Translating Universals: Theory Moves Across Asia

Michael Bourdaghs, John Duncan, Thu-huong Nguyen-vo, David Schaberg, Professors, East Asian Languages & Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles

Project Description:

Since the mid-nineteenth century, intellectuals and scholars in East and Southeast Asia have been forced into what Rey Chow describes as a "predicament":

The use of "Western theory," whose richness and sophistication is part and parcel an outcome of the uneven distribution of material well-being between the "First" and "Third" Worlds, is from the perspective of the ethnic subject, a predicament. "Western theory" is there, beyond my control; yet in order to speak, I must come to terms with it. (Women and Chinese Modernity, xvi)

In different historical periods, in different geographical regions, scholars of the last 150 years have come to terms with multiple forms of Western theory, with a diverse range of outcomes. Scholars have borrowed, adapted, translated, rejected, misread, and critiqued Western theory, and Western theory in turn has often had to reformulate itself in response to these processes—though it has not always openly acknowledged the impact of Asian voices on it. The current project explores this rich and problematic history from a variety of disciplines and cultural traditions.

In the mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the age of high imperialism, Western theory rode into East Asia on the Black Ships, and China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam—at different moments and in different ways—found themselves subjected not only to direct imperialism, backed up by military and economic might, but also to various disciplines that sought to extract knowledge from Asia. Quickly, Asian intellectuals mobilized to transform themselves from passive objects to active subjects in this knowledge, attempting to appropriate the technologies and methodologies that were thought to evidence Western superiority over Asia. A whole range of neologisms were invented, or preexisting terms reformulated, to provide local names for concepts that had originated in the West but that purported to be universal in scope: "Civilization and Enlightenment," "Woman," "Science," "Literature," "History," "International Law," "Society," "State," "Colony," "Self," etc. A range of –isms also made their appearance in Asia: Marxism, Liberalism, Anarchism, etc. As Lydia Liu has argued, this cannot be understood either in terms of "foreign" influence or "native" tradition—after all, "a non-European language does not automatically constitute a site of resistance to European languages." In examining the ‘translingual practices' carried out in this period, she reminds us, we must look to "complex processes of domination, resistance, and appropriation" unique to each discursive context, "as well as in connection with other linguistic environments" (Translingual Practice, 25).

1945 brought the end of World War II, as well as the beginning of the end of the classical form of imperialism. In its wake rose the Cold War period, and with it new (although not always completely unprecedented) forms of Western theory used to explain the Asian World. New keywords included "Modernization," "Subjectivity," "Citizen," "Anti-Communism," "National Liberation," etc. The period also saw an intensified globalization in scholarship, with the rise of new foundations, fellowship programs, and other institutions designed to increased the exchange of ideas between Asian and Western intellectuals, though the sponsors of such exchanges often carried problematic unspoken assumptions about the direction in which knowledge flows were supposed to travel. As Naoki Sakai has argued, in this period, the West (which was increasingly equated with the U.S.) narrated its own position as the source of "universal" concepts by locating the "particular" in Japan and other Asian nations. Asian intellectuals were confronted by the predicament of modernization theory: if they lay claim to the "particularity" of local culture as a form of resistance to Western "universal" culture, they inadvertently risked reproducing the very "universal" they intended to critique (Translation and Subjectivity). Multiple and conflicting responses were made to this predicament, as the nations of Asia struggled to maintain some notion of cultural autonomy under the new conditions of American hegemony in the region.

In the period of contemporary globalization, beginning in the late 1960s, a new set of terms moved across the globe with the rise (and fall) of the New Left: "Postcolonialism," "Postmodernity," "Discourse," "Cultural Studies," "Gender," "Sexuality," "Subaltern," "Deconstruction," "Construct," etc. The simultaneous rise of
"theory" in the West and Asia created exciting opportunities for transnational dialogue, as scholars around the world increasingly came to share a similar set of problems and methodologies. Yet it also led to the disturbing realization that this contact was alarmingly similar to earlier periods in which Western theory conquered the world. Intellectuals began to focus their work precisely on the question that Gayatri Spivak raised: Can the subaltern speak? Another question that was confronted from a myriad of positions: can societies whose "modernity" was previously in question now lay claim to the status of "postmodernity"? Different branches of theory have found themselves clashing when they meet on unfamiliar turf: did, for example, the appearance of "feminism" in Asian societies represent less a moment of "liberation" than a repeat of the neocolonial imposition of Western modes of thought on non-Western societies? A remarkable history of translations of newer theoretical terms remains largely unwritten. What happens, for example, when "discourse" becomes "gensetsu" in Japan, "tamnon" in South Korea, "huayu" in mainland China, "lunshu" in Taiwan, and "nghi luan" or "dam luan" in Vietnam? How is it creatively transformed in this process, and how do its political stakes shift?

The project consists mainly of three stages:

1) A series of three workshops, one per quarter, in Academic Year 2003-04, each focusing on one of the periods described above, and each featuring working drafts of papers from scholars representing each of the following geographical areas: China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. A tentative list of participants is included in the timeline below.

2) A major conference on the UCLA campus in Academic Year 2004-5, featuring finished versions of the best papers from the earlier workshops. We also plan to apply for additional funding from other sources to enable us to invite major scholars from East and Southeast Asia to participate in the conference, either as paper presenters or as discussants.

3) The publication of a volume collecting the various papers presented. We believe there would be strong interest in a volume of this sort from a number of scholarly presses, including the University of Hawaii Press, the Cornell University East Asian Papers series, the UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, and other similar venues. Since papers will have been presented in both workshop and final form in stages 1 and 2, the volume should be ready for submission to an appropriate scholarly press by the end of calendar year 2005. John Duncan and Michael Bourdaghs will serve as editors for the volume.

Published: Thursday, July 10, 2003