Q&A: Sunny Xiang on Tonal Intelligence

Tonal Intelligence boldly rethinks race and self-representation by theorizing tone as a way to read racial meaning. Sunny Xiang’s ambitious remit and strikingly original conceptualizations offer a powerful reconfiguration of aesthetics, affect, and the geopolitical.

—Jini Kim Watson, author of The New Asian City: Three-Dimensional Fictions of Space and Urban Form

Today’s featured MLA title is Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability During the Long Cold War, by Sunny Xiang. New from the Literature Now series, this book considers how the meanings of race, war, and empire came under pressure during two interlinked periods of geopolitical transition: American “nation-building” in East and Southeast Asia during the mid-twentieth century and Asian economic modernization during the late twentieth century.

• • • • • •

Q: How did this book come about? What are its origins?

Sunny Xiang: Tonal Intelligence has two origin stories that roughly coincide with each other. One was reading Chang-rae Lee’s 1995 novel Native Speaker in graduate school. This novel was very much of its historical moment: it explores the tensions between African American and Asian American communities, the racialization of South Korean capitalism, and the untenable presence of Asian Americans within the political machinery of New York City. But what struck me about Lee’s very 1990s novel, especially as I read it alongside the brilliant scholarship of Jodi Kim and Daniel Kim, was its latent cold war logics; it refashions the spy thriller around the figure of the native informant, presents the charismatic Asian political personality as a threat to U.S. democracy, and depicts mixed-race progeny as a tragic byproduct of American militarism. Even though Native Speaker didn’t end up making it into Tonal Intelligence, this novel taught me the crucial lesson that contemporary Asian American literature could function as an unlikely resource for studying U.S.–Asian cold war relations. It’s what first prompted me to read contemporary Asian diasporic aesthetic texts alongside U.S. cold war intelligence records.

The second origin story is more personal. I started writing my dissertation when my grandfather fell ill. My grandfather has never been a talkative man, and his slip into dementia made him even more withdrawn. When my grandfather did talk, he loved to tell stories about his time in North Korea, where he and my grandmother had met while serving as medics in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). His stories, coming at a time of profound memory loss and self-dispossession, made me think a lot about the eerie quality of personal and historical memory. These stories sometimes dovetailed with scholarly and fictional accounts of the war that I’d read, but often they seemed like they were about a completely different affair. And, in a way, they were. My grandparents both associate their time in Korea not only with incredible brutality but also with budding romance. My grandmother’s brother had gifted her a used camera on her way to Korea, so the war was in some respects the origin point of my family’s photographic trail. I’ve heard plenty of “war stories” about blinding American bombs, harsh Korean winters, loyalty and betrayal, illness and wounds, and the like—but the photographic record primarily focuses on my grandparents’ courtship in the North Korean countryside. My grandparents were in fact married in North Korea and still have their marriage certificate, a document that continues to amaze me. None of this appears in Tonal Intelligence, yet it remains formative to my own self-conception as a person and as a scholar. In fact, my grandparents’ Korean War scrapbook and album are probably my first encounter with “the archive.”

Q: What do you mean by “tone” in the book’s argument and title?

SX: This is by far the question that I’ve been asked most frequently in the past few years. And in being asked this question, I’ve also learned a lot about how other people understand the concept of tone. In the realm of aesthetics, my interlocutors have tended to associate tone with terms like “affect,” “atmosphere,” “attitude,” and “form.” But whenever the discussion turns to race, tone inevitably gets linked to speech tones and skin tones. These casual conversations on tone, which more or less line up with scholarly conversations on the topic, have led me to conceive of tone as something that captures the tension between the ephemeral and the empirical—between, say, the diffuseness of affect and the inexorability of skin. In giving expression to this tension, tone attunes us to those instances when race seems present but not adducible.

Ultimately, though, I find it vital to stress that the aim of Tonal Intelligence isn’t to offer a new account of “tone” (a term that always seems to beg disambiguation) but to rethink the perceptual parameters of “race” and “war” (terms that we often take for granted as self-evident in meaning). Tone is important to me, insofar as its aesthetic and racial connotations make it especially valuable for historicizing a cold war variant of Oriental inscrutability. But I’d much prefer to think of the book as employing a fairly intuitive understanding of tone but offering a revised framing of, or an alternate approach to, cold war Orientalism.

Q: What do you hope to be the book’s most important takeaway?

SX: In writing this book, I’ve been amazed at how many different arguments one can fashion through a set of relatively consistent case studies. I’d initially felt distressed about this—how could I be so fickle about my own argument, and what does that say about my conviction in what I’m writing? But what remained a guiding principle throughout the process of trying out different argumentative frames was the belief that a juxtapositional method of reading cold war and post–cold war texts is necessary for understanding the historical temporality (and the historical tonality) of an ongoing geopolitical situation that frequently eludes recognition as “war.” So, one important takeaway from the book is its interpretive practice—how it brings seemingly disparate analytical objects into a common line of vision and, in doing so, how it transforms the frames of reference by which we understand these objects.

A related takeaway has to do with the conceptualization of these objects as an archive, as a constellation of investments and estrangements that projects a particular structure of knowledge. For me, the inscrutable Oriental is less an actual person and perhaps not even a stereotype, but rather an archival conceit. I hope that my book can complement existing studies on cold war epistemologies by offering a more thoughtful account of cold war archives and cold war hermeneutics. That is, I’m interested in contemplating how an archive metaphorized as a veiled enemy can animate certain colonial desires and provoke certain styles of thinking.

Q: Given that the cold war is still routinely invoked in discussions of U.S. foreign relations, how would you characterize the book’s contemporary relevance?

SX: It’s not difficult to see that the political geography of Asia and the Pacific, and of the world more broadly, is a product of wide-ranging mid-twentieth-century global processes that might go by the name of “cold war.” For example, my book discusses the protracted armistice negotiations during the Korean War, which were as much between the United States and China as they were between South Korea and North Korea. We can see an extension of these negotiations into the present moment and on similar terms, whereby the United States and China continue to act as a supervisory presence and, in that capacity, continue to complicate, thwart, and postpone the reconciliation between the Koreas. The U.S. response to the signal events of 2020—by declaring war against a global pandemic and by sending troops to quash Black Lives Matter protests—also shows the extent to which military intervention and military logics have become the default American coping strategy for any and all crises. This, too, can be seen as the perpetuation of a cold war mindset. Finally, we can register the continuing relevance of the cold war in the outpouring of scholarship on the topic. When I started graduate school, the cold war was not a common subject of study within Asian American literary and cultural studies. Now, it has become formative to understanding the field as such, and it has enabled new intellectual and political formations, such as critical refugee studies, Global South studies, and third world studies. My own interest in the cold war as a political, cultural, social, affective, and archival phenomenon has been inspired by scholars within these fields who also view new and ongoing manifestations of this war as indispensable to understanding our historical present.

Save 20 percent on our conference titles when you use coupon code MLA at checkout from our website by March 1, 2021.

Leave a Reply