Anne Anlin Cheng It’s been a brutal week. I feel very beaten down.
Shivani Radhakrishnan I can imagine. In the days since I’ve emailed you, so much has happened, the Atlanta spa shootings among them.
AAC It’s really crazy.
SR Maybe we can ease our way in by talking about your journey. I’m sure some of this week’s events will percolate. When you started out as an academic, did you have a clear idea about where you would end up, in terms of your focus on aesthetics and politics?
AAC The answer is no. (laughter) I feel like I have arrived at various places quite by accident, almost through the backdoor. I started out studying British Modernism in college, and then the topic of my graduate school dissertation—which grew into my first book, The Melancholy of Race—was actually not part of my PhD program. I mean, I was in Comp Lit. I specialized in British, French, and Chinese modernities, so I wasn’t working with American material. But while I was in graduate school, I became interested in these sets of problems around race studies—back then it was the conflict between what we might call race studies or ethnic studies versus theory. I understood why that divide was there, but it seemed to me so impoverishing, and in trying to rethink it, I started working in issues around American racialization.
The other strand of my work is coming to realize how critical certain work in the humanities is to these questions. The whole theory versus ethnic studies conflict is not unrelated to this question of whether or not the humanities have anything “real” to say about real social issues. I saw that my colleagues in the humanities were eager to show that we can be just as quantitative as anybody else, for example. And I thought that was totally fine, but it misses exactly what we could offer, which is a language that may be foreclosed by the quantitative, or foreclosed by the ready categories of political stances, and therefore we might actually be in the best position to articulate a set of problematics around race that are submerged, complicated, and nuanced. Since the beginning, it has seemed to me that it’s not only possible to think about aesthetics in relation to politics, but it’s actually crucial to do so. Many of the categories that we think of as material or biological or legal express themselves—indeed, I think they constitute their authority, their legitimacy, their rationality—precisely through language and through style, what we think of as aesthetics. And over the years I get clearer and clearer about how critical this role of aesthetics is to issues of the political. But it initially arose out of my attempt to understand a bunch of binary positions that I found very limiting.
SR So much of what you say reminds me of debates in philosophy, too, especially around the relationship between political philosophy and social reality. I’m very interested, in particular, in what you mentioned earlier: the ethnic studies/theory divide.
AAC In the 1980s there was a debate between Barbara Christian and Henry Louis Gates Jr., for example, where Christian basically criticized the use of deconstruction in discussions of race because it is “the language of the master” so to speak, and then Gates came back and said, No, in fact, deconstruction can help you rethink signification, which is a fundamental trope and agent of revolution and subversion. There were these big controversies between scholars. And they were also about the differences between scholarship that has been politicized and political scholarship. All these divides were going down that I thought really deserved rethinking.
SR That rethinking happens through your own work. I’d love to talk through an example. In your first book, The Melancholy of Race, you talk about the difference between racial grievance, which is often about redress for a long history of oppression, versus racial grief, which is more about how we’re formed psychologically and socially as racialized people. You say that the US at that moment in 2000 was undergoing this struggle to translate racial grief into social claims. And I think that’s something we can see really clearly right now. I was recently at the New Museum for the exhibition Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, and that idea from your book kept resonating with me.
AAC I actually saw that show, at least online, and I thought it was really amazing. Part of the show looks at the relationship between Black grief and white grievance. My book, written twenty years ago, was not that interested in white grievance. But white grievance today has a very different, very ferocious and visible face, right? When I was writing The Melancholy of Race, I was much more concerned with grief and grievance as a continuum of racial injury and its impact for the racial minority. I was interested in what this grievance means for the subject of color and the process of going from being a subject of grief to a subject of grievance, and what are the psychical as well as the practical gains and losses that could transpire in that transition. Because going from someone who has suffered profound grief to someone who articulates grievance does very important social work. Probably the only thing that has affected social change in the last fifty years is grievance. And that has its own set of problems, which we can talk about later. But first I wanted to acknowledge the important political work that grievance does for the racialized minority. At the same time, I often feel like, in turning to the articulation of grievance for either legal or other pragmatic reasons, there’s no room for grief anymore. Things get translated to a set of quantitative terms, and in our eagerness to articulate grievance, we forgo some of the deeper mourning processes that are required to deal with the legacy of that grief. I was worried in that first book about how the work of grievance has outweighed the necessary labor of grief. There’s a wonderful poem, a few lines, from Robert Frost, which I used as an epitaph for my book: “Grievances are a form of impatience, and griefs are a form of patience.” The Melancholy of Race is an argument for doing that work of patience, of grieving, which may not appear as immediately satisfying as grievance but I think may do more profound work in the long term.
SR That makes me wonder if some of your interest in psychoanalysis is that it’s a field that really allows for ambivalence in thinking through social and political issues.
AAC Absolutely. That’s why I turn to psychoanalysis, not because I think it is a clinically correct or accurate practice. There are a lot of problems around psychoanalysis as practice and as theory, but for better or worse, it is the most comprehensive vocabulary for helping us understand all the ambivalences of racial interactions and identifications. I was thinking about the recent shootings in Atlanta and how people were debating whether the attacks were motivated by sexism or racism. However, for many women of color, the idea that racism and sexism go hand in hand is a fact of life. One thing that psychoanalysis helps us understand is that just because there is hatred doesn’t mean there isn’t desire. Hatred doesn’t preclude desire and vice versa. That kind of insight about the complexity of emotions is a psychoanalytic insight, and a psychoanalytic vocabulary can help us describe that. Or let’s think about the shooter’s own claim that he could not control his desires, so he went out and eliminated the object of his desire. Could there be a clearer articulation of racist and sexist projection and its killing intent? Psychoanalysis has been important to me precisely because: first, it emphasizes the importance of psychical reality. Second, it gives us a vocabulary for thinking about the ambivalences that underlie what look like easy social categories. For example, psychoanalytic thinking would press us not to think about identity but identification, the processes that both enable and disrupt the fiction of stable identities. And finally, third, I think even though psychoanalysis has been so often accused of being ahistorical, it actually has one of the most powerful insights into historicity because it understands that history repeats itself, that the repressed returns to haunt you. Psychoanalysis can help us attend to historicity in a way that the linear view of history does not.
SR Yeah, I’d love to pick up on one ambivalent process you describe. You write so well about the ways in which segregation and colonialism involve both loss and compensation. You don’t just reject the racial other, you also find some way to retain the racial other.
AAC Earlier on in my career, it was helpful for me to think about that ambivalence as a kind of incorporation, which is to say your ego is constituted by the very thing that you have either lost or excluded, but instead of completely losing or excluding anything, you sort of take it inside as this ghostly constituted element. What’s peculiar about American racial dynamics and about colonialism in general is the delicate place where you have to put that denigrated other. Because we’re not talking about explicit genocide, where you go somewhere and kill everyone off. We’re talking about keeping the other within your borders, up close but not too close, within but not constituted, useful but disposable. It’s precisely that dynamic, the challenge of doing that kind of elusive positioning of the other, that creates so much racial tension in American society. Even today, thinking about the role of the immigrant and the minority in the US, immigrants are critical to the American economy. And yet American culture disavows that. There’s so much anti-immigration discourse today that models itself on historic anti-Asian discrimination (i.e., the idea that foreigners who can never really fit in are coming to take “our” jobs), which then became a way of thinking about other racialized minorities—now Latino and Latina immigrants, for example. This process of denying but not getting rid of the other, of disavowing but requiring their labor, is an ongoing struggle in American polity.
SR You mentioned briefly that the ways Asian immigrants were treated has to do with a legal history we now see being mobilized against Latinx communities. I wonder if you could talk more about the way these histories are interconnected. I remember in your New York Times op-ed from just a little while ago, in writing about the rise in anti-Asian violence, you spoke to some of the questions being generated in the Asian American community about policing and the relationship to the Black community.
AAC American racial history has never been simply black and white, even though it often looks that way. There are so many levels to your question—let me make sure I can at least get to some of them! To begin with, yes, it’s so important to note that the anti-Asian violence in this country is not new; it’s the result of over 300 years of legal and cultural discrimination against Asians here. Moreover, the history of anti-Asian violence is completely bound up with an anti-Black, white supremacist state. That’s why coalition and collaboration between racial minorities in this country is incredibly important: because we are actually dealing with the same crisis. There’s also the fact that the racialization of different minority groups in America has often been triangulated through a third party. For example, during Brown v. Board of Education—and just to remind everyone, the challenge of Brown v. Board of Education was to prove that separate is inherently unequal, to defeat Plessy v. Ferguson, and Brown was actually the last of a series of lawsuits over several years—the lawyers would bring up Japanese internment as a precedent for racial segregation by citing national security. And in fact, very recently, our former president cited Japanese internment as a rationale for racial segregation, under the excuse of national security, as well. How African Americans are racialized and how Asian Americans are racialized have certainly, in the courts, been entangled processes.
Asian American and Latinx racializations are interconnected as well. The derogatory term wetback, understood as mostly referring to illegal Mexican aliens, also has an entangled history with the idea of illegal Chinese aliens. The disparaging label mojado has been used since the 1920s to designate unsanctioned immigrants who crossed the Rio Grande, but it was in the interest of excluding illegal Chinese entry that efforts for “border control” were first established. In this sense, in the eyes of US immigration authorities, the Chinese were the first “wetbacks.”
The political struggle over US immigration and labor polices, now applied to the Latinx community, has roots in and models itself after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Many historians have pointed out that the making of American citizenship and its race-based component has been largely based on the racialization of Asian Americans in this country and immigration prohibitions surrounding Asians. Asians had been barred from naturalization since 1790, and that did not change until 1952, which is incredibly recent in the scheme of things. And we can see these same patterns—being barred from a path to citizenship, being prohibited from immigrating—playing out now with the Latinx community.
Finally, there’s also what Gordon Chang has brilliantly called America’s centuries-old “fateful ties” with Asia, with China in particular: the ways in which some of the wealthiest families in America made their money from the slave trade, but many of them also made their money from the opium trade. China, or the specter of China, as a place of economic resource, as the plunderable Orient, was an idea that was as old as Western imperial ambition itself, and it continues today in our current economic complications with China, with Japan, etcetera. Thus there’s this ongoing entanglement between the US and Asia. And it’s important to know that this long history of US foreign entanglement with Asia, and China in particular, has a profound impact on US domestic relations. That’s why the US’s war with Japan led to imprisoning Japanese Americans in America. And similarly, our increasing enmity with China as a country and our rightly critical relationship to China on human rights issues, are based on legitimate, real concern, but what worries me is that this international antagonism gets projected onto Asian Americans, whether you’re Chinese American, Japanese American, Korean American, it doesn’t matter. Most people can’t even tell the difference, unfortunately. This phenomenon of foreign policy affecting domestic policy is already happening today: I have colleagues in the sciences who are being harassed and persecuted by the FBI for their collaborative projects with foreign countries, by which they really just mean China. This impacts academic freedom and integrity.
SR Speaking about Asian American history also makes me want to ask about the specter of the model minority. Against these histories, that is to say, there’s still this construct.
AAC I first came across this term model minority as a young person, and like most people, I thought, What’s so bad about that? It doesn’t sound like a bad thing to be. Let’s be frank, given only two choices, to be either the Yellow Peril or the model minority, most people are going to pick the latter. But over time, I have come to realize how deeply egregious and insidious this concept is in many ways. I’m just going to enumerate a few of them. One, it is a myth. It’s called the “model minority myth” because it’s a myth. The Asian American community in the United States—which includes Southeast Asians, East Asians, South Asians—is an incredibly ethnically and nationally diverse category. It’s also economically diverse, and that’s one of the realities that the model minority myth hides. There are large segments of the Asian American community that have poverty rates over 30 percent. That is to say, not all Asian Americans are Chinese or Japanese doctors, lawyers, and engineers. So the idea of the model minority does not reflect the reality of Asian American communities today or the way they live or who they are.
Second, the other egregious thing about the model minority myth is almost as soon as it came into being, it was deployed as a disciplining, shaming rhetoric against the so-called welfare queen. It was used to shame African Americans and to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other racial minorities by setting them up as this kind of exception, as a privileged exemption. Third, the model minority myth is often used as an alibi to ignore Asian American needs and well-being. (What do they have to complain about?, etcetera.)
Finally, the last thing I want to note about the model minority discourse: the great irony about the model minority is that, if there ever were such a thing, it was completely the result of American immigration policy. So when Asian immigration to the US, not only from China but from the so-called Pacific Triangle, started to loosen up after fifty years of exclusion, there were still all these quotas and restrictions that were put in place on what kind of people could immigrate. “You have to be a professional, you have to be educated, you cannot be a laborer,” you know. So one reason there may have been a model minority is a direct result of US immigration policies and who they let in. I want to point out that there was a study done, not that many years ago, by a noted psychologist, Susan Fiske, and it was called the “warmth/competence” test. Do you know about this?
SR Yes, but say more.
AAC They basically asked the American public about their views of Asians and Asian Americans. There were two vectors: one was about how competent they are and the other was about how warm they are, how likable they seem. And the result, you can probably guess, is that most people found Asians and Asian Americans to be highly competent but cold and unlikable. That has everything to do with the model minority myth and the invidiousness it inspires. But I also thought the test results were a set-up because why are those the two vectors on which Asian Americans are being judged? (laughter) That seems very revealing in itself.
SR It makes me think of a show called “Bad Driver” that I saw at Essex Street gallery a few months back. It was by this artist duo Jay Chung and Q Takeki Maeda. When you walked into the gallery space, there were a bunch of institutional desks, and on each one, there was a numbered black tome with a trope about Asians or Asian Americans—because Asians and Asian Americans are often conflated—so one could read “bad drivers,” or “worker drones,” and then the next volume would be “virtuous maidens,” and so on. You enter the gallery, and you see how there’s already, before you, a discourse where you’re being slotted into one of these preexisting roles.
AAC That’s what’s so peculiar about Asian Americans, right? On the one hand, they’re not even considered a minority. On the other hand, they’re so visibly racialized just because they look like foreigners. We no longer conflate African with African American. Yet we confuse Asians with Asian Americans all the time. And it connects to what I was saying about how Asians were barred from naturalization until 1952. They have been legally and culturally made into “perpetual strangers,” as the historian Ronald Takaki eloquently put it years ago, and it’s still true. People of Asian descent in this country have been made into perpetual foreigners, not only culturally and imaginatively, but also legally.
Stereotypes dehumanize people and reduce them to two-dimensional categories. But I also think for progressive scholars, stereotypes have been a hindrance to critical thinking. We’ve been very eager to point out stereotypes, but part of the problem with naming something is that you stop thinking about it. We think, Ugh, another one of those stereotypes. They’re so tiresome. But in my work, I find if I look at the stereotypes closely, their construction unravels so quickly, in such interesting ways. (That is, they are “bad” in interesting and revealing ways.) By the way, I’m very jealous that you went to a gallery. (laughter) I have just been looking at things online.
SR Well, I bring these things up in part because of your work. You draw from so many different kinds of material: photography, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, performance studies, architectural history. I’m wondering about your process and how you come to work across all of these areas.
AAC I don’t know if it’s a strategy or just the way I think. I tend to dwell with something that I don’t want to look at. Again, this may be the result of a psychoanalytically infused training. I think, If I don’t want to look at it, I need to look at it. For the longest time, I didn’t want to see Josephine Baker. I had heard about her, of course, but I didn’t want to watch her perform because I thought it’s just going to pain me to see this figure fetishized for Western, white male consumption. But actually looking at Josephine Baker’s performances, I was stunned by their art, by how complicated and layered they are. Everything written about Josephine Baker is about how Modernists used her for their art. And I thought, Well, yes they have used her, but she has also had a profound and disruptive impact on them in turn. She herself is an artist, and her performance changed the way Modernists saw things. So my looking at her work has been very productive for me.
Similarly, the phrase yellow woman is one I have not been able to say for many, many years. It’s an ugly phrase. But then I thought why is the term painful, and why is it not in use? We speak of Black women, white women, Brown women, but not yellow women. Why not? These moments, when my mind shrinks in pain from something, are when I think I need to take a closer look. Which means I’m always putting myself in uncomfortable positions. (laughter) And this is not unrelated to the interdisciplinary question. I enjoy being in a place of discomfort because that’s when I learn the most and am most open to creative ideas. I never want to feel like I’m the master of something. I like feeling like I’m working at the edges of my expertise; these “edges” then become points of departure to new ideas and new ways of seeing. The other reason I turn to different fields is because I’m interested in racialization as a legal, material, and aesthetic practice. In order to look at that phenomenon, you need all of these different disciplines. The questions I’m looking at are themselves so cross-disciplinary that I need the resources of these different fields to help me answer them. I just go where the problem takes me.
SR Let’s dive into your second book, Second Skin, which looks at the connection between pure surface in modernist aesthetics and skin, especially the ways people would describe Josephine Baker’s nakedness. I want to hear more about the dream of remaking oneself and the skin of the other.
AAC I started with a set of quirky questions: one was why modernist architects, who were so invested in the ideal of a clean, technological, synthetic surface and who actively abhorred ideas of regressive and primitive organicity, should choose to call the surfaces of their buildings “skins.” Why did the modernists favor the trope of black and white stripes, and why was this geometric trope also associated with criminality (think of the classic prisoner uniform, for example)? It was in teasing out these initially seemingly idiosyncratic questions that I stumbled upon this much larger, intriguing, and fraught intimacy between the celebrated, denuded modern surface and the denigrated racialized skin in the early twentieth century.
At the back of my mind throughout this project was also the question of appropriation, which is something that a lot of people are worried about. It’s kind of a PC question. Students are always asking me, Is this appropriation? Or is this recognition? And as usual, when I’m faced with a binary structure, I get uncomfortable, so I had to think about that. The so-called Modernist appropriation is such a paradox. Why would Modernists reject atavistic racial difference but at the same time be fascinated with someone like Josephine Baker? To say that Modernist artists appropriate Josephine Baker is accurate, but it also unwittingly re-objectifies her and prevents us from seeing her as herself a Modernist and an artist. Let me put it this way: I think there is obviously a very well-developed critique of the ways in which Western modernists have appropriated racial otherness in their aesthetics. And they’re right. Except, oftentimes the way that critique is offered ends up reproducing a sort of subject-object divide, so that the Western is a subject of intellectual intent who then takes advantage of the racial other who is an object and ready to be used in this way. There is a line in Edward Said’s Orientalism, his seminal work, in which he pointed out that Orientalism is not about the Orient at all, it’s about a set of Western ideas. It has nothing to do with what he calls “the brute reality of the East.” And that got me thinking: What is that brute reality of the East? And in what ways has our eagerness to critique appropriation ended up reaffirming an idea of authenticity that is itself highly problematic? It reproduces the logic of fetish. In order to address all those issues, it was very important to unpack what happens in appropriation, not as an act of subject-object but as an act of vulnerability, as an act of exposure. I’m not denying the power structure that is at play—that is a given. But even within that power structure, even within that colonization, that appropriation, the object may influence the subject in more profound ways than you might think. And, you know, commodities and objects have their own wayward lives. That was the larger impulse behind me trying to rethink Josephine Baker as an object of Modernist appropriation.
SR When you said “wayward,” my mind obviously went to Saidiya Hartman and her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Is that who you had in mind?
AAC Yeah. Her work has been incredibly important to me. I’ve known Saidiya since we were colleagues at Berkeley. Waywardness, or I’ve used the term hermeneutics of susceptibility—these are terms with which we can think about the mutual implication that exists within any act of taking possession, of colonization. And this is not to deny the power structure, and the very real consequences of that power, but to be able to say, How do we think about agency for the agency-less? How do we think about personhood for the person who has been made into an object?
SR While we’re thinking about skin and surface, I want to ask you about your prose, which is truly striking. In your most recent book, Ornamentalism, you’ve written about how surface isn’t just ornamental, how we need to refigure the modernist divide between “decorative” surface and “authentic” inner content. I love how your writing, your attention to prose, is in a way, a refusal of this distinction.
AAC Thank you for saying that. I have been known to spend three months on a sentence, and I’m not proud of that because it makes me a very slow writer. But writing is a way of thinking for me. It’s never the case that I’ve thought something through and then I write it down. The reason why I spend three months on a sentence is because I’m trying to figure out what I am thinking. The writing is the thinking, the working through of thinking. I started out as a creative writer actually. I did a master’s in poetry at Stanford after college. It used to feel like I was putting on two different hats—one that does academic work and one that does creative writing. But over the years those mindsets have merged, for which I’m really grateful. I’m getting the same energy out of the scholarship, and my academic writing is, I hope, at least somehow enriched by creative thinking. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be a poet. Now my goal is much more modest, but maybe just as hard: whatever kind of writing I do—and I’ve been doing more personal writing lately—my goal is to just be a really good writer. It’s so very simple but also very hard. And it’s a great privilege to have the space and the room to do so.
SR It’s honestly comforting to hear that it takes you so long to write a sentence because I can feel a little bit better about why each one is so good. (laughter) I’m interested in whether, as a writer, you feel at home in the academy?
AAC I’ve always felt a bit outside of the academy in some ways. Maybe we all have this imposter syndrome. With writing, it has taken time for me to come into my own. My first book, about the crisis and the psychodynamic of assimilation, is obviously not unrelated to my own status as a young immigrant person in America. The kinds of intellectual questions I ask have always been rooted somehow in my own biography. But it has taken all these years for me to give myself permission to acknowledge the personal aspect of my own scholarship. I don’t think I could have written this book about the yellow woman thirty years ago. It’s not just because I needed all that time to learn x, y, and z; it’s also because it simply takes a lifetime to process immigration and racial difference. Looking back, one of the reasons why I was an English major who studied British Modernism as an undergraduate was probably because—I don’t think it was very conscious then—I felt I had to prove, you know, “I’m not an East Asian Studies person just because I am East Asian. I can read Virginia Woolf. I can talk about James Joyce and Beckett and so forth.” It was also the fact that when I was in college that there was not a single Asian American studies class offered. It felt to me that if I were to think about that, I would just be writing about myself, and that seemed predictable or, worse, narcissistic. (Of course, no white American student studies Shakespeare and fears they are being narcissistic!) It took a long time for me to slowly recognize that being Asian American is a category, a historic category, an artistic category, an intellectual category. It’s worthy of analysis and scholarship. That sounds so basic, but when you’re twenty, you don’t know that. These days I feel less split: the scholar and the person/woman are coming together. Maybe that’s one of the few advantages growing old. (laughter) You learn to own yourself.
SR It resonates so much that you’ve found spaces to let the personal influence the work. What sorts of questions are you asking yourself now, either in your research or just generally?
AAC I recently went through a bunch of health issues, and it’s a real wake-up call in that I’m asking myself very consciously, all the time now: Am I living the life I want to live? When you’re a woman of color, you’re operating every single day under so many filters. It’s not just the Du Boisian double consciousness. It’s like triple consciousness. One of the challenges that I’m trying to keep track of is to live a life less filtered. This is not my way of saying that I’m going to start being rude, but there’s a way in which as you get older, you just care less what other people think. And that may not sound like a very big deal to people, but to a Chinese immigrant woman who grew up in the American South with southern ideas of femininity, plus being in a family where it is all about the composure of how you present yourself to the world, it’s been very liberating to let go of some of that.