Monday, June 19, 2006

Those Glittering Asian Guys (II)

An unexpected trip to Boston, plus a cold I picked up there, pretty well knocked me out for the past week and a half. Meanwhile this discussion has gone a few more rounds and should perhaps be left alone. But it's surprisingly persistent. In my last post I tried to outline two modes of using Asian stereotypes in contemporary poetry--the ambivalent and the ironic--and I do still want to see if there is some "third way" that Magee's poem is pursuing.

Let's go back to the beginning. "Their Guys" got its initial round of attention not because of an uproar from Asian American readers who stumbled across it, but after being featured at a Bay Area reading, where it caused a stir (among a presumably largely white audience) and provoked a first post on the topic over at Minor American. And in looking back at Maggie's initial post, I'm struck by the impressionistic language she uses to describe the poem's impact: talk of "ruffle[d] feathers," being made "uncomfortable," a poem that "felt as if it were written for a campus audience at the height of identity politics." But Maggie, not having the poem's text in front of her, could only remember the poem's central epithet: that of the "Asian Chick" (who in fact only appears once in the poem, although "Asian cutie" and "Asian girl" do also appear).

It's that immediate, visceral reaction that seems most important in the audience's discomfort with the poem--and it's also, I think, the major factor for those who have critiqued the poem, as well as for me. It's this visceral reaction to what I can only describe as the poem's surface that I think has not been given enough attention in the earnest attempts to probe the poem's ostensibly more complex intention. And I think that visceral reaction needs to be attended to in any understanding of how the poem "works." Because racially charged language, at least in contemporary usage, is precisely that which lacks depth; used as stereotype or slur, it acts a veil or as a weapon, meant to short-circuit thought and debate or to substitute for it. Any self-conscious use of that language has to take this into account, especially if its goal is to overcome this short-circuiting of thought.

As I was first trying to get up to speed on this debate, I found the poem and read through it quickly--skimmed it, really--to see if I could also get a "feel" for it. Normally I would not really report the results of such a first, preliminary reading. But I want to do so here because it strikes me as relevant to the poem's effect--and perhaps as analogous to the experience of hearing the poem read, once, in a crowded room, grabbing what words one can as it passes. What I got from my initial read-through--what I "heard" of the poem--might look something like this:

.........Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay

Ten years and this will be just another big Asian city...
.................let the Empire swallow them.........
..................................................the thin
Asian chick, burgundy car coat, Hong Kong chic. They like
opium, the old guys down in Chinatown....................
..........................................................
.....................................Asian Norms............
............................................................
......................................Asian Santa is 7" tall.
............................................................
............................................................
You always hear about sleazy guys who get blowjobs matching
their spectacular looks to Kimmy, a 21-year-old Asian cutie.
Young ladies dial a number on their cell phones--I understand.

The country guys are having a model minority Asian
stereotype...................................................
................................. I don’t want to sound stereo-
typical, but most Asian people I HAVE MET, are pretty short.
Their evil plots always lose in the end and Asian girl in shower
makes soapy mess, soaking wet both in and out of their Hispanics––
different, however, depending on their skin tone...............
.........................................he was definitely Asian
or Malaysian or something. The 2000s may well be the Asian
century, a fantasy world where even the bad guys are beautiful.
...............................................................
...............................................................
..............................................................
..............................................................
..............................................................
..............................................................
........................the Dragon Lady cum Asian sex goddess).

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking
about tomorrow. They expected to see an Asian in the
remote areas. Guys in military uniforms ..............
.................................................................
................................................................
.....................................Asian action ................
..................the 1998 Asian markets crisis..................
...............the little guys that you rape with less than 3 guys
.................................................................
more like an alien than an Asian. An Asian business man rips off
his coat, revealing a glittering, Vegas style................
.................................................................
...................................predominantly female ethnicity.

Tomorrow, the English guys are drinking: enjoy engaging
with their culture caught in between two guys while a video
camera mounted in the wall behind their couch OH NO! NOT!
jams mint into her mouth. .................................
............................................................
............................................................
............................................................
they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much ......
.............................................................
............................................................
...................................................
................................our little guys are ruined.........
..................................................................
................................(“As we retreated two white guys on
bikes appeared...”) ...........................................
You may argue that I'm being profoundly unfair to the poem--just grabbing on to the most provocative, inflammatory, "naughty" parts. But I think there's some logic here. First, I think my telegraphic version may well reproduce the experience that many folks seem to have had in hearing the poem read aloud and reacting to its most uncomfortable sections. Second, if I give Michael Magee the credit for intention and intelligence that I am trying to, I cannot do otherwise than assume that creating this discomfiting, attention-grabbing, even "offensive" surface is part of the intended effect of the poem, a means of seizing hold of the reader in a certain way (with the presumption that one will then go somewhere else from there).

But the third, and most important, point has to do with my position as an Asian American reader. For as an Asian American reader, I am hailed by these images in a very particular way; the passages I've highlighted are precisely those that I cannot turn away from or skim over. (It's a curious paradox of racial address that the broadest stereotypes can be so personally felt, as if they were addressed solely to you.) And in this version of the poem, as seen by an Asian American reader, we have what amounts to a review of the hoariest stereotypes of the Asian: short effeminate dope-smoking men, sexualized and degraded "Dragon Lady" women, the financial and political Yellow Peril.

Is it any wonder, then, that an Asian American reader might not wish to "get past" these images--that such a reader, having experienced the surface of this poem as a barrage of stereotypes directed at him or her, might simply turn away in disgust?

It's the position of this reader that the poem, I think, fails to take into account. And I'm going to argue that this failure--the failure to imagine, not an Asian American speaker, but an Asian American reader--is what ultimately keeps the poem as a whole from achieving what it ostensibly intends.

And what does it intend? To what end this deploying of base stereotypes? In what way are these stereotypes framed--is there some clear way in which they are not expressions of racism, but (as many have claimed) critiques of racism?

The first thing that's clear to me is that neither of my first two categories--ambvialence and irony--can be applicable here. Though others might disagree, I will take at face value Kasey's claim for "the absence of any coherent subject-position that can be said to operate throughout." If that's true, then we simply cannot call the poem either "ambivalent" or "ironic" in its use of stereotypes, because both those labels (as I'm using them) depend on the identification of some kind of speaker or subject whose attitude toward racist material we can gauge. If we cannot find any such stable subject-position, we can't (for instance) assume that the poem is a dramatic monologue by a racist speaker who is ironically distanced from the author.

This cuts both ways for the poem, as Kasey notes: although it may in some sense insulate the poem from a charge that it is coherently "racist" (in the sense of proceeding from a "racist" speaker), it also prevents anyone from coherently claiming that the poem is somehow "anti-racist" (proceeding from a speaker who is clearly opposed to racism). In any conventional sense, then, the poem is at best neutral toward its racist material, since it has denied itself the luxury of ironic distance; the images are not framed in some coherent way. Indeed, I would extend this point further and see this self-denial of irony as something like paradigmatic for flarf itself: flarf is precisely that writing that refuses to take an ironic, high-handed position with regard to its "degraded" and "offensive" materials, but gets right down in the muck with those materials, exploring both pleasure and disgust, while being profoundly implicated in and by both. If I'm wrong about that, then perhaps I just don't get it.

If the poem's use of stereotypes is neither ambivalent nor ironic--if it can't partake of either of those labels--then what is it? The best label I can come up with for what the poem seems to want to do in using those stereotypes--based both on my reading of it and on subsequent discussion--is:

3. Self-critical. Rather than taking a position outside racial discourse, the poem seems to want to deploy, explore, and even amplify that discourse in the hope of breaking it down, turning it against itself. It's impossible to think of a "speaker" in this sense because if the gambit works, it's the discourse itself that will "speak"--and, hopefully, speak damningly. It's an idea somewhat like that put forward by Adorno in "On Lyric Poetry and Society," which suggests that in great lyric works it's not some individual who is speaking, but "language itself" that "acquires a voice."

One of the "target" discourses is obviously orientalism, as indicated by Magee's title--a punning allusion, as he and Kasey noted, to lines from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli": "Their eyes, / Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay." The "they" here are a group of "Chinamen" that Yeats imagines "carved in lapis lazuli." Magee asserts that his poem "directly engages with the Orientalism at work in [Yeats's] poem". And Kasey: "Yeats' poem uses its precious gestures of chinoiserie as a means of rendering a racial other manageable, comfortable, reassuring. Magee's poem 'translates' those gestures via debased chatter and social noise into anxious, offensive tics, but at the same time burlesques some of their seductive formal effects." In this reading, Magee's "Their Guys" is an exposure of orientalism, paradoxically, through an updating of orientalism, translating Yeats's modernist orientalism (with its aesthete Chinamen, their plum-blossoms and mournful music) into "our" own postmodern orientalism (fears of Asian economic domination, sexual fetishization of both the male and female Asian).

But this kind of historical contextualizing doesn't account for the full impact of Magee's images on contemporary readers--and certainly not on the contemporary Asian American reader, whose existence orientalism cannot possibly imagine. Think again to the title, which for Magee is an echo of The Tradition, and also a critique of it. Now I didn't hear that allusion until Kasey pointed it out. What I did hear--and what I suspect almost any Asian American reader would hear on first reading--is "Asian guys...are gay," which conjures up not Yeats but a whole contemporary hot-button context of denigrated Asian masculinity, exemplified by wretched artifacts like Details magazine's infamous "Gay or Asian?" feature. (The point being, of course, not that one cannot be gay and Asian, but that in this conception both "gay" and "Asian" are abject positions located outside the "norm" of white male heterosexuality.) What I don't see in Magee's title is any critical awareness of this context, of how the images he deploys might signify in a particularly Asian American context.

Here's the risk of the self-critical mode: that in trying to make the discourse of orientalism "speak," it can become nothing more than that discourse speaking to itself. Critiquing the discourse of Anglo-American orientalism from the inside alone neglects the proliferation of more complex subject and reading positions; the Asian American reader is both subject and object of orientalism, and the "other" created by orientalist discourse is also, for the Asian American reader, a distorted and perhaps unwanted vision of "self."

I have to dispute Magee's claim that his poem must be read as "dystopian," as well as Anne Boyer's assertion that the poem is "relentlessly and complexly anti-racist." For both of these assume that the poem produces a stable position of critique, from which one could look at the poem's imagery and say, "These images are sick and wrong." If I understand Kasey's reading at all--if I understand flarf at all, which I'm starting to think I don't--the whole point is that the poem does not produce such a position, that by its very nature it cannot. It can't be "relentlessly" (i.e., consistently) anything, certainly not as coherent a thing as "anti-racist."

Here's a perverse argument: for me to accept the "dystopian" reading--the idea that the images Magee employs are so inherently sick and wrong that I could only attribute them to an evil civilization (and not to Magee himself)--the imagery would actually have to be far worse than it is. What do I mean? Well, note for example that Magee has stopped well short of including any actual racial slurs in the poem; comparisons to "What's up my N____?" notwithstanding, there are no "chinks," "gooks," or "slants" to be found anywhere in "Their Guys." In fact, Magee has quite pointedly undone one epithet found in his source text; Magee is obviously quite aware (unlike those folks on the Poetics list who still like to say "Jap") that Yeats's term, "Chinamen," is no longer used in polite company. So he replaces it with the pan-ethnic, politically acceptable, post-1970 term, "Asian." For those of you who have seen the poem as a satire of political correctness, guess what? The poem is itself politically correct!

My point here is that Magee, far from seeking to expose the discourses of orientalism and racism at their dystopian worst, has in fact quite self-consciously pulled his punches. What we see here is not the ragged and ugly face of unadulterated racism, but a muted, sculpted, even aestheticized version of that discourse that can be incorporated into a poem. Imagine that Magee's poem started like this: Ten years and this will be just another big Chink city... That Bay Area audience wouldn't have been grumbling; they probably would have been throwing things and walking out. But the use of the relatively neutral, "PC" term "Asian" throughout blunted the edges of these images enough that many readers could actually get through the poem and even like it, while still scratching their heads.

But this strategy couldn't get the poem past most Asian American readers, who largely reacted as if the slurs were there anyway. Such readers recognized that the structure of the stereotypes had not been altered, even if the wording had been muted. In fact, from my point of view there's a sense in which the use of "Asian" throughout actually made the impact of the stereotypes worse; since these images are couched in language that shows the author "knew better," I can't attribute them to ignorance. Thus my response is less that of anger than of profound disappointment.

An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow. Magee argues that this is a turning point in the poem, "a fairly sophisticated line" that "departs from the lanuage that comes before it" and says something about "the urgency to communicate." My reaction: Is this how the poem imagines my speaking, my halting but ultimately noble desire to communicate? Must the subject position of the Asian remain not only outside discourse but outside the English language? If the language of this line differs from that of the rest of the poem, this is not because it is so "sophisticated" but because it is so naive, implying some kind of vague shared human aspiration (cf. "Iraqis want to be free") while excluding the speaker from any kind of full hearing. If that's the glimmer of hope that "Their Guys" offers me in this roiling discourse, I'm not particularly interested.

If this poem is supposed to have a salutary effect--the message that "everybody needs to wake up," as Magee puts it--the sense I get is that I, as an Asian American reader, am not included in that "everybody." Not just because, on this subject, I'm already wide awake. But because ultimately what we see in this poem is orientalist discourse talking to itself--indeed, white orientalist discourse talking to itself. I, too, find the conclusion of the poem chilling in a way, but not because I take away from it some steely-eyed denunciation of racism and imperialism; it's chilling precisely because in the final lines the Asian has disappeared entirely ("they don’t really look Asian, necessarily, so much"), replaced by "two white guys." I can only maintain the Asian presence in the poem if I assume that "our little guys" and the "others" who "turned to see one of their men had fallen" are still marked as Asians--in other words, if the poem is in fact speaking for Asian characters, precisely as Kasey and others claim it doesn't. I agree that it doesn't, and that these "little guys" at the end "don't really look Asian"; they have become unmarked, allowing white power to engage in a discourse with itself.

Do I expect this poem to try to speak for Asians? No. But I do expect it to follow through on what it has already partially done: to acknowledge that there may be an Asian American reader out there, one who is something more than the object of orientalist discourse. An Asian woman who spoke little English kept asking / about tomorrow: this to me is not the most optimistic, but the most unpleasant line in the poem. Not because of its "offensiveness," but because of its condescension.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Those Glittering Asian Guys

Hoo boy. So I was in San Francisco last weekend (more on which soon) and heard some murmuring about a Michael Magee poem that had caused a stir at a recent reading by talking about "Asians." That poem, of course, was "Their Guys, Their Asian Glittering Guys, Are Gay", and after some pointers from Barbara Jane Reyes and Brent Cunningham I found the discussions going on about the poem at Minor American, lime tree, Asian American Poetry, and other places. I'm coming very late to this, and I (like others) debated whether to get involved at all, having developed a certain level of fatigue about calling out examples of Asian stereotypes in contemporary poetry.

But there did seem to be something a bit different about this case, in part because it involved a poem written by someone whose work I generally like and defended by someone else I agree with about 90% of the time. And in part it made me think about precisely how images of the "Asian" get used in contemporary poems, and whether one could usefully distinguish between those kinds of uses. I'm going to try to approach this by (empathetically and idealistically) imagining how the "general reader" might receive such issues, before going into how the position of an Asian American reader might differ.

As I've observed before, the most feared epithet in these kinds of discussion is not "Asian," or "Oriental," or "Chinaman." It's "racist." The arguments of those who critique stereotypes or racial imagery in a poem are often reduced to, "So-and-so says the poem is racist," and the charge of racism is seen as so toxic as to end all further discussion. More to the point: there's no such thing (today, at least) as a good, racist poem. The charge of racism is understood to place something outside of reasonable discourse and of aesthetic appreciation. This is not to say that there aren't poems written and published now that, upon closer reading, can be seen to have racist implications; it's simply that no acceptable poem can explicitly claim a racist position--one that openly seeks to caricature, demonize, and inspire hatred or fear of a particular racial group. One can certainly think of any number of historical examples of this kind of writing--for example, Bret Harte's poem on the "heathen Chinee"--but it's nearly impossible to imagine a "serious" poet today attempting such a thing.

So when we do encounter racial stereotypes in a contemporary poem, we tend to assume that "something else" must be going on. (For example, when I critiqued racial imagery in a poem on the Poetics list, the response came back, "Well, obviously we know no one on this list is a racist, so...") I'll attempt to describe two of those "something elses"--two ways in which racial images or stereotypes seem to get used in contemporary writing--before discussing the third "something else" that Magee's poem may or may not represent.

1. Ambivalent. This can best be described as a simultaneous fascination with and repulsion from racial imagery, an unease with the racial other that can manifest itself as mockery, ethnography, or fetish. The writer's intention and attitude toward the subject matter seem to be unstable. The examples that immediately come to mind are two pieces posted to the Poetics list, one titled "WHY DO THE TIAWANESE" and the other infamously referencing the "Filipino crack whore," that I discussed at some length here and here. In these cases, what the author allegedly intended as "realistic" or even "sympathetic" portrayals of Asians seemingly cannot help but partake of the most degraded stereotypes, not least because the author seems to lack any awareness of the destructive power of such stereotypes.

I think also of a story I read a few years ago in the New Yorker in which the protagonist is a young white woman who works as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant, describing the food as dirty and disgusting and the proprietress's communication as consisting of guttural "ngs" and "oks."

It might easily be protested that these writings are straight-up racist--no ambivalence about them. Without a doubt the worst writings in this category lean that way. But their dynamic of repulsion and attraction (the young woman in the New Yorker story describes her attraction to a young Asian man who works in the restaurant) and the apparently unconscious nature of their racism gives them a kind of bare cover that in some cases can allow them to get away with it (at least to some readers).

2. Ironic or parodic. The vast majority of contemporary racial stereotyping in poetry, and perhaps even in popular culture, falls into, or wants to fall into, this category: it's a self-conscious use of racial imagery that holds the stereotype at an ironic distance, ostensibly parodying or satirizing the very stereotype it deploys. (In popular culture, cf. South Park, Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts, and so on.) In other words, using a racial stereotype is okay if you are aware that you are doing it, since then you couldn't possibly take it entirely seriously.

The simplest example of this is when the irony is provided by the position of the speaker, e.g. when Marilyn Chin refers to the "mega-Chinese-food tropes" of her poems or an African American comedian uses the "N-word." Since it's assumed that these speakers are not being racist toward their own racial groups, it follows that their words must be ironic or appropriative. As Pam Lu has pointed out, this strategy is by no means always, or even usually, successful; an Asian American writer who self-consciously portrays Asian Americans in stereotypical fashion can easily end up reinforcing those very stereotypes.

Another technique of ironic distancing is that of the dramatic monologue: you use racist words but put them in the mouth of a speaker clearly marked as a character, distinct from the author. Think, for example, of the opening scene of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, in which white male real estate agents invite each other to dine at "the Chink's" and inveigh against "Patels." The usual interpretation given is that Mamet is not himself a racist, but rather is realistically portraying the racism of his rather unattractive characters. (In the context of Magee's poem, this would be the "redneck reading"--that the poem's references to Asians should be attributed to an ignorant and racist speaker whom Magee intends to satirize.) Of course, a closer reading reveals that there is nothing remotely "realistic" about the racist language Mamet puts in his characters' mouths (one describes Indians as "A supercilious race"), which, depending on your view of Mamet, can lead in one of two directions: toward the idea that Mamet is adding another layering of irony in order to satirize us, who believe that we can comfortably distance ourselves from the racism of others; or back toward ambivalence, in which Mamet is not distancing himself from racism as much as we might initially think. (For a fictional take on this scene, see Bharati Mukherjee's story "A Wife's Story.")

For an instance of this strategy of ironic distancing, take a couple of poems that another Asian American poet recently pointed me to: two pieces called "Chinese Movies" by Bernard Henrie in the latest issue of SHAMPOO. (In order to insulate myself against the suspicion that I am anti-SHAMPOO, I should note that I and many of my, um, best friends publish our work there.) Henrie's title suggests the mass-culture source of Chinese stereotypes, and the poems' serial numbering suggests the mechanical reproducibility of such stereotypes. The poems are stocked with what Anglo-American readers have come to expect as the cliches of chinoiserie: silk garments, snow cherries, plum blossoms, bamboo, persimmons. The frame suggests that we are meant to receive these images with a wink and a nod, that they are cliches being used satirically.

But how ironic is it? There's a distinct speaker, but despite his language of cliches it's not at all clear how distanced we're supposed to be from him. When he describes a female artist, "Chen," the imagery is almost comically piled on:
A Mandarin when she works,
her oversize smock and sleeves
look like petals. I expect rice fans
to appear for shade, gifts from
her village in rural China.
And perhaps the "I expect" registers this as a product of the speaker's stereotypes.

But the poem never leaves this level, never actually gives us a position from which to critique the speaker. In fact, the poem's conclusion seems to do nothing so much as seek to reanimate the stereotypes, to reaestheticize them and restore their erotic charge:
Her painting dry and bamboo
brushes wrapped, she prepares
to bathe, pausing to peel
a fat persimmon, the juice drips
and forms a glistening drop
on her gold thigh:

"Look, another water color."
The final words, I assume, are Chen's own; she's actually shown to be participating in her own orientalized objectification. So this is a poem that seems to begin from an ironic position but fails to maintain it; instead, it slides toward ambivalence by seeing the stereotype as a source of attraction and pleasure.

Irony and parody can, however, be highly successful methods of critiquing and reworking racial stereotypes. The work of John Yau is probably the best example I can think of in the current context. Yau's series "Genghis Chan: Private Eye," like Henrie's poems (which actually seem derivative of Yau series like "Late Night Movies"), signals in its title its sources in mass culture, but the title itself mashes up seemingly incompatible stereotypes: that of the fearsome Asian warrior (Genghis Khan) and of the effeminate and deferential Asian (Charlie Chan); then it places these in a wholly unexpected American context (that of the film noir). The result is parodic but also unstable, not permitting any established stereotype to gain traction, seeking to create a new and hybrid speaking position.

The poems themselves often seem to function as junkyards--or recycling bins--for racially charged language, which is fragmented and reconstructed into something compelling yet monstrous:
shoo war
torn talk

ping towel
pong toy

salted sap
yellow credit

hubba doggo
bubba patootie

wig maw
mustard tongue
The result is less an attractive reanimation of orientalism but a pastiche of it whose primary emotion would seem to be a charged disgust.

So what does any of this have to do with Magee's "Their Guys"? My sense is that while most attempts to read the poem have fallen into one of the two above categories, the poem is tryihng to do some third thing; for what that might be, and how successful it is, stay tuned.