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The Minority Self as Other: Problematics of Representation in Asian-American Literature Essay

The problem is not that the c hildren are too young; the answeris not that “Jap” and “Japanese” mean the same thing—theydo not. The semantic difference between the two signifiers signalsa critical différence in speaking positions and enunciative power,between representations of Japanese Americans engendered bydominant American ideology and the possibility of articulating aself within an “ideologically neutral” nomenclature. The latter,however, is frustrated by a limitation inherent in the structurationand maintenance of the symbolic space of what I will call the dominant Other, wherein investments of representation echo in the gapbetween “lap” and “Japanese.”

Yet literature, as an exemplary rehearsal of liberal human-istic cultural activity, has been assumed to be an area whereinsuch ideological differences are bracketed out, superseded by theethico-aesthetic impetus toward truth and beauty. Thus, it is noaccident that the possibilities for representing an Asian-American Self’ as no longer subordinate to, but part of, the dominant Otherare sustained most vigorously in the realm of art, and particularly in the world of fiction—for it is there that the Asian-American subject can partake of the unity and authority (thought to be) enjoyed by the Other by authoring a Self that can share (at least provisionally) the imaginative power of the Other, and likewise predicatea subjectivity unbounded by race and ethnicity. Nevertheless, thedominant Other has one power inaccessible to the minority Self—it can withhold such possibilities and foist upon the minority Selfa set of predetermined and necessarily limited sites of representa-tion. It is precisely the tension between the potential for resistanceand self-construction and the counter determinations of hegemonic identification that I wish to address in this essay.

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To expose the forces that both solicit such identifications anddeny their realization within that field of representation it is crucialto go beyond crude observations of the imposition of racial stereo-types to critique the more subtle ways that a dominant culture presents the minority Self with a wide range of seemingly positivemodes of inclusion into its body of representations while simul-taneously subordinating the minority subject to the logic of the Other’s Symbolic. And it is equally important to historicize thepossibilities for resistance and the particular modalities that resis-tance may take on.

Sartre’s and Lacan’s notions of the Other, each elaboratedin extremely different ways from Hegelian ontology, have pro-vided compelling analytical modes for the problem of self-representation. In this essay I will read two Japanese-American texts against the models set forth by Sartre and Lacan. I am awarethat Lacan’s post-structuralist reading of the Self is constructed inopposition to the phenomenological model of Sartre. Neverthe-less, this tension should not problematize my use of both as figura-tive models which will help us allegorize the various attempts in Mori and Kaneko to predicate a minority Self against a dominant Other. I am using Sartre and Lacan in a particularly selective and circumscribed manner in order to offer two varied interpretive frameworks for this problem. Despite the fact that I will show howeach text lends itself to an interpretation informed by Sartrean andLacanian models of Otherness and Self, I posit in neither any fully operational definition of Self construction, particularly for the minority Subject. For, although when adopted to approach these two exemplary Asian-American texts both models yield particular insights into the problematic of constructing a Self from pre-existingmaterials belonging to the Other, issues of race, history, and ideology greatly complicate these philosophical and psychoanalytic models. It is in the work of Frantz Fanon, which in different waysdraws upon both Sartre and Lacan (while of course being sympa-thetic with yet ultimately critical of Sartre on several points), thatthe specific problematic of race and domination is brought forthmost clearly and productively, and I will use Fanon’s work pre-cisely as a counterpoint to Sartre’s and Lacan’s.

In Sartre, the Other’s objectification determines one’s onto-logical status. In his well-known analog}* of the Keyhole, Sartre setsup the following scenario; one is absorbed in looking through akeyhole at another, when one suddenly senses that one is beinglooked at—one’s gaze upon another is the object of an Other’sgaze. This forces upon one a recognition of the full significance ofone’s actions. Concepts like “shame,” “fear,” and “pride” (i.e., thoseconcepts that are the fabric of social, intersubjectivc being) haveno meaning for us without the Other to confirm them: “It is shameor pride which reveals to me the other’s look and myself at the endof that look. It is shame or pride which makes me live, not knowthe situation of being looked at” (261). We live fear, shame, pride,etc., only in seeing ourselves objectified by the Other; we can nolonger freely assert a phenomenological Self, but are ontologically situated in being, transferred from “being-for-itself ” to “being-in-itself.” One’s shame is a recognition of the truth of the Other’sappraisal of one’s behavior. At first one is only pre-reflectively aware of one’s action; after being inscribed in the look of the Other,one suddenly recognizes that one is performing an act that onewould “call” shameful, etc., upon seeing another performing it,and thus achieves a “lived” (and therefore “real”) sense of one’s actions. It is in this fashion that the individual recognizes his/her place in the world of others.

This conception of the Self as constituted by the Other’s gaze can be used to describe the manner in which the minority Self is anchored by the gaze of the dominant Other, lliere are, however, radical differences between how the minority subject might wish to see itself and the manner in which it thinks the Other sees it. For example. Sartre’s metaphor obviously calls upon a notion of language as a manifestation of social codes of power and censure—in it are lodged our notions of good and evil and our manners of predicating our selves in/to the world. For minority subjects, this model involves a sense of the authority of the Other to determine attitudes of fear, shame, pride, etc. that are not necessarily consis- tent with the subject’s own (desired) sense. For instance, for an Asian American to find a white looking through a keyhole presents a very different scenario from the reverse, and complicates the re- lationship between the two precisely in terms of the unequal distributions of symbolic power.

In Lacan, the mediation of the Other in the construction of Self occurs at precisely the moment that the ego can insert itself into the realm of the Symbolic. This entrance is highly problem- atic, since the Symbolic is always already there, pre-existent to the subject, and, far from being a free field, the Symbolic dominates and legislates the spaces open to the subject, allowing only certain kinds of signification while repressing or distorting others. Preceding the Symbolic is the Imaginary, the prevcrbal site of the mirror phase wherein the subject, able to sense otherness in its own specular image but unable to articulate and thereby stabilize that differ- ence, finds itself both narcissistically attached to that image and antagonistically contesting its position. It is caught up in a fiction that perpetuates its status of nonbeing even while presenting it with limitless possibilities in the Imaginary (its entry into the Symbolic necessarily closes the field according to the Symbolic’s repres- sive order, prescribing the subject).

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Rejecting the notion of a ‘ preformed’’ and unified subject simply “using” language, Lacan instead sees the entry into lan- guage as fraught with alienation and denial—the Symbolic, after all, is guaranteed precisely by the Law, the mediating function of the Other. While the Symbolic of the Other here is often personified and made an active subject working against the Self seeking the power to represent itself, it is actually the Unconscious that bars certain kinds of representation. In my adaptation of the La- canian model, I characterize this unconscious as the cultural authority of the Other that is part of the political unconscious of minority subjects. Here it is manifested in the self-representations of Asian Americans. In these self-representations, we see the medi- ating power of the Other prescribing implicitly and subtly the manners in which the Asian American can (imaginatively) fit into its signifying order.

Lacan’s Symbolic order is largely made up of “shifters,” espe- cially personal pronouns. One gives up one’s proper name in order to represent oneself as “I,” yet the power of that “I” to predi- cate itself in the Symbolic is delimited by the rules of syntax. The Asian-American “I,” coming into being in the Symbolic of the Other, is required to accept that syntactic Law; refusal or inability to do so throws the signifying subject back into the Imaginary, a stage of nonbeing. It is in moving back and forth between these lines of fiction that we can view’ these texts as evincing the problem- atics of representing the Asian-American Self within the Symbolic
logic of the Other

Finally, Jameson has pointed out that the third term in the Lacanian triad of Imaginary/Symbolic/Real introduces History into the critique and provides a basis for a compelling connection between Marxism and psychoanalysis. Here we see that the split between Self and Other for the ethnic minority must also acknowl- edge a particular materialist history in order for the Lacanian model to be useful for our purposes.

In Fanon’s analysis of the phenomenology of colonial subjec- tivity, we find a forceful elaboration of these notions of Otherness according to the problematics of race and ethnicity. While I am firmly aware of the specificity of Fanon’s critique, it is certainly appropriate to suggest cautiously certain linkages between the colonial and postcolonial situations Fanon outlines and the symbolic problematic I address here, specifically as Fanon speaks to the issues of self-representation within a situation of racial antagonisms of identifications and radically different positions of articulation. Fanon attacks head on the generalized ontology of Hegel: “Every ontology is made unattainable in a colonized and civilized society…. In the Weltanschauung of a colonized people there is an impurity, a flaw that outlaws any ontological explanation .. . for not only must the black man be black; he must be black in rela- tion to die white man” (109-10).6 He also criticizes the Sartrean scheme:

Though Sartre’s speculations of The Other may be correct (to the extent, wc must remember, to which Being and Nothing- ness describes an alienated consciousness), their application to a black consciousness proves fallacious. That is because the white man is not only The Other but also the master, whether real or imaginary. (138n24)

The logic of colonialism and its application radically alter any onto- logical scheme; it is only in Lacan’s work (in contradistinction to Sartrean phenomenonolgy) that Fanon senses the beginnings of an ideological critique of Otherness that might address the issues
of racism and power.

Most important for my essay is Fanon’s claim (based on his elaboration of Lacan) that the minority subject steps into a preinscribed symbolic from a very particular angle of entry marked by race and ethnicity:

The elements that I used had been provided for me … by the other, the white man, who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories. I thought that what I had in hand was to construct a psychological self, to balance space, to localize sensations, and here I was called on for more…. It is not 1 who make meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that is already there, pre-existing, waiting for me. (Ill, 134)

While it is important to understand that the elements so described must be taken to have a residual set of components, it is equally important to focus upon the insertion of new elements, the modification of former ones, and, most of all, the various, shifting usages of this prescribed symbolic by both the dominant Other and the minority subject that map out both modes of accommodation and potentials for resistance. In this essay, I trace the attempts by Asian-American subjects to appropriate that symbolic, and the nature of that contestation. My main line of argumentation centers  on what might be called a sociology of representation located within history. In such an endeavor, Robert Weimann notes:

The issue of historicity must be discussed on more than one level: not only on the level of what is represented (which would reduce this project to some genealogy of the signified) but also on the level of who and what is representing. The point is to view these levels (the rupture between them as well as their interdependence) together and attempt to interconnect the semiotic problematic of signification and the extra-textual di- mension of representaiiviiy, as involving shifting relations of writing, reading, social reproduction and political power. In this view, the use of signs, although never quite reducible to a referential function, must be reconsidered and the question needs to be asked: under which conditions and in which re- spects would it be possible to talk of social history in that area of instability itself which marks the relations between significr and signified, between the author’s language and the reader’s meaning? (96)

I want to stress both the powerful ways that hegemony selects cer- tain symbolic “slots” for different subjects, and the ways that those positions are sites of contestations that take on particular his- torirized forms. I will trace the problematic of self-construction
via the appropriation of a set of symbols of the Other, taking both narratives as allegories of the cultural politics of minority self- representation in the United States.

“Japanese Hamlet Breaching the Symbolic Stage

In many ways, Toshio Mori’s ‘Japanese Hamlet” (1939) is an extremely elusive text.8 It seems to offer a very clear and simple message, but a strong and persistent tension informs nearly each of its key moments—a tension between a faith in the power of . Art and artists (here synonymous with the Art of the dominant culture) to transcend race, ethnicity, and history, and a problematic that deconstructs such presumptions by showing how strongly and pre- cisely those differential forces impinge upon any notion of transcendence.

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The narrator introduces the protagonist. Tom Fukunaga, as  a 31-year-old “schoolboy.” Tom lives off five dollars a week (we are not told where this money comes from), spending his days study- ing to become a Shakespearean actor. He firmly believes that some day he will be inscribed within the cultural history of the Other:

“He played other parts in other plays but always he came back to Hamlet. This was his special role, the role which would establish him in Shakespearean history” (40; emphasis added). In this act of taking on the symbolic culture of the Other, we find an echo of Fanon’s anecdote: “there are many people in Martinique who at the age of twenty or thirty begin to steep themselves in Montes- quieu or Claudel for the sole purpose of being able to quote them” (Fanon 193). Such (re)citation serves as a marker of cultural capital, a sign of belonging and identification. In ‘Japanese Hamlet,” traces of anxiety about this endeavor are repressed, and instead we are asked to look upon this act as a simple, and eminently natural, case of emulation.

One relative alone persists in trying to detach Tom from his studies, and it is important to note the specific terms in which he attempts to dissuade Tom:

He tried a number of times to persuade Tom to quit stage hopes and schoolboy attitudes. “Your parents have already dis- owned you. Come to your senses,” he said. “You should go out and cam a man’s salary. You are alone now. Pretty soon your
relatives will drop yon.”

“That’s all right,” Tom Fukunaga said. He kept shaking his head until his uncle went away. (39)

Tom is caught in die Imaginary—he has not achieved a dis- tinct sense of the Other, and is thus able to entertain the possibility of standing in its place. However, it is precisely because Tom is positioned in the Imaginary that he is viewed as a child—he is orphaned by his family because he refuses to step out of the Imagi- nary and become “a man,” defined here as one who has relinquished the play of the Imaginary and entered into the world of labor and wage-earning.9 Tom is called upon to repress his indulgence in the Imaginary and predicate himself in the Other’s Sym- bolic, setting aside his infantile imaginings that are innocent of racial difference (and its accruing cultural exclusion), and give himself up as labor in order to be a “man.”

“The Shoyu Kid“: Looking as the Other

Lonny Kaneko’s “The Shoyu Kid” (1976) is an intensely vis- ual text that openly and explicitly problemati/.es the representa- tion of Self via the mediation of the Other. Here the mediation of the Other is played out through the complementary modes of looking at the Other and imagining the Other’s constitution of the Self as the object of its gaze. The central action of the story involves a number of attempts to stalk an other that are ultimately revealed to be replicas of the manner in which the hunters are themselves inscribed as objects constituted by the Other’s gaze. The text begins with the instantiation of the main act of stalking—three young Japanese-American internees hunt down a younger boy (the Shoyu Kid) in an attempt to get him to divulge his source of a precious commodity—chocolate. In the midst of this hunt there is another hunt—the camp community goes after a nondescript animal variously thought to be a rat or perhaps a rabbit. This hunt, embedded in the larger one. prefigures the inscription of both within a larger activity of objectification by the dominant Other.

The boys succeed in trapping the Kid and wresting a confes- sion from him—he has obtained the chocolate from an American soldier in exchange for “playing” with the soldier’s penis. The themes of betrayal (of race, community, sexuality, and gender) are complicated by the overriding thematic of the power and authority of the Other both to motivate such betrayals and to infect all the boys with the sense that they are in no position to condemn the Kid. since they occupy essentially the same position as he.

This complication of moral stance is linked to the complex relations among the internees, and between them and the Americans, i.e., there are a number of “others.” We can roughly construe the group of three Japanese-American boys as one subjectivity separate from the others: internees (identified as the Shoyu Kid, a group of elder Japanese-American women, a group of young girls, a grandfather) and the American soldiers, one of whom is singled  out. Behind all these subjects exist the larger ideological forces of America and Japan. The text’s obsession with the visual is linked to charting out these various positionings of self and other, each one mobile and occupying variously the role of subject and object.

One of the dominant modes of “viewing” comes through the narrator’s representations of his fellows and himself. His language is saturated by symbols gleaned from the popular culture of the Other—nearly every trope and figure rhetorically links the boys to America. The act of naming is a crucial example of this mode of representation. To begin with, the story’s title mimics the rhetoric of the Hollywood western—the “kid” is known only through this appellation foisted on him by the older boys. The name is both playful and mocking, coupling terms front separate discourses into an unstable amalgam that in turn destablizes its object. Japanese names are avoided as tokens of weakness; in renaming themselves, the boys either substitute the Japanese name with an American one (“Jackson” for Hiroshi) or distort the Japanese into an American- ism (“Itchy” for Ichiro). (Interestingly, the narrator, Masao, is never directly called by any name, a token of the fact that his is the most pronounced case of an observer who resists being observed, a point I will return to later.) Indeed, this aggressive denial of their racial ancestry suggests a link to Fanon’s description of reaction to racial persecution: “In order to react against anti-Semitism, the Jew turns himself into an anti-Semite” (182-83).

The ways in which the narrator represents his group replicate this sort of imaginative transfiguration and distantiation, and evince the empowerment they seem to bestow: ‘Jackson smiled his John Wayne smile and took the Kid by the overall straps where the lapels should be and shoved the kid up against the side of the garage. ‘You’d better shape up and talk, Kid’” (7). These represen- tations, so heavily prescribed by the image of the Other, most importantly involve a specific mode of seeing: “ flattened himself against the wall, and like a soldier in a war movie, peered around the corner” (2), and “Itchy was already peering around the corner like an Indian from behind a tree” (3). As the boys take on various roles in their imaginary world, each becomes endowed with a particular power of vision, of seeing without being seen. They become subjects that subject others to their gaze while seeming to remain unobservable.

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The Minority Self as Other: Problematics of Representation in Asian-American Literature Essay. (2017, Aug 07). Retrieved from https://artscolumbia.org/essays/minority-self-problematics-representation-asian-american-literature-5292/

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