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  • The Power of Culture
  • Lisa Lowe (bio)

In the wake of the meeting of the 1996 Association for Asian American Studies in the nation’s capital, it seems appropriate to meditate on the concept of the “nation,” the universalism that underlies that concept, and the critique of that universalism necessitated by a materialist account of Asian immigration to the United States. In this essay, I frame a critique of universalism in terms of the historically contradictory formation of Asian Americans in relation to citizenship, and from there, suggest some of the ways in which Asian American culture is a critical, dialectical site with respect to the political forms of the nation — the state, government, and the terrain of representative democracy. I begin by invoking the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., by means of reference to Jeannie Barroga’s 1989 play, “Walls,” which dramatizes the controversy surrounding the memorial, its aesthetic, the young Chinese American woman architect Maya Ying Lin who designed it, and the veterans and veterans organizations who argued that they were not “represented” in the abstract modernist lines of the designs. 1

In a manner unprecedented in the twentieth century, the Vietnam War (1955–75) shook the stability and coherence of the United States national understanding of itself. An “unpopular” war contested by social movements, the press, and the citizenry, a disabling war from which the United States could not emerge “victorious” — there is perhaps no single [End Page 5] event in this century that has had such power to disunify the American public, disrupting traditional unities of “community,” “nation,” and “culture.” 2 Jeannie Barroga’s play “Walls” portrays the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War Memorial and revoices fundamental divisions instantiated by the war — between men and women, veterans and antiwar activists, Americans and Asians — by depicting their inevitable resurfacing around the national project of memorializing the war’s veterans. The play dramatizes the unspoken racial tension underpinning the artistic and political controversy that surrounds the “representative” qualities of an American monument designed by a young Chinese American woman commemorating the United States soldiers who fought a war in Viet Nam.

Barroga’s “Walls” focuses primarily on the veterans’ protests against Lin’s modernist, nonrepresentational design as a means of objecting to Lin’s position as an Asian American woman. Through the performance of these conflicts and struggles, the play suggests that the national project of “re-membering” the Vietnam War — who its heroes were, who must be forgotten, who may mourn — is a crucial site in which the terms of “membership” in the national “body” are contested, policed, and ultimately redefined. In particular, by dramatizing the debate as to whether a national monument designed by an Asian American can represent the American nation, the play makes clear that the question of aesthetic representation is always also a debate about political representation. The veterans demand that a statue with soldiers and an American flag be placed next to the official monument, a black, V-shaped stone horizontal to the earth etched with the names of the dead. The central antagonism between the veterans’ demand for a representational monument and Lin’s insistent commitment to a nonrepresentational aesthetic embodies the conflict between the nationalist desire for resolution through representational forms and the unassimilable conflicts and particularities that cannot be represented by those forms. For the nation defined by victory in United States wars in Asia throughout the twentieth century — in the Philippines, Japan, and Korea — and its citizenry specified for so much of the country’s history by the exclusion of Asians from naturalization and citizenship, the national monument commemorating [End Page 6] veterans of the war “lost” in Viet Nam designed by the twenty-one year old daughter of Asian immigrants was an unresolved contradiction, a return of the repressed, a “gash” that would not heal. Barroga, a Filipina American, has written an “Asian American” play that triangulates Chinese American, Filipina American, and the descendants of the unremembered Vietnamese — all different sites in which the “Asian” interfaces with the “American.” 3 I begin my discussion with this example in order to thematize Asian American culture as a counter-site to official United States national memory and...

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