Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations Across the Pacific, by Shu-mei Shih. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xiv + 243 pp. US$55.00/£35.95 (hardcover), US$21. 95/£l 3.95 (paperback).
Shu-mei Shih' s work has long been at the cutting edge of film and visual analysis in Critical Asian Studies. This book brings together some fine essays, which together set a tone for thinking through the visuality of Sinophone cultures in the contemporary world. Shih tackles themes as varied as ethics, intimacy, ambiguity, cosmopolitanism and empire, globalization, and desire. The themes are carefully and intricately woven across several case studies. Shih's identity as a Taiwanese American, one who eludes and celebrates the hyphen, allows her glance to fall on the Hong Kong-Mainland relationship as much as on the multiple textual conversations and stand-offs that occur between Chinese Americans and the Chinese state and homelands on the other side of the Pacific.
Shih makes this aspect of her argument explicit in her discussion of ambiguity, where she notes: "Taiwan is not non-China, it is Taiwan; . . . Taiwan is not non- Japan, it is Taiwan", and yet more starkly: "The Indians may transfer the psychological category that is the West into self-empowering cultural capital in their capacity to live with cultural ambiguities; it is more difficult for the Taiwanese to transfer 'China' into cultural capital, however" (pp. 138-39).
Shih later comments on the US' s ambivalent and illogical stand towards Taiwan, with the island being both feted as democratic and yet denied national status at any major world forum. China and the US deal with Taiwan in rather similar ways, although for differently scaled national rationales. They both deny its ambitions, but both feed off its economic energy and, as Shih's case studies remind us, devour its cultural truculence and verve. Her response to this ambiguity at the heart of Taiwan's international relations is to suggest that Taiwan talks to its unwieldy neighbors in a mode that does not flaunt the confidence and grand gestures of Indian postcolonial theory, but does nonetheless exploit the worldliness of its experience through a cosmopolitanism of island differences.
Cosmopolitanism at the margins is the space which Taiwan explores in its visual lexicon. Shih describes this as a new mode of vernacular cosmopolitanism, a term which for me does not quite express the value of her argument. …