Interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen

Politics and Cultural Studies in Interasia Interview with Kuan-Hsing Chen Taipei, december 20, 1997

Kuan-Hsing Chen is a central figure in the growing network of political activists and cultural studies academics in the Asia-Pacific region. I had never met him before, when he picked me and Toshiya Ueno up at Taipei-airport. Kuan-Hsing is passionate speaker, a radical critic and brilliant networker, both in Taiwan and internationally. And a serious political fighter. Immediately, we dived into the complex universes of the Tokyo academic left and discussed its refined forms of non- communication, a special topic of Kuan-Hsing. He is the organiser of the first and second cultural studies conference, focussing on Southern Asia and the Pacific region in 1992 and 1995. A third one will again take place in Taipei, in May 1998. Kuan-Chen is the editor of scientific journals and well known for the collection of essays by Stuart Hall he has been putting together (Stuart Hall—Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, Routledge, 1996). Like few others, Kuan-Chen has the capability to switch between theoretical debates and institutional politics of the global ‘cultural studies’ tribe, and the political practices of radical trade unions, gay-lesbian groups and media activists. A true revolutionary pragmatist, dedicated to all the actual movements fighting for social change. He teaches at the Center for Cultural Studies, National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, not far from Taiwan.He is the author of “Media/Cultural Criticism: A Popular-Democratic Line of Fight” (Taipei, 1992) and the co-editor of “Cultural Studies: the implosion of McDonalds” (Taipei,1992) and “Trajectories: A New Internationalist Cultural Studies.”

GL: Before we discuss media activism, could you tell us about the general media situation in Taiwan since the late eighties?

KC: Before the lifting of martial law in 1987, everything was controlled by the state. It was impossible to get a publishing license for print, not to mention radio or television. Right after the lifting, around 1000 new newspapers registered. The post-war era, with its accumulation of capital has been producing classes of people with consuming power. That sort of energy demands a political democracy, lead by these people. The so-called democratization process was essentially a bourgeois democratic form, modelled after the Americans. Starting from there, the entire society was flowing, breaking the old bounderies. The political transition got in place, but in a completely chaotic manner. For one year there were at least 3000 street demonstrations. Each newspaper has its own, hidden affiliation with this or that political party. They cannot affilliate with the official party line, it has to go in an indirect way. We used to have the tradition of the literary supplements. After 1987, cultural criticism emerged in the newspaper context. At that moment, the conservatives and even the liberals did not have much to say. The alternative radio movement started to emerge. But the most influential, transformative power came from satellites. Suddenly, the cable people built an infrastructure and in three years, the number of households with cable jumped from 15 to 70%. The original, state connected television was losing control. Literary everything became satellized. Now there are around 100 channels. This means a redistribution of advertisements, and power. And it did serve as an alternative to the original power. The political control decreased, but never completely dissolved. The entire medialandscape is now commercial. But from the late eighties to 1995 accumulated a certain energy which is still moving on.

GL: Internationally, the video activist group ‘Green Team’ became well known. What happened to them?

KC: Green Team was no longer effective by 1989. Their moment was from 1986-88, the peak moment of street demonstrations. Green Team took the historical moment and recorded about 1500 tapes, which are still available. One person is still running it. Later on, they switched to quick news episodes. The problem with that is the distribution system. By the early nineties some of members got really exhausted. There was a movement of alternative video, which followed the model of Green Team, trying to establish alternative distribution points. The former political oppositional party now has its satellite station. You need hugh capital. A part of the critical energy could continue, but at the moment there is no space. There are alternative radio stattions, but with limited power. In 1995, lots of the intellectual magazines ceased to exist. The younger generation was not able to emerge, for various reasons, so the energy died out.

GL: Is the younger generation perhaps more into cosumerism, which is producing other forms of subculture?

KC: The consolidation of consumer society did not come into being until the second part of the eighties. The local culture industry did not start until then. The accumulation of capital used to be export-oriented. But suddenly people discovered the internal market. In terms of music, our generation grew up with the American Top 40. Pop was dominant, not rock and roll. These songs were distributed via pirated copies. But since the eighties there is a balance between the Top 40 and the local music production, or a struggle between them. Today’s students are going to karaoke and nobody sings in English. It is all in Taiwanese or Mandarin. From 1993 there is a heavy duty Hong Kong influence occuring. It became hip because of the 1997 hand-over to speak in a Hong Kong accent. This was a signal of the stratification of the cultural market. I don’t mean to trash consumer society. A certain form of commodification will be necessary. Publishing houses have set up distribution systems and you can walk on it. From the mid-eigthies that critical generation accumulated a certain authority and leadership. But there is indeed a generation gap. From 1994 on there has been a booming industry of queer writing, by authors who are still in college or graduate school. This explains why the gay and lesbian movement is so visible, partly through commodification. This is a different type of movement, unlike the late eighties street fighting. The cultural atmosphere was mediated through commodity structures. The role of the student movement in all this is perhaps difficult to understand for outsiders. It completely died out. You cannot compare it to the situation in Japan or South-Korea. After June 4, 1989, here also students took over the Changkai-Chek Memorial for a week, protesting against the National Assembly. This ended with a traumatic scene when 50 students’ representatives went into the presidential office. This cultivated a certain ego, a psychic: that’s something real. The student generation activists moved into the political arena, with different factions competing against each other. So that generation is gone. In this context, it is a bit strange to use the term ‘new social movement’. Before the lifting of martial law, there were no movements, so everything is new. The younger generation still has a critical component in it. But it could not decipher which direction to take, so it is seemingly less powerfull.

GL: How would you describe the Internet generation? People seem to use e-mail and there are WWW-adresses being advertized here and there. But there is no cyber-culture yet, at least it is not visible.

KC: The commercial Internet is not as big as elsewhere. It is still largely depending on the academic infrastructure. Internet is a crystal light of society: those with more power and resources will have a bigger space. The lesbian groups are an exception, not the gays, by the way. The younger generation of feminists are making an active use of the Net, mainly because of the commodification of queer identity. These are writers with cultural capital and names.

GL: In the field of cultural studies, you seem to place emphasis much more on a better understanding of the political economy, compared to the focus on popular culture or the media in general.

KC: This is connected to a personal trajectory. I was educated in the USA during that booming, initiating moment of cultural studies. Now I would call this, within the Ango-American context, an obession with pop culture. It becomes something playful and fun to study. Superficial. Simply addressing something called pop culture becomes a formalistic categorization. It is a dead end. Nothing critically or politically is happening there. It is fun to read – that’s the end of the story. But I do not want to deny that. It documents certain currents of life. I do not want to kick anybody, but I think that the combination of political economy and history, in combination with cultural studies, is absolutely essential. So where is this international cultural studies supposed to go? Globalization is only a buzz word. What is the hidden agenda? That is still unclear. But without these other elements and their explanatory power, including anthropology, we are losing the context. Coming home and talking about cultural studies is kind of weird. We are writing in newspapers and one could call that cultural criticism. In fact, in the East-Asian context, cultural studies has a long literary tradition. You might not agree with their politics, but that form of writing has its own history. When I go to Japan you deeply feel that. When you read the critical cultural essays of Maluyama Masawa… it is not academic writing, but it is powerful, expressive and passionate. It is in tune with the social flow and the political reality. This is a tradition which has to be reclaimed, or turned into something else. Even if we agree that the mythical history of cultural studies, coming from England, is now the dominant current, that was also growing out of the New Left, in connecting with the colonial intellectuals. They were deeply connected to political and social movements. This gets cuts off in the process of internationalization, specially in the US. If we do not reconnect now, we will lose our political energy.

GL: There has been a fascination and urgency from the West to connect to ‘Asia’ and its ’emerging markets’. One could even call it an objective force. After the businessmen and politicians, the academics, artists and intellectuals were coming. Should we reject this fascination, which is gone now anyway because of the economic/currency crisis?

KC: No. Fascination involves desire and even if you reject it, it will flow. I understand this objective condition to link up with this funny thing called ‘Asia’. There has been the phenomena of the triumphalism of the rise of Asia: we are colonized, we were oppressed and now we are finally in the center of the universe. Without any critical reflection on that. This triumphalism is a result of the resentment policies against imperial power for the past four centuries. It is very much understandable. It is a sudden energy, a boom, but also extremely dangerous. I can understand the anxiety and fear, that you want to do business, but you do not understand. In Japan, since the mid-19th century this process of Europeanization has been going on. Japan understands far more of Europe then Europe understands about Japan. So there is nothing wrong with the search for a new balance, people beginning to understand each other. But it is very dangerous to call this entire space ‘Asia’. There is no historical, political or even geographical unity to that. I am rather prefering the term ‘Interasia’, which comes from ‘Interafrica’ or ‘Interamerica’. There is a certain unity in East Asia, unified by Japanese colonialism in the prewar era with an American dominance after the war. But if you are situated in East Asia, you do not know anything about India. We do not even know our neighbour, The Phillipines. We do not know Korea and Japan. Taipei is closer to New York and L.A. then to Manilla or Seoul. That was the effect of the Cold War. The Asianization process only started after the Cold War came to an end and is only beginning now.   (thanks to Toshiya Ueno)