Kandice Chuh’s Orientations

Chuh, Kandice, and Karen Shimakawa. Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001.

“Orientations offers a critical approach to analyzing the contemporary phenomenon of globalization driven by U.S. ideology as it is articulated through and against “Asia” (4). The current racial formation is directed by world globalization, and in order for Asian American Studies to sustain its relevancy as well as its reputation as a “heterglossic” type of category, it is necessary to globalize academic practices “by thinking across disciplinary and areal boundaries” and in this manner, reproducing Jameson’s “cognitive map” of the postmodern world (4).

This new academics of Asian America is to take on wider boundaries, for instance, from the eccentric perspective of the Asian diaspora, from Area studies, and Asian studies, noticing challenges such as pluralism’s/multiculturalism “driving academic institutionalization that is equally a part of the history of Asian American studies…as a strategy of containment” (9). The books goal, it seems, is to widen the scope of Asian American studies to encompass an ethnic antiracist coalition “committed to transnational, interethnic social justice” (20).

The challenge of Multiculturalism and its nostalgia (melancholia) for “essential” attitudes that have been “violently” cast off by globalization and the West, appears to Rey Chow as a “delusional belittling of himself” (191). The desire for “Chinese” people to stay “Chinese” is from a melancholic narcissism that desires for the exotic to stay exotic, the pure to maintain its purity, and instances of “model minority” are construed as acts of cultural betrayal—in other words, the contemporary context of globalization is immediately taken out for the desire of ethnic guise.

Chow refers to this process as the productivity of White Guilt, and categorizes instances of Chinese melancholy as “The New Maoist”. “Typically, the Maoist is a cultural critic who lives in a capitalist society but who is fed up with capitalism—a cultural critic, in other words, who wants a social order opposed to the one that is supporting her own undertaking…what she wants is always located in the other,” thus the Maoist is only a rhetorical combatant, someone who desires a revolution without a revolution (197). Concomitant with this drive for the other, is the desire for those of privileged backgrounds to attempt to “authenticate his identity as a radical third world representative”, a process Chow refers to as “self-subalternization” (199).

Like Chakrabarty, Chow believes it is necessary to think in terms of borders, and tactically and slowly merging borders, firstly that “academic intellectuals must confront…not their “victimization” by society at large, but the power, wealth, and privilege that ironically accumulate from their “oppositional” viewpoint, and the widening gap between the professed contents of their words and the upward mobility they gain from such words” (203). In other words, rather than making themselves the subject of subalternization, they must make adequate use of the power-privilege positions in order to change the conditions for those who rightfully deserve such oppositional categories.

By refusing to self-subalternize, as well as to cast an ethnic “essence” onto the other (both forms encouraged by Multiculturalism), by thinking in terms of borders, writers like David Palumbo-Liu attempt to merge academic categories, beginning with the “false premises of ‘Asian’ and ‘American’” (213) by focusing on a historical racial formation shifting with relevance to the Model Minority myth. Lisa Lowe on the other hand, analyzes the border of Asian Immigrants and the newest racial formation of Asian Americans, performing a comparative racism. Lowe finds that both of these formations share challenges in four types:

1) Mixed Production in the restructuring of global capitalism
2) The influx of immigration
3) Colonial influence
4) Racial Color

Immigrant communities not only form borders with mixed races, but also with the
communities of the “homeland” in Asia within transnational capitalism. Such a mergence of borders recasts the United States as an incredibly complex racial formation. “Yet it is imperative that Asian American studies push this critique [of racial essentialism] even further in order to consider different Asian formations within the global or neocolonial framework of transnational capitalism” (273). It is Asian American studies, as a studies lacking a paradigm, that brings it into a greater position of study that does not “proceed from an assumption of the uniformity of the political subject along lines of racial, ethnic, or cultural identity,” but to create “a language about economic and social justice rather than cultural or nationalist identity” (274). Asian America must then undertake a process of rethinking “racial formation within a global context, between comparative racialization of other immigrant and neocolonialized groups” (275).

Kandice Chuh begins this racial rethinking with Asian American literature, using Cha’s Dictee and Ronyoung Kim’s Clay Walls not as Asian American texts proper, but as texts that interweave national time and identity formation into an international time, necessitating transnational time as a critical methodology that mediates interpretation. “Transnational describes not so much a particular kind of subjectivity as it does an epistemology of the social subject” showing that the paradigm of the immigrant to be just as heterogeneous as that of the Asian American, and that in both of these texts “the immigrant…is reconfigured to accept axiomatically difference and mutability rather than identity and fixity as the default quality of the national character” (292). Asian America is in a nodal point in ethnic interchange, and in a prime point “to defy conventions of U.S. hegemonic epistemology” (293).

George Lipsitz’s essay finally closes the book with an attempt to invoke an internethnic antiracism, the basis for Orientations. He opens saying that “while Ethnic studies is doing very well, ethnic people are faring very badly” (297). He attributes this loss to the fact that academics “are allowed and sometimes even encouraged to take positions opposed to dominant power, but we are also pressured to separate ourselves from aggrieved communities and to confine our work within institutions controlled by the powerful and wealthy” (297). As with Chow’s argument, Lipsitz calls for discovering the interconnectness of oppressions rather than “self-oppressions,” and the “panethnic concept of “Asian American” identity offers the quintessential model for interethnic antiracism in both activism and scholarship,” because “the ‘identity’ of being Asian American never presumed experiences were identical” (299). In other words, “Asian American” has always been foremost a political category, never an “essentialist” or traditional category that demanded certain identity types. He finds a model of interethnic antiracism is Asian America, and the prospect of forming alliances based on the tactical necessity of Asian America as a political rather than racial category. As he says, “solidarities based on identity are limited; solidarities based on identities are unlimited” (303), and finally:

“Asian American studies is not limited to the study of Asian Americans, but rather uses the specific historical experiences of Asian Americans to provoke comparative studies of the role of national culture in forming citizens and gendered subjects” (300).

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