Always Verging on the (Im)possible: the Structural Incoherence of Global Asias

This is an admittedly grandiose title for a short essay, one that playfully references the name of the journal I edit, Verge: Studies in Global Asias, and highlights a key characteristic of work on Global Asias, namely its ambitious imagination of new ways of thinking through the multidisciplinary, temporally unstable, and polyvalent field engendered by work that accounts for myriad Asias and their even more multifarious diasporas. The organizers of this Periscope feature suggested that contributors might offer a provocation as to what the term Global Asias offers. In this case, then, let me begin with the provoking idea undergirding Verge’s editorial project: Global Asias work is both critically imperative to imagine into being and necessarily impossible as a fully achievable field of academic inquiry.

This is not only a provocation, of course, but also a paradox: how do such antithetical injunctions coexist? As Edward Said, Naoki Sakai, and others have noted, Asia is a place both real and imagined and its significance often derives from its deployment as a way of indexing relationality and positionality. Previous work on Global Asias has focused on the concept’s fictionality and narrativization (Chen and Hayot), its ability to encompass intra-Asian differences and to imagine alternatives to geopolitical realities (Spivak), and its subjection to overdetermination by historically constituted discursive structures that ironically create the conditions by which to undermine unified notions of what “Asia” might mean or represent (Chen and Chua).

Although the approaches taken by these critics are quite different, they all insist on the multiplicity evoked by Asia as a site both imagined and real. Through their ideas about doubled decentering, plurality, and non-unification, such critics have been responsive to a fundamental characteristic of Global Asias work (which is not to be confused with Global Asia itself), a characteristic that I have previously named as structural incoherence. Such a term is, in one sense, obvious and commonsensical. Any concept serving to bring into visibility a broadly conceptualized terrain will, upon closer examination, be riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. And yet, the imaginative dimension of the Global Asias of which I speak, a topography that is simultaneously grounded in the real geographies of Asia and their attendant globalized manifestations, suggests to us the continuing importance of disrupting the consolidating effects of naming itself.

Unsurprisingly, my identification of structural incoherence—the multiple, overlapping, and embedded contradictions undergirding the cultural, social, political, and economic dynamics of a “place” both real and imagined—of Global Asias work is inspired by the incompatabilities that I engage with as both an editor and a scholar. In my work with Verge, I continually grapple with how incoherent the Global Asias project really is: field versus discipline, Asian studies versus Asian American studies, regional differences; disparate critical and theoretical prioritization. It is tempting to try and bring all of this into some kind of harmonious coherence but that, I think, would be a mistake. So rather than working against that kind of incoherence, the journal has embraced it as a generative condition for cultivating Global Asias work, an embrace made especially visible in our opening section—ironically titled “Convergence”—which features a number of rubrics that curate dialogue without insisting on uniformity. While one of the definitions of convergence is achieving commonality, at the journal we are more interested in the processual nature of “coming together” which we emphatically do not see as a process of unification but rather of juxtaposition, proximity, and generic friction.

In other words, to imagine into being Global Asias work is to acknowledge the generative potential of the verge/verging as a space and/or mechanism for bringing disparate practices, ideas, fields, and methodologies into relation but not necessarily into alignment. The word “verge” can mean many things: an extreme edge or margin; a border or an enclosing boundary; the space enclosed by a boundary; and the point beyond which an action, state, or condition is likely to begin or occur. That these definitions are, when taken together, unable to be fully reconciled becomes the fruitful ground for gestating the (im)possible aspects of Global Asias work.

Put differently, one of the potentials of the verge as space/mechanism for generating work on Global Asias is its receptiveness to acknowledgment without resolution, its ability to cultivate a relational non-alignment that simultaneously acknowledges the institutional structures and disciplinary practices that currently organize and make legible work on Asia and its diasporas while highlighting the limits and points of non-contact characterizing the broader infrastructures and methodologies under which such work has traditionally been organized.

Specifically, the diverse ways in which work encompassed by this notion of Global Asias—which manifests variously as abstract entity, as geographical zone, as imagined homeland, as contested region, as a site of cultural identity and negotiation, and as critical paradigm—become the unstable conditions for simultaneously theorizing within and outside of the institutional structures organizing the academic study of Asia—area studies, diaspora studies, the disciplines and inter-disciplines—embody both the challenge and the potential of what work on Global Asias can accomplish.

Critical to recognizing the possibilities and limits of the convergences and divergences made manifest through the concept of Global Asias, then, is the strategic cultivation of curation and juxtaposition and an embrace of the generative friction of multidisciplinarity. To be clear: this is not a statement against interdisciplinarity, which I understand to mean an integrated approach that utilizes knowledge and methodologies from different disciplines. However, as important as interdisciplinary approaches have been, it is critically imperative to resist the temptation to create a unified framework for the study of “Global Asias.” Accordingly, “multidisciplinarity”—by which I mean collaborative knowledge-production emerging from critics working from distinct disciplinary fields—can offer a series of engagements that acknowledges both the possibilities and limits of how we organize and promote work on Asia and its many diasporas. Equally crucially, the collaborative and collective and relationally non-aligned approaches that multidisciplinarity encourages in turn foregrounds the non-achievability of Global Asias as an academic knowledge project in positive terms, as the structurally incoherent but necessary conditions of (im)possibility.

To be sure, there are dangers to this kind of broadly ecumenical, multi-relational, and disciplinarily plastic way of conceptualizing Global Asias work. Being unanchored in history, disciplinary knowledge formation, and geographical specificity can lead to ignorant speculation and/or a kind of generalism that substitutes conceptual guesswork for concrete and rigorous scholarly attention. And such an uneven and non-unified approach always runs the risk of unproductive disjointedness. Despite these cautions, though, I submit that embracing the structural incoherence of Global Asias can result in an extraordinary opportunity to engage with and reflect upon the intellectual contestation and institutional presuppositions producing the subjects, objects, and methodologies by which “Asia” and its multiple diasporas are made legible. Indeed, the “Global Asia: Critical Aesthetics, Alternative Globalities” symposium out of which these Periscope essays emerged offers us an example of how the discontinuities of multidisciplinary engagements might be generative because of, and not in spite of, their relational non-alignments. In bringing together scholars studying both Asia and its diasporas whose methodologies, historical emphases, theoretical approaches, and material objects of study stubbornly refused to cohere, the symposium illustrated the possibilities of a kind of speculative thinking which imagines both estrangement and engagement as possible outcomes.

The image featured on the cover of the journal’s inaugural issue is the work of Annysa Ng, specifically an image from her installation Convergence: Divergence. Ng’s work emblematizes some of the speculative aspects of the structural incoherence undergirding the Global Asias project I’ve been describing. Simultaneously influenced by a steampunk aesthetic and Daoist thought, Ng uses silhouettes and costuming to question received ideas about spatiotemporality, cultural cross-pollination, and transcultural influences. Her elaborately costumed figures use iconic design details in unconventional, culturally ambiguous fashion. The result is a lavishly imagined, impossible conjunction that is also a proposition to imagine anew outside of the restrictions imposed by history, geography, and culture. The endless images and reflections created by Ng’s installation aptly illustrate the continuities and discontinuities that are always embedded within the concept of Global Asias, and visibly illustrate why we should always keep in mind the (im)possible nature of such an intellectual project.

Related Posts

Cuteness: The Aesthetic Category of a Dystopic Global Asia What does the prominence of cuteness as an aesthetic category amid US-Chinese codependency and rivalry tell us about the global population’s attachments and desires? Under what circumstances do cute objects become facilitators of the cruel optimism that structures the relation between a slowly dying...
Dead Refugees and Immortal Nations, Sights and Sites of Global Asia What would it mean to examine the current European migration crisis from a Global Asia framework? This question only seems odd when adopting the perspective of European state actors rather than those of the Syrian refugees who are the largest population of the 1.3 million migrants who applied for as...

Tina Chen

Tina Chen is associate professor of English and Asian American studies at the Pennsylvania State University and author of Double Agency: Acts of Impersonation in Asian American Literature and Culture, which was named a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title in 2005. She is founding editor of Verge: Studies in Global Asias, an award-winning journal published by the University of Minnesota Press, and she has also served stints as the co­-chair of the East of California caucus for the Association for Asian American Studies and on the executive board of the MLA's Division on Asian American Literature.