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New Ways of Speaking, and Thinking, About Asia

by Arif Dirlik

I will discuss here several problems that have been foregrounded by the recent ferment over method and perspective that are of particular relevance in the study of Asia. Crucial to this ferment is an urge to cross area and disciplinary boundaries, that has been provoked by questions concerning the methodological Eurocentrism that produced those boundaries in the first place. It is my contention that contemporary challenges to the hegemony of Euro/American modernity are empowered by the reconfiguration of a capitalist modernity that is for the first time global in the scope of its spaces, motions and, to some extent, the "architecture" of power it has produced; calling forth a different mapping of the spatialities of modernity than that which informed the disciplinary and area boundaries of modern knowledge in its emergence in Euro/America. Efforts at such remapping must be guided by critical awareness of their relationship to the reconfiguration of power so as to avoid complicity in new ideological representations of the world, as was the case with an earlier modernization discourse, capitalist or socialist.


Where the disciplines are concerned, the best way for me to summarize the benefits and pitfalls of their reconfiguration is to inscribe in here with slight revisions parts of the introduction to the symposium, "Dialogues Between Disciplines: History and Anthropology," organized by the Center for Critical Theory and Transnational Studies at the University of Oregon in April 2003:

"There is good reason for the emphasis on History and Anthropology in this initial step toward greater interdisciplinary activity on campus. Over the last three decades, anthropologists have stressed the need for greater attention to history, while historians, especially social historians, have advocated for more extensive use of anthropological insights and ethnographic methods in the analysis of basic historical phenomena and processes.

The need for cooperation between the two disciplines has been expressed in gatherings between historians and anthropologists, as well as faculty and graduate student traffic between departments of history and anthropology.

The symposium, however, hopefully provides only a point of departure for further interdisciplinary cooperation. Also represented in the symposium are the disciplines of geography and sociology. It is my hope that such activity will be extended in the future to other disciplines, including not just social science but also humanities disciplines, within a broad rubric of cultural studies, understood in its originary conceptualization in the works of those such as Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson and Marshall Sahlins, to name a few of the more prominent names, of integrating studies of society and political economy with the study of culture. Cultural Studies already have made a significant impact upon most disciplines, connecting concerns of social sciences to those of literary studies, transforming the questions pursued in both the humanities and the social sciences.

There is little need here to belabor the importance of interdisciplinary activity in the university. While interdisciplinarity remains an elusive goal, it has long been a concern of university education. The organization of learning around the disciplines since the nineteenth century has enabled an unprecedented advance in learning and our understanding of the world. But the learning has come at a price: the fracturing of our understanding the world. Recognition of the gap between the holistic processes of nature and society, and our fragmented approach to grasping those processes, is certainly a source of immense uneasiness about the organization of learning around the disciplines that has nourished the pursuit of interdisciplinarity over the years (Wallerstein 1991).

The issue, however, is not merely one of the limitations or failures of the disciplines, but perhaps also of their success. The very advances in learning made possible by the disciplinary division of labor have also led to internal fractures within the disciplines, represented by intra-disciplinary specializations; specializations that often challenge the coherence of the disciplines, and demand communication across disciplinary boundaries.

Disciplines, then, need to be understood not only in their contribution to the production of knowledge, but also as "strategies of containment" that render knowledge highly ideological. Two consequences of such an understanding are worth noting here. First, that the notion of "interdisciplinarity" itself is somewhat misleading and self-defeating, as it preserves disciplines as the subjects of communication, which disguises the internal fracturing of the disciplines. In spite of some doubt about the proliferation of the prefix trans- these days, I think "transdisciplinarity" is preferable in expressing what we wish to achieve here to the more common "interdisciplinarity." It was a belated realization on my part that the Univeristy of Oregon symposium would better have been entitled "dialogues across disciplines" rather than "dialogues between disciplines." The latter perpetuates the prejudice of some basic unity to the disciplines, which is not entirely without foundation, but may be sustained only at a high level of generality, also disguising the importance in disciplinary practices of that other sense of discipline as the enforcement of unity-discipline as coercion and punishment.

There is a clue in this mode of reasoning to why "interdisciplinarity" should be the preferred term within the university, and why the goal expressed by that term continues to be elusive. The ideology of disciplines comes together in this reasoning with the organization of the university in departments based on the disciplines; so that "interdisciplinarity" is as much an organizational as it is a conceptual term. Departments are not only productive of knowledge, but also play a policing function over intellectual activity in the university. They also provide limits, if not obstacles, to the goals of communication across disciplinary boundaries. This is to say, with some pessimism, that goals expressed by terms such as interdisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity may be impossible to achieve within the university as it is presently constituted, because they clash with established organized interests which rear their heads every time these goals are put in practise. The best we may hope for, short of a revolution in the present organization of learning, is to create new spaces for alternative practices.

All this implies, also, that any effort to realize transdisciplinarity is not just an academic, but a broadly political effort. In his discussion of the problems of Anthropology three decades ago, Talal Asad observed that the fragmentations in Anthropology then becoming observable needed to be viewed within the context of a "fragmented bourgeois conceptualization of the world" (Asad 1973, 12); which, we might add, has a radical disintegrative impact upon holistic ways of conceptualizing the world even as it masks the fact that capitalist modernity, in its very anarchy, is unprecedented in its claims to universality and its urge to total conquest of everyday life. The disciplines are part of such claims. We sometimes ascribe too much autonomy to institutions of higher learning, burdening them with responsibilities beyond their abilities to achieve. The disciplines may indeed be "natural" as an expression of the fragmentation of our understanding of the world under the regime of bourgeois modernity, which is on its way to becoming global, erasing more totalizing and holistic approaches to comprehending the world, while also provoking fundamentalisms of the most reactionary kind; which may not be very surprising as it is itself driven by a fundamentalist faith in markets and technology as the most basic principles in the ordering of life. We need also to remember, however, the part that the disciplines play in naturalizing such fragmentation of the world, and the ideological alibi they provide against the effort to comprehend of capitalist modernity as a totality. It is in this critical sense that the problem of disciplines needs to be grasped also as an urgent political problem.

The political problem, however, goes much deeper. Transdisciplinarity may account for some of the problems thrown up by the disciplinary organization of learning. It needs further amendment in light of contemporary challenges to the methodological Eurocentrism that lies at the origins of the disciplines, that not only endowed European history with paradigmatic status, but was entangled in nationalism and colonialism in its ways of knowing. Other ways of knowing that were suppressed under the regime of a Eurocentric modernity have made a comeback with the "provincialization" of Europe that is, ironically, a very consequence of the globalization of modernity (Chakrabarty 2000). Global Modernity, a condition of post-Eurocentric modernity that expresses itself in claims to alternative or multiple modernities, and represents a universalization of the contradictions of modernity, finds expression presently in the resurfacing or reinvention of different ways of knowing. These different ways of knowing have been around all along; they derive newfound power not only from changes in the political configuration of modernity globally, but also from the hearing they receive in the very heartlands of Euro/American centered modernity (Dirlik 2003).

These concerns were visible in the program of the symposium. The beginning and the concluding sessions intended to address some of these broad questions, looking at the entanglement of the disciplines in issues of politics, including university politics. The initial keynote address and the first session addressed these questions directly. The final session, and the concluding presentation, also took up other "ways of knowing" that might help us further in rethinking alternatives to contemporary modernity's ways of knowing.

For the symposium as a whole, we opted for an emphasis on practice over theory. Important as abstract conceptual discussions are, problems of transdisciplinarity, and efforts to confront them, appear most concretely, and intransigently, in their practice. The program for this symposium is rather heavy on issues of what are commonly described these days as "the global and the local," or, as I prefer, the transnational and the place-based. There are many routes to approaching these issues; we have chosen for emphasis here issues of ethnicity and migration, labor and capital, and indigenism, which represent important social and political issues of our day.

They are also relevant, I should hope, to the burning issues of war and peace that surround us presently. What has been happening in Southwest Asia should serve as a wake-up call about the way we have been doing things in the realm of learning, and what new efforts may be necessary to cope with a new world situation. There has been too much unreflective, and almost irresponsible, celebration over the last decade of globalization, crossing boundaries, multiculturalism, etc., as if the inequalities of power in the world had evaporated with the end of the Cold War. Seemingly all of the sudden, divisions in the world appear more severe than ever, and power more naked than it has been for a long, long time, and we find ourselves faced with the prospect of war in perpetuity. The need to conceive new modes of grasping the world that are conducive to the cause of peace, and empowerment of the powerless, may be more urgent than ever. Every discussion we engage in, above all the discussion of our ways of knowing, needs to be conscious of this need, as critical learning, too, is threatened by erasure under the shadow of perpetual war."

Our attitudes towards our ways of knowing have changed radically over the last two decades, corresponding to crucial changes in the entities that we wish to study, in this case, Asia. Transdisciplinarity becomes most important, in a sense different from that which it had carried under area studies, because it enables a more variegated comprehension of an Asia that is now unstable in its historical and geographical constitution, and somewhat unsteady in its location in the global scheme of things. This comprehension of Asia now includes Asian voices in the conception of what may or may not be Asia, which have complicated and rendered fluid an earlier, hegemonic, fixing of Asia.