Timothy Yu (continued): Magee’s “Their Guys,” though, steps into more experimental and perhaps riskier territory. As a practitioner of flarf, Magee eschews the straightforwardly autobiographical, instead collaging his poem from sources generated by Google searches. The result is a poem that doesn’t appear to have any stable subject position whose attitudes towards racism we can judge, just a series of statements that in some way allude to Asian stereotypes but whose interrelation is not immediately clear:
Ten years and this will be just another big Asian city, like
countries and let the Empire swallow them for their own benefit.
Brutus and Ajo look at me, pity in their eyes. Maybe the thin
Asian chick, burgundy car coat, Hong Kong chic. They like
opium, the old guys down in Chinatown…
It’s easy to see why such a poem might be perceived as racially ambivalent by some readers, since it’s difficult to reconstruct a speaking subject whose attitudes and relationship to the author we can judge. But for that same reason it’s also difficult to view it as anti-racist or ironic. If a poem like this is to succeed as an intelligent poetic treatment of race, it has to become self-critical: we cannot step outside it to a place of stable political judgment, so the racial discourse within the poem must somehow critique, undermine, undo itself.
It was fascinating, if at times troubling, to see how quickly defenders and antagonists of the poem drew the usual battle lines. Some argued that the poem displayed racial ambivalence in deploying these stereotypes without sufficient critical context. Others defended the poem by arguing that it was a dramatic monologue whose speaker was being condemned by the author. Still others pointed to the author’s explicitly anti-racist politics and intentions. None of these positions, it seemed to me, was adequate to a reading of this particular aesthetic. Hoagland’s racial tease is, as Jaswinder has it, “boring” precisely because it gives us only two options: condemn the racist speaker from our position of smug piety or laugh at the whole enterprise from a position of all-American irony. What would happen if a poem refused us either of those options? What then?
I ultimately didn’t find Magee’s poem successful, although I fear in retrospect that I didn’t give the poem enough credit for its foray into self-critical racial discourse. What I also came to feel, ultimately, was that Magee’s poem, like Hoagland’s, was a form of “whiteness thinking,” even if it was whiteness thinking critically. In one comment, I wrote:
For me, when flarf works it does so by showing how discourse is not completely relentless, how it may allow multiple and complex subject positions. Perhaps the problem is that “Their Guys” really presumes only one: that of the white orientalist gaze.
The poem, in short, while clearly intended to critique white orientalist discourse, largely became an exercise in that discourse talking to itself, just as Hoagland’s “argument” is entirely with other white readers. In both cases, the non-white reader comes to feel that she is on the outside of a conversation that is about her but that she is not a part of.
Unlike Hoagland, who professes indifference as to whether non-white readers read his poem or not, Magee argued passionately that he did intend to create a reading position for the non-white reader. I have no reason to doubt that; but it was also clear from the response that many Asian American readers did not, in fact, find themselves invited into the conversation the poem started.
If Magee’s poem was a failure, it was perhaps a productive failure in a way that Hoagland’s poem is not. Hoagland’s racial discourse is a cul-de-sac; it is a reactionary response by the white writer who claims to want to enter the field of cross-racial conversation but who in fact withdraws from it by rejecting the perspective of the non-white reader. Magee’s poem, and the experimental tradition from which it emerges, points to a possibly different mode in which white writing could engage race—one that does not emerge out of the same dynamic of resentment and reaction that Hoagland’s does, but that attempts the far more hazardous task of opening up spaces within racist discourse without holding itself outside that discourse.