Annotation: Anne Anlin Cheng’s “The Melancholy of Race’ (2001)

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Cheng, Anne Anlin. “The Melancholy of Race.” The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 3-29. Print.

In her essay Cheng emphasizes the need to explore the implications of racial grief. She asserts that historically there has been too much reliance on “material or quantifiable terms to articulate that injury,” problematically overlooking its more immaterial, psychic ramifications (6). Cheng suggests that in light of the dominant white ideal that pervades US society, those individuals who cannot fight within that paradigm must undergo a “painful negotiation…at some point if not continually, with the demands of that social ideality” (7). Cheng further articulates the need to explore how people are themselves deeply implicit and invested in maintaining certain racial categories.

Cheng also offers a helpful discussion of Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia.” She asserts that Freud defines “mourning” as “a healthy response to loss; it is finite in character and accepts substitution” whereas “melancholia” is “pathological; it is interminable in nature and refuses substitution (7, 8). But Cheng emphasizes that even as the melancholic subject is obsessed with what it has lost, it also consumes and obtains nourishment from that loss, which becomes subsumed as a part of its identity. She asserts that “melancholia does not simply denote a condition of grief but is rather, a legislation of grief” (8). Cheng, notes, however, that feeding on this loss is painful, inspiring within the melancholic subject, feelings of “resentment and degradation for the lost object with which he or she is identifying” (9). Cheng goes on to describe the complex psychic dynamics of the melancholic subject: “First, the melancholic must deny loss as loss in order to sustain the fiction of possession. Second, the melancholic would have to make sure that the ‘object’ never returns, for such a return would surely jeopardize the cannibalistic project” (9).

She accentuates that this configuration of melancholia is helpful in understanding “American racial dynamics.” Cheng suggests, for example, that the dominant white ideal of America excludes but simultaneously retains racialized “others” as “lost” to true “American” identity. These racialized others are also “uneasily digested by…American nationality” because they reveal perverse contradiction in the ideas of freedom and democracy the United States was founded on in the first place (10). Cheng ultimately asserts the productivity of melancholia as a theoretical tool because it “accounts for the guilt and denial of guilt, the blending of shame and omnipotence in the racist imaginary” (12). She also critiques reductive declarations of internalized racial, ethnic self-hatred, accentuating that the psychic dynamics of minority figures are much more complex and often fraught with conflicting, contradictory emotions. Cheng particularly turns to literature to conduct her study because as “cultural texts” they are especially helpful in “teas[ing] out the complex social etiology behind the phenomenon of racial grief” (15).

Cheng emphasizes that analysis of melancholia with respect to raced subjects must extend beyond the term’s vernacular association with sadness. She defines “racial melancholia” as “a sign of rejection and as a psychic strategy in response to that rejection” (20). For the purposes of her study, Cheng focuses on the racialization of African Americans in the United States as well as Asian Americans because they occupy an uncanny place in the history of American racial dynamics, falling outside the Manichean black-white politics of race. Cheng further notes that the socio-economic success that Asian Americans have achieved in the US has problematically precluded the study of them as raced subjects, fueling a potentially more insidious form of racism. She asserts that “the racialization of Asian Americans is some ways more apparently melancholic than that of African Americans in American history in the sense that the history of virulent racism directed against Asians and Asian Americans has been at once consistently upheld and denied” through configurations such as the “yellow peril” and “model minority” stereotype (23).

Cheng ultimately claims that viewing race through the framework of melancholia productively reveals its instability “indebtedness to the dis-identity it is also claiming” (24). She emphasizes that an examination of the psychical implications of racial injury will allow for a new politics of loss that moves beyond simple identity politics to also embrace dis-identity politics and eventually open up new pathways to assert individual agency. In this way, Cheng suggests that we can resolve the troubling acceptance of African American or Asian American as identity labels, which simultaneously recalls a history of racialization.

Finally Cheng concludes her essay by asserting the value of psychoanalysis as a theoretical framework of her study, insisting that “the politics of race has always spoken in the language of psychology” (28). She further emphasizes that “the psychoanalytic perspective teaches us to be attentive to the disjunctive and retroactive hauntedness of history,” which can be wielded for political action today” (28).

Annotation: David L. Eng’s “Out Here and Over There” (2001)

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Eng, David L. “Out Here and Over There: Queerness and Diaspora in Asian American Studies (Epilogue).” Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 204-228. Print.

In his “Epilogue” Eng discusses how Asian Americans have been historically caught between the two paradoxical stereotypes of “model minority” or “yellow peril,” as “perversely assimilated” or “unassimilable aliens” (204). He emphasizes that Asian Americans’ vexed status in the US nation-state compels an examination of how diaspora may be a more productive theoretical framework through which to rework conceptions of kinship, home, and identity. Eng notes that queer studies also face a similar problematic relationship with “home” as queers are sometimes literally exiled from the nation-state or marginalized in the dominant heternormative society. Eng ultimately attempts to employ diaspora and queer theory to revitalize Asian American studies and open new possibilities for cultural and political affiliations. He notes, however, that while diaspora can be viewed as resisting the rigid boundaries of the nation-state, it can also be used to further nationalistic efforts such as in the case of Israel and must be deployed with caution. Eng further highlights the need to examine Asian American and more broadly American studies in a more transnational context especially within our increasingly globalized world.

In his essay Eng also offers a helpful history of the Asian American studies movement. He asserts that historically the movement was predominantly concerned with achieving civil rights and citizenship status within the US nation-state. Spearheaded to a large extent by the editors of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers, the movement rejected the notion that Asian Americans were too foreign in order to claim their belonging in the United States. Eng emphasizes, however, that in the process these editors also “prescribe[ed] who a recognizable and recognizably legitimate Asian American racial subject should ideally be: male, heterosexual, working class, American born, and English speaking” (209). While they attempted to combat the white hegemonic emasculinization of Asian American men, they problematically perpetuated rampant homophobia and misogyny. Eng asserts that this “forced repression of feminine and homosexual to masculine, and of home to the nation-state, is a formation in need of queering” (210-11).

Eng notes that the cultural nationalism forwarded by the Aiiieeeee! editors worked to eradicate the hyphen, which they believe suggested that Asian-Americans have an irreconcilable split identity. Their project was to urgently demonstrate how Asian American identity is whole and something that is “wholly viable within the nation-state” (211). Eng points out, however, that the frequent reemergence of this repressed hyphen in various circumstances call attention to how Asian Americans continue to be perceived as foreign and not fully belonging in the United States. He asserts that instead of furthering this act of repression, critics should perhaps risk the hyphen.

Eng claims that one potential effect of acknowledging the hyphen is to compel scholars to more vigorously examine the “Asian” aspect of Asian American identity, effectively extending critical parameters beyond the boundaries of the US nation-state. Eng insists that this diasporic turn is particularly important with respect to the post-1965 immigrants hailing from “Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines,” whose narratives and experiences do not begin within the nation-state but rather external global locales that were subjected to US imperialism and colonization. He also urges Asian American scholars to examine new emergent identities, particularly the growing group of individuals who do not simply maintain political affiliation with a single nation-state but adhere to a more transnational diasporic existence. Eng offers “satellite people, parachute kids, reverse settlers, and flexible citizenship” as some prominent examples (214). Even in our increasingly globalized world, however, Eng emphasizes the enduring importance of the nation-state because transnational movements and exchanges still have to maneuver through and “within the concrete, localized space of the nation-state” (214).

Eng also asserts the need to expand the critical potential of queer theory beyond its primary association with sexuality, reframing it as a flexible tool “for evaluating Asian American racial formation across multiple axes of difference as well as numerous local and global manifestations” (215). He particularly critiques how gender and sexuality studies have failed to “embrace queerness as a critical methodology for the understanding of sexual identity as it is dynamically formed in and through racial epistemologies” (218). Eng ultimately urges Asian American studies to employ concepts of queerness and diaspora to rework conceptions of identity and home across multiple sexualities and locales.

In his analysis of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, Eng celebrates how the film dismantles the popular stereotype of the Asian American male as passive and effeminate through its presentation of Gao Wai-Tung as a “successful, savvy, and handsome Asian male” with US citizenship status (221). Eng notes that Wai-Tung’s queer and diasporic identity becomes sources of power and strength as he is able to help Wei-Wei, a Third World Asian woman to obtain a green card and enter the United States. Yet the film ultimately shows the complexities in negotiating queer diasporic identities because Wai-Tung has to essentially mask his homosexual practices behind the guise of a heterosexual marriage. His eventual queer impregnation of Wai-Wai also problematically demonstrates how “Wai-Tun’s position as enfranchised citizen of the U.S. nation-state…is made possible only through his subordination of the diasporic Third World woman” (223).

While Eng recognizes The Wedding Banquet as a failed deployment of queerness and diaspora as modes of resistance against the hegemonic heteronormativity and patriarchal conceptions of the nation-state, he offers R. Zamora Linmark’s Rolling the R’s as a more productive example. The novel explores the ethnic conflicts and differences between the inhabitants of Hawaii, which Linmark suggests are eventually overcome by “an obsessive queer sexuality…that binds them together as a social group with a common sense of purpose” (225). This, Eng asserts can serve as a viable model for real political activism. He further describes how Limark’s characterization of Orlando as the “model minority” student who overcomes his inferior “minority” status by demonstrating his capabilities in not only math and science but also leadership and representation of his fellow classmates, coupled with his queer sexual identity effectively overturns stereotypes and social expectations of Asian American men.