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  • Introduction
  • Susie J. Pak (bio) and Elda E. Tsou (bio)

The purpose of the following collection of essays is to analyze the epistemologies of the field of Asian American studies through the disciplines of literature and history. The interdisciplinary focus of this volume emerges from a set of political and methodological obligations shared by both disciplines as "Asian American" bodies of knowledge. Specifically, this involves what we are calling an "epistemology of the given," defined by an approach toward representation that regards it as self-evident. The process of naturalizing representation implies an epistemology that commands a "metaphysics of presence," an erasure of the historicized process of signification such that the meaning of the sign appears immediately "present" to itself without mediation.1 For history, this epistemology occurs as the "body" of the Asian American subject; for literary criticism, it occurs as an instrumental approach to literature such that its relationship to "Asian America" appears present to itself. Collectively, these essays ask: How might Asian American history be constructed without an Asian American body? How might a literature called "Asian American" be reterritorialized without the content-driven tether of "Asian America"?

In the four decades since the inception of Asian American studies as an interdisciplinary field of inquiry, the question of the body has been a central issue. But for just as long, scholars have problematized the coherence, the utility, and the limitations of an "Asian American" body. From [End Page 171] the beginning, the field understood its intervention as a two-part project for the recovery and invention of the Asian American subject, the effects of which produce a critique of dominant hegemonic frameworks and institutions.2 Working against a history of exclusion, absence, and misrepresentation, Asian American scholars concentrated on accounts of Asian American experience that rectified the omissions and errors of the past by featuring prominently Asian American voices, bodies, and points of view. Literary critics emphasized the authenticity of literary counternarratives, while historians focused on oral histories and ethnographies. Terms like "excavation" and "discovery" served as indices of an Asian American "body" of knowledge conceived as a visible, empirical, and self-evident proof of Asian American presence.

In the ensuing decades, as scholars noted more than twenty years ago, the parameters of the field have drastically shifted from "claiming America" as changes in immigration, a rising professional middle class, and profound economic, social, and political transformations have altered the landscape of "Asian America."3 Nevertheless, even in a vastly reshaped terrain where terms like "difference," "diaspora," "transnational," and "comparative" have replaced the cultural nationalism of the 1970s, something like the old essentialism still persists as the reigning epistemology of the field. Asian American historiography and literary criticism continue to depend on Asian American "bodies" as the primary means of identifying Asian American knowledge. By "body," we mean not only the bodies of actual Asian American subjects but also a reliance on the immediacy of representation itself such that some form of an Asian American subject, whether conceptual, empirical, or synecdochical, acts to secure the identity of the field.

Historically, Asian American studies has been strongly marked by a narrative of the body and its various iterations (voice, agency), perceived as cognates for presence (truth, experience, knowledge). This narrative involves the recuperation and the representation of an Asian American presence that has been negatively defined by the exclusion, expulsion, and exploitation of Asian bodies; that is, by absence. But the significance attached to the body in Asian American studies has resulted in an epistemological attitude assuming the transparency (or at least lack of complication) [End Page 172] of the representational apparatus itself, referring to the "body" of knowledge or the Asian American "body" as self-evident entities without historicizing or problematizing their representation.

This special issue seeks an interdisciplinary engagement with these questions. What we are calling the "epistemology of the given" occurs in both disciplines as the following: first, as a critical tendency to devalue the apparatus of representation, such that the content under analysis appears self-evident; second, as a narrative of social transformation justifying the field's continued existence by connecting its increasingly institutionalized subject matter to its so-called subjects, a connection figured...


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pp. 171-191
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