On Asian Americanist Critique, Racialization, and the Humanities
This dissertation works from and through the field of Asian American studies, drawing on Asian Americanist cultural critique and minority discourse, to investigate the relationship among race, the politics of knowledge, and the epistemic function of the humanities. Proliferating discourses on “post-race” and “colorblindness” characterizing the present moment posit a progressive movement beyond racial division, towards recognizing and incorporating minority difference into the academy. However, even as issues like “diversity” have gained visibility as institutional objectives, I contend that this heightened visibility occludes the structural conditions that allow racialization to persist. In this project, I follow the work of thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Lisa Lowe, and Stuart Hall to illuminate the ongoing violence of institutionalized racism that manifests through the disciplining of certain kinds of bodies and modes of thought in the humanities.
The three main chapters examine the “interdiscipline,” the “archive,” and the “digital,” respectively, as potent sites of humanistic knowledge production that determine specific configurations and hierarchies of difference, value, and legitimacy. In particular, I elucidate how these hegemonic knowledge formations constrain, at times even counter-intuitively, the dynamic energies of a field like Asian American studies. By demonstrating how this field operates in relation to the ways in which minority difference has been and continues to be regulated and compartmentalized, I aim to shed light on contemporary practices of racialization in the academy. Moreover, recognizing the double-bind Asian American studies occupies by inhabiting the very institutional structure it aims to critique, this project explores how we might facilitate the undisciplining of the field to invigorate the critique of racialized power that has historically organized its practices. Undisciplining figures in this dissertation as a conceptual process, an invitation to contemplate ways of structuring and producing knowledge in difference from our received arrangements of knowledge. Undisciplining also gestures toward the rebellious acts of students who organized protests during the late twentieth century that resulted in the establishment of Asian American studies and related interdisciplines. This project invokes such histories of undisciplined activity to reflect on and continue the radical thinking they enacted.
Central to this process of undisciplining Asian American studies, I argue, is a serious engagement with aesthetic and cultural productions that are not immediately or only legible as “Asian American.” For this reason, I turn to the science and speculative fictions of Karen Tei Yamashita, Charles Yu, Patricia Powell, Nicci Yin, Yong Ho Ji, and Mary Anne Mohanraj, among others. I demonstrate how these authors and artists create affective imaginaries that depict material conditions of racialized inequality in different dimensions, landscapes, and historical contexts that enable readers to reflect on present injustices. As such, I illustrate how they participate in “world-making,” both constitutive of the worlds we live in and capable of generating alternative worlds; these texts create conditions of possibility not only for illuminating processes of racialization, but also make perceptible new ways of thinking and forms of embodiment, relationality, and solidarity. Therefore, in contrast to a genre study of science and speculative fiction, this project mobilizes the speculative acts these authors and artists perform as themselves methodologies for re-imagining how Asian American studies can inhabit the academy differently. My dissertation, in short, aims to create space for realizing “animate impossibilities,” alternative arrangements of knowledge that can attune us to how the humanities can be restructured to attend to social and material inequality.