Writing the Archive

Resil Mojares

Resil Mojares 2 620x639

In his latest book, Isabelo’s Archive (2012), Resil Mojares attempted to write Philippine history in fragments. Inspired by folklorist Isabelo de los Reyes’s quixotic project of compiling an archive of a nascent nation, he wrote his most experimental work


The poet Jose Garcia Villa once said that prose is planned parenthood, poetry is accidental pregnancy. I would like to think that the impulse driving the writing of Isabelo’s Archive has been poetic and serendipitous.

The initial motive, however, was rather prosaic. I had just published my Brains of the Nation (2006) and had a surplus of miscellaneous notes and materials I could not use in that book, and so I thought of developing them into a series of essays.1 But I needed a book concept or design. I did not want to simply put out a compilation of essays; I wanted a book that would have a reason, a value that is more than just the sum of its parts.

That was when I had the inspiration from Isabelo de los Reyes’s El Folk-Lore Filipino (1889), an eccentric and quixotic project to construct an archivo (archive) of the nation, that in the two volumes Isabelo managed to produce can well be called the foundational text of what we now call “Philippine Studies.”2

I was excited by Isabelo’s idea and performance of the archive—capacious, diverse, makeshift, open-ended, and polymorphic, and one “national” in its motive and ambition. I decided that this was what I wanted to do, to “reenact,” as it were, Folk-Lore Filipino. It would allow me to do certain things congenial to my interests: to write on diverse topics instead of being tied to just one; to indulge an intellectual curiosity in what is obscure, hidden, and marginal; and (not least) to engage in an exercise not only academic but literary, one that blurs the boundaries between academic and literary writing. I can put in old essays and new ones; I can throw in vignettes, extracts, notes, fillers, illustrations—free from the academic compulsion, or tyranny, of doing something complete, correct, and definitive.

More important, I can, in the writing, reflexively (if indirectly) comment on the matter of the archive itself, its value, limits, impossibilities, and dangers, as well as one’s relation to it as writer and scholar.


Isabelo does not elaborate on his use of the word archivo, which he casually uses together with museo(museum) and arsenal de datos (arsenal of data) to describe what he aimed to produce: a compendium of “all of the knowledge of our people [Filipinos]” in all the branches of human knowledge. He was thinking of knowledge that was primary: “[the] indispensable materials for the understanding and scientific reconstruction of Filipino history and culture [his emphasis].”3

In the title essay in Isabelo’s Archive (which is hopefully meant to be read as the book’s missing preface), I cite the radical importance of Folk-Lore Filipino in the context of Philippine scholarship at the close of the nineteenth century. It responded to the need for a building a storehouse of local data, a base of popular knowledge (saber popular), a problem that stymied the first generation of Filipino scholars (like Jose Rizal, Pedro Paterno, and Isabelo himself), who had to rely on European sources in writing about the Philippines.

What is remarkable about Isabelo’s project is, first, its focus on living, popular knowledge (saber popular). He is not excavating some pure, originary indigeneity; he is not only into documenting what the culture once was but what it is. As such, he created an image of a culture that is densely layered, hybrid, unstable, and dynamic. Second, the sense of a culture that is tenacious as well as mutating, ingesting foreign influences as it responds to local realities, is conveyed in the hybrid and unfinished style of Isabelo’s work, a miscellany of texts and forms (articles, verses, inventories, documentary extracts, historical and fictional sketches). And then there is finally the fact that being open-ended, it is doomed to be unfinished.

As a project in archive-building, one can think of it as a local, self-help version of the French Encyclopedie, that grand project of the European Enlightenment to classify and sum up the entire breadth of the arts and sciences of “the world.”4 Conceived in Paris (the city Walter Benjamin calls “the capital of the nineteenth century”), the Encyclopedie was a distinctly imperial project. The collaborative work of leading French intellectuals, it ran to a total of twenty-eight massive volumes between 1751 and 1772 before it was abandoned.

Isabelo’s project (which was also conceived as a collective effort, like the Encyclopedie) was much more modest, a “national” rather than a “universal” archive, and its motives were distinctly oppositional rather than imperial. His gaze is not that of an imperial eye that surveys the horizons of world-knowledge, it is that of one who, working from within, tries to accumulate the odds and ends of a culture that would, hopefully, take the shape and substance of being “national.” Conscious of the reality of dominant and dominated forms and bodies of knowledge, he knew what he was about: carving out a space of knowledge out of which a national scholarship could emerge; building a place, an epistemic site, in which his people could locate themselves, look out, and speak to others, the keepers and purveyors of dominant knowledge, European or, for that matter, the local, Westernized ruling elite. More than any other text, Folk-Lore Filipino marks the beginning of the effort to build the knowledge-base of a national scholarship.


In judging both the success and failure of Isabelo’s project, it is well to call to mind the nature of the archive. Jacques Derrida reminds us that, originally, the word archive (Greek arkheion; Latin archivum) referred to a ruling office or dwelling, or the residence of the high magistrates, the archons, “those who commanded” by their power as keepers and interpreters of official documents.5 It assumes a process of institutionalization or archivization, in which a group, profession, nation or state accumulates, stores, and inscribes its memory of itself in a body of symbols, artifacts, documents and texts.

It involves the operation of an authority or law that, in organizing the past and governing public memory, lays claim on order, completeness, and objectivity. Yet, the process of formalization by which it is created also excludes or represses what the archive’s makers, its archons, choose to forget as hostile, irrelevant, or inconvenient. The archive exercises power by such acts of exclusion or repression, but it is also power that is inherently unstable.

In this politically-charged context, one can appreciate the significance of what Isabelo attempted in the nineteenth century. He was creating the groundwork for that collective “self-consciousness” that is a condition for nationhood by holding up to his people a mirror of their own shared and distinct culture. It is interesting to note that the immediate inspiration for Isabelo’s project had come from Spanish folklorists in the peninsula (like Antonio Machado and Alejandro Guichot) who had launched in 1881 a folklore society called El Folk-Lore Espanol that had as its aim the construction of a “Spanish national identity,” one that did not only encompass peninsular Spain but “folded the colonies [Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines] into the metropolitan historical narrative.”6 In short,

the Spanish folklorists who urged Isabelo to establish a folklore center in the Philippines were driven by a vision that incorporated Filipino folk-lore as a “regional” component of the Spanish national/imperial archive.

As it turned out, however, Isabelo was not interested in Spanish nationalism but in creating an intellectual resource for a distinct Filipino nationality. In the same way that Rizal, in writing his annotated edition ofSucesos de la Islas Filipinas (1890), attempted a counter-history, Isabelo was embarked on producing a counter-archive.

It can be said that Isabelo’s archive was a failed project. He did not quite get the response he was hoping for when he urged the formation of a folklore movement and issued his public appeal for people to send to him or newspapers in Manila contributions in the form of articles, documents, and all kinds of source materials relating to local culture. He produced only two volumes of what he envisioned as a long, multi-volume series. More important, he did not have the status and authority to promote and enforce his archive. The significance of what he was about was not fully appreciated in his own time, and perhaps even in our own.


The project of building a “national archive,” however, is not just one man’s project. It is a vital current in the history of Philippine scholarship. It started with the work of the first generation of modern Filipino intellectuals in the late nineteenth century who, deploying and transcending their European education, were engaged in creating a strategic discursive formation that was “national” in its character and aims. This movement gathered force in the period of the Revolution and the short-lived Republic, and began to take an institutional and canonical form in the early twentieth century under U.S. rule.

The American colonial era is highly consequential since it was at this time of “nation-building” under U.S. auspices that Filipinos had the power to become the archons of the nation, the creators and keepers of the national memory.7 Isabelo’s project was largely the undertaking of one man who was not only marginal to the colonial state but one regarded as a poorly educated upstart by many of his fellow intellectuals. On the other hand, the Filipino intellectuals who came after Isabelo (like Teodoro Kalaw, Rafael Palma, and Epifanio de los Santos) were active participants in the American colonial state-in-the-making. By the 1920s, and even earlier, they headed such state institutions as the National Library, Archives, and Museum, the national state university, and the Department of Education, and were well-placed in other parts of the U.S. colonial government. They were in a position to play leading roles as architects of Filipino nationality, archons of the nation. They created an archive that has remained influential to this day, although fractured and eroded, it is far from being monolithic.

It is also not quite the archive Isabelo imagined. When Isabelo launched his folk-lore movement in 1885 what he envisioned was a national archive grounded in “popular knowledge,” one rooted in local realities yet open to the world and the processes of renovation, growth, and change. Such knowledge, however, does not come unequivocal and unmediated. It has to be documented, organized, interpreted, and propagated. In short, it requires intellectuals, in the broadest sense of this word.

Even Isabelo—though he claims the authority of a “scientific” documentor of popular knowledge—is actively engaged as an archon: he organizes his material according to logical Western categories (or at least tries to); he selects and edits; he freely annotates and editorializes; he invents by introducing fictional materials; and he is of course constrained by what material is available to him and by the limits of the book as medium.

Isabelo aspired to be the nation’s archon. He would invoke the popular archive in theorizing the ideology of the Katipunan (in Religion del Katipunan, 1899) and, later, in putting together the doctrinal, liturgical, and pastoral texts of a “national church,” the Philippine Independent Church. These texts—overhastily generalized, speculative, and careless in its mix of indigenous and Western notions—were however either ignored or eventually discarded. (The nice paradox in Isabelo’s case is that he was better as a populist gadfly than as builder of institutions. It was when he was imperfect that he was most interesting.)

Yet, it is important to note that what we may call the “Isabelo factor”—the impulse to ground interpretation and theory in popular knowledge, in response to a dominant knowledge, whether foreign or local—has been a major thread in Philippine intellectual history, as indexed, for instance, by such landmark texts as Teodoro Agoncillo’s Revolt of the Masses in 1956 and Reynaldo Ileto’s Pasyon and Revolution in 1979, both of which claim the authority of the “popular” in interrogating ruling conceptions of the nation. While I am not ready at this point, nor do I have the time, to carefully track and unravel this thread—and mark what advances have been made—it is clear that the question of the archive and its politics remains central to understanding the history of Philippine scholarship.

Derrida has put the issue quite succinctly: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.”8 This is a good statement as any about the dynamics of Philippine scholarship from the late nineteenth century to the present.


In writing Isabelo’s Archive, what attracted me to Isabelo’s project was its ambition as well as its impossibility, an impossibility inscribed in its makeshift, hybrid, and unfinished character. While these qualities are not so much the product of a conscious design as the result of the author’s writing habits, the materials he uses, and the exigencies of book production, they subvert an archive’s claims to order, coherence, and completeness.

This was what I tried to do in Isabelo’s Archive: to convey the value (perhaps even necessity) of an archive, and at the same time undermine it.

How well have I succeeded? I am not really sure. I started out thinking I would reenact Folk-Lore Filpino but, like Isabelo, I could not escape being who I am where I am. I am not as daring, reckless, and uninhibited as Isabelo, and perhaps I should have been, in formal and stylistic terms, more like Isabelo. I do not share Isabelo’s unbridled confidence and optimism in a “national archive,” and hence have been more transparent and deliberate about the presence of authorial mediation in the writing of the book. In the end, however, I would like to think that I have communicated a desired effect: a certain ambivalence in the book, poised between the allure and imperatives of the archive, on one hand, and its impossibilities and dangers, on the other.

These are post facto reflections, and you will have to make your own judgments. A book is what it is and not always or wholly what its author says it is. As Isabelo was not fully conscious of what he was doing, neither was I.

Let me offer one more post facto reflection. Last month, I was asked to write the introduction to a festschrift for Nicanor Tiongson, professor emeritus at the University of he Philippines and the country’s foremost theater scholar. Summing up Nic’s work, I wrote that Nic is an outstanding representative of one of the most vibrant and productive generations of writers and scholars in our country’s history, a generation that first came to light at the end of the 1960s, lived through the martial-law period, and on to the 1980s and 1990s. What drove this generation (which is my own) was, to put it simply, the need to connect to the local, popular base of Philippine culture and build on this basis a society more nationalistic and democratic. This was behind what engaged us in the 1970s: a resurgent interest in folklore studies, the rise of the local history movement, the enthusiasm for “vernacular” literature, popular culture, and lower-class politics, and the ambitions of an “indigenized” scholarship. And it occurred to me that this is a story that began with Isabelo and his generation, and will undoubtedly continue beyond Nic’s and my own.

That I will reenact in this context Isabelo’s project is pure serendipity. What Isabelo’s Archive, a book written at the tail end of a generation, signifies in this context is a question I did not fully articulate or confront when I was writing the book, and perhaps it is a question I should leave for others to answer. But I would like to think that it is not one of disenchantment with the high hopes that Isabelo nurtured in the 1880s and our generation had in the 1970s.

When I was writing this book, I scribbled a note for myself, as a reminder of what the book should try to convey: the spirit of curiosity, of free play, wonder, possibility, and, yes, humility. If I have succeeded in communicating something of this spirit, I am well pleased.


  1. Resil B. Mojares, Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes, and the Production of Modern Knowledge (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2006).

  2. Isabelo de los Reyes, El Folk-Lore Filipino (Manila: Tipografia de Chofre y Cia., 1889), 2 vols.

  3. De los Reyes, Folk-Lore Filipino, I:12-18.

  4. Robert Darnton, “Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie,” The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 191-213.

  5. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. E. Prenowitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

  6. Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, The Conquest of History: Spanish Colonialism and National Histories in the Nineteenth Century (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 55.

  7. Resil B. Mojares, “The Formation of Filipino Nationality Under U.S. Colonial Rule,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society, 34:1 (March 2006), 11-32.

  8. Derrida, Archive Fever, 4n.