As the largest of the world’s continents, comprising a third of the earth’s land area and some two thirds of the earth’s population, Asia’s size and diversity have always represented a challenge to the categories and conventions of regional geography. Overcoming this challenge has preoccupied a great deal of work within and beyond the discipline. It has become standard practice, for instance, to carve Asia into more manageable subunits such as East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, in order to convey some sense, however awkward, of the geographical commonality that must lie at the heart of any regionalization scheme. These regional subunits are mirrored by supranational institutions such as ASEAN (Southeast Asia), APEC (Pacific Rim), ECO (Central and Southwest Asia), and SAPTA (South Asia). Yet the need to denote a relatively precise continental boundary remains troubled by the obvious problems of working out where, for example, ‘Asia’ ends and ‘Oceana’, the ‘Middle East’, or ‘Europe’ begins. And most popular mental maps of the continent seem to imagine a core that is somehow culturally ‘Asian’ while simply ignoring those marginal areas that don’t quite fit, such as Siberia, and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. At the heart of this problem lies the persistence of Asia as a meaningful signifier of something that inherently defies regional geography. Asia’s heterogeneity is not the issue here (for heterogeneity is a problem shared by all regionalization schemes). Rather, it is the binary epistemology of Euro-American modernity that continually breathes ontological life into an idea so seemingly flimsy that it would otherwise collapse under the weight of its own absurdity. Asia, then, exists not as a continent or a region, but as ‘the other’ of the West.
However, this argument – that the ‘idea’ of Asia has derived its strength by virtue of its role as the other of Euro American secular modernity – is itself deeply problematic for several reasons. Ultimately, one must acknowledge that were Asia merely part of an ideological apparatus propping up the superiority of the West, it would have been the first casualty of the iconoclastic nationalisms that swept across the continent during the early and middle twentieth century. Instead, Asia was embraced by intellectuals and political leaders throughout much of the continent. Thus, while it would be easy to dismiss the idea of Asia as merely a European intellectual and geopolitical construction, a complete understanding of the term must approach it as a product of dialog, negotiation, and struggle within a global system of intellectual, cultural, economic, and political change. Regardless of its origins, Asia remains an idea of great importance for many people living in Asia. Thus, after outlining the ways Asia should be understood as ‘the other’ of Euro American modernity, this entry will explore the complexities of Asian appropriations and reinventions of the idea of Asia. Such appropriations and reinventions might thus be viewed as postcolonial ‘projects’, in which Asian identity is being reconstituted in alternative ways.
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