Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Fenella Cannell

Power and Intimacy
in the Christian Philippines

Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press,
1999, ISBN 97155-0317-9,
paperback, pp. 322, $US25.00

reviewed by
Nancy M. Victorin-Vangerud

  1. According to Fenella Cannell, in the archipelago known internationally as the Philippines, Bicol is an overlooked and undervalued place. The reports of early Spanish colonialists passed briefly over the lowlands between the Tagalog-speaking areas around Manila and the Visayan cultural regions. Today, Bicol is in Philippine Economic Region 5—the poorest in the nation—a place without a Free Trade Zone or the boomtown of factories. In Southeast Asian studies, Bicol is thought to have an 'inauthentic' culture comprised of people who have been undermined in identity and tradition by years of acquiescence, accommodation and foreign influence. Thus, the lowland culture appears 'broken, contentless and insubstantial' (6). As Cannell recounts, 'Once again, the things which are easiest to see seem to be happening elsewhere' (2).
  2. But in Power and Intimacy in the Christian Philippines, Cannell introduces us to the things that are not so easy to see, the things that comprise the 'fine weave of daily relationships' in Bicol (26). Cannell is currently lecturer in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. The book is based on her doctoral fieldwork in Bicol, 1989-9, through the Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University. But she has continued her studies at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, Cornell University and the Institute de la Recherche sur le Sud-Est Asiatique. Drawing on her narrative skills and attentiveness to nuance, Cannell offers an empathetic re-valuation of an 'inauthentic' place and people.
  3. Throughout the book, we have the opportunity to listen in on ordinary conversations and hear the stories of intimate life, where over and over again power is negotiated, contested and re-valued in a dynamic, fluid process. Cannell is concerned with the ways ethnographers, in particular Marcel Mauss, have interpreted potency through formal rituals, structured gift-exchanges or traditions that secure social stability and order. Her focus is on 'the people who have nothing at all' [kami mayong-mayo] and how they use idioms such as pity, persuasion, reluctance, accommodation, oppression and balance in their ordinary, daily conversations. Contrary to the caricature of 'dysfunctional' or 'deferential' cultural values, Bicolaño people can be recognised as creative, innovative, and independent risk-takers within the situational constraints of poverty, globalisation, post-colonialism and gender relations.
  4. Thus we are introduced to the intimate relations of Bicolaño people, who in every social encounter risk re-negotiating potency. As Cannell explains, 'Potency ... for the people 'who have nothing' is not 'the past'; it is the structure of intimate life, and the painful conundrums of unequal relations for people of equal value are written in the way a young woman turns away from her new husband in the middle of the night, or reaches out to touch him' (254). In the things that are not so easy to see, such as the possibility of a nocturnal caress or not, Cannell explores the ways Bicolaño people negotiate unequal relations. The key concept for lowlands culture is utang no loob, the 'debt of the heart of the inside'. Thus, potency is not uni-directional, for relations of unequals are bound by obligations and responsibilities on both sides. As Cannell explains, 'The most powerless of people may—in fact must—place the kernel of humanity which commands recognition and constitutes value within the relations of debt and pity, and hope gradually to be able to wrap it round in protective layers of alliance, patronage and wealth' (253).
  5. For the women and men, healers and transvestites of Bicol, potency is neither fixed nor finite. There is always the possibility of closing or widening the gap between people just a little more or between persons and spiritual beings. Rather than overhear this 'emotional economy' (231) in a negative way, Cannell hears strength, dignity, resourcefulness, compassion and hope, for through Bicolaño eyes, the poor are never absolutely poor. Expressed in their jokes and teasing, they think that today a person may be a debt-slave, but there exists the possibility of becoming a freeperson or datu tomorrow. There is always the possibility of gaining from the saints and spirits. There is always the possibility of a man appearing beautiful, if only for a night. Potency is mutable, fluid and intersubjectively constituted.
  6. Yet, with the possibility of gain comes the possibility of loss or exposure to suffering. One may gain, but then one may become involved in a relation of patronage or spiritual possession that inflicts harm, makes demands or turns predatory. Bicolaño society is neither a self-legitimating hierarchy where each person has his or her place, nor a radically egalitarian one where rank and hierarchy are resisted and inverted. The complexity of intimate relations in Bicol is open-ended, thus we must listen to the stories of joy and suffering.
  7. Cannell's research explores four different contexts. First, in arranged marriages, she discovers a path from the inequality of power and even hostility between a woman and a man to the possibility of harmony, sharing and eventually love. One could simply say that women are forced to marry men their parents choose for them, but the idiom of reluctance heard in women's conversations implies a complexity of relations involving obligation to birthparents and the woman's own agency and choice. Yet, agreeing to marry the man means that the couples' parents become obligated in return, and the husband as well. Thus, reluctance and pity become converted into a kind of power, not extinguishing the woman's will, but indebting intimate others. Cannell writes, 'It is only the long, transformative processes of union in marriage and the sharing of children which will accommodate the will of bride and groom progressively to each other, in the course of which both will be changed' (75). Arranged marriages are not the only form of marital union in Bicol, but Cannell believes that the emotional economy of arranged marriages helps illuminate broad, cultural patterns that were present in pre-colonial times, and still today.
  8. Second, in the unequal relation of healer and saro, what feels at first to be 'oppression' to the healer can become experienced over time as the closeness of 'siblings' or 'companions'. While wealthy people go to Western doctors, the 'people who have nothing' seek out the aid of healers, who have offered themselves or been selected by spirit-mediums to relieve suffering. Again Cannell hears the idioms of reluctance, pity and oppression used by women in characterising this relationship. Healing is viewed as a 'precious gift' to the poor, with most healers refusing money. But the relation can become exploitative, thus client-patron is not the primary lens to use in gaining ethnographic understanding. Cannell explains, 'In Bicol, a healer's saro is her 'companion', her 'other person', her sibling, her workmate, her patron, but also commands her life and ultimately her death. 'Exchange' here has to be understood as an emotional economy as much as a political economy' (106-7).
  9. In the third context, Cannell examines the relation of people to the saints, the dead and the Amang Hinulid, the sculpted, wooden Christ figure in the local shrine of the barangay Calabanga. Cannell claims that while Christian missionaries tried to repress local healers and mediums—especially women—through the years, people incorporated the saints into their practices of amelioration with the invisible tawo, other people, nature and themselves. Cannell concludes, 'With the conversion to Christianity, the possible ways of handling the tawo were multiplied, without the original method being abandoned' (127).
  10. The dead too receive special treatment, which provides the pattern for relating to the dead Christ himself. During Lent, the Ama is taken down, washed, dressed and laid out in death, like anyone of the barangay members. The bath water and clothes are saved for healings later. Letters to the Ama are tucked under his pillow. People pass by in prayer, touching his body and kissing his feet. People hold Passion readings in their homes, with weeping, mourning and food distributions. On Good Friday, the Ama is put onto a bier and taken around the town with regular funeral musicians for the crowds to pity and honour him. As people care for the Ama and identify with his suffering, they gain confidence that their petitions will be answered too. Like the spirits, the Ama is understood to respond to the poor. Cannell claims that he is not a cadaver or mediator. He is more like 'the most accomplished of shamans' (199), who can cross the worlds of people and spirits without being overcome by any other power. The healers with their spirits seek to imitate him and share intimately in his power. Cannell thinks that in Bicol, the culture has allowed the indigenous and Christian worldviews to influence one another. This is different than in the Visayas, where the babaylanes during the revolution differentiated their indigenous power from Christian sources. But the 'sharing with Christ' heard through Bicolaño idioms of pity has enabled popular political activity.
  11. The fourth context, the Miss Gay Naga City Beauty Contest, introduces readers to the artful, yet artificial world of the baklas and their search for beauty and recognition. While baklas are not usually targets of violence or prejudice, they are not always treated with dignity. Thus the competitions involving fabulous dresses, make-up and style, provide opportunities for accessing social codes that only the wealthy possess. They risk being seen as vulgar, shameless or fake, by placing themselves in intimate relation to the powerful symbols of Western capitalist culture, but they may gain the honour and admiration of others, and even a 'real man' to love.
  12. Cannell is not out to discern the common structures or narrative congruence in all the stories from the four contexts. Yet, she finds emerging patterns of relationship that are illuminating for re-valuing Bicolaño culture. One of her primary aims is not to divide the archipelago from its own pre-colonial historical context. For example, Cannell believes that Spanish Christianity is not the sole origin of hierarchy or gender distinctions in Bicol culture. In pre-colonial times, there were already 'patriarchal tendencies' at play (52). She further claims that notions of sacrifice and debt were also part of the intimate relations of the people of Bicol prior to Spanish Christianity and its political economy. The spirits could be good patrons, but after colonialisation, the saints became more so. Thus Christianity cannot be understood as the sole source of altruistic, gift-giving patterns in the cultural history of Bicol (196).
  13. As a feminist theologian who has spent a short period of time in the Visayas, I found Cannell's stories of power in intimate relations in Bicol to be illuminating and compelling. But at the beginning of the book, Cannell writes of potency and power, shifting later in her chapters on the four contexts to the language of power. It remains unclear if she sees these two concepts as interchangable or not. While she hopes her research will contribute to the areas of postcolonial studies, Southeast Asian studies and the anthropology of religion, I also think this book will be of great interest to contextual theologians and religious professionals who are seeking ways of valuing culture, women's experiences and new models of spiritual power beyond unilateral, patriarchal and rationalist traditions. Women's lives are complex and fluid, like the possibilities for empowerment and healing. Cannell offers herself as a compassionate guide in honouring the lives of 'the people who have nothing'.
  14. There is a story in the Christian canon about a person who leaves all just to find a beautiful pearl. I think Cannell views her research in such a way. She has set aside the things that are easy to see in order to journey to a place she believes has been overlooked and undervalued. And she succeeds in finding much of beauty.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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