What is Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics?

Tat-siong Benny Liew
January 22, 2009

Tat-Siong Benny Liew, professor of New Testament at PSR, has written the first single-authored book on Asian American biblical interpretation, described by Kwok Pui-lan as “a groundbreaking achievement.” The preface and chapter eight of What Is Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics? (University of Hawaii Press, 2008) are available here.


 From the preface...
As it is often the case in my experience, this research project on Asian American biblical hermeneutics has led me into seemingly endless searches. Searching and re-searching on this academic and social project for the last ten years have been rewarding for me. I can only hope that my readers will also find my end product at this point in time helpful and constructive.

Generally speaking, this book has three foci. The question of “methodology”—or more precisely, what constitutes the distinguishing characteristics or sensibilities of Asian American biblical hermeneutics—preoccupies the first two chapters. The next three chapters of the book focus on the issue of community, or the politics of inclusion and exclusion. Finally, the last three chapters will center on exploring agency. Since (1) the entire book is concerned with demonstrating what Asian American biblical hermeneutics will look like in practice, and (2) considerations of both community and agency are intricately intertwined with questions of identity, it should come as no surprise that these three foci of the book are, in a sense, present in every single chapter. Put differently, the way I have specified the divisions
above functions more like a heuristic guide or orientation. As we all know, orientation, like generalization, is always helpful, but it is seldom accurate in every single detail. I myself tend to see Chapter 5 as a pivotal chapter; a shift is detectable in that chapter, not only from the issue of community to that of agency, but also from a discussion of ethnicity to one of racial relations in the Greco-Roman world.

This book on Asian American biblical hermeneutics has two more general characteristics. First, it covers all of the major genres found within the New Testament. While Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the Gospels of Mark and of John respectively, Chapter 4 has to do with Acts; after giving attention to Paul’s (first) letter to the Corinthians in both Chapters 5 and 6, I will move onto Revelation, or the mode of apocalyptic writing and thinking, in Chapter 8. I should also point out that while Chapters 2 through 6 contain my own reading of specific biblical texts, Chapter 7 concerns my reading of another Asian American writer’s reading of the Bible (mainly Matthew and John), and Chapter 8 broadens biblical hermeneutics to cover not only
literary texts (biblical or otherwise), but also films and events like genome research and September 11.

Second, this book is intentional in affirming Asian America as a panethnic coalition and acknowledging the differences within that very same coalition. As a result, five of the chapters (Chapters 1, 3, 5, 6, and 8) talk about the broader Asian America in general (and in ways that go beyond East Asian America), but two (Chapters 2 and 4) discuss Chinese America and one (Chapter 7) deals with Korean America in particular. I do so not only because the dominant culture continues to dismiss the heterogeneity of Asian America, but also because I want to be sensitive to the charge of “ethnic monopolizing” that other Asian Americans have levelled against Chinese Americans. This question of Asian American panethnicity and heterogeneity—or that of balancing identity politics and coalition building—is very important; readers who are interested in reading more might find a more positive prognosis in Espiritu 1992, a more negative evaluation in Ono 1995, and a challenge to balance the two in Koshy 2000.

Since my book will focus on the “whats” and the “hows” of Asian American biblical hermeneutics, let me address here the important question of “why.” This question becomes even more pertinent since a recent and lengthy review by three scholars of Uriah Y. Kim’s Asian American reading of the Deuteronomistic History within the Hebrew Bible has questioned several times why one should put the Bible and its interpretation
alongside Asia America in the first place. In Chapter 2, I will talk about how, despite the disciplinary habit to ignore or dismiss religion within Asian American studies, religion in general and the Bible in particular have been used to racialize and colonize Chinese (as well as other Asians) as a race of “heathens,” and are thus important to investigate. Since Uriah Kim’s reviewers acknowledge that he has provided a related reason (the place and role of the Bible in the United States) but obviously consider it to be inadequate given their persistence in posing the question, I will provide some additional responses here to why the Bible and Asian America might or even should come together.

A simple but significant reason is that Asian American communities and Bible-reading communities, despite the “race-of-heathens” construction, are not only not mutually exclusive but also actively overlapping. To put it a little more aggressively, while those whose communities and /or contexts have been institutionally and/or socio-culturally legitimated to read the Bible might feel the “right” to patrol the boundaries and demand from others an explanation of their use of the Bible, there is no racial/ethnic and/or disciplinary monopoly over the Bible and its interpretation. In fact, the burden of the “why-the-Bible” question seems to deny the fact that persons may have multiple identities and belong to multiple communities. Instead of living in a hermetically sealed and sealed-off community (in racial/ethnic and/or disciplinary terms), Asian Americans and Asian Americanists may also be Christians and /or critics who read the Bible for faith and/or professional reasons. Despite the discomfort and/or disorientation on the part of those who have been “legitimated” to read the Bible, biblical interpretation does come from multiple, internally diverse, and externally traversing communities. Putting the Bible and Asian America together only becomes suspect if one erases or suppresses (1) how the two have been mixed in the past and in the present,
and (2) how many recent monographs and anthologies have appeared to point, respond, and contribute to that long-standing and on-going liaison. Since the focus of my own constructive project within this book is less genealogical, I will suggest that as long as Asian Americans are reading the Bible — despite for how long and for what reasons—Asian American biblical hermeneutics becomes not only legitimate but also compelling. This is so because as soon as one is able to see that Asian American communities and Bible-reading communities are
not mutually exclusive, one will need to deal with the mutually constitutive relations between reading and identity. As David L. Eng argues, questions of canon are important because what one reads help construct who one is. Of course, the relations between reading and being go both ways—so, to borrow from the title of a recent anthology on Asian American biblical interpretation, different ways of being may lead to alternative ways of reading, and readers are never passive reflections of what they read—but the point here is that reading matters. One should, as Eng implores, never underestimate the interpellative or performative force that the subject matters of one’s reading might have on the development of a reader’s subjectivity and identity. If Asian Americans are reading the Bible, then we must talk about not only the implications of what they read, but also how they read.

There is a sense, therefore, in which Asian American biblical hermeneutics is but a symptom of the globalized world. At the same time, putting together the Bible and Asian America should also be understood as a deliberate move. At the end of Chapter 2, I will suggest that Asian American biblical hermeneutics is—again, in light of the “race-of-heathens” construction—a form of “talking back.” Just as Asian American biblical hermeneutics should not be viewed as a mere symptom, this form of “talking back” is also not only reactive. Precisely by putting together what many might see as “disparate” elements, Asian American biblical hermeneutics has the positive potential and purpose to interrogate many assumed understandings and practices, whether they concern biblical hermeneutics or Asian America. Assembling the Bible and Asian America, in other words, is an intentional attempt to appropriate a cultural canon in order to re-create and transform multiple cultures through a form of multicultural critique. (In addition to understanding culture here as internally diverse and externally traversing, it should also be understood in ways that are other or more than racial/ethnic.) The Bible is particularly good for this purpose not only because of its canonical status but also because it is a collection of texts that was first written by the colonized but then has become instrumental for colonization. Put differently, the Bible is—as I hope the pages of this book will help make evident—a fascinating library of texts that pose issues and raise questions concerning multiple and interlocking differential relations of power. Given its status and history, the Bible is therefore particularly good to “think with.” “Thinking with” the Bible means not only that the Bible in no way determines or dictates one’s thought, but also that the Bible itself remains open because of the points of departure that it provides for its readers. If I may adopt what Stuart Hall says about another text, the Bible in this sense becomes “an open text, and hence a text we are obliged to go on working
on, working with."

Just as “Asian American” threatens the apparent divide between “Asia” and “America,” Asian American biblical hermeneutics might put into crises more binary assumptions, purity obsessions, and unity illusions. I have in mind here not only questions surrounding the ownership of the Bible, but also those about origins. While it is standard to situate the Bible in Palestinian soil and within the Jewish heritage, the very word “Asian” uncannily brings back echoes that the so-called biblical land was often referred to—for instance, by Greeks and Romans between fifth century B.C.E. and fifth century C.E.—as “Asia” or “Asian.” Just as Egypt is often separated from its North African location, so “Asia” is now generally considered to be apart from rather than a part of the “biblical” landscape. Perhaps herein lies the heart or the threat of Asian America in general and Asian American biblical hermeneutics in particular: both gesture towards an “other” who might also be part of the self. It challenges “closure” by stirring up forgotten histories or stories, and/or by shaking up what has long been accepted as “self-evident.” It is my hope, as I will further elaborate in Chapter 1, that the intellectual work of theorization or defamiliarization through one’s reading of the New Testament might usher in a new political will, or perhaps even a different political vision and program.

(This critique of “closure” or intellectual defamiliarization is also particularly important in light of the context of Uriah Kim’s three reviewers: they are all situated in Tel Aviv, Israel. The late Edward W. Said has suggested, through a reading of Sigmund Freud’s reading of Moses as an Egyptian founder of the Jews, that troubling identity and purity might be key not only to diasporic existence but also to a future when Jews and Palestinians might peacefully co-exist. Once again, I hope one can see how questions about the “whys” of Asian American biblical hermeneutics are—like its “whats” and “hows”—also inseparable from issues of identity, community, and agency. More immediately, I hope one can see that race/ethnicity is a significant factor in one’s reading of the Bible, and what seems to be an illegitimate, impure, or improper mixing might actually herald and help bring about the coming of the imponderable or impossible.)

Are there other texts that Asian Americans and/or Asian Americanists can “work on” and “work with” to critique the unequal power dynamics of race/ethnicity and other interlocking power differentials and/or help construct a different vision? Of course there are; a quick glimpse of the numerous books that have been published under the rubric of “Asian American studies” will confirm that. In addition to the happenstance that I am a biblical critic by profession, I have suggested that the Bible’s canonical status and contents in general, and its history within and crossings into Asian America in particular, make it one potentially provocative and productive site of intervention. There is, however, also an undeniable link between hermeneutics—ancient as well as contemporary—and the Bible. Reading and identity are, as I have pointed out, mutually constitutive, but the theory and practice of reading are also themselves deeply rooted in the reading of the Bible. Just as the Bible and Asian Americans are not necessarily strangers to each other, so the four words that make up “Asian American biblical hermeneutics” also belong together, even if the term—like Asian America—may look jarring at first glance.

Parts of this book have appeared elsewhere, although these “original” publications have all been revised, expanded, and/or adapted. Chapter 2 was first published in Brill’s Biblical Interpretation 9 (2001): 309–335;, as “Ambiguous Admittance: Consent and Descent in John’s Community of ‘Upward Mobility,’ ”in Postcolonialism and the Gospel of John: Travel, Space and Power, ed. Musa W. Dube and Jeffrey L. Staley (New York: Sheffield Academic, 2002), 193–224; and Chapter 4, as “Acts” in Global Bible Commentary, ed. Daniel Patte, J. Severino Croatto, Nicole Wilkinson Duran, Teresa Okure, and Archie Chi Chung Lee (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2004), 419–28. A section of Chapter 7 has come from “Margins and (Cutting-)Edges: On the (Il)Legitimacy and Intersections of Race, Ethnicity, and (Post)Colonialism,” in Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections, ed. Stephen D. Moore and Fernando F. Segovia (New York: Continuum, 2005), 114–65. I am grateful to these publishers for kindly granting me the permission to reprint.

Since a major portion of my writing and rewriting for this book was done when I spent my sabbatical as a Visiting Scholar at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies and the Divinity School of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I want and need to thank the administrators and trustees of Chicago Theological Seminary for that sabbatical leave, as well as many old and new friends in Hong Kong, especially Lung Kwong Lo and Archie Lee of CUHK. It so happened that a month before I assumed my role as a Visiting Scholar there, my mother passed away in Hong Kong. My semester-long return to Hong Kong after moving to the United States two decades ago thus turned out to be both nostalgic and melancholic. (It is perhaps little wonder that I ended up writing about Paul’s melancholia over Jesus’ death in Chapter 6.) In any case, I know full well that this new time that I spent in an old place has been invaluable not only to my grieving, but also to my belief that separation in time and space—because of life and/or death—does not necessarily sever relations. (I should have known this, given my continual interest and investment in an ancient book written in Koine Greek, which is a “dead” language for many who nevertheless keep on viewing this same book as “sacred” and “life-giving.”) For this reason, I am dedicating this book to my extended family that has remained in Hong Kong and with me in spite of my relocation across the Pacific. I am blessed to be a part of such an international family.

As always, I owe almost everything to Pam and Aaron. Pam, I think or I hope, knows why; I trust that Aaron will also learn to know the reasons in due time...wherever he may be.

From Chapter 8...

Telling Times in (Asian) America
Extraordinary Poetics, Everyday Politics, and Endless Paradoxes

Almost half a century ago, Ernst Käseman claimed that “apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology”(1969: 102). Today, we may wonder not only about his encompassing and totalizing “all,” but also about his singular and definitive “mother.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, for instance, has declared that Calcutta is her mother, the United States is her stepmother, and that both are nurturing but ugly (1990: 83). To avoid the pitfall of Käseman’s generalization, I note at the outset that I am most interested in investigating how the interjections and interruptions from ancient apocalyptic tradition(s) (a pre-post-erity?) interact with the present of an “intrusive” and alien-ated (Asian) America, of or from which Spivak is a/part, and that this chapter will focus in many ways only on the apocalyptic tradition(s) that grow(s) out of the book of Revelation in the New Testament. In other words, one will not find here the kind of close reading that is customary for or expected of someone in biblical studies. I take this approach for two main reasons. First, I do not want to reinforce the power of the origin(al), as if the origin(al)—in this case, the book of Revelation—had an essence that, once identified, should and/or could dictate everything that comes afterward. Following Cha’s example discussed in the last chapter, I would like to displace so-called origin(al)s, even if my focus is switching to the so-called end of time. Second, as I have done throughout this book, I want to continue to call into question what is considered to be “appropriate” or “inappropriate” subject matter in the field of biblical studies. In addition to arguing that reading theory and reading across disciplines may generate new insights into biblical texts, I want to extend the scope of the biblical studies field to include the function of biblical texts in the wider world of literature and culture. In other words, I want to enlarge the “canon” not (only) of the Bible but of biblical studies.

Pervasive yet Particular, Ending but Everlasting 

My emphasis on particularity has to do with a paradoxical endlessness that comes with the apocalyptic end. Despite our tendency to associate it solely with right-wing conservatives, there is actually an apocalyptic endemic across the political, ideological, and theological spectrum. As Michel de Certeau observes: “[T]here is vis-à-vis the established order, a relationship between the Churches that defended an other world and the parties of the left which, since the nineteenth century, have promoted a different future. In both cases, similar functional characteristics can be discerned” (1984: 183; emphasis in original). Since the subtle pervasiveness of apocalyptic has been well argued (Kermode 1966; Dellamora 1995; Robbins and Palmer 1997; C. Keller 1998), I will focus on how this apocalyptic endlessness manifests itself both in scope and in sequence within the culture of the United States today. It is important, however, to underscore first that this apocalyptic endlessness is related to its immense multiplicity and plasticity. Good evidence of that is, of course, the afterlife of apocalyptic even “when prophecy fails” (Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter 1956). This everlasting life expectancy of “expecting Armageddon” (Stone 2000) has to do with more than just sociological and psychological factors. Its endurance also comes partly from apocalyptic’s innumerable and infinitely (re)interpretable articulations. Within the Christian Bible, the two most recognized apocalypses, Daniel and Revelation, are, despite many similar characteristics, distinctly different books with different structures to target different enemies. The same is true when it comes to academic studies of ancient Jewish and/or Christian apocalyptic, which have revolved around at least three foci: (1) a genetic concern with sources or origins; (2) a generic emphasis that looks at its literary form, style, and content; and (3) a concentration on generative effects or functions (J. J. Collins 1998: 1– 42). Even supposedly rigid premillennialists disagree on the timing of the rapture vis-à-vis the so-called Great Tribulation, and are thus divided into pre-tribulationists, mid-tribulationists, and
post-tribulationists (O’Leary 1994: 138–39; S. F. Harding 2000: 238–39). On a broader cultural level, apocalyptic is often used as an effectual but elusive signifier for a positive blooming of utopia and/or a negative catastrophe of gloom and doom.

This is not to say that apocalyptic does not have a stable cast of characters or characteristics (Weber 1999: 32). There is a person or a group receiving a vision or an unveiling of heavenly mysteries (and hence the word “apocalyptic”). This revelation, or at least inspired understanding, is often one of certain coming chaos or calamities that are associated with (the d)evil. This disaster serves, however, as a kind of “ethical” cleansing, out of which a select minority will not only survive but also finally thrive in a new and perfect world. What this somewhat stable if sickening sketch means is, conversely and controversially, dreadfully unstable. While some see apocalyptic as over-turning fatal injustice, others see it as turning over in fatalistic indifference. More important, those who agree on apocalyptic as over-turning may also disagree about what constitutes “justice” and “injustice.” On the one hand, Revelation has led to the Left Behind series; on the other hand, it has helped to bring about the first mass people’s movement in Korea, the 1894 Tonghak Rebellion against foreign occupation (M.-J. Kim 1997). Even if one limits oneself to the Left Behind novels, one cannot tell whether readers are responding to the stereotypical domestic woman figure on the basis of her domesticity before her rapture, and/or on her ability to escape domesticity with the rapture (Frykholm 2001: 23–24). Rather than adjudicating whether apocalyptic is in the final analysis a utopian or dystopian vision, or whether its politics is transformative or accommodative, I will make two Derridean moves here. First, apocalyptic can and is likely to be both utopian and dystopian or transformative and accommodative at the same time. Second, the meaning of apocalyptic is relational to or contingent upon its particular use. As Stephen O’Leary notes, “the nature of apocalyptic’s appeal should be sought in transactions of texts and audiences.”

In other words, the messy politics of apocalyptic, the politics of time, hinges upon the time of politics. Unlike apocalyptic, however, my appeal to time does not claim to pronounce or produce an end to interpretive conflicts or disagreements. Not only do people read and re-read a text over time and in different spaces, but people who share a context may also read the same text differently. Contextualization therefore cannot and should not end up reifying a certain moment or any singular interpretation. Precisely because apocalyptic time is not monolithic, it is, like time, not static. Despite apocalyptic’s linearity, its multiplicity and flexibility make it feasible for social “activists” as diverse as homophobes (see Herman 1997; and Palmer 1997) and environmentalists (M. F. Lee 1997; Lorentzen 1997)—or even as diametrically opposed as Marxists and capitalists—to use basically the same apocalyptic discursive logic. I say this not to undercut but to underscore the significance of interpretive debates. This is particularly so since many people tend to feel helpless when it comes to the book of Revelation, and thus may end up endorsing anyone who is willing and/or able to put forth an interpretation of it.

The multiple, ambivalent, precarious, and volatile tendencies of apocalyptic endlessness can certainly be seen in the context of the United States. Apocalyptic is an undercurrent that informs and implements numerous national(ist) narratives, including the so-called discovery of the “New World,” the development of the “frontier,” the “Cold War,” and its successful
accumulation of wealth that leads to the claiming of the twentieth century as an “American” century (Bercovitch 1978; C. Keller 1998: xi, 8–10, 152–69; Stratton 2000). This apocalyptic air is not “out there” as if it were something that is apart, “abnormal,” and/or marginal; it is rather “out there” as in “everywhere.” It has permeated, even saturated, our literary as well as academic landscapes. We might want to quarantine the Left Behind series as a solely fundamentalist or sectarian literary—make it popular literary—phenomenon. Douglas Robinson has, however, convincingly argued that mainstream American writers like Emerson, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and Faulkner have all struggled with “the problems raised by the apocalyptic thrust of the American Dream” (1990: 3). Likewise, it is not only academic conservatives like Daniel Bell and Francis Fukuyama who write books with apocalyptic-sounding titles like The End of Ideology (Bell 1960) or The End of History and the Last Man (Fukuyama 1992). Immanuel Wallerstein, a card-carrying Marxist scholar, also ended up choosing to entitle two of his books, Utopistics (1998) and The End of the World as We
Know It (1999), to signify the shift of paradigms within the social sciences. Contrary to the Left Behind series, when it comes to apocalyptic, the Left is actually seldom behind.

In addition to the pervasive scope of apocalyptic, let me use a current event and its lingering effects to illustrate the way in which apocalyptic can become endless by reproducing more apocalyptic sequentially. September 11, 2001, is apocalyptic in several senses; thus it also illustrates apocalyptic’s polysemic and multivocal tendencies. In one sense, what happened that day in New York is apocalyptic because it signifies for many the tragic ending of the apocalyptic belief that the United States is the utopia realized or “promised land” achieved. Paradoxically, this apocalyptic ending of an apocalyptic belief only ends up endowing and endorsing more apocalyptic endeavors. As happened before with the involvement of the United States in Vietnam (Stratton 2000: 36–38), failures of apocalyptic proportions paradoxically endear rather than end apocalyptic. At the same time people are mourning the apocalyptic ending of the “American Dream” and/or the “American Century,” they are also galvanizing (military) forces to shift the focus from proclaiming the United States the “New World” to committing it to ensure or enforce the “New World Order.” The war against Iraq is, for some, a dangerous and an endangering war with (the d)evil, and hence a war of apocalyptic significance. At the same time, apocalyptic also assures these people that they are the (self-s)elect of God, so that God is on the side of the United States and victory is never in doubt.

Apocalyptic has therefore this elasticity—almost a kind of internal, eternal, and endogenous regeneration—that ensures its endlessness. The book of Revelation, for instance, continues to find new life by inspiring modern apocalyptic fiction, like the Left Behind series (see also Beal 2002: 82–85). I should be honest here and confess that I have never read any of the bestselling series. I do know of one person who, out of curiosity, picked up a volume to see what all the fuss was about. Later, he told me that he found the book to be so bad that the reading process turned out to be quite an enduring experience: he could not wait for this book about the end to end. Ironically, there is literally no end in sight. It has now (re)generated into a serial of seven books, two movies, a radio drama, a children’s series, a board game, a Web site, a video game, and who knows what else. This is just like the movie Terminator, which is intertextually linked to the Bible, including Revelation 12 (Boer 1995). Rather than terminating, it keeps on showing up from Term. I, to Term. II, and onto Term. III.

The war against Iraq, the Left Behind phenomenon, and the Terminator movies have another shared commonality in addition to apocalyptic; namely, a focus on science and technology. Terminator is, of course, a science fiction. I have just mentioned the Left Behind Web site and video game, but I have also learned—if only secondarily through Frykholm’s reading of Left Behind and Left Behind readers (2001: 92–113)—that the series is full of references to computer technology. There were a lot of headlines, especially during the early development of this country’s strike against Iraq, concerning our military technology and Iraq’s biological weapons. I would suggest that the connection between apocalyptic and science and technology found in these three cases is not coincidental.

Perhaps the statement made by President Clinton during his second inaugural address will provide us with a good entry into this issue. According to Clinton, “scientists now are decoding the blueprint of human life. Cures for our most feared illnesses seem close at hand” (cited in Stratton 2000: 59). He was, of course, referring to the Human Genome Project. Manuel Castells writes, “Prophets of technology preach the new age, extrapolating to social trends and organization the barely understood logic of computers and DNA” (1996: 4; emphasis mine). Technoscience is an apocalypse because it allows people to “search” and see all kinds of past record, current account, and future projection on a single computer screen, as well as to unveil or reveal what is literally under the human skin (Gilroy 2000: 37, 43–53; see also A. F. Gordon 1997: 16–17). Technoscience is an apocalypse because the instantaneous and simultaneous capacities of computers and digital communications have supposedly made time end or disappear (Nowotny 1994). Even the punctuation mark that signifies the end of a sentence in writing (a period) is now arguably more widely used as a dot in Web or E-mail addresses like “xxx.edu” (Newman, Clayton, and Hirsch 2002a: 1–2). This apocalypse of technoscience even comes complete with the ambiguity between boom and doom. “[A] specific sense of time,” Donna J. Haraway states, is “characteristic of the promises and threats of technoscience” (1997: 9). If the book title The Eighth Day of Creation (Judson 1996) promises genome knowledge as the beginning of a new world, others have pointed to the danger of genetic engineering that might lead to selective breeding or genetic essentialism. The idea that one’s future is encoded, programmed, readable, and accessible in one’s DNA is, of course, in itself apocalyptic. In yet another typical apocalyptic fashion, the (new) age of technoscience may pronounce (new) life for some, but death for others.

Fear of...and Desire for Apocalyptic 

I have suggested that both the war against Iraq and the technoscientific revolution are apocalyptic; let me now proceed to suggest the connections between these apocalyptic developments and Asian America. The war against Iraq or against terrorism has not only created a climate of xenophobia (there were, for instance, talks of limiting or eliminating visas issued to international students), it has led to hate crimes. One particular problem this has created for Asian Americans is that many in this country are not willing and/or able to differentiate Arabs from South Asians, or Muslims from turban-wearing Sikhs. There have been reports that immediately after September 11 some South Asians and/or Sikhs became victims of hate crimes due to mistaken identity. September 11 has led, of course, to other developments of terror(ism), like the detention of “suspects” without charge. Many Asian Americans are wary of the eerie parallelism between this “patriot act” and the detention of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. Asian Americans, who ironically have long been stereotyped as “naturals” for or genetically inclined towards technoscience, are also well aware that discriminatory practices, whether they are based on genetic or racial/ethnic makeup, happen despite—and sometimes even because of—legal decisions. In Chapter 2, I have written about how the 1982 cult classic Blade Runner (starring Harrison Ford) portrays a “Yellow Peril” of the twenty-first century, when wealthy and healthy whites not only live in an “off world” to separate themselves from Asians who are populating the “old world,” but they also have to prevent some almost-white-but-not-quite “replicant humans” from passing as lawful (white) residents of the “off world.” Fifteen years later, there is another cult classic with reversed roles in a somewhat similar plot. In Gattaca, we find a white man (Ethan Hawke) who has not been genetically engineered trying to escape to Titan by adopting another person’s genetic identity, as Titan is only for the genetically “perfect.” Despite the time difference between these two films, the reversed role of the white male protagonist ironically communicates a uniform and “timeless” message that should be alarming for Asian America: whites (particularly male) are being victimized and are in need of an escape from a world gone wrong because of being populated by beings who are less than one hundred percent human.
As Jay Clayton insightfully points out by way of a recent TV commercial for a technoscientific company about the potential of genome research for various persons, the promise of human “improvement” actually targets only those who do not fit into the category of a “healthy, white, adult male,” since that category is precisely the one that does not show up in this commercial of genome (re)generation (2002: 31–32, 53–54).

Despite these apocalyptic threats for Asian Americans, one can argue that many Asian Americans and apocalyptic have one important commonality: both involve a moving “beyond” or an “in-between-ness” that implies, among other things, a change in time and space. If people are likely to forget about the spatial dimension of apocalyptic (whether the “New Jerusalem” or “New World” is understood as heaven coming on earth or departing earth for heaven), they also tend to forget that, in dominant ideology, the journey from Asia to the United States often implies an experience of being “fast-forwarded” from some kind of “primitive” or “static” time (McLeod 2000: 44) and/or a linear, chronological progression from being “foreign” to being a “legal alien,” and finally to being a “citizen” (Chuh 2001: 286). In addition, there is another sense of “moving beyond” that is important for many Asian Americans—namely, the need and desire to move beyond past and present injustice to a just and radically democratic future. Jacques Lacan (1978: 42–67) and Slavoj Z'iz'ek (1989: 44 – 48) have both suggested that fantasies are instrumental in keeping desires alive and thus in sustaining life. Their suggestion is arguably supported by Nieh’s novel, which is full of escape fantasies during her protagonist’s fugitive hiding in an attic in Taiwan (1988: 116 –54). Recent studies on apocalyptic that focus on function and/or psychology have likewise suggested that apocalyptic might have less to do with time per se than with desire, wish, and need (Yarbro Collins 1984; Strozier 1994; Frykholm 2001). That is to say, it is out of present needs and desires that people seek or hope to see a future (re)vision.

This understanding can be clearly seen in a short story by the Asian American writer Gish Jen, entitled “The Water Faucet Vision” (1999: 37–48). I have already alluded to the root meaning of the word “apocalyptic” as an unveiling or a revelation. Volumes on the topic continue to highlight this aspect of apocalyptic with titles like Vision of a Just World (Schüssler Fiorenza 1991: subtitle), Vision and Violence (Mendel 1992), Visions of the End (McGinn 1998), and Vision and Persuasion (Carey and Bloomquist 1999). Paradoxically, Jen’s “vision” story is one of lost innocence, or perhaps even lost faith. Adding to the paradox, the narrator of the story does not look ahead, but looks back to her grade school days when she used to believe in God, prayer, miracles, and visions. One night, after accidentally dropping her precious prayer beads down a street sewer on her way home from school, Callie had a vision that her lost beads would come back to her. Convinced that the beads would return to her miraculously through the town’s water system, Callie got up in the middle of the night and turned on all the faucets in the house. When she woke up the next morning, she did not get her beads back, but she did get into a ton of trouble, not the least of which was the ridicule of her family. What is most telling for our purposes, however, is the closing paragraph of that story:

     Such was the end of my saintly ambitions. It wasn’t the end of all holiness. The ideas of purity and goodness still tippled my brain, and over the years I came slowly to grasp of what grit true faith is made. Last night, though, when my father called to say that he couldn’t go on living in our old house, that he was going to move to a smaller place, another place, maybe a condo—he didn’t know how, or where—I found myself still wistful for the time religion seemed all I wanted it to be. Back then, the world was a place that could be set right. One had only to direct the hand of the Almighty and say, Just here, Lord, we hurt here—and here, and here, and here. (Jen 1999: 48)

Apocalyptic vision then, seems to represent—in both the literary and political sense of the word—human hurts, needs, and desires. Again, let me emphasize here that the specific content of these “hurts,” “needs,” and “desires” vary with different people, Asian American or otherwise. The title and the theme of Jen’s other book, Mona in the Promised Land (1996), clearly show that her needs and desires also have something to do with the rude awakening that, for Asian Americans, arriving in the United States is not necessarily the attainment of peace, justice, and security. Or, as another Asian American writer, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, writes in her controversial novel Blu’s Hanging: “ ‘Mama,’ Blu yells into the night, ‘Heaven ain’t here’ ”(1997: 260).

As we have seen in the context of September 11, apocalyptic awakening or awakening from apocalyptic does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of apocalyptic. The fact that the so-called New World was not living up to its name in the experiences of many Asian (North) Americans also resulted in Joy Kogawa’s novel about the internment experience of many Japanese (North) Americans, Obasan (1984). Not only does Obasan begin with Revelation 2:17, about hidden manna, white stone, and a new name being promised to the one who overcomes, but this novel also ends by leading to—in typical apocalyptic endlessness—a sequel entitled Itsuka (1992). This title, which means “someday,” implies the continuation of an apocalyptic vision. Someday in the future, Kogawa seems to be writing to ensure, Japanese (North) Americans will find vindication and compensation through their redress movement. In other words, the novel provides a (moral) vision of a future fulfillment when the injustice suffered by Japanese (North) Americans will finally be rectified. If I may adapt from Walter Benjamin, apocalyptic is “a past[-future] charged by the time of the now...blast[ing] out of the continuum of history” (1968: 261) time and again.

Thus I find my writing and reading of apocalyptic comparable to “a persistent critique of what one cannot not want” (Spivak 1996: 28), since apocalyptic may function to identify (meaningful) time, and in the process produce identity (Fradenburg 2002: 215). Apocalyptic, like poetry, can have “power . . . as a vital means of spiritual survival” (cited in Chow 1993: 2). Audre Lorde has, of course, made known the saying “Poetry is not a luxury” (1984). Likewise, Frantz Fanon has suggested that artistic expressions can anticipate and assist other anti-colonial activities by awakening “the native’s sensibility of defeat and to make unreal and unacceptable the contemplative attitude or the acceptance of defeat” (1963: 243). Rather than duplicating the binarism of apocalyptic, then, I do not think contemporary Asian America can afford to adopt any clear-cut attitude towards apocalyptic. We have already discussed the problem of essentializing or over-generalizing the politics of apocalyptic, as Fredric Jameson makes the mistake of doing when he homogenizes all so-called third world literature as national allegory (1986). Asian America should be ambivalent about apocalyptic for another reason; namely, its diasporic experiences. If apocalyptic is for many a longing for belonging or “home” (Frykholm 2001: 18, 20), many in diaspora have also learned that this “constant craving” or dreaming for home is simultaneously indispensable and illusory (McLeod 2000: 209–15). The lesson of being in diaspora involves, then, along with the pain of feeling displaced, hopefully an acuity, even a healthy suspicion towards romantic(ized) vision. If I might return to Spivak’s comment about having two nurturing but ugly mothers, Spivak concludes her comment by stating that she feels she has “earned the right [and I would add, “found the need”] to critique two places” (1990: 83).

If apocalyptic is at least one of the mothers who nurture our theology and worldview in powerful ways, we must also not hesitate to recognize her imperfections and incompleteness. This is precisely the kind of ambivalence with which Chang-Rae Lee concludes his novel A Gesture Life: “Perhaps I’ll travel to where Sunny wouldn’t go, to the south and west and maybe farther still, across the ocean, to land on former shores. But I think it won’t be any kind of pilgrimage, I won’t be seeking out my destiny or fate. I won’t attempt to find comfort in the visage of a creator or the forgiving dead....I will circle round and arrive again. Come almost home” (1999: 356).

Chang-Rae Lee’s narrator, a Korean American who has also been a subject of Japanese colonization, will continue to engage himself in travel and talk of home. At the same time, he will not portend closure. What we find is a circularity that dis-places the certainty of linearity.

Spec(tac)ular Strategy and Ritual Resistance

What Chang-Rae Lee’s conclusion also seems to communicate is that completion, certainty, or destiny are not the only alternatives to a deadend nihilism, nor are they prerequisites for agency (Chuh 2003: 100). The spec(tac)ular aspects of apocalyptic, despite or perhaps even because of its indispensability and its concomitant incompleteness for Asian America, must not distract us from the importance of everyday practice. “I will circle round and arrive again. Come almost home” (Chang-Rae Lee 1999: 356). What is the “everyday”?

     The everyday tells us a story of modernity in which major historical cataclysms are superseded by ordinary chores, the arts of working and making things. In a way, the everyday is anticatastrophic, an antidote to the historical narrative of death, disaster and apocalypse. The everyday does not seem to have a beginning or an end. In everyday life we do not write novels but notes or diary entries that are always frustratingly or euphorically anticlimactic. In diaries the drama of our lives never ends—as in the innumerable TV soap operas in which one denouement only leads to another narrative possibility and puts off the ending. Our diaries are full of incidents and lack accidents; they have narrative potential and few completed stories. The everyday is a kind of labyrinth of common places without monsters, without a hero, and without an artist-maker trapped in his [sic] own creation. (Boym 1994: 20)

This is a fascinating description, except we have already seen that the fantastic category of apocalyptic (Pippin and Aichele 1998) also disseminates and defers endlessly. One must also recognize that the purpose of apocalyptic often involves a prescription for present, everyday living in light of the final outcome. What I am proposing, then, is not the binary viewpoint that sees the everyday as something opposite to or incompatible with apocalyptic. Instead, I would suggest the more paradoxical view that the everyday serves a “supplementary” function, in the Derridean sense that it complements or completes rather than constitutes an appendix to apocalyptic.

According to Rey Chow, de Certeau’s distinction between “strategy” and “tactic” is helpful for those writing with a “diasporic consciousness” that critiques apparent opposites, like orientalism and nativism (Chow 1993: 1–26). “Strategy,” for de Certeau, represents “the calculation . . . of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated” (de Certeau 1984: 36). It involves, in other words, the transformation of historical uncertainties into habitable places (what one may call “home”). In contrast, “tactic,” like the “age-old ruses of fishes and insects that disguise and transform themselves,” operates for survival and subversion despite “the absence of a proper locus” (de Certeau 1984: xi, 37). It is the difference between securing space of one’s own and the need to continue to exercise agency in the space of another. Or, one may translate de Certeau’s “strategy” to a coherent agenda, a political program, or even a meta-narrative like apocalyptic, and his “tactic” to a more piecemeal or haphazard maneuver. Chow sees de Certeau’s “tactic” as not only more useful for diasporic intervention but also as a “[b]etting on time instead of space” (Chow 1993: 16). It is rather ironic that, even as Chow speaks against apparent binarism, she proceeds to uphold two of her own: strategy versus tactic, and space versus time.

“Tactic” is undoubtedly helpful for diasporic writing and living, given the circularity and uncertainty shown by Chang-Rae Lee above, as well as the ethnographical work on a South Asian American community that I mentioned in Chapter 1 of this book (Ganguly 2001). As R. Radhakrishnan writes about Asian America, “The living and the telling, the experiencing and the meaning-making happen simultaneously much like a radical existential script that begins to exist only when the screen is lifted and the lights turned on” (2001: 259). When Filipino Americans are not sure how things will turn out for them and their future generations in the United States, what sustains them and in fact transforms both them and the larger U.S. culture are mundane everyday routines that “depart from the protocol of the nation by (re)staging alternative and multiple ‘origins,’ ” like family dinners, Friday night karaoke, and weekly mass (Manalansan 2001: 169). As one Filipino American parent puts it, he “can only try to ‘inject’ a little of the Philippines [for his children] whenever it is possible, and then sit back, maybe bite his lips, and hope for the best” (Manalansan 2001: 163). Yet, despite the absence of an overall plan, such everyday “injections” become the threads and the fabric out of which new cultural traditions are sewn (Lefebvre 1991). Homi K. Bhabha has suggested that “border” or “unhomely lives” require an “art of the present” (1994: 1–18). I would propose that such “art” is often none other than the seemingly “artless” performance of the everyday in the commonplace—like family, work, education, entertainment, or ritual (Iwamura 1996; Bundang 2002). In other words, what Pierre Bourdieu calls “habitus” (1977),29 or what Patricia Mann calls “micro-politics” (1994).

However, “tactic” (habitus or micro-politics) and “strategy” (habitation or macro-politics) are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Neither are daily ritual or routine and spec(tac)ular apocalyptic. Just as Revelation is not the only book in the New Testament, so apocalyptic is not the only strand in biblical thought. Linear apocalyptic’s strategic closure does not negate the importance of everyday tactic. It actually needs the open-endedness of everyday practice to compensate for its blindness and premature certainties. Any coherent political vision or agenda must be subjected to “an indefatigable and illimitable interrogation of myriad relations of power and how they give, shape, and sometimes take life” (Chuh 2003: 150). Between apocalyptic’s extravagant promise of utopia on the one hand, and its equally extreme pronouncement of disaster on the other, Asian America needs the calming wisdom to live daily into an open future. We must not allow any particular vision, as important as that vision may be, to blind us to “the diverse, the particular and the unpredictable in everyday life” (Ang 1991: x). Nor can we let any particular vision fool us into thinking that there is an end to everyday politics or political struggle. José Esteban Muñoz, in his attempt to construct for queers of color a practice beyond the binarism of identification/assimilation and counteridentification/utopianism, has similarly and helpfully insisted that one must work “to enact permanent structural change while at the same time valu[e] the importance of local or everyday struggles of resistance” (1999: 11–12).


In sum, there is an endlessness about apocalyptic and an open-endedness in its interpretation. Despite or perhaps even because of its binary tendencies,apocalyptic is something that, I would suggest, (Asian) America cannot fully embrace or fully eliminate. Particular apocalyptic can provide a vision or a strategy for “transformation,” but it must inform and be informed by everyday tactic. What I want to emphasize in closing is the importance of human agency. After all, human beings are the ones who (re)write and (re)read apocalyptic. We are actors in this war of wor(l)ds, and we must take on this enduring struggle for progressive ends in (extra)ordinary ways. As we work today under the legacies of the past, we must also realize that the shapes of our future are in no way, as apocalyptic implies, a foregone conclusion. How things will turn out is contingent upon our vision and revision. There is, however, another paradox that we must also keep in mind. Our future is also subject to chance and fortuitous developments that grow out of our everyday practices, despite our plan or intention, or lack thereof. Much as we need apocalyptic (re)visions, we also need a re-visioning that disrupts theteleological theology of the apocalyptic. We cannot be entirely freed from nor entirely framed by apocalyptic. No amount of apocalyptic disclosure can or should foreclose the future. The process of change, including my creation of an Asian American biblical hermeneutics, is always already in process. I must be willing to be attentive to this process of change rather than be too adamant about figuring or fixing its future.

 ©2008 University of Hawaii Press.  Reprinted with permission.