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Reviewed by:
  • Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics
  • Jack Skeffington (bio)
Transpacific Imaginat ions: History, Literature, Counterpoetics. By Yunte Huang. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. 202 pp. Cloth $35.00.

Yunte Huang's Transpacific Imaginations makes much of Herman Melville's use of the phrase "the deadly space in between" (Huang even, at one point, used it as a working title). Differing from works that seek to track the migrations of a people from one shore to another, to drive traffic to underappreciated beachheads, or to correct imbalances in the flow of power, Transpacific Imaginations remains content to stay at sea, where it draws a Venn diagram of Pacific fantasies. Huang is interested above all in discourse and more specifically in where the discourses of those powers invested in the Pacific come into contact, and, at times, conflict. Many are happy to measure the waves as they crash ashore; Huang, by contrast, attends to those places many [End Page 100] leagues from shore where currents meet and mix with currents and winds press against unseen waves.

Transpacific Imaginations remains at sea by charting a wide-ranging and eclectic selection of discourses—the resultant course visits Mark Twain's travel writing, Henry Adams's autobiographical omissions, Chinese historian Liang Qichao's explorations of America, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the graffiti left by immigrants laid over at Angel Island, Lawson Fusao Inada's internment camp poetry, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictée, and, in the conclusion, Araki Yasusada's hoax. This itinerary demonstrates the provisional nature of constructions like "the Pacific" but also indicates the depth of understanding an ethical reader must bring to bear on these constructions born of competition and conflict.

Huang begins the first third of the book, "History," with a declaration of his intent to demonstrate that beyond being a contested, multinational space, the transpacific has become an ideological construct of such importance and such varied composition as to inherently undermine "all appropriative discourses that rely on the definitive formulas of 'the Pacific IS'" (12). Through Twain's business-boosting travelogue of his sightseeing tour to Hawaii, Huang uncovers the innumerable "intentional and unintentional misreadings" produced by any accounting of experience, and through what was not written into Adams's autobiography, he manages to find "the limits and pitfalls of America's transpacific vision, or, rather, double vision" (23), a vision that becomes a "double denial—of history and of historical worth" (24). China's transition from the Middle Kingdom to a nation among nations—experienced at the personal level as "a process described by Liang as one of change from a villager (xiangren) to a citizen (guoren) and then to a cosmopolitan (shijieren)"—is the background against which Liang's struggle with the new space of the Pacific, the question of the role of historians, and the art of poetry unfolds (42). The juxtaposition of these figures illustrates the undeniably fluid grounds on which any "history" of the Pacific must be futilely built.

Having firmly established the contested and imaginary historical space of the Pacific in the first third of the book, in the second section, "Literature," Huang narrows his focus to Herman Melville's Moby-Dick . He explicitly breaks with traditional allegorical readings, which tend to view the work in terms of a series of binaries (good/evil, light/dark, etc.), and also with more recent criticism, which ties Melville closely to America's imperial expansion. Huang illustrates a resistance to industrial and imperial processes inherent in the novel by "looking at 'collection' as a central motif . . . and by studying the subversive poetics embedded in the antiquarian, anti-utilitarian mode [End Page 101] of collecting" that runs through Moby-Dick (53). Huang works through Benjamin to establish collecting as an essentially anticapitalist practice and suggests that Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, as a practice outside of the usual channels of production and use, establishes a counternarrative at the heart of a novel ostensibly about the triumph of an industry and America's Pacific expansion.

In "Counterpoetics," the book's third, but not really final, section, "history is interrogated for its fictionality and fiction attempts to reclaim its historicity" (97). Calling attention to...