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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.2 (2004) 149-160

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The Things We Share:

Ethnic Performativity and "Whatever Being"

University of California, Davis

In Philip Kan Gotanda's 2002 "The Wind Cries Mary" (an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler"), Eiko/Hedda ends the play (and her life) by committing seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide by dagger to the neck—not the long sword to the gut (so often portrayed in popular Western representation), the method properly reserved for a certain class of men, Eiko pointedly lectures in an earlier scene. But far more radical than the change in weaponry is Gotanda's placement of the act: Eiko dies front and center stage in full view of the audience (if not her distracted family and friends), unlike the sequestered Hedda.1 It is a somewhat surprising choice for Eiko, who has chafed under her husband's and in-laws' expectations of her as a "China doll," who demands coffee when her orientalist husband offers her green tea, who likes listening to Hendrix at full volume (much to the annoyance of her pop music-loving husband). In short, Eiko is neither a China doll nor Cio-Cio San, that fabled delicate "Butterfly" archetype of Asian (especially Japanese) femininity, transportingly erotic and beautiful in her death-driven devotion to her (white) husband and child. In one sense, then, her act is one of fierce defiance, her victory over the racist construction of oriental femininity into which the play, the world depicted in it (Berkeley ca. 1968), and especially the other characters, attempt to interpellate her. You want to see a real Japanese woman? in effect she taunts them, I'll show you a real Japanese [American] woman.2

And yet...the feminist debate over Hedda's "liberatory" end persists here as well: how "victorious" can self-annihilation be? What does it mean to say that the way one "wins" the gendering/racialization "game" is to opt out by killing oneself? And do so in the most spectacularly "oriental" way possible? Eiko's death, I would suggest, dramatizes the vexed condition of "ethnic" performance for Asian Pacific Americans. Caught between the (potentially self-canceling) pressures of exoticism/orientalism on the one hand, and erasure/invisibility on the other, Asian Pacific American theatre artists have the difficult task of carving out a space in which to perform an Asian Pacific Americanness [End Page 149] that is often too "American" to register as racially or ethnically distinct, and/or too "Asian" to be legible as American.

This dilemma is, of course, simply a reflection of the larger paradox posed by "multiculturalism" as a national origin myth. As Anne Anlin Cheng has observed, "while racial and social integration offer the preeminent American social myths, assimilation remains one of the deepest sources of anxiety in the American psyche" (Cheng 2001, 70). While Cheng's excellent study maps the psychic effects of racialization both on and by Asian Pacific Americans, I want to consider the paradox of American multiculturalism from a slightly different perspective: how might we make sense of it as an effect/production of national identity itself?

Elsewhere I've suggested that Asian Pacific Americanness (in mainstream representation) is an effect of "national abjection," the production of national identity (as a racialized/gendered phantasm/ideal) through the designation of that which is deemed "abject"/not-American (Shimakawa 2002). Julia Kristeva defines abjection as both a state and a process—the condition/position of that which is deemed loathsome and the process by which that appraisal is made—and deems "abject and abjection [as] ... the primers of my culture" (Kristeva 1982, 2). It is, for her, the means by which the subject/"I" is produced: by establishing perceptual and conceptual borders around the self and "jettison[ing]" that which is deemed objectionable, the subject comes into (and maintains) self-consciousness. The abject, Kristeva asserts, is constituted of that which is, at a foundational level, integral to the whole; what fuels the ongoing project of abjection is the drive to expel (and thereby differentiate...