Post-criticism: Or, commentary in the age of pundits

Updated: Apr 10, 2018

by J. Pilapil Jacobo

▶︎ If a political event summons a figure of opinion, the most prominent one to emerge from seasons of Philippine duress can only be the pundit. By definition, a pundit is someone hired by a media outfit to lend one’s expertise to a topic. We already know how the anchor turns this so-called expert into a talking head in an interview that’s a sorry excuse for a conversation that will never take place. If the pundit’s appearance is a matter of occasion, how can his ideas even be of consequence?

Our current political situation has extended such figure’s screen time, rendering his insignificance permanent. If his eminence is what has become of that species of thinking called public intellect, what are the chances for commentary to become articulate again in this precarious phase of our vaunted complaints? What cultural condition may be opportune for the critic in a post-critical age to reclaim her relevance?

The word “pundit” is derived from the Sanskrit honorific “pandit,” a scholar esteemed for his Vedic insight into phenomena important to Indian civilization. If the intellectual norm in the public sphere of the subcontinent is the argumentative Indian, the pandit can rise above all manner of argument and crystallize an idea from a constellation of concepts, which includes how colonial language has unsuccessfully inserted into its vocabulary a condescension toward the organic intellect of gurus and sages.

Whenever French scholars translate the knowledge of their disciplines in their journalistic forays, they are conscious of an engagement auspiciously termed as “haute vulgarisation,” a rehearsal of academic thought across popular media to engage a general audience, assumed to be educated and less likely to be inimical to the difficulties of critical thinking. The popular may be aware of the populist, but this consciousness does not serve philistine interests.

Of course, we don’t need to subscribe to these models from post-colonial India and imperial France, but a history of public intellect in the Philippines must take into account how the closing of the Filipino mind, in an abrupt democracy after a long dictatorship, could only produce a parody of the critical impulse a most opinionated nation such as ours could have articulated, despite the aspirations of our English.

How does our habit of opinion evolve into a culture of argument? When that happens, would a pandit emerge to instruct pundits on the method of critique? How low must a haute vulgarisateur descend so as not to shame the rigors of producing knowledge? Why do we prefer interpretations of cultural practice which merely flatten the thickets of thought and feeling? Why must we shame transports of language so queer in their turns of phrase? A brief genealogy of punditry must be narrated in this critique of Philippine public intellect.

The pundit’s native capacity may be academic, but the aura of mass media is so much more alluring. Many a scholar has been snared by the dreamwork of celebrity. As long as one is no longer an anonymous professor onscreen, never mind if one’s pretend interlocutor reduces one’s statements into soundbites. After all, it’s easy to run away with an idea colleagues deep in the archive and keen on the field are still struggling to enunciate.

This scholar shall return to his seminar, a few days after his televisual appearance, and he will be persuaded to alter his professorial style. He shall forget his close readings and cross-references. His lectures will be all about platitudes effortlessly sounding like political dissent.

The pundit is master of discourses facile and vapid. His students will of course repost his one-liners. Impression is aspect of entitlement. By the end of the semester, the university will have been betrayed. We should never expect our professor-pundit to recognize this farcical event. In his book, he has transformed both academe and broadcast. The will to simplify is heroic.

Professor S. Shankar of the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa has pointed out a second paradox to the philology of “pundit.” If it is indeed derived from the Sanskrit “pandit,” one must also be conscious of its Brahminic origins. How is this ironic?

The democratic aspirations of punditry are founded on a caste of mind that disperses the sensible, but only to a few who are believed to possess the priestly right to sacred knowledge. “Pundit” must circulate only because “pariah” can hardly deny the untouchability of others ultimately exterior to the university and the media which claim to recoup what has been ravaged among the market, the temple, and the state.

If the Dutertian era of political discourse has allowed the pundit and the pariah to come to head in our forlorn tropics, how should the prose of Philippine intellect allow the crisis between partisan classes be written, in order for politics, including its anarchic phase, to be intimate with the subaltern of our country, who are among us, but never with us, as we speak?

Like Juan Luna, we, too, turn to imperial Rome for a vision of the Philippine post-colony: Lumina pandit. Spread the light. Tenebrae pandit. Spread the darkness. ***

J. Pilapil Jacobo is a film critic.