Feeling Filipinos: Unraveling Thoughts about the Emotional and the (Trans)National

The recent issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies, featured the work of four emergent and established Filipino American scholars. Guest editor Martin Manalansan wrote the introduction to the custer of papers, which we have re-printed here.

Guest post by Martin Manalansan

Nothing more than feelings. So goes the ballad that many older generations of Filipinos in the Philippines and its diaspora have sung for years in their showers and in karaoke parties. Feelings with a “p,” as many Filipinos are prone to do when they pronounce the “f” sound, not only become a marker of linguistic vestiges and accent detection among Filipinos everywhere but also constitute the very process by which a kind of compassionate and progressive analytical rigor about what it means to be Filipino today in a globalized world and during these precarious times. “Feelings” become “peelings” as recent scholarship on Filipinos demonstrate, especially the ones in this special issue, as they focus on exfoliating the layers of affective and emotional matter and discourses that compose and shape Filipino experiences in the homeland and in multiple migratory sites. Feelings and emotions are really nothing more than the semantic, corporeal, and material fuel and animating force of various everyday domestic and public experiences of contemporary life. They are the fulcrum that propels energies toward labor, migration, leisure, and survival. They also compose the various kinds of ecological intensities and contextual moods that circulate among bodies, spaces, and temporalities within and across various geographic scales.

To critically understand Filipinos today constitutes a challenge to confront the constellations of meanings around bodily energies that intersect in various arenas particularly when it comes to making sense of the Filipino nation and its predicament in the twenty-first century. There are multiple levels or strata that need to be peeled away not to come up with a common core or a central truth but to understand the stratigraphic almost palimpsest-like layerings of meaning and matter and the way they “move” and circulate within and across borders. This special issue puts together scholarship that centers the affective, emotional, and sensorial dimensions of how Filipinos negotiate, perform, establish, and/or resist the multiple predicaments of work, family, and nation. From anger to laughter, from the kinetic energy of hip-hop and the atmospheric shifts of humor, the four authors, Nerissa Balce, Allan Isaac, Jeffrey Santa Ana, and Mark Villegas, limn and map the exigencies of citizenship, labor, colonialism, kinship, class, sexuality, race, and gender through the prisms of emotions, feelings, and the senses.

Far from being an audit of such bodily skills and energies, the essays in this special issue argue against the facile binary notions of inner life versus social life, between mind and body, and between the private and public. These skills and energies are not “natural” like breathing. Rather, they are social because they become audible, palpable, visible, and palatable in relation to structured relations of power and historical unfoldings. In other words, Filipino bodily energies from affect to feelings are conditioned not by idiosyncratic personal quirks but by the forces of history, culture, and social hierarchies. Therefore, these bodily energies are part and parcel of world making and world imaginings.

Sara Ahmed, in her book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, astutely notes that such bodily energies are “points of entry,” not static states of being as they “move, stick and slide” across various spheres and realms of social life.1 Feelings and emotions circulate and are the passageways and vessels for the flow of capital and the buttressing of the nation. They are not “internal” or inside the body. Neither are they contained by biochemical drifts and organ function but can be instruments of oppression by much larger systems such as the state and the private corporation. They form part of the grit that causes frictive relationships between family, region, nation, and the globe. As such, emotions and feelings bypass or transgress the very borders they themselves have created.

For example, “care” in the Filipino case takes on a rarefied air of “national character.” Movies, government training programs, slogans, and other cultural genres have produced and disseminated the figure of the “caring Filipino” who is fit and ready for the global service market and corporeally predisposed to serve and be servile. Care uncritically becomes a mark not only of being “human” but of being Filipino. It morphs from being a bodily skill and intensity into an essentializing notion of a nation and a people that is complicit with the workings of late capital. Care is a neoliberal idiom that gets embodied in the day-to-day struggles of Filipino migrant workers who are employed as nannies, maids, drivers, bellhops, cooks, and so on.2 As the primary labor broker, the Philippines state functions not only as a mediating agent but also as a disciplinary conduit that devices, inculcates, disseminates, and manages the emotional scripts necessary for Filipino migrant labor to be marketable and valued.3 Such scripts involve the disciplining or “professionalization” of bodies to specific forms of composures and habits most especially around the arena of work. Therefore, care is a central “proper” emotion that constitutes these scripts underwritten by the Philippine state and the global service industry, and performed by migrant workers on multiple stages across the diaspora.

Emotions and feelings do not just emanate or are produced by biological entities called humans but can also be constituted by material objects and discourses. One needs only to see how a newspaper account, an image on a laptop screen, a tune from the latest pop song, or the smell of flowers can invoke and provoke multiple movements of intensities that make up and conjure various atmospheres. Emotions, feelings, and the senses are the building blocks of social time and space. Therefore, in order to adequately understand the spatial and temporal politics of Filipinos today, one needs to be “attuned” to the moods and “weight” of places and events or how our surroundings impinge on our bodies.

Bodily knowledge is crucial in critically apprehending Filipino experiences today. Consider how Balikbayan boxes from the diasporic elsewhere or packets of sinigang broth from the Philippines can propel or set in motion various ways of acting and being in the world such as being wistful, despondent, hopeful, exuberant, and/or dejected. Such ways of being and acting can be potentially useful pivots in negotiating through the power inequalities and enliven struggles for survival.

The essays in the special issue go beyond the vernacular and conservative meanings of emotions, feelings, and the senses by promoting the ways in which these bodily skills, knowledge, and intensities are not mere reactive impulses that remain within the sphere of the feeling subject or agent. The essays focus on what emotions and feeling “do” and not just merely describing what they “are” beyond being enablers of systemic complicity or propping up the very social order that is meant to oppress them. To put it another way, emotions are neither always passive responses nor just “barriers” or baggage that promote inaction but are or can potentially become “weapons of the weak.” Emotions and feelings are part and parcel of doing or making politics, the struggle for survival, claims of citizenship and of imagining and longing for a world that is not here yet.

As a way to complicate our idea of feelings and emotions, let us go back to the idea of care that has been appropriated by the state and the transnational service industry. Despite the Philippine state’s draconian scripting, care is never pure or unalloyed. In my own studies, care has provided the means for migrant labor to think coalitionally as a collective force to champion their own rights as workers. My own ethnographic interviews among Filipino migrants have shown how the idiom of care has been reconfigured to move away from being a stand-in for docile professionalism to framing and invigorating organizing efforts toward change. Feelings and emotions such as care can trigger and initiate rejection of or surrender to the world at hand. In sum, emotions and feelings either can be used for the maintenance of an unjust status or can form the seeds for resistance and possible social transformation. Despite their conservative deployments by the Philippine state and the service industry, feelings, emotions, and the senses in the Filipino contexts are crucial bodily skills, intensities, and energies that may open up new ways of imagining possible futures, just worlds, and alternative plots of being, living, and surviving as a Filipino in a global world.

Martin F. Manalansan IV is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies and a Conrad Professorial Humanities Scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 14.

Rhacel Parreñas and Eileen Boris, eds., Intimate Labors: Culture, Technologies and the Politics of Care (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010).

Anna Romina Guevarra, Marketing Dreams, Manufacturing Heroes: The Transnational Labor Brokering of Filipino Workers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2009); Robin Magalit Rodriguez, Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).