I work on publics. A public, used as a noun, refers to an audience, as well as the ways that they are addressed, often through mediated communication. By working on publics, I indicate my position and orientation when it comes to examining societies, their governing infrastructures, and the people who make their lives within them: from below. The geographical locus of my research is trans-Pacific, comprising Asia and the Americas and everything in between, and my convictions about publics in this region are that they are postsecular, calling into question ‘secular’ norms in modern society. In this way, a more specific way to describe my scholarship is that I work on postsecular Pacific publics. I will take each of these elements in turn, and then I will talk about the projects that I have generated from the conversation among these fields.
Publics: everyday lives, social formations, global cities, political movements
At the end of the day, publics are made up of persons, whereas institutions don’t have to be. In fact, publics are usually what make a people of the persons. Going about their everyday lives, they find that their worlds are circumscribed by the infrastructures of the public, some of which mediate communication among themselves as they self-organize as communities and others of which are mouthpieces of the governing apparatuses of state, market, civil society, and informal economies, what some social scientists have called the social formation. Sometimes these communicative institutions work through the circulation of information, but my training in human geography has given me a built-in reminder to consider built environments in urban settlements and cultural landscapes as manifestations of this dialectic between personal life and public governance, often in cities considered global and in suburbs deemed ethnoburbs.
As I have conducted my scholarship, I have learned often through the hard path of failure and setbacks that focusing attention on the social formation often leads to an ignorance of communities at work in daily living, but getting caught up in the ethnographic work of thick description at the level of everyday life can make one lose the forest of the formations for the trees of small-scale practices. By working on publics, I am saying that the path to integrated scholarship is to work from praxis to a theoretical knowledge of how social formations circumscribe everyday communities that retain the agency to ignore, evade, be colonized by, and cooperate with them. At times, the people in these societies even organize to protest, move, and shift the social formation, and I also find these demonstrations, their origins, their complicated constitution, and their aftermath intriguing to examine. In this way, my primary orientation to academic work can be found at the nexus of sociologies of the public sphere, social and cultural geographies of global cities and ethnoburbs, the theory and praxis of social and political movements, and the study of the practices of everyday life in relation to social formations. For me, the one word that quilts these interests together is publics.
Pacific: regional integration on the Rim, migration studies, Asian American politics
The publics I usually work on are found in trans-Pacific civil societies, the network of social institutions that often addresses political and economic issues and infrastructures while grappling with how everyday life increasingly intersects with larger institutional processes that straddle Asia and the Americas. The geography that describes this work is the ideological term Pacific Rim, which references the practical attempts to integrate the political economies of the eastern seaboard of Asia (known as the Asia-Pacific) and the west coast of the Americas, including Canada, the United States, and the nation-states of Latin America. However, the politics I bring to this scholarship are again from below, and in this way, they are drawn from the practices of Asian American studies, the radical discipline generated by the social movements of the Long Sixties devoted to critiques of orientalism, the imposition of a geographical imagination from the ‘West’ onto the ‘East’ as ‘Asia’ broadly construed without allowing for the agency of people who live and are from a region that takes up half the world, from Turkey to the Pacific Islands and arguably the Americas. In this way, I am invested in the study of communities that can be said to be produced by migration, the movement of peoples from one place to another, through international infrastructures and in transnational social fields.
As it is, I study the social formations of trans-Pacific societies from below, with the conviction that the dismantling of orientalist knowledge comes from attentiveness to everyday agency in communities that can be called ‘Asian American,’ people throughout the world who have experienced American forms of orientalizing racism and live their everyday lives in relation to it. My case studies therefore include the United States, but also take me to Canada and to sites in the Asia-Pacific, especially Hong Kong. Moreover, my teaching centers the experience of indigenous peoples in the Pacific in relation to processes of settler colonialism, the attempt to erase Native communities from areas of settlement, and thus to the ways that Pacific Islanders and Native peoples remain present throughout this region. In this way, my field of regional interest can be described as trans-Pacific between Asia and the Americas wth a focus on migrant communities, but my approach to the social formations of the Pacific Rim comes from an Asian American politics that is attentive to the problems of orientalism and settler colonialism.
Postsecular: critical theory, grounded theologies, and challenges to secular overdetermination
One critical strand in the theorization of publics has long emphasized the problems of assuming that public spheres are simply secular, as if the word itself were easy to define. These lines of critique cross schools of thought as distinct as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory and their intellectual descendants, Radical Orthodoxy and its critics in theology, the new materialist posthumanists, political psychoanalysis, anthropologies of religion and the secular, and the critical revival in political theology. While the scholars in these fields seldom agree with each other, the nature of their disagreement can be found around how to call into question the meanings of secularity in contemporary public spheres. It is this ruckus around the challenge to secular normativities that I understand to be what the word postsecular describes.
Postsecularity, I argue, is an opportunity, as long as one does not fall into the trap of what both Freud and Althusser call overdetermination. The temptation in scholarship is to insist, if not polemicize, on what words like the secular, theology, religion, and the difference between public and private mean. The postsecular throws all of these terms into question, calling for a radical openness to both the possibility that what is being described is the objective agency of gods and spirits, heroes and ghosts and the probability that it is all fantasy being projected from subjective imaginations. In postsecular scholarship, the task is not to adjudicate this difference. Instead, it is to examine how the spiritual phenomena that are experienced at the level of everyday life is being noticed by the social formations of a political and economic order. In my work on publics in the Pacific, it might be to show that the encounters with spirits that indigenous peoples, colonized communities, and even persons who appear urbane and sophisticated have always known to have existed no longer need to be repressed in public discourse. Instead, the secular modes of repression, privatization, and disintegration are being challenged by such grounded theologies, approaches to placemaking based on encounters with a more-than-material order, though there is a debate as to what end. My postsecular commitments thus contribute to debates in theology and religious studies, as well as to the discussion of religion and society being had in the humanities and social sciences, and to broader questions in critical social theory too.
Projects: Postsecular Pacific Publics
With the rubric of postsecular Pacific publics, I am working on three scholarly projects that I conceive as a trilogy. The first is a radical revision of my dissertation, Religious Politics in Pacific Space: Grounding Cantonese Protestant Theologies in Secular Civil Societies, into a book manuscript and peer-reviewed articles. Using ethnographic interviewing methods and developing an audio-visual archive, I examine how Cantonese-speaking Protestant Christians engage with the civil societies of three Pacific Rim metropolises: Hong Kong, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Metro Vancouver. The issues that emerge often have to do with sexuality and the intimate sphere, urban and suburban planning and private property, and debates about what democracy looks like. Tracing the history of these communities in each metropolis and how they are transnationally linked, I seek to understand how they conceptualize the world outside of their churches and engage in them. This project is thus a contribution to conversations about postsecular publics and civil society on the Pacific Rim from the vantage point of one community formation, whose lives have also intersected with mine in deeply personal ways. This integrated approach in my practice of scholarship fulfills my aspirations to write about postsecular Pacific publics from below, discussing the objective infrastructures of social formations as they are experienced and imagined in subjective ways. Because this project also intersects with broader questions in the study of Global Christianities, Asian American theologies, and the place of evangelicalism in the Protestant world, I have a number of book chapters, encyclopedia entries, online writing, and articles related to those topics as well.
The second project follows immediately from this monograph. Immediately after finishing the research for the first project in 2013, the events leading up to and culminating in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement occupations took place in 2014. It was interesting to be living in another global city of protests, Seattle, at that time as a postdoctoral fellow, and I began some research in both sites about the material claims of democratic protests and their spiritual dimensions in societies considered postsecular. Through that work, I led the editing on Syndicate’s Umbrella Movement and Theology (2014) and Theological Reflections on the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement (Palgrave, 2016). At Northwestern University, I hired a research assistant, William Paik, to help with sketching timelines and preliminary research on protests in Seattle as diverse as the World Trade Organization demonstrations in 1999 (the famous ‘Battle of Seattle’), Decolonize-Occupy Seattle, Black Lives Matter Seattle, and the discontent with the New Calvinist operation Mars Hill Church and its lead pastor Mark Driscoll up to its demise in 2014. With this information in mind, I developed an interest in the aftermaths of these protests, especially how they attempt to restructure the city and the challenges they experience, and will seek to acquire more funding to execute this project, with dissemination planned as a book manuscript, a series of peer-reviewed articles, and public presentations. This project speaks to questions of ‘global cities’ on the Pacific Rim, which are said to be command-and-control centres of the global economy and invested in a trans-Pacific economic infrastructure, by observing how they are experienced from below in acts of occupy protests. In this way, I also hope to shore up my contributions to the literature on social movements and urban gentrification as well, both of which are topics well within my training in urban geography. Finally, the conviction remains that these societies challenge the secular, so I am intrigued by the invocation of gods and spirits, heroes and ghosts, in these demonstrations and wonder how they have carried through into the aftermath of protest.
Finally, a third project has begun to emerge from my teaching interests and previous research on how indigenous presences continue to linger in Pacific Rim civil societies in ways that challenge settlement and secularity. Part of this interest comes from extending the work that I conducted in collaboration with Claire Dwyer (University College London) and David Ley (University of British Columbia) on No. 5 Road, the ‘Highway to Heaven’ in Richmond, British Columbia, with over twenty religious institutions. While our research focused on immigrant integration, we were soon drawn into questions of agricultural land preservation, suburban planning, and multicultural ideology. Meanwhile, my teaching in Asian American studies has followed the turn in the field to examine the relationship between Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and indigenous peoples, and I find that this interest dovetails with turns in religious studies to critique settler colonialism and in geography to examine indigenous communities through their own cosmologies. Work on this project is in its most incipient stages, though early publications are being planned from my other two projects that intersect with this one.
In this way, I conceptualize my three projects as a trilogy on postsecular Pacific publics. Beginning with how community I am most familiar with engages with Pacific rim civil societies outside their private comfort zones in my first project, I launch into political movements that challenge the political order in two cities on either side of the Pacific in the second project, which then takes me into questions of indigeneity in this region for the third. In many ways, this trilogy is a labor of love and a personal set of projects because some of these communities are ones that I know intimately and are located in places to which I have affective connections. Instead of focusing on questions of identity, my inquiry into publics forces me not to linger on the intimacies that animate my work, but to channel them into research that takes me outside of worlds that I know and brings me into contact with the world as it is. I hope, then, that my research is not simply the satisfaction of my own curiosity, but a genuine contribution to fields of study including a critique of everyday life and public spheres, Asian American approaches to trans-Pacific studies, and postsecular conceptions of civil society.