- The Cultural Capital of Asian American Studies: Autonomy and Representation in the University
While Asian American studies emerged from the crucible of the third world liberation movement of the 1960s, it has since then focused on securing a perch within the university against various institutional barriers. Owing a double allegiance—one to the university and one to the legacies of the movement—the field provides, along with other components of ethnic studies, a most intriguing site for studying the ways in which the modern U.S. university interacts with real world politics. What choices has the field had to make collectively to accumulate intellectual legitimacy? And what has this struggle meant for the field's relationship to the visions of the political movement that gave rise to the field? Mark Chiang's work offers what is to date the most thoughtful, extended, and theoretically informed analysis of these questions.
Adapting Bourdieu's theory of the field of cultural production, Chiang advances an extremely nuanced and rigorous argument about a basic pattern underlying the trajectory of Asian American studies. He constructs a useful model of the historical development of the field as a site of capital accumulation and [End Page 309] conversion. Scholars in Asian American studies conform to prevailing conceptions of intellectual autonomy and legitimacy so as to increase the cultural capital in the field's possession. They position themselves as "representatives" of all Asian Americans while effecting the redistribution of power in the academy. Nonacademic individuals who self-identify as Asian Americans, on the other hand, do so to gather political capital. They become the "represented" of the field and are thus largely excluded from positions of cultural authority. The university, then, figures in Chang's analysis as an interface between the "representatives" and "represented" of Asian American studies, a place, in other words, where the political capital that the "Asian American" category accrues is converted into the cultural capital that sustains Asian American studies as an academic field.
A crucial moment in the history of the field that Chiang uses to illustrate his argument is the controversy that erupted in 1998 over the decision of the Association for Asian American Studies to give its annual fiction award to Lois Ann Yamanaka's Blu's Hanging. Chiang offers a highly incisive reading of the incident. For him, the award committee's insistence on their original decision shows that, as an academic field, Asian American studies adheres to the ideals of intellectual and artistic autonomy, interpreted as autonomy from the demands of Asian American communities for "correct" or "nonstereotypical" representations. In a brilliant move, Chiang reads the novel as a coded effort to anticipate and address the critical debates around it. Yamanaka, he argues, hurls a retort at her critics by having Ivah, closely identified with the author herself, claim cultural authority over the other local characters in the novel.
Blu's Hanging is just one example of a set of landmark literary texts carefully studied in the book. Chiang uses literary texts in a central way, as we have seen, as cultural sites and formal embodiments of important debates that have defined the relationship between the cultural and political aspects of the Asian American movement. Moreover, as Chiang demonstrates, literary and cultural studies scholars have played a particularly significant role in Asian American studies' drive for cultural capital within the academy. Analyzing a 1995 Amerasia special forum on the role of theory in Asian American studies, Chiang argues that the espousal of literary and cultural theory has led to articulations, as one sees in Lisa Lowe's Immigrant Acts, of antirealist, antiessentialist understandings of Asian American history and identity. These understandings, memorably phrased as "strategic anti-essentialism" in Kandice Chuh's Imagine Otherwise, serve, according to Chiang, as a strategy for increasing the field's legitimacy vis-à-vis the discipline of literary studies, which is preoccupied with studying formal constructions of social identities and power relations. [End Page 310...