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Thinking Inside and Outside of the Circle of Kings: Reflections on the Comparative and Performative Practice of Southeast Asian Studies

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Evaluations of the success, viability, and future of Southeast Asian studies in the United States have long been characterized by pessimism, and also by a set of deeply rooted assumptions about what an area studies programme is supposed to be and what it requires to be successful. These assumptions concern not just institutional issues, but conceptions of what makes a region a proper unit for scholarly analysis, conceptions that invariably hinge on explicit or implicit comparisons to other regions. In this essay, I reverse the gaze of such evaluations by turning some of O.W. Wolter's classic notions about Southeast Asian cultures back upon the practice of Southeast Asianists, and by reversing some of the comparisons that are often used to demarcate Southeast Asia as both as distinctive region and a distinctively weak subject for successful area studies. Rather than accept such abstract and a priori notions about what Southeast Asian studies must be and what must be wrong with it, I propose instead a much more expansive, inclusive, and flexible definition of the field based upon the way it is practised in particular places and times. Such a performative model of Southeast Asian studies can take students, pedagogy, diaspora, and diverse transnational flows into account, while emphasizing all the more the importance of Southeast Asia as a field of scholarly and institutional collaboration.


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