Toward the back of Wesley Yang’s new collection of essays, The Souls of Yellow Folk, is a treatment of Neil Strauss’s book The Game. Published in 2005, The Game marked the arrival into popular consciousness of pickup artists (or the “underground seduction community,” as they sometimes described themselves), a loose network of men who claimed to have invented an effective and codifiable method for seducing women. Assuming even a moderate interest in pop culture over the last decade plus, the chances are pretty good that you already know something about these figures and the associated terminology of negging, peacocking, sarging, kiss-closes, yes ladders, average frustrated chumps (AFCs), chick crack and so on. All of those phrases belong to the system Strauss outlined in his book—the explicit promise of which is that there is no heterosexual man too ugly or feckless to be helped when it comes to sexual conquest.
The way I remember things, I bought my copy of The Game in a Waterstones bookstore on Oxford Street, sometime in 2008—the same year Yang wrote his essay—and I didn’t feel wonderful doing it. I was embarrassed, for a start. Buying the book seemed like solid evidence of inadequacy as well as being faintly seedy. But I went ahead anyway, motivated in large part by the fact that a friend of mine’s older sister (I was twenty, she would have been 22 or 23) had slept with me twice earlier in the year and then lost interest, although not before I’d managed to massively overinvest. It stuns me a little to think about it now, but the disappointment was so fierce it lasted for months afterwards, maybe even the guts of a year. In hindsight, the emotional shock seems both far less important—I mean, thank god—and still real enough to be disconcerting when I consider it. You grow up and get at least a little tougher, sure. But if you’ve ever had a lesson in how completely you can be wiped out by the vagaries of somebody else’s attention, it stays with you.
I bring up this old piece of personal debris because it seems to me now that what Strauss and his kin were advertising was something like a vaccine for that feeling of nullity. Getting women into bed is the overt goal. But (if I can hazard a generalization) what eats at the loser male most desperately isn’t the lack of sex exactly, it’s the sense of being powerless to make yourself matter—the lamest of all invisibility cloaks. Horny and sad as I was as a twenty-year-old, I don’t think it would’ve occurred to me to put it that way, and perhaps it doesn’t occur to most of the people who buy these books. Still, something like that is the trap you’re trying to escape. Like a lot of our culture, The Game feeds off the idea that sex and romance are the central—if not the only—sources of adventure open to most people, and from there it preys on the anxiety of what it would mean to be cut off from those possibilities. And at the bottom of that pit are the terrors of being someone to whom nothing ever happens; a nonperson, somehow excluded from living because you can’t persuade the world to look at you. In his essay, Yang zeroes in on the instinct for revenge flickering inside the pickup artist’s system (“the wicked gleam in the eye of a man putting one over on the world”). It’s the bitterness of people who know what it’s like to be ignored.
These days The Game is a long way past its moment in the sun, of course, while the pickup artist phenomenon survives mainly as a piece of half-dissolved cultural flotsam. In a way, there’s almost something innocent about it now—remember when all we had to worry about were these creepy guys and their seduction algorithms? On the other hand, it doesn’t take much to see the glimmer in Strauss’s success of some of the nastier things that would follow it down the pipeline: incels and Elliot Rodger; Return of Kings and the other seething corners of the internet; the spread of rage-fueled groups who think of themselves as resisting the disappearance of men or the white race. For his part, Yang alludes to The Game at two other moments in his book. In “Paper Tigers”—an essay about Asian-American assimilation—he quotes a pickup artist describing the seduction community as “a support group for losers,” a place where despairing men could come for help reinventing themselves. Whereas in “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” he touches on it in the context of a comfortless meditation on the kind of guy who remains stranded in his own fury and disappointment, poisoned beyond help. At the center of the essay is Cho—the boy who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, in what was then the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
As I said, there’s a feeling of being forgotten or erased that’s like a tripwire for a kind of frenzy if it ever hits you hard enough. But hasn’t everybody had at least a taste of that? What’s less common is coming face to face with an indication of what you might be like if all of the intervening layers of sanity and socialization weren’t there to save you—or others—from yourself. Yang and Cho are both Korean-American. The writer’s jolt of recognition when he first comes across the news of the massacre (“He looks like me, I thought”) presages a morbid feeling of insight. To call it sympathy would be grotesque. But it’s as though Yang recognizes in Cho something like a psychotic embodiment of the rancor buried in The Game. Common to both was the perception of a thriving world “that was never going to include them in its hoped-for happy endings anyway,” and which would go on disregarding them for the rest of their null lives unless it was confronted by an act of strength—and forced to pay attention.
The Souls of Yellow Folk is an oddly put together book in a couple of respects. Apart from a short introductory piece, all of the essays—thirteen in total, dating from 2008 to 2017—have been published elsewhere, and the subject matter is less coherent than the eye-catching title would lead you to believe. Despite the nominal link to W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Yang isn’t trying to make a comprehensive statement about the lives of Asian-Americans in the 21st century. Instead, the collection begins with two substantial essays about race from the earliest part of his career (“The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” and “Paper Tigers”), then weaves off into a disparate series of magazine profiles, personal reminiscences and articles about sexual mores—before circling back to race again, only this time in the context of contemporary debates around identity politics and social justice. Nothing included is anything less than skillfully written. There are no boring entries (although one or two of the profiles come close). But you have to dig a bit and make inferences to get a sense of the larger story the book might be trying to tell.
Here’s the narrative I projected. At the end of The Souls of Yellow Folk are the firestorms of social media and Donald Trump. Before we get there, Yang presents us with a series of dispatches from what we might think of, now, as a bygone country, largely unaware of its teetering health. Two of the subjects of his profiles—the historian Tony Judt and the political theorist Francis Fukuyama—sketch the outlines of some of the bigger ideas in play. “You can’t run a society that is profoundly unfair for a long time without people becoming profoundly distrustful,” remarks Judt, speaking in 2009, “and without social trust there can be no common consent and no common goods, and no shared purposes.” Even more important for Yang is the concept of recognition that he takes from Fukuyama (or rather, Fukuyama’s Hegel). Roughly put, the idea is that “the desire for recognition of one’s dignity and worth” is fundamental to human life. In the more triumphal Hegelian narratives—such as the one that made Fukuyama famous—this basic yearning is meant to have led civilization towards a stable and conclusive political order, defined by the rule of law, a (more or less) representative liberal state, market exchange and the bourgeois family unit: the notorious “end of history.” For Yang, recognition becomes a tool for thinking about resentment, self-perception and the fractiousness of identity politics. But underlying all of those topics you can imagine a question lingering about the capacity of America—or of any modern, more or less liberal state—to meet the psychic and spiritual needs of its members.
It’s from this angle that Yang’s arguments about Asian-American experience are best interpreted. In the introduction to The Souls of Yellow Folk, he recalls an exchange with the editor who asked him if he wanted to write about Seung-Hui Cho. Part of him resisted the approach, insulted at the suggestion he had any particular insight into the murderer. Yet he knew instinctively there was a connection. “What we were presumed to share in common—and this was the implication I resented, because it was both true and unspeakable—was the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is the condition of being an Asian man in America.” This isn’t, Yang explains, simply a question of feeling unrepresented or inferior, but the more obliviating problem of belonging to a culture in which such faces are coded as “a kind of cipher, a void, and all the more so to those of us who had to confront it gazing back at us from a reflected surface.” He describes the rush of paranoia this would trigger:
Was this a real condition or just my own private hallucination? By this I mean something that has in recent years escaped from the obscurity in which it was once shrouded, even as it was always the most salient of all facts, the one most readily on display, the thing that was unspeakable precisely because it need never be spoken: that as the bearer of an Asian face in America, you paid some incremental penalty, never absolute, but always omnipresent, that meant that you were by default unlovable and unloved; that you were presumptively a nobody, a mute and servile figure, distinguishable above all by your total incapacity to threaten anyone; that you were many laudable things that the world might respect and reward, but you were fundamentally powerless to affect anyone in a way that would make you either loved or feared.
What was the epistemological status of such an extravagant assertion? … It had no real truth value, except that under certain conditions, one felt it with every fiber of one’s being to be true.
What sort of complaint is this? On one level—the most obvious, perhaps—it reads like a denunciation of racial bias. And it is, in a way. But there’s also something else going on. In the field of competing resentments that makes up so much of the nation’s discourse under Trump, the deeper argument is that to be Asian-American—perhaps specifically an Asian-American male—is to be rendered invisible in a uniquely tricky way, because you fall through the cracks of the ruling narratives about group status. An Asian man, says Yang, is “an ‘honorary white’ person who will always be denied the full perquisites of whiteness; an entitled man who will never quite be regarded or treated like a man; a nominal minority whose claim to be a ‘person of color’ deserving of the special regard reserved for victims is taken seriously by no one.” In other words, he embodies a kind of malfunction in the identity calculus of society’s winners and losers: a nonentity in virtue of his privilege.
This thought has two sides to it. Most directly, it underpins a thesis about race and some recently widespread changes in how we talk about it. Yang’s contention is that social media has enabled the rapid popularization of a “postmodern” way of thinking about identity and power that turns “the whole world into a field for both interpretation and contestation.” (Consider the ubiquitous application of the concept of privilege, for example.) But these arguments about ideology also shade into a broader reflection on psychological dependence and shared social reality. This strikes me as being Yang’s real subject—the emotional core of his work, you could say—but race, and more specifically Asian-American identity, is what he uses to explore it. In general terms, the most important thing about that identity is the odd liminal position Asians occupy in the modern United States. Taken as a bloc, Asian Americans are better educated and have a higher median family income than any other ethnic group in the country, including whites. They also represent a key component—originating with the end of national-origin immigration quotas in 1965—of the demographic revolution that is steadily pushing the U.S. from a white-majority to a white-minority nation. From less than half a percent of the population in 1960, Asians now constitute almost 7 percent, roughly two-thirds of whom were born overseas. As Yang observes, although the label “Asian-American” is a particularly tenuous one in some respects (the 2010 U.S. Census identifies 24 distinct national backgrounds in its remit) what’s remarkable is that it can be used in good conscience to tell a quintessential American success story, even as it gestures towards the globalizing trends that were part of the catalyst for Trump’s malicious brand of nationalism.
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.1 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