Impossibilized Subjects in Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men: Thoughts on Migrancy and the State of Exception

By Gsoels-Lorensen, Jutta | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2010 | Go to article overview

Impossibilized Subjects in Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men: Thoughts on Migrancy and the State of Exception


Gsoels-Lorensen, Jutta, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay discusses Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men as a text devoted to the meticulous representation of the migrant and immigrant subject before the law, taking seriously the idea, articulated by the narrative's mother figure, that migrant or immigrant life in the United States involves existing in a constant "state of emergency," and offering a closer look at border space as a realm of enforced law.

At the exact centre of Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men, the reader finds a section entitled "The Laws." It takes the form of a terse catalogue, an enumeration of anti-Chinese rules and regulations that is particularly shocking in its unrelenting portrayal of progressive disenfranchisement during the so-called "Exclusion Era," which lasted from 1882 until 1943, when China became an ally to the United States on the Pacific war front during World War II (Ngai 201-06). In its almost litaneutical insistence, "The Laws" section sheds light on the act of border crossing as an undertaking vexed by a continually unstable threshold between legality and illegality, as delineated by shifting territories of juridico-political decision making with often brutal consequences. Accordingly, China Men as a whole is precisely not content with representing the difficult, and for a long time all but impossible, emigration of Chinese Americans in terms of biographically inspired, "authentic" portraits; instead, it insists on migrancy (1) as firmly entrenched on, and defined by, a globe that, far from being passive, empty space, is continuously redefining itself in terms of changing politics, economic relations, culture, and law. Moreover, Kingston's text shows the work of alien law in the moment of its application: as practically enforced and often bureaucratically administered "justice" in the sites of border crossing, whether these borders are construed as material or phenomenal. Due to this meticulously attuned representation of the migrant subject before the law, China Men strikes me as an astoundingly contemporary, singularly alert text for our own global moment. Its potential materializes poignantly when the text is placed in the context of recent theorizations of power and state sovereignty, in particular--and perhaps at first sight surprisingly--Giorgio Agamben's work on the "state of exception." In narrating the biopolitical work of restrictionist immigration policies, China Men, I will argue, develops its own sense of the "exceptional" at the precise dividing line between admission to and exclusion from the United States polity.

Scholars have already commented upon the significance of law and thus "The Laws" section in China Men. As a general tendency, they understand this segment by way of Kingston's experimentation with genre boundaries (Shan 237-38 and 253-54; Shih 67-68; Grice 50-53), ultimately in terms of a critical "counter-remembering" (Cheung, "Talk" 23-26) that undermines the historically oblivious United States master narrative (Nishime 267; Wang 18; Goellnicht 241, to cite but a few). Though indebted to their work, my reading seeks to unmoor China Men from the purported telos of "re-claiming America," essentially a project lodged within the framework of the nation-state, as Pirjo Ahokas, following Lisa Lowe and others, has pointed out (107), and to reposition it as a text that "prefigures" (Spivak 49) fundamental concerns with the use and abuse of state power vis-a-vis the human rights of immigrants and migrants. China Men engages the idea of genealogical linkages; rather than placing genealogy in the service of the nation-state, however, the text disperses it into an assemblage of limit zones, in which the question of membership as posed by United States alien legislation is actively negotiated. In this, I take my cue from Yoon Sun Lee, who has drawn attention to Kingston's highly ironic and utterly self-conscious "tropes of territory and deterritorialization" (482-83), one of which I identify as the tropology of concealment. …

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