The following is another in a series of interviews with the authors of books in the Postmillenial Pop series which I co-edited with Karen Tongson for New York University Press. In this case, Karen Tongson did the interview and wrote everything below.
Among the most recent titles in our Postmillennial Pop series at NYU Press is Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson’s ambitious first monograph, A Race So Different: Performance and Law in Asian America. Chambers-Letson brings together a range of cultural phenomena in the “long twentieth century”—from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to, Ping Chong’s Chinoiserie, to the contemporary, L.A. based indie band, Dengue Fever—in order to illuminate how the legal histories of Asian Americans, in the U.S. are deeply intertwined with genealogies of performance. More specifically, the law itself becomes a genre of performance in Chambers-Letson’s work, as it shapes, defines and calls into (legal) being Asian American bodies through exclusion, relocation, extradition and rendition. Trained as a performance studies scholar, Chambers-Letson is interested more broadly in how we find performance practices beyond the stage, and in the genres of the everyday, including popular culture. He took the time to speak with me about how he imagines his work on Asian American law and performance in a much broader political and scholarly context.
KT: Allow me to begin with a simple “chicken or egg” question, since our readers are always curious about what inspires the eclectic projects that have appeared in our series. In other words, when you first began to conceptualize the project, did you begin with the legal archives and debates, or did the specific case studies and performances inspire you to look deeper into the legal and archival materials?
JC-L: Rather than a sequence, I usually began with the question I wanted to explore and then followed the question to the right place. The book is trying to offer a theory of the state that makes a simple point: the law has an aesthetic dimension and aesthetic forms often mediate and transmit legal knowledge. Court opinions have their own narrative conventions (including wit and humor, rhetoric, tone and style) and court cases are often staged in a theatrical fashion or through legal ritual. In turn, a show like Law and Order is one of the prime ways that many people gain access to the law and (sometimes manipulated or mutated) legal knowledge. As such, the main thing I wanted to address was this conjunction of law and performance.
Because I was approaching the project in a fashion that blurred the line between law and aesthetics, there wasn’t really a sequence to the way I gathered material. You know, the last thing the world needed was another chapter on how racist Madame Butterfly is; so that’s not the chapter that I wrote. Instead, I started with the question: how can I think through the ways that popular works about culture mediate and disseminate legal discourse. Since so much of Madame Butterfly is concerned with questions of law, and since the legal discourse in Butterfly so neatly lines up with legal narratives that were being produced about Asian and Asian Americans in US courts at the time, it seemed like the right place to go to answer that question.
From there, I shuttled back and forth between the legal archives and the cultural site. This is cheesy, but my favorite comfort food is oyako-donburi, which is basically a rice bowl with simmered chicken and egg. There’s no sequence to it, they all happen at the same time.
KT: Not cheesy at all (I also love a good donburi), but definitely delicious! Moving on…I’d like to follow up a bit about your interest in the law and legal studies, especially since your graduate training was in performance studies. The relationship between the two can be traced to the moment when “performativity” (viz. Austin, Butler and others) entered conversations about “performance” in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And yet your work does so much more to expand the category of performance in relation to the law, since it moves beyond the speech acts that “declare” certain legal statuses into being. What were some of your larger objectives in bringing together the two categories and approaches, and how did you come up against some resistance to the idea that the “law” is in many respects, also a “stage”? I think this will be of interest to some media scholars who are also invested in the legal and political economy of their objects and how they’ve been legislated.
JC-L: By exploring the conjunction between law and performance, I was interested in exploring questions raised by Austin and Butler, as well as questions posed by Thomas Hobbes, Carl Schmitt, Louis Althusser, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and José Muñoz. There’s a funny moment in Leviathan where Hobbes makes fun of Aristotle. He goes on to lambast people who believe in the idea of a government that is ruled by law rather than by men. This is because in the final instance the law is only as good as the people that execute or perform the law’s commands.
Schmitt does a similar thing in his attack on legal positivism when he reminds us that all law is situational and it is precisely because law has interpretive gaps that it is a political—and I would also say performed or embodied—art.
Althusser asks us to consider how it is that our own everyday performances of life come to realize the ruling ideology as it is transmitted through ideological apparatuses such as the law. From Sedgwick I learned that the distinction between performativity and performance, or say law and aesthetics, is a false distinction and that we should be suspicious of the binarization of these two.
And Muñoz taught me in Disidentifications that the operative fictions and apparatuses of the dominant culture, in this case the law, can be played with through performance in order to survive hostile conditions and even survive them.
By asking these kinds of questions, I hoped to show how it is that we can better understand how the law works, how it lays claim to our bodies, and how we might be able to disrupt this claim. I also wanted to press home the point, one more time, that cultural production is as much an ideological apparatus as the law and that the conjunction of the two is central to the reproduction of our conditions of existence.
KT: As you know, our book series is interested in popular cultures and phenomena broadly defined. We were of course captivated by the expansiveness of the cultural archive in A Race So Different, moving as it does from Puccini’s (popular) opera, Madame Butterfly, to the contemporary So. Cal “Cambo-rock” of Dengue Fever. How do you feel your book implicitly and explicitly provides its own definition of popular culture? How do the objects in your book exceed their contributions to “Asian/American” performance (as some are wont to isolate texts featuring Asians/Americans) into a broader, transcultural, transmedia framework for the popular?
JC-L: My friend C. Riley Snorton recently released a beautiful book about the discursive circulation of the “down low” within popular culture. I see his project as being very much in conversation with my own. In that book he returns our attention to Raymond Williams’ three-part exploration of popular culture as being “low” or “base,” work that is meant to appeal to the masses, and work that is simply consumed in mass. I followed an impulse similar to Snorton’s approach, which was to break down the distinctions between a work of “high” art (like opera) and more popular forms (like melodrama or rock music), to show how they bleed together.
I also wanted to show how the daily rituals that structure our lives should be included within the sphere of the popular, as with my studies of the taking of personal photographs for a scrapbook, the mounting of a high school play, or the schoolroom performance of the pledge of allegiance (all from within the Japanese American concentration camps of World War Two).
I’m not sure if the book provides a definition of popular culture so much as it asks whose agenda is being served when we carve out certain forms of culture as “high” (opera or avante-garde performance) from the “low” material of popular culture (scrapbooking, rock music, community theater). The division between “high” art—which is often the work associated with the economic and cultural elite—and “low” or popular culture is one that we should be suspicious of insofar as it reifies a division of intellectual and cultural labor that contributes to the reproduction of class and social hierarchy.
The book focuses on Asian America in order to ground and illustrate these larger points. My hope is that it does as much work for helping us to think about the specific conditions under which racial meaning comes into being for the Asian American body as it does for thinking about the way cultural practices within the popular realm shape all of our broader material and social realities.
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.