“I Speak ABC”: Asian American Ironic Consciousness in the Asian Renaissance

Excerpted remarks for mine and Alvin Henry’s three-day seminar, “Asian Fun,” at ACLA 2022.

It is clear as ever that even the possibility of a collective “we” in and of Asian America has been largely foreclosed by our intelligentsia. Invested in interrogating the sociological reality and psychic depths of model-minoritization, much of contemporary Asian American Studies, particularly from its high-theoretical vectors, has conflated the sense of way things are with the way things could or ought to be, unaware, despite the vaunted academic tendency toward self-reflexiveness, of how denuding and deconstructing the banner “Asian American” into a Derridean subjectless discourse might itself be a symptom of model-minoritization and white-adjacency, emblematic of a willed absence of racial pride as Asian Americans and racial solidarity with other people of color.

Consider, for instance, the fact that more than a handful of the brilliant trailblazing scholars in affect theory are Asian Americans, yet none of their major studies in this subfield, to the best of my knowledge, has ever broached the topic of the affect of pride, while the most lauded of them have theorized shame. Consider, further, the fact that what might be described as the three signal titles of Asian American publishing in each of the past three years — Chanel Miller’s Know My Name (2019), Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings (2020), and Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart (2021) — are each inscribed in a melancholic discourse of lack or loss as the fundament of Asiatic racial-sexual abjection.

Outside of affect theory, idioms of Asian American so-called subject-formation have emphasized how the feelings infused into racial subjection are coercive and overdetermined. Consider Jeffrey Santa Ana’s notion of a “fetishized emotional product” that reduces Asian American raciality to coerced feeling:

To be an Asian American in multicultural capitalist America means having to accommodate the perception that Asians not only represent a fetishized emotional product but also must perform it as agents of finance capital whose job, figuratively speaking, is to carry out the affective labor for the commodity happiness of liberal multiculturalism. (255)

If Asian American subjecthood is bound predominantly by the demands of a performed “commodity happiness” in the neoliberal order, then the relinquishing of even a putatively positively constituted notion of racial subjectivity, revealed as an overdetermined false consciousness by way of its racialized “affective labor,” is a fundament of a politics of resistance to racial capitalism. If the Asian American subject, under the auspices of transnational capitalism, is overdetermined by certain affective constitutions, then it may be preferable, politically and heuristically, to undo the notion of a racial subject altogether. In echo of Kandice Chuh’s clarion call for Asian American Studies to forfeit the desire for racial subjectivity/subjection, Santa Ana’s critique proffers the possibility that baking impossibility and foreclosure into the conceptual loaf of Asian American “subjectivity” is a powerful form of critical resistance to the demands of capital’s demands of Asian American subjects.

What concerns me, however, is the corollary possibility that the notion that Asian American subjecthood is bound predominantly or exclusively to “commodity happiness” might itself be an iteration of negative-bound constitution that reduces ineluctably positive affects to either coercion or false consciousness. While it may be the case that a subjectless discourse carves space for a critique of racial capitalism, it is certainly the case, too, that a heuristic of positive feelings can 1) give lie to the ruse of subjectivity, emphasizing relationality and collectivity rather than subjection, 2) aid resistance against racial capitalism, and 3) give lie to the absolute saturation of the oppressive forces of racial capitalism. Rather than the possibility that Asian American living might abound with a happiness — or any other positive feeling, such as pride or love — despite or against the oppressive forces of “multicultural capitalist America,” Santa Ana posits the Asian American racial position — its psychic and affective constitution — as one of false consciousness, an “affective labor” that redoubles an attachment to racial capital.

In other words, Santa Ana’s model of racial feelings might, akin to David Eng and Shinhee Han’s racial melancholia thesis, foreclose even the possibility of a happy — or loving — Asian American racial being, which positive attachments are the affective fulcrum of resistance, not to mention the corollary conceptual foreclosure of a concatenation of happiness to Asianness that gives lie to the putatively absolutist forces of racial-sexual abjection and capitalist exploitation. What if it is the case that we could conceive of Asian happiness and its persistence as a cherished, good thing vis-à-vis the drudgery of commodified “liberal multiculturalism”?

Such presumptive negativity, rooted in a notion that racialized people are largely unaware of their own affective responses as related to their racial-capitalist exploitation, has meant, by and large, a foreclosure or elision of critical attention to how Asian American-ness might, in fact, be rooted in and even constituted by a marked and affected positivity. Consider, for instance, just how much of the current zeitgeist of the Asian Renaissance in popular culture has focused not only on an intramural collectivity, exemplified for me in Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown (2020), but also by explicit calls for a resurgence of the Asian American / AAPI identity banner in this period of heightened vulnerability to racist harm and violence. The basketball star Jeremy Lin, for instance, was, for a certain period of 2021, arguably the leading Asian American media voice in speaking out against the anti-Asian hate crimes. He told the New York Times in March 2021:

With everything happening recently, I feel like I needed to say something. The hate, the racism and the attacks on the Asian American community are obviously wrong, so that needs to be stated and that’s part of my role. I also feel like part of my role is to bring solidarity and unity, so I need to educate myself and continue to learn more and also support other groups, other movements and other organizations while also bringing awareness to the Asian American plight.

What would it mean for Lin’s emphasis on “solidarity and unity” to be considered more seriously by Asian American critical theorists? What might it mean for us to theorize such solidarity as the affective signature of our own racial being in the twenty-first century? What might it have meant, I should add, for such intellectual groundwork to have been laid prior to the pandemic era?

I would suggest that the circuitry for Lin’s solidarity is currently being set by cultural workers of the aforementioned Asian Renaissance. While the majority of the newly-expanding celebrity class, overrepresented by the geriatric-millennial generation — mine — that grew up with an adherence to Black popular culture as perhaps our primary routing of positive-defined racial identity, have done little more than “raising awareness” through social media hashtags in the absence of real social movements, the descriptions and inscriptions of Asian American sociality, appearing as an autonomous field, limn ways of communicating, thematizing, and enacting such solidarity.

Take, for instance, this in-group joke from Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi:

“My Chinese sucks.” “All good. I speak ABC.”

This brief exchange between Katy, played by Nora Lum, a.k.a. Awkwafina, and Jon Jon, played by Ronny Chieng, presents a comedic juxtaposition that points to an overall ironic consciousness inherent to in-group pride and solidarity. For the joke to be successful, the listener must understand that “ABC” denotes both “American Born Chinese” and connotes a spelling-out of the first three letters of the English alphabet. The latter meaning, of course, is constituted by our recognition of a connotative cringey, non-native fumble of claiming the very name of the language one is trying to speak. My two visits to see this film in theaters last September brought this juxtaposition into sharp relief: I attended the film’s opening weekend with Asian American friends in an otherwise empty theater, so our shared laughter at this clever joke was based on our common understanding of the denotation “American Born Chinese.” The following week, watching the film with my mother, who did not grasp the joke initially, and with a crew of South Carolina white teenage boys behind us laughing at the joke, I arrived at the latter meaning, the connotation: I understood then that the reception of Jon Jon’s speech allowed, as well, an adverse racial humor, i.e., that Ronny Chieng’s character, according to white comprehension, might actually think English is called “ABC.”

Between these two experiences emerges one central truth that transcends this tension between denotative and connotative meanings, between contested social understandings, and between interpretive communities: For the joke to be legible as the “American Born Chinese” denotation, it requires us to presume that “American Born Chinese” is legible as a language or a discourse itself. Thus, the idea of a distinctly Asian American lexicon emerges, which concept is met by its active performance at present, here, in our collective comprehension of this in-group joke.

In the world of the film, such Asian American lexical distinctiveness is met by a humorous take on a uniquely Asian American phenomenology, illustrated in the immediately previous scene in which Shaun, played by Simu Liu, narrates a dramatic backstory-explication to Katy of his complicated family myth. This backstory, as well as the viewer’s experience of it, is interrupted by a white flight attendant:

“Beef or vegetarian?”

The joke here works not only for the sudden juxtaposition between a dramatic Marvel Cinematic Universe backstory — voiced here, I would add, by Simu Liu’s distinctive Asian Canadian timbre — and the abrupt interruption of quotidian service, but also because of the familiar, customary irruption of white voice into our intramurality. Augmenting this illustration of a familiar yet uniquely Asian American experience is the humor in the flight attendant’s utterance as awkward or improper English usage — in offering the menu items as “beef or vegetarian” — as well as the subsequent reveal that this is not a choice at all. In other words, the flight attendant in this scene, as Katy’s sarcastic reply points out, had no effective reason to interrupt Shaun’s story. Most Asian Americans I have spoken to about the racial specificity of this scene can testify to this common occurrence, and even though it is not outright harmful, such as it may be in the racist presumption of the connotative meaning of the “ABC” joke, I would argue that this scene illustrates our common recognition of Asian American social experience. Our collective ability to relate to this scene as a marker of our unique racial phenomenology is, in this way, also our claim to an in-group discursive field. In other words, here the film invites us to “speak ABC” together.

In racial humor studies, the claim of a racial-minoritized interpretive community has tended to align with a corollary claim to a shared ironic consciousness that is the fundament to both in-group community sustenance as well as outgroup-facing political resistance. Here I would submit the historical claim that at least since Marx and Engels, the notion of a supple ironic consciousness is elemental to dialectical thought. Though critical attention to signifying practice, as what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls the “master trope” of Black linguistic practices, has waned in Black cultural studies in the twenty-first century, the preponderance of Asian American representation in our current era is replete with such moments of our own form of signifying.

Consider, for one, that Shang-Chi, in the sense of genre and market appeal, is neither a comedic nor a political film; its inclusion of in-group humor works against the grain of its broad generic reach. Also note the fact that so many of our cultural workers of the Asian Renaissance, including Ronny Chieng and Awkwafina, are committed comedians and humorists, including, just to name a few, Atsuko Okatsuka, Jimmy O. Yang, Bryan Yang, Mic Nguyen, Hari Kondabolu, the Fung Brothers, and Jordan Mendoza. Even the musicians of this generational coterie — including Su Lee, Rekstizzy, and, above all, Jonathan Park, a.k.a., Dumbfoundead, whose eponymous podcast Fun With Dumb was one early inspiration for our seminar — position racial humor as fundamental to their work and deploy Asian American jokes in both their lyrics and through their public personas. To return to my introductory sense of our historical moment’s dissonance between one generation’s emphasis on cracking jokes and having fun and another generation’s melancholia-bound academic discourse, I would add here that the former has exceeded the latter in attending to and speaking out on anti-Asian violence and hatred in the pandemic era, suggesting the possibility that the affect of fun is neither politically negligent nor critically oblivious. Such fun, rather, is constitutive of an Asian American being that both rests in intramural security and resists against racist harm.

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