A Race So Different: A Conversation Between Joshua Chambers-Letson and Karen Tongson (Part Two)

We’ve just learned that Joshua Chambers-Letson’s A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asia America has just been been awarded the 2014 ATHE (Association of Theater in Higher Education) Outstanding Book Award! Karen and I are so proud to be working with such outstanding scholars for our Postmillenial Pop book series at New York University Press.

KT: Your chapter, “The Nail That Stands Out: The Political Performativity of the Moriyuki Shimada Scrapbook” offers some very personal, very moving first-person accounts of your own childhood experiences with your mother as a “mixed” racialized subject, and about your own struggles with legibility coming to the fore as you confront the parable of “the nail that stands out.” Could you explain a little more to our general readership about your own relationship to performing one’s own story in work that is explicitly about racialization? How is the personal, biographical, or anecdotal a part of your methodology? And how might it stand in concert or at odds with the logics of narration in legal discourse as well as performance studies?

JC-L: I feel deeply ambivalent about the place of the personal/anecdotal in this book. The “I” in this book—with the exception of that one passage in chapter four and the dedication to my grandmother—remains at a critical distance throughout A Race So Different. I’m Japanese, Black, and white, and in some ways my relationship to the question of racial justice is shaped by this accident of autobiography, as Gayatri Spivak might call it. How could it not be?

Being a person of color can give one a particular perspective on the experiences of racialization and racism. These experience and perspectives are often ignored or debased by a dominant culture that still refuses to accept that racism continues to play a critical role in shaping of US American life. As critical race theorists like Mari Matsuda have taught us, personal narrative can be an important and useful way of disrupting the legal discourses of the dominant culture. But it also has its dangers.

Rey Chow has done perhaps more work than anyone to show us how the seeming liberation promised by the minoritarian scholar’s personal reflexivity and self-referentiality can become a cage that traps this scholar within identitarian coordinates. So while one must sometimes respond to the dominant culture’s elision and erasure of minoritarian lives by articulating and telling the stories of our lives as they are lived, I also believe that we must be strategic in how we do so. And, perhaps more importantly, we shouldn’t give everything away: I want to protect certain secret forms of survival and intimacies that structure minoritarian lives from a culture that so often takes such knowledge, appropriates it, distorts it, or guts it of its operative and insurgent potential.

If there’s anything I might say about my turn to the anecdotal that isn’t ambivalent, it’s this: the story I tell in chapter four is about something that my mother, Shadi, taught me as a kid in order to help me survive the racist and homophobic environment of Colorado, where I was raised. And I wanted to honor my mother, who is as much a theorist of race, sex, class, and gender, and a practitioner of minoritarian survival, as any of the famous philosophers, scholars, and artists that I engage with in the book.

KT: Finally, what are some of the broader stakes for you of doing a book like A Race So Different and situating it in a series about popular phenomena using contemporary methods in a contemporary moment? Who are some of the broader audiences you hope to reach, and what would you like some of your project’s “takeaways” to be? To what extent is this first project the foundation for some of your new work on Marxist theory and minoritarian performance?

JC-T: It was important to me to show how cultural forms (including, especially, the popular) should not be divided away from legal or political forms. This is because, as I argue throughout the book, they are inextricable from each other. When I disaggregate the parts of a system (e.g., separating the law and aesthetics from each other), I lose a more comprehensive vision of that system and become less capable of taking the system apart in order to build something better.

In this way, the mode of ideology critique that undergirds this book is largely inspired by Marxist theory. For me, Marxist theory is both an interrogation of system, capital, and labor as it is a philosophy of emancipation. It felt like a logical extension to explore more fully the relationship between Marxist theory and minoritarian performance in the next project. The law, too, will be present in that project because law plays a key role in the reproduction of the conditions of production.

As to the question of audience: On a deeply personal level, José Muñoz was and always will be the primary audience of this book. It began as a dissertation under his care and he read it and supported it, challenged it, and thought through it with me at every stage. The fact of this book is now difficult because it is part of a conversation with and inspired by him that is left incomplete by his death.

But, obviously, one doesn’t write a book for only one person. So perhaps it would make the most sense to say that it was written for the subjects of the brown commons. It was written for all of us who are struggling to make this world better because we cannot abide the insufficiencies of the here and now. And it was written for those of us who still believe that aesthetics will play an important role in this coming transformation of our conditions of existence, as they always played a role in revolution and transformation throughout all history.

KT: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and, of course, for sharing your project through our book series. And I, personally, find your closing words about the brown commons and José—a dear friend and mentor to me as well—an especially apt, and moving way to frame our conversation, and our own scholarly intertwinement.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is an assistant professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Northwestern University. His first book A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America was published by NYU Press in December of 2013. He is currently working on a second book project, The Coming Communism: Marxist Theory and Minoritarian Performance, which theorizes minoritarian performance practices (by artists including Félix González-Torres, Yoko Ono, Michi Barall, William Pope.L, Tehching Tshieh, and the Knife) as rehearsing and anticipating concrete forms of actually existing Marxist sociality.

Karen Tongson is Associate Professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, and the author of Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press, 2011). Her work has appeared in numerous venues in print and online, including Social Text, GLQ, Nineteenth-Century Literature, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. She is currently, with Henry Jenkins, series editor for Postmillennial Pop at NYU Press, and recently completed a multi-year term as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Popular Music Studies. Her current book project, Empty Orchestra: Karaoke. Critical. Apparatus. critiques prevailing paradigms of imitation in contemporary aesthetics and critical theory, while offering a genealogy of karaoke technologies, techniques, and desires.