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Journal of Asian American Studies 6.2 (2003) 215-219
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Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women. By Laura Hyun Yi Kang. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. 2002.
Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women is an ambitious monograph that urges readers to think more critically about the usefulness of identity as a theoretical framework and the methodological limitations of disciplinarity. Laura Hyun Yi Kang applies her critique to knowledge produced by, about, and for Asian/American women, using the slash as a shorthand reminder of continental (Asian), national (American), and racial-ethnic (Asian American) pressures as they bear on our understanding of this cohort of women. In conversation with Michael Omi, Howard Winant, and Lisa Lowe, Kang describes the category of "Asian/American women" as an "overlapping but also distinct racial gender formation at the nexus of higher education, cultural politics, grassroots and institutional activism, and both national and international policies" (13). Kang bases her Foucauldian critique of identity on three intertwined processes—of visibility, surveillance, and documentation—that together produce intelligible and exploitable human bodies.
Visibility refers to a process of naming and the resulting recognition of social identities, while surveillance and documentation ensure a fixing of differences within these categories. Knowledge produced through this trifold mechanism of "encased specification" is intertwined with and supported by powers embedded in academic disciplinarity. Kang warns readers that marginalized groups can claim visibility "under the most insidious compulsions" (18). For her, the creation of disciplined, identity-based scholarship constrains alternative possibilities for identification and knowledge production. While many understand the burgeoning body of scholarship by and "about" Asian and Asian American women as advantageous, Kang urges readers to rethink the "terms and conditions by which Asian/American women have been rendered legible, visible, and intelligible" (17). [End Page 215]
Methodologically, Kang employs "trenchant interdisciplinarity" to think more skeptically about producing knowledge around social identities. "Trenchant" here signals an "agnostic but nevertheless situated relation" to existing disciplines and their complicity in contributing to techniques of social control. Kang argues that the prefix "inter" is employed as a spatial term, which implicitly reveals academic disputes over territory and the imbuing of disciplines with a seeming "fixity." In contrast to this territorial figuration, Compositional Subjects proposes an "in-betweenness" or "being in the midst of" disciplinary knowledge and structures as a productive approach when studying the histories and cultures of Asian American women. By employing trenchant interdisciplinarity, Kang begins her task of articulating the "historical contexts, ideological suppositions, and methodological tactics" that compose the category of Asian/American women.
Examining the composition of Asian/American women through the lenses of literary criticism, film studies, history, and anthropology, Kang's goal is to show how disciplines "privilege particular modes of subjection." Beginning with the debates surrounding the classificatory status of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, Kang registers her primary interest in the disciplinary and identity battles within and across the boundaries of literary studies and Asian American studies. Canonized as an American autobiography, The Woman Warrior was deployed to signal the inclusive potential of literary studies. While literary studies embraced The Woman Warrior as a marker of cultural difference, many Asian Americanists criticized the book for emphasizing sameness or universality among Asian Americans. As will be familiar to those engaged in Asian American studies, rather than being regarded as a single work of literature, The Woman Warrior was interpreted as speaking for an entire culture, as transmitting truth about an Other, and as supporting an understanding of national, gender and ethnic difference as stable. Kang revisits these debates and shows how the categorization of Kingston's work as an autobiography expanded its legitimacy as an ethnographic and historical exploration of ethnic identity.
From this exploration of the writing self, Kang moves through the composition of Asian/American women as desiring bodies by and within film studies, as citizens by and within the discipline of history, and as transnational workers by common practices of ethnography. Kang's chapter on ethnography examines how Asian female working bodies have become vital features of...