Annotation: Stephen Hong Sohn’s “Alien/Asian” (2008)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Sohn, Stephen Hong. “Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 5-22. Print.

In this article Sohn discusses the historical conception of Asian Americans as “aliens” in the United States and the literary replication and perpetuation of these views where Asian Americans are presented as actual “aliens” (cyborgs, replicants, robots, etc) in many works of science fiction and other related genres. Sohn draws the phrase “Alien/Asian” from David Palumbo-Liu’s earlier formation of “Asian/American” which invokes the and/or construction that captures the troubling, unstable relationship between the two terms. Sohn similarly calls attention to disturbing cultural representations of the “Alien and Asian” as well as the “Alien or Asian,” which is just as problematic as the former because it singles out Asians and directly interrogates their extraterrestriality. The term “Alien” also usefully invokes notions of “Alienation” and “Alien-nation” (6). Sohn further provides a useful discussion of Saidian Orientalism and the techno-Orientalism David Morley and Kevin Robins later devised (7). Sohn notes that traditionally Japan was orientalized as a primitive and backward culture far interior to the West but as the country excelled technologically and economically it became necessary to re-orient Orientalism to maintain a sense of Euro-American supremacy. The Japanese and eventually other Asians began to be stereotyped and “cybertyped” (Lisa Nakamura) as the “yellow peril,” a threatening menace to the West and particularly the United State’s status as the preeminent world power. Reproduced in literature, Asians were presented as sneaky, devious and despite their technological prowess, devoid of humanity—a kind of robot, replicant or cyborg. “Orientals” were therefore recast as embodying a “retrograde humanism” that makes them far inferior to Westerners (8). Sohn essentially suggests that science fictional novels present cyberspace as a kind of “virtual frontier” where the West can re-create and re-colonize the “Orient.” His article offers important historical background about the development of techno-orientalism which will deeply inform my reading of the techno-orientalism presented in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I, however, intend to examine not only problematically racist depictions of Asian Americans in the novel but also how stereotypical delineations of cyberspace as a predominantly and even exclusively “white” and “yellow” space perpetuates the troubling erasure of other races and complex hybrid racial identities.

Prospectus: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997)

This prospectus is for a paper I am writing on Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange. I know that my thesis is still unclear and that I will definitely run into “definitional” problems concerning my use of the terms postmodern, magical realist, etc. but any thoughts or suggestions for secondary sources will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange prevents any easy genre classification and instead figures as an intriguing blend of magical realism, science fiction, postmodernism, and apocalyptic narrative. Borrowing its structure and style from these diverse literary traditions enables the novel to reflect as well as engage the chaotic cultural and socio-political changes engendered by global capitalism and transnational migrations. Consequently, the text’s hybridity makes it both a representation and product of globalizing forces. It is ultimately this unique dual-role that allows Tropic to intervene in numerous discourses concerning globalization’s impact on national and individual identity formation, movements of labor and capital, and shifting territorial and ideological borders. However, while many critics have addressed the novel’s treatment of these issues, few have examined in detail the significance of its structure and narrative style, particularly, Yamashita’s use of science fiction and magical realism as mediums to discuss how technological and economic changes transform our conceptions of self and nation, local and global.

For instance, in “‘We are Not the World’: Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange” Sue-Im Lee argues that the novel’s “fantastic genre” contributes to a revitalized vision of the “global village” that emphasizes voluntary and reciprocal participation among people and nations (521). Only by encouraging mutual involvement in a global community, she asserts, can we retrieve the critical potential of universalism and make progress in our demands for human rights and improved interethnic and intercontinental relations. But the brevity of her discussion of what this “fantastic genre” entails also perpetuates ambiguity and fails to communicate the complexity of Yamashita’s vision, which is necessarily informed by her structural and stylistic choices. In addition, even those scholars who choose to analyze the novel’s science-fictional and magical realist elements often relegate these fantastical qualities into realms of metaphor and imagination. In “Tropics of Globalization: Reading the New North America,” Molly Wallace asserts that the “tracking of metaphor” will encourage us to reexamine “discourses on globalization produced in the United States” (146). She therefore implies that bizarre features, such as the novel’s warping of time and space, its materialization of borders and employment of literal topographical shifts, primarily serve a discursive role. Johannes Hauser’s “Structuring the Apokalypse: Chaos and Order in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange” presents a tantalizing image of Los Angeles as a “cyborg city” only to later qualify this claim by re-labeling LA as an “imaginary city” (25). These critics share a preoccupation with connecting the novel’s chaotic narrative structure and at times absurd plot devices to its “logical” place as products of human creativity and imagination. But in making this connection, they ignore the material implications of Yamashita’s endeavors in Tropic of Orange.

My paper will demonstrate how the novel’s science-fictional and magical realist elements do not represent mere abstractions of fancy, but rather depict in more concrete terms the cultural, societal and political changes facilitated by globalization. I argue that Yamashita’s reliance on these bizarre and fantastical elements confronts us with the very real transformations occurring within our natural world, our communities, and in our intimate interactions with each other and our own bodies. In order to communicate these ideas, I will concentrate on a structural and stylistic analysis of the novel, paying particular attention to how Yamashita relies on influences from science fiction and magical realism to shape our reading experience, compelling us to recognize with greater urgency that the boundaries between what we consider as bizarre or impossible and our familiar, lived experiences are not as distinct as they once were. For instance, I hope to extend Hauser’s idea of the “cyborg city” and cyborg individuals by demonstrating how Yamashita’s imagery and diction in Tropic of Orange portray the growing interconnectedness between technology and the organic. Whereas the city’s physical structures are imbued with living characteristics, the humans in the novel often perceive machines as extensions of their own bodies. This jarring convergence of living and nonliving elements only reinforces already evident truths, which is fore-grounded by Yamashita herself when she proclaims in the preface: “Gentle reader, what follows may not be about the future, but is perhaps about the recent past; a past that, even as you imagine, it happens.”This emphasis on the novel as a story about the “recent past” that “happens” while we are imagining and reading, implies that what we perceive as fiction actually inhabits a reality we are currently living.

The slippages that occur between the imaginary/virtual and the real in Tropic of Orange therefore make Bruce Sterling’s theory of “slipstream fiction” vital to my paper. He claims that “[T]he heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality.’ These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which are ‘futuristic’ or ‘beyond the fields we know.’ These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’” Ultimately, his conception of the fluid borders between fantasy and ordinary existence sheds light on Yamashita’s novel and its central concerns. Not only can the text be labeled as a representative of slipstream fiction, but its structural and stylistic intertwining of the bizarre and the mundane also serves as a commentary on the blurring of bodies and boundaries in globalization. In my paper I hope to demonstrate how the slippages we witness in the novel have larger cultural and societal implications on the ways we understand and perceive national and individual identity as well as persisting racial and economic inequalities in a globalized world. Consequently, I argue that Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange challenges the notion of isolated socio-political issues and closed national and cultural spaces, accentuating the interconnectedness that defines human existence.

Works Consulted:

Buell, Frederick. “Nationalist Postnatinalism: Globalist Discourse in Contemporary American Culture.” American Quarterly 50.3 (1998): 548-591. Print. (Annotation)

Chuh, Kandice. “Of Hemispheres and Other Spheres: Navigating Karen Tei Yamashita’s Literary World.” American Literary History 18.3 (2006): 618-637. Print. (Annotation)

Davis, Mike. “Fortress L.A.” City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print. (Annotation)

Hauser, Johannes. “Structuring the Apokalypse: Chaos and Order in Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” PhiN: Philologie in Netz 37 (2006): 1-32. Print.

Lee, Sue-Im. “‘We are Not the World’: Global Village, Universalism, and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange.” MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 52.3 (Fall 2007): 501-527. Print. (Annotation)

Sterling, Bruce. “Slipstream.” http://www.eff.org, n.d. Web. 4 April 2010. (Annotation)

Wallace, Molly. “Tropics of Globalization: Reading the New North America.” Symploke 9.1-2 (2001): 145-160. Print. (Annotation)

Yamashita, Karen Tei. Tropic of Orange. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1997. Print.

Prospectus: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992)

Below is my prospectus on Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and a working list of the references I have consulted so far. I recognize that one of the major challenges in my project so far is historicizing my discussion of the Internet. I also plan to look more deeply into discourses about “techno-orientalism” and the “posthuman” so any constructive criticism about my topic or suggested reading will be greatly appreciated. thanks ^^

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash offers a means of understanding the complex relationship between human beings and cyberspace, which emerges as simultaneously a tool to further ends that will facilitate and improve one’s existence in the real world, as well as a distinct realm where another life can be lived and a new identity fashioned. Stephenson presents the Metaverse as a futuristic model of today’s Internet, combined with video game RPG (role-playing game) technology, where individuals can log on and interact with one another through personal, digitized avatars. In the novel the main character, Hiro Protagonist, spends a lot of time in this “computer-generated universe” working as a hacker who sells information to finance his living expenses in Reality (24). But the Metaverse does not simply provide Hiro with a job; it also offers him an entire “universe” through which he can lead an alternative life as a “warrior prince” (63).

The novel ultimately calls attention to some of the major tensions surrounding discourses about the Internet and its role in society today. For Hiro, cyberspace becomes a means of escaping the discomforts of the real world, such as his bland 20-by-30 U-Stor-It apartment to enjoy the comforts of his mansion in the Metaverse. Some critics assert the endless possibilities of this physical dissociation, positing the Internet as a fully democratic space, where all individuals can have equal access and will not be discriminated against on the basis of race, class, gender, or nationality because these elements do not have to be transmitted and therefore bear no import in virtual reality. Stephenson dramatizes this notion of cyberspace as a site where the free and multifarious experimentation of the self can happen: “Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful… You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse” (36). But while he accentuates how individuals can assume virtual identities entirely dissociated from their real physical appearance and human biology, in the same moment he deeply troubles the notion of free and equal access by asserting that the quality of one’s avatar is limited by one’s “equipment.” Unlike Hiro, who possesses the privileged means to design a high-tech, personal computerized representation of himself, other users are forced to rely on commercialized Brandy and Clint avatars that have a limited range of facial expressions and therefore appear less human, while those who can only manage to log into the Metaverse from “cheap public terminals” materialize in the form of “grainy black and white” avatars (41).

In this paper I am interested in examining how the Internet offers a false sense of liberation from real world oppression by problematically obscuring structural inequalities and the ways in which race, gender, class, and nationality continue to organize and assert their haunting presence in cyberspace. “The Black Sun,” for example, emerges as an exclusive virtual space, where “Everything is solid and opaque and realistic. And the clientele has a lot more class—no talking penises in here (55). Stephenson suggests that “The Black Sun” is realistic because of its high-definition graphics, but we realize that this realism also stems from familiar acts of exclusion. Despite the previous assertion that individuals can assume any desired computerized form, this space does not welcome “talking penises” or any avatar that lacks “class.” In her essay “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction,” E. L. McCallum asserts that while works in this science fictional genre have been traditionally analyzed for their innovative representations of virtual spaces, characters still deeply rely on the real material world and it is only through physically traversing this realm that important narrative ends can be accomplished. McCallum emphasizes that by shifting the critical focus to “real” space, we can see how “old” colonialist systems and oppressive power structures continue to organize the apparently “futuristic” virtual realities presented. But while she concludes that contemporary cyberpunk fiction “map the same old world” and are ultimately conservative in presenting a future that relies “on the division between first and third worlds, demarcated by race and ethnicity,” I argue that rather than a failure of artistic innovation, works such as Snow Crash endeavor to expose familiar oppressions and heighten the urgency with which they may be severely perpetuated into the future through more insidious means such as the Internet (352).

I will particularly rely on the theoretical framework Lisa Nakamura presents in Cybertypes where she examines the Internet as a highly racialized space. Her discussion of avatars as a problematic means through which people of color can “pass” as white or are assumed to be white without certain pronounced racial indicators is especially relevant to my research. I argue that Stephenson captures this notion of “passing” through the character of Hiro who possesses a hybrid racial identity. His mother is “Korean by way of Nippon” and his father is “African by way of Texas by way of the Army” (20-21). Yet in the novel Hiro’s blackness and Korean-ness are disturbingly repressed while his Japanese-ness is highly accentuated as he is presented as a “black kimono wearing,” katana equipped, ninja-like figure (36). I intend to explore the problematic moments where this racial complexity surfaces, such as the incident in The Black Sun where a Japanese businessman interrogates Hiro’s mixed appearance and essentially his right to carry a katana. This is an especially urgent topic for analysis because of the troubling manner in which many critics have perpetuated the repression of Hiro’s complex racial identity by entirely glossing over his Korean and African roots. In his essay “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash,” David Porush, for example, entirely misrepresents Hiro as “a Japanese-American hacker living in L.A.” (561). While my paper will rely on theories of techno-Orientalism, I will also problematize how these discourses may perpetuate stereotypical representations of the web as a “white” and “yellow” space at the expense of more nuanced racial complexity

Works Consulted

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Orienting Orientalism, or How to Map Cyberspace.” AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 3-36. Print. (Annotation)

Hayles, N. Katherine. “The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash.” Configurations 5.2 (1997): 241-66. Print. (Annotation)

Huang, Betsy. “Premodern Orientalist Science Fictions.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 23-43. Print.

McCallum, E.L. “Mapping the Real in Cyberfiction.” Poetics Today 21.2 (2000): 349-77. Print. (Annotation)

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.

–. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. Print.

Niu, Greta Aiyu. “Techno-Orientalism, Nanotechnology, Posthumans, and Post-Posthumans in Neal Stephenson’s and Linda Nagata’s Science Fiction.”Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 73-96. Print.

Ow, Jeffrey A. “The Revenge of the Yellowfaced Cyborg Terminator: The Rape of Digital Geishas and the Colonization of Cyber-Coolies in 3D Realms’ Shadow Warrior.” Asian America.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. Eds. Rachel C. Lee and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong. New York: Routledge, 2003. 249-266. Print. (Annotation)

Porush, David. “Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson’s Snow Crash.”Configurations 2.3 (1994): 537-71. Print. (Annotation)

Sohn, Stephen Hong. “Alien/Asian: Imagining the Racialized Future.” Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States 33.4 (2008): 5-22. Print. (Annotation)

Wisecup, Kelly. “‘Let’s Get Semiotic’: Recoding the Self in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992).” The Journal of Popular Culture 41.5 (2008): 854-77. Print.