A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Beyond Representation: Spatial, Temporal and Embodied Trans/Formations of Asian/Asian American Rhetoric

Terese Guinsatao Monberg, Michigan State University
Morris Young, University of Wisconsin, Madison

(Published December 18, 2018)

In 2008 as we (Terese as a contributor; Morris as a co-editor) were in the final stages of preparing our manuscripts for Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, there was a clear sense among us (including all of the contributors) that this edited collection of essays that sought to define, explore, and theorize Asian/American rhetoric was a milestone. That is, we understood the work of Representations to both name a particular rhetorical practice embedded in history, culture, and a community and spur more research about the rhetorical legacies of people of Asian descent in the US. What we could not necessarily imagine and anticipate is the range of work that has followed and a growing sense that what we embarked on 25 years ago as graduate students, ten years ago as collaborators, and today in the present continues to resonate not because of what we have recovered and defined but what we have begun to see having far reaching implications for rhetorical history and theory beyond the activity of Asian/Americans.

In particular, we have become especially mindful of the “global turns” in rhetoric and composition described by Wendy Hesford. Prompting the discipline to reflect on “the possibilities of an imagined global geography,” Hesford urged scholars in rhetoric and composition studies to resist “disciplinary identities and methods that take for granted the nation-state and citizen-subject as units of analysis and ignore the global forces shaping individual lives and literate practices” (788). Published two years prior to Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, Hesford acknowledged work already conscious of this global imaginary while urging us to go further as emerging and dynamic forms of transnationalism and US nationalism continue to materialize (788). Since Hesford’s observation, scholarship that takes up an “imagined global geography” has come to the forefront of the field and in some ways has become a central axis for understanding rhetorical, literacy, and writing practices as work by scholars such as Juan Guerra; Rebecca Dingo; Wendy Hesford and Eileen Schell; Patrick Berry, Gail Hawisher, and Cynthia Selfe; David Martins; Shui-yin Sharon Yam and Ling Yang; Rasha Diab; and many others illustrate. This special issue examines how Asian/American rhetoric resonates with, parallels, and builds upon this work. 

Early work in Asian/American rhetoric often took up calls that paralleled the early work in Asian American Studies: to identify and understand the presence of Asians in the United States, their relationship to the nation-state, and the historical global forces that shaped and continue to shape this presence/relationship. For example, in examining the literacy and rhetorical practices of Asian/Americans in Minor Re/Visions, Young considered a history of immigration to Hawai’i and how contract laborers from China, Japan, Okinawa, Korea, and the Philippines situated themselves in a space that both prompted and regulated rhetorical activity.  Similarly, in her work on Filipinx/American collective memory and community building, Monberg has had to consider the legacies of colonialism, imperialism, and migration in the historical relationship between the Philippines and US and how these legacies shaped the global imagination and the rhetorical tactics of people of Filipinx descent (2006; 2008). And in the collection, Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric, we have seen the range of work that recuperates, theorizes, and begins to offer additional sites for examining Asian/American rhetorical activity. 

Based on this early work in Asian American rhetoric, Mao and Young offer the following definition of Asian/American rhetoric in their 2008 introduction to Representations: 

[The] systematic, effective use and development by Asian Americans of symbolic resources, including this new American language, in social, cultural, and political contexts. Because these contexts are regularly imbued with highly asymmetrical relations of power, such rhetoric creates a space for Asian Americans where they can resist social and economic injustice and reassert their discursive agency and authority in the dominant culture. (3)

Furthermore, Mao and Young also conceptualize Asian/American rhetoric as a “rhetoric of becoming”:

To the extent it does, Asian American rhetoric becomes a rhetoric of becoming: it is a rhetoric that participates in this generative process, yielding an identity that is Asian American and producing a transformative effect that is always occasioned by use. (5)

However, in the last ten years a framework has been developed to support continued research in an underexamined history of rhetorical activity by Asians in America as well as to spur research that moves beyond a framework that relies on US national formation and citizenship, answering Wendy Hesford and Eileen Schell’s call for more attention to “transnational ethnic configurations” and a more critical “consideration of the epistemological and historical ties between disciplinary formations and US imperialism” (463). Thus, as theoretical frames have shifted both in Asian American studies and rhetorical studies, work in Asian/American rhetoric has become more attentive to new forms of transnational power structures and the emergent forms of rhetoric crafted to negotiate, resist, and work against emerging, shifting, and often intensified “highly asymmetrical relations of power.” Consistent with a “global imaginary,” this work has had to account for histories of immigration; the comparative, cultural, and national contexts for rhetoric; or the development of innovative rhetorical practices in response to constructions of otherness.

Transnational consciousness has long been a foundation for Asian American Studies, which has also influenced work in Asian/American rhetoric.  The founding of Asian American Studies is historically situated in the Third World Liberation Front Strikes, the anti-war movement, the Asian American Movement’s commitment to anti-racist and anti-imperialist stances, and “self-determination for Asian and Asian American people alike” (Maeda 6). We’ve thus chosen, in our introduction, to use the formation “Asian/American” as conceptualized by David Palumbo-Liu who invokes the solidus, or slash, to illustrate how “‘Asian/American’ marks both the distinction installed between ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ and a dynamic, unsettled, and inclusive movement."1 Palumbo-Liu’s solidus also reflects his effort to “reconceptualize the nature of national identity as at once less stable and more dynamic,” which we find particularly relevant in the current transnational and political climates (3). And, finally, the solidus reflects the spirit of recent discussions among Asian/American scholars in rhetoric and composition about how to name ourselves, the desire to de-emphasize the domestic centrality that “Asian American” (without the solidus) can assume or invoke, and the need to disrupt linear historical narratives and weave across temporalities (see Sano-Franchini, et al.) 

Thus, the solidus/slash acts as both border and bridge and perhaps provides both a textual and graphic representation of movement, relationship, and a reaching across and beyond—beyond the nation-state, beyond the mere representation of Asian/American rhetorical legacies in the discipline, and beyond the work published in Representations: Doing Asian American Rhetoric. This dynamic, unsettled, and inclusive movement between Asian and American as subject, or between Asia and America as imagined global geographies, raises questions that remain to be explored, including: What does it mean to recognize or reframe the rhetorical work of Asian/Americans as a transnational process and practice? How does displacing the nation-state and citizen-subjects as the central locus of analysis reveal larger webs and sites of rhetorical activity? How have (trans) socio-historical contexts and global forces shaped Asian/American lives and rhetorical practices? What temporal and historical frameworks are required to understand the rhetorical innovations of today’s Asian/Americans? How do new forms and modes of delivery trans/form rhetorical activity? And, finally, how does this work trans/form the disciplinary knowledge and history of rhetorical studies? While our contributors may use cognate forms of Asian/American, their work unpacks how such identification shapes the rhetorical work of people of Asian descent within systems of power.

While Hesford and Schell posit that, “transnationality refers to movements of people, goods, and ideas across national borders” and “is often used to highlight forms of cultural hybridity and intertextuality” (463), we have seen a recent move toward interrogating rhetorical activity on its own terms—that is, to identify and describe rhetorical activity that does not necessarily rely on western rhetorical traditions but instead focuses on complex and dynamic networked forces— and away from hybridity models that assume binary logics. In the case of Asian/American rhetoric, rhetorical actors negotiate across and within different positions rather than in opposition to one location/identity or another, or from a hybrid third position. This focus on movement and intertextuality has been a hallmark for Asian/Americanists in rhetorical studies who are turning to new methodological frameworks that are not just comparative but trans/formative, shifting the way we follow and situate rhetoric within larger global time and space and away from relying on an implied relationship to a western rhetorical tradition. This work is trans/formative, then, not only in its examination of how rhetoric moves across time, space, national boundaries, institutions, languages, and cultures but also in its understanding of rhetoric as a discipline that requires us to rethink our histories, objects, and methods. In this work, we see an emerging direction toward innovative, multidimensional rhetorical studies and methodologies that have yet to be theorized and made explicitly relevant to the broader field of rhetorical studies. Engaging Asian/American rhetoric as a “transnational ethnic configuration,” calls forth affinities with transnational Asian/American histories as characterized by Erika Lee and Naoko Shibusawa who in asking “what is transnational Asian American history” focus on “the mutual interactive nature of cultural, institutional, and economic flows” in ways that are not just comparative but de-center the nation-state “without ignoring state power” (x). Moreover, a rhetorical focus on movement across time and space brings into focus what Arjun Appadurai calls “disjunctures” for “it is the disjunctures between the various vectors characterizing this world-in-motion that produce fundamental problems of livelihood, equity, suffering, justice, and governance” (5). These disjunctures—the local circumstances that make visible (and visceral) the internal contradictions of transnational power dynamics—are central to Asian/American rhetoric as illustrated by essays in this special issue.

In their introduction to a special issue of JAC on “Transnational Feminisms,” Rebecca Dingo, Rachel Riedner, and Jennifer Wingard offer a warning about the slippage that occurs in the application and use of the “transnational” when it defaults to a description of movement, mobility, and growing global exchange and obscures questions of power and materiality. In our work, understanding power and materiality become a central concern for Asian/American rhetoric and we find resonance with Dingo, Riedner, and Wingard’s argument that to adopt a transnational framework in rhetorical studies requires that we interrogate global power—global capital, state-power, and culture among the complex array of forces— to reveal how it functions to reinforce and maintain systems of power across time, space, and context (518). Dingo further argues that women, as rhetorical actors, “must be recognized as part of a network of relationships” that impact how they are represented and, as such, rhetoricians must “not only consider the places where rhetorics travel and are deployed but also the external social, economic, and political influences that serve as exigencies for particular policy arguments about women” (17).   This focus on networks of global power is not meant to displace the agency of individuals or of groups but rather is critical in understanding how these individuals and groups are often acting within larger systems that have played a part in their movement, in creating the conditions and exigencies which often prompt their rhetorical activity, and shape what we might collectively understand as Asian/American rhetoric.2

As a way to make visible networks of global power impacting Asian/American bodies, Rory Ong specifically conceptualizes transnational Asian American rhetoric as “a diasporic practice [that] unveils competing and contradictory discursive power relations within the Asian diaspora as they have become articulated in relation to an American empire” (36). Ong argues for a rhetorical theory that reveals networks of power that not only disrupt state-power and global capital but also disrupt Asian/American projects that may reinforce and reproduce formations of the nation-state. Ong’s formulation helps us to move beyond the nation-state as a central organizing concept for Asian/American rhetoric, raising important questions to guide this work. For example, are Asian/American projects that offer rhetorical histories or rhetorical theories based on a conceptualization of Asian/American identity as constitutive of state-power productive?  How does reframing Asian/American rhetoric as transnational disrupt reliance on the nation-state, subject-citizen?  What does it mean to our work today if we reframe Asian/American rhetoric as always having been transnational and not bound by an expression of cultural nationalism or implicated in a system of state-power?

What we hope this special issue of enculturation will do is to not only build upon the questions and methodologies offered in other similarly conceived projects that examine comparative rhetoric, the rhetorics of the Americas, and regional rhetorics but also offer a novel examination for rhetorical studies by considering the intersecting dimensions found in the experiences of people of Asian descent as informed by migration, relationships to state power, race, and culture.  For example, when LuMing Mao describes the project of comparative rhetoric as the need to become “more self-reflexive about our own biases, binaries, and boundaries and more attentive to the increasingly blurred and shifting boundaries between self and other, past and present, and local and global,” he provides a foundation for thinking about the local and global contexts of Asian/American rhetoric that emerge from a variety of locations (209). Just as Christa Olson and René De los Santos argue for a hemispheric awareness of the Americas and how this reimagines rhetorical history and activity in the Americas, we hope the Asian/American cases presented in this special issue of enculturation suggest that a transpacific awareness is equally necessary as we consider the ways Asia has figured metaphorically and materially in the US imagination and shaped the experiences and rhetorical activity of people moving across these regions (193-194). In this sense, Asian/American rhetoric can be thought of as a regional rhetoric that, as Jenny Edbauer Rice suggests, “disrupts given narratives of belonging that are framed on a national level and between individuals . . . provid[ing] alternative ways of framing our relationships and modes of belonging” (203). Given these resonances, we see this work as transrhetorical, building on the analytical framework developed by Rachel Jackson to “characterize the movement of rhetorics across multiple location categories—historical, spatial, temporal, cultural, local, regional, national, and global, as well as across disciplines” in order to chart “ideological movements and rhetorical practices” (305). In short, our goal with this special issue of enculturation is to move beyond representation—the simple identification and recuperation of something we call Asian/American rhetoric—and to engage Asian/American rhetoric as a rich theoretical field that captures the multiple dimensions that address the multitude of rhetorical histories, rhetorics across languages and cultures, and rhetorics shaped by time, place, and movement. 

While we have explained our use of “Asian/American” here and theorized it to describe a shifting sense of Asian/American subjectivity and identity, the essays included in this special issue do use different instantiations that reflect socio-historical, political, and theoretical dispositions in context and frame analytical work. We open with “In the Present and Importantly Present: Advancing Temporality for Asian American Rhetoric,” by LuMing Mao, who explicitly proposes a temporal turn for the study of Asian American rhetoric that recognizes, advocates, and conceptualizes rhetorics, rhetoric user identities, and rhetorical contexts as always the emerging and processual outcomes of practices. In this sense, Mao argues to place Asian American rhetorical practices both in the present and as importantly present and rejects any effort to relocate them according to an imposed chronological hierarchy (Fabian). Equally important, by advancing temporality, Mao privileges becoming and process over rest and permanence, and he values experience and multiplicity of locations over reified knowledge and single points of origin.  Mao focuses on the case of Saum Song Bo, a Chinese in the US who wrote a letter to expose the irony and hypocrisy of coterminous events—the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 and the fund-raising campaign for the installation of the Statue of Liberty in 1885—and to denounce the racism that all Chinese had to endure as a result of the new immigration restrictions.  Mao uses this letter to recapture a past that has often been remembered differently or erased altogether and to reframe the same past on terms of engagement that beckon a transnational imaginary and are not necessarily tethered to one single temporal origin but rather are generative of new meanings and significances by being both in the present and made importantly present.

The introduction of Mao’s strategy of reading presently provides a serendipitous lens for reading other work included in this issue for he builds on several important themes and foundations in Asian/American rhetoric including temporality (Shimabukuro; Monberg, Sano-Franchini, and Yoon; Monberg) and becoming (Mao; Mao and Young) that are likewise taken up with greater global consciousness by other authors in this issue. For example, in her examination of visual work produced by people of Japanese descent during their incarceration in US camps during World War II, Anne Wheeler theorizes a tactical art of rhetorical resistance that had to exist both in front of and behind the surveillance of US officials. In “Rendering Everyday Life: Tactical Artwork by Incarcerated Japanese American Artists,” Wheeler focuses on depictions of camp life created by incarcerated Japanese American nisei, in particular sanitary facilities, that had to circumvent the censorship mechanisms in place during the original historical moment in order to speak to a future audience who would be able to read the critique and see moments of subversion rather than silence. Ultimately, Wheeler argues, the tactical art of rhetorical resistance employed by Mine Okubo, Jack Matsuoka, and staff of the Camp Harmony Newsletter (Souvenir Edition) functions in the creation of a collective public memory to provide a counter-narrative to what was often depicted in official US propaganda about the camps.

Kent A. Ono and Alison Yeh Cheung examine how YouTube has been taken up as a rhetorical technology to assert a particular Asian American sensibility in “Asian American ‘Hipster’ Rhetoric: The New Media Rhetoric of the Fung Brothers.” Ono and Cheung take-up the case of the Fung Brothers, who bring with them stand-up comedy that explicitly "popularizes" Asia and Asian America for audiences broadly. With music and video skills, stand-up comedy acts, and superb content, brothers Andrew and David Fung provide a popularized version of Asian American Studies for millennial audiences both nationally and internationally. With special focus on Asian American food, gender relations, Jeremy Lin(sanity), parents, and Asian and Asian American culture more generally, the Fung Brothers, Ono and Cheung argue, offer a rhetoric specially adapted to new media and millennial Asian America, what they call “Asian American Hipster” rhetoric. Asian American hipster rhetoric is culturally savvy, interested in reclaiming the unique and exciting parts of Asia and Asian America as “cool,” and self-aware of identity and the possible globality of social media. Despite the atomizing function of contemporary digital culture that so many scholars describe, discuss, and often lament, Asian American hipster rhetoric encourages a self-conscious understanding and awareness of an audience, both local and global, that witnesses, hears, and consumes Fung Brothers' videos, making possible a sharing of national and transnational identity and culture. 

Jennifer Sano-Franchini interrogates the rhetorical function of sound in her article, “Sounding Asian/America: Asian/American Sonic Rhetorics, Multimodal Orientalism, and Digital Composition.” Building on Said’s concept of Orientalism, Sano-Franchini develops concepts of aural stereotyping and aural othering to unpack how particular sonic tropes construct Asian Americans in condescending, diminutive ways (aural stereotyping) or as strange, mysterious, or alien (aural othering). In these cases, Asian Americans are the object of sonic rhetorics that work in concert with other modalities to reinforce orientalist tropes. Her analysis demonstrates how these tropes (as edifices of global power) persist over time and circulate across space more rapidly and somewhat surreptitiously through the vibrations of sound, showing that when different modalities are brought together they often result in affective Othering. As a response to this sonic Orientalism, Sano-Franchini identifies and theorizes the sonic rhetorics of Asian Americans who are able to deploy sound as an expression of identity, culture, and activity that counters those sonic tropes that reduce Asian Americans to a two-bar oriental riff. 

In “#FuckCommunism: Embodied Rhetoric and Vietnamese Transnational Digital Practices,” Linh Dich examines the diasporic Vietnamese rapper, Nah, whose video and rap song “‘Đt M Cng Sn’ (Dmcs) Or ‘Fuck Communism,’ Part 1” became a transnational phenomenon moving across various digital spaces and modalities such as images on Facebook and video interviews on YouTube. Through her analysis of Nah’s transnational protest rhetoric, Dich argues that digital literacies generate the kinds of circulation that generate transnational relationships. Dich specifically considers Nah’s motivations for engaging both Vietnamese and English-speaking audiences that tend to align with rhetors’ general understanding of their audiences as Vietnamese or Western (mostly American), respectively. The use of both Vietnamese and English, then, can be seen as a rhetorical act that places Vietnam in a transnational relationship with a Western imaginary. The movement becomes particularly interesting when Vietnamese people promote #DMCS and/or #FuckCommunism through apparel labels or by tattooing these hashtags on their bodies and then posting these images on Facebook. By examining how Vietnamese writers use alternative cultural and public resources, such as rap and tattoos, to enact protest on a transnational and local level, Dich demonstrates why bodies are “fundamental dimensions of global politics” and how digitally produced bodies also matter to transnational developments and flows. 

In examining the “What’s your story?” YouTube video challenge, launched in 2011 by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI), Vincent Pham focuses on one entry, “My Asian Americana,” that addressed the deportation of Cambodian Americans but, ultimately, was not chosen as a finalist. In his article, “The Exiled Speak Back: Asian American Diasporic Rhetorical Reconfigurations of Citizenship and Belonging in the White House ‘What’s Your Story’ Video Challenge,” Pham’s argument is two-fold. First, Pham argues that “My Asian Americana”—as a case of Asian American rhetoric—relies on strategies that are performative in its challenging of citizenship and belonging that address both cultural and structural aspects of citizenship. Importantly, the video displaces the nation-state and citizen-subject as the locus for belonging drawing instead on a notion of diaspora that destabilizes fixed and static notions of the citizen-subject. Second, Asian American rhetoric (and in this case public address) occurs in relation to media—in this case, its rhetorical value comes, not only from the performance in the video, but also from the fact that the video challenge itself draws on the participatory logic of new media to produce and choose what represents the community. In approaching Asian American rhetoric from this perspective, Pham foregrounds vernacular discourses as they come into contact with official ones (and the lack thereof) and theorizes an interdisciplinary rhetorical and media studies approach to understanding contemporary Asian American rhetoric.

We end the section of essays with an Afterword, “Disciplinary (Trans)formations: Queering and Trans-ing Asian American Rhetorics,” by Jo Hsu who notes that, taken together, the articles in this special issue “collapse categorical distinctions of time, location, and nationality to disrupt the linear progress so often imposed on Asian America.” Hsu builds on this work and points to an urgent need for more engagement with queer and trans Asian Americans, particularly since “trans” is such a key prefix in Asian American rhetoric. But Hsu also asks the discipline at large to re-examine its tendency to compartmentalize intellectual and social justice work for it clearly has direct impact not only on bodies of scholarship but also on the bodies that produce that scholarship. Using critical trans theory and drawing from activists who made “queer and trans-inclusive Asian America” possible, Hsu questions the Western bias of gender expression that is also at work in Asian American rhetoric. Calling for more transnational, transgender, and transformative frameworks, Hsu challenges the field to not only move beyond the reliance of institutional structures but to also address the systems of power that have regulated bodies in the interest of maintaining the status quo. Just as the essays presented in this special issue offer critiques of global and state power, Hsu’s afterword addresses the issue of power within our institutions and how we must be willing to challenge those institutions when we see them engaged in actions (passive or assertive) that do not work in the interest of social justice.

Finally, we close this special issue with reviews of three scholarly monographs that illustrate the exciting and innovative work occurring in Asian/American rhetorical and literacy studies. Kate Firestone reviews Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric by Haivan V. Hoang. Vani Kannan reviews South Asian in the Mid-South: Migrations of Literacies by Iswari Pandey. And Charlyne Sarmiento reviews Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration by Mira Shimabukuro. Each of these reviews is accompanied by an interview between author and reviewer as a way to provide a broader context for the work within Asian/American rhetoric and to model how Asian/American rhetoric builds and continues, travels, and connects Asian/American scholars across “communities, generations, and different locations” (Royster and Kirsch). 

In these articles it is tempting, even persuasive, to frame these acts simply through a “rhetoric of becoming,” as a means for identity formation, expression, and protest within the US nation-state and under conditions of global capitalism (Mao and Young).  We don’t dismiss the efficacy and power of a “rhetoric of becoming” to challenge racism and other forms of oppression, especially when addressing policies and laws that regulate bodies. However, when these cases are read through a transnational and networked Asian/American rhetorical framework, we must also take into account the larger networks/systems that have created the conditions (both visible and invisible) that shape the experiences of these Asian/American subjects and their rhetorical activity.  We might, then, extend Mao and Young’s “rhetoric of becoming” to consider what this may mean as new forms of global capitalism and re-emergent forces such as fascism, nationalism, and white supremacy (in the US and abroad) create an array of pressures on Asian/American subjects who must not only articulate a shifting terrain of exigencies but also develop appropriate strategic or tactical rhetorical actions.

What we hope is apparent in this special issue of enculturation is that conceptualizing Asian/American rhetoric as a complex, transnational, networked activity may lead to generative and critical work that moves beyond the initial work of a “rhetoric of becoming” to shift toward a generative process that must now account for an identity that is reframed as Asian/American and no longer simply Asian American. That is, what does it mean to theorize Asian/American identification not only within the US but beyond and in relation to the rest of the world? While we may be drawn to the power of a specific rhetorical act because of its challenge to racism or oppression, or perhaps because it offers an expression of joy or hope, we need to understand that the exigencies and conditions which prompt the rhetorical activity are informed by socio-political-economic forces that do not always manifest in ways that make these relationships visible but that are still material in our lives even across space and time. In this way, we continue to see people of Asian descent in the US but also across the world constructed in specific ways to serve the interests of state power and global capitalism, or in expressions of structural racism, unchecked nationalism, and xenophobic social attitudes. But we also continue to see the emerging and strategic rhetorical activity of people of Asian descent whose responses, over time, have been and may continue to be inspirational for Asian/Americans going forward.

  • 1. As Jo Hsu notes, however, the Asian American movement was not particularly inclusive of Asian American LGBT, queer, and transgender folks (“A Heritage”). See also her critical discussion of the use of the prefix “trans” in Asian/American rhetoric in her Afterword to this special issue.
  • 2. We use “displace” cautiously here.  We do not mean to suggest that agency rests solely in individual or group identity, which is not affected by a variety of systems of power.  However, we do want to suggest that agency and network work in relationship to each other and must account for both structural conditions as well as individual action.
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