Organized by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the Department of Asian American Studies, "Asian America Otherwise" is the culminating conference of the "In Plain Sight" Research Initiative funded by the University of Illinois Chancellor's Call to Action to Address Systemic Racism and Social Injustice Research Program.
This conference is conceived in late pandemic time as a response to the unprecedented convergence of crises we have experienced that suddenly made the unimaginable possible, reframing our relationship to past, present, and future, and forcing a reckoning with our trajectories as individuals, communities, and as a species. The sheer density and simultaneity of events–massive death and sickness, overwhelmed and collapsing healthcare and caregiving infrastructures, economic breakdowns and contraction, ecological catastrophes, escalating racial violence and global racial protests–and the difficulty of processing them under conditions of radical uncertainty and disequilibrium mark off a before and after that we are only now beginning to articulate and think through. In this moment, apocalyptic discourses of ends (of history, racial capitalism) have proliferated alongside subjunctive imaginings of various afters. New directions in the field may have emerged before the pandemic but they have gathered force and momentum in pandemic time in response to new challenges and pressures. This conference takes stock of how Asian America is being imagined otherwise in the face of multi-layered political crises and an acute experience of vulnerability, precarity and exposure exacerbated by the upsurge of anti-Asian violence during the pandemic.
Aimee Bahng (Pomona College)
Keva X. Bui (UC-San Diego)
Huan He (USC)
Michelle N. Huang (Northwestern)
Moon-Ho Jung (U of Washington)
Ronak Kapadia (UIC)
Manu Karuka (Barnard)
Long Le-Khac (Loyola U)
Quynh Nhu Le (U of South Florida)
M. Bilal Nasir (Pomona College)
erin Khuê Ninh (UC-Santa Barbara)
**Masks are required for all attendees, except speakers.**
Friday, May 6
9:00-9:15 am CT | Opening remarks by Susan Koshy (UIUC) and Junaid Rana (UIUC)
9:15-11:00 am CT | Session 1 Other Politics, Against Empire
Chair: Augusto Espiritu (UIUC)
Moon-Ho Jung (UW), “Why Loyalty Will Get Us Nowhere”
Manu Karuka (Barnard), “Imperialist Futures in the Asia-Pacific”
Bilal Nasir (Pomona), “Thinking About Critique from the Muslim Left: Terror, Suspicion, and Islam”
11:00-11:30 am CT | Coffee break
11:30am-1:00 pm CT | Session 2 Field Notes for Dangerous Times
Chair: Soo Ah Kwon (UIUC)
erin Khuê Ninh (UCSB), “Feeling Attacked”
Ronak Kapadia (UIC) “Asian American Studies in a Moment of Danger”
1:00-2:30 pm CT | Lunch
2:30-4:00 pm CT | Session 3 Race, Science, and Ecocide
Chair: Lila Adib Sharif (UIUC)
Long Le-Khac (Loyola), "Hawaiian Sandalwood: A Racial Entanglement Story"
Keva X. Bui (UCSD), "Infrastructures of Race in America's Napalm"
4:00-4:15 pm CT | Coffee break
4:15-5:45 pm CT | Session 4 Technoracial Futurities
Chair: Trung Nguyen (UIUC)
Huan He (USC), “Racial Informatics”
Michelle N. Huang (Northwestern), “Racial Disintegration”
Saturday, May 7
9:00- 10:30 am CT | Session 5 Unsettling, Decolonizing
Chair: Yoon Kyung Pak (UIUC)
Quynh Nhu Le (USF), "Vietnamese Refugee Embodiments of an Asian America Otherwise"
Aimee Bahng (Pomona), "Unsettling Asian America: Toward a Decolonial Environmentalism"
10:30-11:00 am CT | Coffee break
11:00-12:00 pm CT | Concluding Roundtable (closed session for participants)
Moderators: Susan Koshy (UIUC), Soo Ah Kwon (UIUC), and Junaid Rana (UIUC)
12:00 pm CT | Lunch
4:00-6:00 pm CT | The Vijay Iyer Trio performance
Speaker Bios & Paper Abstracts
Aimee Bahng, "Unsettling Asian America: Toward a Decolonial Environmentalism"
As the skies turn orange from wildfire smoke and ash; as ancestral gravesites flood from storm surges and rising tides; and as evidence of widespread species extinction continues to demand our most urgent attention, this presentation begins with the premise that the call for environmental justice is part of a broader call to revisit our covenant to the world, our relationships to it, and our responsibilities to one another. Approaching environmental justice through an engagement with racial justice and decolonial struggle means reckoning with the ideological and material harms of extractive capitalism and military occupation. It also calls upon Asian Americans to reorient our political efforts, by recognizing, on the one hand, the limits of inclusion within a settler state and, on the other hand, the possibilities of nurturing relations with Indigenous peoples. For diasporic Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous communities, whose environmental entanglements are at once hyper-visible and all-but-erased, what might a turn from settler environmental frameworks to decolonial environmentalism provide? This talk outlines the central arguments and stakes of formulating an alternative to settler environmentalism and looks to stories from the Marshall Islands, Hawai‘i, and Guam from the mid-twentieth century on, to foreground how responsibilities to land, air, and water have necessarily been at the heart of decolonial struggle.
Aimee Bahng is an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at Pomona College. Her book, Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times (Duke University Press, 2018; SFTS Book Prize 2018), examines narrations of futurity across various platforms, from speculative fiction by writers of color to the financial speculations of the 1%. A member of the Keywords Feminist Editorial Collective, she co-edited the Keywords for Gender and Sexuality Studies (NYU Press 2021), co-authoring the Introduction and the entry on “Race,” as well. She has also co-edited with Christine Mok a special issue of Journal of Asian American Studies on Transpacific Futurities (20: 1, February 2017). Her current teaching and research interests focus on the conjuncture of critical environmental justice, US imperialism in the Pacific, and queer-feminist science and technology studies. Her second monograph, tentatively titled “Settler Environmentalism and Pacific Resurgence,” is currently under way.
Keva X. Bui, "Infrastructures of Race in America's Napalm"
This talk engages napalm as an epistemology of U.S. militarism that illuminates two sets of racial infrastructures in the Cold War: infrastructures of scientific knowledge production and systems of sustaining life in Southeast Asia targeted by U.S. infrastructural warfare. Napalm was initially developed in 1943 in a covert laboratory at Harvard University as a “humane” alternative to poisonous gases; the U.S. military subsequently deployed napalm in infrastructural warfare campaigns across the Pacific, Korean, and Vietnam Wars. Thus, napalm captures the ideological force of enduring U.S. Cold War imperialism: the unquenching elimination of life in the Global South in pursuit of a universalized notion of the human anchored in liberal capitalist expansion. Tracking napalm’s material and affective force across historical, cultural, and political texts, this talk details the story of Asian/America’s social and political construction in the epistemological sphere of U.S. Cold War military intervention.
Keva X. Bui (they/them) is currently a PhD candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego with a graduate certificate in Critical Gender Studies. Their current project develops an account of Cold War militarism through a legacy of scientific experimentation, tracing how scientific knowledge production consolidated the racialized logics of counterinsurgent imperialism and liberal humanism undergirding the U.S. total war security state. Their writing has appeared/is forthcoming in Amerasia Journal, Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Journal of Asian American Studies, MELUS, and Canadian Literature. For the 2022-2023 academic year, Keva will be a President's Postdoctoral Fellow in the Departments of Asian Studies and English at Pennsylvania State University, before joining the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign as Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies in Fall 2023.
Huan He, "Racial Informatics"
This talk thinks through how a powerful logic of race is bound up with the emergence of the so-called “information age.” I begin with Norbert Weiner’s classified document of statistical prediction, a book curiously nicknamed “Yellow Peril” (1942) for its yellow bindings and perilous mathematics. Bringing Asian/Americanist critiques to histories of information and digital technologies, I consider the rise of prediction science alongside the sentiment of Japanese “unpredictability” in the 1940s. As a central case study, I examine artist Isamu Noguchi’s shifting relationship with IBM to conceive of Japanese internment as a racial project of information design.
Huan He (he/him/his) is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. Drawing from literary, art, and historical sources, his project, currently titled The Racial Interface: Informatics and Asian/America, examines the racial associations linking Asian/Americans and information technologies in the early digital era. Thinking through racial form and aesthetics, The Racial Interface attends to how liberal capitalism’s focus on individualism, efficiency, and representation became bound to the rise of digital power. His research has appeared in College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies and Media-N. He is also a poet whose creative work explores race, sexuality, and belonging from the perspective of a queer Chinese American raised by the prairies. His poems can be found/are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, A Public Space, Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, and other venues as well as a forthcoming chapbook titled Sandman with Diode Editions. In 2022-2023, Huan will be Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Digital Studies Institute. Starting in 2023, he will be an Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
Michelle N. Huang, “Racial Disintegration”
Illuminating how biomedical capital invests in white and Asian American populations while divesting from Black surplus populations, Huang will discuss how recent Asian American dystopian fiction provides a case study for analyzing futurities where healthcare infrastructures intensify racial inequality under terms that do not include race at all. Through a reading of Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014) and other texts, the talk develops the term studious deracination to refer to a narrative strategy defined by an evacuated racial consciousness that is used to ironize assumptions of white universalism and uncritical postracialism. Studious deracination challenges medical discourse’s “color-blind” approach to healthcare and enables a reconsideration of comparative racialization in a moment of accelerating social disintegration and blasted landscapes.
Michelle N. Huang is Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. Huang's current project, Molecular Race examines posthumanist aesthetics in post-1965 Asian American literature to trace racial representation and epistemology at nonhuman, minute scales. Molecular Race argues that a rapprochement with scientific discourse is necessary to fully grasp how the formal and aesthetic qualities of Asian American literature unsettle sedimented structures of racial formation. Huang’s work appears in American Literature, Journal of Asian American Studies, Amerasia, and Contemporary Literature, among other venues.
Moon-Ho Jung, "Why Loyalty Will Get Us Nowhere"
In response to a recent surge in anti-Asian violence, many Asian Americans and Asian Americanists, including leaders of the Association for Asian American Studies, have unfortunately turned to US nationalist tropes of citizenship and loyalty. In exploring how “sedition” has been defined historically, I will suggest that we need to use that history to understand the racial positioning of Asian Americans, in the past and in the present, to demand other political possibilities.
Moon-Ho Jung is Professor of History at the University of Washington, where he teaches courses on race, politics, and Asian American history. He is the author of Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation (2006) and Menace to Empire: Anticolonial Solidarities and the Transpacific Origins of the US Security State (2022) and the editor of The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State Violence, and Radical Movements Across the Pacific (2014).
Ronak K. Kapadia, "Asian American Studies in a Moment of Danger"
This paper explores multiple lines of flight in Asian American Studies and Asian Americanist critique, with a focus on how the Black and brown Midwest has become the epicenter of the twenty-first century insurgent rebellion against the dominant militarized policing order in North America. From abolition to healing justice and transformative justice and mutual aid, a new generation of visionary activists and artists from queer and trans Black Indigenous and People of Color (QTBIPoC) communities are offering a crucial wellspring of ideas about survival, healing, and justice in the waning years of twenty-first century US empire. These strategies circulate widely within contemporary social movements working to turn the tide against prisons, policing, and American warfare. At a time when the proliferating calamities of global fascism, neoliberal austerity, carceral governance, climate chaos, and endless warfare appear to be ascendant across the planet, how do Asian diasporic and migrant cultural workers living and laboring in the heart of empire make sense of this dying world order while dreaming up new worlds through their art-making and organizing? The ecology of minoritarian art and activism emerging from today’s overlapping protest movements offer a powerful roadmap for understanding the dystopian here and now of US imperial decline and imagining rebellious futures that can move us from despair and isolation to coalition and transformation.
Ronak K. Kapadia (he/him/his) is Associate Professor and Director of the Interdepartmental Graduate Concentration in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program and affiliated faculty in Art History, Global Asian Studies, and Museum & Exhibition Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. An interdisciplinary cultural theorist of race, security, sensation, and empire in the late 20th and early 21st century United States, Kapadia is author of Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (Duke University Press, 2019) which won the 2020 Surveillance Studies Network Best Book Prize. Insurgent Aesthetics theorizes the world-making power of contemporary art responses to US militarism in the Greater Middle East. Kapadia’s writing appears in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Feminist Formations, Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Asian American Literary Review, Post45 Contemporaries, Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures in the Americas and numerous edited volumes and art catalogs. With Simone Browne and Katherine McKittrick, Kapadia co-edited the 2017 special issue of Surveillance and Society on race and surveillance. He is currently at work on several public humanities collaborations with colleagues at UIC, including a virtual seminar series on the reciprocal politics of bed space activism across contemporary social movements for disability justice, migrant justice, and abolition feminisms funded by the Mellon Humanities Without Walls Program and a curatorial project with the emerging Veteran Art Movement under the relational framework of the two “forever wars” in United States history — the American Indian Wars and the “Global War on Terror” funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The latter project will culminate in the second Veteran Art Movement Triennial and Summit at multiple venues in Chicago in 2023. Finally, Kapadia is writing a new book, entitled Breathing in the Brown Queer Commons, which develop a critical theory of healing justice and pleasure through a study of the visual cultures of race-radical, queer, and trans migrant futurisms amidst the wilds of ecological chaos and US imperial decline.
Manu Karuka, "Imperialist Futures in the Indo-Pacific"
This paper will analyse the current US "Indo-Pacific Strategy," which invents a geography in order to coordinate military and economic alliances as part of a larger US strategy of "great power confrontation" with China. Reading documents from the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and Commerce Department alongside foundational and recent texts in Asian American Studies, I plan to link geopolitical confrontation in East Asia with violence against Asians within the US, as manifestations of core values of a crisis-ridden US, presenting itself as a "fellow Indo-Pacific nation."
Manu Karuka is the author of Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad (University of California Press). With Alyosha Goldstein and Juliana Hu-Pegues, he is a co-editor of "Colonial Unknowing," a special issue of Theory & Event; with Vivek Bald, Miabi Chatterji, and Sujani Reddy, he is a co-editor of The Sun Never Sets: South Asian Migrants in an Age of US Power (NYU Press). He is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Barnard College.
Long Le-Khac, "Hawaiian Sandalwood: A Racial Entanglement Story"
To help think Asian America otherwise amidst racial, ecological, and extractive crises, this paper situates Asian America as a knot in an expansive world of linked struggles, and synthesizes a vocabulary of racial entanglements for grasping how groups, species, goods, and environments are entangled agencies in the workings of race. This vocabulary counters the divide and rule practices of empire that have inadvertently organized U.S. race studies, isolated ethnic studies fields from each other, and treated the struggles of different racialized groups as separate. Recent comparative and relational race studies models are promising, but their vocabulary of relation is vague. Moreover, these models do not register nonhuman agencies as central to racialization. I trace the 19th-century ecocide of Hawaiian sandalwood forests to reveal the inadequacy of our models and to show how the entanglements they miss are not new. This ecocide linked Native Hawaiians, Chinese, Indians, Britons, Indigenous Peruvians, White Americans, Chinese Americans, and Indigenous Americans with the histories of sandalwood, tea, silver, and poppy in sites across the world.
Racial entanglement theory draws on the entanglement aesthetics that Asian American writers like Ruth Ozeki craft in stories spanning groups, species, and environments. I weave imaginative works with the entanglement theories of Rey Chow, Éduoard Glissant, Achille Mbembe, and Fred Moten; Native Hawaiian epistemologies; the quantum physics work of Karen Barad; scholars in the new imperial history and in human-nonhuman relations. This interdisciplinary account of entanglement expands race theory to include the full range of agencies involved in racialization. It denies distinctions between racism and environmental racism. It overturns race relations common sense, which presumes distinct racial groups. Racial groups do not precede racial relations. They emerge within racial entanglements, configurations of the world through which ideas of distinct racial groups are activated and racial boundaries, differences, and properties are made meaningful. Instead of taking distinct groups and discrete struggles as our units of analysis and political horizons, a racial entanglement approach seeks multi-racial/species/site possibilities aimed at addressing whole entanglements.
Long Le-Khac is assistant professor of English at Loyola University Chicago. His research and teaching focus on American literature, relational race studies, Asian American studies, Latinx studies, migration studies, narrative theory, social movements, and digital humanities. He is the author of Giving Form to an Asian and Latinx America (Stanford University Press 2020). He is currently working on a second book project tentatively titled “Racial Entanglements: Racialization Across Groups, Species, Objects, and Environments” and a digital project, The Asian American Literary Corpus. His other work appears or is forthcoming in New Literary History, Post45, Journal of Cultural Analytics, American Literature, MELUS, Victorian Studies, The Cambridge Companion to the American Short Story, and the pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab.
Quynh Nhu Le, "Vietnamese Refugee Embodiments of an Asian America Otherwise"
This paper considers how the recurrent imagery of scarred flesh and porous bodies in Vietnamese refugee cultural productions can provide a site for dialogue with the decolonial epistemologies of Black, Indigenous, and other women of color. In particular, it considers how the re-memorialization of the war documented by Vietnamese refugee communities can reveal the interconnections of gendered violence amidst U.S. imposition of racialized terror, settler colonial occupation, and imperial wars. In her collection entitled “Small Wars,” photographer An-My Le captures the images of staged Vietnam War reenactments in the Virginia area. Rather than solely documenting these enactments, primarily by white men, Le is also asked to participate in the production. Taking on multiple roles in front of and behind the camera (as translator, as sniper, and as witness), Le’s photographs, and her participation within it, illuminates a potentially destabilizing aesthetic of the body that draws attention to the layers of violence embodied in the spaces of the U.S. South. In illuminating interconnections across different communities, the photograph series queries Vietnamese refugee engagement with the discursive sustenance of racialized settler imperial violence and the ethical questions on Vietnamese refugee participation in the continuation of U.S. projects of conquest.
Nhu Le is Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of South Florida. She is author of Unsettled Solidarities: Asian and Indigenous Cross-Representations in the Américas published by Temple UP in 2019. The book received the Association for Asian American Studies' Humanities and Cultural Studies: Literary Studies Book Award for 2021. Nhu's writing has appeared in interdisciplinary journals such as Amerasia Journal, Journal of Asian American Studies, and Dance Chronicle. Her work engages with the connections in Asian American studies, Native American/Indigenous studies, Critical Ethnic studies, Settler Colonial studies, Critical Refugee studies, and theories of affect and embodiment.
M. Bilal Nasir, “Thinking About Critique from the Muslim Left: Terror, Suspicion, and Islam”
In the inaugural issue of the Critical Ethnic Studies Journal, John Marquez and Junaid Rana (2015) write that ethnic studies fields, such as Asian American studies, must return to practices of “insurgent critique” and renew its commitments toward resistance, decolonization, and radical worldmaking. In the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, critique has supposedly “run out of steam,” to use the language of Bruno Latour (2004), leading to a series of debates about how scholarship and politics should proceed in a ‘postcritical’ age. In this paper, I consider what shape insurgent critique in Asian American studies must take in the context of this so-called crisis of secular critique. Specifically, I draw on ethnographic research I conducted with Muslim Americans in Southern California that launched Islamic critiques against the US security state following several scandals and conspiracies involving the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and its antiterror surveillance strategies. By thinking with such Islamic critiques forged from the Muslim Left, I argue that a hermeneutics of suspicion, presupposed by secular critique, must be replaced with a hermeneutics of care, particularly in a post-pandemic world shaped by rising anti-Muslim racism, anti-Asian racism, and liberal forms of life saturated by attitudes of suspicion.
M. Bilal Nasir is currently the Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Intercollegiate Department of Asian American Studies at Pomona College. Based on over two years of ethnographic research in Greater Los Angeles, CA, Nasir’s work examines emergent forms of Muslim politics forged in response to anti-Muslim racism and reformist antiterror policing programs. It considers how South Asian American, Arab American, and Black American religious leaders and pious youth draw on traditions of Islamic ethics to forge social movements in critique of racialized surveillance. He is currently working on a book manuscript based on this research tentatively titled, The LAboratory: Race, Surveillance, and the Muslim Left in the City of Angels. His research interests include critical race studies, critical surveillance and carceral studies, social movements, science and technology, and the anthropology of Muslims and Islam. Nasir’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Anthropological Quarterly, Political Theology, and the Asia Shorts book series.
erin Khuê Ninh, "Feeling Attacked"
For many Asian Americans, the past two years have shifted or shrunk our sense of safety. Yet anti-Asian violence during COVID has actually not been pandemic: it has struck in only 15 states, and in only in New York and California with concentrated force. Attacks have happened in parks and other suburban spaces—but disproportionately more in urban areas like San Francisco and New York City, where population density is high and the public share transportation and sidewalks daily. Risk factors have also not been evenly distributed. The elderly have borne the brunt of physical attacks, while women have been targeted in the majority of hate incidents overall, including verbal harassment.
Thus for Asian Americans in urban spaces, seniors and women not exclusively but especially, threat has become a presence, such that race is navigated in altered embodiment and geographic remappings:
“I don’t go out at night now. My cutoff for being outside is 6 or 7 P.M …the danger now feels different: unprovoked and senseless.”
“I take the subway during the day. I don’t wear earphones and try not to look at my phone. I keep my finger on the trigger of my spray.”
“Whenever a man passes me on the subway platform, I instinctively back up against a wall.”
This paper will present preliminary research on this physically-lived experience of racial hatred along with its gendered ramifications. It will examine community responses to the violence, including both provided trainings in self-defense and the discourse generated around these measures. How does this racialized version of felt-danger compare with the ways women have long arranged their lives around the possibility and prevention of sexual violence? What differences are there in the ethical posturings and political discourse around a violence whose “victims” and “survivors” can also be men and are not necessarily sexualized?
erin Khuê Ninh is an associate professor in Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She writes about “model minority subjectivity,” in varying forms. Ingratitude: The Debt-Bound Daughter in Asian American Literature (NYU Press, 2011; awarded Best Literary Criticism by AAAS) centers on intergenerational conflict in immigrant families. Passing for Perfect: College Impostors and Other Model Minorities (Temple UP, 2021) asks how it feels to be model minority—and how that might drive some to truly desperate lies. Along with Shireen Roshanravan, she edited #WeToo: A Reader, a special issue on sexual violence for the Journal of Asian American Studies (awarded "Best Public Intellectual Special Issue" of 2021 by the Council of Editors of Learned Journals).