GAS Interview with Prof. Tina Chen (Director of Global Asias Initiative, Editor of Verge)
“Creating Global Asias as an architecture that supports conversations
encouraging epistemological non-consolidation and the cross-pollination of knowledge
across field and disciplinary boundaries“
—— To begin with, could you tell us about how and why did you initiate the Global Asias Initiative?
“I think it is important to remember or to think about the way in which from the perspective of 2023, the Global Asias Initiative looks very institutionally legible. It is a multidisciplinary and trans-field research enterprise. But, for a long time, it was actually not very coherent. Its current coherence reflects a process, which I think is still on-going, of questioning the conditions of academic knowledge production about Asia and its diasporas, and actively working to create infrastructures that are designed to break down the boundaries between Area studies, Ethnic studies and diaspora studies. So, I think, there are a lot of different ways to answer this question. I will tell you 3 stories, trying to flesh out the history here.
The first story is a story that starts before I got to Penn State in 2008. The dean of our college of Liberal Arts had tasked some of the faculty here to do research and try to lay groundwork for an East Asian studies program. There was this process of colleagues coming together, trying to get to know each other and figure out how to build an East Asian Studies program that could be a space for intellectual gathering, and also exploring how to bring together the varied approaches of scholars who are all working on Asia but using very different disciplinary methods. They had three years of conversation between humanists and social scientists, and the result of that was a kind of community that was really curious about the different ways in which Asia was being defined or, in some cases, just simply assumed to be self-evident. This is the part of pre-history of the Global Asias Initiative and I think in many ways, this is a story about what I would call “institutional consolidation.” In other words, it is a story that emphasizes the institutional priority and benefit of being a visible, legible academic unit.
There is another way to tell this story and that story might begin with my arrival to Penn State in 2008. As we already know, colleagues here had started having this conversation but they had not fully figured out what they were going to build. I am an Asian American studies scholar by training, and the dean invited me to put part of my tenure line into this new Asian studies program. Area studies and Ethnic studies are quite distinct as interdisciplinary formations; they have very different ideas about studying their subjects and topics, with different vocabularies and different intellectual genealogies. Having me in the mix, I think, changed the nature of the conversations that we were having because I was not trained as an Area studies person. So I think we were able to shift the conversation from one that really centered around, or was driven by, institutional consolidation to one that was focalized around intellectual cooperation. I think the conversations we were having started to shift and we were recognizing that this is an opportunity for conceptualizing Global Asias as a multidisciplinary, trans-field approach to the study of Asia and its multiple diasporas. I think the renewed attention to issues of diaspora, Transpacific displacement and affiliations, and comparative work suggested to us that maybe there was increasing importance to acknowledging the kind of synergy that could manifest between these two different institutional formations.
And, that brings me to the third way to answer this question: we recognized the importance of building infrastructures to support this kind of multidisciplinary, trans-field work that we wanted to do and that we wanted to encourage. More specifically, we realized that if you want to bring Ethnic studies and Area studies into non-aligned relation, you have to build structures that make that happen and support that. The gaps between these two different kinds of knowledge formation are about more than just having different assumptions, different priorities, different critical genealogies. They are also actively reinforced by the lack of institutional spaces and scholarly structures that are designed to cross-pollinate conversations across disciplinary and field boundaries. The issues raised by these stories–about legibility, intellectual collaboration, and the importance of infrastructure—all contributed to our motives for trying to create something like the Global Asias Initiative.”
—— Thank you. Could you tell us more about your major activities of the GAI?
“In a lot of ways, the GAI begins with the journal Verge. So, the journal’s mission is to bring into non-aligned relation work in Asian studies, Asian American studies, and Asian diaspora studies. This commitment to non-aligned relation is part of the GAI’s mission as well, which as I already mentioned, involves creating infrastructure. The word that I use regularly to describe this is architecture. We were interested in building architectures that support the methods and approaches of Global Asias academic scholarship. So, in taking a kind of architectural approach to building Global Asias, GAI hosts a number of different programs in addition to our award-winning journal. This includes a biennial Global Asias conference series and the Global Asias Summer Institute, which is a mentoring program for early-career scholars and colleagues. It includes our Global Asias Cyber Chats program, which are virtual presentations, conversations and workshops that focus on sharing the methods and the praxis of Global Asias as an evolving institutional form. Most recently, they include a new book series, Global Asias: Method, Architecture, Praxis.1) On a more conceptual level, I will note that the GAI works to support Global Asias as a collaborative endeavor. One of the challenges I think that Global Asias poses to how we get trained as scholars is that it exceeds any single person’s area of expertise. Nobody can be an expert on Global Asias because it potentially includes everything. So, we really approach Global Asias by embracing the possibilities of collaboration and collective endeavor and we also believe that the hallmark of Global Asias’ work is that it is open to multidisciplinary approaches and orientation. We think that it should, or it can be used to, encourage what I would call, “epistemological non-consolidation.” And I am happy to talk about what that means a little bit more if you want. I think Global Asias is generically innovative. So, if you read Verge or if you are familiar with the journal, you know that we publish standard, traditional, 30-page academic essays. However, we also have a section called “Convergence” which really explores collaborative work through non-traditional formats. So, we think that Global Asias is really a great way to encourage people to start working outside of some of the more traditional academic genres that they inherit.”
—— Thank you. It was very impressive for us to see how you combine the academic event into more tangible accomplishments such as publication. Would you explain more about the term epistemological non-consolidation?
“A lot of times, when a concept is built, it attains a certain kind of coherence, a kind of solidity. I think one of the outcomes of Global Asias could be a kind of consolidation. You can take all of these different things and put them together under the rubric of Global Asias and create this new entity. I actually work very hard to disrupt that as a process. So, my approach to Global Asias is to work to build structures that keep things unconsolidated. By which I mean, I am thinking of Global Asias as a space where people who are in area studies, in Ethnic studies, and in diaspora studies, can come together. Collectively by sharing that space, we can produce something different that is Global Asias in nature and Global Asias scholarship, but it does not mean we have to convert everybody into being the same kind of Global Asias scholar. So, that is what I am trying to create when I am talking about “epistemological non-consolidation,” which is a product of a situation where people can be in the same space and share the same space without necessarily having to persuade each other that one person is right, or one person is wrong, or we have to combine what we are doing and turn it into this new concrete thing called Global Asian or Global Asias studies.”
—— What is the reason behind that we should not lump them together in one umbrella of Global Asias?
“Because I think one of the things that I was trying to challenge with my approach to Global Asias was the way in which, within these particular fields and disciplines, things often narrow into a singular way or right way to do things. That kind of focusing on singularity or the process of consolidation meant that people who were not working in those ways did not have a pathway. It really narrows down the possibility of the work people could do and people who wanted to do work that crosses between these different fields. They could not just traverse between the two. So, I think it is really important to build Global Asias as a space to challenge that, but then to also resist the verification of that too. When I started the journal, nobody really knew what Global Asias was. But now that the journal is somewhat successful, there are more people who are like “I’m a Global Asias person,” or “I really think I do Global Asias.” So, that risks its own kind of consolidation because now Global Asias is a thing. People either do it or they do not do it. And I really want to push back against that. If you look at the journal, for example, the Convergence features are designed to build frictions and juxtapositions into that conversation. Oftentimes our Convergence features include multiple authors working in different disciplines and tackling maybe the same question but from different vantage points, and it actually tries to keep them unconsolidated. It does not try to combine them all, or synthesize them.”
—— Related to this answer, we also found the website, saying that “this Global Asias tries to focus on the set of keywords that highlight both potential overlaps but also points of disagreements within Area Studies, Ethnic Studies and Asian-American Studies.” Could you raise some examples of what is exactly the point of disagreement between these three disciplines?
“Maybe disagreement is too strong of a word. But one point of difference is the role of race and how to study race, for example. In area studies, race tends not to be focalized as a lens too much. Area studies tends to prioritize other things, like language, geopolitical expertise, cultural knowledge. Obviously the interdiscipline of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies really centers race and ethnicity, thinks about conceptual methodology, and focuses on how to think about difference, for example. We are starting to see that there are people who are interested in having this conversation across the fields. So, we built Verge in part because we felt there needed to be a space for people to actually have those conversations because, to be honest, the way people get trained, and the way professional organizations work to support their fields meant that even if people were interested in talking about the same issue, they were literally not talking to each other. So, the journal is designed to try and create this kind of conceptual space so people can actually be in conversation.”
—— Thank you. Could you tell us more about how you approach the notion of Global Asias and what do you think of the difference from other approaches of Asian Studies or Area Studies?
“From the start, I think GAI or Verge has approached Asian area studies in a multivalent way. We have been both welcoming of area studies and also skeptical of area studies approaches. As I mentioned already, when we started the journal, Global Asias was not legible as a kind of formation. People identified through area studies or through Ethnic studies or through their discipline as well. This informed my approach to developing Global Asias, which we conceptualized not as something to replace these different approaches, but instead maybe an architecture that could serve to bring scholars working with these different approaches into conversation without pressuring them to convert. So, that is why I do not think Global Asias should operate as some kind of consolidating force that forces these two fields together. Rather, it should work to keep these two fields unconsolidated, but in tension, in juxtaposition, or in relation. So, we think there are a lot of values and utilities in juxtaposing these different concepts and approaches and leaning into the frictions generated out of their differences.
I think Asian area studies helps Asian American studies problematize the kind of U.S.-centrism that tends to dominate Asian American studies. Just like Asian American studies can help area studies to rethink its assumptions and questions or to be more self-reflexive about the Cold War history of its origin. So, I would like to say here, for me, Global Asias is distinct from Global Asian Studies, which I think is also a formulation that it is becoming more legible or visible. But I think it is fundamentally quite different. I have already made pretty clear that one of the distinctions in our approach is centering the frictions and consonances between Ethnic studies and area studies. This is a kind of approach that really encourages us to be self-reflexive about doing the work that we do and encourages us to be self-reflexive about the nature of academic knowledge production. Also, we put a lot of weight onto the pluralization of Asias. It signals a commitment to multiplicity and irresolution. When you keep Asia pluralized, it resists the way in which, for a lot of people, Asia can fall into self-evidence. It can fall into a kind of visibility that exerts its own critical pull.”
—— In addition to that, how you think about difference of doing this project in the U.S., if compared to doing it in Asia?
“This is a question that we are actively wrestling with. There are a lot of different ways that people are conceptualizing Global Asias as you know from your series of interviews. So the way that we have approached Global Asias means that it comes out of a very North American academic framework. This whole notion of trying to bring area studies in relation to Critical Ethnic studies, for example, comes out of the North American academic context. So, that is something that we acknowledge and now that Global Asias is becoming more of a conversation that different people are interested in, we are actively working to figure out what it means to have this conversation outside of the North American academic context. For example, I was in Taiwan this past summer doing a keynote at a conference about the intersection and relations between the study of Asia and American studies. I think what is clear to us is that we built Global Asias not by coming up with an idea of what Global Asias was and saying everybody needs to do this now. We actually built Global Asias by creating a space and then thinking now that people have entered the space, what do their interactions produce? For me, that is how Global Asias knowledge gets generated. So, we have been really successful doing that in North America, and my colleague, Charlotte D. Eubanks, and I got some funding from the Luce Foundation to try to do the same thing in Asia because, again, I think we need to build this architecture in Asian contexts and really talk to people on the ground there to try to figure out how this conversation needs to or would change in these different settings. My job, and constantly with the approach I am taking, is not to predetermine what Global Asias is, but is to try to create the space or the infrastructure that would allow people to be in conversation. So that is actually in process, and we are actively working on doing this right now.”
—— Thank you. Your answer really reminds us of the term you used, “cross-pollinating.” As you mentioned, we hope this GAS interview and Global Asian Studies in our institute can also function as a space to boost conversations among different scholars from different locations. Moving on to the next question, we are quite surprised by this energetic drive of your project and all these projects you are managing. From your experience so far, how do you evaluate the difficulty or limit of Global Asias?
“What I would say to begin is that Global Asias is “a structurally dissonant epistemological project.” It is one that encourages scholars to acknowledge their institutional location, their disciplinary training, in order to think about the position from which they are doing the work and how those positions both make possible academic work but also foreclose certain kinds of approaches and certain kinds of work. I will start with talking about some of the challenges or the pitfalls of Global Asias. I think there are a lot of them. A lot of my more recent conversations have really focused on what the possibilities are. Your question reminds me that we started the Global Asias project in part because we were trying to address some of the problems that we saw structuring academic knowledge production. I already touched on some of these. Global Asias is such a broadly capacious area. So, the people who are working in this field have very different intellectual genealogies. Sometimes, they have very different political commitments. That is another distinction between area studies and Ethnic studies formations. The political commitments of the fields are fundamentally different.
I think that another problem is the insularity of field and disciplinary formations, which means that you understand the disciplinary history, and then you can step one foot outside of that. There is a kind of insularity to academic training which I think makes it really difficult for people to feel comfortable as Global Asias scholars because being a Global Asias scholar really forces you to be uncomfortable almost all of the time. I definitely inhabit that space of being uncomfortable all the time, because I am doing something that I definitely was not trained to do. I am doing something where I am an interloper in many respects. That is one of the challenges of this field: that a lot of people feel they were not trained to do this. That is very hard to take on. It is more comfortable to default to things you were trained to do.
I think another potential pitfall would be this idea of very shallow convergence between people who are studying Asia and people who are studying Asian diasporas. That was really something we were scared of when we were starting Verge. If you are familiar with Verge, you know we actually have a very high special-issue-to-open-issue ratio. The reason for that is because with Global Asias being such a big thing, our worry, especially at the beginning, was that all of these open issues would have no real internal coherence to them. Having a special issue gives you a thematic focus that helps you create a kind of a frame so that people can understand why it might be interesting to bring people working in all these different areas together.
I think another one of the challenges is the lack of the shared vocabulary. People literally are using different academic vocabulary to describe things, which makes conversation across Global Asias very hard. For example, Verge is multidisciplinary, but I am a literary scholar by training. When I tried to put together a feature on political science and the study of Global Asias, I realized that the words that I wanted to use and how I would describe things were really different than the words political scientists were using and how they wanted to describe things. So, I think it is another challenge when you think about Global Asias as a multidisciplinary project. It is easy to say multidisciplinary, but it is actually very hard if you are really committed to try to navigate those disciplinary differences. So, I think those are some of the pitfalls or challenges of Global Asias works.
But, on the positive side, I think on a practical level Global Asias creates a structure for bringing scholars together across temporal and methodological boundaries that is extremely welcoming of diverse approaches to scholarly inquiry. I think it is multidisciplinary, collaborative, committed to non-consolidation, generic innovation, and all of those things make critical conversation more interesting and more fun. And they also have the potential to change the academic landscape. I started by trying to build a space for people to inhabit, but the fact that people have already inhabited that space and the fact that people like that space and want to be in that space, and then are actively working with other people in that space, means that indeed people are now actively questioning the way in which they get trained and pushing committees, and programs, and departments to actually break down these boundaries. That is one of the potentials, I think, of Global Asias: that it can change the academic landscape. It does not just reflect the things that we inherited. It gives us a space to change these things.
I think that another one of potentials of Global Asias is that it can challenge this notion that area studies approaches provide content while disciplinary approaches generate theories when it comes to knowledge production. I think Global Asias, because it actually encourages people to focus on more of a methodology-based approach, really challenges that kind of demarcation of area studies being about content versus disciplinary knowledge being about theory and concept. I think Global Asias allow you to do both at the same time. In my view of Global Asias, it has promise in terms of pushing against the pressure to consolidate knowledge, but I also realize that is the outcome or the product of success in a way. As the journal becomes more successful, as Global Asias becomes more legible and more people interested in it, you have to work harder and harder to disrupt that. That is why I really believe in structure. That is why the journal is built in the way it is built. The journal is built in a way that the structure itself reinforces that desire to keep things unconsolidated because I know that there is a drive towards consolidation and our successes mean that consolidation is a logical outcome of what we are doing.”
—— If you would like to add some more on that point, how do you anticipate GAI from now on?
“I would say that GAI is going to continue to approach the field infrastructurally, by thinking about the way in which we can design and support architecture that makes cross disciplinary and trans-field collaboration more possible and more visible. That is something very important to us and all of the things that we design are really keeping that in mind. So, one of the ways GAI will do this is through book series that I mentioned already.2) I would love to talk a little bit about our book series because we are really excited about it. The series is interested in staging intellectual exchanges between and across disciplines and fields to reimagine scholarly knowledge production about the fundamentally transnational, global nature of Asia-focused worlds and epistemologies. I hope it is really clear from what I am saying here today, I think Global Asias is not just about what we are studying, but about how we operate in academia. With this in mind, I imagine Global Asias as an architecture that can create alternatives to how we go about doing scholarly work. On the one level, the book series is a recognizable genre in academia, one that works to make visible a field of inquiry. On another level, my co-editor and I are really interested in actively imaging how the book series can be a space that supports a more expansive scholarly praxis: one that thinks about theory and praxis in relation, one that experiments with form, and one that models new ways of engaging and supporting scholarship.
I think this means, on one level, editing by centering mentorship. One of the things that is distinctive about our book series is that we did get funding from the Luce Foundation to support it. All of the books in the series are going to be published open access because it is really critical to disseminate this knowledge outside of the North American context. But we are also committed to hosting project development workshops for all the authors that we work with for this book series, which is pretty unusual, and this means we are working really closely with people at an early stage to help shape their projects, and to help them tackle the challenges of how to talk to all of these different constituencies, which is one of the fundamental challenges of Global Asias work. We are actually making the material infrastructure to make that possible and one way in which we are doing that is with the book series. It is not standard academic practice or standard operating procedure, but we just think that would be a great way for academia to proceed and we are going to build the structure to make that happen.
The book series on the surface looks pretty conventional. A book series is an academic form that everybody understands, but we are using the series as a platform to experiment with the different genres in which we think and write. So, for example, the first volume of the series, called Global Asias: Tactics & Theories, brings together twenty different scholars working across ranks, fields, geography, historical period, and discipline to really try to develop new models for academic scholarship. Instead of standard essays, they are all working collaboratively around a set of keywords, and they are producing research forums and pedagogy forums. So what the volume is trying to do is not to suggest that Global Asias can produce different genres or sorts of academic writing but to build a structure that allows people to do that. And it is also trying to suggest that the work that we do as teachers and as researchers should be more closely connected and that the theory and tactics part of these equations should not be disarticulated but should be thought about in relation. So, that is just one example of the work that we are hoping to continue to do and to move forward.”
—— Thank you for your response. You started this project in Penn State University, a public university, and what is the particularity of working on this project in Pennsylvania, with the U.S. context?
“For a lot of people, it is surprising that the institution that is spearheading this conversation on Global Asias is our institution because Penn State is in the middle of Pennsylvania. It does not have a long history in Asian Studies. It definitely does not have history in Asian American studies. Again, on the one hand, it makes perfect sense why people are surprised that this conversation is happening at Penn State. But, on the flip side of that, because those structures did not already exist here, we could build something different, something new. There are a lot of other institutions in the United States, in California for example, that have very strong, existing Asian studies programs and Ethnic studies programs. But those areas and fields already have very strong commitments and very strong understandings of how to do the work that they are doing, which makes it hard to have a conversation because everybody is convinced by the validity of what they are doing. And that sometimes leads to a kind of turf battle, because there are limited resources. I think in part that this conversation could happen here because those structures were not here. The fact that there was no existing support actually became the condition of possibility because you can just invent it from the ground up. We can just sort of think about, what do we want to build? If we want people to have this kind of conversation and do this kind of work, what kind of structures do we need to build to allow people to do that? That has been my approach.”
—— You mentioned the pre-history of your program as a new program on East Asia and that you modified the concept from East Asia to Global Asias so that aspiring young scholars have been utilizing such free space for that. Let us say when it comes to our program, it has very long conventional history to divide Asia from Japan, and our institute has more than 80 years of history of dividing Asia from Japan. But we are opposing to it and trying to think in a different way. In this context, we needed a new word that might be attractive enough or complex enough for someone to think in a different way, challenging the conventional idea of Asia and Japan. Even though we are using very similar concepts, but we are making the best use of locality for different purposes.
“Because you know I am really invested in non-consolidation, I am glad that there is proliferation of all of these different approaches. I think that is what should be happening, rather than that somebody creates some kind of idea that then get imposed on other places. One of the things that has been really great about working with Japan Foundation, New York, our recent partnership, is that they have been really open to working with us in using some different strategies. We have much more of a non-hierarchical approach and they have been very open to that, and that has been very awesome. I am really excited because we are going to start this early-career networking program where we are going to try bringing scholars who are based in Japan together with scholars who are based in the U.S. and really think about the intersections and non-relations between Japan Studies and Global Asias Studies. I think we are going to have some really interesting conversations. I think Japan Foundation is interested in this program to help identify a new path forward, outside and beyond more traditional area studies, because they do not see that as a particularly viable model. There are a lot of amazing early-career scholars who are doing work across these three fields that I think it is really fantastic.”
—— Thank you so much for this stimulating conversation today. This interview has been more than informative, and it inspired us a lot. Thank you again.
1. For further information of this Global Asias MAP book series, you may check the following link: