- Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism by Iyko Day
Iyko Day’s Alien Capital offers a necessary and deeply welcome investigation into the intersections of race, indigeneity, and white settler colonialism. This book comes at a time when the problematics of settler colonialism have renewed urgency. From pipeline protests in Burnaby, British Columbia, and Standing Rock, North and South Dakota, and beyond, to reviews of the Hollywood blockbuster, Wonder Woman, settler colonialism’s currency resonates. Close observers of postcolonial criticism already know that the power of settler colonialism, as a theoretical problem and an analytic, has been longstanding. Almost three decades ago, Stephen Slemon noted in “Unsettling the Empire” that postcolonial criticism cannot afford to be reduced by easy binaries between centre and periphery or colonizer and colonized. For Slemon, the “radical foreclosing by postcolonial criticism on settler/colonial writing” means losing sight of “the radical ambivalence of colonialism’s middle ground” (34). The productivity of this ambivalence, of the way in which “the illusion of a stable self/other, here/there binary division has never been available” to settler colonial writers emerges in Day’s book through her triangulation of indigenous, alien, and white settler colonial positions.
The ambivalence of the settler colonial position emerges most profoundly and clearly in Day’s virtuoso critique of romantic anti-capitalism. For Day, romantic anti-capitalism privileges the value produced by concrete labour unmediated by forces of abstraction. In contrast, abstract labour is mediated, enabling the rise of commodity fetishism. Day “align[s] Chinese bodies with abstract labor” or “human labour in the abstract” and, correspondingly, identifies white bodies as symbolically aligned with concrete labour (46). This analysis beautifully underscores the imbrication between late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century anti-Asian racism and labour activism in North America.
Alien Capital is structured to highlight the continuities between Asian Canadian and Asian American identity formations and between past and present. Each of the four chapters engages with an historical event to unfold the continuing resonance of that event in both Asian Canadian and Asian American cultural forms. In each chapter, Day explicitly pairs an Asian Canadian cultural text with an Asian American one in order to illuminate the complexities of history in the present: the building of railways [End Page 107] in Richard Fung’s video Dirty Laundry and Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men; the construction of natural landscapes as contested by the photography of Tseng Kwong Chi and Jin-Me Yoon; Japanese internment in Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan and Rea Tajiri’s video History and Memory; the making of neoliberal borders as refracted in Ken Lum’s photographic work and Karen Tei Yamashita’s novel, Tropic of Orange.
In this pairing of cultural texts across each chapter, Day embraces the critical complexities of Asian North American cultural criticism. At the same time, she refuses to obscure the specificities of Canadian and U.S. contexts. What is more, the range of textual forms that Day analyzes in this book—film, video, novels, art installations, sculpture, and photography—points to the virtuosity of her work as a critic. In her reading of each cultural text, Day offers original and illuminating analyses that not only consistently further the main argument of her book but also make major contributions to the Asian North American cultural criticism more broadly. The book is methodologically dazzling in how smoothly it moves across genres and media.
At the heart of Day’s argument is a call to triangulate indigenous, Asian, and white settler colonial subject positions in order to “distinguish both the heterogeneity of race and the heterogeneity of alien racialization” (34). As Day persuasively argues, it is a formation that “is uniquely tied to settler colonialism, which requires a disposable reserve army labour force” (34). This formation identifies the crucial role of racialized labour in white settler colonialism. It usefully disrupts any easy binaries between settler and native, colonizer and colonized.
In this disruption, Alien Capital also sets up the work that is still to come. The triangulation of subject...