- Reviewed by
Jeffrey Santa Ana’s Racial Feelings makes an illuminating contribution to Asian American studies by combining materialist economic analysis and affect studies to explore how Asian Americans have shaped and been shaped by US capitalism’s culture of emotions. Building on the work of scholars like Colleen Lye and Christine So, who have shown that Asian Americans have been associated with capital and globalization, Santa Ana considers the contradictory feelings informing racial constructions of Asian Americans. They are seen by many Americans as models of economic success and cause for renewed faith in the opportunities available in the United States but simultaneously as foreign threats to the prosperity and ways of life of “real” Americans. Racialized as efficient and hard-working, Asians are “an objectified means” through which Euro-American citizens strive for happiness and success (15). Happiness figures prominently in the set of racial feelings that organize this study; other racial feelings explored include “optimism, comfort, anxiety, fear, ambivalence” and emotions of memory and ancestral attachment (2). This expansive scope furthers Asian American affect studies like Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief by showing the broad range of feelings that help construct race in this particular cultural context. [End Page 360]
As stated above, though, happiness is central to this study, because Santa Ana perceives it to be the principal emotional ideal established by America’s investments in liberal personhood and capitalist aspiration. US national belonging, this fascinating argument suggests, requires emotional labor and particular emotional investments. Thus, in order to feel fully American, Asian Americans have to strive toward an emotional norm of “acquisitive happiness” (13). Acquisitive happiness is a racial feeling, Santa Ana insists. It is an “affective possession of the white propertied self” that “fundamentally structures” perceptions of racial difference in the United States (14). Happiness and other racial feelings constitute a culture of emotion that sustains US capitalism and the normative whiteness of American society. Santa Ana shows the complexity of Asian American responses to this culture of emotion: desire and aspiration to be part of this culture as well as ambivalence and resistance to it.
Throughout the text, Santa Ana considers Asian American cultural productions alongside popular discourses depicting Asian Americans to explore how racial feelings are produced, accommodated, and contested. His analyses range across cultural forms, including fiction, graphic narrative, film, and advertising. And he links a diverse group of writers and artists: Maxine Hong Kingston, Shaun Tan, Carlos Bulosan, Andrew X. Pham, Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, Ruth L. Ozeki, Karen Tei Yamashita, Don Lee, Han Ong, and Jhumpa Lahiri. In many of their works, ambivalent and negative affects intertwine with the optimism of US capitalism and multiculturalism. These darker emotions, Santa Ana argues, constitute a “critical structure of feeling” that reveals the contradictions of racial minorities trying to fit into a culture of emotion that has historically been the possession of white citizens (22). For instance, he suggests that the anger palpable in Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart exposes the “emotional labor” placed on Filipinos as they managed their expected roles as exploited yet happy laborers (92). He observes a deep ambivalence toward the ideals of comfort and normality embodied in the American Dream in Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam and Ha Jin’s A Free Life. This feeling articulates a profound tension: the aspirations of many Asian Americans toward American ideals and the feelings of shame, disloyalty, and difference that attend this process.
Fresh comparative possibilities emerge from Santa Ana’s critical methods. One particularly compelling example is his use of historical haunting as a critical structure of feeling linking Maxine Hong [End Page 361] Kingston’s China Men and Chinese Australian artist Shaun Tan’s graphic narratives. This feeling of haunting calls up disavowed histories of anti-Chinese exclusion and exploitation that were central to the capitalist development of both the United States and...