BY TINA CHEN AND ERIC HAYOT
Now, more than ever, the singularities of world history—whether imagined as a Hegelian “end of history” via the universalization of liberal democracy, a utopian fulfillment of the dream of total market capitalism, the consolidation of realpolitikal fault lines dividing economic orders or social regimes, or as the production of a single worldwide Weltanschauung via some combination of media consolidation and the internet, each of which has been called “globalization”—require us to understand the past, the present, and the futures of Asia. The immediate reasons for doing so are clear: the increasing influence, economic and political, of the new Asian superpowers, China and India; the alternative systems of human rights emerging from the “Asian values” debate; Asia’s role as the socio-cultural vanguard of global futures and global geographies, captured in the techno-Orientalist imaginaries of films like Blade Runner, The Matrix, and The Ghost in the Shell, or in scholarly analyses of the postmodern, cosmopolitan megacity; the possibility that among the first victims of global warming will be the Republic of Kiribati, two of whose islands disappeared underwater in 1999; the still-emerging political effects of powerful transnational communities of “flexible citizens” in Singapore, Taiwan, or India; and, finally, the growing global influence of diasporic communities of Asians abroad—in the United States, in Europe, in Africa, in Australia, and of course elsewhere in Asia itself.
And yet the belated “arrival” of Asia on the shores of the global present obscures, if we allow it, the fact that Asia has been present in the world-making project of history and human life from the very beginning. We may want to say that the “rise” of Europe made that longer history difficult to see, or attribute the epistemological limitations of twentieth-century historiography to an effect of power-knowledge structures that derive from critical kinds of conceptual divergence. Nonetheless, we must now recognize that the kinds of “world” historical claims made for the twentieth century (or even the sixteenth) relied for their force on a very particular theory of what made history “worldly.” Restoring a long view to the history of Asia’s place in and as the world in order to better understand and shape how we think about the present is one of the most pressing tasks for serious humanistic work about world-systems and the imaginative geographies they simultaneously enact and exemplify.
At the same time, we must recognize that the world built out of the putative European “divergence” from Asia can be characterized equally well by a series of subsequent convergences, a mixing together of ideas, people, and things that has left untouched no corner of the planet. “Globalization” is, in fact, one name for this converging impulse, which seems at times to emerge as much from universal history itself as from any personal impulse to connect, to transact, or to travel. To think globalization today is thus to think a pattern: divergence, then convergence … and then, beyond a certain limit … divergence again? No one knows. But it is our job to speculate, and to learn as much as we can from the example of the past, which has the advantage of being what we can know and the disadvantage of being always a bit, or more, unlike the presents and futures that face us.
Much of this work on transnationalism has, paradoxically, highlighted the continued relevance of the nation-state to the formation of culture, the practice of history, and to the realm of international affairs. There is no transnationalism without the nation. Here the history of scholarship on Asian America, when juxtaposed with the fields of Asian Studies, reminds us how much nations, national movements, and other forms of national development continue to exert powerful effects on the world in which we live. Such movements also remind us of the importance of inter-nationalism, of the kinds of networks that can spring up between states and which can work to disrupt the smooth passage of the planet into a utopian post-national future. We should make clear at this juncture that Asian American Studies stands in for a broader commitment to studying Asian influence—the migration of people, things, and ideas from the region we call “Asia” today, or recognized as Asian in any given historical context—as globally as possible. We conceive of its inclusion as a starting point for inclusiveness, rather than a limit to it. The growing interest in the global and the transnational across disciplines thus brings the various Asia-oriented fields and disciplines—history and literature, Asia and Asian America, East and South, modern and premodern—closer together. Verge aims to occupy and enlarge that proximity.
Verge’s project emphasizes doubly decentered scholarship and what emerges is a new kind of materialist history: a history that shows how the ideas at stake in traditionally centered forms of scholarship emerge through and shape the material activities that act as their ground. This decentered approach has made it possible today to imagine a journal that includes scholarship from scholars in both Asian and Asian American Studies. These two fields have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to one another, the former focused on an area-studies, nationally and politically oriented approach, the latter emphasizing epistemological categories, including ethnicity and citizenship, that draw mainly on the history of the United States. The past decade has seen a series of rapprochements in which, for instance, categories “belonging” to Asian American Studies (ethnicity, race, diaspora) have been applied with increasing success to studies of Asia. For example, Asian Studies has responded to the postnational turn in the humanities and social sciences by becoming increasingly open to rethinking its national and regional insularities, and to work that pushes, often literally, on the boundaries of Asia as both a place and a concept. At the same time, Asian American Studies has become increasingly aware of the ongoing importance of Asia to the Asian American experience, and thus more open to work that is transnational or multilingual, as well as to forms of scholarship that challenge the US-centrism of concepts governing the Asian diaspora.
More generally, one might say that the historically awkward split whereby the study of immigrants from Asia was relegated to a variety of national studies, most prominently Asian American, while the “home” countries of those same immigrants were studied under the area studies model, has produced a model of “uneven” or differential development, in which the conceptual categories used to study one group of people (such as ethnicity, citizenship, labor, in the case of Asian American Studies) have been quite different than those used to study the ancestors or relatives of that same group (community, urbanization, trade). Bringing the two disciplinary fields together thus allows us to cross-pollinate the categories of analysis, asking, for instance, how a concept like the nomad, so important in a variety of Asian Studies fields, might usefully be applied to Asian American populations, and to ask, in turn, if the evidence from the Asian American example can usefully shape the concept of the nomadic as an evolving mode of social being (in a radically different historical context).
Asia and its relationship to the world
The experiment here is therefore not to produce a superficial convergence of interest in Asia (or to ratify some ethnic commonality to a new version of “Asian” history). Verge responds, rather, to the enormous recent growth in scholarship that asks how Asian immigrants around the world have served as conduits for a variety of Asian concepts, objects, or forms of social life (perhaps most obviously in terms of food), and as vectors for economic and cultural transactions directed from their new homes back to their old ones, in ways that substantively affect the history of Asia—and vice versa. And we turn, via our observation of the effects of this historically local series of happenings on our own contemporary societies, to a variety of questions involving the production of the global, or of world-systems, that extend all the way back to the earliest moments of human history. “Asia” has been “global” since long before the diasporas of the nineteenth century; the question is how, and why, and what kinds of forms—social, cultural, and historical—have consolidated themselves around the various forms of locality and worldliness that characterize any dynamic culture.
We therefore invite work that showcases the intersection between Asia and the globe—these two concepts vibrating, to be sure, between their purely fictional meanings, and their most ordinary, commonsensical ones—that considers the interaction of cultures from the earliest beginnings of human civilization, and that remembers that if we consider plant or animal life, the transactions go back well beyond that blessed beginning. If we are to recognize the importance of flow and movement as factors in the production of world history, we cannot restrict the study of Asia to any fixed geographic region of the planet, any historical period, or even, if we take Naoki Sakai’s suggestion that “we should use the word Asian in such a way as to emphasize the fluidity of the very distinction between the West and Asia rather than its persistence” seriously, any specific cultural or biologically constituted population. “Asia” happens anytime, everywhere, and applies to everyone: Verge studies it as a global concept.
Tina Chen and Eric Hayot are editors of Verge: Studies in Global Asias, a journal that showcases scholarship on “Asian” topics from across the humanities and humanistic social sciences, while recognizing that the changing scope of “Asia” as a concept and method is today an object of vital critical concern.