[Review] Systems of Identification: Christopher B. Patterson’s Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific

{Written by Jason G. Coe, this review is part of Issue 40 (June/July 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Christopher B. Patterson, Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific, Rutgers University Press, 2018. 256 pgs.

Transitive Cultures

Collective identities—cultural, ethnic, sexual, linguistic and otherwise—are neither inherent nor natural; they are social constructions used to organise people into manageable groups. In her seminal work The Second Sex, existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir explains, “One is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.” To be a woman is not to be born with a particular set of traits, but instead, to be trained by social norms into behaving like a woman—whatever “being a woman” might mean in different historical periods and contexts. Likewise, other forms of collective identification, such as ethnic and national identities, are also constructed through social norms and institutions. To rephrase de Beauvoir’s famous maxim: one is not born, but rather, becomes ethnic.

Christopher B. Patterson’s new book, Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific, argues that ethnic identities function as signifiers of social hierarchy used by organising bodies, such as national governments, intergovernmental institutions and, increasingly, transnational corporations, to distill mass populations into discrete and manageable units with competing interests and resource allotments—for example, those with this skin colour, that speak this language, that worship this way, belong in that place, do that work or receive that resource. Building upon established research in postcolonialism and Asian American studies, Patterson labels this phenomenon “pluralist governmentality”—a form of state-endorsed multiculturalism prevalent in North America as well as Southeast Asia. As a vestige of British and American colonial empire building in the Pacific, pluralist governmentality is, according to Patterson, “a structure forged out of the need to control a ‘diverse’ colonial populace for the purposes of providing cheap labour and of legitimating imperial power.” In order to maintain “harmony,” share resources and increase production, pluralist governmentality divides a population into different categories of people and designates where and with whom they belong.

As a mode of governance built upon systems of identification, pluralist governmentality depends upon the solidity and fixedness of identity categories to maintain social hierarchy. To demonstrate how people that are not easily categorised can undermine that system, Patterson offers Malaysian writer K.S. Maniam’s metaphor of the tiger as ethnic nationalist and the chameleon as a transitive subject. In his 1997 essay “The New Diaspora,” Maniam argues that the tiger symbolises a territorial attitude towards cultural inheritance and a respectful tolerance of, but insistent separation from, others. In contrast, the chameleon “remains aware of and knowledgeable about the cultures around it” and adapts “to varied perceptions and expectations” (Patterson). Contrary to putative expectations, the tiger is easier to manage than the chameleon. The tiger knows that it is a tiger, stays within its boundaries and fights for what it knows a tiger deserves, thus confirming segregation and “cultural entrapment.” While the tiger confirms and protects the walls between cultural groups, the chameleon demonstrates the porousness of those boundaries by moving between them. Instead of embodying a predetermined colour pattern, the chameleon moulds itself to fit different identity categories, such as by speaking multiple languages or practicing different social customs—or, as Patterson has it, the chameleon represents “the blending into whatever economic, intellectual and social landscapes that are available.” By camouflaging itself against the available milieu, the chameleon figure is always becoming something different as it moves through different spaces. As a subject that transitions regularly, the chameleon figure threatens the governing system of identification by providing an “alternative politics of identity,” which enables individuals to maintain mobility in hyper-controlled spaces. Patterson dubs these chameleon-like social practitioners “transitive cultures.”

Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific studies minor literatures throughout southeast Asia and its diasporas in North America as a mode of response to pluralist governmentality. The book analyses literary productions that express a “motif of transition” and which upset forms of easy social categorisation, wherein identities function as camouflage for manoeuvring around social control. By understanding how these writers respond to pluralist governmentality, Patterson argues “we can begin to see this literature itself as a type of social practice, one that develops a culture of transitioning among given identities in order to access a more critical, reflective and ambiguous mode of being.” Instead of inheriting and defending a specific literary aesthetic and tradition like the tiger, the subjects of Patterson’s study utilise different idioms, genres and politics like the chameleon.

The book itself takes part in the making and unmaking of identification categories through transitive cultural practice. Instead of using the terms “Asian American” or “English literature”—normative academic terms used to organise university departments, library catalogs, research grant applications and other forms of knowledge production—Patterson uses the term “Transpacific Anglophone literature” to describe English-language texts from Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, as well as those written by Southeast Asian migrants to Hawaii, Canada and the mainland United States. He uses this label to emphasise the “encounter” and “exchange” that typifies “transitive culture,” and to stress the ideology of linguistic identities. This genealogy of an underappreciated literary tradition explores “transitive cultures” in metahistorical novels, travel narratives and non-realist genres and offers a border-crossing method for conceptualising and reading literature that purposefully elides multicultural categorisations. In doing so, Patterson’s research makes visible the social hierarchies that structure pluralist governmentality, including those of the academy.

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Jason CoeJason G. Coe is currently Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong, where he teaches and researches on literature, cinema, and media. His latest publication, “Modernizing primordialism: Deterritorializing Chineseness and reterritorializing the Sinophone in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” appears in Asian Cinema 29:1. His current book project studies the cultural politics of masculinity in transpacific popular media. In his spare time, Coe likes to play sports, watch movies, and eat junk food.

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