Anne Cheng speaks on ‘The Critical Exhaustion of WOC’

Written by
Sarah Malone, Program in American Studies
Sept. 30, 2019

Afternoon light streamed through the windows of Chancellor Green Rotunda on Sept. 9, as faculty members, students and University staff celebrated the beginning of the fall semester with the 13th annual Humanities Colloquium, “Tradition, Critique & Imagination.”

Humanities Council Chair and Professor of Religion Eric Gregory welcomed a capacity audience to “an opportunity for a shared conversation about this thing we call humanities.”

Four Princeton professors related the colloquium theme to their research and scholarship, framing conversation among disciplines, presenters and audience.

Anne Cheng, professor of English and American studies, and director of the Program in American Studies, spoke on “The Critical Exhaustion of WOC.” Cheng said she intentionally used the acronym WOC in her title —instead of the full term “women of color” — to reflect how it has come to be empty of specific meaning. Cheng’s new book, “Ornamentalism,” offers a new theory of Asiatic feminism, bringing legal, cinematic and art history into a dynamic approach to problems of racial and sexual commodification and objectification.

While the last 50 years has seen “a groundbreaking swell of theoretical writings about the black woman,” Cheng said, “the broader category of women of color, and in particular the yellow woman, teeters dangerously close to extinction without ever having come to much critical life. We say ‘black women,’ ‘white women,’ ‘brown women,’ but not ‘yellow women’.”

Cheng said that even as “the label ‘the yellow woman’ fades from contemporary parlance, the Asiatic figure it denotes still stimulates passion and derision.” She detailed how the 2015 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit “China Through the Looking Glass” suggested “that opulence and sensuality are the signature components of Asiatic character, that Asia is always ancient,” and that “material consumption can promise cultural possession.”

“China equals ornament,” Cheng said, for Western figures from Plato to Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Le Corbusier, Ezra Pound and Jack Kerouac. “How do we take seriously the life of a subject who lives as an object?”

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