East Asian STS is like an elephant whose shape we are trying to determine by touching it in the dark. It appears differently to different investigators. This is a good thing, as is amply demonstrated by the three exciting articles in this forum. The articles display an impressive range and diversity of viewpoints, which is a sign of the intellectual vibrancy of East Asian STS. Still, behind these differences, I think that we can identify two main issues, one concerned with STS theories and the other with “East Asia.” The former is more extensively dealt with in Jia-shin Chen's and Ruey-Lin Chen's articles.1 (The two authors have the same last name. To avoid confusion, I shall use their first names in this paper. All the other authors are cited by their last names.) The latter is the focus of Warwick Anderson's article. In all three articles, however, the two issues are closely related, and their discussions shed light on both of these fundamental problems in East Asian STS.
In his subtle and nuanced case study, Jia-shin applies Deleuze and Guattari's notion of assemblages to the HIV harm reduction policy of Taiwan. He convincingly shows that this particular approach works better to explain the case study than does another theory of a similar origin (Latour's actor network theory, or ANT). The concept of assemblages proves to be a useful perspective on the harm-reduction programs of Taiwan because it better captures the dynamics, ephemerality, and heterogeneity of the ever-changing configuration of science, politics, and culture in Taiwan. The harm-reduction policy necessarily fluctuated and transmuted in the process. The notion of assemblages, with its emphasis on the shifting, amorphous collections of various elements that may or may not maintain temporary stabilities, helpfully highlights the improvisational nature of Taiwan's harm-reduction policy. Social actors of various backgrounds and expertise drew on ideas and practices from other countries and put together policies and institutions that mutated in relation to the vicissitudes of social and political situations. None of them had decisive control of the process. The harm reduction-policy did not simply travel to Taiwan from other countries, either. Despite its transnational features, the policy took on a different form and content in Taiwan in response to the local environments—including what Jia-shin refers to as the “shallow dish” culture of Taiwan.
Although Jia-shin's article is mainly about Taiwan and hardly refers to East Asia in general, his case study is suggestive for revealing the complex nature of East Asian STS. It offers a way to think about the tensions between deterritorialization and reterritorialization in situating East Asia in global context. Moreover, it demonstrates the importance of a careful consideration of different conceptual tools or theory-methods packages for particular cases with distinctive characteristics. In his view, the notion of assemblages works better than Latour's ANT in the case study, and he explains why he thinks so. I appreciate the pragmatic attitude of this approach. Admittedly, the notion of assemblages is more like a concept, a heuristic device, or a perspective than a full-fledged theory. But if it happens to be the best tool—part of a theory-methods package—for the task at hand, why shouldn't we use it? There is no reason to prefer an elaborate but cumbersome theory when a simple conceptual tool will do. There is also no reason to assume that existing concepts or theories developed elsewhere won't work well in certain cases of East Asian STS. If an existing theory or approach is effective, it makes good sense to use it. If it is sufficient, then there is no strong need to invent another concept or theory. This is an eminently sensible position. What if, however, the existing theories are not enough? What if they do not satisfy the intellectual needs of East Asian STS—either because they cannot adequately take into account the distinctive characteristics of a particular social and political situation or because they have not been designed for the analytical or political purposes of East Asian STS? Due to its specific focus, Jia-shin's article does not consider these possibilities.
With regard to theory, Ruey-Lin's approach is as bold and aggressive as Jia-shin's is modest and pragmatic. By surveying the contents of two STS journals based in Taiwan, Ruey-Lin aims to demonstrate that there are already some recognizable features of East Asian STS. Hence, his purpose is not to identify the distinctiveness of East Asia as a topic of inquiry but to ask how to make East Asian STS theoretical. He believes that the answer to the question lies in finding a methodology of regional theory building. That is, for him, the real task is not to call on “a set of common experiences,” such as history and culture, of East Asia as the empirical grounds for developing and testing theories. It is rather to pursue “theory building” through the politics and practice of community building and identity formation. This is an intriguing and forceful argument.
I do not have much to say about Ruey-Lin's classification and discussion of the journal articles. It might be inevitable that some authors will disagree with his classification and characterization of their works. They will protest that the scheme of classification is too simplistic and the results too arbitrary. The whole exercise, however, is mainly to show that there is already a nascent development of distinctive perspectives of East Asian STS. For Ruey-Lin, the crucial part is the next step—how to construct theories for East Asian STS. He advises that scholars who identify themselves with the East Asian STS community should actively “pursue STS theories with an East Asian character to account for cases inside and outside East Asia.” The fundamental issue for Ruey-Lin is therefore how to utilize “methodological and political strategies” to produce East Asian STS theories. His own three-pronged strategy, which he explains in complicated terms, may be jocularly summarized as follows: smack (the existing theories), mix and mash (the existing theories into something “organic”), and stretch (the theories thus produced to other contexts).
I like the idea of developing East Asian STS theories, but I am reluctant to echo Ruey-Lin's enthusiasm for “theory building.” It just sounds too much like putting the cart before the horse. To be sure, theories are never just theories or conceptual tools for solving intellectual problems. They are also political statements. Nevertheless, I still feel that the primary raison d'être of a theory is its intellectual rather than political qualities. Besides, can we really produce theories according to a few guidelines? I am not so sure. If what we want is “organic” theories (to borrow one of Ruey-Lin's metaphors), wouldn't it be better to let them grow according to the intellectual needs of East Asian STS? Implicit in Ruey-Lin's argument is the assumption that theory, especially that which is abstract and general, is higher and more privileged than tools or methods that are used to solve particular problems. There seems to be a longing for grand theory, though the longing is harnessed with the realistic goal to start with humbler kinds of theory. (Ruey-Lin has a complex taxonomy of theories—theory individual, theory version, a family of theory versions, etc. I confess that I don't quite understand the distinctions among them since they are not fully explained in the article.) He seems to be saying that in the political struggle for recognition and community building, theory becomes a touchstone, and if EASTS wants itself to matter, to be something, it must go for the big fish (never mind the mixed metaphor).
OK, I exaggerated a little. What Ruey-Lin is calling for is the ambition to think beyond case studies and to conceptualize what has already been accomplished into theory form. This is surely an admirable goal. Interestingly, Ruey-Lin's use of “East Asia” brings up the issue of “Asia as method.” For his purpose, the key operational definition of “East Asia” is the self-identity of a scholarly community (though he also implicitly accepts the conventional definition of East Asia as a historical and cultural region). It is a risky move, for to reduce the principal meaning of East Asia to that of an academic community is to undermine its significance and relevance and is ultimately self-defeating.
Anderson rightly urges us to look close to home for methodologies in East Asian studies. Indeed, there is much to learn from the recent scholarship on the “East Asia discourse,” championed by a circle of scholars in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China who are active in forming inter-Asian connections, criticizing Western centrism, imperialism, and modernity, and searching for an East Asian subject position. Drawing on the ideas of Japanese sinology, Marxism, and postcolonial studies, they have probably developed the most sophisticated theories of defining and positioning East Asia today. Some of their works have gone considerably beyond the kind of postcolonial studies that is ultimately a form of self-reflection and self-criticism of the West—the kind of scholarship that has not benefited sufficiently from “area studies.” (Whatever its failings and pitfalls, area studies is one of the few disciplines that require practitioners to learn the language and culture of a non-Western society.) The East Asia discourse has looked deeper than other theories into the history and culture of “East Asia” and/or has been more reflective about the methodological and political potential of “region” (e.g., East Asia, Asia) and “regionalism” (at least at the discursive level). This is precisely because it is a discourse that emerged in response to particular historical situations of a region (whether posited as an actual region or a signifier).
The concepts of East Asia discourse do not guarantee a sound investigation into historical and cultural phenomena concerning East Asia, and one can criticize some of its major works and ideas. Takeuchi Yoshimi idealized China in his characterization of the different paths of China and Japan to modernity. Mizoguchi Yuzo's telescopic view of Chinese modernity seems deterministic, top-down, and overly China centered. But they were pioneers. Wang Hui's ouevre, while exceptionally stimulating and creative about China, consistently oversimplifies “Europe,” “the West” (xifang), and the like. Kuan-hsing Chen's “Asia as Method,” another of Anderson's examples, relies heavily on an oddly simplistic model of history, geopolitics, and imperialism in East Asia. Although none of these complaints takes away the critical edge of their works, it does raise questions about what Asia as method means and what one does with the notion. What is “Asia as method” a method for? Generally speaking, the value of Asia as method derives in part from its eschewing a naive ontology (of what “East Asia” is) and in part from the possibilities of its strategic intervention in discussions of Eurocentrism, imperialism, modernity, and globalization by proving alternative historical accounts of “East Asia” (more below).
Here, however, I would like to make a few points that deserve more attention. First, as practitioners of East Asian STS, we should be reflective about Asia as method and new regionalism, and we ought to maintain a critical perspective on any kinds of regionalism. New regionalism is on the rise in the post–Cold War world. The European Union is probably the most salient example. There isn't anything comparable in structure, influence, and authority in Asia, but official or semiofficial organizations, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Boao Forum for Asia, have played an increasing role in formulating regional goals and policies. To say this is not to ignore the considerable conflicts, fissures, and rivalry within these organizations. Nor is it to say that new regionalism must be bad—regionalism is in itself no better or worse than statism or globalization. In fact, in certain circumstances, regionalism may well be the best political option. Yet, nevertheless, it is our job to be a Jeremiah rather than a cheerleader. Second, we should be cautious even when the idea of “Asia as method” is wielded in the name of resisting or countering “Eurocentrism,” “Western imperialism,” “Cold War geopolitics,” “global capitalism,” and the like. These terms, unless they are fully historicized and contextualized, bring us right back to the same tired positions and perspectives that we're trying to move beyond. Third, there is still the tension between “Asia as method” and the lived historical experience of many. For more than a century, “East Asia” wasn't an abstraction; it has exerted actual, often palpable, social, cultural, and political forces upon an enormous population. However elusive “East Asia” is—and it is indeed slippery, multiple, and heterogeneous—it is also something to reckon with.
Fourth, how then should we approach “Asia as method” in East Asian STS? There isn't a master key, but one thing we must consider is how science and technology has helped define “East Asia” and how “East Asia” has helped define science and technology. This doesn't mean that there has been a simple and direct correspondence between a region and particular science and technology, though science and technology certainly have been instrumental to forming and delineating zones and regions. A recent European example is the Single European Sky project, which will define and regulate the airspace of Europe (thereby delimiting the European zone of airspace). It is at the same time a political, economic, and safety project and a science and technology one (especially aviation science and technology). In Asia, the telegraph, meteorology, anthropology and archaeology, and industrialization have all played a role in shaping conceptions of East Asia, and vice versa.
Let me conclude my commentary by returning to where we began—the problems of East Asia and theory. I would like to consider Lin Chung-Hsi's article on reassembled trucks in Taiwan, which is discussed at some length in Ruey-Lin's article. Lin's approach may have been influenced by social construction of technology theory (SCOT), and Ruey-Lin places it in the category of SCOT. To me, however, the most interesting and remarkable part of Lin's approach comes from its close attention to the material objects, the people who used and made them, and their interactions with the actual sociopolitical context. The study is as much an ethnography and political critique as a sociology of technology. Lin's is much more of an ideological and political approach, grounded in the historical experience of Taiwan, than a schematic program of technological evolution. It is more about resistance, situated knowledge, ecology of skills, state power and its limits, community and its creativity, and appropriate technology than about interest groups and technological indeterminacy. The concerns of Lin's article are as much about rural/urban divides, developmental state and modernization projects, and the strategies of the less powerful or somewhat marginalized people to negotiate the economic and political realities in their everyday life as about technological choices.
Lin's case study is poignant precisely because it keeps its finger on the pulse of historical experience.2 Many of its main concerns are not those of the earlier STS theories. It is powerful precisely because it does not impose a cookie-cutter STS theory or program from the 1980s and 1990s, SCOT or otherwise, on an actual historical situation. Can SCOT be stretched or revised to account for such cases? Maybe. But the reason that the original formulation of SCOT had neglected many structural factors of sociopolitical importance—factors that are crucial to understanding certain East Asian societies—is that it was developed in a different context to explain a different set of primary concerns. Would the theory have looked the same if it had been developed to explain everyday technologies of transatlantic slaves or hydraulic engineering of an authoritarian bureaucratic state? I doubt it.
Therefore, I agree that it will be worthwhile to move further and build a middle-range theory from such case studies as Lin's. But, for me, the starting point still has to be particular historical, cultural, and sociopolitical situations, and the value of such a theory would still lie in its ability to address actual sociopolitical phenomena. Perhaps there will always be tensions in what we take East Asian STS to be—depending on what we consider to be East Asia, theory and method, science and technology, and so on. These tensions, however, are a rich source of creativity. They are a gift rather than a curse.
Unfortunately, the final version of Ruey-Lin's article arrived too late to be taken into consideration.
This is a side point, but I can't resist. The topic of reassembled vehicles is of enormous importance, and I wonder why there hasn't been more interest in the topic. For example, the auto rickshaw is ubiquitous in much of Asia and is not uncommon in other continents as well. In fact, it has been one of the most important modes of urban transport in the post–World War II world.