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.”

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.