The Remains of Identity

  • Rey Chow
    Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture. Duke University Press
  • Christopher Lee
    The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature. Stanford University Press
Reviewed by Guy Beauregard

Toward the end of Entanglements, Rey Chow draws our attention to what she calls “the paradigm shift taking place today in the study of Asian cultures in a globalized academy.” What forms of critical engagement could adequately grapple with the implications of this “shift” in contemporary literary and cultural studies? The two books under review energetically address this question and, in the process, encourage us to reconsider what Chow evocatively calls “the linkages and enmeshments that keep things apart; the voidings and uncoverings that hold things together.”

Readers of Canadian Literature may already be familiar with Christopher Lee’s ground-breaking essays on various aspects of Asian Canadian literature and culture, including his work on “Engaging Chineseness” (published as the lead article in issue 163) and on “Enacting the Asian Canadian” (again published as a lead article, this time in issue 199). These, along with other related essays, vividly demonstrate Lee’s attentiveness to close textual analysis and to the politics of field formation, and have helped to establish his reputation as one of the most exciting contributors to contemporary Asian Canadian critical thought.

In The Semblance of Identity, Lee turns his attention to the field of Asian American literary studies, where he sets out to examine “how figures of identity anchor or undermine the epistemological and political claims of narrative fiction.” Lee underlines that he is not simply arguing for, or against, identity and identity politics. Instead, he puts forward a nuanced two-part argument that first traces “the persistence of a theoretical figure that [he calls] the ‘idealized critical subject,’” a figure which, he contends, “operates throughout Asian American literary culture and cultural criticism as a means of providing coherence
to oppositional knowledge projects and political practices.” The second part of his argument attempts to “reframe this figure in relation to the aesthetic in order to specify its cognitive structure, which comes to the forefront as it is textualized into literary narrative.” In doing so, he asks: “What makes Asian American identity so compelling and alluring when we have never been under the impression that it is anything but constructed and, perhaps, illusory?”

Lee’s rigorous engagement with this question draws on a wide range of intellectual sources—including the work of Kant, Lukács, and Adorno, from whom he has adapted the notion of “semblance” and its relation to aesthetics—to craft a critical narrative that cuts across a series of canonical and non-canonical texts. This narrative begins by situating the work of Eileen Chang as an entry point into what Lee calls “a prehistory of the Asian American idealized critical subject.” It then moves across more familiar terrain in Asian American studies: the topic of Asian American cultural nationalism and its oft-noted masculinist and heteronormative imperatives, notably in the work of Frank Chin; the canonical work of Maxine Hong Kingston, attentively read via its representation of musical and other sonic materials; Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life and its representation of what Lee memorably calls “the unshakable remains of identity”; Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost and “the work of comparison” (about which I have more to say below); and the work of José Garcia Villa. Especially noteworthy is Lee’s discussion of the work of Eileen Chang who, Lee points out, is rarely read as an “Asian American” writer despite the fact that she spent more than half her life in the US. His analysis, which works across Chinese and English materials and a scattered archive of sources, is a model of transnational and multilingual reading that productively questions “how the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ can come together and the necessary acts of translation that make this pairing possible.”

At the heart of Lee’s project is a direct engagement with what he aptly calls “a post-identity turn” in Asian American studies. As such, The Semblance of Identity needs to be understood as a field-specific intervention—a point underlined by its appearance in Stanford UP’s “Asian America” series—which builds upon existing critical studies by Lisa Lowe, Kandice Chuh, Viet Nguyen, Mark Chiang, and others who have, in various ways, attempted to question and reposition received notions of “Asian American” identity and the reading practices that accompany it. Lee’s study extends this important line of critical inquiry by arguing that “[i]n our attempts to ‘hollow out’ the field [of Asian American studies] from within, the pressing task is to scrupulously expose the dangers of identity politics while recognizing its critical potential.” In taking on such concerns, The Semblance of Identity deserves to gain a wide readership in the field.

Yet, when read in the context of Canadian literary studies, The Semblance of Identity raises further questions about its own arguably idealized subjects. And here, Lee’s discussion of Ondaatje’s work is likely to be of particular interest. His discussion opens by addressing the “transnational turn” taken by Asian American studies, a turn that has implicated the field in what he calls “the politics of knowledge in a post-colonial world.” He observes that one consequence of this turn is “the tendency to use materials from non-US contexts with little or no attention to contextual differences.” Yet, while Lee acknowledges the need to be wary of such “acts of appropriation,” he nevertheless underlines the inadequacy of simply making calls for “specificity” and instead calls for “a more nuanced account of comparison as an inescapable intellectual operation that takes place whenever Asian American Studies encounters what is outside itself.” The inclusion of Anil’s Ghost in a study of Asian American literature accordingly becomes a way to “[raise] further questions about the political, national, and geographic parameters of the field.” To be sure, the reading developed here—especially concerning “the shame of diaspora”—is resonant and bold. But readers of Canadian Literature may nevertheless wonder about the stakes involved in situating this text by what Lee calls a “Sri Lankan Canadian writer” into an “Asian American” frame, especially following the prominent production and circulation of readings of Joy Kogawa’s Obasan as an “Asian American” text in the 198s and early 199s. While the deployment of Anil’s Ghost in Lee’s study is by no means interchangeable with such readings of Obasan, readers might still reasonably ask what this deliberate “entanglement” (in Chow’s vocabulary) might illuminate about contemporary Asian American cultural criticism in its apparent search for exemplary narratives of transnationality.

Such questions about field formation and the organization of knowledge animate Rey Chow’s Entanglements, a collection of essays that brings together work previously published from 2001 to 2011. The ambitious form of “transmedial thinking” developed here cuts across the terrains of modernism, philosophy, comparative literature, area studies, postcolonial studies, film studies, and visual culture. In doing so, Chow engages with an eclectic range of sources including the work of Brecht, Flaubert, Lao She, Arendt, Auerbach, Said, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze; the photography of Julian Rohrhuber (with whom Chow co-authored one chapter); and films by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Lee Chang-dong, Akira Kurosawa, and Ang Lee. It’s notable that Chow’s compelling discussion of this last text—focusing on Lee’s controversial film Lust, Caution, which was in turn based on a short story by Eileen Chang—first appeared in a remarkable 2011 issue of PMLA dedicated almost entirely to literatures and cultures across Asia, thereby drawing attention to topics that, as Patricia Yaeger has euphemistically observed, “have often gone missing from the pages of [this] journal.” In this way, the material history of the circulation of Chow’s ideas helps to mark out the “new visibility of the Orient” that Chow sets out to scrutinize.

Especially noteworthy in this respect is Chow’s attempt to address what she calls “the difficult question of the changing status of the modern Far East in the Western, in particular the US academy after the Second World War.” With characteristic acuity, she asks: “If, as China ascends to the position of an economic superpower, it is no longer possible to approach China as a subaltern nation . . . how should the clichés, the stereotypes, and the myths as well as the proper scholarly knowledge about the modern Far East be reassembled?” Chow pushes the implications of this line of inquiry beyond the domain of area studies understood narrowly into a sustained consideration of the politics of knowledge produced in other fields including comparative literature, drawing our attention in this instance to the aspirations of major figures such as Auerbach and Said for what Chow calls “an ethically tolerant world literature.” Here and elsewhere, readers of Canadian Literature may encounter shocks of recognition—and also a chance to reconsider the organization of the knowledge produced in what is presumably “an eth(n)ically tolerant” Canadian literary studies following its “multicultural turn.” For while the “discursive loop of ‘the Far East of the West’” tracked by Chow does not explicitly address the knowledges produced in or about the cultures of Canada, the implications of her call for “[s]ome other loop, as yet unthought” could nevertheless be brought close to home.

This review “The Remains of Identity” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 137-40.

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