Saturday, January 08, 2005

conventional wisdom

I've never much of a believer in conventional wisdom. Certainly it has value, certainly it has basis, and certainly it works... sometimes. But to completely subscribe to something just because a lot of people do so without questioning or thinking critically about it is not the way I do things. If it works, then I need to know why. If it is brings success, then I need to know how. I need to know the reason why nobody else attempts to reach the same goal in a different way. And if I'm told "no", I need to ask "why not?".

If I give in to conventional wisdom, then things that people say cannot be done will forever remain undone, because why bother to try? At a certain point in time, what most people believe to be true becomes true by convention - but isn't necessarily the truth (think of all the years that Christian believers thought that the earth was the center of the solar system, for example). Commonly-held notions need to questioned. Privileged readings require criticism. Relationships need to be stripped of illusions to expose the raw core that gives the terms "love" and "devotion" their semiotic significance.

It's the same way I conduct business. When I first entered the IMC industry, I knew next to squat about the ins and outs of conducting the business. I tapped people to help me learn, listened to the conventional wisdom, tried things out, experimented, failed, rose up and tried again, shifting business models, trying new things, breaking rules after I understood why they were rules, and created a business that behaves in a different way. Sometimes, the consequences are harsh and conventional wisdom is proven appropriate. But sometimes, the so-called truisms are just comfort zones, and the act of defying them leads to rewards.

Right now, I'm wrestling with the thought of getting a coffee franchise. If you look around, you will see that between Starbucks, Seattle's Best Coffee, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Gloria Jean's, Figaro, Bo's Coffee and the smaller brands an obvious ubiquity. It may lead you to think that entering a saturated market is madness. But is it? Conventional wisdom tells us not to set up a similar store anywhere near an existing outlet that provides the same products or services. The reason being that one will inevitably cannibalize the other. Sounds reasonable, but is it true? Is it still valid? Take a look at how Starbucks or Mini-Stop set up their outlets. In more than a few cases, outlets almost face each other other across the street. Is there cannibalism?

Each side of a street has its own unique flow of traffic. People on one side prefer to stay on their side unless they have a definite reason to cross to the other side. Starbucks proves that each outlet develops its own customer base, loyal or chance consumers who go in for a cup of joe precisely because of where the store is located (and clever Starbucks adds value to their proposition of "not having to wait"). Mini-stop engages in the same way of thinking, peppering the metropolis with outlets so close to each other that diehard conservative businessmen pronounced the chain's doom due to inept location planning. And yet almost every Mini-stop I've visited does excellent business - in my immediate area alone, walking distance, are four outlets, including the top performer for the country. Consumer behavior is not set in stone, it evolves with the times and the circumstances. Neither should conventional wisdom be fixed.

It's the same with writing. Too long has Philippine "literature" been shackled to rules, modes and the zeitgeist of decades past. While it is important to give value to past writing, the Filipino body of work needs to grow. This is done by pushing against the boundaries and rules prescribed and defended by the powerful and established literati.

The most obvious struggle to achieve a new voice is found in the fresh voices of Filipino poetry. Not the necessarily the winners of the Carlos Palanca Awards, but in the university and underground culture. This is where experimentation, mutation, flailing of limbs against glass ceilings, angry questions, and shockingly deeply moving poetry can be found - in between the cracks of published and polished verse, unseen in poetry anthologies, repeating their sore-throated ululations to the uncaring winds, seeking to escape the maw of their Titan fathers, demanding change.

It's slower in prose, where the unquestioned authority of the elite writers dominate the production of short stories and novels, continuing to hold fast to predefined values of times past, full of pride and brimstone, confusing nationalism with literary worth, unwilling to go forward. We are taught to write about certain things, to value certain themes, locked into an unaltering vision of what the Filipino condition is: sad, lugubrious, victimized, melodramatic or fraught with achingly pointless (but beautifully well-written) epiphanies. There is no short story but one that is a moving portrait of Philippine society; no novel except that which, for the umpteenth time, tells us of the lionized Filipino experience of poverty, struggle and hope, set against an historical backdrop to add verisimilitude so we will all nod "it's true, that's true." Outside of this miser's box, there is nothing worth considering, in their eyes. No, "literature" must be serious, must be nationalistic, must be set in the Philippines, must be, must be, must be. It would be amusing if it were not so tragic.

Stories for children are looked upon with a degree of specialist condescension, given their own sandbox and encouraged to play. But not a single work for children is considered by the elite as on par with, say, the best of Nick Joaquin or F. Sionil Jose - no, those greats are "serious" writers.

As for writers of speculative fiction, well, you know what I think. The landscape is desolate because serious writers apply themselves only to serious things. As if universal themes or the Filipino experience cannot be tackled successfully by fantastic fiction. It can and it should.

Conventional wisdom reads and values only certain priveleged texts, adheres only to specific business practices. We need to question and then create answers, following up with new business models and new stories that press our point home.

A society that subscribes purely to the wisdom of the ancients is a society that can only stagnate as it indulges in pedestrian navel-gazing. It can never learn new things, and thus it can never grow.

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