Reading in/for Relation

Reviewed by Stephanie Fung

The desire for methodologies that unsettle hegemonic practices of creating knowledge is, in most cases, commonly felt among scholars who aim to document the lives of those who are traditionally excluded or marginalized from official histories. Lisa Lowe and Alison R. Marshall share this sentiment as they challenge the limitations of nationalist and colonial modes of archival methods and knowledge production by focusing on the relations between people who have been elided or underrepresented in historical records. While Lowe reads broadly across archives to make linkages between groups of colonized people, Marshall applies an ethnographic lens in her examination of the experiences of Chinese migrants on the Canadian prairies through their affective connections and networks. Yet both works push us to reimagine intimacy or affect as an archive-in-motion—of “intimate” relations produced through migrations that move us beyond temporally and spatially fixed histories.

In The Intimacies of Four Continents, Lowe uses intimacy as a heuristic to observe how global processes and colonial histories enable the dominant notion of intimacy as associated with liberal interiority and personhood. She argues that the connections and associations between slaves, Indigenous peoples, and colonized labourers, which she formulates as “the intimacies of four continents,” disrupts universalized ideas around intimacy such as Anglo-American liberal subjectivity, sexual relations, domesticity, and family. Lowe’s method of reading across archives and continents—Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas—to interpret the past and reorient the boundaries of knowledge production moves beyond nationalist and colonial understandings of historical narratives. Her chapters examine a range of “intimacies” from the late-eighteenth to early-nineteenth centuries, particularly linkages between settler colonialism in the Americas, African slavery, Asian contract labour, and the British imperial trade.

Of particular interest is Lowe’s last chapter on the connection between Chinese labour and Black historical accounts. Lowe reads C. L. R. James’s Black Jacobins and W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction in America for their philosophical perspectives on history and method of determining the colonial influences that shape received historical narratives. She argues that the global mass mobilization of Chinese workers after 1840 not only influenced European and U.S. American liberal humanist ideologies, but also Black ideas of decolonization and emancipation in the contexts of anticolonialism and antislavery.

Lowe’s reconceptualization of intimacy not only frames the dominant meaning of intimacy as associated with Anglo-American interiority and privacy and undermines the presumed power of dominant forms of relation, it also provides us with a broad and imaginative methodology for cultural analysis. “We are left,” she concludes, “with the project of imagining, mourning, and reckoning ‘other humanities’ within the received genealogy of ‘the human.’”

While Lowe engages with intimacy as a heuristic process, Marshall focuses on affect as interiority, namely how emotional relations, connections, and networks create and sustain communities. Drawing from archival materials she collected during the course of completing her previous book, The Way of the Bachelor, in Cultivating Connections: The Making of Chinese Prairie Canada, Marshall argues for the critical role of affect in examining local and global relations between Chinese migrants in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, and with China, in the early twentieth century. Rather than solely rely on written archival materials—including letters, photographs, newspaper articles, and Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist League) membership documents—she uses an embodied ethnographic approach consisting of participant observation fieldwork and 300 oral history interviews. By tracing Chinese settlers’ emotional connections through her research, Marshall argues that the perpetuation and preservation of networks was critical in their endurance of living through experiences of migration and racism on the prairies.

In her first chapter Marshall discusses the global influence of the KMT, a political organization that functioned as an “affective regime” by connecting the Chinese in the prairies through Chinese nationalist infrastructure. The rest of the chapters depict intimate portraits of Chinese migrant settlers who navigated life on the prairies. Notably, half of the book focuses on the lives of Chinese Canadian women. As there are few written records documenting their experiences, Marshall draws from oral histories, fieldwork, handicrafts, and objects to represent the range of everyday life for Chinese women and their emotional, domestic, and religious connections.

Ultimately both texts are important assets to anyone interested in not just themes of colonialism, labour, trade, and slavery, and of Chinese Canadian prairie history respectively, but also critical methodologies—of how to read intimately for relations between people and communities and in relation across time and space—in order to grasp the possibilities of knowing that lie among what has been assumed unknowable, erased, or forgotten.

This review “Reading in/for Relation” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 143-44.

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