Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Representation

East Asian Popular Culture as a Disruptor 2020 Symposium Report

Liang Ge

The East Asian Popular Culture as a Disruptor Symposium was successfully held at King’s College London on 6th March 2020 attended by 15 PhD students and early career researchers across the UK. As the initiator and organiser of this symposium, I would like to, first of all, express my sincere thanks to all of the attendees, and the support from CMCI and Queer@King’s. Recently, it has been a hard time for nations and countries in our world following the COVID-2019 virus outbreak. At the same time, East Asians and South-East Asians are also facing the danger of racism as the virus has been weaponised as an excuse for hate crimes. Consequently, I hope this symposium can also serve to fight against the vicious racist virus and the accompanying hidden colonial discourse. 

Rationale: Disrupting the matrix of Colonial Power
The symposium was framed as a response to the work of Rey Chow’s “Where Have All the Natives Gone” (1994) and Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” (1988), approaching studies in East Asian popular culture as the disruptor of the matrix of colonial power, and as a reflexive voice from the Global South.

Chow’s work has encouraged me to reflect on my positionality on the topic, and think about how and to what extent the natives, the subaltern, the marginalised communities question colonial discourse, challenge social norms, and dismantle the master’s houses while not using the master’s tool. Chow (1994, 145) wrote that “where the coloniser undresses her, the native’s nakedness stares back at him both as the defiled image of his creation and as the indifferent gaze that says, there was nothing—no secret—to be unveiled underneath my clothes. That secret is your fantasm.”  The agency of the native is found not in resistance to the image, but rather in the act of bearing witness to the image’s demolition: a gaze. However, despite the native’s gaze back, the third world woman, the marginalised communities in the Global South remain unspoken (in silence). This symposium, therefore, was designed to provide a voice for the native from East Asia especially given there are more and more East Asian PhD students and researchers, and increasing scholars are paying attention to the East Asia’s context. As such, I believed it was the right time and of considerable significance to organise such a research event in which ideas could be shared and intensive discussion could be simulated.

Highlights of The Day
This symposium took the typical form of an academic conference with speakers sharing their research projects and discussants offering feedback as well as engaging in wider conversations and reflections on each of our own research projects.

In the first panel Theorising from East Asia: Dilemmas, centring on the memory, nation and transnationality, Andong Li (CMCI PhD student) interrogated the intricate methodological nationalism. Later, Li and Carolin Becke (University of Sheffield PhD students) further discussed how to critically draw on Western theories when doing research in East Asia and the difficulty of developing theories from East Asia.

Following this, Dr Chenjia Xu (Anthropology Department, SOAS Fellow) spoke about her ethnography on a fancy Bagel shop in Beijing. She highlighted firstly, how transnational food and food-ways flow in multivariate directions and take various forms, and secondly, how they are mobilised and crafted into myriad ‘technologies of the self’ to fulfil personal aspirations, to take care of one’s own body and mind, and to form distinctive subjectivities. In the subsequent discussion, Dr Xu and Amira Rahmat (University of Edinburgh) talked about how the dispersal of transnational flows away from the west-China axis, and forms multidirectional identities in the transnational food scene in Beijing.

The third panel, Gender, Sexuality and Identity in Popular Media, spurred a lively discussion on visual desire, body and embodiment, and the changing connotations of masculinities and femininities. Qi Li (KCL PhD student) explored the fetish of visuality existing in the Web 2.0 sexual culture, arguing that visual culture, structured by the camera and mediated by the visual sexuality, might have potential to lead contemporary sexual cultures to be structured around lookism: a form of discrimination based on appearance. Fang Wan (SOAS PhD student) then introduced her research on women’s writing in the Chinese internet literature, where a group of Chinese female writers work to form a reverse female gaze and establish a matriarchal world.

The negotiation between the mainstream and popular culture in East Asia was the final topic of the symposium. Veronica Wang (University of Cambridge) presented a case study on the Chinese folk-rock singer Li Zhi and elaborated on how the party-state has been renegotiating its cultural legitimacy through co-opting grassroots art and absorbing potentially subversive cultural elements into its own political ‘spectacle’. Valentina Peluso (University of Jean Moulin Lyon III), through the lens of Mikhail Bakhtin’s polyphony and a trans-textual perspective, examined the narrative devices in the Chinese Tibetan writer Alai’s novel. This lead to a discussion on the dynamics between the mainstream and marginalised culture.

Overall, this symposium sought to offer a situated and reflexive response to the challenge of the colonial matrix and stimulated insights relevant not only for researchers from East Asia or those conducting research on East Asia, but also for anyone who is part of the ongoing decolonisation project.