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Managing Masculinity in Asian America
David L. Eng. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. viii + 290 pp.
For the most part, ethnic studies scholars of US literature have been slow in considering the critical implications of psychoanalytic theory for racial formation, representation, and politics. In his recently published Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America, David L. Eng sets himself to this task with significant results. While Eng's primary project in this bookis the investigation of the formation of Asian-American subjectivity through the heteronormative fantasies and stereotypes surrounding gender and sexuality, the corresponding project that the book accomplishes is equally important: a critique of the assumptions about naturalized racial difference that provide a substantive base for psychoanalytic theory. This critique does not constitute a dismissal, but, rather, Eng argues that "we must recognize that psychoanalytic narratives are not only integral to but also are integrated into our contemporary sense of self as modern liberal (sexualized as well as racialized) subjects." His introductory reading of Freud's conflation of the primitive and the homosexual goes a long way toward demonstrating this point. A wide range of readings in the subsequent chapters, which include similar re-workings of the Freudian concepts of primal scenes, the fetish, and hysteria, as well as the Lacanian mirror stage of ego unification, continues this dual analysis.
In his first chapter, Eng pairs readings of novels by Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin to consider how both authors participate in a [End Page 529] rewriting of the photographic history of American modernity—a history that has left at its specular margins the male Chinese laborers who participated in this modernization (the chapter's primary example is the construction of the transcontinental railroad). Eng argues that Kingston and Chin deploy an oppositional form of memory and "dream-work," a "looking awry" that refuses the dominant visual regimes that regulate psychic and bodily existence and render the Chinese worker invisible. Yet, as his argument in the following chapter on Japanese-American internment and Lonny Kaneko's short story "The Shoyu Kid" explains, visibility in and under these scopic regimes does not guarantee access to rights and inclusion for the Asian-American subject. Rather, "invisibility and visibility are not opposed but are two sides of one representational coin." Eng finds that writing racial differences into traditional psychoanalytic narratives of development, as Kaneko does, shows us the way in which the ego ideals of a normative white American heterosexuality remain resolutely inaccessible for the Asian-American male subject. Moreover, the policing of these ideals and the linking of Asian-American masculinity with queerness are the necessary moves by which the nation shores up its own selfhood against disruptive sexual and racial anxieties.
In chapter 3, a study of David Henry Hwang's play M. Butterfly, Eng further suggests that it is not only the Asian-American male subject who can be made to pay tremendous psychic costs for an ego ideal secured through the dominant orders of whiteness and heterosexuality. Even the ostensibly normative subject, the white man, runs profound and violent risks in his attempts to hold together and bolster these ideals and the fantasies they generate, as is represented in the suicide of Hwang's protagonist Gallimard. Finally, in an analysis of the narrative fiction of two additional Chinese-American writers, Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea and David Wong Louie's Pangs of Love, Eng considers the discursive interventions of an Asian-American male hysteria that, he contends, registers a disavowed history of Asian exclusion from American national ideals, an exclusion that extends well into the late-twentieth century, even under the aegis of a multiculturalism that has named Asian Americans as a "model minority."
Racial Castration is then perhaps best summarized as a project that insists on Asian-American studies and psychoanalytic theory as indispensable to one another, at least in the context and history of the US. [End Page 530] Yet, as is clearly...