Freud’s Castration: Reexamination of Asian American Masculinity

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In Racial Castration, David Eng quotes Song Liling from David Hwang’s play M. Butterfly, “I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man” (Eng 1).

Thus, Eng sets the tone of his book to analyze the image of the emasculated, homosexual and “never-completely-a-man” Asian American male. Currently an English Professor at University of Pennsylvania, Eng brings his specialized knowledge in Asian American studies, psychoanalysis, critical race theory, queer studies, and gender studies to deconstruct the Asian American masculinity as influenced by racism and sexism. Using psychoanalytic theory as foundation, Eng observes the images evoked in canonical and noncanonical Asian American texts. He situates the literature within their historical contexts, splitting his book into four focus: “the building of the transcontinental railroad, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the era of cold war diplomacy, and the rescinding of immigration exclusion and the liberalization of immigrant policy from 1943 to 1965” (Eng 29). Eng uses a variety of literary texts to analyze the authors’ uses of racial and sexual images that influence the Asian American male characters’ psyche. Offering a unique analysis of the emasculated Asian American man, Eng provides an intriguing reevaluation of the science of psychoanalysis as a key component of Asian American male identity formations, arguing that racial and sexual fantasies intersect as legibility and social powers that form narratives of the Asian American man.

Eng insists on psychoanalysis as a science to properly dissect the construction of Asian American male narratives due to the convergence of sexual and racial differences in early psychoanalysis theories. While this particular field heavily influences feminist and queer theories due to its direct ties with sexuality, not much work has been done to connect psychoanalysis with racial concepts. However, race and sexuality have gone hand-in-hand to form the white man’s fantasies of the Oriental. Eng argues for the “impossibility of thinking about racism and sexism as separate discourses or distinct spheres of analysis” because “Asian American male is both materially and psychically feminized within the context of a larger U.S. cultural imaginary” (2). Incidentally, feminist and queer theories have a major blind spot. Their emphasis on “(hetero)sexual difference over and above every other type of social difference” provides a limiting understanding of masculinity, especially within Asian American discourse (5). Eng reexamines psychoanalysis, citing Freud’s “logic of fetishism” and narcissism, to insert race as a major factor that constructed the notions of aberrant and sexual perversions. Freud characterizes two important figures in his writings the primitive and sexually degraded man in Totem and Taboo and the homosexual man in his essay “On Narcissim.” In the former, Freud pinpoints “primitive” sexual practices against the “civilized” man (6). Coincidentally, the primitive man symbolizes the “dark origins” of the “contemporary European psyche” and has not developed the modernity of the white European man (6). The primitive man captures a “well-preserved pictures of an early stage of [white European man’s] development” because he can’t control his wild sexual desires (7). Freud’s works reveals the racialized description of sexual acts, providing the foundation of a philosophical science that “helps authorize and reinforce the (re)production of social hierarchies, such as sexuality and race, as the essentialized and naturalized order of things” (5). In “On Narcissism,” Freud establishes the homosexual man as the model of “a stalled and pathological narcissism” and further connecting narcissism with the sexual libido and mental lives of “children and primitive peoples” (10). Freud’s descriptions of the uncivil primitive man, children and homosexual man – all who represent everything opposite of white racial progress – normalizes heterosexuality simultaneously with whiteness and stumped growth. Citing Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter, Eng further shows the layered identity of Asian American male bodies that experience sexualization and racialization. Butler, too, argues that compulsory heterosexuality works in hegemonic forms where the “threat of homosexuality” connects with “hegemonic, unmarked whiteness” (13). As race images reinforce sexual images and vice versa, the Asian American man becomes racially and sexually perverse, excluded from the normative.

Eng’s description of Asian American masculinity is nuanced and full of plurality. His careful reconstruction asks us readers to be cautious of constructing an antisexist identity that only serves to reaffirm white supremacy. Eng looks at the history of Asian American men such as their economic feminization (Asian male immigrants worked feminized professions such as in laundries, restaurants and tailor’s shops), political disenfranchisement (voting rights were not granted to Asian men until 1943-1952) and antimiscegenation and exclusion laws (such as the Page Act Law of 1875 that made communities like Chinatowns “exclusive ‘bachelor’ communities). These incidents stripped Asian American men from their rights to “normative (hetero)sexual reproduction, nuclear family formations, and entitlements to community” (18). Within this history, Asian American men internalizes this dominant narrative and exercises “self-regulation, “constrain[ing] the psychic limits of Asian American male subjectivity” (19). Eng cites the editors of Aiiieeee! as those who have met this constraint in thought. They argue that Asian American masculinity will be restored through a pure Asian martial tradition. Unfortunately, this tradition ties with “strident cultural nationalism, with its doctrine of compulsory heterosexuality and cultural authenticity” (21). The figure of the Asian American homosexual man is banned from the landscape. On the other hand, using psychoanalysis thought as well as gender and queer theory, Eng challenges racial black and white, as well as black and white sexuality. Thus, he puts the plurality of Asian American masculinity and identity at the forefront of his studies.

Despite it’s strong psychologically analysis of the Asian American man, Eng fails to give a strong analysis of the relationship between Asian American man and Asian American women. His chapters analyze Asian American male characters’ actions and their influences on women in literary texts, yet the direct relationship between the two genders of the community could be studied with more depth to understand gender relations within the community. This could be valuable in determining the mutual gaze of the two genders influenced under the context of white supremacy. Finally, Eng makes Freud’s works and theories relevant to convey new ones. With a political agenda to reaffirm positive images of Asian American men, Eng will find limits in this psychoanalysis tool due to the problematic ideas embedded in Freud’s oeuvres. Do we really need to make Freud relevant in new theories? I believe in the essential understanding of Freud, yet we should give him a critical eye when we want to adopt certain theories.

Racial Castration examines the patriarchal and sexist institution that formed the emasculated Asian American male identity. Eng provides us with a theory that is both “descriptive and political” (28). He uses psychoanalytical theory to describe the Asian American identity formation and subjectivity in terms of its racial and sexual conditions. At the same time, he “reformulate(s) and … transform(s) the conditions under which we claim our identities and communities” (28). The self-assertion tone, based on interdisciplinary groundwork, gives the book a powerfully positive agenda to reconstruct a healthy racial and sexual image of Asian American men.