Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 26, 2013
Thy Phu Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. 218 pp.; 42 b/w ills. Paper $28.95 (9781439907214 )

One cannot wade too deeply into Asian American studies without encountering the generative, foundational, and divisive concept of the model minority, or the representation of Asian Americans as exceptionally successful minorities (particularly in contrast to other ethnic groups). As described in Thy Phu’s Picturing Model Citizens: Civility in Asian American Visual Culture, the figure of the model minority both influenced the late sixties blossoming of a pan-ethnic Asian American social movement, and has propelled contemporary scholarship extending from (and expanding beyond) that formative moment (8–11). To even begin summarizing the body of work devoted to defining, contesting, and revising this figure would be a daunting task. Indeed, as with influential concepts in other disciplines (Roland Barthes’s theory of the photographic punctum comes to mind), the model minority, within Asian American studies, is either an obligatory hurdle or a welcome springboard, depending on one’s point of view; it almost cannot not be addressed, lingering as a conceptual presence even without explicit engagement.

What makes Phu’s Picturing Model Citizens innovative and interventional is the way it presents a thoroughly compelling case for “looking otherwise” at the model minority (17). By this, Phu means to emphasize two things. First, by focusing attention on the “model,” along with the “minority,” she teases out and meticulously unpacks the heretofore under-theorized connections between civility, citizenship, and the model minority. As Phu notes, it is the discursive modeling of civil forms of behavior that both confers legitimacy and threatens non-recognition to minority subjects seeking the basic rights of citizenship. For Asian American subjects, in particular, modes of civility form an integral component of model citizenship, and it is around this term (and its associated behaviors and significations) that the strongest patterns of accomodative or resistant tropes accrete. And yet, as Phu notes, it is precisely “the model minority’s civility [that] has gone unnoticed” (10). Looking otherwise, in this regard, means learning to see something so seemingly basic that its nuances have been consistently oversimplified: the concept of the model minority is produced, reproduced, accepted, and/or contested through the construction and dissemination of specific models upon which it depends—models that circulate across multiple forms of cultural production. That these models are discursively produced as well as materially registered and reinforced (through various “techniques of the body,” to borrow a phrase from Marcel Mauss) suggests the importance of looking at things differently and of looking at different things. Indeed, as Phu suggests, the traces of their materialization can be located within specific photographs, and also between photographic archives and the contexts in which they are produced and circulated. The second key emphasis of Picturing Model Citizens, then, is Phu’s insistence that scholars of visual culture “look otherwise” at their objects of study, with an eye toward unseen patterns and felicitous (but far from insignificant) connections. While Phu focuses her analytical lens on photography of and by Asian Americans (broadly defined), her discussion of this archive is thus informed as much, if not more, by cultural studies approaches as it is by art-historical paradigms.

Putting these two emphases together affords Phu an impressively flexible framework for identifying and unpacking representations of civility within Asian American visual culture. Phu’s definition of civility covers a range of discursive and material practices, including civil discourse (“good” vs. “bad” political dialogue, for instance) and civil behavior (politesse, facial expressions, fashion, bodily comportment). Methodologically, Phu’s approach might be defined, roughly, as an attempt to account equally for the material as well for the symbolic, with each chapter identifying, and then expanding upon and problematizing, a central organizing trope or conceit. The first chapter, for instance, highlights what Phu calls “spectacles of intimacy” (28), exploring representations of the intimate and domestic as a regulatory discourse that, at the same time, remains open to ambiguity and challenge. Touching upon Arnold Genthe’s famous images of Chinatown, works by amateur photographers On Char and Mary Tape, and the practice of proxy marriage via “picture brides,” the chapter interrogates how ideas of intimacy, domesticity, and sentimentality underwrite the late nineteenth-century pictorial conventions adopted by professionals and laypeople alike.

Indeed, in Phu’s account, the discursive circulation of the concepts of “liking” and “likeness” indicates an underlying anxiety over the effectiveness of the political/scopic regime seeking to justify race-based limits on immigration from Asia in late nineteenth-century America. As Phu notes, the “tension between likeness and liking vexed the picture bride practice” (49), most problematically in the lingering awareness that such visual constructions, premised on the possibility of a “likeness” between an embodied subject and her visual representation, also contained an appeal to “liking” (one’s future bride or groom); that appeal raises the apposite possibility that such representations strived not for accuracy or “reality,” but staged artifice. This slippage, Phu writes, suggests that despite efforts to regulate bodies through normative constructions of civil domesticity and intimacy, the practice of self-fashioning evident in photos of picture brides and grooms paradoxically indicates a subversive acquiescence, in which the represented subjects “would defy the state that expressly sought, through legal measures, to govern such bodies” (53).

Here, as in the chapters that follow, Phu’s attention to visual imagery is coupled to a set of richly productive symbolic tropes encapsulating the complex interplay between material experience and discursive production. As with the discussion of “likeness” and “liking,” each of the following chapters opens with an introductory thematic, upon which larger questions and points of contact then build and extend. The second chapter, for instance, plays seriously with the idea of “cultivation” and representations of the internment of Japanese Americans; the operative term for the third chapter is “manner,” particularly as it applies to readings of wartime atrocity; “masks,” surgical and otherwise, anchor the fourth chapter’s exploration of hygiene, otherness, and the SARS outbreak of 2002.

Such an approach, of course, is not in itself unusual. What distinguishes Phu’s method is the way that this thematic organization also provides structure for her larger interpretive strategy. While perhaps never explicitly stated as such, this strategy attempts to articulate a transhistorical (and transnational) dialogical, dialectical contestation over authorized forms of civility. In each case, then, the operative terms are both descriptive and symbolic, critical “hinge” concepts that dramatize, or even enact, the fraught relationship between civility, citizenship, and model behavior. Underscoring what Phu calls “civility’s uncivil dimensions” (97), these thematic foci reflect doubly, just as the photographs under interrogation often consist of a “double address” (52). Looked at in one way, images of cultivation, manners, masks, etc., clearly signify a state-sanctioned regulative discourse that produces model citizens. Looked at from a slightly different angle, what one finds are potential forms of “competing” civilities (14), moments of embodiment and self-representation that subvert and re-script the very models they purportedly reproduce.

In building local arguments around thematic foci, Phu also embeds within those tropes an interpretive strategy that consistently seeks out civility’s “counterarchive” (21), moments of “countertestimony” (70) and “counternarrative” (138) often hiding in plain sight, but never so clearly seen. The unearthing of these counterarchives is certainly one of the book’s key strengths, and is itself an excellent reason to recommend Picturing Model Citizens to interested readers. Phu takes a risk, however, in positing so consistent a bifurcation between distinct (archive/counterarchive) representational values and regimes, and one of the book’s weaknesses is the attempted containment of these representations into strictly defined binary poles. What is lost is the sense of interpretive ambiguity that anchors many of the photographs at hand. Phu’s reading of Ansel Adams’s photographs of Manzanar is a fine example. The work certainly dehumanizes and objectifies the internees, positioning them as objects within a larger “natural” landscape. But the anxious reassertion of a clear boundary between “man” and “nature” that haunts much of the work intimates, at the very least, an uncertainty about where and how these particular (human?) objects belong, in relation to that (less and less) clear-cut line. Implicit, then, in much of Phu’s analysis is the sense that the boundary between archive and counterarchive is just as easily drawn; the effort to demonstrate this consistently threatens to oversimplify the richly complex readings Phu otherwise manages.

There are additional aspects of the book’s methodology that raise questions for this reader. First, it applies ideas of “biological citizenship” (anchored by a too-condensed discussion of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of “bare life”) a bit instrumentally, without providing a full enough discussion of how these concepts apply specifically to the products of Asian American visual culture (as opposed to the material experience of Asian Americans) (87–93). Second, Phu generates several arguments from images not accessible to the reader and, in a few cases, quite impossible to locate; this can prove quite frustrating, as in the case of a lost photo of Kim Phuc (the famous “napalm girl” depicted in Nick Ut’s Trang Bang, 1972) (114). The problem here is not in the method, but in the argument. Phu’s readings of these images are extensive and controversial; the plausibility of her claims seems (to this reader, at least) to demand evidentiary confirmation. Third, Phu occasionally gives in to the impulse to psychologize the subjects under representation, although this is usually tempered by qualification, as in the following assertion: “the task of coaxing life from this intractable earth appears perhaps unbearable to this lone farmer [interned at Manzanar]” (65; emphasis added). Finally, it would have been interesting to learn how different media forms affect or alter the dynamic of civility, citizenship, and model behavior, either in terms of reception or dissemination. Phu devotes a good chunk of the third chapter to quite distinct cultural productions (a television show, photographs from news magazines, images in medical textbooks). Notwithstanding the book’s call for a generously expansive definition of visual culture, the somewhat equivocal treatment of what are clearly different visual media leads to inevitable questions about how far context can expand before content is dully flattened.

Despite these critiques, Picturing Model Citizens presents a compelling, original, and timely contribution to the nascent field of Asian American visual studies, productively drawing together a set of photographic archives and contexts that have, for too long, been arbitrarily imagined as discrete and disconnected. It is impossible to resist the pun, so I won’t: Phu’s Picturing Model Citizens is itself a model of engaged and innovative scholarship, charting new directions for Asian American studies, visual studies, citizenship studies, and the emergent combinations therein. Readers interested in those fields would do well to seriously consider its approach to “looking otherwise.”

Warren Liu
Assistant Professor, English Department, Scripps College