Provocations / Anne Anlin Cheng’s Ornamentalism

In this review, we introduce a genre for ASAP/J. In contrast to the traditional review that dives deep into a summary and critique of a scholarly book, Provocations looks at what comes next: what does this book provoke in the fields in which it intervenes, and what questions does it raise for future inquiry? After a capsule summary of the book, scholars from multiple fields provide a capsule provocation that answers to this charge. 

Anne Cheng’s recent book Ornamentalism opens with an explosive statement which shines an unyielding spotlight on a glaring lacuna in feminist studies: “We say Black women, brown women, white women, but not yellow women” (ix). It is as much an indictment as an observation. This first sentence illuminates the driving force behind her new monograph: an attempt to fundamentally reconceptualize what Frantz Fanon has named the “racial epidermal schema” through the figure of the yellow woman. Cheng marshals an impressive host of women of color thinkers, referencing work by Hortense Spillers, Sharon Patricia Holland, Kimberly Juanita Brown, and Amber Musser, among others, to investigate the deadness and liveliness of the categorization of racialized women. As she puts it, “when it comes to the community of racialized women, some zones are deader than others and in different ways” (ix). Cheng positions the yellow woman as ontologized through a “synthetic personhood,” a “human figure that emerges as and through ornament” (14). Integral to her investigation is how objecthood and personhood begin to blur through the conceptualization of different racialized identities. Such a blurring not only brings into focus the yellow woman rarely discussed in feminist studies, but also re-frames canonical scenes in the American “grammar book” of anti-black violence, such as the tree of scars that adorns Sethe’s back in Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a visual echo of mythic Daphne’s becoming tree. For Cheng, aesthetics in this case is not an “escape” from pain, but “rather its product,” suggesting how “flesh that passes through objecthood needs ornament to get back to itself” (156). Cheng asks, “What does it mean to survive as someone too aestheticized to suffer injury but so aestheticized that she invites injury?”  

In the responses that follow, Summer Kim Lee, Amber Jamilla Musser, Xin Peng, Amanda Su, and Sunny Xiang explore what this shift in emphasis provokes in various fields that form the arts of the present. 

— Michael Dango & Jerrine Tan
Reviews Editors

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Provocation #1: Summer Kim Lee

“Injured Enough”: In Ornamentalism, Anne Anlin Cheng asks, “Is the yellow woman injured—or is she injured enough?” (x). Cheng writes of the figure of the “yellow woman” not to name or claim a racial, gendered identity, but to critique the ways that such identitarian claims are often enabled and recognized solely through injury. Cheng’s question is not an appeal for recognition on behalf of the Asian woman’s material, real, lived conditions of violence and denigration. Rather, it points to an “unspeakable aspect of injury” made visible and palpable through the Asian woman and the racialized femininity she always already evokes: “its unnerving capacity to be seen as a quality of beauty and to incite appreciation” (xi). How does one give an account of one’s injury, especially when and if it appears beautiful and is aesthetically pleasing? If one’s abjection “speaks through the language of aesthetic privilege”? (xi). Ornamentalism emphasizes the delicate, detailed, fleshy, textured, shiny, crushed, encrusted, and congealed—the seductive and at other times repellant tactility of surfaces—as the trace of that “unspeakable aspect of injury” that need not necessarily speak its name. Instead, one encounters it precisely through that language of the aesthetic, through embodied, still, cold, and shattered forms that make no claims to injury or personhood.

Consider these three works I have been sitting with for some time now: In Mila Zuo’s short film Carnal Orient (2016), an Asian woman performs for a room of white men eating Chinese food. Her body is adorned with paper fans; her face is smothered with thick pasty make-up and prosthetics. As she dances and sings with glitchy gestures, the food on the men’s plates jiggles and shudders, as if to mock and mimic her movements. The men consume her and their food: both become the cold leftovers of Asian femininity. In her performance installation Bone Bath (2017), Alison Kuo casts her body in gelatin for three hours in the bathtub of a New York luxury apartment. The gelatin is molded around her body, absorbing her shape as well as her body’s fluids and flavors. A chopped-up, remixed score of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” echoes throughout the bathroom as Kuo sacrifices her body to the gelatin’s desire. In TJ Shin’s installation Untitled (torture) (2019), a glass vessel in the shape of a breast is suspended by a chain attached to a wood structure unsettlingly reminiscent of gallows. From the tip of the vessel, milk drips, like lactation, falling onto the broken pieces of a porcelain plate lying on a sheet of chainmail draped over a glass vat. Perhaps the milk’s biological bonding agents will mend the broken plate, or perhaps the milk merely congeals, while the vat becomes a vestibule for bacteria to grow.

Cheng asks, “How is it that a figure so encrusted with racist and sexist meaning, so ubiquitously deployed to this day and so readily recognized as a symptom, should at the same time be a theoretical black hole, a residue of critical fatigue?” (ix). Artists shift the terrain of this theoretical black hole, and yet what one is left with, still, is not the knowable figure of the yellow woman, but the nonproductive, persistent residue of critical fatigue that surrounds her, of rotting milk, setting gelatin, and cold leftovers, which no one wants to claim, nor should they have to.

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Provocation #2: Amber Jamilla Musser

“Human, Ornament, and other Genres of Being”: In Ornamentalism, Anne Anlin Cheng draws on Monique Allewaert to develop ornamentalism as a form of “perihumanity,” arguing that the “yellow woman calls for a theorization of persons and things that considers a human ontology inextricable from synthetic extensions, art, and commodity” (2). Allewaert’s own formulation of “parahumanity” is indebted to analyses of the vegetation and religious practices of African diasporic people in the 18th century Caribbean, whose understandings of being brought objects and spirits into the fold. However, Cheng’s alignment of the yellow woman alongside the human also finds itself in conversation with Sylvia Wynter’s “genres of being human,” a formulation developed in 2003, but which has more recently gained much traction within Black feminisms.1 Wynter argues that Man, the western liberal subject, has shaped the modern episteme though the force of colonialisms such that other ontologies are foreclosed—pathologized and dominated. Putting Wynter and Cheng in conversation, then, opens several apertures. Wynter’s emphasis on colonialism might allow us to think robustly with ornamentalism as it plays out in different geographies and through different relationships to power and material—what of migrants to the Caribbean or Kenya (see, for example, Tao Leigh Goffe or Sara Shroff’s work)? What of the various colonizations of the Philippines? How might these different trajectories inflect the embodiments at play? In addition to complexifying the yellow woman’s relationships to materiality, ornamentalism might also be reflected back through Wynter to offer a theorization of complicity within the colonial episteme. What are the relations of power between these genres of the human? Here, I am thinking of how Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s work on animality as a site of making relations might converse with Cheng by inviting one to think with other triangulations and, also, of how Ricardo Montez’s analysis of the power relations between Keith Haring and his collaborators and lovers expands, in different ways and scales, the profound stakes of Cheng’s argument for thinking about interracial intimacies.2

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Provocation #3: Xin Peng

Ornamentalism is about mise-en-scène. It’s about the arrangement and design of costumes and sets, the interpenetrations between human actors and objects. That’s why cinema remains essential to Cheng’s theorization of the ontology of the yellow woman. In fact, Cheng’s work on ornamentalism began with the Chinese American movie star and fashion icon, Anna May Wong, as she interrogates the intimacy—rather than opposition—between agency and objectification, persona and impersonality through the category of “race beauties” in an article published in PMLA in 2011. Titled “Shine: On Race, Glamour, and the Modern,” the article would be transformed into the second chapter, “Gleaming Things,” of her book, Ornamentalism. The book not only provides a theory of the racialization of the yellow woman as represented in mass media, but also proves to be productive when considered in tandem with the turn to media infrastructure, to things that don’t necessarily appear but are fundamental to what we see and hear on screen. Focusing on the ornament—on excrescence rather than essence, surface rather than interiority, the peripheral rather than the central—allows us to ask questions about the roles non-narrative and non-character elements play in racialization and racism in film and media. In my work on ornamentalism and early Technicolor, I argue that the racial difference between Anna May Wong’s character and the white Americans in The Toll of the Sea (1922) is represented not through the difference in skin tone—one contemporary reviewer in fact criticizes the color process’s “pallid shade enveloping all faces”—but in the bright yet “naturalistic” colors of the exotic mise-en-scène, including the ornamental gardens, foliage, and costumes in which racialized bodies are enclosed. Staging the orient as naturalistically colorful and the yellow woman as part of “nature”—indeed, as a Lotus Flower as she is so aptly named – naturalizes the excessive red-and-green color scheme of Technicolor No. II.3 Could ornamentalism work both as a critical race and an ecocritical approach to media infrastructure and representation that sheds light on the entanglement between racialization, media technologies, and environmental crises in the age of Anthropocene? In chapter 4, Cheng experiments with the potentiality of the “nonhuman”—the blurred boundary between (raced) man, woman, and aquatic animals; “the creation of a new family, a new consanguinity, through the alchemy of ornamentalism” (124)—in her provocative reading of David Wong Louie’s short story “Bottles of Beaujolais” (1992) set in a sushi restaurant. If, as Jennifer Fay argues, “The Anthropocene is to natural science what cinema, especially early cinema, has been to human culture” in that cinema transforms and temporally transports “humans and the natural world into an unhomely image,”4 how could ornamentalism as a theory of racialized personhood based on the interpenetrations between body and things inform the discussion of eco-cinema and environmental justice and offer a way to understand the relationship between ecosystem, racialization, and racism?  

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Provocations #4: Amanda Su

Anne Cheng’s theory of ornamentalism describes how Asian women have been discursively constituted through inanimate and decorative objects. What I find most valuable and gratifying in Cheng’s book is how this does not automatically consign them to an ontology entirely devoid of life or forms of agency; how she opens up multiple avenues for thinking about how Asian female subjects who are constituted as objects can negotiate the terms of that condition. For example, her reading of Anna May Wong demonstrates how the surface of skin can be thought of as separate and distinct from flesh; how it can, via the affordances of the objecthood by which it is constituted, dazzle, deflect, evade.

The historical basis for the analogy that Cheng draws between ornament and “yellow femininity” stems from the 19th century trade in luxury objects between China and the U.S., which led to a trade deficit that engendered a breakdown in Sino-U.S. relations and the advent of yellow peril. Given that Cheng’s archive of objects stretches from the 19th century to the contemporary, I’m curious about the historical specificities and distinctions between 19th century and contemporary Sino-U.S. relations as they pertain to the analogy between women and objects. I wonder how her provocative analysis might be complicated by more recent instantiations of the link between commodities and gendered Asian bodies. For example, the U.S.’s present trade deficit with China is largely constituted by goods that are, in the popular imagination, the opposite of those exquisite objects illumined in Cheng’s archive: cheap, readymade, disposable. To what extent might tracing the shifting nationalities of female factory workers against the objects of their manufacture over the course of the last few decades—in Taiwan, in China, and increasingly, in India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia—reconstitute the terms of the ontology Cheng describes here?

This would also allow us to exert more critical pressure on the term “yellow,” which Cheng applies to her theory of raced femininity. Cheng’s use of the term operates in part as a reclamation of a racial slur, which feels especially compelling during a resurgence of yellow peril discourse and violence against Asians in the West. And yet the term “yellow” as a racial marker does not carry derogatory connotations in Mandarin. Frank Dikötter has written about how Chinese thinkers from antiquity onwards have leveraged “yellowness” against myriad racial groups in order to consolidate Chineseness (and also whiteness) at the center of the civilized world. In an era of increasing Chinese hegemony that systematically valorizes the Han ethnicity at the expense of other races and ethnicities, how might a perspective that accounts for the history of racial hierarchies both in the West and in the East allow us to theorize the uneven and ever-shifting connotations of racialized skin and surface within a global framework? How might it more finely articulate the multiple and overlapping sites and artifacts of trade, movement and empire through which Asian femininities are constituted?

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Provocation #5: Sunny Xiang

“Orientalism is a critique, ornamentalism is a theory of being,” Anne Cheng writes. A theory of being—of “yellow woman” as ornament—may initially read as an act of political retreat: such a theory makes no claim to debunk Oriental stereotypes or to recuperate real Asian women. But Ornamentalism is in fact an effort to overcome the habits of critique that have circumscribed understandings of the political. In attending to the sensuous, chimerical, and enchanting properties of a being that presents as a thing, Cheng reveals how beauty can function as an unintelligible and therefore especially intractable form of racial violence. Cheng’s meditation on “the meeting of beauty and brutality” significantly changes how we talk about race and aesthetics. It challenges us to pause before locating political redemptiveness in aesthetic figuration and to forge a critical language sensitive to the racialization of aesthetic pleasure. The aesthetic modes of embodiment that Cheng calls “ornamental,” in other words, requires us to redraw the boundaries of racial ontology and racial injury. 

Cheng’s account of ornamentalism has already been highly influential. What remains underappreciated, though, is the iconoclastic methodology that makes this account so theoretically sophisticated yet also unexpectedly intuitive. Cheng’s archive of ornamentalism features legal cases, short stories, films, exhibits, and photographs. Her case studies range from the early twentieth-century celebrity persona of Anna May Wong to the futuristic cyborgs in contemporary film. The personifications of ornamentalism in Cheng’s study are usually Asian women, but they also include Japanese American legal scholar Kenji Yoshino, Toni Morrison’s Black American fictional character Sethe, and even artfully arranged fish. To me, the methodology on display in Ornamentalism seems not so much interdisciplinary but postdisciplinary. Cheng’s disregard for the orthodoxies of period, media, genre, and even identity show how these categories that are so often invoked and patrolled in the name of academic rigor have in fact inhibited a judicious analysis of what has been in front of us all along.  

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Summer Kim Lee is an assistant professor of English at UCLA and Member-At-Large of ASAP. She has published and forthcoming work in Social Text, ASAP/Journal, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Post45, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Public Books.

Amber Jamila Musser is a professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and current Second Vice President of ASAP. She is the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU Press, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance (NYU Press, 2018) and is currently beginning a research project on noise.

Xin Peng is a Ph.D. candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her dissertation examines the ways in which racial and orientalist thinking informed the development and conception of media technologies in the interwar period of American cinema. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Screen, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, the Women Film Pioneers Project, and New Review of Film and Television Studies.

Amanda Su is a Ph.D. student in English at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation traces how cold war regimes formulated Chinese women as exemplars of the human via discursive and aesthetic means. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies and is forthcoming in Breaking the Bronze Ceiling: Women, Memory and Public Space (Fordham University Press).

Sunny Xiang is associate professor of English and affiliate professor of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration at Yale University. She is the author of Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability during the Long Cold War (Columbia UP, 2020) and is currently at work on a second book project tentatively entitled Atomic Wear: Transpacific Fashion and the Making of the Militarized Mundane.

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  1. Sylvia Wynter, Wynter, Sylvia. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 269.
  2. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Anti-Black World (New York: New York University Press, 2020); Ricardo Montez, Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).
  3. Xin Peng, “Colour-as-Hue and Colour-as-Race: Early Technicolor, Ornamentalism and The Toll of the Sea (1922),” Screen 62, no. 3 (Autumn 2021): 287-308.
  4. Jennifer Fay, Inhospitable World: Cinema in the Time of Anthropocene (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 3.