Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism

Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism

by Iyko Day

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In Alien Capital Iyko Day retheorizes the history and logic of settler colonialism by examining its intersection with capitalism and the racialization of Asian immigrants to Canada and the United States. Day explores how the historical alignment of Asian bodies and labor with capital's abstract and negative dimensions became one of settler colonialism's foundational and defining features. This alignment allowed white settlers to gloss over and expunge their complicity with capitalist exploitation from their collective memory. Day reveals this process through an analysis of a diverse body of Asian North American literature and visual culture, including depictions of Chinese railroad labor in the 1880s, filmic and literary responses to Japanese internment in the 1940s, and more recent examinations of the relations between free trade, national borders, and migrant labor. In highlighting these artists' reworking and exposing of the economic modalities of Asian racialized labor, Day pushes beyond existing approaches to settler colonialism as a Native/settler binary to formulate it as a dynamic triangulation of Native, settler, and alien populations and positionalities. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822374527
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/25/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Iyko Day is Associate Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. 

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Alien Capital

Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism

By Iyko Day

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7452-7



Abstract Labor and the Queer Temporalities of History 2

We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.

— Henry David Thoreau


Figure 1.1 is the celebrated telegram sent by Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) president William Van Horne, an American from Chicago tasked with overseeing the construction of the CPR who became, according to Pierre Berton's famous account, "more Canadian than any native." His telegram is addressed to Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and announces the completion of the railroad in Craigellachie, British Columbia, on November 7, 1885. Unlike the well-known photograph of the ceremonial driving of the last spike, the focal point of the telegram is time: it is the hour and minutes — 9:22 A.M. — that precisely mark the consolidation of the settler nation. The telegram, itself a representation of nineteenth-century advances in communications, symbolizes a new national temporality achieved through technological innovation.

Van Horne was known to frequently draw pictures on the reverse side of these kinds of telegrams. On the back side of one of the few that survived is his sketch of a Chinese laborer's facial profile, complete with a long tapered mustache. Surrounding the man's face are a busy series of numerical calculations that seem indicative of Van Horne's financial worries during the railroad's construction. The CPR, now a multi-billion-dollar corporation, objected to the reproduction of the sketch in this book. What's interesting is that the grounds for the CPR's censorship of the image rested on the mere association of Van Horne with the Chinese man, suggesting a perverse content attributed to the sketched figure and its capacity to corrupt Van Horne's reputation. This chapter probes exactly what constitutes this unnatural, obscene content and why it is out of sync with the settler temporality glorified on the face of Van Horne's telegram to the prime minister.

Probing the obscene content of Van Horne's sketch of the Chinese man further, the juxtaposition of the human profile and numerical sums evokes the economic connection between Chinese railroad labor and their low wages. Drawing out the financial significance of the image, Margot Francis explains that Chinese labor was "indispensable to the CPR's early financial viability as their 'cheap wages' saved Andrew Onderdonk, the contractor for the western section of the line, between $3 and $5 million and allowed him to escape bankruptcy." The Chinese whom Onderdonk contracted to work the western section were recruited from San Francisco. Many of them had worked on the US transcontinental railroad, which had been completed over a decade earlier, in 1869. Although Chinese labor in North America was vital to the completion of the transcontinental railroads, its profound irony, as Henry Yu observes, is "that the very railroads that Chinese laborers built made it easier and cheaper to transport the settlers who arrived afterwards and demanded that 'the Chinese must go.'" Although railroads were symbols of consolidation for the white nation, they were lines to exclusion for the Chinese laborers who helped build them. In 1885, the same year the CPR was completed, Canada passed its first immigration restriction policy through the Chinese Head Tax, designed to deter laboring classes. Originally set at $50, the tax rose prohibitively, to $100 by 1900 and $500 by 1903. Following completion of the US transcontinental railroad in 1869, the 1875 Page Act was the first federal immigration policy designed to deny entry to prostitutes, overwhelmingly targeting Chinese women on the basis of presumed sexual immorality. The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 dramatically expanded this scope by restricting entry to all skilled and unskilled Chinese labor. The outcome of these immigration controls on both sides of the Canada-US border was the formation of "bachelor" communities that, as homosocial, nonreproductive spaces, reinforced fears of contagion and perversion associated with Chinese men. The reproductive restrictions imposed on the bachelor community was, in Foucault's terms, part of the biopolitics of settler colonialism through its "calculated management of life."

The very existence of Van Horne's sketch of the Chinese man also offers a stark contrast to the traditional iconography associated with the building of the transcontinental railroads in Canada and the United States. The now-famous photographs taken at Promontory, Utah, and Craigellachie, British Columbia, respectively, commemorate the technological feat of white labor, erasing the thousands of Chinese men who worked and died building the western sections of these railroads. As David Eng notes, "While more than ten thousand Chinese American male laborers were exploited for the building of the western portion of Central Pacific track, no one appears in the photograph commemorating its completion." Neither are any of the seventeen thousand Chinese laborers who worked the western section of the Canadian Pacific railroad identified in what Berton calls "the most famous photograph ever taken in Canada," celebrating the union of eastern and western tracks in Canada. Therefore, in the sense that Van Horne's illustration retrieves a repressed aspect of Chinese labor in Canada, it offers us an alternative visual example that Francis suggests "troubles the narratives that posit that only white men were sufficiently enterprising to construct the rail that connected the nation." For the purposes of this chapter, what the missing sketch also brings to the fore is a relationship between the signifiers of race and capital that overshadowed railroad construction. The tension between these signifiers gave rise to the association of Chinese labor efficiency with social perversion and fed into romantic anticapitalism's dehumanization of Chinese workers as abstract labor.

Probing this visual interplay of race and capital, a less linear vision of Chinese labor emerges from Van Horne's sketch. In addition to the causal significance of the Chinese face and calculations, insofar as Chinese labor was instrumental for securing the financial viability of the CPR, the juxtaposition of the Chinese profile and numerical figures also projects the sameness of an identity relation. In particular, the vertical lines of the Chinese man's mustache in the sketch repeat the tally lines surrounding him, accentuating their symbolic resemblance and projecting a quality of mutability and interchangeability. This visual assonance evokes the peculiar fungibility of the Asian alien, a figure whose interchangeability as a value expression dramatizes the properties of money itself, Marx's "universal equivalent," against which everything is commensurable and exchangeable. Does such a resemblance between alien labor and the universal equivalence of money suggest that racialized labor takes on the abstract qualities of capital? In light of the 2012 controversy over the Asian scientist on the Canadian hundred-dollar bill discussed in the introductory chapter, Van Horne's doodle achieves prototypical significance.

By surrounding the Chinese man's face with a series of financial calculations, what Van Horne's sketch prompts is a reconsideration of the relation between the concrete and the abstract, the concrete specificity of racialized labor and the abstract, universal equivalence of money, which Marx describes as "a radical leveler [that] extinguishes all distinctions." Money "extinguishes all distinctions" because it is universally exchangeable with all other commodities, and "all other commodities make [money] the material embodiment of their uniform and universal form of value." Money is the conduit and expression of commensurability. However, Van Horne's sketch opens a view of racialized labor as money. Rather than an exchange relation — of labor for money — his sketch evokes a substitution relation. Such a relation suggests a process whereby heterogeneous (i.e., racialized) labor takes on the appearance of something entirely different: the homogeneous substance of money, whose qualities are universally commensurable. Unequal labor takes on the appearance of symbolic equivalence. This chapter explores the implications of such a symbolic substitution, particularly in terms of how racialized labor becomes progressively abstract, moving from concrete reality to the spectral domain of capital. Of course, capitalism's key operational logic is one of abstraction, dissolving difference into homogeneous, equivalent forms so they are commensurable — exchangeable. As Dipesh Chakrabarty summarizes, "The logic of capital sublates into itself the differences of history." The question, therefore, is why the concrete particularity of Chinese labor comes to express itself culturally as "abstract labor." Does the cultural abstraction of Chinese labor offer new ways of understanding what Yu calls the "irony" of Chinese labor restrictions introduced after the completion of the transcontinental railroads? In particular, if value is based on "socially necessary" labor time, what factors constitute social necessity?

This chapter draws on two Asian North American texts that shed light on social necessity through gendered and sexual temporalities of race, labor, and capitalism in the construction of the transcontinental railroads in Canada and the United States. Addressing themes of labor exploitation and gendered and sexualized exclusion, Maxine Hong Kingston's "The Grandfather of the Sierra Nevada Mountains," from her experimental memoir China Men, and Richard Fung's experimental video documentary Dirty Laundry: A History of Heroes offer imaginative responses to Van Horne's symbolic provocation of the identity relation between Chinese labor and money. Magnifying a converging theme of gender and sexual resignification and substitution in their texts, Kingston and Fung demonstrate, to quote Elizabeth Freeman, how "time has, indeed is, a body." Specifically, in their framing of racialized labor through the interplay of sexuality and temporality, I argue that Kingston and Fung queer the disembodying effects of an accelerating temporal logic of equivalence that constitutes abstract labor. What unites their distinct texts is a recurring theme of substitutions — of ventriloquism for "real" speech, of masturbation for "real" sex, of gay sex for straight sex, of Chinese alien labor for white labor, of maternalism for paternalism, and so on — which function collectively to expose how racial, sexual, and gender difference operates as a degraded substitute within the capitalist logics of white settler colonialism. These substitutions interrupt the accelerating capitalist temporality of railroad labor, which reorganizes the social necessity of a linear, rational, normative time of family, nation, and capital. If time is a body, it is a body subject to relentless disembodiment under capitalism. Yet, for these cultural producers, disembodiment provides an opening for queer resignification that reveals the destabilizing potential of abstract labor. They draw out the potential of Queer Marxism by exposing the tension between concrete labor and abstract labor time, what Petrus Liu identifies as the "incommensurability between the value of a human being and its formal exchangeability."

As alien substitutes for "real labor," I suggest that Kingston's and Fung's texts allegorize a process whereby alien labor is symbolically aligned with the fluctuating duration embedded in abstract labor, which establishes value, rather than the here-and-now world of concrete labor. As I elaborated in the introductory chapter, abstract labor represents a social average of labor time to produce a commodity in order to express its quantitative value during exchange, whereas concrete labor refers to the actual time and place of a specific laboring activity that expresses its qualitative use-value. Chakrabarty offers a useful clarification of abstract labor as a "performative, practical category." He explains that "abstract labor gave Marx a way of explaining how the capitalist mode of production managed to extract, out of peoples and histories that were all different, a homogenous and common unit for measuring human activity." Abstract labor is therefore an objective force made up of what Marx describes as a spectral, phantomlike substance:

Let us now look at the residue of the products of labour. There is nothing left of them in each case but the same phantom-like objectivity; there are merely congealed quantities of homogenous human labour, i.e. of human labour-power expended without regard to the form of its expenditure. All these things now tell us is that human labour-power has been expended to produce them, human labour is accumulated in them. As crystals of this social substance, which is common to them all, they are values — commodity values.

By aligning Chinese bodies with abstract labor, their labor represents human labor in the abstract. It is this phantomlike objectivity of alien labor that establishes a commodity's value. White bodies, on the other hand, are symbolically associated with concrete labor, which establishes a commodity's quality.

Such a racial bifurcation of abstract and concrete labor is the work of the commodity fetish, which disguises the social relations behind the products of human labor. In terms of this book's overarching claim, I argue that a key anchor of North American settler colonialism is an ideology of romantic anticapitalism that reifies a distinction between concrete and abstract social relations out of a misunderstanding of the dialectical nature of capitalism. Romantic anticapitalism hypostatizes the concrete, rooted, and pure, on one hand, and identifies capitalism solely with the abstract dimension of social relations, on the other. It glorifies what it sees as the concrete realm of social relations: white labor, the family, and the train itself — a machine whose concreteness is biologized as the "iron horse." Alternatively, Chinese bodies are in nearly exclusive alignment with quasi-mechanized labor temporality, excluded from normative social and domestic temporalities. Once Chinese labor is no longer needed, romantic anticapitalism performs an aesthetic function by giving Chinese shape to the unrepresentable: giving bodily form to the abstract, temporal domination of capitalism. In this sense, Chinese labor allegorizes the commensurating function of abstract labor that propels capitalism forward. However, as Chakrabarty notes, for Marx the universal category of abstract labor serves two functions: "It is both a description and a critique of capital." Following a Queer Marxist approach, this chapter will explore how abstract labor can pose such a critique.

The focus on temporality in Kingston's and Fung's work also serves to dramatize the impact of industrial technology on conceptions of time in the nineteenth century. In particular, railroad construction was intimately linked to the speed-up and internationalization of uniform time through technological innovation, time-space compression, and the standardization of Greenwich Mean Time. Completing a process of temporal secularization that began in the Middle Ages, time's progressive detachment from the cosmos and human events was achieved in this period of national expansion and consolidation by rail. No longer did biblical events structure and determine time, as they once did within traditional Jewish and Christian conceptions of history; rather, time became increasingly continuous, homogeneous, and independent of events. Postone refers to this secularized temporality as "abstract time," "an independent framework within which motion, events, and action occur ... divisible into equal, constant, nonqualitative units. "Indeed, the progress of abstract time as a dominant form of time parallels the development of capitalism as a socially metabolic totality. In the context of this shift to a more totalizing capitalist temporality, what Kingston's and Fung's texts illuminate is how conceptions of time were racialized and sexualized. Indeed, as Petrus Liu specifies, it is a mistake to view socially necessary labor time as solely the mean labor time associated with technological developments but also in terms of its moral dimensions. He clarifies that "the value of a commodity is the amount of human labor embodied in it, but the value of the commodity of human labor is determined by moral and discursive operations outside the capitalist reproduction scheme." Therefore, on one hand, white labor productivity and its heteronormative reproduction become qualitative expressions of morality and rationality associated with time discipline. As Michael O'Malley explains, there was a need "to protect time's virtue," its chastity tied to "scientific discipline requiring years of patient courting to master." On the other, as I suggest in this chapter, Chinese labor becomes associated with the abstract, quantitative domination of labor time. This is what Postone describes as the "temporal dimension of the abstract domination that characterizes the structures of alienated social relations in capitalism." Exposing the racialized temporalities of the labor process under capitalism, Kingston and Fung return with queer temporal revisions of labor and reproduction.


Excerpted from Alien Capital by Iyko Day. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix

Introduction. The New Jews: Settler Colonialism and the Personification of Capitalism  1

1. Sex, Time, and the Transcontinental Railroad: Abstract Labor and the Queer Temporalities of History 2  41

2. Unnatural Landscapes: Romantic Anticapitalism and Alien Degeneracy  73

3. Japanese Internment and the Mutation of Labor  115

4. The New Ninteteenth Century: Neoliberal Borders, the City, and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism  151

Epilogue. The Revenge of the Iron Chink  191

Notes 199

Bibliography  223

Index  235

Credits  243

What People are Saying About This

Death beyond Disavowal: The Impossible Politics of Difference - Grace Kyungwon Hong

"Featuring elegant and erudite readings of an impressive variety of texts by Asian artists from the United States and Canada alongside brilliant theoretical analyses of settler colonialism and racial capital, Iyko Day's Alien Capital is an immensely important and innovative work. With groundbreaking and profound interventions, Day convincingly demonstrates that we cannot fully understand settler colonialism without considering Asian racialization."

The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy - David L. Eng

"Through often unexpected and dazzling analyses, Iyko Day considers a transnational U.S.–Canada archive that explores how Asian immigrants came to represent the abstraction of capital, bringing to the fore a history of settler colonialism that is often ignored in accounts of Asian immigration and racialization. Alien Capital is sure to be a very important, influential, and widely read book."

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