The "Metaphysics of Presence," as the editors of this special issue observe in their introduction, is fundamental to the constitution of Asian American studies. Envisioned as the resistance to absence, presence becomes both corporeal and spatial: the racialized body of history and literature's Asian America. These subjectivities and representations, both varieties of presence to be sure, undergo reification as essentialisms of real substance as in authentic cultured selves, not fakes and secure home bases, not alienations within the nation-state. How they are constructions rooted in time and place, in the first instance, does not figure in this formulation; in fact, they, like experience, form baselines immune from critical scrutiny.
It is truly astonishing and perhaps more revealing than we would like to admit that ethnic studies, emerging from a swiftly flowing confluence of revolutionary work and theorizing, has so quickly surrendered the churning waters of struggle so eagerly engaged by founding activists and scholars. I am thinking about how third world studies became ethnic studies at the moment of its institutionalization. The Third World Liberation Front, we know, was inspired by the anticolonial, antiracist strivings of the majority of humankind in what W. E. B. Du Bois memorably termed "the problem of the twentieth century"—a momentous transnational project that aspired to undo over 400 years of world history.
By contrast, ethnic studies was a field conjured by the Chicago school of sociology specifically and U.S. sociology generally, involving a turn [End Page 167] from race to ethnicity, centering on the process whereby European immigrants became Americans—assimilation, an early-twentieth-century national concern. Remember the great debates of the 1970s that propelled a fledgling Asian American studies around the circuit of assimilation? Assimilation, we concluded, was racist, but our critique failed to apprehend the architecture of the discourse and its genealogy. Accordingly, the argument pivoted on "identity," and not on the power of ideology and language and the entire system of signs underwriting the apparatuses of the state, economy, and society that interpellate these subjectivities.
Similarly, immigration's push/pull hypothesis still dominates our historical and literary imaginations. If we were to trace its filaments we would discover Chicago ethnic studies as one of its anchors. Questions like how Asians became Americans, or were prevented by exclusions from becoming typical Americans, or were compelled to experience deterritorialized and fractured lives, or became global citizens within a diaspora, all miss the structures of migrant labor and dependency and their functions and resistances. And civil rights, or for Asian Americans the inclusion of "aliens ineligible to citizenship," still ranks high as a founding ancestor of ethnic studies while self-determination, issues of sovereignty, and a transnational third world solidarity have fallen onto hard times along with the bankrupt postcolonial state. Revolutionary fervor has faded into obsolescence.
Even racial formation, a sharp and welcome theoretical critique of cultural nationalism and sociology's ethnic turn, requires the body, albeit constructed and historicized, as its singular object of study. Race's primacy is such, Omi and Winant contend, that it is irreducible and all-pervasive, constituting mutually the totality of political, economic, and social forces. Women of color, notably African American women through their engagement in activism and intellectual work, recognized early on that race was but one factor in their oppression; in fact, they observed that the intersection of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation comprised an interlocking system weighing upon them. Ethnic studies/Asian American studies has yet to embrace fully that capacious insight and politic, wedded as we are to the racial formation.
My point is simply this, and the introduction and articles collected here only serve to affirm my belief, that ethnic studies/Asian American [End Page 168] studies requires an archaeology of knowledge, a fieldwork into the sources and objects of our projects to apprehend our condition and the means for our liberation. The trenches mapped and dug herein on interdisciplinarity, on the intersections of literature and history, on the transgressions of national borders, and on the work of literary devices are revealing and transformative, as is the important critique of the territorialized body posed in the introduction—splendid beginnings all...