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Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 4.2 (2004) 239-260

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"I Cannot Find Her"

The Oriental Feminine, Racial Melancholia, and Kimiko Hahn's The Unbearable Heart

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I am apparition and flesh, fantasy and nightmare. I am Suzie Wong, Madame Butterfly, Geisha Girl, China Doll, Miss Saigon. I am bargirl, prostitute, gook, dead yellow whore, slit-eye, slant-cunt, chinky slut, leather-clad dominatrix with a whip. I am adopted daughter, model minority, professional woman, sewing woman, shopkeeper, peasant woman, war bride, mail-order bride. I am petite, sexy, mysterious. Me so horny, me love you long time.
—Hortense Spillers, Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book

The Oriental Feminine and Racial Melancholia

The Asian American female inhabits a position in the U.S. national unconscious that I will call the oriental feminine, a femininity produced by orientalism. Edward Said and others have noted that the "Orient" was produced discursively and epistemologically as a feminized location, (im)penetrable by the West. The metaphorical feminization of the Orient resulted in the metonymic hyperfeminization of "oriental women," as if culture compounded gender. This oriental femininity does not correspond to the status of a subject; rather, it is a negative, enabling other of the modern subject. It is the legacy of a modernity that constructed the European male subject as the universal, representative subject of history and produced as a remainder the colonial other that remains outside history and modernity. In this essay, I explore how the Asian American [End Page 239] female subject, as symbolized by the speaking subject of Kimiko Hahn's book of poetry The Unbearable Heart, inhabits a melancholic position that signals a racial return of the national repressed. American-born and-raised, this Asian American woman is ostensibly a legitimate citizen-subject of the U.S. nation-state, a legible subject of modernity. In reading Hahn's book, however, we find that this subject of modernity and nation nevertheless remains haunted by a specter of modernity's "other": the oriental feminine, which remains outside of modern history and modern subjectivity. The gendered racialization of the Asian American female as oriental femininity introduces an other temporality: that of the primitive, the traditional, the antique, the alien. We can thus see how racial difference forms and deforms the inhabitation of a presumably abstract and universal national citizenship.1 Citizenship would seem to produce the Asian American female as a coherent, modern subject of the U.S. nation-state, but national racialization as well as the legacies of colonialism result in a remainder that disrupts this coherence. It is this haunting remainder that I will explore in this essay by employing the psychoanalytic concepts of melancholia and jouissance.

For some time, psychoanalysis has been considered suspect by scholars of critical race studies because of its universalization of white European family formation, its racist inscriptions of the figure of the primitive, and its inattention to race as a meaningful category of analysis. More recently, scholars of feminist, postcolonial, and critical race studies have been able to deploy psychoanalysis as a useful tool for analyzing racial and national difference, as well as sexual difference.2 Critical race scholars have long critiqued individualist understandings of race by showing how institutional structures such as capitalism and the state profit from and reproduce racial inequalities. I would like to add to this critique of individualism from another angle, by using psychoanalysis to theorize the racial subject. Common assumptions about race in the United States include the belief that individual attitudes are uniformly racist or nonracist, and that solutions to racism lie in individual encounters of education, healing, and reconciliation. In contrast to these assumptions of the individual as the locus of wholeness, sincerity, authenticity, and sovereignty, psychoanalysis takes seriously the divisions and contradictions within a subject created by its relationship to power and discourse. Psychoanalysis provides a compelling way to analyze libidinal economies of race and nation, to understand how surplus pleasures as well as surplus wealth are extracted from our [End Page 240...


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