8th Annual UCLA Mellon Conference: (Re)Mapping Global Modernities: Heterogenous Time and Space, March 7 & 8th, 2014

As a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities at UCLA this year, one of my responsibilities has been to co-organize our annual conference on cultures of transnationalism. This year, I, along with my co-fellows Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Chase Smith, Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François, and Alvin Wong, planned our conference around questions of modernity, borders, time, and space. The conference brings together from a range of interdisciplinary fields, working on very diverse topic and geographic and national regions. The conference is free and open to the public and we invite you all to join!


Date: March 7-8, 2014
Location: UCLA, Royce Hall 306 & 314

Keynote speaker: Allan deSouza, Artist and Associate Professor, UC Berkeley

Conference description:

Across the global 20th and 21st centuries, the idea of the modern nation and processes of modernity have predominantly referred to progressive change and growth, whether in economic, (geo)political, or cultural realms. Recent scholarship in the Humanities has been productively questioning such singular, grand narratives, especially their perpetuation of spatial inequalities between the broadly conceived West and non-West and their imposition of developmental timescales across a range of territories: borderlands, islands, global cities, maritime cartographies, and homelands. How can transnational studies as a developing, interdisciplinary field of inquiry contribute to the conceptualization of alternative and contested global modernities?

This conference proposes to bring a transnational perspective to bear on diverse forms of modernity, particularly as they are expressed in various realms of culture. Discussion will explore representations of time and space in literature, film, new media, theory etc., focusing on cities—global, or otherwise—in Asia and Africa, the borderlands of Hawaii and mainland United States, the “developing global South,” networks of the Indian Ocean, and the deterritorialized nation (island and diasporic). Ultimately, we ask, how do heterogeneous time and space disentangle controlling narratives of global modernity?

A rather small and intimate conference, we will each be presenting opposite a more senior scholar working in a related area/region. My co-panelist is Jini Kim Watson (NYU), whose book, The New Asian City: Three-dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)has been really influential on my own work on migration, labor, and media in global cities.

Our panel, “Mediated ‘Asian’ Urbanism,” is on Saturday, and I’ll be presenting a talk entitled, “Dubai vs. Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City: A Case of Comparative Asian Global Cities.” Jini Kim Watson will present, “Aspirational City: Singapore and the Dialectics of Desire and Modernity.” Abstracts for our talks are shared below.

Abstract for “Dubai vs. Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City: A Case of Comparative Asian Global Cities”:

In recent years, postcolonial intellectuals like Gayatri Spivak and Kuan-hsing Chen have urged scholars to “pluralize” Asia (Spivak Other Asias, 8) and to use Asia as a malleable signifier, “an imaginary anchoring point” (Chen, Asia as Method, 212) to undo the dichotomies established between West and non-west, developed and developing, first and third worlds. Essential to this task is comparative work, which shifts referent and establishes multiple alternative points of reference, thus decreasing the centrality of the West. This presentation seeks to respond to this call by offering comparative readings of Dubai and Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City as imagined “global cities” of Asia or Asia Pacific, which attract massive populations of migrants. I will also extend this call for comparativism further, through comparative media analysis of digital texts (official governmental city websites and tourism portals), films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) and Die Another Day (2002), and popular fiction like Dan Fesperman’s Layover in Dubai (2010) and Linh Dinh’s Love Like Hate (2010). The two cities will be juxtaposed based upon their distinct histories of colonialism, independence, and their almost simultaneous periods of rapid development toward the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. Such a multi-layered comparative reading will serve to interrogate these cities as themselves constructed media, and to problematize the notion of the “global city,” originally formulated by Saskia Sassen, and now taken up by many different institutions and publications as a rubric for indexing development, modernity, and worth. Ultimately, this talk works toward a practice of tracing “temporariness,” a structure of feeling that accumulates in global cities in the age of neoliberalism through the reading of ephemeral media forms and genres.

Abstract for, “Aspirational City: Singapore and the Dialectics of Desire and Modernity,” by Jini Kim Watson (though Jini is afraid she may not be able to cover everything outlined in the abstract).

The dramatic transformation of Singapore’s built environment has enraged, fascinated and perplexed critics and would-be imitators alike. Since its metamorphosis from overcrowded colonial port to gleaming “world class city”, Singapore has become an object of imitative desire for cities such as Bangalore and Surabaya, and has even begun exporting its urban planning techniques to countries such as China, Brazil, the U.A.E. and Rwanda. This presentation examines the way Singapore has been constructed as exemplary site of the “Asian Modern” (C. J. W-L. Lee) that, in many places, has displaced Euro-America as teleological model. Moving beyond understandings of the city’s built form as merely the spatial corollary of Singapore’s “technocratic and strategic rationality” (K.P. Tan), I consider some of the implications of Singapore’s ascendance to position of aspirational city for the global South. The first part of the talk analyzes various state publications and discourses alongside urban histories in order to unpack the logic of desire and disavowal at work—a logic, I argue, that relies especially on making invisible the histories, spaces, and subjects of the rural, while re-inscribing utopian desires as neoliberal urban management solutions.

In the second part of the talk, I analyze two films by Singaporean documentary maker Tan Pin Pin: Singapore Gaga and Invisible City (2005 and 2007), considering both their content and transnational circulation. In Singapore Gaga, we are witness to the disregarded and ephemeral soundscapes of the city—subway buskers, street hawkers, disappearing dialects and immigrant neighborhoods—to reveal an offbeat auditory dimension that undercuts official versions of triumphant (and emphatically scopic) global urbanism, even as the film has been taken up and promoted as part of Singapore’s newly-authorized cultural “renaissance”. Invisible City might be described as a meta-documentary about Singaporeans who try to document the erased physical past of Singapore. While presenting the “memories and histories that would otherwise be unknown” (Joanne Leow) through tropes of nostalgia and archaeology, the film (like Singapore Gaga) does not evade incorporation into the “Singapore, Inc” brand. Rather, it subtly indexes heterogeneous desires for other spaces—communal, rural and transnational—and other linkages beyond the touted “network infrastructure” of the global city. Both films, I argue, complicate imaginaries of Singapore as a city that has leap-frogged over its conditions of postcoloniality to become the exemplary aspirational city of twenty-first global capitalism. By rethinking Singapore’s urban spaces through the work of Tan Pin Pin, this paper attempts to trace some of the essential paradoxes and debates around alternative and global modernities.

In any case, I hope to see some of you at UCLA for the conference!

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