Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

New Ways of Speaking, and Thinking, About Asia

Is Asia Possible in an Age of Global Modernity?

Our continued reference to Asia as an object of study, matched on the other side of the Pacific by discourses of "Asian values," perpetuates the assumption that there is an entity called Asia, disguising the production of Asia spatially and temporally by these discourses. "Is India Part of Asia?" queries the title of a recent article by Ravi Palat, pointing to the politics of delineating internal boundaries in conceptualizations of Asia (Palat 2002). On the other hand, the enhanced global visibility of peoples of Asian descent suggests that there is no outer boundary to the notion of Asia. Uncertainty over what Asia may mean may be exemplified best by the case of Australia, which cannot seem to make up its mind over whether or not it is in Asia, caught up between the advantages and disadvantages of such "belonging." An Asia that is the construct of alternative economic and political interests is open to conceptual manipulation both from within and without-if that distinction makes sense any longer-in furtherance of political goals. The politics deepens the sense of its fluidity, but also cautions against an abstract, relativist, understanding of Asia that denies the concept any basis in reality, and contributes to its further manipulation. These problems are quite readily visible in the three major areas that have been largely responsible for once again underlining the global significance of Asia.

First is Asian capitalism as a motor of global economic development, expressed most cogently in the hype over the "Pacific Rim" that flourished from the 1980s, and continues to figure in arguments for globalization even though it received significant setbacks with the Asian recession of the 1990s, as well as the political and social opposition it has provoked. "Pacific Rim" mythology effectively suppressed what the Rim meant for those living inside, but it also overlooked the "underside" of Asian capitalism, so-called, in the new modes of exploitation and marginalization it created. It is a tribute to the power of the myth that what got under way as a spatial utopia of capital looking for a way out of the economic slump of the 1970s in North America and Europe also proved to be appealing in the political economy of the left, leading to assertions of the relocation of the core of the global world-system in East and Southeast Asia (Arrighi 1994; Castells 1996), and even the return of the locus of global economic development to this region after a brief temporary detour to Europe and North America, that we have known as modernity (Frank 1998). What this meant is that millions, and even billions, of people living in "Asia" went unnoticed in this new enthusiasm over Asia, fed in part by disappointment in or revolt against Euro/America. It is worth noting also that while the anti-globalization activity that erupted in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa the following year has attracted the greatest attention, this activity began with anti-APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) protests in Manila (1996) and Vancouver, BC (1997).

If Asian Studies in the present conjuncture is to do more than provide an academic legitimation of a new phase in the unfolding of capital, which now includes Asian as well as Euro/American capital, it needs to give voice to the agencies of those who would struggle against oppression and marginalization, as well as a hearing to other ways of knowing that face the predicament of dismissal for their "fundamentalism" (which is often less fundamentalist than the religious revivals of North America), erasure for their apparent irrelevance in their powerlessness, or even condemnation as terrorist for questioning United States domination. Asia as a source of cultural alternatives to Euro/American domination, so-called "Asian values," is closely tied up with these issues of political economy and power, expressed in the realm of culture. Ultimately, the insistence on Asian values represents an effort to bring Asian voices and values into global discourses on development and modernity. But the discourse is limited by its class biases, which lodge Asian values in conservative politics."Asian values" discourse takes culture out of history and society, rendering it into a timeless marker of identity. It also covers up intra-Asian differences by projecting upon a complex continent assumptions derived from local, national or regional cultures. Most importantly, it glosses over the crucial presence in the interior of "Asian values" of the very Euro/American cultures of capitalism, which mediate the relationship to "native" pasts, and suppresses class, gender and ethnic differences in the understanding and production of Asian values. Asian values discourse does give service to new forms of power, and needs to be divorced from such complicity by way of distancing from localized forms of power, if they are to be re-conceived in terms of their transcendental potential and promise. Opposition to Euro/ American colonialism does not guarantee anti-colonial ways of thinking, which are by now embedded in ways of thinking about issues of class, gender and race/ethnicity. It takes rethinking the issue of universality against an escape into undifferentiated and endless parochialism. There are alternative views of modernity in Asia, many of them, but no values that the many peoples of Asia share in common.

Global Modernity, Asia, and the Disciplines

The relationship of Asia to globalization, especially as a source of major "diasporic" populations, is the third issue I would like to take up here, because of its immediate relevance to the realignment of the disciplines in the United States, especially in the relationship of Asian Studies to Asian-American Studies. There are reasons, imbedded in the political economy of the Pacific, that justify the notion of "diaspora" in the Pacific, and APEC long has been a source of inspiration for globalization. But a notion such as "GlobalAsia," that celebrates the "globalization" of Asian peoples regardless of whether they are globalized as transnational corporate executives or refugees from hunger and oppression, also shifts attention from, and marginalizes, vast populations who are the victims of, or leftovers from, the globalization of capital. These populations seek to create their own place-based versions of Asia in their very efforts to survive globalization. In its class bias in privileging "cosmopolitanism" over places, a notion such as "GlobalAsia" perpetuates Orientalist ideas of Asians, whose cultural resilience supposedly overcomes all transformative cultural forces in Asia or in diaspora, to guarantee the survival of their "Asianness"(or its national subcultures) as if the latter were some genetic endowment that people carried with them in their global dispersal. But it is now diaspora that serves as a prime location of culture, undermining efforts to contain cultures within continental, racial or national boundaries. More seriously, there is a racialization at work in claims to the persistence of homeland culture in the diaspora, regardless of different experiences of the world, which nearly identifies culture with timeless ethnic and racial affinity. The power issues involved in the production of diasporic cultures may be as, or even more, crucial in some cases as the entanglement of national cultures in national politics. To avoid complicity in the ideological deployment or culturalist reification of diaspora, critical scholarship on Asia needs to be more sensitive than ever to place-based differences in diasporic formations, as well as complex social differences in their constitution; which further complicate the spatialities of social and cultural formations originating in Asia. These complexities are already evident in disagreements over where to place the study of diasporic populations in terms of areas and disciplines.