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American Literary History 15.3 (2003) 603-624
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The State and Subject of Asian American Criticism:
Psychoanalysis, Transnational Discourse, and Democratic Ideals
David Leiwei Li
Much of Asian American criticism, be it literary or cultural, has been preoccupied with the definitional scope and struggle of what is "Asian," what is "American," and what is "Asian American." The question "to be" is not so much a question of essence underlying the category per se as it is a question of the social relations and circumstances through which an identity can stake and secure its very claims. Although the historical presence of Asian America as a communal geopolitical space and Asian Americans as a people can be traced to the founding of the US, their explicit categorical emergence is quite recent in origin. This gap between a material actuality and its discursive absence betrays the contradiction between the universal and the particular in the formation of an American national culture. To put it simply, an American universal of abstract citizenship is historically embodied in the particulars of a European morphology, whether it is in the form ofthe national image, its proper genealogy, or institutional and cultural legitimacy. The dominant particular is presented as an inclusive universal but translated historically and materially as a practice of excluding other particulars. In this historical imaginary of the American democratic vista, the Asian American is that which exists without a proper name and an appropriate contour.
One may logically locate the explicit naming of Asian America(ns) in the 1960s when the US as a nation-state began to shake its racialist foundation and to assure legislatively the fundamental civil rights of all citizens. It would be a mistake to assume, however, that an identity will automatically articulate itself once the [End Page 603] condition of its suppression eases. The categorical emergence of "Asian America(n)" was enabled by several factors. First among them was the postwar repeal of de jure exclusion and school desegregation. Native-born Asian Americans are now able to access dominant cultural capital through public education and the medium of English. Second, the US response to the demand of transnational capital resulted in the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which ended de facto exclusion and opened the door for entrepreneurial and professional immigration from Asia. With the changing nature of the nation-state and the changing class composition of the ethnic constituency, the peripheral particular screamed for democratic equivalence: Asian Americans wanted to be heard and seen because their participation in the republic entailed public representation.
Ironies abound. Although decolonization of Asia and Africa provided much political impetus for domestic group claims, and the motion of global capital affected the new migration of people, the Asian American articulation in the 1960s and 1970s generally refused to center the trope of the transnational; instead, it was preoccupied with the national. Writers, critics, and scholars primarily address the legacy of racial exclusion and the segregated status of a territorially confined national culture that characterized much of Asian American existence until then. Identitarian claims thus pivoted on the Asian American as a subject both bound by and integral to the geopolitical space and historical narrative of the US. The editorial endeavors of Roots: An Asian American Reader (1971) and Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (1974) were intent on accessing the power of the American universal, the abstraction of democratic ideals and its political potential for the fulfillment of an ethnic equivalence. While claims of identity are always intertwined with justification of cultural uniqueness, the paradigm of the first Aiiieeeee! (whose foundational role in Asian American criticism should be noted despite...