Eng, David 2010 The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, reviewed by David Seitz
David L. Eng, The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy, Duke University Press, Durham, NC and London, 2010, 268 pages, $84.95 cloth, $23.95 paper, ISBN 9780822347156, 9780822347323.
David L. Eng’s beautifully presented and compellingly argued The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy creatively retheorizes kinship and intimacy by rerouting such practices as same-sex domesticity and transnational adoption through the histories of capital, diaspora, and empire.
Eng posits and critiques the emergence a “queer liberalism” affirming the freedom and family ties of certain queer subjects through the forgetting of race. For Eng, it is precisely through the consignment of struggles around race to Walter Benjamin’s “dustbin of history” that queer liberalism can trade in trite analogies between race and sexuality that occlude their mutual constitution and “coevalness” (pages x, 57). Contemporaneous with – and constitutive of – queer liberal formations and politics is what Eng terms the “racialization of intimacy.” As neoliberalism shrivels the public sphere, Eng argues, effects of the public and systematic histories of race, nation, capital, and empire become privatized and rescaled to the putatively apolitical domains of kinship, family and intimacy.
Eng probes connections between queer liberalism and the racialization of intimacy in an incisive, original reading of Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case finding a right to privacy for same-sex sodomy. He traces how courts sanitized the facts of the case, waxing saccharine about privacy and domesticity when the plaintiffs, caught in a messy intergenerational, interracial love triangle, were arrested in the midst of a one-night stand – because of racialized fears about a Black man in the neighborhood (page 35). How, Eng asks, can elimination of racism teleologically precede the elimination of homophobia (“gay is the new Black”), if racism not only factually underwrites the enshrinement of a right to gay privacy, but the very constitution of privacy and property themselves? This analysis concludes with a turn to queer liberalism’s psychic structure, redeploying the famed case of German politician Daniel Paul Schreber, whose “postmodern mental gymnastics” reconciled homosexual wish-fantasies with bourgeois ego-ideals of racialized domesticity – an organization of desire not inconsistent with contemporary politics articulating “gay pride” with “family values” (pages 50-57).
But while Eng offers a resounding critique of queer liberalism’s depoliticizing effects, he also reads the racialization of intimacy as open to contestation precisely through the affective and psychic domains to which public histories have been banished (page 103). Critiquing both the heteronormative investments of diaspora (genealogical filiation, nostalgia for “motherland”) and nationalist stakes of queer liberal formations (marriage, citizenship), Eng builds on theories of “queer diaspora” to imagine countermethods for reading the constitutive exclusions, ghosts, and hauntings of modernity (page 67). Through inventive interpretations of works by Asian and Asian American artists Monique Truong, Wong Kar-Wai, Deann Borshay Liem, and Rea Tajiri, and nuanced consideration of a transnational adoptee’s psychoanalytic case history (co-authored with psychiatrist Shinhee Han), Eng simultaneously reformulates psychoanalytic theories to attend to race, invites poststructuralist accounts of kinship, and directs us toward affective and ethical responses to the forgettings of queer liberalism.
Thus, Eng explores the politics of naming and refusal to name in Truong’s novel The Book of Salt (2003), and Kari-Wai’s film Happy Together (1997). While the former narrates 1930s Paris through the eyes of Binh, a Vietnamese queer colonial who works in the kitchen of Gertrude Stein, the latter follows the struggles of queer diasporics Lai and Ho as they move from Hong Kong to Argentina to find work and restarting their flailing, psychically “fixed” relationship (page 79). Such texts, Eng argues, force confrontation with the politics of the unnameable – those histories, humanities, and intimacies constitutive of modernity, but irredeemable and unrecoverable by the histories of the victors, including developmental “coming out” narratives.
Eng then turns to the psychic and political dynamics of transnational adoption, particularly of East Asian girls by whites. In a “colorblind” age, Eng argues, transnational adoption forces different incarnations of passing on the part of adoptees – “not the suppression of difference, but the collective refusal to see difference in the face of it” (page 95). Eng first turns to Borshay Liem’s documentary First Person Plural (2000), which chronicles her efforts to reconnect with her Korean birth mother and getting her birth and adoptive mothers in a room together. Next, Eng and Han engage the case history of a patient of Han’s, adopted from Korea by a white U.S. family. Both cases, Eng contends, force a rethinking of Freudian theories of melancholia in terms of racial melancholia, and Klein’s concepts of good and bad objects and mothers in terms of good and bad racialized mothers (pages 150, 139). By displacing the Oedipal scene – in which the once-revered mother becomes an object of contempt (held against the child’s image of the “good mother”) as the child falls into the symbolic – these readings clear space for psychic movement as well as fixity, to how adoptees might affectively resignify their relationships to both mothers, allowing room for two “good enough mothers,” and racial and psychic reparation (page 137).
Psychic – irreducible to formal political – reparation likewise informs the reading of Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1992). The documentary stages intimate ethical encounters with the ghosts of Japanese American internment, foregrounding the complex motivations and “affective correspondences” (scrambling text, image, and sound) that do not map neatly onto official narratives of Japanese American disloyalty – or docile patriotism. By taking affect and language as supplementary, not antithetical (as they are usually rendered in poststructuralist theory), Eng argues, affective interventions can encourage a sense of responsibility to and for ghosted pasts and presents and other communities and humanities (page 172).
If any deficiency characterizes this book, it is perhaps that Eng neglects to situate his interventions at the intersection of race-critical and (post-)psychoanalytic theories as clearly as he might. Such questions seem particularly crucial, given the recent proliferation of accounts of racialization and desire informed by Deleuzian critiques of psychoanalysis and theories of affect. Yet Eng’s broader turn to the intrasubjective and intimate scales as key departure points for repoliticization, and cutting edge analysis of a rich and broad archive, offers critics of heteronormativity, neoliberalism, and empire profound and rich countermethods and inspirations.
David K. Seitz, Department of Geography and Programme in Planning, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3G3, Canada