We are created equal and special – Universality and Particularity: What is Asianness?

TEXT:Sue Wang    DATE: 2019.6.19

“Are you researching any issues in the post-colonial field? Or the post-modern field?”

“I think you need to use another mindset to understand the issue I am studying.”

“ I think I do not seem to understand it…”

On June 7th 2019, when Professor Sun Ge recalled a dialogue regarding the issues she was studying between her and western scholars in the abC Art Book in China, she still felt frustrated. Based on the western theoretical system, Professor Sun Ge’s research field is precisely involved in the realm of post-colonialism and post-modernism; however, the first step in her discussion is to destruct the inherent western theoretical framework; but undoubtedly, the process of deconstruction and reconstruction would be full of difficulties and confusion.

View of the book launch event

Initiated by the Inside-out Art Museum, taking the question as to why the theory is something we normally do not expect of Asia, as the starting point, Professor Sun Ge, the researcher at the Institute of Literature in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Naoki Sakai, Goldwin Smith Professor of Asian Studies at Cornell University had a conversation regarding the concepts of “Asia”, “Asian” and “Asianness” from the multiple dimensions of anthropology, sociology and history. The full transcript of their conversation is transformed into the book Universality and Particularity: What is Asianness, which was initially published in 2018. Following the first edition, the Inside-out Art Museum has cooperated with Archive Books, a publisher from Berlin, Germany, to publish the Chinese version and English version respectively in 2019. The second edition was launched in abC Art Book in China in June this year.

Considering the academic and theoretical nature of this book, we are able to extract some keywords to expand the opinions in this book.

Universality and Particularity What is Asianness 2018

I. Eurocentrism

In Professor Naoki Sakai’s speech, he started with the question – why the theory is something we normally do not expect of Asia? To develop his discussion, he explored and critiqued Paul Valéry (1871-1945) and Edmund Husserl’s (1859-1938) Eurocentrism-style theories. Husserl believes that the theory is the crucial element in shaping the spirit of Europe, and Europeans that rely on theory for self-identification. He holds the view that Europe is a historical unity of people that shares a certain kinship or modality of being human, a European humanity, which is distinguished from humanity in general (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Eskimos, or even the Gypsies) (P.32). However, in the context of Fascism in the 1920s to 1930s, “a crisis of the European man” proposed by Husserl has broken out. In order to construct the alleged society of “Europe for Europeans (P.33)”, some Europeans were becoming increasingly indistinguishable from such anthropological types such as the Chinese and the Indians due to the release of a series of Fascist policies.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the international status of Europe was widely recognized and supported, but the Europeans in the middle and lower classes might be less confident due to the lack of education, economics and knowledge, which has caused a wide sense of social anxiety.  In this case, the scapegoating rhetoric under the situation of ethnic cleansing was produced to release the anxiety of Europeans. During the Second World War, the Jews were regarded as “scapegoats”. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service legislated by the Nazi Party, which aimed at excluding anti-Nazi and non-Aryan elements from public institutions, could be an example of how to elaborate the anti-Semitism at that time. The Jew Edmund Husserl, who was born in Moravia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was terribly affected by this law. It might be the reason that Husserl has repeatedly reiterated that China and India were never expected to develop a theory – he was forced to lose his European identity. Husserl is a tragic figure to some extent.

The promulgation of Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service in the Reichsgesetzblatt, the public law journal Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/law_for_the_Restoration_of_the_Professional_Civil_Service Accessed in June, 2019

Professor Naoki Sakai believes that Husserl’s resistance is the adherence of restoring the grand principles of the European spirit and Western civilization to resist the policies of the Nazi  regime as well as voices for his European identity. He was perhaps never aware of the alleged Eurocentrism. An interesting phenomenon could be summarized from Husserl’s case, namely, “when one is excluded from a community, he (or she) would protest by invoking the founding principles of this community.” (P.100)

Above are some historical traces of the question – why the theory is something we normally do not expect of Asia? Putting forward this issue publicly in the present situation may seem to be ridiculous; however, no one can deny that there is still a difference between the “western” and “non-western” in the academic research, especially in western countries.

Apart from the idea of Eurocentrism, Professor Naoki Sakai discussed the notion of “Asia”. As Takeuchi Yoshimi, a sinologist specializing in modern Chinese literature, observed the East – Toyo, the Chinese compound for the Orient as opposed to the Seiyo, the Occident, which was originally from its self-consciousness as a consequence of its defeat by the West or Europe 1. In other words, the notion of the East or Asia may not exist without the war and cultural invasion by the West. In this circumstance, a certain restriction always exists when we intend to re-discuss the notion of Asia—the knowledge in terms of Toyo or Asian does not originate from ourselves but from the West.

Universality and Particularity What is Asianness Chinese Version 2019

II. University and Particularity

University is a term frequently used, which is gradually being transformed into an evaluation criterion. What is the university? Is it a universal truth valid in all parts of the world? Or is it a universal value summarized by abstracting from countless specificities? No matter how we understand the university, it could be regarded as a general law that can be widely employed. What is particularity then? It seems that from a long term ago, “particularity” was treated as a word that contradicted the word “university” by philosophers. “Refining university from particularity” is a popular discourse, which places “university” on the altar. By doing so, “university” is empowered as an abstract value that can be applied universally.

Professor Sun Ge’s discussion started from the re-evaluation of the “universal value”. University could be considered as a capacity of generalization before it is empowered with a value. The generalization ability is doubtless significant in the process of the development of life and civilization. However, “when generalization turns out to be valued, the alleged universal value ceases to constitute a generalization but rather a hegemonic narrative (P.74).” It is a behavior of disguised replacement of concept as it enlarges a small part of the entire civilization of human beings to generalize the whole human value purposefully. The discourses related to Eurocentrism could be the example of this kind of “university”.

Professor Sun Ge would like to create a new university, and the first step is to relativize the previous university, instead of the replacement, or the disavowal of it but to respect it as a product of a certain era and to relativize it. The new university should be an incomplete intermedium that adheres to various particularities to realize its value. The value of university lies in the guidance of diversified specificities, thus to understand the particularity itself. Regarding human civilizations among the new university, it should allow every civilization to be accessible to each other.

Universality and Particularity What is Asianness Chinese Version 2019, cooperated with Archive Books Berlin

The idea of equality among human beings and cultures which were involved in Takeuchi’s research and was discussed several times. This notion could be interpreted to be that either the developed countries or developing countries share the same value of existence. In other words, Takeuchi emphasized that we should never judge one’s value according to their level of development, because in terms of value, men are equal, and human society is equal in terms of culture (P.82). However, here equality is not equivalent to homogeneity. As the premise of the new university, we need to recognize and admit the diversity of human beings and cultures. In this case, the significance of the new university lies in that it would not compulsorily homogenize the various diversities; it illuminates the way of multiple specificities instead.

This new university seems to “make a concrete analysis of specific problems”, and Professor Sun Ge named it “empirical reasoning” (形而下之理) as opposed to metaphysical reasoning. She said that people who are restricted in the western theoretic framework could hardly understand this point of view. They may argue that the methodology of “empirical reasoning” could not be regarded as a theoretical framework as it refers to specific experiences and cannot generalize a certain abstract viewpoints. This is why Professor Sun Ge keeps emphasizing the importance of breaking away from the inherent mode of thinking.

III. Asianness

Universality and Particularity What is Asianness English Version 2019

Professor Sun Ge’s responded to Professor Naoki Sakai’s criticisms in terms of Eurocentrism and Husserl’s opinions in her speech. As Husserl’s protest to racism and Nazism were restricted in the framework of Eurocentrism at that time, the global intelligentsia’s perception of humanity and the world at present is still constructed by the fundamental mental-framework of Eurocentrism. Moreover, as a weaker side, the Asian intelligentsia has accepted these established constraints without any hesitation. Professor Sun Ge affirmed Professor Naoki Sakai’s viewpoints in terms of breaking the premise left over by Eurocentrism and abandoning the division based on ethnic groups.

It is interesting to note that although Professor Sun Ge supported Professor Naoki Sakai’s statement, she emphasized the necessity of the existence of “Asia”. She proposed the notion of “Asianness” rather than “Asian”. Asianness is a fluid collection that opens not only to Asians but also non-Asians. Taking the idea of Asianness as a premise, the intervention of Archive Books, a publisher from Berlin, Germany, is worth considering. Dating back to the history of Germany, the experience of being colonial cannot be avoided. Nowadays, parts of Germany still retain the imprint of colonization and the characteristics of cultural invasion and hegemony. In the new book launch event, Professor Sun Ge had a dialogue with editor Paolo Caffoni from Archive Books. When Paolo was interested in issues related to Asianness, he may probably enter into the field of a collection of Asianness. Similarly, there is a special construction behind the hegemonism; people who are inside the construction may not fully recognize and admit the logic of this space. Space is fixed while the people within the area can be constantly flowing. The significance of Asianness is to announce another mode of thinking in front of the western world.

Professor Naoki Sakai has been deconstructing, while Professor Sun Ge has been constructing. The seemingly contradictory behaviors are not mutually antagonistic as the process of criticism is always accompanied by continuous deconstructions and reconstructions.

Archive Books, Berlin, Germany
Accessed in June,2019

In the Q&A section, many audiences inquired about the details of the new university elaborated by Professor Sun Ge. Someone has discussed that when one is talking about constructing Asian subjectivity, he or she is in fact emphasizing the necessity of elaborating on the particularity therein and preserving such particularity (P.101). It is not difficult to talk about preserving particularity in a very philosophical and abstract way. However, if the details of this topic are expanded, the reality is that every particularity is unlimitedly complicated. Why is such a device needed? It is because of a regulatory strategy, which is indeed inherently connected with certain discursive violence, is needed to deal with numerous fragmental issues; otherwise one might forever be trapped by the problems of particularity. In this case, how is the new university going to solve this problem?

Professor Sun Ge replied by starting with the presupposition behind this problem. It is believed that particularity is so complex and so trivial that we must bring it in front of, or back to, university. But why such is universality necessary? Perhaps because without such a generalization, all fragments in our mind cannot be cleaned up and clarified. However, can we solve all these trivial problems after such an induction? The reality is that we are always confronting concrete issues. But generalization on its own would not suffice to solve these trivial problems. In this case, the new university is expected to be an intermedium that connects various particularities to communicate with each other. Based on this, the new community of value could be established.

Professor Sun Ge’s response may not fully solve this problem as the imagination of “actually the world could have no center” is utopian at present, even in the future. Nevertheless, the significance of the new university lies in the breakthrough of leading people trapped in the Eurocentrism to consider problems in a new way and in making an Asian announcement in front of people who are conceited to western civilization and theories. The new direction cannot be pointed out unless we can jump out of the restrictions and think against the regulations.

A new route, methodology and perspective can be provided in this discussion, which is summarized in this delicate book. Only by breaking away from the ideology and cultural framework that are unconsciously imposed on us, may we be able to re-examine ourselves and form a voice for our civilization based on the historical origins and the ideological foundation.

View of the book launch event

1. For Takeuchi’s discussion regarding Asian modernity, see Sakai, “Critique of Modernity: the Problem of Universalism and Particularism” in South Atlantic Quarterly, 87.3, (summer 1988) or its Japanese translation in Gendai Shiso, 15.15, (December 1987).

Text by Emily Zhou Weimeng and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Photo provided by Inside-out Art Museum (Except for annotating pictures )