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  • Emily Dowdle

Humanities on the Edge Preview: Sue J. Kim

In the introduction to her 2009 book, Critiquing Postmodernism in Contemporary Discourse of Race, Sue J. Kim writes that she “critique[s] the epistemology and politics of what [she] refers to as “otherness postmodernism’” (Kim 1). This “otherness postmodernism” that Kim critiques is that group of critical tendencies based upon the creation and privileging of a dichotomy of sameness and difference, in particular as it applies to race and gender. Drawing upon Slavoj Zizek, Kim contends that otherness postmodernism is what Zizek refers to as an ideological fantasy. The ideological fantasy, according to Zizek as interpreted by Kim, is that fantasy that ideology can be separated from reality, “whereas ideology is not only what people ‘think’ or ‘know’ but also - even primarily - what they do” (9). The ideological fantasy, then, is this notion that ideology is based solely in the realm of belief and abstraction without recognizing the material and social realities that constitute the ideology - that knowledge of the “nature of signification via postructuralism” would be enough to break down and eliminate the ideology. Otherness postmodernism is an ideological fantasy in that it posits the idea that the postmodernist him/herself resists oppression - specifically, in this particular reading, racism - simply by the act of “disbelieving the ideologies that the credulous essentialist presumably accepts” (11). This is to say that the act of resisting racism, according to the otherness postmodernist, is as simple as identifying the structures of racism at play - recognizing racism without contending with the material histories and social realities that have been created through the ideology.

Further, because otherness postmodernism functions on this problematic notion of difference, the postmodern critics thus repeat the “theoretical move of proclaiming difference against the established terms of sameness” (13). The claims of difference and otherness is posited within these frameworks of “heterogeneity,” “disruptiveness,” and “resistance,” and within this repetition of ideals of difference, the claims eventually lose “specificity in the framework of post-structuralist” (13). This is, that within the dichotomy of the same/different, the different as posited against sameness (which is so often based around Western study) - loses nuance and is instead flattened into a homogenous “other,” thereby losing any ground that is gained in recognizing the other/same dichotomy at all. Summarizing Rey Chow, Kim explains that

in other words, if I claim the disruptive ‘otherness’ of a subject, object, group, text, or any “X” - and this otherness can be passive or active, structural or ideological - I am claiming its specificity in its difference from the norm….whatever the argument’s explicit relation to some Western body of theory...I replicate the assumptions about the value of disrupting the chain of signification by this Other term X. Therefore the various forms of difference become flattened and recuperated into the dominant discourse as general difference (14).

In recognition of this, the notion of otherness postmodernism then - while it seeks to resist racism - only serves to differentiate the difference in an effort to substantiate what would be called “sameness.” This otherness postmodernism does not enable one to understand why the Other term is “excluded, outside, or other, or what structures and processes produced those terms of Sameness and Otherness” (14). Further, the failure to “make structures of hierarchy, marginalization, and oppression explicable” risks the essentialism and naturalization of those structures which thereby reinforces them. Thus, the otherness postmodernism that once claimed to resist racism instead reinforces racism.

This critique of postmodernism and the explication of the otherness postmodernism by Kim, seems increasingly relevant in today’s discourses around race. Race, as it stands, continues to be a hallmark concern of progressive politics, but, as Kim points out the reduction of resistance to racism to merely recognizing the ideologies of oppression does nothing but run the risk of essentializing and naturalizing that very racism that one claims to resist. Otherness postmodernism must itself be criticized in order to move beyond it to create a praxis of resistance that recognizes the nuances of “difference” and the Other in the sameness/difference construct. Kim points to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s criticism of Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts as an example of this need to not flatten the “Other” into a homogenous whole. Nguyen argues that “Lowe does not account for neoconservative Asian Americans, and even more complexly, Asian Americans who accept the ideal of the liberal subject” (16). This is to say that to posit the “Other” as the homogenous site of resistance is to ignore those productions within the Other that recreate oppressive structures and participate in the exploitation of the other even as they themselves are exploited. Thus, the resistance to racism becomes not only a project of recognizing the ideologies but also breaking down the material and social realities created by the ideology - including those within the “Other” which have previously been flattened by the otherness postmodernism.

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Kim, Sue J. Critiquing Postmodernism in Contemporary Discourses of Race. Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.

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