restricted access Wrong Impressions
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Wrong Impressions

In the 1978 single "Hong Kong Garden" by the British goth post-punk band Siouxsie and the Banshees, lead singer Siouxsie Sioux sings—over an Orientalized guitar riff, punctuated with a gong—of an exotic landscape with "Harmful elements in the air / Cymbals crashing everywhere," wherein "Slanted eyes meet a new sunrise / A race of bodies small in size."1 The song, along with the familiar image of Siouxsie in kimono robes and kabuki makeup, is a fantasy of Asian femininity—with the oriental as always-already feminine—meant to embellish upon experimental forms of white femininity. Asian femininity becomes untethered from the racialized and gendered Asian woman's body; it is a performance contingent upon my being excluded from it as an Asian American woman. The performance is then not about me, but it is not not about me either: that slippage in and of the double negative points to a form of relation in non-relation. If I told you how much I like this performance—in spite of the ways it interpellates, compromises, and even diminishes me—you might get the wrong impression, which is to say you might get the wrong impression about me as a presumably self-possessed, political subject. The dissonance in misrecognizing myself, yet recognizing my desire, produces "the wrong impression" as an alluring, productive formal [End Page 261] quality. It is this formal quality, one that draws me in and rubs me in some way, that I address here.

I want to ask how one might make sense of one's subjecthood, and its provisional undoing, in our relation to objects that could be viewed as problematic, wrong, or offensive within a politics of representation, but which are not so clearly "bad" that they elicit feelings of abjection or require and demand the performance of disidentification.2 I am talking about performances and works of art that could go either way, that give one pause, that make one have to ask: "Wait, was that offensive to me? Should it be?" Given this confusion and hesitation—which, in the case of orientalism, is also tinged with eye-rolling exhaustion—what unanticipated ways of knowing and sensing can emerge when one is taken in by this unsettling pause tinged with what Sianne Ngai has called "ugly feelings"?3 In other words, how does this pause stall and shake sturdy, given configurations and representations of subjecthood? How does this in turn affect politics of race, gender, and sexuality that prop up such subjecthood?

I dwell in this ambivalent pause, this intimate yet estranging space nestled between subject and object: the shape and relation of the wrong impression. Perhaps this relation inspires the passive-aggressive act—or, instead, what writer and actor Issa Rae, in her HBO series Insecure, calls being "aggressively passive": the act of remaining stubbornly noncommittal and indecisive, of neither refusing nor calling out an offense, problem, or affront to oneself. Such an act is not merely one of avoidance, but rather one of suspension that comes out of not knowing how to respond—and maybe this is the point.4 After all, something like insecurity can be debilitating, yet it can also be productive and transformative in its range of off-key responses to one's own discomfort. This not-quite-antagonistic set of relations the wrong impression creates speaks to what Jennifer Doyle and David Getsy have called the "queer potential of formal tactics," a turn to form that enacts a "playful" "attack" on the "thingness of an object," which in performance can also be the "thingness" of a body.5 Scholars of queer theory, feminist theory, and critical race theory have addressed how the troubling distinctions between subject and object can productively reveal, take on, or undo the multiple historical processes through which racialized, gendered, and sexualized bodies have been rendered as objects outside the bounds of personhood.6 To feel out wrong impressions between subject and object, between racialized body and audience [End Page 262] or viewer, becomes the queer formal tactic wherein wrong impressions become belated ones that trip up decisions made around the visibility and recognizability of form, subject, and racial...