How to Speak about Oneself: Theory and Identity in Taiwan

Harrison, Mark. Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes. Editor: Chris Berry, et al., Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

In the life of nations, people address themselves and their collective identity in historically specific and changing ways. There are styles and registers with which people talk about themselves as a coherent group. Identities are addressed with certain valorized narratives and themes and legitimized with epistemologies under which people know themselves, and know that they know themselves. These ways of speaking about identity have a politics and a sociology, expressing changing social circumstances as the changing registers of national address.

In Taiwan, as its politics have transformed over fifty years, “theory” in forms such as Cultural Studies and postcoloniality has become a key globalized language for addressing Taiwanese identity among the Taiwanese, folding its own assumptions in the mode of social knowledge it produces into Taiwan’s own politics and epistemologies of identity. Cultural Studies retains certain features: an attentiveness to the contingency of language and its relationship to power in social and cultural formations, and an awareness of the self-reflexive and self-consciousness nature of representation and identity. The political history of Taiwan forms a specific set of socio-political conditions in which theory has found a fertile ground in shaping the language of Taiwan’s social life. These conditions were established under Taiwan’s authoritarian rule, when language in public life was wholly distorted by the features of Taiwan’s military government, and have been propelled forward since the lifting of martial law in 1987 by enabling the establishment of a self-conscious identity movement. The crisis of Taiwan’s politics and identity has placed the crisis of representation at the heart of its problematic. Within this socio-political context, the task of doing “theory” in Taiwan has fallen to a community of academics and commentators for whom theory energizes relationships to specific globalized modes of address to identity, and places them in specific relationships to Taiwan’s changing political life.

The purpose of this essay is to recover continuities in Taiwan’s martial law and post-martial law period, and show how the elaborate theoretical innovations of contemporary social and cultural theory are part of an ongoing crisis of representation for Taiwan and a complex outcome for the cultural studies project. The way the Taiwanese speak about themselves is an appeal to the possibility of an identity, an object in suspension, and Cultural Studies has offered the Taiwanese a globalized academic language in which to make such an appeal. At the same time, the relationship between theory as a global discourse and Taiwan as a marginal inchoate nation-state remains a challenge for theory, as it operates within the brute realities of real, empirical power between China, Japan, and the US.

Writing History: Taiwan As Nation

Taiwan, like many other places in Asia, has a history fractured and layered by the ascendance and decline of imperialism, colonialism, and neocolonialism. Into this history have entered the different ways the Taiwanese have come to know and address themselves as “Taiwanese.” Perhaps more so than elsewhere, in view of Taiwan’s contested statehood, it produces an intensely politicized discourse of its own identity.

The Taiwanese write their history with geopolitics: Taiwan’s first recognizable modern government was a Dutch colonial administration in the mid-seventeenth century. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Taiwan was a frontier of the Manchu Qing empire, inscribing the Eastern boundary of a sino-centric notion of the “civilized” and the “uncivilized.” In the first half of the twentieth century, following the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, it became a colony of Japan, whose expanding empire drew new boundaries across Asia. Rather than civilized or uncivilized, Taiwan was transformed by the mechanisms of Japanese colonial modernization expressed in modern medicine from a “sick” region to a “healthy” one. After World War II, Taiwan passed to the Republic of China of the Chinese Nationalists (KMT). Beset by corruption and economic collapse, the Taiwanese initiated an abortive uprising known as the 2-28 Incident before the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to the Communists and relocated the national government to Taipei in 1949. From 1950, Taiwan fell under the aegis of the United States, through yet new sets of defining boundaries, as a part of the “Free World” as “Free China,” against “Red China” and Communism, as a bastion of anti-communist resistance in Asia, and a model of the corporatist, militarist development state.

At the same time, under these hegemonic statist discourses of Taiwan’s history and identity over more than 100 years have been a multitude of oppositional political and nationalist counter-narratives. In these, writers, artists, and political and community activists have addressed Taiwanese identity in art and literature, political manifestos, and local politics. Taiwan has been the marginal subject of the provincial and the colonial; in counter-hegemonic anti-Chinese nationalism, it has become both an appeal to an authentic, essential Taiwan and a counter-appeal to a pluralist Taiwan; and it has been self-reflexively theorized by the Taiwanese as the postcolonial. In the late 1980s, following the bitter decades-long political struggle of the democracy and Taiwanese nationalist movements, martial law under the KMT was lifted, democracy enabled, and these narratives have become the material for a self-conscious project of nation- and identity-building.

From the late 1940s, in the immediate aftermath of the 2-28 Incident, a generation of Taiwanese nationalists, such as the US-educated brothers Liao Wen-yi and Liao Wen-kuai, articulated a Taiwanese identity in ways that drew upon some of the prevailing forms of the internationalized address of nationalism of the period. They wrote Taiwanese history as a national history, constructing a teleology of the historical realization of the “truth” of the nation—in the case of Taiwan as a nation forged in a struggle against Manchu, Japanese, and Chinese oppression. They also drew upon the conventional appeals of nationalisms to identity as an essentialist, undifferentiatable sign, to the people of Taiwan as wholly and uniquely “Taiwanese.” Living on the boundary of China, this was an ambiguous move. Early Taiwanese nationalists at once appealed to the indivisible sign of “Taiwan” but made that sign meaningful in reference to the military dictatorship of the Chinese Nationalists and the threat of the Chinese Communists by its differentiation from “China” and the Chinese. In Tokyo in 1962, the exiled nationalist Liau Kianliong stated this baldly: “Formosan people are different from Chinese people … a momentary glance, even at a distance, is enough to recognize whether a person on the road is Chinese or Formosan.” Taiwanese nationalists implicitly understood the production of identity by differentiation but refused the recursive, iterative nature of identity’s endless possible differentiation. Liau did not proceed to identify the many ways that some Taiwanese people are different from other Taiwanese people, such as the differentiation between Taiwanese Aborigines, Hakka, and Minnan, or the multitude of other possible pluralisms.

In any case, such a reductionist nationalist rhetoric of Taiwanese identity never traveled very far in Taiwan. It rejected too explicitly the complex interplay of the respective legitimacies of the cultural formations which were identified as “Taiwanese” and “Chinese.” This was especially so in the context of the social tension created by 2-28 and the arrival of 1 million Nationalist refugees on the island in 1948-49 at the end of the Chinese civil war. The mass migration into Taiwan produced the divisive social categories of “Mainlanders” and “Taiwanese,” or waishengren and benshengren, in a quasi-colonial relationship ideologically reinforced by the KMT party-state’s sinicization of Taiwanese social life, which maintained effective hegemony over addressing identity on the island itself. The political logic of early Taiwanese nationalism of the exclusion of waishengren and rejection of Taiwan’s Chinese identity formations defied the basic political and economic pragmatism of those who found themselves living together in postcolonial Taiwan under the hegemony and political oppression of the KMT.

Instead, under martial law, ways of speaking about Taiwan emerged in two alternative ways. First was in its oppositional politics in the 1960s and 1970s as a part of the pro-democracy movement. These were appeals to a Taiwanese identity in the campaign for a democratic Taiwan under principles of national self-determination, and which echoed rather more liberal and pluralistic registers of national address, especially in the global context of decolonization and the liberal attempts to elaborate multicultural bases for nationhood. The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, which was a vociferous supporter of human rights and democracy, issued a Statement of Our National Fate in 1971 that addressed identity as a function of subjectivity, as the acceptance of Taiwan’s pluralism and a subjective commitment to life on the island: “We the people on Taiwan love this island which, either by birth or chance, is our home. … We are all well aware of our different backgrounds and even conflicts, but at present we are more aware of a common certainty and shared conviction.” By “birth or by chance” acknowledges the bitter legacy of the 2-28 Incident and the divisions between waishengren and benshengren. Out of these circumstances came a contingent pluralism, an improvised counter-appeal to both the Chinese nationalist sinicization policies of the KMT and to the renunciation of a Chinese identity by the emigré Taiwanese nationalists. The Presbyterians and other liberal voices articulated that learning to live together within a democratic and independent Taiwan was the only option for its people, however deep the social divide and animosities.

Second, there was the (re-)emergence of nativist literature in the 1970s, in which social identity was addressed by power and social justice as a function of marginality. In a complex alignment with Taiwanese nationalist politics, the democracy movement and the legacy of China’s May Fourth Movement, the effects of Taiwan’s industrialization and modernization on Taiwan’s rural life became the material for constructing social identity as an appeal to the authenticity of the disempowered. In nativism, the “real” Taiwanese were the poor in the village or the rice field living traditional lives, a traditionalism defined by their marginalization and disappearance in the face of Taiwan’s industrial “miracle” economy.

However, as meaningful and important as these oppositional political and cultural attempts to articulate the form of a social identity on Taiwan were, they were overlaid and overwhelmed by a highly dysfunctional regime of signification under martial law. It is this regime and its complex effects that created the conditions for particular ways for the Taiwanese to speak about Taiwan in the 1990s and later.

Under martial law, the mechanisms of political control in Taiwan were as direct and brutal as any dictatorship but also operated as a rhetoric of address to identity politics in public life. The KMT party-state invoked a national mission to “fight communism and recover the mainland” (fan gong fu guo) and referred to the “Communist bandits” (gong fei) of the ruling Chinese Communists on the mainland in meaningless quotidian slogans that were reproduced in the discourses of the media and public life as ritualistic acts of subjugation before KMT state power.

Such enunciations were a dimension of the structuring of socio-political relationships on Taiwan by the state’s authoritarianism yet were operating in a discourse in which public language was in a constant crisis of legitimacy. On January 1, 1979, the very day the United States revoked diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of the People’s Republic of China, signaling the final ignominious end for Nationalist China, President Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, gave a speech in which he “resolutely reiterated the determination to fight Communism and recover the mainland” and simultaneously generated multiple layers of tacit social knowledge about who really believed this language of Nationalist governance.

Similarly, the media in Taiwan under martial law used specific rhetorical strategies which self-consciously intervened in the discursive effects through which it regulated the forms of social and political knowledge it produced. The newspapers used quotation marks in their texts to delegitimize the enunciation of certain expressions of identity politics. References to Taiwanese independence (taidu) as a political position or movement became suowei “taidu” (so-called “Taiwanese independence”), adding a layer of sarcasm to the meaning of the phrase. Through such a layer, the state-controlled or managed media invoked a Taiwanese reading public as an imagined and constructed interlocutor who would share in the newspaper’s derision for the notion of an independent Taiwan. So-called “Taiwanese independence” became a mutual, knowing joke among the public, the press, and the state.

But like the tacit social knowledge about politics, political commitment, and opposition created by the public recitation of the slogan “fight communism and recover the mainland,” such textual practices in newspapers produced at the same time a potentially unruly discursive space. Even as the quotation marks delegitimized the notion of Taiwanese independence as a viable political position, equally they expressed the ultimate limits of the regulation of the reading public that they invoked. The Taiwanese public, imagined by quotation marks to be derisive of the notion of an independent Taiwanese nation, might have stripped them away in their reading practices and read “Taiwanese independence” with a full commitment to the term.

In this confused and contested discursive space in Taiwan, therefore, the political crisis of its quasi-colonization by the Chinese Nationalists after 1945 meant a crisis of representation of the nation. Under martial law, and a public language distorted by KMT ideology and the pretense of Taiwan as the “Republic of China,” the Taiwanese lived with the reality of the contingency of the relationship between language and power in the way they spoke about themselves as Taiwanese. In the registers, narratives, and ideologies produced in the context of Taiwan’s authoritarianism were multiple layers of the possible meanings of a social identity, with a wholly ambiguous legitimizing regime of what people might have really meant when they addressed “Taiwan” as a social and political object.

This complex regime of state and oppositional politics and their attendant signification formed a preamble to 1987, when martial law was lifted after forty years. As a result of the removal of overt restrictions on the media and publishing, and a recognition by both the state and the public that authoritarianism was at an end, a torrent of writing was released — political, scholarly, and commentary — which addressed social life in Taiwan. Identity politics became part of a complex expression of social and political change, which included the commodification of identity politics, when the media was suddenly liberated from direct and indirect state control and became caught in a frantic market for readers who wanted to understand what it meant to be “Taiwanese.”

The crisis of representation of the martial law period gave way with democratization to the promise of a resolution of Taiwan’s address to its own nationhood. At least within the epistemological framework of Taiwan’s post-martial law nation-builders, there was an aspiration that the objectively invoked Taiwanese nation would be aligned with the rhetoric of address to that nation in public life. Instead of Taiwan as “Free China,” and the recitation of Chinese Nationalist slogans, Taiwanese activists hoped that, with democratization, an appeal to “Taiwan” would finally mean Taiwan.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the key issue that would realize this aspiration was the 2-28 Incident. It became the center of a project to rewrite the history of Taiwan as a “Taiwanese” history, written against the Chinese history of the KMT, from which 2-28 had been erased. At the outset, this project was done fully cognizant of the politics of history-writing, and by 1988, 2-28 was already a self-conscious political memorialization movement. It was folded into Taiwan’s identity politics at the center of a self-reflexive demand to engage publicly with Taiwanese history and social life in which the politics of memory were far more fundamental than any empirical historical details of the events being uncovered.

In 1988, Chen Yongxing, the chairman of the 2-28 Peace Day Promotion Committee said, “For the past forty years on the island of Taiwan, no-one has dared publicly discuss the 2-28 Incident. No-one could assuage the injustice to the souls of the dead victims. The government authorities would not face making the truth of its history public.” In this political process of rewriting history, he hoped to normalize Taiwanese social life, making what has become a common appeal to a “Taiwanese” future by politicians, commentators, and academics. With the recovery of the memory of 2-28 into a Taiwanese history, Chen called for “vigorously establish[ing] a Taiwanese society of mutual love and respect, and tolerance and peace.”

These early debates about the recovery or discovery of the 2-28 Incident in the late 1980s have become an ever-shifting array of issues, controversies, and social movements in the 1990s and 2000s, structured around the broader identity question. Cross-straits relations, education, language, indigeneity, feminism, and the environment have become themes with which to narrate the explicit contestation of the attempt to render as natural and self-evident an identity formation for Taiwan as “Taiwanese.”

However, despite the appeal by Taiwanese nationalists and activists for democratization to lead to the “rectification” of the Taiwanese address to themselves and a new national consensus, such hopes have been unfulfilled. Especially since the election of Chen Shui-bian (known colloquially as ABian) as the Democratic Progressive Party president of Taiwan in 2000 and again in 2004, Taiwan’s identity politics have become more, rather then less, bitter, vitriolic, and divisive. This reached a low point in 2006 with the attempt to create a mass public campaign to unseat the elected president with former democracy activist Shih Ming-teh as its figurehead. During the campaign, the artist Chu Ge wrote calligraphy proclaiming that “If A-Bian does not step down, then Taiwan has no future,” and the singer Lu Lili appropriated a traditional Taiwanese song and rewrote the lyrics to read, “ABian step down, and save Taiwan.”

In its fraught democratic socio-politics, Taiwan’s address to its nationhood after 1987 might be understood as an inversion of Ackbar Abbas’s notion of a déjà disparu in Hong Kong. Abbas proposed that Hong Kong had an identity that became visible just at the moment of its disappearance at the Hong Kong handover to China in 1997 and was expressed as nostalgia or memory of an identity that Hong Kong never knew it had:

This is dis-appearance… the binarisms used to represent Hong Kong as a subject give us not so much a sense of déjà vu, as the even more uncanny feeling of what we might call the déjà disparu : the feeling that what is new and unique about the situation is always already gone, and we are left holding a handful of clichés, or a cluster of memories of what has never been.

In 1987 in Taiwan, just as punitive state restrictions on public discourse were lifted, its identity became an active and self-conscious rewriting of history to create a new, naturalized Taiwanese history, to articulate and secure as it were its inchoate memories and national truisms. However, by its very politics, this project denaturalized the discursive processes of its naturalization. Instead of nostalgia for an identity which it had never known, Taiwan’s identity became an appeal to the future possibility of a singular, naturalized, unifying identity even as the attention by the Taiwanese to the need for an active discursive process for the creation of that singular identity revealed its very impossibility in its self-conscious exposure of its political and ideological mechanisms. As a result, Taiwan has been addressed by the Taiwanese as an object in suspension, in a self-conscious and self-reflexive act of (re-) writing of the possibility and imperative of identity itself. Indeed, the central theme in the discourse of Taiwanese identity after 1987 has been the problematic of Taiwanese identity. That is, the most important topic of Taiwan’s identity debates is an object called “Taiwanese identity.”

In this way, a writer such as Yang Qingchu can deploy the language of identity politics in an unsatisfactory appeal to a resolution of the crisis of Taiwan’s national address by self-consciously appealing to mechanisms of identity-making:

Taiwan must internationalize, and internationalization should be the direction for the cultural pluralism of every ethnicity on Taiwan. No matter if it is “localism” or “place-ism,” this is the way Taiwanese subjective consciousness must go. But without “localism” or “place-ism” from which to jump to internationalization, is to be without a personal history or culture, and so be rootless.

These self-reflexive “theorized” attempts to naturalize a discourse of Taiwanese identity are also in the language of Taiwan’s competitive party politics. In 2004, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party institutionalized such contemporary modes of address to identity in Taiwan in its policies, with the release of the Resolution on Ethnic Pluralism and National Unity : “to promote the strength of the national culture, and enable the different ethnic groups in the new nation to contribute to prosperity, the party should further deepen the party’s principle of pluralism, establish mutual acceptance between each ethnic group, to participate together in the construction of the nation’s civil society.”

Therefore, the crisis of representation that characterized the martial law period up to 1987 was made visible, even absurd, both within Taiwan and outside, by the unique strangeness of its historical and geographical particularisms and the implausibility and illegitimacy of the politics of Nationalist China on Taiwan. The visibility of that crisis made visible the need for a self-conscious project of identity-building. Yet that very visibility has exposed the processes by which identities are made, and left impossible the task of making a singular, coherent, and self-evident Taiwanese identity that legitimizes itself by naturalizing the task of its own formation.

Theorizing Identity

Just as Liao Wen-yi and Liao Wen-kuai and other Taiwanese nationalists from the late 1940s drew upon the globalized language of right-wing nationalism (and Wilsonian internationalism) in their opposition to the Chinese nationalism of the KMT, so too have contemporary cultural and political practitioners in Taiwan drawn upon a new global rhetoric, the self-conscious rhetoric of identity politics and “theory,” to both respond to and express the current identity crisis that Taiwan is experiencing. Notions, explicit or implicit in the rhetoric of democratic Taiwan, such as hybridity, pluralism, performativity, fully elaborated and theorized by global Cultural Studies and postcolonialism, have been applied to find a way forward to deal with the identity question in Taiwan’s post-KMT, post-quasi-colonial society and the crisis of representation at the center of Taiwanese identification.

The political and cultural need to address the suspended object of Taiwanese identity emerged at just the time when globalized Cultural Studies, broadly imagined, became a key language of social knowledge in Taiwan. It has been exemplified in the work of Chen Kuan-hsing, Ping-hui Liao, Chiu Kui-fen, Chao Ting-hui, and others, who have been part of the Asian project to translate, and deal with the problems of translation of, Cultural Studies out of the Anglo- and Francophone academies into non-Western settings. These academics in departments of literature and cultural studies, notably at Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu, south of Taipei, are US-educated, usually bilingual and, wielding the language of theory, operate fully within the global academy, in parallel with their Taiwanese colleagues in political science and international relations, and the natural sciences.

In a complex alignment of identity and history-writing and the reform of Taiwanese politics, Cultural Studies has offered the epistemological tools to both subjectively address Taiwan’s social life and objectively understand the process of its remaking, becoming a theoretical language which has shaped the way Taiwanese speak about themselves. The features of Cultural Studies, its attentiveness to politics and the politics of culture and its apprehension of the contingent relationship between language and power, have given it a productive basis for theorizing Taiwan, so that in Cultural Studies in Taiwan there has emerged a conjunction between Taiwan’s social knowledge of itself and its crisis of representation and the crisis of representation as a problematic associated with deconstruction and the linguistic turn in the production of social knowledge. From national and issue-based political rhetoric, to popular cultural criticism and academic social research, there is a process of identity-formation which negotiates the global deconstruction of identity in theory as it self-consciously works to reconstruct a basis for Taiwanese identity.

Within the Cultural Studies scene in Taiwan, Ping-hui Liao has self-reflexively identified this specific voice in the articulation of Taiwan’s identity debates in the 1990s, that of the theoretically informed academic or activist, created by “expanding transnational network and new educational system of global and ‘hegemonic’ forces, images, codes, styles, and technologies” who has worked to develop a post-nationalist identity discourse in Taiwan: “These bilingual intellectuals trained in Europe or the United States and returned to Taiwan or were local writers with easy access to foreign symbolic or cultural capital.” They created designated critical spaces which Liao refers to as:

neither global nor local. As ‘neither-nor’, with an insider-outsider view of the complex micropolitics of location and memory which is beginning to flourish and interact with the changing realities… Among the topics discussed are the unstable mixtures of new ideas… with local politics in Taiwan or China; the resurgence of indigenous and traditional cultures in relation to modernization; oppositional projects of ethnic identity and cultural location… emergence of new cityscapes and urban social relations; forms of cultural production and consumption.

The “insider-outside” voice that Liao describes suggests the location from which appeals to Taiwanese identity as a suspended object are made. These are neither claims on the unmediated authenticity of the essentialized national subject of a Taiwanese nationalism nor simply an “anthropological” view of the processes of nation-building in Taiwan, but a self-reflexive subject position which deconstructs its own subjectivity in the process of trying to construct it. These subjects fit appropriately into a socio-political scene in which the basis of their address to their collective identity as Taiwanese is a self-conscious and self-reflexive exposure of the mechanisms of making that address. What Hall refers to as the “theoretical noise” of the origins of Cultural Studies in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham finds an appropriate expression in the political and social “noise” of Taiwan’s fraught appeal to its own sense of itself, especially in the Chen Shiu-bian era after 2000.

The arrival into the identity debate in Taiwan by a “transcultural public sphere” of theoretically informed academics or activists has therefore become a structuring language for Taiwan’s discourse of identity, both within the academic field and in public. On this basis, the mass circulation broadsheet newspaper Ziyou Shibao can publish a detailed piece by Academia Sinica academic Shan Te-hsing about Edward Said and the role of the intellectual in contemporary society, with appropriate references to Said’s later work in the context of Taiwan’s identity debates: “In The World, the Text and the Critic, Said contrasts ‘affiliation’ and ‘filiation’, the latter as congential, natural, determined, physiological, an unchangeable blood relationship. But Said emphasizes ‘affiliation’, the kind of forward-looking, cultural, flexible, active, enabling subjective will and dynamic identity and power relations.”

More proscriptively, with an acknowledgement of her career in politics, Tsai Ing-wen, political scientist, former head of the Mainland Affairs Commission and then vice-premier, and chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, published an article in the journal Zhengzhi Kexue Luncong (Political Science Review) applying the work of Bhabha and Derrida to self-consciously elucidate the objective problematic of what is her own subjective identity as Taiwanese. She valorizes the performative and pluralistic aspects of identity that can be drawn from Bhabha’s work, arguing against conservative forms of nationalism for an understanding of identity as the “doing” rather than the “being,” and acknowledging the basis of identity as relational. She writes: “individual and collectivities pursue association on the basis of legitimized distinctions, but at the same time, those attempts to establish political and cultural identities in the basis of difference rely on flexible and negotiated boundaries.” On contemporary Taiwan, Tsai says: “Looking at this phenomenon in a positive way, we can say that Taiwan’s socio-political situation in the post-martial law period has moved towards ‘pluralization’.” Tsai’s objectification of her own subjective identity—objectively explaining one’s subjective social identity—is what Homi K. Bhabha describes as the “double writing” of the pedagogical and the performative, but one in which Bhabha does not anticipate his own role as a producer of explanatory theory being deployed as a rhetorical device in the objective explanation of a post-colonial Taiwanese nationhood.

These are examples of the textualization of public discourse in Taiwan, creating a “metatopical” discourse in which Taiwanese commentators, scholars, and politicians adopt a distanciated subject position from which to critique their own identity as Taiwanese. For Liao, this is a discursive process in which social life becomes self-reflexive:

Cultural criticism columns in Taiwan’s newspaper literary supplements have functionally converted the public sphere in the world of letters, a sphere held together by the medium of the press with its serial literature and institution of the reading public, into a public domain of professional criticism within which ‘the subjectivity originating in the interiority of the conjugal family, by communicating with itself, attained clarity about itself.’

Liao is identifying a mode of address for social discourse in Taiwan. In his notion of “communicating with itself” and “attain[ing] clarity about itself,” there is an apprehension of the nexus of a national subjectivity and the objectively invoked nation which characterizes the contemporary national. The national addresses his or her own subjective national identity as an object, “Taiwanese,” as if it has an objective existence outside of and separable from its subjective experience.

These gordian formulations intersect with the specific way, after Abbas, that Taiwan’s address to its own identity was expressed earlier. Deploying the rhetoric of Cultural Studies, the Taiwanese deconstruct their own nationhood, to make visible the discursive process by which they are trying to naturalize the discourse of Taiwan. For Yang, confusingly, it must be internationalized but also retain a connection to its pluralistic culture, which is also based in the authenticity of the local. In this way, the Taiwanese can be seen to have created a necessary self-reflexivity in response to the legacy of the crisis of their representation under martial law, which renders them marginalized from their own discourse of their sense of themselves as Taiwanese.

In the processes of communicating and achieving “clarity” has been a social history of a changing array of themes, issues, and controversies within which have come these self-reflexive appeals to the possibilities and promise of Taiwanese identity. Over the past twenty years, certain tropes have been valorized and others marginalized to establish a structure for the themes that the Taiwanese have appealed to in order to generate a possibility for what Taiwanese identity might “really” be: 2-28, Taiwanese independence, Taiwan consciousness, and so forth. The discourse is also historicized by those who appeal to its naturalization. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the appeal to a naturalized Taiwanese identity came in one form as the notion of an “identity complex,” articulated most comprehensively in a piece by Yin Zhangyi in the journal China Tribune, “Analyzing Taiwan Consciousness,” which applied Erik Erikson’s psychoanalytic notion to theorize a “Taiwan complex” and a “China complex” to describe Taiwan’s identity as a national neurosis that would resolve as Taiwan matured as a nation. Since then the notion of a Taiwan complex has faded from debate, replaced by more upto-date topics, like the issue of education in the Renshi Taiwan (Understanding Taiwan) high school textbook controversy of the late 1990s or more recently instrumental issues such as the dangers to Taiwan’s nascent national integrity from excessive dependence on the mainland Chinese economy, and the contentious presidential election of 2004, with the endless appeals to resolve Taiwan’s ongoing Blue-Green political crises and “solve” Taiwanese identity. The Taiwanese government promoted the “rectification of names” in which old Chinese Nationalist state and corporate institutions that included the title “China” or “Chinese” were renamed “Taiwanese,” appealing to the very foundation of a national address and to the pliable, political contingency of national histories. The renaming of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, the large public square in central Taipei, as the National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall, was undertaken as a wholly self-conscious act of history writing, and the accompanying vitriolic public debate explicitly articulated the contingent remaking of the nation through institutions and the language of the state. Acknowledging the architectural encoding of Nationalist state power by the existing structures in the square, the political historian Chen Yi-shen called for replacing the main memorial with something like the Edo Museum in Tokyo, to elaborate a Taiwanese history that takes in “everyday life, work, ethnicity, conflict, to mold the historical memory of the community.”

In this form of the decoding of the social, cultural, and political life of the nation, the Taiwanese readers, who are themselves imagined by the institutional practices of the media, read the narrative of their own national identity in the daily press and can envision their future as “Taiwanese” people in the criticisms made in social commentary on an ever-changing array of issues on their present. Taiwanese identity is as much about the process of narrativization as elaborating a coherent substance to the content of a Taiwanese national consciousness.

According to Ping-hui Liao, this is a function of the commodification of Taiwan’s identity discourse in a competitive media market. It “generate[s] the desire to decode public culture in an industrialized and commodified cultural knowledge: a desire for the simple formulation of social circumstances, in order to experience and perceive the everyday as mediated.” The notion of the commodification of Taiwanese identity in its cultural production adds a useful critical dimension to how it may be understood; however, the emphasis here is on a theoretically inflected rhetoric as a response to the crisis of representation from the martial law and post-martial law periods. As argued above, this rhetoric has found an alignment with the demand to remake Taiwanese identity after democratization. Therefore, the operation in Taiwan of this “transcultural public sphere” has developed in a complex and multilayered trajectory from both the earlier forms of liberal democratic debates about Taiwanese identity in 1960s, the political appeals to nativism in the 1970s, as well as the crisis in Taiwan’s self-address under the KMT’s authoritarian rule.

While the broad Cultural Studies project might have found a receptive set of socio-political conditions on Taiwan, it is a wide-ranging body of work that produces certain elisions and emphases in how it informs Taiwan’s identity-making. On the one hand, the rejection of essentialism implicit in the linguistic turn of Cultural Studies aligns the theoretical impetus of Cultural Studies with the response to KMT authoritarianism by liberal nationalists and democracy activists who described a subjective basis for Taiwanese identity. The Presbyterians in the 1970s could appeal to the notion of love: “We the people on Taiwan love this island,” and in the 1990s the famous democracy activist and politician Lin Yi-hsiung could offer the simple formulation that “the Taiwanese are people who are prepared to make their homes on Taiwan.” These are vernacular expressions of the kind of theoretical formulations offered by Cultural Studies that identity, to paraphrase Judith Butler, “is not a noun… [it] is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed.” The “doing” is loving the island or making a home on a “Taiwan” that is always already there, regardless of when and from where an individual literally arrived. This is in contrast to the Formosan nationalists who appealed to a politically (and culturally) unviable objective differentiation between Chinese and Taiwanese in their articulation of Taiwanese nationalism and a post-2-28 Taiwanese political project.

At the same time, Cultural Studies has also been described by Chen Kuanhsing as emancipatory and politically motivated, and this too gives it legitimacy in Taiwan’s identity formation in the post-martial law era:

Cultural Studies… has always recognized that “theory” is not a universal set of formal propositions but an analytical weapon generated out of and in response to local-historical concerns… At the same time, the belief in producing organic intellectual work has put Cultural Studies in touch with the currents of social conflicts. Concerns of and interaction with social and political movements… have not only produced undeniable tensions which kept the energies of Cultural Studies alive, but forced Cultural Studies to recognize the “common” structures of domination: capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ethnocentrism, neocolonialism, etc.

For Chen, Cultural Studies grew out of the worldwide decolonization movements, with a legacy of the Marxist tradition of the attempt to integrate theory and political practice in its activities. Chen suggests that, in the current era of globalization, as a result of new flows of capital and culture, Cultural Studies remains one of the few intellectual traditions willing to theorize and intervene epistemologically and politically in these new potential forces of global domination.

As well as the liberal pluralistic national imaginings of the democracy activists both during and after martial law, these emancipatory political goals of Cultural Studies that Chen emphasizes places it in a relationship with the development of nativism or localism, first in the 1970s in literature, and then in the post-martial law era as the more wide-ranging localization movement, or bentuhua.

As indicated earlier, the political dimension of nativism as a literary movement in the 1970s gave it a similarly emancipatory political project. Sung-cheng Chang underscores the political impetus of the nativist writers of the 1970s, who, one could suggest, either reinvigorated the May Fourth tradition of the politically engaged intellectual, or alternatively articulated a specifically Taiwanese cultural imagining, but in either case explicitly sought out an emancipatory literary form that expressed the experience of the marginalized in Taiwanese society, especially the rural poor. The 1990s version, bentuhua, which can echo Formosan nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s, is also a contender for a rhetoric of nation-building in Taiwan but has little of the complex elaborations of Anglo- and Francophone theory or the cultural criticism described by Ping-hui Liao. It is an emotive national cultural language, incorporating a Taiwanese national historiography and appealing ultimately to the idea of a Taiwan as an undifferentiated sign, or transcendental signifier. Bentuhua has developed a notion of an authentic or “real” Taiwanese subject found in Taiwan’s local cultures and language, producing, after Americana, a kind of “Taiwanana.” But more politically, it also constructs an imagined ahistorical rural past for Taiwan as a function of Taiwan’s changing social power relations through the political struggles against the political oppression of the Manchus, the Japanese, the Chinese Nationalists, and now the Chinese Communists, as ongoing struggle for Taiwanese self-determination. In bentuhua, authentic Taiwanese local culture is a form of resistance. Li Hsiao-feng, a leading proponent of bentuhua, writes: “In the period of foreign control of Taiwan, local culture was the grain which sustained the dignity and life of the nation. Its special quality is the basis of the search for our history, and the sadness of many of our songs.”

Therefore, nativism and Taiwanese nationalism presage some of the political concerns of Cultural Studies—the valorization of the subaltern and the politicization of culture as resistance—that from the 1970s have used appeals to authenticity as a counter to KMT cultural hegemony and have continued to make that appeal as part of Taiwan’s competitive democratic political rhetoric and commercial cultural market. However, the specific theoretical impetus of Cultural Studies is antithetical to the essentializing imperative of the nativist and nationalist cultural movements in Taiwan.

Chen Kuan-hsing has been specifically critical of the limits of nativism. He argues that it is ultimately merely a response to or a product of colonization, framed by the politics of colonialism so that ultimately the nativist pursues an authentic identity that is merely the mirror of that of the colonizer, as a form of colonial mimesis. He argues that “the rediscovery of the self in is no way bounded by the nation-state. It can go in any direction where a tradition of ‘difference’ (from the colonizer) can be discovered.” Similarly, Chiu Kui-fen has explicitly contrasted the goals of post-colonialism as originating in the Western academy and localism in the literary debates of the early 1990s, but equivocated on the theoretical limitations of nativism in literature, and its links to old-fashioned notions of “Third World literature,” as well as the hegemonic potential of the introduction of postcolonial theory from the West.

As a part of his broader project of the cultivation of a politicized form of Cultural Studies in Asia, Chen Kuan-hsing has proposed a “critical syncretism” to avoid the hegemonic potential of nativism or nationalism as counter-colonial politico-cultural movements, and as a more sophisticated response to the limited rhetoric of “pluralism” or “hybridity” which characterizes much of Taiwan’s identity debates in the 1990s and 2000s and remains a staple, following Bhabha, of postcolonialism. Chen recognizes the hegemonic potential of nativism in the ideologies of Taiwanese identity and the failures of the pluralistic model, and proposes an active process of identity-making across the boundaries of the postcolonial, so that subjects “becom[e] others, to actively interiorize elements of others into the subjectivity of the self so as to move beyond the boundaries and divisive positions historically constructed by colonial power relations, patriarchauvinism, heterosexism, nationalistic xenophobia, etc.”

Chen’s theoretical elaborations are celebrated and his status as a leading global practitioner of Cultural Studies cannot be questioned. But the ambivalent relationship that Cultural Studies has both to the notion of bentuhua, via commonalities in their politics and to the liberal and pluralistic national imaginings of some parts of the democracy movement, suggests that the infusion of theory into the self-reflexive making of Taiwanese identity in the 1990s elides a complex politics of its own.

Another way to look at Cultural Studies is as not merely a resistive response to post-imperialisms and the hegemonic potential of global capital but an aspect of globalization itself. This is precisely what Liao suggests when he refers to the “neither-nor” or “insider-outsider” voice that narrates contemporary Taiwanese social life and to Cultural Studies in Taiwan as a product of transnational global networks, and what Chen elides in his belief that Cultural Studies remains a key intellectual project for tackling the injustices of globalization.

Such an assertion means dissolving the presumption of Cultural Studies to “speak about” and recognize that, even as its rhetoric informs the address to a Taiwanese identity in the post-martial law era, it remains a voice that speaks from a distanciated position of authority, using a global rhetorical style legitimized by the globalized institution of the academy. Such recognition is demanding of it that it follow through on its own assumptions and acknowledge its own epistemological implication in processes of globalization, and deal with issues of positionality: who speaks, to whom, and about whom.

Controversially, Ping-hui Liao has observed that the Taiwanese subjects who are producing the “transcultural public sphere” in which the rhetoric of theory is the language with which Taiwan is “generating its eternal self-generation” are US-educated Taiwanese returnees or local academics steeped in the language of Euro-American cultural theory, and largely second-generation waishengren. Such an observation, anecdotally supported by my own in Taiwan, is on the face of it a serious, even audacious, statement, but beneath the fraught Taiwanese social distinction of benshengren and waishengren is an acknowledgment of the status of symbolic capital in the production of Taiwan’s discourse of identity. Waishengren as a group could be argued to have benefited most from the construction of the quasi-colonial polity under the KMT after 1945, in the context of the state’s marginalization of the “local” in its institutional distribution of symbolic capital. In the post-martial law period, the deployment of a certain kind of rhetoric of identity in Taiwan expresses continuing access to symbolic capital, no longer expressed by the KMT rhetoric of “Free China” but now found in the globalized flows of culture and capital that Cultural Studies should be especially well placed to intervene in.

The question of who does Cultural Studies in Taiwan reintroduces politics into the kind of self-reflexive theorization of Taiwan address to its identity proposed earlier. It suggests that Cultural Studies might be antithetical to certain forms of resistance. As a part of the globalization of the academy, Cultural Studies might be implicated in certain specific political circumstances in which it becomes itself a political response by certain kinds of Taiwanese to alternative claims over identity on the basis of political and cultural resistance. That is, in the instance of Taiwan, Cultural Studies offers a theorization, and critique, of nativism and localist cultural movements that lay claim to legitimacy on the basis of claims of authenticity and essentialism and appeals to fluid, unbounded, and even globalized identity formations which transcend the political limits and strictures of the colonial, postcolonial, and national through a highly elaborated global theoretical language. That impetus to critique the essentialism of localism and nationalism in Taiwan suggests a wider struggle for legitimacy in Taiwan’s identity politics among the Taiwanese over how that identity is defined and by whom.

Therefore, the question to ask with respect to Cultural Studies in Taiwan is whether, rather than part of practices of resistance and the self-reflexive remaking of a post-martial law discourse of identity, it is itself a practice of hegemony. Are the objects of analysis of Cultural Studies not being valorized but rather being appropriated or deployed as part of a wider process of the expression of the global socio-cultural capital of those who do Cultural Studies? Cultural studies is part of a global culture, implicated like all others in the global flows of capital, both material and symbolic, that structure social, political, and cultural life in the post-Cold War era.

Such an assertion identifies Cultural Studies in Taiwan as a form of practice and locates it within global discursive structures of power, and indeed Cultural Studies is itself uniquely placed to theorize its own implication in globalized discourses as they are expressed in Taiwan. As a form of critical scholarship, Cultural Studies is directed towards exposing the effaced operation of power as it constructs subjectivities and shapes cultural formations. This essay is self-reflexively drawing upon the theoretical language of Cultural Studies to both attend to the register of Taiwan’s address to its identity and cautiously directing it at Cultural Studies itself as part of that analysis.

Such critique is nothing less than should be expected of the theoretical elaborations made possible by the globalization of Cultural Studies through the 1990s. It has entered a regime of identification in Taiwan that takes in a complex self-reflexive discourse of sophisticated theorization, populist political rhetoric, culture, and the invocation of authenticity in bentuhua, all of which have occurred as Taiwan’s economic and cultural life have been drawn into the amorphous phenomenon known as “globalization” in the post-Cold War era. None of this can be separated, however, from the context of Taiwan’s marginal place as an autonomous, identifiable polity. Mainland China continues to exert both a belligerent military and political threat over Taiwan as well as an economic allure, and China’s economic power is reshaping global geopolitics in ways that leave Taiwan marginalized in the international community. Taiwan’s location on both a fault line of contemporary geopolitics and of modern Asian history makes for a sharpening of the effects of real, material power, of the policies of governments, of military force, and of hundreds of billions of dollars of trade. While sophisticated theoretical elaborations might offer paths forward for Taiwan’s identity problematic, for all its flaws and for all the misdeeds done in its name, it is the appeal to the nation that remains the key geopolitical formation with which the Taiwanese are resisting the hegemony of the People’s Republic of China and their geopolitical marginalization. While Cultural Studies may be rightfully reluctant to rehabilitate the nation as a viable site of identity, it also needs to recognize the material practices of power in the region, the 1,000 missiles that the PRC has pointed at Taiwan from across the Taiwan Straits, and engage directly with the moral and political implications of those brute political realities and take seriously the political and cultural responses to them.