“With consummate lucidity and analytical skill, David Eng demonstrates how intimately related are Asian American identity and generic U.S. nationality—and how central to both are the contestations of masculine subjectivity. A powerful contribution to Americanist and transnational studies, Racial Castration more generally demonstrates the potential of psychoanalytic theory as an element in rigorous social critique.”—Phillip Brian Harper, New York University
Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian Americaby David L. Eng
Racial Castration, the first book to bring together the fields of Asian American studies and psychoanalytic theory, explores the role of sexuality in racial formation and the place of race in sexual identity. David L. Eng examines images—literary, visual, and filmic—that configure past as well as contemporary perceptions of Asian American men as emasculated, homosexualized, or queer.
Eng juxtaposes theortical discussions of Freud, Lacan, and Fanon with critical readings of works by Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Lonny Kaneko, David Henry Hwang, Louie Chu, David Wong Louie, Ang Lee, and R. Zamora Linmark. While situating these literary and cultural productions in relation to both psychoanalytic theory and historical events of particular significance for Asian Americans, Eng presents a sustained analysis of dreamwork and photography, the mirror stage and the primal scene, and fetishism and hysteria. In the process, he offers startlingly new interpretations of Asian American masculinity in its connections to immigration exclusion, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the wartime internment of Japanese Americans, multiculturalism, and the model minority myth. After demonstrating the many ways in which Asian American males are haunted and constrained by enduring domestic norms of sexuality and race, Eng analyzes the relationship between Asian American male subjectivity and the larger transnational Asian diaspora. Challenging more conventional understandings of diaspora as organized by race, he instead reconceptualizes it in terms of sexuality and queerness.
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Racial castrationManaging masculinity in Asian America
By David L. Eng
Duke University Press
Chapter OneI've Been (Re) Working on the Railroad: Photography and National History in China Men and Donald Duk
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The replicants are perfect "skin jobs," they look like humans, they talk like them, they even have feelings and emotions.... What they lack is a history. For that they have to be killed. Seeking a history, fighting for it, they search for their origins, for that time before themselves. Rachel succeeds. She has a document-as we know, the foundation of history. Her document is a photograph. GIULIANA BRUNO, "Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner"
Ah Goong does not appear in railroad photographs. MAXINE HONG KINGSTON, China Men
Reviewers of Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men (1980) and Frank Chin's Donald Duk (1991) typically point out the authors' attempts to challenge and rework dominant historical narratives that exclude Chinese American men. David Leiwei Li, for instance, notes that "Kingston has unfolded in China Men more than a century of Chinese American experience and constituted an oppositional voice to official American history." Commenting on the "satisfying" resolution of Donald Duk, Tom De Haven writes in a review of Chin's novel that "Donald and his pal Arnold Azalea ... storm back into history class and fortified withdocumentary evidence, set the record straight. Better late than never."
Indeed, by giving "voice" and visibility to generations of unrecognized Chinese American laborers who worked on the construction of the transcontinental railroad, on the sugar plantations of Hawai'i, in the canneries of Alaska, and in the laundries and restaurants of America's Chinatowns, China Men and Donald Duk collectively dispute the popular notion of democratic membership underpinning discourses of American exceptionalism. Kingston's and Chin's focus on the disavowed, repressed, and invisible histories of Chinese American men from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day insistently critiques the striking contradiction between the U.S. nation-state's economic need to recruit cheap and exploitable Chinese immigrant labor and its political refusal to enfranchise these racialized laborers as citizens-to recognize them as "proper" subjects of the nation-state. While I am certainly in agreement with these critical assessments of Kingston's and Chin's literary projects, in this chapter I focus on a thematic issue that has gone largely unremarked in the commentaries generated by these authors: that is, their efforts to rework dominant history through an emphatic shifting of the visual image.
In China Men and Donald Duk, photography's "reality effect"-its status as transparent historical record and "truth"-is insistently challenged. Both Kingston and Chin critique the now infamous 10 May 1869 photograph taken at Promontory Summit, Utah (fig. 2). Commonly known as the "Golden Spike Ceremony," this photograph depicts the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, often described as the nation's greatest technological feat of the nineteenth century. While more than ten thousand Chinese American male laborers were exploited for the building of the western portion of Central Pacific track, not one appears in the photograph commemorating its completion.
Roland Barthes tells us in Camera Lucida that history is constituted "only if we look at it." The past, Walter Benjamin earlier observed, is "seized only as an image that flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again." Yet for Kingston and Chin the irony of their situation is this: there are no pictures of their railroad ancestors to be seen; "there is no record of how many died building the railroad." Like the replicants of the film Blade Runner, these Chinese American male laborers lack official documentation-a history of visible images-a lack that threatens to consign their existence to oblivion. Seeking a history for these men-fighting for those images that would "threaten to disappear irretrievably"-thus entails for Kingston and Chin radical new methods of looking.
This chapter begins with a discussion of writings by early and contemporary critics of photography. Collectively, these writings question the photograph's impulse toward a mimetic realism and historical truth. This chapter explores how Kingston and Chin resolutely work against notions of mimetic realism so as to look awry at what the visible image would have us most readily apprehend. That is, they train us to look askew at what Lacan labels as the "given-to-be-seen" of the visual domain and what Homi Bhabha describes as the paralyzing fixity of the stereotype. Focusing on personal memories and the dreamwork-on the unconscious aspects of looking-Kingston and Chin teach us how to resist both the given-to-be-seen and the stereotype in order to see something else: an image, a history, a reflection of Chinese America that should not be regarded as lost to itself.
A Mimetic Ideology of Realism
Whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see. ROLAND BARTHES, Camera Lucida
Early critics of photography describe its departure from other mediums of art-its singularity as a "realist" form-in terms of unprecedented technological mastery over the visual domain. "Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting," Andre Bazin writes in 1945 in What Is Cinema? "lies in the essentially objective character of photography." Unlike painting, which depends upon the presence and literal hand of the artist, Bazin asserts, photography's uniqueness lies in the fact that for "the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent"-the mechanical apparatus of the camera (13).
Bazin thus attributes to photography a certain ontological status, arguing that the photograph "affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty" (13). Bazin claims a privileged, essential connection between the photograph and the object it depicts, a phenomenal relationship he describes as sharing "a common being, after the fashion of a fingerprint" (15). This evidential quality of the photograph as fingerprint leads Bazin to insist that the viewer of a snapshot must necessarily "accept as real the existence of the object reproduced" (13).
Writing more than thirty years later in Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes also draws an analogy between photography and evidence, likening the photograph to a "certificate of presence" (87) and the photographer's show to that of a "police investigation" (85). He contends that the difficulty of penetrating beyond the photograph's connection with the "real" lies in the seductive allure of its evidential force. Barthes observes that "in the Photograph the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation" (89) and describes it as a literal "emanation of the referent," suggesting that the photograph serves as an "umbilical cord link[ing] the body of the photographed thing to my gaze" (81).
In a 1985 essay entitled "Photography and Fetish," Christian Metz elaborates upon this phenomenological aspect of the photographic image, invoking ametaphor of surgical penetration. Metz describes the relationship between the photograph and the object it depicts as "a cut inside the referent" (158), as an incision and subsequent abduction of a piece of the real. Metz thus reprises Walter Benjamin's suggestive comparison of the photographer with the surgeon in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." While "the painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality," Benjamin writes in this famous 1936 essay, "the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web."
I offer this quick theoretical survey of photography as evidence and the photograph as "a cut inside the referent" in order to illustrate a brief critical history of photography's impulse toward what Eduardo Cadava describes as a "mimetic ideology of realism." This ideology underwrites the popular belief that the photographic image comes about only by seizing upon a piece of the real. The singularity of photography thus lies in the perception that it is a medium in which the distance between the referent and its signifier is collapsed. This is a medium, in other words, in which the boundary separating representation and "reality" blurs.
Deconstructing the Photograph
Early in Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the joining of signifier and referent in photography as a process of lamination: "The Photograph belongs to that class of laminated objects whose two leaves cannot be separated without destroying them both" (6). Barthes emphasizes throughout Camera Lucida the inseparable quality of these two laminated leaves: of the photograph and the real. We might note, however, that by describing this lamination process as a fatal one in which the two leaves of image and object cannot be "separated without destroying them both," he also offers us a way of deconstructing the photograph's mimetic impulse toward reality. The lamination process, Barthes insists, enacts an inevitable destruction of the image and object, which ultimately encourages us to think of the photograph not as an ontological incision into the real but as a representation of the real. How might we deconstruct photography's reality impulse both temporally and spatially?
Temporally, we must keep in mind, the photographic image is secured only by arresting the object in time. If the photograph captures a piece of the real it does so only by freezing and fixing the object in a moment irretrievably past. The successful lamination of image and object, Barthes reminds us, is the joining together of two leaves that finally presupposes the untimely destruction of the referent. Barthes describes this temporal event as a kind of improper death: "For the photograph's immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolutely superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past ('this-has-been'), the photograph suggests that it is already dead" (79). If "reality" implies an eternal, interminable, present, the temporal "this-has-been" aspect of the photograph tells us that reality is no longer with us, that the real-the live-of the photograph is impossible, that it has slipped away and is no longer. Barthes labels this process the "mortifying effect" of photography, suggesting that the abduction of the object by the camera lens-its memorialization through the representational frame of the photographic image-results not in its final capture but in its ultimate loss.
Rather than faithfully and perfectly giving the viewer the moment it depicts, the photographic image thus presents the "posthumous character of our lived experience." Thus, we might consider the two leaves of Barthes's lamination process not just as the joining together of signifier and referent but temporally as the instantaneous capture and destruction of the referent. It is this simultaneous, paradoxical preservation and annihilation of the object through its photographic memorialization that leads Barthes to declare photography a "bizarre medium," one that negotiates between two phases of time, and a "mad image, chafed by reality" (115; Barthes's emphasis). According to Barthes, to believe in the reality of a photo is finally to buy into a type of "temporal hallucination," for "whatever it grants to vision and whatever its manner, a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see" (6).
Not only does the temporal convergence of the "past this-has-been" with the present reality of liveness at the site of the photographic image work to confuse the status of the medium as decisively representational, but the mimetic allure of the photograph also involves a spatial misrecognition as well. It is important for us to remember that the "reality effect" of the photographic scene that unfolds before our eyes depends on the collapse of a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional plane. In this regard, Barthes's lamination metaphor also suggests the flattening of the three-dimensional space of reality into the two-dimensional space of representation. Lamination thus becomes a progressive attempt to close the gap between these two domains by searing them together. While lamination suggests the spatial convergence of object and image, this process is finally an impossible project. The two leaves of signifier and referent exist in parallel universes. As closely aligned as they might be in the photograph, there will always remain a space between image and object that can never be entirely eliminated.
Furthermore, as viewers of the photograph, we, too, must establish a certain distance from it in order to apprehend its contents. It is crucial to note that the reality of the scene that unfolds before our eyes in the photograph depends, like cinema, upon our stereoscopic vision being aligned with the monocular camera lens. Theorists of the cinema describe this process of joining (and flattening out) as "suture." Elaborating upon the viewer's identification with the perspective of the camera lens, Kaja Silverman observes that the "camera designates the point from which the spectacle is rendered intelligible, [and] the maintenance of perspectival illusion is assumed to depend on a smooth meshing of the spectator with that apparatus." An unconscious identification with the filmic apparatus, in other words, positions the viewer in an ideal spatial location from which the contents of the photograph can then, and only then, be mastered. To apprehend-to "get"-the picture, the spectator must necessarily occupy what in the eleventh seminar Lacan calls a pregiven "geometral point," that location designated by the lens of the camera from which a photograph's contents are most easily perceived. And, as many critics of the visual image have observed, photography's geometral point-the one given over most readily to the photograph's mimetic ideology of realism-is based upon the laws of Renaissance perspective and the optical tenets of the Cartesian cogito.
Theorists of suture in film repeatedly point out the viewing pleasure afforded to the subject who identifies with the camera lens. By unconsciously occupying the camera's pregiven geometral point of view, this stitching together-this lamination-of the human and mechanical eye, the subject gains illusory control over the field of vision. Primary identification with the camera lens, and with the reality it depicts, thus places the spectator in a pleasurable but dependent relationship with the apparatus. Hence, the reality of the visible field that seems to appear effortlessly before the spectator's eyes is only possible through the subjugation of the human eye to the camera lens. Epistemological mastery over the field of vision lies not intrinsically within the capacity of this eye but only in the eye's unconscious alignment with and subjection to the photographic apparatus as its functionary. In this respect, the geometral point of the photograph determines the spatial positioning that the spectator must necessarily occupy as much as any personal point of view that the spectator might bring to the visual image. Photography's impulse toward a mimetic ideology of realism consequently demands from the viewer a particular concession, a particular self-placement, and a particular geometral point of view-one given in advance, more determining of the spectator than determined by the spectator.
Excerpted from Racial castration by David L. Eng Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
David L. Eng is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and coeditor of Q & A: Queer in Asian America, winner of a 1998 Lambda Literary Award.
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