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positions: east asia cultures critique 8.2 (2000) 389-421
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Scenes of Misrecognition:
Maternal Citizenship in the Age of Transnational Adoption
The Internet postings of some U.S. parents adopting infants from China make compelling reading. They illustrate how cyberspace has become a medium for the formation of new kinds of subjectivity and social “space” and how these intersect with the history of family sentimentality, while reflecting the conditions of postmodernity in which very small children are caught up in transnational flows of human capital. Moreover, insofar as China adoption makes possible the formation of interracial families, these Internet discussions have become an important site from which to consider constructions of identity as they are being transformed at the turn of the century. Not all adoptive parents participate in Internet communications, and even for those who do, the Internet is only one site in which parental concerns and desires are articulated. Indeed, one compelling question is: What forms of expression does the Internet make possible that may be inexpressible by any other means? In this sense, Internet communications allegorize [End Page 389] the process of globalization itself in which transnational adoption becomes a feasible means to form families and speaks to the larger issue of new formations of desire. This is perhaps all the more reason to recognize that parents who participate in Internet discussions may thereby well get pulled into articulating thoughts they may not otherwise express. This essay must therefore limit itself to excavating these discussions as a specific discursive frame on transnational parenting, rather than presuming to represent the sentiments of adoptive parents more generally. Yet the necessity of such an acknowledgment leads us irrevocably to the question of subjectivity itself, as a historically contingent process irreducibly imbricated with the materiality of communication and how this may be transforming in the age of “web-based modes of knowing.”1
I have organized this essay around a set of issues that tended to recur in discussion lists over a period of about two years. One of the most compelling of these is the importance of constructing a cultural identity for the Asian adoptee, an issue that absorbs parents both on and off the web. The politics of race identity in contemporary U.S. society is what ultimately drives this area of parental concern. But what is particularly interesting is how the discourse of multiculturalism sets up the paradox of absorbing “difference” into the intimate space of the familial while also reinscribing it. At the same time, this absorbing project of constituting cultural difference seems at times to spill out into the domain of pleasure.
How are we to read this pleasure? This essay is perhaps only partially successful in exploring this question and its linkages to globalization. But, at the same time, it compels yet another level of analysis that speaks to the practice of white, middle-class parenting more generally in exploring how race and class must always be constructed for the child, even when they go unmarked. In constructing a race identity for a child who may not be racially identified with the parent, this process is made much more explicit. The object is not to critique adoptive parents but to have their more explicit practice aid us in thinking about issues of race and class more broadly.2
The efforts of adoptive parents to construct a Chinese cultural identity for their child anticipates the problems of identity that emerge when the child begins to question her or his difference. However, the danger lies in constructing a culture that is purely celebratory and devoid of history. There [End Page 390] can be no doubt that the discourse of multiculturalism has enabled a progressive politics of antiracism that has empowered new kinds of subjects seeking racial equity in a society historically reluctant to grant this right to some of its citizens. But its very success in doing so has given rise to conservative appropriations that give the surface effect of embracing diversity as a way of “containing” difference. All too often...