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)

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