WARCHIVES Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutibility during the Long Cold War, with Sunny Xiang (Yale) (March 7, 2024)

presented by the Global Literary Studies Lecture Series

Co-sponsored by the BU Center for the Humanities, the BU Center for the Study of Asia, and the BU Dept. of World Languages and Literatures


Moderator/ Discussant: Takeo Rivera (Dept. of English, Boston University)

Date: Thursday, March 7, 2024, from 5:30-7 pm in CAS B20, 725 Commonwealth Ave., Boston

Abstract: “War” and “archive” are both necropolitical regimes prone to bleeding. What happens when they bleed into each other? Using the conceit of “warchives,” my talk asks: how have the temporalities, scales, and intensities of ongoing and incessant warfare reshaped the sensory habits and evidentiary norms through which we study it? That is, how have the militarization of daily life and the normalization of military violence changed what it means to perceive, archive, and analyze this bleeding thing called war? Part of my talk draws from my monograph, Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability During the Long Cold War (Columbia UP, 2020). Here, the portmanteau warchives allows me to delineate an archive of US cold war military intelligence and to model a method of analysis attuned to tone. This part of the talk reads Korean American poet Don Mee Choi’s 2016 mixed media book Hardly War alongside the CIA’s in-house journal Studies in Intelligence. I then shift to our current moment of living, writing, and teaching war. Here, too, warchives perhaps give us something to work with, a feeling if not a theory. Can the bleed and rhyme, the stutter and scat, the repetition and coincidence, the lack of space and breath, animated by warchives help us begin to describe my, your, our militarized present? I offer some thoughts and questions based on the inadequacies I’ve come up against this semester while teaching a course called “War and Everyday Life.”

About the Speaker:

Sunny Xiang is a professor of English and Ethnicity, Race, & Migration at Yale University. Her teaching and research focus on Asian/Pacific/American and Asian diasporic literature and culture, and has a special interest in transpacific genealogies of war, militarism, and imperialism. Her book Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability during the Long Cold War (Columbia UP, 2020) reperiodizes the Cold War by taking a tonal approach to reading aesthetic texts and intelligence records. This tonal analysis, she proposes, constitutes a kind of historiographic method, a way to track the relation between the uncertainties of geopolitical transition and the vagaries of racial perception. She is currently working on a second book project tentatively entitled Atomic Wear: Transpacific Fashion and the Making of the Militarized Mundane. This study shows how nuclear experiments sponsored by the U.S. military revolutionized three genres of fashion: cosmetics, clothing, and infrastructure. In bringing together an eclectic archive of tanning products, foundation garments, fragrance packaging, inflatable furniture, and collapsible shelters, Atomic Wear explores how cold war articulations of style also functioned as vernacular theories of race and gender.