Introduction | Vincenz Serrano

by Critical Asia

by Vincenz Serrano, Dec. 2021】

In 2019, Irina Dumitrescu and Bruce Holsinger co-edited “In Brief,” a special issue on brevity published in New Literary History. Dumitrescu and Holsinger point out that although short forms such the tweet, GIF, meme, and emoticon seem ubiquitous in our present moment, the propensity for brevity has had a long history: fables, aphorisms, epigrams, haiku dialogues, and riddles have been around for centuries (vi-vii). Despite the short shrift short forms typically get—i.e., tweets are misconstrued as illustrative of the “quotidian smallness of modern distraction,” memes are seen, often unfairly, as “symptom[s] of fast living and short attention spans” (i)—Dumitrescu and Holsinger maintain the capacity of brevity-informed texts for “concentrated meaning, narrative technique, and artful deployment of gaps” (viii). Put differently, short forms—which are informed by brevity as an aesthetic and analytic resource—engage with topics as cogently and substantively as their longer counterparts, without shortchanging their diverse publics and counterpublics of key features such as stylistic flair, tonal sophistication, political charge, and ethical orientation.

This special issue of Critical Asia Archives: Events and Theories—“Short Notice: Keywords for Our Moment”—takes its cue from “In Brief” and gathers eight essays from South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines that explore a literary, cultural, or theoretical text, phenomenon, situation, or condition that is of interest in Asia and to the wider world. Invited contributors were free to choose their topics, as long as they kept within the constraints of a one-word title and limit of approximately 1,000 words. In this sense, the authors were able to make the condition of constraint a generative one: the sense of a limit—the pressure of compression—generated essays that were crisp, substantive, thought-provoking, and timely.

Elmo Gonzaga’s “Archipelago” explores the term from a number of fronts: its conceptual provenance, how the term denotes kinds of relationships between islands and continents, and the capacity of the term to trouble national boundaries, particularly in our current historical moment of climate change and rising geopolitical tensions. For Gonzaga, the “transboundary ethos” of the archipelagic, however “elusive,” is still worth pursuing: one response to “the aggression and violence of ethnocentrism and provincialism” is precisely “the imagination and cultivation of a transboundary commons.” Giselle Garcia’s “Dramaturgy” looks at dramaturgic practices from the viewpoint of cartography: on the one hand, finding affiliations between dramaturgy and mapping might reveal colonial mechanisms that are inscribed in cartographic practices, a “colonial fetish for discovery,” dramaturgy as a “case of my own double consciousness.” On the other hand, Garcia points out that dramaturgy-as-mapping can also resist colonial machinations: “dramaturgical mapping as a set of cultural practices that focus on contemporary contexts that shape global storytelling.” “Sanam / Field / สนาม” by the collective The Commoner’s Archive of Feelings traces the historical origins, affective resonances, and political implications of sanam. The collective focuses on Sanam Luang, a famous field in Bangkok, and looks at how the use of the space changed since its establishment around 1782: Sanam Luang throughout various points in Thailand’s history had been used as a space for royal cremations, festivals, markets, leisure activities, and more importantly, a venue for public dissent. More expansively, for the collective, the notion of sanam can also be seen figuratively: their publication aims to change the fields of meaning, particularly with the interests of ordinary citizen in mind. Virgilio A. Rivas’s “Notharctus” examines in a series of brief yet interrelated fragments a diverse set of concerns, seen from a longue duree perspective: climate change, economic disparities, political formations, plants, biotic refuse, among other facets of the “evolving story” of Asia. In a style that engages with both the world-historical (Asia as incorporated into a world-system) and the speculative (“Notharctus” references J.G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company), Rivas considers a possible future: “in Asia, all skies have become horizontal.”

Kiyeol Kim, in “Authenticity,” identifies expressive individualism as one possible, though problematic, characteristic of authenticity: we would like, it seems, to be “true to oneself,” to have no contradiction between “inward feeling and outward appearance”—a response to a present-day context marked by disinformation, spectacle, and the reproducibility of commodities. That said, for Kim, “a paradox structures contemporary desires for authenticity”: in our search for the good life, we might be unwittingly “enabl[ing] powerful institutions to profit from our desires.” Jeremy De Chavez’s “Happiness” places happiness alongside temporality, and by so doing, reveals distinct yet interrelated facets of happiness: the fractional condition of happiness, the anticipation of happiness as world building, the thwarting of happiness, and, happiness seen from the vantage point of redemption: in De Chavez’s terms, “a way to liberate ourselves from the demand to be happy and to make others happy.” Simon Soon’s “Sight” reflects on wedding photographs published in the Malayan newspaper Tamil Murasu around 1936. Beyond the personal dimension evoked by the photographs, Soon underscores their “seldom discussed political power”: the photographs became a means by which Tamil culture asserted itself in Malaya in the early to mid-twentieth century. Moreover, Soon’s essay reminds the present-day viewers of the photographs of the capacity of images to “shape and to intervene into our reality.” Anjeline de Dios’s “Livestream” engages with livestreaming, with its attendant prospects and limitations, as a way of initiating and sustaining community. Reflecting on her own activities done on various platforms, as well as Elsa Jocson’s Zoo (2020), de Dios underscores the ambivalences of connecting with each other in digital spaces: the “strange exhaustion” the accompanies the “constricted and interminable intimacy of mutual beholding.”

By way of closing: in The Arcades Project—itself a collection, unfinished, of fragments—Walter Benjamin distinguishes between the knowledge and thinking process that informs it vis-a-vis the text as the manifestation of one’s thinking. “Knowledge comes only in lightning flashes,” Benjamin writes. “The text is the long roll of thunder that follows.” Even if in the essays in this issue ofCritical Asia Archives: Events and Theories the thunderclap of the text does not stretch too long, the illumination, though brief, is bright, and the storm of knowledge unsettles yet invigorates.

Vincenz Serrano, Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines


Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap P / Harvard UP, 1999, p. 456.

Dumitrescu, Irina, and Bruce Holsinger. “Introduction.” New Literary History, vol. 50, no. 3, 2019, pp. vii-x,

You may also like

Leave a Comment