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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.1 (2000) 9-76

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The Imperialist Eye:
The Cultural Imaginary of a Subempire and a Nation-State

Kuan-Hsing Chen *

I look hard for
The origin of blood.
Some say I'm from the Malaysian archipelago,
On the southwest border of China . . .
But my parents told me:
We are all children of the sun,
The eggs of the rattler,
The race bred in the earth . . .
No accurate answer after all.
But retracing assures me,
Making me understand the real master of the beautiful island,
And page after page of broken history.

--Monanen Malialiaves (Ah Neng), "Burning" (1989) [End Page 9]

1. The Problematic of a "Third World" Cultural Studies

For the past few years, I have been puzzled by one question: What does it mean to do "cultural studies" in a Third World space like Taiwan? 1

After a long period of training in Anglo-American cultural studies, I went back to Taiwan in 1989 and have witnessed the most turbulent transformations. My critical training has driven my involvement in these changes. Meanwhile, the mood of "indigenization" (ben-tu-hua) provokes me to reflect on the necessity of decolonizing my intellectual work. But it also makes me realize that exclusive indigenization is a sheer dead end. Wavering constantly between a local critical theoretical stand and my personal historical experiences, I have been searching for a workable position, without which no research is possible. Compared with my theoretical writings abroad, discourse on "popular democracy" and "new internationalist localism" are harbingers of the results of my attempts. 2

An eye-opening event for me was the symposium entitled "The Changing Global Reality and the Future of Asian People," hosted by ARENA in 1993. 3 This was my first opportunity to meet critical scholars who were all from Asia, to actively learn about the political and economic situations all over Asia, to realize that mine was an "American accent," to experience the uncanny Philippines that is so similar to yet so different from Taiwan, and, finally, to hear local people call Taiwan's influx of capital "imperialist." It also highlighted the importance of "Third World" as a politico-theoretical concept. I believe I am approaching that workable position, becoming more aware of the blind spots of Taiwan indigenous cultural studies and the limitations of "Western" cultural studies. Perhaps a new road could emerge from the dialectic of the local, the Third World, and global capitalist culture.

1.1. The Blind Spots in the Crisis of "Internationalizing" Cultural Studies

The academic discipline of cultural studies is being internationalized through cross-border dialogue, contrary to the old research model, which was based on local issues. Currently, the overarching problem is that, on the epistemological level, the nation-state has become the presumed parameter of almost all local analysis and, hence, of the cultural study of Britain, the United [End Page 10] States, Canada, Australia, and so forth. This endlessly reproduces the target of criticism and the power relationship within the capitalist system as well. For example, two recently published collections (both titled Cultural Studies) of some five hundred to eight hundred pages, respectively, have nothing to say about studies of the Third World; their authors are mostly Euro-Americans. 4 Nevertheless, the intention to engage in dialogue does exist. The senior editor of positions: east asia cultures critique, for example, has established connections with local groups in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and other places for the purpose of promoting dialogue. 5

The heated debate in the present dialogue is Aijaz Ahmad's; his 1992 In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures criticizes the theories of Jameson and Said from a Marxist perspective. Public Culture also establishes a discursive space with its special issue titled "Controversies: Debating in Theory." Unfortunately, almost all the responses have as their target Ahmad, thus foreclosing more frontal dialogues as well as challenges. Other new academic journals bent on creating such dialogic spaces include Third Text, New Formation, Cultural Studies, Theory, Culture, Society, Transition, Social Text, and...


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