The five essays in this issue exemplify the types of transnational interdisciplinary scholarship in which our editorial board is particularly invested. Conceptually ambitious, methodologically innovative, and analytically original, these essays represent the state of the field, and they are also impressive in their thematic, chronological, and geographic spread and their relevance to contemporary politics both domestic and global.
The forum, “Centering Pleasure and Anti-Respectability in Black Studies,” convened by Christina Carney, pulls together an exciting array of essays that address sexuality and pleasure, topics that have been difficult to tackle in black studies.
The three book reviews, by Gabriella Friedman, Karen Buenavista Hanna and Mark John Sanchez, and Esmat Elhalaby, discuss new works on speculation, cultures of empire and international solidarity, and the role of area studies in the United States and the world.
In Event Reviews, A. B. Wilkinson discusses the exhibit on Sally Hemings at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and Dorinne Kondo reviews David Henry Hwang’s groundbreaking new musical, Soft Power.
Digital Project Reviews features three works: Donna Arkee discusses the Hackers of Resistance, Carly A. Kocurek reviews Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth, and Jim McGrath discusses the digital project Newest Americans.
“Like a Refugee: Veterans, Vietnam, and the Making of a False Equivalence”
This essay follows the twinned stories of the American veteran and the Southeast Asian refugee. In 1980, with millions of Southeast Asians fleeing their home countries, president Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act into law. Close to half a million Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees resettled in the United States in the next decade. In 1985, Vietnam began offering trial visas to American veterans and their families. The vets reported being astonished by how welcoming Vietnamese were and described the trips as healing returns to the places where they had lost their innocence and become men. News media delivered glowing coverage of the veterans’ tours, which coincided with a boom in Vietnam War movies and books, led by Oliver Stone’s Best Picture–winning Platoon (1986).
Some of the vets wrote memoirs about their time in postwar Vietnam, including William Broyles’s Brothers in Arms: A Journey from War to Peace (1986), W. D. Ehrhart’s Going Back: An Ex-Marine Returns to Vietnam (1987), and Frederick Downs’s No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends: An American Soldier Returns to Vietnam (1991). The men wrote about their trips as if they were homecomings to a land to which they belonged and which held the secret to who they were. With Vietnamese American writers publishing the first refugee memoirs to come out of the war, white vets began writing memoirs in which they imagined themselves as the real refugees of the war. Some refugee writers welcomed the parallel, with Le Ly Hayslip, for example, addressing her first memoir––the most popular by a refugee––to American veterans and encouraging them to return to Vietnam to find closure. War holds whiteness together through racial nationalism, which refugees, with their own stories of war and their own claims to its meaning, threaten to erode. The emergence of the veteran “refugee” in news media and memoir contained that threat and led to the pairing of pro-veteran and anti-refugee politics, a pairing exploited years later by president Donald Trump.
In the mid-1980s, Vietnam, facing an economic crisis, initiated a program of trade reform that included offering trial visas to former American servicemen. (The United States had embargoed trade with Vietnam at the end of the war and wouldn’t lift the ban until 1994.) Over the next few years, hundreds of veterans returned to Southeast Asia to revisit old battle sites and see Vietnam at peace. Reporters interviewed them and sometimes accompanied them on their tours. The coverage was extensive and uplifting to a fault. The Los Angeles Times reported on a group sponsored by Vietnam Veterans of America. A forty-one-year-old former marine, who admitted to having killed more than twenty-five Vietnamese children in 1968, described the relief he felt when his Vietnamese hosts welcomed him without the slightest hint of bitterness. “Day by day,” the reporter wrote, “he found that the open arms and smiling faces of the Vietnamese were restoring his sense of self-worth.” Another veteran, a former paratrooper, said he wished Americans could have treated him with the kindness and respect that Vietnamese had. “You know how nice it was to hear that [welcome] after not hearing it from Americans?” he exclaimed.
Reporters noted that, unlike earlier generations of soldiers, Vietnam vets hadn’t been able to revisit battle sites to mourn fallen friends and see a different side of a place in which they had once waged war. This mattered, one tour organizer said, because it gave vets “replacement images” of Vietnam at peace. “There’s something missing: ‘I have to go back to find what’s missing here. I have to go back to find something I left there,’” the organizer said, explaining why some vets spent all their savings on a three-week tour. Vietnamese refugees returned on trial visas, too, and some reporters acknowledged this. But most focused on white vets making their own return to Vietnam as refugees of a different kind.
Not all returning vets went back to find peace, but by the end of the decade, the tours had emerged as an alternative treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1989, Raymond Scurfield, the director of a PTSD in-patient program at the American Lake Veterans Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington, inspired by Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), took eight veterans on a therapeutic tour of Vietnam. All eight vets had been diagnosed with PTSD, and Scurfield hoped that revisiting battle sites would allow them to confront repressed memories of the war and replace them with new memories of a peaceful, welcoming Vietnam. The New York Times and USA Today wrote stories about Scurfield’s group. PBS sent a film crew. Scurfield himself wrote three books about the tour and other “in-action” therapeutic activities. The vets’ memories of the war had been “frozen in time,” he told a Times reporter. “By going back to Vietnam we hope to shake them loose or replace them with images of another Vietnam.”
Scurfield’s patients did more than replace wartime memories with peacetime images; they embraced Vietnam as a long-lost home. “It’s like going back to enemy territory, but it’s also like I’m coming home,” Bob Swanson, a former marine, reflected. “Part of this country is just embedded in me.” “This is where I belong,” Jake Lafave, an air force vet, added. Some talked about visiting again or moving to Vietnam, where, they said, they felt more welcome and better understood than in the United States. But the tour also made them feel more American. Scurfield later recalled watching a tall white vet named Hank handing out miniature American flags to excited Vietnamese. “Young and old and in-between, males and females, push up towards the front, smiling and waving, outstretched hands everywhere, reaching upwards to grasp––tiny American flags!” he remembered, in a passage littered with exclamation points. The vets described their two-week tour as a return home to a place to which they belonged and from which they had been displaced by the war and the diplomatic fallout between the United States and Vietnam. But they also came back from Southeast Asia more American than ever, reassured of their status as embodiments of the nation. The vets asserted their Americanness by claiming ownership over the war, and they made that claim as refugees.
Transnational Politics of Humor
Perin E. Gürel
My article examines the development and political uses of a genre of purposefully unfunny jokes, which Turks have called “Amerikan jokes” from the late 1940s until the early twenty-first century. An examination of the texts themselves helps index transculturation as Turkey opened itself up to increasing American cultural influence after World War II. In addition, the label “Amerikan” itself carried political potential: opinion leaders used the Amerikan jokes’ associations with “unlaughter” to comment on the perceived American national character and critique US Cold War policies.
Daniel Wickberg has identified how “sense of humor” became essential to bourgeois American identity in the early twentieth century. A key challenge was, and remains, considering this development in a transnational context. Working towards a monograph-length study of humor in the Cold War, I wanted to investigate how projections of American humor could function in hegemonic ways in cultural diplomacy, but also how such “benevolent” performances would be received across linguistic and cultural divides. Turkey made a good starting point as an officially Western-aligned “developing” nation-state where the progression of the Cold War saw increasing Third-Worldist sympathies.
Having grown-up in Istanbul alongside joke-cracking family members, I became familiar with Amerikan jokes long before I knew much else about the United States. An Amerikan joke, as I extrapolate in the essay, is a short, purposefully unfunny joke, either a mock riddle or a one-liner, that always ends in a groan-inducing anti-climax. However, I could locate only one scholarly study of this joke category (a short essay in Turkish by Saim Sakaoğlu), because, as I explored in The Limits of Westernization, folklore studies in Turkey tends to focus on the “classics” that do the nation proud. Without access to jokes collected and analyzed by folklorists, I combed through popular newspapers’ humor pages, using the National Library of Turkey and the archives of two high-circulation newspapers: Milliyet and Cumhuriyet. This research allowed to me collect texts that qualified as American jokes in various eras and also helped trace varying Turkish receptions of jokes by representative U.S. politicians, including Harry Truman, Joseph Biden, and Ronald Reagan.
In order to theorize the Amerikan joke, I relied on Moira Smith’s essay on unlaughter and boundary maintenance and Portraits of the White Man by Keith H. Basso, both of which I highly recommend. I situated my examination of these folk items alongside leftist Turkish humor writing, which was deeply inspired by folklore. Not enough of this literature has been translated into English, but let me recommend Aziz Nesin’s satirical short stories. I assign “Civilization’s Spare Part” (1958) and “Clinkity Clank” (1960), which involve humorous critiques of modernization theory, every year in my “Transnational America” course.
Folklorists joke that analyzing humor is humorless work, but I had a great time finding and interpreting this data. Highlighting not just local texts but also vernacular categories of culture can enrich theorizing in transnational American Studies. And maybe some of it can even make us chuckle.
“Centering Pleasure and Anti-Respectability in Black Studies”
Christina J. Carney
My introductory essay for the March 2019 Forum illuminates scholarly tensions within black studies about the silence of sexuality (and more importantly pleasure) to analyze what these conversations can reveal about black life and ideas of freedom. My own scholarly interests in the “ghostly matters” of black studies began as a undergraduate when my mentor, Lisa Marie Cacho, gave me E. Frances White’s Dark Continent Of Our Bodies: Black Feminism & Politics Of Respectability (2001) as I was finishing my senior thesis at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This book remains a foundational text in my Black Feminist courses. White offers up a comprehensive genealogy alongside a concrete definition of respectability in relation to Black Feminism, in particular. Many of the same evasions of sexuality and pleasure that characterized the field when Dark Continent was published remain dominant today. Moreover, the institutionalization of black feminism in academia has not necessarily resulted in spaces where dynamic analyses about black sexual politics can be heard and debated. Similar to Stacey Patton’s analysis in The Chronicle of Higher Education, my own conversations with colleagues in the field of (black) sexuality studies revealed how many of us are actively refusing this silence, but engaging comes at a price: jeopardizing our careers and/or creating tension within our own academic departments or organizations. Regardless of the potential consequences, my colleagues and I agree that this space/place-making is integral to our own intellectual development and personal autonomy.
The March 2019 Forum is preceded by two important roundtable conversations about black sexuality and black sexual politics that were published in Souls and The Black Scholar, respectively. The aforementioned are a cohort of the very few (some might argue the only) black studies journals willing to publish and contend with divergent scholarly analyses of sexuality in black studies that is not preoccupied with social death. This is why it is even more important that American Quarterly, the premier journal of American Studies, also participates in these conversations. American Studies has foregrounded pleasure for their annual conferences, i.e. – “The Fun and the Fury” (2014), and also refused to separate questions of pleasure and political economy – i.e. Lisa Duggan, José Esteban Muñoz, Robert McRuer, among others. American Studies has become somewhat of a haven for some outlaw black studies scholars, including those of us who foreground questions of pleasure. Although my aim is not to romanticize American Studies, I do point to the rich intellectual possibilities in a field such as American Studies where interdisciplinarity as both a methodological and theoretical practice is taken seriously.
I hope that both my Beyond the Page commentary alongside the archival footage of the keynote panel at Mizzou’s black studies conference in 2017 will contribute to the digital humanities in useful ways for years to come.
Some of the most important conversations about black sexuality and black feminism are taking place on social media platforms. For example, In RECLAIMING OUR SPACE: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World from the Tweets to the Streets, Feminista Jones discussed how black women have used Twitter, as a tool, to challenge discourses within black sexual politics. For some, the “ivory tower,” has been used strategically by some intellectuals, as a tool, to validate their intellectualism over others. However, this Forum and the supplemental commentaries hope to bridge this gap and to illuminate how non-academic spaces have influenced our work about sexuality and pleasure.
Stories of the City: Newark, Newest Americans, and Hyperlocal Forms of Digital Public Humanities
This essay focuses on Newest Americans, a “multimedia collaboratory” that publishes a digital magazine focusing on Newark, New Jersey, “a city shaped by migration.” There are currently seven issues of Newest Americans. My review discusses a few pieces at length:
“We Came and Stayed: Coyt Jones / Ras Baraka” (from Issue 01; Summer 2015)
“Gateways to Newark” (Issue 04; Fall 2016)
“Arrivals” (from Issue 06; Winter 2018)
Work on The Krueger-Scott Oral History Collection led to the development of Newest Americans, and the recordings of Coyt Jones used in “We Came and Stayed” come from this project.
I note that “The Ballad of University Heights” (Issue 02; Winter 2016) and “The Ironbound Issue” (Issue 05; Spring 2017) both make use of StoryMap, a mapping and annotation tool created by the Knight Lab at Northwestern University. StoryMap may be of interest if you’re looking to publish your own mapping projects or work with students in the classroom on digital storytelling.
Sheila Brennan’s “Public, First” is a helpful overview (and intervention) on what it means to work “in public” (and, ideally, with publics) digitally in the work of digital humanities and public history. I’d also recommend “Lessons on Public Humanities from the Civic Sphere” by Wendy F. Hsu (another essay from the Debates in the Digital Humanities series).
Soft Power: (Auto)ethnography, Racial Affect, and Dramaturgical Critique
My review essay shines a spotlight on the 2018 world premiere of the “play with a musical” Soft Power, by David Henry Hwang (playwright, librettist) and Jeannine Tesori (composer), at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, as the culmination of the 50th anniversary season of Center Theatre Group and a co-production with Los Angeles’s East West Players, the oldest continuously running theater of color in the U.S. Taking a cue from Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power” as cultural rather than military force, Hwang imagines a future where China is ascendant after the demise of the U.S. nation-state in the wake of the 2016 election. Soft Power turns the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I on its head. In The King and I the King of Siam is “tutored” in the ways of government by the English governess in a relationship that has a romantic subtext, while in Soft Power a real romance occurs between Chinese film executive Xue Xing, played by “How to Get Away With Murder” star Conrad Ricamora, and defeated candidate Hillary Clinton, played by Alyse Alan Louis. Xue Xing “tutors” U.S. senators, played by Asian American actors in gray wigs, so that they embrace a peaceful, cosmopolitan vision he terms “the New Silk Road.”
The reversal of power relations between the U.S. and China is surely unprecedented in U.S. musical theatre. Similarly, the casting of Asian American actors in white roles is highly amusing and offered a satisfying counter, too little seen in popular culture, to ongoing yellowface performance and whitewashing.
Finally, I engage (auto)ethnography to analyze the affective reactions of both myself and my theatre companions, and I use what I call dramaturgical critique to suggest areas where Soft Power could be pushed further, particularly in its enshrining of liberal democracy.
- The first clip, a preview of Soft Power posted on the Center Theatre Group website, illustrates the lavish production value--spectacular sets, singing, dancing—that characterizes Broadway musicals. Hwang and Tesori wanted the “delivery system” in Soft Power to be as ravishing and effective as that in any musical, including The King and I, and they succeeded.
- Center Theatre Group announces its partnership with co-producer East West Players, including a series of “community conversations” related both to Soft Power and to the theme of the 2017-18 season at East West: “The Company We Keep,” that included co-productions with Robey Theatre Company (an African American company in Los Angeles), the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center, and the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center.
- The Foreign Policy Association uploaded this video of Joseph Nye’s discussion of the concept of soft power. The sexual subtext (“attraction”) emerges clearly here.
- Link to one of Nye’s books on “soft power.”
- A montage sequence from the 2015 revival of The King and I on Broadway demonstrates the musical’s staging of Orientalist splendor via the sets, costumes, music. Ken Watanabe and Kelly O’Hara star; Conrad Ricamora, the star of Soft Power, is in the supporting role of Lun Tha in this revival. It is highly likely that most Asian American musical theatre artists have, at one time or another, cycled through The King and I. Here, too, we see the tension between what I call “creative labor”—the Asian American actors enjoy the stability of a steady gig—but they inevitably serve a problematic, Orientalist “creative vision,” even if the music is difficult to resist.
- David Henry Hwang and Bartlett Sher, director of the 2015 The King and I revival, are shown in dialogue at an event held at the Asia Society in New York. Karen Shimakawa, of NYU’s Department of Performance Studies, moderates.
- In a footnote, I comment on the nuanced complexities at work in the casting of Conrad Ricamora as a heterosexual Asian American “dreamboat.” This link shows Ricamora’s acceptance speech of the California Equality Visibility Award. He speaks movingly of being ostracized, vilified, bullied in high school when he was outed as gay, and of the continuing reverberations of that experience in his later life.
- In 2012 the Royal Shakespeare company staged The Orphan of Zhao, a classic Chinese play, with white actors cast in Asian roles. British Asian actors and a Black actor were cast as maids and dogs. This pungent critique appeared in The Guardian.
- A notorious recent example of whitewashing occurred in 2017, when Scarlett Johansson starred in Ghost in the Shell, playing a character that was originally Japanese. Here, The Hollywood Reporter asks four actresses of Japanese descent for their comments on the case. Predictably, the comments are filtered through a white male host.
Racist Cute: Caricature, Kawaii-style, and the Asian Thing
My essay identifies a new iteration of racial kitsch, the cute anthropomorphic Asian object, and reads it within and against two frames: globalization and U.S. comparative racialization. Revisiting the association between caricature and harm, I suggest that, at first glance, kawaii things evade recognition as racist caricature through the positive affective valance ascribed to the cute aesthetic. Yet Asianized proxies allow for the enjoyment of unequal relations of power, revealing anxieties surrounding shifts in the global economy at the millennium. Exploring racial feeling beyond an offensive/inoffensive framework illuminates the desiring structures underlying stereotyping. The essay also explores the vacillation between pleasure and pain underlying Asian American spectatorship of “racist cute” things to highlight the ambivalent racial pleasures that circulate through the nonhuman.
At one level, what purports to be ludic, clever, or cute can simply be the same old, same old of racist caricature as in this image of a contemporary set of rice bowls. Reducing and exaggerating East Asian signifiers–pagoda hat, eye slant–these bowls appear to flout covenants against caricature. In contrast, more recent iterations fail to slip by unnoticed as I note here in the example of Snapchat’s “anime” filter. At stake is not necessarily the ability to distinguish between what is cute and what is yellowface, but the recognition that the cute elicits structures of feeling akin to that of yellowface; the book cover for Orientales publicizing the housewares of the Italian housewares designer, Alessi, is a case in point. Interestingly, prior to the advent of Cute Studies, the split desires that animate theories of the cute–care and domination–were articulated in Yi-Fu Tuan’s Dominance and Affection: The Making of Pets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).
Asian American ambivalence surrounding the “racist cute” discussed in my essay stands in contrast to the disavowal of and attachment to the kitsch objects expressed in two intriguing works: David Pilgrim’s “The Garbage Man: Why I Collect Racist Objects” and Frank Wu’s “Why I Collect Racism.” Both convey the avidity of collectors against their abhorrence towards the collected.
Since my essay was completed, the topic of racially insensitive global commodities has assumed greater visibility and urgency. In 2011, the Chanel Paris-Shanghai Take Away Bag by Karl Lagerfeld incited no comment. In contrast, by 2018, another high-end retailer seeking to tap the Chinese market faced resistance after a marketing faux pas. Dolce & Gabbana was forced to cancel its runway show in Shanghai as a result of its mocking and racially insensitive publicity videos featuring a Chinese model attempting to eat pizza, cannoli, and spaghetti with chopsticks. The ad sparked outrage and protests, calls for merchandise returns and a boycott, and the demand for an apology. In 2019, heightened awareness surrounding racist caricature created backlash for other luxury fashion houses. Gucci was forced to apologize and withdraw a sweater that mimicked blackface for its wearer. Prada was shamed into discontinuing products featuring a monkey-like character evoking blackface caricature.
In contrast, Alessi’s monkey figure dressed as a “mandarin” did not apparently trigger comparable racial associations; as I was reminded (many times), in Chinese culture, the monkey is a positive symbol. But where does that leave animalized ethnic drag as a form of dehumanization? Against the notion of cultural and historical context, race is a signifier of global status hierarchy.
The objects discussed in my essay likewise invite consideration of the distinction between degrading mockery and political satire. In the current climate in which free speech is leveraged against offense, comedian Jerry Seinfeld offers this oddly circular logic: “If it’s offensive and it’s not funny, then it’s not a joke. But any comedian that doesn’t understand that dynamic, you’re finished anyway.” More helpful is political cartoonist Garry Trudeau on the conditions for satire flouted by Charlie Hebdo: “Satire punches up, against authority of all kinds, the little guy against the powerful . . . . Ridiculing the non-privileged is almost never funny–it’s just mean.” That is, the criteria for satire is not funny vs. not funny or the just adjudication of rights, but, again, an understanding of relative status, of asymmetries of social power.
Dong, Lorraine Philip P. Choy, Marlon K. Hom. 1995. The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Harris, Michael D. 2003. Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.
Mithlo, Nancy Marie. 2008. ‘Our Indian Princess: Subverting the Stereotype. School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe.
Tchen, John Kuo Wei and Dylan Yeats. 2014. Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. New York: Verso.
Turner, Patricia A. 1994. Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture. New York: Anchor.
Cultures of Empire and International Solidarity
Karen Buenavista Hanna and Mark John Sanchez
This essay examines five recently released books that enable us to better understand US empire and the co-constitutive nature of local and global anti-imperial mobilizations: Seams of Empire: Race and Radicalism in Puerto Rico and the United States, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America, Tibak Rising: Activism in the Days of Martial Law, A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), and Women against Marcos: Stories of Filipino and Filipino American Women Who Fought a Dictator. Together, these texts offer a range of theoretical approaches that reveal the imbricated and relational dimensions of anti-imperial expressions.
Other written collections, memoirs, and monographs about the anti-Marcos movement enrich our understanding of anti-imperial expressions. They include:
Subversive Lives: A Family Memoir of the Marcos Years (2012), by Susan Quimpo and Nathan Gilbert Quimpo
Militant but Groovy: Stories of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (2008), edited by Soliman M. Santos Jr. and Paz Verdades M. Santos
Of Tyrants and Martyrs: A Political Memoir (2017), by Manuel Lahoz
Snows of Yesteryear: A Family in War and a Sentimental Education (2014), by Elmer Ordonez
Whose Side Are We On?: Memoirs of a PMAer (2018), by Dante Simbulan
Fighting from a Distance How Filipino Exiles Helped Topple a Dictator (2013), by Jose V. Fuentecilla
Task Force Detainees Philippines: TFDP was one of the first human rights organizations to form in response to the declaration of martial law in 1972. TFDP continues their human rights work today.
Karapatan: Karapatan is one of the most active defenders of human rights in the Philippines today.
Malaya Movement: The Malaya Movement is a U.S. based movement organizing in opposition to extrajudicial killings and dictatorial governance in the Philippines.
Bantayog ng mga Bayani: Located in Quezon City, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes) is “a landscaped memorial center honoring those individuals who lived and died in defiance of the repressive regime that ruled over the Philippines from 1972 to 1986.” The Bantayog houses a museum, archive, and monument dedicated to keeping alive the memory of those who fought against the Marcos dictatorship.
Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines: The CHR was established shortly after Marcos’s ouster in 1987 and is “mandated to conduct investigations on human rights violations against marginalized and vulnerable sectors of the society, involving civil and political rights.”
w3 wi11 ov3rf10w ur cistem g4t3s: The Hackers of Resistance
In my review, I look at how the transmedia performance art piece Hackers of Resistance reclaims the figure of the hacker, often imagined as a white male, to create a cathartic power fantasy for women of color. Created for The Women’s Building: Animating the Archives, Hackers of Resistance is a diffuse project that interweaves multimedia performance art, radical pedagogy, comedy, and video games. Created by a trio of semi-anonymous artists, each queer women of color, Hackers of Resistance centers around the hackers attempting to free their lovers and collaborators the Marias Clandestinas by starting a revolution that would lead to the complete abolishment of the U.S. government.
Taking place within an alternative universe, this hyper-immersive multi-sensory, speculative world manifests through an online archive, wearehors.xyz and a traveling performance art piece centering around an interactive, game-driven installation based in the HORhaus, a.k.a. the hacker’s secret lair. Through offering a playful speculative future, the hackers interrogate the ways that reproductive and surveillance technologies inform one another as manifestations of the logics and projects of necropolitics. By reclaiming these technologies and merging them with anti-surveillance techniques and hacktivism, HORs crafts a queer futurity where there are immediate and doable solutions to end neoliberalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy.
Inspired by the Sisters of Survival, an anti-nuclear feminist performance art collective founded in 1981 at the Women’s Building, the hackers drew from their touring performance, END OF THE RAINBOW .Dressed in rainbow colored nun’s robes inspired by urgent shorthand communication of semaphore flags, the sisters played with gender symbolism including the trope of the naughty nun whose bad habits are rooted in, often pornographic, medieval European literature and song. The hackers also draw from The Theater of the Oppressed, a series of interactive theatre games developed in Brazil in the 1970’s by Augusto Boal, where the audience participates in exercises to rehearse taking action. Inspired by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, rather than treating the public as vessels into which educators deposit knowledge, critical thinking is encouraged through a problem-posing education which undermines the hegemony by constantly questioning it and demanding recognition of the agency of the oppressed. In the tradition of these collaborative art pieces, the hackers attempt to bridge the gap between the elite art world and the marginalized by creating immersive and interactive performance art pieces whose goal is to give their audience an active role to feel the thrill an of hacking for justice and to practice taking drastic political action.
Finally, the characters of the hackers and their mission and goals and individuals and as a coalition are expanded upon in an interactive online diary created for for issue 13 ofAda: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. Although not necessarily essential to the audience's understanding of the live performance piece, the diary contextualizes the hackers connection with the The Marias Clandestinas. Another speculative feminist collective inspired by the Jane Collective and the Gynepunks, the Marias research 3D print abortion kits and have published the best methods and costs in The 3DAdditivist Cookbook. The diary also documents the hacker’s experiments with anti-facial recognition technology inspired by CV Dazzle, plans to hack LAPD drones, and, offers real resources to research and develop radical technologies without being detected by the government. This radical reclamation of hacking, often regarded as destructive and the domain of vengeful white men, renders it into a generative and productive site of both alternative ways of knowing and a modality of hope. In this way, HORs works as a playful poetry from the future, as outlined by Kara Keeling in the way it interrupts normative concepts and processes of time, history, subject formation and erasure with the imaginings and inhabiting of new futures.
Erotic Illegibility and Desire in Representations of Black Sexuality
Erotic Representation in Underground
Freda Fair and Mahaliah Ayana Little
My portion of Dr. Fair and I’s shared article is adapted from several larger research projects analyzing how black women’s eroticism is spoken about, written about, and depicted.
My thoughts in the essay emerge out of Spillers’ “impolite question” and take Morgan’s declaration about sexuality and the Middle Passage seriously, and so these quotes frame the sketch of my essay included in AQ. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” is foundational for more reasons than have even become clear to me at the time of this writing, but I’ll offer some context as to why I chose the quote I did to frame my piece.
Spillers is discussing Harriet Jacobs’ (alias Linda Brent) precarity and vulnerability to the sexual predation of white men and white women as an enslaved black woman. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs narrates the sexual harassment, badgering, and violence she suffered at the hands of white people but also details a consensual relationship with the white man who fathered her two children. The question of what degree of autonomy Jacobs was able to exert in her relationship with “Mr. Sands” as he’s fictionalized, or Samuel Sawyer, is a topic of rich debate. Ernestine, the character on the television series Underground that I examine in my essay, has a series of encounters with Tom Macon, her owner and the master of the plantation, that parallel some of the details and scenarios of Jacobs’ story.
I resisted the seduction of drawing a direct comparison between the two (Harriet Jacobs as historical figure and Ernestine as fictional historical figure), because I am not interested in recuperative readings of interracial sexual encounters during enslavement, nor am I interested in a project of historicizing interracial relationships. I am, however, interested in how enslaved black women acknowledged and navigated their sexual interiority, even as it was externally unacknowledged. It is a less sophisticated thought that grows from the same interrogative kernel as Saidiya Hartman's body of work – her latest project, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, especially. I wondered how some antebellum black women navigated the desire they may have felt, how they may have enacted that desire, and what that might mean for black women contemporarily (especially since a show created in 2016 featured a character like Ernestine, and that she inspired such strong reactions from viewers and from actress Amirah Vann herself). Treva B. Lindsey and Jessica Marie Johnson's article, “Searching for Climax: Black Erotic Lives in Slavery and Freedom," which I reference in my essay, establishes this work. Building upon it, I am fascinated with the possibility of antebellum erotic sovereignty and interested in how Ernestine’s character may have dramatized it. Mireille Miller-Young defines erotic sovereignty as “an ongoing ontological process that uses racialized sexuality to assert complex subjecthood, inside of the overwhelming constraints of social stigma, stereotype, structural inequality, policing, divestment, segregation, and exploitation under the neoliberal state,” and while some of the structures she lists do not apply to the antebellum context, many do (2014).
All this aside, what is the point? Why the interest in the possibility of enslaved black women enacting erotic negotiations or encounters? What larger theme or idea do I see this in conversation with?
While outlining Harriet Jacobs’ compounded vulnerability, Spillers concludes that the possibility of pleasure within the social schema of slavery “has not been settled” – not that it is impossible (1987). This tiny, four-word assessment speaks volumes. It is not a foreclosure, not a neatly determined prescription – but an unseemly invitation. In my reading, it connects with the ending of the essay, in which she expands upon the possibility of “gaining insurgent ground as female social subject” and of “claiming the monstrosity” of ungenderedness (1987). Matters unsettled, ongoing, unresolved, monstrous (and that is no accidental call to Christina Sharpe's Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects) – they all defy classification. In the case of black women’s sexuality, unresolved erotic expression confounds binary classification as either wholly exploitative victimization or as one-dimensionally triumphant enactments of agency.
It is this ‘racial and sexual alterity,’ as Ariane Cruz theorizes in The Color of Kink, that has monstrous potential. What if depictions of black women’s erotic expression could avoid the limiting categorization as either positive (agential) or negative (victimized)? What if, instead of thwarting the possibility of antebellum black sexual autonomy, however incremental, illegible, and irretrievable it may have been and remains, we considered it an unsettled, ongoing ontological project?
The result, at least in my opinion would gesture toward:
- A strengthening of the historicization of and argument for the legitimacy of black women’s sexuality studies
- A continuation in the ongoing black feminist intellectual path of disrupting the representational binaries of good and bad, agent vs. victim, etc.
- A divestment in Western conceptualizations of gender and sexual deviance
- A lessening of the gap between black women’s lived realities (ongoing sexual ontologies) and black feminist theorizations of black women’s sexuality
Though cancelled, Underground will continue to do important representational work, as old and new viewers alike can still watch the show on multiple streaming platforms. Ernestine will continue to offer a fictional referent for the reality of black women’s complicated interpersonal and interior erotic navigation. Returning to that impolite question, to matters left unresolved and ongoing, it is almost satisfying that Ernestine’s ending remains unwritten. She and the show itself now take on an impossible ephemerality, not unlike the mystery of a single name or descriptor included in a slave ledger, or a nameless black person’s photograph.
“The Sacred Fonts and Racial Frames of the American Mission Press: Mongolian Type, Chinese Exclusion, and the Transnational Figuration of Savagery”
Kendall A. Johnson
As the missionary printer Samuel Wells Williams imagined powers for an evangelizing press after the First Opium War, he refigured the “Mongolian” to mark a lost diplomatic opportunity. By rendering pages of vertical Mongolian script in Canton, with metallic Manchu fonts funded by churchgoers in the US, Williams re-circulated the thirteenth-century Il-Khanates’ proposed military alliance with France to conquer Jerusalem. Reflecting back on this diplomatic overture, Williams recast Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan). This “savage” conqueror had not only established the traditional Mongolian script but also initiated a progressive arc of history, culminating in the relatively enlightened pagan despotism of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty and satellite Il-Khanates. Williams’s idealization of the thirteenth-century khans faded as he took up diplomatic duties after the Second Opium War. Upon his return to the US in the 1870s, Williams defended Chinese immigrants from a rising tide of racist legislation and violence by distinguishing them from Mongol savages whom he racially likened to brutish California “Diggers” (a racist epithet).
Williams’s formulation of racial savagery was “transnational” in that it corroborated the shared Sino-American civility recognized in the Burlingame Treaty (1868) and subsequently contradicted by the policies of Chinese Exclusion. As for “Diggers” and the “Mongols,” neither group warranted respect as peer communities. The subsequent century proved that Williams’s formulation was not idiosyncratic. Throughout the Cold War, allusive stereotypes of perilous “Mongol” rapacity popped up in American culture. For example in 1956 John Wayne played both the Indian-hating Ethan Edwards of John Ford’s The Searchers and the unrelenting scourge of Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (directed by Dick Powell), an unintentionally laughable farce, lavishly financed by Howard Hughes, and shot in St. George, Utah, downwind of nuclear testing sites in Nevada. Looking past those stereotypes, “Beyond the Page” offers a brief description of contemporary Mongolia as it faces a new phase of free trade imperatives. It concludes with the mention of a few outstanding films.
The sovereign republic of Mongolia has a population of 2.8 million, with half living across a vast countryside (1.56 million square kilometers) and half in the expanding capital city of Ulaanbaatar (BBC). It is a land-locked nation, with Russia to its north and China to its south and its east. The nation emerged in the course of revolutionary events that began in the early twentieth century with the establishment of the Bogd Khanate after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and continued through the resistance of subsequent Chinese and Russian (Tsarist) occupations. In 1921 nationalist forces reasserted independence and in 1924 formed the People’s Republic of Mongolia as a Soviet satellite. The 1989 dissolution of the Soviet Union inspired a new generation of revolutionaries, leading in 1992 to the establishment of the State of Mongolia (Монгол Улсын; Mongol Ulsīn) as a multi-party, “independent and sovereign Republic” (Constitution, Article I). Mongolian culture also extends beyond the national territory. The southern border with China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region dissects the Gobi Desert from the west before turning up to the northeast to meet the Russian border. There are millions of Mongolian people there, and smaller numbers elsewhere in China, in Russia, countries of Central Asia and Europe, in the UK, Canada, and the United States.
As for life in contemporary Mongolia David Sneath’s BBC Program radio program “Keeping in Steppe” (BBC Radio 3, Sunday Feature; 7 February 2016) offers an insightful overview. Sneath and other scholars have considered the emergence of Mongolian nationalism and distinguished the nation from the imperial formulations of previous centuries. Key scholarly works published since 2000 in English include:
Christopher Atwood, Encyclopedia of Mongolia and the Mongol Empire (New York: Facts-on-File, 2004).
Johan Elverskog, Our Great Qing: The Mongols, Buddhism and the State in Late Imperial China (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).
Paula L.W. Sabloff (contributing editor), Mapping Mongolia: Situating Mongolia in the World from Geologic Time to the Present (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). This volume resulted from collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology & Anthropology and the National Museum of History (Ulaanbaatar). It includes contributions by Chuanag Amartuvshin, L. Ariuntsetseg, Jamsranjav Bayarsaikhan, Jargalsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, and B. Nandintsetseg.
Paula L. W. Sabloff (editor), Modern Mongolia: Reclaiming Genghis Khan (Philadelphia and Ulaanbaatar: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology and the National Museum of Mongolian History, 2001). Including contributions from Munhtuya Altangerel, Nasan Dashdendeviin Bumaa, and Eliot Grady Bikales.
David Sneath, Changing Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chines State (Oxford University Press, 2000).
David Sneath, Mongolia Remade: Post-socialist Culture, Political Economy, and Cosmopolitics(Amsterdam University Press 2018).
As this very partial bibliography explains, Genghis Khan neither mobilized an ancient Mongolian people nor created a new unified Mongol people. The term Mongol is an umbrella term for different peoples and today’s nation is ethnically diverse in ways that exceed any literal ancestral lineage. Approximately seventy percent of today’s Mongolian citizens are Khalkha (Halh); a quarter include the Buriad (Buryat), Dorvod, Barga, Darhad, Olhon (Olkhon), Oold, Torguund, and other peoples; and six percent, primarily in the western region, are “ethnically Turkic peoples,” including Kazakhs, Tuvinians, Urianhai, Hotons, and others; adapting previous Soviet rubrics, the Mongolian census of 2000 included twenty-three different Mongol groups and four Turkic ones (Altangerel in Sabloff 2001, 17; Sneath 2018, 107-8). Looking across these ethnicities of Mongolia, the society is primarily Tibetan Buddhist with pervasive Shamanistic traditions, both of which survived decades of Soviet suppression. There are smaller Muslims communities (especially in the western region), Christian congregations, and a very small Jewish community.
Perhaps a fundamental legacy that pervades any composite sense of “greater Mongolian” culture is an enduring relationship with the land as a communal resource for raising livestock (Sneath, 2018, 18). This relationship is spiritual, practical, and adaptive, extending back centuries of herding traditions and across regions of grassland, desert, and mountainous terrain. Today 228,000 households tend 66 million heads of livestock. This includes camels, cows (4.2 million), goats, horses (nearly 4 million), and sheep. The herding households of Mongolia move across the landscape in ways that maintain the grasslands. They live annual cycles of residence and relocation as they store up feed for the animals in order to bridge extremely cold winters. This shared movement across the land depends on formal and informal coordination of extended families that are today governed as citizens of the national community of Mongolia.
“Pastoral nomadism” is one term that scholars have used to describe this way of life and another is “mobile pastoralism,” which highlights the local dynamics of “sociotechnical systems” fostering communal responsibility for the land across the various regions of Mongolia (Sneath 2018, 14, 101). The concept of “property”— the individuated alienation and ownership of land as a commodity—is antithetical to the communal and spiritual sensibilities that ensured sustainability of the people, herds, and land. Pastoral life in Mongolia is generally patriarchal, with women taking up household responsibilities of preparing food and watching over children and with men attending to responsibilities of distant herding (Sneath 2000, 37). However life in the countryside challenges any strict gendering of responsibility, especially as the movement between the countryside and urban centers has become more frequent and necessary.
Genghis Khan is a prominent symbol in Mongolia of past world historical power rather than a reflection of the social bonds upon which pastoral mobility depends. During the fourteenth century of the Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire, the masses of people would have been subjects under the protection and authority of powerful “aristocratic” families engaged in a joint projects of leaderships that culminate in what Sneath refers to as a “headless state” (2018, 44-45). Only in retrospect did the names of these ruling families denote categories of ethnic identification covering a general group of people outside the status conferred by aristocratic relation or administrative duties (Sneath 2018, 50). In this light reference to Genghis Khan reflects an ongoing process of reconstructing tradition, asserting cultural identity, and deploying concepts of belonging to assert and establish national identity (paraphrasing Sneath 2000, 10).
The distinction between the exclusive, lineage-based “aristocratic families” and a generally inclusive “ethnic” sense of national citizenship helps differentiate Mongolia from the preceding Mongol Empire, the Yuan Dynasty, and the satellite Il-Khanates that captured Williams’s imagination. When in the fourteenth century the Yuan dynasty fell to the southern Ming forces, many surviving Yuan administrators maintained administrative positions in the new Ming system. Others went northward to steppes across which various elite families of distinct houses maintained control. “Three centuries of feuds” and “power struggles” followed, dividing and re-dividing “the land into princedoms” (Altangerel in Sabloff 2001, 28). While Mongolian sources of the seventeenth century mention a cohesive “Mongol ulus” (ulsīn), this general ulus was significantly “malleable” over the centuries as localized communities (ulus) joined, rejected, or broke out from the governing state authority (törö) of specific “semiautonomous aristocratic confederations” (Elverskog 2006, 26; Sneath, 2018, 47-48).
In the mid-seventeenth century a united force of northeastern Manchu and other allied peoples established China’s Qing Dynasty by defeating the Ming. As with the Mongol leaders, the Manchu leaders found success in uniting distinct Manchu peoples (households or tribes) in a confederation of banners, thus forging a front of military and economic alliance. Peoples living in what has become eastern Mongolia and Inner Mongolia joined this gathering force, and some eventually adopted prestigious Mongol banners in the Qing Dynasty (Elverskog 2006, 14-39). Once established, the Qing government divided up the northern lands into “Inner” and “Outer” Mongolia. In regard to “Inner Mongolia,” Courts of Dependencies headquartered in Beijing promoted migration into six administrative regions. The Qing forged connections with local leaders of Inner Mongolia in part by fostering high-level connections with leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, thus fashioning an image of the Qing as “a multiethnic Buddhist empire” (Elverskog 2006, 4). As for “Outer Mongolia,” the Khalkha majority allied with the Qing in 1691; however, the Qing were less programmatic in regard to administration there, assigning military governors to oversee four large areas controlled by regional “tribal” leaders and Buddhist leaders across an extensive network of monasteries and temples (Sneath 2018, 45).
With the fall of the Qing in 1911, elite families in Outer Mongolia worked with the Buddhist leadership to declare the independent Bogd Khanate of the eighth Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (the highest lama in the branch of Tibetan Buddhism prevalent in Mongolia; see Elverskog 2006, 166-68). The Bogd Khan appealed to Russia for support and Russia strategically recognized Mongolia’s separation in terms that embraced the opportunity to project influence across the region while placating China with guarantees of its suzerainty (see the Treaty of Kyakhta of 1915; Sneath 2018, 22). Mongolia’s vigorous resistance to subsequent Chinese and Russian (Tsarist) occupations culminated in the founding of the Mongolian People’s Party in 1920 and the successful national revolution of 1921, which was led by Damdin Sükhbaatar (after whom Ulaanbaatar’s central Sükhbaatar Square is named) and Khorloogiin Choibalsan. After the death of the Bodg Khan in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Party renamed itself the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and declared the Mongolian People’s Republic with its one-party government. Khorloogiin Choibalsan rose to prominence as the country’s strong-man leader in the style of Stalin upon whom he relied for support.
The Mongolian People’s Republic was never an official member of the Soviet Union, but the Yalta Conference of 1945 placed it in the Soviet sphere of influence. Stalinist policies reshaped the People’s Republic and aid was contingent on implementation of: systematic land collectivization and establishment of state farms; the suppression of Buddhism through the arrest and execution of lamas and monks and the destruction of monasteries and temples; and, the replacement of traditional Mongolian by the Cyrillic alphabet (Altangerel in Sabloff 2001, 18). The Yalta Conference also confirmed Inner Mongolia as an autonomous region of China. After the deaths of Khorloogiin Choibalsan and Stalin in the early fifties, Soviet influence on Mongolia continued for more two decades under the leadership of Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal.
In 1989 the breakup of the Soviet Union ignited mass, student-led protests in Ulaanbaatar, culminating in a national revolution that established Mongolia as a multi-party republic in 1992. The new government looked to rebuild after seventy years of Soviet oversight, reviving Buddhist institutions and dismantling the Soviet-era collectives. This national project unfolded against the backdrop of deep economic crisis. The withdrawal of Soviet aid compounded the economic effect of lacking trading partners outside the former Soviet sphere. Whereas poverty had been extremely low in the decades of Soviet socialist polices, in 1994 the poverty rate shot up dramatically to 27%; in 1998 it stood at 33 %, and in 2016 at 30% (Sneath 2018, 32, 68, 194).
International trade was important to substantiating Mongolia’s post-Soviet economic stability but the terms of this trade have raised persistent challenges. Mongolian livestock had long been a valuable asset, prized by China, Japan, Russia, the Soviet Union, and other countries. Today Mongolia has become even more attractive to foreign governments and corporate investors for the coal, copper, gold, nickel, oil, uranium, and other minerals beneath the soil. The methods of mining these resources, including blasting and the use of toxic chemicals, presents harsh challenges to the country’s deep commitment to its environmental quality and communal heritage of pastoral mobility.
In the 1990s neo-liberal policies set the template for integrating former Soviet satellite nations into the world system of international finance and trade. The “Washington Consensus,” underpinned by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the US Treasury, pushed poorer countries to privatize national assets and to use national assets as collateral for loans. At a national level Mongolia remains caught up in a cycle of renegotiating national debt with the IMF and financing partners such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, Japan, and Korea (IMF press release 17/193). Furthermore individuals and families struggle to lead pastoral lives in a consumer-oriented credit economy. As Sneath writes: “In Mongolia’s age of the market, international finance and development agencies have advocated credit schemes for pastoralists faced with uneven annual income. However, rather than boosting incomes the servicing of debt has become a central burden for an increasing number of Mongolian households. The banks demand for collateral has meant that access to grazing land has come to be mortgaged against loans in ways that are entirely new to Mongolia. Such processes of collateralization has expanded the sphere of monetized relations and made pastoralists dependent not only on climatic variation but also upon increasingly global markets for credit and the prices of the commodities they produce and consume.” (Sneath 2018, 11). China’s loan programs related to the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative potentially exacerbate this pressure to mine aggressively. Since 2014 Mongolia has featured in the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor of credit-based development that aims (at least rhetorically) to rebuild the sea routes (belts) and land corridors (roads) of the ancient Silk Road that reached its apex during the Yuan Dynasty.
Mongolia’s national Constitution protects against the loss of land as a communal resource but also outlines discretionary powers by which elected officials of the government can facilitate mining operations of Mongolian or foreign companies (such as the British-Australian company Rio Tinto). For example, Article 6 stipulates that: “the land, its subsoil, forests, water, fauna, flora, and other natural assets in Mongolia shall be under the people’s authority and under the protection of the State” (Article 6, Section 1); it also limits “private ownership” of land to “the citizens of Mongolia” and forbids the “transfer” of “land” to “foreign nationals and stateless persons” (Article 6, Section 3). However the same section goes on to qualify these protections with the clause: “without the permission of competent authorities of the State.” Thus the State authorities—meaning its elected officials—claim the discretionary power to grant foreign entities the “use of the land for a fee and a specific period of time.” Sneath characterizes Mongolia’s current “proprietary regime” as being in the process of figuring out how to secure “private rights to locational elements of what is still conceived as a wider system of pastoral movement” (2018, 84). Mongolia also faces the challenge of distributing profits from mineral extraction so as to benefit all citizens rather than enriching a small percentage of elites.
Recent Mongolian films register the challenges that the post-Soviet era of free trade imperatives brings to protecting the environment and ensuring social welfare. The director Byambasuren Davaa (Davaagiin Byambasüren) has earned high praise for films that immerse audiences in rhythms of contemporary (post-Soviet) pastoral life. Born in Ulaanbaatar, she attended university and worked in television there before studying at the University of Television and Film in Munich. Her features include:
Set across the expansive and variously textured landscapes of Mongolia, the films convey the intergenerational life of pastoral families across networks of kinship and state governance and in relation to the herds that they maintain. The films are deceptively simple. Davaa creates a ruminative tone suffused with subtle dramatic tension and humor. In making her films, she lives with families over extended periods, assembling footage of daily experience that she then edits into a fictional life drama that retains nonfictional undercurrents. The amateur actors register varying attitudes toward being filmed while sustaining a playful intimacy in co-creating a filmic account of their lived experience.
The films show the vitality of music as a primary component of Mongolian life. This vitality features in the reparative orchestration at the heart of The Weeping Camel—an orchestration that aligns ceremonial musical performances with the construction of ovoo or “ritual cairns,” thus “[dramatizing] the links between persons and landscapes” (Sneath 2018, 11). The film rewards consideration of the layered extent to which Buddhism and Shamanism harmonize or remain dissonant. The Two Horses of Genghis Khan is the mostly overtly political of the three films in its allegory of preserving a cultural heritage that seems to be fading with the memories of elders but nevertheless lives on across the borders that have separated Inner Mongolia from Mongolia and despite destructive waves of Soviet policies, the Cultural Revolution, and free trade imperatives.The central character, played by the acclaimed singer Urna Chahar-Tugchi, undertakes a quest to recover a lyric carved into her grandmother’s horse-head violin that had been nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In the central character’s journey to Ulaanbaatar and across regions of Mongolia to find people who remember the story and melody, the film enacts a ritual of collective memory. The line between fiction and nonfiction is hard to discern in a strict sense, especially as the film culminates with an open-air performance by Urna Chahar-Tugchi.
The films all present Mongolian communities adapting to multiple technologies of mass communication that have developed in tandem with economic policies, some of which support and some of which threaten contemporary pastoral mobility. The Cave of the Yellow Dog begins with the oldest daughter returning from the city where she lives for extended periods while attending primary school. Newspapers reach the countryside only sporadically. Cell phone and wi-fi coverage is unreliable in the countryside but there are tricks to catching a signal.
An occasional truck lumbers its way through the countryside with loudspeakers blaring announcements urging citizens to vote in upcoming elections. Children in The Weeping Camel ask whether batteries can power not only the radios but also the televisions that have captured their imaginations. In The Two Horses of Genghis Khan Ulaanbaatar features as a site of ambivalent national modernity. It is a vibrant, friendly, and bustling center of commerce and culture, the headquarters of the national orchestra, a transportation hub for Mongolians moving across regions of the countryside, and a site of industrial pollution and of alienation for distressed people in desperate economic circumstance or enduring poverty. Another Mongolian director to receive international attention is Batbayar Chogsom. His feature Out of Paradise (2018; Batbayar) depicts the precariousness of a credit economy for a family who leaves the countryside for Ulaanbaatar. It took the top prize at the Shanghai Festival in June 2018.
Documentary films about Mongolia by international directors have also achieved international distribution. The Mongolian Dream (2011; Swedish director Sven Lindahl Ranelf) follows five individuals over a ten-year period of economic volatility beginning in 1999, documenting their hopes, determination, disappointments, and accomplishments. In 2016 The Eagle Huntress (British director Otto Bell) related the experiences of Aisholpan Nurgaiv, a thirteen-year-old Kazakh girl who becomes a champion eagle hunter. Screened at the Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, the film also drew criticism for simplifying Kazakh views on women; for example, see Stephen Mulvey “Is the Eagle Huntress really a documentary?” BBC News (6 February 2017). As the folklorist and historian of ancient science Dr. Adrienne Mayor clarified in “The Eagle Huntress: Ancient Traditions and New Generations” (May 2016), there is a long history of women training eagles and showcasing their accomplishments in competition.
The Eagle Huntress also struck a chord with the Comanche Tribe of Oklahoma, who in 2017 honored Aisholpan in a naming ceremony. As reported by Utah Public Radio, the Comanche representative Waha Thuweeka explained: “We consider the people of Mongolia relations to us. They’re a horse culture, not too much unlike ours and that’s very near and dear to us. With the experience with the eagles, we’re connected by the energy of the living bird. It’s multi-faceted why [sic] this is important to support this documentary that features this wonderful way of life but to claim the relationship by sharing a historical name with her.”
Criticism of Williams’s transnational racial savagery depends on pulling together work by scholars in Mongolian studies, American Studies, and global Indigenous Studies. Williams’s fixation on Mongolian script in the decade after the First Opium War matters today for showing how he rationalized free trade imperialism by dismissing pastoral peoples as beyond the pale of national civility. The loan schedules of recent free trade policies continue to exacerbate ecological damage to which pastoral communities of Mongolia remain particularly vulnerable.