Consuming Capitalist Modernity In The Media Cultures Of .

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The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 78, No. 1 (February) 2019: 75–93. The Association for Asian Studies, Inc., 2019 doi:10.1017/S0021911818002565Consuming Capitalist Modernity in the MediaCultures of 1930s and 1960s Manila’s CommercialStreetsELMO GONZAGATracing the entangled genealogies of spaces of media spectatorship, modes of visual perception, and practices of capitalist consumption, this article explores how the shift inManila’s main commercial street from Calle Escolta in the 1930s to Avenida Rizal inthe 1960s reveals changes in the imagination and experience of capitalism and modernity.Previously embodied in the infrastructure, architecture, and technology of the cityscape,which only government and business were perceived as having the capacity to produce,modernity became reconfigured as a dynamic force that ordinary residents came tobelieve they could harness. The article comparatively analyzes variations and dissonancesin the print and audiovisual media of the two periods, particularly in the contrasting representations of awkward vaudeville comedians and youthful movie antiheroes. Instead oftreating consumer and media culture as a source of docility and atomization, it sees thecollective spectatorship of mass entertainment as generating the potential for selftranscendence and revolution.Keywords: capitalism, cities, consumption, media, modernity, Philippines, spectatorshipmetropolitan Manila’s two main commercial streets,entrenched in the collective imagination of the city, represent the passage in the prevailing form of modernity between two important periods in the world history of capitalism in the twentieth century. Frequenting these bustling public spaces to discover thelatest products, styles, and technologies, ordinary Filipinos encountered the multiple possibilities for agency produced by urban flows. Whereas Calle Escolta in the 1930s wasdefined by the progress witnessed in the imposing achievements of its art deco buildingsand window displays, Avenida Rizal in the 1960s was characterized by the self-fashioningfacilitated by the affordable products of its retail emporiums and movie theaters.Most scholarship about modernity in the cities of the Global South could bedescribed as falling under two categories. Focused on its emergence in the earlytwentieth century, the first set of studies (Lee 1999; Mrázek 2002) explores how the introduction of new infrastructures and technologies of transportation, leisure, and communication into the urban environment became experienced almost as a relentless, dynamicforce, which transformed the dominant modes of perception. The other category is concerned with the late twentieth century, particularly the expansion of electronic media andthe onset of neoliberal capitalism. Such studies (Appadurai 1996; Canclini 1995) examineADJACENT TO EACH OTHER,Elmo Gonzaga ( is Assistant Professor in the Department of Cultural and ReligiousStudies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.Downloaded from IP address:, on 30 May 2021 at 12:12:06, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, availableat

76Elmo Gonzagahow the transmission and dissemination of media content across multiple platforms andlocations have allowed global flows formerly accessible only to a limited, more affluentfew to be harnessed in vernacular terms. Writings in these two types of scholarshiptend to comprehend modern forces as being intrinsically shaped by consumer practicesand media technologies. Whereas the first regards modernity as a sweeping, transcendentprocess, which arrives from outside the territorial domain, the second considers it to havea contingent, malleable potential, which is incarnated through bodily gestures andactions.Instead of enumerating factors that would account for the shift between these tworegimes with sociological comprehensiveness or teleological historicization, I describevariations and dissonances in the forms and meanings of consumer spaces and practices(Zhang 2005, 11). Aspiring for a panoramic view of each period that would constitutewhat Raymond Williams (1977, 128–35) calls its structure of experience, I tried tolocate images, discourses, and narratives of the prevalent forms of entertainment,spaces of exhibition, and modes of spectatorship. My method entailed delving into thearchive to peruse a wide range of print and audiovisual media over a span of severalyears from each period—particularly newspapers, films, photographs, and advertisements—to be able to uncover recurrent patterns among salient representations ofmodern urban life. In my discussion of each milieu, I selected artifacts that could besaid to have captured the collective imagination of the time because of their repeatedinscription in the public culture.Refraining from treating the effects of consumer and media products as deterministic in engendering docility and atomization among ordinary people, I understand them tobe transformative in their fostering of creativity and possibility. In this article, I examinethe concomitant rise of consumer and media cultures in a Southeast Asian city by uncovering the configurations of commercial spaces that engrossed the collective imaginationin two important historical moments. The surrounding environments of commercialspaces acted as sites of convergence and negotiation for capitalist flows, in whichurban residents made sense of modern forces in different ways through their variableconsumption of such products.The city I focus on is Metro Manila, capital of the Philippines, long called the “SickMan of Asia” for the tentativeness of its political governance and economic growth. ThePhilippines is now targeted as a lucrative site for foreign investment because of its burgeoning consumer-based domestic economy, which has been fueled by the remittancesof overseas migrant workers and the salaries of call center agents. The economic importance of commercial consumption is evinced by the fact that the archipelagic nation hasthree of the largest shopping malls in the world, all of which, found in Metro Manila, nowfunction as the principal hubs of social life in the congested megalopolis. Looking at thepredominant consumer spaces prior to the shopping mall, I explore how the transition inManila’s main commercial street from Calle Escolta in the 1930s to Rizal Avenue in the1960s may have corresponded with the passage to mass-based regimes of capitalism, consumption, and entertainment.The 1930s and 1960s represent two junctures in Philippine history when the possibilities offered by modernity seemed boundless before the traumas of the Pacific War inthe 1940s and Martial Law in the 1970s. When the Philippines Islands obtained commonwealth status in the 1930s, the US colony found itself on a definite path toward politicalDownloaded from IP address:, on 30 May 2021 at 12:12:06, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, availableat

Consuming Capitalist Modernity77independence after more than three decades of colonial rule. This period immediatelypreceded the devastation of the Pacific War, which profoundly impacted not only theeconomy but also the culture of both the city and the archipelago. By the 1960s, thetrauma of war had yielded to the promise of upheaval, which put forward a new paradigmof modernity. The independent Filipino nation would frequently be exalted in periodicalsas the second most prosperous economy in Asia next to Japan due to its protections overits local industries. The excitement and ferment of the time culminated in the declarationof martial law by the corrupt and oppressive Marcos dictatorship, which led to economicdecline and political turmoil. Marking important historical moments, these shifts coincided with changes to the prevalent consumer and media cultures from luxury to massconsumption and from theater to film entertainment. However, instead of presuming aseamless, linear continuity, I consider how different historical periods could be takenas distinct social milieus, each with its own defining sets of mediated conditions andtendencies.While the urban nucleus has since shifted to Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, whichconnects Metro Manila’s different cities and municipalities, Calle Escolta and RizalAvenue continue to figure prominently in social media through nostalgic photographsand narratives, which eulogize the so-called golden age of Manila. Departing fromthese sentimental reminiscences, I would like to see prior urban spaces as dynamicsites of transition and transformation, where the parameters and possibilities of identityand collectivity in different historical milieus are disclosed. As such, this article is dividedinto two main sections, in which each milieu is examined according to its predominantspaces of commerce and leisure and practices of consumption and spectatorship.1930S CALLE ESCOLTA: MODERNITYASDIVINE INTERVENTIONInto the fourth decade of US rule, the compact Calle Escolta had developed into thecenter of finance and commerce in Manila, the capital of the Philippine Islands. Despitebeing only half a kilometer long and twenty meters wide (Sunday Times Magazine 1950,23), the commercial street had attained prestige and prominence for being lined withshops that sold imported luxury goods. Called the “Queen of the Streets,” the Escoltawas renowned for being the main destination in the city where members of the socialand economic elite could enhance their distinction by acquiring objects that displayedtheir material wealth. As new buildings and establishments that displayed modern architectural styles, technological advances, and commercial fashions would be constructedthrough the 1930s, it was transformed into an exemplar not only of luxury but also of progress. Forming the urban nucleus for commerce and consumption, Calle Escolta servedas a public space where ordinary Filipino consumers could encounter and negotiate thearrival of modern forces. Whereas modernity would become embodied in the infrastructure, architecture, and technology of the cityscape through the interventions of government and business, individuals struggled to harness the possibilities of modernity throughtheir consumption of commercial and media products.Running parallel to the Pasig River, a major tributary that flowed in from the SouthChina Sea, the Escolta was anchored by two busy public squares, Plaza Moraga on thewest and Plaza Goiti on the east. Plaza Moraga connected Calle Escolta with CalleDownloaded from IP address:, on 30 May 2021 at 12:12:06, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, availableat

78Elmo GonzagaRosario (now Quintin Paredes Street), which was the main commercial street under theSpanish regime with shops run by the local Chinese community. Plaza Goiti (now PlazaArsenio Lacson) functioned as the central hub of the tranvía tramway line, which provided mass transit to different parts of the city such that the terminuses of its networkcame to be seen as the “ends of the earth” (De Manila 1977b, 258) or the limits of civilization. Plaza Goiti was adjacent to Plaza Santa Cruz, a famous destination for popularentertainment, which then led to the burgeoning thoroughfare of Avenida Rizal.As the main commercial street of the capital city, Calle Escolta epitomized the transcendent intervention of modernity in early twentieth-century Philippines. The Spanishcolonial era from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was marked by recurrence andstagnation. Due to their inherent fragility, physical structures during this historicalperiod often failed to overcome the seemingly fated rhythm of periodic catastrophes.Majestic state and church structures built of wood, stone, or adobe tended to bedamaged or demolished by typhoons, fires, and earthquakes (Ventura 1978, 197–201).The local populace experienced time as an inevitable cycle in which newly built structureswould eventually be destroyed through the agency of nature and the sanction of God.José Rizal’s (2006, 201–9) seminal 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere illustrates how such catastrophes would be attributed by Catholic friars in their homilies to the innately sinfulthoughts and actions of natives. This cyclicality was echoed in the immobility ofsociety, as individuals stayed bound to their given circumstances throughout their lifespan. The narrative arcs of characters like Sisa and Basilio exemplify how most nativessubsisted with scarce hope of ascending through the established hierarchy, which wasdominated by landowners and friars of Spanish descent.With the US occupation of the Philippines in the last decade of the nineteenthcentury, the landscape of the archipelago appeared to be transformed. Departing fromthe perceived inertia of the earlier regime, the new colonial government extensivelyand effectively introduced advances in infrastructure and transportation conventionallyrecognized as modern. Its distinction from Spanish rule was remarkably evident due tothe lasting changes to everyday life it managed to deliver to a stagnant landscape. Assuming the force and veneer of divine intervention to a predominantly Catholic populace, itbrought electricity to streets, buildings, and homes. Enhancing mobility, it paved and illuminated the roads to ensure the quick and efficient movement of bodies and goods.Under US rule, wood, stone, and adobe structures were reborn with iron, glass, andconcrete.As the new regime effectively reconfigured bodies, spaces, and practices withmodern norms, Filipinos learned to equate modernity with the United States (Pérez1999). From the beginning of its rule in the early twentieth century, the US colonialgovernment set up extensive public education and civil service systems (Kramer 2006,166–70, 201–3). Akin to the work of national periodicals, public schools trained Filipinosin the rudiments of modernity, such as modern ways of inhabiting spaces and managingemotions. The efficacy of the state’s influence suggested the impossibility of controlling orharnessing unfamiliar modern forces on the part of individuals, which added to the inexorable, monolithic, and almost supernatural character of progress. Laikwan Pang (2012,31) describes how modernity was conceived early on as a creative agency that only divinebeings possessed the capacity to wield. This common perception of modernity as havingan unattainable transcendence would be reflected in public imagery such as RisingDownloaded from IP address:, on 30 May 2021 at 12:12:06, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, availableat

Consuming Capitalist Modernity79Philippines, a mural by Filipino modernist painters Victorio C. Edades, CarlosV. Francisco, and Galo B. Ocampo in the lobby of the 1935 Capitol Theater, whichdepicted a female colossus ascending from the materiality of national history towardthe future of heavenly salvation.Despite the seemingly boundless promise evoked by these numerous changes, thedecade leading up to the Pacific War was an ambivalent moment for many Filipinos.Although the Philippines Islands had experienced an economic boom in the interwarperiod, the aftereffects of the global economic depression at the end of the 1920s lingered into the succeeding decade in the form of salary reductions, and thus less purchasing power for consumers (Doeppers 1984). Anxieties over the future worsened when thecolony was granted a definite path toward political independence with commonwealthstatus in 1935. Periodicals expressed the growing apprehension that the nationaleconomy would falter without the steady, duty-free demand of US markets for Filipinoagricultural raw materials, such as sugar, hemp, coconut oil, and copra. Politicians andjournalists debated extending the run-up to independence if not overturning independence altogether.Amid the anxieties of the period, Calle Escolta continued to epitomize progress in1930s Manila with its innovations in architecture, technology, and commerce. In thelate nineteenth century, Calle Escolta had garnered fame for luxury shops such asPuerta del Sol and La Estrella del Norte (Agoncillo 2003, 330–31), whose advertisementshighlighted the sale of “the finer things in life,” namely exquisite jewelry, clocks, perfumes, porcelain, and silverware. Stored in the hidden backrooms of shops but displayedon the bodies of their wealthy owners, luxury goods enhanced social distinction becausethey remained inaccessible and invisible to most of the populace. In contrast, progressderived its meaning from its extensive visibility. Aside from being built fromstate-of-the-art materials like plate glass and reinforced concrete, its structures emulatedprominent commercial buildings in the United States by featuring the emergent technology of air-conditioning, which together constituted an unequivocal material presence(Leach 1993, 302–5). Standing close to Plaza Goiti, the prominent Heacock’s departmentstore occupied the seven-story Heacock Building, which was known for its wall-highwindow displays and automatic electronic doors (José 2004). The department storecarried a selection of fashionable products, such as watches, bicycles, iceboxes, fountainpens, and photographic equipment, which were marketed in print advertisements ascharacteristic objects of modernity.Situated at the midpoint of the Escolta, the Crystal Arcade was the most strikingbuilding on the commercial street with its sweeping horizontal lines and circularedges. When it was inaugurated on June 1, 1932, it was extolled in local newspapers(Manila Daily Bulletin 1932, 4) as being the exemplar of progress in the cityscape.Designed by Filipino architect Andrés Luna de San Pedro, whose family owned the property, the Crystal Arcade housed the Manila Stock Exchange, the financial nucleus of thedecade’s gold-mining boom. Costing P1.5 million to construct, the fully air-conditioned,art deco building was christened a “new paradise for shoppers.”Faithful to the name of the building, its majestic interior was a study in glass andlighting, which evoked the grand department stores of Paris and New York (Leach1993, 71–84). Each story formed a glistening wall of Belgian plate glass. To augmentthe radiance of the interior, insets of prismatic glass had been built into the floor.Downloaded from IP address:, on 30 May 2021 at 12:12:06, subject to the Cambridge Core terms of use, availableat

80Elmo GonzagaHanging from the front and rear of its palatial atrium were resplendent German glass skylights, which were ringed by bands of triangles and diamonds with dual tones of blue,green, rose, yellow, white, and orchid. With a total cost of P180,000 at the time, moreplate glass was reportedly used in the Crystal Arcade than in all the structures on CalleEscolta combined.According to its builders, the Crystal Arcade represented “the last word in modernity.” Its physical structure was engineered to withstand Manila’s recurrent catastrophes,which had resulted in the destruction of monumental architecture in the past. Made ofdurable reinforced concrete, it illustrated the strength of locally produced Rizal cement,which was claimed to be resistant to damage from a range of external forces, from automobile tires to earthquake tremors. Its basement was equipped with drainage pumps toprevent flooding, which happened occasionally on the Escolta during the monsoonseason due to overflowing canals.I would argue that modern forces proved to be less manag

Keywords: capitalism, cities, consumption, media, modernity, Philippines, spectatorship A DJACENT TO EACH OTHER, metropolitan Manila’s two main commercial streets, entrenched in the collective imagination of the city, represent the passage in the pre-vailing form of modernity between

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