In Search of Alternative Globalities: A Critical Aesthetics of Global Asia

Singapore has been engineered as the paradigmatic example of “Global Asia,” a place where curated narratives of “Asian culture” attract global capital.1 Amid the city-state’s iconic markers of cosmopolitan modernity (modern architecture, a multilingual population fluent in English, and food from around the world), Singapore’s recently opened National Gallery strategically positions Singapore as a global and regional “hub” that “present[s] Southeast Asian art in the global context. The “hub”–a term emphasized in this promotional video for the Gallery–depicts how the Singaporean state cultivates globality as a cosmopolitanism rooted in the concentration of cultural and financial capital. Unlike imperial models wherein the “global” is an extension of power from the metropolitan center, Singapore’s version of the “hub” is a postcolonial figuration of globality whereby capital accumulation is nodally situated within a transnational network of capital movement.2 In the state’s vision, “Global Asia” is contemporary, future-facing, and economically attractive.

However, this vision of globality has problematic implications for aspects of socio-cultural life in Singapore. For instance, the state’s synonymization of the global as capital has led to the deep disenfranchisement of labor—for both local Singaporean wage earners as well as migrant labor from south and southeast Asia on which the country is fundamentally dependent. The strain of the global has led to a number of political explosions such as the Little India riots, the Chinese bus driver strike, and the formation of the political party SingFirst, which emphasizes nationalist protectionism in its opposition to notions of the global. Moreover, with its attention to ethnic Chinese diasporas and the migration of professionalized expatriates to the country, Singapore’s “Global Asia” too often ignores long histories of Malay and Islamic cosmopolitanism, continuing colonial-era stereotypes of Singaporean Malay-Muslims as “backward” and “lazy.” Hence, Singapore’s “global” is deeply racialized and classed.

As “Global Asia” is rapidly made into an institution by the state, by corporations, and by the academy, the term’s potential for political critique is at risk of becoming homogenized and of privileging certain discourses over others. Certainly, in the case of Singapore, the confluence of Global Asia talk by the state and by corporations has led to a privileging of contemporary political economies, obscuring earlier and micro histories of Asian globality that exist beyond the spheres of capital. Thus while “Global Asia” has the potential to upturn problematic Eurocentric schema; it is also encumbered with the problems of institutionalization and, consequently, power plays.

Challenges to the Singaporean state’s version of “Global Asia” compel us to pay attention to forms of globality that run counter to state produced narratives. For instance, what would “Global Asia” look like when thought about from the ground up? Take, for example, the case of “Singlish”—a patois born of English, Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and Chinese dialect origins. Perceived by the state as insular and with no function as a lingua franca because of its incomprehensibility to foreigners, Singlish is actively discouraged by the government. It is not viewed as a badge of Singapore’s “Global Asia” status even as it draws on multicultural and economic roots in its formation. The “global” here embodies less the gloss of capital and more of a dynamic cultural process that emerges from histories of migration, creolization, and the everyday. While we are mindful not to fetishize it, the example of Singlish suggests other arrangements of the global.

In this Periscope dossier, we seek to rescue and reform “Global Asia” as a framework and a method. Our version of Global Asia shares the goals of neighboring scholarly frameworks such as “Inter-Asia,” “Global Asias” (distinct from the singular Asia), “Other Asias,” and the “Transpacific.” Such terms describe a more expansive notion of Asia that challenges the orientalist, hegemonic legacies of western academic institutions (“Inter-Asia”), contests notions of an “authentic” Asia to include memories and imaginaries (diaspora studies, Asian American studies, Global Asias), confronts the hardening of Asia through particular nation-states (“Other Asias”), widens the geographic and historic scope of Asia (“Transpacific”), and updates Cold War studies of Asia (postcolonial studies).

However, even as these intellectual agendas have radical potential, to conceive of a framework of Global Asia through these terms is to grapple with an idea that at once suffers from too much flux and too much fixity. As Spivak writes, “Asia is not a place, yet the name is laden with history and cultural politics” (9). Attempts to locate the mutability of Asia within some form of politico-geographic fixity are inevitably exclusionary. For example, the agenda of inter-Asian cultural studies, while certainly important, can have the effect of reaffirming East-West binaries and be exclusionary towards Asian diasporas outside of Asia. Asia is not only transpacific, it is also archipelagic, transcontinental, trans-Mediterranean, and digitally displaced.

Rather than defining “Global Asia,” we are invested in rooting it in a method—to reference Chen Kuan Hsing. As humanities scholars we seek a diversification of the ways the global is lived, remembered, and hoped for through film, literature, and art. To achieve the goals that the discourse of Global Asia draws on (i.e., Global Asias, Inter-Asia, etc.), Global Asia must, we argue, be tethered in a critical aesthetics. By “critical aesthetics,” we refer to scholarship that reveals the ways aesthetic practices bear out critique of uneven power structures, transnational flows, or imperial formations. As an assemblage of affect and embodiment that renders the historical and the political through sensory experience, “critical aesthetics” offers us a means of understanding moving and multi-sited Asia(s) that are mediated and produced by cultural texts. We believe strongly in the radical potential of aesthetics to challenge the effects of the global and argue that Global Asia can retain its critical edge so long as it constantly works to undermine its own power effects in the academy and beyond.

Contributors to this dossier repeatedly find that the movements, flows, and exchanges of people, media, and ideas, call for a pressing need for discourses of globality that move beyond the “History Ones” of Western modernity and/or capitalist logics of imagining the world. A study of aesthetics necessarily revises the “global” and pluralizes other kinds of relationality that escape from hegemonic figurations—a term we have offered as “alternative globalities” in this essay. We hope that the twin terms “critical aesthetics” and “alternative globalities” thicken, nuance, and anchor the framework of Global Asia as a cultural and political critique that seeks to align the humanistic study of aesthetics with the rethinking of global figuration and sites of power.

The dossier begins with Tina Chen’s essay, which ought to be read as the precursor to this introduction. Theorizing her editorial work at Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Chen sets up the generative yet impossible futures of “Global Asias” as a field that is indeterminate, open, and structurally incoherent. Our contribution here addresses the theoretical challenge of Global Asia that Chen and others have laid out. Risking coherence amid a field in flux, our formation of Global Asia seeks to ground the term in critical aesthetics. The subsequent essays in this dossier exemplify the implications of this critical framework in ways that expand its possibilities while also acknowledging its limitations. Activist art inspired by the Syrian refugee crisis enables Lynn Itagaki and Jennifer Gully to pose the Mediterranean Sea as an overlooked site of Global Asia studies. Weihsin Gui’s meditation on Asian Anglophone noir fiction points us to a dark globality, one that contrasts the exuberance of Global Asia, or “Rising Asia” narratives. Kai Cheang similarly examines a dystopic Global Asia, arguing that the aesthetic of cuteness has critical potential that challenges the nationalist impulses behind pink globalization. Peter Bloom both celebrates and problematizes the continuity of imperial regimes and Cold War internationalism within the Global Asia framework through a study of Malayan propaganda films. Brian Bernards closes the dossier by returning us to the Singapore National Gallery, observing how a critical aesthetic approach toward Singapore’s curation of Asia unsettles the identitarian and autoethnographic impulses of citing “Asianness.” We hope these pieces will continue conversations on the possibility of Global Asia scholarship.

  1. From 27th to 28th June 2016, scholars and practitioners from US and Asian institutions convened at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore for the symposium Global Asia: Critical Aesthetics and Alternative Globalities. The goal of the symposium was to interrogate the critical potential as well as the problematics of “Global Asia” as a framework and an idea through art, literature, film, architecture, and other modes of cultural production. This dossier emerges from the discussions at this symposium.
  2. While Singapore has arguably been doing the work of such cultivation since its 1965 independence, in more recent years the state has been advocating loose immigration restrictions, low taxation for multinational corporations, and the easy flow of foreign wealth in and out of Singapore, to position the nation as as a beneficiary of global capitalist flows. See also “Brexit vote a turning point: PM Lee.”

Nadine Chan

Nadine Chan is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow in the Society of Fellows and collegiate assistant professor in the humanities at the University of Chicago. Her articles have been published in Cinema Journal, Studies in Documentary Film, and Spectator. Her manuscript-in-progress establishes a theoretical framework of cinematic “unruliness” through the study of colonial educational film in British Malaya and Singapore.

Cheryl Narumi Naruse

Cheryl Narumi Naruse is assistant professor of English at Tulane University. Her recent publications appear in the journals biography, Genre, Interventions, Verge, and the anthology Singapore Literature and Culture: Current Directions in Local and Global Contexts. She is completing a book manuscript, tentatively titled Incorporating Singapore: Transnational Mobility and Postcolonial Capitalism in the Twenty-first Century.