About two thirds of the way through “Paper Tigers,” Wesley Yang’s 2011 New York cover story about the personal and professional lives of Asian-Americans, the author wonders what kind of advice he would give to a younger version of himself. The essay has ranged from “boot camps” for Asian-American men who need help talking to women in bars, to corporate empowerment retreats where Asian middle managers hope to break through the “bamboo ceiling” by learning to conform their facial expressions to white expectations, to the streets of Lower Manhattan, where the rising chef Eddie Huang buys American recognition on his own terms—by selling irresistible pork buns. At the center of the essay, though, is a Stuyvesant High School senior named Jefferson Mao. Mao, a first-generation Chinese immigrant from Flushing, is sick of being one of the “nameless, faceless Asian kids” in the Stuyvesant hallways, but he is also confused by the disorienting social norms of his white classmates, who tend to be more assertive. He has written Yang for guidance on how to become “an Asian writer.”
Yang, raised in New Jersey by Korean immigrant parents, was at the time writing some of the ambitious profiles that form the core of his stylish and frequently revelatory new collection, The Souls of Yellow Folk. He goes back and forth about what he should tell Mao. Like Mao, as a high schooler he had resisted the credential-mill mentality of some of his Asian-American peers, as well as the “manipulative cheeriness” of his white ones. But his choice to “live beyond both poles” has not been without costs. In his twenties, Yang had “turned away from one institution of American life after another”—academia, a steady job—and the result had been poor living conditions, no health care, and “three years in the prime of my adulthood without touching a woman.” Was it worth it? Yang considers the appeal of “getting with the program.” He could learn how to grin in bars and boardrooms, but demurs. He tells Mao:
I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.
The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I’m fine. It’s the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y’all.
The passage is juvenile, ridiculous, and improbably exhilarating. After spending thousands of words explicating the plight of Asians attempting to make it in New York, Yang spells out his contempt for the entire enterprise. Asians ought to have as good a chance as anyone else of fitting in and moving up, if that’s what they want, he suggests—but that is not what he wants, and, moreover, it is not a respectable thing to want.
As a writer Yang is often described as a master of empathy, and this new collection bears plentiful witness to his talent for imaginatively identifying with his subjects. Nothing is more characteristic of his essays, however, than this gesture of turning away, or refusal, in the name of his defiant inner self or “soul.” “Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit,” Yang writes. “But sometimes I think it’s the only thing that has preserved me intact.” The culmination of his advice to Mao and the rest of the strivers in “Paper Tigers” is to stop counting on “paper emblems” like money and advanced degrees to prove their worth; instead, they should “dare to be interesting.”
The recommendation is not for Asians alone. As W.E.B. Du Bois did in The Souls of Black Folk, Yang uses race as a prism through which to evaluate the “soul-life” of the broader American experiment. Just as Du Bois worried that blacks, in winning political and economic rights, would become merely equal-opportunity wanderers in a “dusty desert of dollars and smartness,” Yang explores the “struggle for recognition”—a term he adapts from Hegel to describe the battles of minorities and others for resources, attention, and esteem—against the backdrop of his coming-of-age in the late 1990s, during the dusty end of history. He is far from the only intellectual of his generation who, informed that there was “no alternative” to the triumphal march of consumer capitalism, seems to have honed his critical instincts in a spirit of isolated opposition. Published between 2008 and 2018, the essays in Souls span a period of renewed political activity, especially on the left. Both Yang’s strength and his vulnerability as a critic are connected to the fact that his “hard and unyielding” self has survived the transition.
The essay that made Yang’s reputation in 2008 envisioned writing itself as an act of refusal—one so vehement that, in slightly altered circumstances, it might lead to mass murder. If this sounds melodramatic, it is appropriate to “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” Yang’s 10,000-word essay for n+1 about the Virginia Tech shooter. The first of the three long explorations of Asian-American identity with which Yang opens Souls, the piece combines personal history, close reading (particularly of the macabre “multimedia manifesto” that Cho sent to NBC News on the day of the killings), and wild speculation in an effort to plumb the inner life of a Korean-American college student who wrote “poems, short stories, a novel, and plays.”
At its center lies an outrageous analogy—Yang understates the case by calling it “inappropriate”—between Cho’s doomed attempt to gain approval and recognition as a writer on his college campus in Virginia, where eventually he killed thirty-two of his defenseless classmates, and Yang’s failure to make a name for himself in the New York literary scene five years earlier. The analogy pays off, however, to the extent that it reinforces a close, almost suffocating proximity between the author of the essay and its subject, both the sons of Korean immigrants in America who share, as Yang calls it, “an Asian face.” The article introduces many of the themes Yang developed in his subsequent writing about Asian-American identity, especially regarding the social “invisibility” of Asian men. (Cho’s face is “not an ugly face,” writes Yang. “It’s just a face that has nothing to do with the desires of women in this country.”)
But the similarity between Yang and Cho is not only physical and ethnic. Yang’s frustrations as a high school student, and then as a freelance book reviewer in a literary economy teeming with “sycophants, careerists, and media parasites,” juxtaposed with Cho’s futile attempts to talk to women or forge relationships with teachers on his college campus, suggest a shared experience of being a “loser” in America. Cho had wanted the same things Americans of all races want: friends, intimacy, some positive acknowledgment of his chosen form of self-expression (in his case, writing). Instead he languished in “a world of individually determined fortunes, of winners and losers in the marketplace of status, cash, and expression…that renders some people absolutely immiserated while others grow obscenely rich.” In other words, Cho lived not in the world proposed by our Hollywood entertainments—where the traits that hold back the high school outcast in one phase of life “turn out to be a blessing in another”—but rather in the national star system that has produced the actual Hollywood, a top-heavy aristocracy that has little place, or patience, for those stranded at the bottom.
Yang lived in the same world, and as an Asian man he was familiar with some of the bitterness of being undervalued in it—though he had never been quite so “immiserated” as Cho, and in becoming a writer he had discovered a far less destructive outlet for registering his refusal of dehumanizing hierarchies. As if he were casting for intellectual models or partners in this project, the second section of Souls contains four profiles of American thinkers, all kindred refuseniks and risk-takers. Among them are Aaron Swartz, the brilliant open-source activist who committed suicide while facing federal prosecution for hacking into the JSTOR academic archives, and the intellectual historian Tony Judt, whom Yang watches, just months before his death in 2010, deliver a “vigorous cry for the importance of old-fashioned left-wing ideas” in front of a packed house at NYU. Then there is Francis Fukuyama, the political philosopher who declared in 1989 that, with the triumph of liberal capitalism over communism at the end of the cold war, we had come to the “end of history.”
Writing about him in the Guardian in 2014, Yang says Fukuyama would use less “heightened” language to describe the spread of “universal consumer culture” today. But the essays in section 3 of Souls are less a refutation of Fukuyama’s thesis than a journey into the squalid underbelly of the world created in its image. Here the “winner-take-all” spirit of unimpeded capitalism has come to structure not only our economic but also our cultural and sexual lives.
The dynamic that Yang explores in “Game Theory”—on the “seduction community” popularized by Neil Strauss’s 2005 best seller, The Game—offers a particularly vivid depiction of a much more common strategy for dealing with the “fully liberated” marketplace than Cho’s: not to rage against the “winners” but to learn to adapt their strategies to one’s own advantage. Having concluded, based on repeated, humiliating experiences, that they were unlikely to attract the opposite sex by being themselves, the game players, better known as “pickup artists,” had endeavored to reverse engineer a formula they had first learned by studying those who seemed to do it effortlessly. In a world that has “systematically converted every transcendent value into a mere advertising slogan,” Yang writes, the pickup artists “disclosed with unusual clarity the nature of the larger game we all play: one in which each player gives what he must and takes what he can.”
As in “Paper Tigers,” however, Yang affirms his subjects’ logic just before he refuses it. Just like those who had learned tricks for improving their prospects on the job market, the pickup artists’ strategic approach to romance is perfectly rational. But in accepting and even embracing the game’s reductive methods, they could not help but contribute to its colonization of American social life, making it even harder for anyone to believe in one of the few “transcendent values” to survive full market optimization: that “two souls might meet and assuage each other’s loneliness.”
The passage epitomizes how Yang’s turn away from the commercial logic of his society is always, also, a turn toward the exalted values he finds in the great literature of the past: besides Du Bois, Yang cites James Baldwin as an inspiration, and the book is littered with paraphrases from those poets of individuality, Emerson and Nietzsche. It is these thinkers who appear to furnish Yang with the hoary vocabulary—“transcendence,” “virtue,” “soul”—he uses whenever he wishes to maintain a space between the compromised ideals of his social world and his own.
Yet such a space, as Yang himself occasionally acknowledges, is harder all the time to maintain in a society that offers few genuine alternatives to commercial values. (Eventually even literature will be affected: Who today dares write, except derisively, about the soul?) Hence the turn, in the final section of Souls, to politics—and particularly to those politics that have been most devoted to tearing down unjust hierarchies and securing recognition for underrepresented groups in the roughly three decades since Yang graduated from college.
The term “identity politics” is often traced to the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian feminists in the 1970s who argued that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.” Today it is used, sometimes pejoratively, to denote a wide range of projects aimed at altering the way we describe and regulate issues of race, class, and gender. Because conversations about such matters are so complicated and sensitive, it can be difficult to discern when impassioned skirmishes over vocabulary coalesce into a broader shift in our cultural or political discourse. One of the virtues of Yang’s column for the website Tablet on identity politics during the Trump presidency has been the care with which it traces the migration of doctrines originating in abstruse academic journals, partially via social media, into the main arteries of intellectual and activist culture.
Since so much of this is achieved through the painstaking analysis of specific examples and arguments, the column is in certain respects impossible to summarize. In it, Yang takes up the imposition of speech codes on college campuses, the shift in rhetoric from the targeting of actions and attitudes (such as racism and misogyny) to the targeting of inherited characteristics (such as whiteness or maleness), and the adoption at many elite institutions of practices for sorting groups according to perceived degrees of oppression, like the “privilege walk” or the “progressive stack.”
The signal feature of this “new cosmology” for Yang—and one whose consequences could extend beyond campus or even identity politics narrowly conceived—is its rejection of an older, liberal universalist framework for thinking and talking about issues of diversity and equality. “Liberals think that there’s a way to design a fair system of rules applicable to all people that would induce us to cease judging each other through the lens of superficial physical traits that mark us as racially distinct,” Yang writes, whereas the framework favored by many contemporary activists emphasizes that “the very idea of a fair system of rules applicable to all is a pernicious mystification disguising the partial interests of the dominant class as universality itself.”
Yang is ambivalent about the implications of this shift. Sympathetic to the idea of recognition as a fundamental political demand, he has disagreed with those on the left, like the literary critic Walter Benn Michaels, who argue that identity politics are merely a distraction from class struggle—and he writes about the subject with an artfulness and intimacy that escapes liberal commentators like Jonathan Chait (not to mention the assembly of perpetually chagrined newspaper columnists to Chait’s political right). In his early essays on Asian-American identity, Yang expressed support for people who continue to feel marginalized by liberal institutions supposedly devoted to tolerance and diversity, speculating in “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho” that things might have turned out differently had Cho been instructed to “connect his pain to his ethnic identity,” as identity politics recommends. Eight years later in “We Out Here,” which appeared in a special issue of Harper’s on campus activism and is the first article in the final section of Souls, Yang retains hope that a newfangled vocabulary—“microaggression,” “unconscious bias,” “white privilege”—will give “confidence to people desiring redress for the subtle incursions on their dignity that they suspected were holding them back.”
The hesitation with which Yang articulates this hope (“that they suspected”), however, indicates his growing skepticism about terms he worries “could easily become totalizing and portray the world as an ‘iron cage’ in which crude identity categories determine everyone’s fate.” The “iron cage” recalls Max Weber’s use of the same phrase in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, underscoring Yang’s comparison of the portrait of the soul under late capitalism, when it is clenched in the “cage” of profit-maximization, and the fate indicated for it by a rhetoric that encloses individuals in the lockboxes of “whiteness,” “masculinity,” and “privilege.” In calling these categories “totalizing,” Yang means their tendency to become, like the logic of the market, the dominant way we evaluate every aspect of our experience: our art, our education, our sex, and our inner lives. A vocabulary that sorts us into categories based on race, class, gender, or marginality may be preferable to one that defines us according to our consumer profile, but it remains inadequate if what we desire is to be recognized for our “obdurate singularity.”
In place of a politics based in group identity, in his recent writing Yang has advocated a recommitment to “liberal categories of thought and action” like freedom of speech, equal protection under the law, and individual rights. Defenses of such concepts may sound familiar—and are common from older American intellectuals—but they strike a discordant note among Yang’s liberal-left cohort, where they are commonly considered not only insufficient to the task of promoting full equality but also seem tainted by contact with the reactionaries and free-market evangelists—or neoliberals—who use them to prop up precisely the kinds of corrosive hierarchies Yang depicts in his earlier writing.*
Yang is not a political philosopher, and it is possible to interpret his (so far) fragmentary brief for such categories as a matter more of literary sensibility than political sense. Like another prominent contemporary essayist, Zadie Smith, Yang seems to defend liberal political philosophy in part because he values its ambiguity, the space it gives for “changing one’s mind.” But in squarely placing the free individual—as opposed to and sometimes in contrast with the free market—at the center of that defense, it is also possible to see in Yang’s writing the makings of a case for a modern liberalism that maintains the often neglected distinction between selfishness and self-cultivation.
Compared to the “malign historical stasis” in which Yang recalls beginning his career as a writer, the essays in Souls span a decade of high political drama. The climax of the drama on the right is obvious, while on the liberal-left several crucial events, beginning with the 2008 financial crisis, have altered the story in unpredictable ways. Writing in the first decade of the 2000s for leftist magazines like n+1, Yang was among a group of intellectuals and artists who defined themselves against a smug and corporate-friendly liberal establishment. That establishment still exists, but it has now been challenged by a revitalized and increasingly confident left. The identity movements that Yang has written about since 2016 are one manifestation of that left. Another is the upswell of socialist sentiment following the Bernie Sanders campaign, punctuated by the successes of Democratic Socialist candidates in the 2018 midterms.
That the final articles in Souls, as well as some Yang has written for the liberal-centrist Tablet since the book went to press, criticize aspects of these movements—a development that has disappointed some of his former admirers—may be seen as indicating an underlying consistency: where before he had resisted, from the perspective of the “singular” individual, the flattening out of social life into a series of market-based transactions, today Yang opposes the “politiciz[ation] of everyday life” on similar grounds. But it also suggests a characteristic dilemma for those who came of age when authenticity was experienced predominantly as a personal, rather than a political, possibility. To learn to measure all against the barometer of the “hard and unyielding” self is to come to distrust the demands of unified groups and movements, no matter how well meaning. For every “movement” revolves around a set of orthodoxies that will be unacceptable to one habituated to defiance.
Yet if Yang’s tenacious individuality marks some of his meditations as untimely, it is also what invests them with a unique necessity. Especially when there are persuasive reasons to get with a program, we need critics who are willing to keep speaking in a voice of their obdurate own.
“Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment has become a sword for authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections,” writes the law professor Catharine A. MacKinnon in a new anthology, The Free Speech Century (Oxford University Press, 2018). ↩