October 2006
Voyeurs and Exhibitionists

An outsider looks in

We are a nation of usyoseros, so much so that even coup attempts are turned into honest-to-goodness reality shows — with audience participation to boot.

JEFFREY JETURIAN’S most recent film, Kubrador, concludes with an interesting scene: the protagonist Amy, played by Gina Parreño, walks into a dispute between two men in the middle of a road. She is a random passerby, but is attracted to a growing crowd surrounding the debate. At some point in the argument, one man takes a gun and begins firing, hitting a random spectator and failing to wound the opposing firebrand, who takes off running immediately. At this point the crowd disperses — but only momentarily. After it appears that the threat of violence has been subdued, the crowd regroups, this time even larger than before.

As a Filipino-American, the scene struck me in two levels: at its very basic, it speaks to curious Filipino ideas of gazing, being the object of a gaze, and being a part of a collective of gazing. It has to do with, I think, the Filipino concept of usyoso. Often translated into English as “rumor mongering,” usyoso seems to be more than just the dissemination of gossip. It has to deal with the dynamics of a collective and the collapse between individual and communal spaces.

On another level, it reminds me of my social signification as a foreign body, with foreign eyes, whose concepts of viewership and gazing have been prescribed by other formations of national identity (in my case, American). As a receptacle of celluloid images flickering frantically from the projector, I am also a part of a circulatory system of various ways of subject gazing: I am watching a Filipino film about a Filipino crowd of eager spectators, in a Manila theatre equally filled with an audience hungry for more. I have to admit that my reading of these events is largely informed by the concepts of crowd dynamics, rumor, and rumor-mongering I came into contact with growing up in the United States (specifically the Pacific Northwest). In many ways the idea of usyoso is not that much different from the American way of thinking about it.

I could talk about it from the context of suburban, West Coast America, which, thanks to Hollywood is too often imagined as the “quintessential American space.” With the rise of regulated inter-city road systems and the shifting of populations into widening metropolitan areas in the 20th century, suburban residential communities started becoming more uniformly compartmentalized. Images of “the ‘burbs,” with vast neighborhoods consisting of identical looking houses with similarly spaced out yards and white picket fences, gave rise to a culture that sought to manage its own individual aspirations while at the same time monitoring what was happening with other people.

But perhaps those living in more densely populated places — as almost every inch of the Philippines is — have their own unique brand of usyoso. Most foreign to me, for instance, is the way in which the subject of the usyoso gaze in Philippine society tolerates being under such directed, voyeuristic auspices.

TO HELP me try to work out some of these issues, I consulted Yason Banal, an instructor of cinema studies at the University of the Philippines. He has by no means received formal training in Philippine cultural studies, but the advantage in talking to him are made clear as he starts talking: he’s lived abroad extensively, spending time in England and Japan, so having been dislocated has allowed him to produce comparative analyses.

He relates to me an incident in his condominium unit: in the midst of a social engagement at his condo, Banal’s guest pointed out that, on several occasions, an unfamiliar head popped in several times from the slightly open doorway. Banal decided to investigate and, upon finding a lone figure in the hallway, proceeded to question the man’s justification for his voyeurism. The man, after putting up some defense, finally retorted, “So what if it was me, what’s the problem?”

For the most part Banal admits that his confrontation of the usyosero was highly unusual, and that usyoso behavior goes on, with minimal-levels of tolerance, usually because “people are not straightforward” and thus have to “use another route to get information. The subject tolerates it and doesn’t really reprimand or confront the person…[or, rather] people don’t get reprimanded seriously.” He explains that, in Europe, “people don’t sort of pry on other people’s businesses,” although he views “group communication” techniques like usyoso as a “human dynamic” that doesn’t “just exist here…[but] exists everywhere.”

Kate Paredes, a freshman at Ateneo de Manila University, originally hails from Davao. Her experiences of multiple cultures within the Philippines have provided her with a way of understanding the in-depth processes of identity and social negotiation within Philippine society.

She associates usyoso as a phenomenon affiliated with groups and communities. In a startling question that echoes much of the film scene described earlier, she asks, “Have you noticed how people flock over dead bodies on the streets just to know what happened? That’s being usyosero.” I reply that I didn’t think this was particularly unusual. In the United States, traffic accidents play an unusual role in commuter travel, especially those involving the highway. Although the first priority is to get the damaged cars from physically blocking the arterial flow of traffic, moving them aside to the shoulder (which is almost always the case) does little to actually stop traffic, as people driving by intentionally slow down to look, in some vague hopes of being witness to some pitiable scene of violence and gore.

Then again, this is a country where even a dead car battery can attract attention.

When I ask Paredes about the unique qualities of Filipino curiosity (especially in the face of my American example), she responds that it had to do with an “innate desire to know just what the hell is going on, even if it’s none of our business.”

THE CONCEPT of entitlement — or knowing “what the hell is going on” — emerges as a particularly critical component of usyoso, as practitioners are part of a system of information dissemination that is motivated primarily by the desire to be “in the know.” Thus, usyosera/os aren’t entirely malicious in their intentions — they’re largely perpetuating a system of gossip in order to affirm a Filipino role that encourages being ahead of the curve in terms of social news.

“It’s precisely because things are withheld from us [that promotes usyoso],” says Banal, who admits that he wasn’t all particularly offended by the “what’s the problem?” attitude he received from the peeping tom in the hallway. “It’s normative,” he adds. “To make usyoso doesn’t really happen here to help people out. It’s only when more people are coming will others check it out. It’s part of being ‘next’…”

Similar sentiments echoes with Paredes: “Being usyoseros makes us feel connected to an event/situation even if we’re not directly involved.”

Unlike other social systems that are built upon conventionality and normativity, the power of the usyoso lies in its ability to act as a system that binds communities, rather than disintegrating them, with the usyosero as a representative of universal longing for human connection and community spirit.

“No one wants to negate,” points out Banal. “No one wants to say, ‘I don’t know, I’ll just keep on walking.’ The pressure to be a part of a [curious] crowd is so strong. But I don’t think it’s coercive. People just want to be together.”

Usyoso, as a communal adhesive, can be read as undertones for progressive social change. Banal observes, “usyoso is a way for people to articulate themselves against the powers that be. It’s the disenfranchised’s way of speaking out, by using a flippant, vernacular form in a productive way. [It is a] space of possibility, rather than [being] detrimental.”

He points out how common it was for people to feel socially pressured to attend the People Power demonstrations, and how the trickling gossip about the gathering mass only served to inspire more and more people to join their countrymen in collective political demonstration.

Paredes disagrees somewhat, saying, “It’s sad because Filipinos have so many opinions about so many things, but rarely does anyone actually do stuff to make things happen. Ideas remain to be ideas. Reactions remain to be reactions. Nothing really happens.”

But she offers some hope, suggesting that, broadly speaking, the concept of usyoso might provide a way for larger networks of community and cultural belonging to be formulated: “People like being part of something, be it a community, a relationship. [We] like to feel connected because, in a way, it makes us feel like we actually have purpose.”

IN COMPARISON, gossip circles in the States don’t really have the same effect. The closest example I can think of is the American colloquial phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” arguably one of the most prominent expressions of American life. It emerged out of the suburban social dynamics I talked about earlier. The “Jones” family is the stand-in for the quintessential American neighbor, whose social prominence and affluence make him or her the object of envy, and whose status must, at the very least, be duplicated by one’s own family. The expression carries with it many popular images of gossip and rumor mongering that might be familiar to many practitioners of usyoso, including the chatting housewives eagerly exchanging revelations about their neighbors’ “dirty laundry,” officemates gathering at the water fountain to share in the weekend’s most scandalous events, etc.

But, as Banal points out, usyoso in the Philippines and the ubiquitous “Jones” saying are uneven comparisons: while the former is about constant negotiations of one’s place in within a carved-out group dynamic; the “Jones” family’s mysterious and seemingly outsiderly accumulation of cultural and material capital make them objects of eternal competition, with gossip serving to slowly alienate people and wedge divides between members of the community.

Consequently, my American relatives, who are guilty of spreading gossip and competing in the “Jones” family manner, tend to be relatively disconnected from members of their community in a way that’s not socially formalized. Inversely, many Filipinos in the American diaspora have been swept up in this attitude: numerous dilettante balls I’ve attended have degenerated into collective gossip about the purchase of new cars, prestigious colleges or majors that people’s kids have studied, unwanted pregnancies, criminal behavior, adultery, etc. But while most Americans would look at such behavior as worthy of public disdain (the contradiction of participating but also discouraging gossip), Filipinos seem to think of gossip as critical to their identification as a community. It’s an usyoso that fits their situation: a little bit Filipino, a little bit American.

In the end, the concept of usyoso is revealed to be at once a unifying but also a fleeting moment. The people that make up the crowd in Kubrador will eventually return to their homes, the film will be over, the audience leave the theatre and emerge back into the shuffling mall populace. People Power faded, rumors and presidents come and go. Across the sea, the Joneses still sit inside their home, provoking much gossip and speculation. As Banal puts it, these social systems are a “fun way” of being a part of something that connects one human being to another, even if it’s “talking about other people, talking about things that usually aren’t talked about.”

Edward Basse is originally from the United States. He holds a degree from the University of Washington – Seattle and is currently pursuing graduate studies in the Philippines, where he is also getting acquainted with the art of usyoso.