Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific / Edition 1

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Shu-mei Shih inaugurates the field of Sinophone studies in a work of sophisticated cultural criticism situated at the intersection of Chinese studies, Asian American studies, diaspora studies, and transnational studies. Arguing that visual culture has become the primary means of mediating identities under global capitalism, Shih examines the production and circulation of images-film, television, contemporary art, newspapers, and journalism-across what she terms the "Sinophone Pacific," which comprises Sinitic-language-speaking communities such as the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese America. This groundbreaking book argues that the dispersal of the so-called Chinese peoples needs to be conceptualized in terms of communities of Sinitic-language cultures rather than ethnicity and nationality.

About the Author:
Shu-Mei Shih is Professor of Asian Languages and Cultures, Comparative Literature, and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520224513
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 6/19/2007
  • Series: Asia Pacific Modern Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 257
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Shu-mei Shih is Professor in Asian Languages and Cultures, Comparative Literature, and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937 (UC Press) and coeditor of Minor Transnationalism.

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Visuality and Identity

Sinophone articulations across the Pacific
By Shumei Shi

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-22451-3

Chapter One

Much has been said by scholars in the social sciences and humanities regarding the emergence of flexible subject positions in our late capitalist world governed by what David Harvey calls the "flexible regime of accumulation." We have seen the repetition of the word flexibility in such notions as "flexible citizenship," which tries to yoke the production of contemporary subjectivities to late capitalist processes. Frequently connected to the notion of flexibility is the widely used metaphor of flow. The mass migration of people; the hyper compression of space-time brought about by advancements in communications and electronic technologies; the hyperreal, disembodied movement of money and commodities; and so forth have come to take on the characteristics of flow, all appearing to move freely and fluidly through space and across boundaries. Affirmative readings of flow have emphasized its liberating and resistant potential against disciplines of the nation-state, charted the emergence of transnational and diasporic public spheres, and identified the potential for new transcultural cosmopolitanisms, of which the notion of a "third culture" is a good example.

Extending the utopic readings of the consequences of flow to the peripheral communities, or to put it more precisely, out of a competitive motivation to claim deterritorialized subjectivities for the margin, scholars have also rushed to identify Third World postcolonial hybridities as the quintessentially transnational, and some claim, postmodern. Frederick Buell, drawing from the work of many scholars, argues, for instance, that the Third World is "au courant" today, much further along as a contemporary hybrid cultural formation than the metropolitan center, since its colonial hybridization is precedent to the hybridity engendered by globalization in the metropolitan center. The Third World, for Buell, thus constitutes the source of new cosmopolitans. According to this line of argument, due to colonialism and imperialism, which disrupted native systems and forcibly imposed metropolitan cultures, Third World cultures can now readily flaunt hybridity and can serve as cosmopolitan examples and models for the center. Anthony King maintains in a similar vein that Third World colonial cities with their multiracial, multicultural, and multicontinental urban cultures were precursors of today's world cities. Here, colonialism seems to have accidentally and ironically become a historical benefit that enabled the production of exemplary transnational, deterritorialized, and therefore contemporary and postmodern subjectivities and cultures in Third World postcolonial nation-states.

Conversely, the migration of postcolonial people to the metropolitan centers as immigrants has also hybridized metropolitan cultures and turned these centers into world cities. Particularly with the post-1965 immigration of Asians to the United States, older paradigms of assimilation into the U.S. nation-state are said to have become increasingly obsolete, resulting in a decentering of the core by the periphery. Referring to all Americans of Asian descent, Lisa Lowe similarly argues that since Asian immigrants and Asian Americans have always been prevented from becoming authentic, assimilated citizens, their unassimilatability actually helped them carve out a space of critical resistance to the U.S. nation-state. Due to the racialized policing of the U.S. nation-state, unassimilatability could be actively deployed and deterritorialized subject positions could be effected against the nation-state. In sum, in the articulations of postcolonial and immigrant agency, the erstwhile sources of oppression-colonialism, imperialism, and state racism-can become the basis of constructive and resistant disidentification with the nation-state, which, in the context of globalism, becomes a marker of some kind of power. In our era of globalization, allegiance to the nation-state can no longer be taken for granted, and its absence may actually allow for agency and subjectivity for both the immigrant and the minority.

If we presume, then, that global capitalism's favorite subjects are flexible citizens, and the immigrant and the minority have a privileged access to these subject positions, the question concerning us in this chapter is how this flexibility actually works for Sinophone visual workers and artists. Among the visual media, film and video are able to cross national borders much more easily than the traditional plastic arts. The success of Sinophone directors in Hollywood such as Ang Lee from Taiwan and John Woo from Hong Kong further suggests that the translatability of the medium makes the filmmakers themselves more marketable in different cultural contexts, practically granting them the status of flexible subjects. This question of flexibility is therefore crucial to an understanding of the political economy of Sinophone visual culture across the Pacific.


With the exception of Buell, the various scholars mentioned above also uniformly evoked the dystopic potential of the transnational, even though a celebratory tone remains dominant in their works. Aihwa Ong and Donald Nonini note how transnationalism can work in complicity with oppressive nation-states to further the exploitation of labor; Lowe emphasizes the oppression of sweatshop laborers as a symptom of the new international division of labor and flexible production; Arjun Appadurai warns how migration exacerbates difference and deterritorialized fundamentalisms can heighten ethnic violence. The fact that none of these dystopic possibilities and actualities received in-depth and detailed analyses in these texts betrays to me not so much the limits of their arguments as their felt need to effect a theoretical coup d'état. This coup involves the overthrow of the oppressive view of immigrants and minorities as the always already victimized and the institution of the nonreactive view of them as transnationally constituted subjects who need not be completely subjected to or dictated by their oppressive nation-states, whether native or adopted. Furthermore, it involves the enlargement of the frame of reference and discourse from the national to the transnational terrain, in which there are more possibilities of empowerment for the immigrant and the minority.

This coup d'état, I suspect, is most crucially motivated by the desire for theoretical coevalness. The conferring of deterritorialized citizenship, in its proximity to postmodern subjectivity, acquires for the immigrant and the minority the status of being a contemporary with the metropolitan subject, not the embodiment of the perennial "past" of Western modernity as was the case in older modernization paradigms. The rhetoric of flexibility applied to the Third World subjects allows them to be coeval with the West in the temporal scheme. But the potential risk in the quest for theoretical coevalness is the flattening of historical and power differences, which may cause it to paradoxically repeat the kind of universalism that underpinned modernization theories. Avoiding the trap of another universalism, maintaining historical and geopolitical specificity, while arguing for coevalness is indeed a profound challenge. We may begin by defining coevalness not as a "peaceful co-existence" of cultures, but as the "co-temporality of power structures." Contemporaneity, then, is marked at every turn and at every moment by the operation of power on an uneven terrain.

From my vantage point as a multiply displaced immigrant scholar working within both the disciplines of area studies and ethnic studies, I worry about the seeming contiguity constructed among the flexible subject (Asian cosmopolitans), the minority subject (Asian immigrants and Asian Americans), and resistance against the nation-state. I understand the necessity of identifying agency in postcolonial and minority subjects and do indeed see new forms of agency emerging for minority subjects in the transnational terrain, but I wonder whether this necessity should always bear the burden of reactively employing vocabulary and terminologies that are current and therefore appear to confer power. What I worry about is that agencies have not been so much examined through their production and embodied practices as they have been identified or discovered via available terminologies in a theoretical turn toward coevalness. It may be fruitful for us to ask, for instance, what are the material consequences of flexibility? In Harvey's conception of the flexible regime of accumulation, flexibility empowers the holders of capital, not the workers and producers of commodities-it is an extremely uneven practice. In the way late capitalism has moved the Fordist structure of production to the global arena to form an international division of labor, and in the way it sanctions flexible labor processes that deepen the exploitation of labor, flexibility can simultaneously be the prerogative of the few with mobility and economic power and a profoundly abusive practice subjecting workers to "flextime" regimes of multiple jobs with no traditional benefits. Stuart Hall's penetrating statement that "the global is the self-representation of the dominant particular" aptly captures the extreme unevenness governing the production and circulation of cultures across the globe. Pushing Hall's statement further, I would argue that the so-called postcolonial hybrid cultures that we celebrate today are usually seen by the center as but corrupted versions or poor cousins of metropolitan cultures and are seldom, if ever, seen as precursors. The proliferation of McDonald's in Taiwan is a confirmation of metropolitan culture's inevitability, not the occasion to study cultural hybridity as a model for American McDonald's. Seldom does postcolonial hybridity provide enough of a threat or inspiration so that the metropolitan center feels the need to emulate. Neither has postcolonial cosmopolitanism ever shared the same exalted place on the pedestal with metropolitan cosmopolitanism. Postcolonial and metropolitan hybridities embody two different histories, are derived from two very different experiences, carry divergent "values" globally, and can never be equal. When these postcolonial cosmopolitan cultures do travel to the metropole through migration, they are met with profound ambivalence and efficient policies of containment, which include either naked racism or a multiculturalism that suppresses difference in the name of authenticity or utilizes difference for the purpose of commercial gain or absolution of liberal guilt.

It is also imperative to reexamine the metaphor of flow so frequently evoked in studies of globalization and transnationalism. Flow is always affected by topography-it must follow specific contours, layouts, and routes, which affect its speed, direction, and density. The directions of flow are also always historically marked. For example, the flow of postcolonial people to the West in our historical moment mainly appears as economic migration, while the flow bound for the postcolonial sites appears chiefly in the form of tourism. Furthermore, for the production of meaning, flow is always arrested at a specific conjuncture of time and space; that is, it has its own chronotope, albeit a continuously shifting one, depending on context and therefore avoiding fixity and determinism. Like the way narratives achieve meaning through the application of closure as in classical theories of narrative or in Hayden White's useful discussion of how "proper history" acquires narrativity through closure, flow acquires meaning only at a moment of temporal and spatial arrest within one or more contexts. Like "reality effects" that are produced by the artful arrangement of everyday objects and the provision of descriptive details in realist narratives, larger meaning-effects that are of crucial social consequence are more often than not constructed and manipulated by dominant institutions with their governing laws and discourses and are always permeated by power.

Using a different metaphor, Ernest Laclau and Chantel Mouffe call these privileged mechanisms of closure or fixity "nodal points":

The impossibility of an ultimate fixity of meaning implies that there have to be partial fixations-otherwise, the very flow of differences would be impossible. Even in order to differ, to subvert meaning, there has to be a meaning.... Any discourse is constituted as an attempt to dominate the field of discursivity, to arrest the flow of differences, to construct a center. We will call the privileged discursive points of this partial fixation, nodal points. (Lacan has insisted on these partial fixations through his concept of points de capiton, that is, of privileged signifiers that fix the meaning of a signifying chain. This limitation of the productivity of the signifying chain establishes the positions that make predication possible-a discourse incapable of generating any fixity of meaning is the discourse of the psychotic).

For signification to be possible, then, meaning has to be temporally and provisionally fixed at nodal points, and the agents who have the privileged access to nodal points are institutions, organizations, and individuals whose wills to power and domination are forcefully expressed through discourses that repress differences, or in our new historical moment, recontain differences through channeling them to unthreatening venues. Examples are numerous. The discourse of multiculturalism that so easily slips into a recontainment of differences is a ready example. Another example: the flow of postcolonial migration to the United States is governed by the nodal points articulated by the Immigration and Naturalization Services in terms of priority and desirability clearly favoring immigrant investors over economic and political refugees. Likewise, the virtual flow of images and money, theoretically always in transit and deferred in their consumption-as in Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto's intriguing formula of M-I-M (money-image-money) and I-M-I (image-money-image) in which capital "accumulates not only through the circulation of money but also through the circulation of images without end," that is, "without being consumed"-nevertheless accumulates meaning-effects, or in Laclau and Mouffe's language, confronts nodal points. The endlessly circulatable image is Stuart Hall's "dominant particular," to which the challenge from the margin is deferred and whose vitality is renewed through circulation and recirculation, whereas money, even in its virtual form, lines the pockets of some and not others.

The necessary tension and contradiction between fluidity and fixity can be examined in detail through an analysis of flexible subject positions in the transnational context. In the following analysis of Sinophone filmmaker Ang Lee's early films as well as their divergent reception in Taiwan and the United States, I will illustrate how the nodal points of meaning assert themselves across the global divide in and through flexible articulations of culture. My reading of the operation of these nodal points in Ang Lee's early work will suggest the persistence of meaning-production privileging the nation-state, albeit more than one nation-state. In the juxtaposition and interaction between the two nation-states, Taiwan and the United States, we will see how two nodal points-nationalist patriarchy and gendered minoritization-separately discussed in Asian Studies and Asian American Studies respectively but never together, and it is Sinophone studies that makes this unorthodox commingling possible-operate within and with flexibility. I briefly explain the ways in which these two nodal points are utilized below. In postcolonial historiography, as well as studies of colonialism in general, native nationalism has been an important discursive construct as the predominant form in which resistance is articulated. When analyzed as a gendered discourse, nationalism has most often been seen in its complicity with patriarchy and masculinity, which either represses internal feminist causes or competes with colonial masculinities. The works of Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World and The Nation and Its Fragments, have helped define the terms of the discussion, alongside various works on the relationship between gender and nationalism nicely summarized in Nira Yuval-Davis's useful book Gender and Nation. While nationalism in the Third World is construed as a reactive cultural and political discourse that has ambivalent implications for Third World agency, it delimits the coherence of its power through the repression of internal dissent and differences, in particular, its female constituencies.


Excerpted from Visuality and Identity by Shumei Shi Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. 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

List of Illustrations     ix
Acknowledgments     xi
About Romanization     xiii
Introduction     1
Visuality in Global Capitalism     8
Identity in Global Capitalism     16
Sinophone Articulations     23
Globalization and Minoritization     40
The Limits of a Coup d'Etat in Theory     42
Flexibility and Nodal Points     47
Flexibility and Translatability     59
A Feminist Transnationality     62
Feminist Antagonism against Chinese Patriarchy     67
Liberal Antagonism against the Maoist State     71
Antagonism of a Minority Subject     77
Antagonism against the Western Gaze     79
The Geopolitics of Desire     86
Beleaguered Communities     90
Sexualizing the "Mainland Sister"     94
Feminizing the "Mainland Cousin"     103
Gender and Public Sphere     114
The Incredible Heaviness of Ambiguity     117
A Short History of the "Mainland"     124
"Eternal China" in the 1990s     129
The "Intimate Enemy" in the Twenty-First Century     135
Struggles of the Sinophone     137
AfterNational Allegory     140
The Allegorical Time and the City-cum-Nation     144
The Allegorical and the Mundane     150
Refashioning Hongkongness     157
Cosmopolitanism among Empires     165
The Age of Empires and, Especially, Their Sizes     166
Cosmopolitanism, Multiplicity, Danger     170
Untranslatable Ethics     175
Can Cosmopolitanism Be Ethical?     180
Conclusion.: The Time and Place of the Sinophone     183
Notes     193
Selected Bibliography     219
Index     231
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