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Arif Dirlik on East Asian Identity Assignment - Bright Mhango

A Paper Summary
DECEMBER 12, 2019
Shandong University
In his 1999 paper titled: Culture Against History? The Politics of East Asian
Identity1, Arif Dirlik examined the changes in attitudes towards the concept of
cultural identity and especially zoomed in on the notion of East Asian Identity.
This paper will try to summarize his core points and outline these aforementioned
The Past and the West, Then and Now
Dirlik starts by declaring that cultural identity is tied to Euro-American
colonialism which first manifested itself in the notion of modernisation and
morphed into globalisation in the post-colonial era.
Dirlik states that independence movements were the first to seek out and define
their own identities which were linked to their independence struggles and after
the end of the independence struggles, a new way of defining cultural identity
was needed:
“National Liberation movement are not of the past and, so apparently art ether
solutions to the question of cultural identity offered by the national liberation
leaders and theorists from Frantz Fannon to Abdallah Laroui, Ernesto Che
Guevara to Mao Zedong. But the question of cultural identity is still very much
there: Indeed, has come to the foreground…” pp.169
Dirlik, Arif. 1999. “Culture Against History? The Politics of East Asian Identity.” Development and Society
28(2): 168-90.
China, Globalization, And the Disavowal of History
Now, states Dirlik, the question of cultural identity is not only no longer linked
to the independent movements such as Marxism but is also no longer seen in
modernity terms but rather wrapped in ‘the language of globalisation that has
replaced modernisation as a paradigm for change.’
Globalisation, however, didn’t not over the solutions that lacked in the past.
While Modernisation paradigm was criticised as Eurocentric, its successor
globalisation cannot explain why the world is getting ‘fragmented in so many
ways that few dare to speak these days of universalism…’ p.171
On China, Dirlik traced how the Communist Revolution and its fall out relegated
Confucian values which had before that point been a big part of Chinese identity
to the museum (p.171) and then in an ironic twist took him out of the museum
again. This, Dirlik argues, is not because of the passing of revolutions but rather
is a reaction of globalization replacing modernization as a paradigm for change.
The Confucian revival also comes at a time when other identities are also getting
assertive. Dirlik lists the Hindu, Islamic, Turkish and Buddhist identities and
states that these bring the idea of ‘Asia’ into question.
Dirlik, while acknowledging the longstanding quest for identity in East Asia,
postulates that the economic boom of Asian nations, multiculturalism and cultural
domination by the West and Western multinationals have all helped foster the
quest for Identity in East Asia.
“I have argued elsewhere that while Confucian revival may express long-standing
grievances against the Eurocentric suppression of East Asian pasts, it has been
empowered in its most recent manifestation by the economic success of East
Asian societies…” (p.175)
Dirlik however in all in the West’s shadow: All this suggests one thing, he writes:
“that even at the moment of a seeming assertion on an autonomous self against
the West, the West has been very much part on an Asian self-discovery either as
an active or an absent presence” (p.176)
Beyond Orientalism
The author also alludes to Orientalism, the stereotypical portrayal of Asia, as
informing the geography of the Asian reveal citing that the areas that were the
products of EuroAmerican spatializations and the areas deemed strategic to the
United States after the Second World War happen to be the areas that have seen
a lot of the revival.
Orientalism continues to influence scholarship on East Asia, argues, Dirlik and
bemoans the fact that what is called East, West, Northeast and Southeast and the
clear boundaries that separate them have been defined from outside.
Globalization and the Conquest of the Third World
And it was that outside that inadvertently gave rise to Asianness. Asians didn’t
know they lived in Asia until they saw the European maps and for Chinese, the
world Asia was introduced to them by Jesuits only in the 17th Century. Soon,
Japan and Canton in China were hubs of radicals defending Asianness with
Japanese imperialism even finding favour in Asia in the 1930s using tropes
relating to defending Asia against Western Imperialism. (p. 179)
Dirlik goes on to argue that even after Asians claimed Asianness for themselves
they suspiciously still toe the Orientalist line. He gave the example of how China
is described as Confucian when it has Buddhism and at the time, he wrote the
paper movements like the now out-lawed Falun Gong - hardly a monolith.
For Dirlik, Globalisation is but a ruse to mask US economic and cultural
East Asian Alternatives?
Having deconstructed the idea of Asia and East Asia and having equated it to a
mere ‘Intellectual Praxis,’ Dirlik says the issue is not about deciding whether
there is an Asia but rather who is to define what Asia or East Asia is.
Since he has already proven that the current definitions of Asia are rooted in
EuroAMerican colonialism, Dirlik says defining Asia as being vis-à-vis the West
doesn’t suffice and can only lead to more social injustice. (p.187-188)
In his conclusion Dirlik says if the Idea of Asia is to be reimagined it has to
transcend not just Western but also what he called Self-Orientalism which came
out of the nationalist movements and which lumped imagined areas and cultures
as monoliths.
Instead Dirlik says there is need for a “reconceptualization of the very notion of
regional formations- from the ground up, in accordance with everyday needs and
interactions that point to diverse historical experiences and trajectories, which
have been rendered invisible in both Orientalist and nationalist mappings of the
world.” (p188)
Dirlik, Arif. 1999. “Culture Against History? The Politics of East Asian Identity.” Development and
Society 28(2): 168-90.