Glen Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Cinema, 2009

“What is Asian American cinema?” asks Glen M. Mimura in Ghostlife of Third Cinema. As other scholars in related fields have addressed Asian American citizenship, housing segregation, and racialization, Mimura explores the cultural production of Asian American film and its relation to the transnational third cinema, which Mimura describes as a “revolutionary international movement … radical in its politics and its approach to media practice and theory” which emerged in the 1960s, and proliferated in the following two decades. It is this Third Cinema that helped to develop community based film centers and independent Asian American cinema. Drawing on the work of Paul Gilroy, Nayan Shah, and Lisa Lowe among others and exploring the film and media productions of numerous Asian American artists/filmakers, Mimura focuses on “the meaning of Asian Americans’ discursive occasional presence – vacillating between threatening foreigner or immigrant and conciliatory Model Minority – persistent absence, a group whose history is a history of being ceaselessly forgotten, repressed, disavowed.” (xvii) Mimura engages numerous issues in the book's 150+ pages including discussions of modernity, hauntings, spectrality, and erasure. Importantly, the author cautions that Ghostlife remains a work of “theoretical synthesis, criticism, and interpretation that thinks about and through history and culture, and revises particular aspects of their narrative structures and logics of representation.” (xxi)

If Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts, in part, argues that Asian American culture serves as an especially unique site for resistance as result of its own experiences with fragmentation and erasure, Mimura extrapolates this suggesting that the cultural production of Asian American cinema illustrates both “resistance and creativity, of both visual poetry as cultural resistance and cultural resistance as poetic act, not only to challenge ongoing domination but also to individually and collectively imagine new possibilities for a more radically democratic present and future.” (xxiii) Certainly, Third and Asian American cinema’s development during the 1960s and 1970s influenced their collective political leanings. Shaped by events, the two film communities pay close attention to politics, social justice and transnational solidarities. Born in relation to the Bandung Conference and the non-alignment movement, accordingly as Mimura notes, “Third Cinema shares complex histories and relations with the Third World, that collectivity of nations unaligned with the United States led capitalist First World or the Soviet led communist bloc Second World. “ The community of Third Cinema exists more as a membership of political ties than geographical localities. One might ask how real such a community is, after all are not such formulations fundamentally the same as those that endorse capitalist identities? In both cases political/economic beliefs bind and reproduce these communities. For Mimura, the Third Cinema remains an intensely political project “a democratic, participatory, socialist cinema that seeks to challenge and provoke the collective consciousness of its viewers toward the revolutionary transformation of society.” (30)

As with other works incorporating transnational perspectives, Ghostlife points to the increasing interconnectedness of peoples, movements and ideas in the last half of the 20th century. Invoking Saidian Orientalism in its discussion of Third Cinema and Asian Americans, Mimura argues that as late as the mid-twentieth century, many western imaginaries considered Asia “the last refuge from history”. This primordial designation works to legitimate western hegemony while inscribing inferiority on non-westerners. Undoubtedly, the issue of modernity functions as a key factor in conceptualizing diasporic communities, moreover, the rise in scholarly attentions to transnational histories and peoples have altered understandings of what and who is “modern”. How Asians fit into the racial hierarchy of western imaginaries remains a fluid issue, “Asianness as analogous to blackness, or Asianness as the West’s redemptive other – Asia has also been figured as ambivalent, mediating term between black and white, particularly as racial meaning articulates with and through the West’s discourse on sexuality.” (3) Mimura, like numerous other scholars over the past thirty years complicates traditional racial binaries.

Especially from the early 1990s on, the deconstruction of binaries serves as a central task of scholars. The pervasiveness of binary thinking fractures our understanding of history, obscuring peoples, events, processes and interactions. For example, the expansion of European imperialism and slavery caused enormous movements of people and labor, but too often migration flows are studied as discrete self-contained events. As Adam McKeown argues in “Global Migration, 1846-1940” (Journal of World History), the much trumpeted transatlantic route from Europe to America or even more broadly all points East to America, represents a sliver of the total migration at the time. Developing industrial nations, colonial plantations, and the massive reorganization of economies, such that the world witnessed the emergence of economies of scale which reduced costs by eliminating redundancies, sharpening efficiencies by breaking production down into smaller components. According to McKeown, historians have failed to acknowledge the enormity of this global economic change, thus, most view the various migration flows separately rather than the interconnected whole they were. Too often studies privilege the transatlantic migrations over all others, ending the period of mass migration in 1914. Like Mimura, McKeon rejects simple binaries ,”rather than using a dichotomy of before and after 1914, it would be better to understand regimes of regulation as part of a cumulative process that had been taking place since at least the 1870s. The concurrent growth of migration since the mid nineteenth century was part and parcel of the expansion of borders and regulation, including numerous projects to encourage, restrict, select, protect, distribute, and monitor migration. Extending the era of mass migration into the 1920s acknowledges both the global scale and the long term relationship of migration and politics since the early nineteenth century.” (McKeon, 173) Ghostlife attempts to uncover the very erasures that have resulted from conceptions based on binary conceptualizations, “this collective project foregrounds the long memory of diasporic migration and exclusion, their often disavowed yet constitutive force far beyond the life cycles of those who initially experienced that force.” (23) Moreover, it attempts to explain how similar flows of populations and labor post 1965 influenced Asian American understandings of identity, history, and film.

Globalization, a key process informing Ghostlife, exhibits both promise and peril. McKeown’s periodization identifies a troubling set of issues that thread themselves through the narrative globalization. First, the imperatives of capitalists collided with local populations sense of localism and self-preservation. Capitalist interests demanded labor, which ultimately became one more component in these new “economies of scale”. The race or ethnicity of said labor flows resulted in the creation of ethnic and racial enclaves that supported new labor forces, but also drew the ire of local populations who often conflated backwardness, disease, and a general inferiority with various ethnic/racial groups. Today’s “frothing at the mouth” reaction to undocumented labor parallels processes by Western white working class Americans to the transnational labor of Chinese in the mid to late nineteenth century, revealing one of the troubling problematics of globalization. Lisa Lowe and others have pointed out (Arjun Appadurai is another), globalization performs the paradoxical task of both expanding and contracting community. On the one hand, increased interaction and interdependencies draw people closer but critically this also serves to differentiate. Supralocalisms are sometimes enacted, confining membership to very specific local contexts that exclude as many as it includes. Moreover, as Appadurai argues, globalization unfolds in various ways, affecting various peoples in equally diverse manners. The process of globalization fetishizes localities as “the globally dispersed forces that actually drive the production process” Additionally, as Lowe points out, the very conceptualization of globalization “is that it obscures a much longer history of global contacts and connections.” (Lowe, "Globalization", Keywords for American Studies)

Earlier connections and interactions deserve attentions as they reveal spaces of resistance and cultural politics. The dispersal of labor globally, contributed to the growth of diasporas. Paul Gilory most famously suggested that there exists a “Black Atlantic” which postulated that diaspora existed as a space for countermemory (Mimura defines this countermemory as a “diasporic geography, cultural forms, and philosophical ideas as a “contermemory to the legacy of European Enlightenment thought” (12)) Similarly, Ghostlife articulates Asian American film and Third Cinema as a similar space., yet despite their obvious relationship, few scholars have explored the relationship between the two which Mimura credits with helping creating a cinema that was “politically, aesthetically, and institutionally self aware as Asian American, and on the difference that Third Cinema makes in this dialectical process.” (26) According to Mimura, Asian American film served to both “articulate” many of the goals within Third Cinema but also to critiques its tendency to “fold gender into class, feminism into socialism and to regard sexism as a residual social inequality to be resolved by authentic class solidarity and consciousness.” (45) Asian American cinema addressed these inadequacies, most notably in the 1990s, as feminists and queer filmmakers produced works exploring issues of sexuality, gender, and subjectivities in an attempt to reorient, rework, and engage with “the politics of representation.” (49)

Nor are diaspora’s defined simply by ethnic or racial ties. The contours of Asian American sexuality often excluded queer and transgendered voices. Since the 1990s, independent Asian cinema has promoted these voices. Harnessing Stuart Hall and to a lesser extent Lowe once again, Mimura credits the “politics of difference” for opening up a space “for the margins to gain visibility as dominant discourses … have lost some of their authority amid the dramatic changes occurring at the national and global levels.” (124). Critics of identity politics noted that the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality provided frequent difficulties for various movements. In contrast, through the "politics of difference" such intersectionalities serve as a source of strength, enabling "racialized, diasporic, and sexual minorities to articulate their identities, but also those subjects whose identities are caught up in multiple emergent realities of difference – subjects marginalized simultaneously by race, class, gender and sexuality.”

Unsurprisingly, Mimura addresses the spectrality of Asian American representation. Ghostlife acknowledges the scholarship of Takaki’s Strangers on the Shore and Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth Century America, Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts and to a lesser extent Nayan Shah’s work on Asian and Asian American sexuality. However, Mimura incorporates more theoretical works such as Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination by Avery Wood, Bliss Lim’s “Spectral Times”, and Derrida’s Spectres of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the new International. Spectrality haunts Asian American representation and identity. Accordingly, Asian American “symbolic racialization … disappear[s] ghostlike, in public cultural and national political discourses, only to reappear as “strangers” or perpetual foreigners – that is symbolically out of place and outside of history.” (64) Attempts by Asian Americans at claiming “political or cultural subjecthood” result in reactions of “disbelief, skepticism, disavowal”, responses not unlike those of a “scientific, rational, secular society to the presence of ghosts, and the fantastic more generally.” (65) The emergence of ghosts threatens the normal historical consciousness undermining the idea that modern history remains stable, progressive and linear. Like Lowe and others, Mimura rejects multiculturalism which he argues symbolically embraces Asian Americans culturally while failing to address the social, economic, and political “material exclusion” imposed them. In an intriguing reversal of McKeown’s argument, Mimura suggests that today’s globalization and the perceived reduction in racism or prejudice serves not of evidence of improved race relations “here” but rather “because middle class (primarily white) consumers are now going there.” (79)

Conflicts arising within Asian American media illustrate the medium’s ability to disrupt traditional normative forms, enabling previously excluded voices to thicken our understanding of histories. Mimura juxtaposes the goals of the Redress and Post-Redress movements. The difference between the two categorizations rested on epistemological concerns rather than chronology. To put it succinctly, the Redress movement focused on broadening mainstream history to include Japanese Americans as soldiers, advocates for Asian American riots, draft resisters, and so forth. In general it embraced an Americanism that continued to privilege liberal democracy, neoliberalism, and the nation state. Critics argue Redress’ maintains a reductive approach, squashes internal complexities for a uniform approach hence silencing segments of Asian America, and fails to account for the long term psychological trauma imposed on those who experienced it and their children. Moreover, many in the Redress movement “privileged heroic, therapeutic stories.” (88) In contrast, Post Redress works address the continuing effects of internment on Japanese families, while avoiding the silencing of voices that Redresses uniformity required. Post Redress conventions often employ non-linear fragmented approaches reaffirming, as Mimura points out, that “remembering is itself a generative, creative, fictionalizing act.” (95) For Mimura, Asian American politics of the 1960s and 1970s, the same politics that informed Third Cinema, rejected the “silence in Japanese American history.” Asian American history more broadly exhibited a “short circuiting” of collective memory. According to Ghostlife, the danger in the Redress approach relates to its relegation of "Japanese American life to historical artifact, we are not confronting racism today, and we are failing to confront the tremendous changes in our own cultural identity.” (116) Focusing on family life and more personal less stereotypically “heroic” examples uncovers the pervasiveness and meaning of the internment experience.

Clearly, Mimura shares a fundamental distrust of liberal democracy. For a new generation of scholars multiculturalism and liberal democracy serve as levelers that obliterate valued differences, while erasing our understanding of the longer history of peoples. Returning to Lowe once again, liberal democracy’s narrative of naturalization as political emancipation which suggests all citizens have equal access to services and institutions and adequate political representation actually denies the reality of this “”naturalization” which rested on unequal relations between white citizens and subordinated racialized noncitizens and women.” (27) Ghostlife clings to this theoretical supposition tightly. Perhaps, Mimura illustrates his distrust of liberal democracy and future hopes most clearly when summarizing the importance of the Post-Redress movement, as it refused to censor the internment experience “their media memories – radically generative, creative and reflective – seek redemption not in the insufficient gestures of liberal nationalism and capitalist democracy, but in the renewed possibilities of feminist, diasporic, and thereby collective consciousness.” (119)

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License