Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 5.2 (2005) 180-182
[Access article in PDF]
Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women astutely unpacks almost thirty years of Asian American studies' critical canon, revealing the coercive ways in which the figure of the Asian American woman has been burdened by the political need to construct representational identity. Kang's work reflects a larger trend in Asian American studies that revisits its short but politically redolent disciplinary history, attempting to address the consequences of creating an institutionally sanctioned, legible, cohesive object of study. Viet Thanh Nguyen, for example, proposes a similar reconsideration of the canon in Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford UP, 2003), arguing that critics have constructed "Asian America" as a unified site of resistance, failing to "articulat[e] a theoretical framework that can address Asian America's ideological diversity and contradictions" (vi).
Despite the ambitious theoretical scope of the project, Kang masterfully synthesizes a large body of primary and secondary historical and legal works, making her fluent understanding of so many critical landscapes and her analytical summaries invaluable for future Asian Americanist scholars. Structurally, Kang divides the chapters into what she sees as "four rather stock figures—writing self, desiring body, national citizen, and transitional worker" (3) as they have been constituted in literary criticism, film studies, history, and sociology, respectively. By comparing a wide range of discourses Kang methodically animates what she sees as the multidisciplinarity of Asian American studies that remains complicitly minoritized within disciplinary lines. Kang argues for an interdisciplinarity that highlights the disruptiveness of the minority as unstable, fully unrepresentational subjects, thereby destabilizing the institutional authority of disciplinarity and making transparent the historical and ideological investments of institutionally sanctioned disciplines. She implies that politically conscious reading practices can revolutionize the mode of intellectual knowledge production. (Kang's "slash" between "Asian" and "American" diacritically figures her rejection of cementing "Asian," "Asian American," and "women" into legible, representable [End Page 180] identities.) The final, fifth chapter is dedicated to her readings of creative texts that embrace the interdisciplinarity that she champions.
At its genesis Asian American studies, like other identity-based disciplines, unquestioningly yoked individual identity with political and creative representation. The first two chapters of Compositional Subjects investigate the evolution of Asian American studies and its contentious, uneven relationship to non-identity-based fields such as American literature and film studies. The first chapter, "Generic Fixations: Reading the Writing Self," unpacks the debates around Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, a text of symbolic importance as the first canonized Asian American text. Following critical accounts of the famous debates between Frank Chin and Kingston and the ideological investments in generically identifying Woman Warrior as fiction or autobiography, assimilationist and feminist, or ethnically "loyal," Kang shows the limitations of generic fixations and the possibilities of criticisms unbound by the constraints of eliding authorial identity and creative representations. The issue of representativeness takes on literal valences in the second chapter, "Cinematic Projections: Marking the Desiring Body," which argues against a strain of what she calls "stereo-type criticism" that rails against "good" and "bad" stereotypical images of Asian American women because they allegedly cause psychical and social harm to Asian American individuals. Questioning the representability of Asian American women, Kang suggests that Asian American film criticism in particular and ethnic film criticism in general are developmentally stunted by what she sees as an insistence on identity-based readings of films. Instead, she suggests a possible understanding of legal, national, and technological origins of film that may open up Asian American film studies from content-based critiques to a more theoretically savvy, politically useful assessment of the history of cinematic production.
Echoing postcolonial theorists' warnings against privileging the critic's role in archival recuperations, historical narrativizations, and anthropological constructions, Kang's third and fourth chapters, "Historical Reconfigurations: Delineating Asian Women as/not American Citizens" and "Disciplined Embodiments: Si(gh)ting Asian/American Women as Transnational Labor," shift emphasis...