- Neoliberal Family Matters
When Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), Yale Law School professor Amy Chua’s memoir about raising two daughters, both top-ranked students and outstanding musicians, was published, excerpts of the book, provocatively captioned “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” debuted in an unusual venue—the Wall Street Journal. The memoir provided an account of the relentless regimen Chua imposed to produce spectacularly high-achievers, including several hours of piano practice, homework, and extra tutoring, blunt or brutal criticism of their shortcomings, and a moratorium on playdates, sleepovers, television, and other activities deemed frivolous. Interwoven with her comments on child-rearing is the story of her younger daughter Lulu’s rebellion against this authoritarianism and Chua’s dismayed but determined efforts, first to quell her daughter’s defiance, and then when that maneuver fails, to claim Lulu’s subsequent achievements as a vindication of her parenting methods.
This polemical account of child-rearing set the blogosphere on fire, propelled the book into fifth position in the Amazon rankings, and turned the author into “the world’s most admired, feared, loved and loathed mother” (Baker). Weeks later, Chua debated Lawrence Summers, former Treasury secretary, and President Obama’s then-recently-departed head of the National Economic Council, on the merits of “Chinese” parenting versus “Western” parenting; the event, billed as one of the Davos World Economic Forum’s hottest panels, drew politicians, journalists, academics, and business people. Stunned at the attention her book had received, Chua remarked, “I certainly never expected to talk about my parenting skills, or lack thereof, at the World Economic Forum” (qtd. in Hilsenrath). [End Page 344]
This scalar leap from the domestic affective economy to the global political economy—a seemingly unlikely conjunction—is evidence of intense anxiety about the colonization of the family as a site for the formation and accumulation of human capital (education, training, emotional, and mental characteristics) in a neoliberal order. If, as Foucault suggests, the epistemological transformation of neoliberalism is the reconceptualization of labor from a fixed and abstract entity to a set of attributes and skills that enable an individual to earn an income over a lifetime, this view of the worker as an improvable “ability-machine” makes possible the extension of economic rationality to domains of intimate and subjective life once relatively insulated from it (226). The neoliberal understanding of human abilities as sources of potential income redefines child-rearing by treating a broader range of activities of care and cultivation, and not only educational and professional training, as potential “investments” in the human capital of children (229). This revaluation of all aspects of family life through their capacity to form human capital, Foucault points out, fundamentally transforms ideas of inheritance and filiality: “Their [educated families’] problem is not so much to transmit to their children an inheritance in the classical sense of the term, as the transmission of this other element, human capital, which also links the generations to each other but in a completely different way. . . . [A] family whose components have a high human capital will have as its immediate and rational economic project the transmission of a human capital at least as high to its children, which implies a set of investments, both in financial terms and in terms of time, on the part of the parents” (244). Foucault’s comments stress the shifting stakes of child-rearing in a neoliberal knowledge economy and shed light on the charged response to Amy Chua’s disciplinary methods for augmenting the human capital of her children.
Chua repeatedly invokes the near-miraculous ability of Chinese parents to turn out math and music prodigies in contrast to their American counterparts from other racial groups. Here, model minority exemplarity operates in two ways, functioning not just as a model for other minorities, but also for an increasingly beleaguered and shrinking white majority. While model minority identity was initially mobilized in the 1950s and 1960s against other minority groups to discredit civil rights demands for governmental racial redress, since the 1970s this figure has been rearticulated with new immigration, the Asian economic miracle, and globalization. Now harnessed to the actual rather than imagined ascendancy of...