Central Asia Studies

Article excerpt

There is no use pretending that we all know about time and space, or rather history and geography'--Edward W. Said. (1)

INTRODUCTION

Obvious and reassuring polarizations between rich and poor, grandeur and squalor, light and dark, and order and chaos have become translated into contrastive analyses of relationships between the West and Central Asia. When the latter region appears in western media, it tends to do so as a shadowy region of crime, disreputability, authoritarian leadership, political corruption and incipient decay. This region therefore enjoys a specific and resonant position in those folk-taxonomic schemas that so characterize life in West. On the other hand, Central Asia is noted for its great rivers, mountain ranges and routes and highways, and not least among these the ancient Great Silk Route running from western China to Europe. Indeed, the decline of Central Asia is usually associated with the gradual loss of importance of the Silk Road along which Marco Polo journeyed to Cathy in 1271. Following Vasco de Gama's successful pioneering of a naval route to India via the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, a century later, these land routes across Central Asia had fallen into disuse. Economic decline was accompanied by social stagnation due to the persistence of traditional clan and extended family social structures, the gap between nomads and sedentarists, and arguably the absence of a new centralizer of the stature of Genghis Khan's descendant, Tamerlane.

A selected number of histories, geographies and perceptions of the region within Central Asia Studies use the above as a point of departure. The discipline however contains many other fundamental foundations, and it is a field that is contested.

The thrust of this paper's engagement has the primary aim of illuminating the contested foundations of certain aspects of Central Asia Studies. To understand these foundations is in part to understand a field of study that gathers around projected knowns.

As a sovereign field of study, Central Asia Studies omits and avows. it asserts a particular linear logic, it insists on demarcation and it demands disciplined constraint. Moreover, it is a field of study that is saturated with research on state building, on ethnic identity politics and linear historical accounts of the region, and it is a field of study that silently omits. An example of omission is analyses of social class relations, including non-Marxist. For instance, clear class boundaries that demarcate those with cultural, social and economic capital, resources held in abundance by the ruling political class and those without in Central Asia are largely absented. In-depth analyses of the class relations between factory worker and owner, between farmer and landowner are shorn of the social class dynamic. Moreover, notions of a structured oligarchy in the region is largely absent along with analyses of local imperialisms, for instance, of local rulers complicit in steering their county's economy to the benefit of outside interests, such as major corporations.

By spotlighting the positioning of a range of markers, settlements of meaning, core research interests and a range of privileged, analytical concepts deposited over the past two decades or so this paper's approach is intended to trace the primary angles and shapes of the discipline's scaffolding, to trace its brushstrokes up to a medium range distance. The theoretical motion of this paper, then, occupies a modest space where enquiry into wider chronological histories is limited. It is a space moreover that seeks no more than a medium-range explanatory position--ie one that does not engage Central Asia Studies in its entirety, but one that, for instance, locates a number of contemporary and post- positions within the field. In this sense, Central Asia Studies can constitute a manageable category.

I could have taken a different path by engaging in a series of Central Asia Studies conferences in the hope that resulting dialogue between conference delegates withdrawn from the everyday pressures of their academic environments, just as the storytellers of the Manas, the thousand-year-old Kyrgyz epic trilogy withdrew from the fields, would lead to an understanding of the discipline. …