On “Asian American” Digital Identity Politics

Everyday, I receive Google Alerts about any websites, blogs, or news feeds containing the keywords “Asian / American / music” in whatever order and combination that Google search engine finds. Most of the Alerts, unsurprisingly, point to stories related to U.S. politics. Interestingly, around the time of the 2008 Presidential Election, my InBox experienced a minor Google Alert “explosion” with news stories and criticisms listing all the color-based social groups, connecting Obama’s racial politics to the now dominant American ideology of multiculturalism. To my disappointment, none of these news stories included anything substantial information with regards to the Asian American (if there is such a thing) perspective on the Obama and Biden duo.

Is “Asian American” coming to stand in for a keyword, tag (in the speak of blogosphere), or a hip buzzword in our current media environment as digitally informed and constructed? Is there “real content” beyond the textual reference of “Asian” and “American”? If so, how do we assess this content considering the methods of information retrieval, i.e. Google Alerts, and the context of presentation, i.e. hypertextual state of Internet media?

Today, my Google Alerts linked me to a couple of exciting pages of content-worthy materials related to Asian American arts and culture. One of these is a New Yorker article titled “By the Skin of Our Teeth” about “The Shipment”, the new play by Young Jean Lee. The reviewer Hilton Als comments on the Lee’s “irreverent take on racial politics.” Commenting on her 2005 play “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven”, featuring the self-violence of an Asian American female character, Lee declares her attitude toward the state of identity politics in the U.S: “For this project, I decided the worst thing I could possibly do was to make an Asian-American identity-politics show, because it can be a very formulaic, very clichéd genre, and very assimilated into white American culture. It’s almost become part of the dominant white power structure to have identity-politics plays about how screwed-over minorities are. It’s such a familiar, soothing pattern. . . . It’s become the status quo.”

When I read the passage, I thought to myself, “now, here’s a kernel of wisdom” worth pursuing. What does she mean by “identity-politics show”? What consists of this ‘cliché genre’ of formulaic and assimilationist plays? A good content analyst would seek information about the playwright and this play. Before I jumped into my usual mode of performing a search on Google or Wikipedia search on Young Jean Lee, I slowed down and pondered about the path of information that allowed me to arrive at this intellectually compressed bit of information.

The New Yorker tags this article with the following keywords: “The Shipment”; Young Jean Lee; Korean-Americans; Douglas Scott Streater; Race Relations; Asian-Americans; “Pullman, WA.” Google search engines must have picked up this article because of the tag “Asian-Americans.” But search engines are not able to make a qualitative distinction between this article [or other substantive articles] from the sources that simply use “Asian American” as a stand-in for cultural multiplicity and diversity. Unfortunately, Asian America still exists, in the digital environment, mostly under a pile of diversity-bound laundry lists at best, or pornography and ads for mail-order brides or other forms of race-related sex industry, at worst.

The risk of being pigeonholed, tokenized, or even sexualized is no news to individuals of Asian descent in the United States. Playwright Young Jean Lee asserts provocative and vehement critiques for the discursive objectification of Asianness in her 2005 play which opens with a monologue by a woman with the name of “Korean-American”:

“Have you ever noticed how most Asian-Americans are slightly brain-damaged from having grown up with Asian parents? It’s like being raised by monkeys—these retarded monkeys who can barely speak English and are too evil to understand anything besides conformity and status. . . . Asian people from Asia are even more brain-damaged, but in a different way, because they are the original monkey. . . . I am so mad about all of the racist things against me in this country, which is America. Like the fact that the reason why so many white men date Asian women is that they can get better-looking Asian women than they can get white women because we . . . have lower self-esteem. It’s like going with an inferior brand so that you can afford more luxury features.”

This is intellectually dense, emotionally heavy stuff. But the fact that it’s available in a point-and-click fashion is astounding. Google Alerts prevent information from fossilization. Without Google Alerts, I would find this article somewhere down the line when I do archival search, plowing through databases for historical artifacts. The newness and immediacy of this information would be lost. Also, it would take many more steps to link this article to other articles related to the subject of “Asian / American / music” published today.

The other noteworthy piece Google Alerts linked me to is an interview of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer by RVAjazz blog entitled “Intellect Meets Creativity.” Iyer speaks reflexively about his role as an Indian American musician in the Afro-centric tradition of jazz music: “I’m just fortunate to be able to interact with the music from my perspective, and to reconsider what resonances there might be with my own experience, or with anyone’s. The point is to honor that legacy and not commodify it, but also to learn from it. I think that America was invited to reconsider a lot of this in light of the ascent and success of Obama. Those are symptoms of a larger development in our culture – it’s about who we are and where we are and what time it is!”

The juxtaposition between the New Yorker article on Young Jean Lee’s play and Vijay Iyer’s interview is intellectually curious. Iyer’s perspective on race in America is less dystopic than Lee’s. In fact, his alliance with African American culture and struggle speaks to a larger discourse about race in terms of minoritarian politics, quite contrary to the uncritical multiculturalist orientation. Iyer’s interview could tap into the historical and contemporary moments of Afro-Asian connections formed in anti-racist solidarity.

My research aims to track these moments deliberately and shamelessly, making links and disconnects among them as they occur in real time. Information as such, categorized and recategorized based on similar or dissimilar terms, is generated and circulated at high volume daily on the Internet. Digital technologies allow discourse to flow in disparate, rhizomatic directions. The hypertextual state of Internet media is overwhelming to sort through, but this quality allows information to seep into unexpected cracks and generate surprising juxtapositions. Similar to keywords and tags, identity categories, also reproduce themselves in a semi-irrational, hypertextual fashion in our time. These contradictory patterns as discovered in the digital environment may best represent the schizophrenic style of identity proliferation that would mark our post-identity-politics (or post-Race) age.

Wendy Hsu is Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center of Digital Learning & Research at Occidental College. She received her PhD in the Critical and Comparative Studies in Music program in the McIntire Department of Music at the University of Virginia. Her research interests lie at the intersection of popular music performance and…

1 Comments

  1. My analogue may not be appropriate but if we (Asian Americans or Asians especially the former) could look beyond the color, and consider ourselves as some sort of alloy, as you know, alloy tends to exhibit more desirable properties than the usual metal class, and without being self-concious then probably we can fair reasonably well provided that a society is not run by extremists.

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