December 2019

Empire, war, and colonialism; race, gender, and class; discourse, performance, and subjectivity: these are the issues that the four essays featured here examine through diverse approaches and foci. The forum, “Protesting, Refusing, and Rethinking Borders: A Transnational Perspective,” convened by Sunaina Maira, showcase six essays by scholars and activists engaged in a transnational discussion about border violence and border protests in different locations of the globe. In the Event Review, Wendy Cheng and Juan De Lara discuss Desert X, a contemporary art exhibition in the California desert, to critique its failure to challenge the logics of white supremacy, racism, and capitalism. Finally, we have three book reviews: Keith Feldman discusses five recent books on anti-Muslim racism, Axel González reviews four works from the fast-growing field of racial capitalism, and three works on Christian missions in diverse contexts are discussed by Hillary Kaell.


“Why Don’t You Love Me?”: Post/colonial Camp and the Imeldific Fetish in Here Lies Love
Chris A. Eng

My article examines how David Byrne and Fatboy Slim’s 2013 immersive musical Here Lies Love, in narrating “the rise and fall of Imelda Marcos,” inadvertently reaffirms an image of the former First Lady of the Philippines as being ironic, inviting audience members to revel in her extravagance, melodramatic declarations, and appearance of sincere obliviousness. In so doing, the musical substantiates a fetish for the “Imeldific” that displaces attention away from the political effects of the dictatorial regime and toward a fixation on the body, language, and distinctive style of the cultural icon. As a counterpoint to these processes, the article elaborates on post/colonial camp as a heuristic to contemplate the risks and possibilities for working through this fetish to interrogate its operations.

The development of my thinking on Here Lies Love as a scholar shifted based on my multiple interactions with the musical as an audience-participant at The Public between 2013 and 2014. After my first encounter with Here during the initial run of the musical, I left the venue with a sense discomfort and unease. Namely, I contemplated the political and ethical implications of dancing along to the disco beat set against the historical backdrop of a brutally violent dictatorial regime and the risks of an immersive musical glorifying martial law and Imelda Marcos. This risk became most evident to me during one of my attendances. In one of the most jarring sequences, in which depicted protestors are forcibly dragged offstage by actors in riot gear, I turned to notice a fellow audience-participant completely absorbed in their own world, dancing along to the beat with their eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to the action taking place onstage. Similarly, when leaving the venue after each of my handful of viewings, I observed largely positive reactions, with audience members smiling and commenting on how much fun they had. In contrast, I do not recall overhearing any conversations expressing discomfort. What was going on here? Could it really be that everyone was thoroughly seduced by the musical and Imelda’s words? Or, for those who were less familiar with this figure and the histories of martial law, like I was, did they also go home to do more research and continue conversations with others?

The reception to the musical likewise reflected such an ambivalence, with general theatre critics largely singing its praises and Filipino/American scholar-critics more knowledgeable of its histories raising concerns. Critics had good reason to be wary. Just a few years prior, Byrne released a concept album that centered around Imelda, which included earlier versions of many of the musical’s songs as sung by reputable pop artists, including the gay icon Cyndi Lauper. The release of this album was accompanied by a live performance. At that time, Byrne was less prepared with responses to what should have been expected reservations. Instead, his palpable defensiveness manifested varyingly through attempts to downplay the significance of politics and through appeals to the autonomy of art. This narrative of a benevolent, well-intentioned public figure who is not merely misunderstood but also victimized by unfair critiques remains eerily familiar.

Meanwhile, Byrne was noticeably more poised and ready to address any skepticism by the time that the musical came around. With the additions, especially of Ninoy Aquino and the People’s Power Revolution which were conspicuously absent from the concept album, Byrne seemingly took to heart some of the earlier critiques. In interviews and press surrounding the musical he frequently responded with either a “yes, and” or “yes, but” syntactical structure. That is, Byrne acknowledges and affirms Imelda’s role in the brutal dictatorial regime and its political consequences. Nevertheless, while establishing this political reality as truth, he also suggests that it—and, by extension, his critics—is overly simplistic. In contrast, the musical purportedly offers a unique, fresh take that is more nuanced and complex. Such rhetorical postures allowed him to shrug off accusations of reproducing the Imeldific. To be sure, Byrne’s musical is far from the first to underscore and rehearse Imelda’s signature style and persona. Yet, Here Lies Love did a particularly good job at capitalizing on the Imeldific. In addition to promising “a booty-shaking blast of pure joy!” its trailer, along with other marketing materials, advertise such tongue-in-cheek slogans as “people to the party!” and “a revolutionary musical experience.” What I became interested in investigating is how the musical was able to exploit these aspects of Imelda’s persona while simultaneously claiming to advance a political project of justice. In other words, to echo a saying that recalls the infamous words oft-misattributed to yet another extravagant figure obsessively referenced in pop culture: how is it that Byrne gets to have his cake and eat it too?

A perhaps unlikely intellectual pair to my thinking here is my 2018 Theatre Journal article “‘Give It up, Kwang’: Disavowing Asian Labor and Queer/Trans of Color Critique in Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” In watching multiple performances of the 2014 Broadway revival of Hedwig, I found myself experiencing a similar sense of ambivalence or, as Donatella Galella astutely theorizes, “feeling yellow” at the indifference with which Hedwig dismissively referenced Asian laborers in two fleeting moments. Just like I was struck by the audience member in Here dancing alongside scenes of massive violence, I was fascinated by how Hedwig effortlessly made jokes at the expense of her mistreated bandmates and the supportive laughter that these jokes elicited from the audience. In some ways, what I observed with Hedwig allowed me to better articulate what I saw taking place with Here. I elaborated on how Hedwig’s aspirations for recognition colluded with the workings of homo-/trans-normativity as produced over and against racial difference. Moreover, I demonstrated the centrality of disavowal as a process for facilitating this dynamic. Though quite unique and distinctive in each musical, queer camp aesthetics, I contended, was key in enabling such disavowals, by imposing a glossy veneer that covers up shameful, violent truths—the exploitation of racial others for the fictional Hedwig and the notably more catastrophic state violence under the Marcos regime.

And yet, the impulse to interrogate, expose, and demystify the ruse of queer camp seemed insufficient to addressing the problems at hand. What happens when shameful truths are not actually concealed? Indeed, the violence and corruption of the Marcoses are not hidden secrets that are separate from, but rather central to the fixation on Imelda; Byrne fully admits to these realities. Meanwhile, in the case of Hedwig, she does not have any qualms about her problematic viewpoints; she flaunts them ostentatiously. Even with this knowledge, however, viewers return again and again. Such phenomena prove tricky for more familiar tactics of ideological critique. What are the proper responses for scholars and critics when violence is not hidden and denied but transparently avowed? How may we take seriously the pleasures that these productions induce without concluding that they demonstrate nothing more than false consciousness? These questions are in part informed by, without totally subscribing to, those schools of thought that roughly fall under categories of reparative reading, surface reading, or postcritique that have contemplated the limitations of ideological critique and attendant tools of exposure and demystification.

In this way, rather than interrogating how the musical falls for the Imeldific and what such a focus obscures, I became more interested in thinking through the ways in which Here takes the Imeldific seriously. As such, my article contends not only that looking to “the fetish” helps to elucidate the musical’s intense belief in Imelda and the multiple forms of disavowal enacted, but also that camp aesthetics is crucial to these processes. Whereas the campy risks prioritizing and relishing the Imeldific at the cost of dismissing the material, political effects of the dictatorial regime, the musical provides a look into how this aesthetic in fact clarifies the co-constitutive nature between the style and the politics of the Marcoses. The purported non-place of Imelda’s shoes provides a stark example of the generative nature of disavowals. While Byrne repeatedly claims that there are no mentions of the shoes in the production, Áine Mangaoang astutely draws attention to how the shoes are in fact invoked, but through their alleged absence. Notably, Mangaoang nuances the title song in which Imelda is introduced as a simple commoner prior to her rise to political power as First Lady. Lamenting the poor state of her family and background, Imelda sings “No clothes, no bed, no jewelry / Sometimes I had no shoes” (emphasis added). By invoking the shoes through their negation, Byrne perniciously offers a tragic backstory that implicitly rationalizes her future extravagance. The absent presence of these shoes exemplify the musical’s disavowed fetish for the Imeldific.

Since Byrne’s musical, yet another production surrounding Imelda has entered the spotlight with a splash: Lauren Greenfield’s 2019 documentary The Kingmaker, which debuted in the prestigious Venice Film Festival. While Kingmaker was roundly praised as an unflinching exposé of Imelda Marcos, there are notable similarities in the press surrounding this documentary and Byrne’s production. Both were heralded as unprecedented. Interviews and accounts also went out of their way to clarify how and “why Imelda Marcos was a ‘natural’ subject” for both white cultural producers. On the one hand, these narratives work to quell any objections about non-Filipino white producers choosing Imelda as their subjects. On the other, such claims also implicitly suggest that they are in fact the ideal choice for telling the story of Imelda Marcos. As Celine Parreñas Shimizu so incisively details, however, the claims of novelty actively erase and devalue the work done by their predecessors, most especially Ramona Diaz’s groundbreaking documentary Imelda (2004), which included extensive interviews with and access to the former First Lady. Shimizu provocatively asks: “how can films by white people about brown people, in this age of #OscarsSoWhite, provide an example of ethical filmmaking that does not harm, as the erasure and recolonizing of Diaz’s film and subject does in this case?” In many ways, her observations and questions can be extended to Byrne, especially since his musical also tellingly draws on the important work done by Diaz. Such dynamics demand a reckoning with how these productions reproduce and are situated within the power structures, value systems, and various economies of larger cultural industries. The overly affirmative valorization of The Kingmaker and Here Lies Love invites an interrogation of how race shapes which productions (do not) become recognized and why. Relatedly, as an Asian Americanist, who is a Chinese American with no personal connections to the destructive actions of the Marcoses, I have attempted to work through the ethical implications of conducting this research as a junior scholar, to foreground my own positionality while clarifying my objectives in exploring these histories of martial law through Byrne’s production.

While the campy risks reifying a fetish for the Imeldific, my interactions with Here Lies Love led me to articulate the possibilities for post/colonial camp, wherein the aesthetic might unexpectedly offer critiques rather than evacuate considerations of the broader colonial histories, racial power dynamics, and long-lasting political legacies that underwrite any performances surrounding Imelda Marcos and martial law. As a scholar, I elaborated on this heuristic as a way to make sense of those cultural works that have enjoyed a popular reception and sizable fanbase but might best be described as politically ambivalent. Given the economic structures and demands dictated by the lauded Great White Way, any expectations for an uncompromised theatrical production with radical politics can perhaps only result in disappointment. What other work can be possible from politically suspect cultural productions? That is, reckoning with their muddled politics, what critical or political possibilities can such productions be made to enact? As a way of working toward a response to these inquiries, we might take advantage of and invert Byrne’s rhetorical structures of disavowal. Saying yes as an acknowledgement of his suspect politics and muddled motives, we might discern what else the Here Lies Love can do against and in spite of its producers’ intentions.

“At Home on the Range: Cowboys, Indians, and the Assimilation of Enemy Children in the Cold War Borderlands”
Jonna Perrillo

In 1945, in one of the first acts of the Cold War, 118 German scientists who had created the V-2 missile for the Third Reich were recruited to build an equally powerful weapon for the U.S. Army under a briefly covert operation named Paperclip. Exonerated from their service to Hitler, the scientists quickly relocated to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas; their families, including 147 school-aged children, followed in late 1946 and throughout the spring of 1947. From the barbed wire barracks in which they lived, the Paperclip children were bussed daily by military police to El Paso public schools. My essay examines how these children responded to a school curriculum—and a larger juvenile culture—that created and circulated narratives of the American West and, more specifically, of cowboys and Indians. Cowboys and Indians were not just entertainment or play figures; they were useful tools for teachers to articulate important ideas about history, democracy, and American identity at a time when American culture, political and social, had come to feel mechanized and conformist. More implicitly, teachers used cowboys and Indians to convey lessons about national security in a new atomic age. I show how and why El Paso educators, who lived in a place that was home to both cowboys and indigenous people, misrepresented and then taught regional histories in service of these larger national myths.

Because of a longstanding German fascination with myths of the American West and Germany’s own cultural translations of them, many of the Paperclip children and their parents were already familiar with cowboys and Indians as they assimilated to a new country. I have interviewed former Paperclip children, and I include in the essay stories and photos they shared of themselves dressed in western wear from their first days at Fort Bliss. These costumes fulfilled certain fantasies they held as German children while also making them look like El Paso students, who frequently dressed as cowboys and girls for school pageants and contests.

More significantly, frontier mythology explained away the moral failures of settler colonialism, nation building, and genocide. Teachers subscribed to and reinforced the vanquished Indian trope. While encouraging students to “play Indian,” they simultaneously taught that cowboys possessed all of the best characteristics of Indians, including self-sufficiency, identification with community, and authenticity. By this logic, the primitive, extinct Indian lived on, though in a white body and therefore less complicated and morally fraught form for Anglos. Anglo exoneration served Americans and postwar Germans alike. In showing this to be true, the German children’s experiences help us to understand not just their story but postwar American political culture—and the public schools that bolstered it—in a new light.

In my forthcoming book, “Educating the Enemy: Teaching Germans and Mexicans in the Cold War Borderlands,” and in my scholarship and teaching more generally, I seek to show how public schools function as the central institution for framing, disseminating, and upholding dominant American political beliefs and narratives. The recruitment of Nazi scientists at the same time that the U.S. restricted the immigration of Jewish war refugees constitutes another moral failure in a long history of American racialized thinking. This thinking has been echoed in school lessons through a variety of mechanisms, from the curriculum to segregationist policies. The El Paso student population was over 60% Mexican-American in the late 1940s when the Paperclip children attended school there, but it is impossible to know that from class pictures of the “American” (versus “Mexican”) or Anglo public schools to which they were assigned. Likewise, the re-segregation of American public schools over the past three decades is a decisive indicator of race and class politics in our own time.

The political and cultural work schools have performed is essential to consider in relation to disciplinary fields outside of education history because the work itself has been informed by an expansive range of interest groups, theories, and events that reside outside of schools. In the case of the Paperclip children, we can see powerful connections between schools and Cold War foreign policy and diplomacy, immigration policy and exemptions, and the postwar growth of the military industrial complex. More broadly, I hope readers will see in my account of the Paperclip children and El Paso schools not simply a unique, even eccentric history but a larger, ongoing story of race, citizenship, and education in which most of us—as students, teachers, parents, and/or taxpayers—play and have played a part.