Plunging Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race

Cheng, Anne Anlin. The Melancholy of Race. Race and American culture. Oxford [England]: Oxford University Press, 2001.

It is hard to ignore racial politics today, the grievance of minorities without histories, the guilt and anxiety of social histories that prove, time and again, the hypocritical ideals of the nation. The effort to attend to the contradictions of the nation have exposed wounds in national ideology, and there is a social and legal articulation of grief emerging throughout the nation.

Anne Cheng means to attend to these wounds, to theorize the melancholia of race (not just minorities) in an attempt to articulate an inarticulable loss. As Cheng says:

if grievance is understood to be the social and legal articulation of grief, then it has also been incapable of addressing those aspects of grief that speak in a different language—a language that may seem inchoate because it is not fully reconcilable to the vocabulary of social formation or ideology but that nonetheless cuts a formative pattern (x)

The psychical experience of grievance is articulated through the languages to law and society, rather than hidden within them. Yet, racial melancholia, which Cheng calls “a theoretical model of identity that provides a critical framework for analyzing the constitutive role that grief place in racial/ethnic subject formation,” puts emphases on the “lack” of the racialized subject, through “the interjection of a lost, never-possible perfection,” leaving the subject in a suspended position through a culture’s rejection and yet attachment to the racial other (xi). Racial melancholia and a vocabulary for grievance directs our attention to take seriously “the more immaterial, unquantifiable repository of public and private grief that has gone into the making of the so-called minority subject and that sustains the notion of ‘one nation’” (6).

The psychoanalysis depiction of melancholia as a consumptive condition of “endless self-impoverishment,” lends new methods of analyzing social acts as “entangled with loss” and a “legislation with grief.” Here complaints, bickering and insults are given more agency in situations of highly asymmetrical power, where such speech acts are really plaints, utterances of grief or sorrow, where loss becomes exclusion, and a denial of the very object that has been lost and incorporated within the subject provides no outlet for grief in the day-to-day of the subject.

The project of racial melancholia is close to a project that essentializes the subject into a “diagnostic” literary theory, where the negotiation with pain becomes the very reason to segregate, and all such diagnoses become sociological descriptions of a race/ethnicity. Cheng is all to aware of this pitfall, and insists that one must treadcarefully in this psychoanalytic vocabulary, using literature to “tease out the complex social etiology behind the phenomenon of racial grief,” rather than as symptomatic of a descriptive melancholia (15). Melancholia is thus more than a sadness or affect, but “a structural, identificatory formation predicated on—while being an active negotiation of—the loss of self as legitimacy,” as both a “sign of rejection and a psychic strategy in response to that rejection” (20).  The project of racial melancholia then is to find new forms of agency within an affective formation, and to pinpoint the ideological fissures that reinforce or engender the affective form. Therefore, at the risk of meeting essentialization headlong, one “must begin to acknowledge the deep nexus of psychical negotiations being engaged and develop a political vocabulary accordingly” (21). As Cheng states at the end of her Introduction, “the stringent fear of essentialism…prevents certain categories from being discussed, categories that, for all their inherent instability, nevertheless operate in powerful, fantasmatic ways” (27). Essentialism then is taken as a guise of subjectivity, and the psychoanalytic subject as a historical being produced by a haunted history. In this sense, we must always be altered to context.

For Asian Americans, the grief seems to originate from their specific history of racism “directed against immigrants and Asian labor,” economic competition, and between “immigrant and slave relations to American nationality” (22). Asian Americans have straddled the binary between black and white, facing a European inheritance of Orientalism that places the Asian American subject within a “truly ghostly position in the story of American racialization” (23). The Asian immigrant, as the direct targeted racial group of immigration acts, is rethought within a melancholic paradigm as not simply a sadness, but conditioning their very livelihoods and shaping subjectivity.

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