David Eng discusses melancholy and dissociation

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
Oct. 1, 2018

David L. Eng, the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English and graduate chair of the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania, opened Princeton’s 2018-19 Asian American Studies Lecture series with “(Gay) Panic Attack: Coming Out in a Colorblind Age,” a discussion drawn from his forthcoming book co-written with New School psychotherapist Shinhee Han, Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans, to be published by Duke University in January 2019.

Eng said that his writing partnership with Han began over twenty years ago, when he was teaching at Columbia University and she was the one psychologist of color in the university’s counseling service.

Eng’s 2001 book Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America was pioneering in bringing psychoanalytic theory to Asian American studies.

In Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, Eng and Han explore case studies in Asian American students from Generation X through millennials and post-millennials, and delineate experiences and behaviors distinct to each generation and its demographics. Common among Asian American students of Generation X — most of whom, Eng said, were children of first-generation immigrants — were experiences of estrangement from the American culture they’d grown up in. Introducing his lecture, Eng noted Program in American Studies director Anne Cheng’s book The Melancholy of Race as key in developing ideas of identity formation as a foundational act to experiences of melancholy.

Eng said that in recent years he in the classroom and Han in her therapy practice had noted new behaviors among students, and had noted among Asian Americans a new prevalence of “parachute kids” sent by parents in Asia to international schools and then to western universities.

In the main body of his lecture, Eng drew on the last chapter in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, the case study of a college student in New York whom Han had treated after the student experienced multiple severe panic attacks, with no immediate object of the panic.

David L. Eng

David Eng in conversation with students, following his lecture that opened the 2018-19 Asian American Studies Lecture Series. Photo by Sarah Malone

Lively discussion followed the lecture, with undergraduate and graduate students and faculty relating Eng’s work to their research and experience. Eng said that in the current global economy, with its economic and social pressures and incentives to work without cease and to translate experience and knowledge into personal capital, the dissociation that he and Han write of is by no means a phenomenon particular to a particular cross-section of Asian American students. He spoke, as an example, of people dining out posting to social media about their dinner, having no private experience of the dinner separate from a public presentation of it created to gain perceived social capital.

The lecture was held in East Pyne Hall, Room 010, at 4:30 p.m. on September 27, 2018.

A video of the lecture will be available to the Princeton University community upon request.