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Nepantla: Views from South 3.3 (2002) 495-537

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Lead Us Not into Translation
Notes toward a Theoretical Foundation for Asian Studies

Michael Dutton

I begin this work with a simple question. Why is it impossible to imagine, much less write, a work like Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish within Asian area studies? The impossibility I am referring to is not of content but of form. It is not just about writing such a text but about having it read as something more than a description; having it read for its theoretical significance more generally. That is to say, it is about the impossibility of writing a work that is principally of a theoretical nature but that is empirically and geographically grounded in Asia rather than in Europe or America. Why is it that, when it comes to Asian area studies, whenever “theory” is invoked, it is invariably understood to mean “applied theory” and assumed to be of value only insofar as it helps tell the story of the “real” in a more compelling way?

To some extent, what follows is an attempt to explain historically how Western area studies on Asia came to appreciate theory in this limited and limiting way. At the same time, as I began to investigate the history and prehistory of this diaphanous field, I began to recognize the possibilities of a very different form of area studies that could have emerged had different sets of pressures pushed it in a slightly different direction. This essay is therefore an attempt to recuperate these now forgotten possibilities and to build on them in order to produce a different way of seeing, writing, and theorizing Asian area studies. [End Page 495]

Tales of Translation

Story One

There is a story told today about an event in ancient China wherein five hundred archers were said to have been dispatched, on the emperor's express orders, to a coastal location near Hangzhou that was about to be reclaimed by imperial engineers. There, in an event that enabled the commencement of this major project, arrows were fired into the sea to ward off the dragon god. These “opening shots” are, in a contemporary Western recollection of the event, said to be “ceremonial,” warning the dragon god not to make (violent) waves. Yet the object of this form of “ceremony” and the “engineering” project that it “celebrated” were, in fact, of equal weight, for both were designed to outwit the dragon god and fend off the tempestuous sea so that the land could be reclaimed for the emperor. The techniques differed—the archer used the bow, the engineer, science and technic (in Georges Bataille's [1979] sense)—but their objects were identical. Yet when this account is retold in our time and in our functionalist logic, it becomes a story of scientific discovery, and the archers' tale is relegated to a “ceremonial space” somewhere on the margins of this main scientific account. For me, while the functionalist analysis is a useful corrective to idealism, there is much more to tell, both in the archer's tale and in its retelling as “ceremonial.”1

How much can we trust the unity imposed by this (positivist) narrative strategy? Surely the instrumentalist (re)telling of the archer's tale as a “ceremonial aside” within an overarching story of a developing technical and scientific proficiency should set off a ripple of doubt. After all, the story of scientific curiosity, technical advance, and careful and exact inquiry into currents, winds, and sea patterns, a tale familiar to any contemporary Western reader, now appears stalked by another (more ominous) figure. The shadow of the inexplicable “other” side and “other” logic darkens this figure of ceremony, which threatens to turn the tranquil and familiar waters of “our” comprehensibility into something far more uncertain and incalculable. To “read” sea currents anthropomorphically, as the emperor surely did when he dispatched a team of archers to tame the sea dragon, threatens the exactness of calculation and the economy of science that contemporary positivist accounts...


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