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.”