- Purchase/rental options available:
American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 604-620
[Access article in PDF]
Asia and Japanese Americans in the Postwar Era:
The White Gaze and the Silenced Sexual Subject
Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
Shall we start globally and end locally? From the center to the margins? Or from the historical to the literary and the personal?
Both Gayatri Spivak's famous proclamation, "The subaltern cannot speak", and her less-famous addendum, "If the subaltern can speak then, thank God, the subaltern is not a subaltern any more are relevant here. But to Spivak's two sentences, I would add a third: What happens when the subaltern speaks, but no one listens?"
In Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (2003), Christina Klein examines the postwar proliferation of American writing, plays, films, and other cultural productions that centered on Asia and the Pacific. What was the relationship between these works and the expansion of US power in Asia during these years? How do they reflect the tensions of the emerging Cold War era? Klein pays particular attention to popular middlebrow art—the musicals of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, the novels of James Michener, writings in the Reader's Digest and the Saturday Review. Often she places these against articulations of Cold War foreign policy such as White House memos, speeches, and State Department analyses. In the process, she explores how the artistic productions served "as a cultural space [End Page 604] in which the ideologies undergirding those policies could be, at various moments, articulated, endorsed, questioned, softened, and mystified" (8–9). In conjunction with official government policies, the artistic works, she argues, helped construct a consensus concerning our interactions with Asia and our national identity as a global power.
Not surprisingly, these middlebrow works of art were not concerned so much with Asia itself, its cultures, histories and people, but instead focused on Americans living, working, and traveling in Asia. Though the works, to some degree, reflect Edward Said's Orientalist binary logic of a racially inferior East and a racially superior West, Klein asserts that such portrayals are more characteristic of the pre–World War II era. In the postwar era, changing US attitudes toward race also changed US attitudes toward Asia and Asians. Thus, there appear in these middlebrow works frequent expressions of racial inclusion and a global consciousness.
Take, for example, the famous song "Getting to Know You" in The King and I (1956). In various ways, the staging, with Anna as the teacher and possessor of superior knowledge, reinforces a "Eurocentric system" (Klein 12). Yet Anna also seems to embody the possibility of a relationship between individuals "outside the coercive ties of empire" (12). By the end of the song, Klein asserts, the hierarchical structure has been loosened, though it has not vanished entirely. And of course, the audience for this song is not, in the end, the children of Siam but the postwar American adults watching in the theater.
Both this song and the musical are typical of the middlebrow works Klein examines. As they challenge racial boundaries and, to some extent, racial hierarchies, they also inveigh against an "internationalism based on religious conversion, territorial appropriation, or the direct rule of one people by another" (13). In doing so, they seek to legitimize...