John Law and Wen-yuan Lin's “Provincializing STS: Postcoloniality, Symmetry, and Method” in this issue is an ambitious article, proposing a new postcolonial approach to STS studies. Law and Lin attempt to extend the principle of symmetry to non-Western and Western. They argue that the analytical-institutional complex in STS scholarship has produced postcolonial intellectual asymmetries. A crucial asymmetry, they believe, is that Euro-American STS produces theories and that non-Euro-American STS does case studies. They suggest that this asymmetry might be redressed if we carry out postcolonial investigations using non-Western analytical resources.

To present the problem and their arguments substantively, Law and Lin take Taiwan's situation as an example. They start with an interesting dialogue that happened in Taiwan in 2009. That year, Law was first invited to visit Taiwan and gave a seminar in which he and Lin encountered rather disconcerting experiences that resulted from the collision of two different metaphysical worlds. Hsin-Hsing Chen, a Taiwanese STS scholar, talked of his experiences at a festival for the goddess Mazu. His experiences clashed with Law's Euro-American theory, built as it was on a Western metaphysical system quite different from the Chinese metaphysical system of Taiwan. Lin rather felt as if shenshouyichu 身首異處—“his head and his body are in different places.” (215) Lin, as a Western-trained STS scholar and a Chinese-speaking Taiwanese, felt “that his head is full of Euro-American theory and knowledge while his body inhabits Taiwan” (215). Law and Lin believe that this kind of situation is not peculiar to Taiwanese STS. They suggest that any postcolonial STS needs to attend to these kinds of issues, “not just in Taiwan or China but, for instance, in the Spanish-, Portuguese-, or Hindi-speaking worlds” (216).

In addition to the metaphysical differences, the institutional contexts also matter. Most STS scholars and social scientists in Taiwan were trained in Euro-American universities; they tend to accept Euro-American—and even solely English-language—standards for academic (publication) evaluation and university ranking. These institutional devices urge them to reproduce the model of learning and scholarship found in Euro-America and, more particularly, North America. Although some academics in Taiwan, as Law and Lin point out, have performed a long-term reflection on academic recolonization, the situation in Taiwan largely remains unchanged. Worse, these institutional realities strengthen the dichotomy of theory and case study, the separation of mind from body, and the asymmetry of Euro-American (English-speaking) and Taiwanese (Chinese-speaking) postcolonial STS.

Given such a diagnosis of Taiwan's situation in particular, Law and Lin's prescription is to encourage STS scholars to do Chinese-inflected STS. They illustrate this with the practice of Dr. Lee, a distinguished Chinese medical practitioner. Lee diagnoses patients by combining Chinese medical concepts such as xuhuo 虛火 (depleted fire) and chi 尺 (a pulse-taking point) with Western biomedical tests. Law and Lin believe that the mode of Lee's work indicates a new postcolonial approach to STS studies, which is different from the approach taken by other sinologists and medical anthropologists such as Mario Blaser, Judith Farquhar, and Mei Zhan, who use a set of English-language concepts such as syncretic, patterns of association, propensities, and the like to interpret Chinese medicine. They “use STS language to articulate Chinese medicine for a Euro-American readership” (219). However, Law and Lin suggest that we should think symmetrically, that is, do Chinese-inflected STS. In doing so, we should ask such questions as what goes with what and whether what it is observing is in balance or not, rather than looking for a strong explanation. Such Chinese-inflected STS “has to do with hybridity, the refusal to embrace reductionist forms of explanation, and the assumption that objects are relational, not given” (220). Furthermore, it should be used to deal with cases not only in Taiwan or China but also in Euro-America. To advance their approach, Law and Lin have used a Chinese term—shi (勢, “propensities”)—to make sense of a European case, that of the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom (Law and Lin 2016).

Having now set out an abstract of Law and Lin's ambitious article, I am ready to write some words of my own. First of all, I very much appreciate their endeavor to make sense of European cases in terms of Chinese-inflected STS, an investigation that echoes and embodies one of three strategies I suggested in Chen 2012: “One may extend an East Asian version to cases in areas outside East Asia and reproduce Western or non-East Asian theory descent” (476).

Since I used the phrase theory version, Law and Lin might think that my strategy presupposes the dichotomy of theory and case study and that they are trying to go beyond it; some sentences in their text do offer such an impression.1 If so, I don't think that they succeed. A Chinese-inflected STS, as they have presented, is nothing but an STS theory version mixing Chinese philosophical terms with standard (Euro-American) STS terms. It may be a hybridized theory or theory version. It is completely fine if they develop such a theory based or centered on the Chinese philosophical term shi; it is also certainly fine if any STS scholar develops a theory or theory version based or centered on a philosophical term in Hindi, Spanish, or any other language. However, it is truly strange to say that a Chinese- or Hindi-inflected STS can go beyond the dichotomy of theory and case study. Rather, the division between theory and case study exists, and we should apply a non-Euro-American theory to Euro-American cases and a Euro-American theory to cases in non-Euro-American areas. The current problem in postcolonial STS is an imbalance in application (that is, the latter kind of application is too abundant, and the former too infrequent) rather than a division of Euro-American theories and non-Euro-American case studies.

Law and Lin's discourse seems to produce misunderstanding, a problem that might stem from that metaphor of head and body that originated in Lin's feeling of head-body separation. Law and Lin see this feeling as a general phenomenon in Taiwan and in other “marginal” countries. However, this might be too private an origination to represent a general situation. From the impression that Law and Lin give in their article, Taiwanese STS people seem to live in a world quite different from that of their Euro-American counterparts and talk with one another in traditional Chinese philosophical language. This impression is largely partial.

Indeed, Chinese medical and herbal practitioners would talk with their patients in a traditional Chinese medical language that conveys a particular metaphysical system. However, traditional Chinese metaphysics has become no longer suitable for other parts of Taiwanese people's lives nowadays. Since our everyday lives have been filled with a great many scientific ideas and technological objects, we usually talk with one another using the whole gamut of contemporary scientific, technological, and sociological concepts—fields, evolution, genes, computers, chips, germs, networks, green energy, warming, PM2.5 pollution, GPS, virtual reality, Pokémon, structures, action, communication, transformation, and so on. Almost all of these concepts came from Euro-America after the nineteenth century. Are these concepts then by nature Euro-American? It is a fact that here in East Asian Science, Technology and Society we use English terms to express those concepts, though we can certainly use Mandarin terms to express them. Just like scholars in other countries, we usually search for suitable technological or theoretical concepts, expressing them in Mandarin to explain and understand our lives and our scientific-technological society. Unfortunately, most of those concepts might be first composed into theories by Euro-American scholars. Nonetheless, this does not mean that those concepts per se are Euro-American. It does not mean that to do STS symmetrically we have to—and can only—invoke traditional Chinese metaphysical terms: we can invent our own theories by recombining suitable concepts from Mandarin and Euro-American terms and applying them to cases in Taiwan, Euro-America, and elsewhere. How, then, do we do this?

In Chen 2012 I analyzed how most STS authors in East Asian Science, Technology and Society and the Taiwanese Journal for Studies of Science, Technology and Medicine use a theorizing strategy in their case studies, that of “assembling or reassembling different concepts from a number of Western theories.” In my recent Chinese papers (Chen 2014, 2016) I refer to this strategy using a typical Taiwanese Mandarin term, gainian pinzhuang 概念拼裝 (conceptual reassembling), arguing that gainian pinzhuang is a necessary stage for developing a theory version, since all theories are constructed by reassembling given concepts from other theories into a new gestalt (Chen 2014: 318–21; 2016). Of course, this strategy does nothing to preclude one from reassembling concepts from Euro-American theories and traditional Chinese philosophy. Personally, I think that Law and Lin's Chinese-inflected STS is nothing but a subtype of the conceptual reassembling strategy.

Law and Lin cite my 2012 and 2014 papers without discussion. They simply refer to the strategy in terms of theoretical creolization. The use of this term raises two problems. First, why do they use a typically English term to describe a theorizing strategy or phenomenon that has been practiced in Taiwan and East Asia, given that they advocate Chinese- or Korean-inflected STS? Why do they not use gainian pinzhuang, a current and typically Taiwanese Mandarin term? Here there seems to be a conflict between their theory and their practice. Second, gainian pinzhuang is different from theoretical creolization, which implies a colonizing interpretation of theorizing practices in East Asia. That said, theorizing practices in East Asia are a colonized result of Euro-American theories. Gainian pinzhuang is an active selection from different theoretical concepts for accounting for empirical data in local cases. In performing gainian pinzhuang, the fit between theoretical concepts and empirical data in target cases must be considered seriously; it is not the unconscious result of a colonized admixture (creolization).

I don't claim that gainian pinzhuang is sufficient alone for Taiwan or other “marginal” areas; instead, I encourage STS scholars to develop Taiwanese or East Asian STS theory versions. For this, Chinese or other East Asian languages are not the key, because the identity of a theory does not depend on the language used to express it; a theory can certainly be expressed by many different languages—this is, after all, why we are using English to discuss Chinese-inflected STS here. Otherwise, two communities that speak different languages cannot communicate with each other. Admittedly, there are communicative difficulties and conceptual incommensurability, but the difficulties can be decreased by continuously communicative translations, and local incommensurability can be overcome by mutual interpretations and reinterpretations (Kuhn 1983). The point is that there are many common objects and ideas in Euro-America, Taiwan, and other countries, and different language communities have produced many common ways to conceptualize them. If a language lacks the terms to express those concepts, it has to add new and necessary terms to its lexicon. In fact, Mandarin in Taiwan has added many terms to express such modern scientific, technological, and sociological concepts. I am afraid that Law and Lin neglect the commonality of concepts across different languages and cultures.

Languages are evolving. Individual concepts have no nationalities and identities. They are neither English nor Chinese. Only persons have identities. All of these facts do not imply that we cannot distinguish Taiwanese or East Asian theories from Euro-American theories. As I have argued (Chen 2012: 476–77), the identity of a theory is the academic identity of its builder, and the academic identity of a theory builder depends on his or her academic identification with a research community. The criterion for whether Law and Lin have built a Taiwanese or East Asian STS theory is their academic identification rather than their use of Chinese terms.

A positive aspect of Law and Lin's ambitious article is noteworthy. The article might be written for mainstream STS scholars in Euro-America, and one may read it relative to Euro-American STS contexts. Law and Lin attempt to persuade Euro-American scholars to pay attention to works, theories, and conceptual assemblages produced by scholars in relatively marginal regions such as East or South Asia, asking that mainstream to think about or discuss non-Euro-American thoughts symmetrically. It is certainly good to do this, and a fine intention to improve the marginal situation of STS works produced by East Asian scholars. However, putting the focus on language seems ineffective. If languages are the key, then mainstream STS scholars may absorb useful Chinese or other Asian-language terms from the works of Euro-American sinologists or other Asian studies scholars. This is because those scholars provide professional interpretations. As a result, Euro-American STS scholars may still neglect their East Asian colleagues: no citations, no quotations, and no discussion. To think about non-Euro-American STS symmetrically, a better strategy would be to encourage Euro-American scholars to cite, quote, and discuss non-Euro-American works and to enter into a dialogue with them. It is also necessary for non-Euro-American scholars to discuss their own work with one another.2 This is the very reason that I am participating in this critical response.

Language is not the key matter, but it does matter. Different languages are fruitful sources from which new concepts or novel applications of old concepts can be found. New concepts and applications help construct new theory versions, adding to the plurality of STS studies. However, as I have argued above, it might be ineffective to see languages as the key to symmetrical thinking. Moreover, internal differences within a language are important. Chinese is a giant language, as is English. It has been evolving for a very long time. Modern Chinese writing syntax is quite different from the traditional, which had shifted far away from the lives of people in China and in Taiwan. Modern spoken Chinese is divided into Chinese Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin: just as British English is different from American English, Mandarin as used in Taiwan is quite different from the Mandarin of mainland China. Moreover, written Chinese is divided into simplified and traditional characters. The differences between mainland and Taiwanese Mandarin are just as pronounced as those between British and American English: information, for example, is xinxi 信息 on the mainland and zixun 資訊 on Taiwan, while software is ruanjian 软件 and ruanti 軟體, respectively. It seems to be imprecise to suggest a “general” Chinese-inflected STS; if language is important, the plurality within a language must be considered. Using any language always harbors complex cultural and political problems. Although Law and Lin emphasize that a Chinese-inflected STS is not a Chinese national STS, I am afraid they do not consider the likely effects of that linguistic-cultural-political complex.

In summary, it is significant that Law and Lin reverse the direction of theory hybridization, and valuable that they encourage thinking symmetrically about Euro-American and non-Euro-American STS. However, it can be argued that they place the focus on language in general and on the Chinese language in particular, and I am sorry to say that the path they suggest for STS does not come to the point.

Notes

1

They write, “The message then is that in order to think well about postcolonial forms of STS, the discipline will need to think simultaneously about theory and empirical research and about subjectivities and materialities, as well as also about some pretty matter-of-fact institutional practicalities. And somehow it will have to shift all of these together. Otherwise, it will carry on reproducing a theory–case-study postcolonial divide, and it will continue to separate minds from bodies for those who do not dwell in the English-speaking world” (217).

Notes

2

In Chen 2012 and 2014 I discuss the Taiwanese STS scholar Chung-Hsi Lin's work on “reassembled cars,” connecting its image with “conceptual reassembling.” In Chen 2016 I reveal the parallelism between “mechanical reassembling” and “conceptual assembling.” It is noteworthy that Chung-His Lin (2014) has been developing a Taiwanese STS theory in terms of tian 天 (“heaven” or, as here, “nature”), ren 人 (people), wu 物 (material objects), and wo 我 (“I” or “ego”). Are these terms Chinese? Is his theory Chinese inflected? Law and Lin do not mention his work at all in their article.

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