Introduction to the Inaugural Issue | Li-Chun Hsiao

by Critical Asia

by Li-Chun Hsiao, Dec. 2020】

Truth to be told: When we first prepared to put into practice the idea of the Critical Asia Archives publication platform, which had been years in the making, we never expected that the inaugural issue would be, at first glance, a “founding exception” to what appears to be our purported focus on “Asia.” In hindsight, however, what more timely occasion can we, as members of Asia Theories Network, envision to link theory and Asia, to theorize Asia(s) in global contexts, to not only look at events in Asia from critical-theoretical perspectives but also explore the prospects of these events in Asia serving as the fertile grounds for new, emerging theories, than the pandemic-related issues we now all have to come to terms with, intellectually and otherwise? While drafting the Call for Papers for this first issue under the shadows of the coronavirus, we did anticipate, without being able to visualize it, that a post-pandemic temporality, in a technical, strictly periodizing sense, would be arriving by the time we officially launch the platform with the inaugural issue on the pandemic—but what can one expect in a year characterized by the unexpected and exceptions?

And yet, even for those of us who had felt pandemic-weary long ago, the challenges posed by this inaugural issue, whether broached in the CFP or not, are well taken, and the resulting contributions, in our view, proved to be thought-provoking and productive, as evidenced by the flashes of insight in the assembled essays or “thought pieces.” The first set of essays can be categorized (for the sake of clarity and editorial expediency that by no means exhausts their richness) as revolving around the virus’s embeddedness/disconnection from its planetary environment: Chun-Mei Chuang’s “A Note on the Postcolonial Implosion of the Anthropocene and the Virocene”; Woosung Kang’s “Virus-ex-machina and Theory”; and Christophe Thouny’s “When Carps Can’t Breathe in Water: On Tawada Yōko’s Planetary Musings in Corona Times.” The peculiarity and unprecedentedness of the novel coronavirus, as Chuang puts it, “probably does not reside in the virus itself; it resides in our knowledges technoscientific infrastructure, which includes the planet itself as well as countless human-made artifacts and data.” Likewise, Kang points out that the coronavirus dramatizes a long-standing and ongoing crisis in which “something has been seriously wrong in the human system and its relationship with the nonhuman planetary biosphere,” and calls for an urgent need to “imagine a radically new ‘heterontology’ of human becoming-guest on Earth.” Working from a similar vein of Deleuzian becomings, Thouny reflects on the planetary ramifications of the expatriate Japanese writer Tawada Yōko’s recent comments on the corona situations, while characterizing the current scenario of “a human world abstracted from its planetary becomings” as an instantiation of stupidity (along with an added note on Deleuze’s lesser-known definition on stupidity).

Three other contributions address more directly the question of stupidity, as highlighted in the subtitle of the CFP, in likely more user-friendly fashions than Deleuze: Nobutaka Otobe’s “Elusive and Ubiquitous Stupidity”; Li-Chun Hsiao’s “Did Somebody Say Stupidity?”; and Lok Siu’s “Exposing Cruelty: The Pandemic at the Intersection of Biopolitics and Racial Capitalism.” Drawing on Robert Musil’s elaborations on stupidity, among others, Otobe’s essay foregrounds the “rationality and reasonableness that may underlie apparent stupidity,” taking a seemingly sympathetic view of the ubiquity of stupidity that affirms the thought-provoking potential of experiences of stupidity that may prompt us to “think anew.” Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth noting that the ostensibly contrarian arguments in both Otobe’s and Hsiao’s pieces seek more to contest the prevalent reproach of stupidity, as a tempting and dominant approach to stupidity, than to condone stupid acts or valorize stupidity itself. Hsiao further underscores the need for more critical attention on “subreption,” which can be likened to a more dangerous variant of stupidity: While the stupid are only susceptible to being duped, the subreptitious actively dupe themselves by acting on a void or perceived lack of certainty, to the point of carrying out “full-blown scenarios.” Starting from a similar query of the productivity and relevancy of the rampant talks on stupidity as they pertain to the unravelling coronavirus situations in the United States, Siu proceeds to call out the underlying cruelty behind the semblance of mere stupidity. The pandemic therefore exposes not only the disparity of vulnerability among different categories of people but also the “widespread tolerance for cruelty,” in sharp contrast to a history of racial intolerance that had not long ago been swept under the rug in the pretext of a (now bankrupt) characterization of post-racial America.

Along with the inherent vulnerability of the human body that, nonetheless, will not be subjected to the same, equalizing degree of victimization by the virus under our current systems, which encompass the medical and political establishments and our social and cultural structures and from which none of us can be extricated, the other crucial problem the pandemic brings to the forefront is the vulnerability of such systems—a vulnerability attributed also to the injustices they were able to contain or cover up until the onset of the pandemic, not just the seemingly apocalyptical potentials of devastation unleashed by the virus. Several contributions take up issues on this front. Bregham Dalgliesh’s “Pandemics and Protests” reflects on “the purchase of the norm” on prejudices of all sorts and their common denominator in “the generalized form of structure,” which tends to remain invisible until a state of exception like the Covid-19 crisis forces a deviation from the norm. Drawing on Judith Butler’s conception of the performative, Dalgliesh reminds us that, on the flip side, the potential of structure’s dismantling, the possibility of contesting its stifling grip on protest, also lies in the performativity of structure. Taking his cue from a sign in Delhi’s metro station that reads, “You are under surveillance,” Alex Taek-Gwang Lee, in his essay “Surveillance and Resistance,” elaborates on the historical development and contemporary manifestations of surveillance techniques in relation to power and capitalism, while elucidating relevant terms such as “cognitive capitalism” and “surveillance capitalism” in the process. As Lee points out, the unfolding pandemic situations illustrate that “surveillance capitalism is sufficiently adaptive and subtle to sustain its own system.”

Continuing on this line of critical inquiries at the intersection of power, pandemic, and resistance are four pieces that feature more prominently the specificities of local conditions of Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, respectively, while touching on some of the aforementioned general/theoretical issues at the same time. What might appear to some as a predominantly empirical and detailed account of Taiwan’s success story in Chen Dung-Sheng’s “Non-linear Social and Political Development under Disasters: The Case of Taiwan in the Covid-19 Pandemic” more clearly demonstrates to us the solid ground for reflections on the unique case of Taiwan’s handling of the pandemic than merely the disciplinary and methodological orientations. As the peaks of Covid-19 casualties have more than once exposed the vulnerability of the medical and public health infrastructures in many so-called “advanced” capitalist societies or developed countries, what do we make of the linear development model of modernization theories that still hold sway in realpolitik, despite having been undermined, in academic and cultural discourses, along with the grand narratives, and that still convince, subliminally at least, the “late comers” to resign themselves to always playing the catch-up game? In light of the supposedly perturbed global order premised on a certain neoliberalist logic, it may be interesting and productive to read Chen’s essay along with Satofumi Kawamura’s “Neoliberal Logic and Covid-19 in Japan,” which focuses on the equally exceptional pandemic handling situations in Japan. Kawamura frames the Abe administration’s pandemic responses as oscillating “between two poles: neoliberal governmentality and techno-medical sovereignty,” while perceptively linking the neoliberal logic of self-responsibility, exemplified in the penalty-free guidelines (even when emergency declaration was issued back in this past spring), to the “system of irresponsibility” rooted in vestiges of premodern tradition, albeit in updated and adjusted forms. For most states ensconced in the neoliberal capitalist order, including Taiwan, the government’s corona crisis responses amount to pragmatic adjustments, pending particularities of the local situations, within the neoliberal framework, but the groundwork or potential for the neoliberal paradigm to, theoretically speaking, morph into or approximate techno-medical despotism, has been laid, since, as Kawamura argues, the two “converge in the same horizon: objectivation.” Chen’s piece shows that in Taiwan, the civil society appears to be a safeguard mechanism against such a theoretical prospect, as civil organizations in Taiwan actively participated in concerted efforts of pandemic control.

If the “China factor” also played out in nuanced ways in both Taiwan (e.g. self-consciously distinguishing its successful experiences from the visibly techno-medical despotic model of China) and Japan (e.g. the neoliberal interests entangled with business ties in and tourists from China, countered by the anti-Chinese sentiment of Abe’s base), it is at such a different scale in Hong Kong that it probably shouldn’t be considered a “factor” any more. It is China everywhere in Hong Kong today, and this is the set of circumstances under which Kwai-Cheung Lo’s thought piece, “A Speed Boat to the End,” is to be situated. After calling into question the definition of “safety” in Hong Kong since the pandemic started by pointing out the obvious, “Hong Kong government has never imposed any lockdown in the face of the COVID-19 outbreak” after willfully closing public places during the 2019 protests, Lo proceeds to comment on a provocative strategy of resistance he calls “accelerationism,” adopted by Hong Kong protesters and endorsed by some Chinese netizens (anonymously, of course): “let the bad get worse, let everything go faster; then a universal change will get closer with a promising future.” Before that can happen with such a wishful speed—and speeding-up—a “new form of authoritarian society” is already taking shape, as Lo observes. Last but not least, on the front of new forms of authoritarian rule, Oscar V. Campomanes in his essay “On the Threshold of Digital (Post) Modernity?” notes how the Duterte regime in the Philippines evolved and adapted to the pandemic situations, as its handling of the corona crisis “has not been medical but militaristic in the most pronounced of ways.” Although this newly evolved—and perhaps upgraded—authoritarianism may be unbearably long to the point of having established a new normal, Campomanes also reflects on the blurred and uncertain thresholds of various kinds—the qualified periodization of the Foucauldian conception of biological modernity, the prolonged phasing in-and-out of crises in the Philippines, past and present. It is on this note on thresholds, as we fix our collective gaze on what hopefully would be, at the very least, the post-vaccine phase of the pandemic, that we’d like to mark the inaugural issue as well as the Critical Asia Archives platform as points of departure for and portals to more intellectually exhilarating collaborative and individual works to come in the near future, whether it be based on, breaking from, connected/disconnected in unexpected ways with/from what has been assembled here so far.

Li-Chun Hsiao, Waseda University, Japan

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