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date: 23 April 2021

The Posthuman Subject in/of Asian American Literaturefree

  • Michelle N. HuangMichelle N. HuangDepartment of English, Northwestern University


Is the posthuman postracial? Posthumanism, an interpretive paradigm that unseats the human individual as the de facto unit of literary analysis, can be a powerful tool for Asian American literary studies when deployed with attention to critical race theory and literary form. Throughout American literature, Asian Americans have frequently been figured as inhuman—alien, inscrutable, and inassimilable. Representations of Asian Americans as either sub- or superhuman populate many genres, including adventure literature, domestic realism, comics, and science fiction. This trope, which combines yellow peril and model minority stereotypes, forms a through line that runs from depictions of Asian Americans as nerveless 19th-century coolies to 21st-century robotic office workers. Manifesting both threat and promise for America, posthuman representations of Asian Americans refract national and racial anxieties about the fading of the United States’ global influence as Asian nations, especially China, become political and economic superpowers. Rather than directly refuting these characterizations, Asian American writers have creatively engaged these same thematics to contemplate how developments in science and technology produce different ways of understanding the human and, concomitantly, engender changes in racial formation. Novelists, dramatists, poets, and artists have all deployed posthumanism in order to conduct imaginative experiments that challenge expectations regarding the typical purview of Asian American literature. Several nodes of inquiry that demonstrate the importance of posthumanist critique for Asian American literary studies include race as an index of humanity, the mutability of race through biotechnology, the amplification of racial inequality through infrastructure, and the reproduction of race through algorithmic culture. In the wake of early 21st-century ecological disaster and biotechnological fragmentation, examining the evolving relationship between Asian American racialization and posthumanism continues to provide important insights into how race is structured by the changing boundaries of the human and, in turn, demonstrates that the posthuman subject is never “beyond” race. In addition to offering an overview, this article provides a case study regarding the stereotyping of Asian Americans as robotic.

Asian Americans + Posthumanism?

Posthumanism, an interpretive paradigm that unseats the human individual as the de facto unit of literary analysis, is an uneasy tool to bring to Asian American literature. Such discomfort is not unwarranted, as Asian Americans have been perennially characterized as cognitively, physically, and culturally inhuman. Early Asian immigrants to the United States were legally categorized as “aliens ineligible for citizenship” in order to deter assimilation of first Chinese miners and railroad workers and then Japanese farmers. American writer Jack London depicts Asians with machinic hyperefficiency and a hive mentality, initially in a 1904 essay, “The Yellow Peril,” and later in his science fiction short story, “The Unparalleled Invasion” (1910), both of which portray Chinese people as radically alien in a time of anxieties about yellow peril. The latter story is set in the future and framed as a university lecture in which a US history professor describes Chinese people damningly: “The fabrics of their minds were woven from totally different stuffs. They were mental aliens.”1 London’s pieces were published after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese immigration into the United States, but fears about an Asian invasion still abounded. The trafficking of Asian American representation between the real and imaginative realms highlights literature as an important reservoir of racial formation whose analysis allows for more careful consideration of how race has always enfigured raced peoples at the limits of humanness. Even after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the idea of fundamental racial difference, specifically connoted by alienness and inhumanity, has continued to find new forms—whether in the indefatigable model minority college student or in the robotic office worker of Silicon Valley who spends countless hours in front of the computer.

Literary analysis deploying posthumanism may initially seem to invite interpretive readings premised in unironic postracial colorblindness—if humans are not the focus, then how is race relevant? Accordingly, race has not been a primary interest of much scholarship under this umbrella term and is often seen as in tension with the primary concerns of posthumanism, as well as related fields such as ecocriticism; object-oriented ontology; new materialism; cybernetics; science, technology, and society studies; and so on. The term “posthuman” itself is much contested, pointing to the instability of definitions of the “human” itself. But generally speaking, posthumanist scholarship can be divided into two strands. One, defined by a technophilic embrace of scientific development, views the changing boundaries of the human as an empowering, desirable evolution. Another strand, critical posthumanism, focuses on the political underpinnings and implications of human-technological entanglement.2 In both cases, the place of race in posthumanist analysis has not been clearly defined. The resultant sidelining of race, especially in the former strand, has resulted in cynicism about the value of posthumanism for Asian American literature. As Sinophone scholar Shu-mei Shih has written in an article titled “Is the Post- in Postsocialism the Post- in Posthumanism?” (2012), “When certain people have not been considered and treated as humans, posthumanism serves as an alibi for further denial of humanity to these same people.”3 Shih’s skepticism is not isolated or unfounded—the “denial of humanity” she cites is a primary catalyst for Asian American studies, a discipline that arose in the 1960s to contest the systemic disenfranchisement of a racialized group.

Yet Asian American writers who reach for scientific and technological paradigms that rearrange the boundaries of space, time, and human subjectivity show that posthumanism and Asian American literature are already deep in conversation with one another. In addition to the primary texts discussed here, others include Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being (2013), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990), Sung Rno’s play wAve (2004), Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014), and Ken Liu’s The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary (2011). Understanding these formal experiments from a posthuman perspective can cast new light on texts that might not initially present as experimental literature, such as “ethnic” or “immigration” stories that in fact constitute different ways of understanding how human experience is composed. For example, Claire Light’s short story “Abducted by Aliens!” (2010) rescripts the Cold War alien abduction narrative, substituting a Japanese American family for the typical abductee, historically a (white, male, American) Everyman. Yet the story is not a simple historical inversion; as Stephen Hong Sohn observes, the aliens are not easily identified as agents of the US government.4 The aliens’ intentions and language are inscrutable: “We can be not here even when we are. . . . You can not be not here, even when you aren’t,” thinkspeaks the alien Ufluuuk at one point, a meditation on trauma both hopelessly convoluted and profound. Instead of advancing a factual understanding of internment, the story emphasizes an affective one. The emphasis of “Abducted by Aliens!” on the disorientation of waiting and the unintelligibility of purpose allows for the reinterpretation of older internment texts such as Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660 (1946), Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s Farewell to Manzanar (1973), and Lawson Fusao Inada’s Legends from Camp (1992).

Posthumanist readings considerate of the insights generated by examining humans that historically have not or have never been considered fully human—as defined by race, animality, disability, gender and sexuality, and other axes of embodied difference—are a particularly important, though still underdeployed, mode of inquiry. Posthumanism builds on other forms of criticism that have been more comfortably integrated into Asian American literary studies, such as poststructuralism, social constructivism, and antiessentialism. Importantly, it adds an ontological dimension to analysis that calls attention to the operations of race beyond (and within) the boundaries of the individual human, including the illumination of racial dynamics on not-quite-human scales. A provisional bracketing of the individual human allows for race to be apprehended as situational, contingent, and constructed rather than as an essential quality of an individual human. As scientific technology continues to apprehend both smaller and larger dimensions of existence and experience, frames of analysis that can meaningfully countenance these shifts are necessary. Posthumanist scholar N. Katherine Hayles writes, “the overlay between the enacted and the represented bodies is no longer a natural inevitability but a contingent production, mediated by a technology that has become so entwined with the production of identity that it can no longer meaningfully be separated from the human subject.”5 In a similar vein, Karen Cardozo and Banu Subramaniam have focused on the assembling of race, which rejects the concept of a fundamental grain of humanity in order to “decenter the privileged singularity of both the individual organism and these conceptual categories, which we see in relational terms as part of an evolving collectivity rather than as absolute, pure, or real ontologies.”6 Posthumanism underscores that there is no transcendent condition of postidentity, only the increasingly complex scales and frameworks through which identity’s dynamic iterations are understood.


Although posthumanist scholarship often emphasizes new or emergent forms of science and technology, reflecting upon the historical origins of the relationship between Asian Americans and humanity reveals deeply ingrained assumptions governing the boundaries of the human. Orientalism, as articulated by postcolonial theorist Edward Said, portrays “the East” as premodern, lagging behind the fold of humanity: “from the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.”7 Since the 1990s, theorists of “techno-orientalism” have elaborated how the ambivalent fusion of technological advancement and spiritual impoverishment produces contemporary variations of orientalism. In their introduction to the edited collection Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (2015), David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu write, “Techno-Orientalism, like Orientalism, places great emphasis on the project of modernity—cultures privilege modernity and fear losing their perceived ‘edge’ over others.”8 While representations of a technological Asia such as the ones featured in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) abound, the origins of techno-orientalism predate the Japan Panic of 1980s. Indeed, the 19th-century Chinese coolie who labored on the Transcontinental Railroad was figured as both subhuman and superhuman—animalistic, yet able to endure harsh conditions that white laborers could not. The robotic worker thus serves as a hinge point between historical forms of orientalism (railroad worker) and more futuristic iterations (cyborg). Such anxieties continue to manifest in contemporary discussions and fears of a “rising China.”

Further, examining the intersection of Asian American literature and posthumanism can also affirm the value of critical race theory in posthumanist discourse, despite what some strands of posthumanism may posit as the obsolescence of racial or social difference. The relationship between the literary imagination and scientific and technological development is intertwined, and if Asia has often stood in for the West’s uncanny mirror, a reflection refracted through radical difference, the terms through which difference is recognized have changed. As paradigms of scientific and technological knowledge shift, race concomitantly mutates, finding new permutations and forms while remaining coherent around an epistemology of white supremacy. For example, the famous Chinese Room Argument proffered by philosopher John Searle asks whether someone inside a room who does not understand Chinese, but is able to follow a program for translating and writing Chinese and convince those outside the room that they are communicating with a Chinese speaker, can be said to be “thinking.” The Chinese Room Argument not only positions Chinese as a singularly different language, it also figures linguistic and cognitive capacities as a test for species affirmation and belonging.

Accordingly, asserting the humanity of a minoritized peoples whose humanity has been historically contested continues to be a central animating goal of Asian American literary studies. But an emphasis on combating negative and racist representations with positive ones leaves the ambivalence of posthumanist representations unchallenged. This prioritization extends to reading habits: scholars of literature are trained to recognize certain formal features of texts—a central one being characters, who are usually human. Yet asserting that Asian Americans “are human too” fails to challenge, and in fact privileges, the very categories of liberal humanism and its individual subject that create dehumanized conditions of existence. Literature, which freely deploys allusion, metaphor, and speculation, creates drama from both the divisions between and the intermixing of the human and the nonhuman, such as a human being treated as a nonhuman or a nonhuman agent that appears uncannily human.

Posthumanism, if deployed with attention to critical race theory and ethnic studies, can be a powerful tool for Asian American literary criticism. A posthuman reading practice is meant “to think about processes of organizing as much as formal and individuated organisms.”9 Disrupting predictive logics of subject formation is an important way in which histories of discrimination can be questioned, lest they become part of the background processing. As race has been a key axis of embodiment upon which humanity is predicated, it forms one of posthumanism’s greatest conundrums, as well as one of its most promising applications.

While the bulk of posthumanist scholarship does not engage race as a primary analytic, Asian Americanist scholars have been critical interlocutors in discussions of posthumanism. Scholars such as Rachel C. Lee, Aimee Bahng, Neel Ahuja, Mel Y. Chen, Chad Shomura, Margaret Rhee, Lisa Nakamura, LeiLani Nishime, and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun have all engaged valences of the posthuman through varying methodologies. In each of their applications, posthumanism is used to countenance, rather than shy away from, questions of embodied difference and to explore how race extends beyond the human body, its putative container. In turn, the “post-” in “posthumanism” does not denote “beyond” the human but, paralleling the “post-” in “postcolonialism,” marks its structural legacies. Put simply, there have always been humans that have been less who human—this is not a novel or radically different relation, although the ways in which it is articulated can be new. As Rachel C. Lee writes, these new racial fictions should be understood as “a biopolitical metaphor, the dynamism of a shift from an older model of biopower—the hierarchical and spectacular tactics of sovereign agents—to a contemporary biopower dubbed neoliberal, distributed, pastoral, relational, capillary, and invisible, in sum, not quite ‘known’ as of yet—still alien conceptually even as we live it” (emphasis original).10

Epidermal and other physical markers of race are continuously supplemented and reconfigured through scientific and technological entanglements with race. For example, a frequent trope in science fiction, the Turing Test (named after British scientist Alan Turing), is meant to determine whether a respondent is human or artificial intelligence. While the parameters of the actual test merely require a computer to “pass” as human more than 30 percent of a five-minute keyboard conversation, the spirit of the test has found fuller form in fictional worlds. The Turing Test is most famously rendered in the Voight–Kampff test of Blade Runner, which Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) uses to identify manufactured humans called “replicants.” In the movie, Deckard asks questions meant to provoke emotional responses and observes physiological reactions such as respiration, blushing, and most significantly, eye movement to assess the test subjects’ responses. Eyes, an overdetermined physical marker of racial difference, are particularly pertinent to Asian American racialization, both as a racial signifier as well as the organ through which racial identification is enacted. The focus on minute eye movements as the key to biological humanity demonstrates what disability scholar Ellen Samuels has called “biocertification,” or the purported biological basis that determines a person’s social categorization or citizenship.11

The crux of Blade Runner turns on whether Deckard himself is a replicant—significantly, the movie and the novel it is based on, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), offer differing readings on this point, opening two possible worlds regarding the determination between human and replicant. What these divergent endings suggest is that the test may be more an affective response to one’s treatment as human or nonhuman rather than a measure of essential humanity. In other words, being treated as nonhuman—an action often justified by race—results in affective markers that are then inscribed as ontological truth.

The Robotic Stereotype: A Case Study

Literary critic Seo-Young Chu meditates, “What would happen to stereotypes in a world where anthropomorphic shapes are obsolete? Would a posthuman world be a post-stereotype world? Or would stereotypes look posthuman?”12 Following Chu’s inverted question, posthumanism encourages a reverse representational reading practice. Rather than starting with an individual Asian American character and their literary representation, posthumanism considers how focusing on other narrative features (nonhuman characters, environments, technology) can illuminate different elements of Asian American racialization. What emerges, through attention to formal and aesthetic features of texts, are the myriad technologies of racial production. Postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues in her foundational essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1983) that what is “useful is the sustained and developing work on the mechanics of the constitution of the Other; we can use it to much greater analytic and interventionist advantage than invocations of the authenticity of the Other” (emphasis original).13 Posthumanism countervails the pressure to be satisfied with any easy definition of authenticity or “human.”

For example, consider the phrase:

Asian Americans are robotic.

Immediately, warning bells sound—stereotype alert! The relationship between Asian Americans and mechanical labor is so overdetermined that in the early 20th century, a fish-butchering machine developed by the Victoria Machinery Depot that could process fish at a speedier rate than workers could by hand was officially christened the “Iron Chink.”14 Thus the crude and simple overgeneralization of Asian Americans as robotic begs to be immediately dismissed as racist, something along the lines of, “No! Asian Americans are human.” While such a rejoinder is both understandable (and correct), such a denial does little to mitigate the “truthiness” of the original statement and can often devolve into some version of “not all Asian Americans are robotic,” a response that leaves the fundamental logic of the statement unchallenged.

By contrast, a posthumanist reading asks us to reverse the metaphor. What would it mean to think of robots as Asian American? What is it about robots that make them such a compelling figure of dehumanization? What might be uncovered by paying attention to the racialization of robots and their associates, the automaton, cyborg, android, and doll? Dilating the second part of the statement regarding Asian American roboticism allows for a fuller consideration of the dehumanizing mechanisms of race, one that focuses on the function and purpose of such a statement. Rather than rejecting the robot as an inhuman figure, considering why robots are such an irresistible metaphor for a race of people leads us to ask in what situations and in what historical contexts such stereotypes emerge. As literary scholar and poet Margaret Rhee succinctly writes, the robot “speaks to the ways Asian Americans have been racialized . . . as humans with ‘great productivity’ yet missing something by virtue of lacking ‘creativity’ and ‘emotions.’ The cultural intersections of the Asian American and the robot shed light on the concept of belonging in our national imaginary, insofar as the robot and the Asian American has been utilized as a trope for the ‘second-class citizen.’”15

Indeed, bearing down on the robot metaphor hones in on the vexed relationship between race and labor. Betsy Huang compellingly argues that the robot is “a potent interventionist device that unmasks the conceits of humanism, exposing its maintenance of systemic inequities even as it valorizes sovereignty, agency, and universal equality.”16 If Asian Americans are robotic, what does that make non–Asian Americans? How does the figuration of robots as Asian American (and the roboticization of Asian Americans) serve as a vector for understanding the racial formation of nonwhite non–Asian Americans, as well? Put simply, who are the robots serving? Does being human always rely in some way on the subjugation and exclusion of the nonhuman? Jennifer Rhee, a literary scholar of artificial intelligence, writes, “Diana Fuss describes the human as ‘one of our most elastic fictions.’ And yet, this fiction wields incredible force in the world; how the human is defined has very real effects, particularly for those who are excluded from the community of humans and the rights, protections, and privileges accorded therein.”17 Following Rhee, the robot metaphor is not just a simple error or misrecognition but one carefully constructed from technologies of racial production.

Asian American writers and artists have responded to the robot metaphor in surprising and creative ways. For example, Greg Pak’s independent film anthology Robot Stories (2003), whose title references Isaac Asimov’s canonical Robot short story series, subverts expectations of racialized labor through a riff on Asian American office workers. The cruelty with which the Asian American iPerson Archie (played by Pak himself) is treated by his colleagues effectively shows that dehumanizing labor cannot help but create workers seemingly evacuated of desire and creativity. (Another layer here is the allusion to Apple Inc.’s signature “i,” which evokes both the ways in which people’s bodies are commodified as well as the Chinese Foxconn workers in Shenzhen, China, whose suicides made global news in 2010–2011.) One night, when Archie is accidentally left on, he glimpses another automaton at work at an office building across the street. Drawn to her, he escapes the confines of his cubicle. But there is no happy ending for Archie: his awkward attempt to find intimacy with the other android is ridiculed as “creepy” and “freaky,” just as his endeavors to befriend his human coworkers were rebuffed. Archie is caught in a no-win situation, where he is expected to want to become more human but his attempts to learn how to be human are rebuffed. While satirical, Robot Stories nonetheless forces viewers to choose between identifying with the inhumane human colleagues, who mock and subjugate Archie, or with an office automaton, a being whose desires and world are acutely (but never completely) determined by those he serves.

Incorporating gender, a growing body of scholarship focuses on the Asian American “fembots” that populate recent movies such as Cloud Atlas (2012) and Ex Machina (2015). LeiLani Nishime incisively demonstrates that the films’ “spectacular focus on future technology diverts attention away from current labor practices predicated on the exploitation and vulnerability of Asian workers, especially the hyper-exploitation of Asian female domestic laborers.”18 She argues that while Advantageous (2015) also features an Asian American fembot, it does so in ways that “ask to what extent identity is identical to or distinct from the body.”19 Examinations like Nishime’s are useful precisely because they allow viewers to recognize assumptions regarding the naturalization of gendered labor that typically pass unnoticed or as tired stereotype.

Another text that rescripts staid understandings of the Asian American fembot is Larissa Lai’s long poem “rachel” (2009), a reimagining of the replicant Rachael in Blade Runner. Voiced through an object that attenuates the subject/object divide, the poem asks us to question whose inhumanity has been defined against whose humanity. The text is highly fragmented, pointing to the partial subjectivity granted to a figure thrice removed from the presumed subject of individualism (via race, gender, and species). Further considering that the etymology of the word “robot,” first coined in the 1920 Czech science fiction play by Karel Čapek, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), derives from the word for “slave,” allows readers to understand how racialized subhumanity is culturally encoded into the representational trope of the robot.

The first lines of “rachel” open with an invocation of Sigmund Freud, who wrote in a letter to French psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte, “The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is ‘What does a Woman want?’”20

what does a woman want?

i doll my rage this original

apple too hot for my small hands.21

In these opening lines, the fundamental sovereign human subject, “I,” is made an improper object through de-capitalization, machined into a lowercase “i.” The choice of “doll,” a derivative human object in the shape of humans that socializes humans, specifically young girls, to gendered expectations of identity transfers the process of gender from a contained object, contained in a doll, to a dynamic procedure that concentrates that constriction. Having a cyborg subject revoice fundamental questions of human nature, especially in reference to the seminal text of Western civilization—the Bible—ironizes the question, interpellating an answer along the lines of “what women have been told to want.” As seen in this snippet, “rachel” deploys a heavy amount of “verbing,” or the practice of turning a noun into a verb. The speaker’s invocation of Eve, the mother of humanity and agent of original sin, alongside a child’s toy calibrates gender across multiple scales—ancient to present, theological to capitalistic—in linking together the bedrock of Western Christian civilization with secular toy. While there are more explicit references to race in “rachel,” such as a fixation on eyes “fine as china” and that “slant,”22 thinking about more oblique markers such as dolls and the speaker’s “small hands” asks after the myriad ways hands come to be made diminutive through repetitive menial tasks, infantilization, and stunted growth. As such, the “small hands” refer to Asian American femininity in multiple ways, including evoking the “nimble fingers of ‘Oriental’ women” and the “unnatural cyborg women making chips in Asia” cited by feminist science, technology, and society theorist Donna Haraway in her foundational “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.”23 Rather than reject the cyborg, Asian American literary scholars can use a reverse representational practice to draw on scholarship such as that of Aihwa Ong and Grace Chang, two scholars who work on Asian women workers in a globalized economy, to illuminate the way in which structural racism forms and creates robotic Asian/American subjects.24

Redesigning Race

To stay with the figure of the robot, if race itself is always both the material and metaphorical expression of power and inequality, the questions remains: Can a better robot be built? A robot is a material nexus of labor, capital, and technology, a functional being. In a post–World War II and post–1965 Immigration Act United States, the robot and model minority myth have risen together to create a modernized world seemingly full of automation and nonwhite peoples, often coextensively. As the transition from mechanical to digital technologies accelerates, how might technologies of racial production mutate when brought into cyberspace? One strand of theorization can be found in Lisa Nakamura’s term “cybertype,” which denotes “the distinctive ways that the Internet propagates, disseminates, and commodifies images of race and racism . . . cybertyping is the process by which computer/human interfaces, the dynamics and economics of access, and the means by which users are able to express themselves online interacts with the ‘cultural layer’ or ideologies regarding race that they bring with them into cyberspace.”25

Translating race, typically thought of as an embodied characteristic, to the Internet brings its own set of challenges and potentialities. In Ted Chiang’s 2010 Hugo Award–winning novella, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, the central plot revolves around “digients,” digital organisms that approximate a combination of Furbies, Tamogotchis, and Neopets. The digients, most of whom are animal avatars (although there is one robot), register as “somewhere between a pet, a mascot, and a friend.”26 Significantly, the digients are designed to be relatable: Derek Brooks, a designer at the firm Blue Gamma, is tasked with creating avatars that “manifest the digients’ gestures in a way that people can relate to.”27 There are no overt references to race within the novella—the word itself is not used even once. This elision becomes pointed when considered alongside the novella’s inclusion of implicit markers. For example, the main protagonist, Ana Alvarado, has a last name that is recognizably Latinx, but there is no explicit mention of her race. Similarly, minor characters with the last names “Nguyen” and “Zheng” are presented without explicit racial identification as Asian.28 This “postracial” world is one way in which the typical terms for human relation—race being an extremely overdetermined mode of identification—are studiously defamiliarized.29

The Lifecycle of Software Objects encourages a consideration of nonhuman beings—the digients—that reveals the dividing practices that define what it means to be human. Media theorist Jussi Parikka usefully refers to this process as “subjectivation,” meaning “habits, patterns of social behavior, modes of perception, sensation, and memory.”30 Following Parikka, one reading of The Lifecycle of Software Objects is as a literary experiment that tests notions of human citizenship and belonging. In her analysis of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Jennifer Rhee argues that the “android cogito” “fundamentally destabilizes the subject because it requires simultaneous identification and disidentification with human and androids alike.”31 In other words, the android’s purported failure to “think like a human” is rooted in its double consciousness (qua W. E. B. Du Bois), which includes its understanding of how a human thinks—because it was programmed by a human—and also in its recognition of itself as ostensibly nonhuman, as other. If, as previously discussed, the putatively robotic nature of Asian American labor can be read as a result of the type of work for which Asian Americans were admitted into the country (rather than reflective of essential biological characteristics), then what happens when workers exceed their function as workers and strive to become persons and citizens?

In The Lifecycle of Software Objects, there is business pressure to infantilize and stabilize the digient population—to keep them from developing too much: “the problem is that as the Neuroblast digients leave infancy behind, they’re growing too demanding. In breeding them Blue Gamma aimed for a combination of smart and obedient, but with the unpredictability inherent in any genome, even a digital one, it turns out the developers missed their target.”32 The search by Blue Gamma’s developers for the perfect digient reveals underlying issues regarding the balance of obligation and care expected from nonhumans, namely that the value of such companionship and integration is engineered by the designers and consumers. Such commonsensical business principles prove to be surprisingly inhumane when extended to thinking about American notions of citizenship and belonging.

As Jussi Parikka observes, “algorithms themselves (and on a different level, software too) have to be constantly actioned.”33 In fact, the story reveals underlying assumptions governing ideas of inherent social or cultural “programming” to be false. The artificial intelligence in The Lifecycle of Software Objects is “mundane, low-key, gradualist, and continuist.”34 Within the novella, the digients are constantly being tweaked and revised. While the Neuroblast digients are meant to be relatable companions, another variety of digients, produced by a company named Sophonce, are designed to be autodidactic workers. Yet, unlike the Neuroblast digients, the Sophonce counterparts are profoundly unrelatable:

Sophonce’s designers wanted digients that could be taught via software instead of needing interaction with humans; toward that end, they’ve created an engine that favors asocial behavior and obsessive personalities . . . a tiny fraction prove capable of learning with minimal supervision: give them the right tutoring software and they’ll happily study for weeks of subjective time, meaning that they can be run at hothouse speeds without going feral. Some hobbyists demonstrate Sophonce digients that outperform Neuroblast, Origami, and Faberge digients on math tests, despite having been trained with far less real-time interaction. There’s speculation that, if their energies can be directed in a practical direction, Sophonce digients could become useful workers within a matter of months.35

Despite the fact that no breed of digient can be incontrovertibly identified as Asian American (or perhaps, because of it), it is useful to focus instead on how racialized representations surrounding labor and work are reproduced. The contrast between the Sophonce and Neuroblast digients evidences that the characteristics that comprise identity are selected, not intrinsic or completely fixed. Readers of The Lifecycle of Software Objects can easily mark the antisociality, obsessive studying, and emphasis on mathematical skills as refracting model minority stereotypes about Asian American students. They can just as easily identify anxieties about yellow peril and Asian animality in the designers’ attempts to stop the digients from “going feral.”

While the Sophonce digients are “so charmless that few people want to engage in even the limited amounts of interaction that the digients require,” the Neuroblast ones are likeable but not useful. When Jax, one of the Neuroblast digients, dances for businesspeople from a company, they are amused but tell Ana, “We aren’t looking for superintelligent employees, we’re looking for superintelligent products. You’re offering us the former, and I can’t blame you; no one can spend as many years as you have teaching a digient and still think of it as a product. But our business isn’t based on that kind of sentiment.”36 What is revealed by the cutthroat selection and cultivation of the Sophonce digients to be high-functioning objects rather than gifted employees (or creative artists) is how identities are not freely evolving, but produced, programmed, and selected. That the digients need to acquire math skills in order to prove productive reveals the Asian American cybertyping through which identity is constrained, as well as what instrumental skills are considered valuable.

The value of literature for thinking through such moral quandaries is revealed, then, in how The Lifecycle of Software Objects demonstrates that humans are software objects. Conceptualizing race as an algorithm means countenancing how humans are in fact encoded, but not in the way that biological essentialism defines it. Accordingly, “new” ways of being human ascribed to posthumanism are often not so much wholly new as they are reformulations of the social and cultural codes that have always delineated human belonging. Human algorithms of value extraction, minoritization, sexual exploitation—these all play out over the course of the novella, whose twisted conclusion finds the digients selling their own intellectual property to become simultaneously both corporations and sexbots. This final pathetic amalgamation of the human and nonhuman points to the logical end of axioms governing their function, use, and value. The sexual and labor exploitation represented by the digients’ objectification invites readers to critically reflect on extant social and cultural algorithms. In 2010, the same year The Lifecycle of Software Objects was published, the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission further extended “corporate personhood” by ceding rights previously reserved for people to corporations, and in 2017 Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to Sophia, a humanoid robot developed by Hong Kong–based Hanson Robotics.

Through the novella’s repeated attempts to build a better digient, counterintuitively, it is the very limits of humanity that are revealed again and again. Indeed, the final question is, both profoundly and banally: How can a better (notion of the) human be built? Such a question is not a universal or purposeless thought experiment in a world where power differentials, determined, transmitted, and amplified through race, are so asymmetrically distributed. Indeed, these posthuman quandaries find their most knotty formations when figured through the literary imaginations of and about beings, such as Asian Americans, whose humanity has always been in question.

Posthuman Applications and Permutations: A Discussion of the Literature

As demonstrated by the previous case study, considering Asian American literature through posthumanism allows for a more capacious understanding of race as “an epistemological category of white supremacy.”37 Posthumanism is thus able to intervene in two key nodes through which race has historically been constructed: discourses of essentialism and immutability. In “Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race” (2009), new media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun argues that “racist technologies thus sought to make clear distinctions in society where none necessarily existed.”38 Chun’s central thesis, that race is a product of racist systems rather than an originary truth, focuses on race as technology as a pithy way of foregrounding the dividing practices that race enacts. Race as fabricative technology does not mean that race is intangible or imaginary, but syncretic in its materiality. As Chad Shomura observes, useful analyses of racial being “neither dogmatically insist on one ontology nor avoid making any ontological claims.”39 Understandings of race can only be reformed through reconfigurations of extant epistemological frameworks, and Chun emphasizes these systems of knowledge, arguing that “by examining tools, we miss what is essential about technology, which is its mode of revealing or ‘enframing.’ ”40 Race as technology emphasizes the functionality of race—what it does and how it is utilized. The promise of posthumanism and Asian American literature is to denaturalize the self-evidence of racial categories (and, indeed, race itself) by highlighting the malleability of its materiality.

Several nodes of inquiry demonstrate the importance of posthumanist critique for Asian American literary studies. They include, but are not limited to, race as an index of humanity; the mutability of race through biotechnology; the amplification of racial inequality through infrastructure; and the reproduction of race through algorithmic culture. These are elaborated upon below.

Race as Index of Humanity

Modern conceptions of race are predicated on species difference. During the Enlightenment, emergent scientific paradigms gave novel form to racial difference, resulting in a hierarchy that conflated species with race and divided humans into three groups: “Caucasoids,” “Negroids,” and “Mongoloids.”41 A posthuman reading practice, while sensitive to how the trope of animality has been weaponized against people of color, focuses on the inconsistencies and untenability of such a stark ranking of humanity. Cary Wolfe articulates that animal studies “studies both a material entity (nonhuman beings) and a discourse of species difference that need not be limited to its application to nonhumans alone.”42 Ironically, although one origin story of Western civilization is the Greek myth of brothers—Romulus and Remus—raised by a wolf, stories about nonwhite feral children have often drawn on fears of Otherness and intrinsic savagery. Bhanu Kapil’s experimental poetry collection Humanimal, a Project for Future Children (2009) is a reimagining of the wolf girls of Midnapore, Kamala and Amala, who were found by a Jesuit missionary and raised in his orphanage. Kapil braids together her own story with her father’s and with Kamala’s; between the three emerges the story of British colonization in India. Throughout Humanimal, language emerges both as the dividing practice as well as the means of producing meaningful counternarratives. Rather than rejecting animality as a trope for uncivilized savage, in Humanimal, animality is formally intertwined with postcolonial disability, revealing how the white, liberal, universal human subject is created against the animalistic, raced, Other.43

Scholarly texts that investigate the nexus of non/humanity and race include Claire Jean Kim’s Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age (2015), which investigates “taxonomies of power” embedded in human/animal relations, and Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (2012), which tracks the qualities of liveliness and vitality as assemblages of material and discursive meaning.44 These texts revise our understanding of “inhuman” as lacking by diffusing the boundaries of the human species beyond the individual body as well as by studying the racialization of nonhuman animals and objects.

The Mutability of Race through Biotechnology

Posthumanism also highlights the mutability of humanity and, in turn, race. Since the initial draft of the Human Genome Project was published in 2001, genetic understandings of race, aided by population genetics, have permeated popular culture. Larissa Lai’s novel Salt Fish Girl (2002) is partially set in a dystopian future where subaltern Asian American female clones are created by splicing the genetic material of Asian Americans with a sliver of carp DNA. The insertion of .03 percent difference—reminiscent of one-drop rules governing blackness—is enough to satisfy the requirements for patenting a lifeform and revoking human status. The clones perform slave labor in a shoe factory, a situation evocative of globalized systems of factory labor used by American companies such as Nike, to shore up the more privileged lives of those who dwell inside walled Compounds. The resulting gap between functional humanity (walks, talks, works, loves like a human) and legal humanity (with all its attendant protections) forms the novel’s central drama. Yet just as important as Salt Fish Girl’s biotechnological dystopia is its setup and then collapse of an atypical, double-helix narrative structure, which it uses to critique neo-Darwinian notions of species competition.45 Through its melding of premodern Chinese creation mythology and dystopian science fiction, Salt Fish Girl ultimately counters notions of both species and generic purity. Instead of admitting these “corrupted” subjects into the fold of humanity, Salt Fish Girl first shows how “rights” may be a more important point of emphasis in the notion of “human rights” than “human” and, second, encourages readers to contemplate the multiple identities and time scales already enfolded within the species notion of the human.

Reaching beyond critique of the biological human body as inert, overdetermined material inscribed by social signifiers, Rachel C. Lee’s The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies (2014) highlights the critical—and even ludic—possibilities of racial embodiment as a source of creative knowledge-making.46 Additionally, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2001) and Neel Ahuja’s Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species (2016) both explore the biopolitical governance of race and imperialism through infrastructural regimes predicated on public health and medicine.47

Amplification of Racial Inequality through Infrastructure

The earliest Asian American immigrants were workers who labored on boats, in sugar-cane fields, in canneries, and on railroads. As many African Americanist scholars have pointed out, race has an embedded relationship to the infrastructure of the United States, and arguably is the infrastructure of the United States, without which the country would not exist and would cease to operate.48 An oft-cited truism about infrastructure is that it passes unnoticed until it breaks. However, this statement only applies to the end user—those who work to maintain the infrastructure that the rest of society relies upon are always conscious of it. In Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), the protagonist (also named Charles Yu) is no hero, but a technician, someone who maintains narrative worlds for others. Through Charles and his assigned domain, MinorUniverse 31, the novel connects the formal element of “minor character” to the role that racial minorities play in American history. As Frances Tran writes, “Instead of marking distinctions by ethnicity or skin color . . . the inhabitants of this minor universe share important commonalities. They are unheroic and lack self-esteem, and most important for them, this futuristic world exists not as a site of possibility and progress, but as a space of temporal entrapment.”49 Minor in the novel’s universe is not a feature intrinsic to an individual’s embodied identity but a position composed of functions and characteristics. Thinking about minor characters as narrative infrastructure—rather than as failed major characters—reveals the undergirding priorities and values of the world.

Other important work regarding narrative and infrastructure includes Stephen Hong Sohn’s Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds (2014), which mines 21st-century nonautoethnographic novels to examine race’s distribution within narrative worlds. Sohn writes, “Asian American characters or experiences may seem marginal to the plotting [of these texts], but this marginality is advanced in the service of exploring the multifocal configurations of power.”50 Focusing on the way time can be spatialized and commodified as property, Aimee Bahng’s Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times (2018) analyzes histories of capitalist extraction and explores how minority resistance might guide alternative futurities.51

Slow Violence and Ecological Disaster

In texts such as Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation (2003), domestic woe and planetary disaster are intertwined. The mixed-race protagonist, Yumi Fuller, returns to her family’s Idaho potato farm after years of estrangement as her parents enter their twilight years. Her mother, Momoko, has Alzheimer’s, while her father Lloyd has been decimated by a series of heart attacks and colon cancer. The novel’s recalibration of ecology offers a productive intervention into discourse surrounding the Anthropocene, which is often plagued by apocalyptic urgency. Questions of eldercare, death, and interdependency are not new, although the insights of feminist theories of care have been unfairly limited to the domain and scope of the nuclear family. Conversely, questions of biodiversity and monoculture are not just the mechanisms of agribusiness but have repercussions for intimate worlds and spaces.

Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011) argues that in order to fully comprehend environmental injustice, different narrative strategies are needed. For example, the half-life of imperialism continues to circulate within the bodies of the denizens who live near sites contaminated by war and colonialism. Yet when statutes of limitations set in place by corporate (de)regulations fail to induce a just and comprehensive resolution, it becomes necessary to think at the level of hormones and genes to produce different scalar understandings of violence. Further, All Over Creation’s emphasis on hospice suggests that a consideration of ecological care can expand conceptions of environmental justice limited to bad actors and legal responsibility. Places can remember, too—including transnational Asian/American sites such as Bhopal, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Fukushima, and Vietnam. If the violence manifested in environmental disaster takes place on increasingly larger and smaller scales than one-on-one maiming, ones that use what Nixon refers to as “distancing strategies,” then posthumanism can illuminate these transnational and transindividual entanglements.52

Robert T. Hayashi’s Haunted by Waters: A Journey Through Race and Place in the American West (2007), which excavates the relationship between Asian Americans and land in the western United States, represents an important early contribution to this area of study.53 Other work that amplifies the ecocritical possibilities of Asian American literature includes Min Hyoung Song’s “Becoming Planetary” chapter in The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American (2013), Sarah D. Wald’s The Nature of California: Race, Citizenship, and Farming Since the Dust Bowl (2016), and Julie Sze’s Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis (2015).54 In 2015, the first collection on the subject, Asian American Literature and the Environment, edited by Lorna Fitzsimmons, Youngsuk Chae, and Bella Adams, was published.55

Reproduction of Race through Algorithmic Culture

Digital paradigms of racial identification are implicated in how we conceive of consciousness itself, as well as the reading processes that shape patterns of thought regarding identity more broadly. Within algorithmic culture, social knowledge is executed from within an opaque black box and purported to be objective and unbiased. Yet, as Safiya Umoja Noble shows in Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (2018), algorithms trained on biased data reproduce systemic oppression. Taking Google as her primary example, Noble argues that “algorithmic oppression is not just a glitch in the system but, rather, is fundamental to the operating system of the web . . . there is a missing social and human context in some types of algorithmically driven decision making, and this matters for everyone engaging with these types of technology in everyday life.”56 Literature is a vital technology of recontextualization, one that can help reintegrate knowledge about race within the epistemological frameworks that produce it.

An example can be found in Ken Liu’s short story “The Algorithms for Love” (2004), which emphasizes the modes of thought driving the creators of artificially intelligent dolls instead of the artificial intelligence of the dolls themselves. Elena, an engineer, has come to believe humans are nothing more than a collection of algorithms. Within the first-person narration, this belief manifests itself through Elena’s foreknowledge of what things will happen and what things people will say: “The algorithms ran their determined courses, and our thoughts followed one after another, as mechanical and as predictable as the planets in their orbits. The watchmaker was the watch.” Her husband Brad tries to comfort her, arguing that “People have always associated the mind with the technological fad of the moment. When they believed in witches and spirits, they thought there was a little man in the brain. When they had mechanical looms and player pianos, they thought the brain was an engine. When they had telegraphs and telephones, they thought the brain was a wire network. Now you think the brain is just a computer. Snap out of it. That is the illusion.”57 What is most unsettling about this moment, which takes place right before Brad commits Elena to a mental hospital, is that they both may be right: that the dominant theory of mind merely refracts contemporaneous technological and scientific paradigms and that human behavior is reducible to socially programmed mechanistic responses to external stimuli. The reader begins to share Elena’s paranoia, becoming acutely sensitive to moments of forced laughter and emotional manipulation within the text and harboring a disquieting fear that there may be no way out of the feedback loop of human existence.

Yet it would be a mistake to read Liu’s short story as a fatalist parable of social determinism; rather, “The Algorithms for Love” ultimately suggests nothing is more predictable than human unpredictability. Understanding that the mechanisms of racial identification change based on the “technological fad of the moment” reveals that there is no singular or stable definition of race. And thinking about algorithms as embedded in context, as flexible and adaptable schema, suggests that racial algorithms can be conscientiously reprogrammed. Lisa Nakamura’s extensive body of work, including the monographs Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (2002) and Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (2008) and the edited collection Race After the Internet (2012), has established racial digital formation as a crucial site of critical race theory, and Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s chapter “Orienting the Future” in Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics (2006) codifies the way in which cyberpunk’s “high-tech Orientalism” figures the Internet as oriental space.58 Additionally, AsianAmerica.Net: Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace (2003), edited by Rachel C. Lee and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, surveys the way in which Asian/American racial formation takes on different forms online.59

Further Reading

  • Bahng, Aimee. Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.
  • Cardozo, Karen, and Banu Subramaniam. “Assembling Asian/American Naturecultures: Orientalism and Invited Invasions.” Journal of Asian American Studies 16, no. 1 (February 2013): 1–23.
  • Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.
  • Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Introduction: Race and/as Technology; or, How to Do Things to Race.” Camera Obscura 24, no. 1 (2009): 7–35.
  • Eng, David L., Teemu Ruskola, and Shuang Shen, eds. “China and the Human.” Double special issue of Social Text 29, no. 4–30, no. 1 (Winter 2011–Spring 2012).
  • Huang, Betsy. “Reorientations: On Asian American Science Fiction.” In Contesting Genres in Contemporary Asian American Fiction, 95–140. New York: Palgrave, 2010.
  • Huang, Michelle N. “Ecologies of Entanglement in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Journal of Asian American Studies 20, no. 1 (February 2017): 95–117.
  • Kim, Claire Jean. Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  • Lee, Rachel C. The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality, and Posthuman Ecologies. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
  • Lee, Rachel C., and Sau-ling Cynthia Wong, eds. Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Cyberspace. New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Lowe, Lisa. “Work, Immigration, Gender: New Subjects of Cultural Politics.” In The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital, edited by Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, 354–374. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997.
  • Lye, Colleen. America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  • Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Nishime, LeiLani. “Whitewashing Yellow Futures in Ex Machina, Cloud Atlas, and Advantageous: Gender Labor, and Technology in Sci-fi Film.” Journal of Asian American Studies 20, no. 1 (February 2017): 29–49.
  • Roh, David S., Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, eds. Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.
  • Sohn, Stephen Hong, ed. “Alien/Asian.” Special issue of MELUS 33, no. 4 (Winter 2008).
  • Sohn, Stephen Hong. “Impossible Narration: Racial Analogies and Asian American Speculative Fictions.” In Racial Asymmetries: Asian American Fictional Worlds, 171–208. New York: New York University Press, 2014.
  • Song, Min Hyoung. “Becoming Planetary.” In The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American, 179–196. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.
  • Sze, Julie. Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.