Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Doctoral defense speech: On the meanings and materialities of height

by Gideon Lasco

(Doctoral defense speech delivered at the Agnietenkapel, Amsterdam, 14:00, 23 May 2017)

To my esteemed opponents; supervisors, professors, colleagues, and guests, thank you for gracing my doctoral defence ceremony with your presence.

In my research, I sought to understand the ways in which height figures in Philippine society. What is the role of height, and height differences, in the everyday lives of young people?  And more broadly, how has the dimension of the vertical structured human experience?

These questions tap into very heart of the anthropological tradition, and the enduring debates in our discipline. Looking at humans as objects that occupy a certain amount of primarily-vertical space, but nonetheless retain the subjectivity to reflect on this spatiality interrogates the division between subjects and objects. Relevantly for medical anthropology, the undeniable physiologic and anatomic reality of height, as well as its genetic and nutritional basis affirm its biological contingency, but one that is always predicated on socio-economic factors - not just in its making, but in its measuring, and consequently, in its meanings and materialities.

For a long time, tallness has been associated with superiority. Aristotle saw the unique stature of humans as a mark of divinity. A century ago, physiognomists who believed that intellectual capabilities can be gleaned from physical appearances ascribed superior virtues to tall people, and undesirable ones to those who are short. Economists and psychologists today speak of a height premium, presenting empirical data that suggests that tall people have certain advantages - better jobs, higher salaries, longer life, more sexual partners. The measured body has consequently emerged as a metric of comparison at the level of nations.

Some biologists theorize that tallness was an evolutionary advantageous trait, although studies on islands also suggest that shortness or insular dwarfism can also be adaptive. These studies, however, constitute tall and short people as groups or populations; and do not look at individual experiences that surely differ: not all tall people are successful, just as not all short ones are truly underdogs. With all its tensions, contradictions, and complexities, the topic can surely profit from being approached ethnographically.

***

In thinking about height, certain premises quickly emerged and found ethnographic footing. The first is that height is always relational: people measure their height not just according to a ruler, but with each other: boys according to other boys and also girls; children according to their parents; individuals according to their peers. I am tall in my field site, above average in my home city of Manila, but short here in Amsterdam.  n the other hand, one of the Dutch tourists I met in my field site complained about the size of the tricycles and the jeepneys, lamenting that “the Philippines is not built for tall people”.

But height is also a ‘body project’; it is not perceived to be certain nor inevitable especially for young people. This lack of finality gives rise to possibility, hope, and a lot of interest in products and practices that are perceived to make children grow taller. Even among adults, one’s height can be modified, and today I am wearing shoes that make me three inches taller; shoes that make my height up to par with the Dutch average of 6 feet. Its mere availability in Philippines shopping malls speaks of how marketable - and commodified - height has become.

Finally, height has value depending on its context. Context, of course, is both ethnographic and historical and I found it necessary to preface my research with a historical chapter. I identified the American colonial period as a significant moment in history where height mattered. Americans and Filipinos, who were called by the colonial power as "little brown brothers”, were juxtaposed as a way of legitimizing the “civilizing mission". Height provided a physical framework by which colonizer and colonized measured each other. Government positions, civil and military, had corresponding height requirements, giving economic value to tallness.

My other chapters looked at the life stages of young people: from child rearing where we see parents’ attention to height to schools where height begins to emerge as a organizing principle - and employment.

“My life would have been very different if I were a few inches shorter,” says a beauty queen who attributes her escape from poverty to her tallness - a tallness that allowed her to be “discovered” by a talent scout and eventually led to her college education.

“I would have gotten an athletic scholarship in Manila, if only I were 5’7 and taller,” laments a basketball player whose incredible skill, unfortunately, was not matched by a height that could overcome the very material limits of the architecture of a basketball court. “We can teach basketball, but we cannot teach height,” explains a basketball coach.

“I would have wanted to be a flight attendant but I couldn’t because I’m short,” says a teacher who also complains that the taller students bully her.

But it is not all resignation; people challenge. “I may be short, but people listen to me because I have leadership skills. They look up to me even if I’m the shortest in our college” a student leader tells me. “Height is a structure,” she adds unintentionally invoking an sociological concept as we chatted in the Palawan State University.

By thinking with the vertical we can gain so many insights about how people see themselves in relation to others and the physical environment. But aside from calling for a broader consideration of what an embodied approach to anthropology might look like, and providing an ethnographic response to views of height as deterministic or a mere metric, my study also hints at the troubling picture of people being made to aspire for something literally beyond their reach, and how height differences may not just reflect -  but also reinforce - societal inequalities.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Spectator

by Gideon Lasco

It was a lie all along, but the truth must finally be told: We did not believe the child who said that the emperor had no clothes.

I was there when it happened—the emperor’s grand parade. Everybody was excited. Ever since the two tailors came, the town had been talking about it: the clothes made of the finest, most exquisite fabrics in the world; clothes that, rumor had it, were so lofty and noble that they could not be seen by the feeble-minded.

Looking back, nobody really asked why the emperor was so obsessed with clothes or parades. Nor did we ask why we ourselves were so excited. Perhaps we did not yet learn to question why we do the things that we do. All I remember was that everybody was talking about it. Even though, just like today, it was not easy to earn a living in those days, everyone—men, women, and children—wanted to watch the parade; and on the day itself, the whole city was full of people: the farmers let go of their plows and the fishermen their nets just to watch the spectacle.

Perhaps we all wanted to forget how difficult our lives were.

The parade started with much pomp and grandeur. The palace gates opened as the trumpets were sounded, and then marched the foot soldiers, the knights, the ladies-in-waiting in their beautiful dresses. Finally, accompanied by two handsome pages, came forth the emperor.

As soon as the emperor emerged, people gasped and sang praises of how beautiful his clothes were. To be honest, at first I really didn’t see anything; what I saw was his grotesque nakedness. But very soon—I swear—I thought I could see a faint veil enveloping him. As he walked across the moat towards the town square, I could even imagine a halo of gold surrounding him. And so I joined the crowd in amazement and wonder.

Then suddenly, a little child cried: “But he has no clothes!”

At first no one paid him attention: I only heard because I was close enough. I saw the fear in the eyes of his parents as they tried to hush him, but the boy was stubborn, and kept repeating: “But the emperor has no clothes!”

The crowd, unsure of what to do, fell silent, riveted by the boy’s words, partly out of astonishment, partly out of fear. The boy kept shouting, beginning to wonder why nobody would respond, let alone agree with him. The silence of the crowds only amplified his cries, until almost everybody could hear them.

Then, while we were still transfixed by what was going on, the royal guards came, and without saying a word, took the poor child away, muffling his mouth with their hands. His parents were too terrified to resist, and the best that everyone could do was to act as if nothing had happened. The parade went on; the crowd kept cheering, but I could sense that something had changed, and I did not dare look at the emperor, fearful of what I might end up saying or thinking.

It was only when we finally got to our homes that the people talked about what happened, and that we admitted to each other that the emperor had no clothes.

By then, we found out that the boy had been killed, but nobody dared ask why, or how. We were angry and anguished, but most of us remained silent. Only when the emperor dared to parade again in his repulsive nakedness did the memory of the boy inspire us to finally shout in unison the truth: a shout that would eventually lead us to the palace gates and finally into the throne room, where we, at long last, realized that we had been blind not just to his nakedness, but to his tyranny.

We knew in our hearts that the boy ought to be a hero; an example for generations to come. But we did not want to perpetuate the memory of our own guilt; the conspiracy of silence that would haunt us to our graves. Thus, we told the rest of the world that we had listened to him from the very start.

(Note: Essay; Originally published in The High Chair 22: July-December 2016)