Rey Chow’s The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Chow, Rey. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

In one sentence: “The problem of ethnicity is social liminality” (137).

Chow reads the categories of race, ethnicity and sexuality as enmeshed through her reading of Foucault’s theory of biopower—biopower as a racial, man vs. man concept that generates life. Race as a formation is thus symptomatic of the function of biopower, and its “generation of life’ is present in cultural tolerance. In Multiculturalism, benign tolerance remains catheticed to a social hierarchy, to advantage, using Balibar:

Culture can also function like a nature, and it can in particular function as a way of looking at individuals and groups a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable and intangible in origin. (14)

Chow says of this quote that

The discourses of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that are crucial to anthropological culturalism are…part and parcel of the multiplication…with classified lifeworlds, populations….and so on in late capitalist society, in which racial or racialized discourse is not necessarily ‘opposed to emancipatory claims; on the contrary, it effectively appropriates them.’ (14)

Multiculturalism therefore breeds a racism that is sophisticated and couched in an enlightened discourse of respect for ethnics, keeping ethnic studies and any marginalized study course within a ghetto, excluding non-ethnics (i.e. white) from having valid, authentic interest.

Protestant Ethnic

Chow looks at human rights, not on a humanitarian ground, but as inherent to transnational capitalism. Ethnicity functions as a cultural politics, trading ethnicity as a commodity to the West (22). Humanitarian sympathy is therefore inseparable from commodified relations of ethnicity, and confirms the superiority of the white race (23). This occurs as ethnics are presented as ‘stuck in time,’ a radical recognition of the self through two paradigms: (1) culture as performed and universal to all (we’re all ethnics) and (2) ethnicity as economic and geopolitical categories (i.e. oppressive).
Chow then asks, what ideology forces enable the individual to move beyond their macro structures (32)? Or to move beyond, what she calls, “the ethnicitization of labor”—the ethnics as citizens being “kept in their place”.

Using Lukacs to bring class consciousness into her theory, Chow refers to three types of narrations that perform reification of the ethnic subject: (1) temporality and co-existence of the commodity, (2) narrative and self-awakening/liberation and (3) captivity narrative. As through class consciousness, the humanity and soul remain “unreified” to the working class, but not in the bourgeois or beaurucrat.

Chow then moves to debunk the idea that by performing an ethnicity, we as ethnic subjects (i.e. racial subjects) are inhabiting a form of protest. Using Weber to outline a microstructural ideology that results in capitalism, Chow proves that in such protest, “resistance and protest, when understood historically, are part and parcel of the structure of capitalism; they are reasons capitalism flourishes” (47). By performing ethnicity, rather than protesting capitalism, the ethnic is reifying themselves and using their ethnicity as a commodified spectacle:

In this boundless capacity for moral self-production, -expansion, and –proliferation, ethnic captivity thus transubstantiates, its lines of flight readily morphing—and merging—into capital’s phantasmagoric flows (49).

Brushes with the Other as Face

Here Chow establishes Ethnicity as “an ontologically liminal phenomenon, something whose status is between subject and object,” and invites a much more complex approach (51). The focus then shifts to stereotypes as (1) cognitive and reductive representations and (2) aesthetic representations. Frederick Jameson points out that it is pointless to avoid stereotypes, but rather to let the “other” create their own stereotypes about themselves. Yet this itself seems impossible, as even Derrida and his Chinese ideogram represent instances where such stereotyping seems impossible to evade, but gives the impression that “their object-like obscurity constitutes my subjectivity, my humanity” (64). Zizek adds to this argument, agreeing that stereotypes are unavoidable, but Derrida’s invocation of the ideogram adds to “preserve the spectre”. To Chow, her reading of the stereotype is when they are used aesthetically as means of becoming iconoclastic—stereotypes exaggerated as stereotypes are obviously useless, “prevailing the others of their privilege to stereotype” (81).

Keeping them in their Place

Zoos are artificial preservations that resemble exactly what is lacking—free roaming of multiple animals within society. Guess where this innocent observation is headed?

Chow begins with this and Jameson’s infamous exegesis on national allegories. This recalls Bhabha’s notion of mimesis as (1) ineluctability of repetition between cultures and (2) unequal exchange and assigning significance (as in, the whites are always the originators). The white man is the “authentic” and the rest exist “condemned to a permanent inferiority complex, the colonized subject must try, in envy, to become that which she has been excluded in an a priori manner” (104). In other words, they are a bad copy. To Bhabha this notion of mimesis is met with a new notion, that of the native who mimics, but yet has ambivalent wishes and resentments in their identitarian plight. They are thus a split-subject, not self-identical, and are pissed about their failure to become fully “authentic”, usually limited by their race, language, etc.
Chow adds a third type of mimesis, one that we can all see coming, “the level at which the ethnic person is expected to come to resemble that which is recognizably ethnic” (107). This is the mimicking of multiculturalism, the mimicking “the mask of the plural” as Chow calls it, an interpellation by their own ethnic community—the interpellation of “community interdependence”.

This leads Chow to a reflection on interpellation. While Althusser seems to deny agency to the individual, Zizek sees the “traumatic kernel/leftover” of the interpellative process as the very condition of ideological command, and thus the self-conditioning of the subject as a response to interpellation is so that one may “avoid and postpone the terror of a radically open field of significatory possibilities” (110). In other words, to don the “mask” of multiculturalism is a reaction to “the terror of complete freedom rather than the ideological process of being interpellated” (110). The internalization of interpellation therefore patches over the chasm of “mind” and “performance” of the ethnic subject, or to Lukacs, the “unreified” and the bourgeois—the subject and objective reality. Only by answering the hailing can one resist the terror of complete freedom.
The performance of the ethnic subjects through methods of interpellation thus results in a self-mimicry:

In order to be, this ethnic must both been to own her ethnicity and to exhibit it repeatedly. This repeated exhibition nowadays tends to take the form of confession, an act that, in the terms of this discussion, may be renamed self-mimicry (112).

Self-mimicry is the suturing of the self and the performed self, when “the fully complicit with the guilty verdict that has been declared on them socially long before they speak” (115). This is the contradiction within multiculturalism, it is the constant hailing of the normative white subject to the ethnic subject to comply with the ethnicity as they see it. Performing ethnicity then is not only inherent to capitalist structure, but is a voluntary surrender of one’s own agency—the will to freedom. This ethnic subject is thus too a racial subject, as “a white person sympathetic to or identifying with a nonwhite culture does not in any way become less white” (117), but of course for the ethnic subject it is quite the opposite. If I, as a mixed race, begin to take an interest in Korea, I betray my ethnic “Filipino roots”. But when a white person does it, he betrays nothing, he becomes Neapolitan. Whiteness is thus incorruptible.

What value then is ethnicity? First is the corruptibility by foreigners, and therefore exclusive, second, “such ethnicitiy is often treated as if it were an essence beyond exchange and circulation”—in other words, it becomes a commodity fetish. Third, it increases its value over time as “authentic”. Fourth, unlike the white man, the ethnic must work hard to keep their ethnicity and it appear to be bona fide, or “the more of an inferior representation she will appear to be” (124). Fifth is the stereotyping of the ethnic geopolitically, which occurs often in attacks issued by the ethnics themselves—through coercive mimeticism by their own “community”.

Asian American studies however may not represent a location of hopeful resistance to these forms of ethnicity. “In Asian American studies, epistemic authority is frequently and implicitly located in the bodies of the ethnics themselves” (125). Indeed, Chow continues:

Asian Americans are perhaps the paradigmatic case of a coercive mimeticism that physically keeps them in their place—that keeps them, in Balibar’s terms, in their genealogy and, I would add, in their genre of speaking/writing as nothing but generic Asian Americans (125).

Such self-mimicry occurs as a means to political recognition, “in a society that will recognize their existence through the strategy of continual, systematic marginalization” (125). Chow finishes by saying that:

The forces of coercive mimeticism are ultimately what engender the profound sense of self-hatred and impotence among ethnics, because, however conscientiously they attempt to authenticate themselves…they will continue to come across as inferior imitations, copies that are permanently out of focus (127).

The Secrets of Ethnic Abjections

Multiculturalism is the realm where existential identity is at stake (129). To Stuart Hall, cultural identity is both concrete identity/sign, and the post-modern difference and deference (diasporic). Yet the post-structural valorization of difference leads to a new type of idealism, and what makes “difference” ideal is” precisely the euphoric valorization of difference or, to be more accurate still, the hasty, optimistic replication of the difference revolution as found in postructural linguistics” (131). Cultural in the plural, or multiculturalism, is thus

fraught with unresolved tensions such as those of racism and class discrimination…the post-structural specialization in difference…appears quite inadequate in accounting for how the purportedly liberating movements of difference and hybridity can and do become hierarchically organizaed as signs of minoritization and inferiority in various contemporary world situations (134)

“Difference” can be the commodification of culture, the equalization of the unequal, valorizing “difference” as perceived by the white normative gaze. Multiculturalism is thus on one hand emancipation through difference, and on the other the categories of difference through sociocultural and geopolitical inferiority.
The ethnic subject is thus unable to be narcissistic, and the only “self” he/she may love is that which is assigned to him/her by the multicultural order. But then again, it is not only white, normative subjects who elicit this interpellation, but ethnic communities themselves that promote some ad hoc corresponding image of themselves to love.
Autobiography then is seen as a composition of the self when the corresponding image is inaccurate, superficial or arbitrary. Writing then becomes more than selfish, but about collective, inherited and shared conditions of social stigmatization and abjection. Ethnic hybridity then, something in the liminal of the limin, functions as a form of abjection, something that cannot be categorized or placed, nor can the mixed race subject perform self-mimicry, for social recognition of humiliation, they must then turn themselves into the abject.

When Whiteness Feminizes

In this chapter Chow analyzes post-structuralism as “naïve politics of women that leaves patriarchal aesthetics entirely intact” (155). No kidding, but then she discerns two genealogical continuities between narrative models of the feminine: the realist modal of the innocent orphan who eventually marries a rich husband (Jane Eyre) and the avante garde, promiscuous cosmopolitan, giving herself and functioning as a post-structural sign.
At any rate—


Chow uses Franz Fanon’s diatribe against women of color, who condemned their desire for sexual relationships with white men for social mobility, as an example of ressentiment for sexual lewdness, as an instance of self/community-loathing that results in caring only about how they perceive us, how we look towards them, how they judge, etc.

The Chinese media likewise shows ressentiment for Ha Jin and his novel Waiting, which won the national book award. He was attacked by the Chinese media as “a tool used by American media to slander China”, and Chow uses the critique of a Beijing University professor, Liu Yiqing, to substantiate this claim (186). The books success, Liu writes, is “part of a plot by the American media to demonize China by showing China’s backwardness and the stupidity of the Chinese people” (187). Ha Jin not only sells out, but like the colored woman that Fanon disagrees with, “he has done it in order to gain approval from Westerners, the Americans” (187). Chow finds this type of response a typical reaction of an ethnic community during a time of achievement and success, a recognition that “should bring pride and jubilation to his own ethnic/national community” (187).

The point is that to the oppressed, the western gaze alone is all that counts and all that can give ethnic groups their needed self-esteem. This is a situation where “knowledge of the West, access to the West, and recognition by the West remain the very criteria by which ethnics judge one another’s existential value and social success in the postcolonial world” (189). Being perceived then, becomes the paradigm “representative” of race, and “in this manner, ethnic ressentiment and coercive mimeticism fatefully complement each other, and the wheel of postcolonial cross-ethnic representational politics comes full circle” (189).


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