Will the Real Taiwanese Subject Please Stand Up? On Critique, Radicalism, and the Question of Decolonization
Introduction1I would like to acknowledge the research support from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan, renamed the National Science and Technology Council in July 2022 (MOST 109-2423-H-007-001-MY3).
The publication of Chih-ming Wang’s Re-articulations and Hundred Years of Foreign Literature Studies in Taiwan 《落地轉譯：台灣外文研究的百年軌跡》 (henceforth Re-articulations) marks an important contribution to foreign literature studies in Taiwan. Re-articulations deals with the discipline’s historical development, its institutionalization at various critical junctures, and the key figures who have set its intellectual agenda. All of the above are framed by the central question of the book: the question of transmission, or more precisely, the importation of Western knowledge to the East. One of the great virtues of Wang’s book lies in its nuanced handling of this question, which is never treated as a question of horizontal transplantation; beneath the movement of ideas and concepts lies a whole complex of relationships, at times in the manner of emulation, at other times competition; at still other times, these imported ideas are subject to critical reflection. All these are mediated through the lens of affective involvement and embedded in a larger geopolitical context colored by the joint articulation of the Cold War with the Chinese Civil War (otherwise known as “the dual war structure”).
It bears emphasizing that this book is as much a historical narrative as it is a critical intervention. Events are not simply painted in broad historical strokes, though; they are framed through an interlocking set of issues and submitted to conjunctural analysis. Re-articulations can be admired for the sheer scope of its archival research; it takes nothing less than a Promethean effort to assemble so many materials and organize them into such elegant prose. It is impressive also for not shying away from pointed criticisms regarding certain problems in the discipline’s development. It is impossible to do justice to the range and scope of Wang’s ambitious project here, so my commentary will be a restricted one. The following analysis will zero in on one particular intellectual formation concerning the question of subjectivity that took place in the 90s and has since been known as one of the most famous and contentious debates in the history of foreign literature studies in Taiwan (the focus of Chap. 6 of Re-articulations). My intention is not to weigh in on this debate with the benefit of historical hindsight. What I would do instead is to follow Wang’s lead, identify his methodological approach and theoretical concerns, and then offer a few modest suggestions along the way.1The question of subjectivity started gaining traction in the early 90s after the lifting of martial law and with the influx of US-educated PhDs back to Taiwan. The debate initiated by this question kicked off in a series of articles published in <em>Chung-wai Literary Monthly</em> 《中外文學》. Although the question received different formulations and treatments, the tenor of the debate was initially set within the conceptual parameters of postcolonial studies and Žižekian psychoanalysis. That is to say, the question of subjectivity was situated at the intersection of two conflicting tendencies, one attending to historical specificities while the other was inclined to think in formal and theoretical terms. Navigating between these two polarities was then the main theoretical labor for those engaged in the debate.
The Debate on Subjectivity in Post-Martial Law Taiwan
Let’s start with the conceptual triad that facilitates Wang’s critical operation: subjectivity, affectivity, and normativity. The subject is a concept that has a long-standing history in Western philosophy. During its long conceptual evolution, the term subject was pregnant with meanings that are ambiguous and even downright contradictory—for example, subject in the sense of autonomy and subject in the sense of dependency and submission. Wang calls attention to the ambiguity of subjectivity and points out that when the concept is translated into Chinese as zhuti 主體, the multivalence of this conceptual category is reduced to its political register (i.e., sovereignty and autonomy). As a result, the meaning of the subject is confined to the process of demarcating the “I” (or the “we”) by way of oppositional posturing (316–317).1『中文裡「主體」在用法和含義上都更接近西方的主權概念，強調自主性與所有權．．．．這就使得主體性在臺灣不只是一個被翻譯過來的哲學概念，更是一種要積極追求的政治價值；它展現的，與其說是「關於我」的內容，不如說是一種「確立我」的敵對姿態。』 On this view, a gesture of reductionism had already been performed through translation well before the debate got underway. And this overture pretty much sets the tone for Wang’s engagement with Chao-yang Liao, whose contribution to the debate is widely considered one of the most sophisticated theoretical articulations of the question of subjectivity in Taiwan.
In Liao’s psychoanalytical formulation, the subject-qua-void has no pre-determined content but supposedly is to be determined historically through a contingent process of negotiation. However, Wang alerts readers to a theoretical sleight of hand that admits a relationship of co-constitution between subjectivity and identity but simultaneously keeps the subject at one remove from identity, assigning the former a normative function while relegating the latter to a contingent formation unencumbered by historical and cultural givenness, that is, with no regard for what is given in history and culture up to that moment in Taiwan (321).1『廖朝陽在此將主體與認同切離對待，但又視之為互證互成的共構，正好有效地將主體性推上一個理論性、規範性，乃至去歷史性的高度，而將認同推至一個隨機的層次：主體與認同是共構的，但是如何共構是因緣巧合的意外，而非歷史文化的必然。』 It is precisely at this point that the category of the empty subject starts drifting away from the philosophical register of the psychoanalytic discourse and lending itself to the normative construction of Taiwan’s subjectivity. The shift from the theoretical to the politico-practical, according to Wang, reveals an underhanded operation: the empty subject is not really empty since it has already posited its own presupposition well before any contingent process of negotiation takes place. That is to say, the name Taiwan has already been posited as the quilting point for the empty subject, providing a normative criterion according to which what is to be moved in and what is to be moved out on the level of content and identification is (or has already been) decided (322). For Wang, this underhanded operation amounts to a fundamental change of perspective—away from the poststructuralist deconstruction of metaphysical subjectivity and toward the Enlightenment construction of modernist subjectivity—with dire consequences for critical thinking. Given that the virtue of poststructuralist theory lies in its undoing of metaphysical enclosure, a return to the Enlightenment project through rational prescription and normative institution signals a theoretical regression that not only fails to take into account the affective makeup of subjectivity but also exposes itself to the pitfalls of nationalism that prematurely foreclose the field of becoming promised by the void of subjectivity:
It should be emphasized that this is not just a phenomenon pertaining to that particular debate in the 90s. The same reduction, albeit in different guises, also shows up in the subsequent attempts to contemplate the relationship between theory and Taiwan. For example, in the two book projects by Knowledge Taiwan Collective, the avowed intention is to “[conceptualize] Taiwan as a site for the production of cultural theory.”1<a href="https://directory.criticaltheoryconsortium.org/organizations/knowledge-taiwan-collective/">https://directory.criticaltheoryconsortium.org/organizations/knowledge-taiwan-collective/</a> However, in Wang’s view, despite these attempts to provincialize Theory, the name Taiwan continues to be taken for granted and bracketed out from critical examination. That is to say, Theory is brought to confront its own historical conditions of possibility, to negotiate with different forces in the place of settlement, to be rendered minor and more accommodating to epistemological diversity. Nevertheless, Taiwan as the site of theoretical production and cultural identification somehow miraculously eludes the critical scrutiny that should have accompanied its conceptualization. Hence the paradox: the desire for theory ends up obfuscating the fundamental operation of theoretical thinking—that is, the maintaining of critical vigilance and the adoption of reflective attitude:
The above is the gist of Wang’s argument. Now the question we should consider is the extent to which Wang’s attentive yet sweeping claims can be justified. Before further elaboration, it is necessary to understand the source from which his criticism obtains its force. The source lies in a very generalized understanding of theory as an act of undoing and a mode of reflexivity; moreover, it is by way of reflexive thinking that one is able to guard against the temptation of institutional ossification and epistemological closure. This double movement—both an external critique against the metaphysics of presence and an internal critique in the mode of reflexive vigilance—points to the etymological root of the word “radical,” not something that goes to the extreme but something that cuts to the root of the problem1『如傅大為所說，知識的目的是要指向社會發展中的「時代之刃」——亦即那個時代特殊的基進性——以切入「社會中的各種隙縫、錯置與斷裂」（2019: 214），並且在其中開展反身性的自我批判，尋找積累與傳承的可能．．．．從知識系統的解編與重構開始，釋放批判的力量，以面向變動的當下與在地，從「根本」上去思考知識在社會與文化整體結構中的作用，一步一步為社會的改造創造新的動能與契機。 這才是理論的力量和方向。』（343–344） By going back to the root of the problem, one can overcome the theoretical impasse witnessed in the debate on subjectivity in the 90s and also in those subsequent attempts to conceptualize Taiwan as the site of theoretical production.
Then what would a radical theoretical approach vis-à-vis Taiwan look like? Wang reminds us that being postcolonial does not guarantee anything. In fact, unreflective nationalism is as oppressive as the colonial power it revolts against. Contrary to those Taiwan-centric points of view promoted by Liao and Knowledge Taiwan Collective, it is Arif Dirlik whose take on this issue exemplifies the double movement of radical critique. According to Wang, Dirlik not only points the finger at the oppressiveness of Chinese imperialism; more importantly, he adds a reflexive twist to his commentary by calling attention to the fact that Taiwan’s nation-building project—if it continues clinging to the colonial difference produced by the colonial situation as the basis of identification without looking for “new legitimacy”—would replicate the same colonial logic and bring about conflict and oppression. After all, nation building is in effect a colonizing activity:
The Politics of the Margin
Now it is clear that the proper theoretical stance is to be reflexive and keep constant vigilance, which, when translated into actual practice, means to remain always on the margin. For example, what does it mean to be radical? It means to fight against domination, to always fight from the margin and never occupy the position of power. That’s why Fu Da-wei is quoted approvingly for saying that being radical does not include any aspiration to establish a better regime, nor does it set its eyes on seizing political power; instead, radicalism manifests itself through the challenge to authoritarian restrictions and systemic determination, and the goal is to establish local, non-systemic zones of autonomy:
「基進」（radical）正是時任清華歷史所的傅大為翻譯的。傅大為在回想這段歷史時指出， 「基進的立場是『反宰制』、基進的戰鬥位置是邊緣戰鬥」， 因此基進的要求不在於「建立一個好的政權、或取得政權」， 而是要 「突破一切權威的『系統性』牢籠，它要尋求的非系統性、局部性、相對性的自由社會空間」，這個理想當然有傅柯的影子。（342）
While there is much to appreciate in this succinct and compelling formulation, a question immediately imposes itself: Does such an understanding of radicalism exhaust the meaning of critique? If so, what ethico-political implications would it entail?
Let me start with a political dilemma that has hampered the liberation movement since the bankruptcy of modernity’s grand politics. As J. K. Gibson-Graham explains:
With the dissolution in recent times of positive projects of socialist construction, left moralism has been energized by increasing investments in injury, failure, and victimhood. When power is identified with what is ruthless and dominating, it becomes something the left must distance itself from, lest it be co-opted or compromised. (5)
Doesn’t the very idea of being radical (with the ensuing politics of the margin) risk falling victim to the kind of moralism that has plagued leftist politics since the 70s? Since power is either corrupted or potentially corruptible, the radical left must avoid it at all costs and always fight with the margin, from the margin, and for the margin. While I am sympathetic to this view and agree that the margin should remain a privileged site of our ethical concern, it is far less clear whether it should become an elevated principle binding our political vision and organizing our political action. Allow me to further illustrate this point with a joke recounted by Bruno Bosteels:
The joke in question puts two madmen together in an insane asylum as they get caught up in a heated shouting match. The first yells: “You’re crazy!” The second: “No, you’re crazy!” “No, you are!” “No, you!” and so on and so forth, until the first person finally shouts out triumphantly: “Tomorrow, I’ll wake up at 5 a.m. and write on your door that you’re crazy!”; to which the second person answers with a conceited smile: “And I’ll wake up at 4 a.m. and wipe it off!“ (215–216)
The problem with this kind of radicalism is not that it falls short of what it claims to be; the problem is rather that it succeeds all too well, so much so that politics in its determinate unfolding is always already a betrayal even before it can get positively inscribed. Radicalism exemplified by the second madman’s attempt to wake up at 4 a.m. and wipe off things that have yet to be written nicely captures the paradox of radical marginality. In order to interrupt the myth of identity, radicalism turns itself into another kind of myth—the myth of interruption—that wipes off any inscription before it even gets started.1I have used this joke as an illustrative example elsewhere. For a more elaborate discussion, see Wu, “Rupture and Consistency,” 169–174.
And from where does the myth of interruption derive its legitimacy? From the fact that no sooner has political struggle instituted itself through normative prescription than it renders itself susceptible to onto-theological figuration, that is, to the exclusionary and totalizing illusion of self-sufficiency. Being guarded by a preemptive measure, the radical politics of the margin is equipped with an ethical fail-safe: it does not aspire to any larger project and settles instead for a non-systemic, local, and relative space of social freedom; in this way it will never have to face the possibility of relapsing into epistemological or ontological closure that a project like nation building would inevitably run into. There is indeed something Foucauldian here, but perhaps it is this particular version of Foucauldianism that should be questioned because it endorses a form of struggle caught in a relation of permanent provocation with power, fighting against something it simultaneously depends upon, with no prospect of changing the existing regime of truth.1On the limit of this version of Foucauldianism, see Wu, “The Relation of Non-Relation,” particularly 68–70. Here we find ourselves trapped in a deep irony: it is the very practice of being radical that forecloses the possibility of radical transformation.
The Trouble with Nationalism
This brings me to the second suggestion concerning Dirlik’s view on decolonization. Wang’s recourse to Dirlik is not without problem. For one thing, Dirlik’s long-standing commitment to Marxism and his critique of the complicity between global capitalism and postcolonial culturalism sit rather awkwardly with the post-structuralist, culturalist, and localist vision of radical critique Wang evokes here (Dirlik, “End” 12–13). This is not to say that Dirlik would disagree in toto with the post-structuralist challenges to reified norms or oppressive ethnocentrism;1Dirlik does indeed acknowledge the validity of a certain post-structuralist strain of thought (e.g., his affirmation of the Foucauldian practice of critique) but does not see this as gesturing to a renunciation of Enlightenment thinking (e.g., his emphasis on Foucault’s indebtedness to the Enlightenment project). See After Colonialism? 200–201. it is rather that an unqualified celebration of local struggles at the expense of the Enlightenment legacy (e.g., universalism, autonomy, subjectivity, etc.) is no less problematic than an unconditional affirmation of the Enlightenment and its modernist project.1For Dirlik, the Enlightenment legacy is much more complicated than is suggested in Wang’s reading of Liao. Indeed, we have to talk about the colonial underside of the Enlightenment, but we should not forget that the Enlightenment is also what enables the critical practice that puts into question the whole colonial enterprise. That is to say, while one should always be aware of its complicity with colonial modernity, it would be too facile to blame everything on the Enlightenment. See Dirlik, “End,” 25–26; Postcolonial Aura, xi, 96–97; After Colonialism? 206. Thus, when Wang turns to Dirlik to underline the coloniality inherent in Taiwan’s nation-building project (as is the case with all nation-building activities), it is crucial not to construe Dirlik’s utterance as a straightforward negative evaluative judgment, lest it be confused with similar articulations in the post-structuralist vein.1Dirlik’s view is resolutely different from the following Derridean critique of presence: “All culture is originarily colonial…. Every culture institutes itself through the unilateral imposition of some ‘politics’ of language. Mastery begins, as we know, through the power of naming, of imposing and legitimating appellations” (Derrida, 39). For another critique of this Derridean position from the perspective of decoloniality, see Mignolo, 83. Instead, the validity of Dirlik’s assertion hinges on a temporal qualification: whether nation building contributes to the decolonization efforts or further reinforces the coloniality of power depends on its capacity to transcend the conditions of its emergence, or what was previously referred to as the acquisition of new legitimacy. To unpack this underlying temporal logic as well as its evolving dynamic, it is worth quoting at length the following passage:
The assumption in earlier narratives that the struggle against colonial hegemony had to be conducted on grounds set by colonialism required neither a culturalist homogeneity nor the denial of agency; it merely took as its point of departure contemporary circumstances of power, and sought in the struggle against oppression the creation of new agencies and cultural identities. Anti-colonial struggles, or struggles conducted in the name of the Third World or national liberation, produced out of these historical circumstances alternative social and political visions that would enable transcending those circumstances, without falling back upon congealed cultural identities. Indeed, the necessity of struggle on two fronts (inside and outside) was to produce a radically historicist notion of culture…. Whether in its anti-colonialist or Third World expression, or in the language of national liberation, radical struggles did not presuppose an essentialist primordialism, but rather viewed cultural identity as a project that was very much part of the struggle for liberation that it informed. That this is ignored in postcolonialist representations of these struggles raises the question of whether the objection is indeed to the essentialism of past conceptualizations of the world, or to the aims those struggles promoted, which have become undesirable from a contemporary perspective. (Postcolonial Aura 15; emphasis added)
While there is no denying the nation form as the product of colonial modernity, this fact should not automatically discredit nation as the potential site for emancipatory politics. In Dirlik’s view, “[n]ation building as a colonizing activity may characterize the history of nationalism in general,” but the nation is also that which makes possible the critique of colonialism1Dirlik, “End,” 14; 14n20.Granted that anti-colonial nationalist resistance cannot and should not be equated with decolonization and sometimes even acts as the stumbling block on the road to decolonization (e.g., through the naturalization of its own fictivity),1I am referring to Balibar’s thesis of “fictive ethnicity” in the constitution of the people as presented in “The Nation Form.”it nonetheless entertains the possibility of an effect outgrowing its cause. It is this act of immanent self-transcendence that Dirlik has in mind when he reminds us of those anti-colonial struggles in the past that “produced out of these historical circumstances alternative social and political visions that would enable transcending those circumstances, without falling back upon congealed cultural identities.” That’s also why he rejects the false choice between “cultural homogeneity” (nationalism) and “the denial of agency” (culturalist hybridity) because he sees no fundamental incompatibility between the normative project of nation building and the ontological entanglement at the heart of identity formation. The point is not to favor one over the other but to remain attentive to the transductive tension that maintains the metastable balance between the figure and the process of figuration, or in Lacanese, between the One and the process of One-making.
Consequently, there are two ways of interpreting the claim that nation building is inherently colonial. In the first approach, when the claim is taken at its face value, we end up with a synchronic statement of a diachronic process. On this view, the power of preemption is affirmed at the expense of the phenomenological analysis of power, as illustrated above by the second madman’s attempt to wipe off things yet to be written. The second approach, by contrast, allows for a processual understanding of the (de)colonial formation, alerting us to both the givenness of the colonial situation and the possibility of its immanent transcendence; it takes note of the pharmacological nature of the (de)colonial formation and strives to steer the process toward a therapeutic end without losing sight of the ever-existing possibility of the toxic effect of nationalism. It is precisely in this sense that the acquisition of “new legitimacy” plays such a decisive role in determining the success or failure of the nation-building project, for it is not a project based on the recovery of a pre-existing unity but rather a project dialectically implicated in the very movement toward the goal whose configuration and composition are caught up in a recursive loop and change in accordance with emerging contingencies and ramifications, therefore a project constantly demanding new legitimacy.
Traveling Theory Reconsidered: Toward an Affirmative Critique1Readers should keep in mind the specific context from which this review article arises. This is a revision of the paper I presented in the “Rethinking Traveling Theory” seminar organized jointly by the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) and the Comparative Literature Association of the Republic of China (CLAROC) in June 2022. To address the theme set by the organizer, my discussion in this section turns to Said’s idea of traveling theory, establishing the link between Dirlik, Said, and Fanon in an attempt to explore an affirmative conception of critique and advance an alternative understanding of the relationship between subjectivity, affectivity, and normativity. The staging of an encounter between Dirlik, Said, and Fanon is by no means fortuitous as Dirlik himself has already noted their shared theoretical position and political vision (<em>After Colonialism?</em> 206).
What Dirlik says about the acquisition of new legitimacy is by and large an updated recapitulation of Frantz Fanon’s lesson on anti-colonial struggle and the pitfalls of national consciousness, which in Edward Said’s reconsideration of traveling theory represents a very different kind of radicalism from the one presented by Wang. According to Said, Fanon’s reworking of the subject-object dialectic brings into consideration the element of nationalism and brings to the fore the Manichaeanism that defines the colonial structure. Fanon’s approach thus exposes the inadequacy of the Lukácsian model in the colonial situation and in this way invigorates rather than domesticates theory’s radicalism (Said, 447–448). This, of course, is only half the story. Although Fanon understands the importance of nationalism, he also underscores the necessity of its transformation:
Nationalism is not a political doctrine, it is not a program. If we really want to safeguard our countries from regression, paralysis, or collapse, we must rapidly switch from a national consciousness to a social and political consciousness…. If nationalism is not explained, enriched, and deepened, if it does not very quickly turn into a social and political consciousness, into humanism, then it leads to a dead end (Wretched 142, 144).
This Fanonian position is quite well-known. Now imagine that if nationalism is full of pitfalls, why don’t we just bypass this dangerous stage and jump directly to a more mature, more radical, or more theoretically sophisticated stage, that is, the stage of social justice? In a less well-known yet equally important passage, Fanon reminds us that: “The danger is that very often they reach the stage of social consciousness before reaching the national phase. In this case the underdeveloped countries’ violent calls for social justice are combined, paradoxically enough, with an often primitive tribalism” (143). In the process of decolonization, national consciousness comes before social consciousness even when it entails the possibility of sterile nationalism. For, without the mediation of nationalism, the pent-up anger finds no outlet and degenerates into tribal violence; more importantly, without the mediation of nationalism, the colonized are not even equipped with the means to engage themselves in any meaningful struggle (viz., to participate in the subject-object dialectic however reactive and reactionary such a dialectical scheme might initially appear).1One of the charges leveled against Liao is his neglect of affectivity. We should also bear in mind that anger, too, is an important political affect to be reckoned with. If Wang directs our attention to the fact that those who identified themselves with Chinese felt insecure in and threatened by Taiwan’s nation-building project on theoretical, political, and affective levels, what Fanon teaches us is that we should also be mindful of those who have been oppressed or subject to inferior treatment for the better half of the last century. Fanon recognizes that the colonized’s anger is a product of the colonial situation and therefore in the initial insurrectional stage, the anti-colonial struggle uses the language of violence taught by the colonizer and enacts the same Manichaean structure, which serves both therapeutic and strategic purposes and therefore cannot be readily dispensed with. As Said puts it, “colonized natives need an extra measure of rebelliousness to afford them the dubious position of antagonists” (449; emphasis added). Dubious as it may be, it remains nonetheless necessary for the colonized to attain this position in order to jump-start the arduous process of decolonization. Since the standard subject-object dialectic does not exist in the colonial situation,1In the colony, there exists no relation of reciprocity because the subject/the colonizer needs only labor, not recognition, from the object/the colonized. See Fanon, <em>Black Skin </em>191–197. it is of paramount strategic importance to obtain this antagonistic edge for the colonized to present themselves as a resisting force. To be sure, this is a very dubious position because it is still caught in the “uncompromising script” of the colonial dynamic and therefore remains a product of colonialism (Said, 450). Fanon’s radicalism consists in its acknowledgement of the movement’s diachronic and pharmacological nature, recognizing both the necessity and insufficiency of this initial insurrectional stage, and, more importantly, the possibility of its transcendence. In Dirlik’s words, resistance at this initial stage is “to be conducted on grounds set by colonialism” and yet not determined by it.
The Logic of the Two and Non-Reductive Reductionism
Decolonization is a process that unfolds diachronically through heuristic movement, and when it comes to normative construction, it is necessarily punctuated by moments of reductionism. This is one of the major gripes in Wang’s critical evaluation of the debate on subjectivity in Taiwan. To avoid the reductiveness of oppositional thinking that characterizes various attempts at theorizing Taiwan’s subjectivity, Wang appeals to a mode of reflexive critique to counter the deadly binarism of nationalism. As mentioned above, I am in general agreement with Wang’s emphasis on radical vigilance but in doubt whether it exhausts the meaning of critique and whether the binary logic of the Two is in and of itself useless, especially when dealing with issues concerning emancipatory politics, such as the decolonization project. Today, people tend to have preconceived ideas concerning what is necessarily good and what is necessarily bad. For a mind attuned to critical thinking, for example, it seems a foregone conclusion that violence, binarism, and opposition are necessarily bad whereas hybridity, becoming, and complexity are necessarily good. Reza Negarestani has cautioned against a contemporary phenomenon dubbed “critical reflexes” in which people readily employ a pre-packaged set of critical vocabularies as if these vocabularies in and of themselves evinced criticality when in fact such automatic reflexes are indicative of “cognitive servitude and noetic sloth” (440). Negarestani’s identification of this phenomenon offers a timely reminder of the importance of not reifying any position, however radical it may seem, into a narrow and exclusionary perspective, and it is in this spirit that I would like to play the devil’s advocate by making a plea for reductionism, not reductionism per se but an informed and enlightened reductionism arising out of exigency, or in the present discussion, necessitated by the existing coordinates of a given situation (e.g., the Manichaean structure found in the colonial situation) but not bound by it. It is a kind of reductionism that both acknowledges the historical condition of its emergence and affirms a self-instituting capacity to transform the initial polarity into multifarious plurality.
If we wish to rethink the meaning of radical critique, Wang’s reconsideration of the idea of radicalism through etymological inquiry is appropriate but remains incomplete without making the same etymological inquiry into the meaning of critique. The idea of critique is closely associated with that of crisis, both sharing the root of the Greek verb krinō, which has two meanings. The first denotes the moment of decisive change (or the turning point) in the progress of a disease, used originally in the medical context as in Hippocrates, “where it referred to the moment when the outcome of an illness is decided” (Stiegler, What Makes Life 126). The second meaning has to do with decision and discernment, that is, “to sort, or to separate, something which is good from something which is bad” (Badiou, “Critique”). It is evident that the second meaning contains the idea of judgement as it distinguishes the good from the bad, or the true from the false. However, judgement is also present in the medical use of the term because the turning point in the progress of a disease already implies an idea of the norm (health) and its deviation (illness).1See also Nancy, “Critique.”One important lesson to be drawn from this etymological investigation is a different understanding of critique from the one derived from the Kantian tradition that has informed most of contemporary critical thought (for example, the predominant focus on “the limit,” “the condition of possibility,” or other variations). These two traditions are not mutually exclusive, so the point is not to give privilege to one over the other. My intention is simply to offer an account of an affirmative mode of critique that moves beyond the preemptive power of the negative and devotes itself to a constructive politics that fights not just against atrocities in the present but fights for the possibility of an alternative future.
Critique thus construed involves a kind of informed or enlightened reductionism because there is no critique without decision and no critique without judgement. This is something Fanon understands when he claims that “[c]hallenging the colonial world is not a rational confrontation of viewpoints” (Wretched 6), all the while acknowledging the “extreme oversimplification” of that statement (Dying 15). It is important to note that while there is something binary and conflictual in the root meaning of critique, what is rendered binary is never reified into fact. With the passage of time, the contour of the Two changes according to circumstantial developments. That is what Fanon recognizes when he says that “some blacks can be whiter than whites” (Wretched 93) and some whites can join the struggle and fight alongside the Algerians (Dying 152). Notice that the logic of the Two in Fanon does not close in on itself in the form of sterile nationalism; it proceeds rather in the manner of progressive polarization toward an inclusive and ever-expanding plurality. That is why when Fanon speaks of Algeria, the name is at once binary and inclusive. It is binary in relation to French colonialism but inclusive as it extends to everyone who decides to bring an end to the injustice of the colonial order and incorporate themselves into the building of the nation. The name Algeria thus signals a decolonizing orientation devoid of pre-determined subjectivity. As Fanon puts it, “in the new society that is being built, there are only Algerians. From the outset, therefore, every individual living in Algeria is an Algerian. In tomorrow’s independent Algeria it will be up to every Algerian to assume Algerian citizenship or to reject it in favor of another” (Dying, 152). The end of colonialism thus brings about the dissolution of the initial Manichaeanism, a view captured in a somewhat enigmatic pronouncement Fanon makes at the end of Black Skin, White Masks: “The black man is not. No more than the white man” (Black Skin 206).1Judith Butler is right to suggest that despite its chronological antecedence, “philosophically, <em>Black Skin, White Masks</em> would have to follow <em>The Wretched of the Earth”</em> (“Violence”<br>229). Following Butler, we can read the book’s concluding chapter as offering a possible glimpse of the decolonized future.On this view, the nation affirmed here refers not to a congealed identity. Rather, Fanon’s Algeria bespeaks an inclusive and dynamic vision of belonging that transcends the initial determination of colonial compartmentalization and articulates into existence a new Algeria with new legitimacy, an Algeria “open to all, in which every kind of genius may grow” (Dying 32).1On the figure of the Two in the discourse of emancipation in Badiou and Fanon, see Wu, “Determining the Determination.”
Fanon is not alone in this regard. Similar approaches have been advanced by people coming from vastly different theoretical backgrounds. For example, this is something Badiou affirms in his understanding of the philosophical situation (Cinema 202-206) or when he argues that “[t]o decide is always to filter the infinite through the Two” (Logics 468); this is something Stiegler defends when he insists on distinguishing “becoming” from “future,” the latter opening up a decisive bifurcation for mankind to escape the entropic fate in the age of the Anthropocene (Decadence 54–56; Automatic 1-18); this is also something Shu-mei Shih and François Lionnet recognize in Takeuchi when they write: “Not that dominant Chinese epistemologies were not oppressive vis-à-vis their internal others within China, but that at this historical moment, using China to critique the West was a strong form of Asian self-critique” (28). These people do not sanction reductionism out of pure ignorance; their endorsement of reductionism is a measured and qualified one, not made at the expense of theoretical acumen but precisely on account of theoretical acumen when filtered through historical knowledge.1For example, in Shih’s reading of Takeuchi, she is careful to delineate two types of reductionism, one strategic and enabling and the other colonial and oppressive. In the case of Takeuchi, the Asia/West binary is used to criticize both the West and Japanese imperialism (which is merely an imitation of the West). But Shih also points out that the same Asia/West binary when mobilized by China in the 21<sup>st</sup> century through the discourse of wounding (as a justification of the internal colonization of Tibet) becomes something quite different (Shih, “Theory” 471–473). See also Young, 18–19.
[M]aybe it is no longer a dualism which is the source of danger in our epoch, but rather a non-dualistic totalizing power present in modern technology, which ironically resonates with the anti-dualist ideology. —Yuk Hui
Hui’s words are couched as a warning against the reflexive (or recursive) thinking of cybernetics taken for granted as the be-all-and-end-all solution to all the problems associated with modernity, but his advice has an uncanny resonance with the issues we are dealing with here. The point is not to valorize reflexivity as a universal operator for critical thinking but to find a mode of reflexive thinking and a political technē specific to the locality. That’s why I push for a more affirmative understanding of critique, one that is not afraid of taking on the challenge of normative construction while at the same time preserving the spirit of radicalism that keeps the normative metastable and negotiable rather than fixed and exclusionary. I do not see this as incompatible with Wang’s position. Therefore, the suggestions offered above are less a disputation than an invitation to reconsider the function of critique, which can be both radical and normative. As a matter of fact, Wang’s criticism serves as an important reminder of the ever-present risk of nationalism when it fails to acquire new legitimacy. And I believe that it is now more pertinent than ever to exercise this reflexive attitude because the name Taiwan, in the age of digital surveillance, has fast degenerated into a partisan slogan rather than a rallying cry for social justice. After decades of struggle for liberation, have we witnessed the standing-up of the Taiwanese subject?1The metaphor of standing up—other than as an ironic reference to Eminem’s rap classic in the title—is also a favored metaphor used by many cultural workers in Taiwan (e.g., Fire EX.’s award-winning album <em>Stand Up Like a Taiwanese</em>) to suggest an unflinching attitude in the face of constant threat and hostility from China. Or are we still looking for that elusive new legitimacy?
If Fanon’s lesson retains its relevancy for Taiwan in the 21st century, it is because it forces us to ask the difficult question of whether our political reality is in sync or out of sync with the accumulated knowledge of the postcolonial dilemma gained through both empirical observation and theoretical reflection. This is precisely what Wang takes issue with:
The worry is indeed justified, but it seems far too harsh to blame Liao (and Knowledge Taiwan Collective) for the failing of the politicians.
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