Operatic Karaoke and The Pitfalls of Identity Politics: A Translated Performance
I wanted to know Helens body so well I could climb in and zip up her skin around me.
(Evelyn Lau, Other Women, 184)
The title of the lead article in a relatively recent and controversial issue of the lifestyle magazine Vancouver was Greetings from Asia Town ; the accompanying visual consisted of a collage of womens faces, both Caucasian and Asian, with some dissolving into each other. The accompanying article (North 1996) suggested that Vancouvers population would be half Asian in the next century and that the resultant mix would precipitate either tribalism (with its suggestion of serial conflict) or the kind of morphed assimilation illustrated by the collage. Although the latter might be perceived as the more benign alternative, it could also be read as conjuring the spectre of miscegenation, the blurring of differences as the direct result of genealogical contaminations. Indeed, the visibility of difference is itself registered via these markers of normative racialisation. The visible body itself, what the viewer sees in terms of its corporeal inscriptions, supposedly explains these differences which in turn evoke both the incommensurabilities of postcolonial theory (the untranslatabilities of cultural difference) and the lifestyle incompatibilities of culturalism or cultural racism. The latter is at the core of what Etienne Balibar has dubbed (rather alarmingly) academic racism, theories of academic racism mimic scientific discursivity by basing themselves upon "visible evidence" (whence the essential importance of the stigmata of race and in particular of bodily stigmata) they mimic the way in which scientific discursivity articulates "visible facts" to "hidden causes" a violent desire for immediate knowledge of social relations. (Balibar 1991:19). Balibar goes on to elaborate this nexus between racism and the visible as leading to a further convergence of racism and the politics of cultural difference:
Ideologically, current racism, which in France centres upon the immigration complex, fits into a framework of racism without races It is a racism whose dominant theme is not biological heredity but the insurmountability of cultural differences, a racism which, at first sight, does not postulate the superiority of certain groups or peoples in relation to others but only the harmfulness of abolishing frontiers, the incompatibility of life-styles and traditions; in short a differentialist racism.
In an attempt to uncouple the visible from such mechanisms of naturalised racism as described above I wanted to find a way to take into consideration another of the senses, that of hearing. As noted, the register of the visible permeates much current theory but the aural dimension, including the category of voice and, for example, accent, has remained somewhat under--theorised. Following this train of thought suggested that classical western opera might represent a particularly fertile field as well as the genre of the conference presentation itself, where these speculations were first aired. In an exploratory effort to investigate these fields, I recently staged a performance piece dealing with the first novel of Canadian poet Evelyn Lau. Clearly the attempt to separate the visual from the aural functions more clumsily in print and is symptomatic as well of the impossibilities of translation at the heart of all crosscultural and, for that matter, crossdisciplinary work. On the other hand, an alertness to ways in which translation is intrinsic to many of these debates is also signalled by the sometimes awkward transitions between the here of the conference performance and its other temporalities when translated to the conference publication (which traditionally expunges any reference to the original context and delivery). I will therefore try to evoke the interpretive strategy for this endeavour while at the same time attempting to foreground its limitations. Retaining a firstperson narrator in an academic essay is also an attempt to convey the performative aspects of this paper.
Working against the usual aural expectations set up by a conference delivery, the introductory mise-en-scène (an obligatory exercise when minority or noncanonical writers are being used) deliberately excluded my reading voice when, for the first fifteen minutes, a series of overhead transparencies were projected which began with extracts from Laus novel (Lau 1995: 184;189-90), from one short story (Lau 1993: 50), followed by the cover of her second collection of poems Oedipal Dreams (Lau 1992) with its iconic portrait of the artist. The fourth transparency commenting, amongst other things, on this cover was from a piece by the Canadian critic Misao Dean:
Evelyn Laus picture on the cover of Oedipal Dreams is a stark white mask, heavily marked with eyeliner and lipstick in order to evoke the classic female face of Chinese opera. Sold under the sign of the "oriental girl", who is stereotypically both the mincing and modest virgin and the mysterious and sexually skilled courtesan, Laus books are marketed in a way that evokes both racist and sexist stereotypes.
Lau disclaims responsibility for this public image ... " I like the fact that the photographs dont look like me as a person, because I wouldnt want to be walking down the street and be instantly recognizable. So theres definitely an element of disguise there too."
(Dean 1995: 24-25)
The fifth transparency was from an interview with the Canadian journalist Jan Wong:
Evelyn Lau is wearing a baggy oatmeal sweater. So its not immediately apparent she is one of the few surgically unassisted Chinese women in the world to require a DD-cup bra....
But back to Laus past. Now, I left my comfortable Montreal home at 19 to voluntarily haul pig manure in China during the Cultural Revolution. But I have trouble understanding why someone so smart would drop out of school and run away from home at 14 and end up as a junkie-whore. Yes, its hard to be the dutiful daughter of immigrants from China and Hong Kong, the kind who consider friends a frivolity and an 89 per cent exam mark a failure... But Im a parent now. Millions of Canadians have overcome such traumas, if that is the word, without self-indulgent melt-downs.
(Wong 1997: A 11)
The final transparency was accompanied by the first moment of sound in the presentation and consisted, perversely, of an extract from the soundtrack of the film made of Laus first text, the autobiographically--based Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (Lau 1989). The extract chosen dealt with a heuristic moment in the film when the protagonist experiences an epiphany in the consulting room of her analyst:
Evelyn: Its like all the stuff about how great you are. It gets to me you know, with Larry, with all of them. And when they come its like Ive done something right for once. Right from the beginning I felt that, that Im good for something, that I belong.
Dr. Hightower: Go on.
Evelyn: In prostitution, I mean, I can fulfill someone. Here, right now! Which I could never do with my parents.
Dr. Hightower: Yes.
Evelyn: I could never... I could never do with my parents. Does it matter if its only a john? I mean its somebody. I mean, at home I could never please them. I could get 95 or do 6 hours of housework and never go out. Always hoping for something, you know. Some sign of love. But nothing was ever good enough. Dad left me and she, she would have a ruler, or her hand, or her mouth. I never had a mouth. She called me lazy, fat, ugly, stupid slut...every day. And I swallowed it in. And hated myself. O.K., O.K. maybe they do treat me like a piece of meat on the street but at least Im appreciated there.
Otherwise Im nobody.
Dr. Hightower: Youre not nobody Evelyn. Thats what they taught you but its not true...No!
Evelyn: No. I just wish they could have liked me for who I am Yeah. Yes...Thanks.
( The Diary of Evelyn Lau 1994)
At this point my own voice was introduced in a series of questions: What happens when the visual intervenes, in print or the minds eye of the reader, when we join the voice to a body, have the voice issue from what has been coded as a visible minority face? How might one circumvent the disguise of the stereotype (to echo Lau), the orientalist camouflage Laus public persona apparently adopts so that her private self wont be recognized in the streets? One way to arrive at an answer is to consider what we as readers or audience desire from the socalled minority writer who becomes constructed as part of the current quest for cultural difference and who is often covertly racialised (or sexualised) as deviant. The term desire and its link with differential racism (as described above) suggests the field of psychoanalysis for, as Ali Rattansi, following Bhabha, has pointed out, The ambivalence of racism is particularly open to psychoanalytic interpretation for it is in psychoanalysis that the notion has its strongest roots. [it] does not reduce all racisms merely to supposedly eternal and universal psychic mechanisms (Rattansi 1995:272--3). The question of desire in psychoanalysis, is posed, for example, by Slavoj Zizek, The original question of desire is not directly "What do I want?" but "What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for others?" (Zizek 1996:117). How, in other words, can we as readers not project the expectation that Lau should inform us about what would, in Canada, be termed her visible minority status, acknowledge it in some way and, if not, how do we avoid constructing her in terms of a refusal or denial? These are the familiar burdens imposed on the minority writer (Gunew 1994).
Canadian poet and short story writer Evelyn Lau represents an enigma in a Canadian and North American west coast context where Asian--American and Asian--Canadian ethnic or diasporic canons are being hastily assembled with a great deal of relish, given the demographic changes along the west coast over the past decade (Cheung 1997; Lee & Wong--Chu 1993; Lim and Ling 1992; Karpinski and Lea 1993; Silvera 1994; Wong 1993). The semi-autobiographical work which shot her to precocious fame at the age of 18, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, dealt with a protagonist preferring a life on the street to the constrictions of family expectations projected upon her. That the family were Chinese immigrants was almost deliberately incidental, in the written text at least. The expectations concerning the Chinese as model immigrants in terms of their abilities to assimilate are succinctly outlined in the extract quoted earlier by journalist Jan Wong, herself the author of a recent bestseller Red China Blues: My Long March from Mao to Now . In the film made of Laus book it was another matter, for the demands of the visual medium meant that the ethnic identity of the protagonist and her family inevitably registered a certain kind of coded presence. Following this first text, Laus poetry and short stories have subsequently explored an overtly heterosexual underworld of sadomasochism, prostitution and drug addiction and have been seen as deliberately avoiding any hint of a racialised perspective, in relation to which she supposedly has an insiders knowledge (Dean 1995; Kamboureli 1997: 534). It may be, however, that an emerging group of ChineseCanadian critics interpret the insider--outsider dynamics differently. For example, in the words of Elaine K. Chang, Throughout Runaway, Lau identifies herself as Chinese only when her ethnicity signifies a measure of difference, and not sameness or "belonging." (Chang 1994:114) Lien Chao, author of the first full--length study of ChineseCanadian writing in English perceives Laus highly self--conscious individualism as being at odds with the collective impetus of other ChineseCanadian writers who are at pains to write their community into Canadian culture and history (Chao 1997:156--184). Chao also perceives Laus subjectmatter as restrictive and stereotypical. Thus from many directions Lau is perceived as flouting or refusing the so--called empowering categories with which critics are eager to provide her, rarely appearing in anthologies of Asian--Canadian writing and, by her own account, refusing to participate in multicultural events (Lau 1994b).
For those of us who for several decades have attempted to deconstruct totalising national--cultural narratives and their attendant regulatory institutional regimes in the name of women, of anti-imperialism and critical multiculturalism (Gunew 1994), her apparent refusal precipitates a revisiting of theories around the question of how to situate the authority to speak and write for those designated minority cultural players and how to set up interpretive strategies which move beyond the thematisation of cultural difference, a thematisation which in turn functions to reinforce difference as a mechanism leading to marginalisation since difference is always posited in relation to an implicit (and invisible) hegemonic norm. The dominant reference points for minoritarian questioning of the hegemonic are a mixture of postcolonial histories with their legacies of scepticism towards totalising theoretical frameworks, invocations of anti-racism (often in opposition to the perceived wimpy liberalism of multiculturalism) and the perceived essentialisms of identity positionings. The slick invocation of terms such as tribalism, ethnic absolutism and ethnic cleansing in relation to coverage of the war in the former Yugoslavia in particular (Gunew 1997), are competing with principled attempts to constitute local pedagogies which incorporate an ethics of recognition in relation to minorities. In the necessary tension between global diasporas, with their networks and coalitions, and localised manifestations and negotiations, how might one locate or construct intellectual and pedagogical interventions that avoid the compromised categories of ethnic community and of the general reductionism of identity politics?
The debates around identity politics have a particular resonance within global feminism although their detailed meanings are often dependent on local contexts. The phenomenon itself was seen as arising out of the consciousnessraising tactics which are historically credited with the birth of secondwave feminism and led from the articulation of womens differences to the definition of other group differences. But, increasingly, these differences have congealed into imprisoning essentialisms which are often perceived as obscuring more than they illuminate, of occluding intra--group differences and intersectional identities (Crenshaw 1995 :333). In the UK critics such as Nira Yuval--Davis warn that an identity politics which couples women with ethnicity within the political framework of multiculturalism obscures the political (rather than simply cultural) nature of ethnicity and can lead to the kinds of fundamentalism currently on the rise all over the world. Indeed, as she contends, political ethnicity uses cultural resources to promote its specific purposes in the name of the self-enclosed ethnic community in which women rarely are permitted to play a progressive role (Yuval-Davis 1994:411). In the US Martha Minow argues that identity politics may freeze people in pain and also fuel their dependence on their own victim status as a source of meaning (Minow 1997:54). She goes on to state that, Identity politics tends to locate the problem in the identity group rather than the social relations that produce identity groupings (Minow 1997:56). In Solidarity of Strangers: Feminisms After Identity Politics, Jodi Dean states that, The articulation of particular identities has led to the rigidification of these very identities. At the legislative level, this rigidification appears as the reinforcement of minority status with its negative connotations of inferiority (Dean 1996:5). She continues her elucidation in the following manner:
But framing the debate as an opposition between solidarity and reflection prevents us from acknowledging the ideals shared by both sides. Supporters of identity politics are united by the ideals of inclusion and community. They struggle against exclusions enacted in the name of universality. They endeavor to establish a space of belonging, a community that strengthens its members Similarly, detractors and critics of identity politics also struggle against exclusion, this time that exclusion effected by the very sign of identity They want to ensure that those aspects of the self that elude the boundaries established by any identity category will not remain silenced or neglected but will be allowed to appear and develop in all their differences and particularity.
The solution however, as argued by Analouise Keating in the context of the struggle by women of colour to asserts their own politics of difference, is not to abandon all references to personal experiences but rather to take experientially based knowledge claims even further by redefining identity (Keating 1998:36). Keating draws on Chela Sandovals concept of differential consciousness and, like Rattansi, on Homi Bhabhas notion of ambivalent identification as a way to move to such new definitions of identity. This is why Laus case seems such an exemplary and compelling one. Do we see her as a minority writer who refuses the ethical responsibility of representing her community and of choosing the deliberate individualism often associated with the subjectivity of late capitalism (Elam 1997) or do we use her example as a way to move beyond the constraints of identity categories as figuring the new racism, like Rattansi, or the limits identified by the feminist critics cited above? The following discussion comprises some sketchy notes towards a possible interpretative strategy for approaching such texts. Having attempted to set the scene and to explain how a project to establish the antiuniversalist focus on cultural difference has been appropriated by a new racism organised around an economy of visibility and, in particular, an emphasis on the visibly--racialised body, I will now link the question of the visible to the acoustic: voice and sound, the aural dimension residing within these questions.
2. The Acoustic Register
In marked contradiction to film, one of the cultural domains where there is conventional acceptance of the disjunction between visible bodies and audible voices is opera. Western opera demands a suspension of disbelief not only with respect to the fat tenor/soprano and the nubile characters they are asked to represent but, as well, in relation to the gender--crossings and color--blind casting that have always been the present in this medium. What the audience sees does not get in the way of what they are asked to imagine. Until recently, for example, few of the non--European roles in the standard canonical repertoire were actually sung by those from the requisite categories but there have, however, been flurries of controversy around cases where leading roles were sung by non--European singers. A systematic study of the chequered history of race and opera has still to be written. Generally speaking opera audiences are accustomed to hearing the voice and imaginatively substituting a very different body from the one which they see on the stage. So how might this affect a reading of Laus work in relation to the question of desire as posed by Zizek?
In the reviews heralding the reception of Other Women critics wondered whether Lau would, or could, ever move beyond a somewhat romantic adolescent rebelliousness suggested by the prevailing obsession with the underworld of sadomasochism and prostitution (Gunning 1995; Kornreich 1996; Chao 1997). My argument is that, in a sense, Laus work invites a more allegorical reading , allegory being the supreme modality where what you see is not what you get and opera, in its splitting of the visible and the audible, helps us recognise this.
Indicative of soap opera rather than opera proper, the novels title, Other Women, suggests that the women referred to are those who disrupt the dyad of the heterosexual couple. Instead the text is narrated from the point of view of the traditional mistress so that the other woman is actually the wife. Thus the whole text, and much of Laus prose work, can be interpreted as celebrating a nostalgia for the normal via the concept of symbolic identification. One needs to be reminded that within psychoanalysis the operations of identification are not with actual people but with possible types or, more precisely and following Lacan, with positions in language where language constitutes the symbolic order. Slavoj Zizek delineates the following distinction here between imaginary and symbolic identification:
Imaginary identification is identification with the image in which we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image representing what we would like to be, and symbolic identification, identification with the very place from where we are being observed, from where we look at ourselves so that we appear to ourselves likeable, worthy of love.
This site is the place of the Other (the symbolic order) from whence the gaze and the interrogation proceed and thus is identified with social doxa, the hegemonic codes of the social world. As constituted in Laus work it becomes the location of social heteronormativity. The symbolic identification of the adulterous woman is with the position of the wife insofar as she connotes the heterosexual couple. She/they is/are in the place from which they observe her and where she wants to be. Consider the following extracts (which constituted the first transparency):
My fantasies of your wife grew increasingly intimate and violent. I wanted to strip Helen naked, to familiarize myself with her body, her responses; I wanted to put my face against her chest and listen to her heart-beat climb towards orgasm, and then the slowing of her breath and pulse. I wanted to examine between her thighs with the probing interest of a physician, to explore the inches of her skin for marks, moles, wrinkles, to measure the proportion of muscle to fat, the density and porosity of her skeleton.
I wanted to know Helens body so well I could climb in and zip up her skin around me.
In the months that followed the end of the affair, I thought I saw you, or your wife, everywhere. Your face reflected back at me from the faces of men passing me on the vibrant street at lunch hour. Their eyes flashed like mica, their faces were similarly shaped, and I thought for the first time that in many respects you must be absolutely ordinary, otherwise how could so many strangers bear your resemblance? Yet none of them survived a second look. And so it went for your wife as well.
What is described here are not imaginary identifications with an ideal self but attempts to gesture towards a place from which the normality of these figures may be registered and atomised. These sections from the novel as well as the supposedly heuristic moment in the film script (when everything is explained), all point to the identification of a referential moralistic voice echoed as well in the extract from Jan Wongs prescriptive evaluation. There are certain societal standards, designated by invisible or spectral scripts, against which the protagonist transgresses -- visibly and stereotypically. Paradoxically, the excesses of sexual perversion and addiction serve to confirm such social standards since the norm as measure is always there as a point of nostalgic invocation, as demonstrated by the closing pages of Other Women from which these quotations were taken. What is at one level a text dealing with obsessive emotional addiction is at another level the reconfirmation of the bourgeois heterosexual couple as constitutive norm for sexual--social relations. The fact that the chapters alternate between first--person and third--person intimate functions as a reminder of the mirror--image, the to and fro, mutually constitutive relationship of the adulterous woman and the wife. That is one kind of reading.
But that is not the whole story and there are other excesses at work beyond this. If we return to western opera, there are moments when the point of the music, or aria, functions to exceed meaning -- as signifying the very disruption of meaning. In the words of Wayne Kostenbaum, When heterosexuality unveils itself as sumptuous and delusional, the libretto shatters, and shadow--knowledges speak ... by loving Butterflys entrance more than her death ... by never outgrowing this entrance phrase, I can speak another Butterfly (Kostenbaum 1993:200). And Michel Poizat in The Angels Cry, but when Callas sings, when shes going to kill herself, maybe its idiotic, but I snap ... its hearing the voice, the music, I fall on my knees (Poizat 1992:26). The music leaks beyond the container of meaning provided by the libretto, the narrative, and thus permits multiple identifications, including gay ones (Abel 1996: 32-34). This exhilaration permits precisely the kinds of disruptive and paradoxical identifications which opera in a sense personifies by imbuing a visible and living body with the suggestion of ventriloquism. The instability of corporeality indicated by the imaginative possibilities of opera means that it is a genre where, historically at least and unlike film, the tyranny of the visible has been unseated by the precedence of the aural. We are reminded that in Zizeks formulation any manifestation of voice is always to some extent ventriloquised and exceeds the explanatory parameters of the body it ostensibly occupies. In a recent piece aptly titled, "I Hear You with My Eyes": or, The Invisible Master, Zizek traces what he calls the homologous mechanisms of gaze and voice in the following manner:
... it is as if, when were talking, whatever we say is an answer to a primordial address by the Other -- were always already addressed, but this address is blank, it cannot be pinpointed to a specific agent, but is a kind of empty a priori, the formal "condition of the possibility" of our speaking ...
Which brings us to opera and to Madama Butterfly, the most obviously orientalist of operas. In the many recent attentions Puccinis opera has received, much has been made of the fact that Cho-Cho San functions as the traditional good women who sacrifices herself in the name of maternity. She has also notoriously figured as the paradigmatic orientalist fantasy of the ultimate victim and ultimate seductress, both child and femme fatale, a combination informing, for example, Misao Deans essay quoted earlier. David Hwangs play M. Butterfly has explored one kind of gloss on the opera and David Cronenbergs film of the play, a slightly different variation. The sustaining fantasy in these two depictions is that Butterfly really wants to be the cad Pinkerton and vice-versa, that Gallimard finally realises he wants to be Butterfly rather than to possess her. But isnt this constant see--sawing or mechanism of vice--versa that which has always sustained such binary frameworks for decades and isnt this why one needs to find a way beyond such a paralysing impasse? Therefore we return to the delirium of the aria and of music in general as documented by Jacques Attali and now many others in the developing field of sound theory. Zizek again:
Voice is that which, in the signifier, resists meaning, it stands for the opaque inertia that cannot be recuperated by meaning ... the moment at which the singing voice cuts loose from its anchoring in meaning and accelerates into a consuming self-enjoyment.
(Zizek 1996: 103--4)
On the one hand we see on stage the stereotype of Butterfly; we see the stereotype of Laus adulterous woman and invest it with the withheld orientalism of the author (as suggested by the critics demands for her to inform us about her ethnic knowledge) but perhaps it is possible to break this move by turning from the visual to the acoustic, by situating Laus text not in the genre of dirty realism (suggested by the prevailing themes in her work) but the lyrical genre of opera and sound. This move might also be facilitated (were there time and space) by including her poetry which has been identified as traditionally lyrical in style, a contrast perhaps with the confrontational themes of her work (Wah 1997--98). Turning now to the work of Kaja Silvermann on the disembodiment of the female voice, her suggestion in relation to desire is that perhaps it is the mother whom the daughter wishes to seduce (both to seduce the mother and be seduced by her, Silvermann 1988:153) rather than the Freudian heterosexual seduction scenario of the father and daughter. If we recall the film script extract quoted earlier, there is a classic psychoanalytic example of this scenario in the sublimated form of male analyst and female analysand; meanwhile the protagonist recounts her own family saga as one where the father is merely absent while the mother has a mouth. In Other Women the narrator, speaking of herself in the third--person, repeatedly states that : It seems incredible to her, that at last she is making a sound (Lau 1995:13) and she could open her mouth, and with just a few words, enter Helens life (Lau 1995:8). The place of symbolic identification reinforces the norm but by focussing on sound rather than sight and the disjuncture between body and voice we are also reminded that the heteronormative couple is itself sustained by the fantasy of its perverse double. What is undeniably all--powerful in Laus text is the open and speaking (singing) female voice which appears to exceed the meanings of normativity we have been attaching to it. Where that delirium may lead in terms of finding other meanings to Laus oeuvre remains to be seen and would necessarily include her poetry.
Arriving finally at karaoke, one could suggest that it functions as a consummate example of mimicry and ventriloquism. The reason for invoking the odd conjunction of operatic karaoke in relation to Laus work is that it is clearly not operatic in the classic sense since its preoccupations, in Other Women at least, suggest an accent on accessories and lifestyles that we have come to associate with soap opera. Operatic karaoke takes bathroom singing to new soap operatic heights. It is both the ultimate accolade and parody of this western musical form, though not necessarily from a race--conscious or postcolonial perspective. Western opera has always exceeded and been constituted by its own parodic contradictions (what you hear governs what you imagine). In Laus work the readers imagined ventriloquisms of the authorial body are undone by the delirium of the textual voice which exceeds the very norms it ostensibly functions to sustain. It might be productive, therefore, to learn to listen for voice outside the traditional narratives of race as presently constituted, with their normative privileging of the visibly raced body. These are the possibilities for exceeding the claustrophobic paradigms of identity politics which can be constraining even when benignly situated in the realms of postcolonial and multicultural interrogations. Here might be a way for those intersectional identities (Crenshaw 1995) and differential consciousnesses (Keating 1998) which are part of the new ways for defining identity to be articulated. Questions of desire (What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for others?) continue to be posed by those designated minority writers to their audiences or readers.
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