Theory Colloquium

Sheltering in Style
Apr 4, 2024, 12:30 pm2:00 pm


Event Description
Sunny Xiang

This talk contemplates the ripple effects of a seemingly bizarre episode in American history: the years of U.S. martial law in the territory of Hawai‘i when all residents were required to carry a gas mask. I frame U.S. gas mask policies between 1941-1945 as a means of habituating Hawai‘i civilians to militarized rule rather than as an aberration from “normal life.” Such policies employed the language of "proper care" and "proper conduct" to convey the importance of respecting the masks as pieces of government property. Gas masks, in other words, conditioned the body to an atmospherically pervasive mode of warfare that was not a Japanese gas attack (which never arrived) but American militarism (which permeated every crevice of daily life). My hypothesis is that the promotion of “gas consciousness” during this period helped make the defense of property an essential feature of both a militarized settler subjectivity and an imperial style of living. I am especially interested in thinking about the gas mask episode in relation to American fashion trends of the 1950s and 1960s, both in its catalyzing of the local Hawaiian garment industry and in its auguring of an atomic style.

Sunny Xiang is an assistant professor of English and affiliate professor of ethnicity, race, and migration at Yale University. She is the author of Tonal Intelligence: The Aesthetics of Asian Inscrutability during the Long Cold War (Columbia UP, 2020), which reperiodizes the Cold War by taking a tonal approach to reading aesthetic texts and intelligence records. Her teaching and research focuses on Asian / Pacific / American and Asian diasporic literature and culture, with a special interest in transpacific genealogies of war, militarism, and imperialism. She is currently at work on a second book project tentatively entitled “Atomic Wear: Transpacific Fashion and the Making of the Militarized Mundane, which will explore how cold war articulations of style also functioned as vernacular theories of race and gender.

Department of English