Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics

Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics

by Lisa Lowe

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In Immigrant Acts, Lisa Lowe argues that understanding Asian immigration to the United States is fundamental to understanding the racialized economic and political foundations of the nation. Lowe discusses the contradictions whereby Asians have been included in the workplaces and markets of the U.S. nation-state, yet, through exclusion laws and bars from citizenship, have been distanced from the terrain of national culture.
Lowe argues that a national memory haunts the conception of Asian American, persisting beyond the repeal of individual laws and sustained by U.S. wars in Asia, in which the Asian is seen as the perpetual immigrant, as the “foreigner-within.” In Immigrant Acts, she argues that rather than attesting to the absorption of cultural difference into the universality of the national political sphere, the Asian immigrant—at odds with the cultural, racial, and linguistic forms of the nation—displaces the temporality of assimilation. Distance from the American national culture constitutes Asian American culture as an alternative site that produces cultural forms materially and aesthetically in contradiction with the institutions of citizenship and national identity. Rather than a sign of a “failed” integration of Asians into the American cultural sphere, this critique preserves and opens up different possibilities for political practice and coalition across racial and national borders.
In this uniquely interdisciplinary study, Lowe examines the historical, political, cultural, and aesthetic meanings of immigration in relation to Asian Americans. Extending the range of Asian American critique, Immigrant Acts will interest readers concerned with race and ethnicity in the United States, American cultures, immigration, and transnationalism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379010
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/21/1996
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 426 KB

About the Author

Lisa Lowe is Samuel Knight Professor of American Studies at Yale University, and is the author of Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms and coeditor (with David Lloyd) of The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (Duke University Press).

Read an Excerpt

On Asian American Cultural Politics

Immigrant Acts

By Lisa Lowe

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7901-0


Immigration, Citizenship, Racialization: Asian American Critique

Scene 2 [...]

VI: "Event: Announcement by the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Fund of winning design of a memorial to be placed on the Mall to honor Vietnam Veterans...."

VOICE: The material used for constructing this memorial is polished black granite imported from India. Approximately 150 panels were cut into three-inch thick blocks, the shortest panel being eight inches tall, the highest ten and a half feet, the largest panel weighing three thousand pounds.

The memorial was conceived in 1981 and eventually built over the next two years, 1982 to '84. In comparison, the Lincoln Memorial to your right took sixty years to complete. The landscape was leveled, and the apex of the wall reaches a depth of almost eleven feet. Notice the mementos left by those who visit: medals, pictures, flowers, helmets, photos of teenage boys frozen in youth, of babies never seen by their fathers.

This represents an entire war a nation meant to forget.

Scene 7 [...]

MAYA: It's been mentioned—many times, in fact—the fact that me as the designer of a memorial to an Asian war was upsetting. I'm a young woman, a student. And I'm Chinese American. We're all lumped together, us "gooks."

—Jeannie Barroga, "Walls"

Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history.

—Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"

Citizens inhabit the political space of the nation, a space that is, at once, juridically legislated, territorially situated, and culturally embodied. Although the law is perhaps the discourse that most literally governs citizenship, U.S. national culture—the collectively forged images, histories, and narratives that place, displace, and replace individuals in relation to the national polity—powerfully shapes who the citizenry is, where they dwell, what they remember, and what they forget. Insofar as the legal definition and political concept of the citizen enfranchises the subject who inhabits the national public sphere, the concept of the abstract citizen—each formally equivalent, one to the other—is defined by the negation of the material conditions of work and the inequalities of the property system. In the United States, not only class but also the historically sedimented particularities of race, national origin, locality, and embodiment remain largely invisible within the political sphere. In this sense, the legal and political forms of the nation have required a national culture in the integration of the differentiated people and social spaces that make up "America," a national culture, broadly cast yet singularly engaging, that can inspire diverse individuals to identify with the national project.

It is through the terrain of national culture that the individual subject is politically formed as the American citizen: a terrain introduced by the Statue of Liberty, discovered by the immigrant, dreamed in a common language, and defended in battle by the independent, self-made man. The heroic quest, the triumph over weakness, the promises of salvation, prosperity, and progress: this is the American feeling, the style of life, the ethos and spirit of being. It is in passing by way of this terrain of culture that the subject is immersed in the repertoire of American memories, events, and narratives and comes to articulate itself in the domain of language, social hierarchy, law, and ultimately, political representation. In being represented as citizen within the political sphere, however, the subject is "split off" from the unrepresentable histories of situated embodiment that contradict the abstract form of citizenship. Culture is the medium of the present—the imagined equivalences and identifications through which the individual invents lived relationship with the national collective—but it is simultaneously the site that mediates the past, through which history is grasped as difference, as fragments, shocks, and flashes of disjunction. It is through culture that the subject becomes, acts, and speaks itself as "American." It is likewise in culture that individuals and collectivities struggle and remember and, in that difficult remembering, imagine and practice both subject and community differently.

In a manner unprecedented in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War (1959-1975) shook the stability and coherence of America's understanding of itself. An "unpopular" war contested by social movements, the press, and the citizenry, a disabling war from which the United States could not emerge "victorious"—there is perhaps no single event in this century that has had such power to disunify the American public, disrupting traditional unities of "community," "nation," and "culture." It radically altered these unities not only because of the traumas of death, loss, and breakdown that the Vietnam War brought and has come to symbolize but also because the national understanding of the war was formed by and formative of the contemporary crises in understandings of racial groupings, class identities, and notions of masculinity and femininity. Jeannie Barroga's play "Walls" portrays the controversy surrounding the Vietnam WarMemorial, its aesthetic, the young Chinese American woman architect Maya Ying Lin who designed it, and the veterans—and veterans organizations—who argued that they were not "represented" in the abstract modernist lines of the design. The play revoices fundamental divisions instantiated by the war—between men and women, veterans and antiwar activists, Americans and Asians—by depicting their inevitable resurfacing around the national project of memorializing the war's veterans. The play dramatizes the unspoken racial tension underpinning the artistic and political controversy surrounding the "representative" qualities of an American monument designed by a young Chinese American woman commemorating the U.S. soldiers who fought a war in Vietnam.

Barroga's "Walls" focuses primarily on the veterans' protests against Lin's modernist, nonrepresentational design as a means of objecting to Lin's position as an Asian American woman. Through the performance of these conflicts and struggles, the play suggests that the national project of "re-membering" the Vietnam War—who its heroes were, who must be forgotten, who may mourn—is a crucial site in which the terms of "membership" in the national "body" are contested, policed, and ultimately redefined. In particular, by dramatizing the debate as to whether a national monument designed by an Asian American can represent the American nation, the play makes clear that the question of aesthetic representation is always also a debate about political representation. The veterans demand that a statue with soldiers and an American flag be placed next to the official monument, a black V-shaped stone horizontal to the earth etched with the names of the dead. The central antagonism between the veterans' demand for a representational monument and Lin's insistent commitment to a nonrepresentational aesthetic embodies the conflict between the nationalist desire for resolution through representational forms and the unassimilable conflicts and particularities that cannot be represented by those forms. For the nation defined by victory in U. S. wars in Asia throughout the twentieth century—in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea—and its citizenry specified for so much of the country's history by the exclusion of Asians from naturalization and citizenship, the national monument commemorating veterans of the war "lost" in Vietnam designed by the twenty-one-year-old daughter of Asian immigrants was an unresolvedcontradiction, a return of the repressed, a "gash that would not heal." Barroga, a Filipina American, has written an "Asian American" play that triangulates Chinese American, Filipina American, and the descendants of the unremembered Vietnamese—all different sites in which the "Asian" interfaces with the "American." I begin my discussion with this example in order to thematize Asian American cultural productions as countersites to U.S. national memory and national culture.

In the last century and a half, the American citizen has been defined over against the Asian immigrant, legally, economically, and culturally. These definitions have cast Asian immigrants both as persons and populations to be integrated into the national political sphere and as the contradictory, confusing, unintelligible elements to be marginalized and returned to their alien origins. "Asia" has been always a complex site on which the manifold anxieties of the U.S. nation-state have been figured: such anxieties have figured Asian countries as exotic, barbaric, and alien, and Asian laborers immigrating to the United States from the nineteenth century onward as a "yellow peril" threatening to displace white European immigrants. Orientalist racializations of Asians as physically and intellectually different from "whites" predominated especially in periods in which a domestic crisis of capital was coupled with nativist anti-Asian backlash, intersecting significantly with immigration exclusion acts and laws against naturalization of Asians in 1882, 1924, and 1934. Exclusionist rhetoric ranged from nativist agitation, which claimed that "servile coolie" Chineselabor undercut "free white" labor, to declarations about the racial unassimilability of the Japanese, to arguments that Asian social organization threatened the integrity of American political institutions. During the crises of national identity that occurred in periods of U.S. war in Asia—with the Philippines (1898-1910), against Japan (1941-1945), in Korea (1950-1953), and in Vietnam—American orientalism displaced U.S. expansionist interests in Asia onto racialized figurations of Asian workers within the national space. Although predictions of Asian productivity supplanting European economic dominance have gripped the European and American imaginations since the nineteenth century, in the period from World War II onward, "Asia" has emerged as a particularly complicated "double front" of threat and encroachment for the United States: on the one hand, Asian states have become prominent as external rivals in overseas imperial war and in the global economy, and on the other, Asian immigrants are still a necessary racialized labor force within the domestic national economy. Immigration exclusion acts and naturalization laws have thus been not only means of regulating the terms of the citizen and the nation-state but also an intersection of the legal and political terms with an orientalist discourse that defined Asians as culturally and racially "other" in times when the United States was militarily and economically at war with Asia.

Historically and materially, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Asian Indian, and Filipino immigrants have played absolutely crucial roles in the building and the sustaining of America; and at certain times, these immigrants have been fundamental to the construction of the nation as a simulacrum of inclusiveness. Yet the project of imagining the nation as homogeneous requires the orientalist construction of cultures and geographies from which Asian immigrants come as fundamentally "foreign" origins antipathetic to the modern American society that "discovers," "welcomes," and "domesticates" them. A national memory haunts the conception of the Asian American, persisting beyond the repeal of actual laws prohibiting Asians from citizenship and sustained by the wars in Asia, in which the Asian is always seen as an immigrant, as the "foreigner-within," even when born in the United States and the descendant of generations born here before. It is this premise that Barroga's play highlights through the veterans' objection that Maya Lin's monument cannot represent the American nation: the American soldier, who has in every way submitted to the nation, is the quintessential citizen and therefore the ideal representative of the nation, yet the American of Asian descent remains the symbolic "alien," the metonym for Asia who by definition cannot be imagined as sharing in America. Narratives of immigrant inclusion—stories of the Asian immigrant's journey from foreign strangeness to assimilation and citizenship—may in turn attempt to produce cultural integration and its symbolization on the national political terrain. Yet these same narratives are driven by the repetition and return of episodes in which the Asian American, even as a citizen, continues to be located outside the cultural and racial boundaries of the nation. Rather than attesting to the absorption of cultural difference into the universality of the national political sphere as the "model minority" stereotype would dictate, the Asian immigrant—at odds with the cultural, racial, and linguistic forms of the nation—emerges in a site that defers and displaces the temporality of assimilation. This distance from the national culture constitutes Asian American culture as an alternative formation that produces cultural expressions materially and aesthetically at odds with the resolution of the citizen in the nation. Rather than expressing a "failed" integration of Asians into the American cultural sphere, this distance preserves Asian American culture as an alternative site where the palimpsest of lost memories is reinvented, histories are fractured and retraced, and the unlike varieties of silence emerge into articulacy.

Thus, the immigration of Asians to the United States has been the locus of meanings that are simultaneously legal, political, economic, cultural, and aesthetic. In this book I attempt to situate these meanings and to gather them into a coherent, contemporary formation that is both a record of the emergence of Asian American "culture" within a U.S. national and an international context and a comprehension of the dialectical critique generated by that emergence.

My title, Immigrant Acts, first invokes the history of Asian immigration to the United States since the mid-nineteenth century. It names the history of immigration exclusion acts that restricted and regulated the possibilities of Asian American settlement and cultural expression—the exclusion of Chinese in 1882, of Asian Indians in 1917, of Koreans and Japanese in 1924, and of Philippine immigrants in 1934. It names the series of Asian exclusion repeal acts passed between 1943 and 1952, which dramatically changed the status of immigrants of all Asian origins, from "aliens ineligible to citizenship," to that of "citizen." It names, as well, the dramatic shifts in Asian immigration to the United States after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished former national-origin quotas and exclusions, since which we have witnessed an enormous widening of the definitions of "Asian American." Because of the many historical and political economic changes of which the act of 1965 is an expression, the majority of Asian Americans are at present Asian-born rather than multiple-generation, and new immigrant groups from South Vietnam, South Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan have diversified the already existing Asian American group of largely Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino descent. As such, to focus on Asian Americans as "immigrants" is not to obscure the understanding that almost half of Asian Americans are U.S.-born citizens, and of that group, many date the history of their settlement in the United States back four or five generations. It is not to draw attention away from the fact that most Asian Americans are now currently naturalized or native-born citizens and that Asian American struggles for inclusion and equality have significantly advanced American democratic ideals and their extension. It is rather to observe that the life conditions, choices, and expressions of Asian Americans have been significantly determined by the U.S. state through the apparatus of immigration laws and policies, through the enfranchisements denied or extended to immigrant individuals and communities, and through the processes of naturalization and citizenship. It is to underscore that both in the period from 1850 to World War II and in the period after 1965, immigration has been a crucial locus through which U. S. interests have recruited and regulated both labor and capital from Asia. It is also to maintain that there has been an important continuity between the considerable distortion of social relations in Asian countries affected by U.S. imperialist war and occupation and the emigration of Asian labor to the United States throughout the last century.


Excerpted from On Asian American Cultural Politics by Lisa Lowe. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1. Immigration, Citizenship, Racialization: Asian American Critique 1

2. Canon, Institutionalization, Identity: Asian American Studies 37

3. Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences 60

4. Imagining Los Angeles in the Production of Multiculturalism 84

5. Decolonization, Displacement, Disidentification: Writing and the Question of History 97

6. Unfaithful to the Original: The Subject of Dictee 128

7. Work, Immigration, Gender: Asian "American" Women 154

Epilogue 174

Notes 177

Bibliography 223

Index 241

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