Objectives

The research project brings Western critical theory into dialogue with Chinese philosophy and culture on three topics: body, society and nature. It takes an interdisciplinary approach, engaging with gender studies and Queer theory (e.g. Butler 1993, 1999); social theory and political philosophy (e.g. Bourdieu 1977, 1984, 1993; Habermas 1997; Rawls 1993); and environmental humanities and new materialisms (e.g. Braidotti 1994, 2002a; Barad 2007). Its goal is to decenter both Western and Chinese traditions so as to produce a richer understanding of the difference between them, and to propose new ways of constructively relating both traditions so as to develop new theories of body, society and nature relevant to the ethical demands of the 21st century. It does so in three ways.

  1. Decentering the West. Critical work in the social sciences and humanities regarding the interrelationship of bodies, societies and the natural world has largely been pursued within Western intellectual traditions, and has not substantially engaged philosophical and cultural traditions beyond the West. Where major comparative projects have been undertaken, such Hall and Ames (1987; 1995; 2001), Jullien (1995; 2003; 2007), and Loy (2003), this comparative research has focused largely on Western philosophy (such as Kantian philosophy, American pragmatism, or Heidegger). There has not been any clear and systematic attempt to bring Chinese thought into engagement with contemporary Western critical theories of embodiment, politics or the environment. The project’s first goal is to address this gap by developing a new method of cross-cultural research that will decenter Western critical theory.
  2. Decentering China. Most work on Chinese philosophy has emphasized Confucianism as the chief intellectual resource for understanding Chinese thought and culture. The dominant position of Confucianism is reinforced politically by the Chinese government’s quest to make Confucius the global icon of Chinese civilization. The project aims to decenter this normative approach to China by emphasizing Daoism as a chief interlocutor with Western critical theory. Daoism is a rich philosophical, cultural and religious resource indigenous to China that, in comparison to Confucianism, has been relatively neglected both in China and the West. The project will investigate how Daoism has influenced Chinese understandings of gender and the body, social politics, and the natural environment. In so doing it will produce a deeper and more complex understanding of Chinese culture, and by bringing Daoism into conversation with Western critical theory, the project will also go beyond existing research in comparative philosophy.
  3. Decentering Disciplines. Through its interdisciplinary approach the project researches ways in which the foundational categories of body, society and nature constitute each other and ought therefore to be theorized always in relation to each other. To do so the project draws on the Chinese motif of a body as a landscape, in which the microcosm of the body and macrocosm of the landscape reflect and co-constitute each other. This figure is used heuristically to bring studies of the body into correlation with studies of society as body-politic and with the natural environment as body-landscape. No one disciplinary approach or analytical site is privileged over the other.

By pursuing “decentering” as the key motif, the project ultimately aims to decenter the concepts of “Chinese” and “Western” as foundational categories of philosophical and cultural imagination. The long term social effects of this decentering cannot be underestimated. Already in Canada, for instance, the sense of Canadian identity formed from the devastating colonial engagement of Europeans with the indigenous peoples of North America is itself in flux as large numbers of South and East Asian immigrants obtain Canadian citizenship and in so doing write new narratives of identity, race and nationality (for example see Kim et al. 2012). At the same time, the modern drive for the “rebirth of Chinese civilization” forged from the overlapping identification of Chinese ethnicity and Confucian culture, has very clear long term consequences for China’s relationship with its own minority peoples and its Asia-Pacific neighbours, including Canada. Through its research, the project will contribute to a wider social decentering of the logics and politics of nostalgia that frame “China” and the “West” as operative civilizational categories, and assist in a long term, profound restructuring of collective social identity (extending the project pioneered by Edward Said’s Orientalism).

Context

The research project is designed to anticipate an interrelated set of challenges to Canada’s broad democratic commitments to social justice, gender equality, cultural diversity, and human rights over the next generation. By 2050 it is estimated that the world’s population will reach over 9 billion, China will become a truly dominant economic and military power, and climate change will exacerbate environmental, social and geopolitical tensions. Such a context will demand a truly multicultural and interdisciplinary approach to thinking through ethical questions of gender and the body, the rights and responsibilities of individuals and societies, and the foundations for ecological sustainability. The new categories of thought, ethical frameworks, and cultural imagination required to think through, and practically respond to, these challenges are as yet unknown. This is the challenge to which this project responds.

To do so the project will investigate how Chinese thought and culture can be brought into dialogue with Western critical theories of body, society and nature. These three topics function as fundamental frames of contemporary theory and traditional disciplinary scholarship. In the project, each of these three categories will be brought into focus one after the other and investigated in relation to the other two. At the same time this interdisciplinary investigation will be pursued cross-culturally, bringing Chinese and Western concepts, analyses, and discourses into relation with each other.

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