Situating Cultural Studies: A Case for Historical Learning and Knowledge


I want to thank Meaghan and Teju for inviting me to this workshop and Grace for making all the necessary arrangements.  I actually did not realize that this so-called Second Cultural Studies Teaching Camp was a continuation of the first one that Kuan-Hsing and I put together in 2006.  He was in charge of the agenda while I took care of getting the funding and taking care of the logistics.  Both Meaghan and Teju were at the camp too.  At the close of that camp, morale was very high and the campers started a listserve to continue talking to one another and share information.  But it did not last very long, as those junior scholars soon fell under the pressure of academic performance.  Of course, now they are all major players in the Cultural Studies Association of Taiwan.  Hopefully you guys will have the benefit and convenience of the social media in helping you stay in touch with one another and be each other’s support after this camp is over.

It was a great pleasure to read all the things that you guys have written for the workshop that Meaghan forwarded to everyone, and it was an even greater pleasure to listen to you in person yesterday morning.  Too bad I did not have more time to listen to the afternoon sessions.  I must say I admire you all for such dedication and thoughtful efforts to teach cultural studies well.  I don’t think I can offer you much in response to your questions and topics.  In fact, believe me, if there were good and ready-made answers to these questions, you would have found them by now and you wouldn’t be still asking them.  Meaghan’s seminal essay on the banality of cultural studies has already pointed to some of the problems that still plague different generations of cultural studies students and teachers today.  And with the advancement of globalization, the rise of new communication technologies, I think we would do well to stick to what LuoXiaoMing羅曉茗 has called in her suggested idea of “the perpetual motion machine” and continue to mobilize and broaden our thinking as we engage our own teaching.

This morning I would like to throw in a couple of issues that hopefully will spark more conversation later.  The first issue has to do with our own knowledge formation.

We come from different age groups and different locations, which means the conditions of our formative years in cultural studies were quite different.  So whatever theories touched us before may not have worked for you.  And as we mature and take root in our different locations, whatever moves us or caught our eye may be quite different also.  But this is not a question of “some theories are now out of date, so we need to move on to new things, preferably the newest turn of theory or the latest critique of theory.”  Theories are human efforts to make sense of the world, and their value lies not in whether they correctly described the world—if ever we know what the correct way is—but in how they illuminated people’s understanding, how they made possible different views on human practices, how they formulated order and hence comprehension out of bits and pieces of observations, how they envisioned different worlds, etc..  Their value, in other words, lies in helping us get a grasp of what that historical moment was like, and how people were striving to make sense of it.  Theories are historical constructs and hence mark human efforts, however feeble or powerful in our eyes.  That’s how I read theory.

But what were the theoretical tools that were available to us in our moment of learning, and why did they appeal to us in that specific context, and how do they make it necessary for us to take a break from them at certain moments?  I think these questions are important self-reflections.  It is significant that cultural studies was introduced into Asia in the 1980s as many of my generation were completing their advanced studies in the graduate programs in US or UK universities.  Instead of staying in the advanced countries and become naturalized, as many of our predecessors and contemporaries had done, we were returning with our learning to Asia upon its rapid growth and social transformation.  For us who transported cultural studies to Asia at this timely moment, we failed to see our own return as one of the concrete effects of Asia’s growing economic strength; instead, we saw ourselves as going home to “observe” or even “participate” in the social-political change that was about to take place.

But, wait, how did we become keen about social change and our possible involvement in it in the first place?  Contrary to the passion verging on frenzy of today’s Taiwanese students, political apathy was much more common under authoritarian rule in those days.  As I reflect upon my own making, I wanted to understand why cultural studies and its Leftist bent appealed to some of us who were studying overseas at the time and how it came to motivate our formation of knowledge and action.  During the Cold War period, especially from the 1960s to the 1980s, it was US international policy to ensure long-term global influence by recruiting students from the so-called newly democratized pro-West Third-World states to study in the advanced nations of democracy and modernity.  The success of the program is obviously demonstrated by a whole generation of their graduates who are now leaders of third-world countries.  But, ironically, it was also our individual hope and wish to go to the West to seek a better education that would lead to a better life or better prospects.  Having been brought up in the Cold War era and under the Cold War mentality, we were of course not aware that our picture of the world was slanted toward the West.  Yet, entering upon the campuses of Western universities at that historical moment of the 1980s, some of us happened to come under the instruction of many of the radical students of the 1960s US who had by then become faculty members in the humanities departments.  They were producing and teaching leftist thought in critical theories and various post-theories, perhaps as a way to theorize their own activism, or as a form of response and resistance to the conservative politics of the Reagan and Thatcher era.  In any case, their formulations were geared toward their position and experience in the center of the world, even as they critiqued that center of the world.

As foreign students, we had a difficult time learning the theoretical and critical approaches.  The theoretical language was taxing on our understanding, the frames of thought was far-fetching for us, but oddly, the fact that it was abstract somehow helped us lock onto it without fully immersing ourselves and our values and our realities in it.  We went to study groups and join rallies and gradually acclimated to the language of critical theory and the specific ways in which it posed questions and described the world.  In daily life, we also learned to take the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Aparteid in South Africa into our scope of concerns, thinking we were part of the united front.  We may not know much about these countries’ histories or politics, but the language of defiance, the spirit of resistance, and the legitimation that comes from the weak rising against the powerful enlightened us about the possibility of a player’s role for us in our own home country.  These tendencies would later become even more charged when we came to be inserted into the volatile political atmosphere of Taiwan’s so-called democratization process.

Significantly, this turning toward the left was accomplished without much, if any, connection with either the leftist tradition and movement in Taiwan which had been suffering the oppression of the anti-communist KMT ruling party since the 1950s, or the orthodox communist tradition on Mainland China that had been discredited with the coming to an end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution in 1976.  As we immersed ourselves in the new theory courses that our radical teachers were forging into the curriculum, we found it natural and appetizing to inherit their theoretical musings and political stances, their critical takes on power and knowledge, and their politics of culture.  So, in a way, we were direct descendants of the Western leftist tradition rather than the leftist legacy in our own Chinese or Taiwanese world.  Yes, there were quite a few Taiwanese/Chinese leftist thinkers scattered in the US and it was their travels and visitations to our locations that created a network and provided occasions for some of us to meet.  But we were obviously different from these old guards because, instead of looking toward socialist China for the eventual realization of the Marxist dream, we, following the theories we were learning, believed in the power of the so-called New Social Movements to create social change through, for example, the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the environmental movement, the ethnicity movement, etc.  In these theories, the state can be nothing but the enemy, always to be looked upon with suspicion.  Whether there was some reason for Western theories to debunk the state in theory, when in reality their nation-states are already firmly in place and commanding world influence was beyond our thought.  Whether these theories of the state would be applicable to all kinds and forms of state in various civilizations and cultures, or whether all kinds and forms of state in non-Western cultures are to be fitted unto these theories and debunked across the board is another rarely asked question.

Conspiracy theory aside, in our classrooms, our preference for self-marginalization, of narrating cultural phenomena in terms of perennial struggles against some oppressive force, be it the state, patriarchy, capitalism, etc. has also produced its own consequences.  Let’s face it.  As often as it happens, cultural studies is conducted in a way that gives priority to the marginal, the weak, the powerless, etc., whatever is left out of or suppressed in the so-called bigger picture.  One common belief is that those who are situated at the bottom of the social structure are privileged to know the social truth of things; that such a position helps one become sensitive and hence perceptive about the hierarchical structure and its power operations, hence the truth about things.  Analyses of cultural practices thus tend to be framed with a formidable structure of oppression or exclusion, but then shreds of evidence of resistance or subversiveness will be located somewhere, if not of too much avail.  The formula is now firmly in place in numerous master’s theses and is becoming routinized.  I suspect this thinking style also, in a round-about way, resonates with, if not contributes to, the fragile self-congratulating contentment that is said to be paralyzing Taiwan’s overall social energy in recent years.

Which brings me to my second point that has to do with the highly charged atmosphere in which we do cultural studies today.

Teju has said yesterday that the special approach of Inter-Asia cultural studies has to do with how we see or think about others, and how we can rethink our own history and location through other people’s eyes.  Yet the entry of the Other into our horizon is itself a historical process charged with all kinds of imaginary and affective potencies, not to mention all the tension and animosity produced by political and economic struggles masked as civilizational assessments.  The increasingly tensed relations between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China certainly epitomize China’s growing presence and regional anxieties in response.

Unfortunately, the righteousness of defiance in the face of seeming oppressiveness also tends to annihilate any need for further thought or debate, as demonstrated in a similar situation that has already matured in Taiwan.  No, I don’t mean the Sunflower Movement in March this year, but the full implementation of gender mainstreaming in Taiwan since 2005, esp. in school campuses.  Meaghan had expressed her worry over the commodification of theoretical style and speaking position in cultural studies decades ago; but today, what worries us more is the moralization of knowledge and position, helped in no small way by the language and narrative provided by popularized cultural studies, that closes off broader scopes and longer views in our classrooms.

This New Moralism, as some of us has come to call it, derives from the belief that progress is not conditional upon specific historical conditions or to be assessed in relation to concrete realities, but always embodies universal progressive values exemplified in Western civilized modernity, yet to be achieved by all other countries and cultures in due time through emulation.  Such progressive values include: liberal democracy, human rights, gender equality, homosexual marriage rights, care for the handicapped, environmental protection, child protection, animal protection, social welfare, etc.—all defined and envisioned in terms of Western practices and policies.  The growing eagerness to possess and embody such progressive values gives the feminist creed of “the personal is political” a new vigor in which norms of civility are to be practiced in individual moral praxis on a daily basis, monitored in no small way by the all-pervasive presence of cell phone cameras and social media gossip.  Social progressivism and political progressivism now merge into a new moral progressivism, a new top-down civilizing mission advocated by progressives and conservatives alike, testified by the close collaboration between Taiwanese feminist groups and Christian groups on the implementation of international protocols on the rights of women or the protection of children.

Such progressive thought that aims to protect the weak and the vulnerable is now embodied in laws.  Yesterday in our discussion, some of you were worried about how to handle the surfacing of racist or sexist remarks in class.  In Taiwan, such language is already outlawed by the Gender Equity Education Act and the Act applies to both students and teachers.  As the propagation and enforcement of progressive values assume a state-centered, top-down, moralizing approach, civil behavior that abides by gender norms is now compulsory, to be performed with non-reciprocal compliance.  I have seen time and again male scholars being chastised publicly for taking positions that failed to comply wholeheartedly with what the women scholars were demanding, and the men’s ability to respond was obviously truncated by the growing moral force of gender equality.  Debate is simply out of question.  This general trend affects student attitude too.  Two years ago, a professor of the Christian persuasion invited Christian pastors to his general education class to speak on religion and culture, gay issues included.  The action was contested under the cause of “violating the gender equity education act” by gay students who were taking the course, and the course was eventually withdrawn by the university under pressure.  At another university, students openly protested the visit by 關啟文, the leading anti-gay Christian scholar.  In both cases, students did not even bother to find out the content of the speech, nor were they interested in debating the speakers.  I doubt any of them had read 關啟文.  They simply resorted to filing complaints and appealing to progressive values of respect and equality to remove whatever seemed threatening or even dissenting.  For me, this is no way of college education; nor is it fruitful for the development of the homosexual movement and gay culture if gays and lesbians choose to remain content with their own ignorance and complacency and rely on the law to exonerate them by silencing their critics or challengers.

If the progressive-sounding Gender Equity Act only strengthened censorship on campuses, the growing power of women’s groups in enforcing gender mainstreaming also made differences within feminism itself inconsequential.  Healthy consensus-building through debates, elaborations, and arguments among women is now replaced by negotiations with lawyers and politicians over legislation and litigation.  When it comes to controversial or difficult issues, there is only room for issue- positioning and political gesturing.  Inside classrooms and elsewhere, rationality is increasingly replaced by emotionality, creating an environment where emotional responses quickly evolve into self-justified action of filing a complaint that demands administrative action.   In the 1990s, fierce debates had raged among Taiwanese feminists over issues of female sexuality, pornography, sex work, etc., culminating in no less than a feminist schism in 1997 over the issue of prostitution.  Yet since the 2000s, little dialog has been possible as the state-feminists busied themselves with the state bureaucratic project of gender mainstreaming and the feminist sex radicals worked on defending and supporting issues of increasing marginality and social controversy.  Feminists still hold very different opinions on many issues, but they no longer speak the same language or address the same concerns.  After all, the institutionalization of gender equality as a national policy has effectively erased the grounds for further discussion or debate: “Now that the feminist project of social transformation is already underway and has won the state’s support and blessing, what else is there for us to argue about?  And why aren’t you part of the work team?”  The bluntness of the question leaves us with no easy or persuasive answer to propose.

The growing desirability of progressive language in a civilizing state have other effects too.  We notice that the same progressive ideas that we have been advocating for years—such as empowerment of women, women’s sexual autonomy, girl power, children’s rights—are now frequently and perversely employed by the most conservative but this-worldly-active Christian NGO in Taiwan, Garden of Hope, in its effort to build sex-negative campaigns that “promote respect and equality for girls, stop the objectification/commodification of girls, and encourage social concern for the welfare of girls.”  As we watch the once against-the-grain terms now garnered in new meanings and naturalized to serve purity campaigns under progressive banners, we are at a loss as to how to make clear to the undiscerning public the distinction between feminist liberation projects and Christian social purity campaigns.

The growing popularity/banality of progressive ideas as well as the difficulty in presenting a clearly discernable non-complying position reveals something very important about contemporary progressivism.  Perhaps the reason why it is increasingly difficult to identify or describe our own non-conformity in contrast with the conservatives is because, despite our vast differences, what underlies most contemporary social projects, progressive or conservative, is the same paradigm of values derived from Western historical experiences of civilized modernity and Western social theories constructed to explain that historicity.  Hence, we all work toward building a sound legal system that would ensure safety and justice for all.  We all embrace the ideals of liberal democracy built on self-determination expressed through open electoral processes.  We all strive to make equality the ultimate measure for every inter-human relationship, even in intimate ones within the family.  We all accept modern ideals such as civility, orderliness, cleanliness, caring for the weak, etc.  If there is any difference at all, it’s more a matter of degree in seeming radicality than a matter of kind in world vision.

In other words, the problem may not be that our progressive ideas have been appropriated or misused by the conservatives, but that our ideas and our conception of non-conformity are in fact in sync with the post-Cold-War milieu that proclaims “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,[1] that the desires that drive our ideas and concepts are none other than the same desires for social respectability and acceptability which had justified oppression and persecution of the non-conforming in the first place.  And it is when we came face to face with gender governance, the proud embodiment of this “end of history” progressivism that we realized that we need to develop radically different, difficult, uncivil, uncompromisingly in-your-face visions and theories.

What I am trying to say in this brief talk is that there is a serious danger in moralizing and absolutizing of opinions and values these days that threaten to shut off social dialog and promote proud, morally indignant obscurantism.  Gender governance has already created the extreme case of moving cultural matters into the realm of law, and other issues are also raising their stakes.  As social contradictions are muted by moral progressivism, greater tension is created and stronger emotions rage on.  Political correctness thrives on polarization and breeds only muted discontent.  It does little to further dialog or understanding, not to mention true social transformation.  And if that were not enough, the democratization of knowledge, enabled by revolutions in communications technology and the propagation of the social media, has changed not only the way we acquire and disseminate knowledge, but more significantly what constitutes knowledge and the power it wields.  The ability to manipulate cultural symbols is greatly enhanced, resulting in a proliferation of progressive-sounding but obscurantist challenges and defiances.  The continuous clamor on Facebook that eats up student energy is a case in point, and it is not rare to see a lot of cultural studies language and styles of criticism raging there.

How would this evolving social atmosphere impact on our teaching, our classrooms, and our students?  That is for all of us to observe and perhaps to intervene.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”,  (Summer 1989).  See website: