Kuan-Hsing Chen, Asia as Method: Towards Deimperialization, Duke University Press, Durham, 2010, 344 pages, 1 table. $ 24.95 paper, $89.95 cloth, ISBN: 978-0- 8223-4676-0 and 978-0-8223-4664-7.
Kuan-Hsing Chen is a rare intellectual, one who played a role in key democratic events and transitions that shaped East Asia during the 1980s and whose scholarly practice has remained loyal to potential for emancipation unleashed by these movements. This makes Asia as Method an important book. While Chen’s experience and scholarship were formed through his participation in the Taiwanese democracy movement, his work speaks also to cognate events such as the Korean June Democratic Uprising of 1987, Tiananmen Square movement in China, People’s Power in the Philippines. These and other events have shaped contemporary Asia and have attempted to address interconnected and overlapping global power relations. An important cohort of intellectuals has emerged from such events. Many of them were then college students involved in grassroots social movements, so it has taken time for their voices to gain prominence in regional debates about democracy, development and social change. There are many such voices among Chen’s generation across Asia. Wang Hui in China and Cho Hee Yeon in South Korea are two best known in the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Movement, whose eponymous and flagship journal Chen edits.
While Chen has certainly been in dialogue with geographers—he was a keynote speaker at the 2006 EARCAG conference in Taipei alongside David Harvey, Eric Sheppard, Helga Leitner and others—, his work has not received due attention in the discipline. This is surprising because at the heart of Chen’s project is an attempt to rethink the spatial relationships of modernity and globalization. In particular, Chen uses Asia’s variegated geographies and political, ethnic, economic and cultural constellations to reconfigure the way we think about the dominant power relationships that shape the region. Our present, Chen argues, is one in which capitalist globalization is reworking earlier forms of regional integration established by colonization, imperialism (of the Chinese, Japanese, and American variety), and the Cold War. To the last Chen urges us to pay special attention. The Cold War, he argues, has more recently produced Asia as a region, tying together other sedimented layers of imperial and colonial history in the process. Furthermore, the shadow of the Cold War remains active in East Asia in multidimensional ways: in the image of the internal enemy used to repress domestic social movements and intellectuals, in the imaginary of terror and territory, in migration patterns and in geopolitical and economic alliances, as well as in other forms of cultural imaginary. Chen’s project is to work out these constellations of power and geography. This, he argues, can be a painful process involving “the practice of self-critique, self-negation, and self-rediscovery, but the desire to form a less coerced and more reflexive and dignified subjectivity necessitates it” (page 3).
These themes are explored through wide-ranging and complex essays. Arranged under the wide banners of de-imperialization, decolonization and “de-Cold War,” the essays discuss the prospect of Third World Cultural Studies, the sexual triumphalist and subimperial desires of Taiwanese nationalism, the psychoanalysis of nationalism and nativism, Han-Chinese racism, and, closer to home, the project of decolonizing geographical materialism. On the last Chen discusses earlier work by Soja, Lefebvre, Harvey, Castells and Blaut—an unfortunately all-too-male sampling of radical geographers. Chen applauds these thinkers for respatializing social theory. At the same time, however, he also criticizes them for their bias towards American urbanism and the lack of reconfiguration within historical materialism and radical geography to account for how Asian and colonial geographies have been shaped by the international state system and globalization. Chen uses this critique as a starting point to advocate for a decolonized cultural studies. He does so with such force that the book often reads as a manifesto.
Asia as Method is a militant but at the same time also very personal book. The author frequenty slips into the first person to put the friendships, experiences, and observations he has accumulated in the process of creating dialogue among Asian intellectuals into tension with contemporary cultural practices in literary and film studies: from filmic and literary imaginations of inter-Asian migration, to the spectacles of Taiwanese nationalism and emotional family reunions on the divided Korean peninsula and beyond.
For me Chapter 5, “Asia as Method: Overcoming the Present Conditions of Knowledge Production,” is key for understanding Chen’s project. Written in dialogue with Partha Chatterjee’s The Politics of the Governed, in this chapter we get a fuller sense of the political and geographical implications of Chen’s interventions. In particular, the scholar argues for a reconceptualization of our understanding of politics and the division of political space into the spheres of state and civil society. He argues that the normative distinction between state and civil society is too simplistic as it ignores the experience of an East Asian modernity in which civil society has been subordinated to the state and social struggles kept mostly excluded from both spheres. Chen speaks of an additional sphere of the min-jian (the Korean pronunciation is minjung) or peoples’ sphere as a space of political society. He argues that this sphere should be a priority in political analysis. Chen develops this term out of a tension (common to many East Asian languages that share Chinese terminology) between between officialdom and a people’s sphere. Minjian and minjung share the same prefix Min (民), a term that connotes the opposite to officialdom, or Kwan (官). This is a space of subaltern struggles that is relatively autonomous from dominant institutions of state and civil society. The latter may appropriate these struggles as part of a hegemonic project. However, political society, according to Chen, cannot be reduced to a fixed point within state and civil society even though, as a site of engagement, it can have effects that modify established relations of power and interest.
In a sense, Chen aims to develop a more popular analysis of the political that can be used to shed light on the many subaltern and disparate struggles that shape Asia from below and interact with wider, intersecting colonial, imperial and (post) Cold War geographies. This is a particularly important insight for Asian countries such as South Korea, where key reformers and social movements have emerged from popular peoples’ or minjung movements that have helped reconfigure the political field, precisely by grouping a variety of social struggles together into a radical oppositional bloc. In Korea the usage of the term civil society (simin sahoe, or citizens’ society) largely emerged from this bloc and is still associated with comprehensive social transformation and popular struggles rather than simply with normative or passive interest group mediation. Chen himself was once member of a similar oppositional Taiwanese group known as “popular democracy.”
Some might find the use of the terms political society or min-jian society too idealistic, in the sense of searching for a comprehensive political force outside of established institutions. Spivak’s criticism of Chatterjee’s political society and the ideas of vernacular cosmopolitanism might apply here. Spivak argued in her recent AAG address that cosmopolitanism is a project of world governance and should not be applied to migrant struggles and she makes a similar criticism of the application of the term political society to subaltern struggles. However, Chen seems to be advocating for something more, and that is an analytical focus on popular struggles that can identify inter-Asian connections, particularly in the context of dominant geo-historical power relations. The idea of a min-jian sphere seems to be a proposal for a method instead of a normative sphere of influence. As such, Asia as Method is a plea for finding correspondences among intellectual and social struggles within Asia, and for translating them into a wider analysis of global power relations. As such, it represents a welcome geographical project that should garner attention from scholars in geography and a number of other disciplines.
Jamie Doucette, School of Environment and Development, The University of Manchester, PO Box 88, Manchester, M60 1QD, UK.