Race, Feeling, and Money in Asian North American Texts

  • Christine Kim
    The Minor Intimacies of Race: Asian Publics in North America. University of Illinois Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Iyko Day
    Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism. Duke University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Eleanor Ty

Published in 2016, both Iyko Day’s and Christine Kim’s books begin with an anecdote about the Bank of Canada’s attempt, in 2011, to feature an Asian-looking female scientist on a $100 bill. The image was eventually replaced by a Caucasian-looking woman peering through a microscope because focus groups, which previewed the design, responded negatively to the woman’s Asian appearance. People felt that she “did not represent Canada.” Day and Kim both quote Phil Yu, the blogger for Angry Asian Man, who concludes that the incident is “race-bending on a banknote.”

Iyko Day uses the intersections of race and capital in this controversy to highlight her book’s focus “on the interplay of Asian racialization, capitalism, and settler colonialism.” Alien Capital points out that the “upward economic mobility of Asians in North America” has led to the perception that Asian Americans are the “new Jews,” with similar characteristics of “inscrutability, perpetual foreignness, transnational mobility, and flexibility.” Focusing on Asian American and Asian Canadian literature and visual culture, Day argues that the works she discusses “present a genealogy of settler colonialism that magnifies a key logic of romantic anticapitalism.” Following Marx, Day distinguishes between the concrete and abstract realms of society: “what is real, sensory, or ‘thingly’ is the tree in your backyard, the dusty work boots by the door” while the “unnatural, nonthingly, or intangible is capital accumulation, surplus-value, and money,” all of which form the abstract realm. Romantic anticapitalism” glorifies the concrete dimension while casting as evil the abstract domination of capitalism” even though commodities all comprise both dimensions.

Just as the Jewish were identified with money and abstract capital, Asian folks personified “the abstract dimensions of capitalism through labor time,” a mode of efficiency “which threatened the concrete, qualitative sphere of white labor’s social reproduction.” According to Day, settler colonialism reinforces the triangulation of Indigenous, alien (which includes African slaves and Asian migrants), and settler (mostly European) positions through a “fundamental misperception of capitalism as an opposition between a concrete natural world and a destructively abstract, value-driven one that is personified as Asian.” While “practices of segregation, disenfranchisement, exclusion, exploitation, police brutality, detention and imprisonment are some of the ways that the settler state . . . maintains control over an internalized alien population,” the “logic of elimination is driven to eradicate an Indigenous population.”

Day’s four chapters look at how Asian North American writers and artists, including Richard Fung, Maxine Hong Kingston, Tseng Kwong Chi, Jin-me Yoon, Ken Lum, and Karen Yamashita, reconfigure situations of settlement and labor, such as the building of the transcontinental railway, the romantic representation of North American landscape, and multiculturalism, in order to expose the racialization of labor and the politics of whiteness. While the works Day chooses to study are familiar ones to Asian North Americanists, she demonstrates her points about how capital matters by highlighting passages less oft cited. For example, in her discussion of Japanese internment, she highlights passages in Joy Kogawa’s Obasan and Rea Tajiri’s film History and Memory that make connections between Jews and Japanese in North America. In Obasan, Aunt Emily thinks about the way Hitler has been shiploading people into Poland or Germany to work for nothing when she talks of the hatred against people of Japanese origins. Tajiri remembers that Japanese Americans were interned in “relocation centers” rather than concentration camps. Day argues provocatively that what “Japanese internment and the Holocaust share is a romantic anticapitalist logic.” Both groups were removed because they were associated with the abstract dimension of capitalism. Day does not spend too much time in rehearsing the thematics or aesthetics of the works she studies; rather, she emphasizes this central thesis forcefully in each of the chapters.

For Christine Kim, the $100 bill story highlights “how the politics of multicultural recognition obfuscates racialized feeling,” how multicultural feeling does not actually permeate the nation even though multicultural rhetoric does. Like Day, Kim analyzes literature (e.g., by Joy Kogawa, Souvankham Thammavongsa) and different art forms (bioboxes), but she also examines the politics of an infamous magazine article and a video made by a student at UCLA. Kim argues that feelings matter and that feeling is core to the construction of “minor publics.” Unlike communities, publics remain in existence only as long as their participants are engaged in dialogue. . . . Minor publics, such as Asian Canadian ones, are more ephemeral than a dominant public because their conditions of possibility require that they repeatedly reconstitute themselves instead of simply continuing or redirecting ongoing conversations in order to respond to particular issues.

Kim is less interested in reading minor publics in opposition to a dominant public; instead, she notes that “they emerge out of a desire for social intimacy” and are “produced by a desire for collective belonging and emotional recognition.”

Canada’s national magazine Maclean’s featured an article in 2010 titled “Too Asian,” which claimed that students shied away from attending universities that had too many Asian students because Asian students, too focused on marks, would make the universities too competitive. Kim pairs this example with a video made by a then-UCLA student Alexandra Wallace called “Asians in the Library” (2011), where Wallace complains about the rudeness of Asian students and their hordes of relatives. Kim sees these two incidents that focus on postsecondary education as reworkings of “all-too familiar panics about Yellow Peril.” Reading these incidents, “we unravel the dominant public’s investments in the sometimes cohesive, sometimes conflicting logics of nationalism and global capitalism and see how they influence the limits of public feeling.” Discussions about these two topics “veered beyond the limits of our socially scripted dialogues about race,” revealing “how the specter of Asian publics haunts the dominant public and influences how it speaks.”

One of the most successful chapters for me is Chapter 3, on the art of David Khang and the novel The Foreign Student by Susan Choi, because it focuses on the minor (Korea) within the minor (Asian Canadian/American). On the work of visual artist David Khang, Kim writes, “these art projects query whether it is possible to care about minor lives that exist outside imperialist narratives of loss, and if so, what might come of such feelings.” Using film critic Allison Landsberg’s theory of prosthetic memory, Walter Benjamin’s work on aura and photography, and affect theories to read these works, Kim writes of Khang’s art: “What Mom’s Crutch and Wrong Places throw into relief is how imperialist structures of forgetting are structures of feeling that normalize a host of violences and encourage various forms of neglect. Perhaps, then, what is necessary in order to realize intimacies between postcolonial subjects is for a structure of remembering to shape global economies of caring.” In Susan Choi’s novel, the romance of a foreign student and an American woman places an immigrant’s memories about the Korean War within the black and white racial landscape of the American South in the 1950s. The novel’s structure suggests that “the histories of South Korea and the American South might be read as parallel ones given the civil wars both feature, and that these narratives finally collide through Chang and Katherine’s relationship.” Kim notes that “the tensions between these characters and racial formations remind us that to imagine future relations of alliance without interrogating the imperial structures that produce the terms of such encounters is dangerous.”

These two scholarly books expand and broaden the canon of Asian North American literature in their discussion of a variety of cultural texts and artistic forms. Their very different and original theoretical approaches to the field—Marxist materialist critique in Day’s Alien Capital, and affect theory in Kim’s The Minor Intimacies of Race—enable us to understand the complexities of racialization beyond colonial/victims, black/white, dominant/minor binaries. Both are articulate, intelligent additions to Canadian theory and criticism.

This review “Race, Feeling, and Money in Asian North American Texts” originally appeared in Asian Canadian Critique Beyond the Nation. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 227 (Winter 2015): 133-35.

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