Five Questions With Sean Metzger

What happens when we decenter the concept of Americanization from our considerations of globalization and what “the global” looks like?

That question is at the heart of this week’s conversation with Framing the Global Fellow Sean Metzger.

Metzger is assistant professor in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. His research sits at the intersections of  “Asian American, Caribbean, Chinese, film, performance and sexuality studies.” He’s helped edit several volumes and is also the author of the book, published by IU Press, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race

In that book  Metzger writes about how clothing and “modes of adornment” have helped frame American understandings of China. 

For Framing the Global Metzger is exploring The Archipelogics of Belonging: Cultural Production in the Chinese Atlantic.

Metzger explained to Rosemary Pennington how he’s using “seascapes” to enter his investigation of the the global.

Rosemary Pennington: What drew you to Framing the Global?

Sean Metzger: My first book, Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race concerns the transnational circulation of cultural signifiers—particularly clothing and hair—between the US and China.

I limited myself to a Sino/American interface (People’s Republic of China including Hong Kong and the continental US) to examine the disjunctions and connections between the world’s current superpowers. One question remaining as I finished that book was how Chineseness took shape and might continue to morph in relation to other spaces of political and economic activity, particularly since Chinese capital seems now to be everywhere.

What would happen if we analyze globalization without hinging it on Americanization? How does the social reproduction of Chineseness work across different locations?

To pursue that question requires a different lens than the one that organized Chinese Looks. And I suspected my own previous work in Asian American and Chinese diaspora studies would be inadequate to that task.

In addition, in 2006, I teamed up with a historical sociologist, Michaeline Crichlow, and other scholars to co-found the Race, Space, Place collective. Our work from that time forward has raised a number of questions for me about how a scholar might cross relatively established locations of area studies.

Framing the Global promised to help me develop tools for such an endeavor. And, in fact, many of our conversations have been about methodology. But we have also discussed how each of us, from the perspective of our individual projects and disciplinary locations, imagines and inhabits something we might call “global.”

RP: What is your entry point and why did you choose it?

SM: Because I am interested both in contemporary manifestations of and historical antecedents to globalization, I chose an entry point that precedes any notion of globalization yet might help define it — that entry point is “seascape.” A seascape is the watery equivalent of landscape. It is a kind of epistemology, one in which knowledge accrues by visualizing or tracking oceanic flows but one that also connotes an aesthetic project.

That dimension is important to me because I work in the arts and humanities. In this regard, we might think of, for example, the shipwreck that sets in motion the action of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the various re-orderings that such a scene enables. The figures that we see (or don’t see) in The Tempest—Prospero, Caliban, Ariel, Sycorax—have been central to much post-colonial thought.

The Tempest - Jericho House 2011 - Palestine / Israel

Image from a performance of ‘The Tempest’ — Jericho House 2011 (Palestine/Israel). Image via Apaché (Flickr Creative Commons).

I have long been taken by how that sort of island adventure has generated such a rich textual and visual archive. The seemingly servile characters in particular have often been compared to African slaves. Certain versions of The Tempest and the seascape as a general concept lead me to the emergence of global capitalism through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. One seascape, which has been refined over several decades now, that attempts to account for this phenomenon is the Black Atlantic.

I am especially interested in the historical efforts to replace African slave labor with Asian coolies, first in anticipation and then in the wake of manumission. I wondered if these early efforts might somehow move us through a kind of historical wormhole to help us understand Chinese investments today in places ranging from the Caribbean to Africa. I like the provocation.

I’ve been trying to work through that issue in a few published articles in venues like The Global South and Cultural Dynamics. I am continuing to think about the legacies of coolie importation in my Framing the Global book project. At the same time, I try to hold open my notion of seascape in terms of what kinds of spaces and temporalities it might contain.

RP: What challenges have you faced as you’ve navigated the global this way?

SM: On the one hand, seascape allows one to visualize an expansive interconnectivity. On the other, seascapes often provide a littoral or insular perspective. The sea, together with coastlines and archipelagoes, demands specific ways of seeing. My project tries to outline a field that links together oceanic frames like the Black Atlantic and the Pacific Rim.


City lights of Sha Tau Kok from Fung Hang, NT in Hong Kong. Image via Kwan Cheung (Flickr Creative Commons).

In this vein, I have also engaged the emergent field of island studies. Our Race, Space, Place collective has developed a special issue of the journal Third Text to address the topic “islands, images, and imaginaries” — that issue will be out this summer. This endeavor has helped me think through the particularity of islands in relation to global processes.

One of the important things I have realized is that seascapes, because they are abstractions—that is, representations—of material processes, often occlude modes of production. So one challenge is balancing the abstract and the material.

Another challenge is to think through surface and depth. Seascapes are enticing because they elicit such connections for the viewer. However, that does not mean it’s easy to articulate what constitutes such relationships nor to specify their effects.

RP: In her introduction to the upcoming book, Dr. Hilary Kahn writes that one of the questions scholars of the global are faced with is “How do we know it’s global?” How do you answer that question in your work?

SM: I believe, like Fellow Stephanie DeBoer and others, that the global is a term of aspiration, so it provides a point of interrogation.

In the case of Chineseness, whether the reference point is the nation-state of China or Chinese diasporic communities or overseas Chinese contract workers or things made in China or what might be termed Chinese aesthetics, we can see multiple and completing claims about how Chineseness matters across different locations. I witness an increasing awareness or feeling that the different modes of producing Chineseness in various places across the globe are linked in uneven networks.

For example, in South Africa there have been clear affiliations with China from South Africa’s gold mining industry beginning in the late nineteenth century through those countries’ current bilateral trade agreements today. But it is also worth remembering that Taiwan largely fueled the imagination of Chineseness in South Africa during the Apartheid years. The drives in each case—for capital accumulation and political recognition—help shape and also depend on larger networks of which South Africa as a specific site constitutes one node in the ongoing elaboration of Chineseness.

RP: How have your discussions on the space of global studies within the Framing the Global interdisciplinary group affected your view of your home discipline?

SM: Let me consider first interdisciplinary space and then what might be called global studies.

My academic training was interdisciplinary. I took my undergraduate degree in humanities and psychology and my graduate degrees in comparative literature and theater/performance studies. My previous university appointment was in several departments at Duke, including Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, English, and Theater.

Although having both taught and been trained in different disciplines, the optics I have for analysis come from critical currents that animate the humanities. For me, that means a mix of deconstruction, feminism, formalism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, and, to a lesser degree phenomenology. Because I work on Chineseness, I have also learned about Marxism.

However, most of the fellows come from social science backgrounds.  And while many of us share interests in the useful abstractions of critical theory, the way in which my colleagues frame the particularities of their research projects is often quite different from the way I do. Specifically, I have learned an enormous amount about how people understand terms like “methodology” and “empirical” in other disciplines.

I now work for the theater department in the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. This is a professional school aimed at preparing students for careers in the arts. Because we are an institution within a media capital (Los Angeles), “interdisciplinary inquiry” sometimes takes on a more instrumental character.

In other words, questions about how one leverages intermediality in relation to story-making and, indeed, to profit making are often front and center. Where does this leave interdisciplinary scholarship? I continue to ask that question.

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