- A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America by Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson
A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America begins and closes with performances that make palpable the force of the law and its suspension in the “Global War on Terror.” In Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s play Lidless (2011), a former Guantánamo detainee confronts his interrogator and adopts the abject poses of his interrogation to stimulate her memory of their encounters. In Tracking Transience (2002), multimedia artist Hasan M. Elahi offers an extravagant performance of submission to the ubiquitous surveillance of brown bodies by recording [End Page 157] and sharing his every movement with the FBI — and the public—through a website.
Situated temporally at one end of a study that extends from the late 19th century to the present, these performances encapsulate A Race So Different’s key concerns: the intersection of racialization and the state of exception; the demand made on bodies caught at this intersection to present themselves as proper subjects of the law and the nation; and the productive engagements of law and performance. Tracing these engagements across five chapters and a conclusion, Joshua Chambers-Letson resists favoring the legal over the aesthetic, or the aesthetic over the legal, showing instead that “there is an aesthetics to the law, including performance conventions and theatricality” and that “performance, theater, and art often function as agents of the law” (5). The result is an impressive work that integrates a careful analysis of theatre, music, literature, photography, and legal archives with a clear call to seek social justice beyond what might seem possible. Among the most compelling aspects of the book are the moments when it pauses on an image, a sound, a question, or a gesture that might provide a flicker of this “beyond.”
In developing a theory of Asian American “racial exception,” Chambers-Letson draws from important scholarship by David Palumbo-Liu, Karen Shimakawa, and others, which has established the simultaneity of inclusion and exclusion as characteristic of Asian American racialization. Highlighting the force of legal subjection in this dynamic, Chambers-Letson usefully connects work on Asian American racial formation with Carl Schmitt’s theory of the state of exception and Walter Benjamin’s argument that the “state of emergency” is the abiding condition of the oppressed. Attentive to transnational and relational formations of racial difference, the chapters build connections across time and space, such that we see the giant American flag on a mosque after 9/11 as kin to an equally large “I Am an American” sign on a Japanese American grocery store in 1942, and hear echoes of Lily Chin’s calls for justice for her son, Vincent Chin, after his brutal murder in 1982, in the appeals by the parents of Emmett Till, Matthew Shepard, Sakia Gunn, Danny Chen, and Trayvon Martin.
Mother and child—namely, Madame Butterfly and her son Trouble — stand at the center of Chapter 1, one of the richest sections of the book. The chapter attends not only to Puccini’s popular opera about a Japanese woman abandoned by her unscrupulous American husband, but also to its less-known precursors: the novella by John Luther Long, which was published in 1898, and the dramatic adaptation by David Belasco, which was first staged in 1900. Chambers-Letson skillfully shows the prominence of legal discourse across these three works. A scene in which Madame Butterfly imagines going before an American judge provides a compelling example of how subjects excluded by American law come to perform for it. Whereas Madame Butterfly’s suicide “resolves the question of her impossible national and racial subjectivity” (58), Trouble’s ambiguous status and uncertain future constitute a crisis of legal subjectivity. As Chambers-Letson demonstrates, this crisis continues to be played out in contemporary productions of the opera as well as in the Supreme Court. In cases such as Miller v. Albright (1998) and Nguyen v. INS (2001), for example, the court has...