Monday, June 18, 2007

Mark Harrison on Taiwan Studies

Taiwan scholar Mark Harrison writes a fantastic response to a critique of his new book, in which he looks at the way the Taiwan issue illuminates how the whole concept of identity, and area studies in the social sciences, and geo-politics, are intertwined and inseparable.

Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity argues in a number of ways that the nature of studying Taiwan is an expression of the nature of Taiwan. That is, far from being a scholarly field which can maintain principles of objectivity, or at least of disinterest, Taiwan Studies (and any area studies) cannot be disentangled from the discursive production of the boundaries of the area itself. The scholarly elaboration of Taiwanese identity as a research problematic is itself a part of Taiwan’s own ideology of its identification, even as scholarship so often claims to speak from a distanciated authorial position. In the book this argument is made by theorizing identity as a form of knowing, and a key part of knowledge, especially of a nation, is found in scholarship. Scholarly writing on identity addresses it as an object at the same time as it functions to legitimize a subjectivity.

The book concludes on this basis with the point that scholars of “Taiwan Studies” are completely implicated in Taiwan’s legitimacy as a polity. The inverse of this is that it is the nascent, inchoate and contested nature of Taiwan’s identity formations in terms of its politics and culture, and also Taiwan’s real geo-political marginality in the international community with the ever-present threat (and attraction) of mainland China, that make a coherent and received Taiwan Studies so difficult. If an area studies elaborates and legitimizes the coherence of an area, then it struggles to generate its own coherence when faced with an area which can be named but still suffers from a geo-political indeterminacy. As a result, the book struggles, I believe inevitability but ultimately fruitfully, with the entanglements of its own arguments. Even as it argues that it itself is producing Taiwan’s identity, it must, to still be legitimate as scholarship, repeatedly try to extract itself from its implication in a nationalist ideology. This is where the improvised and self-reflexive methodology comes from, as well as the reaching up to hang off the authority of theory to avoid such epistemological quicksand.

What Tremlett does not acknowledge then is that Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity is, at its heart a radical critique of area studies. It breaks down the pretense of area studies to be an objective approach to a geo-political region and says that area studies is, in fact, part of the legitimization and elaboration of a geo-polity’s ideological, as well as geographical, boundaries. In particular, the book is a critique of the way the congruence of area studies with certain national boundaries implicates it nationalist ideologies all too easily. This is especially so in Chinese Studies.


In institutional theories of organizational development, one view argues that organizations acquire institutions after they become legitimated in the social world outside by some social process. For example, large businesses in the mid-eighteenth century had no identifiable structure called the "R&D Department" but two hundred years later many did. A long process of development, elaboration, and legitimization of "R&D" as a social activity took place in the world outside, and then, once legitimated, it was imported into the business world as an activity that businesses ought to be engaged in.

In our own society "being an area of scholarship" is an important source of social legitimacy. Hence the rise of Taiwan Studies as Taiwanese here and overseas struggle to create an identity and a history for the island. But as Harrison observes,

If an area studies elaborates and legitimizes the coherence of an area, then it struggles to generate its own coherence when faced with an area which can be named but still suffers from a geo-political indeterminacy.

The two social processes of identity formation at home and area studies abroad are not separate from one another. As Taiwan defines its own identity, it invites the construction of an academic study area that legitimates the formation of a separate identity, and is in turn legitimated by it. If tomorrow China swallows Taiwan, these "area studies" programs will most likely disappear, since Taiwan will no longer be "an area." It will cease to exist geopolitically, and hence, academically. Can an "area" be a coherent unit if its existence as a legitimate field of study is bound up with political and social ideologies of whether the place in question qualifies as "an area?"

This, as Harrison points out, calls into question definitions of "area studies" since the construction of "Taiwan Studies" makes it so plain that what defines an "area" is caught up in local nationalisms and political ideologies. Harrison points to "China" as an excellent example of this. To expand his point, in China research, there are Asian Studies program, East Asian studies programs, and China studies, and Central Asian studies, but there are no Guangdong Studies or Hebei Studies programs. Yet, there are Tibetan Studies programs galore. In academic studies Tibet is a legitimate area of interest, given the West's romanticized interest in Tibet. Increasingly, Taiwan is as well. Will it persist as Tibet does if China swallows Taiwan?

Harrison then goes on to point out something else. Because the definition of "Taiwan" is a construction of political and social ideologies, to study "Taiwan" is in effect to be forced to take a position on those ideologies, to locate oneself in the complexities of identity formation on Taiwan. Merely to say "I study ___ in Taiwan" is to assert in someway that somehow Taiwan exists as a thing in itself that can be studied. As Harrison writes:

Do we choose to become participants in the empirical geo-political equation of Taiwan’s future between China, the US, Japan and Europe, pronouncing as academics on the values of “variables” for those with their hands on the levers the machinery of geo-politics, or do we stand within academic knowledge and offer via our own self-reflexive approach to our own work, a critique of the politics in which it operates. Against the real machinery of geo-politics, the strategy of deploying difficult post-structuralist theory looks far more feeble than Tremlett might think. The decision of how we stand before power is necessarily personal and delimited, even hopeless, but my book, despite its flaws and limitations, shows ultimately the choice I made.

A beautiful ending to a wonderful piece of writing. Read, and learn.

1 comment:

Trace said...

The best objective study on the Taiwan Identity I have found is here http://taiwanpaper01.wordpress.com/2007/03/29/some-considerations-in-the-social-and-cultural-developments-in-taiwan-history/

It basically says The Taiwanese Identity is now. Its the people of today. All this new Taiwanese Identity is false as its very existance is because certain Taiwanese felt/feel a new identity needed to be invented to erase the current identity which is "tainted" with Chinese. However, Chinese is the substrata of Taiwanese - It can not be erased, the same as Chiang Kai shek could not erase the Taiwanese, Visa Versa applies, The Taiwanese cannot erase the Chinese.