James Lee, English, University of California, Santa Barbara

"Revealing the Sacred in Asian American Studies"

James Lee reflects on the turns in consciousness experienced by many Asian Americans as they navigate, on the one hand, the determination of their material conditions and ideology and on the other, the in-between spaces that are opened through discursive practices in the academy. In suggesting a parallel with one’s religious attitudes and practices, Lee purports that such a change is analogous to a conversion of sorts involving psychic commitments wherein Asian American Studies is fast emerging as a pivotal catalyst and facilitator.

These observations become all the more poignant when fore-grounded against the shootings at Virginia Tech on April 16 where, in the aftermath, the location and the shooter’s identity radically impinged on how Asians in particular reacted to the incident. There seemed to have developed an uncanny ‘passionate attachment’ between Asians and the shooter that Lee speculates has to do with the model-minority thesis and its promise of prosperity, mobility, and acceptance having been scandalized and jeopardized by the incident. As evidence of the entanglement of race and religion, the Asian response varied between a need to purge their collective culpability and the indignation of the individuated innocence. The model-minority thesis and its underlying motivation of acceptability are so palpable that they predetermine the horizon of expectations with the imperatives of excellence, achievement and acceptability in socially visible terms where the social space for those who don’t make the cut is constrictively limited. Asian American Studies negotiates its discursive practices to open up these restrictive spaces to instigate the introspection on the intersectional particularities of identity. This discursive maneuvering facilitates an option that is empowering and enlightening, a conversion from the model-minority’s determinism. In Lee’s terms, American Asian Studies accomplishes a language of ‘ambiguous alterity’ that facilitates a way of living into one’s social otherness and that this otherness is deeply entwined with a narrative that is simultaneously antagonistic and contingent to this language of alterity.

As students continue to engage with issues of identity and measures of value and success, Asian American Studies holds forth the possibility of redefining the issues in diverse modes that engage rather than merely determine what it means to be Asian American in the twenty first century.

The presentation was then opened up to bring related and broader issues into the conversation. They lead to ongoing consideration of the following issues:

It seems ironic that the model-minority’s scientific fixity is quite at home with religious conservatism. What does this have to say about a society whose borders are being pushed through science- its rigors and breakthroughs?

Asian American Studies represents a dynamic and alternate episteme and yet is limited by its being structured into the academy, a platform shared with the model-minority thesis. How can this ambivalence be addressed so that Asian Americans beyond the academy are brought into the wider conversation and engagement? In what way does Asian American Studies facilitate a renegotiation and restructuring of acceptability and excellence?

What are the scriptural underpinnings of the model-minority thesis and the resultant signifying attitudes and practices that play out in the Asian American community’s jostling for space and acceptability in America’s highly politicized cultural sprawl? How can Asian American Studies broaden its conversation—inter-ethnic and inter-disciplinary—to address this scripturalizing process and the related issues of power, privilege and social space?

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