Elevate Difference

Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War

In Ends of Empire, Jodi Kim approaches the Cold War not as a period in United States history, but as an epistemology, a continued production of knowledge. How does the Cold War generate specific forms of knowledge about the world that reproduce the binary categories of nations as “good” and “evil”? The Cold War is now what Kim characterizes as a “protracted afterlife,” as its gendered and racialized logics and rhetorics are once again deployed in the War on Terror.

Ends of Empire is, therefore, a timely intervention. Kim traces how the rivalry between the US and the USSR was triangulated throughout Asia, and how this triangulation has been sustained through complex cultural formations that naturalize the values of imperialism.

Kim’s project draws heavily from Cultural Studies, as she looks into cultural production as sites of resistance. Since dominant historical accounts obscure the gendered and racialized logics of the Cold War as an epistemology, Kim turns instead towards Asian American cultural products. She skillfully turns her analytic eye on how such literary and cinematic texts make visible the mandated “forgettings,” and violent displacements that Cold War logic continues to unleash in Asia.

In Chapter Three, for example, Kim examines Ruth L. Ozeki’s novel My Year of Meats. Jane, one of the novel’s main characters, is the adult daughter of a Japanese mother and an American father who served as an Army botanist during World War II. In her capacity as producer for a television show, Jane promotes the cooking and consumption of US meat to Japanese housewives. Jane is thus part of an enterprise to recruit Japanese housewives as enthusiastic consumers of US products, a contemporary form of imperialist gendered racial rehabilitation for a nation that was once seen as an enemy.

Jane’s observations about the lingering cancers and contaminations in Japan and in American towns that produced plutonium for the bombs, as well as her meditations on her father’s death from cancer, highlight the transnational links between Japanese and US victims of the war, who are all but ignored in dominant historical accounts. In Chapter Five, Kim’s reading of the PBS documentary Daughter from Danang shows how the continued inequalities in political and racial economies made it impossible for a US transracial adoptee to know the lives of her Vietnamese mother and family.

Kim provides a good example of how cultural critique could be employed to make visible various narratives that are suppressed in dominant accounts of history. Many of the narratives of loss, violence, and haunting that she teases out would be impossible to articulate outside literary or cinematic forms. Ends of Empire thus serves to illustrate how cultural production not only serves to give voice to suppressed histories. By refusing to conform to the logics of the Cold War, these works also serve important sites of resistance.

Kim ends her book with the hope that her efforts to trace links between former and current manifestations of US empire would contribute to “a broader interrogation of the intersecting genealogies that have produced our contemporary moment of neoliberal globalization, imperial mandate, and enduring gendered racial regimes of domination.” It is a welcome invitation, as social critique is particularly relevant when it is oriented towards imagining ways of life and organizing that are not built around the need to reproduce empire.

Written by: Tanglad, September 14th 2010