Crossroads 2018 has an exciting line up

Back to the Future: Asian Imaginations

Ackbar Abbas, Department of Comparative Literature, The University of California at Irvine
Tejaswini Niranjana, Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University
Chua Beng Huat, Department of Sociology, National University of Singapore

Conceived and Introduced by:
Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Department of Cultural Studies, Lingnan University

Spotlight Panel Abstract

Panel Abstract:

'Was this the end of the madness? Were science and rationality really coming back?'

In Cixin Liu's classic The Three Body Problem there is a brief moment of respite for the astrophysicist Ye Wenjie. Her usual state, at once reconciling the horrors of the past with the need for a planetary imagination for the future, is temporarily given some stability when she returns to the University. Although "everything is in ruins and countless people are still licking their wounds", the dawn is evident, and it is not in a computer game but in life. Or has the difference been extinguished?

As many parts of Asia reconcile both real and imagined horrors of the past with the idea of an Asian century, there is a growing recognition that such a move may need a planetary imagination: that it is necessary, even as gigantomania takes over massive infrastructure and other projects, to think a future that is no longer limited either by an individual or a national imagination. The combination of climate change, nuclear war, rogue dictators and runaway capital no longer bound by national boundaries force a future to be conceived that is a combination of history, archaeology and science fiction. Imagining the past has always been a component presence in imagining the future, but now we have an added responsibility: or rather three responsibilities - one, to imagine a Big Past that will suffice for the future at hand, two to be able to find the means to narratively engage with the imagination (in the film, the digital game, the novel, the performance), and three to implement the narrative in space and time: in conservation projects, in art museums and on the street.

Time has rarely been central to thinking through the postcolonial predicament. It was not too long ago that, for most of us in the non-western world, nationalism was the norm, rational statehood the ambition, realism the privileged mode, ‘homogeneous empty time’ the hope, and bending time the subject of magic. We still hoped to one day catch up with the developed world, if occasionally through accelerating – leapfrogging over, or sometimes tunneling beneath – linear time.

This panel is about bending time, to new causes. When there is no way except forward, appearances do not deceive. Spectres of history create new mirages, realism becomes a record of the aftermath of the war.

This is a panel about new aesthetic possibility.

Panelist 1:
Ackbar Abbas, University of California, Irvine

Jean-Luc Godard once famously said that his films had a beginning, a middle, and an end—only not in that order; just as there might be a past, a present, and a future—but not in that order. Is it possible to imagine the future not in terms of linearity, succession, and chronology, but in terms of temporal overlaps, repetition, and anachronisms? Can we see anachronism not as being behind the times but as a sign of the times, a product of the speed of historical change? Has the concept of change itself changed? Liu Cixin’s sci-fi novel The Three Body Problem does not just imagine the future but asks the crucial question of how we are to do so.

Ye Wenjie is a victim of the Cultural Revolution, but she also repeats its exorbitant gestures by inviting an unknown alien civilization to ‘redeem’ a deeply flawed humanity. If there is, as what media theorist Vilem Flusser calls a ‘crisis of linearity’, can its exemplary texts, including Liu Cixin’s speculative fictions and other sci-fi novels, be the documentary forms of our time?

Panelist 2:
Tejaswini Niranjana , Lingnan University

In envisaging a planetary future that cuts across national boundaries, I focus on the performance of vocal music as a condition of subjectivity. Drawing on my attempts to curate musical events in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Shanghai. I speculate on the predicament of highly-trained Hindustani classical musicians from India when confronted with Chinese collaboration opportunities. Unable to take their embodied subjectivity for granted, in situations where neither their training nor their invocation of tradition finds resonance, these musicians have had to rely on new ways of improvisation that take us back to a degree-zero condition, indeed to the very basis of voice production.

Looking at musical difficulties for which conventional multiculturalism appears to have no description, I suggest we can both look back at music as affective resource and look forward to vitalizing performative space even as it stays marked by the histories from which it appears to disentangle itself.

Panelist 3:
Chua Beng Huat , National University of Singapore

This panel calls for a big imagination of the future, an assignment whose demands I have great difficulties in meeting. Coming, as I do, from a very small country that self-recognizes as an ‘accidental nation’, the collective anxiety has always been and continues to be the ‘viability’ of our nation. Instead of breaking out, as this panel wants us to, our instinct is typically to reinforce the ‘national’ for fear of its disintegration. On the one hand then, there is the authoritarian regime of ‘rule by law’, where laws are legalized instruments for all dimensions of control, instead of providing a liberal rule of law that might free the imagination. But on the other there is growing evidence of how the 'Singapore model' has enabled and freed up big histories both of the past and the future to emerge elsewhere.

Can it be that, precisely because of its smallness, Singapore has been able to transcend its spatial limitations and entrench itself in the ‘global’, to enable elsewhere the very possibilities that it fears for its own narrow survival? This dilemma can be summarized thus: The world does not need Singapore but Singapore needs the world. The secret of Singapore’s success in global capitalism is that it is driven by collective anxiety of obliteration as a nation, but also in the way it exports a far more optimistic model for emulation.

How then, can Singapore (and the Singaporean) imagine a ‘big’ future?