I just came back from having done fieldwork in two small towns outside Metro Manila, Philippines. In my dissertation research, I had identified an acute class consciousness among Metro Manila’s urban poor. I wanted to see whether or not this sense of class was distinctive to Metro Manila (resulting, I argue, from its class segregation). It was, but that’s the subject of a future paper. Here, in keeping with the genre of a blog, I would rather share my impressions—and pictures—of one, particularly fascinating fieldsite, Paete.
The town of Paete is tiny, relatively isolated, and poor. It has a population of about 23,000; it’s about 100 km away from Manila, nestled, as you can see, between mountains and a lake; and its local government derived merely US$179,226 from local sources in 2012 (thus subsisting mainly on infusions from the national government). And yet, because of the skill of its woodcarvers, the town has had an outsize global reach—for centuries.
The Spanish missionaries who discovered Paete in 1580 named the town after the Tagalog word for chisel (paet). The skill of its carvers was such that Europe soon began to import toys, furniture, and religious images made in Paete (one such toy was the yo-yo). Palaces acquired elaborately carved tables and chairs, and churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, exquisite images of saints and angels. Paete’s carvers were feted by royal courts and international competitions.
Their skill was the result of apprenticeship, often informal, of sitting at the feet of masters, literally, because these were their fathers and uncles. It came from simply being exposed to the craft as an everyday practice—a natural act—such that one mostly “absorbed” how it was done. Skill didn’t just have to do with the ability to physically transform the material; it also had to do with the capacity to imagine how the material might be transformed—to be able to discern, in other words, the possibilities it held. I remember being struck by a figure of the risen Christ fashioned out of driftwood. What was remarkable wasn’t that the artist had turned a lowly piece of driftwood into something else entirely, but that he had captured a process of one thing becoming something else. The Christ figure looked like it simply grew out of the driftwood; the grain of the wood becoming the folds of his robe and its branching his outstretched arms (I wish I took a picture!). Such skill was incubated in one place over a long time rather than produced by effective instruction and individual effort. It was learned by observing and engaging in practices that are a natural feature of Paete’s environment. Just walking around the town you see that everywhere people are fashioning something, carving wood or making papier mache dolls, even in the squatter areas where I interviewed. I asked one artist how he had learned his craft and he simply shrugged and said, “I just watched my father do it, and my brother, and then I started doing it myself.” Because skill consists of practices that are all but impossible to codify exactly, it can be hard to teach. One artist recalled asking his teacher how to sculpt a foot. After being puzzled for a moment, his teacher finally replied, “Well, just look at your own foot!
The great skill of its carvers begs the question of why, despite being a hub of globally renowned talent, Paete has remained poor. In the 1950s the production of wooden clogs was an important source of Paete’s revenue, in the 1960s and 1970s wood handicrafts, in the 1980s and 1990s papier mache and resin products, and currently Paetenians working aboard cruise ships sculpting ice and vegetables. Paete’s dismal economic fortunes have a lot to do with the vicissitudes of global demand, of course, and with restrictions on logging, as well as insufficient government support and probably also with a lack of organization among local businesses.
A full explanation is beyond my reach; rather, I want to pursue one thread of an explanation—global competition—as a way of lamenting the commodification of skill. The skill of Paete’s carvers was recognized and a market emerged for its products, but this market came to be dominated by countries that could mass produce these products. They would simply buy the skills needed to replicate them. For example, Paetenians were hired to make molds for mass produced papier mache products and to teach Chinese workers how to carve generic products. Sure, these products were inferior in quality to Paete handicrafts but they were cheaper and easily available. And so the wooden clog industry was undercut by competition from Japanese manufacturers, and then the carving and papier mache industry by Chinese manufacturers. Now Paetenians are using their skills to make swans out of ice—impressive displays, to be sure, but knowing that the skill guiding the sculptor’s hand developed in so rarefied an environment—knowing how precious it is—how can we not feel a sense of waste that it’s now being used so cheaply to make products that are merely functional not beautiful, to make ornaments serving only to embellish the experience of luxury?