The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism

By Rey Chow

Reviewed by Sean Metzger
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February 2005)

Rey Chow.               The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York:              Columbia University Press, 2002. 224 pp. ISBN: 0-231-12421-X (cloth)

Rey Chow.  The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York:
Columbia University Press, 2002. 224 pp. ISBN: 0-231-12421-X (cloth)

Rey Chow’s most recent monograph The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism continues both to build on and depart from her earlier work in Chinese literary and cultural studies. Chow’s archive consists largely of texts—from film and popular culture as well as literature—that resist easy identification with a national canon. Instead, she provocatively situates the “politics of ethnicity” in the context of increasing capitalist commodification. While the formation of Chineseness emerges often throughout the book, Chow focuses on the larger question of the “ethnic,” that is, on how consumers understand a text to be, for example, “Chinese” in the first place. Therefore, Chow’s project insists on rethinking the articulation of ethnicity by looking at the processes that render such articulations possible. In what ways, for example, are claims of resistance by an ethnic group complicit with the macro social structures that created the very category of ethnic subjects? Why is there an “acceleration of racial and ethnicist violence . . . where, paradoxically, there is the most talk about and awareness of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity” (14)? In responding to such questions, Chow begins an ambitious collection of essays that probe the uses of the ethnic for ostensibly “liberalist turns”; her text proceeds through a series of interlocking theoretical elaborations that, for her, define the crux of current debates on ethnicity.

Chow’s project hinges on a return to Michel Foucault’s work, because she understands ethnicity to have evolved from the same Enlightenment strategies to manage life that, Foucault has argued, emerged through the disciplining of knowledge and the body. Chow focuses on the end of the first volume of theHistory of Sexuality in which Foucault discusses biopower. For Chow, biopower is the notion of life as an “overarching imperative,” a discursive network to which all social relations become subordinate to the extent that even killing has as its aim the maintenance of life. Chow rather swiftly moves from the act of genocide—which clearly marks the “ethnic” within biopower—to the benevolent acts of colonial administrations, arguing that both reveal the desire to regulate and control bodies in order to secure the livelihood of those in power.

Chapter 1 specifies how biopower operates in even the most seemingly humane transactions: the release of PRC political dissidents. As the rhetoric concerning the abuse of human rights softens, Chow argues that China offers human capital to the West, which enables China to secure better trade agreements in the international marketplace. Under the aegis of an ever more democratic Chinese leadership, Western corporations can then conduct business without the onus of having entered into partnership with a totalitarian state. This example perhaps best exemplifies the ways in which the processes of global commodification inform the discourses of ethnicity. At the same time, however, this interpretation comes close to obscuring the meaning of the term “ethnic.” How is it that “Chinese” comes to assume the position of ethnic in this sort of global marketplace when most discussions of ethnicity occur within the boundaries of a particular nation-state (i.e., discussions of the Han in China or ethnic cleansing in Rwanda)?

To her credit, Chow immediately—if briefly—adumbrates the central term of her argument. For Chow, the ethnic can emerge at every level of political interaction from a colonial situation to the unequal transactions between nation-states to the identitarian politics of Asian Americans, although she highlights “people within a particular society” who become marked as ethnic. Such labeling is intimately connected to labor. For this reason, Chow discusses ethnicity as a form of class consciousness and struggle via Georg Lukacs, inflected by Leonard Tennenhouse’s concept of the “resistant captive.” Because Lukacs’ model leaves the subject as both commodity and non-commodity, the modern ethnic is caught in the position of captive, “whose salvation” Chow argues, “lies in resistance and protest, activities that are aimed at ending exploitation (and boundaries) and bringing about universal justice” (47). Here Chow adds Max Weber to the picture, since, in contrast to Lukacs—who sees protest and resistance as the emergence of class consciousness—Weber views protest and resistance as constituent of the capitalist spirit. In Chow’s view, capitalism and the ethnic are symbiotic.

In chapter 2, Chow engages the major strategy of cross-ethnic representation: stereotyping. She argues that any such act must be an “encounter between surfaces rather than interiors” (57, original emphasis). Arguing against the conventional wisdom that stereotypes are simply reductive, Chow contends that stereotyping is an ineluctable process because it is generative, that is, the stereotype manifests boundaries where none may exist. Ultimately, these boundaries create social realities. Chow looks at two contrasting examples. The first is the well-known misreading of Chinese writing conducted by Jacques Derrida, the second, the cartoons of Larry Feign, whose creation, Lily Wong, made her way from the pages of the Hong Kong Standard to those of the South China Morning Post. What is most surprising here is how Chow relegates Homi Bhabha’s influential work on stereotype to a footnote. While Bhabha writes in a psychoanalytic frame and is, therefore, concerned less with the political and economic structures that facilitate the process of stereotyping and more with the psychic structure of the stereotype itself, I would suggest that more overlap exists between Chow and Bhabha’s work than she acknowledges.

Chapter 3, which moves the book’s emphasis from colonial strategy to colonial subject, investigates mimesis. Picking up her earlier suggestion that ethnicity functions as a captivity narrative, Chow usefully elaborates three levels of mimesis that inform the articulation of “third world literature.” She first identifies the colonial subject’s mimicry of the colonizer, wherein the colonized are perceived in terms of lack. This model produces the ambivalence well-articulated by Bhabha and others, as Chow notes. Chow’s novel contribution is her sketch of a third level she calls “coercive mimeticism.” Positing that colonial relations necessitate a predetermined image of the ethnic, such as the identifiable Chinese, she reasons that ethnic peoples are hailed by dominant culture as idealized ethnics. In other words, the ethnic subject is coerced to conform to a particular vision of, to continue the example, Chineseness. Like her work on stereotype, the potential implications of Chow’s theorization of mimesis are vast. To give only one example, Chow proposes a means with which one could radically redefine the terms of debate around the model minority myth surrounding Asian Americans in the U.S.. Unfortunately, the reader will generally be disappointed if she expects a full elaboration of any of Chow’s provocative assertions. While a particular strength of Chow’s text is its scope and the exhilarating erudition that entails, each individual chapter could become a book in itself.

Nevertheless, if any two chapters fit together into something of a seamless whole, they are chapters three and four. Expanding on her discussion of interpellation (the hailing I mentioned above) from chapter three, Chow argues in chapter four that the ethnic subject is compelled to confess, that is, to write herself. This leads Chow to analyze the use of autobiography in ethnic literature through the lens of narcissism. Chow draws her examples from Garrett Hongo’s collection Under Western Eyes. Chow critiques the tendency of poststructuralist theorists to valorize hybridity. Utopic visions of hybridity, she demonstrates, yield to personal narratives that perceive hybridity as abjection. She offers a useful gloss on ethnic autobiography as a “need to write about something whose existence has nonetheless been placed out of reach,” in order “to grope for a ‘self-regard’ that does not yet exist” (142).

Chow’s discussion of the autobiographical and the personal provides her transition to the last chapter in which she discusses trends in Anglo-American and French feminisms. Using Toril Moi’s Sexual/ Textual Politics as her touchstone, Chow develops her analysis of the overlooked conjunction between Moi (representing French feminism at a particular moment) and feminists such as Susan Gubar through a reading of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (and its reiterations in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca) and Marguerite Duras’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. Chow’s textual readings are stimulating, although, for the most part, the voices of feminists of color fail to emerge here despite the fact that Chow’s work might productively dialogue with the work of scholars like Lisa Lowe, Emma Perez, and Valerie Smith, among others.

Chow ends her book by looking at the Chinese critical reception of Ha Jin’s Waiting (a 1999 National Book Award winner in the U.S.) through what she calls “ethnic ressentiment,” building on the work of Max Scheler. Chow offers a theory for reading the contradictory dynamics that fuel the debates around Waiting as an inauthentic representation of Chineseness, catering to Western tastes. Such hostile claims, she argues, while normally repressed, emerge symptomatically “when those who were previously subjugated begin to enjoy a modicum of democratized access to the representation of their own historical existence” (186). In post-colonial relations, then, ethnic ressentiment becomes an operative force. Such an assertion reveals the general stakes of Chow’s book. How is ethnicity deployed in our world of advanced capitalism? In what ways might ostensibly liberalist perspectives be implicated in maintaining the status quo?

The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism functions as a signpost to point the way for future scholarship. Chow generally does not historicize the construction of the ethnic in the various examples she provides; Chinese nationals stand as ethnics in U.S.-China relations in one chapter, while Asian Americans and colonial subjects occupy the position of the ethnic in others. Writing about the specifics of these different situations would be equally as useful as pointing out their similarities. Chow perhaps encapsulates too much material in too little space. Notwithstanding such criticism, Rey Chow’s greatest contribution in this work is to articulate theoretical approaches that will undoubtedly facilitate and inspire future studies of the ethnic subject in her particularity.

Sean Metzger
Duke University