Monthly Archives: February 2015

Why the South is not in the East, some reflections on postcolonial studies at the recent International Studies Association annual convention in New Orleans

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With this post I want to start reflecting on other topics than peace and conflict research strictly speaking. To the extent that my research has turned away from conflict research and (hopefully) will turn away from peace research for some time after I have finished this */&%$”***book I’ll use the blog as notepad for other reflections on IR and global studies. 

 

The International Studies Association’s annual convention, which just came to close last Saturday in New Orleans, is probably the largest academic international relations conference, in terms of people but also in terms of topics and approaches. Thanks to the great work of the programme chairs Pinar Bilgin and L.H.M. Ling this year’s conference was an extra-ordinary showcase for alternative approaches, notably postcolonial, queer or gender studies and other critical and alternative ways of thinking about world politics. Many of this was new to me and it was really exciting to be able to explore so many different ways of thinking about world politics and global society. And yet, a lot of puzzling impressions, too…. And one of them was the question why the farthest east postcolonial studies get is India. The sinosphere (Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mongolia) are apparently not part of the postcolonial world; only one paper out of more than 260, which deal with China referred explicitly to postcolonial thought. Singapore or Malaysia are also absent from postcolonial studies maps. And Japan, anyway, is entirely absent from the agenda as if it would have always been the high-tech, American vassal state that is only interesting for liberal IPE or Asian realist conflict analysis and not one major example of orientalist thought and colonial warfare (on the receiving and sending side). Indonesia and Thailand might be more often subject of postcolonial analysis but at this conference such were equally conspicuously absent. Why?

It is strange that postcolonial IR should neglect an entire region of the world, which was just as much object of brutal, exploitative and estranging colonial practices, although in highly variable forms and in which a huge number of inequalities, racisms and structural exploitations continue to be reproduced. Why is it that this region should be excluded from the questions that postcolonial studies have so successfully formulated for India, Middle Eastern and African countries and societies. This is particularly striking as literature studies, area studies or historians like A. Dirlik have extensively used Orientalist analyses to expose 19th and 20th century writings about East Asia. One just has to think of the ways Ruth Benedict’s ‘The Chrysanthemum and The Sword’ or the film (and book) ‘The Geisha’ have been torn apart by postcolonial scholarship (and media). The big absence of postcolonial analyses of East Asia at ISA is something particular to international relations and global studies, not to social sciences and humanities in general.

I don’t think this is a coincidence but intimately linked to the fact that East Asia simply does not fit very well the economic narratives that underfeed postcolonial studies. The economic success of East Asian countries, particularly of Japan but also of Korea, Singapore and China (and to a lesser extent of Malaysia), rattles too uncomfortably on the socio-economic ontology of postcolonial studies. An essential argument of postcolonial studies is that orientalism is the cultural manifestation of the South’s material exploitation and oppression. Sometimes this is explicitly linked to (neo)Marxist readings of imperialism or colonialism but more often than not the assumption remains implicit that the world is marked by a fundamental bipolarity of the capitalist modernity of the West and the exploited, colonized ‘otherness’ of the South. In fact, the economic narrative looms large behind post-colonial ventures into IR but it is rarely explicitly discussed. The economic success of East Asian countries and their strong developmental states are therefore hard to explain from a postcolonial point of view and attract only attention as examples of model students of the West or for what remains in poverty and exploitation (a lot). The economic history of East Asia is at once a refutation of the provincialism assumption, apparently confirming rather classical (neo)Marxist assumptions of globalization (see Robinson or Harvey), and of the resistance assumption, i.e. that integration into world processes will go through upheavals of resistance. These difficulties of inscribing East Asia past forty years into a postcolonial frame are additionally compounded by the historical complexity with which the East Asian ‘subaltern’ has created and continues to create ‘subalterity’ in Asia and around the world.

Yet, the narrative that East Asia has become simply another manifestation of the ‘West’ appears too simplistic to me and somehow profoundly contradictory to cultural studies’ interests in the orientalisation of East Asian societies and cultures. It would be an interesting exercise of reflectivist scholarship if the lack of postcolonial studies of East Asia’s politics and economics were to be explained in a postcolonial framework.

 

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