- Cultural Studies
Rachel Lee’s The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies (New York University Press, 2014) is a book that returns us to biology, challenging and enriching the very foundations of Asian American cultural and literary critique and its premise that the category of Asian America is a social construction. Instead of being reactionary and essentialist, Lee’s ambitious assembling of technoscientific and humanistic approaches allows for a serious consideration of the most timely and urgent questions that we face in the age of global capital’s optimization of certain lives over others. Beginning with a seemingly straightforward question about Asian American artists’ obsession with body parts, Lee’s capacious exploration of human (and other) life presents the biological as paradoxically central to Asian American cultural studies’ move toward a subjectless theory while noting how the biological (through the ethics of disability, cross-species interpenetration, multiscalar ecologies) operates through familiar matrices of power that could be characterized as Asiatic. In other words, Lee takes the body—in its broadest, most generous definition—seriously in order to consider the posthuman (or the extra- or interhuman) and the kinds of emergent imaginations, materialities, and futures we must look to for an ethical Asian American critique.
Lee innovatively brings traditions of Asian American cultural critique into conversation with performance studies, and feminist and queer (or “femiqueer,” to use her phrasing) scholarship in medical humanities to produce a truly interdisciplinary work that will have a profound impact on the field. Her book is a sustained meditation on and extension of theories of biopolitics and biosociality and their organizing violence while also an impressive model for how Asian American studies as a field can uniquely inflect and should engage with new technologies, science studies, and what Donna Haraway has dubbed “naturcultures.” Presenting plasticized human flesh, teeth, peristaltic and vaginal functions, chimeric ecologies, mental disability, and illness in Asian American cultural productions, Lee deftly parses out how a more profound and expansive understanding of biology can provide a dynamic rereading of family formation and theories of race and governmentality. Her nuanced close readings of an eclectic archive (literature, performance, stand-up comedy) illuminate how the body or the bios in its manifold forms are central to how social life is governed and vice versa. The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America offers a more complex understanding of power and an ethics of agency that is at once paradigm-shifting, generative, and hopeful. [End Page 425]