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Issue 20.1 introduces changes in the positions project which widen the "Asia" or "Asias" that contributors can expect to reference in their work. The journal's name change from positions: east asia cultures critique to positions: asia critique signals several changes. The cultures signifier fades into the intellectual history of an earlier time; the word critique remains. Walter Benjamin's proposal that critique be the mark of the immanent yet apocalyptic claim to historical truth cannot be vacated. Thus twenty years after the founding of the project, we pause to invent an appropriate anniversary issue for renewing this journal. Essays consequently focus on the maturation of lines of research and on what, in light of the passage of a full generation of scholarship, might be issues just arising on the historical horizon. The first set of essays introduces the reader to the ideological and intellectual conditions that laid the foundation for the critiques during the journal's founding years. The second section of the anniversary issue indicates some viable directions for future scholarship, and the third section includes interviews, commemorations, and commentaries. This anniversary issue showcases a wide range of contemporary art of "Asia."
"Memories of Underdevelopment" after Area Studies
The purpose of this article is to examine how the construction of a desire called area studies was founded on the privilege accorded to fixed spatial units such as the geographical area, culture region, and the directional localities west, east, south, and so forth. The model for such spatial regularities has been the nation-state form, itself a predominantly spatial figure, and its capacity for modernizing transformation leading to the establishment of modern rationalities such as the liberal democratic polity, capital accumulation, and the self-regulating market, which would constitute the sign of an unchanging modern structure. Even in the transmutation of area studies into identity studies, based on permanent ethnocultural determinations, the privilege of the spatial dominant still persists and prevails, announcing what appears as the "end of temporality." In its place I offer the possibility of a "containment strategy" constituted of specific space/time relationships, recalling what M. M. Bakhtin named as "chronotope," which restores time to any consideration of space and allows for the identification of changing conjunctural configurations prompted by momentary contingencies.
Populist Politics in Asian Networks: Positions for Rethinking the Question of Political Subjectivity
Morris, R. C.
This article examines the history of populist politics in Asia, and particularly in Thailand, in relation to two major developments: the rise of culturalism on the one hand, and the emergence of technologically mediated forms of protest politics on the other. Against a backdrop in which culturalism came to displace the more agonistic framework of class analysis, the essay explores transformations in the concept of political subjectivity, and the degree to which theatricalized expressions of discontent came to stand in for other kinds of politicization. I suggest that this mediatized drive to expression is borne of a desire for recognition within a distorted concept of the public sphere, and I argue further that the terms by which an escape from subalternity is being pursued in the contemporary world are no longer only those of "being heard" or "having a voice," but of being "seen to speak." This fact is then understood in terms of other developments in the global economy, and in reference to the specific history of electoral politics in the era of Thaksin Shinawatra.
Positions and Positionalities: After Two Decades
In characterizing one of the extraordinary achievements of positions: east asia cultures critique, one cannot overestimate a political investment gradually constituted, wittingly or unwittingly, throughout the career of the periodical by the editorial team to counteract the implicit separation between the West and Asia, a regime of what Johannes Fabian called "the denial of coevalness" that insists on two different temporalities in which area specialists and indigenous informants are supposed to live separately. It has been presumed that the positionality of area specialists is defined, instituted, and naturalized by the given fact of distance in geography, cultures, and religious traditions; degree in the development of capitalist modernization; and so forth; between the West and Asia. A discussion about the conceptual distinction of positionality from position elucidates that the positionality of area specialists, marked as being in the West as opposed to indigenous informants as being in Asia, has nothing to do with geography, culture, the degree of development in capitalist modernization, or religion. By challenging the discourse of the West and the Rest in which the disciplines of area studies have been couched, positions: east asia cultures critique has opened up a forum that inhabits the institutions of area studies but that has incessantly disrupted area studies' foundational commitment to the discourse of the West and the Rest.
Traversing Thresholds Gallery 1
Advertising Ephemera and the Angel of History
This essay addresses a crucial object world of modern urban China, commodity advertising. It shows how attention to advertisements requires forceful wresting of images out of linear time. That the ads are themselves illustrations of linear time in popular narratives of modern history makes them complex. Plastered on billboards, placards, news kiosks, and trolleys; advertising Sun-Maid Raisins, Ford Model Ts, Pond's, Cutex products, cigarette brands, and Brunner Mond chemical fertilizer; and ubiquitous to all forms of media; the modern Chinese advertisement is a picture of and story about the industrially produced commodity and its explosive value to "society" as such. The evidence of advanced Chinese advertising markets in the interwar years 1919–37 allows contemporary historians to see "society" or "the social" as it was first theorized, the social as the sine qua non of modernity. Advertising objectifies the social. Thus while enlightened social theory in Chinese advertising markets is a phenomenon noted here in great detail, the point is that "society" underlies modernist theory as such. The discovery of the social in philosophy and in the dialectical advertising image in the interwar years offers up a possibility of critique. The central question historians can address and struggle over is What social formation does modern commodity culture support? The dialectical image is not referential, so it does not determine social forms. Rather, it proffers conditions in which possibilities perdure. If modern commodity culture supports restoration, then what sort of neotraditionalism appears in the social? If revolution, then what sorts of revolution?
Positioning positions in the Writing to the Future
Tolentino, R. B.
The article maps out a political place for positions based on the idea of "writing to the future" or a political wager on the future precisely because of the valences of failure in the present. Using Alain Badiou's idea of truth and the state, and citing the conditions in the Philippines, the academic discourse has shifted from critique of to collaboration with the state. The article then draws from the cultural production of independent digital cinema—representing the most abject of subaltern identities and conditions—to show the limits and possibilities of wagering on the future.
Positioning Asia in a Global Future? An Example through Rethinking Finance
As a response to positions' twentieth-anniversary workshop that solicited suggestions on the future direction of the journal, this article raises questions on how to study Asia without falling into traps of reproducing capitalist discourse that reduces the significance of Asia to its economic value. By contextualizing ways in which Asia is commodified as a promise to the global future at the same time it is chastised as yet to be civilized for the market economy, the article urges the investigation of the history of financialization in Asia as a window of rethinking "global" history of capitalism for challenging oversimplified imagination of the trajectory of finance capital and "global financial crisis."
Queer positions, Queering Asian Studies
What does it mean to say that positions opened up a space for queer intellectual work? How do we delineate that space? How does this space work in articulation with queering Asian studies more broadly? This essay addresses how the journal positions created the intellectual space for a queer Marxism within Asian studies. The journal enabled scholars to bring together questions of desire with critiques of capitalism and of racialized geopolitics.
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Asian Boundaries, Documentary Regimes, and the Political Economy of the Personal
Chen, T. M.
This article inquires into how "the personal" assumes specific positions relative to truth claims constitutive of twentieth-century national and international documentary systems. It analyzes migration of those identified as Chinese in and out of Burma during the late 1930s and 1940s. The focus is on how individuals, networks of people, and institutions presented and relied on information about families, physical appearance, personal interviews, and affective ties to make sense of migratory patterns resulting from Japanese military expansion.
The article argues that by the mid-1940s a layered inscription of citizenship, loyalty, and labor via "the personal" formed the basic structure of meaning mobilized in identification documents. It traces the specific ways in which this emerged around practices and policies developed to monitor and control Chinese migration within the Burma-China-India nexus. These structures not only prescribed particular evidentiary standards regarding personal interactions and signifiers that became part of national and international norms, but they also created hierarchies of affect and emotional attachment deemed appropriate for particular groupings of people, spatial designations, and material exchanges.
The focus on the personal is part of an effort to continue interrogation of Asia and its constitution as object of knowledge and lived experience in the past, present, and future. This article attends to the "the personal" as a site of potentiality to be analyzed historically as well as opened up through a continuous rethinking of Asia and the racialized relationship among nationality, state, and international orders.
Reading as Watching: What We See and What We Get
In autumn 2010, I reread the fifty-four issue-books of positions for its use of images. This essay demonstrates that where the image's gestures animate, supplement, and haunt the written text, we find the edge of our critical practice. Journals, like framed shots, have their limitations. What is worth analyzing in social life remains abstract (for example, changes in ways of thinking), intractable (such as shifts in class power dimensions), and invisibly structured (capital in various manifestations). Without sustained effort to materialize analysis (in written and oral language; in images, still and moving; in diagrams and tables), no critique or even understanding, would be possible. Even then, visual information remains a gesture toward larger problems "beyond the frame." I argue that discursive constitution through cultural performativity describes the journal's critical mission. An image does things that text cannot, but I think it does them best in conjunction with, and close by, words, so that there is the possibility for mutual interruption and dialogue. In print form, images work in specific ways, so part of my thinking concerns the digital future. After considering the creative ways images have inhabited the journal's "books," I introduce ephemeral embodied performance art and the concept of "relational aesthetics" to discuss documentary filmmaking today. I suggest useful analogies from current art making. How might we reimagine the performance of our writing and reading labors in the future production of the journal, which will be online and likely no longer on paper?
Buddhist Walking Meditations and Contemporary Art of Southeast Asia
This essay considers the significant role that Engaged Buddhism plays in contemporary art of Southeast Asia. It argues that this modern Buddhist intellectual movement, which came about in the 1960s in Southeast Asia as a response to political crisis in the world, merits visibility in positions. I look closely at the works by two artists, Montien Boonma and Ann Hamilton. I argue that their works are artistic embodiments of Vipassana meditation and social sufferings, both issues that Engaged Buddhism engages with. Furthermore, I point out that Boonma's installations and Hamilton's site-specific works create a path where the viewers are invited to walk in and to participate in the space of compassion and mindful healing. Last, this essay is a poetic meditation on the political role that Buddhist walking meditation plays as a silent political resistance to an increasingly tourist world of Southeast Asia. I have chosen with deliberation a poetic style of writing that subverts the traditional academic style of writing and in effect, provides an alternative way of articulation that challenges the hegemonic mode of representations in the academy.
A Dialogue on The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought: Liberating the Object and an Inquiry into the Modern
Hui, W., Barlow, T.
In this dialogue, Wang Hui explains his writing of The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, especially how he started from Lu Xun studies to the research of Chinese intellectual history. He interprets the connotations and meanings of the thesis he raised in this four-volume book around topics covered by each volume, titled repectively, "Principle and Things," "Empire and Nation-State," "Gongli and Anti-Gongli," and "The Community of Scientific Discourse," as well as argues for his methodology of "liberating the objects."
Circumstances, Politics, and History: Reading Notes on Wang Hui's "General Introduction" to The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought
Pozzana, C., Russo, A., Duranti, M.
The authors discuss the role that two key categories of Wang Hui's "General Introduction" to The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, namely, the pair "heavenly principles/axiomatic" and "temporal circumstances," play in opening a basic renovation of the investigation on the modern Chinese intellectuality. The article also examines the political and intellectual circumstances in which Wang Hui's work was conceived and developed, focusing on the passage from the 1960s to the 1990s and the exhaustion of the network of previous historical-political categories structuring the dichotomy of empire and nation-state.
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"A Relentlessly Productive Venue": Interview with Senior Editor, Tani Barlow
Karl, R., Lamarre, T., Pozzana, C., Russo, A., Sakai, N., Song, J., Zito, A.
Rebecca Karl, Tom Lamarre, Claudia Pozzana, Alessandro Russo, Naoki Sakai, Jesook Song, and Angela Zito interview Senior Editor Tani Barlow, posing a series of question on history, politics, confiict, Cold War scholarship, and the struggle over so-called area studies. Topics raised and considered include the history of the journal's founding, critical reminiscence of the project's early years of publications and intellectual politics, historical trends in knowledge production and ways that the positions project has instigated pedagogic change, the contentious idea of "theory" in scholarship, and on editorial work and its relation to philosophy of history. The relation of the editor, her theory and practice of editing, and her relation to intellectual political history are explored at length.
Ten Years of Queer Cinema in China
Spencer, N. A.
"Ten Years of Queer Cinema in China" is a photo memoir with twenty photographs and commentary that documents two important cultural events rarely mentioned in US discussions of Chinese underground cinema. They are the First Chinese Gay and Lesbian Film Festival held at Beijing University in November of 2001 and the February 2001 screening of Andrew Cheng's Shanghai Panic (2001). Both events mark the moment when queer cultural activists began organizing their own events and establishing their singular film culture. What is unique about this period in Chinese cultural history is that Chinese queer cinema played an important role in the broader movement for Chinese personal and artistic freedom. During 2001 and 2002, Chinese were attending the same underground film events. They heard about them on the Internet or by word of mouth. Some traveled a long distance to attend them. And this led to an emerging sense of community and sometimes a collective euphoria about embracing a new culture that openly challenges repressive social boundaries.
Is a New Internationalism Possible?
Hui, W., Barlow, T.
This short commemorative piece notes the twenty-year relationship of editors Wang Hui and Tani Barlow and Wang's strong commitment to the international world of journal publication. Wang's long career as a journal founder and editor and his utopian hopes for continuing development of internationalist work through journal projects are noted.
The Return of the Repressed: Uncanny Spaces of Nostalgia and Loss in Tracircgraven Anh Hung's Cyclo
Trn Anh Hùng is best known for three films: The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993), Cyclo (1995), and Vertical Ray of the Sun (2000), known as his Vietnam Trilogy. In this article I propose the notion of the return of a repressed, painful, and violent wartime past, which takes form narratively through a meditation on uncanny spaces—spaces of wandering, longing, anxiety, and loss.
I argue that Hùng's Cyclo represents the return of themes that have been repressed in Vietnamese cinema and literature and in everyday life in general in Vietnam, until recently. Nostalgia and loss can now be expressed in film and literature, which was not possible until the 1990s. This stems from a reevaluation of wartime suffering occurring now, a generation after the end of war in Vietnam in 1975. This also results from a gradual easing of state controls on arts and media in Vietnam in the 1990s. Recent Vietnamese films and literature have begun to focus on the massive human costs and painful aftermath of the war. These are articulated through tropes of mourning, silences, and loss. My hypothesis is that the uncanny occupies a privileged place in contemporary Vietnamese visual and written narratives because of this "return" of themes that had been repressed for political reasons since the end of the war.
Trn Anh Hùng was born in Vietnam in 1962. He and his family left as refugees at the end of the war in 1975. Cyclo, filmed on location in the first large-scale foreign production in Vietnam, marked his return to his birthplace. Hùng reembodies his torn Vietnamese identity through montage of spaces of poverty, crime, and loss. The chain-smoking poet, played by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai, drifts silently through interiors that seemingly bear no relationship to the dangerous, grimy streets outside. I examine the spatial opposition between streets and interiors, and why Hùng focuses so strongly on abjection, silences, and failed articulation of desires. The figure of the poor, beautiful woman forced into prostitution to save her family is almost a cliché in Vietnamese fiction—and so is that of her poor young brother, who struggles for survival in a threatening urban underworld. I query whether these familiar narrative tropes of abjection provide new spaces for understanding the shift away from a war-torn society, or whether they replicate a persistent, romantic self-Orientalizing thread in modern Vietnamese fiction.
Traversing Thresholds -- A Showcase of Contemporary Art from Across Asia -- Curated and Conceptualized by Maya Kovskaya
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To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of positions, this special issue grapples with the journal’s origins in the critique of Cold War area studies and its ongoing role in providing openings for theoretically engaged scholarship. Essays, interviews, and visual art allow contributors to explore how positions has encouraged alternative analytical modes for the study of politics, engaged literary theory, queer theory, and economic, religious, and artistic cultures through the lens of Asia. The issue speculates on how future scholarship will negotiate the transformations wrought by the declining hegemony of US-dominated Asian studies in the academic world. Consistent with the journal’s core mission, the issue combines current assessments of broad scholarly disciplines, such as Marxism, cultural studies, and queer studies, with illustrative case studies on topics ranging from Korean real estate markets to the border-crossing experiences of migrant laborers to early twentieth-century advertising in China. A collection of contemporary Asian visual art presented throughout the issue offers a challenge and testament to the political and interpretive scope of positions’ past and future.
Contributors: Tani E. Barlow, Tina Mai Chen, Harry Harootunian, Rebecca Karl, Thomas LaMarre, Boreth Ly, Rosalind C. Morris, Claudia Pozzana, Christophe Robert, Lisa Rofel, Alessandro Russo, Naoki Sakai, Jesook Song, Norman A. Spencer, Rolando B. Tolentino, Wang Hui, Angela Zito
Tani E. Barlow is the T. T. and W. F. Chao Professor of Asian History and the Director of the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University. She is the author of The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism and New Asian Marxisms, both also published by Duke University Press.