Min Song’s Strange Future

Song, Min. Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

Song defines the strange as “the bearers of a materiality that demands narrative invention,” something that “discourages thinking about collective solutions to widely shared problems. As a result, the presence of the strange speeds a retreat into atomistic individualism, a celebration of unregulated wealth accumulation, and a fearful support for authoritarian rule” (3). In its effects, the strange is analogous to the type of racial melancholia Anne Cheng talks about, which leaves the subject stuck in an entanglement with a lost object. The strange, however, differs from other similar metaphorical insights, in that it collapses the possible imagined futures, into a pessimistic cyclical repetition of the injuries of the past which we are doomed to repeat.

Song locates the strange in the effects of the Los Angeles Riots and the events leading up to it, where a loss of a middle class through gentrification and urban poverty, racialized poverty for blacks in L.A. slums, and the influx of non-white immigrants, led to a utopian narrative of Los Angeles as the multicultural capital of the world, a utopian dream torn apart during the articulations of violence and inequality screaming from the Los Angeles Riots. The Riots affected the emerging generation’s ability to trust the state and national ideologies, but most importantly affected the ability to read history in a linear narrative of cause and effect. The Riots, to Song, represent an overdetermined event of history, where, following Althusser, the overdetermined represents “any historical event [that] is the product of causes that exceed what we can discern”:

To refer to the Los Angeles riots per se suggests exactly a moment of overdetermination: a dizzying array of historical causations and unrelated sensory perceptions that do not add up to anything coherent, a meta-event that can only be talked about in terms of our inability to comprehend what has happened, a throwing up of arms in exasperation that such scenes of violence could have been motivated by any kind of logic at all (13).

The fragmentation of an historical event leads to an absence, a stand-in for what cannot be captured or made sense of as a whole. Where the official histories fail at representing a historical moment, the strange then erupts within culture, where, as Lisa Lowe states, “we conceive and enact new subjects and practices in antagonism to the regulatory locus of the citizen-subject, by way of culture that we can question these modes of government” (16). In light of an overdetermined historical event, art must narrativize and interpret life, and narratives of invention then “erupt” within culture to attempt to understand that moment within our own historical moment.

Song invents a host of metaphors in order to articulate affective formations, chief among them our familiar mode of analysis, trauma, which “imprints a groove that leaves one reliving the violence as if in a waking ceaseless dream” and concerns “the body’s removal from the flow of causes and effects, the body’ lacking awareness of temporality” (20). What is promising about his methods are the inclusion of new metaphorical lenses, some, like “pain,” seemingly outdated already, while others, like “wounding” and “injury,” are noticeably dissimilair from trauma and can be used to think of affective formations originated by more than historical gaps. Wounding, for instance,

articulates a disjuncture of interpersonal experiences, a disparity among perspectives accountable by group formations, a structural inequality lived as individual isolation and personal suffering that cannot be communicated across subjective gulfs no matter how technologically sophisticated we become (21).

To be wounded then is to be alienated from one’s own social group, from the total disjuncture of like-minded individuals, an “evisceration of a social body that has little possibility of mending” (21). Surrounding all of these metaphorical symptoms is haunting, which is “an apparition of the weak, the disempowered, the forgotten, the excluded, the murdered, and so forth that intrudes upon a present too willing to sweep disturbing plaints of injustice into the dustbin” (22).

Wounding is an especially prescient metaphor at a time when many members of the diaspora find themselves on trips of return to the lost homeland, perhaps to secure unremembered trauma, but also to further investigate sites of wounding. Wounding has a double-meaning to Song, first as “an expression to transgress restrictive boundaries, to enable freer intercourse with those not like oneself, and ultimately to found a greater sense of community than what is already permitted” (102). This first meaning can be seen in the diasporic subject’s desire to find a new sense of belonging within the Others of the homeland, in an uncertain kinship and shared race. The second meaning of wounding, Song depicts as imagining a kind of contact with this Other in an effort to build community as “always accompanied by severe pain.” The hope of connecting with one’s own social group is met, time and again, with a type of physical violence, placing the subject in a vulnerable position.

A language of analysis that seeks to make meaning out of the strange is also a figurative language of metaphor, meant to “hold us firm in the belief that to say something is complex is not to say that something cannot be understood” (22). A historical understanding produced through metaphor holds, of course, no claims to objectivity, but rather, is useful for “confront[ing] us with our own worst fears by refusing to ignore what cannot, in any case, be ignored in the long run: the estrangement at the heart of contemporary life” (24). It is the confrontation with fear—as Clough would say, the fear that we do not desire to know that which cannot be known—that figurative language may represent the overdetermined historical event, not to represent the event itself, but so that the affects produced by the event can more accurately represent our present.

The language of analysis that Song proposes is utilized to its fullest in his depiction of the Korean disapora in Chang-rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker, which suggests that “Korean Americans are not individuals removed from like subjectivities and slotted into the machinery of a homogenizing social order. Rather, they have a shared history of trauma that is potentially powerful enough to bond this ethnic group under the heading of diaspora” (177). These events are the numerous colonizations and injustices that have occurred in Korea’s long history. Trauma here becomes “the paradoxical source of a group’s identity,” where trauma itself produces a “culture of shared traumas” (178).

Trauma for the “less well-off” must especially find solidarity within shared trauma and shared exploitation, since for them, “diaspora is the name of an unsettled identity that is forced upon them through compulsory travel across national boundaries and that places them in occasional coalition, or alternatively in conflict, with similar socioeconomically situated peoples” (181). This dispersal process is enabled by the need for cheap labor in overdeveloped countries, and by the systems of mobility within globalization. Yet, diaspora is also “a powerful signifier for futurity,” since to move for a better livelihood, is still to partake in the act of movement, so as to better one’s own conditions in a place of higher wages and better access; futurity is always being considered, and therefore, it is hope rather than pessimism about the future that the migrant laboring subject must hold. This is the meaning of diaspora that Song receives through an affective reading of Native Speaker, the diaspora in the Greek sense of the word, meaning a “casting of seeds.” Diasporas, at least, heteronormative diasporas, lead themselves to a “moment and time to the germination of a new generation of adults who, in entering the prime of their professional lives, seem ready to participate fully in the discussions, struggles, and movements now taking place on national and international stages” (197). The hope of the diasporic subject, then is not only for the future, but the transgenerational.

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