Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History
“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”
–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.
Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.
This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.
Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.
Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.