Jon Solomon
CRPM, Université Paris Nanterre (Paris 10)
Université Jean Moulin (Lyon 3)

 

Author’s note: This text was written in response to an invitation to contribute, with a strict word limit, to an upcoming volume on Transpacific studies. It was submitted on May 24, 2020. Six months later, on November 23, 2020, one of the editors contacted me to inform me of the editors’ decision to refuse publication. I have redacted the messages to protect the identity of the editors.

The letter of refusal was as follows:

Dear Jon Solomon, 

Thank you for submitting such a thought-provoking essay. It shows that the dual character of anxiety—from which you trace current minoritized forms of knowledge-in-practice (e.g. anti-China centrism)—potentially mobilizes a modern apparatus of difference that could conjure the reconstitution of proper areas and people, and risk reproducing the borders of modernity. 

The essay’s interrogation of anti-centric critique seems especially focused on the mediation of Sinophone studies, and less with the overall network of scholarship directly engaged with “the transpacific.” Our immediate anthology, however, largely strays from this critical intersection. As such, the editors have decided not to incorporate the essay in the collection. This was a difficult decision to make as an editorial team, though one we ultimately decided on due to the overall themes and direction of the anthology as a whole. 

We understand that this might not be the news that you have hoped for. Nevertheless, we thank you for your work and for your willingness to work through these lines of inquiry.

 

I responded to this message with two consecutive messages sent on the evening of November 23 and the morning of November 24, 2020.

11/23/20:

Dear Editor X,

My essay begins with the Transpacific and then suggests a genealogical approach to understanding its commitments. That’s what leads me to look at Sinophone studies. The focus is entirely on understanding the Transpacific.

Your use of the verb to stray to describe the focus of the volume you are collectively editing really intrigues me. I mean, I really like it, especially when to stray means to wander without a fixed direction. But as you know, to stray can also refer to proper limits now exceeded or to fixed or chosen routes from which one has erred.

Since I had understood your volume to be straying in the first, not the second, sense of the word, I fully expected that my contribution would meet with the sort of congenial recognition that wanderers reserve for each other. 

It’s quite a surprise for me to learn that the volume has been conceived, contrary to my expectations, in terms of the second sense of the verb to stray, that one that implicitly emphasizes proper limits and fixed routes. Much to my surprise, the response that my essay, written entirely on your invitation, has elicited is not the treat of congenial recognition but the treatment formerly reserved for the stray – as if to say, “while we are not responsible for the founding exclusions that shape our field, we ourselves have strayed just enough from that foundation to assuage our repetition of those same exclusions.”

11/24/20:

It is curious that [Editor X] is quite comfortable with registering critical concerns about sinophone studies if they are derived from Asian-American studies and has no trouble in that specific context admitting the intrinsic, genealogical connection between the transpacific and the sinophone:

 


 

Original Manuscript:

 

Despite its areal attachments, the transpacific is not simply a geographical region that one could point to on a map nor a population of specific bodies. As a figure rather than a toponym, the transpacific is tied to the anxiety born from a sense of indeterminate boundaries combined with the undeniable presence of a transcontinental behemoth – China. To recognize that the Pacific was originally part of the Atlanticist projection of global cartography and that the belated formation of a new field of transpacific studies could signal opportunities for salubrious reversal is certainly a cause for celebration, yet hardly addresses the source of anxiety. Concerns such as this multiply when one tries to account for the fact that the history of trafficking and slavery and their on-going practice in the Pacific has yet to disrupt, conceptually speaking, the seamless continuity between freedom and sovereignty, ostensibly consummated by the rights of the citizen, that still defines the desire for political recognition throughout the Pacific.[1]

Anxiety, which overdetermines the figure of the transpacific, has an undeniably dual character. “Is anxiety a constitutive process by which the psyche maintains its coherence and identity, or does it ultimately entail their dissolution?” In Samuel Weber’s estimation, Sigmund Freud never found the answer (Weber 1990/1991, 154). This undecidable quality makes anxiety not just a symptomatic part of psychoanalysis but places it, as Ruth Ronen argues, at the very core of aesthetic experience (Ronen 2009). Aesthetically speaking, the ocean was regularly taken by philosophers of the romantic era, from Baumgarten and Kant to Burke, as a representative example of the sublime. While for Burke the ocean is sublime because its vastness incites a subjective fear of death, for Kant it would be sublime because its vastness exceeds empirical understanding. If, in the romantic vision, an ocean is a source of anxiety that is emblematic of either the finitude of life or the finitude of knowledge, then what would be a vast ocean like the Pacific, emblematic of the global itself, if not a vast source of anxiety related to finitude? Not by coincidence, the height of the age of colonial exploration by sea in the 18th century CE coincides with intense exploration of a new category of human experience, named aesthetics by Alexander Baumgarten, that by the end of the century was being widely used to refer to judgments about the beautiful. If aesthetics is, as Marc Redfield reminds us, “a discourse of framing that violates its own frame” (Redfield 2003, 10), and the most important volume of collected essays on transpacific studies to date is subtitled framing an emerging field (Hoskins and Nguyen 2014), then we cannot avoid the realization that a decisive confrontation with the aesthetic ideology of romanticism inevitably awaits transpacific studies.

Undoubtedly, a certain anxiety related to the proliferation of borders and bordering practices under the impetus of capitalism, imperialism, nationalism, and ethnocentrism characterizes the inauguration of transpacific studies (Hoskins and Nguyen 2014, 4). Significantly, Janet Hoskins and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s response to this dilemma in their pathbreaking collection, Transpacific Studies, is to cast it in moral terms (Hoskins and Nguyen 2014, 10). If place-based “centering” is a moral question, the reason is, I will argue, because the aesthetic ideology of romanticism hangs over transpacific studies in the form of a return of the repressed, one of the classic forms ascribed to anxiety in the early phases of Freud’s writings about psychoanalysis prior to World War I (Weber 2010).

The politics of anti-centrism that seem to motivate not only transpacific studies but cultural studies in general is essentially no different from the intellectual program that was described nearly two decades ago by Alberto Moreiras as “infinite decolonization” (Moreiras 2005, 586). In the face of the historical injustice of colonialism and capitalism, it is widely believed that the only progressive choice today, ethically and politically, is to aim for a fundamental restitution of rights, identities, proper names, lands, labor, and profits, away from unethical “centers.” This has given rise to what I would call anti-centrism studies.

Methodologically speaking, anti-centrism studies promote a comparative and relational method that aims to restore or reconstitute the multiplicity, regularly hidden by centrism, that constitutes all objects in the social world. From this perspective, what we call the West, to take the most imposing example in modernity of a social object formed on the basis of centrism, is really but a multiplicity of constituent elements drawn from global interactions that cannot be neatly placed into categories that adhere to formal boundaries between inside and outside. In The Global Origins of the Modern Self, Avram Alpert sums it up as an “historical methodology that I, following Said, call ‘reconstitution’” (Alpert 2019, 12). The pluralist description of objects, or their “reconstitution” from a new, anti-centrist perspective respectful of their constitutive multiplicity, operates in fact like a necessary precondition for political and ethical restitution.

Transpacific studies inherit some of this historical baggage from postcolonial studies via the mediation of sinophone studies.[2] Amidst the methodological commitments, variously described by sinophone studies’ foremost advocate, Shu-mei Shih (sometimes in tandem with Françoise Lionnet), as minor transnationalism, creolized theory, and relational comparison, that transpacific studies carries forth, it is crucial not to overlook the problematization of China, and sinocentrism, from which sinophone studies derives its name. The essential point to retain here is that sinophone studies begin with a gesture that is essentially philological, using an interrogation of “the conflation of the word Chinese with everything from China” (Shih 2007, 24) or of the “reductive equivalence of China = Chinese = ethnicity” (Wong 2012, 316) as the jumping off point for a general political mobilization.

With its romanticist passion for redefining taxonomies of language and people against centrisms and its inevitable entanglement in the politics of minor nationalism, separatism, and satellite autonomy, sinophone studies partakes, in political terms, of the transferential relation to 20th Century Eastern European history, as if the Balkan Mountains were to jut directly into the Western Pacific (see Buden 2011 for a similar image). Just as philology played a crucial role in the historic claims of Eastern European nationalities to national sovereignty from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires (Arendt 1951/1962, 271), a philological moment lies at the core of today’s claims for self-determination on the borderlands of the People’s Republic of China.

Symptomatically, while Eastern Europe rarely appears even in the conscientiously global purview of minor transnationalism, the term “balkanization”  (Shih 2007, 20; Shih and Lionnet 2011, 13), invariably used in a generic sense, is associated with politically-erroneous critiques of identity politics. According to Maria Todorova, the term “Balkanization,” which emerged during the Balkan Wars of 1912 – 13, “not only had come to denote the parcelization of large and viable political units but also had become a synonym for a reversion to the tribal, the backward, the primitive, the barbarian” (Todorova 2009, 3, cited in Buden 2011). Balkanization, in other words, is originally part of the terminology of romanticism, both as a symptom-concept of modernity and as a period-concept. It organizes bodies and populations into anthropological types based on a logic of specific difference that implicitly justifies the survival rankings attached to each. This is the context within which the political geography of the ethno-national proper area took shape during the age of imperialism under formulas such as China proper, Russia proper, Bulgaria proper, etc. The contemporary rehabilitation of the term “China proper” by historians working under the rubric of the New Qing History is an excellent example of the sort of restitution aimed at by infinite decolonization.

The crucial political question of our time, however, is not, “what is China proper?” or “who are the real Chinese?” much less “What is Europe?” and “Who are the real Europeans?” but rather why are questions like these not simply one among many but constitutive of the political as such, simultaneously of and in modernity? Unless the apparatus of area and anthropological difference that frames such questions is addressed in a fundamental, global way, a discourse about contemporary China, such as that seen in sinophone studies, that combines a regionalized “fracturing” (Shih 2007, 39) of phono-nationalism with a reinvestment in the notion of the ethno-national homeland or proper area (Shih 2007, 4) is little more than a justification for the balkanization of one side or continental extremity of the transpacific. To put it bluntly, it is, deliberately or not, a justification for the balkanization of the People’s Republic of China[3]. It is certainly not part of an effort to liberate global populations from the political geography cum aesthetic ideology of the proper area. Yet this compromise is what takes place when self-determination is seen not as an historically-conditioned horizon but as a moral imperative within that horizon, “the imperative to live as a political subject within a particular geopolitical place” (Shih 2010, 46). As an imperative, this version of self-determination exemplifies the way that the restitutive movement of infinite decolonization invariably presents itself as a law of humanity (Moreiras 2005, 591) that imposes the search for an infinite restitution of the identity between subjectivity and the proper name to which it should correspond.

If both the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America, and everything Pacific in between[4], are equally objects of anti-centrist critique, would it not be safe to assume that the center could not possibly reconstitute itself in any form? The answer, quite simply, is no. Neither the “multidirectional critique” (Shih 2019, 176) nor the “inherently comparative and transnational aspect” (Shih 2010, 29) of anti-centrism studies in their sinophone declination have fundamentally altered the moral investment in area. Needless to say, the nation-state, the paradigm of a modern area, is nothing if not a comparative unit, so anti-centrism studies do not bring anything fundamentally new to the table in that respect – except for an element of representation. As for multidirectional critique, it does nothing to help us understand either how the acts of bordering that instantiate the grounds of comparison precede the act of comparing or how the entities distributed across various directions performatively co-produce each other in the present. Hence, despite the postnational orientation, today’s anti-centrist methodologies leave intact the comparative infrastructure and representational orientation of modernity, displacing it to a biopolitical and aesthetic level. Simply to assert that, “‘the West’ is a real entity with historical power that has emerged through global constitutions,” (Alpert 2019, 11) leaves us unable to account for that element of the West that “represses the historical” (Sakai 2005, 191). It is also fundamentally different from pointing out that the West is, “a topos in the chronological register…by which to generate an apparent taxonomic coherence where real coherence is impossible” (Sakai 2005, 183), or a “social relation rather than an object,” (Walker 2018, 228) an “abstraction that organises real social relations” (Walker 2018, 212). Motivated by a disavowed constellation of romantic concerns from philology, aesthetics, and biopolitics, contemporary anti-centrism studies bypass the chance to interrogate the performativity of area in the present and to ask why capitalism needs a certain global cartography based on essentially volatile, performative areas in the first place (Walker 2019; Neilson and Mezzadra 2013)?

Balkanization, for Shih and Lionnet, is not simply a disparaging way to refer to populations incapable of constituting themselves through the moral imperative of self-determination, but also paradoxically a way of trivializing the challenge posed notably (but not exclusively) by the philosophy of difference colloquially known as deconstruction to representationalist views of language that are essential to theories of subjectivity complicit with sovereignty (Shih 2007, 21). In this limited space, there is, regrettably, no chance to reckon fully with sinophone studies’ relation to theory, emblematized by deconstruction[5] (as is typical for the North American-centered intellectual world), in its problematic relation to area. For the time being, let me simply pose an oblique critique in terms of the following question: what is the regime under which one can claim simultaneously to oppose all political centrisms and yet implicitly call for the restitution of proper areas? Moreiras would simply say in reply that it is, “the dominant progressive ideology of our times” (Moreiras 2005, 587).

In the final analysis, the Balkan, like the transpacific, is not a toponym but a figure. It is a figure of the return of the repressed – the biopolitical, aesthetic, ideological configuration of area that just refuses, like romanticism, to be a period concept but is instead a volatile yet indeterminate limit both of and in modernity. As Slavoj Žižek says, “In the last hundred years, Balkan regularly has served as a kind of blank screen on which Western Europe projected its own ideological antagonisms…the topos that resuscitates a whole spleen of different forms of racism” (Žižek 1999). Conveniently, the continental, Chinese part of the transpacific functions in a similar way. “It is a supplement in the Derridean sense,” continues Žižek, “a violent return of the repressed that must take place if the order is to reproduce itself” (Žižek 1999). Žižek’s understanding of that order calls for full citation: “insofar as the name ‘Balkan’ figures in the Western political fantasy space as the main embodiment of this inherent transgression, I am tempted to rephrase Lacan’s well-known dictum that the Unconscious is structured like a language. In our century, at least, the European political Unconscious is definitely structured like Balkan” (Žižek 1999). If anti-centrism studies are any indication, the political unconscious of the transpacific is structured like Balkan, too.

The psychoanalytic distinction between fear and anxiety offers an interesting way to think about the ideology of anti-centrism. For anti-centrism studies, fear (of centrism) camouflages the object that really affects the subject (in this case, that object would be the apparatus of area). Anxiety, by contrast, exposes the bordering practices that precede area (Ronen 2009, 116). For transpacific studies, the issue of anxiety is, politically speaking, crucial: anxiety is the affective charge associated with social practices of bordering. Today, the specter of militarized accelerationism, or simply war, hanging over the Pacific highlights the necessity of confronting transpacific anxiety in a radical way.

The danger is that we will believe that anti-centrism, the latest version of infinite decolonization, is a substitute for exiting the romantic horizon altogether. It is instructive that Freud, when faced with the seemingly irresolvable paradox anxiety presents for subjectivity, turned instead to an analysis of the joke for an alternate possibility (Weber 2010). If the ultimate joke is the joke on representational meaning itself, this does not have to lead to a “politically unproductive anxiety” (Shih and Lionnet 2011, 20), but could rather open the way to a new social and political practice of translation – not in the sense that jokes are untranslatable, but in the sense that the joke of representational language can only be shared out in the struggle to smash entirely the romantic horizon of area that clouds the social practice of knowledge production today.

 

[1] For an idea of how to understand the discontinuity between freedom and sovereignty, see Chandler 2014. For a history of the dialectical and at times causal relationship between U.S. slavery and U.S. imperial population engineering, or again, the relation between the network of islands that sustains Pax Americana and the Black Pacific, see Mount 2018.

[2] My understanding of sinophone studies’ relation to the microphysics of power is deeply indebted to Flair Donglai Shi forthcoming.

[3] Post-submission edit: It may be worth recalling that the preference for the dismemberment (balkanization) of the People’s Republic of China among U.S. elites is not a recent idea floated in response to current events in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and elsewhere, but dates to the end of the Cold War in Europe and the beginning of a decades-long, nation-busting war in the Greater Middle East – a date that served to highlight the unfinished Cold War in the Pacific. An op-ed piece titled, “Another ‘Prison of Nations’: China: As in the Soviet Union, a regional decoupling could end communism,” by Jack Miles, a member of the LA Times editorial board, from 1991 serves as a poignant reminder (Miles 1991). My criticism of such perennial calls to balkanize China is not motivated by an a priori commitment to defend the geographical borders of the People’s Republic of China but rather by the conviction that real change can only come about by transforming the totality of a world system based on nation-states plus a panoply of irregular or exceptional spatial arrangements (zones, corridors, protectorates, colonies, mandates, garrisons, etc.) that together serve the regimes of capitalist accumulation.

[4] Oldenziel 2011 reminds us that the thousands of islands, many of which are located in the Pacific, over which the United States has dominion serve a multitude of ideological, political, economic, military, and epistemological functions. Most germane to our discussion here is the idea that, “islands have helped nurture America’s self-image as a post-colonial, post-imperial power in the era of decolonization and globalization” (Oldenziel 2011, 14). Oldenziel draws attention especially to the political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation to which the indigenous populations of these island possessions are subject.

[5] In Shu-mei Shih’s work, “Derridean deconstruction” appears only as a caricatural version of texts whose significance is exclusively figural. Whereas Jacques Derrida made repeated efforts to distinguish deconstruction from linguisticism by emphasizing the machinic aspect of the sign (as well as visual and phonic elements), Shih characterizes his work as linguistico-centric (Shih 2007, 9); whereas Derrida was the first to alert us to the pitfalls of anti-centrist critiques that reinforce the center (Derrida 1966/1978, 353), Shih, with Lionnet, characterizes Derrida’s work as serving only to muscularly enhance the center (Lionnet and Shih 2005, 3); whereas Derrida spent considerable time across multiple works critiquing the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Shih resorts to the trope of personification (Redfield 2016, 10) to discredit Derrida’s work in toto by virtue of the author’s supposed association with Heidegger (Shih 2007, 175). All of the above is accomplished without ever actually getting into even a single line of the Derridean text to address the specificities of Derrida’s ideas. The work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, one of Derrida’s earliest English translators, is treated in a similar way, albeit with an even stronger emphasis on the trope of personification (Shih 2015). Such reckoning would simply be an expression of ressentiment, however, were one not to take into account at the same time the mechanics of academic shaming that often accompanies theory-as-dominance (Lionnet and Shih 2005, 3), including “the criticism we often heard,” and to which I can anecdotally attest, “that ethnic studies was not ‘theoretically sophisticated’” (Shih and Lionnet 2011, 13). I hope to address these issues together in a separate article that will relate them more broadly both to the areal construction of the “creolized theory” and “Taiwan theory” advocated by Shih and to the intrinsically theoretical nature of area in general.

 

 

References

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