Necropolitics

Originally posted here.

In the days after the late DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo’s untimely demise and the nation’s subsequent mourning, one word began cropping up, slowly but surely, on the minds and lips (or screens) of a few Filipino intellectuals: necropolitics. From the Greek prefix necro-, meaning death, Western theorists have used this term to describe the relationship between sovereignty and the power over life and death, or in African philosopher Achille Mbembe’s words, the assumption that the ultimate expression of sovereignty “resides, to large degree, in the power and the capacity to dictate who may live and who must die”. However, the emerging necropolitics observed here in the Philippines is of a different sort. Rather, it is the odd phenomenon wherein a person’s death, in the right circumstances, can confer political power to the deceased, and in many cases, to his or her next of kin.

When the Piper Seneca carrying Sec. Jesse and three others plunged into the sea off Masbate on August 18, nobody expected the outpouring of grief that would ensue from all quarters, even from those who had barely known the Secretary or his work. The flurry of news reports painted a picture of the good man who had been low-key despite the accolades and power he held: a champion of good governance for almost twenty-five years, from his stint as a Ramon Magsaysay Award-winning mayor of Naga, Camarines Sur, up to his abbreviated stay at the Department of Interior and Local Government. Facebook and Twitter was swamped with tributes, including statements from private citizens that Jesse Manalastas Robredo was, in fact, the best President the Philippines never had. Some suggested that Atty. Leni Robredo could fill the vacuum Sec. Jesse left at the DILG (something that Atty. Leni firmly refused–“not interested”). Others even started an online campaign, encouraging her to run for the Senate in 2013 as a vessel of the transformative politics Sec. Jesse espoused. As one blogger blithely commented, surely she would be more qualified than the clowns currently in the Upper House.

Certainly, her dignity and grace in the face of tragedy, not to mention her track record as an alternative lawyer, is a welcome contrast to the usual Congressional facepalmers. (Sen. Sotto’s plagiarism scandal certainly comes to mind). Certainly, if Ninoy’s death worked for Cory, and if Cory’s worked for their son Noynoy, then surely such a tragedy could once again catapult a good person into office? But it is a little creepy. Take, for example, the Atty. Leni Robredo for Senator Movement Facebook Page, which as of this writing has 460 “likes”. Both the main photograph and banner of the page are images of the couple snuggled together. The largest photo looks as if it were taken on a family vacation, Atty. Leni leaning on Sec. Jesse’s shoulder against the cold. All the stories posted on the Wall are of the ongoing funeral rites. None of them contain information on Atty. Leni’s qualifications, apart from the fact that she was Sec. Jesse’s wife.

It’s a twisted, semi-dynastic version of le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. To be fair, though, it is something that one suspects is largely unconscious. On Facebook, friends have cited Jose Rizal as the classic example of Philippine necropolitics, at least a century before Robredo’s time. Didn’t his martyrdom become a catalyst against Spanish rule–despite the fact that only a handful of Filipino intellectuals had been able to read his Noli and Fili, both written in Spanish?

In his seminal Pasyon and Revolution, historian Reynaldo Ileto provides something of an explanation. In his “history from below”, Ileto investigates how a reading of Rizal by the non-illustrado masses led to his being read as a spiritual figure by the Katipunan and other similar brotherhoods. He refers to the textualization of Rizal, where his life from childhood to martyrdom and beyond is read as an echo of the lakaran (journey) in the Pasyon Pilapil, the verse narrative about the suffering, death and resurrection of the Christ that is commonly sung during Holy Week as part of traditional religious practice. Rizal’s fulfillment of the pasyonarchetype, down to the pre-execution vigil, resulted in his being claimed posthumously as a Tagalog Christ. Many groups in the Southern Tagalog region still literally view Rizal as the son of God, but one might argue that a similar dynamic is at work again, in the emerging Robredo phenomenon. That like Hesu Kristo, or Cory, or Ninoy, Sec Jesse was only human until his sudden death transformed him (and his life’s work) into something more–at least, in the eyes of the general public.

Which begs the question: why do good men have to die before the Philippine public recognizes their worth? Showbiz notwithstanding, is necropolitics the only way for non-trapos to get a share of the political pie? Or better yet, is necropolitics but a stage in the long and rocky road towards Philippine political maturity? After all, necropolitics entails a different notion of power–whereas the Western/traditional conception of political power is external, a kind of “power-over”, the power of necropolitics is internal, spiritual even. Something that is not so much a privilege, but a burden to be carried with humility, servitude and sacrifice.

One certainly hopes that it is the latter. Given that the 2013 elections is but a few months away, may the Filipino electorate decide to not settle for more of the old crap and raise up living heroes–and not wait until they’re dead.

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