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The Intimacies of Other Humanities – Lisa Lowe in conversation with Hong-Kai Wang, Oct. 2015
他者間之親密性—王虹凱與駱里山(Lisa Lowe)於2015年10月的對談
October 25th, 2016Type: Interview
Author: Lisa Lowe, 林書全 (校潤), 王虹凱 (審稿) Editor: Hsu, Fang-tze
Quote From: "Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Practices, the Making of Urban Commons and Visions of Change" Project
Note: (Commissioned by "Spaces of Commoning: Artistic Practices, the Making of Urban Commons and Visions of Change" research project and supported by Academy of Fine Arts Vienna + WWTF.) The conversation with the scholar on race, colonialism and diaspora, Lisa Lowe, was conducted as part of Hong-Kai Wang’s research into the politics of reconstituting a radical historical commons known as the Erlin Sugarcane Workers’ Revolt in 1925 in colonized Taiwan. The revolt was restored from obscurity by a group of Erlin historians before a decade with local oral accounts. Her collaboration with a group of sugarcane planters in Yunlin takes as its point of departure the reimagining of a protest song thought to be pivotal in the mobilization of the revolt, and through a pedagogy of listening/singing, a complicating and renewing of perceived commons .

The following conversation with the U.S.-based scholar on race, colonialism and diaspora, Lisa Lowe, was conducted as part of Hong-Kai Wang’s research into the politics of reconstituting a radical historical commons known as the Erlin Sugarcane Workers’ Revolt in 1925 in colonized Taiwan. The revolt was restored from obscurity by a group of Erlin historians more than a decade ago with local oral accounts. Wang’s collaboration with a group of sugarcane planters in her hometown Yunlin, across the river from Erlin, takes as its point of departure the reimagining of a protest song thought to be pivotal in the mobilization of the revolt, and through a pedagogy of listening and singing as well as a complicating and renewing of perceived commons. The Erlin Sugarcane Workers Revolt is arguably the first class-conscious, anticolonial agrarian uprising in the recorded history of Taiwan.


Hong-Kai Wang: It is such a thrill to be reading your book The Intimacies of Four Continents(註1) as I am researching the radical history of an anticolonial sugar labor struggle in Taiwan. I found numerous moments in which our interests resonate, particularly your concluding words in the final chapter:

We are left with the project of visualizing, mourning, and thinking “other humanities” within the received genealogy of “the human.”

I understood it as an inquiry into new modes of knowing and thus new understandings of relation and intimacy. Could you talk a bit about the idea of intimacy – what it means and where it is situated?

Lisa Lowe: In my book, I am trying to consider liberalism as more than exclusively a political economic framing of the modern. We are of course familiar with the classical liberal political economic philosophies of Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and others. But I’m suggesting that liberalism is also a way of knowing, and that it includes various disciplinary discourses for understanding the human, as in “the human sciences.” It also prescribes and authorizes forms of personhood: the individual who possesses interiority, property and domesticity. This liberal individual subject is expressed in culture through genres like the autobiography or the novel, and is supported by citizenship rights and historical narrative. By invoking “other humanities,” I gesture towards other ways of considering humanity that aren’t confined or restricted to liberalism’s ways of identifying “the human.” In effect, I argue that the affirmation of liberal forms of the human is linked to the forcible forgetting of the humanity of the peoples whose labors and resources create the conditions of possibility for Western European humanity. That’s what I mean by visualizing, mourning and thinking “other humanities.” Intimacy is implied in this distinction, but in a way, it is a much broader frame for the study.

With intimacy, I am really trying to elaborate a variable and multiple concept, and to point especially to a kind of “division” of intimacy, which resonates with the liberal economy of affirmation and forgetting I trace, as well. If we think about the common understanding of intimacy as the sentimental interiority of the liberal subject, we can appreciate how the affirmation of that particular kind of bourgeois individual intimacy is actually produced by what I am calling “the intimacies of four continents” – the links between Europe, Asia, Africa and Americas – even if those other intimacies are forgotten and disavowed. In other words, the notion of liberal individualism as affective intimacy within the domestic sphere is a very particular kind of Western construction that relies upon the labor and resources of the intimacies of four continents.

But I am also gesturing towards a third kind of intimacy, which is the intimacy among the laborers in these various colonized spaces, who are brought together into community by colonialism, occupation and imperial trades themselves. These are the sexual, intellectual and political intimacies between Asian contract laborers and African slaves, mulatto workers and servants, and free people of color. And it is this third alternative intimacy I am thinking of in the last moment of the book – when we visualize, mourn, and imagine other humanities within the received genealogy of the human – I think this other intimacy is the most relevant way to situate the method I am following in the book. That is, in reading across different archives, canons, genres, and continents, I am bringing together into intimacy things that are customarily segregated by the formalism of liberal thought, including most evidently the formalism of nationalism that maintains separate national archives. So in a way, I am performing this third notion of intimacy and forging alternative intimacies, which also implies an alternative epistemology and practice of reading. I normally wouldn’t think of the two together: intimacy and other humanities. But your question actually permits me to highlight this: that what I was trying to animate, is precisely a method for conceiving the past that privileges the idea of intimacy among other humanities.


HKW: When I was reading your book, I was thinking of the kind of intimacy that we hadn’t known of and yet have lost. I am particularly interested in the politics of mourning as in “how loss is apprehended and history is named,”(註2) as quoted in your book. The idea of “mourning” sometimes suggests “uttering mournfully.” My understanding is that when we mourn together, we are compelled to listen to one another, and within the engagement of listening – here I am drawing upon my upbringing with the tradition of public weeping in the mourning practices of rural Taiwan – the ensuing encounter of contemplation or thinking might be generated after the initial encounter of feelings of loss in a past conditional temporality. Do you think the subsequent encounter facilitated by listening – in whatever capacity it is organized – might be useful in contributing to the aforementioned political project?


LL: Yes, absolutely. The kind of public weeping you are talking about has analogues in many societies, in the many ways that people gather after a death to wail together, to listen to one another’s grief. There is a very specific cruelty in the prohibition, denial or criminalization of a people’s mourning. Fred Moten, for example, writes about black mourning, and he discusses the example of the mother of Emmett Till(註3), the young black boy brutally murdered by two white men who bludgeoned him to death and then dumped his body into the river. When his corpse was brought back, he was so disfigured that he didn’t look like the boy that his mother would have recognized as the boy he had been. Upon encountering his body, Emmett’s mother cried and howled as only she could. Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Alexander(註4) and others have written about Mama Till’s grieving. And that’s the sound of mourning that Moten evokes. I absolutely appreciate your idea that public grieving not only heralds profound loss, but it powerfully calls something else into being, and I am very taken by your notion that what I’m calling the past conditional temporality might be a second visitation or a second encounter that can be inaugurated or initiated by mourning. Sound can be the medium of the recollection and the revisiting of the loss. I think that is a wonderful, wonderful idea. It is not something I had thought about before. I was thinking of past conditional temporality as a kind of multiple simultaneity of different times that had been foreclosed to us by the imposed itinerary of liberal progressive time. Your idea of mourning throwing us backwards to the loss, and attaching us to the loss through sound is very illuminating.


HKW: While researching the sugarcane workers’ revolt in Taiwan in the 1920s, it dawned on me that there were other kinds of intimacy that we didn’t know we had lost; for instance, the possibility of intimacy between the exploited laborers who were descendants of Chinese settlers and the aboriginal Taiwanese. So this is bringing me to the third question: when a history is named, very often another historical silence is being produced at the same time. You wrote: “the selection of a single historical actor may be precisely a modality of ‘forgetting’ these crucial connections” among the subjugated. So, we cannot resort to “the simple strategies of mere inclusion but require both a representation of the revolutionary events that have been forcibly forgotten within existing history and a radical critique of the historical form itself.” Can you speak a bit about the condition of the historical form’s making within the existing hegemonic philosophy of history? And what might have been rendered absent, unavailable, reduced or unknown by that condition?


LL: What a great question. As you know, in my book I am doing a close reading of the British imperial archive, and observing especially the ways in which Western European philosophies of history enforce this notion of the development of a single people through time, and the forgetting of people in Africa, Asia and Middle East. My analysis is very particular to Anglo-American national histories, but this “ideal type” is, of course, spread globally through colonialism and other processes. We could extrapolate from that to think about how the national history of a single people will valorize the elite subject as a protagonist of history and erase the much more complex conditions out of which that elite class of people has emerged. Likewise, we might observe that even oppositional histories may adopt this form, and the narrative that proposes a single revolutionary actor often renders other subaltern groups less legible.

In the case of Taiwan, the national history omits workers, women and indigenous people from the narrative progress towards modernity.


HKW: And possibly migrant peoples of color forced into slavery by colonialism.


LL: It is not just the forgetting of people who contributed to the material condition for the emergence of the modern, but it is also a subjugation of knowledge about different kinds of people and modalities of existence and being, e.g., indigenous knowledges, other concepts of collectivity, territoriality, or community, the simultaneous practice of lifeworlds denied by linear progress. In my book, I refer to the “politics of our lack of knowledge.” By this, I mean that such knowledge is not merely forgotten in a neutral way; it is forcefully disavowed by this project of erecting a contemporary history that justifies those who rule in the present. We always need to ask, under what conditions and with what methods and in relation to what materials history is made. As Walter Benjamin says, History is the narrative of the victors.(註5) So history often reflects those who survive to tell the history of the past, and what we know as history is often this kind of retrospective projection of the contemporary condition of rule into a naturalized past.


HKW: For instance, there is a profound absence of women in the existing archive of the sugarcane worker revolt. Looking at the court record of the trials where the revolt protestors were prosecuted for assaulting law enforcement officers, I only came across two instances where “a few anonymous” women had been seen in the courtroom gallery.


LL: I apologize that I am not more familiar with the history of colonialism in Taiwan. But from what I understand, first Dutch and Spanish, and then Chinese and Japanese colonial formations emerged in Taiwan, in part, in the context of Western European colonialism worldwide. In this way, there may have been parts of Japanese colonial rule in Taiwan that represented a kind of emulation of particular European forms of colonial rule. Then there was of course the postwar period of nationalist martial law, and then profound U.S. economic and diplomatic patronage of Taiwan during the Cold War. Thus, there is lots of forgetting, or absented knowledge, in the national records, including the political and social roles played by women, as well as the forgetting of intimacies between men and women of different groups.

What I found when I was reading in the British colonial archive, however, was that even though women were rarely represented, there are different ways of reading the absence of women; in a productive way, because you can observe the particular instances in which women are mentioned, and where they are conspicuously avoided. For example, one of the things that I noticed in examining the papers on Chinese contract labor to the Americas was that there was a particular refrain that would evoke Chinese women. The documents would repeatedly say: “If we could import more Chinese women.” That is, if we could import more Chinese women, then we could replace the slaves with a new laboring group; or if we could import more Chinese women, then we could encourage the Chinese in the West Indies to have families, and they would be very different from the black slaves. However, according to both the archives and secondary historical accounts, there were very few Chinese women who ever immigrated. Until the early 20th century, migrants were predominantly men. So it was as if this figure of Chinese women was entirely a colonial fantasy.


前製糖甘蔗原料辦公室, 彰化縣二林鎮; 攝影: 陳又維

HKW: So in terms of forgetting, in the case of the colonial labor regime comprising slaves and indentured and forced workers, would labor itself yield the condition of forgetting through the urgency of survival and desire? Is it possible that this condition in turn gives rise to the absence of a “contiguous other,” as you impart in the book, among the subjugated peoples, even if they are mutually constitutive?


LL: Forced laborers, those subaltern groups from whom hard plantation labor is extracted, don’t have the time to write their own history; they are busy surviving. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci has written(註6), southern agrarian subaltern groups could not even really identify themselves as a class, because they were constantly working and the access to the formal means of representation was out of their reach. As Gayatri Spivak famously built upon Gramsci’s observations(註7), subaltern groups are by definition those who cannot be represented. Gramsci had explained that the subaltern was often represented by others, e.g., by the nationalist bourgeois party who appropriated their struggles. Being represented by others means that much history and knowledge is lost: subaltern knowledge about conditions under which they labored and resisted, knowledge of the working people’s relationship to lands and resources and other system of meanings, etc. I absolutely think that this loss of history and knowledge contributes to the absence of knowledge about the intimacies between different, contiguous laborers. Sometimes, the urgency of one group’s struggle is so intense – in the case of C.L.R. James’s discussion of the revolution in Haiti(註8), or W. E. B. Du Bois’s discussion of the black workers in the U.S. South(註9) – that the connections with others may only be cursorily mentioned. That is, the force and necessity of recounting the narrative of one people, e.g., black people freeing themselves from slavery, is so powerful that relationship with other workers may be marginalized within the single teleological history.


HKW: In your book, you described the Chinese indentured labors as the liminal contiguous other.


LL: Yes, the Chinese workers are often cast as the contiguous other. For example, in Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, at the beginning and at the end, he powerfully evokes the importance of solidarity among that “dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa and Central America and in the United States,” and he calls for “the emancipation of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.” He definitely conceives the “dark proletariat,” as he calls it, as necessarily joining all of these different peoples, particularly blacks and Chinese. But the entirety of the history is focused on the black workers in the U.S. south; it cannot even discuss blacks in Africa, or in other parts of the world. It is almost as if the historical narrative itself – in the way that both the liberal and even Marxist forms have established it – requires a single protagonist to develop in time. And so, the other connections to the side are lost, even if they “flash up” at both the beginning and the end.


HKW: Perhaps the idea of “fugitivity,” as in the ways in which the Native American communities provided refuge for the black maroons who escaped from slavery in the Americas, could help reveal the other connections.


LL: “Fugitivity” offers a very powerful image of the connections among subaltern peoples. These intimacies are lost and unrecorded, and get subordinated to the dominant register of meaning: the louder story is a single melody drumming out these other fugitive voices.


HKW: In my opinion, there seems to be a significant lack of narratives of women of color from East Asia in the existing dominant discourse. For instance, the colonial experiences of women in Taiwan seem largely written off.


LL: I think you are exactly right. The scholar Achille Mbembe has talked about “Africa” as a heterogeneous continent, not a single people.(註10) Africa is enormously multiple and variegated in terms of culture, language, religion, region and everything, and yet Africa is always subordinated to the logic of the one. There is a way in which one of the legacies of colonial discourse is the reduction of everything to the one, which of course disproportionately impacts women. Globally, I think we could say that the epistemology employed for the understanding of the global reduces everything to black and white. Asia itself (also so heterogeneous!) is so often marginalized and dismissed in such constructions. However, if we look at world history and world relations from the fifteenth to sixteenth century onwards, Asia has been always crucial to the emergence of global contacts and relations. The Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch, the British and the French did not have much contact with one another, but they all traded with China and the East Indies; though little acknowledged, in a sense, Asia was the locus through which many global exchanges were conducted.


二林蔗農事件紀念碑, 彰化縣二林鎮; 攝影: 陳又維

HKW: This brings me to the next question: while we acknowledge that “Europe is the silent referent in historical knowledge,” there is indeed an urgency in undoing the conception of history as an uninterrupted collective narrative. “The spaces of rupture”
I am quoting from your book – “marked by historical absence,” that allow for the emergence of new and other types of knowing are therefore considered much needed. Do you think these potential ruptures need to be located and thus opened up in other conceptions of temporality, spatiality and cosmology – all of which the modes of relation are contingent upon?


LL: I definitely think spaces of rupture can be prompted or inaugurated by dislocating and decentering European history. But I also think ruptures may be spontaneous, unanticipated, and unorchestrated. Spaces of rupture open up because contradictions occur and cannot be resolved, and there are different kinds of rupture: there is rupture that can be caused, and there is rupture that simply emerges and erupts. Central to this project of exploring other conceptions of temporality and spatiality is relocating history itself, so that we must both redefine what history is and out of what materials it can be made. When doing so, we are also decentering Europe and repositioning other parts of the world. For example, your work considering Taiwan as a key location of different struggles and alternative ways of knowing, being, laboring and struggling – this work is critical to this deconstruction of Europe as a silent referent of history. It means engaging alternative conceptions of time and spatiality, not only in different geographical parts of the world, but also in terms of different scales. Part of the invisibility of Taiwan is that it is considered “small.” But evidently, we must shift the dominant scales of understanding, to displace hierarchies of value that assume that “big” means important and “small” is unimportant.


HKW: In the current political economy, I do find that Taiwan is quite lost in contrast to Hong Kong and Singapore.


LL: It is possible that the higher profile of Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea vis-à-vis Taiwan may be partly due, again, to arbitrary concepts of scale, i.e., to their numerically greater degree of incorporation into global capitalism, measured by GDP, etc. You must know Chen Kuan-Hsing’s work?


HKW: Yes he is the harbinger of postcolonial discourse in Taiwan.


LL: One of the things Chen argues(註11) is that it is critical for nations like South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore to not to forget their colonial pasts, and to resist assimilation to the U.S.-led globalization or U.S.-led capitalist development. This is suggestive, for it means to recover and remember the colonial past (or in your terms, to mourn), and to affiliate Taiwan with the decolonizing world. He observes that one obstacle to that memory for Taiwanese is that Taiwan’s decolonization from Japanese colonialism was interrupted when the U.S. intervened with capitalist development. He suggests that decolonization is incomplete, that the memory of colonization has been foreshortened.


HKW: I’d argue that Chen’s vantage point comes from a specific historical narrative, which I do not feel entirely comfortable with. My discomfort is exactly part of the problem of the difficulty of the memory that he talks about, and this is precisely where the contradiction occurs and cannot be resolved. But I think this is also where the possibility of attending to a critical alliance or connection that could have been, but was not, and this, not yet can be found. Therefore, I find it necessary to interrogate the danger of being foreclosed by the determinations of a dominant narrative, paradigm and order, and that this attending is informed by the coming of a critical alliance or connection and vice versa. As an emergent connection often cannot articulate itself and its own coming, do you think listening might have the potential to contribute to the constitution of a collective literacy? I think “literacy” could mean a poetic system that veils and reveals relationships, and that disrupts perspectives of distance and intimacy in history, especially in mourning.


LL: I definitely understand your suspicions, and appreciate that you are expressing the difficulty of articulating an emergent sociality without repeating and being captured by dominant terms and dominant modes of social organization. The problem is a difficult one, and it is not as simple as simply willing an alternative. Forging alternatives that are open, varied, and multiple, and not didactic, will serve better the project of “listening” to other emergent histories. What you are suggesting is such a beautiful and interesting project, which is to consider all of the different senses as also ways of apprehending, remembering and forging connections. Sound, as you suggest, would be a kind of fugitive medium that holds out the possibility of escaping or not being confined by dominant narratives or paradigms. Also, more than just being fleeting or escaping, it creates a new form of affiliation through listening, not only to words, but also to sound and silence. There is a pedagogy of listening that creates something authentically new and not yet articulated.


HKW: And maybe obscure even.


LL: Exactly, it can be ongoing beneath words and unknown or unnoticed even as it is working, forging and transgressing. Thank you so much for the opportunity to have this unique conversation.


Lisa Lowe is Professor of English and American Studies at Tufts University, and a member of the consortium of studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora. Her work has focused on literatures and cultures of encounter that emerge from histories of colonialism, immigration, and globalization. She is the author of Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (Cornell UP, 1991), Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Duke UP, 1996), and The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke UP, 2015); she is coeditor of The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Duke UP, 1997).