Distraction Free Reading

(Re)Assembling Asias through Science

Call for contributions!

Over the past two decades, a proliferation of critiques have emerged from a body of critical inter-asian scholarship to challenge, revise, and situate the conventional theoretical categories, frames, and founding assumptions of many humanities and social science fields, with notable interventions into trans studies (Chiang, Henry, & Leung 2018), queer theory (Chiang & Wong 2017; Yue 2017; Yue & Leung 2016; Wilson 2006), and the anthropology of science and technology (Ong 2016; Ong & Chen 2010). These projects are as theoretical as they are political, ethical, and methodological, posing fundamental questions about the politics of knowledge production, encouraging a critical awareness of the geopolitical positions and historical locations from which our analytic concepts emerge, as well as a heightened sense of the audiences they are intended for, how they may travel, and an epistemic humility that embraces and acknowledges contingency and limitation. With the expansion of academic presses, journals, and academic professional organizations in Asia[1], a growing number of graduate students and professional researchers now find themselves straddling and translating across an interface that spans continents, from academic centers in Europe and the United States to intra-asian networks and spaces of knowledge production.

In 2015, East Asian Science, Technology, and Society (EASTS) published a two-part journal series with the title: “We have never been latecomers!? Making knowledge spaces for east Asian technosocial practices.” A biting response to the idea that Asian nations or communities are merely latecomers to modernity, they claim that while Latour’s germinal We Have Never Been Modern may have created spaces for critically interrogating the heterogeneous character of certain kinds of modernity that emerged in Europe, these spaces and possibilities have yet to be made available for scholars and researchers working and collaborating with interlocutors that are engaged with scientific projects embedded within Asian projects of modernity. With this series, we respond to their call to action with the goal of creating space for this important work in Platypus. Technoscience – like Asia – may not be as pure or as universal as previously assumed. Networks may be unevenly distributed or fragmentary. With this series, we invite submissions from authors, ethnographers, and social scientists whose training and field research has carried them across different spaces of knowledge production, academic training, networks, and geopolitical locations. We invite contributions that draw critical insight from these contradictions and productive tensions.

With this post, we inaugurate a series titled “(Re)Assembling Asias through Science” that will feature the work of graduate students and early career scholars working at the interface between social studies of science and technology and various positions and locations within and across multiple asian landscapes and imaginaries.

A black background with circles of various sizes and shade of blue and green. Thin lines of blue, red, yellow, and green color overlap and connect the dots, creating a web.

Data visualization of air traffic focused on Asia.
Data from openflights.org CC-BY martingrandjean.ch 2016

Beyond Conventional Area Studies, or What is Asia?

Knowledge about ‘Asia’ and its ‘regions’ (East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central, South, etc.) bear undeniable historical and colonial legacies that are tied directly to the Euro-American anti-communist interventionist geopolitical needs of the Cold War era (Anderson 1998; Emerson 1984). Enduring research and funding structures were/are designed to produce and reproduce knowledge about the ‘reality’ of the region through these security and containment frameworks for U.S. and European stakeholders.

While fear of complicity in these ongoing colonial forms of knowledge production about ‘Asia’ has prompted a hesitancy in some to engage with area or region, others have chosen to critically engage with the question of what (or how) does Asia mean (Sun 2000), using compelling conventional and experimental forms of ethnography to critically interrogate how lived and imagined experiences of Asia in Asia challenge the very uncritical area studies frameworks that still organize much of the contemporary global knowledge economy.

Gayatri Spivak reminds us that there is no origin or unity to the name Asia. The term’s historical function as subcartographic space within dominant cartographic imaginaries has imbued the concept itself with a vague spacey character – one that is not only imaginary but fundamentally relational and multiple in meaning (Spivak 2003). Wang Hui reminds us that this always-already-in process and incomplete concept is ripe with possibilities that emerge from irresolvable contradictions: the notion of Asia is simultaneously colonial and anti-colonial; it is nationalist and internationalist; it is European, but has shaped the self-understanding of Europe; it is a product of history, as well as an active participant in historically transformative processes (Wang 2002). As such, Chiang, Henry, and Leung have argued that Asia has never been and likely will never be whole. It is always already impure, contested, and fragmentary (Chiang, Henry, Leung 2018). This speculative – or even queer – trait of playful indeterminacy presents an ethnographic opening, as well as possibilities for anthropologists to productively speculate with asia and asian imaginaries that manifest in projects of knowledge production, experimentation, and scientific practice.

Our series seeks to highlight the fact that even as past colonial legacies and present imperial ambitions are brought to bear on the knowledge, discourses, and narratives that are produced about Asia, Asians in Asia themselves actively participate in processes of making their own asias through the crafting of their own identity, community, nation, and world. While recognizing various forms and degrees of agency, it is important to decouple agency from resistance and emancipation (Mahmood 2005). Our series seeks to highlight the possibilities that emerge from a deep engagement with interlocutors embedded in these aspirational projects that seek to articulate their place in the world, without reverting to a romanticized localism or indigeneity. Rather than replace Asia as one overarching locality with several similarly constituted and bounded internal localities, we instead seek to examine the constitution of these localities through the networks that spread within and beyond them, and through zones of engagement and connection (Tsing 2005). We seek to highlight the divergent ways in which these emergent constellations constitute new asias, while writing against any formulation of a more authentic vision of an Asia based on an indigeneity anchored in a bounded locality that shares the same features of Asia as constructed in colonial epistemologies.

Among the questions this series seeks to pursue are: how might social studies of science and technology help us think about the making and remaking of asia(s)? In turn, how might the lived experiences and imaginaries invoked through the remaking of asia(s) help us develop a more critical approach towards science and technology that does not take for granted the locations or origin of its own implicit assumptions? Scientists working outside of Euro-American milieus use globally mobile concepts and technologies to configure new knowledge systems within situated contexts. How might these differences – the differences that make a difference (Barad 2007;  Bateson 1972) – be brought to bear on how we think about, theorize, and approach science and scientific practice as an object of study? How might these new and emergent sciences, their concurrent practices and lifeworlds, and the alternative modernities, political projects, and ethical world visions in which they are enmeshed, contribute to theorizations of science more broadly and beyond Asia, rather than merely being understood as case studies of Asian cultural variants of science? Furthermore, how might knowledge generated from Asian contexts help scholars of science beyond Asia cultivate new attentions, lines of inquiry, methodologies, and objects of analysis?

Bringing Asia(s) to bear on STS: Towards a more productive relationship between a critical area studies and studies of science

STS frameworks hold great synergy with projects that view asia as process or as network, interrogating its remaking through the notion of critical spatial moments (Tagliacozzo, Siu, & Perdue 2015), spaces of flow (Siu, Tagliaacozzo, & Perdue 2015), fluid assemblages (Ong & Collier 2005), ethnographies of mobility (Xiang & Ma 2019; Harms 2016, 2011), or as a web of interactions (Siu 2016). This work shows that there is no need to carve up the region based on criteria defined by land-based, state-centered entities, or lead by civilizational criteria determined by language or religion. It also highlights how productive material-semiotic analyses have been to understanding the changing shapes and scales of asias, through analysis of waterways (Tagliacozzo 2009; Andaya 2008), islands and archipelagic imaginaries (David 2018; Boellstorff 2005), infrastructure and architectural projects (Schwenkel 2018; Furlong & Kooy 2017; Furlong 2014), and molecular and viral entanglements (Keck 2020; Porter 2019; Lowe 2010).

Despite these synergies, many studies of science in asian contexts have also compelled a critique of the seemingly placeless and unlocated nature of some actor-network theory analyses of global science and its circulations, specifically given the positionality of Asia in relation to contemporary developments in science and technology. Indeed, some of this work seeks to redefine, pluralize, or even destabilize the idea that there is a universal science that floats beyond local mediations. For example, as the edited volume Asian Biotech: Ethics and Communities of Fate thoroughly demonstrates, science projects are complex entanglements of both reason and passion, enmeshed within projects of nationalism, sovereignty, and virtue. More often than not, these projects are part of experimental futures that are not only motivated by economic calculations of risk but are also ethical visions of a good life in response to colonial legacies and contemporary geopolitics of empire (including, but not only American empire). These studies investigate scientific milieus in their own right, not as contrastive cultural versions of science, but as complex mediations between global technologies, knowledges, and situated forces. Relative spaces of autonomy from powerful forces of global science, such as Big Pharma, for example, have allowed many places in Asia to use their own national and regional scientific collaborations to resist externally imposed hegemonies, defend against bioprospecting and human subjects testing by U.S. and European based companies, leading to the rise of distinctively science-driven nationalisms and science-based ideas of post-colonial sovereignty. Non-western contexts are not always defenseless to the exploitations of global science and biocapitalism – in fact, institutions throughout Asia are key emerging players in biogenomics, energy, and infrastructure, and are becoming increasingly influential architects of alternative realms of energy and biotech cultures (Ong 2016). Furthermore, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Asian states have seen their biosecurity infrastructures prevail, while places that many may have once imagined as referents for a desirable modernity (such as the U.S.) collapsed into viral disarray. While much prior work has documented the exploitative nature of biocapitalism, examples from Asia highlight how projects of biocapital can be more than just economic processes, pointing to fundamental issues of morality and citizenship and the ways in which science is frequently enmeshed within fabrics of civic virtue that invest in the futures of immanent and emerging life worlds that show modern aspirations that diverge substantively from prior ideas of European or U.S. modernity.

We are excited to work with authors who want to productively engage tensions between situated specificities and universal theoretical frameworks through the contexts of their own training and field research, as well as authors who have thoughts on how spatially grounded and historically sedimented “articulated assemblages” (Moore 2005), or other critical regional approaches might be brought back into STS analysis in innovative ways. We hope to compile a wide range of reflections on what constitutes the study of science in Asia and how we might begin to bring ethnographic excesses and significant contextual differences back into conversation with global studies of science and studies of science outside of Asia.

If you are interested in writing and thinking with us as part of this series, please contact Chun-Yu (Jo Ann) Wang (chunyuw@stanford.edu) and Tim Quinn (quinnt@rice.edu). We are excited to work with you and to help amplify your research!

[1] Throughout this piece, we oscillate between using the uppercase and lowercase A/a for Asia/asia(s) to play with the contradictions between the totalizing and colonial projects of delineating an Asia and the situated, multiple, and dynamic processes of asias-in-the-making. The point is not a clear delineation between two distinct kinds of projects, but rather to index their entangled nature and encourage exploration of points, contexts, and moments where they may overlap or diverge.


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