My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It was once a pop-socio-psychological commonplace of American foreign-policy commentary that terrorism on behalf of political Islam was motivated less by ideology and more by an intractable reality of gender: young men with no prospects in their societies will inevitably become violently anti-social. Maybe people still say that about what used to be called “the Arab street,” but the consensus in the west today is that males (and other longstanding elites) can be displaced from their previous positions of ill-gotten authority, given no meaningful alternative but to atone quietly for the sins of their fathers, and that no unseemly consequence will follow from this dispossession. The tough-minded political pragmatism which led Virginia Woolf at her most radical to write in “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid” that “We must compensate the man for the loss of his gun” has given way to an imperative in the guise of a question: “Why Can’t We Hate Men?”
To the (limited) extent that it is a unified work and not just an omnium gatherum of a decade’s published journalism, Wesley Yang’s merrily mistitled essay collection is, often brilliantly, about this state of affairs: about those, sometimes Asian, often male, excluded from certain intangible perquisites of American life—love, success, security, belonging—in our time of the decomposition of the liberal polity under pressures both right-wing (the dominance of markets and market-thinking over every aspect of life) and left-wing (a totalizing identity politics that sets itself against hierarchy as such).
It begins with an essay that is germinal to the whole book, one published in 2008 in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre: “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho.” Meditating on his literal resemblance to the school shooter, Yang identifies Cho as a type of superfluous or underground man, but also identifies his alienation as inflected by an invisible racial politic: the non-erotic valuation of the Asian male. From Dostoevsky to Houellebecq: Cho was a loser not just in general, but a loser in the sexual marketplace.
A perfectly unremarkable Korean face—beady-eyed, brown-toned, a small plump-lipped mouth, eyebrows high off his eyelids, with crooked glasses perched on his nose. It’s not an ugly face, exactly; it’s not a badly made face. It’s just a face that has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country.
Yang—the most daring essayist currently trying (and apparently failing) to stay in the good graces of the liberal literati—does not justify Cho’s murder spree but seeks to understand it. In the essay’s finest polemical passage, he quotes Cho’s teacher, Nikki Giovanni, who pronounced his creative writing submissions “weird” and “intimidating,” before quoting Giovanni’s own weird and intimidating poetry from the height of the Black Power and Black Arts movements (“Do you know how to draw blood / Can you poison / Can you stab-a-Jew”). He comments:
Black militancy was something that many people admired, and many more felt sympathy toward, given the brutal history of enslavement, rape, terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynching, and segregation that blacks had endured in this country. And so you wonder what would have happened if, for instance, Cho’s poems (and thoughts) had found a way to connect his pain to his ethnic identity.
One of the questions of the collection, then, comes to be whether or not Asian-Americans, particularly men, should or even can avail themselves of the redress of identity politics to ameliorate their legitimate grievances.
The collection’s second essay, “Paper Tigers,” addresses the “bamboo ceiling” that prevents otherwise successful Asian-Americans from rising to the commanding heights of the American class/status structure—they stall at middle management and never get to be CEO, due to a combination of pernicious ethnic stereotyping and actual cultural difference. Yang, though, is interested less in those who pursue the bureaucratic solutions offered by identity politics than he is in those who take action to hack or game the system as they find it, getting coached on the western way of calibrated insouciance from self-help mavens. This focus on those who try to win by the pre-set rules rather than changing the system itself is echoed later in the collection when Yang gives us a ruefully sympathetic-satirical portrait of the pickup artist community and its adoption of a Darwinian rulebook in an ostensible search for a Darwinian object—sex—but in a genuine search for the object Darwinism cannot help us to understand: love.
For despite the fact that Yang finds a welcome reception these days in the purlieus of “Sokal-squared,” his sensibility is far from their STEM-mongering rationalism, even though he shares a common enemy with them in contemporary left irrationalism. His political thought is essentially Hegelian, as a profile of Francis Fukuyama in these pages demonstrates. Yang writes so sympathetically of the unloved because he believes life is not a quest to attain power or to spread one’s genes, but a quest for recognition as an equal in a community of equals. Hence his exquisite ambivalence, thought by his critics to be mere troglodytic right-wingery, in the face of the new generation of academic radicalism:
And yet [the campus protestors] also gave voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish: that all of us, even the unexceptional, could claim as a matter of right an equal share of existential comfort as those who had never had cause to think of themselves as the other. This still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential. But those of us who have grown inured to life’s quotidian brutalities—the ones we accept for ourselves and the ones we unthinkingly impose on others—should not be surprised that the young have a different sense of the possible than we do, or forget too readily what it was like before we were so inured.
The struggle for recognition continues outside the pages of this book, as Yang collects and satirizes his bad reviews on Twitter, arraigning his critics for being so involved in their own self-righteous ideologies that they are incapable of hearing his message. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s review in the New York Times is sufficient to make the point, as it complains that Yang doesn’t address the history of Asian-American activism (Nguyen, by the way, wrote an acclaimed novel that is yet another—60 years after Achebe and 52 years after Salih—riposte to Heart of Darkness, which should go to show that “social justice” as an intellectual method and as a literary aesthetic is far from cutting edge, has rather fallen into its decadence if not senescence).
But the fact is that The Souls of Yellow Folk fails as a book from time to time, and not just because Yang is not DuBois. Some of Yang’s works are strictly reportage, bereft of any personal voice and only tenuous in their thematic relevance to the other essays, such as pieces on historian Tony Judt or on a controversial expert witness at terrorism trials, and they really don’t belong here in my view. The terrorism essay plausibly provides another variation on the alienated young man theme, while Judt’s intellectual perseverance amid devastating terminal illness gives us a model, against identitarianism, of the mind’s superiority to circumstance; but for all that one can make connections, they and a few others still seem out of place. Yang is right to complain that some of his reviewers simply want him to have written a different book with different politics, but it’s not wrong to observe that Souls often fails to hang together as a book at all. Without having to become a treatise, it might still have been a more focused collection.
A deeper flaw, a philosophical one occasioned by Yang’s intellectual commitment to recognition, makes itself known in the concluding pages of this book, when in essays from 2017 Yang provides a detailed critique of the social justice left. He accuses its activists of having absorbed a set of lessons from poststructuralism that posit both language and institutions as nothing other than vectors of power, obviating the old liberal ambition to reform institutions by using language to persuade a majority to abandon its prejudices and alter its practices. By contrast to the social justice left’s radical ambition to bring in an egalitarian millennium through linguistic and institutional engineering, Yang concedes the manifold injuries social life deals to those who have lost its lottery while also worrying that attempts to reduce harm through new forms of undemocratic social control may only entrench new hierarchies under the false labels of peace and equality.
Why do I call this theory flawed? Because it is from Hegel, not from the poststructuralists, that identity politics derives. Poststructuralism represents the midcentury European left’s borrowing of some insights from the reactionary tradition—Nietzsche, Heidegger—precisely because its partisans saw how Hegelianism, in its Marxist variant, leads to the totalitarian dogmatism Yang so well describes.
Social-justice theory comes ultimately from Marxism, which is the attempt to overcome existential alienation by altering power relations within political and social institutions. Marx began as a Romantic rebel and ironist, hailing Prometheus and imitating Sterne, until he became convinced that his alienation could be ameliorated through a total social transformation, one premised on what we now call identity politics. What differentiated Marx’s scientific from his precursors’ utopian socialism was precisely the identification of a mechanism—in the form of a social class—that could effect the transformation of an inegalitarian society to an egalitarian one. A social class whose exploitation was the engine of the entire system could, by resisting that exploitation, bring the system to a halt; having been exploited, this class would not replicate exploitation in its turn but rather abolish the class relation as such. Marx and Engels identified the industrial proletariat as this revolutionary class:
Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
Over a century later, this prophesy having failed, the Combahee River Collective appropriated the narrative shape of the theory but inserted a different protagonist:
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. […] We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
Given these premises, proximity to white-maleness is proximity to oppression, proximity to black-womanhood proximity to liberation. By the terms of this theory, there is no good-faith middle ground, no legitimate arbitration from a position of universal because disinterested neutrality, between white-male and black-female identities of the kind that Yang wants to construct out of the Asian male:
In an age characterized by the politics of resentment, the Asian man knows something of the resentment of the embattled white man, besieged on all sides by grievances and demands for reparation, and something of the resentments of the rising social-justice warrior, who feels with every fiber of their being that all that stands in the way of the attainment of their thwarted ambitions is nothing so much as a white man. Tasting of the frustrations of both, he is denied the entitlements of either. This condition of marginality is both the cause and the effect of his erasure—and perhaps the source of his claim to his centrality, indeed his universality.
Never mind that the position exactly between oppressed and oppressor is already structurally occupied in our society—by white women—but Yang’s moderation cannot be read in the present political atmosphere as anything other than either immoral dithering or esoteric reactionism; he is trying to inhabit a position of principled universalism that does not exist within institutions that have pledged themselves to liberation conceived on social-justice terms, which is to say the terms of zero-sum Hegelo-Marxian eschatology.
Consider, for instance, that Yang got his start at n+1, an intellectual journal that was at its inception over a decade ago an organ of what might fairly be called left-conservatism: its editors’ essays, resembling Adorno with an Americanizing dash of Chomsky and Lasch, criticized capitalist reductionism and brutality in a tone the ironic sorrow of which betrayed an unavowed nostalgia for the older and more ostensibly humane bourgeois order that capitalism had melted into air (Yang’s essay on Britney Spears in this volume is a good example, as is Mark Greif’s similarly themed “Afternoon of the Sex Children.”)
A motto printed in n+1‘s first issue wittingly or unwittingly echoed Buckley’s stand athwart history: “We’ve begun by saying No. Enough.” This was a natural response to the progressive imperialism of the Bush years; but after the Obama age redeemed for the left the concept of the “right side of history” by applying it to race-class-and-gender and superficially detaching it from militarist adventurism, n+1 itself became an organ of a very different ideological character; there we now read, in its most notable essay of recent years, Andrea Long Chu dissenting from exoteric-liberal transgender claims to the inherence and authenticity of gender identity to suggest instead (partially in provocative jest, it should be noted) that a man who sincerely sympathizes with the project of dismantling patriarchy will become a woman, that the abolition of maleness should become a biological and material as well as an ideological reality to complete second-wave feminism’s own Marxist-derived project of destroying gender as the legitimating ideology of sexual exploitation: “We are separatists from our own bodies. We are militants of so fine a caliber that we regularly take steps to poison the world’s supply of male biology. […] Because of us, there are literally fewer men on the planet.” In another notable n+1 essay, Dayna Tortorici puts it more crisply: “Must history have losers? The record suggests yes.”
There is simply no way Yang will be recognized by his peers—whose own legitimation as authority figures depends on the premises he criticizes—as a good-faith interlocutor. As his panoply of bad reviews makes this more clear, I wonder if in retrospect this book, which seeks moderation, will come to appear as a historical marker: the first manifesto of the next neoconservatism. Anyone honestly and dispassionately assessing the surpluses and deficits in the current American ideological economy—overrun as it is with competing identitarianisms and bereft of any universalism untethered to class, race, gender, or party interests—will wonder what on earth took so long.
But there is something other than politics, something other than Hegel, at work in this book. You can find it stated of chef and comedian Eddie Huang in Yang’s profile of him: “Huang is…a person at war with all the constraints that would fetter him to anything less than an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.” And then Yang states it far more powerfully of himself in “Paper Tigers”:
I wanted what James Baldwin sought as a writer—”a power which outlasts kingdoms.” Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world’s business. Who did not seek after material gain. Who was his own law.
He distances himself from this—it is “madness,” he writes, it is “self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves”—but why? Isn’t this far more interesting—I think it is—than a desire to rise smoothly through the corporate ranks? What is this but a need not to be recognized? To be able to mediate between competing social factions because one neutrally shares aspects of both their identities and complaints is one thing; but Yang here evinces a wish to persist in the total isolation from which literature, not journalism, comes.
We hear in these tones not a need for social validation but a need for, or just an acknowledgement of, an alienation that is existential, ontological, that is before as well as behind the face, and which the transformation of social institutions can never bring to an end. I think of Kafka:
What do I have in common with Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself, and really ought to go stand myself perfectly still in a corner, grateful to be able to breathe.
I think of Hamlet, the anti-father of us all, the anti-founder of our anti-Zion, and I note that Seung-Hui Cho wrote a vulgar adaptation of Hamlet called Richard McBeef, though he apparently failed to learn the Adornian lesson that every work of art is, or anyway should be, an uncommitted crime.
These moments of a- or anti-social sublimity in The Souls of Yellow Folk struck me more powerfully than anything else in the book. Yeats (himself torn between political community and aesthetic anarchy) said that it is out of the quarrel with others that we make rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves that we make poetry. Yang has poetry in him; the poet sings, though, not to be seen by other people but for the sake of the song.