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  • We Have Never Been Latecomers!?Making Knowledge Spaces for East Asian Technosocial Practices
  • Wen-yuan Lin (bio) and John Law (bio)

1 The Problem

Famously, Bruno Latour (1993) argued that “we have never been modern” and proposed instead that modernity balances or oscillates between the purity that it claims to be attached to on the one hand and impurity on the other. Ruthlessly but powerfully, this move created a space for thinking about the heterogeneous character of European modernity, and it is a claim that has been widely developed and explored, not least by Latour (2013) himself in his recent book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. At the same time, and partly in response to Latour's call for symmetry, researchers with postcolonial sensitivities, such as Warwick Anderson (2002; 2009a), Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000), Sandra Harding (2008), and Helen Verran (2001) have reminded us that the celebration of the end of modernity and the powerful STS tool of analytical symmetry are both drawn from the specific historical, social, and knowledge contexts of Western Europe and North America.

The caution is clear: technoscience is not as pure and universal as many have assumed. It is important not to lose sight of the uneven distribution of technosocial networks around the world or of the alternative concerns, practices, or what we might think of as different “modes of knowing” in non-Western places. To say that we have never been modern is, in short, to talk about a “we” whose knowledge is particular, specific, and located.

These STS and postcolonial interrogations have attracted increasing attention in STS edited collections (Anderson and Adams 2008; Harding 2011) and special journal issues, including Social Studies of Science (Anderson 2002; Kowal, Radin, and Reardon 2013), Science as Culture (McNeil 2005), Isis (Schiebinger 2005), and Postcolonial Studies (Seth 2009). Unsurprisingly, several special issues of East [End Page 117] Asian Science, Technology and Society (EASTS) have also explored the issue (for example, Tsukahara 2009, Anderson 2009b, Chen and Fu 2012). Nor is it surprising to discover that problematics and agendas vary between different contexts and locations.

2 How Far Can EASTS Go?

How do we know how “East Asia” is done in our knowing practices? Is it possible to imagine other East Asian modes of knowing or knowledge spaces? Is it possible to explore how these are enacted? The making of similarities has been going on since Vasco da Gama in one or another of the Western modes of international (Lin and Law forthcoming). This has come in various guises: modernization, Westernization, development, globalization, or even civilization. It has been done on a massive scale since the sixteenth century. And it has almost always been analytical and dominatory (Lin and Law 2014). No doubt many have done important work in these repertoires, but often, instead of recognizing that knowing is situated, their work has been accompanied by the elision of context. Clearly if we think within these repertoires, then we also need to ask: Where we are speaking from? How are our knowing practices making and remaking these repertoires? What routes do these ways of knowing follow? And where are they leading us?

All this suggests that engaging STS by highlighting practices from non-Western places such as East Asia, or more specifically Taiwan, is possible but problematic. This is because while locality, context, or situation can be specified, the ways in which this is done typically carry the ghost of area studies, theories of development and modernization, postcolonial studies, or some mix of these. Background categories and classifications mobilized to describe and prescribe knowledge spaces include center versus periphery, dependent versus independent, developed versus developing versus undeveloped, and empire versus the colonialized. At the same time this intellectual baggage tends to disappear in the commitment of STS to symmetrical method and its theoretical and critical orientation to notions such as network, framing, circulation, and trading zone. What is happening here? The danger is that vocabularies such as these dissolve specific differences into a single happy and all-inclusive STS family.

How do we avoid this? As contributors to EASTS have interrogated the Western STS legacy with Asian local practices, they have proposed various strategies. Togo Tsukahara (2009) has...


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pp. 117-125
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2021
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