Geert Lovink on Mon, 2 Mar 1998 12:18:31 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen

Politics and Cultural Studies in Interasia
Interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen
By Geert Lovink
Taipei, december 20, 1997

Kuan-Hsing Chen is a central figure in the growing network
        of political activists and cultural studies academics in
        the Asia-Pacific region. I had never met him before,
        when he picked me and Toshiya Ueno up at Taipei-airport.
        Kuan-Hsing is passionate speaker, a radical critic and
        brilliant networker, both in Taiwan and internationally.
        And a serious political fighter. Immediately, we dived
        into the complex universes of the Tokyo academic left
        and discussed its refined forms of non- communication, a
        special topic of Kuan-Hsing. He is the organiser of the
        first and second cultural studies conference, focussing
        on Southern Asia and the Pacific region in 1992 and
        1995. A third one will again take place in Taipei, in
        may 1998. Kuan-Chen is the editor of scientific journals
        and well known for the collection of essays by Stuart
        Hall he has been putting together (Stuart Hall--Critical
        Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1996). Like
        few others, Kuan-Chen has the capability to switch
        between theoretical debates and institutional politics
        of the global 'cultural studies' tribe, and the
        political practices of radical trade unions, gay-lesbian
        groups and media activists. A true revolutionary
        pragmatist, dedicated to all the actual movements
        fighting for social change. He teaches at the Center for
        Cultural Studies, National Tsing Hua University in
        Hsinchu, not far from Taiwan.He is the author of
        "Media/Cultural Criticism: A Popular-Democratic Line of
        Fight"(Taipei, 1992) and the co-editor of "Cultural
        Studies: the implosion of McDonalds" (Taipei,1992) and
        "Trajectories: A New Internationalist Cultural Studies."

GL: Before we discuss media activism, could you tell us
        about the general media situation in Taiwan since the
        late eighties?

KC: Before the lifting of martial law in 1987, everything
        was controlled by the state. It was impossible to get a
        publishing license for print, not to mention radio or
        television. Right after the lifting, around 1000 new
        newspapers registered. The post-war era, with its
        accumulation of capital has been producing classes of
        people with consuming power. That sort of energy demands
        a political democracy, lead by these people. The
        so-called democratization process was essentially a
        bourgeois democratic form, modelled after the Americans.
        Starting from there, the entire society was flowing,
        breaking the old bounderies. The political transition
        got in place, but in a completely chaotic manner. For
        one year there were at least 3000 street demonstrations.
        Each newspaper has its own, hidden affiliation with this
        or that political party. They cannot affilliate with the
        official party line, it has to go in an indirect way. We
        used to have the tradition of the literary supplements.
        After 1987, cultural criticism emerged in the newspaper
        context. At that moment, the conservatives and even the
        liberals did not have much to say. The alternative radio
        movement started to emerge. But the most influential,
        transformative power came from satellites. Suddenly, the
        cable people built an infrastructure and in three years,
        the number of households with cable jumped from 15 to
        70%. The original, state connected television was losing
        control. Literary everything became satellized. Now
        there are around 100 channels. This means a
        redistribution of advertisements, and power. And it did
        serve as an alternative to the original power. The
        political control decreased, but never completely
        dissolved. The entire medialandscape is now commercial.
        But from the late eighties to 1995 accumulated a certain
        energy which is still moving on.

GL: Internationally, the video activist group 'Green Team'
        became well known. What happened to them?

KC: Green Team was no longer effective by 1989. Their moment
        was from 1986-88, the peak moment of street
        demonstrations. Green Team took the historical moment
        and recorded about 1500 tapes, which are still
        available. One person is still running it. Later on,
        they switched to quick news episodes. The problem with
        that is the distribution system. By the early nineties
        some of members got really exhausted. There was a
        movement of alternative video, which followed the model
        of Green Team, trying to establish alternative
        distribution points. The former political oppositional
        party now has its satellite station. You need hugh
        capital. A part of the critical energy could continue,
        but at the moment there is no space. There are
        alternative radio stattions, but with limited power. In
        1995, lots of the intellectual magazines ceased to
        exist. The younger generation was not able to emerge,
        for various reasons, so the energy died out.

GL: Is the younger generation perhaps more into cosumerism,
        which is producing other forms of subculture?

KC: The consolidation of consumer society did not come into
        being until the second part of the eighties. The local
        culture industry did not start until then. The
        accumulation of capital used to be export-oriented. But
        suddenly people discovered the internal market. In terms
        of music, our generation grew up with the American Top
        40. Pop was dominant, not rock and roll. These songs
        were distributed via pirated copies. But since the
        eighties there is a balance between the Top 40 and the
        local music production, or a struggle between them.
        Today's students are going to karaoke and nobody sings
        in English. It is all in Taiwanese or Mandarin. From
        1993 there is a heavy duty Hong Kong influence occuring.
        It became hip because of the 1997 hand-over to speak in
        a Hong Kong accent. This was a signal of the
        stratification of the cultural market. I don't mean to
        trash consumer society. A certain form of
        commodification will be necessary. Publishing houses
        have set up distribution systems and you can walk on it.
        From the mid-eigthies that critical generation
        accumulated a certain authority and leadership. But
        there is indeed a generation gap. From 1994 on there has
        been a booming industry of queer writing, by authors who
        are still in college or graduate school. This explains
        why the gay and lesbian movement is so visible, partly
        through commodification. This is a different type of
        movement, unlike the late eighties street fighting. The
        cultural atmosphere was mediated through commodity
        structures. The role of the student movement in all this
        is perhaps difficult to understand for outsiders. It
        completely died out. You cannot compare it to the
        situation in Japan or South-Korea. After June 4, 1989,
        here also students took over the Changkai-Chek Memorial
        for a week, protesting against the National Assembly.
        This ended with a traumatic scene when 50 students'
        representatives went into the presidential office. This
        cultivated a certain ego, a psychic: that's something
        real. The student generation activists moved into the
        political arena, with different factions competing
        against each other. So that generation is gone. In this
        context, it is a bit strange to use the term 'new social
        movement'. Before the lifting of martial law, there were
        no movements, so everything is new. The younger
        generation still has a critical component in it. But it
        could not decipher which direction to take, so it is
        seemingly less powerfull.

GL: How would you describe the Internet generation? People
        seem to use e-mail and there are WWW-adresses being
        advertized here and there. But there is no cyber-culture
        yet, at least it is not visible.

KC: The commercial Internet is not as big as elsewhere. It
        is still largely depending on the academic
        infrastructure. Internet is a crystal light of society:
        those with more power and resources will have a bigger
        space. The lesbian groups are an exception, not the
        gays, by the way. The younger generation of feminists
        are making an active use of the Net, mainly because of
        the commodification of queer identity. These are writers
        with cultural capital and names.

GL: In the field of cultural studies, you seem to place
        emphasis much more on a better understanding of the
        political economy, compared to the focus on popular
        culture or the media in general.

KC: This is connected to a personal trajectory. I was
        educated in the USA during that booming, initiating
        moment of cultural studies. Now I would call this,
        within the Ango-American context, an obession with pop
        culture. It becomes something playful and fun to study.
        Superficial. Simply addressing something called pop
        culture becomes a formalistic categorization. It is a
        dead end. Nothing critically or politically is happening
        there. It is fun to read - that's the end of the story.
        But I do not want to deny that. It documents certain
        currents of life. I do not want to kick anybody, but I
        think that the combination of political economy and
        history, in combination with cultural studies, is
        absolutely essential. So where is this international
        cultural studies supposed to go? Globalization is only a
        buzz word. What is the hidden agenda? That is still
        unclear. But without these other elements and their
        explanatory power, including anthropology, we are losing
        the context. Coming home and talking about cultural
        studies is kind of weird. We are writing in newspapers
        and one could call that cultural criticism. In fact, in
        the East-Asian context, cultural studies has a long
        literary tradition. You might not agree with their
        politics, but that form of writing has its own history.
        When I go to Japan you deeply feel that. When you read
        the critical cultural essays of Maluyama Masawa... it is
        not academic writing, but it is powerful, expressive and
        passionate. It is in tune with the social flow and the
        political reality. This is a tradition which has to be
        reclaimed, or turned into something else. Even if we
        agree that the mythical history of cultural studies,
        coming from England, is now the dominant current, that
        was also growing out of the New Left, in connecting with
        the colonial intellectuals. They were deeply connected
        to political and social movements. This gets cuts off in
        the process of internationalization, specially in the
        US. If we do not reconnect now, we will lose our
        political energy.

GL: There has been a fascination and urgency from the West
        to connect to 'Asia' and its 'emerging markets'. One
        could even call it an objective force. After the
        businessmen and politicians, the academics, artists and
        intellectuals were coming. Should we reject this
        fascination, which is gone now anyway because of the
        economic/currency crisis?

KC: No. Fascination involves desire and even if you reject
        it, it will flow. I understand this objective condition
        to link up with this funny thing called 'Asia'. There
        has been the phenomena of the triumphalism of the rise
        of Asia: we are colonized, we were oppressed and now we
        are finally in the center of the universe. Without any
        critical reflection on that. This triumphalism is a
        result of the resentment policies against imperial power
        for the past four centuries. It is very much
        understandable. It is a sudden energy, a boom, but also
        extremely dangerous. I can understand the anxiety and
        fear, that you want to do business, but you do not
        understand. In Japan, since the mid-19th century this
        process of Europeanization has been going on. Japan
        understands far more of Europe then Europe understands
        about Japan. So there is nothing wrong with the search
        for a new balance, people beginning to understand each
        other. But it is very dangerous to call this entire
        space 'Asia'. There is no historical, political or even
        geographical unity to that. I am rather prefering the
        term 'Interasia', which comes from 'Interafrica' or
        'Interamerica'. There is a certain unity in East Asia,
        unified by Japanese colonialism in the prewar era with
        an American dominance after the war. But if you are
        situated in East Asia, you do not know anything about
        India. We do not even know our neighbour, The
        Phillipines. We do not know Korea and Japan. Taipei is
        closer to New York and L.A. then to Manilla or Seoul.
        That was the effect of the Cold War. The Asianization
        process only started after the Cold War came to an end
        and is only beginning now.

(thanks to Toshiya Ueno)

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