several years ago, one of my teachers at chicago, rt smith, complained that we grad students were always talking about “applying theory, as if it were a poultice.” professor smith held that theory had to emerge in some organic fashion from the material at hand. i’m sure that he also had a few other ideas in mind, which i likely didn’t understand at the time. years later, i remember his complaint whenever i hear someone talk about “applying theory”

theory isn’t a poultice or a band-aid, i think. but what might theory be? one of the most difficult questions posed by an attempt to generate “asian” theory for an interasian cultural studies comes from a lack of clarity about what theory might be. in the spirit of analytic philosophy, i’d like to give a few possible directions

theory is not an end in itself. those who favor decolonizing method might think that an advance in asian theory, so that those in interasian cultural studies would cite asian scholars working in asian institutions rather than borrowing theory from western authors, would shift the geography of knowledge in a meaningful way. they might be right; institutionally, it would signal a change in power relations among academic institutions. however, for such a geographic shift to occur is the result not of ink on paper (as if thoery is an end in itself) but derives from a pattern of citation, which is to say a change in the organization of a conversation space. theory is a tool in creating this conversation space, but there are many other conditions, including academic networks of knowledge production and pedagogy

how might we understand and intervene in these institutional conditions? i think that this question is more important than the creation of theory, in the sense of a set of ideas

and yet, by theory, one could mean at least two very different kinds of tools. overall, theory is a scenography or iconic reference that generates perspective or framing on the one hand and the movement of key features of observed phenomena across contexts on the other. but such scenography or reference necessarily differs according to the pragmatic conditions of knowledge production. minimally, we might distinguish between causal scenographies, that attempt to model a system for the purposes of explanation or prediction, and interpretive frameworks that translate in order to pose general questions about a broader condition. the latter may remain very particular or suggest comparisons across cases. i am not sure that would be theorists of interasian popular music studies have distinguished between these two different meanings of “theory”

the first question then, is not why don’t we have an asian theory of asian popular musics–which is an academic version of import substitution–but why do we need such a theory anyway, and what would we be trying to do with it?

is it for the purpose of explaining some features of asian popular musics within a causal framework that might contrast with similar frameworks generated from western examples?
is it for the purpose of translating across cases to provide a shared network of interpretation?
what kinds of questions might such a network pose and for what purposes?

we first need to be clear about what we mean by theory

finally, theory includes two components which generate their own set of questions. first, what is the space of conversation: who is included and for what purposes? second, what is the mode of articulation across particular cases: how do the cases get translated without too much deformation? how is truth produced (as a general statement? explanation? categories?). these questions break theory down to its pragmatic role

as such, understanding theory as simply something that articulates among researches in order to generate conversation among researchers and not as a fetish object for an interasian cultural studies seems to be the first step in gaining some traction: freed from the notion that theory is a magic poultice that we can apply to the material, we might step back and see that we have been doing theory all along

we might also take a closer notice of the interasian spaces in which we are doing theory and make institutional interventions that will give our conversation space more vitality and rigour

i wonder what those of you with interests in theory might have to say about these questions. some conversation at the conference concerned whether we could distinguish between theory as a set of lenses or channels of thinking that derive from a particular sociocultural location (say, the west or asia) and method as a generally universal category. i’m not sure that such a division of the work of knowledge production makes sense. but i’d be interested in knowing whether, and how, you might define and locate theory