Xavier Cha,  Human Advertisement Series  (2004).

Xavier Cha, Human Advertisement Series (2004).

Performances of Contingency

Feminist Relationality and Asian American Studies After the Institution

Deadline: July 1, 2019


Guest Editors:
Vivian L. Huang, Williams College
Summer Kim Lee, Dartmouth College

Asian American studies remains a field that struggles with institutionalization across college campuses. Oftentimes, in the absence of an Asian American studies department, of which there are only a few in the United States, we hear that although there is a demand for Asian American studies course offerings on a college campus, a major, a minor, or tenure-track hire in Asian American studies cannot yet be put on the table. As a result, Asian American studies subsists as contingency, which is to say, through undercompensated and insecure faculty, staff, and student labor. Too often, its institutional presence is formed as a necessary afterthought, as damage control, as that which smooths over unanticipated curricular gaps or suitably fits within a university’s diversity initiatives and program-building.

Similarly, Asian Americanist feminists are contingent to spaces of belonging, at the edges of arrival and political certainty. As Leslie Bow writes, Asian American women are traitorous subjects who disappoint in their failure to fulfill Orientalist fantasies of Asian femininity, variously nationalized heteropatriarchal ideas of Asian femininity, and liberal optics of feminist and POC solidarity. Yet institutions such as the university, the state, and the domestic household have historically relied upon the flexible, feminized, material, affective, and contingent labor of Asian/Americans. Whether cast as perpetually foreign or model minority, however, Asian Americans have no refuge from institutional erasure even when contingent to it.

Such a historically abject and belated relationship to legal, economic, and educational institutions positions Asian Americans within the time and space of contingency. Those marked by contingency know something about vulnerability, uncertainty, and feelings of difference. To be the contingent is to be needed, yet only temporarily so, in a time that is not one’s own—in the realm of what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten call “policy” with its “exclusive and exclusionary uniform/ity of contingency as imposed consensus” (76). The contingent is expected to risk having one’s longevity and livelihood depend on another, in the name of something bigger, for the sake of holding out for a coercive, vague promise that things will change. This state of chance, bracketed at times contractually with an endpoint and possible renewal, also names a kind of touch within, yet irreducible to, precarious forms of relationality that are imposed, injurious, and harmful, but not always just so. Within the term, the Latin contingere means “befall” or “happen,” invoking the performative felicity or abuses of that contingent touch. We therefore understand contingency to name not only a passive position under the weight of “imposed consensus,” but also the insistent act of reaching out toward another for survival and more. We understand performances of contingency – in everyday, artistic, and activist practice – to enact and work through forms of feminist sociality that may feel nurturing, burdensome, exhausting, exciting, lonely, and boring.

In this special issue of Women & Performance, we cite the language of contingency and its historical, cultural, and aesthetic resonance with the racialization, gendering, and sexualization of Asians and Asian Americans as perpetually foreign, traitorous, displaced, or in exile. We consider how being without a space of one’s own, and instead inhabiting unused offices and empty rooms, might offer us ways of approaching Asian Americanist critique after the realization that the university cannot give us what we need, and instead leaves us searching for what we crave in our relationships with and commitments to one another through and in difference.

This special issue approaches contingency as a contemporary condition of minoritarian living-with and living in precarity both in and outside institutions; as a critical, generative mode of Asian American performance, promiscuously and transnationally construed; and as a critically relational aesthetic, wherein we encounter the problem that Asian American feminism and femininities present in genealogies of liberal, women of color, and transnational feminisms, as well as in queer studies’ predominant focus on gay men’s desire, gender, and sex. For while critiques of the emasculation of Asian American men, the insistence on the pleasures of what Nguyen Tan Hoang calls some gay Asian American men’s “view from the bottom,” and the radicalization of the hyper(hetero)sexuality of Asian American femininity are crucial to dislodging white masculinity’s hold on desire, at the same time it seems that queer Asian American women and queer Asian American femininity remain contingent to Asian Americanist critique and study. Given this, how does an alternative feminist and queer mode of critique emerge through the performance of Asian American contingency? What does racial and gendered contingency enact, gesture toward, and make possible within the internal, turbulent contradictions of the term “Asian American”?

Rather than limiting a discussion of Asian American studies to a necessary horizon of institutionality, within the bounds of masculinist and colonial notions of disciplinary knowledge, we seek submissions that explore and theorize what feminist and queer genealogies of critique, reading practice, and study might productively trouble, offer, and open up within what constitutes the field of Asian American studies after the institution. Rather than lament the representative politics of what Roderick Ferguson calls “the will to institutionality,” we draw upon the work of Ferguson and Sara Ahmed to ask after an Asian American studies that is something like a feminist willfulness to institutionality, a willfulness that is not about institutional assimilation but, rather, that which bends toward the touching-with of contingency and its critically relational forms.

This special issue asks: how has the unfulfillment of institutionalization reflect and occasion new racial, feminist, and queer forms of knowledge production from the position of contingency? Since we cannot politically afford to give up on claims of representation – especially for those of us poor, immigrant, refugee, who need the cruel optimism of institutional shelter – what have we constructed in the meantime? What can and has contingency given form, dimension, and weight to that might speak not only to survival, but something more?

We invite academics, creative writers, artists, independent scholars, and activists to submit either full-length article submissions (6000-8000 words) or experimental performative texts (2000-3000 words) for consideration. Photo essays and other visual pieces are welcome. All work should adhere to the journal’s submissions guidelines.

Potential topics include:

  • Asian American performance/performativity and visual cultures, media, and film

  • Asian American literature and/or poetry

  • Subjectless critique/Asian Americanist critique

  • Queer and/or Asian American aesthetics and form

  • Queer and/or trans Asian femininities and/or masculinities; queer of color critique

  • Migration; transnational labor; exclusionary migration policies

  • “The Asian Century”; Asian capital; racial capitalism

  • Asian settler colonial critique; Transpacific re/orientations and re/mappings

  • Asian American affects

  • Afro-Asian solidarities

  • Brownness and Asianness; Muslim Asian Americans; South and South East Asian/American studies

  • Critical mixed race studies

  • Genealogies of women of color, Third World, and transnational feminisms; queer diaspora

  • University studies; Asian American studies and interdisciplinarity

  • Asian American mental wellness; disability studies; Asian Americans and psychoanalysis

Submissions may be emailed to performances.of.contingency@gmail.com. For additional questions please see our submission guidelines.

Ahmed, Sara. 2004. Willful Subjects. Duke University Press, 2014.
Bow, Leslie. Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, and Asian American Women’s Literature. Princeton University Press, 2001.
Ferguson, Roderick A. The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.
Nguyen, Hoang Tan. A View from the Bottom: Asian American Masculinity and Sexual Representation. Duke University Press, 2014.

Vivian L. Huang is Assistant Professor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Williams College. Previously, she was College Fellow jointly appointed in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Theater, Dance & Media at Harvard University. Vivian is completing her manuscript Inscrutably Other: The Queer Alterity of Asian American Performance, and her writing can be found in Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Journal of Asian American Studies, Criticism, TDR/The Drama Review, and forthcoming in The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature.

Summer Kim Lee is a Mellon Faculty Fellow in English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, where she will transition into the position of Assistant Professor in fall of 2020. She is currently working on her first monograph, which brings together the fields of Asian American studies, performance studies, and queer and feminist studies. She has published and forthcoming work in Journal of Popular Music Studies, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, ASAP/Journal, The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian American and Pacific Islander Literature and Culture, and Social Text.