Annotation: David L. Eng’s “I’ve Been (Re)Working on the Railroad” (2001)

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I apologize for another ridiculously long Eng annotation but this article had a lot of interesting points and sadly I still don’t think I did them justice. Well, here goes anyways…

Eng, David L. “I’ve Been (Re)Working on the Railroad: Photography and National History in China Men and Donald Duk.” Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 35-103. Print.

In this essay Eng discusses how Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and Frank Chin’s Donald Duk calls attention to the erasure of Chinese American men from mainstream US historical narratives and attempt to rewrite them into the archive. While other scholars have noted how the novels critique the United State’s exclusion of Chinese American men from citizenship status even as the nation depends on their labor, Eng determines to examines how the authors “rework dominant history through an emphatic shifting of the visual image” (36). He asserts that Kingston and Chin both critique the “infamous 10 May 1869 photograph taken at Promontory Summit,” which celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railroad and failed to depict even one of the “ten thousand Chinese American male laborers” who contributed to its construction (36). Eng emphasizes that the authors ultimately attempt to teach readers new ways of seeing that will help recuperate this lost or rather, repressed history.

Eng begins his article with a helpful background on photography criticism. He notes that photography was initially perceived as an objective art form that encouraged spectators to accept the image captured as “real.” This realism was further accentuated by the acceptance of photographic evidence for the determination of court trials. Eng, however, calls attention to how photography is still a representation of reality that needs to be urgently interrogated. He asserts that spectators often forget the very human mediation of the mechanical camera eye, which “demands from the viewer a particular concession, a particular self-placement, and a particular geometral point of view” (41). Eng emphasizes further that through each photograph sepectators are not only compelled to assume a specific physical point of view, in terms of geographic angles and positions but also an ideological one.

He goes on to describe how Kingston and Chin’s novel challenges Lacan’s notion of the “given-to-be-seen,” which is defined as “that group of culturally sanctioned images against which subjects are typically held for their sense of identity” (43). Spectators are encouraged to identify with images that correspond with the prevailing sociopolitical beliefs of the time (can be likened to stereotypes), which dictate how individuals should see not only themselves but also “others.” Eng asserts, however, that the “given-to-be-seen” still relies on the acceptance and perpetuation of those images by the public, which opens up space for potential resistance.

In his discussion of China Men, Eng demonstrates how Kingston reveals the racist nature of the “given-to-be-seen” through disjointed photographic interpretations. While the Chinese man in the chapter, “The Wild Man of the Green Swamp” was so depicted by police and tabloid writers, the narrator notes that the photograph did not portray a wild man at all. Eng suggests that racialized “visual ordering,” where frozen stereotypical images of the Chinese American man as “yellow” peril” precipitates the compilation of arbitrary documents that sustains such racist conceptions, occluding individual’s ability to see the Chinese American man as he truly appears. Eng relates another scene where Alfredo’s brother examines photos of the Vietnam War, which at first horrifies and frightens him. As he continues, however, he eventually learns to see them as beautiful, awesome “Kodak moment[s]” (52). Eng emphasizes that the personal point of view that guided Alfredo’s brother in his initial perusal of the images is an “errancy of the human look” that offers great potential for resisting the dominant vision that society imposes on its members (52).

He asserts further that personal memory challenges the “given-to-be-seen” because they reveal the gaps in the historical archive, capable of bring us to a new place and understanding of the past. Eng accentuates that memory is different from a fixed photograph. Memory highlights different things in different orders and values, possessing a flexibility that can allow for the unfixing of stereotypes. He notes that “Kingston displays the potential uses of memory’s wanderings through a vertiginous doubling of titles, myths, legends, and laws that do not returnus to an original narrative or image but brings us to a place where we have never been before” (57). Yet she also demonstrates how “looking awry at the given-to-be-seen” can result in real devastating consequences (58). Ah Goong, who celebrates the Chinese railroad workers for their strength and endurance is, for example, regarded as a madman. Eng suggests further that his omission from the Promontory Summit photograph serves as a means of resolving the US national identity as white and democratic, disavowing the disenfranchisement and exploitation of Chinese American men through their deliberate visual erasure from history.

In his analysis of Donald Duk, Eng asserts that Chin takes on a similar project as Kingston in challenging and reworking the “given-to-be-seen.” Chin delves into his eponymous protagonist’s unconscious, using dreams “to provide [Donald]…with a new set of affirming images and meanings with which to identify” (74). The novel begins with Donald as a self-hating, anti-Chinese boy and the unconscious, Eng asserts, is the only way he can resist the predominantly white and racist images of American popular culture to develop a sense of self-love. Eng offers helpful background on the Freudian conception of the unconscious. He explains that the unconscious contains forbidden, socially taboo thoughts that through dreams are attached and disguised in signifiers, some of which emerge in an individual’s consciousness. Freud also describes “deferred action” as “a psychic process by means of which conscious views and meanings are revised at a later time to accommodate new experiences that emerge from unconscious thoughts and experiences” (79). Eng therefore emphasizes that dreams allows for “productive looking” (80). He writes: “By introducing the forbidden material of unconscious prohibitions into consciousness, individuals as well as the larger society around them can come to revise and accept on a conscious level what they would normally reject as incommensurate with society’s prevailing beliefs” (80).

Eng notes that in his dreams, Donald works with other Chinese male immigrants to build the transcontinental railroad, giving him a closer relation to history than his teacher Mr. Meanwright, who merely lectures from citations. While Donald initially rejects his dream visions he eventually begins to seize and piece them together to form a new understanding of history and ultimate, of himself. Eng emphasizes that “Donald’s unconscious dreams come to mark a conscious shifting of his entire waking life, demeanor, and attitude,” as he recovers his Chinese ethnic and cultural pride (84). The novel concludes with Donald confronting Mr. Meanwright about his failure to lecture about the Chinese laborers who helped construct the transcontinental railroad. In this scene, Donald not only learns to look at pictures awry but also teaches his class to do so as well. His shadow cast onto Mr. Meanwright’s projected slide transforms the static photograph and directly calls attention to the erasure of Chinese American laborers from the building of the U.S. nation-state.

Eng emphasizes that while both Kingston and Chin critique this gap in the archive and particularly Chinese American’s exclusion from visual history, they differ significantly in their treatment of sexuality. Eng claims that Chin’s novel emerges as homophobic and sexist as “Donald’s movement into racial self-acceptance comes only with his resolute pledge to heterosexual norms and ideals” (94). He asserts that Kingston conversely, recovers this repressed Chinese American history without rejecting women and those with “deviant” sexual identities, “imagining a type of masculinity that could be feminist and antihomophobic as well” (102).

Annotation: David L. Eng’s “Introduction: Racial Castration” (2001)

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Eng, David L. “Introduction.” Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 1-34. Print.

In his “Introduction,” Eng asserts that his book will explore how gender and sexuality influences the racialization of Asian American men, who are often conceived and represented as emasculated figures in the American popular imagination and culture. Eng explains that his title is drawn from Freud’s concept of “fetishism,” or “a psychic process whereby the man attempts to obviate the trauma of sexual difference by seeing at the site of a female body a penis that is not there to see” (2). Substituting the female “other” with the Asian American male, Eng calls attention to the refusal to recognize the Asian American penis that is actually there, leading to what he terms as an act of “racial castration” (2). Eng offers the relationship between Gallimard and Song in David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly as an example to substantiate his theoretical framework. Eng further notes that rather than being fetishistic and singular, this feminized conception of Asian American men has been problematically “normalized” (3).

Eng ultimately attempts to address through his book the oversight in psychoanalytic criticism, where scholars have traditionally ignored the intersection between race and sexuality. While psychoanalysis has been helpfully deployed in feminist and queer studies, Eng challenges its theoretical limitations by proposing new discursive parameters for psychoanalysis as a critical tool in race and more specifically Asian American studies. He stresses the pertinence of this connection by calling attention to how race has always been an important feature of Freud’s work. Eng cites, for example, the representation of the “primitive” in Totem and Taboo, who was distinguished and an “other” to the civilized European society because of his inferior sexual development as well as his “dark origins” which also connotes a “visual darkness” (8). Eng also discusses “On Narcissism: An Introduction” where Freud suggests that individuals are driven to repress their homosexual urges and assimilate to the dominant heteronormative society in order to claim legitimate membership in the family, class, or nation. Freud asserts that “modern, ‘civilized’ European political formations like family class and nation can be understood, in part on the basis of study of colonized subjects figured as pre-modern ‘primitives’” (12). Eng emphasizes that in this framework, colonized societies are posited as homosexual while heterosexuality is implicitly tied with whiteness.

In his book, Eng attempts to essentially address the gap in Asian American studies, where focus on “female subjectivity and gender” has led to an overlooking of “Asian American male subjectivity, and in particular, homosexuality” (15). He cites Immigrant Acts in which Lisa Lowe argues that specific juridical measures have worked to gender Asian American males. Eng notes, for example, how Asian American immigrant males have traditionally worked in professions stereotypically conceived as “feminine” such as “laundries, restaurants, [and] tailor’s shops,” demonstrating how economic class systems further contribute to the gendering of this group (17). Eng also mentions the “antimiscegnation and exclusion laws” that prohibited the immigration of Asian American women, leading to the creation of “Chinatowns as exclusive ‘bachelor communities’” (17). He suggests that these are ultimately “‘queer’ spaces institutionally barred from normative (hetero)sexual reproduction, nuclear family formations, and entitlements to community” (18). Eng therefore asserts that discussion of “‘deviant’ sexuality” is not just important to those individuals who openly identify as “queer, gay, or lesbian” because historical processes and political juridical measures have rendered a much greater part of the Asian American population “queer,” marginalized and excluded from full American citizenship status (18).

In his “Introduction” Eng also offers a helpful history of gender critique in Asian American studies. He challenges the way the editors of Aiiieeeee! attempted to reclaim Asian American male masculinity by reinforcing the same problematic heterosexual sexist paradigms that stimulated the movement in the first place (21). Eng also argues that the localization of major debates about gender and sexuality in Asian American studies behind the figures of Frank Chin and Maxine Hong Kingston has served to further problematically marginalize the homosexual Asian American male from critical consideration.

Finally, Eng concludes that another prominent focus of his book is the psychological ramifications for those Asian American males who attempt to assimilate to the dominant heternormative, masculinist, white racist society. He suggests that this requires the development of complex physic formations where the Asian American male must “simultaneously recognize and not recognize the material contradictions of institutionalized racism that claim his inclusion even as he is systematically excluded” (22). Eng is therefore interested in not only how the dominant white hegemonic society but also how Asian American men themselves are invested and implicated in furthering the stereotype of emasculation.

Annotation: Rachel C. Lee’s “Introduction” (1999)

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Lee, Rachel C. “Introduction.” The Americas of Asian American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999. 3-16. Print.

In the “Introduction” of her book, Lee asserts that the critical tendency to merely focus on how “America” is conceived and represented in Asian American fiction obscures other significant themes these authors address, namely, gender and sexuality. Lee locates this problematic trend as stemming from the historical tension between “feminism and ethnopolitical critique.” She argues that the project spearheaded by Frank Chin and Jeffrey Paul Chan to “recuperate Asian American manhood” against white racist, imperialist emasculation has essentially closed off discourse about Asian American women or at least ascribed them as subservient topics for critical analysis. Lee emphasizes that the expense of reclaiming Asian male masculinity is often the oppression and exploitation of women (not only by the dominant white society but also through acts of intra-racism and -sexism), whose plight has been largely rendered invisible and needs to be urgently examined.

Lee adopts a “New Americanist” critical framework that explores “America” beyond the rigid boundaries of the U.S. nation-state, “in a broader context, in hemispheric, regional, and global terms” (4, 5). But while she expresses excitement over the trasnationalization of American studies, as more and more scholars are beginning to explore the effects of globalization, diaspora, and postcolonialism, Lee is also deeply concerned about how this new trend may “undermine the vitality of Asian American feminist critique” (10). Because of the deep historical relation between “cultural nationalism” and feminism, as the nation is challenged as a framework of analysis in our ever increasingly globalized world, feminism may once again be relegated as subservient to discourses of transnationalism (11). Lee concludes that one of the primary aims of her book is to establish a framework that reconciles “Asian American gender critique with its new sources in theories of subaltern womanhood and the gendering of international labor” (11). She ultimately strives to examine how these female lives are shaped by imaginings of “America” and the broader flows of global capital.