- The Problem of Study:China in American Studies and the Materials of Knowledge
What [the Western nations] had failed to take into account was this: THAT BETWEEN THEM AND CHINA WAS NO COMMON PSYCHOLOGICAL SPEECH. Their thought processes were radically dissimilar. There was no intimate vocabulary. … There was no way to communicate Western ideas to the Chinese mind.—Jack London, “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910)
Between drafts of this essay occurred the election of the far Right to control the US military and government forces, raising the need to move from questions initially situated in a growing common sense of multiculturalism to ones steeped again in the dominance of white extremism. What a stunning example of how thin the line between the two, their shared worldview of white supremacy despite both cosmetic and substantive differences in how the latter is articulated. In the face of such momentous shifts, and because of them, Jack London’s early paradigm of Yellow Peril remains an appropriate starting point to engage the dilemmas posed by this special issue. A century later, mainstream US publics still alternately celebrate and denounce iterations of London’s vision of world peace: his futuristic fantasy of the genocide of Chinese people by Allied aerial bombardments, releasing genetically engineered plague-germ to eliminate the last planetary obstacle to “a vast and happy intermingling of nationalities that settled down in China in 1982 and the years that followed.”1 This ideological formulation assumes contemporary relevance among white fundamentalists not only in its specificity with reference to China but also in the generalizable template provided for analysis and ultimate solution, whether to resolve persistent problems of immigration or more primordial wars to occupy the Middle East.
We are thus reminded that throughout US history “the Chinese factor” as an enduring crisis for thought has long and significantly delimited the epistemological and political horizons of American studies and its sense of the world. In this regard, it is precisely London’s brilliance of clarity that, in perhaps unintended ways, anticipates as it provides a kind of diagnostic for the harrowing contradictions before us at present. Namely, I mean to highlight [End Page 523] the lucidity with which London’s story articulates racism in terms of wars of elimination, harnessing and harnessed by all the world’s most advanced social infrastructures and technological resources; the inextricability of modernity’s genocidal tendency from the production of racial ideologies; and, of greatest relevance for this discussion, the rendering of epistemological difference as the essential distinction that will always retain its racial mark even when other forms of difference—religious, visual, cultural, national, and so on—can be reinterpellated in specific moments to transcend “race.” From this perspective, the point of departure for my contribution to this forum’s interest in China studies is perhaps more precisely connoted under the heading of “studies” rather than that of “China.” What does it mean to study? What is at stake in our modes of study? And how do these questions cohere in our understandings of the place of China in the modern world, known simultaneously as relic of the past and problem of the future?
To begin pursuing these questions, this essay demarcates on a provisional basis an itinerary of study that instantiates the potential contributions of (Asian) American and ethnic studies to situate rather than alienate the place of China in global context, with the aim not to “correct” any particular model of study but to elucidate the materiality of knowledge, the function of study in social struggle, and the way these dynamics have historically constituted “China.” This historicization of modern China as a problem of study, then, brings into focus ongoing contradictions embedded in competing imperialist and capitalist imperatives: ultimately highlighting dominant multicultural projects as conditions of possibility rather than either antidote or binary opposite of white supremacist nationalism. More deeply and of greatest consequence, this perspective thus opens certain dimensions to consider racism’s negation from within the West and our part in the continuity or endurance of a distinct intellectual tradition therein.
At the outset, following interpretations offered by the “Chindian” scholar Tan Chung, two qualifications define the boundaries of this investigation’s...