What Yang takes from this backdrop is complicated. One of his more provocative arguments—touched on in The Souls of Yellow Folk but worked out more fully in his column at the online magazine Tablet—is that the structural position of Asians indicates a flaw in the prevailing woke consensus around race. If it’s true (as it manifestly is) that Asian Americans have been the targets of historical crimes and continue to be exposed to all manner of prejudice, then it is also true that their late prosperity confounds an easy narrative of oppression, just as it makes it difficult to say that the system which absorbed so many of them in such an astonishingly short amount of time is set rigidly against their interests. In other words, Asians are the demographic that most obviously complicates the idea that there is one racial group in the country (white people) who maintain themselves through the systemic domination of all the others. That Yang feels this is a point worth emphasizing at all speaks to what he sees as the ascendency of such a zero-sum mode of thought in activist and intellectual circles on the left. “Where once the targets of those concerned to fight injustice were ‘racism’ and ‘sexism,’ today the targets are ‘whiteness’ and ‘masculinity,’” he writes. “The underlying premise is plain: that there is no whiteness independent of the domination of nonwhites, and no masculinity independent of the domination of women.”
Yang has his own objections to this kind of theory—essentially, he thinks it’s both misleading and dangerous—but he also considers it a symptom of a profound shift in ideas in the American public sphere, toward the aforementioned postmodern ethos that takes the minutiae of everyday life to be just as much the expression of an oppressive racial (or patriarchal) system as more obviously malignant acts of discrimination. Not to put too fine a point on it, Yang plainly despises the sort of untested sanctimony and ressentiment that can attach itself to this way of thinking. But his distaste is tempered by analysis. At the end of his book, he reflects on the newly augmented idea of white supremacy this political outlook promotes:
Everyone who has ever bridled at the easy assumption of the priority that certain white people carried with them recognized the descriptive value of the novel language immediately. It therefore spread through social media as rapidly as any novel jargon has ever spread. There was also power [in it]. The risk was inherent in the power: conceiving of daily life as a field of micropolitical contestation in which all are either privileged or oppressed conjured up the wish for remedial action, and because the enemy was everywhere and nowhere, the struggle to extirpate it would lack for a limiting principle. … Broadening the definition [of white supremacy] to encompass things that most people beyond a tiny coterie of activists consider to be benign can only inflate the value of the currency and water it down. Doing so while sustaining the power of the term to surveil and punish those who are, by virtue of their skin color, presumptively complicit in it, might begin to feel like an act of aggression.
Yang’s description of this voracious style of radicalism is of a piece with a more general diagnosis of the inner troubles afflicting his country. Fukuyama once famously said that he thought the end of history would be “a very sad time.” His view was that the heroic age of recognition was more or less over; that there would be no more grand battles about the ideas we wished to live by, which meant that civilization would be reduced to an interminable mixture of economic calculation and consumerist pleasure-seeking. The death of grand battles may have been exaggerated (it’s open to debate, at least). But it’s hard to deny that the social order we’ve come to breeds a certain despondency. At the end of the introduction to The Souls of Yellow Folk, Yang asserts, rather gnomically, that “the struggle for recognition will continue to ensure that generalized upheaval is the rule.” It’s not clear to me what exactly he has in mind here—it sounds like a mashup of Fukuyama and The Communist Manifesto—but my sense is that the thought bears on the chronic inadequacies of liberalism. Although Fukuyama ignored the topic in his original retelling, one way Hegel’s account of the modern state goes beyond what we typically think of as liberal theory is that it attaches enormous importance to the need to belong to a collective body that transcends our finite lifespans and interests. Simplistically put, the ideal state is one in which the citizens are recognized (they find their dignity and worth affirmed) and in which they are able to recognize themselves (they feel “part of it” in a deep sense), which in turn offers a kind of solace for mortality. In practice, it seems obvious that actually existing liberalism is hard pressed to supply anything like this sense of psychic satisfaction; and the landscape Yang describes is one in which the desire of recognition has come loose, attaching itself feverishly to various types of group identity, or else retreating into an anomic realm of status games and hedonism.
For Yang, this is to get to the point of thinking about the kinds of psychological needs that become bound up with identity politics. His account of his moments of dread about how he’s perceived may or may not be representative of Asian-American experience tout court—it isn’t for me to say. What I can relate to, however, is his description of what you could call the vital stakes of recognition; the odd and sometimes rather terrifying way in which your existence can seem to depend on other people treating you as though you exist. The precariousness of that kind of need is one of the red threads in Yang’s work. It’s also the area where he thinks Asian-American men possess their unhappy structural insight. Is it wrong for a person to be ignored or overlooked on the basis of their skin? Well, yes, obviously in one sense—it’s racism. At the same time, Yang observes, it strays into territory where justice has no real purchase. It’s an adamantine fact of life that “while you can prohibit the use of racial slurs through rules and norms, no administration or law can force someone to befriend you, or to love you, or to see you as a person who matters, or to notice you at all.” What you learn as an Asian man (in his telling) is that distinct from questions about material disadvantage or oppression or injustice is an economy of recognition that has its own rising and marginalized classes. Needless to say, the hierarchy of that economy isn’t set in stone (perhaps in time the comparative status of Asian Americans will be completely different, who knows?). But the deeper point Yang is drawing attention to is about what it means to be caught up in this kind of struggle at all.
What sort of need is recognition, exactly? At one point in The Souls of Yellow Folk, Yang speculates that the problem with the “model minority” status of Asian Americans is that it makes you “a tractable, one-dimensional simulacrum of a person; stripped of complexity, nuance, danger, and sexuality—a person devoid of dramatic interest.” This is provocation, maybe. But even if it is, you’ll only appreciate the trouble he’s describing if you see that being someone “of dramatic interest” doesn’t imply anything particularly special. Stripped to its essentials, all it means is that you’re able to elicit an emotional response from other people, and that your life appears to have a kind of narrative texture (it’s “going somewhere,” say). The implicit question being raised is: If you were completely bereft of that capacity or that sense of meaning, would you even feel like a real person? Which is to say that the problem Yang is gesturing towards is about the very deep form of dependence that recognition entails. At the base of identity is acknowledgment.
When I think back to being twenty and heartbroken over my friend’s sister, what makes me uncomfortable isn’t that I managed to have such an outsize reaction to being rejected (although don’t get me wrong, that wasn’t great) but the fact that it feels like proof of how much of my life can turn just on holding someone’s attention, or failing to. Of course, to some extent I’m only describing my own vulnerabilities here. And yet one of the aggregate conclusions you could draw from Yang’s book is that the need for a confirming audience really is something like a basic fact of life in the culture we occupy. If that’s the case, then it’s hardly a surprise that we’ve come up with phenomena like The Game—or, in a different way, the language of microaggressions and privilege—that are essentially exercises in trying to control the regard of other people. As corollary to seducing women or fighting injustice or whatever, you make yourself into an object of dramatic concern, which is also to protect yourself from the horrors of erasure.
Because the flipside to the terrible centrality of this need is that the price of being starved of recognition isn’t just loneliness or frustration or sadness—it’s a kind of annihilation. You get the sense from Yang’s writing that he knows something about that condition too, and about the very consuming and even deadly states of mind it can summon. Hate is a natural enough response to being treated as if you’re not there. One way of refusing to disappear is to seize revenge. “Cho did not think of himself as Asian. He did not think of himself ethnically at all,” writes Yang:
He was a pimply friendless suburban teenager whom no woman would want to have sex with: that’s what he was. And it turned out that in his imagination he was a warrior on behalf of every lonely invisible human being in America. This was his ghastly, insane mistake.
Art credit: SeungMo Park, courtesy of Efremidis Gallery
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This essay appears in issue 18 of The Point.
To get this issue delivered straight to your
mailbox, subscribe or order today.