- Body Parts of Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive by Nerissa S. Balce
In the current period of anxiety over the status of various “foreign others” and gender relations in the United States, Nerissa Balce’s very timely book, Body Parts of Empire, gives us a glimpse of the workings of US empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Edward Said points out in Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978) that the United States, unlike the other European imperial centers, did not have a long academic tradition of Orientalism that shaped discourses about “Oriental” Others while helping define Europe’s normative notions of themselves. Balce joins a growing number of studies of the US–Philippine relation as an imperial formation (such as by Allan Isaac, Oscar Campomanes, Victor Bascara, Paul Kramer, Dylan Rodriguez, Benito Vergara, and Vince Rafael among others) that fills this gap in critical scholarship. Her reading strategies make evident the similarities between US discourses and European modes of orientalism, and expose the doctrine of American exceptionalism as itself arising from the exigencies of empire. It would be of interest to students of American Studies, Asian Studies, and Postcolonial Studies.
Focusing on images and often unread cultural ephemera—ranging from songs, photographs, and journalistic accounts, to travel and popular novels—Balce utilizes a number of distinct methods and concepts to explore the archive of the Philippine–American War. Compiling secondary literature on the period along with reading the archive itself, she interrogates in clear simple language how the colonial encounter between Filipinos and the United States became legible and comprehensible to Americans: white soldiers and colonial bureaucrats, African Americans, and white middle– class women. Balce connects the tropes used to grasp this encounter with the earlier racial discourses of nineteenth-century America with regards to Mexicans, Native Americans, and African Americans. Balce’s study of the utility of this US redefinition of itself as a colonial and imperial power beyond the continental confines of America is useful to our understanding of the twentieth century’s subsequent pax Americana and the mode of “governmentality” needed to manage current racial and gender relations.
Balce argues that the encounter between Filipinos and the United States was understood through a gendered racial lens of abjection. In Balce’s book, the trope of abjection itself, understood as a mode of apprehending the [End Page e-16] world’s social mapping and maintenance of white supremacy, can be used to read the web of power hierarchies that undergirds empire. She shows, through numerous examples, that US colonial discourse has a syntax and a grammar—an ordering of populations that justified white supremacy and privilege, even for those against formal US involvement in overseas imperial projects. In Balce’s text, the comprehensibility and legibility of empire’s encounters and legacies affect and constrain how discourse is structured and experience is narrated, regardless of political loyalties. She articulates and registers the imbrication of Filipino objectification in US popular culture with older nineteenth-century racialized and gendered discourses, and more crucially, the structures of feeling of those living through the United States as an empire. The context of imperial encounter is an ideological terrain that Balce shows overdetermines many, though perhaps not all, responses to it. Her mode of reading abjection in, and through, the archive attempts a delineation of the parameters of this overdetermination.
In her first chapter on the “Abject Archive of the Philippine-American War,” Balce argues that abjection was the trope used to incorporate Filipinos as digestible “objects” of US discourse, and that this objectification was in consonance with the violent modality of white supremacy manifested by American expansionism and nationalism throughout the nineteenth century (and perhaps well into the twenty-first). While 1898 constitutes a critical threshold in the United States becoming a global imperial power, Balce shows the continuity of imperial tropological dynamics with continental expansion in the nineteenth century and the abjection of conquered Native American and Mexican populations through war and territorial...