The Journal of Japanese Studies 30.2 (2004) 417-429
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Rethinking Area Studies, Once More
This is a vexing but valuable book. The catalogue of vexation follows directly, but the complaints are not meant to deny that one finds thoughtful and valuable argument in this book. Although the contributors themselves do not always practice what they preach, their call for scholarship attentive both to discourse and to contexts of politics and economy is refreshing and important. And although the book initially targets old-fashioned area studies as its nemesis, it more valuably offers a critique of a sort of cultural studies that remains entirely wrapped up in the realm of the discursive, not properly connected to political economy or, indeed, to any notion of reality outside the text. Especially of interest in this regard were essays by Benita Parry and Rey Chow. This book deserves careful and wide reading. I am glad to have read it and will continue to assign it to students.
Learning Places is vexing in several ways. First, the book makes spurious claims to freshness and does not engage relevant prior work. The volume collectively defines area studies in diverse ways, but one can distill the following characteristics as most central: an academic inquiry originally funded by the American state for strategic reasons during World War II and then the cold war, which emphasizes interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approaches as well as the need to learn the languages of the areas studied. [End Page 417] The book sharply attacks the practice of area studies for insufficient attention to social or cultural theories, or attention to the wrong theories (modernization theory). In places it attacks area studies for overemphasizing national particularities and for insufficient stress on comparative or global context. Such area studies are said to be in thrall politically or ideologically to the American state and its imperialism or to global corporate capitalism.
This is a rather old song. I have happily sung it myself, more in the classroom than in print. More publicly, John Dower made many of these points nearly 30 years ago in his brilliant polemic, "E. H. Norman and the Uses of History."1 It was more than a little surprising to find in Learning Places just two oblique references to this antecedent critique. I believe there is some difference; Dower's work stressed the complicity of area studies scholars with the state, whereas some of these essays rather stress the complicity with corporate interests. In any case, I doubt I am the only person for whom Dower's polemic had a major impact on thinking and practice as a graduate student and professor. This earlier round of critique should have been addressed directly at some length, whether to problematize its shortcomings or affirm its ongoing relevance.
A second vexing feature of the book is the tendency to set up straw men for attack. This is most striking in the blast leveled at a reputed obsession of traditional area studies with language mastery, reportedly seen in naive fashion as the magic key to knowledge of the Asian other: "There is the presumption of the transparency of language as an unmediated conveyor of native truths and knowledge" (p. 11); and "these two conditions [field work and language study] were inevitably seen as more than adequate substitutes or replacement for theory and methodology as they still are" (p. 162). I italicize the last four words for they are "straw man" criticism at its worst. Tell us who these present-day scholars might be. I am sure some practitioners have been guilty as charged; and some may still believe it is possible to learn a language or two and thus apprehend the truth of Asia, pure and simple. But surely the vast majority of scholars in and around the area studies realm understand linguistic fluency to be a necessary tool, but by no means a...