We are starting a lab on Asian Cosmopolitanisms in order to reconceptualize the study of Asia across the disciplines of the humanities and interpretive social sciences. A focus on Asia is particularly timely given the changing geopolitical landscape and rise of economic powerhouses in the region, the worldwide influence of multiple different Asian cultures, and Asia’s complex role within the Global South. The central work of the Asian Cosmopolitanisms Lab will be to redefine Asia from its Cold War understanding as particular nation-states within a geographical region, to a new conception as multiple networks and flows that touch upon all parts of the world. We speak here of cosmopolitanisms in the plural to insist upon a non-monolithic understanding of Asia, one that has been invented within Orientalist discourses from the early modern period and reinscribed in modern Asian self-identities. Furthermore, drawing upon Kuan-Hsing Chen’s “Asia as method,” we argue for the recognition of conceptual frameworks that emerge out of Asian systems of thought and social practice, and how these frameworks complicate and enrich the hegemonic theoretical discourses in the work of contemporary humanities.
Cosmopolitanism names the belief that all human beings belong to a world community and maintains that there are deep interrelationships, shared rights, and mutual obligations that exist at multiple and shifting registers, from the profoundly local to the intensely distributed global, and in the many spaces in between. While the concept of cosmopolitanism in the West emerges from ancient Stoicism and was elaborated by Enlightenment thinkers, there is also a long history of cosmopolitan thought within Asia that has largely gone unrecognized; this history includes early Chinese philosophy , what Sheldon Pollock has termed “the Sanskrit cosmopolis,” and also Buddhist traditions. W e argue that cosmopolitanism is not synonymous with globalization, or universalism, or transnationalism, or multiculturalism, though it engages with each of these discourses. Rather, we understand cosmopolitanism as a relationship of the many local and regional identities and communities to differing visions of the global, rejecting the notion of a monolithic global by insisting that one location or perspective does not preclude another but exists in mutual, dialectical relationships of understanding.
Our insistence on cosmopolitanism also functions as a “corrective virtue” (citing Victoria Costa), a counterpoint to identities focused on nation, religion, or local community . As such, cosmopolitanism troubles both area studies and the traditional configuration of the modern academy . Area studies in the United States emerged out Cold War concerns with national security , and has focused on languages and political units. To this end, literature and culture were often positioned in service of security interests. Further, the modern academy is divided into disciplines that emerged out of Anglo-American and European epistêmes, and these do not accurately represent cultures of knowledge at the global peripheries and counterspaces (such as the Global South). This lab will provide a space for Asian studies within the academy that argues against imperial, colonial, or nationalist commitments and legacies, aiming to address the ways in which the post-Cold War university’s institutional and disciplinary silos separate the study of Asia proper (creating isolated entities such as Asian languages, literatures, religions, and histories) from other work associated with American Studies or African American Studies (often focusing on contemporary questions of race and ethnic studies, diaspora, and identity), while simultaneously reifying universalizing disciplinary regimes (English literature as the site of literary studies).
The core work of the lab will take place through three closely interlocking research clusters that will interrogate how Asia is imagined in traditional academic disciplines:
- Asia Translating (led by Charles Laughlin, East Asian Languages and Cultures) — focuses on translation as a key mechanism through which ideas, texts, and practices are circulated and reimagined.
- Asia Diasporas (led by Sylvia Chong, English and American Studies) — focuses on Asian diasporas and migrant networks, and how these human flows figure in terms of identity and cultural formation
- Politics of Knowledge (led by Natasha Heller, Religious Studies) — examines the politics of knowledge, from the disciplinary construction of “philosophy” itself to the broader diffusion of Asian concepts as they travel across multiple contexts
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