by Dawn Chan
When Alvin Toffler’s classic Future Shock first hit bookstore shelves in July 1970 (Fig. 1), its influence was seismic. Toffler, who had begun his career as a progressive reporter covering labor issues, diagnosed the wide-eyed, benumbed disorientation brought about by propulsive technological progress. But his book proposed solutions too, and in doing so paved the way for the “constantly evolving genre we might call ‘pop futurism,’” as a review in The Atlantic recently put it. With Toffler’s volume, the future became a commodity—a form of intellectual capital that could be proffered by consultants, shared at conventions, and imported and exported worldwide.
While US readers will likely be familiar with the ways in which Future Shock still reverberates throughout American culture to this day—both media mogul Ted Turner and tech entrepreneur Steve Case credit Toffler’s work with inspiring them to start CNN and AOL respectively—what’s perhaps lesser known is that its publication touched a nerve across the Pacific Ocean as well. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung, and China’s Zhao Ziyang considered the book influential enough that each of the three leaders met with Toffler. The People’s Daily named Toffler “one of the top 50 foreigners who have had the greatest influence on China in recent centuries.” His later book, The Third Wave, reportedly outsold all other books in China except the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping.
All this made for a striking illustration of the ways in which futurism itself could and would circulate along the flows of trans-Pacific commerce and exchange. In fact, the influence Toffler’s book had within these East Asian nations was part of a long history of people looking over their shoulders at neighbors across and around the Pacific Rim for cues on how to decipher the future: to fear it, to welcome it, and to prepare for the world to come.
Fig. 1 Cover designs for Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. Courtesy: Random House.
It should be noted that futurism wasn’t unilaterally imported from the West to the East. Just years after the messages of Toffler’s book ricocheted around the world, a rise in Japanese manufacturing and digital technology meant that Asia, and in particular East Asia, became a backdrop to and source of futuristic narratives, which in turn meant a whole host of stereotypes, expectations, and resentments on American turf. In 1995, the scholars David Morley and Kevin Robins coined the term techno-orientalism to describe the tendency of onlookers to perceive the Far East as an exoticized site of technological advancement.
As cultural and media theorist Wendy Hui Kyong Chun pointed out, such tendencies went hand in hand with “the jettisoning of the Asian/Asian American other as robotic, as machine-like and not quite human.” These tropes refracted far and wide throughout the American media landscape. Of course, within that landscape, every genre of media had its own particular conventions around conjuring an Asian-inflected future. Within the genre of science fiction, cyberpunk narratives emerged: neon-light-soaked promenades and shadowy alleyways, unbridled capitalism and rampant crime. Often, the focus was the blurred boundary between man and machine. Meanwhile, in general-interest magazines, narratives about Asia’s futures (frequently splashy cover stories) often featured cataclysmic economic shifts at their cores. In a textual component of his artwork TIME for the Future, 2018–ongoing, Singaporean artist Ho Rui An used Time magazine as an example:
To know if an economy has arrived into capitalist modernity, one simply has to check the cover of TIME. This was especially so for many of the economies in the rapidly developing East Asia which took turns each to grace the cover of the international weekly between the seventies and the nineties. For these economies, to be featured on the cover of TIME meant that they had graduated from the National Geographic, moving from an exoticised Asian pastness into the time of the future.
Fig. 2 NCT Dream. Courtesy: SM Entertainment.
One might suppose that the future as an imported good is an outmoded, late-20th-century phenomenon. Far from it. Look at this past year alone: In June, the South Korean boy band NCT Dream released the song “Hello Future,” which ripped its message and its crochet vests straight from the insistent, groovy optimism of 1960s American counterculture (Fig. 2). Three months later, Netflix released Kate, a cyber-noir assassin movie (Fig. 3) whose protagonist heads to Tokyo, massacres ranks of yakuza, and (spoiler alert) breathes her last jagged breaths while bathed in the light of a neon sign depicting a maneki-neko, or lucky cat, with its lazily bobbing paw. In other words: The future is still an object of bilateral trade.
Fig. 3 A still from Kate (2021), directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. Courtesy: Netflix.
Elsewhere, I have previously speculated that the techno-orientalist tendency to link Asia to the future, at least in an American context, is inseparable from the present-day absence of Asian faces in a broader cultural landscape. So where does this leave Asian and Pacific Americans In their recent books, Jeff Chang and Cathy Park Hong have respectively alighted on the peculiar way that Asian Americans have come to signify futurity in the context of the United States. To the extent that Asian Americans have come to be held up in America as a kind of model—“a blueprint for multicultural democracy,” as Chang calls it—there is a sense that the future of Asian American identity politics is rooted in its own obsolescence down the road. In Minor Feelings, Hong notes that to be Asian in America is to be asked: “Why are you pissed? You’re next in line to be white! As if we’re iPads queued up in an assembly line.” Hong adds elsewhere: “We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon.”
Embedded in their choice of words is a realization that Asian Americans symbolize some sort of utopian future: one in which America’s racial wounds have somehow faded into the past. Chang continues: “What does it mean to be the evidence that racism is not real? … To be desired for your fluid, exotic, futuristic, yielding difference?” Techno-orientalism, then, is not just the trappings of a movie. It lives on in the bodies of Asian Americans: futuristic, silicon, waiting on an assembly line.
Of course, as other contributors in these pages also sagely note, the explosion of anti-AAPI violence in 2021 has been an unsettling reminder that Asian Americans are anything but “evidence that racism is not real.” We’ve been forced to see that our ostensible status as a model community of some kind is a precarious one at best. But if this violence reminded Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that we’re brought together as a group by the flattening perceptions of society at large, how can we turn our de facto grouping into something celebratory and full of productive affinities?
These questions are complicated by the acknowledged difficulty with which Asian American is even defined. The term was first coined by inspired young Berkeley activists and then adopted by demographers and pollsters alike. And it continues to be messy and difficult: It can feel like a lifeline to some even as it reads as an almost nonsensically, illegibly broad classification to others. It can imply homogeneity where there is none. It can marginalize some subgroups and can capriciously exclude others, depending on where we envision Asia’s boundaries. It can elide class politics with a tidy bow, and ignore intra-Asian racism entirely.
Given the contested, messy act of identifying as Asian American, it’s perhaps unsurprising that some curators and artists have started wanting to do away with the term altogether. And while their position may be understandable, it is one that nonetheless leaves me saddened. Because even if Asian American artists are a loosely defined group of disparate individuals, the truth remains that they each consistently face a dearth of opportunities—and the only countermeasures in sight all require some form of collective understanding and action. To highlight the problem in stark terms, I often challenge people to name the last five solo museum shows they’ve seen that specifically feature an American artist of Asian or Pacific Islander descent. Today, in 2021, the task is still difficult even for New York–based colleagues of mine: hard-boiled professional art critics who make it their job to see every art exhibition open for public view. That’s how little space—how little institutional support—is given over to AAPI and Asian diaspora artists in America. Even while the construction of Asian American identity is fraught, Asian American erasure is simultaneously all too real.
In Hollywood, where faces appear in close-up, representation politics has a more legible logic—one governed by visibility and screen time. But in the realm of visual art, it is artists’ work and not their bodies that end up on display. And so some hesitation may arise in giving visual artists the label “Asian American,” lest it be burdensome. How might visual artists in particular be afforded freedom, if they want, to make art about their interests and unmarked by their identity?
Perhaps we need to take a page from the art historian Margo Machida, who wrote about “recognizing and carefully elucidating different positions articulated by artists of Asian background through their work—ranging from strong assertions of ethnic heritage and community, and unifying cultural symbols, to deconstructive critiques and anti-essentialist postures.” That latitude to make critical and anti-essentialist work is crucial.
Which brings us back to this year’s Gold Art Prize theme: “the future.” As we’ve seen, it is a subject that may indeed have connections to aspects of Asian American identity as interpellated in a US context. But to the extent that the practices of these five Gold Art Prize awardees reflect in any way on the future, it is not because they are Asian American or Pacific Islander—or even because several of them happen to make work that brushes up against aspects of their identity—but because they are people for whom a buoyant force of imagination compels them to wrestle with the world as it might one day come to be.
Dawn Chan writes art criticism for the New York Times and Artforum, and is a faculty member of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies.
1. Samantha Culp, “The Library of Possible Futures,” The Atlantic (February 1, 2021).
2. “China’s favorite futurist Alvin Toffler dies at age 87,” AFP (June 30, 2016).
3. Ho Rui An, TIME for the Future (part of the “Inventory of the Unmiraculous in Asia” series). Digital prints on backlit film mounted on LED-illuminated acrylic, 67 x 50 cm. Edition of 5, 2018–ongoing.
4. My earlier research on Asian futurism took the form of an article titled “Tomorrow Never Dies,” which was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Artforum magazine.
5. Jeff Chang, We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (New York: Picador, 2016).
6. Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (New York: One World, 2020).
7. Margo Machida, Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009).