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  • Aesthetic Identities:A Response to Kenneth Chan and Christina Klein
  • James Schamus (bio)

Responding to these two wonderfully engaging essays on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon elicits in me something akin to what Kenneth Chan describes as "cultural anxiety." I assume I was asked to write this afterword because, having served as a screenwriter, songwriter, and financier for the film, I am, in some small sense, part of the object being discussed. I could thus speak the truth from "inside" the movie, using my proximity to Ang Lee, along with a few strategically placed anecdotes, to conjure a knowledge—even a partial knowledge—that could serve as a gentle corrective to or protective shield from the perceived encroachments of analysis and theory. But then I see no errors in Christina Klein's or Kenneth Chan's analyses to correct and am genuinely pleased (relieved, too) that Crouching Tiger has managed, warts and all, to function in their work as something more than a symptom while still managing to be exemplary of bigger, and consequential, concerns. I could try another strategy, and, putting on my other hat, as a professor of cinema studies, perform my own reading, borrowing what dubious "authority" over the text my professional association with it might appear to give me, to add to and compete with Klein's and Chan's readings.

Neither of these two positions is all that appealing or productive. But they are not completely avoidable either, if I am to say anything a propos of the topics Klein and Chan raise in their essays. My strategy will therefore be to take some of the key concerns shared by both the essays and the film and to ruminate on what I have found to be the "teachable moments" in Chan's and Klein's work—teachable, at least, to me as a maker of culture and as a teacher of and about culture. I will not so much respond to or critique the essays as take some of the key terms and concepts (identity, culture, reading, transnational, ethnoscape), as well as some terms that are more or less absent from these essays (race, nation-state), to see how these ideas relate to what Ang and I thought we were up to. My conclusion will be that, at the end of the day, Ang and I do indeed want everyone in the world to be, in a nontrivial sense of the word, Chinese; the nature of that desire will be the object of my comments. [End Page 43]

Culture, Anxiety

Kenneth Chan writes that

one gets the feeling that Lee needs to justify his "Western" methodologies and techniques by formulating them as a means to a cultural end, the reification of a Chinese centrality. The goal of my critique here is not to accuse Lee of any duplicity, or even inconsistency, but rather to explore the conflicted nature of an ambivalence that characterizes this cultural anxiety.

This seems to me more than just a description of Ang's predicament, even as it imagines an East-West axis in which the West is seen as a transitive and instrumental techne and the East is seen only as telos and identity, the imagined center of, as Klein makes clear, a diasporic imaginary. The film, as the object of analysis, is duplicitous and inconsistent (it must be so—it is a fiction; it requires "reading"), but the subject who speaks the film, the Ang Lee of the equation, is not a deceiver and is consistent, in that he has an identity, even if that identity is divided, ambivalent, and embedded, as Klein well puts it, "within a triangulated set of transnational relationships: to his Chinese homeland, to other members of the Chinese diaspora, and to the culture of his American hostland."

But the inclusion of Lee into this diasporic body ("The American press invariably refers to Lee as a 'Taiwanese' [so too, I might add, does the Taiwanese press], but . . . Lee is better understood as a member of the Chinese diaspora, a world-spanning ethnoscape") begs its own question: what, exactly, is "Chinese" about this diaspora? This question emerges around the edges of words such as "ethnoscape," words that...


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