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American Quarterly 55.3 (2003) 499-506
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Envisioning a "Trenchant" Interdisciplinary Practice:
Writing on Asian/American Women
University of Michigan
IN THE WONDERFULLY RESONANT IMAGE THAT OPENS COMPOSITIONAL SUBJECTS: Enfiguring Asian/American Women, Laura Hyun Yi Kang points to Afong Moy, the first known Chinese woman in the United States. Generically tagged as "a Chinese lady" while on display at the American Museum in New York, the exhibit of this intriguing specimen in 1834 preceded, by just a few decades, the enactment of legislative acts barring the entrance of "Mongolian, Chinese or Japanese females" of questionable moral purpose and character into the United States (1). The shifting historical tide from fascination to fear—from "a Chinese lady" to a suspect collectivity of women—highlights the tangle of history, legislative control, representational strategies, and ideological assumptions delimiting the appearance of Asian women in the United States. Through this opening set of contrasts, Kang effectively establishes the critical approach she takes in her study. Her book focuses on the conditions that structure representations of Asian/American women and emphasizes "the particular historical circumstances, ideological suppositions, and methodological tactics that enable and constrain that compositional instance" (3). Foregrounding "the troublesome place of Asian women in the United States at the crisis-ridden intersection of social difference and its controlled surveillance and documentation," [End Page 499] Kang deftly reveals how knowledge produced about Asian/American women within particular disciplinary locations reproduce and legitimate those methods.
Compositional Subjects is an impressive work of synthesis that innovatively engages with a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields including literary studies, film studies, history, anthropology, Asian American studies, and women's studies. The first four chapters critically interrogate representations of, and scholarly writing on, Asian/American women within specific disciplinary formations; a final chapter offers discerning interpretations of the cultural expressions of Korean American artists whose poetry, prose, photography, and film offer creative responses to questions of disciplinarity, social identity, and embodied forms of knowledge explored in the earlier chapters. Through her wide-ranging analysis, Kang examines the emergence of particular "stock compositions" of Asian/American women within disciplined modes of inquiry: as writing subjects in literary criticism; as desirable projections in American cinema; as national citizens in history and historiography; and as model bodies for transnational labor in an array of social science research. By examining how knowledge-claims about Asian American women are produced through historically contingent conditions and disciplinary protocols, Kang unsettles disciplinary regimes of knowledge production, exposes their implicit assumptions and inheritances, and emphasizes their partiality and historicity. Her incisive analysis of scholarly writing on Asian American women in a range of disciplinary fields (and subfields) leads Kang to challenge how knowledge about minoritized subjects continue to be positioned as "belated and still minor objects of study to established disciplines" while also being praised as instantiations of the democratic and inclusive impulses of disciplines (5).
While Kang draws on what are commonly regarded as interdisciplinary fields such as ethnic studies and women's studies, she also critically interrogates the terms, methods, and status of their interdisciplinarity. Contending that knowledge about Asian/American women is frequently produced through established disciplines such as literature and history and that Asian American studies and women's studies have been institutionalized through models of multidisciplinarity, Kang rightly points to their current limitations; indeed, demarcations dividing "established" disciplines and "emerging" interdisciplinary fields have grown blurred. Furthermore, Kang critiques models of [End Page 500] interdisciplinary scholarship as "crossing" disciplinary bounds or as "innovations" or "correctives" upon traditional disciplines, for such representations "imbue disciplines with a substance and fixity while it has drowned out the other possibility of the prefix to signal a temporal in-betweenness, as an interregnum" (21). Drawing upon writing on social identity and disciplinarity by such scholars as Lisa Lowe and Arjun Appadurai, Kang thus advocates for what she terms a "trenchant" interdisciplinarity. She elaborates: "in its implications...