Cheng’s interest in reconceiving the “materialism” of race studies and feminist studies dates at least to her previous monograph Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface (2011). When we encounter this term “materialism” in relation to an other-marked subject, it often refers to corporeal embodiment. Cheng’s understanding of materialism, however, is more aesthetic than corporeal. In both Ornamentalism and Second Skin, such a materialism manifests as the transubstantiation of human, animal, and machine. Both studies employ a common vocabulary of shine, style, covers, and cladding, even as they portray primitivism and Orientalism as marking out separate strains within Euro-American modernism (namely, the former was predicated on primitive corporeal nakedness and the latter on decadent ornamental excess).
Given these overlaps, one could make a case that Second Skin had set the table for Ornamentalism. By this reckoning, Ornamentalism offers an impressive sequel to an ongoing critical narrative. However, I find it useful to think of these as companion texts, their relationship not sequential but dialogic: Second Skin takes “black woman” as a starting point for theorizing skin and surface; Ornamentalism embarks on the same journey but starts with “yellow woman.” I prefer this dialogic framing because while it is common to theorize race through blackness, it is extremely rare to do so through Asianness. We are more familiar with treating “Asian” as an analogue to or a derivative of blackness, as an abject imitation of whiteness, or as a “middleman” category that mediates between blackness and whiteness.
To be sure, Cheng is careful to acknowledge the significance of blackness for theorizing race, for instance by employing the rhetoric of passing and miscegenation to describe Asian-appearing cyborgs and by modifying Monique Allewaert’s “parahumanity” — the entanglements of human and animal that arise from dehumanizing acts of violence against Afro-American slaves — to posit ornamentalism as a kind of “perihumanity.” Yet Ornamentalism also calls our attention to the critical blind spots produced by what Colleen Lye terms an “Afro-Asian analogy,” a methodological maneuver that imports the critical paradigms of antiblackness, primitivism, or transatlantic slavery to make sense of Asian racialization and racial formation. In examining the dialogic but non-analogical relations between black and yellow femininity, Cheng takes an approach that is much more intrepid than it may initially seem. For while no shortage of studies have adopted the “yellow woman” as an object of analysis, Ornamentalism forces us to realize that we have yet to take the peculiar objecthood of the “yellow woman” as the reference point for a theory of race.
This theory is most clearly articulated in Cheng’s introduction. In delineating Orientalism’s distinctly “decorative grammar,” Cheng draws on African Americanists in general and pays homage to Hortense Spillers in particular. Quoting from Spillers’s 1987 landmark essay “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Cheng asks, “To what extent have the ‘hieroglyphics of the flesh’ prevented us from seeing an alternative materialism of the body?” This alternative materialism leads Cheng to take ornamentalism rather than corporeality, encrustment rather than enfleshment, as a framework for rethinking not only the “yellow woman” but also racialized femininity as such. In its boldest form, Cheng’s claim is that “both Orientalism and primitivism draw from technologies of ornamentalism” (the emphasis here is mine).
If Cheng’s introduction thinks race and gender through black studies, it engages aesthetics through Euro-American thought. In devising a theory of race, gender, and aesthetics for Asian-American studies, Cheng is careful to caution that her focus is “not on the real Asian or Asian American woman but instead on the very real formation of her ghost in Euro-American culture: the yellow woman.” Given the flack that Asian-American literary scholars have received for misconstruing fictional representations as proxies for real persons, it is striking that Cheng purposely treats actually existing historical persons and personas as ghosts and fantasies. In other words, the concept of ornamentalism, in loosening our preoccupation with the “real Asian or Asian American woman,” offers a new vocabulary for Asian-American studies, displacing the cultural with the material, the inauthentic with the inorganic.
The insights yielded by such an approach are astounding and profound. Ornamentalism’s case studies revisit familiar Asian Americanist flashpoints, showing how an attunement to ornamentalism fundamentally changes our understanding of immigration history, exotic cuisine, porcelain collectibles, and techno-Orientalism. Cheng proposes, for example, that ornamentalism has shadowed the very foundations of legal personhood. In examining the 1875 immigration case Chy Lung v. Freeman, she recounts an extraordinary scene wherein a prosecutor peeked into the sleeves, hems, and collars of “twenty-two lewd Chinese women,” debating “just how wide a sleeve could be before tipping into licentiousness.” The centrality of adornment to adjudicating this relatively obscure case then provides Cheng the impetus for rethinking more monumental cases such as Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), both of which have become rote citations in Asian-American studies literature reviews. Moreover, the lack of a proper border between embroidery and body, Cheng argues, discloses something more axiomatic about “the relation between personhood and its external covers” within the domain of the law.
Cheng’s second case study, the career of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong, is the most obvious counterpart to Second Skin. Wong was Josephine Baker’s exact contemporary. And just as Baker has been frequently called out for her seeming submission to primitivism, Wong has faced an equally mixed reputation for her seeming acceptance of Orientalist roles, such that of the “Dragon Lady” and the “Lotus Blossom.” For both Baker and Wong, Cheng investigates not the truth of identity but its displacement onto adjacent surfaces — in particular, blindingly and impenetrably shiny surfaces. Despite the different racial logics that Wong and Baker exemplify, a similar phraseology of shine, plastic, and surrogacy permeates Cheng’s readings of them. With respect to Wong, Cheng is especially interested in the subject/object conundrum that results when a minority becomes a celebrity. Here is one of the many instances in Ornamentalism when the destabilization of the person registers as a pronominal ambiguity: “It is neither a coincidence nor a symptom of commodification that the vernacular term used to indicate ultrapersonality […] is also the pronoun that designates nonpersonhood.” Put more succinctly, “She is ‘It’ because she knows how to be ‘it.’”
What does Anna May Wong share with sushi? Quite a bit, it turns out. For the exotic celebrity, “the presentation of self as object for consumption coexists with the rendering of that self as indigestible.” For the exotic cuisine, the consumption and the digestion of an “edible body” (a term that Cheng borrows from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin) become tropes for destabilizing the boundaries between gourmand and animal, self and other. Cheng investigates the ontologically disruptive force of sushi-eating through David Wong Louie’s short story “Bottles of Beaujolais.” Louie’s story depicts the culinary and love relations between an Asian-American male narrator, his white female date Luna, and a restaurant-dwelling otter named Mushimono. Cheng tracks the slippery and fishy transmogrifications of Mushimono and Luna by interspersing witty close readings with a startling array of references, from Henry David Thoreau to Sandro Botticelli to Robert Hass. On this trans-species and trans-gender negotiation of other and otter, Cheng writes, “sushi eating queers its eater, not by being foreign per se, but paradoxically by being too intimate.”
The queerness of ornamentalism is an important subtext to Cheng’s study, even though it is only expressly articulated in the reading of “Bottles of Beaujolais.” One place for teasing out this subtext is Cheng’s claim that “we do not need the presence of a yellow woman to invoke the logic of yellow femininity.” This crucial insight has spawned two lines of thinking for me. One concerns the historical and cultural feminization of Asian men. This gendered, racialized, and aestheticized genealogy has led the notoriously misogynistic and homophobic Asian-American literary pioneer Frank Chin to insistently conflate the queer, the Oriental, and the ornamental. For example, in Chin’s 1972 play The Chickencoop Chinaman, a racially ambiguous woman named Lee says to the lead character Tam, “Watery paintings, silk, all that grace and beauty arts and crafts crap! […] you couldn’t even get one of your own girls, because they know…” She pauses. “They know all about you, mama’s boys and crybabies, not a man in all your males.” Tam later jokes, “[I]f we read up on Chinese culture, […] we can fool folks into thinking we’re the way we are not because we’re queer but because we’re Chinese!” To his alter ego, a “model minority” character suggestively named Tom, Tam then retorts: “Foreigners don’t bother me, but ornamental Orientals like you make me sick.”
Cheng briefly references a version of this “ornamental Oriental” that Chin lambastes. For gay rights lawyer and activist Kenji Yoshino, the moment of “coming out,” Cheng astutely observes, involves “not nakedness, literally or otherwise.” Rather, what “drove my invisible difference to the surface,” Yoshino writes, is a vest ornamented with “gold lions ramping through a cobalt brocade.” What are we to make of this queer man’s apparent reclaiming of a feminized and aestheticized ornamentality? If ornamentalism “designates a specific racial category but can be applied to different racial subjects” (Cheng’s example is Sethe’s chokecherry scar in Toni Morrison’s Beloved), then can ornamentalism, in its “promiscuous transferability,” also be applied to different sexual subjects (such as Yoshino with his brocaded vest)?
A second and more surprising scenario follows from Cheng’s framing of yellow femininity as a transferable style: ornamentalism performs the seemingly impossible task of queering the “yellow woman.” This, to me, constitutes one of the most significant yet underplayed aspects of Cheng’s theory. Within the Euro-American popular imaginary, the “yellow woman” has conventionally functioned as a heterosexual embodiment of idealized femininity. Indeed, it is with Anna May Wong in mind that Yen Le Espiritu has observed: “Whereas American popular culture denies ‘manhood’ to Asian men, it endows Asian women with an excess of ‘womanhood.’” Cheng’s theory of ornamentalism takes this racialized archetype of “perfect womanhood and genuine exotic femininity” to the logical extreme, for instance with Wong’s celebrity persona. In doing so, Cheng brilliantly transposes our view of Wong’s womanhood, showing how an inexorable “she” in fact endures as an obdurate “it.” More interesting than the explicitly trans-gender commingling of Luna-otter is the implicitly queer co-becoming of “she-it” animated by Anna May Wong, the preeminent icon of heterosexual femininity.
Ornamentalism’s latent queerness is perhaps best registered in Cheng’s fascinatingly inconsistent pronoun usage. Although “she” is the pronoun that appears most frequently in Ornamentalism, we also find instances where Cheng attempts to grammatically indicate the ontological and biological instability of the “yellow woman.” For example: “She/it brings into view an alternative form of life, not as the site of the free modern subject and his celebrated autonomy, but on the contrary, at the encrusted edges and crevices of defiled, feminine, ornamented bodies.”
The “free modern subject and his celebrated autonomy” may seem to present us with a “natural” or naked body, but Cheng proposes that it is in fact the “sartorial cladding of a person” that has the power to “render him or her visible in the eyes of the law.” As Cheng’s language shows, this legal fabric grants not only visibility in general but also visibility as “him or her” — as sexually distinct. By contrast, the “encrusted edges and crevices of defiled, feminine, ornamented bodies” makes it difficult to determine the distinction between flesh and fabric. This lifeless life form sustained on “edges and crevices” thwarts both the boundaries and the gender of a body. Such a body necessarily compels the alternating pronouns she, he, and it.
The remaining chapters of Ornamentalism explore what is likely the most common version of the Oriental thing: the technological object. In some sense, these track the shifting meanings of the term technology, from its earlier association with the sensory particularity of the mechanical arts and artisanal handicraft to its current connotations of an inhuman coolness and a disembodied impersonality. Where Cheng theorizes legal personhood and celebrity personality through historical figures, the turn to technological persons calls forth an archive of contemporary cultural artifacts. She turns, for example, to the 2015 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, China: Through the Looking Glass, and discovers that this 21st-century exhibit rehearses “the basic tenets of nineteenth-century Orientalism.” The point is not that ornamentalism is trans-historical; it is that the object-life of ornaments adheres to a different temporality. A contemporary cosmopolitan museum is no different from a turn-of-the-century cabinet display insofar as both show that an ornamental body does not abide by biological life but is “radiantly reproduced through inorganic and insensate mediums.”
In a book full of visually stunning images, this chapter on China: Through the Looking Glass stands out for its dazzling repertoire of dresses, its textiles and textures combining to produce an aestheticized sensory overload. Particularly memorable is Li Xiaofeng’s Beijing Memory No. 5, which Cheng refers to as “Ceramic Woman.” This “dress” is reconstructed from broken plates, teacups, and other domestic curios, supposedly from the Qing or Ming Dynasty. Cheng writes, “[T]his Ceramic Woman, too, is a technology: a mechanical assemblage forged out of abandoned, auratic residue.” As a form of inorganic “lifelessness” that “imagines what life might have been,” Li’s Ceramic Woman allows us to “experience the prospective and prosthetic quality of our ontology.”
The mechanical assemblage that binds the prospective and the prosthetic, the temporal and the ontological, anticipates the ornamental object examined in the book’s closing chapter. Here, Cheng turns to recent films such as Ghost in the Shell (2017) and Ex Machina (2014) that extend the cultural discourse of “techno-Orientalism.” This discourse is often associated with the 1980s and 1990s. But instead of interpreting sleek fembots and cyborgs as coincident with “the development of modern technology and modern corporate culture” in the techno-Orient, Cheng trains us to view these thingly women as part of an “enchanted materialism of Asiatic femininity” that “has dogged the Western conceptualization of personhood since the imperial age.”
It is also in this chapter that Cheng employs the 19th-century rhetoric of passing and miscegenation, of physiognomy and blood quantity, to describe filmic imaginings of uncanny object-life. Ghost in the Shell inspires the statement that “the animation of objects through the synthetic, full-body prosthesis of Asiatic femininity […] is a modern story of passing.” In viewing Ex Machina, Cheng writes, “It is precisely the incongruous combination of transparent machinery and very human gesture and form that makes Ava inviting. Vitality here derives precisely from miscegenation.”
These alternate modes of persisting — that is, “living” through “animation” and “vitality” outside of biological time — inevitably raise the question of whether ornamentalism can constitute a kind of politics. Cheng phrases it this way: “Could this fantasy of living on as a thing, undetected by humans, serve as a fable for the social subject who is an object? Not to assimilate … but to exist, somehow, alongside?” This dream of a life that exists without detection suggests a belief in “the radical possibility of ornamentalism, that animated personhood can be achieved through synthetic attachments and applications.” The prospect of achieving an animated personhood through applications operates in noticeable tension with Cheng’s repeated reminder that a willfully enacted subversion is unavailable to the object, a figure whose “defiance of objectification […] results in more objectness.” Cheng makes clear that ornamentalism is neither intentional nor recuperative. Yet her repeated invocations of “survival” echo a growing desire among cultural critics for less heroic and more fugitive modes of political being.
In Ornamentalism, the political idiom that will feel the most familiar to readers belongs to a critical persona rather than a subject or an object. Cheng writes: “This book presents a willful encounter with yellow femininity as persistent, brutal, exquisite style. This is a fight song that wishes to take head on, not simply deny or decry, the object conditions on which yellow womanhood has been built.”
As might be expected, the “fight song” that belongs to the critic responds to the status of the “yellow woman” not only within society but also within criticism: “Unlike the shattered ‘fact of blackness,’ which has been recomposed for the mournful black subject […], the ‘fact of yellowness’ remains an active myth that enjoys no critical stature.” The yellow woman’s lack of critical stature explains the magnificent effort to craft a theory in her name. This redemptive move exemplifies one of Cheng’s enduring preoccupations: to worry the distinction between “politics” and “theory.” Hence, included in her argument about ornamentalism — that it cannot countenance political agency in the conventional sense — is a reluctance to overstate “the political efficacy of critical analysis.” Ornamentalism, in the end, is a theory but not a politics of racialized femininity. In this capacity, it allows Cheng to identify injury without recovering a subject. This object that lives but appears lifeless cannot be a political solution — but it can be a critical diagnosis that forces us to confront the assumptions underlying our political desires.
Sunny Xiang is an assistant professor of English at Yale University.