Public talk with Tom Phillips at Sofia University

Here’s a recording of my discussion with the accomplished poet and travel writer Tom Phillips that took place on May 14th, hosted by Sofia University. Tom’s students were very welcoming and made some excellent contributions of their own towards the end of the gig.

We explored the blend of first-hand experience and academic research required for constructing travel narratives, the desire to write about aspects of reality in order to understand them better, the essential subjectivity of life writing, the ethical considerations that must come into play when representing real people and places in one’s travel writing… and much else.

New interview on Bongbong Marcos and the Philippine elections

I was interviewed again last night (post-haircut) by TRT World on Bongbong Marcos being set to win the Philippine presidential election due to his campaigns of social media disinformation and historical revisionism, and public disaffection with the long-range shortcomings of the neoliberal elite that Leni Robredo and other contenders represent. Meanwhile, genuine grassroots candidates representing the working class have little hope of competing in a political system rigged in favour of the rich, powerful and violent. Bongbong’s administration will likely echo the autocracy and repression of both his father’s regime in the 1970s and 80s, and the more recent Duterte presidency.

Watch the video here.

Decolonisation, Demilitarisation and Democratisation talk now online

In the brief talk below my esteemed colleague Dr Marius Kwint and I discuss helping students to think critically about capitalism, militarism and imperialism then and now, and how confronting racism, sexism and all other forms of human oppression must acknowledge that they are material, essential and structural to unequal and undemocratic institutions. Such problems won’t be solved by neoliberal PR stunts and box-ticking exercises aimed at making the status quo look more respectable.

Watch a recording of the session here.

My appearance at the University of Sydney’s English Seminar

I will be speaking on the topic of ‘Pearl of the Orientalists: Western Writers and Reporters on Manila from the Spanish Colonial Era to the Contemporary “Drug War”’ at the University of Sydney on May 25th.

More info here.

Drawing on arguments from his recent book Imagining Manila, Dr Tom Sykes of the University of Portsmouth, UK explores several enduring representational tropes and devices that have defined a trajectory of British and American Orientalist fiction, travel writing and journalism about the city of Manila, stereotypically dubbed ‘the Pearl of the Orient’. Over the centuries, a number of Western writers have condemned or fetishized poverty, vice and other social problems in Manila by decontextualizing them from transnational capitalism, (neo)colonialism and globalized inequality. Such ‘third world blues’ (Mary-Louise Pratt) has informed imaginative geographies of Manila as both an irrational, hell-like, ‘seething cauldron of Evil’ (Catholic Advance newspaper) and as a crude, flawed simulation of a Western city. Sykes also addresses a more nuanced literary and media discourse of so-called ‘liberal Orientalism’ dating back to the mid-nineteenth century that has mobilized the rhetoric of fraternity, guidance, romantic love, democracy and assimilation to conceal ethnocentric prejudices and (neo)imperialist depredations. These signifying practices have been crucial to the Western mediation and public understanding of key events in Manila’s history including the 1896 Revolution, Spanish-American and Philippine American Wars, World War II and the repressions of the Marcos and Duterte regimes. Sykes analyzes texts by authors well-known or otherwise: mid-19th century travellers from Robert MacMicking to Nicholas Loney, popular late Victorian novelists like Edward L. Stratemeyer and Archibald Clavering Gunter; the US colonial-era memoirists Mary H. Fee and Claire Phillips; postmodern novelists from Timothy Mo to Alex Garland; and contemporary reporters including Jonathan Miller and James Fenton. Finally, Sykes discusses a counter-hegemonic canon of writers, both Filipino and foreign, who have dissented from the reactionary assumptions of so-called ‘Manilaism’: Carlos Bulosan, Jessica Hagedorn, Alfred A. Yuson, Gina Apostol, Ivan Goncharov, Tom Bamforth, Maslyn Williams, John Sayles and others.

My appearance at Oxford University’s Postcolonial Writing and Theory Seminar

I’ll be talking about Imagining Manila to Oxford students and academics tomorrow at 5pm.

Please book via this link.

Philippines National Reading Month Address

I was honoured to be invited by teacher Mark Kevin Banaria Ramos to address Perpetual Help Iriga National High School in the Philippines about National Reading Month. I spoke of the importance of reading in helping one to be a more autonomous, empathetic and analytical person less likely to be exploited by the rhetoric of the powerful and the ill-intentioned. I also praised the mental health benefits of writing and several major Filipino authors: Gina Apostol, Carlos Bulosan, Jessica Hagedorn, Nick Joaquin and F Sionil Jose.

‘The Haunting of Keir Starmer’ video now on YouTube

See the source image

‘The Haunting of Keir Starmer’ is now available on YouTube. It’s a brief talk based on a paper I gave to the Dark Economies conference at Falmouth Uni last month. Here’s a little blurb about it:

In both his politics and his semiotics, Labour leader Keir Starmer is haunted by a mélange of contradictions. Frequently chastised for “dithering” inertia when trying to hold the Conservative Party to account, he is nonetheless decisively destroying the left-wing of his own party. A consummate establishment figure – white, male, metropolitan, Oxford-educated, a knight of the realm – Starmer likes to organise photo opportunities in pubs and deploy the rhetoric of ostensible working-class authenticity. His taking of the knee and other such genuflections to wokeness have been undermined by his tone-deaf comments on Black Lives Matter and indifference to Islamophobia. Though a devotee of focus groups and data analysis, Starmer has repeatedly misjudged the public mood on almost every issue – and the all-important polls prove as much. Such discord finds its corollary in his uncannily portmanteau appearance which embodies conflicting styles, fashions and physiognomies belonging to several decades of British political and cultural history. In order to comprehend Starmer’s weird, clashing and eerie complexities, I want to place them under three critical lenses: hauntology (coined by Jacques Derrida but re-purposed for other contexts by Mark Fisher, Merlin Coverley and others), “authentocracy” (originated by the British cultural theorist Joe Kennedy) and digital-age “instrumentarian” politics, as theorised by primarily Shoshana Zuboff in her book Surveillance Capitalism (2019), and the cybernetics scholars Anna-Verena Nosthoff and Felix Maschewski.

Camouflaging Culture symposium 18th June

A new and subtle form of militarism is colonising our culture, from TV dramas that ‘wokewash’ disastrous, illegal wars to the covert funding of higher education by the arms industry. An urgently needed critique will be provided by Camouflaging Culture: Soft Power and the Forever Wars, a free online one-day symposium on June 18th brought to you by the Culture and Conflict Research Group at UoP. I am one of the co-organisers and will be chairing a panel called Theatres of War.

The keynote speakers are Prof Vron Ware, author of Military Migrants, and the veteran peace activist Milan Rai. There will also be presentations from able colleagues Marius Kwint, Stephen Harper, Malak Mayet, Paul Flenley, Matthew Alford, Claire Bear, Louis Netter and Olly Gruner.

Please book via Eventbrite here: Camouflaging Culture: Soft Power and the Forever Wars Tickets, Fri, Jun 18, 2021 at 10:00 AM | Eventbrite

Travel Writing Event at University of the Arts, Bournemouth

Mike Manson, Ben Aitken, Amanda Garrie and I will be appearing at a webinar on travel writing at University of the Arts, Bournemouth this Wednesday 14th April at 10.30am. (Only misnomer on the poster is that there will be a filmmaker – there won’t be now). All welcome to join through this link here: https://aub.zoom.us/j/93775670564

On the Road, Off the Page: Travel Writers Share the Tricks of the Trade

The Guyanese jungle. A fish and chip shop in Poland. The slums of the Philippines. The folkloric topography of rural England. These are just some of the places that have inspired this quartet of travel and travel-inspired writers. In this fascinating event, they discuss their unique, often bizarre and sometimes dangerous experiences on the road, and share what they have learned about researching, writing and producing travelogues, travel-informed novels and journalism. Using specially designed exercises, they’ll help you finesse the tools of the trade. Whatever you want to know about the form – voice, style, structure, drafting, pitching, filming, production, publishing, promotion – the panel can assist.

Ben Aitken is the author of A Chip Shop in Poznan: My Unlikely Year in Poland, which recounts a year spent in Poland working, travelling and integrating. Paul Ross called it ‘the funniest book of the year.’ Ben also wrote Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island, which was featured in The GuardianThe Times and on BBC Radio, and was described by the Manchester Review as a ‘poignant comment on the state of the nation’ and a ‘highly accomplished homage’.

Amanda Garrie is co-founder and facilitator for T’Articulation, Portsmouth’s spoken-word troupe and a director of Portsmouth’s Writers Hub, Amanda Garrie is in the final stages of a PhD in Creative Writing. She received Arts Council funding via Portsmouth City Council’s Library and Archive Service as their Poet in Residence (2019). She is published in a number of anthologies, including with The London Magazine. A part-time lecturer, she recently turned her hand to writing the pilot for a tourist app, alongside Tom Sykes and other colleagues. Her work, including poetry and prose, is centred on place and the folklore invested in it.

Mike Manson’s new novel, Down in Demerara, concerns an Englishman who is plucked from his humdrum job and dispatched to the forbidden rainforest of Guyana on a mysterious assignment. Fay Weldon calls the book ‘fast-moving and wonderfully funny (I laughed aloud a lot) vigorous and intelligent tale of an innocent abroad.’ The Jamaica Gleaner described it as ‘storytelling at its best’. Mike’s previous novels are Rules of the Road and Where’s My Money, which was featured on the BBC’s Books that Made Britain series. 

Tom Sykes is the author of The Realm of the Punisher: Travels in Duterte’s Philippines which, according to the Times Literary Supplement, ‘conveys in an affectionate, unpatronizing tone the many layers of injustice that run through the Philippines, and uses interviews and site visits to try to explain the eccentric ways and popular appeal of its more muscular leaders.’ Tom is also the author of Ivory Coast: The Bradt Guide and his travel journalism has appeared in The Telegraph, Private Eye, New Statesman, New African, The Scotsmanand many other titles. He is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Determining Duterte: Imperialism, Neoliberalism, Stalinism

Get along to this free webinar on the 22nd April offering alternative perspectives on the rise of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. It’s a joint effort between Ateneo de Manila and Portsmouth Universities. Book here.

Since his election as President of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte has been waging a bloodthirsty “war on drugs” that has so far killed an estimated 30,000 mostly poor, working-class Filipinos.

The four scholars on this panel examine several important long- and short-term determinants of Duterte’s rise, amongst them the recent complicity of Stalinist groups inside the Philippines, the longer-term impacts of Western neoliberal economic policy on Philippine society and the legacies of US colonialism.

The Political Economy of an Authoritarian Insurgency – Prof Walden Bello, University of the Philippines

This paper will discuss the roots of Rodrigo Duterte’s triumph in the 2016 presidential elections and the 2019 mid-term elections in the neoliberal economic policies and elite electoral monopoly of the so-called EDSA Republic that reigned from 1986 to 2016.

Dutertismo: Empire’s Veritable Wet dream or Perfumed Nightmare? – Dr Oscar V. Campomanes, Ateneo de Manila University

Around 1908, Philippine Commission member W. Morgan Shuster acknowledged the extreme difficulty of attracting Americans to settle in the Philippines, and expressed anxiety over the unpromising future of US colonial administration of the islands. (Contrast this with the urgent appeals of Hong Kong Consul-General Rounsevelle Wildman to the State Department, in early 1898, for directives on how to handle the constant stream of ordinary Americans heading for the Philippines, on the mistaken notion that the Philippines was an American ‘territory,’ at that point.)

Although Shuster does not state it, it was the grisly Philippine-American War, which Theodore Roosevelt had ended by presidential fiat in 1902 but continued to rage in various parts of the archipelago, that might significantly explain this alarming development. Shuster, in the grip of developing American imperialist and orientalist ideas about their new ‘natives,’ did not particularly relish the prospect of handing the fledgling colonial bureaucracy to an emergent native elite. As the problem persisted, the US, ever the ‘pragmatic empire,’ eventually formed and heavily relied on this emergent comprador class to rule the Philippines as its surrogates.

In my remarks, I argue that Rodrigo Duterte is only the latest (although iconoclastic) spawn of the ‘cacique democracy’ fostered by the USA in the Philippines as a consequence of this major policy shift. I critique certain historical blindspots (concerning the US colonization of the Philippines) in the continuing orientalist rhetoric on, and imperialist representations of, the ‘postcolonial’ Philippines as recently constellated around Duterte as mutational symbol and sign.

Call of Duterte: Complicity, Moral Inequivalence and the Limits of Western (Neo)liberal Media Discourses – Dr Tom Sykes, University of Portsmouth, UK

The chaotic and contradictory nature of the Duterte regime is matched by confusion, hypocrisy and inaccuracy in its coverage by establishmentarian British and American journalists on all points of a narrow political spectrum (conservative at one ‘extreme’ through to left-liberal on the other) that is delimited by market pressures and elite ideological assumptions.

The result is that most so-called journals of record in the West offer partial, unreliable explanations for Duterte’s gruesome necropolitics, and their vocabulary is bereft of catalyzing phenomena such as neoliberalism, Western ethnocentrism and US imperialism past and present. While certain Western writers reach for the timeworn trope of ‘Oriental despotism’ (Grosrichard) in their constructions of Duterte and to denounce the fear, populism, political divisiveness, summary executions and administrative catastrophes he is no doubt responsible for, they are oblivious to the contribution of decades of Western neoliberal policy to the social conditions that fomented ‘Dutertismo’, not to say the complicity of the Western armaments industry in Duterte’s oppression of his own people.

Such analyses are further hampered by chauvinistic double standards, from the assumption that Duterte’s mass-murder of 20,000 drug addicts and pushers is qualitatively worse than the millions killed by recent Western wars of choice, to the notion that Duterte’s crimes are more deserving of Western ire than those of other (hazily defined) ‘authoritarian populists’ around the globe such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s connivance in communal massacres and political assassinations.

#Embracing a Fascist: How the Communist Party of the Philippines Facilitated and Endorsed Duterte’s Rise to Power – Dr Joseph Scalice, Nanyang Technological University

This talk will examine how the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the various organizations that follow its political line, made possible Duterte’s rise to national prominence and stabilized his hold on presidential power. While they now denounce the president as a “fascist”, they campaigned for him in 2016, declared him to be a “progressive” and even offered to assist in the prosecution of his murderous war on drugs. I argue that the programmatic roots of this endorsement rest in the party’s Stalinist nationalism. I will explore the character of this program, its political ubiquity, and the vicissitudes of its development over the last four years.