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America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945

America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945

by Colleen Lye

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What explains the perception of Asians both as economic exemplars and as threats? America's Asia explores a discursive tradition that affiliates the East with modern efficiency, in contrast to more familiar primitivist forms of Orientalism. Colleen Lye traces the American stereotype of Asians as a "model minority" or a "yellow peril"--two aspects of what she


What explains the perception of Asians both as economic exemplars and as threats? America's Asia explores a discursive tradition that affiliates the East with modern efficiency, in contrast to more familiar primitivist forms of Orientalism. Colleen Lye traces the American stereotype of Asians as a "model minority" or a "yellow peril"--two aspects of what she calls "Asiatic racial form"-- to emergent responses to globalization beginning in California in the late nineteenth century, when industrialization proceeded in tandem with the nation's neocolonial expansion beyond its continental frontier.

From Progressive efforts to regulate corporate monopoly to New Deal contentions with the crisis of the Great Depression, a particular racial mode of social redress explains why turn-of-the-century radicals and reformers united around Asian exclusion and why Japanese American internment during World War II was a liberal initiative.

In Lye's reconstructed archive of Asian American racialization, literary naturalism and its conventions of representing capitalist abstraction provide key historiographical evidence. Arguing for the profound influence of literature on policymaking, America's Asia examines the relationship between Jack London and leading Progressive George Kennan on U.S.-Japan relations, Frank Norris and AFL leader Samuel Gompers on cheap immigrant labor, Pearl S. Buck and journalist Edgar Snow on the Popular Front in China, and John Steinbeck and left intellectual Carey McWilliams on Japanese American internment. Lye's materialist approach to the construction of race succeeds in locating racialization as part of a wider ideological pattern and in distinguishing between its different, and sometimes opposing, historical effects.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of American History
Through a densely historicized, insightful reading of literary naturalism, Colleen Lye makes important contributions to understanding U.S. political, economic, and social history. . . . This is an exemplary work of materialist study of literature and history that humbles most literary critics and historians.
— Mari Yoshihara
Journal of American History - Mari Yoshihara
Through a densely historicized, insightful reading of literary naturalism, Colleen Lye makes important contributions to understanding U.S. political, economic, and social history. . . . This is an exemplary work of materialist study of literature and history that humbles most literary critics and historians.
From the Publisher
Winner of the 2005 Cultural Studies Award, The Association for Asian American Studies

Honorable Mention for the 2006 John Hope Franklin Publication Prize

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005

"Through a densely historicized, insightful reading of literary naturalism, Colleen Lye makes important contributions to understanding U.S. political, economic, and social history. . . . This is an exemplary work of materialist study of literature and history that humbles most literary critics and historians."—Mari Yoshihara, Journal of American History

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Princeton University Press
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America's Asia

Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945



SOON AFTER I STARTED TEACHING at Berkeley, I was invited to speak in a large student-organized undergraduate English lecture course called "Other Voices," a course that exists primarily to introduce lower-division students to minority faculty on the campus. It was suggested by the course facilitators that I talk about my research interests, but that in preparing my remarks I bear in mind that I would be the only Asian American guest that semester. For the students' reading assignment I chose a short poem by Mitsuye Yamada, "Looking Out":

It must be odd to be a minority he was saying. I looked around and I didn't see any. So I said Yeah it must be.

I framed my presentation around a reading of the poem, calling attention to the disjuncture between seeing and being seen, to the ambiguity in the speaker's response (registered in the gap between sight and speech) that could indicate either a reluctant acquiescence to social construction or an ironization of the other's perception. I wanted the students to wrestle with the misunderstanding that arises in the poem: is Yamada playing on the gap between external and internalperception or between different kinds of social perception held by the two people in the poem. I wanted the students to reflect on the kind of sociological and psychic construction signified by the term "minority" and its relation to questions of visibility, representation, identification, and subjectification. Yamada's poem helped me to kick off an introductory lecture on a central problematic of Asian American identity: the invention of "Asian American" as a panethnic construction by the yellow power movement of the 1960s, the coalitional character of its structuration, and its limitless tendency toward fragmentation.

Addressing undergraduates on the topic of ethnic identity is always tricky because it involves a double move-one of raising basic historical awareness and, at the same time, of demonstrating the constructedness of that history. In the case of the term "Asian American," this double move (empirical and critical) is particularly complicated by a persistent heterogeneity effect, which generates continual confusion about who Asian American describes or leads to repeated angry notices of "forgotten" Asian Americans. Either the category will not hold or it demands constant supplementation. At the end of my forty-five-minute presentation, an African American student raised his hand and asked the following question: Does the lecturer in fact consider Asian Americans to be a minority group? In his view, Asian Americans are white. At the University of California, where the abolition of affirmative action by state Proposition 209 was just then raising the specter of the resegregation of state higher education for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans-but not Asian Americans-there are no politically comfortable responses to this perception, which arises from a sense that the group has somehow been exempt from the historical laws of systemic racial subordination. Even when the existence of historical discrimination is acknowledged, there is a sense that the minority status of Asian Americans is likely to be somehow temporary and that in a world of unfettered competition Asian Americans are likely to rise to the top of the socioeconomic order. Both opponents and critics of Proposition 209 at the time predicted that the law would primarily benefit Asian Americans, whose relative share of the admitted pool of students was bound to increase. Yet to some extent, this pitting of black and brown against yellow was a replay of an admissions scandal in the 1980s in which the university administration had resorted to the (illegal) application of differential criteria for whites and Asian Americans, in the belief that without them Asian Americans were likely to displace whites.

This book explores the history of such perceptions and beliefs. The eccentricity of "Asian American" to the minority discourse of liberal multiculturalism has an origin in the historical identification of an Asian presence in the United States with the social costs of unbridled capitalism. The prominent post-1960s representation of Asian Americans as nonminorities, or as "minorities, yes; but oppressed, no," forms the kernel of what has come to be called the "model minority" myth-the representation of Asian Americans as capable of upward mobility without the aid of state-engineered correctives. For reasons having to do with the necessarily international context of Asian American racialization, as this book will show, the domestic signification of Asian Americans has its counterpart in the global signification of Asia. While the new visibility of an Asian-American middle class was being used to support a neoconservative-led "retreat from race" in domestic public policy, the expanding economies of the newly industrialized countries of East Asia-the "Asian Tigers"-were being heralded by free market critics of import-substitution as evidence of the conceptual and political "end of the Third World."

In contrast to the nineteenth-century European object of Edward Said's influential study, the Orient of the American century-at least where it has predominantly tended to mean East Asia rather than the Middle East-has signified an exceptional, rather than paradigmatic, Other. This exceptionalism of America's Asia, resting upon a putatively unusual capacity for economic modernity, extends to moments when the affect of the racial discourse has been hostile ("yellow peril") as well as admiring ("model minority"). Scholars have lately begun to observe the definitional continuities between the "negative" and "positive" stereotypes of Asia and Asian Americans and to question a strictly evolutionary view of the relationship between them. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done in pursuing the historical, theoretical, and rhetorical specificity of American Orientalism. If, as Said has argued, the primitivist relegation of the Other was a crucial aid to European colonial rule, how are we to understand the ambivalent presentation of the economic modernity of America's Asia? When did this discourse arise? Where in American culture is it to be found? What was its social meaning? What can the form taken by America's Asia tell us about the distinctions of American empire from other historical examples of empire? What strategic lessons do the aesthetic properties of the racial form impart for Asian American cultural politics? These are some of the questions this book sets out to answer.

As indicated by the title of a 1993 anthology of recent Asian American writing, Charlie Chan Is Dead, the quest for Asian American literary self-expression in the 1990s continued to be premised upon the negation of Oriental stereotypes, even as a new generation of writers and critics sought to break with a confining cultural nationalism. In their introduction to the inaugural anthology of Asian American literature, published in 1974, writers Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Jeffrey Paul Chan, and Lawson Fusao Inada declared a war on stereotype that engendered a fractious quarrel among Asian American writers themselves about the ubiquitous reach of an internalized Orientalism. Parallels between intra-ethnic attacks on Asian American and black women writers have also exposed the gendered dimensions of the rhetoric of cultural authenticity, though admittedly it has been easier to criticize masculinism than to resist appealing to authenticity, whose legitimating power continues to be felt in our era of post-identity politics through the sanction of a strategically invoked essentialism. Perhaps one way to address our acute anxieties about our inability to represent ourselves without somehow being represented would be to pay more attention to the workings of representation, from which there is no easy escape.

Just as self-representation has not brought freedom from stereotype, empirical rebuttals to media distortions have not succeeded in making the "model minority" go away. The disappointments of trying to dispel myth with reality afford more than a reminder of the general operation of language. They return us to the material conditions of an ideological construct, even as they require us to be cognizant of the fact that there can be no return to historical origins that is not mediated by our present standpoint. A historical approach to racial representation has the advantage of being able to account for the specificities of different marginalized groups, whose stereotypical attributes are located in the shifting dynamics of social relations and social conflicts. A historical approach also helps us to maintain a healthy skepticism toward the "evidence of experience" and toward the temptation to think that the articulation of minority subjectivity can be separated from the history of racialization or can express an independent rejoinder to it. At the risk of ignoring new social history's call to document subaltern experience and agency, this book returns to the study of racism and the power of racialization's effects.

The book's title pays respect to the 1971 collection of essays edited by Edward Friedman and Mark Selden and dedicated to the critical spirit of the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars, whose call for scholars to "investigate the relationship between knowledge and power, between intellectual creation in America and political destruction in Asia" was occasioned by the crisis of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. "Asia is America's," Friedman and Selden write,

... in the sense that we impose American categories to describe, evaluate and direct Asian experience. Our cultural chauvinism might mainly provide material for humorous self-analysis were it not for the overwhelming explosion of American economic and military might throughout Asia. For Asia is America's in this second tragic sense that American power has channeled, distorted, and suppressed much that is Asia.

This book explores the dynamic and destructive interaction between American perceptions and American power in the making and unmaking of contemporary Asia. Our focus is at once Asia and America. For the investment of immense intellectual and material resources in American military adventures in Asia does more than deprive us of resources vitally needed at home. It simultaneously strengthens the very repressive tendencies in our society most prone to crush aspirations for freedom, autonomy and equality in America. (vii)

In directing our attention to the relationship between knowledge and power, and the impact of U.S. discourses about Asia on U.S. society, my book shares with its titular predecessor a common political purpose. Departing from the critical strategy of the original, however, this book does not seek to replace racism's projections with the "truth" of Asian or Asian American reality. Instead, taking seriously the difficulties of unthinking Eurocentrism, it attempts a critical intervention through an attentive observation of racism's object, generating a contextualized description that incorporates a strong interpretation of race's social meaning. As such, this book does not aim at a comprehensive account of Asian American representation. It is a genealogy of the surfacing in American history of a particular, paradoxical racial form, with a view toward explaining its predominant ideological usages and mythic persistence into the present.

* * *

Traditionally, "yellow peril" and "model minority" images have been identified with turn-of-the-century anti-Asian agitation and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, respectively, and are thought to mark the evolutionary journey of the Asian immigrant from rejection to domesticated acceptance. But yellow peril and model minority are best understood as two aspects of the same, long-running racial form, a form whose most salient feature, whether it has been made the basis for exclusion or assimilation, is the trope of economic efficiency. Long before the stereotype of the hardworking and self-sufficient Asian American came to be the bane of post-1960s activists seeking federal aid for their communities, this figure already manifested itself in the late-nineteenth-century rhetoric of both those who opposed and supported Chinese "cheap labor" immigration. Focusing on American culture in the first half of the twentieth century, during which Asian immigrants were officially classified as "aliens ineligible to citizenship," the book traces present-day attributes of stereotypical Asian American character to the earlier characteristics of Asiatic racial form and examines the historical conditions of their making, the social terrain of their emergence, and the representational material of their composition.

If one goal of the book is to discover a structural pattern to the perplexing shifts in United States-Asian relations over the course of the twentieth century, another is to convey the historicity of the life of social forms. The quest to identify the enduring features of race needs to be qualified by an appreciation of the vast difference between the limitations of post-1960s multiculturalism and the radical informality of Asian immigrant existence in the prewar period. Over the course of the twentieth century, many significant rights have been gained-not least the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship. Responding to the neglect of Asian American subjects by mainstream U.S. historiography, Asian American studies initially tended to reverse the omission by essentializing U.S. history as the story of racism. In the late 1980s and 1990s, under the influence of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's critique of the concept of totality and an Americanized British cultural studies, the prevailing tendency was to conceive of racial formation as a supplement to class analysis and to make the need to account for race a prime motivation for inaugurating a post-Marxism. Ironically, despite Asian American studies' preoccupation with the category of race, its analytic emergence as a means of explaining-or explaining away-historical causation has in some ways exacerbated its dematerialization and mystification. A strictly culturalist emphasis on the persistent symbolization of the permanent alien obscures the significance of the differences between varying modes of legislated racism. On the other side, our perception of a shift from an era of official Asian exclusion to one of Asian assimilation has been heavily reliant on legal history to supply our sense of racialization's periodization. This may be seen in our inability to decide on a dividing point: 1943 (when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed), 1952 (when the McCarran-Walter Act removed the prohibition on naturalization for other Asian nationalities), or 1965 (when immigration quotas for Asian countries were placed on an equal basis with those of others). We still do not sufficiently understand the conditions of possibility for the legal formalization of the Asian American, (which was not a single event), and the social relations that mediate the cultural persistence of the notion of Asian unassimilability.

What preparations existed for the categorical emergence of the assimilable Asian immigrant in the latter half of the twentieth century? The first part of the book examines the objectifying scenes of the alien's sighting at the turn of the century; the second part of the book turns to the processes of naturalization in the 1930s that helped pave the way for the postwar personification of the alien. In both historical endeavors, developments in American literary naturalism and companion movements of social reform played a major role. Why naturalism? Why social reformism? Historians have demonstrated the extent to which Progressive reform, Populist, and trade union movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century helped to effect Asian exclusionism as a national immigration policy. Equally, the decision of Franklin Roosevelt's administration to intern more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese descent is a well-known irony of liberal history, though it is undertheorized as such. From Progressivism to the New Deal, this book traces the logical continuities between liberal reform and U.S. policies on Asia and Asian Americans. By focusing on American literature of the early twentieth century to forge these links, it also stakes a claim for how cultural study enriches historical understanding.


Excerpted from America's Asia by Colleen Lye Copyright © 2004 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
No student or scholar of Asian America can afford to ignore this book. Lye is as mindful of the broad strokes of history as she is of the detail of literary texture, of the domestic as of the global. She engages with radical theories of interpretation, the trajectories of gendering, as well as the vicissitudes of U.S. Marxism. It is a learned book; the documentation alone is a brilliant aid to scholarship. And it is also a wise book: its premises rethink white supremacy as merely a racial ideology.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
Rob Wilson
America's Asia offers an original, wry, relentlessly sustained, solidly researched, and trenchantly historicized way of refiguring the making of Asia/Pacific-U.S. relations. Probing the racial dynamics of global modernity and class tensions in spectacular new ways, Lye's book shows the invention of the Pacific Rim as a horizon of US global expansion as much as a racial frontier of Asian management and exclusion. A superb, far-reaching and important work.
Rob Wilson, University of California, Santa Cruz and author, "Reimagining the American Pacific"
David Palumbo-Liu
A combination of literary criticism, history, race and ethnic studies; and political theory and history, America's Asia places meticulous analyses of a critically defined historical field within a theoretical framework that greatly extends the significance of this period and these issues to the question of American modernity.
David Palumbo-Liu, author of "Asian/American: Historical Crossings of a Racial Frontier"

Meet the Author

Colleen Lye is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an editorial board member of Inter-Asia Cultural Studies and Representations.

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