Plunging Ma’s Immigrant Subjectivities

Ma, Sheng-mei. Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

To locate immigrant subjectivities as distinct from Asian Americans, Ma shows that these are not only separate, but that Asian American literature typically “realign[s] their symbiotic relationship with Asian immigrants as an adversarial one” (3). In contrast to Asian Americans, Asian immigrants are subject to ESL education and become known as “‘pale imitations’ whose incomplete absorption of the language and its related skills dooms them to a life of menial jobs” (7). As writers without political identity or “roots,” Ma also investigates the “writers’ conformity to hegemony” as well as their resistance to it. In the late 1990s, Ma is breaking new ground here, and the untested territory also severely limits his scope: “A comprehensive survey of Asian Diaspora literature in the United States at this time is all but impossible due to the lack of scholarly attention in this field” (8). Yet it is also this lack of critical awareness in Asian Diasporic subjectivities that leads Asian Americans to frequently “resort to mainstream, somewhat Orientalist, perspective in depicting Asian immigrants” (8).

The story of immigrants is frequently heart-breaking mystical and easy to appropriate to their children, Asian American writers, for whom the stories of their parents’ or grandparents’ migrations to the United States both enables their entrance into a market that begs for ethnic commodification. Yet, to Ma, while these texts remain marketable, “immigrants remain largely a blank, an absence—the voiceless, plastic other waiting to be born  by their children” (11). The writers that Ma explores often resort to Orientalism to prove their own non-orientalness, or towards a cosmopolitan universal. In either scenario, “their Asian heritage is portrayed as an incidental, almost negligible appendix to their Western and cosmopolitan identity” (14). For Maxine Hong Kingston, this negligence is found in the “contemporary feminist spin” she puts on her immigrant mothers, especially Brave Orchid. Ma tracks the discourse contesting identity through Frank Chin and Kingston’s debates, which eventually culminate in Tripmaster Monkey, to show how arguments over commodified histories and gender identity often reproduce the Orientalism of the immigrant. Such orientalizations manifest through imagined linguistic parodies and garbled pidgin, where “the Chinese body and pidgin English are often taken to be the indicators of the Oriental’s alienness and at times degeneracy” (27). In order to resist being besieged by Orientalist stereotypes as well as the feminism of Amy Tan and Kingston, male Asian American writers “they Oritentalize Chinese to demonstrate their distinct Americanness” while Asian American feminists, to empower themselves, “perpetuate the estranging Chinese body and pidgin English, and prosecute the misogynist, male-oriented Asian tradition” (39). The focus on immigrant eccentricity, finally, leads to the repeated representation of the immigrant as schizophrenic, where “to label someone else schizophrenic entails the assumption of a well-integrated personality of that labeling subject, which is in itself a political act” (45). Schizophrenia then, as a trope of immigrant representation, is employed to show Americanness in the Asian American, and insanity in the Other.

To resist the dangers of “being mainstreamed” in his exposure of immigrant subjectivities, Ma proposes a method of reading texts “interdisciplinarity, against the grain of their alleged literary and cultural tradition and along with the ever-shifting social realities” (6). His inclusion of Bataille, Orientalism, film studies and psychology reflect this method. Besides the orientalism of the immigrant, Ma also named the eroticism of the white female body as a “political symbol within which lies the promise of power yearned by the ostracized” (67). White women then comes to symbolize “angelic motherhood, and the spirit of freedom and democracy.” It is perhaps too easy to pinpoint this misrepresentation on Carlos Bulosan, though the immigrant subjectivity of Phillipino migrants is not really compared to the Chinese and Taiwanese experiences Ma uses throughout the rest of the book. Ma takes his interdisciplinary technique further to Taiwanese student immigrant literature, an immediate disciplinary problem since the field of literary analysis is “dominated by English-language texts:” “A territorial protectionism lies at the heart of this genre’s being sinologized within and without modern China studies: China specialists are thus satisfied that overseas student literature is their terrain; postcolonial and Asian American experts are satisfied that it is not” (94). This tactic Ma sees as especially important for post-colonial studies, which he believes has “focused almost exclusively on Anglophone and Francophone literatures” and “suffers from cultural and linguistic self-containment” (101). By focusing on the former colonies of Britian, France and Portugal, postcolonial studies has “de facto rendered European colonial discourse the “master narrative,” totally ignoring, for instance, Japanese colonialism of Asia” (102). In this process, “post-colonial studies reaffirms rather than subverts the supremacy of European languages and Continental philosophy:

One of the pitfalls of postcolonial theory’s Eurocentric obsession is, evident from the aforementioned critics’ Marxist approach, its neglect of the urgent issue of neocolonialism or multinational capitalism, a phenomenon by no means confined to former European colonies. (102)

In Taiwanese overseas student literature, post-colonialists often excuse the biased presentations of the United States and unduly romanticized view of the home community as a means of resisting empire, while the ideological work of these novels in their own language and audience (Chinese) goes uncriticized and unquestioned (112):

Their education in the Chinese and Taiwanese mold saturates them with ethnocentricism so thoroughly that even their advanced education in American institutions and, ultimately, their naturalized American citizenship fail to decenter their ideology. In fact, the ideology based on an allegiance to “Chineseness” frequently neutralizes and absorbs alien elements in immigrant subjectivities…these writers eventually become not only products of “Ideological State Apparatuses” but re-producers of that structure…these writers create a “nation” through their “narration.” (128)

“Nativist” literature of Taiwan disrupts many of the overseas nation building of the diasporic students, albeit while erasing the aboriginies of the island, by celebrating the grotesque folk humor that, as he says, “is in danger of vanishing amidst Westernized degeneration” (133). This celebration is linked to a lament of the fate of rural workers, satirizing Chinese overseas as “fake” Americans, and problematizes the American presence on the island as always linked through sexual exploitation, military prominence or the interests of global capital expansion.

Plunging Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. New York : Harper & Row, 1911.

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first” (ix).

At a time when the Pinkertons and police were deployed to break strikes, Taylor’s book arrives with the promise that since his system has been implemented, “there has never been a single strike among the men working in this system” (18).  The system is intended to promote an alignment between the management and the workers, eliminating “soldiering,” increasing pay while doubling the amount of work per day. The worker is made to be “incapable of understanding this science,” and selected based on their abilities to follow orders and to become robust automatons (31). For Taylor, soldiering is encouraged by large groups (i.e. unions), “that when men work in gangs, their individual efficiency falls almost invariably down to or below the level of the worst man in the gang; and that they are all pulled down instead of being elevated by being heralded together” (60). Since this includes getting rid of all the workers who are capable of understanding the science put upon them, this also means “laying off many of the most intelligent, hardest working, and most trustworthy [workers]” (76). His system requires each man to forgo the variety of learning a trade, and to enlist their abilities to a single task, to be ordered and controlled by the management. While the promise to get rid of unions and strikes is itself alluring to management, in case the management needs altruistic reasons to revolutionize their production method, Taylor notes that “the people” will benefit the most from this shift in production, that is, the consumers, “who ultimately pay both the wages of the workmen and the profits of the employers” (119). By increasing profit, the consumer will benefit from cheap commodities, and will “insist that justice shall be done to all three parties” (121).

Plunging Jacobson, Special Sorrows

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

By tracing the ideological geographies of Polish, Jewish and Irish immigrants near the turn of the century through literature and pop-culture, Matthew Jacobson shows how the immigrant imaginary was often times focused one questions of emigration, peoplehood and collective identity. The comparisons between these three groups show commitments to Old World allegiances and struggles as well as desires to reconstitute themselves collectively as distinctly American. Rather than looking to these groups for timetables and paradigms of assimilation, Jacobson tracks the obligations and diasporic imaginaries that made the immigrants always feel a part of the distant national community.

The origins of diasporic figures in each of these groups alludes to their links to the horrors of misrule and struggles for liberation that produced them. For the Irish, it is the exile, for the Pole, it is the pilgrim, and for the Jew, it is the wanderer. Jacobson casts these figures as “living symbols of oppression” that poignantly testify “to the horrors of misrule” (13). These figures emerge not out of the historical studies of the period, but from the cultural production that these groups undertook, which shows that “everyday sociability was often infused with political meaning” and “if we consider immigrant outlooks as opposed to political outcomes, these nationalist movements and debates were not marginal but central” (54). Faced with a disconnection with the past and the homeland, immigrant groups frequently retold their own stories through cultural production, beginning with didactic journals meant to “control and guide their respective movements” as well as envisage a nation and its worldwide diaspora through a homogenous empty time (61). The mythical national histories laden in popular religion also provided an everyday language and place to discuss questions of nationalism: “questions of peoplehood, sovereignty, and national purpose were fixed in both the logic of belief and in the styles of devotion” (74).

Finally, literature, festivals and dramas kept nationalist spirits alive, while at times contesting different meanings of the nation and diaspora that came about, as Jacobson explains: “nationalism surfaced and resurfaced in a myriad of cultural forms, infusing a wide variety of social activities which are rarely considered as remote to the daily routines of immigrant life as the distant and nebulous affairs of international politics proper” (92). Cultural forms then kept political debates unrestricted and available through literary forms. The manner in which diasporic literatures departed from their Old World relatives, Jacobson says, depends “upon the demographic, linguistic, and economic circumstances of cultural production in the New World ghetto” (95). Very often the artists in these communities were themselves political activists, taking up the creation of a national character through celebration of deeds, advancing notions of the heroic, and condemning certain vices:

Literature, in short, represented one of the critical practices by which these new global scatterings of people proclaimed their unity as discrete populations, defined their distinctive virtues, policed their boundaries, sustained their enmities, and projected themselves as candidates for political self-determination. (97)

For immigrant literature, cultural production most often articulated a group identity as their national identity, that Irish were not just politically rebellious, but that their communities had attitudes of rebellion. To proclaim the group as a national identity was to enforce the idea that “this national identity entailed a lasting commitment to certain cherished loves and hatreds” (136).

The immigrant discourse around the Spanish-American war, which were intertwined with the rebellions in Cuba and the Philippines, are present in Jacobson’s account as ways to “assess the tecture of political argument and to analyze the intellectual and ideological currents which were tapped by discussants along the political spectrum” (144). Very often these discussions show the tensions between Old World sensibility and New World political activity, and at the very least, the tensions between the homeland and belonging to the new land. Outright protests were often held within immigrant communities against conquests of Cuba and the Philippines, especially in the beginning of the war, since immigrant communities were already suspicious of civilizing rhetoric and forms of class power. However, as rhetoric surrounding the war became more enmeshed in national liberation, American pride and ideas of manhood, immigrant communities began utilizing the fever created by the war to enlist their own men as regiments in the army and to gain some political recognition through service and pride in the American empire.

For the Philippines, many immigrants immediately forged “a damning critique of American empire-building based upon a rare empathy with the Filipinos themselves, yet as race began to group immigrants into different types of “whiteness” while the Filipinos were grouped under mongrels and savages, “becoming American” soon meant “becoming Caucasian” (182). Indeed, the new terms for race coming into the American imaginary as attempts to make the Filipino more Other, succeeded for immigrant communities in making themselves more accountable, shifting the ideas of dominant racial groups from Anglo-Saxon to simply white or Caucasian. The fierceness with which many cultural forms drive toward becoming Caucasian, and in effect becoming American,  show a type of breaking with the home land, for rather than defining themselves in terms of their “ethnic whiteness,” the communities became defined in terms of Americanness. But to align so vehemently with the white race was not necessarily to abandon the critique of empire, rather, many immigrant nationalists were able to perform both by insisting upon America’s “anti-imperialist pedigree,” and using the models of George Washington, rather than their “ethnic” nationalist heroes, to critique overseas expansion (208).

Plunging Christine So’s Economic Citizens

So, Christine. Economic Citizens: A Narrative of Asian American Visibility. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008.

So’s book is informed by an emergent paradigm in Asian American Studies not to read for resistance, but for “how Asian Americans enter and appropriate U.S. mainstream culture and ideologies” (6). As her title would suggest, this study concerns the appropriation of Asian Americans as economic subjects, rather than subjects formed by discourses of sexuality, gender or politics. Her book is appropriate in a time of global capitalism and mass commodification of culture, as a way of seeing how Asian Americans co-opt powers of global capital and neo-liberal orientalism, and “to explore more fully Asian American culture’s production of not only difference but sameness, nativization, assimilation, and belonging” (8). So then seeks ways for how Asian Americans have entered the U.S. imaginary within economic discourse, as “agents of capitalism gone awry,” as always symbolizing an excess of capitalist markets within a hyperembodied racialized subject(8).  For So, it is the logic of global capital that has largely determined how Asian Americans are imagined, as a constant threat that “has enabled the consolidation of the white, middle-class family identity” (10).

So’s method for dissecting the economic identities from Asian American literature relies upon a vast subject knowledge of economics, and not just classical economics. Using the economic theories of Georg Simmel, Maurice Bloch, Jonathan Parry, Antonio Callari, Marc Shell and Jean-Joseph Goux, So shows how Asian Americans were able to see use the economic realm to influence their position in the social realm, and vice versa: “Simmel…sees economic  exchange as a means of widening existing social circles and transferring an adherence to one’s community to a larger dependence on an abstract system of exchange” (15). For So, the appropriation of commodified identities by Asian Americans is to gain power by entering themselves within the circulation of commodities. By becoming commodified bodies, Asian Americans were thus able to obtain some limited form of recognition during times of immigration exclusion, internment and segregation, to “articulate abstract citizenship and to construct an idealized relationship to the nation state” (23). However, for Asian Americans, being recognized as units of exchange was always seen through a racist lens of capitalist excess, where “surplus becomes a common means of establishing Asian American subjectivity,” therefore undermining the logics of universal equivalence (29). For So, the “economic undercurrent” in Asian American texts “undermines the texts’ presumed messages of racial healing as well as much larger assumptions regarding the predictability of economic exchange and the ability to move easily between the economic, social and symbolic realms” (24).

By reading these texts against traditional interpretations, So aligns with Viet Nguyen and Tomo Hattori, who seek to make critics more aware of their own cooptation in reading texts, where the use of a racial identity as a mode of resistance, according to Viet Nguyen, “accrues symbolic rather than economic capital.” Rather than focus on critics, however, So wants to show how the appropriation of economic subjectivity disrupts logics of economic exchange. So performs this admirably through Chinese American narratives of hoarding, fetishization and other excesses of money. Though the characters in novels like Virginia Lee’s The House That Tai-Ming Built enter themselves in the logic of economic exchange as a necessary means of establishing Chinese American culture, the “slippery nature of exchange” serves as “a tool for disorientation, displacement and alienation” (70). For Japanese American return narratives, the demands to adhere to logics of exchange produces a globalized Asian American subject, one who can appropriate cultural forms of the homeland, and where home is seen as “a means of rescuing Asian Americans from the margins of United States politics and culture” (76). “Asian American” here becomes a universal signifier, one able to transcend borders of race, gender, nation, etc. by transcending borders. However, the freedom and healing offered by the homeland are still possible only “through the dominant and universal languages and logic of economic exchange,” thus still rendering the universal Asian American as still determined by forces of global capital.

So’s third chapter, “The Embodiment of Exchange,” was printed first as an article in Feminist Studies, and maps the body of the Asian mail-order bride as a figure dominated completely by rhetoric of capital and profit. For So, the Asian mail-order bride is an especially disruptive figure because it signals a direct involvement with the American home, a “collision between the needs of capital and U.S. ideologies surrounding the home, family, and nation,” where rhetoric of the family is very often used to exploit third-world women labor into a type of domestic slavery. The mail-order bride then becomes a “repository for national fears about global competition, loss of U.S. jobs and cultural identity, and the ‘invasion’ of immigrants of color” (103). So’s analysis of Wanwadee Larsen’s Confessions of a Mail Order Bride finds Larsen’s voice to be one of economic subjectivity, where the investment of the American male in the Thai woman yields rich results, as Larsen ends up saving her American husband first from a traffic accident, then from a marijuana addiction. Rather than simply reiterating the discourse of saving brown women from brown men through capitalist participation, Larsen inverts this discourse but refuses to see past it, and presents the Thai woman as “the rescuer of those who profit from…economic exchanges” (119). Though Larsen is able to redefine herself, she is unable to redefine her relationship to economic exchange, and is still subjected to its totalization, where Thailand must always be seen as “a primordial, pre-capitalist state” that can likewise be invested in (125)

Amy Kaplan’s The Social Construction of American Realism

Kaplan, Amy. The Social Construction of American Realism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Amy Kaplan’s first book makes efforts to form a way of reading that not only takes into account the methods of cultural production, but the social effects and utility of literature in its own time. For realism, this first means of rescuing the genre from its contemporary conceptions as a failed, un-American genre that stands weakly against American romance and sentimentalism. Kaplan argues that “the association of the romance with a uniquely American culture has displaced realizsm as an anomalous and distinctly un-American margin of literary criticism, which has necessarily viewed its literary mode as a failure” (3). However, the romance thesis itself was born out of the New Critics and the unease of World War II which demanded for a more authentic American genre.  Since realism is influenced greatly by European novels, it seemed like European mimicry rather than an authentic reflection of American attitudes.

Kaplan attempts to rethink realism by naming it a social construction, in that the way it has been viewed is itself contingent with historical circumstance and theoretical paradigms. Though many critics have attempted to rethink realism for similar reasons, most dissect realism as responses to social change rather than agents of social change themselves. As she says “the treatment of texts as responses to social change implicitly situates literature outside the arena of social history, looking down and commenting upon it, and thereby reinforces the rigid split between social structures and literary structures” (5). Seeing realist cultural production as determined by history as well as agents of historical change enables a new way of reading realism that finds in its stylistic inconsistencies and problematic endings attempts to shift social relations in their own time. For Kaplan, these inconsistencies do not rupture aesthetic value or style, but identify moments where form is used to actively engage with historical change:

As  [realists] begin to treat literary form as a social practice, these historical approaches reclaim the American novelist’s engagement with society. Realists do more than passively record the world outside; they actively create and criticize the meanings, representations, and ideologies of their own changing nature. (7)

To see literary form as a type of social work, one with its own ethics and demands, gives the realists a unique place in American literature within their own ideological moments. The role of Ideology in Kaplan’s work, which she defines as “those unspoken collective understandings, conventions, stories and cultural practices that uphold systems of power” (6),  is paramount to her way of reading realist texts. She explains that due to the large scale industrialism and expansions of the cities, realist novels attempted to “engage in an enormous act of construction to organize, re-form, and control the social world” and would “attempt to regulate conflict in the narrative construction of common ground among classes both to efface and reinscribe social histories” (10). Realism then is not seen as a failed attempt to dissect and tear apart ideological formations of class in its own time, but rather, as an attempt to construct social forms.

Her chapters on William Dean Howells expand on her argument that Howells’ work should be seen as an attempt to construct new social forms, showing that his work often attempts to resist the advertising and artificial narratives of mass media, while at the same time, to keep from writing in a form for elites. It is the struggle between these two forms that Howells settles on realism as a form that denies popular romance, which “turns literature into a consumer item and reading into an act of consumption” (17), and elitism. For Kaplan, “the major work of the realistic narrative is to construct a homogenous and coherent social reality by conquering the fictional qualities of middle-class life and by controlling the specter of class conflict which threatens to puncture this vision of a unified social totality” (21). Howells creates a “common realm,” where classes and individuals are able to see their conflicts within a bigger picture. In other words, the project of realism for Howells is “to manage social difference through representation” (30). He does this by representing the cityscape as a place attempting to forge “common possession” but cannot deny the dispossession that it enacts onto its citizens, and through his rigorous details of “useless knowledge,” to show how tenuous the boundaries are between class exclusions.

Kaplan’s work on Edith Wharton is perhaps the most illuminating as well as the most contentious. Her argument is that, while Wharton’s work is often seen as the precursor to a type of “Women’s writing” that reflects domesticity and the home, for Kaplan, Wharton’s writing is in fact an “effort to write herself out of the private domestic sphere and to inscribe a public identity in the marketplace” (67). Wharton seeks not a separate sphere, but becomes an apprentice to realism, and rather than just being feminine “women’s writing,” her work “undermines those boundaries between feminine and masculine, private and public” (67). As she despised the elites of New York City for their leisure and fear of work, Wharton saw her own writing as a type of work, and followed a rigorous schedule to keep up with it.  She desired for her authorship to be seen as professional, and constantly had to “grapple with the precedent of women novelists who ventured into the market only to reinforce their place at home” (72). In other words, Wharton struggled with the tradition of women’s writing rather than taking a firm place in it. This shows in Kaplan’s analysis of House of Mirth, which has traditionally been seen as a type of “novel of manners.” Breaking with this tradition, Kaplan shows how House of Mirth not only exposes the corruption and superficiality of the upper class, but defines them in relation to the lower class, since “to legitimate their privilege, the upper class cannot afford to seclude itself in a private sphere, but depends upon displaying itself before the gaping mob” (90). Wharton problematizes the sphere of the home by showing its dependency on being visible by the mob through acts of conspicuous consumption.  By revealing their source of power, Wharton participates in changing forms of class power.

Finally, Kaplan’s section on Theodore Drieser solidifies her argument by identifying Sister Carrie as an engagement with the conspicuous consumption of Wharton,  in an attempt to construct new social forms. Kaplan argues that: “the critical opposition associating sentimentalism with consumption and desire, and realism with work and deprivation, is already generated by the narrative strategies of Sister Carrie, as a way of imagining and managing the contradictions of a burgeoning consumer society” (143).  Conspicuous consumption plays a tragic role in Drieser’s novel, as “the characters seem to be in pursuit of something that commodities promise but never quite deliver, because they seek in things around them an image of themselves” (148). Here the work of the novel seems similar to Wharton’s and Howell’s, in that Drieser’s text not merely comments on consumption, but enables a radical critique of commodities as ways of promising identity and social groups. For Drieser, it is the workplace and work that acts as “the site of those power relations which fuel the desire for change that commodities promise but never fully realize” (151).

Shirley Lim et al., Transnational Asian American Literature

Lim, Shirley. Transnational Asian American Literature: Sites and Transits. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006.

The introduction of Transnational Asian American Literature, by Shirley Lim et al, begins with two statements that are, for anyone who is familiar with Asian American Studies, strikingly contentious. The first, that “sees nation-formation themes, often intrinsically tied to language strategies and formal features, as one subject [of many] rising from a set of historical dynamics that traverse and explain the collective body of Asian American Literature” (1). In other words, the themes of national citizen subject and exclusion that Lisa Lowe finds as a thread common in all Asian cultural forms, and are therefore more able to produce resistant subjects, is simply one of a myriad of subjects from which the various histories of Asian Americans give cultural form. Their second point is that there is an unacknowledged transmigratory nature of the Asian American experience, a “history characterized by disparate migratory threads, unsettled and unsettling histories churned by multiple and different notions of literary aesthetics, albeit most largely mediated through the English language” (1).

Like many Asian American Studies texts, one must begin by positing that Asian American Studies is in a state of crisis due to the heterogeneity of the field. Lim et al. push this crisis further, insisting that

Asian American imagination, unlike that of African American writing, has no single unifying grand narrative to organize the vast materials that Asian American writers call on; it possesses no single linguistic Other, as in Lintina/o writing, on which to hing a counter tradition of stylistics. Instead, what Asian American works of imagination manifest in full are a plethora of seemingly separate threads. (2)

Unlike nation-state centered threads, the ones discussed here lead to different national origins, different first languages, and cultural signs which are “unintelligible to those identified as “the same” by census and academic disciplinary discourses” (2). Efforts to resuscitate Asian American heterogeneity, from Lowe’s reliance on cultural form in Immigrant Acts to Kandice Chuh’s proposal of Asian Amercan Studies as postsubject critique and “Asian American” as an “abstract signifier whose signified contents are so shiftable, provisional, and undecidable that attempts to contain them will always result in incomplete narratives,” have attempted to erase the subject of Asian American discourse, turning it into a political method, rather than an aesthetic form that manifests from, as well as critiques, a certain social group. (4). For Lim et al., the “Asian American” is not theorized as subjectless, but as a “multiplier signifier, attributed with political, social, and cultural value particularly by U.S. institutional forces” (4). Forming this multiplied subject is “a combination of canny political agendas, individual imaginations, communal histories, erasures and elisions, provisional arrangements, and contingencies” (5).  Above all, “Asian American” offers a “way of understanding and constructing identity mediated by textual power…as an agent for novel imaginaries and social transformation” (5). This theorizing of Asian American is unique and called upon for it better supports subjects of non-U.S. incorporation, such as overseas writers, immigrants, sojourners, expatriates and regional writers.

Stephen Sohn’s “‘Valuing’ Transnational Queerness”

The best essay in the compilation is hands-down Stephen Sohn’s “‘Valuing’ Transnational Queerness,” an exploration of queer sexuality and commodification through a nuanced reading of Laurence Chua’s magnificent novel, Gold by the Inch. Following Viet Nguyen’s criticism of Asian American Studies for reading too heavily for “Bad Subjects” of Asian America—in effect, claiming the Asian American as always resistant and ignoring instances of complicity and oppression onto others—Sohn reads the transnational Asian American as a subject in an “ambiguous locus of power” that renders him “complicit in a kind of post-colonial exploitation and a lost subject without a coherent community to support him” (100). Sohn challenges Asian American critique by reading Chua’s novel as an anti-bildungsroman, where in the beginning the nameless narrator is already “politically cognizant of both his position and the postcolonial landscape of Bangkok, nevertheless continues to engage in activities that undermine his moral superiority. The novel marks corruption in even the most well-intentioned and informed individuals” (101). For Sohn, the knowledge of one’s own historical origins and contextual circumstance does not in effect guarantee an ethical life, but rather, produces a subject paralyzed by and complicit with the power relations of their time.

Sohn’s means into looking at this theoretical landscape is through the queer body and its commodification in instances where the subject is conscious of their own body-commodity and use it to as a form of agency. Hagedorn’s Joey Sands provides an excellent example of this, as a male prostitute who “believes he commands an agency in the sex tourism trade” and “further exerts a sexual power over johns, employing his body to entice his customers to do his bidding,” stealing from them when he can, perhaps to convince himself that he is with them because he wants to be, not because he was forced (105). Joey however must realize that his pithy resistances are buttressed by the monetary control of the john, that his “attractiveness exerts its own force that causes johns to capitalize on his existence,” and rather than being an individual of choice, he “remains enslaved to his physical beauty to provide for his well-being” (105-6).

For the unnamed narrator of Laurence Chua’s Gold by the Inch, the fluctuation from power to disempowered is brought to its extreme and supplemented by the ethics of the author, who can be critical of the Thai people for their “complicity in the development of a late capitalist economy” while at the same time, participates in sex tourism. Likewise, the novel ends with no moral prescriptions, but only “offers a replicating narrative of the process of sexual exploitation and hedonism that overpowers the efficacy of political and historical knowledge” (107). One explanation for this moral ambiguity has to do with an ambiguous relationship to power. The narrator, in the United States, does not hold the power that would enable immediate ethical choices, but is always powerless due to his multiplicity of abjectness: he is queer, an immigrant, Pilipino, and lower-class. His sudden obtainment of social power due to his Americanness in Thailand and Malaysia, however, render the narrator into a sudden position of power, and due to his powerlessness in the United States, cannot see himself as complicit with oppression even as he is enacting dominance over others.  The narrator thus possesses an

“ambiguous stance towards capital,” for “even as he criticizes Bangkok for being overly commercialized, he nonetheless engages in sex tourism…in this way, the narrator embodies a fragmented subject. He is at once the queer Asian American male who has been objectified as a commodity in the United States, as well as a figure for the Western bourgeoisie who participates in sex tourism in Bangkok…his identity constantly shifts, unstable and uncertain. (117)

Sohn presents Chua’s novel as a challenge to Asian American Studies, because it cannot be read as a simple resistance narrative, and in fact, reverses the “political bildungsroman” that makes up the cultural form of Asian American literature. The narrator cannot identify with the oppressed in the third world, and instead, ends up “fully presented as corrupted by consuming desires, desires to consume the other and to be consumed himself” (120). In essence, Chua’s text exposes the queer Asian American not as a locus of resistance, but how he “becomes complicit with problematic political trajectories” (120).

Gita Rajan’s “Ethical Responsibility in Intersubjective Spaces”

Rajan’s use of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s post-modern code of ethics enables a reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” that calls for a universal code of ethics from the United States, one imbricated within the ethical as a responsibility towards contractual obligations, specifically through marriage.  For Rajan, ethics must be understood within a globalized, contemporary frame, to mean “conducting oneself responsibly in one’s area of interaction, wherein stated or subtle principles of justice undergirding one’s actions are open to negotiations” (125). In Lahiri’s story, when the Indian driver Kapasi chooses to morally chastise Mrs. Das’ adulterous past rather than offer her a comforted “talking cure” that might also encourage her as a victim of her husband, this is a symbol of ethical respect to the marriage contract and the responsibility over her children. For Rajan, Kapasi is the “haunting figure who reminds us that individual responsibility must go beyond conventional morality or social orthodoxy” and “his ineffectual response makes the reader think about living life with ethical (maybe personal) standards of conduct, wherein every action is scrupulously contextualized and treated with “honesty” (133).

Rajan’s essay, rather than presenting Kapasi’s moral injunction as one cultural ethics coming into contact with another, and becoming irresolutely incapable of understanding, presents the story as an “ethical vignette,” a moment of didactic U.S.-centered ethics based on the self-made individual. To Rajan, the fact that Kapasi still romanticizes Mrs. Das and seeks to be her adulterous lover, even after Mrs. Das has displayed time and again how inept of a mother she is, seems to suggest that Kapasi himself is no bearer of ethical virtue. One might wonder if, after he has fantacized so richly about taking part in an affair with Mrs. Das, his moral injunction near the end of the novel is not out of “individual responsibility” but rather out of jealousy. While Kapasi imagines himself being her adulterous lover, Mrs. Das only sees him in an Orientalist gaze, as a bearer of wisdom and understanding. It is this discovery that leads Kapasi to blame Mrs. Das for her adultery and her fantasy of leaving her family, not to purport ethical choice.

Eleanor Ty’s “Abjection, Masculinity and Violence”

Ty’s work focuses on the reactionary impulses of 1.5 Asian Americans (young immigrants) that often result in violent behavior and a lifelong engagement with unethical acts. To Ty, these impulses are nutured by “values of capitalist America” and “small but repeated acts of racism” (145). The effects of globalization also have a handing in producing the aberrant subject, by structuring desire around obtaining products as a means of somehow compensating for abnegating instances of racism and marginalization. As Ty says, the 1.5 generation “want the fulfillment of the American dream of wealth and success, and they want it now” (156). My sense is that Ty’s essay could have used more voices to explicate the effects of global capitalism on new racial formations in the United States and the Philippines, such as when she delineates the subject produced by global capitalist forces: “People in the third world are interpellated by U.S. media and advertising so much that their desires are structured around these products…ironically, these products are now manufactured through transnational labor” (153) an explanation of why she chooses U.S. media rather than Western, or “transnational labor” rather than labor of the third world, is in need of explaining.

Plunging Jacqueline Rose’s States of Fantasy

Rose, Jacqueline. States of Fantasy. The Clarendon lectures in English literature, 1994. Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press, 1996.

I never completely understood Rose’s concept of fantasy, though she repeatedly defines it throughout her book. Part of my confusion signals the counter-intuitive meanings that Rose is attempting to pull out of this term, from being thought of as “supremely asocial” to an always progressive, one which is tied to the material world that “binds more powerfully” one into different social groups. “Fantasy,” as Rose says, “is not therefore antagonistic to social reality; it is its precondition or psychic glue” by fueling its “collective will” (3). By bringing fantasy into the political and material realm, Rose attempts to trace how fantasy becomes collectively appropriated to form collectivities and sites of belonging. Rather than being antagonistic to the state, but “plays a center, constitutive role in the modern world of states and nations” (4). Her example is Israel since 1948, which had the peculiar quality of forming a nation out of a diaspora, rather than vice versa. The “traumatized intensity of longing” felt by the diasporic nation of Israel also became the fantastic means by which it constituted itself.

Rose attempts to read fantasy into political statehood as a solidifying force, not one that takes on the colors of resistance. Fantasy is always inward turning, though this not be limited to the individual. As an inward turning of a social group, fantasy has the ability to build ties among a group, while at the same time, buildings walls of “defensiveness” that excludes others (5). One such building of walls occurs through transgenerational haunting, which to Rose most often comes in the form of shameful family secrets, and “which hover in the space between social and psychical history, forcing and making it impossible for the one who unconsciously carries [remembrance] to make the link” (5).

While attempting to reframe fantasy as a public phenomenon, Rose likewise situates ‘state’ “into the heart” (6). A ‘state’ to Rose, “rejoins that of fantasy in one of modern, psychoanalytic definitions” (7). A ‘state of dissociation,’ for example, is a seat of action, while fantasy takes the authority situated upon the ego, threatening it into submission. Rose then attempts to use ‘state’ as the ‘state’ of the political condition of the modern world, where fantasy, by contrast, “keeps sight of the peculiarities with which identities, not only consciously but also unconsciously, make and unmake themselves” (14).

One of the effects of Rose’s work is a to recenter the language of psychoanalysis on a social group and cultural form (Jewishness) but also to put the notion of ownership of a culture, as Freud points out implicitly in Fantasy, under interrogation.

Han Ong’s The Disinherited

Ong, Han. The Disinherited. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004.

Each time he went back [to the movie], there was a new sighting of the boy (or the boy’s twin) at the side of a previously innocent shot…The same boy, over and over, skinny, fey even, though unsmiling, eyes dull in the manner of things vacated by hope, as one with the infernal heat and always, always demanding correction for the huge injustice of his plight: he did not belong at the side, and would not be shunted there, forgotten. His haunting was hate-filled, as much has as there was heat emanating from the screen (369)

On the last page of Han Ong’s The Disinherited, these lines express the  demands of a ghost no longer to stand in the periphery of a historical narrative of masculinity and guns told by the movie, a retelling of MacArthur’s involvement in the Philippines where the “exotic soil” of the Philippines becomes a “staging ground for American cowboy antics” (366). The boy, Pitik Sindit, appears in every viewing of the film as a different background character, if only for a few moments in each viewing, moving “ahead of the throngs of suffering American soldiers,” past the “carefully photographed faces” of John Travolta, Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson. He haunts the mind of Roger Caracera, a forty-four year old Pilipino immigrant who, like the book’s author, Han Ong, migrated to the United States as a teenager, to become a successful playwright. Though Caracera sees his migration from the Phillipines as an act of liberation, of freeing himself from a dispised given culture to a more accommodating and radical life in New York City, the Philippines cannot so easily be left behind. It returns to him in the form of a “nagging” (367), in stowed away moments of trauma connected to the homeland, in his own guilt and responsibility at having abandoned it.

A high-school dropout and queer immigrant, Han Ong is the author of works that, like the ghost of Pitik, are themselves rage-filled, and attempt to cast anxiety, trauma and alienation as the center of the experience of being an Asian immigrant. His works, like many other contemporary transpacific novels, refuse to focus on race, and rather on the intersections of queerness that mark the diasporic subject. Like Ong, Roger Caracera is multiply queered: he is asexual, of “Frankenstein” racial origins—“Filipino and Spanish and a little German and English and blah blah;” he is a poor, outcast of his family, and an immigrant in the United States and a stranger in the homeland (18). On top of this, he refuses to belong, and in his youth moves to the United States to “pitch his tent away from the possibility of being like the rest of the world” (20). His refusal to belong can be seen as a instance of sour grapes, where the inability to belong produces a refusal to desire belonging. Caracera, like most protagonists in Ong’s novels, remains alienated not only from a community, a family or friends, but from himself, referring to himself only in the distanced last name “Caracera,” and is even unable to recognize himself in the mirror, where in a club he notices

a stoned stranger in one of the several walls made up of mirror strips, and the man looked back at Caracera with a piggish stupefaction that was so familiar, so distinctly kin, that Caracera knew at once that he must be American. And yet, a fraction of a second later, with the lights putting a veil over one part of the man’s face, the man was Filipino. American/Filipino. Foreigner/native. Foe/foe

This mirrored version of Caracera, which he only realizes is “a slivered version of himself all along” because his friend Gochengo points it out, represents a reverse mirror stage, in which the subject does not recognize his own ego within his reflection, but only the void-filled mystery of a self multiply queered; rather than subject, an unknowable object of desire (314). No narrative exists in which this mirror-Other can be known; instead this knowability exists only the haunting of the subject by the multiple possibilities of identity recognized by his own doubleness with others.

For Caracera, trauma in the United States comes in the form of cinema, as in his first “trip” on Apocalypse now, which “at its most unbearable [it] had produced an identity panic: who was he? Was he the white American shooting the gooks in the boat or was he the gooks?” (33). In the fictional movie Fiesta of the Damned, Harvey Keitel, who happens to be on the same flight to the Pillippines as Caracera, plays General McArthur, who proclaims in the penultimate scene of the movie “I shall return.” Keitel, who acts as the white savior of the Philippines, quickly becomes Caracera’s double through the Metro Manila Register, which makes them fraternal twins by tracing the facial similarities of Keitel and a picture of Caracera taken at his father’s funeral, with the caption, “separated at birth?” and “I shall return” (62). The idea of being Keitel’s double, of reproducing “cowboy antics,” influences Caracera to devote his entire $500,000 inheritance to charity, to make-up for the family history of the “overworked, underpaid laborers” on the sugar plantations of Negros. It is through denying the liberatory narrative of MacArthur that he follows a new liberatory narrative, one equally wrought in unforeseen pitfalls and inept attempts at freeing himself of the ghosts of the past, haunting his own family history. In his immense guilt, he goes so far as to consider providing “needed help” to a band of pirates threatening to kill him, since “they looked like they could use some cash. Look, he thought, they don’t even have weapons” (117). Yet, “tan or no tan” (142), his likeness to Keitel and MacArthur always stands out to the locals, who always see him as “American through and through” (108).

Caracera’s charity succeeds in riling up the ghost of his dead father, whose ghost appears to everyone else in his family except for him. The “Disinherited” of the novel’s title are strewn throughout the narrative, from Caracera’s himself to his uncle Eustacio, whose death years before the novel resulted in sixty thousand dollars of inheritance that mistakenly went to Caracera instead of Eustacio’s lover, Pitik Sindhit, whose ghost follows Caracera in New York City. Pitik, as the rightful heir to the estate of Caracera himself, is at first only named as “Eustacio’s beloved,” the lover of the family’s most aberrant outcast, whose mysterious death is clouded by forced electro-shock therapy and immense psychological torture by his family. For Caracera, the name is simply “a mantra, a Buddhist iterative for some wish he was at once fearful and hopeful to see materialize” (141). His nights are spent tossing the “falsely folkloric” name back and forth, at first in his head, and then out loud, even screaming it. Already, in his screams, the name brings about an intense anxiety, a pain and pleasure associated with “Eustacio’s beloved.” Caracera follows the name to not a woman or a man, but a fifteen year old boy, who could only have been eight at the age when Eustacio “loved him.”

Caracera’s desire to know the name inevitably leads him to the Bambang slums, which can only be described as “swampish,” and a night show called Madame Sonia’s House of Beauty and Pain, where the boy Pitik is known as “Blueboy” and wears a tight blue swimsuit that pronounces his curves and bulge as he dances ineptly for a small crowd of white expatriots, whose moans and jirations lead to other unspeakable acts upon the boy, which leave Caracera in a disgust so intense that it only be expressed “as laughter, of all things” (155). The boy, disinherited from Eustacio and fatherless himself, becomes himself a double for Caracera, who represents the most penurious, abjected form of his mirror-reflection, whose youth is similarly spent as the “scapegoat of his peers’ adolescent talent for persecution…it was his destiny to be alone, cast out” (197).   To set right the past, Caracera decides to informally adopt the boy, enrolling him in a Catholic school, moving him and his mother from the slums, and buying him away from his boss and pimp, Madame Sonia, for one million pesos.

The doubleness of Caracera with Pitik is implicit not only in Caracera’s similar history and mixed race, which makes Pitik’s resemblance appear at every mirror-image, but in the narrative’s point of view shifts between Caracera and Pitik, which are at first divided by chapters, and then, upon their proximity to each other, become meshed together in a fluid back and forth of name-changes and mixed pronouns. The first meshing of these points of views occurs in a café, where Caracera attempts to read Pitik’s actions as sincere and deserving of Eustacio’s fortune, but only detects “flirtacious little filigrees,” marking the boy as “a whore, an opportunist through and through,” while, from the shift to the boy’s point of view, Caracera is renamed Cary Grant, his mother’s favorite movie star, who he imagines as a “new ‘father,’ taking him to his new life in America” (204). But Pitik would only accept America as “part of a package that would include, first and foremost, a beloved, a lover who, understanding what he deserved gave it to him, gave him America” (215).           Yet like Caracera, Pitik’s desire for Caracera as one of love and affection is met with disdain that he is

not even remotely an object of desire for this man whom he had foolishly built up into a dashing figure of romance, but it was clear that he was no more than a case for whom the suitable emotion was disdainful charity. His life needed to be remade because it offended the man’s sense of what was proper in the world. (216)

Pitik’s voice interrupts Caracera’s narrative in small eruptions of brief but acrimonious rage, renaming Caracera Cary Grant, “the man,” “the strange man,” the American, and finally God, refusing to know him as his given name “Roger” which he sees as “completely blah,” or Caracera, which “wasn’t an American name” (222). Both Caracera and Pitik become objects of pleasure/pain to each other, doubles who become entangled with one another through desires both fearful and immense. While Pitik’s desire is for love, affection and transcendence from the homeland, Caracera, as a diasporic subject forever separated from the homeland through his skin, accent, history and cultural attitude, desires in Pitik the release of the homeland upon his psyche: the immense haunting of his father and uncle, the “gooks” of American movies set in Vietnam, the guilt for abandoning the third world, as if leaving it to its own ruin. For Caracera, Pitik needs to be the boy from Bambang slums, a “secret to cherish,” an “adventure,” a “secret accomplishment,” and a way to expose the human suffering his family had forced onto the sugarcane coolies in Negros (206).

Caracera’s largest obstacle to obtaining Pitik as his adopted son, is the German-American Feingold, one of Pitik’s clients, a self-proclaimed “lover of boys.” Yet in a crowded café where Caracera attempts to persuade Pitik to leave Feingold, the doubleness of Feingold with Caracera produces a fear of becoming Feingold, his distinct mirror image. Feingold too is an outcast, mainly by suppressing his values of pedesastry which he finds more acceptable in the Philippines, and, like Caracera, has lived a life of self-alienation from a rich family, Caracera’s of sugar, Feingold’s of dairy. Their likeness is so striking, that Caracera can only see them from an “outside eye,” who might consider Caracera himself as “Feingold’s twin” (278) and that “by not putting a stop to the actions, Roger Caracera was imparting cool approval to anyone bothered to look” (279). By seeing himself only from an “outside eye,” Caracera becomes unable to justify his interest in the boy, and instead begins to agree with the crowd: “He was gay. He wasn’t. He could be gay. He couldn’t, not truly” (285). Finally, when Feingold takes the boy to his car, Caracera chases the pair down, screaming “I own you!” seeing himself from the crowd, pointing out the American John chasing his puto, and then, finally, imagines himself “replacing Feingold, spoon-feeding the boy melted ice-cream…being undressed, pawned over” (289).

Caracera’s mirror images in Pitik, MacArthur and Feingold, seem to represent a type of impossibility of knowing through an infinite possibility of meanings. He cannot be Pitik because he is also Feingold, MacArthur, his father, and his other adopted child, Donny Osmond, a bedraggled tennis player who Caracera sponsors for an American education. Caracera’s narrative then, as one of alienation, is also one of resistance to simply simulating the mirror image, to accepting any version of the self offered to him. Instead, these multiple possibilities of the self haunt him, causing his life in the United States to be a constant reliving, not necessarily of the past, but of the Philippines itself. After Pitik is killed in a car accident, most likely an intentional hit and run by Caracera’s own fiendish Aunt attempting to stomp out the family’s aberrance, Caracera’s life in New York City becomes a constant reliving of Pitik, yet unlike historically driven trauma, Caracera does not relive a certain scene, but rather, relives Pitik as an unknowable object of desire, the cast-away child, a specter of the territory left behind.