Area/ Region

Walker Gavin’s article “The Accumulation of Difference and the Logic of Area” tells us that some of Michel Foucault’s ideas on biopower can still be improved. According to Gavin, Foucault didn’t think past the spatial term “territory” to consider the even more ambiguous term “area”, which according to Gavin is more encompassing of the unboundedness of specific enclosures that defy standard measures of quantification. The historical pattern established by Foucault (drawing on Marx) from “anatomo-politics” to a form of “biopolitics,” (67) was taken logically further by Gavin (and other scholars like Sakai) to qualify forms of belonging, including but not limited to, the meanings of nations and attendant characteristics such as language, and other subjectivities. (68) But I find the argumentation rather unsatisfying because “area” is too general and too vacuous a term that it seems feeble when applied to any realpolitik. Could there be another generally applicable word that avoids the pitfalls of its Latin etymology? As it is and specifically in Southeast Asia, there is an evolving understanding of what constitutes territory; practically complex and yet cartographically and legally definite. In these parts, Gavin’s qualifying characteristic of belonging and localization becomes rather thorny. China’s incursions into the economic zones of the Philippines challenges even the closest reading of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. Beyond anthropocentric classifications, both sides are forced to see territory as multi-dimensional, accounting for changes in tide, coral reef, hydrocarbon, fish and other biological resources. But who actually feels localized to this piece of the planet? Attacks by the Chinese Coast Guard on small-scale fishermen from Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines hardly trigger diplomatic protests while the presence of the US Armed Forces in these Asian waters have effectively drawn Beijing’s silkroad ambition to a stalemate. Nautical maps from as early as the 19th century show how the South China Sea is crossed by deep underwater canyons; veritable highways for submarines, both traditional and nuclear. In hydrography, this deceptive lacuna on the surface of the map is seen as a strategic space for the passage of cargo ships that for an even longer period of time, we know more about the depths of the straits of the Java Sea than the elevation of the jungles of Kalimantan. Countries like Canada, Australia, and The United States have used this term “territory” euphemistically to brand their former colonies. This is illustrative of the word’s flexibility and potency unappreciated by our present scholars.

The conceit of Gavin’s theorization assumes that there is a static notion of “territory.” This is belied repeatedly and equally by insecurities that haunt even an emerging superpower like China. Elsewhere, Leo T.S. Ching does not use “area” in his idea of neo-regionalism but “territory”: “the immanent transnationalization of capital and historical territorialization of national economies.” In the neo-regional lens, China’s perceived antagonistic role in territorial disputes is contradicted by its dominant position in the contemporary economic life of Asian nations. Since their rise to power in the 90s, China has triggered tremors in the heavily Westernized political structures of neighboring countries. In summary, the notion of “area” removes the urgent and crucial geopolitical characteristic inherent in “territory”. Foucault might have been more circumspect than later thinkers but he managed to cover all areas (no pun intended). Ching’s theoretical maneuver is more successful as it treats the behemoth that is the Asian continent in specific terms, accounting for internal differences and conflicts, including ongoing conditions of internal colonizing practices between various Asian nations. But as with anything “neo”, it assumes a jarring end-stage that may not be compatible with patterns of history or the cyclical motions of the globe.