Wendy: How did you arrive at this book, or even academia in general?
Hentyle: It’s been fairly circuitous for me. I never intended to be an academic. I majored in French literature and was also pre-med in college at Brown; I had no real direction. I decided not to go to medical school, but it was a tough moment because I wanted to be a good, dutiful Asian-American subject. I was initially responding to the demand for upward mobility from my parents but then realized the limits of existing for others. I did some non-profit work and was also pursuing dance professionally, which I started training in during college. I first danced with a company in Taipei, and then I was working with a larger one in New York. This was all against the backdrop of 9/11 in 2001, so I was questioning why people were bothering with the arts, especially during a condensed moment of political crisis. Of course, the world has always been falling apart, especially for those populations who have been the means of extraction to produce modernity, but these concerns around the aesthetic seem to be exacerbated during particularly intense moments like the aftermath of 2001, similar to how many were and have been responding to 2016 and beyond.
I’m starting with these fragments because my “arrival” to academia was never linear. And these fragments also highlight how I’ve struggled with questions surrounding the limits of both the aesthetic and our notions of the political. I was hitting a moment of “success” in terms of how people define it in relation to the arts, but I wasn’t truly fulfilled and was also interrogating what the arts could even do. I found the discourse around aesthetic resistance limited, particularly in light of my past activist and other political work. So I naively thought the answer would be law school. I left dance and miraculously got into UCLA Law, which has the only Critical Race Theory program within a law school with people like Cheryl Harris and Kimberlé Crenshaw on the faculty. They were huge draws for me, along with the Public Interest Law Program there. I thought that would solve things.
But while there, I came to realize the limits of the law. I thought the law would be the answer to my questions surrounding the aesthetic, but if anything, I realized that the law created a whole set of other problems. It’s limited in its capacity to expand how we understand the political, the material, and ideas like justice and change. It’s deeply wedded to a liberal project. In addition, there were two texts that made me realize I could think and work differently. The first was Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, which I had read in college and kept rereading after; the other text that came out when I was in law school was Jasbir Puar’s Terrorist Assemblages.
These texts made me realize I could write differently well beyond what the law provided. I wanted to not simply take for granted the terms that undergird the political. Instead, I wanted to place pressure on how we even define these ideas through the law and the aesthetic, which drove me into a PhD program. I came to realize that critical theory could be a space for me to mediate my questions surrounding the limits of the aesthetic and the law. These divergent moments were foundational for me because they came to shape how I approach the law, the aesthetic, and critique. This is the triangle that circulates around most of my scholarship.
The reasons I decided to turn to the humanities are similar to the concerns that structure Minor China: at a meta level, it’s about the immateriality of the aesthetic and to figure out a discourse that doesn’t simply celebrate the aesthetic as resistance or possibility. I did not want to render the aesthetic as material as the political because I find that’s a futile project. Instead, the book explores the minorness of the aesthetic for how it becomes a methodology to rethink how we even understand the political.
Wendy: I know from taking your courses that you have a commitment to negativity, which aligns with the way you describe a politics of hesitancy in the book. You avoid any fantasy of reparation that would default into liberal solutions like representation and inclusion, while also pushing back against a de rigeur reflex in the contemporary humanities wherein the “elsewhere” or “otherwise” becomes a solution in itself. But despite this commitment to negativity, you still describe the temporality of hesitation as being on the way to something else without expressly describing what follows. Can you say, positively, what follows hesitancy?
Hentyle: One of the things I write in the book is that “hesitation is not nihilism.” For me, the privileges of whiteness afford a full throttle relationship to nihilism. And of course, this goes back to many debates that have been formative to queer theory and queer of color critique surrounding nihilism, futurity, utopia, and racialization. I don’t believe that I can ethically access nihilism, and that’s a big part of the book and my overall ethics as a scholar. For example, in Chapter 5, I write through a condition of what I call “impossibility yet necessity,” particularly with respect to relationality and solidarity politics. Although full relationality for me is impossible, it is nonetheless necessary for us to continually attempt to create these fleeting connections.
And in addition to not defaulting into nihilism, I am quite interested in not remaining and swimming within the elsewhere or the otherwise. I think these projects have been crucial for my thinking, but I am more interested in what it means to consider social structuration - to not just examine social forms but to consider how we might reform our conditions of being. In this way, the book uses hesitancy to produce an ethic of always being “in it.” I don’t think the world gets better - I think it can get worse but it ultimately cannot obtain progress. So because of this perhaps negative orientation to historical time, I’m politically invested in examining what it means to ethically always be in it, where the political is much more of a continual process than a landing place or even a non-place (utopia, elsewhere, or otherwise).
I don’t believe in finitude and progress, and I also don’t believe full repair can occur in relation to histories of genocide, enslavement, forced or coerced migration, and racial violence. However, this doesn’t lead to nihilism. Rather, we must always be in process, in it. The “otherwise” I think is one place to begin this, but I wanted to push that sentiment a bit more to think about the social structures and the ethics/politics such an orientation demands of academic work. Many of us are in it and are part of communities that are in it. And we’re exhausted. Thus, through such work, I don’t want to have the aesthetic simply swoop in as an example of possibility, resistance, or an otherwise existence. The aesthetic doesn’t become the answer in this book; it’s both a problem and answer. The aesthetic is completely limited yet important; it is impossible yet necessary.
Wendy: Most of your chapters are structured by a concept, and then cite theory in order to demonstrate the inability of these frameworks to think through China and, more broadly, race and social difference. For instance, in Chapter 2, you critique Hardt and Negri’s theory of the multitude for its failure to account for racial anger, and discuss how Nancy’s concept of being-singular-plural overlooks the condition of beginning with plurality. In Chapter 3 you seem to embrace Deleuze and Guattari’s work to discuss Yan Xing and other artists. This stood out a bit. I know from studying with you that, in terms of theory, you draw perhaps most heavily from Black Feminism and Caribbean theory – which does enter in Chapter 5 via Edouard Glissant when you look at the work of Isaac Julien. Can you talk about how you curated the use of theory throughout the book?
Hentyle: In the introduction, I discuss the relationship across Black Feminism and Francophone metaphysics to engage my archive on contemporary Chinese art. I think that was really important for me as a way to lay out the book’s stakes and how I often think. I am engaged with those that are thinking through raciality in relation to the global. So I wanted to force myself to articulate why and how these areas of thought are critical for thinking about China and, more broadly, the transnational in different ways. This was an important task in order to explain my promiscuous intellectual tendencies (as I like to think of them). I didn’t want it to seem as if I was only citing things because I was interested in them; I wanted to provide more of a sense of my citational practices for offering a logic and order with regards to thinking race, nation, and the transnational in ways that expand beyond disciplinary and even interdisciplinary tendencies. In addition, my use of Deleuze and Guattari, alongside theorists like Sylvia Wynter, Audre Lorde, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Edouard Glissant, and Saidiya Hartman, was to work against the idea that a Chinese archive could only rely on Chinese theorists. I wanted to avoid only deploying theories by “native informants” (à la Spivak) so as to properly explain Chinese works.
Wendy: What’s your relationship to historicism? It seems that you often write against the routinized periodization of Chinese art, but also seem to organize your work around historical specificity – for instance, the first chapter is structured around the overdetermination of the year 1989 with regards to China.
Hentyle: It’s my anxiety with art history (jokingly said). The archive I work in is very art historical but the book isn’t explicitly contributing to that field. Even so, I wanted to have a chapter that was materially grounded for readers who were less familiar with the archive - I wanted to provide a historical materialist grounding for how China comes to be produced. I do have a deep commitment to thinking historically without it overdetermining the ways we read the transnational. As much as I enjoy thinking with theory, I find that we need to attend to the details and historical realities of a region - I guess I’m an old school historical materialist in that sense. It’s also in my training, having worked across area, ethnic, and queer studies. In this vein, I wanted to be sure to expand on what such grounded details offer us. Thus, even though I offer “context” on contemporary Chinese art in Chapter 1, I then situate this history in relation to larger global dynamics like late liberalism, the limits surrounding aesthetics and politics discourse, and the larger transnational turn.
Wendy: Is the titular “minor” equally available in all objects of analysis?
Hentyle: There is a political project to the minor. I write about how I’m not interested in the minor for minor’s sake. I have no interest in simply discussing affect and other minor analytics just to engage them. Rather, I focus on the minor as method towards minoritarian ends. In other words, what was operating for me in this book was a slight discomfort amidst all the minor turns that have been happening for some time now (new materialism, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, etc.) for their varying degrees of political projects. I also wanted to think through these minor turns as they might help us centrally engage raciality. So in this vein, the minor as method might be available for all objects, but the larger goal is towards minoritarian discourse by examining and taking stock of the epistemological foundations and ontological conditions that frame and limit the very terms we rely upon - to examine the foundations and assumptions surrounding history, the state, subject, and agency. That is what the minor-as-method is trying to think through, using China as a case study since it’s so overwhelmingly seen as quite major, legible, and knowable.
Wendy: In class you often ask us to define the theory of power one is working with. So: what theory of power are you working with in this book? Perhaps you can connect it to this quote from your afterword, which I found myself rereading: “It is hard for me to pronounce a critique of China without it taking on an anti-Marxist bent that seemingly emerges from liberalism. To be clear, I am as critical of US empire and capitalism as I am of China’s relationship to late capital and its oppression of those within and outside of China. However, I find it near impossible to express these simultaneous forms of critique due to the epistemological foundations surrounding critique itself” (211).
Hentyle: In our class this semester (Marxism and In/Humanism), we just discussed Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”. As you know from class, that essay, for me, is phenomenal; one of the things I take from it is her critique of Deleuze, Guattari, and Foucault as producing lateral theorizations of power that are flat and rhizomatic. I read her as working through a more structural, Marxist, and latitudinal frame.
I find that my theory of power is trying to think with both the horizontal and vertical (longitude and latitude) as different theorizations of power that operate simultaneously. When you think about China you automatically go to a Marxist and post-socialist discourse, which I use in the book. But I wanted to also pair this with minor theories (like those by Deleuze and Guattari, amongst others, since they’ve inflected so many of our minor turns) towards flatter/rhizomatic theorization of power. When explicitly situated together in this way, I think we have to then grapple with how we are defining materiality and to toggle across the two. I guess this is akin to working across the law and aesthetics.
I’m glad that quote resonated with you because I think it demonstrates or gives you a sense of what I’m trying to work within and across - not only different scales, but also the different theories of power that I’m treading. Even though this book works within the academic genre and engages minor or lateral theories, I nonetheless have a larger political project at hand that is engaged with some old, structural, and Marxist questions. Thus, the afterword of the book is a bit more structuralist and Marxist in its argumentation, which is where I think my research is headed now. I have been trying to think about whether we can imagine different governance structures outside of liberalism and what a theorization of speech under Marxism might look like. But I also do not want to predetermine my work through predictable Marxist punchlines, so I keep working with aesthetic theory and minorness in order to expand how we define our very ideas surrounding the political and material.