Annotation: Michel Foucault’s “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” (1990)

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Foucault, Michel. “Part Five: Right of Death and Power over Life” The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. 135-159. Print.

In this essay Foucault discusses the historical changes in sovereign power as the absolute “right to decide life and death” eventually came to be conditioned by exceptional circumstances where the sovereign’s life was threatened (135). In these instances, he would be able to “legitimately wage war, and require his subjects to take part in the defense of the state; without ‘directly proposing their death’” (135). Foucault asserts that in modern times sovereign power “as the ‘power of life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live” (136). The sovereign exercises his power over life through the deaths that he can command and exercises his power over death by the lives he can spare. Foucault accentuates that in this framework power is exerted according to the model of “deduction, a subtraction mechanism,” that “culminate[s] in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it” (136). He notes, however, that since then power in the West has undergone a radical transformation.

No longer a deductive force that attempts to “suppress” life with the threat of death, now “power…exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations” (137). Foucault calls attention to how wars have ceased to be waged in the name of an individual sovereign but rather for the defense and survival of whole populations. He emphasizes that modern states exercise power in this manner, stressing life even as they expose their subjects to death. Foucault asserts “that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death (138). He notes that because power can only exerts its influence over life, “death is power’s limit” (138). Foucault explains that suicide, as an individual, private act, subverts power, and classifying it as a crime is power’s grasping attempt to manage life.

He goes on to describe how “power over life evolved in two basic forms” since the 17th century (139). Foucault describes how the first form is “centered on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimization of its capabilities…the parallel increases of its usefulness and its docility, [and] its integration into systems of efficient and economic control” (139). He groups all of these mechanisms of power under the heading of “disciplines: an anatomo-politics of the human body” (139). Foucault asserts that the second form is “focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological processes: propagation, births and mortality…life expectancy and longevity” (139). These mechanism he groups under the heading of “regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population” (139). Foucault emphasizes that power mobilizes to discipline the human body and regulate populations, giving rise to a “great bipolar technology—anatomic and biological” that works towards “invest[ing] life through and through” (139).

He further notes how this “bio-power” has been instrumental to the rise and expansion of capitalism. Foucault insists that the success of this economic system “would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production and the adjustment of the phenomena of population to economic processes” (141). Capitalism, which demands growth—the creation of new markets, the production of more goods and capital, etc—ultimately relies on a power capable of fostering, optimizing, and regulating life rather than death (141).

Foucault argues that modernity is marked by mankind’s development of political measures to specifically maintain and perpetuate its own existence. But he suggests that one important consequence of “bio-power” is the normalization of power beyond the formal legal system. He asserts that “law operates more and more as a norm, and that the juridical institution is increasingly incorporated into a continuum of apparatuses (medical, administrative, and so on) whose functions are for the most part regulatory” (144). Foucault further notes how the right to life has become the underlining demand of most political struggles.

He finally concludes his essay with a discussion of how sex has gained so much political significance within this schema of power because it is tied to both “the disciplines of the body” and “the regulation of population,” a “means of access both to the life of the body and the life of the species (145, 146). Foucault goes on to offer a fascinating argument about the management of sexuality and deployment of sex, which I have chosen not to go into detail about here.

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: 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.

Annotation: Eve Sedgwick’s “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay” (1991)

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Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay.” Social Text.  29 (1991): 18-27. Print.

Opening her article with statistics of adolescent suicide rates that are disproportionately higher among gays, Sedgwick attacks the inefficiency of current psychoanalysis and psychiatry in addressing the needs for guiding gay development among children and adolescents.  Instead, the field, though it removed sexual object-choice as pathology, equates gender as natural to the given biological sex as the sole form of proper subjectivity and condemns deviance from this gender as a pathological disorder.  She critiques the works of psychoanalysts—mainly Friedman and Green—that align gender assignment as essential to a healthy self.  She argues that while many people now allegedly adopt a more tolerant attitude towards existent gays, they object to the development of homosexuality among kids and adolescents, which impedes the wish for a world in which gays do not exist.  On the contrary, institutions more frequently take efforts to turn these kids away from homosexuality, rather than facilitating their development.  In a broader sense, Sedgwick shows that the privileging of essentialist explanations of sexuality among scholars is futile in the hope for the dignified treatment, rather than the interference with homosexual bodies, and that there is ultimately no theoretical safe haven for queers without the affirmation of desires and the need for gay people in the world.

Annotation: Eithne Luibhéid’s “Sexuality, Migration, and the Shifting Line between Legal and Illegal Status” (2008)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper “Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt: Unsanctioned (Hi)stories of Love Caught in the Circuits of Global Capitalism.” See my abstract here.

Luibhéid, Eithne. “Sexuality, Migration, and the Shifting Line between Legal and Illegal Status.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14.2-3 (2008): 289-315. Print.

In her article Luibheid argues that the classification of immigrants as “legal” or “illegal” is not an actual measurement of criminality of character but rather status designations that are inflicted upon migrant populations because of specific historical processes and shifting power dynamics regarding race, gender, sexuality, and class. She particularly explores how US immigration law privileges individuals with specific family ties to US residents. In this system legal status can be achieved through heterosexual marriage, but queer individuals are held at a distinct disadvantage because their love relationships are not politically recognized and they must struggle to obtain legality through other means. This article is important for my own consideration of Binh’s character in The Book of Salt. As an illegal immigrant, he occupies an unsanctioned place within the global political economy, an illegality that seems to be reflected through the illicit nature of his love affairs.