Saturday, October 28, 2006

ASAK Conference Follow-Up: "Crossing America's Internal Borders"

Despite my concerns about such terms as "imperialism," "class," and "race" -- i.e., that they would be poorly defined and not used analytically -- I have no serious objections so far. Just before the conference began, I did happen to mention my skepticism to a colleague here at Korea University, who didn't understand me at all even when I explained that folks in literary criticism often borrow concepts from other fields and use them without understanding them clearly. I see this all the time with Huntington's "clash of civilizations," which a lot of people use with no real clue what the man was talking about ... partly because they haven't read his essay or his book.

But I don't want to get off topic.

I merely wanted to note that the first keynote speaker, Ramón Saldívar, gave an excellent talk about the newspaper reporting of Américo Paredes (1915-1999) in postwar Japan and how it shaped the scholarship that Paredes later undertook in his ethnographic studies of the Tex-Mex border regions.

Paredes arrived in Japan in late 1945 as a 30-year-old Mexican-American soldier and began writing in English for the Pacific Stars and Stripes and in Spanish for the Mexico City daily El Universal, composing some 74 major articles and feature columns over a five-year period. According to Saldívar:
[T]hese articles broach a formidable array of topics. In his writings from postwar Japan, Paredes attempts to capture the despair of the exhausted and impoverished Japanese, their anguish and regret mixed withh the birth of hope in strange new social forms and their simple joy at "the unexpected surcease of misery and death" that came with the end of the war (Dower Embracing Defeat 38). What would this new postwar Asian world under American occupation look like? What shape would its political forms and social traditions take? How would its language, media, and arts evolve? What would it be like to live in a homeland suddenly inundated with all of these mysteriously good-natured, rich white men who were now quietly but unmistakably in control? Who were these new Japanese emerging from defeat? Paredes' dispatches from the Occupation frontline would address all of these questions.
As you can see from Saldívar's tone, he's not out to slam the American occupation but to analyze how it transformed Japan as seen by the young Paredes.

Later in his talk, Saldívar emphasized that:
Americanization was not just a process of cultural imperialism; it represented a complex model of border crossing, of appropriation, negotiation, and creolization between conquering and conquered societies.
Now, some of these terms are precisely the ones that bother me in the writing of lit-crit folks, but Saldívar uses them well, in analytical ways, to get at what Paredes saw happening.

Saldívar goes on to indicate what was happening:
During Paredes' time in Asia, a uniquely Japanese hybridity was emerging from contact with the American Occupation. From the debris of disastrous defeat, a new national identity was being produced "that could encompass the memories of loss and devastation through the realm of everyday culture rather than through abstract political discourse" (Igarashi Bodies of Memory 12-13). In Japan, Paredes witnessed and documented how postwar Japanese society constructed narrative strategies to create continuities that masked the historical disjunction of defeat and transcended the loss it has endured (Igarashi 11-12.
Paredes returned to America in 1950 and began studying for his degrees in what led to an illustrious scholarly career ... or so I gather, in my appalling ignorance, not having heard of him before.

How did Paredes' experiences help him as a scholar?
In his writings from Asia, Paredes was working out the implications of his initial observations of the features of national culture. He would carry these implications over as the focus of his later scholarly writings about the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. His observations of the Japanese experiences of accomodation to postwar Americanization provided him with a crucial model for understanding how alternative border modernities functioned.
Interesting stuff, at least for me ... perhaps because living here in Korea in a time of intense globalization, I find myself wearing Paredes's shoes and seeing with similar eyes an ongoing transformation.

One last remark: I know nothing of Saldívar or Paredes other than from the talk yesterday and the Stanford website, so I can't offer any commentary on the larger picture.

But I think that you all by now know how to use Google...


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