Opera fans have a tendency to live in the past. “Yes, I’ve heard so-and-so, but if you listen to someone else’s 1951 mono recording of ‘Voi che sapete,’ you will see that this new singer is just an epigone.” If one has time and a record library, the years seem to drop out. I can hear Ring cycles by half-a-dozen conductors across the whole of the twentieth century, and when I am enchanted, I forget that three of those conductors were Nazis; there are just voices in time. But time does advance, leaving a trail of dead singers who now represent marketing opportunities for the record labels. I expect bookcase-breaking sets of Ms. Freni’s back catalog by fall; I will likely buy one. I admire her integrity, her skill, and her art; people seldom get to be so good at what they do.
After a few days in Arizona (beautiful sunlight, sharply-outlined mountains, constant reminiscences of Wile E. Coyote), I recall how many times the newspaper and conversations overheard around me attested to a general meanness. People talked about an “invasion” on the southern border as a matter of course. As if folks like them had not once been invaders! And grumbled about Californians “invading” as well, with their strange clothing and mores. The newspaper brought news of the state legislature attempting to get legal cover for punishing cities or districts that passed any local ordinances that ran counter to state policies. Or rather, not “any,” but specific ordinances seeking to protect migrants, undocumented people, minimum-wage-earners, and otherwise vulnerable humans. The state seeks to mandate meanness. A kind of absurd climax was provided by a proposed act that would disqualify most kinds of “emotional support animal” on public transport. “Owning the libs” at its finest. I would advocate separating people from their emotional support firearms in every context but the national defense, how about that? It wouldn’t even be mean.
From Joep Leersen’s Comparative Literature in Britain: National Identities, Transnational Dynamics 1800-2000 (Oxford: Legenda, 2019), 165-166:
Most critics seem to concur that the great value of literature is its power to make us think differently: to empathize, to imagine how life feels to others…. The internationalist climate of the post-war decades was obviously congenial to such a literary and critical stance. The decline of internationalism after 1990 has affected political and academic life alike (most notably in the dwindling funding for cross-national teaching and research in the humanities); it has coincided with a decline in foreign language teaching, a key competence for comparatists. Conversely, neo-nationalist populism is hostile to such educational and research practices that involve empathetic or critical thought, and instead thrives on anti-intellectualism, fake news, fact-free politics and post-truth memes….
[T]he spread of populist neonationalism… has occurred in tandem with the institutional decline of the humanities, including Comparative Literature, with their emphasis on transnationalism and on the power of the human mind–critical, empathetic, imaginative. The pedagogical need for people trained to think clearly and critically, and transnationally, has been proved beyond all doubt in the negative, much as the need for vitamin C was proved, in the negative, by scurvy. …
The pedagogical need to train personalities in transcending ethnocentric or narrow national tunnel-vision, in imaginative and critical flexibility of mind, in transcultural literacy and competence, is, then, made obvious by the very failures we are witnessing in the national and international political field over the last decades.
I remember the day in 1982 when I read Jonathan Schell’s first chapter of “The Fate of the Earth,” which ran in the New Yorker, depicting events as an 80-kiloton nuclear bomb exploded 500 feet above the Empire State Building.
Immediately, my mind went to the idea that the President would know about it as soon as the Soviet missiles were launched, and that he would have to address a nation that might not still be alive minutes after his broadcast. The President would have to be serious, comforting, dignified.
I do not want my last minutes of life on this earth to be spent listening to Donald Trump whine from his Doomsday Plane.
I thought you’d never ask.
Comparative Literature is the study of cultural expressions across languages, periods, genres, and disciplines. Experts in the field acquire familiarity with several languages, frame theories to enable connections among disparate domains, and propose new ways of understanding that arise from considering similarities, differences, and relationships encompassing these diverse objects.
It is important to observe that Comparative Literature is an open project, not a discipline grounded on a single archive or method. It can be defined by contrast with such fields as English, philosophy, literature-in-translation, anthropology, linguistics, etc.— all of which it can include, but none of which circumscribe it. There are examples of Comparative Literature, but no definitive rulebook. We discover what it is by doing it.
For more detail, you might like to look into:
Are We Comparing Yet? On Standards, Justice, and Incomparability. Bielefeld: transcript verlag /Bielefeld University Press, 2019 (Open Access copy available here).
César Dominguez, Haun Saussy and Darío Villanueva. Introducing Comparative Literature: New Trends and Applications. New York: Routledge, 2015. Spanish translation: Lo que Borges enseñó a Cervantes: Introducción a la literatura comparada. Trans. David Mejía. Madrid: Taurus, 2016. Arabic translation: Taqdiym al-adab al-moqarān, itijāhāt wa tatbiyqāt jadīdah. Trans. Fuad Abdel Motteleb. Kuwait: National Council for Arts and Literature, 2017.
Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization: The 2004 ACLA Report on the State of the Discipline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
“Comparative Literature?” PMLA 118.2 (2003), 336-341.
“The Dimensionality of World Literature.” Neohelicon 38.2 (2011), 1-7.
“Comparisons, World Literature, and the Common Denominator.” 60-64 in Ali Behdad and Dominic Thomas, eds., A Companion to Comparative Literature. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011.
“Axes of Comparison.” 64-76 in Rita Felski and Susan Stanford Friedman, eds., Comparison: Theories, Approaches, Uses. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
“Cosmopolitanism.” American Comparative Literature State of the Discipline report, 2014, available at http://stateofthediscipline.acla.org/entry/cosmopolitanism.
“By Land or by Sea: Models of World Literature.” 61-69 in Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie, eds., Contextualizing World Literature. (New Comparative Poetics, 35.) Brussels: P. I. E. Peter Lang, 2015.
“Poetry — Universal? Progressively So? On World Poetry.” Comparative Literature and World Literature 1:1 (2016), 3-9.
“Trying to Make It Real: An Exchange Between Haun Saussy and David Damrosch.” (Including “Compared to What?” “Comparison — La Petite Phrase de Vinteuil,” and “Conclusion: L’ Inégalité des Dalles.”) Comparative Literature Studies 53 (2016): 660-693.
“Comparative Literature: The Next Ten Years.” 24-29 in Ursula Heise, chief editor, Futures of Comparative Literature. New York: Routledge, 2017.
“The Three Futures of World Literature.” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue canadienne de littérature comparée 44 (2017): 397-406.
“A Poetics of Global Trolling.” University of Toronto Quarterly 88 (2019): 112-124.
That may not be enough, but it’s the best I can do now.
“A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles rather than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions.”
—The Wealth of Nations, book I, “Of the Division of Labour”
I am afraid I have adopted the fallacies of the war between the little-endians and the big-endians. Beans for everyone!
My rare close associates and I sometimes joke about our propensity to join or form cults. By that we mean tightly-knit groups of people who share some belief, attitude or proclivity not shared by the general public. Being a member of a cult will set you up for some harsh treatment by members of the bigger cult that the smaller cult defines itself against. That’s to be expected.
You could probably define me as the intersection of a certain number of cults. The larger the number, the sharper the focus on the individual. C’est la vie. If the Monster is sniffing down the Venn diagram maps, looking for me, this is where I am to be found. Why not make the Monster’s work easy?
The cult of poetry: Oops, just excluded 99% of the literate public (which is not 100% of the public, by any means). “I would die for poetry,” said my friend Lazik one day in 1994 or so, and I couldn’t find anything to say but: Yes, of course.
The cult of steel road bikes: Once upon a time, if you wanted to ride long distances and relatively fast, there was only steel. I rode several times from Brittany to Istanbul and beyond on an old steel bike, probably a Peugeot but painted over (why?) when I bought it; and then on a Bertin, the geometry of which was much better suited for getting one across the rocks and potholes. Already at the time carbon-fiber bikes existed, but solely for pro riders and bankers on holiday. Now carbon fiber saturates the market and it’s only the stubborn old-schoolers who ride steel, despite ample evidence that steel is better for you, holds up under rough treatment, can be whanged back into shape after a crash, etc. In this cult, my particular chapel is that of Rivendell bikes, beautiful creations that float across the gravel or pavement leaving behind an impression of “noble simplicity and simple greatness,” as the fellow said. When I have some spare change, it tends to go to them, unless there is an initiative going on at:
Partners In Health, an organization somewhere between a petition and an order of chivalry, that has been wearing down the jerks and assholes of this world for forty or so years with the notion that no human life is more deserving than any other of care, preservation, and prolongation. In a decent world PIH would not be the looney fringe but the uncontested consensus. Goes to show you.
Deconstruction, another of my observances, a word too oft used in vain to mean “vaguely throwing mud in the direction of something.” In the day I discovered and instantly joined this crew, it was used gingerly, because we were aware of the very real possibility that, like bomb crews, we might think we had defused the monsters of Western civilization but had only unscrewed their outer shells and perhaps carried them into the hiding-places of our opposition, where they might subsequently explode. It was never a safe assumption that anything had been adequately or indeed at all deconstructed. Since I was hanging out with epidemiologists during much of that era, which was also the era of AIDS, the two modes of wariness intertwined in my thinking as I realized that some diseases can only be managed, never cured. At any rate, the company of people who would go to any lengths to wrestle a metaphysical assumption to the ground gave me courage to go on and do whatever odd stuff the task of the moment seemed to require, though well-attested epistemologies might say it was impossible or worthless. The pleasure of confuting common sense was non-negligible.
Other affinities: … well, I would bore you. Let’s say there’s a pattern and leave it at that.
My music purchases tend to come from Franklin, Tennessee. Naxos has eaten up every classical music distributor in the country, and the resulting warehouse probably holds upward of 3 million items. It’s a good location, close to Nashville’s airports and supplied with trucking arteries. But when I started looking at the area with Mapquest, I noticed this:
Franklin is entirely surrounded by plantations. It is as if the 13th Amendment never dawned. Likely the plantation owners send their chattel to the warehouse, where they pack and ship all day. I have known all along that Klaus Heymann would do anything to keep his costs low on his Naxos CDs — he is famous for inducing lesser musical organizations to record with him without royalties — but taking advantage of a rift in time to avail himself of Confederate labor practices goes beyond ingenuity. It may be difficult to find anyone in William Barr’s Department of Justice who will investigate this situation, let alone mount a prosecution. I hope that Franklin and its plantations will come to the attention of the next administration.
I’m an impatient person. And I write impatient books, as it occurs to me on looking back over the series so far. They’re on the short side: except when doing anthologies, I like a book to occupy the thin edge of whatever wedge it is driving. They’re also written amid unending interruptions. The narrative voice (at least, the one I hear in my head whenever I reopen one of those books) is in a hurry: come on, get to the point, why do we need to know this, what’s the consequence? It is not the leisurely voice of a narrator who likes the sound of his own voice and expects that you have all day to listen.
Another aspect of the impatience: don’t tell me what I already know. I would hope that when you open these books you get, despite the relatively slender page count, a high ratio of novelty per page, per paragraph or per sentence. It would distress me to write pages that just endorse a consensus view. If there’s a consensus, I ignore it unless there’s a chance of unsettling it. This makes for a somewhat grouchy, chip-on-the-shoulder tone, I admit.
The impatience I confess to as a writer doesn’t mean that my process is rushed. It usually takes me years of drafts and reworking to get a book into shape. Its eventual form is usually a compromise between two or three story lines that arose independently. (The advantages of multiplexing: why buy a book on Zhuangzi and a book on translation theory when you can get two-in-one?) The major impatience is to get it said, get it out there, shed that skin and slither on to the next irritant.
In fact, each book has a different subject from the preceding one and usually a different archive lies behind it. This may indicate a plurality of interests or may indicate a fatal inability to do what the academic career path wants you to do, which is to build (or dig) repeatedly in the same spot until you have become the Expert In Something. I am sure I will one of these days become some kind of expert, but it will be in an X that has yet to be solved for and which intersects all my investigations. Just possibly, this X is something I can’t know and only someone else can, and perhaps it is ludicrously simple and obvious to everyone who is not me (cf. Kafka’s “Investigations of a Dog”). No, it’s not “Rosebud.”
I would like to tell you that my books are all sunshine and marshmallows, but I’m not made that way and neither are they.
But there’s no excuse for giving a slapdash reading to an impatient man’s books. Look at the chronotope, if the Bakhtinians will forgive me for borrowing the term. An impatient man’s book is broken into moments that are different from one another and impelled from A to B. No moment is just A or B. The journey, not the destination, matters, to quote that corny inspirational poster that hangs on your xerox-room wall.
So it’s rather disappointing to run, by chance, across an article in Comparative Literature Studies that relies on my work to make its argument about Du Fu’s poetics but gets me completely wrong. The person who wrote that piece apparently believes that if I quote someone else, it is because I agree with that person. Is there no such thing as doing the Problemsgeschichte, or a polemical set-up? The method of working through the previous scholarship in order to controvert its assumptions is one I share with Aristotle, Aquinas, and countless lesser figures; I’d have thought everyone over the age of twelve had encountered an argument framed in this way. Unable to detect the line of argument, despite the fact that I signal quite explicitly that my inquiry is framed, not as “what is X,” but as “how did there come to be a problem of X,” the author then scores a number of easy points that go completely beside the mark. I’m a bit shocked that people can get to such an advanced stage and still not know how to read. Well, I guess I can go back to being impatient about something else now.
These days bring back a memory of the Reagan years, an interval most of which I spent out of the country, disgusted by the beginnings of the legitimation of waste, brutality and greed that have become our new normal. A newspaper at the time reported that in anticipation of an all-out nuclear attack a new airborne command center had just been ordered for the White House: a Boeing jumbo jet with special transmission capacities, hardened against radiation, with room aboard for the President and a few dozen of his close collaborators. On the sides of this expensive new plane were painted the words, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. It immediately occurred to me that in the event of its use, the meaning of those words would no longer be, as it usually is, “This airplane represents (belongs to and bears the livery of) that federation of fifty states and three hundred million individuals that goes by the name of ‘The United States of America’”; rather it would be “The United States of America,” or all that would be left of them.
I’m usually no enemy of nominalism, but wouldn’t like it to prevail on these terms.
Xavier Briffault, La fabrique de la dépression (The manufacture of depression; Paris: Armand Colin, 2010), is a useful book. It compensates for the individualism of DSM-style psychological symptomatology by devoting chapters to the social conditions that contribute to people experiencing depression; on the other end, it lays out evidence of the bio-chemical underpinnings of the thing. Both the social and the chemical angle bring relief from the self and from the insistence on thought reform, what I might call the orthopedic bias of the psychiatric trade. But here’s something one can’t help noticing in Briffault’s chapter on personality disorders. It includes a table pointing to an 80% lifetime prevalence of depression among people with a diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder — the highest rate of prevalence, the runner-up being borderline personality disorder with 61%. You might think, then, that a book entitled “the manufacture of depression” would spill some ink on those unfortunate people cursed with a Cluster C avoidant makeup. But no! Briffault goes into a detailed discussion of the more colorful borderline and bipolar patients, forgetting completely the population with the highest prevalence. A keyword search shows a similar feast-vs.-famine pattern in psychological research generally. Is Avoidant Personality Disorder simply not interesting, or does its symptomatology too closely track that of depression in general? Or have psychologists figured out that the avoidant aren’t going to make a big fuss if they’re ignored, but will just shrink back into the curtains? I wonder why the experts are so quick to avoid the avoidant.
I’m unhappy to announce that a sentence in a footnote, which I had hoped would be a moment of pleasant recognition for somebody, was erroneous. On p. 107, footnote 15, please correct “In 1990, the Moscow high schools” to “In 1988, some Moscow high schools.” The fuller story to which I referred (through memory’s fog) may be found here.
The New Yorker recently ran an excerpt from an intellectual biography of Clarence Thomas. Near the top is this set of claims:
By consensus, Thomas is the most conservative member of the Court. So it’s surprising that the central theme of his jurisprudence is race.
Why is it “surprising” that it should be so? When I read that sentence, it became obvious to me what presuppositions the author was working with: that the people who talk about race do so in order to complain about or repair the injustices inflicted by the majority on minorities. Thus to speak about “race” is implicitly to advocate for oppressed people, and to deny the category is to affirm the existing order. In other words, it is “surprising” only if all the people you know are SJWs within an affirmative-action context. That actually isn’t how the category of “race” operates in Thomas’s story, and the lesson might be, rather, that it is utterly unsurprising that a man obsessed with the mission of keeping the races separate is also a “conservative” by many other measures. Indeed, you don’t have to scratch a conservative very hard to get down to a racial ideology, whether that conservative goes around in a black or white skin, in a blue collar or a black robe, whether they natter on about hard currency or the missile gap or the graffiti on the subways.Continue reading
I wrote this in 2015, a year after returning to the U.S. I think it’s about time to let it air.
This American Life
After eleven years of living abroad, the early days of repatriation are mostly spent in panic and sometimes rage as we try to put our lives back together in this place I think I know, yet discover I don’t. I mix up streets, get the timing and grammar of driving wrong, become infuriated with customer service which, by Korean standards, is sloppy, slow, and rude. The customs agent upon arrival at SFO yells at me for “wasting his time” because I stop to wait for my eldest child, who has become separated from us by another group of travelers. Bank accounts, school registrations, vaccination records must all be translated, approved, stamped, filed, lost, found, re-approved, re-filed. By the time I get to T-mobile on a sunny summer day a few months into our American Life Reboot, I’m already in a foul mood from spending two hours at Bank of America trying to open a safe deposit box. The representatives at BofA are sweet but what Koreans would call “FM” or “field manual”: people who can only execute tasks step-by-step, with seemingly no sense of the big picture, or what they can do to speed the process.
T-Mobile is just on the other side of El Camino Real, the flat main artery lined with strip malls that connects this series of towns. I’m no longer used to driving and I’m nervous, weaving through a parking lot, making a U-turn, finding another parking spot. The sidewalks are bare. No one even loiters to smoke anymore.
The woman working at T-Mobile is a member of the second American Customer Service Type: the kind that, like the SFO Customs agent, thinks she’s above this work and acts aggravated to be called upon to do her job. She sighs with her whole body as I enter, and busies herself with the computer, the message “I am so over this” practically tattooed on her forehead. She’s an older woman, with a lined face, heavyset, skin neither white nor black; she looks out of place among the neon pink decor of the store and the large flat screen TV flashing images of young people, either very white or very black, living their hipster, T-Mobile-enhanced lives to a soundtrack of upbeat pop music and laughter. No one in this store looks like that.
As I approach she barely looks at me, as if I can be ignored into going away. I tell my issue and say that I’ve already been in here twice to deal with the same problem. She asks me who I talked to.
“Melissa, I think.”
“Oh, the Asian girl?” she says, her voice hard, definitive, commanding.
“I don’t know, maybe she’s half-Asian?”
“No, she looks completely Asian,” she informs me, and turns to the computer.
I hate that she’s so certain. Despite having two Chinese parents, I look physically ambiguous; even my own relatives make jokes about the milk man. I have double eyelids, dark brown hair, a rather Roman nose. Complete strangers tell me that I must be mistaken about my genetic heritage. You must have some white blood in you, they say. Or they make wild guesses about where I’m from: the South of France, India, South America.
The store feels very quiet to me. Her unhappy, dismissive movements feel personal and threatening.
“Do I look Asian?” I ask.
“No, you don’t look Asian at all.”
“But I am Asian. Completely Asian.”
At that she seems to understand that I am angry. Her movements become slow and tentative. She fixes my billing issues, yelling at someone over the phone on my behalf.
By the time I leave we have apologized to each other. Me, for “being touchy about race” and her, saying, “I’m a minority too, I should be more careful.” But I am shaking as I leave, and for the rest of the day I tread carefully.
I must have been seven or eight years old, wandering away from my parents and drooling brothers on the subway platform. I overheard others make ching chong jokes about them, not realizing that I was part of the same family. This is what I remember about childhood: always attending to how my family looked from the outside and being aware of their points of vulnerability. And all the ways I felt ashamed of them. And all the ways I felt protective of them.
3 pm. Peet’s Coffee, across from Palo Alto High. A young African-American boy walks in, wearing blindingly white, neatly knotted Converse high tops with puffy camouflage pants and a flowery baseball cap. The whole outfit says, I’m down with my people but I’m not a gangsta. I feel for this kid and also admire him: with this outfit he acknowledges, I know what you all are thinking when you see a black man in this town, but you don’t know shit about me.
This is my favorite part about being back in America: being able to read the subtle nuances of gesture, language, and fashion choice. I know what this boy means by his outfit (or I think I know), the way I know what the young blonde woman with the ponytail means when she wears her tight gray skirt-suit and large brown horn-rimmed glasses. It’s a sexy secretary look, one which says, don’t think I’m dumb because I’m blonde, but did you notice how beautiful I am? This is a local dialect of story-character-culture associations that you can only understand if you’ve lived in a place for a long time and are familiar with the rich tapestry of identities, references, jokes, languages.
Hilton Als’s book White Girls captures the complexity, the multiple dialects, the push and pull of race in America. It’s a sprawling, heterogeneous collection that resists categorization, moving between fiction, non-fiction, biography, auto-biography, and references to popular culture, even in the same sentence. It is a book about categories, a book which embraces categories of race and gender and sexuality while simultaneously disrupting them. If I had to pick one central tension in the book, it would be this: a man of color in America is always marked, always visible, always available to be read with the logic of certain cultural narratives. For instance, “Upon moving in, our neighbors phoned the police. It must have looked strange: two colored gentlemen moving furniture into a house.” Like Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric, White Girls records the way “a colored body is subject to all these narratives” and “caught between a state of invisibility and hyper-visibility.”
Als has said that chose the title White Girls partially as a response to Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; the books are marked by race from the beginning. Als also has said that he chose the title because black models in fashion shows were always called “the black girls” while the white models were just models. White Girls names and foregrounds the ubiquitous and invisible. It also acknowledges the centrality of that figure in the public imagination, as the star of a film and the object of the consuming gaze: “…why is it that when he tells a movie story, or any kind of story at all, he tells it from the point of view of the eye and heart that is following the white girl in the tale?” White Girls (and other categories) are mirrors. Als records himself feeling envious of white girls in one moment, and hating the way they make him feel about himself, with his “not-Liz Taylor skin and crinkly pubes,” in the next, an example which brilliantly demonstrates the complex topography of categories of race, gender, and sexuality.
Als tries to carve out a place in the language for his own “I,” by finding himself a twin in SL, (“Sir or Lady”). Their private dialect references art, ideas, culture: “Ooogga booga. Wittgenstein. Mumbo jumbo oogga booga, too, Freud, Djuna Barnes, a hatchi! Mumbo lachiniki jumbo Ishmael Reed and Audrey Hepburn.” And isn’t this what the language of that boy in Peet’s outfit was? A reference to the uniform of the Homeboy, with a twist. This how we all talk: with cultural referents as points of navigation. Real Housewives, Starbucks, soccer moms, bleeding heart liberals, generation x-ers, etc.
As a black man, Als inherits one set of stories and expectations; as a gay man, another, some of which are mutually exclusive. Some might say, for instance, that a black man who is artistic, flamboyant, who watches old movies, who follows fashion, isn’t a black man at all. His multiple identities exist in opposition, rendering him an enigma, or worse, invisible.
The precariousness of Al’s own relationship to blackness allows him to recognize the way in which the desire to belong, to perform a particular identity, can become a cage. When Als writes about Richard Pryor, he describes a man whose portrait of blackness became a subject position. In “You and Whose Army?” the unnamed narrator (“Richard Pryor’s sister”) criticizes Pryor for always “performing some version of ‘blackness’” and “helping to formulate the audience’s expectations whenever they see a black face onscreen, or on a book jacket.”
Als’s work tells me that there is a power in being conflicted, there’s a power in teetering on that ragged edge between insider and outsider, in never being completely comfortable on either side of the line. Als reminds us that, white or black or other, identities are situational and complicated and always, always part of some restless, human sense of yearning for intimacy, for love, for understanding. “Standing above me and around me I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love.” We are the same, yes, always looking for something to fill us, to feed us, to make us whole, and that process, like hunger, is constant, ongoing. And like appetites, it is always changing.
My friend reads this essay and says, “This isn’t about race. This is about your own insecurity.” I am so hurt by this I want to punch him. Of course it’s about race. I never got to have an identity without the consciousness of race.
My friend says, “Every time I open my mouth in America, it’s assumed that I fuck my sister and have toothless, illiterate relatives.”
I hear: I’m not allowed to talk about my silences, my shame, my wounds, my repudiations. But race is about all of us. We are all implicated by that story-telling gaze, that story-telling impulse, the compulsion to look at one another and say, I want to be like that person, and definitely not like that other person. Race is an inescapable part of the way we see, the way we feel, the way we read, the way we interpret. To deny that is to deny that we are all hurt by it. To deny that is to stop the conversation before it starts.
I was quite young when I began understanding the ching chong jokes. When I knew why people stared at us as we refueled in rural towns in South Carolina, on our way to Florida for vacation. I was quite young when I understood that a compliment on my “big eyes” was also a comment about the speaker’s own single-eyelids. As a child I thought of myself as a fake American, yet I was not Chinese either. No one would let me be Chinese even if I wanted to embrace that part of my identity. Not my parents, not my relatives, nor any random bystander, except the random icky white men who made remarks about the girl from Indochine. (I’ve seen the movie, and I look nothing like her.) In college, I went to one of the Asian-American group meetings and people looked me up and down and suggested I join the HAPAs. I was not even Asian enough to be Asian-American. I may not always be visibly Chinese, but that Chineseness is at stake for me even when it’s not at stake for anyone else.
As a child, Cantonese was a language of secrets. It was the language my parents spoke to each other when they were fighting or when they wanted to discuss my misdeeds.
My parents raised me in English, even though theirs was imperfect and limited. My mother came to this country when she was eleven, my dad at eighteen. There were always words they mispronounced. I learned much of my vocabulary through reading, which means that I also mispronounced sometimes, which I found humiliating.
My parents turned their gazes away from Asia and didn’t look back. I could not speak to my paternal grandmother, who spoke a dialect that even my mother didn’t understand. I knew little about China except that, in my mother’s words, it was dirty, corrupt, and dangerous. She used to describe waking up to the sound of cockroaches scurrying in Hong Kong. She was born on top of boxes of ammunition as her mother escaped on a train from the Japanese in 1944. She talked about China like she was trying to sell me America. But because she couldn’t speak for America she spoke for China instead, and the picture she painted was uniformly bad.
Although my parents were successful professionally, their silent dismissal of their own mother tongue and their pasts in China led me to associate that language and that place with dirt, corruption, and a sense of inferiority. I watched those around me and imitated the best I could. Small mistakes were devastating because I felt they exposed some essential unworthiness, some fundamental inferiority that I had inherited and could never pull myself out of or overcome; I could only hope to cover it up.
In college, Judith Butler’s theory of performance, Donna Haraway’s image of the cyborg, and a wider postmodern embrace of hyphenated identities, enabled me to embrace my life as neither-this-nor-that. Everybody, I began to see, was full of partial selves, performing one identity or another. Being able to recognize how we are all chameleons was empowering. I told myself that masculine or feminine, Chinese or American, heterosexual or homosexual, techie or fuzzy — these were just guideposts in identity play, that none of us needed to navigate in any fixed relationship to them.
The problem was that I unthinkingly steered away from those points associated with Chinese-ness, because of my fear of those silences in my life, and because of the shame I could not quite confront or eradicate.
I married into Asia. I didn’t choose my husband because he is Asian, but I’m sure part of what attracted me to him (besides his nice ass) was the fact that he’s such a confident FOB. He came to America when he was eighteen, the kind of person for whom everything comes effortlessly (top of the class, good athlete) and who doesn’t seem to worry about how others might see him. He doesn’t have that chip on his shoulder that so many Asian-Americans have. And because he is Korean, not Chinese, it was easy to give myself permission to learn his language and culture and not be constantly looking over my mental shoulder. Getting to know my husband’s culture and language was safer; not being Korean I felt free to stumble and fail and claim impunity. I needed to take the step of learning Korea and Korean before feeling confident enough to take on China and Chinese.
I went to Asia for so many reasons, but the driving one was to confront those great silences in my life, the ones that had to do with the Asian part of my identity, which I never felt I could own. Early in our marriage, my husband and I would go for dim sum in Ann Arbor and see little girls tell their aunties, “You’re so stupid. You can’t even talk.” I didn’t want my kids to grow up this way, never knowing their grandparents as fully fleshed out, social beings, who have a fuller wisdom that comes from being a participating member of society, from being in a place long enough that they know, with a sense of intimacy, the lay of the land and the people in it. I wanted my kids to have a limb in each culture, to be culturally nimble. I didn’t want my kids to grow up with an unspecific fear of all things Asian. I wanted to fill silences with stories.
So we went to Korea. To my husband’s national and cultural home. Not China.
In the first few years of my first residence in Seoul (2003-2008), I walked around acutely aware of my difference, feeling marked and watched and judged at every turn. My Foreign identity was at stake in everything I did. THEY were all watching me, using my actions to judge and understand Americans. It was irking to me and yet also blissfully clear: in Korea, my difference was precise and namable. I was trying to fit in, and probably making a lot of mistakes, but this was only a version of what I had already done in America. I could be open about it in Seoul, and people would compliment me on my effort and my ability.
The way I dressed shifted first. In those early years there was more of a uniform, very black and white, red lipstick, and more formal: suits and trousers. I stopped wearing jeans and tee-shirts; I began ironing things, having trousers taken in to the right length, putting on makeup. People began to take me for Korean from behind, but once they’d see my face they would laugh with embarrassment.
As my language ability improved, the attention shifted to the nuances of gesture and facial expression. I reined in my wild hands and my facial contortions.
Meanwhile, Korea changed. More and more people, especially in my neighborhood, were spending time abroad or sending their kids to live there. More and more people were getting plastic surgery, widening the range of “normal” looks. Fashion trends diversified; no longer did all the women seem to wear the same uniform. Korea as a whole became more nationalistic, more interested in itself, and less (though still) self-conscious about trying to catch up, culturally and economically, with other countries like the U.S. or Japan.
Over time I found myself dressing in a way that was difficult to locate — not like an American, exactly (you can spot the Americans a mile away) but neither like a typical Korean. I dress more formally than I do in the U.S. but with more of an androgynous style, not the feminine, romantic style that’s fashionable in Seoul right now. I am casual, but not American-sloppy-shlumpy. I keep my face neutral but I retain my fast walk. I became fluent enough that my speech didn’t mark me as a foreigner. I found that once I better understood the ways Koreans looked at one other, I could anticipate some of what they might see in me, and play with those expectations. I tuning the dials, being purposefully difficult to pinpoint. I look Asian enough that people were no longer sure if I was Korean or not, especially after hearing me talk.
But I also lived in a neighborhood, and Seoul is particularly neighborhoody. I felt comfortable because I had lived there for so long and people knew me. My comfort there bled into my life even in the rest of the city.
In Seoul, I can do what that boy in Peets did: that is, acknowledge the expectation of foreignness while deconstructing it. I can play with that sense of being visible and invisible, of being simultaneously insider and outsider.
After five years in Seoul, I spent two and a half years in Shanghai. By the time I got to China, I no longer felt such a sense of anxiety about my ancestral home. It was just another place, another opportunity to learn. My identity of tentative Chinese-American had been replaced by that of guerrilla anthropologist. For the first time in my life I felt a sense of control over the way I was seen and the way I presented myself and I found it enormously powerful. And I began to identify, not as Chinese-American nor as a Foreigner, but as a chameleon, a traveler, an adventurer. I had learned to delight in the sense of being between worlds. With teetering on the ragged edge between insider and outsider.
After China we went spent another three years in Seoul. One day while waiting for the subway, I saw a young American man studying the line map with confusion. I walked over and asked him if he needed any help. He turned and looked at me with surprise. “Your English is perfect!” I laughed and congratulated myself for becoming a chameleon.
It hadn’t occurred to me then how much his interpretation of me had to do with larger context, with his panic at being surrounded by strangers, or the fact that the default in that subway station was Yellow. It wasn’t just because I am an excellent mimic.
Nor did it occur to me, that day in T-Mobile, how much that woman’s whitening of me had to do with the fact that she was behind the counter and I was the customer, the Money. Our interpretation of race is woven into other assessments: of context, emotion, status, power.
7 pm. Back to School Night at the local Palo Alto middle school. I know the usual fashion tropes for these things: capri pants and sandals, perhaps a button-down shirt from Ann Taylor or Chico’s, that kind of middle-America casual style. A floral skirt and beaded bag for the hippie-inclined. Artistic types will wear funky glasses, short hair, and prominent, geometric jewelry. For the dads, there’s the Dad Casual look: khakis and a polo shirt. Or the look that says, “I’m a Guy”: shorts and a tee shirt. Some will come in suits. Some will come in engineer-wear: jeans and a tee shirt with a dot-com logo and light North Face jacket. Some of the large groups of Indian and Chinese parents will dress this way, and some will come more formally attired, in dresses and ironed slacks. I try to pick an outfit that hits none of these notes. Slacks, classic in navy blue, with visible, shiny side-zippers which make them subtly fashion-forward. A white button down shirt with tuxedo paneling in the front, another update on a classic. Everything I’m wearing I bought abroad, a way of marking myself among the Gap and Chicco set. I am not a member of the Professorville group, nor the aging Bay Area hippies, nor the tech nerd crowd, nor a recent immigrant, nor old White Palo Alto, nor a member of the more working class, mostly Hispanic families.
I’m at the elementary school all the time, meeting parents and teachers and kids face to face, helping my second child assimilate, making him play dates. But parents don’t have the same visibility at middle school, they are not able to perform the same greasing of the social wheels, so as I take my seat at Back to School Night I am hoping to make some connections with the other parents. But their eyes slide right over me. They seem to hone in on others similarly dressed, as if in some “my values are your values!” subconscious matching process. There are high-fives, there is loud laughter, reminiscing about soccer leagues and country clubs, and I sit silently, remembering what middle school is like. Middle school is like this. Years of invisibility, during a time of life when visibility is everything.
If there’s anything I learned from living abroad, it’s that when you get to a new place you have to put yourself out there. Find a community. So I tiger-mom my oldest son into doing football (a sport he’s never even seen) and volunteer to be Team Mom. I figure I can meet other parents and also spy on my son, who claims he doesn’t know how to talk to white people and won’t tell the names of any of the people with whom he eats lunch. (“I dunno. I just call them all ‘dude.’”)
At the games the parents gather in small groups. The African-American nanny by herself. One set of parents, whose hats, exposed butt cracks, and clothes suggest a different social class, sit separately. The WASP-y business-casual dads stand in a cluster of khaki pants. The moms with Lulumon pants and firm asses stand together. As Team Mom I feel I have permission to speak to them all, and they are all perfectly nice, and, I think, eager to speak with one another. But something holds them back — is it fear? lack of a common social language? or the lack of a common social habit?
I’ve been back in the U.S. for six months and I still can’t stop looking at the sky. So Hollywood blue, usually cloudless, surreal. I have almost forgotten the sound of rain. People walk around in their yoga pants, love handles on display, hair uncombed, tee shirts stained and ripped. Take me as I am, they seem to say, looking at one another in the street, in the cafe. You gotta problem with the way I look? With my weight, with my color, with my job? This is America, man, it’s a free country. You don’t get to judge me.
There is something self-congratulatory in the air, something boastfully modest, as people meet in cafes in their business casual attire, talking in loud voices about the next killer app or this or that VC funding. This is Silicon Valley, this is Stanford, this is the best country in the world, the best state in the country, and we live here. We believe in individuality, in equality, and that anyone can be anything. So why do we talk so loud? Why is there so much fear in our eyes? Why do we look around, to see who is watching? Behind cocky laughter we are looking out of the corners of our eyes, aware more than any other generation, maybe, that everything we wear and eat and enjoy is made from the blood and sweat of the global underclass, that with every step on the gas pedal we abuse the Earth. We are the Lucky People, and it’s all downhill from here.
I am lost. I spent eleven years in Asia to confront all those silences and that unspoken shame in my life. I thought I was done. Whole. Healed. Why is it so difficult to be back?
My son asks, “How can I be Asian and not look at all Asian?” I tell him, jokingly, “Welcome to my world.” His friends keep asking him, he insists. I tell him what I usually say, about how not all Asians look the same, that we are diverse and that the demographics of movement in Asia is complicated and therefore, so are the genetics.
He looks at me blankly. I tell him to say he’s been bitten by a radioactive spider.
I used to spend hours watching people in the streets and buses and subways in Seoul and Shanghai. Here, I go to cafes. The man sitting next to me at Starbucks is old and white, with thinning, gray, greasy hair. His canvas shoes are frayed, torn, and faded, as are his pants and button-down shirt. He looks eroded, like a stone left on the beach, and I think he must be homeless. But he carries a tall drink and a black laptop, which he uses to read the news and type emails. I find this happening in cafes and sidewalks all over town: I can’t tell whether someone is destitute or just a sloppy dresser. After living in places where the battles for status-recognition are so open, such an accepted part of life, it is strange to be Stateside, surrounded by shlumpily-dressed folks who might be dot com millionaires or homeless people. The more successful you are here, the more you struggle to disguise it.
Korea and China are full of restless hunger, in the throes of development, not just economically or socially but also psychologically. It is ok, in Asia, to be focused on money, to push your kids to have a better life, to thirst for a better house and better car — more so than it is in America – the competition for status, and the status-comparing, is done out in the open. I’m back in Seoul for a visit, and my mother-in-law scolds my father-in-law for trying to go to his doctor’s appointment in casual pants. “You’re meeting the doctor,” she says. “You need to dress for that!” He wears suit pants, a polo shirt, a sports jacket, and a beret. Aspiring to upward mobility requires putting all your cards on the table, acting the part.
Seoul’s signs declare, “The cultured citizen obeys the rules for taking a train,” “The road that one person cleaned is the road that ten people enjoy,” “The one light bulb I save fattens our country.” It’s a landscape of signage that expresses a restless hunger and a belief in progress. It’s impossible, dodging scooters in the sidewalk, bumping people in the subway, listening to the bells of trash collectors, watching security guards engineer sixty cars into a parking lot built when almost no one owned a car, to ignore that every day, things are changing. For many, it’s a feeling of being in the midst of incredible improvement. My husband’s childhood fantasy was to eat more than one banana. But for many people, these messages cultivate desperation and despair. You can’t opt out of the arms race in education, in money, in clothes. You cannot stand still in a place like Seoul. You can’t retreat. The signs place its audience within a narrative of progress and a sense of monolithic collectivity, for better or for worse.
I drive up and down El Camino Real, making trips to Costco, dropping kids at various athletic fields. A new Hilton is being constructed; what was here before? Patio World used to mark the turnoff to our old apartment; now it’s Barbecues Galore. Changes are slow, a replacement of one brand for another.
When I talk to the grocery store clerk, or the school janitor, or the woman selling tickets to some tourist attraction, like the woman from T-Mobile, they have that haughty, defensive, annoyed air. As if to say, I can disdain this dead end job even more than you can, or even before you get the chance. And to make up for the indignity of asking this person to do work in a job that garners little respect, I find myself doing what so many people around me do: speak to them with overly bright, effusive, compensatory gratitude. “Thank you soooo much! I really appreciate it.”
We believe in individuality. We believe that each person is special, that we each must be true to our selves. That makes it hard to assume the role of a customer service agent, or janitor, or house cleaner; the lines between identity and role are unclear. We believe in equality but not everyone has the same job or the same amount of money or the same lot in life. And we, as a nation, seem to be profoundly uncomfortable with that.
I stop at Safeway to use the bathroom. Someone in the stall pants, the weight of her body palpable from the sound of her pained movement. We avoid each other’s eyes as she exits, but I feel a cloud of anger around her. I think that she’s daring me to look. To judge. To condescend. So many bodies in pain. So many fraught moments in this American Life. Were they always this way? Was I just better at pretending they didn’t exist?
I grew up with “Mississippi Burning,” and “Pretty in Pink.” “Mississippi Burning” gave me a taste for burning, righteous anger. Teenagers are black and white like that; teenagers have that desire to burn, to move the world. America, I thought, is the place where we fight the good fight. But where did I fit in, me neither black nor white, nor even really Asian?
“Pretty in Pink” (and its John Hughes-shaped cousins) were written along an insider/outsider dynamic: the upward movement of loser to popular kid, from ghetto to success, from small town to financial power. That dream of upward movement was a dream of individual escape from group dynamics, about overcoming origins. In America, we believe that anybody can become anything. But in that process of becoming, you have to leave your group identities behind and become something unique. Something uncategorizeable. You have to transcend.
“This essay is not about race,” my friend says again. “Appalachians and Italians,” he jokes. “The only people in America you can make fun of television and get away with it.” I hear this kind of declaration a lot from people who feel discarded or marginalized but don’t have the historical luxury to complain about it — conservatives, religious fundamentalists, rural Americans.
I walk through the streets, watch people in cafes, attend school meetings, and people’s smiles seem fragile. They look like I feel: lost, expecting to be put down, put in a box, dismissed. In the absence of psychic violence, I am unsure of my own edges in this place I once called home, but now feels less than comforting. It is easier to be angry. Anger is clean, anger clarifies. I cleave to the anger, to the sense of righteous indignation when it comes. But most of the time, it does not. Most of the time, I’m just waiting. I’m no longer sure what I want to be: a chameleon, a guerrilla anthropologist, a spy? Because I also want to be: Special with a Capital S. Unique. Me. As Rankine says, “In interactions with others you’re constantly waiting to see that they recognize that you’re a human being. That they can feel your heartbeat and you can feel theirs. And that together you will live—you will live together. The truce is that. You forgive all of these moments because you’re constantly waiting for the moment when you will be seen.”
America, you make me profoundly uncomfortable, and exhausted. America of reality TV and booty is the new black, Americans with their endless cries for attention, for recognition. As I move through the shopping malls and cafes and restaurants and school meetings I hear: I am me, I am special, look at me; and yet there is a fear behind that, the fear of being vain, of being haughty, of being uppity. We want it bestowed on us, the world to recognize it, while we bow our heads in modest affectation. (Except for Kanye West, maybe.) That is the battle of America: a battle for mediocrity. The promise of equality means that you cannot overstep your bounds. Do not sit here, do not presume. And yet we presume all the time, we wait in shadows for someone to overstep, so we can have that thrill of being able to say, you were wrong, I was right. This is a passive aggressive country, a place where you gain status points by waiting for someone else to make a mistake. Where we delight in the overthrow of the monarchies of popularity, and root for the underdog: that is democracy. That is the pleasure of this place, and its curse: you have to work for your labels, all the time. Nothing is irrevocable. Nothing is permanent.
Maybe you’re right, it’s not about race, I want to say to my friend. It’s about pain. It’s about the pain which blankets this place, under the blue sky, under the business casual. It’s about the discomfort I feel here, my Differences no longer so clear, now thrown back into the teenager self I was once, longing to have that clean sense of righteous anger, unable to express why I am so upset in this moment or the next, walking through a landscape in which relationships are full of smiles and tentative glances, where we are all afraid to offend and glad to be offended because it offers a temporary name and outlet for all those wounds.
It isn’t just about race. You cannot unname the race part of This American Life; you can’t erase those wounds. But they aren’t the only ones that exist, and it’s not only those who are clearly marked who have those wounds.
A dream the other night, traceable I think to a discussion I’d read on Metafilter, one of those absurdly Millennial Moments that the medium delivers.
I was sitting in a courtroom waiting to testify as an expert witness. It seemed that the accused had ignored a “MEN WORKING” sign and driven a car straight into a worker, who happened to be a woman. The lawyer for the defense was mounting the argument that the sign was contractual and did not include or imply women workers, therefore no offense had been committed. To hold otherwise was to identify women as men, an intolerable injustice to women and to men alike. I was expected to testify for the prosecution on the history of pronouns in various languages, demonstrating through the magic of philology that gender identification is not primordial to having existence as a person.
The worst of it is that when I woke up, I figured that a majority of the present Supreme Court would probably think that the defense’s sophistry was a pretty cool way to deny an injured person benefits and damages.
When I went to Yale in the early 1980s, I remember going to Geoffrey Hartman’s office hours one rainy day and seeing a bucket on his desk, receiving the regular drops from the ceiling. The 1890s neo-Gothic tower was showing its age. And we thought this was normal. Nobody complained. A sense of impending doom was widely shared, but the feeling wasn’t one of crisis or outrage; it was just the way things were. We entered New Haven through a cement-block tunnel that ended in a galvanized-metal shed because Metro-North had closed the Beaux-Arts station for indefinite repairs. The gym had squash courts, to be sure, but the idea that a college is supposed to be a spa or a cruise ship had not yet dawned in the rusty Northeast. Anyway, the college students were better treated than we were. The point of coming to Yale was not to be pampered but to be initiated into a way of thinking and seeing that admitted the nitty-gritty, the uninspiring, and the fact that it’s not all about you. One of our teachers had said:
The dynamics of the sublime mark the moment when the infinite is frozen into the materiality of stone, when no pathos, anxiety or sympathy is conceivable; it is, indeed, the moment of a-pathos, or apathy, the complete loss of the symbolic.
(Paul de Man, “Kant’s Materialism,” in Aesthetic Ideology)
And as we looked into the future, the loss of the symbolic seemed a good bet.
Technically correct rhetorical readings may be boring, monotonous, predictable and unpleasant, but they are irrefutable… consistently defective models of language’s inability to be a model language.
(“The Resistance to Theory”)
“Consistently defective” just about summarizes the world we entered when we took up residence in New Haven. We knew that there were other schools where the plumbing worked and the faculty entertained you. We just didn’t think that that was the way to face the apocalypse, the end of the book and the beginning of writing, late capitalism, the collapse of the Imaginary into the Real, or (choose your own adventure).
Many episodes later, here I am again confronting the consequences of deferred maintenance to house and body. The end of summer has brought us up to baseline, or so I permit myself to hope. The cracked flashing has been sealed, the water damage it caused (peeling surfaces and bulging woodwork) scraped, filled and repainted, the hinky plumbing has been repiped, the upstairs bathroom retiled, some circuits rewired. My hearing, disastrously defective in the upper registers, is now supplemented by a pair of sporty and expensive hearing aids. The second of two teeth I cracked by biting on the wrong things has received the titanium post for its implant. I wouldn’t exactly say that all’s right with the world, but the bucket is momentarily off Mr. Hartman’s desk, and my checking account is a good bit lighter. On to the next challenge, entropy be damned!
I don’t know if you’ve seen this opinion piece from the nether regions, but the NSA wants US business to develop its technology, build its infrastructure, and staff its projects. There is actually a compelling reason for this, which I will get to shortly. The given reason is that the clear and present dangers facing the intelligence community, and, by extension, the world, warrant it. These dangers also warrant weakening the Fourth Amendment in order to save it, a point of NSA argument which one could see coming a mile away.
Here is the actual reason the NSA wants US business to hand over its technology, infrastructure, and staff. It is one of the worst places to work in the tech industry. It couldn’t keep talent if it tripled its pay and brought in massage chairs and free dry cleaning. The word from my friends in Silicon Valley is that they are besieged by NSA workers longing for freedom (and higher pay). This means not just the hot young talent who can field offers from Facebook and Google, but the “lifers,” the people who crafted the MS-DOS exploits of the 1980s in hand-tuned 8086 assembler. They all want out. First of all, management has done for creative hacking what the TSA has done for air travel. They were stung by Snowden, so they are consumed by making sure the exact same thing never happens again. That means an environment of complete distrust by management, insertion of cumbersome steps into processes to make them “more secure,” and interrogations of harmless workers to make sure they feel the heat. I cannot think of a worse place for people who have to be supremely creative and imaginative. Second, I cannot imagine what the NSA is being asked to do under the Trump administration. I cannot see the bottom of it, and probably most of the remaining employees can’t, either.
So, the NSA wants US businesses to do its recruitment, training, and retention. This means that no one has to work at the NSA. They will work at the Big Five, or perhaps as defense contractors. But NSA HR, government pay scales, and the puppet masters themselves are not supposed to be visibly part of the deal. It’s the kinder, gentler way of getting to know everything about everybody; Facebook has collected this information from citizens voluntarily for more than a decade. As for the clear and present dangers, it’s between them and climate change. Simon and Garfunkel wrote, “When you’ve got to choose/Every way you look at this you lose.” Cold-War-style “We’ve got to keep up before they do to us what we want to do to them” has no traction compared to implacable climate change. By the time the NSA achieves its goal of total information hegemony, Fort Meade will be underwater.
We’ve just purged our user database of bot/one-shot logins, and there have been quite a few of them. If you’re not an agent working for one of the nation-states we’ve crossed over the years, or a running dog of dictators, feel free to create a new login and comment.