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  • Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots
  • Nancy Abelmann
Strange Future: Pessimism and the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. By Min Hyoung Song (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005. xii plus 285 pp.).

Strange Future is, I think, a strange book. But, likely Min Hyoung Song would take this for high praise. To be strange for Song is (I think) to "bear the materiality" of the present condition and yet to imagine a different—a better—future. I take then the "strange" of Strange Future as a charge, one at moments profoundly optimistic even as the work's subtitle offers "pessimism." I understand that Song offers his "strange" text as yet another testimony to the past and a path towards a (better) future, not unlike the many texts that populate this work of cultural criticism. Not surprisingly, then, the work in not easy-going: it is neither for the faint of heart nor the casual interloper. And for its ambitious engagement with relevant literary and sociological discussion, most prominently those in Asian American studies, Strange Future is at points ponderous. But it is also, despite its seriousness, pleasurable: for it offers a whirlwind tour of a fascinating cluster of literary and cinematic texts. Song here is bricoleur par excellence—and we get to come along too.

The Los Angeles Riots—yes, riots, Song insists—insist on being remembered. The texts that bear their testimony, like the riots themselves, speak to our national decline, to the "triptych . . . of . . . societal changes": "alien invasion, the misery of poor urban blacks, [and] the declining futures of a white middle class" (10). A Korean American critic, like the many (although by no means exclusive) Korean American cultural producers introduced in the work (Song reminds us of their disproportionate presence in the country's cultural scene), is (again) "disproportionately" responsible for the memory of the Riots. Song meets the charge, and then more some. The work resonates with a burning question: What can cultural works—and what can we—do in the face of the triptych above that has led to little but a dangerous—and indeed, pessimistic—contract with neoliberalism (154). The answer lies in the imagination: that ability to imagine otherwise. Most pointedly, a willingness, however trite, to walk in others' shoes and see the world anew—what Song names intermittently "civic virtue" (88).

Flashes of hope, then, guide Song's cultural tour. The cultural texts here are neither/nor: neither wholly productive (for they wax nostalgic—e.g., Ray Bradbury's 1946 The Martian Chronicles (among the Riots' "literary prehistory," chapter 1) nor wholly pessimistic (for there are flashes of civic virtue—e.g., Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 film Strange Days, chapter 2). The work's ur-text, like that of the Riots themselves, is the video, the beating, the imprint of police brutality. With other critics, Song challenges us to consider how the American public reads such texts, and whether we can find there a foothold for a civic virtue in which we imagine anew a social order that would care, in which we would care. In this [End Page 249] vein, Anna Deavere Smith's 2004 Twilight: Los Angeles, 1993 (chapter 3), Dai Sil Kim-Gibson's 1993 independent documentary Sa-I-Gu: From Korean Women's Perspective (chapter 4), and Chang-rae Lee's 1995 Native Speaker (chapter 5) are promising (if at points, pessimistic). Twilight documents, Song offers eloquently, "the straining of social relations in an age of neoconservative irresponsibility, the ever dwindling of sharable public spaces, and the isolation that grows more acute the more we find ourselves associating with people who are just like ourselves" (133). And yes, in all their materiality, the interview texts that comprise Twilight at once "attest to the deep desire for interaction" (133). Song's meeting with Sa-I-Gu is, I think, the most interesting in the book. Song considers his own "feeling of grief" as the famous photo of the sole Korean American L.A. Riots victim, Edward Lee, "dissolves into color" (i.e., the blood becomes visible, making Edward's death legible to his mother) (145). Song challenges "Can we learn to give care to others who...


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