Journal of Asian American Studies 7.2 (2004) 177-178
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Cultural Studies Book Prize Awardee, 2002
Among an excellent set of entries for the cultural studies award this year, Laura Hyun Yi Kang's Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women was our committee's clear first choice for the book award. In this richly composed monograph, Kang explores the disciplinary refinement of the subject, "Asian/American women," producing a critical genealogy of the reigning epistemes in Asian American scholarship over the past three-and-a-half decades. While indebted to earlier studies marked by the desire to bring Asian/American women into visibility, Kang boldly departs from such projects by questioning whether such visibility is necessarily beneficial -- and if so, for whom. Specifically, the book engages those attempts to render the Asian/American woman comprehensible as a "writing self, desiring body, national citizen, and transnational worker" in the fields of literary criticism, film studies, history, and anthropology.
The award committee was especially impressed with Kang's broad delineation of the emergence of Asian/American female identity at "the nexus of higher [End Page 177] education, cultural politics, grassroots and institutional activism, and both national and international state policies," while she simultaneously conducted a scrupulous interrogation of how disciplinary crises proliferate in and around identity-based fields such as Asian American Studies. Each chapter brims with keen insights into both the specifics of Asian/American female identity as a discursive formation as well as the crises within various disciplines to validate their approach despite the increasing intimation that their fields can represent neither an exercise in objectivity nor knowledge as a whole. For instance, in her chapter on history, Kang vividly conveys the incoherence of national policies vis-à-vis the fluctuating citizenship status of Asian/American women while also questioning how history is constructed in the first place - that is, how the archive induces and precludes certain narrations of the past. Kang deftly narrates such histories of discursive formation as she surveys secondary and theoretical material in a range of fields - history, film, literature, photography - and then (primarily drawing upon Foucault) successfully resituates those narratives in relation to their disciplinary positionings.
Compositional Subjects is most impressive in its theoretical gambit concerning the instrumentality of the modern knowledge project itself: the drive toward endless specification both presupposes and affirms the value of rendering humanity into manipulable units of knowledge. Kang reminds her scholarly audience that even counterhegemonic knowledge claims, despite their producers' intentions, are not necessarily liberating, and she advocates a "trenchant interdisciplinarity" that remains skeptical of the disciplinary norms of knowledge with their "historical intimacies with tactics of political domination and social control." This book gives Asian American studies a compelling new way to rethink its relation to the academic institution and helps redefine the inter-articulations of critical Asian and Asian American studies overall.
Rachel C. Lee
1. There was no prize awarded in the Poetry and Prose category this year.