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.

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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.

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.

Grace Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

In 1991, for the first time, Korean women came out as former comfort women for the Japanese Imperial Army. These three elderly women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government for “the systematic recruitment and abduction of Korean women for military sex work” (5). After more than fifty years of complete silence, the world awoke from a “collective amnesia” to a traumatic event that had for so long been an unknowable historical moment in Korean national consciousness. As Patricia Clough before her, Cho here expands upon what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, in their edited volume The Shell and the Kernal: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, call “trangenerational haunting,” to emphasize how the ellipses of the past are ontologically of the present, living on in collective trauma. A transgenerational haunting, to Cho, is when “a unspeakable trauma does not die out with the person who first experienced it. Rather, it takes on a life of its own, emerging from the spaces where secrets are concealed” (6). The haunting of the Korean comfort women and the yanggongju, Korean sex worker of United States military bases, is thus a transgenerational haunting, due to its long period of silence, where the events of the past grew into an inarticulatable imaginary, in which the yanggongju  “became overinvested with conflicting feelings of grief, hope, shame, and rage” (7).

Cho finds that Abraham and Torok’s analysis of unsolved trauma within the holocaust shows that the entanglement with a traumatic loss is “produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden” (11). The unspoken trauma is a historical ellipses, an imaginary, unknowable void where the lack of knowledge turns into a ghostly presence. Cho finds that these ghost are “engendered in the private realm of family secrets, secrets that are inextricable from the abuses of political power” (11). Where the historical narrative of the nation excludes minority history, or access to those histories seem inaccessible or unknowable, to Cho, the burden of bearing witness lies in the family history, where the individual’s uncertain kinship by the disavowal of historical trauma produces an anxiety from not being able to forget that which one does not know.

The figure of the yanggongju, when spoken, brings shame onto the Korean country and the families involved within. Cho here does not attend to the ideological formations inherent in these families that necessitated this silencing, nor in the genealogy of sexuality and the importance of reproductive females to produce the racial purity of the nation, wherein sex work and coerced sexual labor with the colonized race becomes a historical event that must be silenced. With so little attention to domestic sex work and trafficking within Korea itself, a massive industry that undergoes a similar silencing by the state, Cho seems to find domestic sex work part of the norm, while sex work towards a racialized other of the Korean nation is what must produce a transgenerational haunting.

As children of the erased figure of the yanggongju, a figure constituted by trauma itself, the Korean diaspora is thus entangled with an uncertain kinship with the yanggongju. Using the method of machinic vision developed by John Johnson, where “what is perceived is not located at any single place and moment in time, and the act by which this perception occurs is not the result of a single or isolated agency but of several working in concert and parallel,” Cho seeks to see and speak of trauma by composing a scattering of “images, affects and voices” (166, 24). Making sense of this multiplicity is one way to read the silences, listening to what speaks as an assemblage of lost histories. Cho again follows Clough’s lead and finds in Jacqueline Rose’s work that haunting occurs not just down generations, but also across them, “not inside one family, but creating a monstrous family of reluctant belonging” (31). Rose’ analysis of the haunting of the Holocaust “implies the dissolution of the boundaries of individual bodies and takes us into the realm of the social, moving trauma beyond the family unit and moving the notion of a familial unconscious beyond bloodlines” (30). How far this transgenerational haunting can go is an interesting inquiry, for Cho’s own subject in the discourse of the yanggongju at times appears to be the Korean nation, the Korean diaspora, the Japanese, the United States, and, even, the world in its public conceptions of the Korean war. Who this book is written for becomes a startlingly difficult question to pursue.

In order to “flesh out the Ghost,” Cho must turn the haunting of the past into a generative counter-memory to the nationally produced historical narrative. Through the theory of transgenerational haunting, Cho hopes to demonstrate how a silenced trauma can produce “disruptions, articulations, visibilities, assemblages, and new configurations of kinship” (33). An affective belonging thus comes from a collective trauma, a collectivity that perhaps binds diasporas together. As Cho states, “the bodies of diaspora, and particularly the Korean diaspora, are constituted by unremembered trauma and loss” and that “the ghost is distributed across the time-space of the diaspora” in order to create an assemblage body to speak the traumas that could not be seen (40, 166).

Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires

Gopinath, Gayatri. Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. Perverse modernities. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.

For Globalization Studies, Gopinath’s work is significant, as it offers a queer diasporic perspective that enables a simultaneous critique of nationalism and of hegemonic forces of globalization. Gopinath provides straightforward examples of similar homogenizing regimes that effect both the nation state and Indian diasporas. In chapter four, for example, Gopinath locates the erasure of queer female diasporic subjects in the translation of films from Bollywood to the diaspora, as queerness becomes uncontainable in the slippages of female homosociality to exotic homosociality to homoeroticism. What emerges through the dialectical form of these chapters and her feminist queer critique is a different model for understanding the schisms of past and present within the diaspora. Rather than seeing the homeland and the new home as the traditional and the modern, Gopinath emphasizes both as sites of heteronormativity, and poses the embracing of marginality and displacement as a way of imagining diaspora differently:

The cartography of a queer diaspora tells a different story about how global capitalism impacts local sites by articulating other forms of subjectivity, culture, affect, kinship, and community that may not be visible or audible within standard mappings of nation diaspora or globalization (108).

Female queerness becomes an alternative hermeneutic that is able to offer up a critique of global capital without falling into transcendental notions of the transnational and diasporic. Gopinath instead deploys the “scavenger methodology” elaborated upon by Judith and Jack Halberstam, to emphasize queerness in a diverse array of texts and “queer reading practices” that expose heteronormative structures in logics of the nation, domesticity and diaspora.

To Gopinath, diaspora is not a unidirectional flow that insists on a romantic look at the past and the homeland, but rather, both the Diaspora and the nation become the other’s Other; the diaspora insists on its transcendence from “given culture” through a new hybridity, and the nation points to the lack of morality, belief and tradition in the diaspora. Yet, as Gopinath shows through her comparative reading of Bollywood and diasporic film, elements of queerness and homoeroticism in national forms, like Bollywood dance numbers, are in fact excluded and erased when translated to cultural production within the diaspora. For Gopinath, the distinctions between the Diaspora and the Nation as modern and traditional may be an instance of bad faith, as both discourses produce heteronormative ways of thinking by putting the queer female subject under a constant erasure, requiring the presence of the queer female subject so that she can be made absent. Gopinath points out this erasure as a patriarichal norm that diaspora does not transcend, but rather, is caught up in an entanglement with, as diasporic women are recast as the carriers of tradition and cultural purity.

The desire to see the Diaspora as modern and the local culture as traditional supplements a narrative of development within global capitalism, which insists on the diasporic subject as a worker easily adjustable to metropolitan means of production. A queer feminist theory disrupts this narrative, insisting on the blurring of public and private realms, where the private “space of the home,” according to Gopinath, “is not recognized as a critical component of South Asian diasporic public culture” (45). The home, for diasporic communities, is both the homeland and the domestic private space where tradition is cultivated. A queer critique, however, displaces both notions of home, and rethinks it as an excluded space where the inability to belong within the rules of domestic and national normativity renders the subject as queer. Thus home becomes rethought of as a location where queerness is currently being experienced, where homosociality slips into homoeroticism; home is a place of new possibilities.

This critique thus discovers fissures of public and private space as it comes into conflict with globalization: “The space of the home” Gopinath tells us “is hardly private but rather a key site of labor within the global restructuring of the home.” To focus on the home then is also to recenter the spaces of global capitalism from the skilled labor forces of the metropole to the surplus labor force in the depressed ethnic enclaves who inhabit the ethnic sweatshop, the migrant factory and, most importantly, the home itself. It is due to the developing male subject of diaspora discourse that domestic labor in depressed inner cities is placed within a ‘hidden economy,’ while the public visibility of the diasporic subject, in parades and skilled workplaces, encourages a developmental narrative. Gopinath performs a feminist queer critique in an effort to disrupt such narratives of liberation and development, disrupting the ideologies that mask the racialized gendered labor awaiting female immigrants in the global city, which utilize “hierarchical gendered arrangements of the familial space” in factories and ethnic sweatshops (52). Gopinath calls for a queering of globalization as a new form of transnational politics that will fundamentally shift the way we see the home, not as a sphere of tradition and culture, but one where the real everyday struggle of the worker is reproduced.

Critiques:

In her review published in the Journal of History of Sexuality, Amy Brandzel criticizes Gopinath for a “lack of specificity:” first, for how to “read” a particular form (whether it be film, literature or music), or formulating what a queer reading entails besides looking for elements of queerness. Second, for the meaning of diaspora itself, which Brandzel claims as being used by Gopinath to provide greater privilege to diasporas located in the economic North, in first world, English-speaking countries, equating them with diasporas in Pakistan, while diasporas in Sri Lanka are seen in terms of “Indian hegemony”. This lack of specificity of Diaspora leads Brandzel to claim that “To equate diasporas of the economic North with those resulting from Partition seems to erase the different ways in which migration occurs, nations consolidate themselves and their borders, and epistemes form in relation to these processes” (147). The ethnologist Naisargi Dave finds that Gopinath “overemphasizes the active role of the reader,” alluding to a lack of specificity about a queer methodology. This lack of methodological specificity perhaps runs the gamut for Virinder Kalra in her review published in the Feminist Review, where she opines that “under the guise of ‘public culture,’ it seems that geography and history can be collapsed to allow for a kind of literary tourism” (182). Kalra’s main concern is the absence of a rationale for the parameters and basis for the types of comparisons that are made between Bhangra music, Chutney dance and films like Hollywood/Bollywood, which do not seem inter-related. Though all of these cultural productions come from an Indian diaspora, for Kalra, to flatten all cultural form as “Indian diasporic cultural form” ignores how diversive South Asian diasporas are, not just religiously between Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, but also along national subjectivities from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India and Nepal, as well as cultural barriers between say Bengalis, Punjabs, Maharashtans and Gujuratis, which also does not account for language barriers, barriers of class, and the transculturations of South Asian diasporas with their variegated “host” nations. As Kalra claims, “this ‘view from America’…[of] south Asian diasporic cultural outputs always renders them as somehow authentic and exotic, reminiscent of much maligned anthropological treatises” (182). Kalra finally finds that the greatest difficulty of the text is a refusal to engage with the critiques of identity politics that seem to demand her project be more than a recovery—“in what senses,” she asks, “does the queer female identity provide any kind of solace from the problematics of class, geography and migrant status”? How does queerness get co-opted with projects of terrorism and Islamaphobia?