- Inhuman Citizenship: Traumatic Enjoyment and Asian American Literature by Juliana Chang
Forty years ago, MELUS published its first issue, thereby promoting in print the goals of the organization that shares its name: to “expand the definition of new, more broadly conceived US literature through the study and teaching of Latino, Native American, African American, Asian and Pacific American, and ethnically specific Euro-American literary works, their authors, and their cultural contexts.” Thirty years ago, Elaine H. Kim’s Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context (1982) was published by Temple University Press, becoming one of the first monographs centered on Asian American literature. I begin this review with these two important predecessors to contextualize how Juliana Chang’s Inhuman Citizenship: Traumatic Enjoyment and Asian American Literature expands and extends the work of multi-ethnic literary criticism. Chang’s book concentrates on select Asian American narratives and a specific type of literary analysis (the application of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory) to critique US neoliberalism and US narratives of American exceptionalism. By thinking about Asian American subjects as representative of racial jouissance, Chang’s work becomes a productive and instructive investigation of how Asian Americans (and by extension nonwhite minority races) become alienated, particularly when they are themselves treated as alien to US formations of nationality.
Focusing on the concept of jouissance as an excess of joyful affect, Chang argues that this surplus finds a symbolic location in racial subjects whom she labels “racial inhuman[s].” For Chang, the racial inhuman is critical to understanding how narratives of US exceptionalism function in the national [End Page 212] imaginary to uphold fantasies of American progress. Asian Americans, as the nation’s so-called model minorities, constitute ideal citizens of the neoliberal state. However, in Chang’s analysis, the racial inhuman’s jouissance unsettles and upends these neoliberal constructions, particularly within the site of the domestic realm: “One of the central arguments of this book is that we should not automatically reject these figures of the racial inhuman as false and harmful. Instead, what if we accept and assume, impossibly, the condition of the inhuman? . . . How might this teasing out of national jouissance crack open the fantasies of the nation?” (4).
Linking the concepts of traumatic enjoyment, the racial inhuman, and the domestic sphere, Chang’s introduction provides a careful, thorough, and thoughtful mapping of these three terms and their importance to her overall argument about inhuman citizenship, a condition she defines as “the ethical practice of assuming responsibility for the racial symptoms, fantasies, and unconscious of the U.S. nation-state” (4). While her work is heavily invested in the language of psychoanalytic theory, she explains the utility of these concepts for what they can offer to the study of racialized subjects: “Although Lacanian theory has understandably been critiqued for its abstruse quality and its universalist deployments, I nevertheless find that its models and concepts offer a compelling alternative epistemology of race, nation, and capital” (7). As one who does not naturally turn to psychoanalytic criticism, I appreciated Chang’s explanation and deconstruction of Lacanian jouissance. Chang’s work employs the language of psychoanalysis in service to larger discussions of race and nation, placing it in the category of literary critique that does not just use theory for theory’s sake but pushes the bounds of criticism in both an Asian American/multi-ethnic arena and in the realm of psychoanalytic theory. By putting these two discourses into productive dialogue, Chang produces the type of scholarship that demonstrates the value of using literary theory to understand contemporary narratives of ethnic American literature.
The four chapters that follow the introduction each tackle a distinct aspect of the book’s title, looking at the racial inhuman as emblematic of melancholic citizenship in Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone (1993) in Chapter One, of shameful citizenship in Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son (2001) in Chapter Two, of romantic citizenship in Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker (1995) in Chapter Three, and of...