positions politics

Contradiction and Commitment1

Colleen Lye

Today’s sense of sixties redux presents an opportunity to revisit the Asian American Movement, a vibrant though oft-overlooked sector of global Maoism.2 It was in 1968 that the pan-ethnic Asian American subject emerged as a product of the political organizations and creative groupings that took to protest in its name; in particular, the first use of the term “Asian American” is credited to Yuji Ichioka and Richard Aoki when they founded the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) at UC Berkeley. Even after the waning of the Asian American Movement by the late 70s and its submergence within interest-group politics, new Asian American literary works would continue to be written that recalled the global sixties’ origins of Asian American identity.3 Outliving the revolutionary moment of its birth and lacking contemporary social correlates, Asian American political identity would signify ambiguously. Strangely, what suited Asian American literature to the encoding of sixties’ politics for post-sixties times was the influence of Mao’s concept of contradiction upon the imaginative form of Asian American identity.

Mao’s essay “On Contradiction” was a world literary text of the sixties.4 Mao’s particular approach to contradiction associated his brand of dialectical materialism with the name of ceaseless or continuing revolution, in which was emphasized the unity of opposites. Pointing out the unity of opposites lay at the heart of Mao’s break with the Soviet Union which Mao alleged, despite the establishment of a socialist state, manifested capitalist characteristics. It was of a piece with his charge that the bourgeoisie had “made its headquarters” within the Chinese Communist Party, thereby requiring Cultural Revolution to prevent China going down the “rightist” path of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. Another aspect of Mao’s concept of contradiction was the emphasis on contradiction’s multiplicity. Multiplicity didn’t necessarily mean an absence of order among operative contradictions; there always had to be a principal contradiction. Importantly, though, what was to be considered principal was situationally variable and not to be given in advance. In France, allowing for the possibility that superstructural contradiction could take primacy reversed the economism associated with orthodox Marxism and helped inspire Althusser’s formulation of the relative autonomy of ideology, which opened the door to the anti-totalization consensus of French post-marxism.5

In the U.S. sixties, the impact of Mao’s particular concept of contradiction was perhaps most obvious in the way multiplicity went hand in hand with a displacement of class as defined by one’s position within a system of production. The emergence of Third Worldism coincided with the turn to a New Communism, which was strongly Maoist in tendency.6 Beyond the official party affiliations of various Third World or people of color groups, the informal influence of Maoism lent support to the late New Left notion of multiple axes of oppression—including race, gender, sexuality, disability—as an alternative to a universal analytic of exploitation. In place of a class-based subject of revolution, the New Communism of the late sixties posited a coalition-based subject of revolution, of which Third World groupings were exemplary. So too was the Asian American Movement, which was inter-ethnic as Third World organizations were interracial, and which in the form of the AAPA arose simultaneously with the formation of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) at SF State and UC Berkeley in 1968, and—unique among other TWLF constituents—not before it.7 The radical potential represented by Asian American identity’s internal multiplicity thereafter would be tied to the theoretical traction and historical force of Third World coalition politics.

What was new about Asian American literature written after 1968 was its Maoist conceptualization of the form of Asian American identity. Published at the end of the U.S. war in Vietnam and in the year of Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) could not yet offer a historical reflection on the Asian American sixties.8 However, it was very much a historical product of the sixties. The Woman Warrior reveals the theoretical impact of Maoist contradiction upon Kingston’s recasting of earlier Asian American intergenerational narrative as a permanent, unresolved unity of opposites—in this case, a mother-daughter relationship that undoes any neat alignment of Asia with tradition and the US with modernity. Thematically, the text’s values might too be seen to reflect the disseminations of the Cultural Revolution. In Kingston’s version of the Mu Lan legend, a woman warrior who marches on the capitol in one moment and acquiesces to patriarchal order in another seems inconsistent only if we miss the fidelity to Mao’s sixties’ call upon insurgent youth to renew the authority of the Party.

Even in its US settings where The Woman Warrior’s more narrowly subjective focus may seem apolitical, it is attuned to the Cultural Revolution, whose emphasis on ideological struggle in the form of self-criticism conceived political action as a practice of ethical improvement or moral inquiry. The presence of the scene—in which the narrator’s characteristic self-questioning gets taken out upon another in a quasi public/quasi private space—associates U.S. New Left culture (in which the personal was now political) with the Chinese Cultural Revolution in which political action demanded the reform of personality. The text’s shifts between China and U.S. settings connect to shifts of focus from questions of group representation to questions of individual self-representation—the latter styled as a matter of the competing correspondence of Chinese- and English-language signifiers to a self whose referential solidity is missing. This shuttling between geographical settings (or linguistically distinct discourses and myths) in place of linear journeying is the spatial effect of Maoist contradiction conceived predominantly as a unity of opposites. Readers of The Woman Warrior learned from this text the lesson of ethnic identity’s fundamental ambivalence and undecidability, which are the effect of contradiction without resolution.

Starting in 1989, historical novels of the Asian American sixties dispensed with the Orientalist scaffolding that in The Woman Warrior was still needed to narrate the difficulty of Asian American emergence. In these post-Cold War novels, entirely local U.S. settings now frame a subject no longer situated between separate Asian and American worlds. In these novels, the Asian American subject is constitutively split, ever on the threshold of emergence. But its splitness is not distributed across an East-West geographical imaginary. Instead it is thematized as an extended contemplation of a disjuncture between aesthetic and political formation, or individual and collective agency.

Kingston too was the first to periodize the Asian American sixties in literature. Her first fully fictional work, Tripmaster Monkey (1989) inaugurated the genre of the historical novel of Asian American sixties that includes, most notably, Gunga Din Highway (1994), Mona in the Promised Land (1996), American Woman (2003), and I-Hotel (2010). Kingston’s literary method suggests that to set Asian American subject formation in history requires folding the question of Asian American being—the question entertained by The Woman Warrior—into the question of Asian American doing. The protagonist of Tripmaster Monkey, Wittman Ah Sing, quests after an art form that would have the power to stop war. The novel ironizes Wittman’s anti-imperialist ambition with a picaresque plot in which nothing much happens, culminating in his staging of a play that exemplifies art as happening. Since the play seems to be from Wittman’s perspective largely misinterpreted by its audience and reviewers in spite of their enthusiasm, the novel encourages us to question what had occurred in and through the performance. Wittman himself at the end of the play seems to rethink his original artistic intention:

“He had staged the War of the Three Kingdoms as heroically as he could, which made him start to understand: The three brothers and Cho Cho were masters of war…. And they lost. The clanging and banging fooled us, but now we know—they lost. Studying the mightiest war epic of all time, Wittman changed—beeen!—into a pacifist!”9

If the play has achieved nothing but the maturation of the playwright—a irritating, self-inconsistent, axe-grinding peacenik—this representation of micro-transformation hardly asks to be taken unironically. A deflated bildung is matched by the final indeterminacy of what form Asian American art ought to have taken. Though occupying many pages, the account given of the play seems purposely tedious. Consisting of lots of “blasting and blazing” (306) of established genres and the playwright’s meandering monologue of conflicting intents, the play symbolizes Asian American art as the impossibility of social narrative—or the unending search for how to represent the interconnections that are “the plot of our ever-branching lives” (288). Such open-ended and processual emphases help keep alive the aspiration for a total Asian American art. Yet the effect of this is also a shadowy sense of failure, indicating Tripmaster’s skeptical treatment of the political investments—in pacifist politics, in community theater—that are very much its own. How adequate is self-reflexivity as a political posture? For us in 2020, not very. Tripmaster’s focus on a character who seeks to create a political art sets up an inevitable tension between art and activism: in seeking to change the world through art, Wittman is always anxious about and threatened by the more direct action he is not engaged in. Focalized through this perspective, the novel offers a consistently jaundiced view of the committed leftist characters who do cross his path.

Complicating the novel’s political pessimism, however, is its invention of Chinese sources for sixties’ utopian longing. Throughout are references to Chineseness as characterized by: living outside an exchange economy (334); an anti-authoritarian attitude to government (248, 263); having trippiness built into one’s genes and blood (323); a long tradition of agitprop theater (306); a native knack for community (10, 298). We are not necessarily meant to believe in these claims about Chineseness as historical truths since they are presented as extravagant fantasies oft punctured by experience. What is important is that sixties counterculture is thematized as “Chinese.” “Chinese” is in quotation marks because it denotes not an inherited ethnos but the very possibility of transforming culture—in other words, the work of Cultural Revolution. This is why the novel couples Wittman’s quest for a people’s theater with the search for his grandmother, Popo: both involve a character’s search for his tribe. Importantly, the parallel between artistic community and family does not involve the biologization of the former. Rather the parallel reinforces a depiction of family that has been stripped of natural pretensions, “headed” by a grandmother who was adopted by Wittman’s parents and who speaks a hybrid of Japanese, Chinese, and English. “Do the right thing by whoever crosses your path. Those coincidental people are your people” (223). The result is a transvaluation of family duty into “serving the people,” and the explosion of a monoethnic imagination of community.

It’s not surprising that an Asian American author known for wanting to “claim America” should be at pains to clarify that her protagonist is looking to revive “not red-hot communist Chinese—but deep-roots American theater” (141). Yet what are we to make of such partly wistful evocations of China as the following? “In a land where words and pictures and have tones, there’s music everywhere all the time, and a party going on… A billion communalists eating and discussing. They’re never lonely” (330). Red Guard-like, Wittman criticizes his parents for their abandonment of filial duty (in this case to Popo), correcting for their deviations in the name of a lower-case “party.” Finding roles for all quarreling generations in his play and bringing them together in the same space, Wittman aims at a potential resolution of contradiction. Similar to The Woman WarriorTripmaster Monkey’s recasting of the Asian American intergenerational narrative as a unity of opposites results in an improvisational conceit of ethnic identity as an aesthetic form that permanently resists closure. Following Kingston, literary and cultural theorists would come to tie the immanent criticality of Asian American identity to the necessity of the Asian American subject’s nonemergence in history.10

After Tripmaster Monkey, historical novels of the Asian American sixties mostly took one of two routes: either they focused on actors within an Asian American countercultural milieu, or they concerned actors who were bit players in other people’s social movements. The first group made eclectic use of first-person narration, distributed across a multiplicity of characters, in a manner readers might identify as “postmodern.” The second group relied on third-person narration to convey the experience of a protagonist in a more classically “realist” manner. Whether by juxtaposing discrepant character perspectives without independent mediation or by crafting a protagonist who is racially exotic within her activist milieu, both kinds of novels presented a decentered Asian American subject of the sixties. Such was true even of the novels whose ideological values sought an overt alignment with sixties politics, such as Frank Chin’s Gunga Din Highway and Karen Tei Yamashita’s I-Hotel, which belong to the first group. In these novels, contradictoriness was structured into the very form of the Asian American subject, and played out as a permanent equivocation about a conflict between aesthetic and political practices. The second group of novels, which includes Gish Jen’s Mona in the Promised Land and Susan Choi’s American Woman, located contradictoriness in the relation between the emergence of the Asian American subject and the radical social movements—Black nationalism and the antiwar movement—that were its very condition of possibility.

In the end, the predominant effect of both types of novels was to disturb our certitude of the place of the Asian American subject in history. Inasmuch as to focalize the sixties through an Asian American perspective was to discover the impossibility of an Asian American subject, Asian American literature helped raise consciousness of the sixties as an unfinished revolution. For many years, a postmarxist emphasis of interpretation figured Asian Americanness as a kind of nonidentity whose strategic evocation was nevertheless worthwhile for conducting a necessary (self)criticism of internal Left shortcomings of race, gender and sexual politics. In 2020, with the growing recognition that it is collectivity and not identity that animates our deepest, most unembarrassed desires, we might consider beginning anew from commitment, not contradiction.

Colleen Lye teaches in English at UC Berkeley. She is the author of America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature (Princeton 2005), and the co-editor of special journal issues on Forms of Asia (Representations, 2007); Peripheral Realisms (MLQ, 2012); and Financialization and the Culture Industry Representations 2014). Currently she is working on two projects: a book on Asian American literature and the global 1960s and a collection of essays on contemporary returns to Marx after 2008.

  1. A longer, earlier version of this essay appeared as “The Asian American Sixties” in The Routledge Companion to Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature, ed. Rachel Lee (London & New York: Routledge, 2014). Reproduced with permission of Informa UK Limited through PLSclear.
  2. For recent considerations of global Maoism, see the essays in Kang Liu, ed., “Rethinking Critical Theory and Maoism,” special issue, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 20, no. 3 (2018), https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol20/iss3/1; see also the essays in Wang Ning, ed., “Global Maoism and Cultural Revolutions in the Global Context,” special issue, Comparative Literature Studies 52, no. 1 (2015).
  3. For the Marxist, including Maoist, affiliations of Asian American Movement activists, see Karen Ishizuka, Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (New York & London: Verso, 2016). For an account of the low-key continuation of the Asian American Movement’s radical energies into the 1980s, see Michael Liu, Kim Geron and Traci Lai, eds., The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
  4. See Christopher Connery, “The World Sixties,” in The Worlding Project: Doing Cultural Studies in the Era of Globalization, ed. Rob Wilson and Christopher Connery (Santa Cruz: North Atlantic Books, 2007). Also, Camille Robcis, “‘China in Our Heads’: Althusser, Maoism, and Structuralism,” Social Text 30, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 51–69.
  5. See Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” in The Sixties Without Apology, ed. Sohnya Sayres (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
  6. See Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (London/New York: Verso, 2002).
  7. Karen Umemoto, “‘On Strike!’ San Francisco State College Strike, 1968–1969: The Role of Asian American Students,” Amerasia 15, no. 1 (1989): 3–42.
  8. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, (New York: Vintage, [1976] 1989).
  9. Maxine Hong Kingston, Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book (New York: Vintage, [1989] 1990), 340.
  10. For an account of Asian American identity in terms of Derridean difference, see Kandice Chuh, Imagine OtherwiseOn Asian Americanist Critique (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003). For an account of Asian American identity in terms of Adornian semblance, see Christopher Lee, The Semblance of Identity: Aesthetic Mediation in Asian American Literature (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2012).