Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, 1997

Every so often a work of scholarship levels the field, reorienting perspectives, realigning identities and their meanings, while providing a new point of departure for future scholars. In 1997, UCSD Professor Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts performed such a feat reimagining tropes about the “model minority”, rejecting liberal democracy and multiculturalism as little more than a race neutral mask that concealing the material and social deprivation of minority groups. Inequalities established prior to the rise of multiculturalism. Recent works by scholars including those of Adam McKeown (Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders, 2008), Charlotte Brooks Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California, 2009) and Glen Mimura’s Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video (2009) reveal the diversity of works and approaches that utilize many of Lowe’s observations/arguments. The extent of the book’s influence continues to grow as various disciplines incorporate its views into their own.

Published in the late 1990s, Immigrant Acts illustrates the influence of cultural studies and the move toward the study of “whiteness” within the humanities and social sciences. Focusing on cultural production, Lowe privileges culture, specifically the Asian American variant, as a site of negotiation and resistance. For Lowe “the nation proposes American culture as a the key site for the resolution of inequalities and stratification that cannot be resolved on the political terrain of representative democracy, then that culture performs that reconciliation by naturalizing a universality that exempts the “non-American” from its history of development or admits the “non-American” only through a “multiculturalism” that aestheticizes ethnic differences as if they could be separated from history.” (9)

For example, Lowe’s chapter entitled “Imagining Los Angeles in the Production of Multiculturalism” begins with the now ubiquitous Blade Runner allusion (one wonders whether Ridley Scott knows his work has become the play ground of countless academics in recent years), “Blade Runner’s representation of a third world, largely Asian, invasion of Los Angeles rearticulates orientalist typographies in order to construct the white citizen against the background of a multicultural dystopia.” (85) The “production of multiculturalism” enacts a superficial aesthetic sheen, that, as Lowe argues, “obscures the ways in which that aesthetic representation is not an analogue for the material positions, means, or resources of those populations.” (86) In other words, multiculturalism substitutes aesthetic equality for true material and political equivalents., “multiculturalism levels the important differences and contradictions within and among racial and ethnic minority groups according to the discourse of pluralism, which assets that American culture is a democratic terrain to which every variety of constituency has equal access and in which all are represented, while simultaneously masking the existence of exclusions by recuperating dissent, conflict, and otherness through the promise of inclusion.” (86) Lowe goes on to deconstruct the documentary Sa- I-gu which Lowe credits with disrupting the “linear, developmental narrative that seeks to assimilate ethnic immigrants into the capitalist economy.” Consisting of interviews with Korean American women commenting of the “Los Angeles crisis” following the Rodney King ruling, as Lowe points out the interviews challenge the uniformity of the Korean American community, “The very different articulations the Korean immigrant and Korean American speakers contradict a notion of the homogenous authenticity of immigrant groups.” (92)

In other Chapters Lowe employs the work of various Asian authors and poets most notably the work Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha which anchors the book’s sixth chapter and appears numerous times. In Anglo American culture, Lowe argues, the novel operates as a cultural institution that “legitimates particular forms and subjects of history and subjugates or erases others.” (98) Accordingly Asian American literature “by virtue of its distance from the historical formation of American national literature, resists the formal abstraction of aestheticization and canonization … It is a literature that, if subjected to a canonical function, dialectically returns a critique of that function.” (44) In its exploration of Asian American literature Immigrant Acts summarizes the contributions by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990), and Fae Myenne Ng’s Bone (1993), “they offer modes for imagining and narrating immigrant subjectivity and community – merging out of conditions of decolonization, displacement, and disidentification – and refuse assimilation to the dominant narratives of integration, development and identification.” (101)

The “model minority” formation may have privileged Asian Americans above other minority groups but it also leveled identities. Moreover, it represented the flip side of previous racializations, such late nineteenth century discourses proclaiming “yellow peril”, each represents national anxieties over the perpetual figure of Asians, “Indeed, it is precisely the unfixed liminality of the Asian immigrant – geographically, linguistically, and racially at odds with the context of the “national” – that has given rise to the necessity of endlessly fixing and repeating such stereotypes.” (19)

The contradiction of today’s “model minority” racial formation and those of the past serve as Lowe’s key points. For Lowe, it is through contradiction in which the systematic inequalities embedded in “cultural institutions, economies, and geographies” are revealed. The subsequent conflict calls attention to pluralist multiculturalism’s role in obscuring such unevenness. In this way, Lowe suggest that culture must be reimagined not in the language of “identity, equivalence, or pluralism but out of contradiction, as a site for alternative histories and memories that provide the grounds to imagine subject, community, and practice in new ways.” (96) Thus, the contradictions of Asian immigration which in moments located Asians “within” the US nation state, its workplaces, and its markets, yet linguistically, culturally and racially” marked then as foreign, situated outside national membership serves as a critical ground for reimaginings. If immigration has been the site of both othering and “the emergence of critical negations of the nation state”, then law “produces” immigrants as marginal and threatening to the figurative “whole”, thus performing the critique of “that universality”. Though subjected to exclusion and restriction, immigrants serve as “agents of political change, cultural expression, and social transformation.” (8-9) Additionally, the presence of Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos disavow the linear developmental anti imperial history of the US domestically and abroad. Forced to “forget” Asian wars while adopting national tropes constructing the US as a benevolent international force opposed to colonizing projects, the “political fiction of equal rights” falls into question. As Lowe comments, “the “past” that is grasped as memory is, however, not a naturalized, factual past for the relation to that past is always broken by war, occupation, and displacement. Asian American culture “re-members” the past in and through the fragmentation, loss, and dispersal that constitutes the past.” (29) Thus, Asian American culture critiques the nation state, occupies other spaces altering national terrain, reconceptualizing narratives and historiographies, establishing techniques that birth “new forms of subjectivity and new ways of questioning the government of human life by the nation state.” (29)

Through the heterogeneity and fragmentedness of Asian American culture, Lowe cites Stuart Hall’s “politics of difference” as a possible solution. Unlike many other scholars, Lowe does not view identity politics as a pejorative. Rather, Lowe notes the dialectic between “the politics of difference is … of utmost importance, for it opens terrain on which to imagine the construction of another politics”. This new politics engages rather than squashes “heterogenities of gender class, race and nation, yet” also perpetuates forms of unity enabling “common struggle”. Lowe notes that they are a “politics whose vision is not the origin but the destination.” (153)

Certainly, Immigrant Acts looks to find grounds for a new politics that seeks less to create a uniform identity but rather an identity based on its lack of uniformity. The impact of Lowe’s work continues to reverberate. The scholarship mentioned in the introduction serves as a small slice of the research utilizing Lowe’s text. Critically, Lowe sees the history of Asian American immigration as a model for thinking about current fears and prejudices regarding Mexican immigration, “Asian American culture is the site of “remembering,” in which the recognition of Asian immigrant history in the present predicament of Mexican and Latino immigrants is possible.” (21) In addition to revealing the agency of Asian Americans, questioning the role of US citizenship in creating subjectivities, and critiquing multiculturalism for its sins of erasure, Immigrant Acts illustrates the influence that newcomers exert on American society and institutions. Law, work, religious life, popular culture may impose and reproduce “racialized and gendered social relations” but the work, acts, and presence of immigrants greatly disrupts such relations. Dominant society is reformed just as the personal culture of new arrivals. America disciplines its citizens and workers through spaces of education, law, health, and domesticity among others. However, Lowe concludes, the regulated sites just mentioned, are “profoundly transformed by immigration and altered by the immigrant cultures and practices that merge in contradiction to these regulating sites. In these sites, “immigrant acts” perform the dialectal unification across difference and critically generate the new subjects of cultural politics.” (173)

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