How might we de-colonize hegemonic knowledge production about East Asia and its relationship with the West? A recent interview with Alexa Alice Joubin draws on new perspectives on cultural exchange in her book, Shakespeare and East Asia (Oxford University Press, 2021), which promotes treatment of Asian performing arts as original epistemologies rather than footnotes to the white, Western canon, and theory.
In August 2021, David Kenley (Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Dakota State University) and William Sewell (English professor at Dakota State) met with Alexa Alice Joubin to discuss her recent book. The interview also presents her latest thinking on multidisciplinarity. Her work, including Race (Routledge, 2019), has sought to deconstruct what she calls “compulsory realpolitik”—the conviction that the best way to understand non-Western cultures is by interpreting their engagement with pragmatic politics.
Kenley: Having worked in a number of fields, what do you see as the value of multidisciplinarity? Could you tell us a little bit about your personal and intellectual background?
Joubin: For all my life, I have been looking for a place to call home. Born in Taiwan, educated in the United States, and married to a Frenchman, I am now based in Washington, D.C., where I am conscious of my positionality as a diasporic subject—on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific—in my teaching and research. I never quite feel at home in any single department, because my work does not quite fit in any discipline structured by periodization. I teach performance studies in an English department and an international affairs program, and examine cinematic representations of theatre making in a theatre department. My focus on ephemera is a misfit in East Asian studies departments where most scholars work with printed texts and the codex books. Within the humanities, theatre is a marginalized site for cultural meaning.
As an immigrant who engages in multidisciplinary work, I have received a number of labels. Depending on the context, I have been seen as a Shakespearean who works across time periods and cultures, as an Asian studies scholar at the crossroads of performance and film studies, as someone who is expected to represent minority communities in some form, and as a digital humanities educator who brings critical race and gender studies to bear on each other.
While interdisciplinary research often involves the transfer or fusion of methods between disciplines, multidisciplinary projects are situated at the crossroads of disciplines either because the subject matter is itself multidisciplinary in nature or it can best be understood through multiple perspectives. Multidisciplinary scholarship catches things that may otherwise fall through the cracks between established fields. In fact, since our students come from different backgrounds, our students are themselves “multidisciplinary,” which calls for multidisciplinary pedagogical methods.
Kenley: How has the global pandemic of COVID-19 affected your thinking?
Joubin: Multidisciplinary work is even more important for the post-pandemic world. We live in a time of hate, and hate is a product of social silos that parallel academic disciplinary silos based on periodization of subject matter. Multidisciplinary work, therefore, can be one solution to hate, because it builds bridges.
It is challenging to do multidisciplinary work, because it involves navigating territories where one may be seen as an outsider. It is even more challenging to do so in the time of hate in which we live, because students and readers often bring our racial and gender identities to bear on the work we do, creating superficially positive and sometimes negative associations. A scholar of Asian descent, for instance, may be expected to write about Asia or Asian America in a particular way. Conversely, those who work in marginalized fields are compelled to explain their work’s relevance to more dominant fields. This is a form of racist ghettoization caused by institutionalized racism that disciplines one’s identity and research output.
Now, still looking in from the outside, I embrace my marginalized positions, which enables me to have a bird’s eye view of issues in a time of hate.
Kenley: How have Asian Shakespeares reinforced or challenged traditional Asian gender roles? Can you share some illustrative examples?
Joubin: Gender roles have taken on new meanings onstage and onscreen. An example is Twelfth Night. Viola, disguised as page boy, Cesario, is pursued by the lovelorn Olivia. When Viola declares that “I am the man … she were better love a dream,” she speaks with double irony as a doubly cross-dressed boy actor on the all-male early modern English stage (such as Nathan Field, 1587–1619).
In the all-female Japanese musical theatre known as Takarazuka, Viola would embody a new form of gender fluidity. In Kimura Shinji’s 1999 production, Viola was played by an otokoyaku, an actress specializing in presenting “sensitive masculinity” of idealized male characters.
Word choices in East Asian films and productions reveal, or conceal, how much power a character might have over others. In Akira Kurosawa’s film Throne of Blood, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth address each other with formal and informal gendered pronouns that betray their unease and desire for control.
What stands out in the film is how and when some characters choose informal language. When conversing with each other, Washizu (Macbeth) and Miki (Banquo) refer to each other with first names, deepen their voice, and use informal language and the informal, masculine “I” (ore).
Washizu attempts to create a similarly intimate bond with Lady Asaji (Lady Macbeth) in private, but she rejects his attempt and maintains verbal and physical distance. It is notable that when Washizu addresses Asaji, he does not use any honorific; he does not address her as tsuma (wife) or okusan (lady of the house). Meanwhile, Asaji uses the most formal, singular first-person pronoun watakushi, rather than the informal, feminine atashi, which would be what a private conversation between a husband and a wife normally entails. Asaji’s combination of the formal watakushi and usually more casual anata—the latter here spoken in a register that conveys condescension and rejects intimacy—creates another layer of the uncanny beyond the atonal music.
In the Takarazuka musical I mentioned earlier, Viola’s Cesario was not the only cross-dressing character. Gendered pronouns are especially fraught in this all-female production with many layers of disguise.
The Japanese language often elides the subject. In addition to making the right choice of employing the familiar or the polite register, based on the relation between the speaker and the addressee, male and female speakers of Japanese are restricted by the gender-specific first-person pronouns available to them.
Gendered code-switching creates semantic ambiguity and double irony. In general, syntactical limitations create linguistic and cultural opportunities in articulating anew Duke Orsino’s comments about love from a masculinist perspective and Viola’s apology for a woman’s love when in disguise.
Sewell: Did similar transformations occur to racial identities? You have written on misogyny and anti-Asian racism and published a book, Race, on global histories of race, co-authored with Martin Orkin. Could you share your thoughts about pandemic-induced racism?
Joubin: COVID-19 has exacerbated anti-Asian racism—the demonization of a group of people based on their perceived social value—in the United States in cultural and political life. Publicizing Asian cultural life humanizes Asian people. It is the first step to fight racism and to #StopAsianHate. Racialized thinking is institutionalized as power relations. The ideas of yellow peril (an association of Chinese people with diseases) and yellow fever (a fetishization of Asian women) have manifested themselves in theatre and film. The spectatorial aspect of racism has fetishized Asian bodies. Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion (2011), which went viral in 2020, puts human faces—Chinese faces to be exact—on an invisible, viral threat. It insinuates that Chinese cuisine may give rise to disease.
Racism has led to biases against non-standard accents. Asian accents are often depicted as interchangeable and inscrutable. Accents, particularly those that distort the predominant language in a community, are intimately connected to racial thinking, and identities become collapsible. In Mina Shum’s film Double Happiness (1994), a story of an aspiring Chinese-Canadian actress, Jade Li (Sandra Oh) auditions for a role. She is asked to deliver her lines with an accent, and she answers in a playfully Parisian accent before being forced to revert to “a very good Chinese accent” to please the white judges. The scene is charged by the gap between her assimilated white voice and her racially marked body.
Racism also intersects with misogyny. In 1930, English novelist Evelyn Waugh entertained the prospect of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong playing Ophelia, Hamlet’s passive love interest. He imagines Miss Wong having the attributes to play Ophelia who suffers a mysterious death, but cannot see her as the assertive Lady Macbeth. There has always been some perceived affinity between the submissive Ophelia and East Asian women.
However, in East Asian performances, Ophelia is a paradox. Even when she appears to depend on others for her thoughts like her Western counterpart, the Ophelias in Asian adaptations adopt some rhetorical strategies to make themselves heard, balancing between eloquence and silence, shattering the stereotypes about docile Asian women. For instance, inspired by feminist voices, several South Korean adaptations of Hamlet recast Ophelia as a shaman who serves as a medium to console the dead and guide the living. Because female shamans exist outside the Confucian social structure, they have greater agency. In some instances, a shamanistic Ophelia figure frames the entire play.
In other instances, Ophelia has more moral agency. In Feng Xiaogang’s martial arts film The Banquet (2006) Qing Nü, unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia, is able to express her thoughts without going mad or resorting to singing as her only form of communication. Qing Nü is not drowned in the end, although she is still associated closely with water. Unlike Shakespeare’s Ophelia, Qing Nü does not have to go mad or speak allusively to express herself.
Reflecting the idea that there is no one prescribed way to express strength and empowerment, these performances counter the racialized myths about Asian women that have led to the fetishization of them as subservient and dainty objects. While her songs still occupy the center of attention, Ophelia does not tend to stand in for lost girlhood or female madness in East Asia.
Sewell: How Elizabethan actors pronounced particular words often carried important connotations. Are there connotations specific to Asian adaptations that American audiences might miss or that you found intriguing?
Joubin: There are certainly allusions specific to a cultural or time period that seem opaque to our contemporary audiences located elsewhere. Anthony Chan’s 1988 vaudevillian film One Husband Too Many dramatizes its characters’ near quixotic insistence on performing Romeo and Juliet in Hong Kong to ameliorate their conditions. This film’s use of Romeo and Juliet is part of the larger phenomenon of Shakespeare’s plays entering into contemporary culture via quotation rather than in full performances.
The film opens in medias res when a performance of Romeo and Juliet is taking place at night. On a makeshift stage in a fishing village center in the New Territories, Hong Kong, an actor wearing black-rimmed glasses prances onstage in costumes reminiscent of Danilo Donati’s doublet-and-tights designs for Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) to the tune of that film’s “A Time for Us” by Nino Rota, with new Cantonese lyrics. The audiences, unacquainted with Shakespeare, are rowdy and impatient about the pacing of the show. The actor playing Romeo, meanwhile, is unintentionally disruptive. In the final scene in the Capulet tomb, Romeo says to the nonresponsive Juliet: “Death . . . hath had no power yet upon thy beauty,” as he accidentally slaps her face as he strikes a pose. After Romeo drinks the poison, Juliet wakes up and improvises: “Oh my cold Romeo, would you like me to take off my ugly aristocratic clothes to warm up your bosom?” Upon hearing this, the mostly male crowd, which has grown impatient and stood up, sits down in an instant, telling each other to quiet down in anticipation of a striptease. Their catcalls then distract the actress.
Encouraged by the mayor who sends his assistants to maintain order, the actors return to the stage to attempt for a second time to complete the play. The mayor’s topless bodyguards line up downstage and tell the audience members to quiet down. Despite the presence of the henchmen, the unappreciative crowd start their own sideshow of tribal violence. The disruptive audience storms the stage and comes face to face with the henchmen. Using a low angle, the camera moves between two rows of men lined up like two American football teams ready to charge.
The standoff is depicted in a comedic manner, with the men twitching their pectorals to make them bounce up and down. This is meant as an aggrandizing gesture before the fight begins. The distressed actor playing Romeo wonders out loud whether the standoff is a scene from a then-popular Hong Kong commercial for breast enlargement pills. Perhaps the audience members have now appreciated too well the tragedy about teen exuberance and violence: they have ingested the spirit of feud. Even if American audiences miss the allusion to the local commercial, they could still appreciate the humor by relating to the pec flexing in other ways.
Sewell: I found your MIT Global Shakespeares website (https://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/) really fascinating. Could you tell us a bit more about the design of the site and new features? How were you able to procure such wonderful films?
Joubin: This project was borne out of my passion to further cross-cultural understanding and multidisciplinary research and pedagogy. Globalization remains an abstract concept for most people, but offering vetted videos with permalinks can change that. The project began with my personal collection of videos which I shared with more and more colleagues. As interest grew, it soon became impractical to keep mailing the DVDs all over the country and world. Peter. S. Donaldson and I co-founded Global Shakespeares as an open-access digital performance video archive providing free online access to performances from many parts of the world as well as peer-reviewed essays and vetted metadata provided by scholars and educators in the field.
The idea that Shakespeare is a global author has taken many forms since the building of the Globe playhouse. Our work honors the fact and demonstrates the diversity of the world-wide reception and production of Shakespeare’s plays in unexpected ways. Our project is a participatory and multi-centric one. We designed global, regional, and national portals to productions within a federated structure. We now have nine regional editors and four affiliated projects within a decentralized editorial design. The project is both a curated and crowd-sourced archive.
In 2018, we launched a new user interface that supports the creation of clips and streamlining of aggregated searches. It can suggest videos of potential interest based on the user’s history. By creating clips that are meaningful to them, students curate their public ‘self’—their tastes, passions, and signature arguments. They exchange notes on their affective relationship to a play or film.
We also launched a series of self-contained learning modules at https://shakespeareproject.mit.edu/; they focus on Hamlet, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and King Lear (https://shakespeareproject.mit.edu/explore/). These sites are accessible and free of charge. Designed for classroom use, the modules share a focus on global adaptations. The “Global Lear in Performance” module, for example, features thirteen full films and numerous video clips that have been pre-arranged in clusters of pivotal scenes—scenes that are turning points in the narrative. Teachers and students can take advantage of the feature of clustered, curated clips from a large number of performances. While it is only feasible to teach in-depth by assigning one or two films of Lear in a given class, students can expand their horizon by close-reading competing performative interpretations of a few pivotal scenes.
There is a module focusing on one single production: the solo Beijing opera performance entitled Lear Is Here by Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo (https://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/modules/). It offers detailed lesson plans, exercises, and explication specifically around one adaptation. The full performance video has been divided up into video chapters to facilitate learning. All of the modules have permalinks and offer vetted, curated contents on platforms that invite direct user engagement.
Kenley: In addition to your scholarship, you are also an outspoken advocate of social justice and diversity. In your outreach work as a public humanist, you have given a congressional briefing on the humanities and globalization on Capitol Hill and a TEDx Fulbright talk. How does your scholarship inform your advocacy work?
Joubin: My research on the question of ethics informs my advocacy work. One of the core values of the humanities lies in understanding the human condition in different contexts, and I found that complex cultural texts provide fertile ground to build empathy and critical thinking. One strategy for building inclusive societies is radical listening, a set of proactive communication strategies to listen for the roots of stories that allow for equal footing of the storyteller and listener. We can learn to listen for motives behind stories rather than the “plot” of the narrative. Literature is a cluster of complex texts that sustains both past practices and contemporary interpretive conventions.
By thinking critically about the past in the present—such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement—we can engage with history with an eye toward changing the present. This form of presentism decenters the power structures that have historically excluded first-generation students, students of color, and differently abled students. We live in a time of hate, and we must answer fully the challenges of all forms of violence, including racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and other types of bigotry.
In tandem with Anglo-Eurocentrism, she argues, compulsory realpolitik leads to the habitual privileging of the nation-state as a unit to organize knowledge. At the time of their meeting, Americans were experiencing the fourth surge in COVID-19 cases, Taiwan had started administering its own homegrown vaccine, and Japan was recovering from its just-completed “pandemic Olympics.”
Anti-Asian racism was frighteningly prevalent in the United States and Sinophobic attitudes were on the rise throughout much of East Asia. At the same time, venues were struggling to reopen to bring both live theater as well as cinematic productions back to the public.
Joubin’s work on race and gender across cultures is all the more relevant in the current political climate, and our conversation touched on how promoting understanding Asian cultures can help fight anti-Asian racism.
Full text of the interview is available here.
“Deconstructing Compulsory Realpolitik in Cultural Studies: An Interview with Alexa Alice Joubin,” The American Journal of Chinese Studies 28.2 (October, 2021): 115-130.