The Life of Paper offers a wholly original and inspiring analysis of how people facing systematic social dismantling have engaged letter correspondence to remake themselves—from bodily integrity to subjectivity and collective and spiritual being. Exploring the evolution of racism and confinement in California history, this ambitious investigation disrupts common understandings of the early detention of Chinese migrants (1880s–1920s), the internment of Japanese Americans (1930s–1940s), and the mass incarceration of African Americans (1960s–present) in its meditation on modern development and imprisonment as a way of life. Situating letters within global capitalist movements, racial logics, and overlapping modes of social control, Sharon Luk demonstrates how correspondence becomes a poetic act of reinvention and a way to live for those who are incarcerated.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Life of Paper
Part One: Detained
1 • The Inventions of China
2 • Imagined Genealogies (for All Who Cannot Arrive)
Part Two: Interned
3 • “Detained Alien Enemy Mail: EXAMINED”
4 • Censorship and the / Work of Art, Where They Barbed the / Fourth Corner Open
Part Three: Imprisoned
5 • Ephemeral Value and Disused Commodities
6 • Uses of the Profane
Sharon Luk is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Oregon.
"The Life of Paper is imbued through and through, at once, with both a scholastically won and rendered understanding of the whole of our contemporary world—both worldwide and world-making—and a yet resolute and tenaciously held sense of the theoretical work that arises within the personal and intimate, in the apparently ephemeral fragments of a hope long become unhopeful. Addressing itself to three interwoven trajectories of life-worlds articulated in California across the past century—the migrations of Chinese into California; of the displacements of Japanese, by internment, from that same California; and the emplacement African American forms of life within the prison system—this work offers a radical reentry to the historicity gathered under this name. The thought herein is bequeathed to us by way of the generosity of a writer’s respect for “the letter,” as the practice of both ascesis and poesis, offering to us a unique pathway to inhabit the historicity of our time anew, beyond and otherwise than captivity. It is a consummation of the highest order of the work of theory and cultural scholarship in this domain across the past two generations. This is a beautiful book and a tremendous accomplishment in thought. Read it and give thanks."—Nahum Dimitri Chandler, author of X: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought
"The Life of Paper is a remarkable, eloquent, erudite, and insightful work. Luk looks at the letters written from prison by raced subjects as a site of contestation and negotiation, of self- and community-making. This book offers a fully theorized analysis of how the poetics of the letter function in the contexts of racialized incarceration, and in the process offers a profound powerful and generative analysis of the links that connect place, race, poetics and power to imprisonment."—George Lipsitz, author of How Racism Takes Place
"The Life of Paper is a rigorous, beautifully written, and important work that represents the best of interdisciplinary scholarship. Its highly original and dazzling theorization of the “life of paper,” as well as its careful archival work, significantly shifts our current understandings of the epistolary, “prison writing,” and the reproduction of social life within spaces of racialized confinement and incarceration. Yet what I am also struck by is the sense of ethical responsibility that resounds throughout its pages."—Jodi Kim, author of Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War