Lauren Gantz on "The Feeling of Kinship"
The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy
Reviewed by Lauren Gantz
In his most recent full-length study, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, David L. Eng addresses the emergence of what he labels “queer liberalism,” a form of neoliberalism that allows for the enfranchisement of certain homosexual citizen-subjects. This enfranchisement manifests itself within the realm of the domestic, via increasing rights to sexual privacy, adoption, and same-sex marriage. While such developments have been greeted as progressive, Eng urges his readers to be circumspect about queer liberalism’s hidden costs. He deftly juggles a variety of theoretical paradigms in order to demonstrate that the idealization of the “Oedipal” (i.e. nuclear) family as the height of queer empowerment reifies a false dichotomy between public and private spheres—a division that makes possible “the forgetting of race.” Citing queer diaspora as a viable counter to queer liberalism, Eng makes a convincing case for rethinking kinship and recognizing that family is always bound up with questions of race and (neo)colonial exploitation.
Eng’s critique of queer liberalism builds upon the work of scholars such as Aihwah Ong and Jodi Melamed, who have argued that neoliberalism refuses to recognize the systemic inequalities engendered by racial difference as anything but the failures of “those who are unwilling to participate on the so-called level playing field of the neoliberal market.” According to Eng, queer liberalism replicates this “colorblindness” in two ways. The first is by imagining GLBTQ liberation as a “politics of the present” and racial liberation as a “completed project,” in a teleological narrative of progress that ignores the continued existence of racial oppression and imagines race and sexuality as two distinct categories of identity. The second is via what he labels “the racialization of intimacy”—the process by which race, once vacated from the public sphere, is confined to the “domain of... family and kinship” where it becomes an individual concern rather than a social one. As a case study of such phenomena, Eng’s first chapter offers a provocative reading of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court decision that decriminalized sodomy and was heralded as an unequivocal victory for gay rights. Highlighting the under-reported racial tensions that led to the defendants’ arrests, as well as discussions of Lawrence that compared it to the overturning of anti-miscegenation law in Loving v. Virginia (1967), Eng points out how this landmark queer rights case is haunted by race.
The remainder of The Feeling of Kinship is Eng’s effort to imagine “a social terrain beyond the limits of queer liberalism,” a task he accomplishes by focusing on various forms of queer Asian diaspora, including migrant labor, transnational adoption, and Japanese internment. Drawing on the work of scholars such as Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Spivak, and Elizabeth Freeman, Eng suggests that diaspora challenges queer liberalism by disrupting its “official” historiographies—which elide the presence of oppressed, racialized bodies—in favor of queer temporalities. For instance, in his second chapter, Eng offers readings of Monique Truong’s novel The Book of Salt (2003) and Wong Kar-wai’s film Happy Together (1997), focusing on the ways that the queer Asian migrants in both works exist in an historical “in-between.” Although their labor supports the socioeconomic conditions that make queer liberalism possible, they do not enjoy the fruits of that labor. Instead, they occupy what Eng calls “the imaginary waiting room of history,” a space and time outside of linear narratives of progress where they must wait for recognition by those in power, haunted by “the melancholic trace of the what-might-have-been.”
In addition to disrupting “official” queer histories, Eng suggests that queer diaspora makes visible the inadequacies of the Oedipal kinship models that queer liberalism valorizes. He calls for a “post-structuralist theory of kinship” that recognizes a multitude of kinship formations. He fleshes out this theory in Chapters Three and Four with an analysis of Asian transnational adoption, a practice he describes as the commodification of third world reproductive labor for the benefit of white, first world, increasingly queer couples. Eng focuses on two Korean American transnational adoptees who struggle with their racial identities and with clinical depression due to their white adoptive families’ inabilities to meaningfully address race. Utilizing Freudian and Kleinian psychoanalysis, as well as theories of racial melancholia, Eng offers a reading of the women’s experiences. He suggests that their psychic dilemmas can be traced to the inability of Freud’s Oedipal model to account for the existence of two mothers, or for the psychic impacts of race and racism. According to Eng, the solution for each woman is twofold, involving the opening of psychic space for the acceptance of “two good-enough mothers,” along with “racial reparation.” This latter concept is a modification of the theories of Melanie Klein, and Eng uses it to describe the process by which the adoptee works through her feelings of antipathy and guilt toward the racialized Korean mother in order to begin psychological healing.
Eng argues that along with challenging Oedipal kinship formations, a post-structuralist theory of kinship refuses the separation of public/private spheres that makes the racialization of intimacy possible. To that end, he concludes The Feeling of Kinship with a powerful meditation on the ways that racial reparation can become both a psychic and a political project. Drawing on theories of affect and trauma, Eng analyzes Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991), her experimental film about her family’s experiences during Japanese internment. Tajiri’s film describes her efforts to recover and understand her mother’s lost memories from the camps—memories that she herself has unconsciously inherited. As part of her personal process of reparation, Tajiri’s film constructs what Eng calls an “affective history” of internment, using impressionistic imagery, non-linear narrative, and textual excerpts that do not coincide with the voice-over narration. While the content of Tajiri’s documentary is not specifically queer, Eng claims her aesthetic as such, suggesting that the history of feeling she constructs mirrors queer temporalities’ refusal of teleologies. More significantly, however, he argues that her history of feeling functions to bring the “forgotten” racial past into the present in such a way that we as a nation are forced to remember differently—to “make reparation” with the darker portions of our history, rather than glossing over them.
The Feeling of Kinship is in many ways a work of scholarly synthesis, skillfully drawing on an impressive variety of methodologies, including queer theory, diaspora studies, psychoanalysis, and public sphere theory, to name only the most prevalent. This, combined with the eclecticism of the texts Eng chooses to analyze, could have easily overwhelmed a lesser writer. It is to his great credit that The Feeling of Kinship manages to be both highly complex and highly readable. Furthermore, while Eng’s focus is primarily on Asian American texts, his engagement with multiple theoretical paradigms has the advantage of making his study relevant to scholars from a variety of disciplines. That being said, his argument is often strongest where its focus is most narrow. His aforementioned reading of Lawrence v. Texas is particularly startling, and would be of interest to activists, legal scholars, and humanities scholars alike. Likewise, the chapters on transnational adoption are deeply moving pieces of scholarship that make truly ground-breaking contributions to psychoanalytic theory.
The political timeliness of Eng’s study also cannot be understated, given recent developments such as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the emerging political momentum for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. While such political and legal victories are understandably causes for emotional celebration, the assertion that such developments are made possible only via buying into neoliberalism and perpetuating the forgetting of race should give both activists and academics pause. As Eng notes, such forgetting undermines the coalitionist politics and the intersectional approaches to race and sexuality that were forged with such difficulty over the past thirty years, while also making possible continued racial and (neo)colonial exploitation. Eng asks his readers to imagine queer liberation differently, and reminds us to be vigilant that in our current push for greater freedoms, we do not leave anyone in the “waiting room of history.”