Concepts Part 2:

New Approaches to the Study of Asian Cities–Combining the Humanities and Social Sciences

Both quantitative and qualitative social science work on Asian cities has challenged Eurocentric assumptions about urban growth and linear models of modernity. But more needs to be done to understand how Asian cities are transforming and also transformed by the humanities. Our inter-disciplinary group will extend the efforts made in the social-sciences and combine them with work in the humanities by focusing on what these important urban changes mean to the people who live in these landscapes and how their everyday engagement affects the larger political economies and cultural landscapes of which cities are integrative hubs. Understanding the meaning and significance of historically nuanced city processes requires deeper analytical and humanistic reflection.

In short, the rise of the Asian city is more than a story of the built environment or the engulfing of other forms of life by urbanism:

it is also the story of new kinds of people, new institutions, news forms of consciousness, new social practices, new kinds of writing and reading, and new relationship between people and perceptions of nature. Contemplating the rising Asian city will draw upon the interdisciplinary, theoretically diverse, historically contextualized, and comparative cultural perspective offered by scholars working in the humanities, social sciences, and select professional schools across Yale and other institutions.

In this sense, we will bring to the study of Asian Cities the kind of daring humanistic and interdisciplinary inquiry that a scholar like Walter Benjamin once brought to the study of Western cities. We don’t wish to replicate past inquiries, but rather to take a humanistic approach that recognizes how mental and material processes are always connected. We propose that new urban forms in rising Asian cities demand such modes of inquiry and that the humanities will not only help us better understand Asian cities, but that Asian cities should also push the boundaries of the humanities. Theories and ideas travel, and they do not all begin in European cities. With humanist eyes we aim to show that the poetry of life on the streets of a city can be as much a part of a city’s rise as its new boulevards and new kinds of building. As humanists reading beyond the borders of Europe, we too insist that a city is both mental and material.

In terms of new forms of consciousness, the Asian city offers a dramatic place to explore a notion put forward by Georg Simmel in his now classic essay, “the Metropolis and Mental life.” Writing about European cities at the dawn of the 20th century, Simmel asserted that cities create “the sensory foundations of mental life,” and that it was necessary for scholars to attend to the “essentially intellectualistic character of the metropolis” (Simmel 1903: 325). Imagine if Simmel had been able to watch a new city like Gurgaon rise up in a matter of two decades on the outskirts of Delhi? If Berlin, then a city of less than 2 million, could inspire novel forms of subjectivity, and even form the basis of a recognizably new intellectual outlook on life, then it is worth exploring the implications for mental life (in both the philosophical and psychological senses) of Tokyo’s population of 38 million, Delhi’s 25 million, and so on. The density and fluidity of an urban population affect all sorts of social, political dynamics, and health issues, ranging from the production and disposal of waste to how big the opera house should be, or the number of people who will likely come to literary events. The fact that the Pearl River delta is now considered the world’s biggest metropolis and that Hong Kong has the world’s densest population (32,000/sq. mile) is not just statistically significant, but has important implications for culture and the arts. Even Asia’s “small” cities, like Hanoi (6.5 million), have higher populations today than cities like Paris, Berlin, Madrid, or Rome.

Although we are inspired by and learn from the humanities of the Western university tradition, we also recognize that applying Western concepts to understand new forms of urban consciousness in Asia must confront cultural differences that test the very limits of Western analysis. How might a Western-derived conception of “mental life” respond to popular experience in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where incomplete housing developments abandoned after the Asian financial crisis are said to be haunted by ghosts; or in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where a modern three tower apartment complex in the city’s Chinatown failed to attract customers because feng shui experts said the complex looked like three joss-sticks in a funeral urn, a classic symbol of death? New metropolises in new parts of the world demand new theories of mental life. And we can look to the humanities in Asia as our guide for understanding all this.

In new Asian literature, we know that urbanization is also quickly changing the literary process as we know it. For example, migrants in Chinese cities have been encouraged by city officials to produce their own brand of literature to feel a sense of belonging. The broad phenomenon of “migrant literature” has swept through Chinese cities, especially those that have been quick on the rise. The platform is often created and institutionalized by the cities themselves as they compete with one another for cultural, not just industrial, legitimacy. The sense of competition is also reshaping the dynamics between political entities in Asia, as they strive to demonstrate a new pluralism that can bolster their claimed distinctions as progressive, global cities. Taiwan, for instance, just celebrated the first recipient of the “Migrant Labor Literary Prize,” a Vietnamese.

In film and other performing arts, new modes of urban living have inspired everything from to the rise of Indonesian Queer cinema, to films festivals in a wide number of Asian cities. In India, even Bollywood cinema has recently produced acclaimed work examining metropolitan life in films like Slumdog Millionaire and Delhi 6, while literary festivals have turned even smaller towns like Srinagar in Kashmir, Jaipur, and Thiruvananthapuram into major annual destinations for international literary and bookselling cognoscenti. Thus cities are increasingly competing with each other to style themselves as cultural hubs, building museum districts, supporting the arts, and sponsoring everything from the revival of Chinese kun operas to other forms of artistic heritage. Importantly, cities not only host these arts in their movie theaters, playhouses, and historic districts, but are increasingly the subject of these new works. Performing arts are not just taking place in the city, but are often about the city. City dwellers across Asia, like us, recognize the Asian city as a central space for the humanities in the 21st century.

For the study of popular culture, media arts and youth engagement, it is pertinent to note that many Asian cities are also rising as part of the postcolonial reshaping of older cities and towns, and in response to massive recent investments by Asian Diaspora who are creating second homes and new businesses in the urban landscape of their social heritage. Housing, markets, parks and amusements are thus created and experienced by a wide variety of Asia’s urban residents as resources and ideas pour in through arriving migrants and returning diasporic groups with visions and aspirations for Asian urbanism. Connected with this are new forms of political consciousness, expressed in new media and also political theater of various types.

Ultimately, our workshop series will bring together a critical community of scholars, starting with a core inter-disciplinary group within Yale to network with global partners. We shall work towards a paradigm shift beyond modes of analysis that have long dominated 20th century social sciences with static, bounded, analytical categories. Thinking of cities as unfinished projects and urban assemblages will allow us to highlight process and pattern over dichotomized structures. We intend to blur conceptual binaries of material hardware and humanist software by focusing on their mutual constitution. We use a critical reading of objects and texts to uncover historical layers of the “past” in the human agency of our ethnographic “present.” These contemplations may ultimately lead us to a delineation of “cities” as boundless, meaningful life-worlds, and “Asia” as an ever-changing regional construct.