Annotation: Pei-Chia Lan’s “Legal Servitude and Free Illegality” (2007)

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Lan, Pei-Chia. “Legal Servitude and Free Illegality: Migrant ‘Guest’ Workers in Taiwan.” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions. Eds. Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2007. 253-277. Print.

In her essay Lan broadly explores the experience of migrant guest workers in Taiwan. She asserts that “transmigration within Asia” has greatly increased “in the last decade” as workers, generally from Southeast Asian countries, come to fill the demand for cheap labor in the rapidly industrializing East Asian states (254). Lan argues that migrants are heavily exploited within the guest worker contract system, emphasizing that many actually find more freedom, better working conditions and wages by running away from their employers and assuming a state of illegality. She accentuates that such realities challenge popular assumptions about “improved security within legal realms and prevalent vulnerability in irregular migration” (254). Lan further demonstrates that in spite of globalization, the nation-state still retain their incredible influence in the world economy by regulating international labor flows.

Lan defines “guest worker” as “migrant workers [who] are employed on temporary contracts and are prohibited from immigrating or becoming naturalized” (255). She suggests that this system can be somewhat paralleled to indentured servitude or the “‘coolie’ system” in the United States (255). Lan emphasizes that as “guest workers,” migrants are treated as merely “disposable labor,” and are only allowed residence within a country for a specified term (256). Forbidden from developing family or communal ties that will lead to any form of “permanent settlement,” their labor is merely exhausted for the defined period and then they are expected to return to their home country. Lan accentuates that the guest worker system in Asian countries is particularly distinct because of the incredible degree of direct government intervention and regulation. She reveals that “[s]everal Asian governments, for example those of the Philippines and Indonesia, have established special labor export agencies within their national bureaucracies to regulate flows, train potential migrants, and promote their workers to receiving countries” (256).

In her discussion of Taiwan, Lan suggests that in “October 1989” the government “authorized a special order that allowed foreigners to work for a national construction project,” which gradually extended to private sector work (257). She further notes how Taiwan’s “Council of Labor Affairs (CLA)” was established to levy quotas and manage the distribution of migrant workers in various industries. She accentuates that these guest worker policies are specifically aimed to “ensure that migrant workers are temporally transient and spatially fixed” (258). While these laborers are geographically within the nation-state they are barred from permanent residence. Lan interestingly notes, however, that these policies differ in terms of class. Whereas blue-collar workers are rigorously regulated by the quota system and “are not eligible for permanent residence or citizenship,” white-collar workers are not subjected to the same restrictions (258). Lan argues that one of the most disabling features of the guest worker contract is how it “depriv[es]…[migrants] of the right to circulate in the domestic labor market” as they can only work for their designated employer for their specified term in Taiwan (259). She suggests this is one frightening demonstrating of how the government manages it’s the international labor population and essentially “monito[r] the weareabouts of these ethnic others” (259).

She suggests that migrants also have to pay exorbitant placement fees in order to secure employment in Taiwan. Lan notes that this is probably due to the fact that Taiwan is a desirable place to work and offers relatively higher wages than other Asian countries. Probably the biggest reason, however, is that the competitive broker industry fighting for the business of a “limited number of employers possessing quotas” (260). Lan emphasizes that as these employers receive “kickback[s]” from broker, the financial burden is subsequently displaced to the migrant workers (260). She notes that within this system, quotas are more valued than the workers themselves, who are easily disposable.

Lan goes on to discuss how the “bondage of contract employment” essentially turns the guest worker system into a form of slavery as migrants lack real legal protection due to their alien status and are deprived of the right of mobility, the right to quit and change employers. Lan suggests that workers are often compelled to overlook their unfavorable working conditions and abuses so as to get their contracts renewed and pay off their accumulated debts. She reveals that in light of these harsh realities some migrants choose to runaway.

Lan emphasizes that with their new undocumented status many migrants find better working conditions, as they gain the freedom to choose whom to work for and can leave whenever they please. With their new employers they can also use the threat of quitting to negotiate better wages and hours. While Lan acknowledges that undocumented workers do face some risk such as deportation and “lack of legal protection and health insurance,” she claims that they surprisingly find more satisfaction with their “illegality.” She goes on to discuss how migrants have subverted the original regulative measures of the passport as form of national identification by creating and obtaining forgeries to (re)enter Taiwan and work outside of the terms granted in their guest worker contracts.

She ultimately concludes her essay by asserting that “[t]he ‘guest’worker policy in Asia has created a highly exploitative system of labor migration. Migrant workers not only lack political rights and civil liberties but also are deprived of the economic right of market mobility” (271). Lan also offers a final warning to countries such as the United States that are thinking about instituting a guest worker system to supplant more “irregular migration” flows (272). She accentuates that without proper regard to upholding the civil rights of migrant workers, the US may be sanctioning and indeed perpetuating a more insidious system of slavery.

Protected: Annotation: Walter Johnson’s “Introduction: A Person with a Price” to Soul By Soul (1999)

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Protected: Annotation: Matthew Pratt Guterl’s “The American Mediterranean” (2008)

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Annotation: Paul Baepler’s “Introduction” to White Slaves, African Masters (1999)

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Baepler, Paul. “Introduction.” White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

In his introduction to White Slaves, African Masters Baepler directs our attention to the largely neglected genre of Barbary captivity narratives. While many today may be familiar with Mary Rowlandson’s tale of captivity among the “savage” Indians or Frederick Douglass’ famous slave narrative, stories about the seizure of American sailors, merchants, and women along the Barbary Coast have somehow been forgotten, relegated to distant memory. Baepler contends, however, that Barbary captivity played a significant role in shaping the early political policies of the new republic. For instance, it “forced the government to pay humiliating tributes in cash and military arms to African rulers, stimulated the drive to create the U.S. navy, and brought about the first postrevolutionary war” (2). These narratives also deeply influenced public imagination, providing many Americans with their first glimpses of the distant land of Africa, its culture and its people. Consequently, Baepler argues that by examining these once familiar stories, recognizing where they overlap and borrow from the tradition of Indian captivity and slave narratives, allows us to develop a more nuanced understanding of how racial categorization and perceptions of “otherness” developed in America. Perhaps one of the most fascinating qualities of these Barbary captivity narratives is their incredible diversity. The authors present a wide range of oftentimes-contradictory attitudes and perspectives, for example, using their experiences to critique as well as justify chattel slavery in America. But what I found most interesting and perhaps most relevant to my own interests, is the absence of any verifiable female accounts of barbary captivity. Baepler reveals that the two stories in the anthology purportedly written by women are most likely false. Yet, he asserts that the “existence of these ersatz accounts suggests that the demand for ‘true’ African captivity tales, particularly accounts of women in peril, outstripped their availability” (11). I would like to further explore the public fascination with “women in peril,” and particularly the differences between male and female accounts of barbary captivity. Whereas men often pictured themselves as laboring in a “communal space,” the few accounts we receive from females emphasize isolation and confinement (16). How do these disparities provide insight into attitudes towards women’s rights in early America and how are slavery and womanhood intertwined?

Annotation: Sibylle Fischer’s Modernity Disavowed (2004)

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

Fischer, Sibylle. “Introduction.” Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-38. Print.

In the “Introduction” to her book, Fischer interrogates the “silence” surrounding the Haitian Revolution as it was widely censored from official discourses, even from the presses of Cuba just a short distance away from Saint Domingue. She emphasizes the need to analyze these gaps within the historical archive, which requires an interdisciplinary approach and a transatlantic framework that “mirror[s] the hemispheric scope of the slave trade” because crucial information is lost through the fragmentation of academic specialization and attempts to force that information into nationalistic paradigms (2). Fischer accentuates that such an approach reveals that these silences were not absolute and news of Haiti did travel through merchants and traders in informal port systems (4). She also critiques how “Caribbean plantation and the political upheavals in the colonies rarely make it into the canonical histories of modernity and revolution” (7). Fisher emphasizes that above all sugar production in the Caribbean functioned as an emblematic machine of modern capitalist economy, where industrial agriculture was predicated on the exploitation of human labor through the transatlantic slave trade (12). She ultimately characterizes the Caribbean slave economy as a “modernity disavowed.” Fischer takes care to distinguish the concept of “disavowal” from popular discourses about trauma, which merely locates events in the realm of the unthinkable and unspeakable because “disavowal” “forces us to identify what is being disavowed, by whom, and for what reason” (38).

Fischer’s framework of “disavowal” will greatly inform my own reading of Secret History as I examine how Sansay offers a revision of the history of the Haitian Revolution, calling attention to the “disavowal” of female oppression. Fischer also notes the important role women played in abolitionism and how “the language of antislavery was taken up literally by the suffrage movement” (17). This historical connection between the fight for black and female rights is especially helpful in understanding Sansay’s text and how the juxtaposition of the domestic narrative with the political race narrative is not entirely jarring or unfounded. As Fischer suggests, racial and sexual oppression was deeply, almost inextricably intertwined within the institution of slavery, as masters maintained complete “personal domination” over their slaves (17).

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.