GAS Interview with Prof. Jie-Hyun Lim (Director of Critical Global Studies Institute, Sogang University)

“Summoning ‘critical’ back to global studies for widening our eyes,

from the fixed binaries to fluidity,

from nationalistic paradigm to the parallels and mnemonic solidarity we can share

—— To begin with, could you tell us why and how did you initiate the institute at Sogang University?

“Before moving to Sogang in 2015, I had taught at Hanyang University for 25 years. At Hanyang, I established an institute called Research Institute of Comparative History. That has been devoted to promoting transnational humanities in Korea, when the Korean academia of Humanities & social sciences was still predominated by the methodological nationalism. So, I tried to establish small ghetto to promote transnational humanities within a Korean academia. Then, I moved to Sogang in 2015 because Sogang was more concerned about humanities, with a little bit better condition for researching, teaching, and getting together with humanities scholars. So, after having moved to Sogang, I founded this Critical Global Studies Institute (CGSI) as a scholarly forum to compete with the methodological nationalism in the domain of humanities and social sciences. As you see, our everyday lives of people who are living in Asia are very much globalized, but our mindset, or our way of understanding the world, is still very much nationalistic.

Let me take an example of Fukushima and Chernobyl. As we know, it was an unfortunate incident that the Japanese nuclear power plant was devastated by tsunami. Immediately after the devastation (tsunami disaster), the Korean and Chinese governments offered to dispatch a small group of experts on the site, but Japan kept on saying no because they were concerned about “national security.” But, as we know, it’s not just a Japanese national concern, but the vital interest to all people who are living in East Asia. In the meantime, till this year, we could not make any serious joint effort to overcome, or to make a solution to solve this potential question of pollution from Fukushima, just nationally we’re divided. China is building about 50 nuclear power plants on the Eastern coast of China, and we know that wind blows to the eastward. If there were disasters in China, the Korean peninsula and Japanese archipelago would be damaged very seriously. But, we don’t have any way of interfering in the Chinese plan of making nuclear power plants. I mean, we need to make a breakthrough to this sort of common sense to keep national security or national sovereignty, and people as a sacred principle or unnegotiable absolute sovereignty, actually originated in the 18th-19th century. So, global studies or transnational studies, or whatever it is, is the way of making a breakthrough to our mindset to go beyond the border of nation-states. I think this is not only ideological or scholarly one, but very much practical one: to make our transnational life safe, a way of finding common effort to make this region and human safer. This is the starting point why I initiated CGSI.

One more thing is, 20 years ago when I was at Hanyang University, I contributed to make East Asia (history) Forum for Criticism and Solidarity with Profs. Lee Sungsi at Waseda, Miyajima Hiroshi at the time at Tōdai, Miyazaki Minoru, Narita Ryuichi. In a sense, to some extent, we succeeded in criticizing nationalistic paradigms in an appealing way to both Korea and Japan. Yet later I found that people are learning history not from professional history books, but from drama, films, manga, and comics, which awakened me to the importance of the collective memory as a domain of public history; how to deal with this everyday memory culture that is shared by many people, not only by the intellectuals but also by grassroot people in both countries. I also found that even the political regime change never guarantees the change of the collective memory as a cultural code to regulate and influence people’s emotion and perception. Memory regime change is more important than the political regime change, in this sense, especially from our viewpoint of humanities and social sciences scholars. That’s why I established the Critical Global Studies Institute to put a focus on a memory regime change in East Asia as a common, public sphere.”

—— Now we get the whole behind-story of the establishment and understood the reason why your institution really focuses on memory studies and memory politics within its broad framework of critical global studies. In addition to that, is there a reason for the difference in Korean name “Transnational Humanities” and in English name “Critical Global Studies Institute”?

“Transnational humanities has already been used at Hanyang University in its English name, so my work ethics does not allow me to reuse the same name of the former institute I founded. I don’t see any serious differences. I wanted to use ‘Global Studies’, but, in Korea, many Leftist nationalists or other nationalists have a bias to see Global Studies as the academic agent of Western imperialism. Global Studies has often been under that suspicion. In order to escape from that sort of misunderstanding, I put ‘critical’ to global studies. But it’s difficult to translate ‘critical global studies’ into Korean language. Also, the name ‘transnational humanities’ is quite well-known among scholars, so I kept it in the Korean name, but in English, I took ‘Critical Global Studies Institute’.”

—— You mentioned that your institute focuses on memory studies, and we could see trans-institutional networks and academic endeavor was a major part of the activities of your institute. Could you explain more of major missions and activities of your institute?

“I summarize our mission as four Ts. First ‘T’ is trans-national, going beyond national boundaries to develop global ethics and epistemology, global/common/joint actions against the global/trans-national disaster, which goes beyond national borders. Also, we want to build our own “transnational” from the margin of the world in East Asia. I really want to go beyond international division of scholarly labor, meaning while the West provides the theory, the Eastern scholars provide the empirical data of East Asia; in other words, how to democratize division of labor on the global scale between so-called Western scholars and the scholars of the Rest. If any peculiarities of our transnational exist, this is my aim of going beyond a conventional division of labor in the global academia.

Next, trans-regional. When we are critical of orientalism for its essentialist misreading, termed by Edward Said, many nationalists get a free ride on this criticism. So, in a sense, we need to deconstruct not only Orientalism, but also Occidentalism, which is just the reverse form of orientalism among the anti-Western humanities scholars and so on. We should think beyond the imagined geography of East and West as one of the ways to cultivate democratization of scholarship; a way of deconstructing a division of labor between the Western academia and the Rest.

Thirdly, trans-disciplinary. We know, by experience, that interdisciplinarity is a bit corrupted wording, in a sense. Once a joint bid for the grant is secured, scholars tend to go back and write conventionally in their own discipline and collect the conventional disciplinary work under the title of interdisciplinarity. As an alternative to interdisciplinary, I propose trans-disciplinary. Initially, I used the term of post-disciplinary, but it is too radical to some extent. So, moving beyond the interdisciplinary mode of inquiry whose aim is to get a grant, we really want to and need to establish trans-disciplinary practices and also methodology.

Finally, trans-institutional. Compared to the old, traditional Western universities, we are quite short of staff, professors, and resources. From our viewpoint, trans-institutional is sort of a necessity of promoting our concern about critical global studies. Under the title of trans-institutional, we tried to establish networks that surpass the boundaries of educational and research institutions and to create trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary collaborations. I’m the founder of Flying University of Transnational Humanities, whose history is traced back to 2008. Usually, we used to have about 50 doctoral students from universities of different paths of the world. Flying University is the Polish invention, meant underground university under the Nazi occupation during the World War II and Russian occupation in the 19th century. Madame Curie was a graduate of a Flying University under the Russian occupation too. It can be very well connected with our initiatives of making summer school and joint school for graduate students who want to study critical global studies. So, these 4Ts are really schematic in our mission statement.

And our activities can be divided into three. First, as research project, we are focused on memory studies, and mnemonic solidarity in the global memory space with a subtitle “colonialism, war and genocide.”1 We put different memories, colonial genocide, colonial atrocities, war atrocities, holocaust, and other genocides that have perpetrated in global memory space under the same umbrella. Secondly, as education program, fortunately, I succeeded in creating a graduate program in Critical Global Studies. We began to accept graduate students from one and a half year ago. Students graduated from different universities began to come to our program. The third one is public humanities. I call myself as a memory activist as well as a historian. I sense, in doing our works, consciously and unconsciously, we are contributing to making new memory culture. Recently I have been engaged in making exhibition, film showing, book concert, and other public events If our younger generation of scholars are experiencing in doing this in their young days, perhaps, we may have better formation of public humanities in 10-20 years.”

—— Thank you. We could get a more organized mapping of the activities of CGSI. Given your institute is in Seoul, South Korea, from your experience, how do you think of different effects of the activities to global audience and to Korean audience, if any?

“The Global Studies in Korea is now dominated by Hallyu (a Korean way/wave of culture). Certain studies of Hallyu are based on sort of nationalist proposition appreciated by almost all over the world. But the kind of messages they carry and that of format they wear, I think it’s pretty much American culture, which is wearing Korean costumes and performed by Korean actors and singers. This sort of Global Studies is quite far from critical global studies of my institute. Of course, our approach may not be that popular as Hallyu, but I think this is very critical difference between existing global studies in Korea, or about Korea, or against Korea in the world, and critical global studies that we are running at CGSI. We can say that we are very much concerned about globalization from below, instead of above.”

—— Moving to a new notion of Global Easts now, also a new project of your institution, could you explain this notion more and how this term can be differentiated from other relevant terms?

“To be honest, the concept of Global Easts was made contingently. My main research is on Poland and Eastern Europe. Also, I’m from East Asia. I connected Eastern Europe and East Asia. Carol Gluck at Columbia University has pushed me to make a book by collecting my articles on Eastern Europe and East Asia, but I was at a loss how to combine these totally different scholarly works on Eastern Europe and East Asia and have been very reluctant in making this book. In the winter of 2020, I was invited to the Columbia University for two months totally to concentrate this book project, then one day Global Easts, in plural, not singular, came to me as the title of the book. I have to conceptualize what Global Easts mean, which is tough, and I’m still working on it. It’s still in the making, but the Central European University Press made a sign with me to launch a new book series called Global Easts.

In the preface, I cited Lech Walesa, who was a Polish president and the leader of Solidarity. In the interview with the Polish radio, he said “let’s build the second Japan in Poland.” Everyone knows that in this remark Japan represents an advanced nation, while Poland represents underdeveloped nation. Then, which one is the West? It shows very obviously the fluidity of West as an imagined geography. East Asian peculiarities have been always constructed and explained through “the dynamics of attraction to and repulsion from the West,” citing Translation & Subjectivity by Naoki Sakai. So, we ourselves, self-knowledge, regional self, have always been constructed by referring to the West as against or for. In a sense, if we look at the historiography or imagination, or self-knowledge in Eastern Europe and East Asia, we can see that certain conceptual gradation of oriental and demi-oriental has always been determined by its distance to the West.

We can find an interesting equivalence. Ostforschung (Eastern Studies) actually connotes Polish Studies in Germany. While in Poland, Studia Zachdnie (Western Studies) meant German Studies. Interesting parallels in Eastern Europe and East Asia indicate the similar historical grammar in constructing constructing their disciplines like history. So, in a sense, Eastern Europe and East Asia share similar experience of developed and underdeveloped, as a historical frontier between East and West, or philosophical frontier between civilization and the barbarian, and academic frontier between ancient history and modern anthropology. So, from these sorts of similar experiences or ways of thinking and from the viewpoint of global modernity, we can find really interesting parallels, sometimes even entangled in imagination or memories. Also interestingly, after Russia invaded Ukraine, I was really fascinated with the definition of war by Putin and his Russians. They began to use the word ‘collective West.’ They claim that the collective West is prepared for the second confrontation with Russia. Very interestingly, we can find this binary of East and West again in the play. How can we understand this? Binaries of East and West are still very much a live issue in understanding the 21st century global politics and different historical events that are happening nowadays. So, Global Easts might be very effective in different understanding of today’s world. Still, it also needs to be investigated and elaborated a lot.”

—— We found the expression ‘trans-peripheral space’ fascinating in the description of CGSI. Do you think, beyond European and Asian continents, other peripheries for example from Latin America and Africa could be included in this idea? Also, when it compares to Global South and North, another established divide, we were wondering if it is possible to crossover Global East and Global South.

“I’m not in the position to speak about it in a very sophisticated manner, but I can say after having published my book of Global Easts, I got invitations from diverse institutions, for example, a research group of global Qur’an at the University of Freiburg and Global studies at William College in the United States working on Iraqi archaeology. Although I never ever mentioned even a word of Middle East or Arab countries, still, they found my way of explaining Global Easts really can be applicable in understanding Middle East and Arab countries. It means that those in Africa can be understood in the context of Global Easts. I may find more exciting parallels between the Eastern European ‘Easts’ and other ‘Easts’ like Middle East. I think this opens to another level of understanding different regions beyond Eastern Europe and East Asia, but let’s see. Still to be done.”

—— In relation to that, when we talk about development, the concept of Global North and South is more common. How do you see the commonality or differences between Global East and West and Global North and South?

“The least I can say for now is, this Global Easts has the effect to shatter the seemingly fixed binary of Global North and South. Global North and South are not geo-positivistic terms. They are based on the historically specific trajectory of global modernity. The term ‘trans-peripheral’ is a term used by a Hungarian artist and I found this term very interesting but not convincing to the end. In the 21st century, Japan, China or South Korea, can we say that those countries belong to the periphery or semi-periphery? Even Thailand, I don’t think it belongs to the periphery anymore. Even this ‘trans-peripheral’ has not reflected unavoidable reality, but it has a kind of performative effect on our understanding of the world, of ourselves. With this, we can really shatter this seemingly existing conceptual and geo-positivistic boundaries of West and East, Global North, and Global South. But we never used the term of global Europe or Global West while we use the term of global Asia and Global East. What does it mean? We may also use a term transpacific or transatlantic where people were talking about slavery trade in North and South America and Africa. But now we know there are black Germans, who were victimized by the holocaust. They cannot be really caught by the transatlantic slave trade. Then, how can we approach to this sort thing? Also, as to transpacific, African-American post-colonial theorists in 1930s-40s categorized Japanese as ‘Pacific negros’ and tried to make an alliance of the Japanese-Americans and African-Americans. We can see diverse efforts to make an ally outside of the center of global modernity. Then, how can we really capture these efforts to make solidarity beyond the West? Those histories have been totally erased or silenced by our focus on certain, geographically limited historical unit. Our global history and critical global studies may contribute to widening our eyes to different realities that have been totally dismissed and neglected by all of us.”

—— Thank you for your answer. We will then go back to Asia again. How would you evaluate the potential or the problem of the concept of Asia or Global Asia?

“I want to twist the question into a slightly different one: how to globalize the concept of Asia without essentializing Asia. When we begin to use the word of Asia, Africa or Middle East, unconsciously or consciously, we tend to benignly essentialize the regional entity of Asia and Europe. So, Global Asia, I guess, you coin that term in order to escape that sort of ‘trap’ of essentializing traditional Asia. Still, I think we can see that our questions, Global Easts and Global Asia, have been confronting with how to globalize the concept of Asia or East without essentializing Asia or East. It may not be geography, but we also know the performative effects of invoking Eastern, Asia, in certain contexts. So, we need to be careful with contextualization of East and Asia. At a certain moment, it is very much bound with specificity, so we cannot generalize what is decentralized or essentialized through the terms we are using. All the terms are subject to this trap of essentialization. How to decentralize the geographical, geohistorical, geo-positivistic terms, and how we can keep using this Global Asia or Global Easts without being geo-positivistic are still a quite challenging question to all of us, I think.”

—— That is indeed true and is also what we are learning from the interview every time, for example, the specificities of conceptualizing process in different locations. We see it is strategically important for you to use Global Easts to include both East Europe and East Asia. The reason why our institute uses Asia is more geographical as it includes more areas or countries together. For example, we think it is difficult for us to use Global Easts as it seems difficult to approach to Central Asian issue as well as Southeast Asian issue that make a kind of diversity of Asia and also make an argument of Asia very challenging. Your concept of Global Easts has a lot of connotations, contexts, and stories within, which is the soul of the term of the concept, for instance it is good to connect East Asia and East Europe with some references to the impact of Cold War. But we wonder if you can make a much more inclusive concept just by using Global Asia. How do you think?

“For example, from the Central European viewpoint, Central Asia is far east, because East and West are really fluid. In my book of Global Easts, I cited my favorite Polish playwriter Sławomir Mrożek in a dialogue, a Polish guy just came from a small village town Bereznica Wyzna which ordinary Poles never know. The other guy asks, “where is it? Is it in Finland?” “No, no, much more South.” And, finally, he says “I’m from the East seen from the West, and I’m from the West seen from the East.” This is a remarkable observation of the fluidity of East and West. In this way, how can we elaborate Global Easts or even expand? Or, we can even find a better concept to include Southeast Asia or Central Asia and so on. This is an open-ended question/term. From our viewpoint of a scholar who has been working and living in East Asia, Global Easts is a term with the possibility of expanding our self-knowledge to include Eastern Europe, situated, or located in the half-periphery, or half-center, or semi-periphery in the global modernity in the 19th century. In a sense, our experience in Eastern Europe and East Asia has a lot of parallels. Before modernity, before modern era, Europe had different binaries of civilized Southern Europe like Mediterranean Europe influenced by the ancient Roman civilization and very much barbarous Northern Europe like the Netherlands, France, Germany and Britain. There was a binary of advanced South and barbarous North, but that was replaced by the developed West and the underdeveloped East with emergence of enlightenment. Then, in the 19th century on, it has been consolidated. Probably in East Asia, also we may find similar parallels in making disciplines of regional studies or area studies. But, I don’t have to necessarily stick to the concept of Global Easts if we can find other terms as an alternative to expand our perspectives beyond the two Easts.”

—— Let us go to the final question. Could you tell us about your plans and outlook of CGSI?

“Survival is most important because, after the start of the populist policy from 10 years ago, all the university tuition fee has been half- sized, which was followed by the neo-liberal regime to devaluate the humanities. Perhaps, the prospectus is too much luxurious for my institute, but I found that the students of young generation are much more inclined towards or persuaded by the idea of Critical Global Studies. I really want to expand this graduate program in Critical Global Studies as a joint one. The representatives of Sophia University, a month ago, visited us, and we had a two-day round table on how to promote the joint effort to educate the next generation. Our initiative is very much open to other institutes in Asian countries, who are really concerned about this joint project of making Critical Global Studies in the region. On the other hand, personally, I really want to promote my personal project of Global Easts, with a basis of Central European University Press, and now we have a certain consortium to make Global Easts program with UCLA, Warsaw University, and the New School. At the time, I didn’t have any connections to UTokyo, but if you are really interested in promoting together or making a certain joint effort, this project is widely open especially to your participation. Hopefully in the near future, we can have a chance to talk more over this potential joint effort to our project.”

—— Thank you for your response. Global Easts is very convenient, attractive, and charming concept to include both East Asia and East Europe to get more fruitful discussion among scholars in this area. It was stimulating to hear your thoughts in the making and work in progress. Thank you again for this interview. 

1) For a related article, see Mnemonic Solidarity in the Global Memory Space | global-e journal (