Friday, August 3, 2012

Theory Review: Lee's Semblance of Identity (2012)

Lee, Christopher. The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012.

In The Semblance of Identity Christopher Lee examines the ongoing debate in Asian American studies over identity politics and its political efficacy; he claims that rather than presenting “an argument for or against identity and identity politics,” his “aim is to explore the consequences of the ‘post-identity’ turn” (3). Lee approaches the issue of identity (and post-identity) in Asian American studies by tracing what he describes as “the ‘idealized critical subject,’” a figure that “operates throughout Asian American literary culture and cultural criticism as a means of providing coherence to oppositional knowledge projects and political practices” (4). By working through Theodor Adorno’s conception of “aesthetic semblance” as “the kinds of knowledge that artworks offer by virtue of their appearance and illusory coherence,” Lee establishes a parallel between aesthetics and identity (17). He tracks the idealized critical subject as an aesthetic figure that manifests in Asian American literary productions and demonstrates in the unraveling of the form and content of these texts the “theoretical structures of race and identity” (17). Ultimately, while Lee’s work does demonstrate how representations of Asian American identity have always been unstable, his focus on the idealized critical subject reveals how despite its flaws, identitarian thinking continues to persist even amidst the proliferation of anti- and post-identity discourses.

Text at a Glimpse
  • Main argument: Lee argues that while the “idealized critical subject is a compromised, albeit powerful, figure for Asian American Studies,” its persistence in Asian American literary productions reveals the way that identitarian thought remains embedded within anti- and post-identity discourses (22). Tracking this figure and by extension the “semblance character” of identity which is used to “imagine an emancipatory politics,” he argues, will allow us to better understand the various tensions that animate the field of Asian American studies, including those that exist “between the pressures of a racialized society and a political imagination that seeks to overcome these limitations” (151).
  • Exigency: Lee’s work emerges in response to the “post-identity turn”; he examines the consequences of this turn by tracking the persistence of the “idealized critical subject” in Asian American literary productions. His study reveals the “staying power of identitarian thought, even in texts that are ambiguous about, or even critical of, identity politics” (151).
  • Methodology: Lee’s study tracks the materialization of the “idealized critical subject” in Asian American literature; for him, this figure functions as a “proper” subject that coheres the field’s cultural and political projects. He theorizes the “idealized critical subject as an aesthetic figure whose conditions of articulation are intricately related to the representational protocols and procedures of fiction” (13).
    • Lee emphasizes the analysis of the form of literary texts because he adheres to Kant’s view that form is the “proper object of aesthetic judgment” since it “belongs to the realm of imagination rather than sensation” (14). As opposed to taste, which is “contingent to the particulars of empirical sensation and experience,” “form uneasily denotes the boundaries of the artwork and marks the cut that separates art from the world at large” and it is ultimately this “frame” that must be perceived and analyzed if an “object is to be judged aesthetically” (14).
    • Lee’s work builds heavily on Theodor Adorno’s conception of art as “offer[ing] an alternative to ‘established fact’ due to its embattled relationship with society” and  “aesthetic semblance” as “the kinds of knowledge that artworks offer by virtue of their appearance and illusory coherence” (16, 17). Relying on Adorno’s work as a theoretical frame Lee develops an alternative understanding of identity as akin to aesthetics; establishing this parallel further allows him to track the idealized critical subject as an aesthetic figure whose “cognitive structure” becomes especially evident when “it is textualized into literary narrative,” thereby justifying his attention to Asian American literary productions (17, 4).
    • Lee claims that the “textual vicissitudes of the idealized critical subject constitute an archive of post-identity as the rupture of identitarian thought from within, at the very scenes of its articulation” (13).
  • Key terms:
    • “Identity”- Lee theorizes “identity as a means to conceptualize the relationship between an individual and the historical, cultural, and social conditions that situate his or her life circumstances” (2). He argues that the “construction and circulation of identities is inseparable from the distribution of economic and social resources, from questions of power and domination that are sedimented in the very labels and categories that we use” (2).
    • “Identity politics”- Although identity politics has often been associated with the “struggles of minority and marginalized groups for recognition and equality,” Lee pushes us to “understand it in a more general sense, as a pervasive dimension of modern social thought and practice that anchors the polticial to the formation and promotion of, and/or opposition to, identitarian categories and structures” (2-3). He borrows from Linda Martín Alcoff’s formulation of identity politics, which involves “‘choosing one’s identity as a member of one or more groups as a political point of departure,’ as the starting point for establishing communities and collectivities” (3).
    • “Idealized critical subject”- Lee “treat[s] the idealized critical subject as a composite figure that embodies a set of claims about identity, subjectivity, and oppositional social/political movements”; he claims that it is “characterized precisely by its ability to integrate the production of critical knowledge with an effective political praxis” (9).
    • “The critical Asian American subject”- Lee argues that this figure “is distinguished by its ability to reveal suppressed or neglected histories and experiences of domination, knowledge that in turn becomes the basis for political contestation” (11). He reveals that while it does not “represent Asian Americans as a demographic group,” it “is enormously useful, even indispensable, for conceiving and articulating a politically committed knowledge project because it functions as a flexible trope, a position that gets occupied by a range of subjects including fictional characters, writers, artists, activists, students, critics, and intellectuals” (11).
    • “Post-identity turn”- Lee traces the post-identity turn to the 1990s when there was a dramatic shift in “theoretical orientation” in Asian American studies towards the critique of identity politics. He connects this shift immediately to the publication of Lisa Lowe’s seminal essay “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Asian American Differences” (1991), but the other major theorist he associates with the post-identity turn is Kandice Chuh who reconceputalizes Asian American studies as a “‘subjectless discourse’ consisting of ‘collaborative antagonisms’” (6).
    • “Post-identity”- Lee asserts, “I use post-identity to denote a theoretical/ discursive process that operates in a range of texts concerned with the historical, social, material, and symbolic dimensions of what David Palumbo-Liu calls the Asian/American racial frontier” (8). In addition, borrowing from Jean-Francois Lyotard’s conceptualization of post-modernism, Lee distinguishes identity from post-identity by claiming that while the former denotes a kind of “grammar” “for making sense of and representing the relationship between the subject and the social,” the latter “marks the breakdown of this grammar and unfolds as an inherent and integral dimension of identitarian thinking” (8).
    • “(The) Aesthetic”- For Lee, “the aesthetic denotes a mode of cognition that exceeds the parameters of rational knowledge and/or political agency” (13). More specifically, it “illuminates the internal logic of the idealized critical subject as well as the conditions under which it is manifested in literature” (13).
    • “Realist fiction/ realism”- Lee defines realist texts as those that “foreground the claim that they are portraying social, historical, and personal circumstances that are continuous with real times, places, and conditions” (15). Rather than “focusing on the stylistic traditions and protocols of realist fiction,” he adopts a more flexible understanding of the term that “reflects [Frederic] Jameson’s definition of realism as a ‘cognitive as well as aesthetic’ concept that ‘presupposes a form of aesthetic experience which yet lays claim to a binding relationship to the real itself, that is to say, to those realms of knowledge and praxis, which had traditionally been differentiated from the realm of the aesthetic, with its disinterested judgments and its constitutions as sheer appearance’” (15).
    • “Mediation”- Lee claims that “[m]ediation operates in the ‘disguised and transparent’ ways in which ‘cultural objects’ including literature claim to establish a ‘binding relationship to the real itself’” (16). It is in the process of “trying to figure out exactly how this does (or does not) happen,” he argues, that mediation forces us to examine the “the literary text as a socially embedded object” (16).
    • “Aesthetic semblance”- Lee works through Theodor Adorno’s conception of aesthetic semblance as “the kinds of knowledge that artworks offer by virtue of their appearance and illusory coherence” (17). Adorno claims that semblance “inheres in the artwork’s apparent distance from the world (i.e., the illusion that the artwork exists and acts in its own world)” and reveals that “[w]hile this distance is ultimately untenable, it sustains the internal coherence and autonomy of the artwork” (17).
    • “The redemption of semblance”- This process of redemption, according to Adorno, is what legitimates the truth of art; it “requires the critic to unravel the coherence of the artwork in order to dissolve the congealing of content and form, a process that does not just reassert the primacy of the social, but also shows how the formal conditions of the artwork render an indictment of the same” (17). The redemption of semblance, moreover, functions as the specific reading practice Lee adopts in this text to unravel the figure of the idealized critical subject and by extension, “the theoretical structures of race and identity” (17).


Each chapter in The Semblance of Identity examines the articulation of the idealized critical subject at “different moments in Asian American literary history” as part of “an ongoing [critical] engagement with the fraught relationship between identity politics and literary representation” (4).

  • “The Strange Smell of Truth: Ethnicity, Translation, and Realism in the Cold War Writings of Eileen Chang”
  • “The Ironic Temporalities of Cultural Nationalism”
  • “Sound and the Subject in ‘The Woman Warrior’ and ‘Tripmaster Monkey’”
    • In this chapter Lee analyzes how Kingston deploys a “politics of sound” in The Woman Warrior and Tripmaster Monkey to “imagine different configurations of identity and community” (76-77). Although she challenges identity categories, however, he reveals that Kingston “does so by articulating versions of the idealized critical subject” (74). Her texts consequently convey the difficulty of moving beyond identity politics, but for Lee it is precisely Kingston’s ability to represent this difficulty that makes her an enduring figure in Asian American literary studies; Kingston “articulates the conflicted relationship between political commitment and textuality, and repeatedly demonstrates how the operations of post-identity take place in a liminal zone between these two poles, in the simultaneous deployment and unraveling of identity politics” (97).
  • “Form Giving and the Remains of Identity in A Gesture Life
  • “Semblance, Shame, and the Work of Comparison”


  • What is Lee’s view on the post-identity debate? What is his perspective on identity politics more generally? How does his work discourse with other critics on the subject of identity and post-identity?  
  • How does Lee conceive of the relationship between mediation, semblance, aesthetics, and identity?
    • See text summary and “mediation,” “aesthetic semblance,” and “aesthetics” under key terms.
  • Why does Lee privilege “realist” texts in his study of identity and post-identity? What is the relationship between realism and his focus on historicity in Asian American studies?
    • Lee is interested in examining “the epistemological conditions in which history becomes the primary basis of social and cultural critique”; for him, “the emphasis on historicity in Asian American literary and cultural criticism is itself tied to its investment in the idealized critical subject” (20-21).
  • Why does Lee focus on analyzing the “form” of literary productions?  
    • In addition to relying on Kant’s theorization of form as “the proper object of aesthetic judgment” Lee claims that form also “reveals the operations of the subject as well as how it is rooted in social particulars” (15). Consequently, “[b]y stressing the cognitive implications of form,” he argues that “we can draw a distinction between reading practices that are attentive to matters of form and formalism as an ideological stance on literary value that eschews the importance of history and/or politics” (15). Borrowing further from Fredrick Jameson, Lee employs form as a “‘hermeneutic concept’ that ‘emphasizes the operation of interpretation itself,” which compels critics to assess their own methodologies and socio-historical contexts (15).
    • See Lee’s use of Kant’s conception of form under methodology.
  • How does Lee’s theorization of the idealized critical subject discourse with Crystal Parikh’s unethical or improper subject in The Ethics of Betrayal?

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