Call for Panel Submissions: Association for Asian American Studies 40th Conference

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“Troubling Politics”

The U.S. has imagined the Pacific as an “American lake” since the nineteenth century, when it forced China and Japan into participating in “free trade,” then a new notion meant to displace both European mercantilist imperialism and Asian isolationism. As East Asia serves as the object of desire, if orientalized, and site of destination, if asymptotic, of the U.S. imperial imagination, the Pacific is treated as the ocean highway to Asia, the magical waters of which, as Rob Wilson notes in Reimagining the American Pacific, supposedly able to “dissolve the traumatic past of colonial memory and loosen capitalist class suffering” (46). In this American vision of a transpacific world as the cure to the post-traumatic symptoms of colonialism, as overcoming postcoloniality through post-imperialist relations, the U.S. is legitimated as a global power and Asia is equated with East Asia, thereby disappearing not only U.S. empire but the Pacific and other Asian subjects whose colonization, formal or informal, makes such a vision possible.

Ironically, the U.S. pursuit of a transcendent transpacific world without memory and suffering rests on monumental violence in Southeast Asia, notably the Philippine-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Cambodian genocide, not to mention the slow-rolling violence wrought by U.S.-exported neoliberalism that has tended to buttress “authoritarian democracies” common in the region, notably in Indonesia, Singapore, and Myanmar. This process has as its correlate the movement of Southeast Asians into America not as immigrants, quintessential new Americans, but as refugees, survivors of empire, which is pursued by the U.S. precisely through its disavowal (e.g. through “free trade”). This panel explores Southeast Asia and Southeast Asian Americans as particularly promising focal points for the study of not only U.S. empire but transpacific relations in their minor status, indeed invisibility. It asks how the forgetting of imperialist violence in Southeast Asia and simultaneously benevolent and marginal incorporation of Southeast Asians in America enable and rest on the U.S. shaping of a transpacific world.

How might we think about the way that U.S. empire and Southeast Asia(n America) seem to reflect each other in their invisible presences? To what extent is this a traumatic mechanism, what the utopian framing of the transpacific aims to forget? In the west, trauma is defined, e.g. by Cathy Caruth, as induced by unexpected and violent events that are experienced unconsciously, thereby giving rise to repetitions of the event through which it may become conscious. How might this notion explain the forgetting and repetition of U.S. imperialism through, and in, Southeast Asia(n America)? Against the universalization of western paradigms, are there concepts local to Southeast Asia or hybridized in the diaspora that enable a better understanding of the Southeast Asian experience with America? If empire does not give justice to this experience, what else explains its “trauma”? How do traumatic experiences, like the ones induced by the U.S. in Southeast Asia, constitute a symptom of troubling Asian/American politics, and how might thinking about such experiences trouble politics as usual?

The conference will take place from April 9 – 11, 2020 in Washington, DC.

For more information, please contact Ryanson Ku (Postdoctoral Associate in Asian American Studies, Duke University) at aleryando@gmail.com. Final abstracts (250 words for presentations lasting 15-20 minutes) are due to the same address no later than Friday, September 20, 2019. Please include: paper title, position, affiliation, phone number, and email address.

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