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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 686-719

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Going Through the Motions:
American Public Health and Colonial "Mimicry"

Warwick Anderson


"But what an imitator the Filipino is!" wrote Dr. Victor G. Heiser, after visiting a hospital in Sulu, during an investigatory trip he conducted in 1916 for the International Health Board of the Rockefeller Foundation (Notes 2: 537). Just a year earlier Francis Burton Harrison, the new governor-general of the Philippines, had forced Heiser to resign from his post as director of health. Now the wily, authoritarian hygienist, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, had an opportunity to return to the archipelago and make life difficult for those who sought—prematurely in his opinion—to "filipinize" the American colonial bureaucracy. In general, it was evident to him that health work had been degraded in his absence. The town of Legaspi, for example, had no latrines and was "filthy in the extreme" (2: 553). Heiser felt that Filipino infiltration of the public health service now meant that "politics seems to dominate everything for the worst" (2: 553). In Manila, "the dead spirit seems to pervade everything" (2: 570). "Natives" in the health service constituted a corps of pathetic imitators of American public health, carelessly supervising lower-class imitative "natives" in the barrios. "There is a great inefficiency and the machine is big and ponderous and the fuel does little more than oil the wheels, and progress is small, but this is to be expected with native control." 1 As they all went dutifully, slowly, through the motions, producing unfaithful copies of the American originals, Heiser watched, gleefully reporting on their deficiencies. "In leaving Manila," he wrote, it was "a satisfaction to see the indestructible monuments of cement which I left on the landscape and which they will be unable to destroy" (2: 621).

Wherever he went in the colonial Philippines, Heiser found imitation, theatricality, ornament, and politics. There were times when he was heartened by Filipino enthusiasm for his projects. "Hookworm treatment is very popular with the people," he reported on a later visit in 1925. They "have become greatly interested [End Page 686] in its prevention; now that they understand how it is transmitted they are voluntarily building large numbers of latrines." 2 He was thrilled by local efforts to follow practices that he regarded as typically American. But these latrines would often turn out quite different from what he had imagined. "The question of superstructure is left entirely to the householder's wish and it is amazing to see the numbers of directions into which this feature develops." 3 Nor were Filipinos seating themselves on their new toilets quite to his satisfaction. Heiser urged the local Rockefeller emissary, Dr. C. H. Yaeger, to modify the bowl design "to make it impossible to sit on except in the desired position." 4 Out in the field, boring holes for yet more latrines, Yaeger himself was never sure when locals were making fun of his hygiene enthusiasms or subverting his projects. In one town, it was suggested that they might make a "wood carving of someone boring a latrine and suggested me. Well a joke is a joke and I didn't know if they were serious or not but took it in good spirit. What a reputation!" 5

I want to return to the colonial excremental vision not so much to indulge in toilet humor as to discuss imitation and difference in the new hygienic order, focusing on the role of mimicry in a colonial "development" project. 6 Previously I have described an American poetics of pollution in the colonial Philippines, a racializing of germ theories that conventionally contrasted a clean, ascetic American body with an open, polluting Filipino body. 7 In the early twentieth century, public health officers argued that Filipinos, evolving with local pathogens, would surely have been fashioned as natural reservoirs of disease organisms, containers that racial customs and habits kept filled to the brim. Filipinos, then, were cast along with other local fauna as disease dealers—even apparently healthy Filipinos might secretly carry the invisible...


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