Congratulations to the new editors of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (CSSAAME). The journal has long been at the cutting edge of academic thinking by carving out a position between area studies and the traditional disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences. Its particular conception of region — deployed simultaneously as a critique of the Orientalism of area studies scholarship and the Eurocentrism of the traditional academic disciplines — continues to hold great intellectual promise today.
The current academic- political conjuncture, to be sure, is very different from 1981, when the journal was launched as the South Asia Bulletin, or even from 1993, when it made the switch to its current title. Yet in reviewing the past issues of the journal, I am struck at how much still remains relevant and prescient from the objectives laid out by Vasant Kaiwar and Sucheta Mazumdar in previous editorial statements. Nothing, perhaps, is more timely in this current moment of transition at CSSAAME than to reflect on the journal’s consistent commitment to think with and through the “region” as such. The latter identified a specific region for the journal’s intellectual commitment, thereby signaling its preferred mode of analyses grounded in the particularities of place and time, but, at the same time, rejecting the delimitation of region as a rigidly bounded spatial entity.
The region referred to in the title of the journal, as first “South Asia” and, then, the historically linked regions of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, while drawing upon the traditional world regions institutionalized through US-based area studies programs, also gestures toward a different genealogy. The region has also been a scale of analysis found in a variety of academic disciplines. Unlike the other popular scales of the local, the national, or the global, however, the region’s contours are resolutely ambiguous and indeterminate: the region, as Paul Kramer reminds us, can define space ranging anywhere from “just- larger- than- the- local to the multinational and continental.” If one intellectual trajectory draws from an often essentialized and discrete cultural unit, the other brings the possibility of indeterminacy and ambiguity to the spatial category. CSSAAME, by my reading, builds on this dual heritage to steer an independent path between both area studies scholarship and traditional disciplinary practices.
The editorial statement in the inaugural issue of the journal identified its commitment to “South Asia” in terms of a choice of both a specific place and a mode of critique. “South Asia,” a multistate formation, provided the journal with a critique of “exceptionalism” of several different varieties, including those that permeated the nation- centered frameworks of traditional academic disciplines as well as the Cold War area studies scholarship often modeled on a similar logic. The journal’s critique of the nation- centric scholarship of, say, India, or Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, proceeded in two ways: through the relational perspective provided by the regional category “South Asia” and through its avowed goal of foregrounding marginalized populations — women, workers, peasants, and ethnic minorities — within each of these states. The pointedly regional affiliation of the journal, however, was as much of a challenge to the colonial and Cold War coordinates of South Asia as a neatly bounded region as it was to certain indigenous conceits of the organicity and impermeability of various national, ethnic, linguistic, and religious entities.
Even in the early years of the journal, for example, the region was less the sharply delineated spatial unit — made familiar in area studies scholarship — and more the critical and analytical frame. Well before the journal changed its name, it was already pushing the geographical boundaries of South Asia to their limits: the journal, for example, carried articles on the South Asian diasporas as well as the occasional article on the Middle East and Africa. While signaling a commitment to the deep study of a specific region, different from the unmarked region of Europe or the “West” that dominated traditional social- scientific scholarship, the journal’s conception of the region was not exactly coterminous with the “area” in traditional area studies scholarship.
The name change to CSSAAME helped further clarify the critical opening the journal occupied between both area studies and the disciplines. The journal renewed its original critique of the fixed geographical delimitations associated with discrete areas of study in the typical area studies model of scholarship. The editorial statement announced the journal’s intention to pay attention instead to the historical linkages and comparisons across South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as opposed to the kind of single- area focus of area studies associations and journals. The occasional articles on Central Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, the Maghreb (which often falls between the cracks in standard understandings of “Africa” and the “Middle East”), and Europe that continue to appear in the journal serve as a reminder that its regional focus did not entail a very strictly defined geographical remit. The journal’s comparative regional framework, moreover, was also used as a self- conscious alternative to certain popular forms of anti- Eurocentric critiques: those that retreated into a focus on the local or on the (cultural) “fragment.” The journal’s emphasis on the larger- than- local region advocated a different path: it made room for the particularities of specific local processes while pointing to their interconnections with global processes. This time what underwrote the journal’s heterodox conception of the region was a broad commitment to understanding global processes as they are structured and manifested in particular places and times. The journal’s vision, quite clearly, was of an interconnected world. The region — understood both as a specific and imprecisely demarcated space — allowed it to mount a dual challenge: to the Euocentrism that saturated the conceptual categories of the traditional academic disciplines and to the ossified territorial boundaries that perpetuated the ghettoized domain of area studies. The simultaneous deployment and de- essentialization of regions gave the journal much of its critical purchase throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decade of the twenty- first century.
But is the region still good to think? The contemporary postnational and post – area studies moment of scholarship, at first glance, might suggest otherwise. Consider, for example, the fact that criticisms of the validity and viability of the once familiar geographical containers for the organization of knowledge are now heard routinely across a broad spectrum. The demand comes from many different quarters, from official government agencies, private foundations, and university administrations, especially in the United States, to a body of critical work done by scholars themselves, for cross- regional, transnational, and global reorientations of scholarly inquiry. Witness the growth in international, transnational, and global stud- ies. The changing contours of the global economy and of geopolitics have also prompted talk of new regional alignments, as in Af- Pak (Afghanistan- Pakistan), Chindia (China- India), and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). There are today also a variety of alternative transregional formations on offer, such as studies organized around oceans (as in the recent uptick in Indian Ocean studies); and empires (see Stephen Kotkin’s plea for reorganizing the study of Eurasia, in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, around the concept ab imperio or “out of empires”); or concepts such as “Zomia,” the highlands stretching from the mainland of SoutheastAsia to northeastern India that James Scott made famous as an anarchic refuge for peoples evading the state. The reconfiguration of spatial categories, however, does not automatically guarantee a way out of the intellectual fallacy — the congealing of contingent boundaries into reified realities — that had put the disciplines as well as area studies into crisis in the first place. CSSAAME’s pointed, yet open- ended, understanding of region, always in angular relationship to the nation and to the “area,” provides as good a model as any today for a reconstituted project of critique. 2013 266 Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
The new leadership at CSSAAME could do no better, perhaps, than to build on the critical space it created as a challenge to both area studies and the disciplines. One avenue for develop- ment, for example, would be a heightened scrutiny of the spatial categories and scales of analysis in our scholarly enquiry. There continues to be a need, as articulated in the new mission statement of the journal, to retain that which still remains vitally relevant from area studies scholarship — the deep study of the specificities of language and culture — and jettison that which has long seemed obsolete: the rigid outer boundaries drawn around arbitrarily defined areas. While the contours of the local, the national, and the global are often susceptible to reification, the regional, by the sheer ambiguity and elusiveness of its definition, provides an opportunity to reflect more pointedly on the fact that all spatial boundaries are inherently political and contingent. By the same token, then, they are also open to being remade. The politics behind different demarcations of space, and their implications for the nature of particular scholarly enquiries, become the subject of study themselves.
The journal’s regional focus — captured in the traditional regional categories of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East referenced in the title — is especially apposite for initiating such a debate. This title bears the battle scars of the critical interventions of the journal from its history. This temporal sedimentation in the title also gestures toward an understanding of a “field” of study not as a fixed space that is created by the erection of determinate, and eventually calcified, boundaries but, to borrow Gail Hershatter’s insightful observation about a different field, as a “conjuncture.” The latter highlights notions of flux and of multiple determinants; as such, it serves as a reminder of the entanglements of field formations, including such critical interventions as those mounted by this journal, in a variety of processes and politics that remain ongoing. The task of a newly reconstituted critique for our times, therefore, might include subjecting even the journal’s central assumptions — the analytical frame of the region, including the choice of these particular regions — to the test once again to determine the nature of the critical work they continue to perform.
A second line of development points in the direction of rethinking the relation among different regions in terms of only comparisons or connections. The comparative method, unavoidable, in one sense, in any work of scholarship, has been the subject of profound critique in recent years. The problems, which have been identified by Micol Seigal and others, include the following: the unwitting reification of the two or more units in the act of comparing them; the internal homogenization of the individual units for the purposes of comparison; and the overlooking of the constitutive role of comparison itself in demarcating the units to be compared. The turn to “connections,” “linkages,” and “entanglements” addresses, in part, some of the limits of the comparative method, even as it still leaves unresolved the question of identifying similarities and differences. The fluid conception of the spatial borders of regions and the acknowledgment of the co- implication of regions in global processes of uneven and combined development, an important legacy of the journal, puts pressure on a model of either comparisons or connections. The heuristic of “connective comparison,” advo- cated by the Modern Girl around the World Research Group at the University of Washington, provides one example for rethinking this model. The method of connective comparison proceeds by first acknowledging a history of connections (between, say, Europe and Asia) and ends by reasserting analytical separations that enable comparison. This dual move, a hallmark of much feminist scholarship suspicious of an exaggerated empha- sis on “difference,” might provide one route for rethinking the comparative method. The further point is that a renewed critical project of thinking about regions, comparisons, and field formations would do well to pay attention to the theories and methods pioneered in the study of marginalized populations, whether of women, minorities, or stigmatized and exploited groups, which offer a long and rich tradition of critique.
Finally, I believe, there is still much work that remains to be done in leveraging further the opening that the journal created between area studies scholarship and the traditional academic disciplines. One of the challenges has only been inadequately addressed through a return to a revised area studies model. This approach, while making the case for more close- grained and empirically rich scholarship, leaves intact what Pheng Cheah calls the underlying “conceptual matrix” of our scholarly division of labor: the social scientific disciplines trade typically in “universals” (however much they have now been shown to be flawed and falsely homogenizing) and area studies occupies the place of the particular, incapable of universality. The equation, to be sure, has shifted considerably over the last few decades, not just through the critique of universalizing discourses and projects. It is also the result of the increasing sophistication of the scholarship on “areas” (typically those places outside the North Atlantic region) that are no longer just the objects of knowledge, but are themselves providing the categories of analysis for their study. Insofar, however, as the theories and methods arising out of these areas still remain confined to the areas in question, or, at the most, extended as relevant only to what used to be called the Third World, and now increasingly designated as the Global South, their challenge to the “conceptual matrix” remains incomplete. The completion of this task, as Cheah suggests, entails a further step: a reconception (rather than a mirror image) of the universal itself — not as a transcendence of, but as constituted precisely through, various particulars. A promising future for a renewed project of critique would be to stake a claim to scholarship that is universalizable because of, rather than despite, its regional focus.
Cheah, Pheng. “Universal Areas: Asian Studies in a World in Motion.” Traces 1 (2001): 37 – 70.
Hershatter, Gail. Women in China’s Long Twentieth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Kaiwar, Vasant, and Sucheta Mazumdar. “Editorial.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 1 (1981): iii.
——— . “Editors’ Notes: Launching a New South Asia Bulletin/Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 13 (1993): 1 – 4.
———. “Transitions.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 20 (2000): 1 – 3.
Kotkin, Stephen. “Mongol Commonwealth? Exchange and Governance across the Post- Mongol Space.” Kritika 8 (2007): 487 – 531.
Kramer, Paul. “Region in Global History.” In A Companion to World History, edited by Douglas Northrup. Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, 2012.
Scott, James. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Seigal, Micol. “Beyond Compare: Comparative Method after the Transnational Turn.” Radical History Review 91 (2005): 62 – 90.
The Modern Girl around the World Research Group. The Modern Girl around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
© 2013 by Duke University Press