Object-Oriented Diaspora Sensibilities, Disidentification, and Ghostly Performance

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1685

Keywords:

disidentification, ghostly matters, performance, diaspora, haunting

How to Cite

Liu, R. (2020). Object-Oriented Diaspora Sensibilities, Disidentification, and Ghostly Performance. M/C Journal, 23(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1685
Vol. 23 No. 5 (2020): anomaly
Published 2020-10-07
Articles

Neither mere flesh nor mere thing, the yellow woman, straddling the person-thing divide, applies tremendous pressures on politically treasured notions of agency, feminist enfleshment, and human ontology. 

— Anne Anlin Cheng, Ornamentalism

In this (apparently) very versatile piece of clothing, she [Michelle Zauner] smokes, sings karaoke, rides motorcycles, plays a killer guitar solo … and much more. Is there anything you can’t do in a hanbok?

— Li-Wei Chu, commentary, From the Intercom 

Introduction

Anne Anlin Cheng describes the anomaly of being “the yellow woman”, women of Asian descent in Western contexts, by underlining the haunting effects of this artificial identity on multiple politically valent forms, especially through Asian women’s conceived ambivalent relations to subject- and object-hood. Due to the entangled constructiveness conjoining Asiatic identities with objects, things, and ornaments, Cheng calls for new ways to “accommodate the deeper, stranger, more intricate, and more ineffable (con)fusion between thingness and personness instantiated by Asiatic femininity and its unpredictable object life” (14). Following this call, this essay articulates a creative combination of José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification and Avery Gordon’s haunting theory to account for some hauntingly disidentificatory ways that the performance of diaspora sensibilities reimagines Asian American life and femininity.

This essay considers “Everybody Wants to Love You” (2016) (EWLY), the music video of Michelle Zauner’s solo musical project Japanese Breakfast, as a ghostly performance, which features a celebration of the Korean culture and identity of Zauner (Song). I analyse it as a site for identifying the confrontational moments and haunting effects of the diaspora sensibilities performed by Zauner who is in fact Jewish-Korean-American. Directed by Zauner and Adam Kolodny, the music video of EWLY features the persona that I call the Korean woman orchestrated by Zauner, singing in a restroom cubicle, eating a Dunkin Donuts sandwich, shotgunning a beer, shredding a Fender electric guitar on the hood of a truck, riding a motorcycle with her queer lover, and partying with a crowd all in the traditional Korean attire hanbok that used to belong to her late mother. The story ends with Zauner waking up on a bench with a hangover and fleeing from the scene, conjuring up a journey of self-discovery, self-healing, and self-liberation through multiple sites and scenes of everyday life.

What I call a ghostly performance is concerned with Avery Gordon’s creative intervention of haunting as a method of social analysis to study the intricate lingering impact of ghostly matters from the past on the present. Jacques Derrida develops hauntology to describe how Marxism continues to haunt Western societies even after its so-called failure. It refers to a status that something is neither present nor absent. Gordon develops haunting as a way of knowing and a method of knowledge production, “forcing a confrontation, forking the future and the past” (xvii). A ghostly performance is thus where ghostly matters are mobilised in “confrontational moments”:

when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings cannot be put away, when something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done. (xvi)

The interstitiality that transgresses and reconfigures the geographical and temporal borders of nation, culture, and Eurocentric discourses of progression is important for understanding the diverse experiences of diaspora sensibilities as critical double consciousness (Dayal 48, 53). As Gordon suggests, confrontational moments force us to confront and expose the interstitial state of objects, subjects, feelings, and conditions. Hence, to understand this study identifies the confrontational moments in Zauner’s performance as a method to identify and deconstruct the triggering moments of diaspora sensibilities.

While deconstructing the ghostly performances of diaspora sensibilities, the essay also adopts an object-oriented approach to serve as a focused entry point. Not only does this approach designate a more focused scope with regard to applying Gordon’s hauntology and Muñoz’s disidentification theory, it also taps into a less attended territory of object theories such as Graham Harman’s and Ian Bogost’s object-oriented ontology due to the overlooking of the relationship between objects and racialisation that is much explored in Asian American and critical race and ethnic studies (Shomura). Moreover, while diaspora as, or not as, an object of study has been a contested topic (e.g., Axel; Cho), the objects of diaspora have been less studied.

This essay elaborates on two ghostly matters: the hanbok and the manicured nails. It uncovers two haunting effects throughout the analysis: the conjuring-up of the Korean diaspora and the troubling of everyday post-racial America. By defying the objectification of Asian bodies with objects of diaspora and refusing to assimilate into the American nightlife, Zauner’s Korean woman persona haunts a multiculturalist post-racial America that fails to recognise the specificities and historicity of Korean America and performs an alternative reality. Disidentificatory ghostly performance therefore, I suggest, thrives on confrontations between the past and the present while gesturing toward the futurities of alternative Americas. Mobilising the critical lenses of disidentification and ghostly performance, finally, I aver that disidentificatory ghostly performances have great potential for envisioning a better politics of performing and representing Asian bodies through the ghostly play of haunting objects/ghostly matters.

The Embodied (Objects) and the Disembodied (Ghosts) of Disidentification

The sonic-visual lifeworld constructed in the music video of EWLY is, first of all, a cultural public sphere, through which social norms are contested, reimagined, and reconfigured. A cultural public sphere reveals the imbricated relations between the political, the public, and the personal as contested through affective (aesthetic and emotional) communications (McGuigan 15). Considering the sonic-visual landscape as a cultural public sphere foregrounds two dimensions of Gordon’s hauntology theory: the psychological and the sociopolitical states. The emphasis on its affective communicative capacities enables the psychological reach of a cultural production. Meanwhile, the multilayered articulation of the political, the public, and the personal shows the inner-network of acts of haunting even when they happen chiefly on the sociopolitical level. What is crucial about cultural public spheres for minoritarian subjects is the creative space offered for negotiating one’s position in capacious and flexible ways that non-cultural publics may not allow. One of the ways is through imagination and disputation (McGuigan 16). 

The idea that imagination and disputation may cause a temporal and spatial disjunction with the present is important for Muñoz’s theorisation of disidentification. With such disjunction, Muñoz believes, queer of colour performances create future-oriented visions and coterminous temporality of the present and the future. These future-oriented visions and the coterminous temporality can be thought through disidentifications, which Muñoz identifies as

a performative mode of tactical recognition that various minoritarian subjects employ in an effort to resist the oppressive and normalizing discourse of dominant ideology. Disidentification resists the interpellating call of ideology that fixes a subject within the state power apparatus. It is a reformatting of self within the social. It is a third term that resists the binary of identification and counteridentification. (97)

Disidentification offers a method to identify specific moments of imagination and disputation and moments of temporal and spatial disjunction. The most distinct example of the co-nature of imagination and disputation residing in the EWLY lifeworld is the persona of the Korean woman orchestrated by Zauner, as she intrudes into the everyday field of American life in a hanbok, such as a bar, a basketball court, and a convenience store. Gordon would call these moments “confrontational moments” (xvi). When performers don’t perform in ways they are supposed to perform, when they don’t operate objects in ways they are supposed to operate, when they don’t mobilise feelings in ways they are supposed to feel, they resist and disidentify with “the oppressive and normalizing discourse of dominant ideology” (Muñoz 97).

In addition to Muñoz’s disidentification and Gordon’s confrontational moments, I adopt an object-oriented approach to guide my analysis of disidentificatory ghostly performances. Object theory departs from objects and matters to rediscover identity and experience. My object-oriented approach follows new materialism more closely than object-oriented ontology because it is less about debating the ontology of Asian American experiences through the lens of objects. Instead, it is more about how re-orienting our attention towards the formation and operation of objecthood reveals and reconfigures the vexed articulation between Asian American experiences and racialised objectification. To this end, my oriented-object approach aligns particularly well with politically engaged frameworks such as Jane Bennett’s vital materialism and Eunjung Kim’s ethics of objects.

Taking an object-oriented approach in inquiring Asian American identities could be paradoxically intervening because “Asian Americans have been excluded, exploited, and treated as capital because they have been more closely associated to nonhuman objects than to human subjects” (Shomura). Furthermore, this objectification is doubly performed onto the bodies of Asian American women due to the Orientalist conflations of Asia as feminine (Huang 187). Therefore, applying object theory in the case of EWLY requires special attention to the interplay between subject- and object-hood and the line between objecthood and objectification. To avoid the risk of objectification when exploring the objecthood of ghostly matters, I caution against an objects-define-subjects chain of signification and instead suggest a subjects-operate-objects route of inquiry by attending to both the haunting effects of objects and how subjects mobilise such haunting effects in their performance. From a new materialist perspective, it is also important to disassociate problems of objectification from exploration of objecthood (Kim) while excavating the world-making abilities of objects (Bennett). For diasporic peoples, it means to see objects as affective and nostalgic vessels, such as toys, food, family photos, attire, and personal items (e.g., Oum), where traumas of displacement can be stored and rehearsed (Turan 54).

What is revealing from a racialised subject-object relationship is what Christopher Bush calls “the ethnicity of things”: things can have ethnicity, an identification that hinges on the articulation that “thingliness can be constituted in ways analogous and related to structures of racialization” (85). This object-oriented approach to inquiry can expose the artificial nature of the affinity between Asian bodies and certain objects, behind which is a confession of naturalised racial order of signification. One way to disrupt this chain of signification is to excavate the haunting objects that disidentify with the norms of the present, that conjure up what the present wants to be done. This “something-to-be-done” characteristic is critical to acts of haunting (Gordon xvii). Such disruptive performances are what I term as “disidentificatory ghostly performances”, connecting the embodied objects with Gordon’s disembodied ghosts through the lens of Muñoz’s disidentificatory reading with a two-fold impact: first exposing such artificial affinity and then suggesting alternative ways of knowing.

In what follows, I expand upon two haunting objects/ghostly matters: the manicured nails and the hanbok. I contend that Zauner operates these haunting objects to embody the “something-to-be-done” characteristic by curating uncomfortable, confrontational moments, where the constituted affinity between Koreanness/Asianness and anomaly is instantiated and unsettled in multiple snippets of the mundane post-racial, post-globalisation world.

What Can the Korean Woman (Not) Do with Those Nails and in That Hanbok?

The hanbok that Zauner wears throughout the music video might be the single most powerful haunting object in the story. This authentic hanbok belonged to Zauner’s late mother who wore it to her wedding. Dressing in the hanbok while navigating the nightlife, it becomes a mediated, trans-temporal experience for both Zauner and her mother. A ghostly journey, you could call it. The hanbok then becomes a ghostly matter that haunts both the Orientalist gaze and the grieving Zauner. This journey could be seen as a process of dealing with personal loss, a process of “reckoning with ghosts” (Gordon 190). The division between the personal and the public, the historical and the present cease to exist as linear and clear-cut forces. The important role of ghosts in the performance are the efforts of historicising and specifying the persona of the Korean woman, which is a strategy for minoritarian performers to resist “the pull of reductive multicultural pluralism” (Muñoz 147). These ghostly matters haunt a pluralist multiculturalist post-racial America that refuses to see minor specificities and historicity.

The Korean woman in an authentic hanbok, coupled with other objects of Korean roots, such as a traditional hairdo and seemingly exotic makeup, may invite the Orientalist gaze or the assumption that Zauner is self-commodifying and self-fetishising Korean culture, risking what Cheng calls “Oriental female objectification” operating through “the lenses of commodity and sexual fetishism” (14). However, she “fails” to do any of these. 

The ways Zauner acts in the hanbok manifests a self-negotiation with her Korean identity through disidentificatory sensibilities with racial fetishism. For example, in various scenes, the Korean woman appears to be drunk in a bar, gorging a sandwich, shotgunning a beer, smoking in a restroom cubicle, messing with strangers in a basketball court, rocking on a truck, and falling asleep on a bench. Some may describe what she does as abnormal, discomforting, and even disgusting in a traditional Korean garment which is usually worn on formal occasions. The Korean woman not only subverts her traditional Koreanness but also disidentifies with what the Asian fetish requires of Asian bodies: obedient, well-behaved model minority or the hypersexualised dragon lady (e.g., Hsu; Shimizu). Zauner’s performance foregrounds the sentimental, the messy, the frenetic, the aggressive, and the carnivalesque as essential qualities and sensibilities of the Korean woman. These rarely visible figurations of Asian femininities speak to the normalised public disappearance of “unwanted” sides of Asian bodies.

Wavering public disappearance is a crucial haunting effect. The public disappearance is an “organized system of repression” (Gordon 72) and a “state-sponsored procedure for producing ghosts to harrowingly haunt a population into submission” (115). While the journey of EWLY evolves through ups and downs, the Korean woman does not maintain the ephemeral joy and takes offence at the people and surroundings now and then, such as at an arcade in the bar, at some basketball players, or at the audience or the camera operator. The performed disaffection and the conflicts substantiate a theory of “positive perversity” through which Asian American women claim the representation of their sexuality and desires (Shimizu), engendering a strong and visible presence of the ghostly matters operated by the Korean woman. This noticeable arrival of bodies disorients how things are arranged (Ahmed 163), revealing and disrupting whiteness, which functions as a habit and a background to actions (149). The confrontational performances of the encounters between Zauner and others cast a critique of the racial politics of disappearing by reifying disappearing into confrontational moments in the everyday post-racial world.

What is also integral to Zauner’s antagonistic performance of wavering public disappearing and failure of “Oriental female objectification” is a punk strategy of negativity through an aesthetic of nihilism and a mediation of performing objects. For example, in addition to the traditional hairdo that goes with her makeup, Zauner also wears a nose ring; in addition to partying with a crowd, she adopts a moshing style of dancing, being carried over people’s heads in the hanbok. All these, in addition to her disaffectionate, aggressive, and impolite body language, express a negative punk aesthetics. Muñoz describes such a negative punk aesthetics as an energy that can be described “as chaotic, as creating a life without rhyme or reason, as quintessentially self-destructive” (97). What lies at the heart of this punk dystopia is the desire for “something else”, something “not the present time or place” (Muñoz). Through this desire for impossible time and place, utopian is reimagined, a race riot, in Mimi Thi Nguyen’s term.

On the other hand, the manicured fingernails are also a major operating force, reminiscent of Korean American immigrant history along with the racialised labor relations that have marked Korean bodies as an alien anomaly (Liu). With “Japanese Breakfast” being written on the screen in neon pink with some dazzling effect, the music video begins in a warm tone. The story begins with Zauner selecting EWLY with her finger on a karaoke operation screen, the first of many shots on her carefully manicured nails, decorated with transparent nail extensions, sparkly ornaments, and hanging fine chains. These nails conjure up the nail salon business in the US that heavily depended on immigrant labor and Korean women immigrants have made significant economic contributions through the manicure business. In particular, differently from Los Angeles where nail salons have been predominantly Vietnamese and Chinese owned, Korean women immigrants in the 1980s were the first ones to open nail salons in New York City and led to the rapid growth of the business (Kang 51). The manicured nails first of all conjure up these recent histories associated with the nail salon business.

Moreover, these fingernails haunt post-racial and post-globalisation America by revealing and subverting the invisible, normalised racial and ethnic nature of the labor and objects associated with fingernails cosmetic treatment. Ghostly matters inform “a method of knowledge production and a way of writing that could represent the damage and the haunting of the historical alternatives” (Gordon xvii). They function as a reminder of the damage that seems forgotten or normalised in modern societies and as an alternative embodiment of what modern societies could have become. In the universe of EWLY, the fingernails become a forceful ghostly matter by reminding us of the damage done onto Korean bodies by fixing them as service performers instead customers. The nail salon business as performed by immigrant labor has been a business of “buying and selling of deference and attentiveness”, where white customers come to exercise their privilege while not wanting anything associated with Koreaness or Otherness (Kang 134). However, as a haunting force, the fingernails subvert such labor relations by acting as a versatile agent operating varied objects, such as a karaoke machine, cigarettes, a sandwich, a Fender guitar, and a can of beer. Through such operating, an alternative labor relation is formed. This alternative is not entirely without roots. As promoted in Japanese Breakfast’s Instagram (@jbrekkie), Zauner’s look was styled by a nail artist who appears to be a white female, Celeste Marie Welch from the DnA Salon based in Philadelphia. This is a snippet of a field that is now a glocalised industry, where the racial and gender makeup is more diverse. It is increasingly easier to see non-Asian and non-female nail salon workers, among whom white nail salon workers outnumbered any other non-Asian racial/ethnic groups (Preeti et al. 23). 

EWLY’s alternative worldmaking is not only a mere reflection of the changing makeup of an industry but also calling out the societal tendency of forgetting histories. To be haunted, as Gordon explains, is to be “tied to historical and social effects” (190). The ghostly matters of the manicure industry haunt its workers, artists, consumers, and businesspeople of a past that prescribes racialised labor divisions, consumption relations, and the historical and social effects inflicted on the Othered bodies. Performing with the manicured nails, Zauner challenges now supposedly multicultural manicure culture by fusing oppositional, trans-temporal identities into the persona of the Korean woman. Not only does she conjure up the racialised labor relations as the child of a Korean mother, she also disidentifies with the worker identity of early Korean women immigrants as a consumer who receives service from an artist who would otherwise never perform such labor in the past.

Conclusion: Toward a Disidentificatory Ghostly Performance

This essay suggests seeing the disidentificatory ghostly performance of the Korean woman as an artistic incarnation of her lived Othering experience, which Zauner may or may not navigate on an everyday basis. As Zauner lives through what looks like a typical Friday night in an American town, the journey represents an interrogation of the present and the past. When the ghostly matters move through public spaces – when she drinks in a bar, walks down the street, and parties with a crowd – the Korean woman neither conforms to what she is expected to do in a hanbok nor does she get fully assimilated into this American nightlife.

Derrida avers that haunting, repression, and hegemony are structurally interlocked and that “haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony” because “hegemony still organizes the repression” (46). This is why the creative capacity of disidentificatory performances is crucial for acts of haunting and for historically repressed groups of people. Conjoining the future-oriented performative mode of disidentification and the forking of the past and the present by ghostly performances, disidentificatory ghostly performances enable not only people of colour but also particularly diasporic populations of colour to challenge racial chains of signification and orchestrate future-oriented visions, where time is of the most compassion, at its utmost capacity.

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Author Biography

Runchao Liu, University of Minnesota

Runchao Liu is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Liu specializes in critical/cultural media studies through the lens of popular music in a comparative and transnational approach. Her scholarship weaves together feminist and queer studies, critical race/ethnicity studies, sound and affect, performative activism, and intercultural communication. She is currently on a dissertation fellowship working on her project titled Sounding Orientalism: Sonic Affect, Musical Radicals, and Countercultural Troubles.