabebe Girl Mamon, the Pabebe Girl Warriors, and their “mortal enemy,” Pabebe Girl Brown. These young girls have captured the attention of many through their access to new media.
The formal structure of the phenomenon is nothing new. The most popular of showbusiness celebrities usually assume the lives of the underclass in their box office hits. In a sense, paying attention to scenes or images that involve the underclass is commonplace.
Your attention, please!
Perhaps what is somewhat new in the pabebe girl phenomenon is that some young girls from the underclass actually paid for our attention. Yes, at this day and age, and maybe with some assistance from those who might want to earn some bucks from their exposure, they can very well afford to do so. But they do not seem to satisfy our predictable expectations, do they?
For some, their “unruly” and “imprudent” use of the same gadgetry that we enjoy is simply unacceptable. The injunction “huwag kang pabebe” or the derisory tone expressed in the hashtag #pabebe is a commentary based on “conventional wisdom.” And this is the kind of wisdom that is almost always ready to pounce on the underclass using the ever trusty discourses of mysogyny and prescription of common accord against “unruly behavior.”
Take Vice Ganda’s latest single “Huwag Kang Pabebe” for example. It is an unsetlling response to the pabebe girl videos. Vice Ganda truthfully raps about how a class conscious society handles things like class distinction and class discrimination. Her song sounds all too familiar because what she is rapping about has been part and parcel of everyday practices of social distinction based on class.
The injunction in the expression “Huwag kang pabebe” is akin to cultural cleansing. Like other songs which tackle an “undesirable” yet amusing cultural feature such as “Huwag kang gamol,” (by Andrew E.),the command “huwag kang pabebe” also has the underclass as its addressee and object of censure.
Failed imitation, failed resistance
Some showbiz celebrities manage to project an image of high-maintenance lifestyle and thus distinguish themselves from those who are looked down upon with smugness by high society or some bunch of independent culturati. Interestingly, the likes of (check Solenn Heussaff and Iya Villana have made their own versions of the Pabebe Girl Warriors video: “Wala kayong pakealam. Hindi niyo kami mapipigilan.” (This is none of your business. You can’t stop us.)
In the original video, this message was spoken right up to the edge of comprehension. It has the feel of a pre-MTV production. No swirling graphics and clips. These girls are not your typical eye candy. What was it about their message that made ladies from showbiz and “another class” do a parody of their act?
The showbiz parody is funny because doesn’t the pabebe girl trend (epitomized by Pabebe Girl Mamon, touted as the original pabebe) follow from this mode of hyper-consumerist femininity which these showbiz ladies embody? And when the pabebe girls assert that “wala kayong pakealam” or “hindi niyo kami mapipigilan” aren’t they also second guessing their middle to upperclass counterpart who will surely judge them for a failed imitation?
To propose that the pabebe girl disposition is a form of resistance or to valorize the same as a feature of proletarian culture is to fall into the essentialist trap. And the trap is nothing more than reverse snobbery, a cunning way to condescend on the dispositions of the underclass.
There is no good reason to patronize symptoms of bourgeois domination of culture. These raw videos elicit shared laughter for some, and collective scrutiny and contempt for others on account of a gap. And the gap is historical. It is the eternal failure of the underclass to approximate bourgeois standards notwithstanding “democratic access” to gadgetry that plugs us into the world wide web.
Media and Empire
The age-old truth about media and empire is yet again affirmed in the pabebe girl trend. Empire’s current neoliberal phase addresses two levels of social integration: 1) systemic integration into strategies of profit accumulation; 2)systemic integration through social discipline which accords to empire’s model of the “sovereign subject.”
Media and Empire work hand in hand to create values. In the age of imperialism, the creation of value extends beyond the site of production (the factory, the firm, etc). Through various technologies, people are socialized to ascribe value to themselves, that is, to self-valorize
Empire’s “sovereign subject” is the autonomous consumer-netizen-citizen who is “empowered” to relate to herself/himself as someone who is valuable to Empire. Here, we are called upon to self-valorize according to empire’s model of a valuable person. In actuality, it is a model of a non-person created after empire’s controlled abstractions. It is an ideal that is never approximated, a model person who does not exist but constantly laughs at our aspirational attempts at becoming “it.”
In the face of Empire, we are all infantilized and subjected to its tools of integration. These tools can easily be mistaken for emancipated conditions. Such is the legacy of the politics of new social movements through the discourse of civil society. According to this line of thinking, there are no longer strategic goals, only immediate criticism against all forms of authoritarianism of the fascist state and the communist party.
Empire has hijacked this conjunctural response to a temporary gap in politics which debilitated the Left of the West, as well as some of the populist movements in Latin America in the late 60s. Empire’s political hijack has resulted in the construction of resistance that is within strict sphere of Empire.
This is the kind of resistance that requires values that can be extracted from constant renewal and frenzied creativity. This is none other than Empire’s own brand of resistance that is no different from the various modes of consumer identity, commodity aesthetics that one gets out of paid leisure.
This is why civil society commands activists to be polite as they resist. Advocates of this mode of politics (Akbayan, for example) revel in various levels of civilized appearances in mounting soft critiques of the regime which actually are series of sincere lies in defense of the Aquino regime. Such is Empire’s neoliberal hijack of the horizontalized and direct action politics of new social movements in the peripheries of global capitalism. Empire reduces resistance to mere socialization of the people into Empire’s own logic.
Beyond the internet, the resistance of the underclass is not limited to the phenomenal pabebe girl. Critique of such resistance must surely go beyond the proto-fascist injunction to stop the underclass from saying “wala kayong pakealam, hindi niyo kami mapipigilan.” For that statement may very well be embraced by global business elite and corrupt government officials.
The viral video articulates the disposition of people with warring interests. But to assume that such articulation is a fine indicator of democracy is to politely pretend that such “equal opportunity” for warring classes to express themselves (and in this case for the underclass to speak a shared truth about themselves the managers of Empire) make them even.
The internet’s phenomenal pabebe (reinforced by traditional media) masks the real war through its rendition of a false conflict between and among young girls of the underclass. It does so to make it appear as if the only kind of resistance that exists is that of the pabebe mode; and that the only mode of constraint is for Empire to say “huwag kang pabebe.”
Empire carries out drone strikes, builds military bases in different parts of the world and supports dictatorial regimes and call it the export of liberal democracy. Through finance capital, Empire steals away futures by making generalized credit the basis for every exchange.
Empire commands us to be in perpetual renewal through lifelong learning, which is really the lifelong struggle to render oneself compatible with Empire’s precarious conditions: contractualized labor, disposable labor, cheap labor, informal labor, death to laborers. Empire’s lifelong learning is really nothing but a prescription for existential conformity.
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Center for International Studies (UP-CIS Diliman) and a member of the National Executive Board of the All U.P. Academic Employees Union. She is the current National Treasurer of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the External Vice Chair of the Philppine Anti-Impeiralist Studies (PAIS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.