The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte.

AuthorArugay, Aries A.

The Sovereign Trickster: Death and Laughter in the Age of Duterte. By Vicente L. Rafael. Quezon City, The Philippines: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2022. Softcover: 173pp.

Since 2016, books about President Rodrigo Duterte, and his impact on Philippine politics and society, has become something of a cottage industry. Scholars reacted quickly to Duterte's emergence on the national political scene as well as his mind-boggling appeal as a firebrand leader. However, this academic fascination could not, unfortunately, keep pace with the changing nature of Duterte's chameleon-like personality. It seemed like scholars, including this reviewer, grasped at any and every theoretical straw to make sense of Duterte's profound impact on post-democratization Philippine politics.

Thankfully, The Sovereign Trickster is not just another addition to the scholarly pile on the Duterte phenomenon. Vicente Rafael's contribution is timely because it takes stock of the populist leader towards the end of his tenure. Moreover, his book successfully weaves historical analysis with contemporary multidisciplinary theories and the empirical richness derived from existing works about Duterte. The value of this compact but impressive volume is that it adds nuance to our understanding of this political maverick beyond the caricatures on offer.

From the book's subtitle, one can surmise that the author probed into the performative and existential nature of Duterte's politics. While this is not entirely novel given the extant works on Duterte's populism, Rafael expertly weaves into his arguments the literature about life (biopolitics) and death (necropolitics)--the sine qua non of political power. Rafael avoids discussing Duterte's politics as an ideology (sometimes called "Dutertismo"), mainly because the president never articulated a coherent and distinct set of political ideas. Instead, he interrogates how Duterte defied the political orthodoxies of Asia's oldest democracy by focusing on how he efficaciously weaponized humour, obscenity, conviviality and coercion in order "to decide who must die so that others might live" (p. 3).

Readers may find Rafael's approach to the subject matter atypical for a social science-oriented analysis. In lieu of a structured and chronological treatment normally expected of a treatise about politics, the book contains several thematic chapters that discuss Duterte's authoritarian imaginary, his bloody war on drugs, his performative...

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