Thinking Infrastructures in Global Asia: New Perspectives and Approaches

April 16, 2024 by Sonja Johnston

Each academic year, the Jackman Humanities Institute sponsors up to 12 Working Groups, consisting of graduate students and faculty conducting research or engaging in other scholarly exchange. In conjunction with the 2024-25 Working Groups Call for Proposals, we're highlighting some current Working Groups.

The Thinking Infrastructures in Global Asia: New Perspectives and Approaches working group aims to facilitate new conversations and collaborations among scholars and students who are interested in adopting the lens of infrastructure to study Asia in global contexts. Across various disciplines and the tri-campus of the University of Toronto, they gather as a group to reflect upon the possibilities and limits that the recent “infrastructural turn” in the humanities and social sciences can bring to the production, circulation, and transformation of knowledge about Asia in its global dynamics.

This is your Working Group's first year. What does your group do, and what, if anything, has changed from the original concept for the group?

Our group regularly hosts a variety of events centered around the theme of infrastructure in global Asia, including book launches, film screenings, graduate workshops, dissertation workshops, reading group sessions, art exhibitions, and artist talks. These events serve as a space for interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration for faculty members and graduate students from diverse disciplines such as Anthropology, Architecture, Art History, Cinema Studies, East Asian Studies, History, Information Studies, and others with an interest in infrastructure and Asian studies. Typically spanning one to two weeks, our gatherings focused on themes including the materiality and fictionality of film production in East and Southeast Asia; colonial labour and resource extraction; human and more-than-human entanglements; waste and labour dynamics; sound studies; image-making and the politics of representational refusal within the context of U.S. militarism in Okinawa, among others. If anything, we never anticipated organizing so many events in such diverse formats. We are grateful for the unwavering support received from our members.

How has the Working Group experience been so far?

Our working group fosters a welcoming intellectual community across various departments, institutes, and campuses, where new perspectives and approaches to infrastructure studies and Asian studies are embraced and explored. Through connections with scholars at various career stages, artists, filmmakers, and librarians, we gain valuable insights into how infrastructure has shaped worlds inhabited by both human and non-human actors in diverse ways. The experience has proven rewarding for both organizers and participants, as the engaging conversations have inspired ideas that will shape future research endeavours.

Your group has organized many events this year! Can you give us a synopsis of the events?

Throughout the year, we hosted a total of 12 internal meetings and 4 public-facing events that involve faculty and graduate members of our working group, as well as the broader U of T community and the general public. For internal meetings, we hosted 5 dissertation workshops for our graduate members specializing in infrastructure studies, spanning the historical contexts of Cold War Taiwan, Maoist China, North Korea, and Qing China. Additionally, we organized 4 graduate workshops featuring speakers invited by the Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies at the Asian Institute. These sessions provided approximately 10 of our graduate members with the opportunity to interact with scholars from outside of the University of Toronto, covering topics such as coal mining and resource extraction, the politics of post-nuclear fallout resettlement, Indigenous resistance to resource extraction, and the global politics of hydropower development. Building upon these workshops, we also conducted reading group sessions to delve deeper into the scholarship of the speakers.

As for public-facing events, we organized 2 book launches, featuring anthropologist Waqas Butt from the University of Toronto and historian Wendy Matsumura from the University of California, San Diego. In September, we also organized a film screening and artist talk series comprising 5 screening sessions which showcased genre films, documentaries, and video artworks exploring the themes of fantasies, materialism, and geopolitics in 20th-century East and Southeast Asia. We also involved the faculty members of our working group to engage with four invited contemporary artists featured in the series in virtual talks. In March, we organized an art and scholarly dialogue series, which included a book display, art exhibition, photobook workshop, and artist talk. The event featured two artists from Okinawa and a scholar of comparative literature from Japan.

Any advice or words for others thinking of applying for a JHI Working Group?

The working group has afforded us the invaluable opportunity to interact with colleagues and external speakers in a manner that would otherwise be difficult within the confines of our departmental settings. Throughout the year of event coordination, we have benefited from the engaging conversations and collaborations facilitated by our working group. We are also deeply thankful to the administrative support extended to us by the JHI and other units at U of T. We highly encourage others to consider applying for the JHI Working Group program!