Postcolonial Southeast Asia?: Limits and Possibilities (MLA 2024)

deadline for submissions: 
March 10, 2023
full name / name of organization: 
MLA 2024
contact email: 

The CLCS Southeast Asian and Southeast Asian Diasporic Forum invites submissions for a panel at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention on January 4–7, 2024 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania:

Postcolonial Southeast Asia?: Limits and Possibilities

An academic field that emerged in the 1970s–1980s to tackle Western colonization and its aftermath (especially following post–World War II formal decolonization), postcolonial studies have since untethered themselves from their initial historical point of reference to include yet other contexts of power and to problematize the location of colonialism in the past. This was due in part to the field’s taking root in literary criticism, where it drew on and interrogated other paradigms—notably, Marxism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, and deconstruction—to become a seminal intellectual development of the late twentieth century. Referring not only to a subject (colonialism, cultures of de/colonization, the modern world, power) but also to an approach to this subject based on the methodologies of literary studies, postcolonial studies have tended to critique essentialism, valorize difference, and underscore political/aesthetic representation while expanding the Western academy through the thought and experiences of the colonized.

Pointing to the absence of Southeast Asia in this academic development, Chua Beng Huat, in the introduction to a special issue of Postcolonial Studies (11.3, 2008), writes that postcolonial studies have “bypassed one of the most colonized regions of the world” (231). To some extent due to postcolonial studies’ indebtedness to early-twentieth-century anticolonial thought from South Asia and Africa, thus to the field’s early emphasis on those regions, this gap between the field and the area, Chua argues, is more significantly rooted in the peculiarity of post-WWII independence in Southeast Asia, which was followed by the Cold War, which was not “cold” in Asia (232). This postwar history “created ambivalence in [Southeast Asia] regarding colonialism as [its] oppressive history […] was displaced by the anticipation and fear of ‘totalitarian oppression’ of communism” (232), not to mention by the preoccupation with the nation-building projects—characterized by democracy/authoritarianism, multiracial politics, and subnationalist armed conflicts—that came on the heels of the civil wars between communists and anti-communists (233). “By the mid-1960s, [… when] the communists had been largely defeated” “except in the Indochina peninsula,” “the nations in island Southeast Asia” embarked on capitalist “modernization” (233)—a process hardly at odds with Western colonial history.

What does this history of the gap between postcolonial and Southeast Asian studies reveal? In what ways does Southeast Asia constitute the limit of postcolonial studies? What are the limits of postcolonial studies’ tenets and methods, as illustrated in Southeast Asia? Are there exceptions to the absence of Southeast Asia in postcolonial studies, and if so what does the exception intimate about the region? Have the methods of postcolonial studies in fact long been practiced on Southeast Asia, but in other fields (e.g., Filipino American studies)? Given postcolonial studies’ untethering from its historical point of reference or narrowly defined subject (British and French colonialism), how might postcolonial studies be critical to the analysis of longstanding Southeast Asian topics (e.g., modernization, authoritarianism, racial conflict)—which are also postcolonial topics?

This panel seeks proposals that explore the gap between Southeast Asian and postcolonial studies, and the ways that this gap may reveal possibilities for both, including intersectionally. Send a 250-word abstract with your CV to Ryan Ku (Swarthmore College and Alden Sajor Marte-Wood (Rice University no later than March 10, 2023. Please note that all accepted speakers will be asked to provide a 100-word bio and must be MLA members by April 7, 2023.