Sylvia Shin Huey Chong’s The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era is an impressive study that interweaves psychoanalysis, film theory, and Asian American and American Studies. Chong presents her notion of the “‘oriental obscene’: a set of fantasies that reveal the relations between suffering and violation, activity and passivity, and victimhood and victory in the politics of the Vietnam War” (10). For Chong, the contemporaneous events of the Vietnam War (1955–75) and politicization of Asian Americans compelled the nation to find a new mode for staging American race relations. It found one in the oriental obscene, whereby American visual texts represent a new continuum of race vis-à-vis the violated or violating Vietnamese body-subject.
Chong’s concept of the oriental obscene is an insightful tool for explaining how America has dealt with the domestic and international upheavals of the Vietnam War and the era’s enduring effects on the present. Using 1968 and the late 1980s as bookends of her study, Chong argues that if we presuppose that Vietnam was our first “living-room war,” then it is necessary to contextualize its visuality within the history of television news, particularly given that the genre’s inception coincided with the racial representations of the 1950s Civil Rights Movement and 1960s black urban rebellions (52). Thus Chong’s argument hinges on the idea that the three most well-known images emerging from the Vietnam War—the “Saigon Execution” (1968), the My Lai Massacre images (1969), and the “Napalm Girl” (1972)—depart from existing visual depictions of race and provide the foundational stuff of Vietnam-era culture.
Engaging Giles Deleuze’s notion of the ruptured cinematic movement-image, Chong shows that in these three images, bodies and objects fail to move through space and time, placing the audience in a position of passive witness and making it seem impossible for viewers to track “causality and ethical responsibility” (79). To deal with this ethical dilemma, America flips the relation, reversing the position of passivity to return to a position [End Page 206] of agency. For instance, public interest in the pictures shifted from suffering Vietnamese to the photographers’ own ethics, a move that Chong suggests subordinates the Vietnamese to America’s desire to privilege its suffering in Vietnam. Drawing from Jean Laplanche’s notion of phantasm, which describes the unconscious desire that belies the “daydream” a subject constructs to make up for lack or disempowerment (13), Chong calls this pattern of reversal the “racial phantasmatic”: “imagined relations of identification, projection, transference, and countertransference between different racial subject positions, in ways that exceed the actual social relations between racialized subjects” (9).
The ethics of representing a lost war has been a hallmark of the Vietnam era, but Chong argues that the foundational role of the three photos in generating that ethical dilemma has largely been forgotten. Chong revisits a range of Vietnam-era texts to reveal how their visual violence cuts across American texts from 1968 onward. Films such as The Boys in Company C (1978) and Go Tell the Spartans (1978) portray South Vietnamese character as corrupted, torturing, and violent in a way that is premodern and external to history, rather than having political, rational motivation. In Coming Home (1978), Americans take the form of “the body incontinent”—a disabled American body without sovereignty and in need of rehabilitation—in their victimization at the hands of a relatively invisible Vietnamese force (141). Yet for Chong there is also an “intimacy between violator and victim” that accompanies such representations of racially differentiated violence (160). Chong offers an interesting twist on familiar postcolonial readings of Apocalypse Now (1979); that Francis Ford Coppola has Colonel Walter E. Kurtz’s complex destroyed at the end of filming in the Philippines suggests the film’s plot and production share recuperative fantasies in finding meaning from inhabiting and excessively destroying Asiatic space. For Chong, Vietnamese and American identification and disidentification go hand-in-hand, as America blurs the...