- The Arresting Eye: Race and the Anxiety of Detection by Jinny Huh
The Arresting Eye is a varied interdisciplinary and comparative work that examines a wide set of cultural productions—from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day—in which the act of racial passing is intrinsically linked to the anxiety of detection, a type of narrative that the author generically defines as "race detection" (6). The discernment or acknowledgment of race, but also its misperception, is a process that creates anxiety both on the part of the detected and the detector, or detective. Huh's argument consists in applying the concept of ratiocinative detection introduced by Edgar Allan Poe and developed by Arthur Conan Doyle to a postcolonial reading of texts that question one's ability and authority to detect and expose a person's race. By relating detective fiction and passing narratives, The Arresting Eye aims to explore how "race, visible or invisible, provokes unease" (4).
From this perspective, detection or undetection is conceived as a dangerous (because incomplete) act that principally highlights two ways of dealing with racial identification: first, that everyone has a role to play in race detection, making no one entirely innocent; and, second, that race detectors always base their cognitive determinations of race on a common knowledge that has been and still is essentially defined by the vision of the privileged white male. This patriarchal and colonial point of view is the issue at stake in Huh's first chapter, which is dedicated to exploring Doyle's personal relationship with Africa and the biased perception of race that he presents in his work. Huh especially focuses on an 1893 short story titled "The Yellow Face" in which Sherlock Holmes's detecting abilities, usually so powerful, are defeated by an act of passing. Huh makes a valid point when she asserts that Doyle's detective stories, much like Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," have to be interpreted within the historical context of racial science, for example, which transformed the socially constructed notion of race into an objective discipline. Accordingly, she explains that Poe and Doyle established a method liable to master the anxiety caused by the possible undetection of race through passing. Nevertheless, while Huh narrows the scope of her analysis to the concept of race, it could have been stimulating to consider the increasing feeling of ontological fragmentation that took hold of Western metropolises during the same period. In other words, if one can argue that the orangutan in Poe's story works as an allegory of the African man, one cannot dismiss the idea that the animal might [End Page 180] as well represent any stranger (and thus potential criminal) hiding in the middle of the urban crowd.
That being said, The Arresting Eye nonetheless aptly states that race detection is only one facet of mankind's desire (and inability) to build firm knowledge and identities. The lack of stable identity is a common trope in both detective fiction and passing narratives, the former trying to impose truth on a chaotic reality while the latter struggles to evade truth. The two genres ultimately reveal that there is no such thing as objective truth: race is a social and cultural construction and the search for identity is an endless, ongoing process.
This is what Huh demonstrates in her detailed close readings of works by two major female American writers: Pauline Hopkins, the mother of the African American detective genre, and Winnifred Eaton, who, along with her sister Edith, is one of the principal figures involved in the rise of Asian American literature. Both Hopkins and Eaton present texts that are deeply concerned with the epistemological and ontological questions underlying the complicated experience of race detection and passing. Huh shows, for instance, that in Hopkins's "Talma Gordon" the detective plot is secondary to the racial, gender-based, and political agenda behind Captain Gordon's murder. In a similar manner, chapter 3 examines how Eaton's Japanese romances (written under the pseudonym Onoto Watanna) deal...