2015 ASA Conference Abstract

Excited to present at the 2015 ASA Conference tomorrow! Our panel, “Disorganizing Knowledge,” is going to be awesome- check out my abstract below and hope to see you there!

Time Travel (De)collage

on Female Coolies, Archival Knowledge and Speculative Aesthetics

Researchers working in and with colonial archives, grappling with the historical legacies of transatlantic slavery, imperial conquest, and genocide, consistently confront the immiserating sense that the past cannot be changed. The concept of time travel is captivating precisely because it suggests the possibility of altering the course of history, of avoiding violence and injury, to access other futures. However, if the dilemma remains that futuristic machinery cannot help us rectify past wrongs, in this presentation I explore how the concept of time travel can still function as a mode of confronting loss and doing justice. Engaging the figure of the Asian coolie and the history of the coolie trade in particular, I posit time travel as an alternative practice for relating to archives and archival materials, one that is necessarily aesthetic and speculative.

Archives as both institutional and epistemological formations are intimately associated with legacies of colonialism, with processes of documenting, categorizing, and objectifying difference that establish certain groups as knowable “others.” As Foucault demonstrates, archives figure as sites for the management of bodies, in which living bodies are transformed into quantifiable statistics, concrete measures of value, loss and profit. I argue that attending to time travel as a process that emphasizes encounter and embodiment, the ways in which our bodies impact other bodies as we do archival research, disorganizes the hegemonic time-space of “the archive” and what constitutes as legitimate knowledge.

To think through time travel as an affective and aesthetic practice, I turn to the Asian coolie because despite burgeoning scholarship in Asian American and Asian diasporic studies the coolie continues to be represented first and foremost as an “other,” laborer, and object. Gaps surrounding the experiences and struggles of female coolies are especially palpable given the absence of their voices in imperial archives structured around the perspectives and interests of colonial officials. These archives preclude us from viewing coolie women as capable of possessing full lives, or, as lively enough to time travel. My presentation challenges the disciplined, and disciplining, historical modes of thought that would consign female coolies to the past by demonstrating how time travel illuminates a way of knowing that is not “about” a research object, but comes from what José Muñoz describes as a radical “being-with.” Rather than the stultifying miseries of unchangeable pasts, I consider how time travel suggests a form of critical engagement that builds on the pleasures of imagining other kinds of relationality with the bodies we encounter in and through archives. Analyzing select documentary materials, including official reports and correspondence and excerpts from literary texts, I present (and attempt to perform) time travel as collage and décollage, a disorganizing aesthetic that attunes us to the personhood and resonant presence of female coolies in ways that cannot be captured by dominant epistemologies. By experimenting with time travel, I hope, moreover, to open up a conversation about the practices and pedagogies we can use to access alternative knowledges that constructs like “the archive” have circumscribed as unimportant, illegitimate, or impossible.

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