on little silences

I mentioned recently the difficulty with which I’ve found writing, not for a lack of opportunity nor for a shortage of ideas—if there’s one thing that this time has given me is the mounting reading list with which I can use to distract myself with thoughts and ideas that are not mine. There has been no shortage, of course, of things that should compel us to speak. So much has been noted about how unprecedented the start of this decade has felt in its velocity, in the number and scale of calamities, catastrophes and events that radically and sometimes incomprehensibly disrupt our understanding and expectations for our lives and others. And at the same time, our lives feel unnaturally stationary, stuck in a holding pattern that sometimes feels as though it’s imposed by choice, more and more characterized by what we’re not doing and what life isn’t like than the frenetic activity that we project back onto depictions of historical times of social change.

Like many members of the Asian-American community who have felt an immanent need to critically attend to this conjunctural moment, the view from our liberal lookout opens up onto a threatening view of the world, and many thoughtful and critical projects have emerged from diasporic writers and thinkers who are answering history’s call. There’s a call to action, to raise our fists, deploy hashtags, mobilize young creatives, and make felt the contributions of the AAPI community. It’s increasingly a discourse organized around the distinction between action and inaction, sympathy and apathy. There’s a rapid bucketing of those who care and those who don’t, which is a natural development from the long-existing self-reflection that the most visible (the educated, socially-mobile), and ironically I would argue the most represented, slice of the diasporic community, has been too comfortable. One of the dominant genres of Asian American self-writing has been the confession: “I would know all this because I have said and thought all of these things before.” I won’t attend yet to why I think admission of complicity emerged as the forerunner in Asian diasporic discourse, but I think to treat it as a genre, as a body of texts, and collection of discursive acts leads us to questions about the types of ideas that are allowed to circulate alongside of it and directs us to asymmetries in how categories, genres, and discourses are formed. Although the name and numbers suggest otherwise, the Asian-American community is not a real collectivity. Those who did the harming and those who were harmed got mixed up (in an uneven ratio favoring the former) when opportunities to live and study abroad became available. There are very few communities of trust, which means that diasporic subjects routinely find themselves alone. Sometimes it seems that the possibilities for disagreement in the discourse are limited, that what it means to support a progressive agenda is already predetermined and unyielding. Either you politely take your assigned place in the debate or you end up without a voice in the discourse. How can it be that, when we are supposedly actively shaping the discourse, we intentionally craft a conversation that leaves voices out?

In her memoir, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, the contemporary Chinese American writer Yiyun Li recounts something that Marianne Moore’s mother had done, which recalled something that Li’s own mother had done. The young Marianne Moore had become attached to a kitten that she named Buffy, short for Buffalo. One day, her mother drowned the creature, an act of cruelty that Moore inexplicably defends: “We tend to run wild in these matters of personal affection but there may have been some good in it too.” Li appends a version of this story from her own childhood:

“The menacing logic by which Moore’s mother functioned is familiar. When my sister started working after college, she gave me a pair of hamsters as a present. I became fond of them, and soon after they disappeared. I gave them away, my mother said; look how obsessed you are with them. You can’t even show the same devotion to your parents.”

Having something that you love snatched away because you love it is maddening because there’s no way to gainsay it. “You love (me) too much.” You can only protest on the grounds that indeed you experience the attachment of which you’re accused. This leaves the child Li in a position roughly analogous to anyone who, having been punctured, bristles at the accusation of being thin-skinned. “You’re too sensitive.” Protesting would have been to play into her mother’s hands, proving her mother right.

Therein lies the tyranny of not the original act (thieving the hamsters) but the greater and lingering trauma of taking away the discursive conditions for Li to possibly defend herself. Foucault is right, in his preface to the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, to implicate us in perpetuating “not [the] historical fascism of Hitler or Mussolini, but also the fascism in us all, in our heads and everyday behavior.” The trope of power is not necessarily false or complicit with neoliberal ideology, as some critics of Foucault have intentionally misread. The stereotype of a repressive politics—of power as repression—is cruel because it subsumes difference and distinction-making, collapsing one act of tyranny with the next, until the everyday acts are minimized, diminished, and eventually ignored. These forced silences are relegated to the space of exception known as therapy, where these impossible moments can come to light without being able to threaten the order of discourse. There, relegated to the controlled space of therapy, can the traumas of not being able to speak be safely brought up, but if there is a safety protected by therapy what is being protected is not the patient but the assurance the rules and structures of discourse that make it impossible for some to speak remain unharmed, unchanged, and unaffected by what happens in closed therapeutic space. What the hamster tale shows is a discursive situation where it doesn’t really matter whether or not Li is willing to speak the truth because however much therapeutic healing and awareness she could’ve brought into the situation, she would have remained unable to speak.

Elsewhere in Dear Friend, Li recounts the private drama of her daily journey home as a schoolgirl in China. The trip is both mundane and precarious. After a classmate is molested, Li is asked by her mother, “with omniscient suspicion, if any man on the bus had touched [Li] inappropriately.” Li recalls thinking to herself, ironically, “How could she not understand that I was made invisible by having been old already, too old for those men lurking in the dark?” To Li, a childhood of her mother’s torments were so extreme that they had aged her out of attractiveness. Even though she was still a child, she was too “old” to receive unwanted attention. But how could she complain about this? What — would she have actually wanted to look sexy and appealing to predators? Her “self-imposed silence,” as Li calls it, was the only possible response. The logical conundrum forced on the child Li by her mother’s question is the ultimate form of gaslighting: while her mother is not exactly sowing doubt in Li’s mind about her own reality, she makes it pointless for Li to register how it really was. There’s a crucial, if finely drawn, difference between being forced to say what you do not believe and being left with no logical way to say what you do believe.

But even now, among her contemporary readers, the circumstances of Li’s victimization can be difficult to discern. Attempts to do so are quickly labeled as neurotic, over-analyzed, socially-anxious. No one should have to pay such minute attention to conversation, should they? It’s much easier to explain away the choice to speak up or stand down as a cultural or personal flaw: Li is shy, timid, weak-willed and perhaps all because she is Asian; her mother’s emotional abuse, meanwhile, can be accounted for by the tiger mom stereotype. That indeed many people are shy by cultural habit, upbringing, or something else involuntary, and that the stereotype — here manifesting as cruelty and prudishness, respectively — is robust make the cases in question even more painfully isolating. The same explaining away can be done with other dynamics: gender roles, colonizer/colonized, political affiliations—almost any identity category can be subject to discursive abuse, leaving the victim alone to suffer without a reality from which to speak up.

I mention Li’s example because it’s helped me think anew about enclosures that either bar us from speaking altogether or limit and distort what we do say, whether the context be political of personal, or in the case of the body of discourse that has emerged around the Asian diasporic community, an explicit negotiation of both simultaneously. More importantly, I wonder, what are its affective consequences rather the systemic ones? What does it tell us that, for most readers, the one of the most lasting visuals from Gayatri Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak is the bloodied image of suicide? And yet, in the decades since its publication, the conversation in graduate seminars around the academy seem to be less concerned with the material and emotional trauma on death but rather the empirical question, “so can the subaltern speak?” It just seems like we’re fixating on the wrong issue. I’ll defer here to the handy Chinese quip: 不是重点.

But we are sometimes forced to ignore the affects of what is said as well. In the case of the hamsters, we see Li’s trauma and can assign the role of abuser to her mom, who leaves Li with both an emotional trauma and without the discursive possibility to remedy that abuse. In this case, we are able to identity Li’s mom as being in the wrong, but it seems to me that we are only able to do so because we see the act of stealing the hamsters as malicious, not the foreclosure of discursive possibility that follows. What happens then, if we don’t have something as obvious as the hamsters to lead us to the discursive asymmetry? In what I believe to be Rey Chow’s most oft-overlooked theories, she captures a similar form of discursive manipulation in a very (seemingly) different ethical setting.

In her 2014 book, Not Like a Native Speaker, Chow describes a form of postcolonial self-writing that oft-isolates the diasporic subject. Far from being a privileged identity like the Chinese globe-trotting cosmopolite, the diaspora, which crosses ethnic boundaries, Chow argues, experiences what gaslighting looks like, at scale, in time. Not Like a Native Speaker is motivated at least in part by the irrational expectation that immigrant scholars represent their homeland’s reigning political ideologies and by Chow’s frustration at being lectured to by white (armchair) Marxists. A mainland Chinese scholar also dismissed Chow’s views on the grounds that she was from Hong Kong, an incident that Chow uses to underscore the greater irony: “The person who attacked me lived through the hardships of the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted and hampered the institutional education process of the Chinese youths of that time. He should have been quicker than most to recognize the cultural violence.” Chow, like Li, is so masterfully adept at writing from out of forced discursive enclosure.

We often recognize that victims find it difficult to tell their story correctly, consistently, without resorting to hyperbole and melodrama, or even to find the emotional safety to tell their story at all. But this just as easily becomes manipulated into a form of power over. The “speaker’s benefit”, as Chow calls it, refers to the discursive imbalance that at once enables these important testimonies but just as easily makes speaking out against the content of these testimonies a shunned practice. The postcolonial speaker is seen as a representative of justice, and so to challenge whatever the content of that speech act is seen as injustice. We see this disambiguity in discourses around ‘woke’ culture as well, where even the most well-intentioned speakers will find trouble disambiguating between what they see as potential issues in ‘woke’ culture and the shared leftist values that ‘woke’ culture is supposed to embody in the economy of moralizing. It’s a matter of having to disambiguate the entire terrain of discourse before being able to speak in conversation.

In Li and in Chow, discursive settings themselves make it impossible for certain forms of speaking to take place. But what we’ve seen from these poignant examples is that there’s often little consistency in where abuse and victimhood fall in conversation.

Writing well outside of postcolonial deconstruction, the literary critic and philosopher Stanley Cavell, in his essay “The Avoidance of Love,” saw a similar dilemma for Cordelia at the start of King Lear. Lear, looking to step down from the throne and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, asks them each to publicly profess her love for him. For the two oldest daughters, Cavell writes, the task is simple enough; they need only pretend to love where they do not love. But Cordelia isn’t simply being asked to falsify herself. Cavell explains that it is actually worse than this. For Cordelia, “to pretend to love, where you really do love, is not obviously possible.” There’s a crucial, if finely drawn, difference between being forced to say what you do not believe and being left with no logical way to say what you do believe. Disambiguation becomes tragic when it is rendered useless.

I mention these various critical arguments because in every case there is someone who is unable to express their reality, and not only are they deprived of a logical way to register a complaint, sometimes it feels as though neither are we (a bystander, a critic, an observer) able to intervene either. The tyranny unleashed by Li’s mother, Chow’s colleagues, King Lear, and so on, cannot be properly tried because it works by removing the conditions required for speaking up and for making a claim on behalf of the victim. The only consolation one can have is in correctly identifying the act as a subtle tyranny, which means that there are no practical outcomes for this kind of distinction making. But against the accusation of uselessness, the shaking out of distinctions can be an enabling function. In the existence of accurate discernment, we can deduce a certain amount of justice in the world, configured even if briefly to allow felicitous discernment to take place. The person who practices discernment will not find that it translates into a normative ethics, a prescription for what one ought to do or how one ought to live, but they may learn over and over again that under certain conditions everyone has recourse to it. When the chips are down, these tools are useful for recognizing, at the bare minimum, what is being done to you, and to those around you, as it’s being done, and while it cannot arm against the individual tyrannies of people whose own tragedies shield them from criticism, it may hopefully hold off catastrophes, at least for a little longer. Better yet, may we learn to recognize our own little tyrannies.