My favourite CRT: Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings

by | 7 Jan 2021

Cathy Park Hong is a poet of South Korean descent, raised and living in the US. In 2020 she published her book of creative non-fiction, “Minor Feelings: A Reckoning on Race and the Asian Condition”. She calls minor feelings: “the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed” (p 55). Her book is a mix of autobiography, historical accounts, stories and biographical incidents of other people that inspired her – like Richard Pryor, the Black American stand-up comedian, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the South Korean American artist and poet, or Yuri Kochiyama, the Japanese American civil rights activist. 

Park Hong describes this mix of various genres of writing as an “episodic form”; chosen for its “exit routes that permit her to stray” (p 104) because she was not satisfied “with the conventional forms in which racial trauma is framed” (p 45). Neither was she ever satisfied “with those immigrant talking points about ‘not belonging’ and ‘the sense of in-betweenness’” (p 196), nor the white publishers’ demand for “siloed ethnicity” coming in their want for the “Muslim experience” or the “black experience”, an ethnicity “easier to understand, easier to brand” (p 104).

I read “Minor Feelings” this summer. Seeing the launch of “our favourite CRT” at the end of last year, I ventured to write this small note in an effort to put into words and express why as I read it (me, of Greek descent and doing my PhD in international law in Geneva), I felt a “shock of recognition” – to use Park Hong’s expression on her first encounter with Richard Pryor. A “shock of recognition” like the Korean word jeong which, as Park Hong writes, is untranslatable but the closest definition is that of an “‘instantaneous deep connection” (p 27). Possibly I felt jeong in reading her, because of another emotional condition: han, a combination of bitterness, wistfulness, shame, melancholy and vengefulness, accumulated from years of brutal colonialism, war, and US-supported dictatorships that have never been politically redressed” (p 54). Greece had her own share of war and dictatorship (the 1946-49 civil war has been viewed as the first Cold War battlefield[1], the 1967-74 dictatorship enjoyed the support of the US), even if she arguably lies only tangentially in the periphery of ‘brutal colonialism’ – a position though that obscures its visibility as a postcolonial space. 

Yet, I would like to argue that jeong and han resonate and can be felt on another register: the epistemological register that encapsulates domination and hierarchy structures within the disciplinary territory of international law. When it could be that scholars of visibly other socio-economic backgrounds, who speak and write with a perceptibly different accent and who do not partake in the North-European / North-American tradition of humanism and reason, can as well find themselves with “minor feelings”, much like citizens in another country.

Park Hong structures her “episodic” account along seven chapters: 1) united; 2) stand up; 3) white innocence; 4) bad English; 5) an education; 6) portrait of an artist; 7) the indebted. She writes incisively and vividly, with poignancy and sarcasm – and while I read her, I draw parallels with epistemological privileges entrenched in international law.

In the chapter on “white innocence”, she writes that “innocence is not just an absence of knowledge but an active state of repelling knowledge; innocence being both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness (…) a deflection of one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, based on the confidence that one is ‘unmarked’ and ‘free to be you and me’” (p 74-75). She narrates an incident that she was in the subway with her white American friends, a man looked at her singsonging ‘ching chong ding dong’. He was a “neckless white guy wearing a baseball cap” and he was with his black wife and biracial toddler. Park Hong reacted and confronted him, but it was her white American friend who burst into tears, “wailing ‘that’s never happened to me before”. Park Hong was about to comfort her, then “stopped herself from the absurdity of the impulse”, and even at the moment of writing she remained “more upset with her than the guy”. Her friend’s was a reaction of “white tears”, a term employed to capture a “particular emotional fragility a white person experiences when they find racial stress so intolerable that they become hypersensitive and defensive, focusing the stress back to their bruised ego” (p 82-83).

It is a similar innocence and incredulity that lead many privilegedly-endowed-with-history-and-tradition scholars to rebounce with calls to contextualize historically – hypersensitive and defensive –, when one points to passages in “Metaphysics of Morals”, where Kant defends the cosmopolitan right, “even with plausible enough arguments for the use of violence (…) for on the one hand, it may bring culture to uncivilised peoples (…) and on the other, it may help us to purge our country of depraved characters, at the same time affording the hope that they or their offspring will become reformed in another continent (as in New Holland)” (§62). And it is the same innocence and incredulity, when mainstream-liberal-privileged international lawyers conflate the current anti-neoliberal backlash with populism, nationalism, hyper-masculinity and reactionary politics – actively repelling, in a sheltered unknowingness, to consider the role that international law and international financial institutions played in injecting inequality and unelected technocratic governments, while rejecting welfare distribution and democracy. It is the “white tears” of the “bruised liberal international lawyer’s ego” that suddenly need to be comforted against the waves of anti-neoliberal protests. Park Hong’s last phrases of the chapter that “as a writer, I am determined to help overturn the solipsism of white innocence” can as well resonate with the drive and motivation for writing of many critical legal scholars.

In the chapter on “Bad English”, I read this powerful paragraph: “It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry – who queer it, twerk it, hack it, cannibalize it, other it by hijacking English and warping it to a fugitive tongue. To other English is to make audible the imperial power sewn into the language, to slit English open so its dark histories slide out” (p 97). She decided to write an “epic narrative poem in her own invented pidgin” (p 100), determined to “knock at English, using what she considered as her ineloquence (…), and fuse that into her own collection of lexemes that came closest to her conflicted consciousness” (p 140). 

These passages resonate powerfully because for many of us, English is a non-native language, and yet, is becoming almost our first language, eclipsing and absorbing our native one, since most of our reading and social interactions are in English. But the power of the passage lies exactly in that, instead of lamenting the fading out of the native language, it rather emphasizes the opening up of new possibilities for expression – possibilities that open up precisely because of our multi-lingual transversality and the dispensing with “correct” English. We can forge English with creative “translations” of a fading-out native language, with multi-trans-linguistic concoctions, when a third language is also added in the mix, as for instance when living in French-speaking Geneva. It is this transversal “queering” of English, infusing it with unorthodox grammars and syntaxes, that can overturn the silence that “correct English” slyly implicates. Because as Park Hong writes, it is not only about telling her story, but “also in finding a form – a way of speech – that decentred whiteness” (p 104) – that decentres “correct English”.

It is in this quest for a form and a lineage – against the “stifling piety about poetic form” (p 16), a “stifling piety” not unlike that of “proper and orderly” international legal writing – that she centres her chapter on “Portrait of an Artist” on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Cha’s book “Dictee” is an ingenious “bricolage of memoir, poetry, essay, diagrams and photography”; it is like a “script for a structuralist film. Scenes are described as stage directions. Poems are laid out like intertitles” (p 154). “Dictee” is also famous for her use of language, “formally inaccessible”, with brief sentences, punctuated with the “aggressive use” of the period that “flattens her voice into a hard robotic drill”, like “stippling bullet points interrupting us from actually immersing in the story”, Cha “treating language as both the wound and the instrument that wounds”, she “regards words, whether in English or French or Korean, as textural objects, rigid as rubber stamp, arcane as a stone engraving, not as part of her, but apart from her” (p 163). And yet, it was Cha’s writing that felt for the first time intimate and true. That inspired and empowered her to write. Given that “writing is a family trade like anything else: you are more entitled to the profession if your ancestors have already set a shop”, her introduction to Cha “established a direct, if modest, literary link”, it gave her an “aesthetic from which she could grow” (p 171). 

Again, this urging for formal experimentation motivates and resonates. Patricia’s Williams “An Alchemy of Race and Rights” feels so powerfully engaging and relevant in our everyday, precisely of its unique mixture of autobiography, legal theory, anecdotal incidents, a form that cannot be captured under a single term – which opens with the hooking, gripping line: “Since subject position is everything in my analysis of the law, you deserve to know that it’s a bad morning”, and continues to discuss a 1835 court decision from Louisiana on redhibitory vices. Because it is writing through formal experimentation that the “personal” is revealed as socially constructed, that Williams, not unlike Park Hong or James Baldwin, display and expose themselves as constructed by others, and then, through their writing, they try to traverse and replot such social construction. 

Despite the rule of neutral and impersonal proper international legal writing, we do tend to read the acknowledgments and we are interested in the lives behind international law.[2] And often times, motives and drives from our own personal trajectory can have a great impact on the topics we choose to write and the scholars we choose to read and engage with. Like the interview of the anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler where she admits that it was only after writing “Race and the Education of Desire” that she “realized how much the racial markers and class diacritics about which she wrote were vividly resonant, if not autobiographical”; it was the realization that herself, having grown up in an “upper-middle-class Long Island suburb”, was living in an “ethnic and class bubble”, a realization that filled her with “embarrassment and later with an agitated unease”, a “discomfort that undoubtedly continues to mould her aversions and attentions”.[3] On the opposite, Anne Anlin Cheng, a literal critic, writes in the preface of her book “The Melancholy of Race” that “this book grows out of the need to find an intellectually rigorous vocabulary to talk about racial grief” – a vocabulary “rigorous”, and thus disciplinary intelligible, in order to articulate how a “racially impugned person processes the experience of denigration” as a “continuous interaction between sociality and privacy”. 

Again, all that resonates with international legal writing, in terms of personal drives for writing. For it cannot be entirely accidental why authors from certain nationalities and traditions feel this lineage of entitlement and empowerment; why they feel more concerned and intimate with international law, and thus write, influence and drive the discipline. It is in this sense that I read Anghie’s recent post on “critical thinking and teaching as common sense”, where he admits that Asian students cannot relate to the Eurocentric political geography of classic Western textbooks (Grotius, Vattel, the Peace of Westphalia, etc), experience a “sense of remoteness”, don’t see the relevance in their everyday, and eventually get discouraged from studying further, and writing on, international law, at all.

The chapter on “The Indebted” exposes forcefully the contradictions of how she negotiates her relation to the ‘centre’. In bare exposure, she writes “I can’t live in Seoul” and she immediately adds at the end of the page, “then be grateful that you live here” (p 193). To be grateful is the “weight of indebtedness”, and it weighs heavily because “being indebted is to be cautious, inhibited, and to never speak out of turn” – the indebted as the “ideal neoliberal subject” (p 185). Were she to be transgressive as a female artist, she would “rarely ‘get away with it”; it is only “transgressive bad-boy art that is the most risk-averse, an endless loop of warmed-over stunts for an audience of one: the banker collector” (p 114-115). Again though, a white bad boy, as “lionized” in the figures of Philip Roth and Karl Ove Knausgaard”, in “white male writers behaving badly whereas minority writers must always be good” (p 57).

It is intricate this weave of transgression and indebtedness. The question, also in international legal writing, of which authors can more easily get away with transgression, can be “bad boys”, and, invested with privileged access to influential publishing platforms, change the terms of the debate. Indebtedness falls weighty on scholars from the periphery, who being admitted to study at the centre, feel this urge to be good, kind, considerate of “white liberal feelings”, so that they gain access, overcome marginalization, and persuade gently, why, for instance TWAIL is a legitimate body of inquiry and scholarship. Because Habermasian communication is still more easily palatable than Derridean difference.

I chose to write this note on Park Hong’s book, because she speaks to the current moment. She is a contemporary voice that illustrates vividly how attitudes and behaviours that provoke minor feelings still persist and pervade our everyday – and that even if by now race, gender, class, and other ‘marker-signs’, are legitimate academic areas of study, and in fact the areas that have produced the most inspiring and empowering intellectual works. I chose her because her style of writing is lively, engaging, exposing her desires, ambition, determination, ambivalences and contradictions. Because it is a book that makes the reader feel “validated, solidified, inevitable”; reasserting her that it is the “struggle to prove oneself again and again (that) keeps one faithful to the creative imagination (…), an imagination chiselled by rigor and depth to reflect the integrity of our discontented consciousness” (p 150).


[1] Mark Mazower, Dark Continent : Europe’s Twentieth Century (Penguin Books 1998)., 251.

[2] G Simpson, ‘The Sentimental Life of International Law’ (2015) 3 London Review of International Law 3., 12. 

[3] E Valentine Daniel and Ann Laura Stoler, ‘Ann Laura Stoler Interviewed by E. Valentine Daniel’ Public Culture 22., 506-507. 

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