REVIEW: Reparations and the Human: “Justice or Love”

Reparations and the Human:
“Justice or Love”

New York University, 28 September 2011

David Eng’s lecture—co-sponsored by the NYU Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, the Asian/Pacific/American Institute, and the Department of East Asian Studies—was a long time coming, having been originally scheduled for last fall, in celebration of his most recently published book The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy.

He began his talk, “Reparations and the Human,” with a warning that it was going to be a long one, and asked the audience for patience as he laid out the “very enormous territory” of his new book, instead of indulging in a belated book party for The Feeling of Kinship. Of course, he had no need to apologize, as the sneak peek he offered of the book was complex and engrossing, dense with theoretical insights, but also peppered with fascinating background details on his collaborations with therapist Shinhee Han and the progression of their work together, from their analysis of the intimate workings of racial melancholia to his current interest in what he calls “racial reparation” and the “evolution of the western liberal subject outside of any universal norms of the human.” His work with Han, which emerged out of clinical case studies, has shaped the direction of his new solo book, in which he is mapping a conjoined genealogy of “reparation” in its political and psychoanalytic registers.

Eng described this work-in-progress—centered on a trans-Pacific archive that includes the internment of Japanese Americans by the US government during World War II; the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, particularly as described in John Hersey’s 1946 New Yorker essay, “Hiroshima”; and the contemporary legal claims of comfort women—as a narration of “an alternative story of reparations as a concerted moral response to violence and war,” after “the dissolution of and disillusionment with European Enlightenment.” Using the writings of “psychic wonder twins” John Locke and Melanie Klein, who together “bookend the Enlightenment project,” Eng argued for the ways in which the political and psychic workings of reparation “supplement one another in the framing of liberal humanism,” as well as in “colonial conquest”—projects that, as he posited, cannot be considered in opposition to one another.

Reparation is a “key term” in both political theory and psychoanalysis, and although its disparate functions and meanings in these fields are rarely considered in tandem, Eng presented an argument for the importance of a comparative reading in order to conceptualize both its psychic and social “potentials, as well as its limits and liabilities.” He argued that the concept of racial reparation “emerges from and is managed by both political and psychic genealogies” of reparation, in order to trace the erasure of the violence of reparation through the ghostly figure of “the Indian in the woods,” who emerges in both Locke’s and, surprisingly, Klein’s theories of reparation.

While Locke’s work, particularly in the second of his Two Treatises on Government, describes reparation as a logic of compensation in the wake of war and violence, in which the always-victorious victim of aggression is awarded “the spoils of war,” this logic breaks down around the “borders of liberal personhood, property and dominion” inherent in colonial violence. According to Locke’s rendering, the colonizer is never positioned as the aggressor, but always a victim of the “natives and brutes” who are “disqualified from legal personhood, rights, and sanctioned address.” In contrast to Locke’s political philosophy, Klein’s work on reparation is figured as an “experimental ethics” of interpersonal relationality, in which “morality and self-reflection are not the causes but rather the effects of reparation.” However, though Klein ostensibly presents reparation as the “preservation of love and ethical possibility,” her own turn to “the colonial theatre of the new world” presents colonial violence as an act of reparation between Europe as “mother” and her colonizing “infants,” excluding colonized populations from the reparative process entirely and instead rendering it as a process of love for the “self-same.” This “shocking” turn speaks to both the difficulty and importance of reading psychic theories of reparation, typically centered on the “charmed dyad” of mother and child, in a broader social sphere that is “defined by histories of colonial violence and nationalism.”

Eng presented his close readings of Locke and Klein as a means to consider the question of “who and what is worthy of care, of repair, redress, and reparation,” in order to write toward the concept of racial reparation as a way to imagine “a future worth living in,” both psychically and socially. Here’s hoping the book comes out soon.

–Julia DeLeon

Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.