Introduction | Isa Lacuna & Bram Overbeeke

by Critical Asia

by Isa Lacuna & Bram Overbeeke, June 2022】

The environment as a critical subject of inquiry has garnered increased attention with the advent of the epoch arguably called the Anthropocene, and nowadays, concern regarding climate-catastrophe and environmental degradation are prevalent worldwide. Yet definitions of nature or the environments in question are not universally shared. The very definition of “nature” itself resists broad generalizations and straight-forward explication—as it must—given the different conditions under which it must signify. As Jennifer Wenzel points out: “Assumptions about what nature is are mutually constituted with contests over how it is used,”[1] and these assumptions and contestations vary largely from place to place, culture to culture, or region to region. These definitions are inevitably embedded in long histories of urbanization, modernization, conflict, colonialism, tradition, religion, and agency, and it is difficult to speak of “nature” without addressing the multitude of cultures and peoples for which it matters in quite distinct ways.

The significance of these distinctions cannot be overstated, especially in the context of Asia and Asia-oriented studies. The region is home to more than half of the world’s population, and many of the cities most vulnerable to climate change are also Asia’s most populous.[2] It hosts two of the most energetic monsoon systems in the planet, and the violence of their storms and droughts have only been exacerbated by global warming. The stark economic inequalities rife in the region also nuance the climate injustices it experiences and desires to rectify. All these entanglements and contradictions necessarily put the region at the forefront of the environmental crisis, and the essays in this issue demonstrate the myriad number of ways these elements are discursively being recalibrated by young scholars in the region.

Collectively, the essays in this issue discuss how the ‘environment’ becomes mobilized in discourses around Asia—by the powers that instigate and exacerbate the region’s contemporary political-ecological inequalities and catastrophes, as well as by the writers, artists and activists who wish to reveal and critique these intersections of politics and environmental degradation. Experiences of Euro-American empire, specifically, play a crucial role in understanding the environmental imagination of many parts of Asia, and particular to this issue, from and about the Philippines. Both Isa Lacuna and Timothy Ong historicize particular nature tropes as they were deployed during the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century with regard to the Philippine archipelago, as the islands turbulently transitioned from a Spanish to an American colony.

For Timothy Ong, the environmental resources of the Philippines—such as the seas which figure as pre-existing connections ready to be exploited—figure centrally in the early 20th century American debates around the annexation of the archipelago, especially in the 1900 congressional speech of Albert Beveridge. Ong’s analysis shows how the Anthropocene we inhabit today is not simply an unintended side-effect of modernity but in fact a necessary outcome that has been long in the making, a future explicitly planned for by the developmentalist empire.

In a complementary investigation, Isa Lacuna historically traces the ways in which anti-colonial discourse in the Philippine archipelago deploys nature tropes—particularly that of the storm—and the role it plays in the revolutionary imagination of writers from the islands. In contrast to the extractive and controlling rhetoric of Spanish and American empire, revolutionary writers from the Philippines demonstrate a tendency to figure storms as not simply obstacles to be overcome, but as tropic events rife with generative and liberatory potential. Atmospheric turbulence in this case represents a kind of tropic intersection—a “monsoon assemblage”—that necessarily layers both the islands many historically rooted difficulties with the future emancipations it hopes to achieve.

Challenging the rigid confines of nation-state boundaries that usually enclose various studies about Asia, Betsy Kwong provides a wider reaching critique of the extractive logics and the skewed binaries of both anthropocentrism and Eurocentrism through the lens of posthumanist feminism. Through the concept of the Nature-Other, Kwong traces various streams of Asian philosophical and religious thought may be mobilized to decentre traditional conceptions of the human and its corresponding relations within broader ecological views. In the theoretical proposition of Kwong’s argument, it is only when the human is able to envision a more encompassing relationality with the non-human, the cosmic, and the planetary, that an alternative to Anthropocentric thinking might be more fully envisioned and attained.

In his essay, Ding-Liang Chen positions a perusal of the Mekong cinematic riverine as part of a larger critique of development capitalism and its imagined linear temporality of progress and security. The ‘watery intimacies’ in Phạm Ngọc Lân’s The Unseen River (Giòng Sông Không Nhìn Thấy) not only challenge the overdevelopments that are drying out the transnational region, but also suggest that affective and personal knowledge of the river provide necessary recalibrations to the speedy (and oftentimes destructive) logics that govern most engineering and economic-oriented projects. Through its comprehension of a slow and lingering temporality, Chen also brings to the fore how alternative conceptions of time situate and necessarily affect our understanding of the environments we inhabit.    

Tackling the residue of capitalism and its overconsumptions, Bram Overbeeke traces the non-circularity of material flows and the skewed value system which governs the afterlives of commodities in Hong Kong. In his analysis of Limbo (dir. Cheang Pou-soi) and Drifting (dir. Jun Li), Overbeeke proposes that while cinema has the capacity to visually represent systems of valuation, much work remains to be done in terms of critiquing the very logic of the system itself. Waste—and consequently, the people who are inevitably brought into waste’s political, social, and material orbit—then become a flashpoint that not only interrogate cinema’s many embedded ideas of representation and visibility, but also the larger economic and cultural models in which all these subjects are made to matter.

Brought together, these essays show Asia as a landscape of crowded human and non-human relations demanding to be told.[3] While it is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, the concerns and topics the issue broaches demonstrate the diverse and multivalent character of the region, and the writers and curators share the belief that such conceptual plurality can only add to the rich theoretical complexity the field has to offer its readers, both within and outside this place called Asia.

Isa Lacuna, University of Western Australia, Australia
Bram Overbeeke, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong


[1] Jennifer Wenzel, The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature (Fordham University Press, 2019).

[2] Sunil Amrith, Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia’s History (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

[3] Anna Tsing, “When the Things We Study Respond to Each Other: Tools for Unpacking ‘The Material’,” in Penny Harvey, Christian Krohn-Hansen, and Knut G. Nustad, eds., Anthropos and Material (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019) 221-244.

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