Capturing the phenomenon of “Inter-Asia”

Statement about the conference “Areas and Disciplines” by Enseng Ho

Today, the massive increase in volume, intensity, breadth and directions of interactions across Asia makes us think of Asia not as a continent, but as a space of interacting places. Let’s call it Inter-Asia, after a rich series of meetings and fellowships organized by the Social Science Research Council of New York and its collaborators since 2008.

The leading social science and humanities disciplines in the West are not well positioned to capture this phenomenon of a dynamic, interactive Asia (and in like manner, World) empirically and theoretically because: 1) they are organized institutionally, professionally and intellectually to specialize in individual society-states; 2) this focus on individual society-states is anchored in a deeply embedded tradition of Enlightenment social theory that is focused on the internal constitution of a society, be it national wealth (Adam Smith), class (Marx), solidarity (Durkheim), status (Weber), biopower (Foucault), national language (Habermas); 3) conceptual moves to transcend the unitary society-state have focused on an abstract globalization devoid of geographical sensibility; 4) disciplinary specialization, theoretical emphasis on abstraction/language and the creation of individual stars whose unmoored, disembodied concepts are globally applied have  resulted in a fundamental disregard for context. Context is devalued as pulling one down into all that is local, particular, static, past, old.

Asia is a large and old world whose terrain and bodies of water have been criss-crossed by peoples over millenia. Asia currently has the nation-states we love to hate. But it has also had empires, religious movements, diasporas, trade exchanges, strings of port-cities, artistic creations and pillaging, come and go across its surface over the centuries. If we think of Inter-Asia as minimally pointing to relations across different parts of this space, then a wealth of possibilities opens up before our eyes.

Asia conceived as an extensive space of interactions in both past and present provides a rich laboratory for a radical reintroduction of context – one that is now historical, transregional, multiple, multi-lingual, multi-scalar and dynamic – for recognizing, recombining and analyzing old and new veins of data. The old, interconnected world of Asia is a rich repository of such veins, which a re-dedicated empiricism that is radically recontexualized and theoretically informed can tap.

Because of its internal, constitutionalist focus, classical Enlightenment social theory has integrative ambition and power, tying together the different dimensions of social life within a single state-society-nation: religion, ideology, politics, economy, culture. Geertz called such theoretically informed accounts “thick” description. The question is this: can descriptions spread out beyond the internal without becoming thin? I suggest the following concepts can help us create substantive and thick descriptions of social life across large spaces and times:

1) Mobility; 2) Connections; 3) Transregional Geography, Intermediate Scale; 4) Partial Notions of Society; 5) Circulation, not Structure; 6) Outside-In Perspectives; 7) External-Internal Entanglements.


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