Review: Asia as Methods: Towards Deimperialization

This book has developed out of thoughts and discourses developed over sixteen years in diverse contexts and dialogues with various critical circles in Asia, where Kuan-Hsing Chen has been engaged. Asia as method, Chen proposes, is building multiple reference points in Asia so that every society can become references for one another. It builds on the works of Lu Xun, Chen Ying-Zhen, Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, Partha Catherjee, and Mizoguchi Yuzo, and is heavily informed by practices growing out of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies: Movements project, which Chen co-founded since the late 1990s. By using Asia as method, a society in Asia may be inspired by how other Asian societies deal with problems similar to its own, and thus overcome unproductive anxieties and develop new paths of engagement. At its most basic, Asia as method means expanding the number of meeting nodes, to include sites in Asia, to promote inter-Asia intellectual and cultural exchange.

This, Chen reminds us, is not exactly a self-evident proposition. Until recently, non-Western societies have barely been considered as a critical analytic or political category. He describes how politicians, intellectuals, and business people in Taiwan tend to pride themselves in their identification with advanced, Western countries. Indeed, in Asian countries, this is a common phenomenon, largely shaped by the insecurity and uncertainty generated by the long-term historical effects of imperial identification, which has also been exacerbated within the context of globalization. We also need to remember that prestigious contacts among intellectuals in Asia were initially built in North America and Europe.

The book is organised into five chapters, complemented with an introduction and an epilogue. Chen chooses not to prioritize analytical concepts or theoretical abstractions. Instead, he strongly grounds his analysis in the dynamics of modern East Asian history, particularly in Taiwan.

He begins the first chapter by analysing the discourse of southward advance in Taiwan in the 1990s. Using collection of essays from popular media, he maps out the current problematic state of cultural decolonization in Asia. Through the triumphalist discourse espoused when Taiwan was finally able to export its capital in the form of investments in Southeast Asia, Chen unmasks some discomfiting sub-imperialist tendencies, whereby colonial knowledge gets substantially reproduced without the critical understanding of its imperialist origin.

He then proceeds into the next three chapters to dissect three intricately related historical processes: decolonization, deimperialization, and “de-cold war”. He argues that these three processes are intricately related, and must proceed in concert together. Decolonization has not unfolded as it could have been because, halted by the structure of the Cold War, deimperialization movements did not take place in the homelands of the former empires. (Chen makes a careful analytical distinction between colonialism and imperialism, arguing that colonialism is an extension of imperialism, but imperialism does not always mean colonisation.) Former empires have not actively thought through the history of their imperialism, and hence cannot respond properly to the living historical issues in the former colonies. After reviewing critical traditions and works in the area, particularly those by Frantz Fanon, Ashis Nandy, and Albert Memmi, Chen then proposes an analytical framework: a geocolonial historical materialism, an approach that locates historical materialism in geographic space, which at the same time emphasizes the specificity of dynamic local histories.

After this theoretical exercise, Chen establishes the links between colonialisation and cold war by bringing up two films, A Borrowed Life, and Banana Paradise, from which he analyzed ethnic and inter-generational tensions, unspoken histories, and divergent structures of sentiment. Conditioned by the colonial and/or cold war structures, divergence of living memories have resulted in different emotional structures. Worse, each side uses its own suffering to ignore the possibility of acknowledging the other’s grief, making understanding, let alone reconciliation, difficult to attain. For his analysis on deimperialization and its problems, he highlighted the case of “Americanism” by bringing forth Club 51, a small group of elite intellectuals and businessmen in Taiwan who identified strongly with the United States. Through these case studies, we find how anticommunism and pro-Americanism have become an integral, embedded part of social subjectivity.

Chen therefore reminds us, that the current conditions of knowledge productions have serious structural limitations, due largely to the underdevelopment of deimperialization movements. By untangling various case studies, Chen shows the readers how the historical processes of imperialization, colonization and the cold war have become mutually engaged structures, which in turn shape both intellectual and popular knowledge production. This is a common complaint: intellectual formulations coming from the imperial centres gain higher attention and values than local experiences and interventions. Local empirical field data gets pushed down, serving only as particularist footnotes that either validate or invalidate Western universalist theoretical propositions. Imperialism, thus, still operates and exercises its power through its enduring domination of knowledge production. Critical work on deimperialization is needed to transform these problematic conditions, transcend the structural limitations and uncover possibilities.

Throughout the book, Chen emphasizes the importance of inter-referencing process, to encourage societies in Asia to become each other’s point of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivities rebuilt. Alternative horizons and richer perspectives need to be generated through the understanding of diverse historical experiences and rich social practices of other societies in Asia. At the same time, it advocates the need to maintain a critical distance, to see Asia as a product of history, as well as an active participant in historical processes.

This is becoming increasingly important, since we are at an early but critical stage of the emergence of Asia. It is still at its early stage because it has not moved very far, yet it is also critical because it could easily fall into seemingly innocuous traps, such as uncritical ethnocentric nativism, nationalism and even exhibitionary multiculturalism. There is an urgent need to rewrite history and redraw the map, to shift the frame of reference from only the United States and Europe, to a comparative framework with multiple local and regional referents.

Unfortunately, I have no academic background in East Asia, so I cannot critically evaluate the real cases brought forth by Chen. However, they are vividly and evocatively described, and as a person living in Indonesia, I can easily relate to the situations described. He strongly encourages practitioners of Cultural Studies to take a more active role as articulating agents and linking points, to practice a “critical syncretism” that multiplies and shifts existing sites and objects of identifications. He also notes the increasing emergence of local history groups, working at village level in collecting, archiving materials and building cultural identity. These attempts at building meeting points for intellectual and cultural exchanges in Asia therefore need to move beyond the delimitations of the nation-state and formal structures, to build the momentum for interaction within Asia, to rewrite history in various forms.

Author: Kuan-Hsing Chen
Publisher: Duke University Press, 2010

This review has been published in New Asia Books. Visit the website to discover diverse books on Asia, and share your thoughts on these books too :)

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