Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique [NOOK Book]


Imagine Otherwise is an incisive critique of the field of Asian American studies. Recognizing that the rubric "Asian American" elides crucial differences, Kandice Chuh argues for reframing Asian American studies as a study defined not by its subjects and objects, but by its critique. Toward that end, she urges the foregrounding of the constructedness of "Asian American" formations and shows how this understanding of the field provides the basis for continuing to use the term "Asian American" in light of—and in ...
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Imagine Otherwise: On Asian Americanist Critique

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Imagine Otherwise is an incisive critique of the field of Asian American studies. Recognizing that the rubric "Asian American" elides crucial differences, Kandice Chuh argues for reframing Asian American studies as a study defined not by its subjects and objects, but by its critique. Toward that end, she urges the foregrounding of the constructedness of "Asian American" formations and shows how this understanding of the field provides the basis for continuing to use the term "Asian American" in light of—and in spite of—contemporary critiques about its limitations.

Drawing on the insights of poststructuralist theory, postcolonial studies, and investigations of transnationalism, Imagine Otherwise conceives of Asian American literature and U.S. legal discourse as theoretical texts to be examined for the normative claims about race, gender, and sexuality that they put forth. Reading government and legal documents, novels including Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart, John Okada's No-No Boy, Chang-rae Lee's A Gesture Life, Ronyoung Kim's Clay Walls, and Lois Ann Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging, and the short stories "Immigration Blues" by Bienvenido Santos and "High-Heeled Shoes" by Hisaye Yamamoto, Chuh works through Filipino American and Korean American identity formation and Japanese American internment during World War II as she negotiates the complex and sometimes tense differences that constitute 'Asian America' and Asian American studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Kandice Chuh argues that in the current study of Asian Americans, the critique of social inequality must overcome the impossible insistence on a uniform ethnic subject. She performs a daring deconstruction of the recurrence to ideas of authenticity and identity, discusses the pitfalls of essentialized concepts of 'activism' and 'community,' and encourages us to put the case of Asian Americans towards a more general critique of racialized U.S. society. Her intervention challenges us to think differently, to ‘imagine otherwise.’"—Lisa Lowe, author of Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics

“Imagine Otherwise is a provocative work. It questions the terms in which Asian American studies have been understood and offers a set of exciting theoretical alternatives, each of which is substantiated by close readings of literary texts. Our understanding of Asian American subjectivity is significantly enhanced in the process.”—David Palumbo-Liu, author of Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822384427
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/27/2003
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 507 KB

Meet the Author

Kandice Chuh is Professor of English, Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is coeditor of Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora, published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Imagine otherwise

On Asian Americanist critique
By Kandice Chuh

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3140-3

Chapter One

against uniform subjectivity: remembering "Filipino America"

The interior of the category "Asian American" ought not be viewed as a hierarchy of identities led by ethnic-based narratives, but rather, the complicated interplay and collision of different identities.-Dana Takagi, "Maiden Voyage" (1996)

Within the apparatus of colonial power, the discourses of sexuality and race relate in a process of functional overdetermination, 'because each effect ... enters into resonance or contradiction with the others and thereby calls for a readjustment or a reworking of the heterogeneous elements that surface at various points.' -Homi Bhabha, quoting Michel Foucault, The Location of Culture (1994)

Despite the powerful critiques of cultural and state-driven racisms afforded by such paradigms as cultural nationalism, ongoing debates both motivated by and thematizing the tension between "Filipino America" and "Asian America" illuminate how such frameworks have seriously hindered the critical negotiation of diverence through their emphasis on uniform subjectivity-on identity. I take in this chapter the difference between "Filipino America" and "Asian America" as exemplary point of entry for thinking through the limitations of critical models like cultural nationalism that are animated by the achievement ofsubjectivity as political objective. Guided by Carlos Bulosan's and Bienvenido Santos's respective works, together with the insights emergent from debates regarding the nonequivalence of "Filipino America" and "Asian America," I show here that a critical encounter with "Filipino America" compels us to hold as suspect the promise of justice through the achievement of subjectivity. More specifically, I argue that this encounter calls for understanding that Asian American studies must consistently mount a twofold critique: of both U.S. nationalism and its promise of subjective equality, and of Asian Americanist reliance on paradigms that require uniform subjectivity for coherence-that, like U.S. nationalism, homologously equate subjectivity with achieved justice.

The paradigmatic exteriority of "Filipino America" from the dominant practices of Asian American studies to which this chapter speaks has long been argued. Symptomatic of the absence of empire as a formative analytic in Asian American studies, according to critics like Oscar Campomanes, even the discourse surrounding such exteriority has contributed to its sustenance. By a practice of rhetorically constructing what he calls "the Filipino case" through a series of "forgettings," both the construction and exclusion of "Filipino America" effectively support the aura of American exceptionalism central to U.S. nationalism (1995). Indeed, the U.S. governmental and juridical narratives of the Philippines and Filipinos considered here register how such forgettings facilitate the naturalization of U.S. national identity. Concerned with contributing to ongoing efforts to challenge the effects of these forgettings, this chapter also asks, what function do these amnesiac acts have in Asian American studies? Or in other words, how might Asian Americanist discourse ensure that it does not participate in and perpetuate the kinds of disavowals that forgetting Filipinos represents?

In a literal way, "forgetting" is an especially apt term for describing the course that Asian American studies has taken to precipitate tensions between "Filipino American" and "Asian American." After all, the very first "Asian American" communities may be said to have been "Filipino American": in the mid-sixteenth century, small numbers of Filipinos established roots in Louisiana, far earlier than any other migrants from Asia. Working aboard Spanish galleons sailing to trade with Spain's holdings in North America, they jumped ship upon closing in on the continent and made their way to the Louisiana territory. Thus, if "Asian American" history "begins" upon arrival (putting aside for the moment the compelling reasons why this should not be the case), it begins with Filipinos. And it is not the case that Filipinos have been consistently absent from "Asian American" histories-both Ronald Takaki's Strangers from a Different Shore (1989) and Sucheng Chan's Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (1991), standard histories in Asian American studies, over treatments of the formation of Filipino American communities in the United States. And in the literary realm, the foundational Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian American Writers, edited by Jeffrey Paul Chan, Frank Chin, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong, and first published in 1974, includes writings by and "about" Filipino Americans. I cite these examples to suggest that it is not that Asian Americanists have never known or have not been interested in "the Filipino case." So what begets the paradigmatic forgetting of Filipino Americans? The editors of Aiiieeeee! recognized that "Filipino America divers greatly from Chinese and Japanese America in its history, the continuity of culture between the Philippines and America, and the influence of western European and American culture on the Philippines. The difference is definable only in its own terms, and therefore must be discussed separately" (1991 [1974] xi). How is it that "its own terms" have not translated centrally to Asian American studies?

A critical encounter with "Filipino America" helps us to see that part of the explanation lies in the deployment of identity as a mechanism for furthering political representation. Recall that identity is a teleological narrative as used in a politics of identity, one that posits a common origin and looks toward a common destiny. It is in that sense assimilative, as difference must be elided to foreground resemblance. Another way to understand that elision is to recognize it as constituting the amnesia necessary to sustain a sense of stable identity. We can perhaps see this most clearly in the ways that national identity attempts to assimilate difference by requiring those who claim it to forget the past (difference) in order to preserve and celebrate the present (identity). As David Lloyd has pointed out, civil rights work precisely in this manner, as they are by definition and design those elements that designate and prioritize sameness (1991). Thus it is that full endowment of rights signifies the achievement of abstract status as the citizen, defined as equal to/in identity with all other citizens and with the nation. This temporal logic of the difference/identity algorithm plays out even when the constructedness of identity for political purposes is recognized. In fact, that recognition might be seen as a conscious acceptance of that logic as it bespeaks a willingness to forego difference-temporarily, that is.

As arguably necessary as that politically driven assimilation of difference has been, because those strategic identities have been organized largely through paradigms of inclusion and exclusion most often articulated through the trope of immigration in Asian Americanist discourse, Filipino Americans have been repeatedly cast into the space of the difference that must be forgotten rather than the identity to be sustained. Histories of multiple colonizations make it impossible to fix definitive origins, as does the diversity of the social and cultural formations among people residing in the Philippine islands; the juridical regulation of immigration and citizenship for Filipinos cannot be narrativized by the trope of exclusion that highlights race-based management of the nation's borders; and the colonial era practice of benevolent assimilation has ensured that the racialization of cultural differences is problematized by enforced hybridization.

Moreover, as I argue here, to the extent that the axis of race has been privileged over that of sexuality in the conceptualization of "Asian American" identity, Asian Americanist paradigms have had difficulty in recognizing how "Filipino America" as a racialized category of socio-political identity was made operational through a particular process of sexualization. While recognition of the stereotype of the hypersexual "Filipino American" has increasingly come to influence the ways that the interactions of race, gender, and sexuality are studied in Asian Americanist discourse, such work arguably has taken as primary the important objective of the demonstration of anti-Filipino racism. By both adding to and thinking through the implications of such insights, as I intend to do here, we are able to see how "Filipino America" illuminates the cooperative workings of whiteness and heteronormativity. In this way, "Filipino America" advances understanding of the importance of not privileging race and ethnicity at the expense of other analytics in our study of social subjectivities. To put it otherwise, by functioning as a site of intersection among the variegated differences that discourses of sexuality, empire, race, and nation bring into critical visibility, "Filipino America" advances the reinvention of Asian American studies as a subjectless field. That is, it supports understanding that embracing the a priori subjectlessness of Asian Americanist discourse is a way of creating the critical space for remembering both complexity and difference.

Carlos Bulosan and Bienvenido Santos, whose writings are read in conversation with the legal adjudication of U.S. citizenship for "Filipinos" during the period in which the Philippines and the United States were joined together in a formally colonial union, represent "Filipino America" in ways that distinctly invite the use of the analytic of sexuality. By what I read as their respective critiques of the heteronormative and racialized masculinity of U.S. nationalism, Bulosan's novel America Is in the Heart and Santos's short story "Immigration Blues" bring to surface the sexualized demands and wages of the normative subjectivity required and promised by the U.S. nation-state. And in so doing, they call attention to the implicit heteronormativity of Asian American studies' historic promotion of uniform identity. In accord with the growing body of scholarship that undertakes to consider seriously how to attend to sexuality in Asian American studies in a way more adequate than, as Dana Takagi has put it, merely "toss[ing] the lesbian onto the diversity pile," Bulosan's and Santos's works challenge us to think specifically through sexuality in "reconsider[ing] ... the theoretical status of the concept 'Asian American' identity" (1996, 26, 33). Among other effects, examination of the construction of "Filipino America" through the representations afforded us by these writers contributes an important corrective to the common assertion of the representational emasculation of "Asian America" in popular discourse. Namely, it argues the need for that assertion to be denied standing as exemplary of the "Asian American" experience. If the racism of U.S. nationalism manifested in various dissimilar ways throughout the nation's history has been the driving force behind Asian Americanist critique, these works guide us to affirming the signal importance of conceiving Asian American studies as a discourse of sexuality. The history of the formation of "Filipino" and "Filipino American" identity formations, from a U.S. perspective, is also a history of sexuality. It is a history that registers how sexuality coordinates the relationship of the U.S. nation to race, gender, and class as it shapes the relationships of individuals to the nation-state. Read in this way, "Filipino America" may be recognized as posing a radical challenge to paradigms incapable of addressing the intersectionality of the operations of nonequivalent but inseparably linked identificatory categories.

Relatedly and equally importantly, the attentiveness in Bulosan's novel and Santos's short story to the colonial relationship between the United States and the Philippines furthers the already unfolding integration of a "postcolonial" approach in Asian American studies. By prompting us to question not only the accessibility of an "American" subjectivity to "Filipinos" but also the very desirability of that subjectivity given the United States' imperialist practices, these works suggest the importance of sustained interrogation of precisely that desire. Postcolonial studies in the U.S. academy has traced the histories and legacies of especially European and U.S. colonizing endeavors, and that work has made significant strides in interrupting the exceptionalism that is so much a part of the self-aggrandizing practices of U.S. nationalism. Increasingly making inroads into American studies, postcolonial studies in Asian American studies has of late garnered an energetic currency that in one sense may be seen as a revitalization of foundational precepts in U.S. ethnic studies generally. But it is arguable that at least in Asian American studies, critique of the United States-as-empire has often given way to the exigencies of claiming the United States as "home." Such pressures have subsumed the early presence of empire as a critical frame in the field. Recent scholarship, driven in part by the ways that inattentiveness to empire makes difficult thorough engagement with certain "Asian American" formations like those with histories that trace to South Asian and Southeast Asian countries, has importantly testified to the necessity and productiveness of a postcolonial approach. Bulosan's and Santos's works over ways of understanding an "American" national subjectivity that are aligned with this scholarship. Especially by illuminating possibilities for and practices of life and culture that are indifferent to (in difference from) those promised and promoted by U.S. nationalism, they help us to understand that the achievement of identity with the nation is a limited and but one of myriad tools available for the sustenance of the lives and cultures of historically disenfranchised individuals and groups.

disruptive masculinities

By recognizing that in America Is in the Heart, Bulosan articulates his protagonist's journey to and into America as a search for masculine identity, we can begin to understand how this novel underscores the limitations of privileging race as the primary analytical category organizing Asian American studies. Bulosan defines Allos in terms of an "alternative" sexuality, not in the common parlance use of the term to designate nonheterosexual identities, but rather, in terms of an alternative to the demands of heteronormativity. Allos explains his initial departure from his family's village home as the beginning of his transition from childhood to "manhood" (A 30) and by the novel's close comes to embody a masculinity that is specifically in difference from heteronormativity. Masculinity here signals the process of affiliation of gender to bodies, and, through Allos, we see the inexhaustiveness of heteronormativity as the technology that works to encode normative genders. Beyond critiquing the imposition of a heteronormative heterosexuality, America, together with Santos's "Immigration Blues," helps us to imagine otherwise, to envision alternatives to acceding to demands for uniformity. In this way, they foster the development of critical practices geared toward mining and emphasizing such otherwise imagined identities as a strategy for remembering that even those who are systematically disempowered are never only or wholly powerless.


Excerpted from Imagine otherwise by Kandice Chuh Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: imagine otherwise
Introduction: on Asian Americanist critique 1
1 Against uniform subjectivity: remembering "Filipino America" 31
2 Nikkei internment: determined identities/undecidable meanings 58
3 "One hundred percent Korean": on space and subjectivity 85
4 (Dis)owning America 112
Conclusion: when difference meets itself 147
Notes 153
Works cited 187
Index 211
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