When Philip K. Dick published Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), the novel became vastly influential to dystopian visions of the future, generating a technophobia that suspiciously mirrored xenophobia. A visualization of this nightmare, in which whiteness could be troubled by an artificial Other in the future, manifested fully in Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982), heavily inspired by Dick’s book. Harrison Ford, a conventionally rugged representation of white Western masculinity, is brought into focus against a futuristic vision of Los Angeles’s Chinatown. In the film’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), a hologram girlfriend named Joi changes clothing at the drop of a switch before settling on a Chinese qipao as a foreplay costume, reaffirming a logic of Orientalism that describes Eastern identity as an erotic “skin” to be consumed. Blade Runner, and all its replicant forms, is just one example within the long and tired trope of Techno-Orientalism, a tendency to characterize Asian bodies as expendable technology in Western film and literature.1David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, Greta A. Niu, et al, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2015), https://muse.jhu.edu/book/40896. In keeping with this tradition, Asian artists who engage with technology often have their work interpreted as bleak, flat predictions of modernity-gone-wrong.
As Dawn Chan penned in an essay titled Asia-Futurism, “For almost a century already, the myth of an Asian-inflected future has infiltrated imaginations worldwide…Meanwhile, recent art history serves up examples of Asian artists (and East Asian artists in particular) whose pieces lay ground for even more fantastic futures to come: narratives populated by cyborg love and virtual-reality metropolises.”2Dawn Chan, “Asia Futurism,” Artforum (Summer 2016), https://www.artforum.com/print/201606/asia-futurism-60088. Chan further suggests that “Asia-Futurism” might draw inspiration from Afrofuturism and eschew Techno-Orientalist narratives that erase Asian agency. However, unlike Afrofuturism, which subverts dominant culture’s adamancy in denying Blackness a future, Asia-Futurism must contend with precisely the opposite while avoiding an innate contribution to anti-Black futurisms. How can an idea that marries Asian identity to the future hope to unsettle the Western appetite for the Asiatic (particularly East Asian) character as a modern surface? As Anne Anlin Cheng posits, “Asiatic femininity is at once atavistic (the geisha, the slave girl) and futuristic (the automaton, the cyborg). The artificiality of Asiatic femininity is the ancient dream that feeds the machine in the heart of modernity.”3Anne Anlin Cheng, “Ornamentalism: Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” Critical Inquiry 44, no. 3 (Spring 2018): 442, https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/696921.
Might there be space to reach a different conclusion about the seemingly inseparable bond between the East Asian “yellow” body and technology? Between Techno-Orientalist readings and racial blindness, there must be another way to consider the yellow cyborg as an active agent of critique. Donna Haraway’s proclamation at the end of Cyborg Manifesto that, “I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” implies that we all exist on an even plane to make a choice between these forms. However, can one “choose” to be a cyborg when ethnicity, and especially ethnic femininity, is commodified as a prosthetic aesthetic to whiteness? How can the fusion between human and thing be radical for those who have never enjoyed the full status of human to begin with?
A HARD WHITE BODY
Beneath Asia-Futurism and Techno-Orientalism’s insistence that yellow cyborgs are the future’s phantoms is the possibility
that yellow identity has long been subsumed within capitalist systems as a prosthetic extension. For her exhibition A Hard White Body, Candice Lin addresses this idea, writing about the history of porcelain as “a Chinese object of Western desire.” As Lin suggests, in 18th century Europe, porcelain was fetishized for its “purity” and “whiteness”;4Candice Lin, A Hard White Body (Paris, France: Bétonsalon, 2017), 5, http://www.betonsalon.net/IMG/pdf/bs22-final-complet.pdf. qualities that have long characterized the bodies of East Asian women.
In the sculpture Untitled (Self-Conditioning) (2017), artist Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin exorcises this legacy—Four identical white porcelain vases, each connected by a rubber tube, expunge liquid white supremacy from their interiors. Pumping through Shin’s figurative cardiovascular system is a Korean drink called hyangyak. Traditionally used for detox and medicinal purposes, hyangyak is here employed to symbolically humanize and animate a petrified, artificial body.
Shin’s use of kinetic mechanisms as a representation of the yellow body is an example of what I characterize as yellowbotics, a politic of combining East Asian subjectivity (“yellow”) with the machine (“robotics”). Such gestures—pervasive in the visual arts—describe yellow subjectivity as resisting against and yet hopelessly entangled within systems such as an oppressive white Western culture. Yellowbotics addresses the subject who resides where assigning the term Asia-Futurism feels most prone to Techno-Orientalism. The framework might help us see past the world’s timeline to study how yellowness copes with its coercion through artifice by insisting on the imperiled existence of an organic subject.
I advocate for yellowbotics, not as a monolithic cultural or visual movement, but as a widely varied discursive tendency in the aftermath of yellow “flesh” being repeatedly confused and congealed with material culture. It is perhaps the most under-examined reaction against a long legacy of what Anne Anlin Cheng calls Ornamentalism; “the forging of the sense of personness through artificial and prosthetic extensions.”5Cheng, “Ornamentalism: Feminist Theory for the Yellow Woman,” 436.