Thursday, July 16, 2015

Rachel C. Lee's The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies

In her new book The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies (2014, NYU Press), Rachel C. Lee, Professor of English and Gender Studies and Director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, examines the interstices of embodiment, governmentality, and racial formation through the conceptual frameworks of biopolitics and biosociality. The central question Lee’s text takes up is: if race has been settled not as biological fact, but rather as a legal or social construction, why do Asian American artists, authors, and performers continue to scrutinize their body parts?  To this end, Lee examines novels, performance, poetry, and new media, such as Cheng-Chieh Yu’s dance theater, Margaret Cho’s stand-up comedy, and Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome. Lee’s innovative approach assigns each chapter to body parts that provide the catalyst for her readings and inform the somatic structure of the book’s form and content; effectively assembling the cadaver exquis promised in the title.

Lee analyzes the fragmentation of human bodies, divisible corporeality, and manipulable biologies as they appear in Asian American cultural and literary production to forge a symbiont relationship between Asian American Studies and Science and Technology Studies. She argues, “Asian Americanist critique and certain strains of bioethics have made ethical, political, and moral claims vis-à-vis these body parts; and they have done so through a distinctive rhetorical move that putatively returns the extracted body part to the violated racialized whole—a move that naturalizes a prior state of organic intactness and individuality to that racialized body” (7). Pushing the boundaries of bioscientific and humanistic approaches, Lee queries the preservation of organic, whole structures to consider the utility of fragmented, distributed parts and patterns of circulation for thinking embodiment. In the vagina and GI tract of Lee’s textual body, for example, Margaret Cho’s Cho Revolution is read alongside consumption, militarism, peristalsis, and reproductive politics in order to highlight the ways in which Asian Americans’ reflections on body parts demonstrate the body as both a site of governmentality and evidence of the organism’s capacity to express biopolitical agency. 

Challenging the racialized body, Lee’s text offers generative insights for critical race, femiqueer, and performance studies.  Lee’s nuanced attention to the divergent scales of embodiment in her stunning and original readings of Asian American cultural production indicate the exigency of rethinking the human organism in light of new biotechnological developments and biosocial arrangements.  

--Angela Robinson

Angela Robinson  is a graduate student in the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA.

The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies: