latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
“…[L]earning to live with something is not the same as simply accepting; it is, rather, the coming to recognition that all alternatives are also already conditioned by history.”
“…[I]t is often the case that we want to learn from those whose lives we, ourselves, have helped to imperil.”
ar is a constant feature of modern life. In the short time since our gathering at the 2022 AAG conference, we’ve watched one world altering conflict declared over (in Afghanistan) and, only weeks later, another unfold (in Ukraine). Whether we describe it as perpetual, endless, forever or some other well-worn term, we have come to recognize (and maybe accept) the circularity and continuousness of war, its rootedness in our everyday lives. Many scholars have shaped my thinking about war’s myriad effects, but Wesley Attewell and Emma Shaw Crane, who organized this forum, have been among my most generous teachers and interlocutors. I am delighted to have this opportunity to think with them and with John Paul (JP) Catungal, Linda Luu, Jacinda Tran, and Danielle Wong about race, empire, aesthetics and the long history and transnational reach of U.S. militarism.
Experiments in Skin is about the experimentations required to wage war and to live with its effects. I have often described it as my attempt to examine the Vietnam War and its legacy through a surface view, that is, through a view of our body’s surface. This idea occurred to me as I watched one building after another rise in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam while I was conducting research, transforming this once battle-fatigued place into a new metropolis. It looked to me as if the city was growing a new skin, covering over the wounds of war, colonialism, occupation with so much steel and concrete. This way of seeing the city shaped my understanding of the work women in Vietnam put into repairing their own body’s surface. To me, they too were endeavoring to make over or at least to conceal the past, adding, in their own way, to the city’s vast infrastructure of forgetting.
I mention this because, despite the centrality of the city to my thinking about skin, it is only now, after reading the responses in this forum, that I can see that a “geographical unconscious” lurked in this book. I was searching for the histories hidden on our surfaces, but this, I’ve come to recognize, requires both temporal and spatial excavation. It requires, as Jacinda Tran points out, grasping the ways war collapses “a distinction between landscape and people;” recognizing our “impulse to externalize a wounding within;” seeing that “metaphoric skin stretches across the scales of nations, landscapes, and neighborhoods.” It also demands attending to the “scalar complexity” of skin, and to “racialization’s material-discursive processes, concurrently shrinking and widening the space of reference between the body and its truths,” as Danielle Wong eloquently puts it.
Reading Experiments in Skin as “a fundamentally geographical book,” in Wesley Attewell’s words, the authors in this forum have brought to my work new questions. I can’t do justice to all the generative ideas they have presented here, so I want to focus my response on one theme I see running through all the forum essays. Bringing concepts such as “stretched geographies” and the “global intimate” to bear on this book, the authors have encouraged me to see the simultaneity and overlaps between the people and places I examine and those elsewhere. They have pushed me to think, in particular, about what my account might teach us about politics for “our times” – characterized variously as “a time of formal decolonization“ (Attewell); of “liberal multicultural inclusion” (Tran); of late or “accelerated capitalism” (Wong); a time “in the shadow of war and pandemic” (Catungal); and in the throes of a “chemically altered world” (Luu). As Attewell asks most pointedly, what can we learn about the political from the Vietnamese women I write about and their “quiet practices of renovation and making do?”
“Renovation” is a central idea in my book. The term is the official name for the Vietnamese state’s policies of economic reform, instituted in the 1980s in an effort to shift the nation from a planned economy to a “market socialist economy.” My book revolves around the many women in Vietnam laboring to shore up this new economy—working in factories, serving in restaurants, cleaning hotels, and sewing clothes—who breathed in air from smokestacks, touched preservatives in textiles, handled pesticides in food and farming every day. These women managed the toxic effects on their bodies through available practices of consumption and care. They could not leave their homes or their jobs so, like many, they renovated rather than abandoned their world. And when they could not make over, they made do.
If I could write this book again, I think I would have offered a broader context for understanding why these women came to their politics of making do. By the time I arrived on the scene, Vietnamese scientists, scholars, writers, and activists had been organizing for years to gain recognition and compensation for the lingering effects of chemical warfare. These efforts proved to be of very limited success, and did little to address the pressing concerns many Vietnamese had about their own future, including their own ability to see themselves as healthy and whole. What does repair mean in this context? What would redress look like to people (and there are so many, in so many places) fighting for recognition of losses that can’t be replaced, of wounds that can’t be healed? Is it even possible to imagine such a thing, when we have become so accustomed to the cycle of destroy and rebuild, violence and care, poison and cure? For many of the women I met, making do was a response to the political failure to adequately address these questions. To the emphasis on proving harm and adjudicating compensation. On declaring the past over or debating how to get over it.
We too have been contending with the stickiness of our past, particularly of our racial and imperial history. Through these women’s stories, we might recognize how people everywhere labor to survive pending revolution, as Attewell notes, or, how they live “amidst all kinds of harm—ecological, psychological, otherwise,” as Luu writes. This might help us to rethink what counts as political and, as Luu says, to “help us refuse a politics of purity, wholeness, and innocence, not possible under racialized capitalism.” I hope their stories also help us to see that learning to live with something is not the same as simply accepting; it is, rather, the coming to recognition that all alternatives are also already conditioned by history.
I know, of course, that it is often the case that we want to learn from those whose lives we, ourselves, have helped to imperil. This book is in part about how U.S. academic scientists sought to extract medical knowledge from vulnerable populations—incarcerated men, prisoners of war, debilitated villagers, and so on—by exposing them to even more harm. I was reminded of this by JP Catungal’s essay, which asks about the possibility of seeing the university as a space of care work, where intimate relations across skins, bodies and people might be directed towards ethical rather than violent ends. The university functions in my book as both a producer of knowledge and a collaborator in great violence. Yet many of us have wondered how (and have worked hard) to leverage the resources of this institution for different uses. My own experiments with this have been through my collaborations with faculty and students working in NYU’s Prison Education Program’s Research Lab. These kinds of efforts hinge on the belief that a good place to start working for change is exactly where you are, and with what you have. Or, as a Vietnamese friend once said during one of our usual chats about politics in the city, “Change is hard and it may never come. But we can do more than patiently wait, we can try to take care of each other.”
Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis and author, most recently, of Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam (Duke UP, 2021), winner of the PROSE Hawkins Award.