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  • Asian American Literature and the Resistances of Theory
  • Christopher Lee (bio)

In 1974, the newly established Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, submitted “A Proposal for the Establishment of the College of Third World Studies” to the university’s Provost. In its proposed structure for a major in Asian American Studies, the committee recommended that students concentrate on one of three areas in addition to taking a set of core courses: community studies, social sciences, or humanities. While the first two concentrations are clearly designed to contribute “to the body of direct experimental knowledge of the conditions in the Asian American community” (A18) and promote “service to the Asian American people” (A17), the humanities concentration is marked by a noticeable lack of content and cohesion. Only two courses, one on Asian American literature and a creative writing workshop, are listed in the proposal, and this lack of structure is reflected in its provisional tone:

That Asian students be encouraged to venture into the humanities is obvious; what form self-expression will take in the context of the Asian American experience and Asian American Studies is yet to be seen. It is certain that the student with a concentration in the humanities will be given the freedom to explore Asian American and Third World literature, art and dance, and creative writing. At the same time, however, the same amount of rigor and depth of understanding [End Page 19] of the Asian American experience expected of the major in the other two areas of concentration will be asked of the student in the humanities.

The proposal goes on to clarify the role of the arts in Asian American Studies: “Of particular importance will be the student’s responses to the question of the flow and interchange between life and art. This last point is of considerable importance since it will help to give the individual the clarity of vision necessary in delineating between what is truly an Asian American assertion and what is a replica of what exists, clothed in Oriental paraphernalia” (A21).

Even while the proposal embraces the arts as a means of actualizing the emancipatory goals of Asian American Studies, it seems unsure of what constitutes suitable artistic content and identifies the humanities as an area in which courses and methodologies remain to be developed. In charting future directions for research and teaching, it suggests that barriers between the study and production of culture need to be broken down, a task that resonates with their desire to integrate theory and practice. Moreover, the proposal argues that art and literature must not be “only for the purposes of glorifying the individual writers or artist” but rather must “serve the broader needs of our people.” To this end, it insists that the humanities must be driven by political commitment in order to oppose the colonial legacies that have “denied the right [of Third World Peoples] to express themselves in creative ways” (A26). In short, it is only by entrenching the humanities within a larger political project that it can acquire the “clarity of vision” needed to dismantle Orientalist and racist misrepresentations.

Reading this report some thirty-five years later, one cannot help but notice the contrast between its tentative engagement with the humanities and the current status of the humanities within Asian American Studies. Asian American cultural criticism, of which a large portion is concerned in some way or another with literary expression, has flourished in the last two decades and constitutes one of the largest components of an interdisciplinary field. New scholarship on the humanities is being produced at a healthy rate, while courses in Asian American literature are regularly offered at many universities and colleges, which in turn affects the training and hiring of new faculty with expertise in literary and cultural studies. These developments have reconfigured the relationship between the humanities and the social sciences, producing an ongoing tension between methodologies that emphasize theoretical speculation and textual analysis on the one hand and empirical analysis on the other.

Yet the issues raised by the 1974 Berkeley proposal continue to be relevant for Asian American literary studies today. After all, [End Page 20] students and scholars...


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