On the Inevitable Politics of Our Lives and Institutions

It has been fifty years since the Journal of Asian Studies published William Theodore de Bary’s by now iconic presidential address, “The Association for Asian Studies: Nonpolitical but not Unconcerned” (Aug. 1970, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 751-759). De Bary spoke in the context of very different, but not unrelated, times, marked by debates over the Vietnam War, as well as the rise of social and scholarly movements that included the Black Panthers, Women’s Liberation, and Ethnic Studies. De Bary’s address responded to fissures within the AAS, such as the formation of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, whose members expressed their criticism of the Vietnam War, and particularly of the complicity of the field of Asian Studies with U.S. international policy. 1970 represented highly public political times and divides—globally, nationally, and within institutions.

As part of this backdrop, 1970 gave birth to the restructuring of AAS into four area councils designed to give proportionate voice and equal representation in governance through the Board of Directors. That year also ushered in the first female President of AAS, cultural anthropologist Cora Du Bois, who succeeded De Bary. (Note: Du Bois had served as President of the American Anthropological Association just the year prior in 1969.)

My message to you today plants two seeds closely related to 1970.

Seed One: Politics of Everyday Lives

The first seed regards what I call the inevitable politics of our lives and institutions. Given the urgency of Black Lives Matter and the backdrop of global tensions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, it seems an appropriate time to revisit AAS’s longstanding self-identification as a “nonpolitical organization.” The current groundswell clamor demands that we listen and examine ourselves, our institutions, and our histories as part of the process of connecting the dots and acknowledging larger structures of inequity and discrimination. I suggest that we shift what de Bary defined as the tipping point of political/nonpolitical because our times demand it. What do acts of police brutality and systems of racism, and civil protests against these, demand of us? Nothing less than that the details of who we are come under close and critical scrutiny. The era flags Hannah Arendt’s concept of politics, which demands active participation by citizens, guided by collective deliberation.

What our times require is that the necessary work of critical scrutiny and enunciations be reconfigured into practice, into active citizenship. These practices are not wholly new. AAS has been working to put values into action, through initiatives such as mentorship programs, graduate student travel support, international exchange grants, curricular support for K-12 educators, and a speaker series for institutions with underrepresented Asian Studies programs. Inspired and informed by our membership, we are seeking funding to expand these and other programs.

Part of what can be done has been ironically enabled by the pandemic shutdown and its forcible shift of our lives to online platforms. We can meet virtually and discuss ways in which AAS might better serve minority constituencies. To that end, we will be holding our first webinar on the topic, “Asian Studies and Black Lives Matter” on Wednesday, July 22, 7pm Eastern Standard Time. All members are invited to register and participate via Zoom.

Part of what needs to be done lies in questioning the processes of our organization. We should rethink and restructure to assure greater transparency and more widespread involvement. We should more clearly define our stakes and thereby build a broader base of committed stakeholders. Any culture of elitism and gatekeeping must give way to mentorship and support. Emphatically, we gain strength by learning from one another at all levels of the profession. In the spirit of generative communication, we will hold town hall discussions at our Annual Conference and through council open houses, as well as encourage broader dialogue and conversation with the membership in general. Now that our interactive possibilities have expanded virtually, these should not necessarily be confined to in-person annual meetings, but held on a regular basis virtually.

Seed One takes politics as the engagement and responsibility of AAS, not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we work. In a previous blog I mentioned the Hawaiian concept of “kuleana.” I invoke it here again as the principle of fundamentally conjoining engagement and responsibility, and doing so with community at its helm. Kuleana presupposes a commitment, an understanding that we are really part of something we cannot easily dismiss. This constitutes the Arendt-ian tipping point. Our communities are multiple: research communities, colleagues, institutional communities, families and social ties, places where we live. Engagement, responsibility, community: here lies kuleana politics at its core. The Black Lives Matter movement teaches us as committed scholars of Asia the importance of centering social justice, freedom from oppression, and that fragile, shifting negotiation called truth in our work. These times call upon us to recognize the inevitable politics of who we are and what we do. Ours is the fundamental commitment to the human spirit.

Seed Two: Global Asias

I will only touch upon Seed Two briefly here, with more to come in the not so distant future. Please note the exploratory nature of my remarks. At this point in time, these are suggestions and ideas, with a long road ahead of working through institutional mechanisms (including a Board of Directors vote and membership input) and budgetary considerations. I expect that process to be lengthy and not without controversy, but part of my point here is to plant the seed of an idea for future discussion.

Inasmuch as AAS structured itself fifty years ago through area-focused councils, I propose that we recognize both the value and limitations of that structure. Increasingly, our Asiatic worlds include intersections, crossings, mobilities, migrations, and diasporic communities that preclude a strict areal focus. AAS and its public face have tried to work within those areal silos while addressing existing research, realities, and concerns that cross those boundaries. The Journal of Asian Studies, for example, now has “transnational and comparative Asia” as a rubric for the interstices between areal foci. Likewise, the call for proposals for the Annual Conference uses a similar “inter-area/border crossing” category. In short, the makeshift categories exist, but do not necessarily do justice to the realities of research, on-the-ground structures, and people’s lives. I suggest we need to do more.

I would like to explore the possibility of a fifth council. We could call this potential council Global Asias, a rubric used most prominently with the Global Asias project of Penn State, including its signature journal Verge: Studies in Global Asias, but also including other institutional alignments, such as at the University of Illinois at Chicago, University of Connecticut, Miami University, Duke University, and others. This fifth council could serve many purposes, including acting as a bridge between AAS and the Association for Asian American Studies. Although the core issues that animate Asian and Asian American Studies have been historically very different, I think it is important that we structurally acknowledge and learn from each other. Among the core issues of Asian American Studies—from which Asian Studies can gain—is that of race and racialization. Note as well that Global Asias goes beyond Asian America to include those diasporic communities within Asia, both Americas, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Conceptualizing this globally is part of the point.

The details of Seed Two have yet to be worked out, and for this I sincerely welcome your input. It is my hope that by creating an institutional space for these diasporic considerations in Global Asias, we acknowledge both the common issues, as well as new framings that can bring greater meanings to kuleana-based research.

The tumult of 2020 is at least as demanding of our response as that of 1970 was. We must face it with all our resources and reasoning, and make active, political concern our motivating guide. Fifty years after de Bary’s pronouncement, we are still in turmoil, but that turmoil has meant that we are indeed political and, in fact, very concerned.