Kuan-Hsing Chen (陳光興, 1957-present) is a critical theorist based in Taiwan. He has recently retired as professor in the Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies (the only academic faculty of cultural studies in Taiwan) at National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. He was born and grew up in Taiwan and received his PhD in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Iowa, USA. After his academic training and teaching in North America, he moved back to Taiwan to develop his postcolonialist exploration into the future of Asia. He began utilizing resources from Asia rather than continuing to import Western knowledge into the East Asian context. (This might be the reason why his research has generally not attracted attention from Western academia.)
The Continuation of and Challenge to Stuart Hall’s Tradition
In Chen’s early career he co-edited a book with David Morley, Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (1996), signalling Chen’s dialectical relationship with British Cultural Studies—the Birmingham School.
Chen agrees with Hall’s critical agenda, which attempts to uncover and end racism, sexism, and classism, and to re-examine imperial history. History established by Enlightened rationalism, with its metaphysics and positivism, sustains a world which is white, male and Eurocentric (Chen 1996: 309). But Chen also argues that the end of History means ‘the beginning of histories’: which includes the history of the oppressed, of minorities, and of the Third World (310).
However, Chen disagrees with Hall’s binarism, which, he asserts, may be the result of Hall’s ‘strategic articulation of social antagonisms’:
The oppositions between women and men, working class and capitalists, blacks and white, or the third worlds and ‘first’ world, can no longer be understood as ‘ontological’ givens, but are rather articulated political effects of present social contradictions. (312)
Chen questions whether these seemingly opposing categories are realities or are merely labels for maintaining oppression and privilege.
Following on from Chen’s theory, the theologian might ask: Does Black Theology become more marginalized when it gains academic recognition? Black Theology initially developed to fight for equality in faith and in the power of theological interpretation in the context of the exclusion of non-white people. Now it is institutionalized in an academy dominated by white elites, and the full political significance of ‘Black’ may not be heard in such a context. Black Theology needs to remain wary of becoming a niche market in theology, of the dangers of targeting a specific group of people. Black Theology can easily be regarded as a theology of Black people alone. Chen’s dialogue with Hall then may help us recognize the dangers of ontologizing some social categories used by political theologians.
The Rejection of Canonizing Theological Knowledge
Chen argues that cultural studies needs to discontinue the ‘canonization’ of the Birmingham School. He does this because, if the classification of disciplines is not challenged, it will internalize, extend, and duplicate ‘the immanent logic of imperialism’ (Chen 2008: 501). Based on his experience designing a curriculum for teaching cultural studies in Taiwan, Chen asserts that, because cultural studies is canonized by Western academia, its ability to understand historical contexts in East Asia and in Taiwan is limited: ‘We have to be bold enough to challenge the self-colonization … in our own ways of teaching, to challenge the appropriateness of the accepted categorization of disciplines, and to seek alternative modes of knowledge’ (Chen 2008: 513). Chen seeks to build a connection between ‘Cultural Studies in the Chinese speaking world’ and ‘Inter-Asia Cultural Studies’ (512) to go beyond the concepts of the West, and to identify and locate the context of non-Western worlds.
Chen’s perspective is an East Asian one that challenges Western academic hegemony, and it provides something valuable for political theology in the West to reflect on, especially with regard to the ‘canonization’ of Western theological knowledge. Have Western political theologians continued to practice self-criticism that examines the foundations of Western political theology? Is political theology still captivated by Karl Marx, or Carl Schmitt? While Marx and Schmitt may still have important resources to contribute, Chen reminds political theologians to re-source their knowledge and their own contexts. As Western society has become more culturally diverse (in terms of race, sexuality, gender, etc.) than in the time of Marx and Schmitt, is their political theology sufficiently contextualized to respond to this situation?
Chen may suggest that Western political theologians should reconsider what kind of ‘political’ they are talking about in relationship to their context. They should incorporate more resources from local knowledge—such as popular culture, literature, films, and music—in order to notice resistance in daily life. (This echoes the primary spirit of British Cultural Studies, with its political, social, and cultural critique rooted in a British context.) If political theology would like to learn from critical theory, it should also learn that critical theory is an ongoing journey of disclosing power and oppression, and of self-criticism.
Asia as Method
In 2010, Chen published his celebrated monograph Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. By tracing the trajectories of decolonization, he points out that the decolonialization and deimperialization movements in East Asia did not start immediately after independence from the Western empires, nor was their development as straightforward as people anticipated it would be. For example, the relics of Japanese imperialism in Pacific Asia have not yet been fully scrutinized even though its expansion ended. Nor has the impact of colonialism yet been fully articulated. Nor has the ‘imperialization of the subject’ (kominkan, Japanization)—which transformed the colonized people in Taiwan and Korea into Japan’s imperial subjects—yet been unpacked.
Chen argues that this is because the Cold War interrupted critiques of imperialism and colonialism at a time when all left-wing politics and thought were considered to be Communism and activists were sent to prison. East Asia was overwhelmingly subdued by the victory of American liberalism. On the other hand, while growing nationalism in East Asia appears to demand independence and subjectivity, in fact nationalism is entangled with the continuation of colonialism, Cold War antagonisms, and the imperialist imaginary. This is not a simple binary opposition between the West and East Asia, the Japanese Empire and its colonies, the colonizers and the colonized, or communism and liberalism. In order to articulate these entangled relationships, Chen proposes his tripartite doctrine of East Asian critical theory: deimperialization should not be separated from decolonization and ending the Cold War legacy.
Chen’s theory of Asia-as-method offers a critical viewpoint on political theology outside East Asia, especially when people generally believe that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or with the manifest failure of the Soviet Union to rival the economic success of the USA and other Western countries. Exemplifying the situation in East Asia, Chen reminds political theology that imperialism, colonialism, and Cold War antagonism reinforce each other. When imperialism and colonialism cannot be challenged in the West, it implies that ending the Cold War legacy has not begun. Cold War structures continue to have force in the West and they help secure Western imperialism and colonialism and postpone any critique of them. For example, ‘Communism’ is still a term which many people in the West fear. It is easily appropriated by politicians to attack their rivals. Socialism and ‘the left’ are considered suspect by many people.
Another example is the ‘new Cold War’ between China and USA. (It is nothing ‘new’, Chen might say, because the Cold War never ended.) Chen’s Asia-as-method uncovers the deep, complex structure of this ‘new Cold War’—which combines the ‘Yellow Peril’, anti-communism, anti-authoritarianism, economic protectionism, the defense of Western human rights, and American imperialism. Asia-as-method reminds political theologians about the unwisdom of choosing one political side to stand by and of falling into a binary mindset.
More importantly, Chen points out that Japanese imperialism continues in political structures even though the Japan Empire no longer exists. The mindset and structure of imperialism remains because Japan constructed imperial subjects. Paradoxically, the will of these individual imperial subjects can be put into practice in present politics by means of democratic votes. Chen’s analysis of the kominka movement draws political theology’s attention to the construction of imperial subjects and the orientation of their desire. Asia-as-method may show how tackling racism, homophobia, sexism and other social oppressions should work with the theological analysis of political desire.
References with Annotations
Chen, Kuan‐Hsing. “Post-Marxism: Between/Beyond Critical Postmodernism and CulturalStudies” and “Cultural Studies and the Politics of Internationalization” (An Interview with Stuart Hall by Kuan-Hsing Chen) In Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, 307-323, 393-409. London, UK: Routledge, 1996. & Cultural Studies and the Politics of Internationalization
The essay and interview are collected in the book (edited by David Morley and Chen) which puts emphasis on Stuart Hall’s ‘critical dialogue’ within Marxism. Chen’s essay especially examines ‘dominant’ forms of postmodernism in relation to cultural imperialism. His critique concludes with an interview he conducted with Hall in which he raised the questions of historical Anglocentrism in the development of postcolonial theory, and transnationalism and globalization in cultural studies.
Chen, Kuan-Hsing, Ien Ang, Hsiu-Ling Kuo, Hans Hang, and Hsu Ming-Chu, eds. Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Psychology Press, 1998.
This book selected 18 essays from Asian scholars across different topics about deimperialization, identity politics, and nationalism. In Chen’s Introduction, he reclaims Marxism not from the West or the imperial centers but from Asia.
Chen, Kuan‐Hsing. “Problems and Problematics of Teaching Cultural Studies in Taiwan.” Inter‐Asia Cultural Studies, 9:3 (2008), 500-517.
This essay shows Chen’s internal struggle over designing a cultural studies curriculum in Taiwan. As a practitioner, he shares how he puts his critical theory into practice in university education.
Chen, Kuan‐Hsing. Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
This book systematizes and probably concludes Chen’s project of rethinking cultural theory in the Asian context. It also shows his critique of imperialization and explains why deimperialization is not yet completed.
Morley, David and Kuan‐Hsing Chen, eds. Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies. London, UK: Routledge, 1996.
This collection shows Chen’s dialogue with Stuart Hall and the tradition of the Birmingham School. In the essay he contributed, Chen explores the relationship between Marxism and historical materialism. The book includes his interview with Stuart Hall about the internationalization of British Cultural Studies.