[REVIEW] “Review as Method: A Review of Method as Method” by Gareth Paul Breen

{Written by Gareth Paul Breen, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Carlos Rojas (special issue editor), Method as Method, V16: N2 of Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature. Duke University Press, 2019.

According to a quick etymological internet search, the term “method” originates in the combined ancient Greek terms “meta” and “hodos”, which together might be translated most literally as “the development of a way”. The Greek term methodos apparently translates as “the pursuit of knowledge”, while “method” in late Middle English referred specially a “prescribed medical treatment for a disease”. The Chinese term fa, 法, often translated as method, also alludes to a “way”. Dharma, “the path of rightness”, in Chinese Buddhism is fa. Fa is also translatable as “law”—the Legalists, of the Hundred Schools of Thought fame, are the fajia, 法家.

This rather crude preamble on the terms “method” and fa goes quite against the spirit of the rich and excellent special issue of the journal Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, entitled Method as Method, of which this is a review. The editor, Carlos Rojas, in the first essay in the collection, “Translation as Method”, specifically articulates his interest in “moments of translational failure” (223) for what they tell us about what is left out, not only in moving from one language to another but from one voice to another, the voice of a narrator such as Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936), for example, and those of his fictional characters. The volume is precisely focused upon the frailties and complexities of translation, and other “methods” such as “hoax”, “ragpicking”, “panorama”, “ecology”, “cannibalism”, “pandemic”, “border”, “cold war”, and “script”, as a means, rather than an unproblematised object or theory of analysis and description. But, at the risk of writing against the grain of the volume I am reviewing, this is precisely my point: as a means for what? And what, I ask, does the rich methodological focus of this volume tell us about the role of method in the China-focused humanities and social sciences today? Put otherwise, this “review as method” asks method as method of what?

I am an anthropologist of Taiwan (leaving aside the problems of that “of” for now) very much in dialogue with anthropologists of China and other “Chinese”-speaking regions. I do research with members of a worldwide following of the late Chinese Christian reformers Ni Tuosheng 倪脫聲 (1903-1972) and Li Changshou 李長壽 (1905-1997). In a recent weekly Zoom call, in which we are reading through Li’s multi-volume Life-Study 生命讀經, I was reminded of a convert to the group in Taiwan who is famous among members for his ability to see ghosts. He sees them inhaling the fragrance of worshippers’ incense offerings. Sometimes he awakes to find himself nose-to-nose with a ghost floating directly above him. After years of discipleship, he tells us in a much-watched YouTube video his honed ability to scare ghosts away. The term he uses for this ability is fali 法理, which is often translated simply as “magical power”, but which might be more directly rendered “strong method”. However, it was only by converting to Christianity, he says, that his fali increased well beyond that of his master. Now, ghosts flee before he even gets close. Like the authors of Method as Method, this famous church brother was very concerned with the means by which his aims were achieved. However, these means were also intimately bound up with their ultimate source (Buddha, Dao, Jesus) and their object (ghosts). The source and object of the methods of this collection are at first less apparent: we might ask, what ghosts are chased away in Method as Method?

Many spectres are indeed dealt with in the volume: the dominance of empiricism in cold war and post-colonial studies, for example, by Petrius Liu and Hsiao-Hung Chang, the aestheticisation of poverty-induced livelihoods by artists in Margaret Hillenbrand’s essay, sincerity and authenticity as moral(istic) standards by Christopher Rea and Carlos Rojas, the assumed homogeneity of written Chinese by Laikwan Pang and Chun-Kit Ko, fantasies of a borderless world by Shuang Shen, panorama as a naturalised viewpoint by Yomi Braester, pandemics as orientalising discourses in Belinda Kong’s “Pandemic as Method”, agrilogistic ideologies by Robin Visser and the communism-capitalism binary by Lorraine Wong. In each case, method is variably the analytical lens of the author, e.g. literary criticism via an ecological approach, and the mode of action of those described, panoramas as ideological modes for instance. But what does a focus on method rather than theories or shared topics bring to the issues at hand? The slipperiness of method makes this a difficult question.

My attempt to translate method and complexly equivalent terms in Mandarin, Greek and Latin, at least evokes the heady multidimensionality of the focus of Method as Method. Indeed, Takeuchi Yoshimi’s description of his influential concept, “Asia as method”, is quoted in both the opening and the closing essay of the volume: it is “impossible to definitively state what [Asia as method] might mean”. (211; 460) Translations of method, fa, and methodos indicate the many areas of life and thought in which the terms are utilised for very different ends. Nonetheless, does the focus on method in this volume bespeak a shared concern which might be found in such as disparate disciplines as anthropology and literary studies?

Another issue of translation arises here, this time between the terminologies of the two disciplines. What is referred to as “method” in this volume is generally termed “analysis” in anthropology. In a conversation with the editor of an anthropological journal with “analysis” in the title, he described for me analysis as the autumnal passage between the spring of theory and the winter of data. For anthropologists, “method” usually evokes the highly pragmatic, though far from straightforward methods of fieldwork—interviews and our beloved “participant observation”, yes, but also the gendered, racialised, economic power differentials which very often inhere in these micro-interactions. But this difference between method and analysis is not lost but gained in translation here. If, for Rojas, “attention to method treats analysis as a type of praxis”, perhaps through attention to method anthropologists should think of praxis (“in the field”) as a form of analysis?

Perhaps this question, might, as Liu puts it, help “la[y] bare the hidden connections between nodes of knowledge that are obscured by our hopelessly rigid disciplinary fields and by our increasingly reified, privatised existence”? (414) Or, if not connections, then at least the disconnections which are hopefully interesting to dwell upon. “[T]his special issue” Rojas writes,

Features essays that focus not on specific objects, phenomena, or theoretical frameworks in their own right, but rather on an underlying set of methodological processes. This attention to method treats analysis as a type of praxis that produces knowledge through a dialectical engagement with its object rather than assuming that knowledge is either intrinsic to the object itself or is generated solely by the corresponding theoretical framework. Our objective, accordingly, is to propose methodologies that can be delinked from the objects or phenomena that inspired them and can be productively applied to a broader array of issues. (212)

—Carlos Rojas

Why the delinking? Today, scepticism towards (“idealist”) theory, and even (“empiricist”) objects of theory, a long trend in anthropology, can be found throughout the humanities and social sciences. My first thought is that the turn to method across the humanities and social sciences suspiciously resonates with the intensification of bureaucracy and the creeping-in of capital (the ultimate method if ever there was one) to all areas of life under neoliberal regimes. But it is also true that the turn to method is a turn away from fixity, from established truths and the paths by which we get there. So what looks like resonance and reinforcement from one angle, could be seen as the search for freedom from another. There is in other words, as Chang writes, in Rojas’s translation, “the possibility of using method as a creative force of virtuality” (462). Virtuality that is as a not-yet which “rolls back” the imperialist obsession with territorial entities and their borders.

Still, the delinking of methods from particular motives and aims, may leave some feeling uneasy as well as intellectually vertiginous. Perhaps this uneasiness has both historically particular and universal origins? In an apparently post-ideological age (cf. Liu’s critique of Fukuyama, p. 409), shared aims cannot be taken for granted, while our motivations––do we ultimately have good or bad intentions?––have of course been debated in China as in Europe and elsewhere from the beginnings of their various “philosophies”. In fact, reading through the essays in Method as Method, worries over methodological delinkage are perhaps unfounded. As noted, there are myriad aims at work in this collection. Hildebrand’s frustration with waste-focused art is palpable in “Ragpicking as Method”; Liu is very concerned with staking a claim for modern Chinese literary studies in Cold War Studies (410), while Visser’s “Ecology as Method” aims “to acknowledge the impact of the Anthropocene on conceptual frameworks of governance” (327). Nonetheless, there is in other articles the spectre of an absent guiding aim to this meta-reflection on method. Perhaps the most acute tension between taking method as an object of study and as a means for studying other objects, for current readers, might be found in Belinda Kong’s “Pandemic as Method”. There Kong refers to the “bio-orientalism” that arose with the SARS pandemic. On the one hand the anti-Chinese racism across multiple levels of Euro-American society during COVID-19 prove the depressing prescience of Kong’s insight. On the other, many might be more ambivalent about seeing this pandemic as a method which can be decoupled from COVID-19 as a (dare I say “objective”) reality.

But my questioning the decoupling move has largely focused upon the objects, or potential absence thereof in the volume. How about the methodological subject? Here things are much clearer. As Rojas writes in the introduction (212), “Method as Method” takes China as its starting point. Here the anthropology “of” China could learn a thing or two: the subject of anthropological methods, there as elsewhere, is often presumed to be “Euro-American”; the object, China. Method as Method, in contrast, lives up to the name of its journal home—this is indeed a wonderful prism of Chinese literary and filmic life. While the aims of each essay differ, they share a common commitment to delinking China from the Euro-America gaze. In that sense this revelatory collection might equally be titled, “China as Method(ological subject explored through a variety of theoretical aims) as Method(ological objects)”. But then, that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it?

Other reviews on the same work in Cha:

How to cite: Breen, Gareth Paul. “Review as Method: A Review of Method as Method.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 09 Mar. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/03/09/review-as-method/.


Gareth Paul Breen received his PhD in Anthropology from the London School of Economics in 2020. He is now an Associate Lecturer in Medical Anthropology at University College London. He has published on ontologies of spatial (dis)continuity amongst Sino-Taiwanese Protestants and on object-oriented methods in anthropology in Social Anthropology/ Anthropologie SocialeSocial Analysis, and the Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, and has also written for public venues such as Allegra Lab, and Medical Anthropology at UCL and LSE’s Religion and Global Society blogs. He is currently working on his first monograph, provisionally entitled Becoming Gods: An Anthropological History of Deification in East Asia and the West. ORCID: 0000-0002-5468-145X

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s