José Esteban Muñoz (2002)

Revisiting the Autoethnographic Performance: Richard Fung’s Theory/Praxis as Queer Performativity by José Esteban Muñoz

(originally published in Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung ed. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto)

Karl Marx, in one of his famous early aphorisms, argued that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” This statement is a fundamental axiom for thinking about Marxism — a philosophy that is not only a philosophy, but a way of looking at the work that favours a “sensuous contemplation” over mere “abstract thinking.” I have long thought that this notion from Marx is important to really understand the stakes of queer performativity and what I think is so remarkable about Richard Fung's project and its unique relation to the queer theory/queer praxis split.

An infamous incident embodies these tensions, namely the controversy generated in part by Richard’s work at the art journal October. In the early 1990s, when key October editorial member Douglas Crimp wished to publish the proceedings of a conference that he and his activist intellectual friends had organized, two essays, one by AIDS activist and scholar Cindy Patton and the other by Fung, were rejected by the rest of the editorial board (neither writer was, at the time, an officially anointed academic). Crimp, whose attentions had turned to the AIDS activist and queer movements, was part of a group of writers and thinkers who wished to fuse activism (praxis) and theory. The other editors were vested in policing the line between saying and doing, theory and praxis. In Marx's parlance, there was no interest in attempting to change the world on their front.

Crimp resigned from the October editorial board and the entire volume was eventually published as How Do I Look? and Fung’s essay, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Porn Video,” has since been reprinted multiple times. The fact that this essay has been without question, one of the most cited and reprinted essays in Asian American studies and a foundational text of Asian American gender studies not only vindicates Crimp’s editorial decision but also makes one question why the essay solicited such over-the-top gatekeeping. I believe Fung’s essay represented what Marx would have called the challenges of sensuous contemplation over abstract thinking, in that sensuous contemplation is a mode of saying and doing that makes one conscious of the actual material conditions of reality, the contingencies that structure the world and organize power. Fung’s work, for me, represents what queer critique should be about — a sensuous contemplation of the material conditions of possibility that shape and form aspects of the individual, of his or her queerness, and our racialization.

The Queen's English, Too:
Queer Hybridity and the Autoethnographic Performance

Are queens born or made? The royal visit sequence of Richard Fung’s My Mother’s Place (1990) undoes the “either/or” bind that such a question produces. A sequence from the film's beginning narrates a moment when the pasty spectre of a monarch born to the throne helps to formulate an entirely different type of queen. A flickering sound and image connotes an 8mm camera, the technology used before the advent of amateur video cameras. A long black car leads a procession as schoolchildren, mostly black girls and boys wearing white or light blue uniforms, look on. At the centre of the procession we can easily identify the British Queen. The voiceover narration sets the scene:

Under the watchful eyes of the priests we stand for ages on the sidewalk, burning up in our school uniforms. Then quickly they pass, and all you see is a long white glove making a slow choppy motion. We wave the little flags we were given and fall back into class. White socks on our arms, my sister and I practice the royal wave at home. After Trinidad and Tobago got our independence in 1962, Senghor, Selassie and Indira Gandhi also made visits. We were given school holidays just like we got for the Queen and Princess Margaret, but my mother never took pictures of them.

The young Chinese Trinidadian’s identification with the Queen of England is a complicated one. Practicing the royal wave is an example of a brand of dissidence that Homi Bhabha has defined as “colonial mimicry.” 1 But the modalities of difference that inform this royal gesture are, in this instance, not only structured around the colonized/colonizer divide but also a gay/straight one. This moment of proto-drag “flaunting” displays an ambivalent relation to empire and the protocols of colonial pedagogy, and also reacts against the forced gender prescriptions that such systems reproduce. This mode of mimicry is theatrical inasmuch as it mimes and renders hyperbolic the symbolic ritual that it is signifying upon. This brief “visualization” of power is representative of Fung's own cultural performance, as videos such as My Mother’s Place and Chinese Characters (1986) “visualize” the workings of power in ethnographic and pornographic films, two discourses that assign subjects like Fung, colonized, coloured and queer, the status of terminally “other” object.

The cultural performances that Fung’s videos produce are powerful disidentifications with othering discourses. In fact, to perform queerness is to constantly disidentify; to constantly find oneself thriving on sites where meaning does not properly line up. This is equally true of hybridity, another modality where meaning or identifications do not properly line up. The postcolonial hybrid is a subject whose identity practices are structured around an ambivalent relationship to the signs of empire and the signs of the “native,” a subject who occupies a space between the West and the rest. The work of cultural producers like Fung helps one understand how queer lives are fragmented into various identities, some of them adjacent, some of them complementary, some of them antagonistic. His hybrid cultural works help make visible the mediations that attempt to render hybridity invisible and unthinkable. In both My Mother’s Place and Chinese Characters, hybridity and its process are made comprehensible and visible.

Fredric Jameson has contended that “The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination”.2 But some visuals are more pornographic than others. The epistemological affinity of ethnography and porn has been explained in “Ethnography, Pornography and the Discourses of Power” by Bill Nichols, Christian Hansen and Catherine Needham,3 in their mapping of various ways in which the two regimes of ethnography and pornography share a similar discourse of dominance. Both discourses strive for the achievement of epistemological utopias where the “Other” and knowledge of the “Other” can be mastered and contained. Ethnotopia is characterized as a world of limitless observation, where “we know them,” while pornotopia is a world “where we have them,” “a world of lust unlimited.”4 While the writers here are unable to imagine a new symbolic regime or practice, I would contend that Fung’s work invites the viewer to push this imagining further.

Fung challenges the formal protocols of such genres through the repetition and radical reinterpretation of such stock characters as the “native informant” and the racialized body in porn. In My Mother’s Place, Fung traces his family's migratory history in the Asian diaspora through a series of interviews with Rita Fung, his mother, while Chinese Characters considers the role of the eroticized Asian Other in the discourse of gay male pornography. Both works use reiteration and citation, with the use of strategies such as voiceover monologues, found familial objects like home movie footage, and the technique of video-keying, in a mode of performativity that repeats and cites, with a difference, the generic fictions of the native Other in ethnography and the Asian bottom in North American porn.

Fung’s performances work as a kind of “autoethnography,” inserting a subjective, often combative native “I” into ethnographic film's detached discourse and gay male pornography's colonizing use of the Asian male body. It is through acts like postcolonial mimicry and the emergence of a hybridized and queerly reflexive performance practice, that the social and symbolic economy that regulates otherness is offset.

Françoise Lionnet describes the way in which autoethnography functions in written cultural production as

...[a] scepticism about writing the self, the auto-biography, turning it into the allegory of the ethnographic project that self-consciously moves from the general to the particular to the general.5

The “text/performance,” she writes, “transcends pedestrian notions of referentiality, for the staging of the event is part of the process of ‘passing on,’ or elaborating cultural forms which are not static and inviolable but dynamically involved in the creation of culture itself.”6 Mary Louise Pratt has also employed the term autoethnography in her study of travel writing on the imperial frontier, outlining the differences between ethnography and autoethnography as terms that refer to instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways which engage with the colonizer's own terms. If ethnographic texts are a means in which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations.7

Conventional video and documentary style can, according to these definitions, be understood as the “colonizer’s terms” that are being used to address the metropolitan form. But in the case of Fung’s work, these terms address more than just the metropolitan form and the colonizer. The terms are also meant to speak to the colonized in a voice that is doubly authorized, both by the metropolitan form and subaltern speech. Metropolitan form is inflected by the power of subaltern speech and the opposite is equally true. Fung’s cultural work elucidates a certain imbrication, demonstrating that the metropolitan form needs the colonial “other” to function, and vice versa.

Fung’s relationship to and love for his mother is at the centre of My Mother’s Place. The video paints an endearing portrait of Rita Fung as a woman who came of age during colonialism and took her identifications with the colonial paradigm with her to the moment of decolonization. The video is shot in Canada and Trinidad and is composed of a series of “interviews” and recollections that form a decidedly personal register. This video portrait of his mother is a queer son’s attempt to reconstruct and better understand his identity formation through equally powerful identifications, counter-identifications and disidentifications with his mother and her own unique relationship to the signs of colonization.

The scepticism and ambivalence that Lionnet identifies as being characteristic of autoethnography can be located through the various tactics Fung employs to complicate and undermine his own discourse. In one of the many sequences using home movie footage, the videomaker supplies contradictory information on three different levels of the visual image, the voiceover, and the written text which appears on the screen. The visual image shows Rita Fung strolling the garden in her 1950s-style dress and red pillbox hat, and she walks off holding the hand of a little boy wearing a white buttoned-down oxford shirt and black slacks. He holds on tightly to his mother’s hand. This is the first view the spectator has of the narrator. The voiceover, meanwhile, narrates a family history:

It’s Sunday after mass. Dressed in satin, she looks like the women in the Good Housekeeping magazine that arrives from the States. During the week she is off to work while I go to school. She wears a pencil behind her right ear and her desk is near the Coke machine. When she is not at the shop she is washing clothes, cooking, sitting on a box in the garden, cutters in hand, weeding… When I bring home forms from school she puts “housewife” down as occupation. The women in Good Housekeeping are housewives. In the afternoon they wait at home to serve cookies and milk to their children. Mom was never home when I got home from school.

When the narration pauses and the flickering sound of film projector fades, text appears over the image of young Richard and mother Rita. It reads: “These pictures show more about my family’s desires than how we actually lived.” And the voiceover narration resumes: “But in all the family pictures this is the only shot that shows what I remember.” An image of a young Richard appears. He is wearing shorts and a T-shirt, still holding on to his mother’s hand as they both dance. A new title is superimposed over the image: “We’re doing the twist.” The next image shows little Richard dancing and jumping barefoot in his backyard, looking directly at the camera, sticking out his tongue. His manner is wild and effeminate. The narrator concludes the segment: “And me, well, you can see from these pictures that I was just an ordinary boy doing ordinary boy things.” The screen is then once again covered with text – “One day Mom caught me in one of her dresses and threatened to put me out in the street. I was scared but it didn’t stop me...” – a story not unfamiliar to many children who showed cross-dressing tendencies in early childhood.

When Fung betrays the visual image as a totally imaginary ideal that was more about his parents’ fantasy life than about what really happened, he is disavowing the colonial fantasy of assimilation that his family’s home movies articulated. Homi Bhabha’s term “not quite/not white,” used to describe the condition of the colonized subject, aptly depicts the overall effect of the “all-American” home movie footage. The statements disseminated through the visual text are directly connected with Fung’s then proto-queer identity as an effeminate boy, the kind of queer child Eve Sedgwick has described as a subject for whom meaning does not neatly line up. He was not, as his voiceover suggested, “an ordinary boy doing ordinary boy things.” In fact, he was a wonderfully swishy little boy who, among other things, liked to dress in his mother’s Good Housekeeping style dresses like the fictional TV moms who baked cookies for their children. I would also suggest that we might understand the actual storytelling practice of the film, the not-lining-up of image, sound and text, as something that deviates from traditional documentary (which is chiefly concerned with sound and image marching together as a tool of authorization) and demonstrates what is decidedly queer about Fung’s work.

Transfiguring the Pornographic

The reassertions of agency that Fung displays in My Mother’s Place, the way in which he asserts the natives’ authority in the ethnographic project, are not entirely different from those that are achieved in his videotape, Chinese Characters. This videotape performs an intervention in the field of mainstream pornography by adding an Asian male presence where it has routinely been excluded. Interviewing gay Asian men about their relationships to pornography, this experimental documentary reflects upon the way in which pornography helped mould them as desiring subjects.

It is paradoxical that the promise of pornotopia, the promise of lust unlimited, desire without restriction, is performed by a model from the southern California porn industry who generally conforms to a certain rigid set of physical and racial characteristics. This standardized porn model is a paler shade of white, hairless, and he is usually young and muscled; he is the blueprint for countless identical figures seen at gay male identity hubs like gyms and dance clubs. While the pornography that Fung cites in his interventionist video performances may not be quite as homogenized as today’s pornographic videos, the porn loops he riffs upon display the trace of this white normative sex clone towards a critique and transfiguration of conventional pornography. Fung’s video production illuminates the normative logics of porn production by deploying, through an act of postcolonial mimicry, a disidentification with the marginalized ideal of the Asian gay male body.

Richard Dyer, in an often-cited essay on gay male pornographic production, has pointed out that gay male pornography is analogous to gay male sexuality in more general terms.8 Understanding pornography as an analogue to broader aspects of gay male culture makes sense, since pornography, during this third decade of the AIDS pandemic, is one of the few completely safe and sex-positive identity- affirming spaces/practices remaining for gay men. So Fung’s critique of porn should not be understood as anti-pornographic; rather, by unveiling the ethnocentric bias at work in the pornographic imaginary that is collectively produced by the porn industry we can better understand the larger problem of white normativity and racism within North American gay male culture.

In her essay “The She-Man: Postmodern Bi-Sexed Performance in Film and Video,” Chris Straayer describes the process of re-enacting historically denied agency in Fung’s work.9 The terrain of pornography becomes a “contact zone,”10 one in which the ideological (visualized in Fung’s technological re-insertion) and the epistemological (pornography’s need to carnally know the other) collide. This ideological effect is apparent in a scene from the tape where a Chinese man is video-keyed into an exclusively white gay male porn film, and then proceeds to take what looks like a leisurely stroll through an outdoor sex scene. This walk is meant to connote casual tourism, and the touristic pose taken here is rather different from the usual options available to gay men of colour in the pornography industry (and, performatively, reappropriates the position of the white male subject who can touristically gaze at minority bodies in videos like Orient Express [1990], Latin from Manhattan [1992] or Blackshaft [1993]). The newly subjectivized Other walking through this scene then comes face-to-face with a white male character from this porn loop who then reaches out to an Asian male normally absent from the generic protocols of this vanilla porn sub-genre. Donning a “traditional” cone-shaped Asian field worker’s hat, the Asian male subject plays with his own nipples as he materializes in a California poolside orgy. This performance of autoeroticism, within a symbolic field like the 1970s white male porn loop, realigns and disrupts the dominant stereotype insofar as it portrays the Asian male body not as the perpetually passive bottom who depends on the white male top, but instead as a subject who can enjoy scopic pleasure in white objects while at the same time producing his own pleasure.

In his essay, “Looking for My Penis,” Fung discusses the marginal genre of interracial porn and videos featuring Asian men.11 He explains that the Asian male body in interracial pornography is almost always cast as the passive bottom who depends on the white male top to get off. I find it significant that this inquiry into interracial porn follows Chinese Characters’ critique of porn’s exclusionary and racially-biased image hierarchy. Within the logic of porn, a sub-field like racially integrated or exclusively non-white videos is roughly equivalent to other modalities of kink like bondage, S/M, shaving, etc. The point here is that, due to white normativity of the pornotopic field, race counts as a different sexual practice (i.e., doing S/M, doing Asians). Thus race, like S/M, is essentially a performance.

Orientalism in Chinese Characters, like the signs of colonial power in My Mother’s Place, is re-functioned by Fung’s disidentification with these cultural referents. Disidentification is the performative re-citation of the stereotypical Asian bottom in porn and the trappings of colonial culture. Fung’s strategy of disidentification reappropriates an ambivalent yet highly charged set of images, those representing the queer Asian body in porn, and remakes them in a fashion that explores and outlines the critical ambivalences that make this image a vexing site of identification and desire for Asian gay men and other spectators/consumers with anti-racist political positions. The erotic is not demonized but instead used as a site for critical engagement.

Finding Fung

Specific scenes, postcolonial or decolonized spaces like Fung’s Trinidad or the Asian community in Toronto, enable these sorts of rearticulations by functioning as contact zones, locations of hybridity that, because their location is liminal, allow for new social formations that are not as easily available at empire’s centre. Fung’s Trinidad is considered a contact zone par excellence, and his status as Asian in a primarily black-and-white colonial situation further contributes to Fung’s postcolonial positioning. An Asian in such a setting, like an Asian in the already subcultural field of a (white-dominated) gay male world, is at least doubly a minority and doubly fragmented from the vantage point of the dominant culture (not to mention Canada as a postcolonial space under the spectre of US imperialism). The geographical location of Fung’s production is crucial when considering the hybridity of his representational strategies. Fung’s place, in Canada, Trinidad, gay male culture, documentary practice, ethnography, pornography, the Caribbean and Asian diasporas, is not quite fixed, and thus his work is uniquely concentrated on issues of place and displacement.
A final image: the way in which a proto-queer Chinese Trinida-dian boy with a sock on his hand mimics the Queen’s wave, a gesture that is quite literally the hailing call of empire. Fung’s videos are especially significant insofar as they, through such acts and performances, index and reflect upon, and are indeed reflexive of, some of the most energized topics and debates confronting various discourses like cultural studies, anthropology, queer theory and performance studies. In the end, white sock sheathed over his hybrid hand like a magical prophylactic protecting him from the disciplining effect of colonial power, the queer gesture of Fung’s wave deconstructs and ruptures the white mythologies of ethnotopia and pornotopia.

After Richard

Richard Fung’s contribution is unique to queer discourse in that he traverses a theory/praxis split which may be evidenced by the work of a newer generation of queer Asian American scholars. Thinkers like Gayatri Gopinath propose a queer diasporic reading and viewing practice that is attuned to non-heteronormative arrangements within rigidly heterosexual structures to recognize the ways in which queer articulations of desire and pleasure both draw from and infiltrate popular culture.12

This reading practice resonates alongside, for example, Fung’s look at the queer underpinnings of Chinese immigrant labour during the building of the railroads in North America. Likewise, David Eng’s important book Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America pursues some of Fung’s more powerful formulations such as the assertion that within North American popular culture, Asian male sexuality equals anus.

In the field of Asian American cultural production, video artists such as Ming-Yuen S. Ma follow threads first spun in the Asian American sexual reflexivity of Fung’s work. Similarly, Nguyen Tan Hoang’s unrepentant video manifesto, Forever Bottom!, where the conflation of anus and Asian is seen through a fantasmic prism of lust and desire, is a powerful response to Chinese Characters if there ever was one. As I continue to teach his work, I feel the importance of Fung’s groundbreaking contributions to queer theory and praxis and see how it creates spaces for the next generation: in Selena “Sel” Wahng’s work of racialized transgender formations in video art and performance; in Dan Bacalzo’s dissertation on autobiography in Asian American performance; in Christine Balance’s study of the utopic potentialities of drugs and Asian American night life. Not content to simply write, this new generation also performs, curates, and produces Asian American culture, building poetically and powerfully on the work of Fung and his seductive invitation towards theory and praxis in equal measure.