Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Between the Global and the Local There Are Regions, Culture Areas, and National States: A Review Article

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Between the Global and the Local There Are Regions, Culture Areas, and National States: A Review Article

Article excerpt


In 1999, the late O.W. Wolters released a revised edition of his influential, and still stimulating, History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Besides publishing the original 1982 text amounting to 102 pages, he has added a postscript that is equally long where he attempts an assessment of his earlier work in the light of later scholarly developments.

When the essay originally appeared, one could not help but admire its boldness, scope and erudition. Since then, however, the meteoric rise of 'globalisation' studies has perhaps made his scope seem timid, and post-modernism made his analysis of culture seem passe. Regional analysis has been bypassed by the 'global' or outflanked by the 'local', and culture -- we are told -- is always 'hybrid'. In his Revised Edition Wolters faces the challenge calmly, and maintains his focus on Southeast Asia as a region and as a culture area. There are good reasons for doing so too.

The idea of 'Southeast Asia' received extensive discussion during its definition as a field of 'area studies'. One of the best commentaries was by Donald K. Emmerson in 1984: '"Southeast Asia": What's in a Name?', where he suggested that this name simultaneously described and invented a reality. His worry about the 'invented' part of a Southeast Asian reality was that it could project a 'homogeneity, unity, and boundedness onto a part of the world that is in fact heterogeneous, disunited, and hard to delimit'. (1) Like other scholars, (2) Emmerson quite rightly makes much of the political origins of Southeast Asia, with a major turning point being the Second World War when, as a theatre for war, the region came into focus. Subsequently it became a theatre of the Cold War and that produced a demand for knowledge of the region, especially in the US, and spawned area studies programmes in the universities. Newly independent states in Southeast Asia also began to produce their own studies of their societies and h istories. Finally, in 1967 ASEAN emerged as a regional organisation, but the burgeoning hot war in Vietnam and its aftermath delayed ASEAN's aim for regional unity until 1999 when Cambodia was admitted. Few would deny that this unity is primarily political, and many comment on its fragility even in this regard now that the former 'enemies' Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are members, along with Myanmar (Burma).

The creation of 'area studies', however, led people to search for what are deemed 'deeper' cultural unities which, perhaps, can (in Emmerson's words) 'change a cartographic convenience into an entity with an identity internal to itself'. (3) The 'invention' of a Southeast Asian reality occurred first, he argues, during World War Two when the region was made 'visible'. Second, it legitimated a term, 'Southeast Asia'. Then came the foreign policy concerns of the Cold War: 'by attracting world attention and creating a need to talk about the region, political disunity bolstered the semantic unity of 'Southeast Asia'. (4) There is, therefore, something of a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that begins to produce, at least at some levels, common meanings across the region.

As within the confines of states themselves, so within the region diversities began to get woven into unities. In a journal forum on 'Reconceptualizing Southeast Asia', Anthony Reid speaks of the historical importance of Chinese networks and of the creation of regional universities for the emergence of a sense of the region. (5) Other contributors focus on how political and economic exchanges within the region have intensified, along with cultural exchanges in the form of academic gatherings, 'high' cultural events, migration and tourism, and to some extent, pop culture as well. Sports events have also become important arenas for the creation of a sense of regional unity. All of these activities produce a growing sense of 'semantic unity', and indeed cultural unity, to the extent that people from the region begin to identify themselves as, for example, both Malaysian and Southeast Asian. …

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