restricted access The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature by Christopher Lee (review)
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Reviewed by
Christopher Lee. The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012. xiii + 191 pp.

Christopher Lee’s aim with The Semblance of Identity is to provide an exploration of the “consequences of the ‘post-identity’ turn,” rather than a polemic “for or against identity and identity politics” (3). In this, the book’s thesis is carefully nuanced and insightful; it draws on the existing work in the field, while expanding the previous parameters of debate. Lee’s central contention is that “fragments and echoes of identitarian thinking persist in anti-identity discourses” (8). Lest this appears contradictory, Lee draws an illuminating analogy with Jean-François Lyotard’s classic diagnosis of the postmodern condition. Lyotard maintained that the postmodern inheres in the modern (declaring “a work can become modern only if it is first postmodern”) and is not a temporal condition that followed it (it is thus rather unfortunate that Lyotard’s postmodern has become “post-modern” in Lee’s book, since the hyphen implies a temporal relationship). As Lee writes, “[Lyotard] describes [the postmodern] as an alternative to the modern belief in the possibility of representation; by refusing this investment, post-modernism marks the rupture of the modern from within” (8). And, “in a similar manner,” writes Lee, “we can conceive identities as providing a form—a grammar as it were—for making sense of and representing the relationship between the subject and the social. Post-identity marks the breakdown of this grammar and unfolds as an inherent and integral dimension of identitarian thinking” (8).

To illustrate his thesis Lee draws on a range of primary texts. In a thoughtful consideration of the relationship between music, sound, and the subject in The Woman Warrior (1975), Lee argues that Maxine Hong Kingston’s rewriting of the story of Ts’ai Yen fails to achieve cultural “hybridity,” and actually reinforces “ethnic distinctions.” If Kingston articulates an “emancipated Asian American subject,” this serves to demonstrate that hers is a project “invested in identity politics even while it imagines a community in which cultural and gender differences are transcended.” Her text does not then offer a “break from cultural nationalism” but highlights “the difficulty of thinking beyond identity politics” (83). Because Lee stresses throughout how this difficulty manifests itself in Asian American writings, he can sometimes come across as a curmudgeon: we are told, for instance, that the political message of Eileen Chang’s The Rice-Sprout Song (1955) is “unwieldy and unconvincing” (41); that Bruce Iwasaki’s work “ultimately grants no role for literature unless it can be subsumed [End Page 875] under the demands of identity politics” (55); that Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999) “finds itself mired in formal conventions that fail to adequately resolve its narrative form” (118); and that there is “something heavy-handed” in the way that Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost (2000) “turns itself into a narrative of diasporic return” (138). Such hard-edged criticism is the desired effect of Lee’s critical practice. The book’s title is drawn from Theodor Adorno whose thoughts on aesthetics Lee explicitly invokes in his delineation of the relationship between art and reality in Asian American literature. For Adorno, artworks produce knowledge by virtue of an aesthetic semblance to the reality from which they stem. Artworks are revelatory about reality, even as they present themselves as distant from that reality; it is the presentation of this (illusory) distance that sustains the work of art’s internal coherence. This very tension—the work of art is product of reality and exposer of reality—gives art its capability to critically dissent. In order to evaluate the effect of this tension—and so to “redeem semblance”—the critic must, as Lee notes, “unravel the coherence of the artwork in order to dissolve the congealing of content and form” (17). The effect of this unraveling by Lee is the revelation of the difficulty of writing from a position beyond identity.

In discussing such issues Lee is candid about the fact that his study is “concerned with realism,” but he explains that this is the expanded realism of Fredric Jameson, “a cognitive...