According to the 2000 census, the first to include the option of checking multiple race boxes, nearly seven million Americans identify as multiracial. One in six babies born in Seattle, Sacramento, and San Antonio is multiracial. Now the 2010 census is here. One imagines the census-taker, going steadily from door to door, perhaps surprised at what she finds. What of the artist, canvassing the same neighborhoods, equally concerned with representation and identity–what does she see? What response does she fashion?
It’s said that by the time the 2010 census is completed, it will have cost our government some $14 billion to implement. Unfathomable…the amount of marketing-publicity dollars (Super Bowl commercial) being spent to rev up census-spirit, to try and quell all the controversies that have grown around this head count, while our education system shrivels, wars wage on, military funding rises, health care reform wanes, and on. Last October, one census-taker in Kentucky was found dead in a cemetery with a noose around his neck and the word “Fed” written on his chest. One box on the new census form includes “Negro” as an option to check. And what do gay couples who cannot legally be married mark for marital status? And what of the many foreclosures–where is home now? Boycotts have been organized; privacy issues raised; though most are probably too busy and/or depressed to care. Whatever changes in regard to redistribution of federal funds or redrawing of congressional districts (byline: Alaska admits 50 members!), one still looks out at a sea of stale, pale, male faces that is Congress. To consider a few quick census numbers for this elite group: of 535 members, a) only 92 are women (highest in history); b) only 76 are minorities (i.e. “non-white”); c) the average age is 56 for the House, and 61 for the Senate (the youngest is a 29-year-old Republican lad from Illinois); d) only three are openly gay. This and one congressman/woman on average represents 650,000 citizens! Some numbers are difficult to shake.
Today there may be no more slaves to count as 3/5 of a person, but there is a disproportionate number of black males incarcerated who also cannot vote. Racism is a hydra-headed creature. At the moment there is a bill being reviewed by the New York state legislature that proposes inmates should be counted in the upcoming census with respect to their hometown rather than the place of their incarceration. Some Republicans are against the bill. They want their constituencies to receive more funding for people they have no need to represent. Currently there are over two million people in our prisons. Even large numbers of legal immigrants are obligated to pay taxes but are not given the right to vote.
To get back to the confusing, oddly worded question originally posed, I don’t think the census-taker will be particularly surprised at anything she finds, demographic-wise. Multiracial numbers have been there from the beginning of the Republic (invisible or otherwise, between “white” ethnic groups and beyond), and have only continued to grow. People have sex and kids regardless of race. They’ve even fallen in love. Nor is the census-taker “equally concerned with representation and identity.” She is simply doing a job, asking questions and checking boxes. No form can ever plumb the depths of race, as race, as we all know, is never just about race, is so much more, can mean nothing and everything, while such given categories always subsume the individual details. In his 1971 essay on race and culture, LÃ©vi-Strauss writes, “Minority communities that we have seen emerging in various parts of the world–for instance, hippies–have been distinguished from the mainstream population not by race but only in lifestyle, morals, hair length, and clothing.” But in America, the land of immigrants forging new identities, generation after generation, issues of race have always taken center-stage. The hope of our society, in this respect, has always been to get past the numbers, past the statistics, of that which can be manipulated and easily avoided, to face exactly that which we can avoid, as James Baldwin eloquently puts it, for “what we can avoid is what he really, really means to us.” The “he” Baldwin refers to here is African-American, but one can replace him with other minorities.
Now let’s say the canvassing census-taker-artist is also a plumber, or a clerk. She, too, is not “particularly concerned with representation and identity,” certainly no less concerned than any other plumber or clerk trying to find her way in the U.S. The artist will see exactly what the census taker sees in this respect. What is different is that she as an artist will hopefully examine herself and the situation with care. That is what an artist does. She will know that nothing’s fixed in our society. She will know that there’s much more to these numbers and boxes and ten questions. She’ll know that the tensions of American life, as well as the possibilities, are immense, and that she cannot deal with her work compulsively, but must engage deeply, beyond the form (see Baldwin). The rest of it is not representation but transmutation, alchemy. Response depends upon heart, brains, and courage (and genes and environment, culture and the individual). Let’s not forget inherent patience and humility in art–of the given craft.
Nikki S. Lee takes photographs of herself in different situations. Her most well-known work is a series of photographs called Projects (1997-2001), where each image she’s staged to some degree so that someone else is actually taking the snapshot. In these photos she assumes the appearance of a particular societal community or clique to identify with–yuppies, hip-hoppers, Hispanics, skaters, punk rockers, tourists, swing dancers, senior citizens, schoolgirls, exotic dancers, Ohio trailer park residents, lesbians. There she is in each photograph, frozen in a perfect casual moment–usually public, sometimes intimate–hair, make-up, dress blended into her environment like a chameleon, with more personas than BjÃ¶rk or Pessoa. These photographs have been praised for exposing various cultural codes, linked to the work of Cindy Sherman and Tseng Kwong Chi, criticized for being gimmicky, content-light. The ironical realism is emphasized with the date stamped clear in the image, the trade signature of amateur photographers. But what exactly are the photographs depicting? That our identities are multiple and fluid is hardly new news, and certainly doesn’t need reminding in obvious ways through art. All photographs lie to some degree, or are like pools of dreams for us to project interpretation. Do they say something about how we act in order to feel accepted by a particular group? What I find most compelling is that Lee isn’t really any of the identities she’s posing as, nor their sum (“I don’t want to explore my personal life in my work too much,” she says). They aren’t even necessarily personal fantasies, the desire to be other than what one is. They are much too amusing and tongue-in-cheek to pass as such. In fact, the limit of these photographs is precisely the limit of representation that we can expect from appearances, what we have come to accept as certain societal expectations we see in a person because of how they are overtly identified, by their race, gender, class, political affiliation, sexual orientation–form-questions. Strangely enough these expectations are constantly being reinforced then undermined not only in our personal encounters, but in the larger political, public realm. And yet we’re always surprised when these expectations are undermined. Either disappointed or overjoyed, rarely content.
What is–perhaps deliberately–absent from the Nikki-personas is the sense of an interior life. Of Lee’s work, a New York Times critic wrote that it “reinforces the notion that America is the ultimate melting pot.” But it is really the opposite case: no one here wants to be melted. This comes back to Baldwin (“The question is what we really want out of life, for ourselves, what we think is real”), and relates to the LÃ©vi-Strauss quote above. It is obvious in her photographs that Lee enjoys passing among these multiple identities. The project is fun and smart, but also a conceit she’s already moved away from in her work. (Interestingly, her recent Parts series takes a more introspective photographic turn.) And much can be (and probably has been) said about her compositional techniques, the meticulous way she assumes a surface-identity, individual gestures–all worth considering. In the same Times article, Lee’s quoted as saying, “I’m not Korean-American, which means I don’t have issues about race.” I wonder if this statement was clipped or fudged in some way. And if not, if she was tossing out a facetious barb or is now a little embarrassed about it (I would have liked to see her facial expressions when she said it). On the one hand, she’s being blunt and coy about America’s obsession with race, and on the other, if taken seriously, she’s being ignorant about herself, her culture, and the rest of the world. It’s not that people have issues about race. Everyone is simply thrown into it in different contexts, oblivious of history or not. A frame structure, to borrow a Susan Howe book title. Even racists don’t have issues about race. They just don’t like other races.
I recently read a review of Percival Everett’s new book I Am Not Sidney Poitier that calls him “America’s pre-eminent post-racial novelist.” I’m not sure what “post-racial” means. Everett’s work certainly questions our many preconceptions about race in hilarious ways. “I don’t believe in race,” Thelonius “Monk” Ellison says in Erasure. The reviewer quotes this and more as epigraph. He later turns his own “post-racial” remark into a kind of playful koan, but wonders “how far American fiction has to go before it arrives at a fully post-racial identity.” As long as racial prejudices and inequalities exist in the frame structure, there won’t be “post-racial” anything (and this label will only hold in retrospect, has more to do with appearances and expectations). Representation is the impossible ideal of our democracy, where influence rules. The result exposes the insularity of our multiracial society. A response fashioned would involve further examination, openness, and respect toward each other. To reposition the frame structure? Making meaningful art on our own true terms can only help make this happen, as the interior enlarges inseparable from reality.
C. Dale Young
It is amazing when one considers the option for identifying as multiracial was not a part of the U.S. Census prior to the year 2000. In parts of the world, such as the Caribbean and Latin America, being multiracial is quite common. In the Caribbean in particular, this betrays a different kind of prejudice, one based on Class rather than Race, a byproduct of European colonialism morphed after years of incremental Independence. But here in the United States, in particular, the populace is knowingly and unknowingly fashioned by ideas of Race. So, despite the fact there are seven million people, or more, who are multiracial, they are, for the most part, unseen by the mass media. Only recently, with the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America, has the term hapa become more prevalent, a result of his mixed-race heritage and the fact he comes from Hawaii where such a term exists.
I feel it is important at this point for me to admit that I am multiracial. I am half Caucasian, one quarter Puerto Rican, an eighth Chinese, and an eighth East Indian. I can tell you that throughout my life I have had to endure the question, “What are you?” Some of the people I did my medical residency with were so surprised at my racial/ethnic mix that one nicknamed me Dutch because he said that was about the only thing not in my makeup. But this is all digression.
What an artist sees and what a census worker sees are different things. The census worker is there to collect data. The artist looks at how a community, the amalgam of that data (in this case, people), creates a culture and, as a result, Art. I may be terribly wrong in saying this, but I believe the artist looking at the United States, even in communities of color, will find that the majority of Art created reinforces the logic and order of the Caucasian male, specifically a Caucasian male descended from a European background. Yes, there are areas where a large population of Latinos or Asians are the majority and you will find those heritages more prevalent, but as a whole, looking at the United States, this is difficult to see.
If one looks specifically at a multiracial population, the culture and the Art of that culture become more difficult. Many multiracial people are forced to identify as one aspect of their makeup. It is almost as if the population at large finds it too difficult to interact with someone who has more than one cultural element. Even in a city like San Francisco, which has one of the largest Chinese populations outside of China and, as a result, one of the largest numbers of multiracial people (due to Chinese marrying people from many different races and ethnicities), I constantly meet people here who identify as white or black despite the fact they are half Chinese. There are others who relish the fact they are not of one culture and love aspects of all that they are given access to by being a product of different cultures.
The artist canvassing these communities with multiracial people will have a difficult time teasing out how these different cultures are expressed and in what proportion. That said, the most incredible part of an artist observing these communities will be the realization that the stories arising in them are wildly unconventional being a byproduct of minds which have seen and interacted with two or more “worlds.”
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest
joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners . . .
Song of Myself 335-342
The last famous census-taker in American poetry came up with a surprising finding indeed. Walt Whitman discovered that the United States was populated by precisely one person–himself–though, of course, that solitary singer contained multitudes within the imaginative precincts of his literary persona. Counting himself as a Hoosier, a Badger, and a Buckeye–and even crossing the border to assume “Kanadian” citizenship in this passage–Whitman shows how great art can interrogate our most basic assumptions about census and consensus, polity and identity, pluralism and union.
This territory has become something of a minefield for the politically minded poet working today, as our body politic has grown so diverse and, indeed, so fractious that it might seem imperious (or even imperialistic) to speak as Whitman did for the many. Poets today generally prefer to speak for themselves, not as representatives of larger groups, but rather, at most, as individual specimens within broader social genuses, phyla, and kingdoms such as Indian-Americans, Asian Americans, or just plain Americans.
Later in his writing life, Whitman too became interested in the subject-position of the specimen–as opposed to the universal spokesperson–when he gathered his various remembrances of the Civil War, his journeys through the American West, and his reflections upon the natural world in the aptly-titled Specimen Days and Collect. This progression–from the poet as a vatic representative of everybody to the poet as a specimen capable only of registering her own experience–might in some ways be a natural progression, from the exuberance of youth to the epistemological modesty of old age.
But I myself feel uneasy with both approaches to representation and identity. Perhaps a third way might be found in the governmental census form itself, in that most cryptic yet expansive of categories: “Other.” I like the idea of a poet who registers her own otherness, leaving all other boxes unchecked, for those boxes seem somehow inadequate to the task of fully registering the complexities and nuances of identity in our time.
I don’t mean to repeat the familiar argument that categories like “Asian American” or “Latino” are simply too vague to account for the differences between, say, Chinese Americans and Korean Americans, though that is an important argument, of course. In fact, this argument has made a material difference in the articulation of race and ethnicity reflected by the current census form itself. Today we have many boxes from which to select–“Asian Indian,” “Chinese,” “Japanese,” “Korean,” “Vietnamese,” and “Filipino,” as well as a kind of holding pen for those other peoples who may someday be deemed worthy of their own boxes but who, for now, are relegated to the demographic purgatory of “Other Asian.” This is all due to the urgent political work of arguing for a more sophisticated taxonomy of our cultural diversity, and I’m all for that.
But as the census form grows increasingly complex in response to this ongoing political argument, I do find myself feeling the occasional twinge of nostalgia for the broad ontological horizons opened up by the category of “Other” which used to appear on various official forms I filled out while growing up in this country. Today’s census has done away with this category entirely, replacing it with the far less poetic option of “Some other race–print race.” The repetition of the word “race” in this formulation illustrates the way in which race has become the primary marker of one’s otherness in our culture. And I think this comes at a price, because race and ethnicity can eclipse the plurality of other “othernesses” which shape the interiority of each individual in contemporary American society.
Perhaps the poetic census-taker of our time would make some revisions to the census form. The census is a form, after all, and poets are obsessed with form. Perhaps this poet would applaud the proliferation of boxes in which one might register his or her racial identity, while preserving a space at the bottom of the page for the radically minimalist category of “Other.” And I think this literary census-taker would relish the possibility of inscribing entirely new concepts of identity into the blank space–the “___________”–that follows “Other” on such an imaginary census form.
I think this might be the work called for today, if a poet is to confront the question of identity in relation to the body politic. In some ways it would result in the opposite of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”–it would be like writing a “Song of the Other,” or the “Other of Myself,” or simply an “Other Song.” It would be a poetic census-taking that recognizes how contemporary experience is always-already shot through with otherness, filling the blankness of “_____________” with language so that this abstract line becomes a new kind of literary form with its own meter and cadence.
Up to now, Asian American poets have been satisfied with either importing traditional Asian forms like the ghazal or the haiku into English, or with mastering conventional English forms, or with adopting experimental methods descended from the Modernist tradition of the West. But I would like to see a poetry that made of the blank line that follows “Other” on the census form a wholly distinct literary form which captures these writers’ simultaneous exile from and engagement with both Eastern and Western cultural forms, be they avant-garde or traditional. Of course, this might sound like an aesthete’s response to the question of census-taking in our present historical moment, and it probably is. But there are plenty of people smarter than myself who can speak to the politics of census-taking, so I’ll limit my response to the imaginative sphere of art. In the republic of letters, as Whitman shows us, the census can take strange forms.
I take the overlap of sentiment in the forum replies as pointing to the present census as an archaic form more concerned with its own form, rather than any meaningful engagement with the American populace that it patriotically proposes to be. As it is, a form of expensive waste that will end up being more helpful in what it doesn’t reveal, than what it does. A very American form, indeed, stereotypically corporate, business as usual let’s get the job done.
The three respondees all suggest the need of looking outside conventional racial boundaries if we are wanting to make any improvements to our human condition. I appreciated C. Dale Young bringing up class prejudice in the Caribbean, though I was curious to hear more about how he sees this being manifest within the various cultures there, in relation to other prejudices. As a part of the world that has been destroyed by slavery and trade and corporate farming and tourism and yet continues to exist as paradisal getaway for the same countries who have continued to underdevelop it, while the inhabitants still persevere and adapt and find new ways–the class issue expands within and without, there and here. I recently read that the average life expectancy of Haitians today is their mid-thirties. How the American military has recolonized the island post-earthquake under the banner of security and control is disheartening and terrifying to say the least. How this connects to the “logic and order of the Caucasian male” that Young brings up later I was also eager to hear more about. In the context he makes of this being a mostly European tradition that American art reinforces, I was thinking of the logic and order of exploitative global capitalism, which every race is forced to contend with. I felt the descriptive could use some further specifics and definition, perhaps especially for those Caucasian males who are as much resistant to the Caucasian male as others.
Reddy bringing Whitman into the mix branches into some interesting territory, particularly given Whitman’s conflicted relationship with slavery, as Nathaniel Mackey, for one, has written about in his book Paracritical Hinge. For despite Whitman’s protests against the slave trade and the treatment of slaves throughout his life, which at one point cost him his job, he was swayed by racist ideologies, such as the pseudoscience of phrenology, and even his poems, in all their impossible American idealism, fight for common air, and fresh out-of-the-cradle rhythms, at times betray an ambivalence about the African people and the possibility of their place in America. Some of his letters and journals are even overtly disparaging. I note this not to promote a general takedown of Whitman or to cast a shadow on his poetry and activist activities, but to second Reddy’s uneasiness with how Whitman’s project has passed down to us, which, as all art, was systematic of his history and age, and thus the need for deeper readings. If Whitman is still taught in our pre-college schools today, I wonder if students are moved beyond the easy-to-swallow, surface-simple democratic symbol into a world of certain limits and contradictions, for Whitman’s barbaric yawping desire for complete empathy and a whole America in this poem–“plan, union, form,”–is the stuff dreams are made of. And yet it is one of those weird laws of nature that by trying to be everyone and everything, even in words, one ends up being no one, the flexible Dao. Or the Self that is America? His song of many selves in the Me myself, “knit of identity,” “I am the clock myself,” to the late lines of another poem, “Myself though every by-gone phase–my idle youth–old age at hand, / My three-score years of life summ’d up, and more, and past, / By any grand ideal tried, intentionless, the whole a nothing…”
I wonder, too, if poets speak for anything else besides the poem. If that, even. That no matter if writing about this or that, or asked to write about this or that, ceremony or ritual or instance or emotion, despite whatever the poet thinks or chooses, the poet is inevitably erased by the poem. And if the poet, or some reader, says the poem was written for this or that, then a certain category has been established before or after the fact. Or, maybe the poem is essentially written for understanding, and understanding’s relation to everything. I wonder if even Sor Juana wasn’t writing poems for God, but because of God, toward a deeper understanding. Is this the blank that follows Reddy’s “Other”? I’d like to point him to a poem I think he and like-minded others will appreciate, called “Otherness Touched” by Danish poet Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied, which is in the current issue of Two Lines (by coincidence, I guess I should say here, co-edited by the me of myself, with Natasha Wimmer).
Lastly, I’d like to comment on Reddy’s desire for this Other kind of work, Asian-American or otherwise, that is simultaneously exiled from and engaged with different cultural methods, resulting in new forms. I think we’ve seen some of this work, like Theresa Cha’s Dictee, Chuang Hua’s Crossings, Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag, the novels and essays of Zhang Ailing. I think there are many other examples if I’m reading Reddy’s thoughts correctly. I’ll end with a couple samples of another poet that I feel fulfills this post-Other blank: a shout out to a significant collection of poems published in 2009 by University of HawaiÌ’i Press called Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984), which is but one island in an archipelago-life of poetry and translation. Here’s one Westlake poem:
how we spose
feel Hawaiian anymoa
barefeet buying smokes
in da seven
eleven stoa . . .?
And another poem:
15 years today
i feel like
crying . . .
C. Dale Young
I am excited to read the intelligently written responses by both Srikanth Reddy and Jeffrey Yang. I particularly liked Yang’s closing comments in his first response where he writes: “As long as racial prejudices and inequalities exist in the frame structure, there won’t be ‘post-racial’ anything…” How true that is. But I do question if “making meaningful art on our own true terms can only help make this happen.” I question this because, as Reddy points out in his response, there are difficulties and differences inherent in one group such as the one labeled Asian American or the one labeled Latino. How then to negotiate and navigate the making of Art when you have allegiances to more than one group and, also as a result, to none of them? Maybe the Whitman model Reddy alludes to is a better one than I previously thought.
I cannot say I have any idea what the census-taker sees, especially because in many parts of the country, it is all done by mail. The artist, the more I think about it, is going to have his/her vision influenced by his/her own backgrounds and interests. In the end, I feel even less sure of what any of us can actually see when we look at people or groups of people in the world.
All of that said, I believe it is important for all of us to have these conversations, if nothing else because it prompts us to stop and think. We all wear such different shoes. We all walk with such different gaits.
The diversity of responses to this forum’s question reflect, to my mind, the fundamental issue raised by the very notion of census-taking itself–namely, the imperative of registering radical diversity within any sort of given form. C. Dale Young’s personal meditation on multiracial identity in contemporary America, Jeffrey Yang’s ekphrastic investigation into the poetics and politics of Nikki S. Lee’s photography, and my own hopelessly improbable ars poetica each present a very different sort of contemporary artist’s perspective on race in America. Indeed, these perspectives vary so widely in approach and style that it’s rather difficult to see how a real conversation can possibly arise between voices speaking in such alien idioms. But of course that’s the whole point of the kind of pluralism that the census seeks to record and foster in the end. So I’d like to spend some time here thinking about Young and Yang’s essays, because, taken together, I think they present a complex and valuable composite perspective on the question of representation in a multiracial society. I’ll leave my own remarks on this topic aside for now, as it’s always more interesting to hear people other than oneself reflect upon one’s ideas.
Young observes that “the artist looking at the United States, even in communites of color, will find that the majority of Art created reinforces the logic and order of the Caucasian male, specifically a Caucasian male descended from a European background.” And of course this is quite true. To me what’s fascinating about this remark lies in the phrase “the logic and order” of white men, as Young seems to be zeroing in here on a very nuanced sense of what precisely gets reproduced when an Asian American short story writer, for example, publishes a highly polished Raymond Carver knock-off in a prestigious literary journal. The content is not “Caucasian” in such a case; these kinds of stories often feature non-Western locations, characters faced with familial predicaments quite foreign to European readers, and various other exoticisms. Rather, it’s the form, or what Young calls “the logic and order” of the classic (or Modernist, or Romantic) Caucasian artwork, that gets reproduced when an Asian American writer publishes a Carver-esque story set in, say, Hong Kong or New Delhi or wherever. So it’s not really changing the grounds of literary representation for a writer to simply “represent” Asian American experience within a form (or genre) borrowed from the governing culture’s aesthetic lexicon. In fact, as various scholars in the field have observed, it may only serve to reinscribe the logic and order of Western cultural forms within the Asian American imaginary when this happens. Young’s remarks, then, foreground the problem of form–the “logic and order” of an artwork–faced by Asian American writers working in their various genres today.
Yang approaches this problem from a different angle. Considering Nikki S. Lee’s Projects as a way of staging the problem of self-representation within a multicultural (and multiracial) society, Yang writes that “the limit of these photographs is precisely the limit of representation that we can expect from appearances, what we have come to accept as certain societal expectations we see in a person because of how they are overtly identified, by their race, gender, class, political affiliation, sexual orientation–form-questions.” In other words, if I am reading Yang’s complex and nuanced argument correctly, Lee’s chameleonic self-portraits (as a yuppie, a Hispanic, an exotic dancer, a skateboarder, or an elderly person) reveal the inadequacy of a particular notion of form in representing the elusive interiority of today’s multicultural subject. “What is–perhaps deliberately–absent from the Nikki-personas is the sense of an interior life,” notes Yang. I think this is exactly right. Lee’s self-portraits show us precisely where a certain kind of inwardness does not reside–namely, in the clothing, make-up, and various other signifying appurtenances that give one the formal appearance of membership within the various communities she infiltrates and inhabits. If Young locates the problem of representation within the sphere of form, then Yang’s essay reveals the inadequacy of one notion of form–i.e., “appearance”–in addressing the task of representation itself.
This is deep water, and perhaps Whitman may be useful once again here. To stage one’s self-representation as a skateboarder, an exotic dancer, or a Hispanic person is formally analogous to Whitman’s literary posturing as a Kentuckian, a Louisianian, a Georgian, and even a “Kanadian” in “Song of Myself.” Both exercises in plural self-fashioning result in a kind of negative definition of identity. Lee seems to be saying that she is essentially, in her “deep heart’s core,” whatever remains hidden or obscured by the various costumes she adopts in the photographs; likewise, Whitman seems to dress himself in deer-skin leggings, snow-shoes, or fishing gear in order to discover what self remains constant throughout such formal variations. In either case, the essential identity of the artist remains unrepresentable–though I imagine many scholars of Whitman would disagree with my skeptical reading of the poet’s work in this case. Nevertheless, I’d argue that both Whitman and Lee illuminate the way in which form (construed as “appearance”) lapses into the condition of content under certain representational circumstances. This is a complex problem, but I think it becomes clearer when one thinks a bit further about photography as a medium. The costumes adopted by Lee in her photographs might seem to raise what Yang calls “form-questions” in a certain light, but viewed from another angle these disguises may be considered an extension of the pictures’ content. Let me turn to a different photographer’s work as a way of pushing this line of thinking further along.
In the latest issue of PMLA, Walter Benn Michaels offers a provocative reading of Jeff Wall’s famous photograph of anti-Asian racism, Mimic. Focusing on the impossible perspective established by the photograph — we view an everyday racist gesture from the street-level position of a witness who would, were she actually present, be literally underfoot in the subjects’ path — Michaels writes that “the primary effect of the closeness of life-size figures to the surface in this photograph is to push the photographer out of the space of representation” (180). Michaels’ reading suggests that the formal innovation of Wall’s image lies not in the appearances of the photograph’s protagonists, but, rather, in the curious staging of perspective whereby the viewer’s epistemological relation to the drama therein is thrown into question. Thus form lies not within the frame of the image, but, rather, just outside of it. I think this is a useful way of thinking about Lee’s work–Yang observes that these are self-portraits where “someone else is actually taking the snapshot”–and, by extension, a method for conceptualizing form’s role within multicultural or multiracial representation more broadly speaking. To write a haiku or a ghazal in English does not bring us any closer to shifting the grounds of literary representation. In Yang’s memorable formulation, such a literary gesture would fail to “reposition the frame structure.” Rather, our formal labor has to occur beyond the frame, in the abstract conceptual space where form is given particular shapes suited to the particular historical moment. This is not an easy task, but if Asian American writing hopes to exert a meaningful imaginative influence on literary representation today, I’d venture that it’s also the only task.
Michaels, Walter Benn. “The Politics of a Good Picture: Race, Class, and Form in Jeff Wall’s Mimic.” PMLA 125:1 (2010): 177-184. Print.