Model Minority Discourse and Asian American Jouis-Sense
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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 228-247



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Model Minority Discourse and Asian American Jouis-Sense

Tomo Hattori *


Asian American literature begins, for the moment, with two Anglo-Chinese Canadian sisters. Over the last decade, Asian Americanist scholars Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks have established Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914) and (Lillie) Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954) as the first Asian North American writers of fiction (Ling, Between 21; Ling, "Creating" 306; Ling and White-Parks 1). The two founders, however, have not been equally appreciated. Asian American criticism tends to see Edith Eaton, who adopted the Chinese pseudonym Sui Sin Far and who wrote sympathetically about Chinese immigrants, as a conscientious social critic. Winnifred Eaton, on the other hand, who wrote under the fabricated Japanese pseudonym Onoto Watanna and enjoyed a successful career writing popular orientalia, is regarded as a sellout and a race traitor. 1 Shawn Wong, himself a pioneer of Asian American literature, summarizes this still prevalent view in his introduction to Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton's short story "The Americanizing of Pau Tsu":

The dominant theme in the lives and careers of the two Eaton sisters as writers and as Eurasians of mixed ancestry was one of [End Page 228] choice. The student of Chinese American literature is fortunate that Edith made the choice to tell the truth. (65)

Wong's "truth" is, to quote Slavoj Zizek, "a traumatic, senseless injunction." Zizek's analysis of how ideology makes its subjects for its own autonomous purposes illuminates how a central discourse in Asian American cultural criticism is dedicated to the production of Asian American ethnicity as a sublime and socially futile object. This object initiates a discourse, a model minority discourse, that animates Asian American cultural criticism, despite its belief that it resists "mainstream" cultural ideology.

One of the central flaws of the "good" versus "bad" sister discourse about the Eaton sisters is the inability of the ethnic nationalist criticism that is invested in it to confront the capitalism of its own logic. This logic emerges in yearnings such as Wong's for an ethnic singularity that can provide a bounded sense of coherence and "truth" to the discipline. When this quest for ideal and singular ethnic capital encounters the Eaton sisters, the result is the distortion of their complex, hybrid lives as Canadian-raised "Eurasians of mixed ancestry." By what standard is a writer who chooses to capitalize on the full ambiguity of her racial appearance less "true" than a writer who chooses to identify with half of her ancestry for the purpose of social activism?

A close reading of the very story that Wong anthologizes to showcase the "truth" of Edith Eaton's Chinese Americanness, "The Americanizing of Pau Tsu," reveals that Eaton's narrative of how a racial subject emerges in culture is simultaneously an exposition of how a subject must learn to capitalize on her culture in order to survive. A reading of race in Winnifred Eaton's fictional autobiography Me shows the narrator/protagonist's economic ambition as both a racialized and racializing discourse. Both sisters answer the question of what an Asian American is in terms of the effect that the logic of capital has on the interpellation of Asian subjects in American culture.

I mean by capital the material and social forms produced as well as constitutive of psychic investment. Defined in this manner, the capital of American multiculturalism would be that which creates racialized (American) human subjects--such as "Asian Americans"--while at the same time continuing to have them function in the conventional manner as objects and commodities, that is, as nonhuman capital. Model minority discourse, then, is my term for the system of signification that emerges from the institutions of multiculturalism that use racialized human [End Page 229] subjects as tools for the advancement of a civil society under capitalism. My thesis is that the symptom of modern multiculturalist capitalism can be found precisely in the most earnest distancings and vehement disavowals of cultural studies as it defends its...