Annotation: Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s “The Secret History of the Early American Novel”

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This annotation was written in reference to may paper on Leonora Sansay’s <em>Secret History</em>, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” <em>Novel</em> 40.1/2 (2006): 77-103. Print.

In her article Dillon asserts that while Sansay’s attention to balls and dress may appear frivolous and wholly disconnected from the revolution that rages throughout the island, both the domestic and colonial political narratives intersect and overlap in important ways. She reveals how Clara’s attempt to liberate herself from her abusive husband strongly parallels the revolutionaries’ efforts to establish a free, sovereign black nation-state. Dillon demonstrates that in the novel, colonization not only stands for the racist institution of slavery and economic exploitation but also the oppressive patriarchal order of colonial society. She emphasizes that female liberation is achieved as an unexpected consequence of the Haitian Revolution and “when Mary and Clara flee Saint Domingue for Cuba, they repeatedly find themselves in the company of unhusbanded women who appear to blossom in the absence of men who previously controlled them” (92). Dillon suggests that the novel presents America as the site where this female utopian community can be finally realized. I argue, however, that Sansay leaves us in a troubling de-localized space of transition, ending with a similar voyage on the high seas that opens the epistolary narrative. While the success of the revolution in St. Domingue will culminate in the establishment of a new contained black nation-state, Mary and Clara traverse borders and multiple terrains, forming transatlantic connections with other women that deeply challenge the notion of such a closed system, where America, as the final destination, becomes figured as more a point of continuous encounter and “exchange” in the words of Tennenhouse.

Dillon further argues that the elaborate descriptions of colonial palaces, finery and balls, in the novel, do “not bespeak sustained delusion (or colonial nostalgia) so much as an astute analysis of the relations of production and social reproduction that stand at the core of colonial politics” (78). She distinguishes “production” as economic, referring to, for example, the manufacturing of sugar, whereas “social production,” refers to the creation and perpetuation of the social relations, practices, ideologies, and environment necessary to sustain capitalism. Dillon explains that according to Marxism, the capitalistic enterprise of colonialism compels a geographic separation between the site of production and social production, where the colony serves as the economic factory or engine for wealth, while the colonizing country consumes and replicates the social conditions that enable capitalism to persist. She demonstrates that in Sansay’s novel, however, this geographic distinction is lost entirely as St. Domingue emerges as a place of both sugar production and Creole social production as exemplified by the madras headscarf, which becomes a popular consumer good.

Dillon defines Creole as a European born in the colony whose social production is considered “illegitimate precisely because reproduction has occurred at the site of capitalist production (the colony) rather than at the site of consumption (the metropole)” (86). She suggests further that the Creole occupies a liminal space as a “native who is non-native,” which is strongly reflected in their culture as the madras headscarf was used to restrain the sexuality of indigenous females and banned in Europe (95). Dillon ultimately offers the term Creole as a more productive means of conceptualizing American identity because it deftly captures the country’s vexed position as both a colonizing power and a postcolonial “nation.” Rather than “Americanization,” which suggests assimilation to some retrospective, conceived notion of a collective “national” identity, “Creolization” does not attempt to deny or erase America’s historical implication in complex systems of colonialism.

In her article, however, Dillon too readily dismisses the importance of fantasy in Secret History in favor of a more concrete analysis of production and social production. I argue that the novel is very much shaped and predicated on a fantasy structure, where the French, for example, imagine that they will be able to easily suppress the black revolutionaries, where Mary continuously fantasizes about a blissful colonial past, and where the “nation-state” itself is revealed to be merely a fantasy.

Annotation: Soo-Young Chin’s “Asian American Cultural Production” (2000)

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Chin, Soo-Young, Feng, Peter X, and Lee Josephine. “Asian American Cultural Production.” Journal of Asian American Studies 3.3 (2000): 298-282. Print.

Written as an introduction to the journal in 2000, the writers examine the proliferation of discourse around “Asian American cultural production” as a means of re-visioning understandings of ‘culture’ within Asian American Studies.  Temporally, this essay is positioned not only at the turn of the millennium, but also as a middle point between Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts and Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise.  Consequently, this piece offers an astute analysis of the distinct linkage between “Asian American” and “cultural production” and affords the possibility of extending upon as well as highlighting the limits of both theoretical frameworks.

Framing ‘culture’ within the discourse of cultural nationalism in Asian American Studies, the writers highlight the three forms in which ‘culture’ now manifest: (1) intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic development; (2) idea about a way of life; and, (3) intellectual and aesthetic activity (271).  Asian American culture, the writers argue, is “inherently activist” (271) given its emergence as resistance against dominant images perpetuated by the hegemonic culture, which possesses representational power.  Thus, discourses around Asian American culture must always address the relationship to this history of activism.  Cultural nationalism was useful in fostering “what [Chele] Sandoval terms an oppositional consciousness” (271; emphasis added) and building a collective political identity.  Furthermore, it beckoned an examination of the everyday in a site of creating Asian American culture and also a site in which problematic ideologies are exposed.

In the debate surrounding ‘culture,’ the writers point to continuing tensions between those with a more theoretical basis in striving for disciplinary legitimacy and academic recognition and those who stress the need to connect act with goals of social activism.  Asian American culture must then negotiate these multiple visions in order to establish the connection between the aesthetic and political that is necessary to effect social change.  The section “The Social Imaginary: Toward a Theory of Cultural Production and Consumption” is particularly apt in conceptualizing the multifaceted players and processes within “cultural production.”  The writers stress the need to examine not only the creation of art, but also its consumption.  Inherent in the examination of consumption are interrogations of who the intended consumers are and why.  The writers beckon us to understand “culture as simultaneously a material and a symbolic production” (273).  This notion echoes needs for critiquing disciplinary boundaries, as argued for in an Asian Americanist critique.  The writers apply Paul Ricoeur’s concept of “the social imaginary” to frame “Asian American” as a collective of history and practices that influence current textual production (experience).  The medium through which this imaginary materializes into experience is the fictive.  In what ways can we extend this framing of Asian American culture as “the fictive” in order to rethink Chuh’s urge to read literature as theory?

Annotation: Lisa Lowe’s “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, and Multiplicity” (1996)

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Lowe, Lisa. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences.” Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996. 60-83. Print.

Lisa Lowe offers heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity as tools to conceptualize “Asian American Differences” that challenge dominant discussions of authenticity and what it means to “be” an Asian American. She defines heterogeneity as the pluralism within the group of ‘Asian Americans’; hybridity as cultural intermixing due to (often involuntary) histories; and, multiplicity as the positioning of each individual along multiple axes of power (67). Lowe calls for an understanding of film and literature as agents in producing a pluralistic Asian American culture. Furthermore, she appropriates Gramsci’s notion of hegemony in understanding that while this culture includes dominant/racist representations of Asian/Americans, we could actively work to contest such images. Accordingly, Lowe offers examples from several literary works to illustrate the limits of positioning Asian Americans merely in terms of culture—through reinforcing narratives of East versus West in the form of parent-child tensions—as illustrative of this popular and problematic discourse in which critics must use as a point of departure (63).

In stressing cultural differences, Lisa Lowe intervenes in larger discourses within Asian American Studies that seek to examine an Asian American ‘identity’ which privileges commonality over differences. Centering a discourse around race, culture and/or ethnicity continually marginalizes examination of the means through which gender, class, sexuality and other differences intersect and complicate various experiences among Asian Americans. Thus, there are dangers in framing discussions around binaristic concepts such as ‘Old World,’ ‘New World,’ and other terms that seek to establish notions of concrete, static cultures based upon race. As her use of Angela Davis’s quote suggests, focus should be shifted away from people to the agenda: “basing the identity on politics rather than the politics on identity” (75). Lowe’s contribution is significant and transformative for imagining Asian American Studies as a critique that stresses the urgency of understanding past histories and experiences of exclusion while stressing the need to sustain this critique onto the present and into the future. Lisa Lowe’s work is also valuable for sustaining possibilities of coalition building with other scholars/activists while shifting away from identity politics.