Asian Maleness and the Right to Opacity

Remarks for my three-day seminar, “The Glissant Variations,” at ACLA 2021.

Here is the Korean American actor Steven Yeun, during his recent media tour to promote the film Minari, describing a specifically Asian American phenomenology:

Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.

One paradox of an anti-Black world in 2021 is that racial positions and white supremacist hierarchy remain immutable in the racial imaginary while cultural and political visibility and representation have reached an all-time high, as Yeun’s fame and the promotion of this film exemplify. In the same moment that Asian American culture has become legible in mainstream America, there has been very little said, especially from academic quarters, regarding an Asian American being. Indeed, the majority of Asian American literary and cultural theory of the twenty-first century has emphasized the putative vapidity, incoherence, or nonexistence of the banner “Asian American” altogether.

The assumption of Asian American being as nothingness itself, not to mention the repeated assertion of “Asian American” as a putatively useless abstraction signifying something called a “subjectless discourse,” has been made by a stunningly wide array of recent methods in academic theory — including literary formalism (Colleen Lye), political economy (Mark Chiang), deconstruction (Kandice Chuh), and, most predictably, psychoanalysis (Anne Anlin Cheng, David Eng and Shinhee Han). Asian American academic discourse has thus converged in the new millennium to normalize the notion that “Asian American” means nothing at all, which cruelty is especially felt during the pandemic-intensified wave of anti-Asian bigotry, sentiment, and violence, including murder, in this period. Indeed, Asian American literary theory’s conceptual nihility converges with its institutional peer (yet peerless fount of bad vibes), affect theory, and it might be said that the signature affect of Asian American Studies, at least in and of its high-theoretical vectors, has been shame. This might be a moment in which pride would be handy, and that is precisely what the model-minoritization of Asian American elites, these days sometimes called Boba liberals, has precluded structurally and conceptually. Thankfully, during this period we have also witnessed the resurgence of an Asian American identity banner, signaling a pan-ethnic solidarity based on phenotypic similarity, which, to use Yến Lê Espiritu’s phrasing, is a historically-repetitive “reactive solidarity” forged in times of increased xenophobia in general and Sinophobic violence in particular.

And yet, as Glissant warns us in “Transparency and Opacity” (1982),

a collective quest for identity — somehow labeled the quest for ethnicity — sterile extremes would exist in which man, as an individual, would risk disappearing. (113)

To be clear, the caution that Glissant resounds here is not that an ethnic identity banner would regrettably erase the valorized individual but rather that it would prop up, script, and ultimately impose individuation because of its predictable toggle with the question of the human under colonial administration. He calls this the “humanizing function” of the colonizer’s linguistic interpellation, which effect may be enhanced while the minoritized / colonized gather under a strategic yet static decolonial identity structure. Read this way, the individual that “risks disappearing” is better off not having appeared under what Glissant calls “the correct version of humanism” that attempts to assimilate the minoritized Other into the rubric of “Rights of Man.” This passage then introduces the configuration of transparency and clarity to which the Right to Opacity responds. Yet unlike in Black Studies, in Asian American discourse, to the best of my knowledge, there has not been a systemic routing between the notion of a shared minoritized decolonial or anticolonial identity, useful for political purposes particularly in times of heightened vulnerability to racist violence, and the notion of an anti- and ante-individuated notion of racial being.

In Black Studies, for instance, consider Abdul JanMohamed’s configuration of the death-bound-subject, in which the threat of lynching simultaneously coerces and inaugurates the Black American subject, as sketched for JanMohamed in the corpus of Richard Wright, into the legibility of subjection. Even in this dire formulation that presages the regime of Afropessimism that would arrive shortly thereafter, JanMohamed begins from a theorization of “an absolute zero degree of subjectivity” that constitutes non-individuated racial ontology and Black being, even if within a framework that would consider that pre-individuation a collectivity called “bare life.” JanMohamed’s formulation is particularly illuminating these days, as we are in a unique historical moment, perhaps in the most pronounced convergence since the 1870s, in which the national culture’s libidinal economy, heightened during the current televisual trauma of the ongoing Derek Chauvin trial, has amplified white supremacy’s anti-Black and anti-Asian necrophilia simultaneously. Lethal anti-Asian racism and anti-Black racism are converging in this moment, revealing the racial necrophilia that links the ultimately asymptotic logics of anti-Blackness, settler colonialism, and xenophobia in and of an anti-Black world. For me, this period of augmented vulnerability to racist violence based on naturalized perceptions of Asiatic racialization has brought to urgent attention the need to theorize the nature of Asian American racial ontology — “the collective being,” in echo of Cedric Robinson — in terms of a phenomenological content rather than the now commonplace presumption of ontologized nothingness that we receive from much of Asian American Studies.

In other words, I would like to propose, in the spirit of our seminar, the beginnings of what we might trace as recessive modalities of being, under the rubric of the Right to Opacity, which may serve at times, to use John Drabinski’s words, both as an “anticolonial strategy” and “a space of resistance,” but ultimately a fundament of a subsequent framework of Relation that maintains its collective autonomy from the racial violence of interpellation, subjection, and identification. This is what Jay Rajiva recently describes as Nate Mackey’s and Glissant’s shared “paracritical mode” that

critiques institutions of power, in which the echoes of subdued or discussed speech… acquire artistic expression as a counter-hegemonic mode of being.

Ironically, in Asian American life, such a mode is as legible as ever, despite our longstanding academic neglect, because of the recently Asian-inclusive multicultural society of spectacle, in which Asian American celebrity has access to newly-opened opportunity structures, such as the fact that Steven Yeun, while promoting his film and his Hollywood stardom, has done about as good and thorough a job as anyone, including our public intellectuals, on both speaking out against this wave of racist violence while describing an Asian American way of being. We have an Asian American culture, an Asian American identity, and, Yeun reminds us, we may have an Asiatic being to claim all along, under a double opacity I will describe in a moment.

I argue that our inheritance of this notion of collective being must be considered by way of Black genre study, as Rasheed Tazudeen reminded us yesterday through Sylvia Wynter, and its countenance of an ontological turn in Black Studies that has outlined the alternative possibilities for what Katherine McKittrick calls “being human as praxis” and that, according to Wynter, would amount to nothing less than a universe-shift rivaling that of the Copernican Revolution toward other genres of human existence. Alongside the idiom of genre (rather than western white patriarchal “gender”) that accrues to and is designated by both the Black feminine and masculine and that Tommy Curry describes as the “de-gendered negation of white maleness,” I have begun to theorize the Asiatic masculine in similar de-ontologizing and generic terms. Asiatic maleness, according to this view, shares with the Black masculine the disruption of and corrective to the violent regime of sexuation / gender / sexual vulnerability that is perhaps the fundamental feature of anti-Blackness as generic violence. This alignment with Curry’s revolutionary work in Black Male Studies is neither to suggest an equivalence between these racial-sexual positions in particular nor a rebuttal to the axiomatic nature of anti-Blackness in general.

As I have argued recently elsewhere, one constitutive feature of the Black Radical Tradition, as Robin D. G. Kelley reminds us, is that it encompasses Asian American radicalism and modes of resistance precisely for the ontological openness of Blackness as field, i.e., as a generic-inducing response to anti-Blackness. As a corollary — one especially crucial point to keep in mind during this period of heightened Asian American vulnerability to racist violence — is that anti-Asian and other forms of racial violence in an anti-Black world must thus be considered an effect and expression of the ontological animation of anti-Blackness. Thus, to limn Asian American collectivity in this way is 1) to claim a uniquely racialized status in an anti-Black world, which, again, is something most Asian American thought has neglected to do, and 2) to consider the pro-Black political features built into “Asian American” as a signifier, linking up our lot with the Black Radical Tradition, of which Glissant is one titan, and 3) ultimately, to refuse the lure of subjectivity and individuation altogether, as Glissant’s poetics of Relation makes possible.

Taking cues from the Black social life whose very existence gives lie to the supposedly complete structure of death-bound-subjectivity and the seemingly conclusive nature of Black social death, Steven Yeun’s utterance actually provides an opportunity to link up Asian American social formation to our unique phenomenology. This occurs by way of the Right to Opacity. Again: “Sometimes I wonder if Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” Yeun’s is an Asian American phenomenology that may at first seem to echo or parallel W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, since its formulation begins from the fact of white interpellative power. Yet rather than Du Bois’ pity and contempt or Fanon’s interpellation and derogation, Yeun centers as our starting-point social neglect and dereliction. Right now, since we are living in a moment in which pity, contempt, derogation, and death are also pronounced elements of Asian American interpellation, this Asian American phenomenological content conveys, right now, shared vectors with other people of color and particularly with Black Americans, more than we may experience in other periods. Yet the truth remains that the majority of Asian American experience in the United States, with a particular gendered twist to the desexualized or “de-gendered negation” that is Asian maleness, is burdened with an imposition of malign exclusion — and not constant police surveillance and premature death, like our Black male counterparts. This unique anti-Asian racist effect gets further amplified as imposed blankness and passivity when met with the colonial gaze. In other words, Asian American maleness, when it is thought about at all, is perhaps unique in the field of racial-sexual positions in that its object-orientation is first and primarily toward opacity itself.

So, for instance, notice how the racial novelty and breakthrough of Andrew Yang’s presidential candidacy was received by the national media, wherein he is inscribed as a random man, where “random” suggests, in my view, the opacity (and perhaps the chaos sketched earlier this weekend as well) that accrues to his Asian Americanness:

Washington Post Magazine (June 10, 2019)

Keep in mind, Yang was the first Asian American man ever to make a serious run for President, and the breakthrough of this campaign, built around popularizing Universal Basic Income, which I have described elsewhere as a concept resonant with Asian American being, was reduced to the opacity of Yang’s racial figure. So even the person who has become the most visible Asian American in national politics has been treated with the imposition of racist opacity.

And here is a sketching of Asian American male phenomenology from Charles Yu’s recent award-winning novel Interior Chinatown (2020) that speaks to a “guest” status that feels and sounds very much like Yeun:

You’re an Asian Man. Your story was great, while it lasted, but now it’s done. I hope our paths cross again. Maybe somewhere else.

And you think: no. It won’t be somewhere else. It will be here, again, in Chinatown, next year, same place. To be yellow in America. A special guest star, forever the guest. (119)

This formulation — “A special guest star, forever the guest” — directly fuses the colonial gaze’s imposition of opacity with the Right to Opacity. In the novel, the narrator, Willis Wu, a struggling actor filming in a universe based on Oakland Chinatown, satirizes the function of Asian men in Hollywood productions through his sendup of generic racist personas such as “General Asian Man” and “Kung Fu Guy.”

Yet what critics of the novel have largely missed so far is that Yu seems to suggest that the paucity and blankness of Asian American characterology in the mainstream universe is in the novel intimately connected to the richness of an enclosed totality suggested both by the novel’s title and its closing passage regarding a social totality fully apart from the colonial Hollywood gaze:

You are not Kung Fu Guy. You are Willis Wu, dad. Maybe husband. Your dad skills are B, B-plus on a good day. But you’ve been practicing. You say the words. Take what you can get. Try to build a life. Sometimes, things happen. Mostly they don’t. Sometimes you get to talk. Mostly you don’t. Life at the margins, made from bit pieces.

All the Old Asians, wandering, standing around. No show. No plot, no world. Just characters. Golden Palace dismantled. The sky up above. EXT. CHINATOWN. (256)

“No show. No plot, no world”: This suggests an alternative world without the imposition of the bad world, constituted by “bit pieces” yet a totality all its own. This is where the unique vantage of Asian American being aligns with the social dereliction that gets rightly interpreted in the political sphere as xenophobic marginalization. In other words, this concluding emphasis on a “Golden Palace dismantled” suggests a counter-hegemonic mode of being as a social totality, evading white-colonial interpellation because of the opacity imposed from anti-Asian racism and invoked within as a Right and Relation. In turn, I contend that the putative blankness of Asian American maleness occurs, in no insignificant part, because the collective being simply doesn’t care about the individuated subjectivity inherent to the culture industry. Ironically, figures from that industry, who have reached unprecedented reaches within them, such as Steven Yeun, Andrew Yang, and Charles Yu, help illuminate this point. They, too, have been busy doing something else: creating cultural visibility, paradoxically, under the cover of double opacity. While its preservative function has not necessarily protected our most vulnerable during this period of racist violence — if anything, the imposition of opacity is directly linked to xenophobic reaction — it is clear that there is indeed an Asian American totality, invoked by the Right to Opacity, to be preserved, which will survive this period of a pandemic-intensified onslaught of violence.

I want to close with a brief meditation on the social ethics that emerges from this Right to Opacity, for, as Glissant makes clear, one feature of the Right to Opacity is that this is what makes Relation 1) without closure, remaining open, and 2) an ethics of Relation legible at all.

And this is where the best of Asian American discourse has been headed in my generation. Vivian Huang’s articulation of a “disidentificatory discourse of hospitality, one that does not vacate or concede the pleasures of giving or saying yes,” is the Asian American queer feminist / womanist cognate to my framework (or like its big sister), in which the racist-sexist formulation of Asian womanhood as a container for hospitality to western patriarchy still remains, in this formulation, the phenomenological fulcrum of an ethics that 1) emerges from Asian American collective being, and 2) binds Relation therefrom. I would argue that Charles Yu’s notion of “forever the guest” suggests a similar, if seemingly intramurally inverted, situation of ethics and Relation for Asiatic maleness. Being a guest in an anti-Black world, after all, means that we have privileged access not to claim proprietary stakes and not to claim subjectivity and personhood as possessive categories. Asian America, it could be said, has more access to the Black-aligned position of dispossession than model-minoritization propaganda would have us believe. For instance, the collectivity in Interior Chinatown takes shape in the world of extremely low-income Single Room Occupancy units. Yet not only does such a network of brutalized conditions suggest a rhizomatic network of sociality, Willis Wu finds moments of complete, surrounded recess therein. To return to the registers of the cultural and political, it seems to me, then, that such notions of recessed racial ontology and collective being are the fundaments for both a renewed focus on the Asian American position during this period of heightened violence and the possibility of aligning ourselves with a true people-of-color consciousness in an anti-Black world.




Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English, University of South Carolina

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Seulghee Lee

Seulghee Lee

Assistant Professor of African American Studies and English, University of South Carolina

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