- Race, Regionalism, and Biopower in Yokohama, California
Population growth has massive environmental consequences. According to Paul Crutzen, we now live in an age in which the earth's destiny appears to be totally determined by human behavior. Although the sciences play a significant role in dealing with the immediate problems of unsustainable growth, I examine in this essay how the field of cultural studies addresses the problem of population expansion and its environmental consequences. I draw on the work of Michel Foucault, who asserts that the expansion of humanity is implicitly anchored in violence. In his concept of biopower, the institutional "optimization" of human life is underpinned by a twofold approach: "the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations."1 De scribed as "a positive influence on life, that endeavors to administer, optimize and multiply it," biopower significantly illustrates how progressive politics organizes life itself in order to expand, maintain, and disguise power.2 Despite biopower's importance for environmental studies in its suggestion that population expansion is already ideologically inscribed as a form of "environmental preservation," environmental criticism pays little attention to biopower.
I attempt to address this theoretical gap in my examination of the Japanese American regionalist writer, Toshio Mori, which explores how his work responds to the expansion of the New Deal state in California. Mori's short stories offer a symbolic solution to the problem that biopower poses when the institutionalization of [End Page 303] ethnic difference is used to "optimize" life and facilitate the state's expansion. With respect to the New Deal, cultural analysis has for the most part been interested in recovering leftist politics in what Michael Denning has termed the "cultural front." Although resistance to the New Deal becomes radicalized, little attention is given to the populations that were excluded from the New Deal's statist approach to social reform.3 My analysis attempts to examine a cultural critique of the state that emerges from within a marginalized Japanese community that functioned more as vehicles of the welfare state, a minority population whose management facilitated the well-being of the larger population.
In focusing on an environmentalist literary critique of the New Deal, I hope to illustrate how the environment provides an invaluable yet overlooked material history of the power structures and racial politics that undergird progressivism. The term ecocriticism was coined by William Rueckert in 1978 to expand the realm of literary analysis to include the subject of ecology. Rueckert's interest in ecology stems from his desire to protect nature from human devastation, stating in his influential essay "Literature and Ecology" that "[t]he problem now, as most ecologists agree, is to find ways of keeping the human community from destroying the natural community, and with it the human community."4 For Rueckert, ecocriticism's central aim is identical with the administrative aim of biopower—to preserve nature in order to preserve human life. Furthermore, ethnic identity is often seen to be at odds with discussions of ecological crisis. In the introduction to The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1996), Cheryll Glotfelty asserts, "If your knowledge of the outside world were limited to what you could infer from the major publications of the literary profession, you would quickly discern that race, class, and gender were the hot topic of the late twentieth century, but you would never suspect that the earth's life support systems were under stress."5 Ecocriticism tends to overlook how concern for the preservation and conservation of natural space has functioned as a biopolitical tool of the state in the twentieth century, specifically through the management of minority ethnic populations.
In California, for example, New Deal progressives applied an ecological rhetoric to the Japanese population itself. In America's Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893–1945 (2005), Colleen Lye notes that Japanese farmers in California were doubly represented by governmental and civic organizations as threats to the natural environment and as embodiments of an environment in need of preservation. Progressive conservationists feared that Japanese farmers caused soil erosion through their capacity for "working miracles of reclamation," while the Japanese were also conflated with [End Page 304] nature itself, being likened...