AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 561

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Session 561: Emergent Notions of 'Achievement' in Asia: Causes and Consequences

Organizer: Nicholas J. Long, London School of Economics, United Kingdom

Chair: Joanna C. Cook, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Discussant: Jonathan R. Mair, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

This panel investigates the ways in which Asian states, societies, and individuals navigate, negotiate, and formulate new notions of 'achievement' and 'success' in the contemporary world. Across Asia, governments, NGOs and development agencies are attempting to increase 'human capital' in conjunction with the normative measures of academic and economic attainment promoted by global metrics such as the Human Development Index. Economic globalization has prompted efforts to re-engineer 'Asian' notions of worth (Ong 2006), while visions of consumerist luxury define new material markers of success (Liechty 2001). But these new conceptions have not eroded alternative understandings of human worth: from non-meritocratic visions of hierarchy and status, to Buddhist notions of selflessness and renunciation. Moreover, many societies are championing alternative models of success - often framed as distinctly 'Asian' - that stress virtue and compassion, in an attempt to stave off the perceived excesses of an achievement mindset (e.g. Muhibbullah 2005). The panel considers how people across Asia have attempted to deal with both the wide proliferation of achievement discourses, and the fact that many of these measures of 'success' are very difficult to achieve. What repertoires of 'achievement practice' are emerging across Asia - and why? What are their consequences for subjectivity, well-being, and sociality? How do comparisons and encounters between Asian contexts shape aspirations and achievement metrics in particular societies? We address these issues through ethnographic studies from across Asia, exploring how emergent and contested notions of 'achievement' shape youth, religious and working life, and death.

The disillusionments of multiple achievement metrics in Kepri, Indonesia
Nicholas J. Long, London School of Economics, United Kingdom

Citizens of the Indonesian province of Kepri are widely agreed that it suffers from a 'human resources crisis'. Provincial administrators have thus attempted to foster an achievement-oriented mindset within the population, drawing inspiration from Western psychologists such as David McClelland. This has resulted in a proliferation of competitive tournaments. Such events automatically generate 'achievement' (prestasi) because they always have a winner, and are said to foster a mindset that prepares Indonesians to be competitive on a global stage. While contests remain popular, they are beginning to receive critical scrutiny for several reasons. The extension of the format to domains of religion and spirituality has led to concerns that religious 'achievers' are more concerned with prizes than piety. Meanwhile, the official valorisation of (competitive) achievement has fuelled the sense that achievement is a right, placing tremendous pressure on the administrators and adjudicators of competitions, who have to allocate achievement to one individual at the expense of others. This has prompted the Kepri government to devise inclusive opportunities for mass achievement, such as collective efforts to break national records. However, these tells future employers little about the individual's specific abilities, and risk being seen as trivial. Caught between competing visions of achievement, Kepri achievers become disillusioned towards their own successes. Yet their cynicism is not directed towards 'success' per se (cf Williams 1947). Instead they blame the regional authorities, framing themselves as the victims of collective underachievement relative to other regions of Indonesia and Asia.

Aspirations to the Good Life: modernist interpretations and rejections of the modern in contemporary Taiwanese Buddhism
Joanna C. Cook, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

(written with Joanna Cook and Jonathan Mair) This paper discusses the ways in which forms of success, aspiration and evaluation are understood by members of the Buddha's Light International Association (BLIA), a multi-million member Taiwanese organization with branches across Southeast Asia and around the world. The organization traces its roots to the teachings of a Chinese monk, Tai Xu, who was active in the first half of the twentieth century, and whose work subsequently influenced many of the religious foundations in Taiwan. Tai Xu called his brand of Buddhism 'humanistic Buddhism' because, in distinction to what he saw as the death-oriented/other-worldly perspective of traditional Buddhism, he advocated an active engagement with the lives of living people in this world. Among other things, this means that 'humanistic' Buddhists have a view of Buddhist achievement that is more optimistic than many forms of traditional Buddhism, because attainment is open to adherents, both lay and monastic. It also entails a broad understanding of spiritual achievement: excellence in all spheres of human endeavour, from the arts to business, may become forms of Buddhist practice. This paper will argue that, although many BLIA members see their religious commitment as a rejection of certain aspects of modern life, in many respects, the forms of the good life and wellbeing promoted by their organization, are essentially of the same order as broader ideas of competence and self-reliance that have been promoted in non-religious contexts across East and Southeast Asia.

On Disentangling the Salaryman Trope: Japanese Entrepreneurship and Work in Thailand
Mitchell W. Sedgwick, Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom

In postwar Japan “achievement” has been framed through the trope of Japanese salarymen, whose collective organizational prowess links the Japanese political economy, engineering innovation and financial “know-how” with individual careerism and the stongly-gendered role models of Japanese adulthood. Although traditionally exporting domestically-produced goods, from the late 1980s Japan's success meant that products, and careers, were no longer exclusively “Made in Japan:” for the first time significant numbers of Japanese were brought together with non-Japanese in overseas businesses. Based in longitudinal ethnographic research in Thailand (and Japan) from the '90s to the present, this paper examines contrasting outcomes of Japanese and Thais working together; understanding this contact as a possible catalyst for confounding conventional understandings of the salaryman. Firstly, while individual salarymen working in large Japanese corporations may genuinely gain new forms of social knowledge from their experiences abroad, organizational resistance seems to functionally “erase” it, thus reproducing (Japanese) corporate form. I then offer the contrasting cases of two Japanese ex-salarymen, who abandoned their employment in Japanese corporations and opened their own businesses in Thailand. My goal is to examine countervailing understandings of “achievement” generated through the experiences of Japanese and their “local,” Thai counterparts. On the one hand those salarymen who trace achievement in reference to “lifetime employment” at a “global” Japanese organization, rather than their prolific “local,” overseas experiences, and on the other ex-salaryman Japanese entrepreneurs experiencing the bulk of their careers in Thailand, who are forcefully dependent on engaging Thai parameters of “achievement” in order to garner “success.”

Successful Development: Bureaucratic narratives, documents, and the achievement of developmental success by the Indian state
Nayanika Mathur, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

This paper explores the notions of bureaucratic 'success' that emerged whilst implementing the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the post-colonial Indian state's most ambitious anti-poverty legislation to date. Its successful implementation requires the production of a range of stipulated official documents within a specified time frame by the designated bureaucrat/office. Documents attest very materially and tangibly to the achievement of development success within an entity that I term the 'paper state'. As material testaments to the correct functioning of the developmental Indian state, documents are publicly displayed in structured face-to-face encounters with senior members of the bureaucracy. They are accompanied by stylized narrations spun around the measures undertaken and effort exerted to make the NREGA real, which come peppered with an anglicized vocabulary of popular catch-phrases. This paper portrays the everyday modes through which governmental success is produced and performed. In particular it asks if the neo-liberal precepts of 'transparency' and 'accountability' that now pervade state-sponsored development programmes in India have led to new conceptions of 'achievement'? An ethnographic approach to the developmental state suggests that the achievement of success as an official involves a mastery over documentary forms and stylistics alongside the adoption and simultaneous vernacularisation of the international development lexicon. State officials are judged achievers on the basis of the dexterity with which they produce documentary and oral accounts of the NREGA's successful implementation; the success of professionals and programmes are coterminous.

Achievement and the Afterlife: Visions of Success in Singaporean Death
Ruth E. Toulson, Maryland Institute College of Art, USA

If the goods considered necessary for the afterlife reveal what is considered ideal in this life, the items at a typical Singaporean Chinese funeral reflect a very particular notion of achievement. Those whose funerals I attended had, in life, little in common, but in death it seemed there was a remarkable consistency in their representations of the successful life: in the afterlife, every house had a garden, air-conditioning, and a Filipino maid; every wallet contained credit cards, and every car was a Mercedes Benz. These items, constructed from paper, correct in scale and detail, are burnt in order to be conveyed to the next world. In this paper, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Singapore, I consider the consequences of living in a society where accepted signifiers of success are, for many, out of reach until death: in a nation where ninety percent of the population live in high-rise, government provided apartments, and where a car costs more than most earn in a year, dreams of gardens and Mercedes Benz are clearly difficult to fulfil, so what is the purpose of this shared world of impossible desire? I argue that the imagined afterlife resembles a government issued policy document for an ideal Singapore, free of troublesome neighbours and geographical constraint and thus that the Singaporean state has a hand in making a particular measure of achievement-one based on impossible but shared consumptive dreams-the metric by which those I work with measure the value of their own lives.