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Toward Southeast Asian Study

Christine

by Christine Bacaereza Balance, associate professor, Asian American studies and performing and media arts  

When I first received the invitation to speak at the SEAP 2019 Graduate Student Conference, Conformities and Interruptions in Southeast Asia, I realized (both intellectually and viscerally) that I might be seen, in many ways, to be a disruption to the ideal of what a Southeast Asian studies graduate conference speaker might be. That is to say, despite my current institutional affiliation with SEAP, one might look over my curriculum vitaand/or academic history and note that my work, both academic and otherwise, has been done much more under the guise of Asian American studies.  

As an ethnic studies undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, I was often indoctrinated to be suspicious of those studying under the banner of Southeast Asian or Asian studies,either because of the field’s intertwined and complicated history with US foreign policy, or because of the field’s historical and methodological tendencies towards the colonial and anthropological. Nonetheless, I snuck around and took at least two Southeast Asian studies courses, one focused on general studies of Southeast Asia and another focused on Filipino/American literature (literature written both by Filipinos in the United States as well as literature written in English by Filipinos in the Philippines).  

I mainly took these classes as a remedy to the East Asian-centricity of many Asian American studies classes at UC Berkeley at the time. I also took these classes because I, like many of the original student activists who fought for Asian American studies in the late 1960s, were interested in understanding Asian America within a transnational, even international, framework of liberation and struggle. “We are here because you were there” is an oft-cited mantra of an Asian American studies program that sees itself as always-already domestic and transnational. From then until now, I have beendrawn to the “there” of the Philippines, yes, but also Southeast Asia, more broadly.  

I must state, however, that I bring my training in cultural studies (and a particular instance of Asian American studies) to my Southeast Asian study, my Filipino study. As Rey Chow has so cogently articulated:  

Instead of the traditional Eurocentric frameworks of the nation-state,national language, and geographical area that constitute area studies, cultural studies offers modes of inquiry that require students to pay attention to the cultural politics of knowledge production. Instead of reinforcing the kind ofOrientalist methodology that is deeply entrenched in area studies, cultural studies would emphasize how the study of non-Western cultures as such cannot proceed as if modernity and tradition were simply a matter of indigenous continuity without taking into consideration the ideological consequences of Western imperialism or without addressing the asymmetrical relations between master discourses and native informants.i  

This is not to say that all area studies or cultural studies theorists move forth in these manners. I would say, however, that they do exist whenever I might hear an area studies scholar state that they study “Vietnam” or “Indonesia,” as if one could ever fully comprehend or understand the totality of a nation-state, let alone simply study a nation’s culture, people, natural resources, etcetera, in a manner that did not take into consideration how such a statement could be so problematic. By “problematic” I mean not only in the ways that such scholarshipassumes a comprehensive knowledge, but also in the ways that it might presume a static “Vietnam” or “Indonesia”—an “indigenous continuity”—while, at the same time, ignoring the politics and structures of knowing such places and peoples, and the ways that such places and peoples have changed over time (not only due to natural causes, but also to the unnatural causes of war, empire, and colonialism) 

If I sound antagonistic to the project of Southeast Asia’s study, I am not; in fact, I hold cultural studies and those within Asian American studies equally accountable when it comes to a propensity for comprehensive knowledge and presumed static notions of the “homeland.” In both cases, I hold myself equally accountable to thinking through and working against what Rey Chow designates as the “asymmetrical relations inherent in the Western studies of non-Western cultures.”ii For example, how can I not only elevate the cultures and everyday lives of Filipinos to the same level as “high theory,” but also continually and respectfully take part in Filipino intellectual life (and scholarly conversations, mainly taking place in Manila) as a US-based and -trained scholar? 

What I want to propose is a project of Southeast Asian study, a joint endeavor that crosses the institutional lines of area studies and Asian American studies. Here, I think of “study” along the lines of “black study, black struggle” that historian Robin D. G. Kelley lays out. It is a form of study indebted to histories of Black studies—a field formed around the same time as Asian American studiesconceived not just outside the university but in opposition to a Eurocentric university culture with ties to corporate and military power.” As Kelley continues, “insurgent black studies scholars developed institutional models based in, but largely independent of the academy.” They were “a subaltern, subversive way of being in but not of the university,”a model that Stefano Harney and Fred Moten have designated as the undercommons, “a fugitive network where a commitment to abolition and collectivity prevails over a university culture bent on creating socially isolated individuals whose academic skepticism and claims of objectivity leave the world-as-it-is intact.”iii Taking a cue from earlier instantiations of black studies and Asian American studies, our Southeast Asian study should emphasize critiques of power over simply respect for differences, as well as learn not to grant the university so much authority over reading choices. Or, as science fiction writer Octavia Butler insists, we must learn to “read omnivorously.”iv  

So what has Southeast Asian study looked like for me?  

I take seriously David Rosenberg’s notice that the “political transformation” of martial law “provides an opportunity to reexamine many long-standing beliefs about the nature of Philippine politics.”v Southeast Asian study has brought me to the realization of the need for an archipelagic perspective, as Jay Batongbacal and Merlin Magallona have described it, an approach attuned to the geographical realities of the Philippines as a nation “fragmented into more than 7,000 islands.” With its cultural features of kinship structure, ethnolinguistic diversity, religious battles, and ongoing nationalist struggles, the Philippines already finds cultural affinities with its Southeast Asian neighbors. With a shared history of US empire and Spanish colonialism, it is also attuned to its Latin American and Caribbean compatriots and counterparts. Nevertheless, with its “turn to authoritarian government” in 1972, the history of martial law in the Philippines requires attention be paid to the broader landscape of third-world political events taking place and political leaders rising to power during that tumultuous decade. Therefore, I aim to move away from the binary of US and Philippine nationalist discourses and, instead, bring this historical period into conversation with larger concerns in the fields of Caribbean, Latin American, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander studies.vi    

Our Southeast Asian study would hopefully lead us away from holding onto the traditions and borders of nation-states, national languages, and literatures and toward the regional sounds of Southeast Asia designated before, after, and in spite of post-World War II and Cold War configurations.  

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