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Reviewed by:
  • Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading
  • Crystal Parikh
Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading. By Rey Chow. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

In the introduction to her collection of essays, Ethics after Idealism, Rey Chow describes a particularly angry and telling response she encountered to her argument in this book that contemporary multiculturalism risks fascism in its positive imagining of ethnic others: “‘Only she could write something like this,’ some readers charged, meaning, I suppose, that only a ‘woman of color’ and therefore a double minority, could possibly mount a criticism of multiculturalism as such without getting into trouble, without being labeled ‘racist’.” (p. xxii) It is a charge that Chow, rather than shying away from, understands as the ethical impetus for her own book. That is, she sets out to conduct an investigation into the conditions that give this response its relevance. If, as Chow suggests, idealism has been the primary mode through which cultural studies has [End Page 318] attempted to establish a form of resistance theory, it is also this idealism by which “the ‘other’ can say or do anything in the current climate without being considered wrong.” (p. xxiii)

Chow’s response to this critique, however, is not the reactionary call for recognition of a liberal, abstract version of equality that dispenses with the “special interests” of race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Rather, Chow explores the possibility of an interpretive politics that speak to non-Western cultural forms in order to draw out their “unconscious, irrational and violent nuances.” (p. xxi) This analytic is perhaps most thoroughly addressed in the chapter from which the book takes its title, chapter three, “Ethics after Idealism.” Here she offers careful, close readings of the writings of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Slavoj Zizek in order to understand how “two of our most energetic post-Marxist thinkers” have inquired and theorized the asymmetries through which social conditions and exploitation are reproduced. While Spivak and Zizek arrive at two different explanatory models, Chow contends that both offer a conceptualization of the social that allows for an ethics without positing an ideal(ized) other that serves as its center.

Zizek’s influence on Chow is especially apparent in the other essays in Ethics after Idealism where she offers readings of various cultural moments and social texts. Chow’s accomplishment in part, then, is to bring the insights provided by Zizek’s version of a post-Marxist psychoanalysis to bear upon questions of race, ethnicity, and nation. Chow insists that an emphasis must be placed on the trauma that pertains to the confrontation between the self and the real, the real that is at once the other and as well as the “lack” that show up the negative limits of the positive identities through which we try to order the world (whether through totalitarianism or through the “liberatory” claims of identity politics). Chow demonstrates this concern through rigorous interrogations of the “fantasies” that structure the self and the other, especially as they are deployed in filmic representations such as M. Butterfly, The Joy Luck Club, and To Live. Chow reads these texts against the grain of their reception—whether this reception has been in the vein of ideology-critique or as a confirmation of the exoticness and pastness of the ethnic other, in order to “grant non-Western authors and texts . . . the same kind of verbal, psychical, theoretical density and complexity that we have copiously endowed upon Western authors and texts.” (p. xxi)

In addition to analyses of those films, Chow turns her attention to two other central cultural formations: (1) the pedagogical and institutional situation of area/cultural studies and its engagement with critical theory and multiculturalism; [End Page 319] and (2) the construction of a postcolonial self within the indeterminate space of Hong Kong. Because Chow has brought together so many seemingly disparate critical threads in these interpretive moves, she is able to provide some rather innovative, and often disturbing, claims in each of these cases. Yet the “disturbance” of her claims rests precisely in her refusal to idealize “non-Western” texts and discourses—a refusal by which the minority subject is never simply an innocent or...

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pp. 318-321
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