Oct 16 2014

Taking Stock

With autumn 2014 arriving, it is time to take stock of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported programme ‘Rethinking Asian Studies’, which officially began earlier this year (www.rethinking.asia). After only a few months of activities, this experimental programme, aimed at redirecting Asian studies to better reflect the global consequences of new Asian modernities at play,* has already positioned itself as one of our institute’s driving intellectual engines. The unique programme seeks to foster new humanities-focused research and educational opportunities built upon an inclusive network of scholars, artists and other social leaders with their institutions in Asia, North America, Europe and Africa.

Organised into five thematic fora, the programme should not only help us to decentralise knowledge about Asia, but also to decentre its intellectual practice by exploring alternative narratives of Asian agencies often found beyond academic representations – exemplified by traditional area studies whose orientations continue to be framed by national histories and geographies – as they often restrain our imaginations, with little room left to explore other possible histories and geographies.

One clear focus of the programme (forum 3) is to question our conventional spatial and geographical configurations of Asia; its three sub-fora comprise: ‘The Bay of Bengal’, a part and corner of the Indian Ocean world with the potential to erase 19th and 20th century configurations such as notions of ‘South’ and ‘Southeast Asia’ (a roundtable ‘Belonging Across the Bay of Bengal: Migrations, Networks, Circulations’ is being organised at Princeton University at the end of October). ‘Central Asia’ as an intellectual field is emerging out of Empire; yet, the question of where such an imagined realm begins and ends, and for whose interests, remains elusive (a roundtable was organised in Ulaanbaator, Mongolia, last August; it was preceded by an international conference co-organised by IIAS – see page 40 of Newsletter 69). A third sub-forum seeks to ‘revisit state-society relations through the perspective of Borderlands’ by precisely engaging these man-created spaces delineating national projects (these ‘products of social and political negotiations of space’). A first meeting will be held in November, at the Institute of East-Asian Studies, in Lyon).

Another approach to these multiple (Asian) realities follows the intellectual project of introducing a diversity of interconnected views, considering lives and perspectives of social as well as ecological actors usually not heard ‘from the bottom-up’. Two forums tackle this objective: one taking the City as a multi-levelled framework of knowledge, the other addressing craft as a unique, and potentially emancipating site of social mediation. Buzz concepts such as ‘generic cities’, ‘smart cities’ brandished by many Asian states – with their corollaries in terms of privatisation of urban spaces, ecological disasters and the negation of a community’s ‘right to flourish’ – calls for a comprehensive, locally-sensitive approach, a new way of doing urban planning, as the August roundtable in New York suggested. It also calls for a different, ‘subaltern’ reading of the urban social landscape, a subject that will be explored in Mumbai in December.

The other socially-framed forum focuses on crafts and craftsmen/women. An IIAS Summer School entitled ‘Reading Craft: Itineraries of Culture, Knowledge and Power in the Global Ecumene’ was organised in August at the University of Chiang Mai. The training brought together twenty-some PhD students from the world to creatively confront their research project with local situations as they are lived by northern Thai artisans. It was followed by a cross-sector roundtable on ‘Cloth, Culture and Development’, in which local weavers and other practitioners exchanged with Thai and international scholars. What emerged from these two exercises is that craft must be taken seriously as a truly integrative site of societal mediation. Craft forms indeed stand at the nexus of a multiplicity of interests ranging from those of artists/artisans, entrepreneurs, local communities (rural and urban), NGOs, and the State, with a capacity to bring together generations, genders, classes, urban and rural communities while triggering interactions between social groupings, and, in the realm of education, promoting a platform for trans-sectorial interdisciplinary ‘artisanal knowledge transfer’. This latter idea of ‘Craft as a Pedagogy’ will be further explored in a workshop in Delhi in March 2015.

Then there is the forum on ‘Artistic Interventions’, which sets out to interrogate arts and artists and their social role as ‘artist-citizens’ engaged in artist-run spaces. The project wants to move beyond traditionally restrictive knowledge of art – as a reified art pour l’art form, too easily captured into becoming a commercial commodity – to consider it as another essential form of public knowledge that, in dialogue with traditional disciplinary area studies, has the potential to foster radically new ways of (re)imagining social times and spaces.

The fifth forum, ‘Views of Asia from Africa’, promises to be another breakthrough for it will help us in the Asian studies community to think in a more decentred, multi-vocal fashion, with fresh new intellectual paradigms and references to incorporate. This is a long-term process no doubt, but with over 300 already selected participants, and nearly 50 panels and roundtables accepted, our planned conference ‘Asian Studies in Africa: Challenges and Prospects of a New Axis of Intellectual Interactions’ is set to serve as a great catalyst likely to trigger
new alignments in the ways regional studies are conducted, thereafter contributing to move Asian Studies beyond the old hierarchy of (intellectual) values I referred to earlier.

An important note must be made: due to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the conference in Accra (Ghana), originally set for January 2015, is being postponed to September 24-26, 2015. By opening these new spaces of intellectual interactions and maturation, I am confident that the ‘Rethinking Asian Studies’ programme can effectively help us shape a more globally connected network of individuals and institutions working concomitantly on, with and in Asia in the global world.

Philippe Peycam, Director IIAS


* Appadurai, A. 1993. Modernity at Large: the Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.