Saturday, April 27, 2024



THE SOVEREIGN TRICKSTER: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte by Vicente L. Rafael

(Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2022)


Vicente L. Rafael’s THE SOVEREIGN TRICKSTER is the best political science read I’ve enjoyed in the past several years. It’s brilliant and breathtakingly wide-ranging. Its (sub)title, I feel, is almost reductive against its multi-layered content, from the colonial roots of modern oligarchy (one of the world’s current great diseases) to the referenced president’s penis to the ick-ingly but psychically dead-on named “fecal politics,” while tossing in Foucault and Bakhtin for some needed and fascinating context. Ironically, because of its intelligence and breadth, one feels more anguished about its ending… that finds it hard to suggest optimism as regards the dilemma that is the Philippines. 

What was unexpected to me about this book is the historical and philosophical contextualizations that make Duterte just another character in how history has dismally unfolded in the country. Despite the title, it's not just about Duterte though he provides a convenient example for the debasement of human nature and resulting history of abuse. For one, the colonial roots to how elections play out in the Philippines is elucidating, though disheartening. Elections are hardly democratic when they are just regularized collaborations among the socio-economic-political elite. It’s painfully unfair—painful given the state of the country—because we know today that the elite and oligarchs and their cohorts have created a system that enables the more privileged to ignore the ethical duty of taking care of those weaker than they are. I think of that saying, “With great privilege comes great responsibility” and how dismaying that one snorts—that I snort—when thinking of its application to many Filipino politicians. (Let me be clear, too, on what I mean: charity does not count for good behavior by elites; resource-sharing is what’s morally required.) And history has a long reach—anti-democratic elections for limiting candidates to elites continue the aftermath of Spanish and U.S. invasions as well as the abuses that occurred during the Marcos Martial Law era.

This tough-to-take narrative, though, doesn’t turn away the reader’s eye due to another of Rafael’s achievements: a writing that is stellar enough to make complicated issues accessible and witty enough to appreciate how Rafael can even get impish with diction (e.g. “necrological aura” which I confess made me laugh briefly despite the seriousness of the reference, the widowhood of Cory Aquino).

The book’s comprehensiveness creates an educational history primer elevated by Rafael’s thoughtful perspectives. Such topics include the myth of how authoritarianism came to be benevolent. While the book’s subtitle encourages the focus on Duterte, the benevolent dictatorship stance goes back to the Spanish colonial era, followed by its evolution as required by the more contemporary events of Marcos’ and Duterte’s rules, e.g. “authoritarian developmentalism” as facilitated by cronyism.

All this history fortifies the book’s analysis of Duterte and his rule, including a discourse on neoliberalism and biopolitics that’s painful to read for laying bare how the focus on individual betterment becomes corrupted into the pitiless treatment of the destitute (fascinating to see the link to Foucault). Such introduces the tragedy of concern in the book—how Duterte’s phallus-oriented mentality and his “aesthetics of vulgarity” result in his “war on drugs” with its dysfunctional decision to use death as a means to (supposedly) preserve life. [Nota bene: Rafael suggests this book is best read with Patricia Evangelista’s Some People Need Killing (Penguin Random House, 2023) that delivers additional specifics on Duterte’s deadly war.] 

Well, how does one end such a book? There’s no Hollywood ending here. But it’s both a genius choice—and wonderful!—that Rafael cracks a space for optimism by referencing the community pantries that sprung up during the worst days of Covid:

“As this book goes to press there has been the sudden unexpected mushrooming of so-called community pantries throughout the country. Started by an ordinary citizen, Ana Patricia Non… With the slogan [Give what you can, take what you need], the pantries are based on generosity and mutual aid…”

Such presents the best of the Filipino character—the so-called Bayanihan Spirit. After all the horrific narratives in the book, I actually got teary as I read about such community pantries: I loved the Filipino all over again. And it does remind me of whatever I think/say/promote whenever I consider or address the too many sources of anguish and turmoil out in the world. I believe many of the world’s problems are systemic such that it can be difficult for individuals to resolve them. But such does not excuse an individual from behaving as an ethical and loving being. And, who knows, those individual acts might rise from the grassroots to affect systems.

It is sadly telling, though, that Rafael’s book must end with an acknowledgment of the dark side, that is, that community pantries also exercise anonymity. While the opposite of darkness was, I think, what Rafael meant to stress here, I couldn’t help but be reminded that anonymity is a means of hiding, e.g. hiding from authoritarian forces. Still, Rafael’s intention is more uplifting:

“… community pantries instantiate the community of anonymity. Each one comes to the aid of everyone, regardless of who they are, not out of fear or in the name of security but for the sake of fostering a common life.”

I can only be relieved on Rafael’s behalf that community pantries mushroomed as he was writing his book. Its spirit offered a needed balm to soothe the spirit of the book’s readers who can only come out of this book more depressed at how ingrained are the sources of anti-progress in the nation’s development.

Finally, such actions as the community pantry help not just our bodies but our souls. Because of the effect on the latter, it allows us to maintain another Filipino strength: our sense of humor. In 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine, one of my first poems (“Let Us Anticipate”) in response presented this epigraph:

“What is an oligarch without ostentation? For many Russian elites, the answer is apparently ‘nothing.’ The sanctions threaten oligarchs with a kind of annihilation, similar to the phenomenon that sociologists describe as ‘social death.’ That is why Russian elites were so quick to gather up their expensive toys as soon as sanctions were announced and why several have taken the extraordinary step of publicly begging Putin for a quick end to the war.

—from “The Russian Elite Can’t Stand the Sanctions” by Brooke Harrington, The Atlantic, March 5, 2002

As Bahktin says, humor can be a powerful weapon. Let us, at a minimum, laugh at our Filipino elites and oligarchs. Let us not be their fans—let us not applaud with hearts and Likes the images of their fancy expenditures on Instagram or other social media outlets. Let us be aware and make them aware that their lifestyles of comfort and luxury rests on ancestral hoarding of what belonged to the larger citizenry. Let us not allow their lack of self-awareness. Let’s indeed educate ourselves, continue to protest and do our best. But always, let us laugh at them. Laugh—this much, even the most poor and powerless can do.

And our mockery might help dissipate the ironic result of a country’s history that would enable a regime like Duterte’s—what Rafael calls “autoimmunity.” Rooted in the biological term for a body attacking itself, Rafael notes how “if we think of community as a living body,… its existence is dependent on the very things that endanger it: the acts of conviviality, reciprocity, conditional generosity.”

Ultimately, I shut the book thinking yet again of what I often think whenever I am faced with how those in authority have exercised—abused—their socio-economic and political powers in the Philippines: the Filipino people deserve better.



Eileen R. Tabios has released over 70 collections of poetry, fiction, and diverse types of prose. In 2024 (Asia) & 2025 (World), Penguin Random House SEA will publish her second novel The Balikbayan Artist. Other recent releases an art monograph Drawing Six Directions; a poetry collection Because I Love You, I Become War; an autobiography,The Inventor; and a flash fiction collection collaboration with harry k stammer, Getting To One. Other recent books include a first novel DoveLion: A Fairy Tale for Our Times which was subsequently translated by Danton Remoto into Filipino as KalapatingLeon (UST Publishing House, 2024). Her work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form; the MDR Poetry Generator that can create poems totaling theoretical infinity; the “Flooid” poetry form that’s rooted in a good deed; and the monobon poetry form based on the monostich. Translated into 13 languages, she has seen her writing and editing works receive recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is at


1 comment:

  1. Great review. Another must read from Vince. Filipinos certainly deserve better, Eileen. We all deserve justice with equal rights and opportunities. Trickster sovereigns (with emphasis on Trickster) are objects of laughter and derision but mockery which we have ample examples of in literature and social media need to transform into political action.