Competing Views on Korea’s National History

A review of The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea, Henry Em, Duke University Press, 2013.

Henry EmAchieving sovereignty, and attaining equal standing with other sovereign nations, was Korea’s great enterprise as referred to in the book’s title. It was a thoroughly modern project: previous generations did not feel the urge to compare with other sovereign states or to assert Korea’s distinctiveness. Beginning with the turn of the century, Korea’s commitment to the great enterprise was a necessary condition for avoiding subordinate status in the face of imperial ambitions. Then, as Japan came to dominate Korea, it became a way to break free from its colonial ruler and to campaign for its independence. Later on, emphasizing national sovereignty meant proclaiming the nation’s unity in the face of the North/South division.

Achieving national and individual sovereignty

Historians played a great role in this endeavor. They produced the great narratives that allowed Korea to project its national identity onto citizens. As Henry Em writes in his introduction, “sovereignty provided the conceptual language for writing national histories, but it also constituted the site for the continuous production of oppositional subjectivities and political alternatives.” Sovereignty is not just a prerogative of the state; it is also an attribute of the modern subject. In order to become sovereign subjects, Koreans had to severe their ties with tradition and to reorder their society into a unitary whole. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the birth of the modern individual in Korea. New figures emerged, such as the modern girl with bobbed hair or the political activist facing state persecution. Although collective affiliations are constitutive of the sense of identity in Confucian cultures, the individualist streak runs deep in Korean society. Especially mistrust of rulers is ingrained in the Korean people, who cultivate the spirit of resistance and autonomy.

The discourse of national and individual sovereignty remained a contested field throughout the twentieth century. Competing visions were offered on what it meant to be Korean; when and where national identity originated; and how it could assert itself in the face of imperial dominance or political repression. A characteristic of Henry Em’s book is to refuse simple binaries: between the colonizer and the colonized, between North and South, or Right and Left. At the beginning of the twentieth century, he demonstrates that liberalism retained “an essential link to imperialism and colonialism”. During the colonial period, Japanese were instrumental in shaping Korean identity and helping Koreans connect with their past. After independence, many southern historians migrated north, and continued to be referred to in the historiographic literature, albeit in oblique fashion so as to avoid censorship. In the modern era, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial studies, and developed a critique of the nation-state that the nationalist Left had left untouched.

Translating and enforcing the nation-state in East Asia

Sovereignty is different in essence from the Mandate of Heaven that Choson dynasty rulers claimed as a justification for their rule, along with the subordinate status they maintained with Ming and then Qing China. Paradoxically, it was the Japanese who introduced the notions of sovereignty, independence, and modern statehood in Korea, confirming Carl Schmitt’s remark that “a nation is conquered first when it acquiesce to a foreign vocabulary, a foreign concept flaw, especially international law.” King Kojong’s Oath of Independence, pronounced in 1895 in a ceremony mixing the antique and the modern, was inspired if not dictated by Inoue Kaoru, Meiji Japan’s envoy to Korea. As the author notes, “by leading the way in utilizing the post-Westphalian sovereignty-based conception of international relations, Japanese statesmen like Inoue Kaoru positioned themselves as the preeminent translators and enforcers of international law in East Asia.”

Whereas the China-centered theory and practice of tributary relations, based on ritual hierarchy and actual autonomy, provided a buffer for the Choson state and warded off imperial ambitions, it was the principle of equal sovereignty and national independence that paved the way for Japan’s domination over Korea. The paradox of sovereignty extended beyond the realm of international law. In order to be what they claimed to be, aspiring sovereign states had to become others, and incorporate cultural traits from European civilization. They had to demonstrate their commitment to modernization by adopting Western institutions and practices, and by discarding some of their age-long traditions.

Korea’s entry into modernity

Lastly, the emergence of the individual as sovereign subject required sweeping reforms touching on language, education, and imaginaries. Korea’s entry into modernity was accompanied by the “inauguration of the Korean alphabet as the national script in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the beginning of modern Korean historiography in the first decade of the twentieth century, the emergence of modern Korean literature, and a host of other beginnings.” As is well known, many Korean words were taken from the Japanese, including minjok (ethnic nation), kukmin (national citizen) or even the word designating the economy (kyongje). Less well-known is the role of Protestant missionaries in promoting the Korean vernacular script, the hangeul, helping to transform it into an icon of national identity. Protestant missions were also instrumental in the creation of the first Western-style schools and modern newspapers, which stand as necessary elements for the emergence of a public sphere and the formation of “imagined communities”.

More controversial perhaps, the author shows that the Japanese authorities played a critical role in shaping Korean’s national identity. Nowhere is this more conspicuous than in the field of patrimonial policies and art history. As the author notes, studying the story of the “discovery” of the Buddhist statue of Sokkuram in southern Korea, “the colonial authorities did not just teach Koreans about their past; they had to restore it for them.” Japan’s encounter with Korean art did not only take the form of looting and plundering, although such forms of colonial exploitation also took place. “Like the British in India and the Americans in the Philippines, the Japanese colonial state invested time, money, and human resources to carry out excavations and surveys, to study Korea’s past and restore some cultural sites (but not others) in order to establish the categories and the narrative strategies by which Korea and Koreans would be understood.”

Competing visions of Korea’s history

It was the Japanese colonial state that identified Sokkuram as an example of Korea’s cultural and religious past, and that restored the statue to its former glory. Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the Mingei folk craft movement in Japan, praised Sokkuram as the “culmination of the religion and the art of the Orient.” Of course, Japan’s self-designated role as a curator for Asia’s art did not just emanate from a consideration of art for art’s sake, and it had political and ideological motivations as well. As reinterpreted by the Japanese, “the story of Sokkuram — its creation and subsequent slide into obscurity — was the story of Korea: a brilliant past that was Asian rather than Korean, followed by a downward slide into the vulgar and trivial art of the Choson dynasty, pointing to the necessity of Japan’s tutelage of Korea and Koreans.” This imperialist vision of art was reinforced by colonial historiography. Through popular essays and media reports, “the Japanese came to believe that Japan had ruled Korea in ancient times and that the Japanese colonization of Korea in modern times represented the restoration of an ancient relationship.”

Of course, Korean historians developed a completely different story. Whereas ancient Korea was divided in terms of village or region, clan or lineage, class or social status, the Koreans became Korean partly thanks to national historiography, when modern intellectuals such as Sin Chae-ho began to write Korea’s national history. “In place of loyalty to the king and attachment to the village, clan, and family, and in place of hierarchic status distinctions among yangban, chungin, commoners, and chonmin, nationalist historiography endeavored to redirect the people’s loyalty toward a new all-embracing identity of Koreans as a unique ethnic group.” It is Sin Chae-ho who emphasized the mythical figure of Tangun as the common ancestor of the Korean people. The Tangun legend later led to various interpretations. Japanese historians dismissed it as a story fabricated in the thirteenth century by the Buddhist monk Iryon. As a nationalist historian, Choe Nam-son read the Tangun story as the expression of religious practice dating to prehistoric times, as an ancient narrative that indicated a common cultural sphere for all of northeast Asia centered around Ancient Choson. In the story of the female bear transformed into a woman and married to Tangun’s ancestor, the Marxist historian Paek Nam-un saw evidence of the beginning of both class differentiation and the privileging of the male over the female descent line in primitive times.

The three schools of Korean historiography

The 1930s saw Korean historians coalescing around three competing schools: nationalist historiography, Marxist or socioeconomic historiography (Paek Nam-un), and positivist historiography (Yi Pyong-do and the Chindan society). Paek Nam-un’s Chosen Shakai Keizaishi was the first book of a comprehensive history of Korea’s historical development in terms of class formation and social forces internal to Korea, as it went from primitive tribal communism to a slave economy and to an Asian feudal society until “sprouts of capitalism” began to emerge independently from outside interference. In the immediate post-liberation period, Marxist intellectuals, with Paek Nam-un taking the leading role, sought to establish hegemony over intellectual production, reaching out to non-Marxist scholars, including nationalist historians who had not capitulated to colonial power. By 1948 many Marxist intellectuals had left Seoul and gone north of the 38th parallel, pushed by anti-communist repression in the South and pulled by offers of employment and opportunity to take part in the DPRK’s national democratic revolution. The progressive historian scholars who stayed found refuge mostly in economics departments.

Although the student revolution of April 19, 1960, that toppled the Rhee regime was crushed by a military coup in 1961, that democratic opening nevertheless allowed a younger generation of historians to narrate history in new ways. Under a nationalist canopy, scholars like Kim Yong-sop and Kang Man-il revived and confirmed Paek’s disclosure of the internal dynamic underlying Korea’s historical development, in which class struggle was central. In Korean History Before and After Liberation, Song Kon-ho presented an ethical critique of how 1945 marked the beginning point of the most horrific chapter in Korean history. Song reminded his readers that it was Syngman Rhee who had allowed notorious collaborators to evade punishment, including former Korean police officers who had hunted down, tortured, and killed independence activists. Spurred by Bruce Cummings’s research on the Origins of the Korean War, a passionate debate took place on the role of various parties and events in starting the war.

The New Right and post-colonialism

As “revisionist” historical narrative gained currency in the 1980s, conservative historians became increasingly frustrated at historiography that conceded nationalist credentials to North Korea and seemingly denied historical legitimacy to South Korea. In an interesting twist, the so-called New Right welcomed scholarship inspired by postcolonial theory that insisted on the acquiescence and participation of colonized people in their imperial domination. With this, the New Right turned to criticism of nationalism in general, and leftist-nationalist historiography of the 1980s in particular, attacking the later for questioning South Korea’s legitimacy. But this accommodation with postcolonial and postmodern scholarship was only tactical, as shown by the New Right’s support of alternative history textbooks that are avowedly nationalistic. In a region still marred in border disputes and nationalist sensibilities, historians should look forward to the day when nationalism can be dispensed with.

Jogo do Bicho

A review of Laws of Chance: Brazil’s Clandestine Lottery and the Making of Urban Public Life, Amy Chazkel, Duke University Press, 2011.

Amy ChazkelThe Jogo do Bicho, a number game based on animal figures, has often been described as Brazil’s national vice. It is part of the local urban landscape, just as pachinko defines Japan’s popular culture or PMU is a component of Parisian café life. The difference is that whereas pachinko parlors and PMU counters operate under the law, the Jogo do Bicho is a clandestine lottery that takes place in the shadow of the informal economy. Born on the outskirts of the zoo in Rio de Janeiro around 1890, it has thrived in a gray area between the legal and the illegal, and has been pushed into clandestinity by police repression. Understanding how this great partake between the lawful and the unlawful was made, and chronicling Brazilian citizen’s engagement with the state by way of an illegal activity, is the subject of Laws of Chance, a fine piece of scholarship published in the Radical History Review Book Series at Duke University Press.

A clandestine lottery in the shadow of the informal economy

The Jogo do Bicho has already attracted quite a deal of scholarly interest. Rudyard Kipling, visiting Rio in the 1920s, wrote of seeing bookies wandering the streets carrying placards with colorful pictures of animals. Roger Caillois, a French public intellectual, showed that the game was bound to a system of forecasting the future through dream interpretation, with its own code, classics, and expert interpreters. Gilberto Freyre, probably the most famous of all Brazilian sociologists, described the Jogo do Bicho as a holdover from Brazil’s indigenous and African totemic past. A common tendency of these authors has been to link the game to irrational forces: dream, superstition, fetishism, paganism. The Jogo do Bicho is seen either as a relic of the past or as a way by which tradition encrusts itself upon the modern.

By contrast, Amy Chazkel shows the Jogo do Bicho as a thoroughly modern and rational phenomenon. It became popular at just the moment urbanization and consumer capitalism took hold, and must be interpreted as the product of modernity rather than a refuge from it. It is based on numbers, with elaborate combinations that require the skills of a mathematician as much as the intuition of a dream interpreter. It is part of the money economy, and can be seen as an alternative to saving or insuring against future events. More generally, Amy Chazel distances herself from macro explanations such as invocations to culture, psychology, societal laws, or tradition. To invoke such determining factors is to lose the specificity of historicl causality. The Jogo do Bicho has to be studied at close range, without imposing anachronistic analytical categories, and by paying attention to the few traces the game left in the archives: police records of the arrests of buyers and sellers, judicial cases when these convicts were brought to justice, references to the game in popular culture and in legislation.

Brazil’s only reliable institution

Most commentators on Brazilian culture have marveled at the reliability of the clandestine lottery. “In the Jogo do Bicho, what’s written down counts,” says a local proverb, and the game has sometimes been described as Brazil’s only reliable institution. In his classic work on the sociology of games and play, Roger Caillois comments on the “scrupulous honesty” of the bicheiro, the lottery dealer. Writing in the late1930s, Stefan Zweig also testified to the reliability of these underworld figures: “In order to avoid the police checking up on the jogo do bicho they played on agreement. The bookmaker didn’t supply his clients with tickets, but he has never been known not to pay up.” Amy Chazel exposes the scrupulous honesty of the bicheiro as part truth and part fiction. The lottery dealer lived by his word: no legal recourse was available if he refused to pay for the winning number. The internal logic of the game and its code of ethics surpassed, in the eyes of ordinary Brazilians, the legitimacy and reliability of the judicial system that censured it. But there were cases where the bicheiro and the banqueiro who backed him refused to pay, either due to turf wars and petty infighting, or because a fortuitous event (say, the death of the elephant in the zoo) had induced a large number of ticket buyers to play the winning animal.

Popular writings on the Jogo do Bicho have long underscored its longevity and popularity in the face of police repression. For sociologists of deviance, it is the law that creates crime. The Jogo do Bicho did not begin as a unitary, distinct practice operating outside the law. Its criminalization brought it into existence by both joining disparate, informal lotteries under a single criminal nomenclature and creating an illicit source of income for police through paybacks and corruption. Yet reversing the causal arrow between criminality and policing does not give full justice to the way the Jogo de Bicho operated. It posits the existence of a clear dividing line between the legal and the illegal, whereas this distinction is precisely the result of negotiated compromises and mutual encroachments. According to Amy Chazkel, “law is, in both form and function, an integral part of society, not something outside it.” She uses the informal lottery as an example of how law and society constitute and interact with each other. Likewise, state and state actors have to be included in the realm of the informal and unofficial which they contribute to create and sustain.

How the “animal game” escaped from the zoo

The Baron de Drummond is commonly credited with creating the game as a marketing tool for promoting the zoological garden that he had created in the new urban settlement of Vila Isabel at the periphery of Rio de Janeiro. Drummond requested a concession from the city government to operate a game that, it was hoped, would raise the zoo out of insolvency without depleting the city’s coffers. Every ticket to the zoo bore the image of an animal, and early each day the baron himself would randomly select one of the twenty-five animals printed on the tickets. Tickets were soon being sold by independent bookmakers or “bicheiros” to those who hadn’t even visited the zoo. By 1895 lottery “bankers,” or banqueiros, unaffiliated with Drummond were taking bets of their own on the outcome of the drawing at the zoo and paying winners out of their own earnings. It did not take authorities long to notice the Jogo do Bicho and remark on its patent illegality. Within months, the municipal government made its first attempt to shut down the game. The animal lottery simply shifted to a new habitat in the city centre, an environment in which it has thrived ever since. Once dissociated from the zoo, it took the outcome of the licit lottery to determine the winning number associated with one of the twenty-five animal series. Jogo do Bicho tickets began to appear among the merchandise offered for sale in kiosks that sold snacks and coffee on street corners. The “animal game” had escaped from the zoo, and would develop in conjunction with police repression and legal jurisdiction.

City authorities who banned the game stated that “games of chance depending upon luck… are prohibited in all times in Roman law and in our own Penal Code.” Yet entrepreneurs like Drummond who set up lotteries at first operated legally, and there was a National Lottery that brought revenue to the public coffers. Indeed the Jogo do Bicho challenged the legal lottery concessionaires with unwanted competition, and they actively petitioned the city government to suppress it. It was only in 1946 that all forms of gambling in Brazil were legally banned, after repression had taken an increasingly moralistic tone. It is no coincidence that the Jogo do Bicho emerged amid Rio’s social upheavals and alteration in its urban environment in the early First Republic, at just the moment it became urgent to demarcate the formal from the informal in myriad realms of urban society. The state attempted to modernize the city by signing concession contracts with large companies to provide the city with public work and infrastructure, including docks, public lighting and other utilities, roads, and civil construction, as well as entertainment and retail commerce. Corruption occurred regularly not only in determining who could win contracts and sinecures, but also in the complicity of public officials with monopoly-seeking concessionaires wishing to suppress competition by making spurious accusations of illegal practices.

The criminalization of everyday life

Amy Chazkel describes this privatization of urban space as a process of enclosure akin to the “enclosure of the commons” that marked the transition from medieval agrarian societies to modern capitalist economies. Alternatively, she uses the expression “criminalization of everyday life” to describe how some parts of the public domain formerly outside the state’s purview came to be associated with public disorder and criminal activity. Jogo de Bicho dealers, unlicensed street vendors, and other participants in Rio’s nascent informal economy were entangled in a struggle over de facto rights and access to resources and became part of the way both the state and the market operated. There was a subtext of moral panic behind urban modernizers’ battle cry of “Ordem e Progresso.” Practices common in the poor and working classes such as gambling, vagrancy, begging, prostitution, and drinking, as well as the martial art called capoeira, were criminalized as part of the authoritarian politics of “enlightened intolerance” that accompanied urban modernization. The issue of public order in Rio and other cities was made more pressing by the explosive growth of the urban population and the flood of immigrants from southern Europe, as well as by racial anxieties following the abolition of slavery.

The criminalization of the Jogo do Bicho was always ambivalent and contested. Compelling evidence shows a lack of consensus within Brazilian society as to whether the state should permit and regulate the game or outlaw it and punish its participants as criminals. During the period from the game’s origin to around 1917 it appears that virtually no one who was arrested for playing the Jogo do Bicho was evec convicted, fined, or handed a prison sentence. The unusually high rate of acquittal in cases of illicit gambling resulted from the wide discretionary power judges and police exercised, but also from the shared belief that “this was only a game”. Above all, men and women of all socioeconomic backgrounds showed their approval of the game simply by buying and selling chances to win. It doesn’t mean the law was ineffective: it protected the interests of the legal lottery concessionnaires, and it gave the police a blanket authorization to intrude into the lives of the working classes. For the poor urban population, most daily interactions with the state occurred at the level of the street police. The policeman was, in effect, the state, and his authority to control and arrest manifested the state’s coercive power over the everyday life of citizens.

A major work of imaginative historical scholarship

I read Laws of Chance as part of a survey of modern anthropological writings, many of which are published by Duke University Press. I would recommend it not only to historians of Brazil and Latin America, but also to anthropologists or sociologists working on contemporary terrains and to scholars engaged in critical studies. This book is proof that you can conduct anthropological work without resorting to participant observation. Familiarity with the archive—and especially with menial, obscure texts and artefacts that have so far escaped the purview of historians—gives a unique perspective into the life-world of ordinary people. Although the topic of a clandestine lottery in early twentieth-century Brazil may appear as mundane and recondite, it allows for a gripping narrative, full of twists and turns as well as theoretical developments. The informal, the illegal and the marginal appear not as residues of a bygone era that are bound to disappear with the advent of the modern economy, but as constitutive concepts that stand at the center of our modernity. The history of the Jogo do Bicho brings a fresh view on the relationship between the state and society in Brazil in the first decades of the twentieth century. It is a delight to read, as well as a major work of imaginative historical scholarship.

Asian Studies in Asia

A review of Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization, Kuan-Hsing Chen, Duke University Press, 2010.

Asia As Method.jpgThere are two kinds of Asian studies on North-American campuses. The first, area studies of Asia, grew out of the Cold War and of the United States’ need to know its allies and enemies better. It is politically neutral, although some critics would consider it conservative in essence, due to its modalities of topic selection, standards of scholarship, sources of research funding, and practical applications. It focuses on the production of experts on a specific region of the world which is of strategic interest for the United States. It usually requires the mastery of at least one Asian language, acquired through years of painful learning and extended stays in the country being studied. Great scholars have contributed to the field and have led distinguished careers that have brought them into positions of leadership within and outside academia.

The two kinds of Asian studies in the United States

Faced with a general crisis in area studies that may be linked to the decline of America’s Cold War commitments, the discipline was reinvigorated by renewed interest in Asia-Pacific as the new center of global economic growth. A number of social scientists who learned their trade in sociology, political science, or sometimes even literature studies, reinvented themselves by turning into business consultants and management specialists, offering to unveil the mysteries of Asian capitalism in its successive reincarnations (from Japan Inc. to China’s global reach). In addition, whereas other fields became highly compartmented, it is still possible to pass as a “Japan specialist” or an “expert on China”, covering all aspects of a country’s culture, economy, and political situation, in a way that is no longer possible for countries like France or Germany, let alone for Europe as a whole. Outside academia, one may even earn the reputation of an “Asia hand”, as one experiences successive postings in diplomacy or corporate management in various Asian capitals. As Benjamin Disraeli said: “the East is a career”.

The second kind of Asian studies in the United States, cultural studies of Asia, is very different in its nature and its applications. It is born out of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, the claim of ethnic or sexual minorities, and campus politics. It bundles together a set of disciplines sometimes referred to as “critical humanities”: literary criticism, media studies, cultural anthropology, women studies, and the ethnic curriculum reflecting the distinctive identity of Asian-Americans. Theoretically, it is grounded in or influenced by various kinds of post-isms (postmodernism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism, posthumanism), as well as by feminism, queer theory, subaltern studies, deconstruction, and critical theory. It is also closely linked to practices of political militancy, social activism, human rights advocacy, and experiments in the performing arts. The focus of cultural studies of Asia is on transnational flux, diasporic mobility, immigration challenges, and shifting identities, as opposed to the centralizing state structures and fixed identities favored by area studies.

American cultural imperialism and Asian resistance

According to Kuan-Hsing Chen, a Taiwanese cultural critic, the second form of Asian studies is no less imperialistic than the first. It considers Asian countries only in relation to the US, and it uses American or European authors, concepts, and points of reference in order to “frame” Asia. Western scholars look to Asia from afar, and with concerns close to home. Not only do they present their partial view as the only legitimate one, but by monopolizing speaking positions they also block the emergence of alternative voices coming from Asia. It is by invoking the right to difference, to cultural identity and to affirmative action, that America exerts its cultural hegemony on a global scale. By promoting multiculturalism, it draws the best elements from the rest of the world into its universities, and dictates the terms of the cultural debate in foreign academia as well. America’s multicultural imperialism gives birth to a new generation of local informants and academic brokers, which Kuan-Hsing Chen labels as “collaborators”, “opportunists”, and “commuters”. In Asia as elsewhere, the staunchest advocates of cultural identity generally come from the diaspora: it is through exile and distance that they come to overemphasize the importance of small differences.

Knowledge production is one of the major sites in which imperialism operates and exercises its power. Kuan-Hsing Chen gives several examples where the West is used as “method” without it even being acknowledged. The existing analytical distinction between the state and civil society cannot account for democratic transformation in places like India, Taiwan, or South Korea. As Professor Chen explains, India does not possess the condition required to develop civil society in the Western European sense, because only a limited part of the Indian population, mainly social elites, could enter such a space. Instead, critical historians like Partha Chatterjee show that subaltern classes and groups have been able to invent alternative spaces of political democracy to ensure their survival and livelihood. Similarly, in Taiwan and Korea during their democratic transition, civil society virtually became the state, as major figures associated with the civil-society camp acceded to power or were coopted by the regime.

The demise of the nation-state is a luxury only the West can afford

Another issue with “the West as method” is the academic insistence on the demise of the nation-state and the advent of post-nationalism. For Kuan-Hsing Chen, this is a luxury only the West can afford: “at this point in history, a total negation of nationalism is nothing but escapism.” As he comments a documentary on Singapore made by an independent filmmaker, “one has to sincerely identify with the nation, genuinely belong to it, and truly love it in order to establish a legitimate position from which to speak.” His relation with Taiwan is itself ambivalent. He refuses the rigid binary structure that demands a choice between unification with mainland China and independence from it. He tries to sketch a “popular democratic” alternative, based on grassroot movements, anti-imperialism, and local autonomy. For that, he recommends an effort to liberate from the three-pronged grip of colonialism, cold war, and imperialism. But if attempts to engage these questions are locked within national boundaries, it will not be possible to think beyond the imposed nation-state structure and work toward genuine regional reconciliation.

Kuan-Hsing Chen wants to contribute to the emergence of the new field of Asian studies in Asia by proposing a radical alternative: Asia as method. “Using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point,” he writes, “societies in Asia can become each others’ point of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt.” In a lecture given in 1960, the Japanese critic Takeuchi Yoshimi intuitively proposed the notion of Asia as method as a means of transforming the Japanese subject. But he concluded aporetically to the impossibility of defining what such a transformation might imply. Mizoguchi Yûzô, a recently deceased scholar, took up from where Takeuchi left and proposed “China as Method”, by which China or Asia ceased to be considered as the object of analysis and became a means of transforming knowledge production. In this sense, the emerging field of Asian studies in Asia will have a very different historical mission than the Asian studies practiced in Europe and North America. Studying Asia from an Asiatic standpoint is a means of self-discovery and collective emancipation. As Chen puts it succinctly, “the more I go to Seoul, the better I understand Taipei.”

Using Asian frames of reference

A first step in pursuing “Asia as method” is by using Asian authors and frames of reference. This is what Kuan-Hsing Chen does, noting that “Asia as method is not a slogan but a practice. That practice begins with multiplying the sources of our readings to include those produced in other parts of Asia.” His references include classic thinkers such as Lu Xun and Gandhi, or more recent critics like Mizoguchi Yûzô and Partha Chatterjee or Ashis Nandy. He borrows from Lu Xun a certain critical tradition that addresses broad political issues by responding to concrete events, such as a campaign to expand Taiwanese investments in South-East Asia, or the claim of a group that wishes to register Taiwan as America’s fifty-first state. The non-violent philosophy of Gandhi is mobilized to broaden the concept of civil society and to discuss the emergence of subaltern classes in conjunction with the Chinese concept of minjian. Takeuchi Yoshimi complements these references by suggesting that Japan has gone through the opposite direction of India and China, and that its cultural dependence toward the US prevents it to build a more penetrating critical subjectivity at the societal level.

Professor Chen also uses foreign authors who have become common references in postcolonial studies, in order to design “a methodology specific to the colonized third world.” The central figure here is Franz Fanon, a Martinique-born French psychiatrist, writer, and militant of decolonization, whose work inspired many revolutionary leaders from the Third World. His basic affirmation, “the black man wants to be white”, suggests that Asian people also want to become American, and end up wearing the same masks and fetishes. The psychic dimensions associated with colonialism have also been studied by Octave Mannoni, who showed that the colonizer and the colonized are bounded together by a relationship of mutually constituted subjectivity, and Albert Memmi, who posited that the alienation of the colonized cannot be reduced to the question of individual subjectivity: it has to be addressed at the level of the social structure, which conditions the collective psyche. The use of these sources and others allows Kuan-Hsing Chen to build an alternative narrative of decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war” that stands at variance with North American academic references.

Decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war”

The author goes farther. Asian scholars have been doing “Asian studies” all along without realizing it, “just like Europeans, North Americans, Latin Americans, and Africans have also been doing studies in relation to their own living spaces.” “That is,” Chen insists, “Martin Heidegger was actually doing European studies, as were Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jürgen Habermas.” The choice of names is not insignificant, and quite ironic as well. Thinkers who attempt to “provincialize Europe” and call into question Western philosophy’s pretense to universality usually find themselves at home in the philosophy of Heidegger, that quintessential provincial who never left his Heimat and had only contempt for science and technology. Similarly, Michel Foucault dreamt of other horizons without ever using non-Western sources. “If a philosophy of the future exists,” he wrote, “it must be born outside of Europe, or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts between Europe and non-Europe.” Kuan-Hsing Chen does not rule out the possibility of a synthesis, but he sees universalism as the end of a process as opposed to a starting point. “Universalism is not an epistemological given but a horizon we may be able to move toward in the remote future, provided that we first compare notes based upon locally grounded knowledge. Universalist arrogance serves only to keep new possibilities from emerging.”

Notes from a Disoriented Reader

A review of Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora, Edited by Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa, Duke University Press, 2001.

OrientationsScholars working in cultural studies are an unruly lot. They spend a great deal of energy patrolling disciplinary borders, falling down on trespassers and ensuring conformity within the field. Some mount raids on neighboring fields for intellectual loot, or claim new territories as their own. They try to regulate their quarrels with political correctness and abstruse jargon. But attacks are not muffled by circumvolved syntax or otiose vocabulary. If anything, they are made even more venomous, as one can articulate in complex sentences what one wouldn’t dare to write in plain English. Liberals are very illiberal when it comes to arguing with each other. Academics of the cultural bent are willing to wash their linen in public, to bring cadavers out of family closets, and to expose the dirty little secrets of the profession, if only for the sake of enhancing their own status. For them, it appears like business as usual. But for outside observers, who have come to associate scholarly pursuit with disinterestedness and gentlemanly behavior, this aggressiveness comes as something of a shock.

Settling scores between Asian Studies and Asian American studies

I didn’t expect to find so much venom, personal attacks, and political bickering in a book on Asian studies. To be true, the book centers on a different discipline, Asian American studies, which in the US context designates the curriculum designed for Asian American students who wish to reconnect with their ethnic roots and affirm their distinct cultural identity within American society. The authors insist that Asian American studies find their origins in the civil rights movement and that it espouses a progressive political agenda. The possibility of a conservative or politically neutral contribution to the field is not even envisaged. The contribution of ivory-tower scholars to the realization of social justice and the fight against racial prejudice is rather thin. One author mentions various student movements who organized campaigns and signed petitions for Asian sweatshop workers and slum dwellers. Another stresses the emancipatory dimension of avant-garde theater played by and targeted at ethnic minorities. Yet another focuses his research on Filipino immigrants and their struggle for survival. And this being the US, there is even one lawyer specializing in “Asian Americans and the Law” studies, which stands at the intersection between human rights approaches, Chinese legal studies, and Asian American critical jurisprudence.

The best way to unite is to have a common enemy. One such enemy—paradoxically, considering the fact that most authors purport to bridge the gap between Asian studies and Asian American studies—is area studies as it is still commonly practiced. This volume is tantamount to a hostile takeover bid over Asian studies by Asian American scholars with a background in cultural studies and a taste for loosely defined “theory”. For Dorinne Kondo, “hegemonic East Asian studies… stand as heir to an Orientalist legacy, permeated by an unproblematized empiricism hostile to ‘theory’, yet blind to its own theoretical presuppositions and its conservative politics.” Rey Chow denounces the persistence of a scholarly tradition of Orientalism among specialists of Chinese literature and other area studies scholars. For cultural critics, accusations of Orientalism, culturalism, and essentialism are the most damning indictments one can make, and the authors of this volume use them in abundance. The enemy can also be well-meaning, left-leaning intellectuals: Karen Shimakawa sees in the orientalist inspirations of avant-garde theater artists such as Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook a neocolonial appropriation and culturalist sampling of pseudo-Asian heritage. Rey Chow make a scathing indictment of the modern Maoist, by which she designates “a cultural critic who lives in a capitalist society but who is fed up with capitalism.” Then the enemy can also be within: Kuan-Shing Chen, a Taiwanese critic and proponent of “Asian Studies in Asia”, accuses his North American colleagues of ignoring the question of US imperialism and of trying to “discipline” Asia.

A community of victimhood

Another way to close ranks is to stress the menace posed by an outside enemy. According to the editors, Asian-Americans face three types of prejudices in the US imagination. They are considered as a distinct and unassimilable body in mainstream American society. They are perpetually associated with their country of origin, and cannot achieve full US citizenship. And they are considered as a threat to the American nation, especially in times of crisis when relations with Asian countries become strained. For the authors, “these are ideas that have effected violence against, and exclusion, disenfranchisement, and internment of, Asians in the United States over the years.” The history of the Asian presence in America is one of victimization, persecution, and silencing. No word is strong enough to characterize their plight: Dorinne Kondo even refers to “a centuries-long history of exclusion, penetration, interimperial rivalry, war, incarceration, even genocide.” (yes, genocide.) Asian-Americans contribute only negatively to the buildup of the US national identity. Asia is America’s “other”, and its exclusion reinforces the wholeness and coherence of Western self-identity. David Palumbo-Liu goes as far as saying that the US nation-state grounds its stability in large part on the successful drawing of the Asian/American line: “Asians are deemed inadequate to America, marginalized or excluded in order to (re)consolidate the nation’s image of its ideal self, which is nonetheless contradicted by its white supremacist ideology.”

Another characteristic of Americans’ alleged perception of Asians and Asian Americans is its heavily sexualized content. According to this view, Asia is forever the mysterious and feminized territory in need of US male dominance and militarized protection. In the cultural cliches conveyed by Hollywood movies and popular novels, Asian men are emasculated and Asian women are hyper-feminized, thereby contributing to maintain unequal racial, gender and class hierarchies. Stories generally favor romances involving white males and Asian females, and the reverse combination is seen as transgressive and doomed to failure. Although most people call for racial tolerance and appear to condemn racism, they never question the racial hierarchy that makes Asian women available to white males but preclude the possibility of a union between white women and Asian men. In addition, as Lisa Lowe notes, “this radicalized constructions of both Asian “masculinity” and Asian “feminity” have tended to elide non-heteronormative sexualities as threats to national integrity or to foreclose such sexualities by placing them outside the boundaries of the nation and the family.” Although sexuality as such is not addressed in all chapters, contemporary academic discourse, as noted by the editors in their preface, is “transected and substantially informed by feminism and gay and lesbian studies.”

Cultural studies fuel discourses and practices that are far from liberatory

The only occasion when the authors refrain to make personal attacks is when they talk about themselves. This they do in abundance, to the point that the whole field of Asian American studies may be considered as a strategy for self-expression and personal aggrandizement. I didn’t like the book Dorinne Kondo wrote about Japan because it was mostly a book about herself. In her contribution to this volume, she leaves all pretense to address social and cultural issues and instead writes—again—about herself, offering “an autobiographical political history”. For her, ethnic studies stem from a “politics of representation”: people who were formerly the objects of representation are now entering the academy and the arts in order to “represent themselves”. The result is navel-gazing and, in the end, the abandonment of academic disciplines in favor of artistic performance. The epitome of this flight into aesthetics is offered by Russell Leong in his “performance text” imagining a dialogue between a sociologist and two queer informants. Postmodern anthropology has taught us to call into doubt claims of authorship and to consider texts as social fictions. Now even the pretense of a real encounter between the ethnographer and social actors is abandoned in favor of imaginary hyperbole and fictitious dramatization.

Perhaps most depressing in this book is the sense of closure one gets after reading all the chapters. The claims of the editors notwithstanding, there remains no place for alternative voices coming from alternative places. America calls the tune, and the new mantra of multiculturalism and diasporic identities is offered as a global remedy that all societies should apply to their own situations. This matters a lot, because what happens in US academia has global consequences. The impact of America on knowledge production on Asia is huge. Cultural studies fuel discourses and practices that are far from liberatory, and that can even reinforce racial prejudices rather than combat them. With identity politics and the insistence on the ethnic component of power relations, an ethnicized vision of society is taking hold, where every group clamors for its own specific rights. The competition among victims create a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations, with no end or reconciliation in sight. This exhibitionary multiculturalism is the post-colonial version of the colonial fair. The rhetoric of multiculturalism inherits colonial categories that divide a population along the dominant axes of race and ethnicity, covering up the history of mixing, cross-influences, and flexible identities that have characterized human populations since the origins. To me, importing the schemes and constructions of Asian American studies to the field of Asian studies is a very bad idea indeed.

The Most Extreme Music in the World

A review of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, David Novak, Duke University Press, 2013.

japanoiseI am an adept of extreme audio practices. From teenage youth to adult age, I went all the way from progressive rock to experimental music to various forms of electronica and to sound art. I explored the universe of sound with an open mind and a taste for novelty. But when I encountered harsh Noise, also known as Japanoise, I hit a wall. Here was something completely unexpected. There was no precedent to what I experienced, and there was no beyond. Here was a music without beat, drum or rhythm, without tone, tune or pitch. Noise music is exceedingly difficult to describe. Its components – extreme volume static, amp distortion, Larsen effects, audio feedback, industrial hissing and screeching, only give an idea of the bits and pieces that enter its composition, but their description cannot convey the impression made on the auditor.

Describing noise

Here I have to borrow the words of David Novak, an ethnographer and long-time observant of the Noise scene, listening to a piece by Merzbow. “The track begins with a one-second blast of sound, which shifts sharply downward in pitch before abruptly cutting out, as if taking a breath before releasing the long, harsh, continuous scream of Noise that follows. Sounds are split between the left and right speakers, creating two separate but interrelated layers of texture; other sounds are quickly panned between the two speakers to create a sense of movement in the flat landscape of the stereo field. Filters sweep across the distorted sound field, rippling through a stream of harsh frequencies. Beneath these timbral changes, there is another loop of sound, which repeats a two-second fragment of muted static. The distorted feedback begins to break up as some amplifier in the chain reaches the limit of its capacity. A microphone feedback is introduced in the background, and the sound begins to short out as a thin hissing sound momentarily fills both channels. A new loop lurches into both channels at once, emitting a spitting chatter for two seconds and then submerging into a low hum. A vocal sound, like a moan, appears underneath the layers of feedback; it is unclear to me whether this is actually the sound of a human voice or some resonance created in the feedback process, or by a filter, or another pedal. Suddenly the Noise just ends, leaving me suspended in the buzzing stillness. A final burst blasts through the system, as if I’ve been unplugged from myself.”

If Noise music is difficult to describe (you have to hear it to believe it), Noise performances make for vivid descriptions. Here again, are some excerpts from David Novak’s Japanoise. “The performance seems to emerge from within the technical arrangement of the gear: sounds just begin to emanate from the pile as Greenwood (the Noise musician) reaches around, plugging things in and turning knobs. He straps on a rubber military gas mask containing microphones, concealing his face entirely, and attaches other electronic pieces onto his body. He dashes back and forth in front of the equipment he has amassed in the center of the floor, turning on switches, pushing buttons, pulling cords out of one area and pushing them into another, pulling things apart. Occasionally he bends forward at the waist, drops to his knees, reels backward, or falls to the floor in front of the heap of gear, a shout becoming audible from inside the mask. Holding onto some piece of the assemblage, Greenwood jerks his body back and forth violently in front of his machines. It is unclear how the machines function–which pieces are altering the sound, which are not, and which are disconnected or never worked at all. As the performance builds, sections of the pile of gear collapse or are pulled out and thrown to the side of the stage. Somehow, this dismantling process doesn’t seem deliberate–though it must be–as he smashes things together, punching parts, grabbing cords, and moving the telephone receiver around in a buzzing feedback loop.

Extreme performances

The origins of Japanoise are shrouded in obscurity and have since become the stuff of legend. Hijokaidan, a Kyoto group, became infamous for their early performances during which they augmented their Noise by smashing up stage equipment, shattering floorboards and attacking the audience with fire extinguishers. Yamataka Eye, another performer, was also known for his extreme practices. During one performance, he cut his leg open with a chainsaw and terrorized the audience with flying chunks of metal. In the most infamous episode, in 1985, Eye destroyed a Tokyo club by driving an abandoned backhoe through the room. Enticed by rumors of blood and auto-destruction, audiences grew in number and in determination to be assaulted by sound. Artist profiles and mythologized tales of performances were disseminated in fanzines while cassette tapes documenting live recordings and bedroom studio experiments were bartered across oceans. These artifacts were quickly consumed by like-minded listeners in America, Europe and elsewhere, prompting the moniker “Japanoise.” North American tours, especially by Merzbow and Masonna in the mid-1990s, allowed select fans to experience Japanese Noise live and relate legendary stories for those who missed the chance. In the following decade, videos of Noise concerts began to circulate on the internet, and materials as well as information about the genre and its key performers began widely available. As live Noise became extinct, discourse began to proliferate on the dead body of sounds, including academic treatises and movie documentaries.

As other late converts, I encountered Japanoise in a Japanese context, and for me there was no question that Noise was a Japanese genre. Of course, I knew it had branched into other countries and cultures – like many devoted fans, I acquired the “US-Japan Noise Treaty” CD, and I heard of extreme sounding practices coming from post-soviet Russia. Through Youtube videos and the Sub Rosa anthology, I also discovered Chinese Noise, which bears a direct influence from Japan’s–one founding member of Torturing Nurse, one of my favorite act on the Shanghaiese avant-garde scene, is from Japan. But what I discovered in Novak’s book is that “Japanoise” was in fact an American invention, which became Japanese through a familiar process of gyaku-yunyu or “reverse importation”. Japanoise surfaced in North America from within a larger framework of reception that included not just Noise but “noisy” Japanese music. Many recordings picked up by North American audiences in the 1980s were by punk, hard rock, and hardcore groups from the Kansai region, especially Kyoto and Osaka. Overseas networks of independent music distribution began to magnify some aspects of the local underground scene. The invention of the term Japanoise further supported the North American belief that the distant Japanese Noise scene was bigger, more popular, and more definitive of the genre. Learning that they had become “big in America”, Japanese artists reacted differently. Some, such as the underground rock band The Boredoms, rejected the Noise moniker and went on to produce progressive rock or “puro-gure“. Others, such as Yamataka Eye, emphasized the avant-garde aspect of their production and accented the defining features of the genre. Yet others went on unaffected by the noise surrounding them, continuing their dogged pursuit of antisocial, antihistorical, anti musical obscurity.

Is the Japanese brain wired differently?

There may be cultural explanations for Japanoise. It is said that the Japanese brain is wired differently, and that Japanese speakers process certain sounds such as insect noises using the left brain, which is also the dominant language hemisphere of the brain, whereas most humans use the right brain, which also serves to interpret music. And indeed, the sound of an insect is as much appreciated as the song of a bird, and the Japanese language has many words (gitaigo: mimetic words) to describe sounds from nature. On a hot summer evening, the roar of thousands of cicadas screeching together can be as deafening as a steaming machine. Similarly, the crystal echo of a glass bell softly ringed by a soft breeze brings a sense of freshness in hot summer days. Japanese traditional music also comes into a category of its own. Gagaku, the imperial court orchestral music, is strangely dissonant and may sound like noise to the newcomer. Many sounds from Japanese traditional instruments fall outside the realm of music: the sharp clap of the bachi plucking the shamisen’s cords; the wind-like character of the shakuhachi flute; the atonal sounds of drums, gongs and clappers; etc.

But again, Japanoise comes into a different category, closer to the machinery sounds of industrial Japan than to the sounds from nature or musical expressions. If there is a cultural explanation to be made, it is not by invoking the theories of Japanese distinctiveness or nihonjinron, but rather the idiosyncrasies of the Kansai region and especially from the city of Osaka, where many Noise bands originated. As David Novak notes, “Osaka’s citizens have historically been recognized within Japan for their outspoken aggressiveness, direct local language, hedonistic enjoyment of leisure, and outrageous sense of humor. Given this outgoing expressive character, it was not surprising that extreme, intensively performative musical styles were associated with the city.” Japanoise also finds its origins in the otaku culture of people obsessed with a narrow field of subculture, and who go to great lengths to feed their obsessive interest with all the materials and information they can get. Once he distances himself from the group, the individualist in Japan lives in a self-centered world and maintains only minimal contacts with his peers. Although there are many bands in Japanoise, the most striking performances are made by solo performers like Masonna or Otomo Yoshihide. Noisicians also sometimes turn their back to the public, or operate from behind a screen. Nobody can be more distant from the rockstar idol than the Japanese noisician, who avoids media contacts and disseminates his sound recordings through audio cassettes or CDRs that don’t enter commercial circuits.

New musical forms have always first been heard as noise

Another way to “explain” Japanoise is to use the categories of art history and avant-garde aesthetics. As Novak notes, “in the annals of musical history, from Stravinsky, to jazz, to rock, to rap, new musical forms have always first been heard as noise.” Modern artists have often taken the exact opposite of accepted norms and conventions, and music is no exception. Claiming that “we don’t care about music anyway” (as does the title of a French documentary about the Japanese avant-garde scene) is a sure way to gain entrance into the annals of music history. The music of “no music” only reproduces the “anti-art” slogan of the Dadaists or of Marcel Duchamp, who rejected cultural conformity and devised the opposite of established art forms. And indeed, noise music finds its ancestry in the futurist avant-garde of the early twentieth century, when artists recorded or transcripted the sound and fury of war and industry.

At this point, cultural critics often make a reference to Jacques Attali’s book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. For the French public intellectual, noise can prophesy social futures and become an oracle of cultural change: “what is noise to the old order is harmony to the new.” Social change implies noise: the clamors of revolutions, the hubbub of modern cities, the mechanical blast of industry, are the symphony that accompanies the advancement of mankind. Noise is the foundation of human expression before it becomes absorbed in the forms of cultural production. It is the irreductible element that will forever resist the recuperation by the system of late capitalism. But, although Attali’s essay remains popular in Japan, it cannot account for the emergence of Noise as a form of expression. Japanoise is not a sound residue or a white noise that exists outside of technological mediation. It circulates along various transnational routes and feeds back into existing musical practices.

At the edge of circulation

David Novak’s aim in writing Japanoise is not to offer a history of the genre. As a cultural practice, Noise escapes history. It cultivates anonymity and obscurity, and obfuscates its inscription in stable, unbending supports. Groups frequently change name and lineup, labels eschew publicity, and artists reject technological advances such as computers or digital equipment. Even by the early 2010, many well-known Japanese Noisicians do not yet have websites, and only a handful of Japanese labels have developed web-based sales portals. Noisicians’ rejection of digital technology is illustrated by the anachronistic revival of the audiocassette, which has become the token of a mail-based exchange system. In relying on this old media, noisicians are reconnecting with the origins of the Noise culture, antedating the birth of the internet. They are returning Noise to its marginal position at the edge of circulation. For Novak, the figures of the circuit, of the feedback loop, and of the saturated distortion not only define the sonic features of Noise as a musical form. They constitute the theoretical apparatus of his book, and allow him to expose the genre in the same terms that define the sound processes used by Noisicians. Beyond Japanoise, the model offered by David Novak can be used to outline a new theory of culture in the global age. Global culture is formed in circulation through feedback, amplified reception, and distorted re-emission. Its fragmented publics are connected through productive mistranslations and biased perceptions. Like noise in information theory, cultural products that circulate through global channels can be very loud, but they do not convey a useful signal.


Between Marx and Anthropology

A review of The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, Kojin Karatani, Duke University Press, 2014.

Karatani.jpgThere is a tradition of contemporary Japanese philosophers drawing from anthropology (the names of Shinichi Nakazawa and Akira Asada come to mind). There is also a Japanese tradition of philosophical re-readings of Marx (with Kozo Uno or Makoto Itoh). I am interested in the first tradition. I regard the second as negligible. In The Structure of World History, Kojin Karatani combines the two approaches. He offers a broad synthesis on the origins of the state, the market, and the national community, based on the works of classical anthropologists. And he provides a close reading of Marx’s texts in order to construct his own philosophical system, encompassing the whole of human history. I found the first part based on anthropology most valuable. I only skipped through the second part. Below are a few reading notes and commentary intended to provided a cursory reading of Karatani’s book.

A Japanese rereading of Marx

Marx, like Comte and Hegel before him, saw the history of the human race as neatly divided into historical phases. He identified five such phases: the primitive horde, Asiatic despotism, the ancient classic state, Germanic feudalism, and the modern state under capitalism. The principle of that division was to be found in modes of production and the type of labor relations they generated. The stateless clan society was characterized by primitive communism: there was no private property, and goods were shared among all members of the clan. It was followed by the Asiatic mode of production in which the despotic king owned everything and his subjects nothing. Then came the Greek and Roman slavery system giving power to a minority of citizens, followed by the Germanic feudal system with its relations of allegiance and serfdom, and modern bourgeois capitalism characterized by the opposition between capital and labor. Thus Marx famously proclaimed that all history was the history of class struggle, and that it necessarily tended towards the advent of communism, in which class would disappear and the state would wither away.

Other authors, mainly inspired by Marx, offered their own classification of social formations. To the five modes of production identified by Marx, Samir Amin added two others: the trade-based social system seen in various Arab countries, and the social formation based on the “simple petty-commodity” mode of production seen in seventeenth-century Britain. Building his own theory of world systems, Immanuel Wallerstein described a succession from mini-systems that preceded the rise of the state, to world empires that were ruled by a single state, and then world-economies in which multiple states engaged in competition without being unified politically. The modern world system of global capitalism itself went through the successive stages of mercantilism, liberalism, and imperialism, each dominated by a single hegemonic power: first Holland, then Britain, and then the United States.

Stages of development

Yet other thinkers identified various stages of development by the dominant world commodity or technology: the wool industry in the stage of mercantilism, the textile industry in liberalism, heavy industries in imperialism, and durable consumer goods such as automobiles and electronics in the stage of capitalism. Our present times may witness the rise of a new stage in which information serves as the world commodity. Still for others, each historical phase is characterized by the dominant mode of energy supply: from biomass and wood to windmills and hydropower and then to coal and steam, then electricity and the oil engine, followed by gas turbines and nuclear power or renewable energies. These periodicizations are only variants of a dominant scheme that locates the crux of world history in the realm of production.

While offering his own teleology based on modes of exchange as opposed to modes of production, Karatani introduces variants and correctives in these classifications in order to paint a more complex picture of world history. For instance, he argues that societies existed in the form of nomadic bands before the rise of clan society, and that the real turning point came with the adoption of fixed settlements, with its accompanying institutions of property, religious rituals, and political coercion. Contrary to the standard view of the Neolithic revolution that associates sedentarization with agriculture, he argues that fixed settlements preceded the appearance of agriculture, and first took the form of fishing villages located at the mouth of rivers and trade routes. Stockpiling was first made possible through the technology for smoking fish, not piling grain or herding livestock. Nomadic tribes on one side, and clan societies on the other, engaged in different modes of exchange and redistribution: pooling of resources and “primitive communism” for the first, and the logic of the gift and the forms of trade described by classical anthropologists for the second. Along with Pierre Clastres and Marshall Sahlins, he agrees that primitive societies were “societies against the state”, and actively resisted the concentration of power through warfare and reciprocity of exchange.

The Asiatic mode of production revisited

Karatani also develops a more nuanced picture of the Asiatic state, considered by Hegel and Marx as well as by Karl Wittfogel as the symbol of despotism. Contrary to the vision of tyranny and oppression, he argues that the Asiatic social contract was based on a form of redistribution. People were not simply coerced: they voluntarily undertook to work for the sake of their king-priest, driven by religious beliefs and the offer for protection. State power is based on a specific mode of exchange, distinct from the first mode based on the reciprocity of the gift. Drawing resources from large-scale irrigation systems, the Asiatic state developed the first bureaucracies, created the first permanent standing armies, and organized long-distant trade with other communities. Through his bureaucrats, the despot was expected to rule, administer, show concern for, and take care of its subjects. It was not the Asiatic community that gave birth to the Asiatic despotic state; to the contrary, it was only after the establishment of a centralized state that a new community would emerge.

Karatani also offers a revision of our understanding of Greek and Roman antiquity. As he demonstrates, political theories and philosophy did not first emerge in the Greek polis, as is sometimes alleged. The formation of Asiatic states was associated with intense philosophical debates, as in the Warring States period in China which saw the emergence of the Hundred Schools of Thought. This is because the appearance of the state required a breaking with the traditions that had existed since clan society. Greece and Rome existed at the periphery of Asian empires and retained many aspects of clan societies. Rome in the end did become a vast empire, but that was due if anything to its adoption of the Asiatic imperial system, which survived the fall of Rome with the Byzantine dynasty and then the Islamic empires. For this reason, historians should regard the despotic state that emerged in Asia not simply as a primitive early stage, but rather as the entity that perfected the supranational state (or empire). Likewise, they should regard Athens and Rome not as the wellspring of Western civilization, but as incomplete social formations that developed at the submargins of Asian empires. Drawing from Karl Wittfogel, Karatani sees a subtle dialectics between civilizations-empires at the core, vassal states at the margins, independent polities at the submargin, and out-of-sphere communities that retained their nomadic lifestyle.

From modes of production to modes of exchange

Moving to his third mode of exchange, based on money and commodities, Karatani enters classic Marxian terrain, and offers vintage Marx analysis. That is where he kind of lost me, and my reading of this part is wholly incomplete. Drawing from the classic formulas M-C-M’ and M-M’, he argues that the world created by this third mode of exchange is fundamentally a world of credit and speculation, and that it still needs the backing of the first mode (based on reciprocity) and the second mode (drawing from the social contract offered by the state) in order to sustain itself. My attention also lapsed during his discussions on world money, world commodities, and world systems à la Wallerstein. It was only revived when he described the different schools of socialist thinking, seeing great commonality between Proudhon and Marx as well as with the Young Hegelians who first developed a theory of alienation of the individual through a critique of religion, state power, and capital.

Karatani then introduces his fourth mode of exchange, labelled mode D, which marks the attempt to restore the reciprocal community of mode A on top of the market economy of mode C, and without the state structure of mode B. Although this mode of exchange is an ideal form that never existed in actuality, it manifested itself in the form of universal religions and expressed the “return of the repressed” of the primitive community’s mode of reciprocal exchange in a higher dimension. His analysis sometimes borders on the bizarre, as when he warns of a looming ecological catastrophe and generalized warfare that may take humanity back to the stage of the nomadic tribe. His description of Kant as a closet socialist advocating the disappearance of the state and of capital also seems far-fetched. But it is his reading of Marx and Hegel through Kant that may provide the greatest food for thought to modern philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, who quotes Karatani eloquently in his books. Based on solid anthropological data and a re-reading of Marx’s classic texts, Karatani’s work may generate a thousand theoretical explosions, placing the construction of world history systems back at the heart of the philosophical agenda.

The Philosophical Underpinning of Cinema Studies

A review of Gilles Deleuze′s Time Machine, David Rodowick, Duke University Press, 1997.

Rodowick.jpgThe Duke Reader doesn’t usually review philosophy books. Duke University Press doesn’t publish a philosophy series, and only addresses the work of philosophers in conjunction to other disciplines such as anthropology, cultural studies, or loosely defined “theory”. Gilles Deleuze’s Time Machine stands at the intersection between philosophy and cinema studies. It provides a companion reader to the two books Deleuze devoted to cinema, The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, and can be read along with them. Deleuze’s philosophy is notoriously hard to grasp. Readers who have fully mastered his thought and are able to discuss it intelligently can mostly be found in philosophy departments of universities, and even there their numbers may be scarce. At the same time, Deleuze provides easy snipets and ready-made concepts that can be mobilized by other disciplines, with little consideration for philosophical rigor and accuracy. Books by Deleuze and Guattari have coined concepts and metaphors that were used in avant-garde cultural productions, from the film Matrix to the techno music label Mille Plateaux. Deleuze himself encouraged these derivative uses of his thought, and allowed for different levels of reading. His famous video series of interviews, The Abécédaire, was designed for a wide audience and was appropriated as such by many persons who had only little exposure to philosophy. Does Rodowick’s book make Deleuze easier to read and more user-friendly? Is it redundant with Deleuze’s twin books on cinema, or does it provide added value for the non-specialist? And more broadly, does Deleuze’s philosophy offer something meaningful to our understanding of films?

A philosopher is a person who creates concepts

My answer to these questions is a qualified yes. As a reader unfamiliar both with Deleuze’s philosophy and with film theory, I was sometimes put off by the difficult jargon and abstract reasoning that may be more familiar to scholars well versed in both disciplines. Here I must confess that the cinema terms, such as the frame, the shot, the montage, the close-up, or the out-of-field, were no more easy to assimilate than the philosophical concepts. In our society saturated by media images and screen pictures, a basic understanding of how movies are shot and produced should be a requisite part of a general education; but film and media training often fall outside the formal curriculum of the school system. On the other hand, philosophy is part of secondary education in my native France, and I have always enjoyed playing with abstract ideas and concepts. I may therefore conform with Deleuze’s definition of a philosopher as a person dealing with concepts. Here I have to confess that most of Rodowick’s Time Machine fell way beyond my reach, and that I skipped through entire paragraphs without being able to retain a single clear idea. But I nonetheless found the book useful in providing a running commentary of Deleuze’s cinema essays, and it helped me work through these French theory texts as I read them along with this volume. I also was able to get a better understanding of film critiques that use Deleuze as a standard reference. Below are the notes that I took in the course of my reading, the points that I found most clear, and the parts that remained obscure or unaccessible. Of course, the limitations I found in Rodowick’s book may be largely my own, and other readers may get a more substantive intake of food for thought.

Deleuze’s purported goal in Cinema I and II is not to produce a history of the cinema but to isolate certain cinematographic concepts. Concepts, for Deleuze, are not ‘concepts of’, understood by reference to their external objects. They are things to think with, images and signs that can be combined in complex figures and assemblages. This is the meaning of the “time machine” evoked in Rodowick’s book title. Time as a concept is a machine, a device or apparatus that produces certain effects onto other categories of thought.  For Deleuze, thought is inseparable from its object. In this sense, thinking about cinema is inseparable from making it. Filmmakers and artists can be philosophers, just as philosophers must become artists. Great directors and film-makers propose a new cutting or découpage of reality in the same way that thinkers attempt to delineate the world through new concepts and ideas. Alfred Hitchcock, Sergei Eisenstein, or Alain Resnais are philosophers in their own right. Engaging their work requires the same intellectual rigor and attention to detail that one would devote to the commentary of a great philosophy book. Conversely, philosophers who engage cinema think with notions that are the tools and trade of movie-makers. They don’t write from a position of exteriority, but inhabit the universe they are mapping. Indeed, one of the virtue of Deleuze’s books on cinema is to acknowledge philosophy’s debt to film and to film theory. Thinking with the sensory power of sound and image, Deleuze also broaches deeply philosophical themes such as time and space, movement and stillness, desire and imagination. Cinema, he confesses, helps him to think.

Our debt to cinema goes deep and wide

This indebtedness to cinema is not limited to philosophers. Our culture has become a predominantly audiovisual culture. Even in our daily life, we think and understand ourselves and the world with categories we have inherited from cinema’s history. Deleuze allows us to explore what happens to life when everything begins to look and feel like a movie. This colonization of everyday life affects our inner selves and changes our most intimate beliefs. In Deleuze’s parlance, our bodies become bodies-without-organs; the crowd becomes the multitude and accedes to the status of true political agent; and people are unmoored from their ascribed position and become nomadic subjects. Even the categories of time and space are affected by our film culture. In a paradigm shift first hinted by Bergson and fully developed through film history, movement can no longer be imagined as physical movement in space; it must be reconsidered as the form of change through time. The fate of the concept—and therefore the fate of philosophy—is linked to that of the image and the history of its transformations. Through the recorded picture, one sees better and farther than one reacts or feels. We often think and reason like a camera. And the camera itself is animated with a life of its own. After the director has commanded “Action!”, the film reel runs without control or interference from the operator. It is a kind of spiritual automaton, a thinking-machine or a machine désirante: it thinks and desires by itself, without the help of a conscious intervention. Life as movie, thought as camera: by taking cinema as the source of his exploration, Deleuze is only repaying our debt back, and returning the letter to the sender.

The main author Deleuze engages in his essays on cinema is Henri Bergson. In his book Matter and Memory, written in 1896, Bergson had the intuition of the changes that cinema would bring to our conceptions of time and space. He argued that thought is quintessentially temporal, a product of movement and change. In Bergson’s view, thought always moves in two directions at once: while it unfolds along a horizontal axis of association, it also expands across a vertical axis of differentiation and integration into open sets and ensembles. Through integration, related images are internalized into a conceptual whole whose movement expresses a qualitative change: the whole is different from the sum of its parts. Deleuze argued that the classical cinema, the cinema of the movement-image, provides a concrete representation of this process. By reducing the interval between photograms—the twenty-four images per second that are perceived by our brain as continuous—, between shots and between sequences—integrated through montage—, cinema introduces a new possibility for the image: the representation of movement, or the movement-image. This is similar to the concept of la durée that Bergson introduced in his early work. But in Creative Evolution, written ten years after, Bergson denied the revolutionary potential of the invention of the “moving pictures” and presented the “cinematographic illusion” as an example of false movement. In fact, said Bergson, when the cinema reconstitutes movement with mobile sections, it is merely doing what was already being done by the most ancient thought (Zeno’s paradox) or what natural perception does. Deleuze’s purpose is to reenact Bergson’s fundamental intuition of the representation of thought and movement by reading him through the lenses of film theory and in conjunction with other philosophers, such as Peirce, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz.

There are different levels of reading

This makes The Movement-Image and The Time-Image, as well as Rodowick’s Time Machine, difficult books to read. But books can be read at different levels. Non-specialists can read a philosophy book and get as much insights and inspiration for their own thinking as patented philosophers. The same goes with painting, music, and other art forms: one doesn’t need to ‘understand’ art or ‘know’ art history to be deeply moved at an existential level by an artwork. This even holds true for science: Deleuze confessed he was very poor at reading math and understanding formal models, but he nonetheless gained a lot from his conversations with mathematicians and scientists. Indeed, some pages of his essay on cinema seem to come straight out of a discussion on set theory. No wonder many scientific readers of Deleuze’s texts told him his philosophy “made sense” to them. But they are not the only public that could be reached by philosophy: Deleuze also confided that the most insightful testimonies of readers of his study on Leibniz, The Fold, came from surfers and from origami (folded paper) fans, who told him they could relate to his writing. Similarly, he found the most potent metaphor of his own thought process in the kneading operation that bakers apply to dough, folding and stacking the dough repeatedly so that points located on opposite sides in the original plane can come into close contact with each other. In Deleuze’s words, one needs to stand always at the tip of one’s ignorance. The autodidact can be as insightful as the academic. One just needs to know enough to work through the text and let one’s imagination run loose, in order to generate thought associations and create new meanings. Deleuze’s advice to his readers is: don’t let your ignorance inhibit you. Don’t pretend to know when you don’t know, but get as much as you can from existing knowledge.

Paradoxically for a book that is supposed to help readers interpret Deleuze, I found Rodowick’s text harder to read than Deleuze’s Cinema I and II. Part of it may be due to a language issue. I read Deleuze in the original French, whereas Time Machine uses Deleuze’s English version, with abstruse discussions on the proper way to translate certain concepts and expressions. Part of the message conveyed in the original text may be lost in translation. Deleuze is generally considered as a hard-to-read philosopher, but he also paid a great deal of attention to issues of style and aesthetic rendering. He used colorful images and metaphors to convey meaning, and he had a talent for drawing connections and making shortcuts between very different realms. By contrast, David Rodowick uses a bland and emotionless prose, and proceeds analytically to interpret Deleuze’s thought. He keeps references to movies commented by Deleuze to the minimum, and concentrates on his conceptual work as opposed to his style. The reproductions of film stills are sparse, following Deleuze’s opinion that an excessive reliance on using frame enlargements in a print medium in the name of “cinematic specificity” would be entirely oxymoronic. Rodowick operates through classifications and orderings, decomposing an idea into several components that are addressed successively. Whereas Deleuze uses digressions and often deviates from his plot line, Rodowick proceeds orderly and step-by-step,

Making sense of Deleuze’s Cinema books

Another source of difficulty is that David Rodowick considers that Deleuze’s twin books on cinema cannot be properly understood without making reference to his whole work, including books published before (such as Difference and Repetition, A Thousand Plateaus, Foucault, and What Is Philosophy?) and afterwards (The Fold). Interpreting Deleuze, in turn, cannot be made without a solid understanding of the history of philosophy, and in particular an in-depth knowledge of Bergson, Nietzsche, Kant, and Leibniz. To compound the difficulty, he adds that Deleuze should also be read in the context of the history of French film theory, with references to André Basin, Christian Metz, and Jean-Louis Schefer, most of whom remain untranslated in English. Of course, this is only a methodological postulate: one should always feel free to skim through Deleuze’s work, to delve deeply in limited passages and pages while skipping others, and to pick up only the themes and ideas that one can relate to. This is, in essence, the invitation that I would like to make: if you are not theoretically inclined, skip the commentary and go straight to the text.

There Is More to Philosophy for Anthropologists Than Just Foucault

A review of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, Edited by Veena Das, Michael D. Jackson, Arthur Kleinman, Bhrigupati Singh. Duke University Press, 2014.

The Ground Between.jpgMy strong belief is that this book will prove as important as the volume Writing Culture, published in 1986, which marked a turning point in the orientation of anthropological writing. This is not to say that anthropologists didn’t engage philosophy before Anthropologists Engage Philosophy, or that they will with renewed strength thereafter. Many classical anthropologists were trained as philosophers, especially in the French tradition where disciplinary borders are more porous. Pierre Bourdieu described his work in anthropology and sociology as “fieldwork in philosophy.” Nowadays “theory”, which samples a limited set of authors from contemporary philosophy, is part of the toolbox that every graduate student learns to master, and that they often repeat devotedly as a shibboleth that will grant them their PhD. What is striking in The Ground Between is the variety of authors that the contributors discuss, as well as the depth of their engagement, which goes beyond scholarly debates and is often set out in existential terms. For many anthropologists, philosophers are a life’s companion, helping them to navigate through the pitfalls of scholarship and the vicissitudes of life.

After having been killed by Writing Culture, Clifford Geertz is back in favor

If Writing Culture was a gesture aimed at dismissing Clifford Geertz, killing the father as it were, several authors from The Ground Between move back to him as a revered father figure, or maybe as a grumpy uncle who may provide an unending collection of quips and aphorisms. Geertz indeed offers wonderful quotes as to how anthropology and philosophy stand in relation to each other, to the world, and to the self. He observed that anthropology and philosophy share “an ambition to connect just about everything with everything else,” and remarked that “one of the advantages of anthropology as a scholarly enterprise is that no one, including its practitioners, quite knows exactly what it is.” Asked by João Biehl what was his main contribution to theory, Geertz replied succinctly: “substraction”. While being generous and open to dialogue, Geertz could also strike back viciously at personal attacks such as the ones perpetrated by the authors of Writing Culture. “There is very little in what the partisans of an anthropology in which fieldwork plays a much reduced or transformed role… have so far done that would suggest they represent the way of the future,” he wrote, somewhat presciently.

Another move that many contributors enact is, although with much caution and the remains of a certain reverence, a distancing from Foucault. At the very least, they demonstrate that there is more to philosophy for anthropologists than just Foucault. Reproducing poorly rehashed quotes and concepts from Foucault will not automatically grant you access to graduate school. Didier Fassin exposes a research proposal submitted by a prospective student that reads as complete gobbledygook. Simply borrowing the lexicon of Foucault (biopolitics, power/knowledge, governmentality) or of his direct heir Agamben (the state of exception, bare life, thanatopolitics) will not get you very far. Similarly, Arthur Kleinman points out that scholars often engage in the “cultivation of the recondite, the otiose, the irresponsibly transgressive, and the merely clever,” with the effect of estranging the learned public from their discipline and turning scholarly debates into irrelevant wordplays. For João Biehl as well, “insular academic language and debates and impenetrable prose should not be allowed to strip people’s lives, knowledge, and struggles of their vitality–analytical, political, and ethical.”

Keeping Foucault at a distance

Didier Fassin writes his essay “in abusive fidelity to Foucault”, and prefers “a free translation rather than mere importation” of his concepts. Although he recognizes the heuristic fecundity of the master, he points out that many formulas borrowed by his heirs and epigones are just that: formulaic. As he soon realized in his research on humanitarian interventions, “I was indeed exploring something that Foucault had paradoxically ignored in spite of what the etymology of his concept of biopolitics seems to imply–life.” This led him to substitute the term “biopolitics” with the expression “the politics of life”, and to pay attention to the tension between the affirmation of the sacredness of life (as defined by Canguilhem) and the disparities in the treatment of particular lives (exemplified by Hannah Arendt’s work). Life is indeed a theme and even a word that is alien to Foucault’s writing. Attending to life as it is lived features prominently in several essays in the volume: “taking life back in” could be an apt description of the whole enterprise. Another common move is to go back to the source of Foucault’s inspiration, by rereading the scholars who had the most formative influence on his thinking: Georges Canguilhem in the case of Didier Fassin, and Georges Dumezil for Bhigupati Singh (who hints at a homosexual relationship between the master and the student). If Foucault is spared by those authors, they find in Agamben an avatar of “a negative dialectical lineage” (Singh) and reject his “apocalyptic take on the contemporary human condition” (Biehl).

While keeping Foucault at a distance, most authors remain firmly committed to French theory, and engage in a productive dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari, Bourdieu, as well as older figures such as Merleau-Ponty and Sartre or Bergson. Deleuze in particular is mobilized by many authors, to the point one could speak of a “deleuzian moment” in anthropology. Bhigupati Singh finds in Deleuze “an opening, a way into non-dialectical thought” that he uses in his analysis of life in a destitute Indian community. João Biehl read Deleuze while documenting the fate of Catarina, a poignant character in a place of abandonment, until his editor commented: “I don’t care what Deleuze thinks. I want to know what Catarina thinks!” Ghassan Hage wrote the “auto-ethnography” of his deafness and capacity to hear again in close dialogue with Bourdieu, seeing exemplifications of his key concepts but also the limits in the way Bourdieu conceived of being in a world characterized by inequalities in the “accumulation of homeliness”. To be deprived of raisons d’être is not to be deprived of being: as João Biehl puts it, “language and desire continue meaningfully even in circumstances of profound abjection.” “If Sartre became for me a “natural” conversation partner in my anthropological work,” confesses Michael Jackson, “it was because his focus on the conditions under which a human life becomes viable and enjoyable implied a critique of metaphysical and systematizing philosophies.” As Geertz put it succinctly: “I don’t do systems.”

A return to the American liberal tradition

A cadre of young French philosophers such as Jocelyn Benoist, Sandra Laugier and Claude Imbert also find their way into the bibliography. But other philosophical voices are also making themselves heard. For some, it is a return to the American tradition, with prominent contemporary figures such as Stanley Cavell or Nelson Goodman and older ones such as Henry James and John Austin or Hannah Arendt. Arthur Kleinman finds in Henri James the life lessons that accompany him while giving care to his wife suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, making him “feel less alone”. He considers James’s Varieties of Religious Experience the best source for teaching a course on “Religion and Medicine”. Reading Hannah Arendt in Teheran, Michael Fischer notes that Iranian intellectuals were “no longer interested in revolutionary political philosophy but rather in liberalism. Habermas, Rorty, Rawls, and Arendt were all objects of much interest.” Veena Das finds in Cavell’s philosophy the kind of attention to “the low, the ordinary, and the humble” that helps her answer to the pressures from her ethnography by “making the everyday count”.

The anthropologists are careful to point out what philosophers owe to anthropology. João Biehl underscores that Deleuze and Guattari owe their notion of “plateau” to Gregory Bateson’s work on Bali, and that their key insights on nomadism, the encoding of fluxes, the war machine, or indeed schizophrenia, all come from Pierre Clastres’s attempt to theorize “primitive society” as a social form constantly at war against the emergence of the state. The habit of “writing against” that defines a large strand of contemporary philosophy is also central in the conceptual schemes of the founding fathers of anthropology, from Bronislav Malinowski to Margaret Mead. Bhigupati Singh reminds us that “Deleuze deeply admired Levi-Strauss” and may have found in his brand of structuralism a few nondialectic terms that he finds “helpful for thinking about power, ethics, and life.” Following his provocative advice to “take an author from behind,” he imagines the offsprings that may have been produced by an anthropologically-oriented Deleuze. Michael Puett invites us to use indigenous theories to break down our own assumptions about how theory operates: “the goal should not be just to deconstruct twentieth-century theoretical categories but to utilize indigenous visions to rethink our categories and the nature of categories altogether.”

Who’s in and who’s out in the philosophical market

But this book is not a popular chart of “who is in and who is out”, whose ratings go down and whose go up in the philosophical market where anthropologists do their shopping. The authors are careful to distance themselves from “anthropologists who look to philosophy as providing the theory and to anthropology to give evidence from empirical work to say how things really are.” Ethnography is not just proto-philosophy, and anthropologists do not need authorization or patronage in their pronouncements. The idea is to “work from ethnography to theory, not the other way around.” If philosophy can be defined as “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts,” then perhaps anthropology constitutes “a mode of heightened attentiveness to life” that builds on “experience-near concepts” in order to show “how ordinary life itself gives rise to puzzles we might call philosophical.” The Ground Between therefore doesn’t herald an “ontological turn” or a “philosophical moment” in modern anthropology, in the way that Writing Culture was perceived as a turning point affixed with various labels (“postmodern”, “reflexive”, “deconstructionist”). But it is an attempt to step back, take stock, and reflect on what anthropologists are doing, in order to make their contribution to social science, to knowledge, and to human life more meaningful.

A Bad Case of Pemuda Fever

A review of Activist Archives: Youth Culture and the Political Past in Indonesia, Doreen Lee, Duke University Press, 2016.

Doreen LeeDoreen Lee had all that was required to write a great history of Reformasi, the period of transition that led to the downfall of president Suharto and the establishment of democracy in Indonesia. Although she wasn’t there during the transition years of 1998-1999—she conducted her fieldwork between 2003 and 2005—, the Indonesia she observed was still resonating with the lively debates and political effervescence that arose out of the student movement and popular protests against the Suharto regime, also known as the New Order. She met with some of the key players of the democratic transition, and gained their trust as an outsider committed to the same progressive agenda. Having spent part of her childhood and teenage years in Jakarta, she was fluent in the local language, Bahasa Indonesia, and had the personal acumen to interpret words and deeds by putting them into their cultural context. She had access to a trove of previously unexploited documents—the activist archives mentioned in the title—, which consisted of leaflets, posters, pamphlets, poems, diaries, drawings, newspaper clippings, and numerous other fragments (“the trash of democracy”, as she calls it) that activists shared with her or that were deposited in the public libraries of Western universities. Using these fragments and testimonies would have allowed for a kind of micro-historical approach that is currently in fashion among historians. Alternatively, it could have been used to challenge conventional assumptions about the Reformasi by crossing sources, checking facts, debunking myths, and reassessing the role of students and activists in the popular movement that ushered a new era in Indonesia’s political history.

This is not a history of Reformasi

But Doreen Lee is adamant that her book doesn’t constitute a new history of the Reformasi or of the various groups that composed the movement itself. She expedites the presentation of the events that form the background of her study in a two-pages chronology in the preface. She dismisses the causal explanations and the attribution of responsibilities made by conventional historians as a mere “whodunnit approach.” Her treatment of activists’ archives is more literary and evocative than historical. She is more interested in the interplay between the archive and the repertoire, between fixed objects and embodied memory, than in the material traces documenting a given period or movement. Her private collection of Reformasi memorabilia, which includes flyers, diaries, T-shirts, drawings, text messages, and numerous other fragments, is more akin to a stockpile of fetishized souvenirs than to the carefully ordered archive of the historian. She is not interested in tracing the alliances and group names and identities scattered across her documents. History usually defines periods, highlights events, sets milestones, and identifies transitions from one period to the next. Doreen Lee’s narrative is set in broad chronological order: there was a before and an after 1998. She begins with the student movement’s “missing years” (1980-1990) which didn’t leave any trace in official archives but nonetheless left a paper trail she was able to document. She then covers the 1997 monetary crisis or krismon that evolved into a total crisis (krisis total, or kristal) when students and the people (rakyat) took to the streets and forced President Suharto to resign. She follows the student activists in their demonstrations for various social causes in the post-Reformasi period, when they were increasingly seen as troublesome and irrelevant by the broader public. She then concludes with the 2004 legislative and presidential elections, during which many former students activists ran for office or campaigned for established politicians. But she doesn’t put the main events into perspective or draws the lessons, achievements and failures of the Reformasi movement.

Alternatively, Doreen Lee could have established herself as a political scientist with a unique expertise on regime transitions and street politics. Youth activism is a hot topic in political science at the moment, especially in the countries were democracy seems most at stake. The Arab spring and other colour revolutions have highlighted the transformative power of nonviolent resistance and street demonstrations, and brought to the frontline a new generation that grew up with Facebook and Twitter. New geographies of contestation have emerged, with places like Tahrir square in Cairo and Taksim square in Istanbul becoming the symbols of a new wave of democratic aspirations. The mass demonstrations that brought down the Suharto regime in 1998-99 were the harbinger of this worldwide trend. Indonesian students were at the forefront of Reformasi. Those killed in violent protests became martyrs and Reform heroes, and those who survived became pioneers of Indonesian democracy. Activist students who espoused a radical agenda stood the risk of being accused of communist sympathies, a strong indictment in a society where signs of “latent communism” were monitored, reviled, and punished by the authoritarian state and by citizens themselves. But Doreen Lee doesn’t specify the nature of the students’ engagement, their ideological convictions and political positions. She only mentions that they rally in favor of labor rights, the protection of the environment, and other social issues, but she treats the content of their mobilization as irrelevant. Likewise, she does’t address the issues of electoral politics, political institutions, mass organizations, and collective endeavors. Instead, she focuses on the lifeworld of the activist and the intertwining between history and memory. Her book, which illustrates the turn toward affects that one observes in the humanities and social sciences, will be of little use to the political scientist.

Pemuda fever

A third option for Doreen Lee would have been to order her findings in sociological terms. A sociologist would have highlighted the role of young people in mass mobilizations and used the concept of generation to show how each cohort of activists drew from the experience of their predecessors at various junctures of Indonesia’s history. In Indonesian, the word for “youth”, pemuda, has a strong political meaning. The official history of pemuda nationalism begins with the colonial-era mobilization of the 1928 generation, who declared the nationalist charter of the Sumpah Pemuda (Youth Pledge) emphasizing “one language, one people, one nation.” The revolutionary generation of 1945 fought for independence from Dutch colonialism, and was followed by the students of generation 66, who allied with the military to overthrow Soekarno’s Old Order. After the mass student protests of generation 74 and 78, who rose against the repressive regime of Suharto’s New Order, there was a long pause before the baton was passed on to generation 98. Generation 98 understood their place in the world as an extension of this nationalist history, as mandate, calling, and destiny (takdir). In a country where more than a third of the population is classified as youth, the Reformasi movement was in many ways a youth movement. Revolution was transformed into a youthful style that could be worn and circulated with ease. There was a signature pemuda style that included new ways of looking, seeing, and being. Demonstrators referred to the leftist iconography of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara as well as to local figures such as the poet Wiji Thukul, the movie actor Nicholas Saputra, and the pop singer Iwan Fals. But Doreen Lee only gives vignettes and indications, and doesn’t develop a full-blown sociology of the student movement.

If Activist Archives isn’t about history, political science, or sociology, then what is left? The name of this residue is anthropology. It is here conceived as the science of what’s left behind when all the other social sciences have done their job. It focuses on debris, remnants, detritus, leftovers, fading memories, and intangible affects. But building a disciplinary identity on such fleeting ground is fraught with difficulties. Lee’s ambition is to contribute to social theory and to set the parameters for a social history of Reformasi. She writes interesting paragraphs on “a sensory ethnography of heat,” on techniques of the body, and on the visual culture of the student movement. As befits an anthropology book, Activist Archives is based on fieldwork, and puts the social scientist in the position of the participant observer. Besides the street that forms the main battleground of student activism, Doreen Lee  takes as sites of her research the transitory and semi-private spaces of student socialization: the basekemp (organizational headquarters), sekretariat, posko (command posts), kost (rented rooms), and self-study clubs. These are not the institutions that we assume are fundamental to leftist and secular nationalist student movements, such as the school, the university, the army barrack, and the factory. They also stand in sharp contrast with the middle-class home: they are spaces of domiciliation rather than domesticity, and they are often chaotic, unclean, and marked by mixed-gender cohabitation. Camping out, staying overnight, and “playing house” make the kost and the basekemp places of minimal transgressions, allowing young men and women to enjoy their newly acquired freedom. Unsurprisingly, the ethnographer notes that “spring love (cinta bersemi) buds in the season of demonstrations; it is like spring fever, hard to resist.” These notations based on fieldwork observations are, in my opinion, the best part of the book.

Race, ethnicity, religion, and gender issues surface through the text

But even as an anthropology book, Activist Archives suffers from serious shortcomings. Doreen Lee refuses to address the classic categories of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, despite their overwhelming role in Indonesian society, not to mention their canonical value in anthropological literature. Her self-censorship on these issues may reflect her own effort to blend into the group and to be accepted as a participant observer. She stood out as an ethnic Chinese woman educated in the United States and endowed with a cosmopolitan outlook, in a student activist milieu composed mostly of young men originating from Java who belonged to the Muslim majority and who were fiercely nationalistic. In Indonesia, references to ethnicity, religion, and inter-group relations are referred to as “SARA” issues (for Suku Agama Ras Antar Golongan) and they are best avoided in public discussions, but never far from people’s minds. Tensions between the ethnic Chinese minority and local Javanese or other autochthonous groups run high in Indonesian society. The memories of the 1965-66 massacres are still vivid, and ethnic Chinese  are often the target of civil unrest and discrimination. During the city riots of May 1998, property and businesses owned by Chinese Indonesians were targeted by mobs, and over 100 women were sexually assaulted. Doreen Lee glosses over these aspects of Indonesian society: it is revealing that reference to Chinese ethnicity are mostly relegated to endnotes. This murky social background nonetheless surfaces through the text.

Because she was identified as an ethnic Chinese, Doreen Lee was confronted with desultory remarks and witnessed mechanisms of exclusion at work. For instance, making money out of selling T-shirts or other cooperative joints exposed the initiators of these ventures to the accusation of being “like the Chinese, with their trickery and ability to make money.” Similarly, men circulated derisive and cautionary stories about female activists who were so borjuis (bourgeois) they could not eat roadside food or stow away on the train. There was a class and gender aspect to these remarks: the street was associated with crime and public violence, and most middle-class Indonesians avoided exposure to its suffocating heat and lurking dangers in their everyday practices of work and leisure. Doreen Lee notes that she sometimes felt isolated as a female researcher doing fieldwork in a predominantly male environment. She mentions in passing that several of her informants were female, and that young women occupied a subordinate position in the student organizations and militant groups. In a predominantly muslim society, she makes only scant references to Islam. The anthropologist presents the student groups she associated with as inter-faith and multi-ethnic, distinct as such from the Islamic militant groups which were highly structured and tied to existing parties. Despite the fact that Christianity is only a minority religion in the fringe of mainstream Indonesia, there are several references to Christian groups, Christian individuals, and the Christian University of Indonesia as well as to Catholic liberation theology. But these references are made just in passing, and do not lead to developments on the place of Christianity in Indonesia.

Indonesia Raya, Merdeka, Merdeka! (Freedom)

The expression “Stockholm Syndrome” designates the psychological attachment and affective dependence that hostages might feel towards their captors. It is seldom used in the context of ethnographic fieldwork, where the social scientist’s empathy with the group is considered the norm. Even so, Doreen Lee’s rendering of her fieldwork appears to me as a case of intellectual capture. As a rebuttal to the state and media’s depiction of mass demonstrators as unruly and anachronistic in the context of post-Reformasi politics, she argues that demonstrations are a site of expertise, strategy, and discipline. She devotes a whole chapter to violence on the side of student activists, which she condones as a rightful answer to the structural violence of the state. There were indeed many student victims of state violence, with the kidnapping, torturing and killing of activists that are remembered as a series of tragedies, but it doesn’t justify the use of violent means to fight back against the state, especially at a time when democratic transition had already occurred and clashes with the police had no other purpose than to keep student politics alive. Doreen Lee embraces the romance of resistance and adheres to the students’ radical agenda without distance or reservation. This, maybe, was just a phase: in the conclusion, written ten years after fieldwork, she reunites with some former student activists and they together look back at their past with nostalgia and irony. Youth must be served.

If You’re the Average K-Pop Fan, This Book is Not for You

A review of The Korean Popular Culture Reader, Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe Ed., Duke University Press, 2014.

KPop ReaderWhy publish a reader on Korean popular culture? Because it sells. This is the startling confession the two editors of this volume, Kyung Hyun Kim and Youngmin Choe, make in their introduction. They are very open about it: their scholarly interest in Korea’s contemporary pop culture arose as a response to students’s interest in the field. It was a purely commercial, demand-driven affair. As they confess, “Korean studies had a difficult time selling its tradition and modern aesthetics in course syllabuses until hallyu (Korean Wave) came along.” Now students enrolling in cultural studies on American or European campuses want to share their passion for K-pop, Korean TV dramas, movies, manhwa comics, and other recent cultural sensations coming from Korea. Responding to high demand, graduate schools began churning out young PhD’s who specialized in such cultural productions. Course syllabuses were designed, classes were opened, workshops were convened, and in a short time the mass of accumulated knowledge was sufficient to allow the publication of a reader.

Teaching Korean pop culture on American campuses

But the average K-pop fan or drama viewer will surely be taken aback by the content of this volume. If they are looking for easy clues to interpret Korean dramas or the latest fad in boys bands’ hairstyle, then they will probably drop the book after a few pages. There are magazines or websites for this kind of information. As scholars, the authors have loftier interests and higher ambitions than just discussing whether Girls’ Generation really empowers young women or instead reproduces sexual cliches, or why the ‘Gangnam Style’ video generated so many clicks on Youtube. In fact, in another candid move, the editors confess what they really think about K-pop: it sucks. Or as they put it, “Thus far, Korean popular music has yet to produce one single progression of chords that has created a ripple effect of global critical response without the aid of inane music videos and excessive use of hair gels.” Yes, you read it right. For a book devoted to Korean pop culture, with a section on popular music that discusses artists ranging from Seo Taiji to the girls band 2NE1, this is the strongest indictment one could make.

But the ambition of the editors, and of the authors they assembled, is not only to sell books. They have a hidden agenda: they want to show that popular culture matters, and that it is no less noble and worthy of study than manifestations of high culture. As they see it, a discipline should not be judged by the prestige associated with the social reality under consideration, but should be valued from the perspectives and viewpoints it brings on seemingly arcane or mundane topics. There is even a general law at play here: the lower the culture, the higher the theory. The commoner your research topic, the more dexterity you have to prove in using difficult concepts and arcane prose. Conversely, commentaries of high cultural productions can accommodate a bland style and a lack of theoretical references. You may use Bourdieu or Deleuze to comment on photography and other minor arts, but paintings from the Italian Quattrocento or Baroque architecture demand more conventional writing tools. Some critics, such as Slavoj Zizek, have become masters at commenting low brow cultural productions with high brow philosophical references.

So the solution of the authors is to trick students into enrolling in their class with the promise of studying catchy topics such as K-pop or K-drama, and then to brainwash them with a heavy dose of politically-correct theory and academic scholarship. Lured by the attraction of pop culture, they are given the full treatment associated with the cultural studies curriculum. This can be summed up by three injunctions: contextualize, historicize, theorize. The aim is to contextualize contemporary Korean culture within its local and regional or global environment, while historicizing its colonial and post-colonial legacies, thereby leading to new theorizing about global cultural futures. Another move is to broaden the scope of phenomena under review to the whole spectrum of popular culture. The Korean Popular Culture Reader therefore includes chapters on sports, on cuisine, on advertising, and one video games. Conversely, there are no chapters on cultural heritage or on folk productions associated with traditional Koreanness: crafts, calligraphy, ceramics, Korean painting, pansori, seungmu dance, etc.

Contextualize, historicize, theorize

The first injunction to contextualize is taken very seriously by the authors. Cultural artifacts are not symbolic signifiers or self-referential texts that could be subjected to a purely formal, textual analysis. They are social facts, and should be explained as such. The authors refrain from sweeping assumptions about Korean popular culture as expressing essentially Korean cultural traits or as being naturally in tune with other Asian peoples’ aspirations. Instead, they look for archival evidence and locally grounded causalities. They seek neither to defend nor to attack popular culture, but rather attempt to place it in a context and describe how it works. Beyond apparent continuities, they uncover historical ruptures and shifts, and insist on the singularity of each domain of cultural practice. They are also careful to situate Korean popular culture within its regional, global, and transnational context. As the success of hallyu illustrates, Korean pop culture is now represented on an international stage and can no longer be understood narrowly through a model of national identity.

The chapter on the failure of game consoles, and the rise of alternative gaming platforms played on computers at home or in PC bangs, is a fine example of social contextualization. Home computers caught on in Korea for the same reason game consoles didn’t: blame Confucianism and the heavy focus on education. Parents bought their children computers to run educational software and improve English skills. Similarly, PC bangs offered young people a public space that was outside the remote reach of parental surveillance or elder supervision. PC bangs have thrived by giving young people the chance to translate online relationships into real-life ones, or to team under the leadership of a master player to attack a castle or win a battle in role-playing games. The Korean professional game player, who excels in MMORPG games and becomes a worldwide celebrity but who cannot speak English, has become an iconic figure in game-related media.

The political potency of the melodrama

Analyzing street fashion and movie cultures in 1950s’ Seoul, Steven Chung shows that Korea’s compressed modernity takes place against the background of global cultural circulation that cannot be reduced to a unilateral Americanization process. The 1950s was a remarkable decade for movie stars, and the roles played by actor Kim Sung-ho illustrate the ambivalence toward familial patriarchy and political authoritarianism. The political potency of the melodrama is nowhere more apparent than in North Korean movies, with its aesthetics of socialist realism and the overbearing gaze of the benevolent leader in hidden-hero narratives. Bong Joon-ho’s movie Mother strikes Korean viewers with the discrepancy between the iconic status of the two main actors, Kim Hye-ja and Won Bin, associated with motherhood and with idol stardom, and the role they endorse in the narrative, an abusive mother and a half-wit son.

The book cover featuring the glitz and chutzpah of Korean contemporary scene–with a picture of a live concert–is there to deceive as much as to allure. In fact, only nine chapters out of seventeen focus on the contemporary, and only two essays address issues commonly associated with the Korean Wave–one on K-drama fandom and another on girl bands. Many contributions to the volume deal with the colonial or post-colonial past, as contemporary Korean popular culture remains intimately connected to the history of colonial modernity. It was during the early part of the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945) that the first instantiation of the popular emerged. The idiom “popular culture” is not easy to translate into Korean, but the words inki or yuhaeng, taken from the Japanese, suggest the mix of individualism, commercialism, and cosmopolitan ideals that stood at the core of Korean colonial modernity. The history of cultural transfers, collage, plagiarism, and creative adaptation is repeated in many sectors, from popular songs to manhwa and even to Korean cuisine, as processed kimchi and makgolli appear to own much of their popularity to their adoption by the Japanese consumer.

At the origin of modern Korean literature, we find love of the romantic kind, translated into Korean as yonae or sarang. As Boduerae Kwon writes, “It was by leaning on the concept of romantic love that Korean literature tutored itself in the art of writing, nurtured the awakening of individual consciousness, and sharpened the powers of social critique.” Boy meets girl was a new concept in early century Korea: as a new import into the Korean language, yonae required a pose that suited the novelty of the word.” North Korea relied on its own set of concepts and ideologies, such as taejung (the masses) or inmin (the national citizen). It is no coincidence that both Stalin and Kim Il-sung recognized the power of film and considered it not only the most important art form but one of the primary means for creating a new art of living as well. “Cinema was used as the primary technique and medium for the construction of socialism and the creation of a national people,” writes Travis Workman, who uses Baudrillard and Debord to show that socialist realism was in many ways more real than really existing socialism.

The stoking of male fantasy

As much as they put popular culture into context and trace its historical development, the authors put cultural phenomena in theoretical perspective. The book is not too heavy on theory: most of the savant references and conceptual discussions are put forward by the two editors in the short introductions preceding each section. But all authors share an ambition that goes beyond the mere description of cultural facts. Cultural studies is predicated on the premise that the cultural sphere has replaced the socioeconomic sphere as the main site of political struggle and ideological production. At the same time, popular culture is caught in a process of commodification and commercialization that makes it incapable of articulating a coherent worldview that would effectively challenge domination. Perhaps most striking in Korean pop culture is the absence of the transgressive element. K-pop acts, or more specifically female K-pop singers, are visual stars who epitomize the “stoking of male fantasy” while cultivating a shy innocence and mild appearance. Although Seo Taiji upset the established order in the 1990s with his school-dropout status and signature snowboard look, “there was no profanity, no sexism, no use of any substance, no piercings, and no tattoos.” This lack of rebellious impulse is what may have conducted the editors to formulate their damning indictment of K-pop.