Annotation: Rachel C. Lee’s “An Asian American Cultural Production in Asian-Pacific Perspective” (1999)

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Lee, Rachel C. “Asian American Cultural Production in Asian-Pacific Perspective.” Boundary 2. 26.2. (1999): 231-254. Print.

Lee begins her essay discussing how Asian American scholars must grapple with the pressures of globalization to reconcile the field’s foundational US-centric national focus with transnational forces and concerns. She notes how Asia-Pacific Rim scholars also assert the need to explore “the meanings of Asian American cultural production to the formation of alternative imagined communities ‘created by travel and trade, and…mobilized in dispersion’ rather than primarily through settlement within individual nation-states” (232). In her essay Lee specifically explores Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, which she argues speaks directly to these field contentions.

She begins by offering helpful background on how the concept of “Pacific Rim” was initially derived as foil to NAFTA. Lee notes that while Pacific Rim evokes a definite geographic locale, it is “defined by an economic logic specifically designed to transgress national borders,” thereby “undermin[ing] the persuasiveness of territorial nationalism (235). Lee goes on to cite a passage from What Is in a Rim? Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea where Arif Dirlik argues that in the Pacific region, “[e]mphasis on human activity shifts attention from physical area to the construction of geography through human interactions” (236). For the purposes of my own paper, I argue that this is particularly true with respect to Yamashita’s other novel Tropic of Orange, where “human interactions” shaped by political and economic forces such as NAFTA precipitate the literal morphing of the geographic topography of the Americas.

In her discussion of Through the Arc of the Rainforest Yamashita asserts that the novel is a “respons[e] to the unsettling effects of globalization or time-space compression” (238). Lee relies on Doreen Massey’s definition of “time-space compression” which she describes as the “movement and communication across space, to the geographic stretching-out of social relations, and our experience of all this” (238). Lee notes how Yamashita sets her novel in Metacão, a fictional territory that calls attention to the fiction of geographic borders in general, especially in a globalized world where transnational flows and exchanges repeatedly transgress those boundaries. Lee suggests that borders are then merely political national constructions used to regulate the flows of capital, people, goods, culture, etc. She calls attention to how “heterogeneous national, racial and cultural components” converge at Metacão, which is represented through a highly diverse cast of characters. Lee emphasizes how Yamashita takes pains to depict “globalization as a multiform” rather than exchanges between the East and West.

Elaborating on the novel’s relation to Asian American studies, Lee asserts that the Japanese immigrant character, Kazumasa Ishimaru emerges as “a subtle parody of a familiar archetype, the Chinese American railroad worker” (242). Lee discusses how Asian American scholars have traditionally deployed this history of Chinese immigrant involvement in the construction of the transcontinental railroad as an argument for Asian American enfranchisement and belonging in the US. She claims that by reworking this archetype, from Chinese to Japanese immigrant and manual track laborer to more advanced position of railroad technician and inspector, Yamashita articulates the need and means for shifting the field of Asian American studies from a narrow national perspective to trans- and even post-national considerations. Lee writes:

[I]n a time when national utitilies are fragmenting into competing capitalist units, when building the infrastructure is less important than downsizing to maximize profits, when railways signify less as patriotic achievements and more as a ‘lucrative travel business,’ crafting a national hero is to create a deliberate anachronism, a figure who, despite having saved ‘hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives’ (TAR, 10), is outplaced.” (245)

Lee emphasizes that Yamashita does not entirely abandon the history of the railroad but rather demonstrates how its construction and the act of laboring on the railroad is infused with new meaning and implications within a contemporary globalized context.

She asserts that this Japanese immigrant character’s presence alongside a multicultural, multinational, and hybrid cast, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest differs from other conventional works of Asian American fiction, suggesting that the forces of globalization compel narrative expansion beyond a solely Asian or Asian American focus. Lee claims that Yamashita is more concerned with the emergence of “alternative communities…composed of nationally and racially heterogeneous social actors who are globally interrelated by virtue of worldwide media links, touristic travel across borders, international finance networks, transnational trade, and a shared ecology” (247).

Lee finally concludes her essay by suggesting that resistance against the convergence of Asian American Studies and Asia-Pacific Rim Studies stems from overlooked “class cleavages” rather than territorial disputes (250). She suggests that while Asia-Pacific Rim scholars celebrate the cosmopolitan, “transnational Asian capitalist” that form comprise of an elite entrepreneurial class, Asian American scholars will not embrace the field unless more attention is given to “marginalized, even disenfranchised, subjects in the basin” (251, 250). Lee asserts however, that the realities of our globalization demonstrate that Asian American scholars can no longer cling to their “foundational subaltern identity politics” and must come to acknowledge the economic privilege of some Asian/American groups in spite of their racial marginalization, which Yamashita powerfully depicts in her character, Kazumasu. Lee finally leaves us with the observation that Through the Arc of the Rain Forest “advocates a forgetfulness of traumatic monoracial politics in order to enable the imagining of hybrid—and even pleasurable—spatial, racial, and cross-class convergences” (254).


Annotation: Aihwa Ong’s Flexible Citizenship (1999)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper “Re-imagining Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker through the National Politics of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

Ong, Aihwa. “Introduction.” Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham: Duke UP, 1999. 1-26. Print.

In the “Introduction” of her book, Ong demonstrates a broad concern with the notion of transnationality, defining it as “the condition of cultural interconnectedness and mobility across space—which has been intensified under late capitalism” (4). She strongly questions the assertions of some contemporary scholars that globalization has precipitated the erasure of national borders and the consequent emergence of liberating cosmopolitan identities. Ong argues that states are effectively policing their national borders and identities by developing systems of governmentality to regulate transnational flows of culture, capital and peoples. She relies on Foucault’s definition of governmentality as referring to “techniques and codes for directing human behavior” (6). Ong ultimately presents a complex theoretical framework that attempts to analyze cultural productions within the context of global capitalism (Marx) and governmentality (Foucault).

She accentuates the necessity to examine how changing factors of our current global political economy has led to the creation of mobile and nonmobile subjects—those who are able to maneuver and profit from the system and those who become localized to a particular place because they lack the economic means to respond to the flows of global capital. There are also of course “mobile” subjects who are forced to engage in compulsory labor migrations. I assert that these “mobile” subjects can be compelled by other means as well, for example, the internalized need to fulfill certain social expectations and national narratives such as the function of the model minority stereotype in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker. But Ong does ultimately express a hint of optimism towards the notion of flexibility. She asserts that while states have developed flexible means of regulating transnational flows, individuals have also developed a kind of “flexible citizenship” that can be liberating, finding markets and homes in multiple locales.

Annotation: Frederick Buell’s “Nationalist Postnationalism” (1998)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper “Re-imagining Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker through the National Politics of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

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

In this article Buell offers a general definition of globalization as “the ways in which nonlocal factors interact with local ones in producing sociocultural identities and forms” (549). He discusses how globalization was initially viewed as a threat to the internal culture of the United States as well as the country’s dominance externally with respect to other world nations. Buell claims that these anxieties have subsided and recent changes regarding culture, information technology and nature point to an emerging postnationalist American identity. He suggests that nations are not becoming obsolete but are rather re-conceptualizing their identities in a more global spectrum. Buell ultimately encourages a critical and speculative discourse around the phenomenon of globalization, which should not be viewed as “inherently transformative” or as producing no changes at all (580). I believe that Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker reflects globalization along these two conflicted veins. While the spies in the novel are not allied with a particular nation, they are still used to guard national identities and control immigration. Buell also cites Robert Reich’s The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for Twenty-First Century Capitalism, who suggests that the “knowledge worker” can be viewed as the new quintessentially American figure. I would like to consider this notion particularly with respect to the spies in Native Speaker.