Notes from a Disoriented Reader

A review of Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora, Edited by Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa, Duke University Press, 2001.

OrientationsScholars working in cultural studies are an unruly lot. They spend a great deal of energy patrolling disciplinary borders, falling down on trespassers and ensuring conformity within the field. Some mount raids on neighboring fields for intellectual loot, or claim new territories as their own. They try to regulate their quarrels with political correctness and abstruse jargon. But attacks are not muffled by circumvolved syntax or otiose vocabulary. If anything, they are made even more venomous, as one can articulate in complex sentences what one wouldn’t dare to write in plain English. Liberals are very illiberal when it comes to arguing with each other. Academics of the cultural bent are willing to wash their linen in public, to bring cadavers out of family closets, and to expose the dirty little secrets of the profession, if only for the sake of enhancing their own status. For them, it appears like business as usual. But for outside observers, who have come to associate scholarly pursuit with disinterestedness and gentlemanly behavior, this aggressiveness comes as something of a shock.

Settling scores between Asian Studies and Asian American studies

I didn’t expect to find so much venom, personal attacks, and political bickering in a book on Asian studies. To be true, the book centers on a different discipline, Asian American studies, which in the US context designates the curriculum designed for Asian American students who wish to reconnect with their ethnic roots and affirm their distinct cultural identity within American society. The authors insist that Asian American studies find their origins in the civil rights movement and that it espouses a progressive political agenda. The possibility of a conservative or politically neutral contribution to the field is not even envisaged. The contribution of ivory-tower scholars to the realization of social justice and the fight against racial prejudice is rather thin. One author mentions various student movements who organized campaigns and signed petitions for Asian sweatshop workers and slum dwellers. Another stresses the emancipatory dimension of avant-garde theater played by and targeted at ethnic minorities. Yet another focuses his research on Filipino immigrants and their struggle for survival. And this being the US, there is even one lawyer specializing in “Asian Americans and the Law” studies, which stands at the intersection between human rights approaches, Chinese legal studies, and Asian American critical jurisprudence.

The best way to unite is to have a common enemy. One such enemy—paradoxically, considering the fact that most authors purport to bridge the gap between Asian studies and Asian American studies—is area studies as it is still commonly practiced. This volume is tantamount to a hostile takeover bid over Asian studies by Asian American scholars with a background in cultural studies and a taste for loosely defined “theory”. For Dorinne Kondo, “hegemonic East Asian studies… stand as heir to an Orientalist legacy, permeated by an unproblematized empiricism hostile to ‘theory’, yet blind to its own theoretical presuppositions and its conservative politics.” Rey Chow denounces the persistence of a scholarly tradition of Orientalism among specialists of Chinese literature and other area studies scholars. For cultural critics, accusations of Orientalism, culturalism, and essentialism are the most damning indictments one can make, and the authors of this volume use them in abundance. The enemy can also be well-meaning, left-leaning intellectuals: Karen Shimakawa sees in the orientalist inspirations of avant-garde theater artists such as Ariane Mnouchkine or Peter Brook a neocolonial appropriation and culturalist sampling of pseudo-Asian heritage. Rey Chow make a scathing indictment of the modern Maoist, by which she designates “a cultural critic who lives in a capitalist society but who is fed up with capitalism.” Then the enemy can also be within: Kuan-Shing Chen, a Taiwanese critic and proponent of “Asian Studies in Asia”, accuses his North American colleagues of ignoring the question of US imperialism and of trying to “discipline” Asia.

A community of victimhood

Another way to close ranks is to stress the menace posed by an outside enemy. According to the editors, Asian-Americans face three types of prejudices in the US imagination. They are considered as a distinct and unassimilable body in mainstream American society. They are perpetually associated with their country of origin, and cannot achieve full US citizenship. And they are considered as a threat to the American nation, especially in times of crisis when relations with Asian countries become strained. For the authors, “these are ideas that have effected violence against, and exclusion, disenfranchisement, and internment of, Asians in the United States over the years.” The history of the Asian presence in America is one of victimization, persecution, and silencing. No word is strong enough to characterize their plight: Dorinne Kondo even refers to “a centuries-long history of exclusion, penetration, interimperial rivalry, war, incarceration, even genocide.” (yes, genocide.) Asian-Americans contribute only negatively to the buildup of the US national identity. Asia is America’s “other”, and its exclusion reinforces the wholeness and coherence of Western self-identity. David Palumbo-Liu goes as far as saying that the US nation-state grounds its stability in large part on the successful drawing of the Asian/American line: “Asians are deemed inadequate to America, marginalized or excluded in order to (re)consolidate the nation’s image of its ideal self, which is nonetheless contradicted by its white supremacist ideology.”

Another characteristic of Americans’ alleged perception of Asians and Asian Americans is its heavily sexualized content. According to this view, Asia is forever the mysterious and feminized territory in need of US male dominance and militarized protection. In the cultural cliches conveyed by Hollywood movies and popular novels, Asian men are emasculated and Asian women are hyper-feminized, thereby contributing to maintain unequal racial, gender and class hierarchies. Stories generally favor romances involving white males and Asian females, and the reverse combination is seen as transgressive and doomed to failure. Although most people call for racial tolerance and appear to condemn racism, they never question the racial hierarchy that makes Asian women available to white males but preclude the possibility of a union between white women and Asian men. In addition, as Lisa Lowe notes, “this radicalized constructions of both Asian “masculinity” and Asian “feminity” have tended to elide non-heteronormative sexualities as threats to national integrity or to foreclose such sexualities by placing them outside the boundaries of the nation and the family.” Although sexuality as such is not addressed in all chapters, contemporary academic discourse, as noted by the editors in their preface, is “transected and substantially informed by feminism and gay and lesbian studies.”

Cultural studies fuel discourses and practices that are far from liberatory

The only occasion when the authors refrain to make personal attacks is when they talk about themselves. This they do in abundance, to the point that the whole field of Asian American studies may be considered as a strategy for self-expression and personal aggrandizement. I didn’t like the book Dorinne Kondo wrote about Japan because it was mostly a book about herself. In her contribution to this volume, she leaves all pretense to address social and cultural issues and instead writes—again—about herself, offering “an autobiographical political history”. For her, ethnic studies stem from a “politics of representation”: people who were formerly the objects of representation are now entering the academy and the arts in order to “represent themselves”. The result is navel-gazing and, in the end, the abandonment of academic disciplines in favor of artistic performance. The epitome of this flight into aesthetics is offered by Russell Leong in his “performance text” imagining a dialogue between a sociologist and two queer informants. Postmodern anthropology has taught us to call into doubt claims of authorship and to consider texts as social fictions. Now even the pretense of a real encounter between the ethnographer and social actors is abandoned in favor of imaginary hyperbole and fictitious dramatization.

Perhaps most depressing in this book is the sense of closure one gets after reading all the chapters. The claims of the editors notwithstanding, there remains no place for alternative voices coming from alternative places. America calls the tune, and the new mantra of multiculturalism and diasporic identities is offered as a global remedy that all societies should apply to their own situations. This matters a lot, because what happens in US academia has global consequences. The impact of America on knowledge production on Asia is huge. Cultural studies fuel discourses and practices that are far from liberatory, and that can even reinforce racial prejudices rather than combat them. With identity politics and the insistence on the ethnic component of power relations, an ethnicized vision of society is taking hold, where every group clamors for its own specific rights. The competition among victims create a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations, with no end or reconciliation in sight. This exhibitionary multiculturalism is the post-colonial version of the colonial fair. The rhetoric of multiculturalism inherits colonial categories that divide a population along the dominant axes of race and ethnicity, covering up the history of mixing, cross-influences, and flexible identities that have characterized human populations since the origins. To me, importing the schemes and constructions of Asian American studies to the field of Asian studies is a very bad idea indeed.