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Media Archipelagos: Inter-Asian Film Festivals
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The potential of Asia as method is this: using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point, societies in Asia can become each other’s points of reference, so that the understanding of the self may be transformed, and subjectivity rebuilt. On this basis, the diverse historical experiences and rich social practices of Asia may be mobilized to provide alternative horizons and perspectives. This method of engagement, I believe, has the potential to advance a different understanding of world history.

—Chen Kuan-Hsing, Asia as Method

Contemporary scholarship in the social sciences and the humanities tends to settle upon two somewhat overworked topological relations of islands. The first predominant relation presents a clear focus on islands’ singularity, unique histories and cultures, crafted and inscribed by the border between land and sea . The second distinguishes islands from mainlands/continents , and dwells on their differences from these larger settings.

—Elaine Stratford, Godfrey Baldacchino, Elizabeth McMahon, Carol Farbotko, and Andrew Harwood, “Envisioning the Archipelago”

This essay centers on emerging material and imaginary configurations of/in Asia, suggesting an alternative mapping to the still dominant Cold War logic of the East and West. Taking film festivals in Asia as its chief example, it aims to engage and build on a range of provocative scholarship examining cultural regionalization and Asian theory (e.g., not simply theory from Asia but theoretical engagements with Asia itself) as well as inter-Asian media flows, creative industries, urbanisms, social movements, and related cross-fertilizations. The Asian festival’s marginal status—at the center, of course, is Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, Sundance, etc —both repeats dominant epistemological structures by which the non-West must go through the core to communicate in the non-West and, at the same time, fosters significant new sites and modes for inter-Asian connectivity. Festivals across Asia—including the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF), previously known as the Pusan International Film Festival; the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF); TOKYO FILMeX; Taipei’s Golden Horse Film Festival; and the International Film Festival of India, but especially the many smaller exhibitions—can be understood as a clustering of sites or archipelagos that reframe the self-referential logic of Western media capitals.

Chen Kuan-Hsing’s Asia as Method provides us with a useful starting point. The work signals a thickening shift toward Asian interreferencing—as well as Third World or fringe interreferencing—as world building. Put otherwise, inter-Asian exchanges, rather than Western modernities, serve as the basis on which to build new social, economic, and political formations. As a conceptual apparatus, Asia as Method attempts to dissolve the often-criticized coupling that takes Asia as data or source material and the West as method or theory. As many scholars have noted, this hegemonic process produces the West as a singular model to which the non-West must endlessly measure or catch up. A key aspect of Chen’s intervention is to theorize modes of engagement that do not proceed directly through the West and instead crystallize around multisited regional capacities. These sites do not dissolve Euro-American presence and related structural inequalities but instead act to dislocate their position as and at the ontogenetic core. Provincializing Europe —to borrow the title concept of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal study—does not go far enough.

Critiquing postcolonial strategies that continuously locate the West as the reference and “point of opposition,” Chen offers a molecular approach that understands the “West as bits and fragments that intervene in local social formations in a systematic, but never totalizing, way.” Here, the West is one cultural resource among many. Simply put, Chen’s aim, alongside many theorists associated with inter-Asian cultural studies, is to potentiate new modes of becoming that are rooted in Asian experiences and entanglements, where Asia is not only raw material but also model and method.

Island Theory: Mapping Media Archipelagos

Margaret Hillenbrand and other scholars have addressed the quasi-exclusionary potential of Chen’s utopian view of Asian visions and collaborations. Taking this necessary critique into account, Chen’s generative insight also opens up important space for Asian media theory. It is here that I find in archipelagos a parallel analytical frame. Archipelagos, as a...

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