Saturday, February 12, 2005

Point Four - Coercive Mimeticism

Well, I guess now we know the answer to my last rhetorical question about keeping up daily blog posts.

Continuing my series of posts on Eric's long and helpful response, I want to comment on this excerpt: There's more to _Doubled Flowering_ than the fact of the hoax; as Kent points out, it was clearly designed to be discovered as a fiction. But the fact of the hoax is so distracting that it keeps people from reading the poetry. This is an ironic reversal of what Rey Chow calls "coercive mimeticism," which is her term for the way in which ethnic writers (all ethnic writers) are forced by the current world-system to consistently give voice to their own ethnic identity (so that African Americans must always speak *as* African Americans, etc).

Personally, I must confess to letting out a prodigious yawn when reading the term "coercive mimeticism." Sometimes, I wonder if the use of "prodigious" vocab of people like myself is really just a turn-off. At any rate, "coercive mimetism" is a useful term. It is fancy-schmancy academic-speak for "forced to talk like an Asian."

As of today, all Asian-American authors, poets and non-poets alike, have made it big by "talking like Asians." (I'm using Rey Chow's above definition of "coercive mimeticism," aka "forced to talk like Asians" of "forced by the current world-system to consistently give voice to their own ethnic identity.") I don't know if I would term it "coercive," though. I think that Asian-American poets and non-poets have made a conscious decision to talk in such a voice and are not victims in the sense that they have tapped into the desire of non-Asian-American readers to read about explorations of identity, so the coercion is not present at this particular point.

Also, I don't think that "the current world-system" is a precise-enough term. In poetry and perhaps elsewhere, I think that we are talking about a very small number of elites who ultimately control the discourse over poetry. This is where the coercion may be present -- if editors and publishers of large publishing houses fail to publish any poems by Asian-American poets that do not give voice to question of "Asian" identity, then society-at-large is forced by virtue of economic coercion to only read such works. But perhaps Chow is referring to Asian-American fiction here, because Asian-American poetry has not even developed to such an extent to effectively deal with this question. In terms of Asian-American poetry, the primary coercion is not "coercive mimeticism" but economic exclusion of publication. That, too, is changing, however, as the start of the 21st century has witnessed the publication of a flurry of new Asian-American books of poetry.

Furthermore, I wonder if you can also call Asian-American poetry NOT dealing with questions of identity as having been a function of coercion as well. That is, you can have a great Neil Aitken or John Yau poem that does not deal with "Asian-American identity" but rather refutes the idea of stereotype through its silence on the issue and the refutation itself could be a function of the coercion of not wanting to be perceived exclusively as an "Asian-American" poet.

A large question here is whether all poetry is "coercively mimetic" in the sense that we are always forced by elites to grapple with questions of identity -- of race, class, gender, etc. Or is it elites? Are our societies ingrained with some form of tribalism that make such questions inevitable? Individuals may trump individuality over race, class, gender, etc., but I know few of us who do not view at least some aspect of life in these terms. Of course, another question would be whether one should work for the elimination or preservation of these distinctions, given that there are costs and benefits to both keeping and discarding such distinctions.

2 Comments:

Blogger Neil Aitken said...

Well, I'm flattered to have my poetry grouped with John Yao as "great poetry." Sufficiently flattered that I've been stuck for something useful to say that won't betray my actual "non-greatness" :)

I don't think all poetry is inherently coercively mimetic -- our graduate literary journal just did an interview with Nina Revoyr (half-Japanese) and she indicated that she considered it possible to be both Asian-American and a poet, and yet feel able and free to step outside the racial and social perspectives that might be normally assumed. Perhaps many biracial and bicultural writers feel the same -- given enough time both in a culture and outside of that culture, one can arrive at a vantage point which is outside the normal issues of race. Of course, perhaps your point is that people such as this are also defining self by not defining self in the traditional categories.

I just noticed that by having to qualify Nina Revoyr as half-Japanese, I've fallen into the same trap! I guess with mixed Asian writers who want to dialog with the Asian American community, there is a sense that we must always establish our credentials and pedigrees upfront. Which really is part of the problem and probably inescapable.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Neil, thanks for the post! Yes, I forgot who said it -- it may have been you -- but someone mentioned that mixed Asian writers with last names that aren't "Asian" have to justify themselves more. I've also wondered if the reverse is true -- that, for example, poets with the last name "Lee" are more likely presumed to be Asian or Asian-American. Interesting questions.

9:28 PM  

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