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Trinh T. Minh-ha Essaying Ethics

Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean Bourdier, Night Passage, 2005, digital film, 98min. Courtesy Moongift Films
Can the essay form offer new ways of describing the world? Joshua Fausty looks at Trinh T. Minh-ha’s writing and explores how its framing of a self-as-other could be a model for ethics.

I regret the ‘his or her’ ending, particularly in a piece on transcending binaries: not ‘the [singular] writing self and his or her living other’ (as I put it) but rather writing selves and their living others. Yet here we are: a new ban on transgender soldiers by an American president who separates families, cages children, and, obsessed with building his ‘wall of insecurity’ 01, ‘jokes’ about shooting migrants at the southern border. As Trinh notes, ‘although living in two dualistic worlds (here versus there) proves to be still acceptable to the rational mind, living in two and many non-opposing worlds – all located in the very same place as where one is – inevitably inscribes silence’. 02 Not only does silence tempt where power demands black-or-white, us-and-them, with-me-or-against-me ‘ready-mades’; but also, despite everything, we still do not know how to live with multiplicity. Trinh eludes the inevitability of silence, discovering ways to hear/read/speak/write that admit the nearly silent, slight, slippery bits, the heart-bits; 03 trans-rationally exploring, questioning, articulating complexity, difference, interconnection; illuminating new horizons for consciousness with urgency, immediacy and perspective – over time, sure, yet also and especially here and now, in this very space we might together learn to share. — JF

Trinh T. Minh-ha and Jean Bourdier, Night Passage, 2005, digital film, 98min. Courtesy Moongift Films

Writing’s slippery, mysterious, protean quality gives it a freedom and efficacy always tempered by specific social and historical settings. Like speaking, acting and teaching, writing createscontexts – and there is no end to context-making. Trinh T. Minh-ha’s essay writing is a clear example of this: through the performance of feminist, postcolonial and post-structuralist theories of language, subjectivity and power, her work reveals that writing constructs its own contexts, and cannot be trusted to illuminate without confusing, to disclose the truth without concealing it. Trinh’s intellectual history and artistic production emerge in and out of a multiplicity of national and disciplinary contexts. Born in 1952 in Vietnam and educated there and in the Philippines, Trinh emigrated to the United States in 1970 where she studied French literature, music and ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Trinh is currently Professor of Women’s Studies and Rhetoric (Film) at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work with theory, poetry and experimental film centres around a reflection on language and identity – a reflection that emerges through literary performances, most explicitly developed in her pointedly essayistic essays on art and criticism. 04

The singularity of Trinh’s literary and ethical performances makes attempts to explain them impossible, rendering inaccurate any reading that claims they ‘say’ anything other than what they say. In ‘Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box’, from Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989), for example, Trinh articulates the importance of ‘becoming’ in writing:

To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intr-ansitively. Not when writing adopts established keynotes or policy, but when it traces for itself lines of evasion. Can any one of us write like a man, like a woman, like a white? Surely, someone would quickly answer, and this leads us straight back to the old master-servant’s Guild. A sentence-thinker, yes, but one who so very often does not know how a sentence will end, I say. And as there is no need to rush, just leave it open, so that it may later on find, or not find, its closure. Words, fragments and lines that I love for no sound reason; blanks, lapses and silences that settle in like gaps of fresh air as soon as the inked space smells stuffy.05

Trinh’s prose here starts as a discourse on what writing is, but quickly transforms into an example of the very literary writing that it is about: ‘A sentence-thinker, yes, but one who so very often does not know how a sentence will end, I say…’ The passage ‘traces lines of evasion’ that run from the assertion it begins with – ‘to write is to become’ – to the unpredictable end of the passage, with its enactment of the earlier description of leaving ‘it open’ so that ‘it may later on find, or not find, its closure’. It is made up of ‘words, fragments, and lines’ that are a product of an exercise of writing that is a becoming, performed by a writer who has written ‘to write is to become’.

The trope of becoming signals Trinh’s openness to the alterity of the writing self, and to the alterity of the writing itself, gesturing to the possibility of a better future as an alternative to a present conceived as static or complete. When Trinh writes that ‘to write is to become’, she emphasises the process of becoming; for her, the important point about ‘becoming’ is its movement towards – but not towards anything pre-defined – as opposed to a teleological movement towards some end of history, an ultimate or essentialised notion that would impose clarity on the complexity of the self or its relations. Recognising the relations among writing, ethics and identity – especially gender and ‘race’ identity – is therefore central to a theorisation of Trinh’s essayistic ethics. Analysing the argumentative strategies typical of theory, she tells the story of her own discursive production, describing and re-enacting the processes that construct self-other relations, questioning and proposing ‘critical’ and ‘creative’ approaches that challenge assumptions about dominant and unproblematised notions of the self and the other.

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Surname Viet Given Name Nam, 1989, 16mm film, 108min. Courtesy Moongift Films

In ‘Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box’ and ‘The Other Censorship’, from When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1991), Trinh formulates a model of openness to otherness understood both as characteristic of the multiple self and of an alterity outside the self. These essays take the form of literary auto-ethnography that proposes alternatives to Western discourses on the other and the self. At the same time, they provide a model of critical intervention that conceives itself as performance, not prescription – as dialogue, not declaration.

For Trinh, critical essay-writing subverts and displaces dualisms and ‘ready-mades’.06 Privileging forms of theorisation that attend to practices of construction and difference, and committed to a perspective that acknowledges partiality and process, in ‘The Other Censorship’ Trinh argues that critical writing and art, with its insistence on anti-transcendentality, should take place between theoretical assumptions, on the borders and across the boundaries of cultural and political certainty: it is ‘made to fare on interstitial ground’. Critical theory is difficult because it calls into question boundaries that have been taken for granted and thus ‘speak[s] from no clearly defined place’. 07 The difficulty of criticism derives from its situation: it happens in shifting contexts because its object is the contexts themselves, and it must therefore take care to notice all forms of ‘positioning’, which both locate and confine subjects (objectified) within the terms of explicability and other ‘systematic forms of closure’. 08 If art’s ‘elements of inexplicability and of wonder’ lend it a critical edge, as Trinh suggests, then criticism too must find ways to partake of the ‘artistic’ without losing sight of its own status.09

All the relations of alterity inherent in what Derek Attridge calls ‘the literary’ come into play in Trinh’s critical essayistic writing.10 Attridge writes that the ‘literariness of any text … [is] the degree to which it is open to … [a] staging of the primary functions of language and discourse’. 11 If that is the case, then literary language, which always foregrounds these ‘primary functions’ with varying degrees of self-consciousness, can be thought of as the ethical in itself:

Reading a work of literature entails opening oneself up to the unpredictable, the future, the other, and thereby accepting the responsibility imposed by the work’s singularity and difference. There is also abundant evidence that writing a literary work is often a similar experience. In a sense, the ‘literary’ is the ethical. Literary criticism, however, can seldom make the same claim.12

Trinh’s criticism, however and essayistic criticism more generally – can make a claim to be ethical. In Trinh’s writing, the ethical relation between self and other becomes a conscious operative principle, even as the writing enacts otherness through its literariness, through its staging of the formal properties of language, and through its deliberate manipulation and display of Attridge’s primary functions of language and discourse.

Essaying implies adopting attitudes to one’s work, to the future and to the reader. As such, it is a partial act in a double sense. First, the self of essayistic writing is a self-in-process – in the process of thinking and writing itself into being – and thus incomplete; it is aware of the impossibility of self-completion. Thus it is aware, too, of the impossibility of full self-presentation. Essayistic writing is also partial in its awareness of its perspectival nature, as it offers presentations of particular positions, arguments, ideas, experiences and memories.

Trinh’s essayistic strategies of self-writing are an integral part of her critique of feminism, postcolonial theory and identity politics, and the simplistic readings these often give way to. In her writing and films, she privileges the ‘partiality’ of the self and its representation: subjectivity, in her formulation, is both incomplete and biased, and her essayistic writing urges the development of a shifting relation to selfhood and otherness, in writing and in the worldly contexts in which the self’s diverse articulations emerge.

The relation to the future produced by a deep awareness that things could be otherwise is a crucial component of Trinh’s essayistic ethics. This relation to the future takes many forms. One of those is a persistent openness to possibilities not yet able to be articulated. An example of this openness is discussed by Michel Foucault in his introduction to The Uses of Pleasure (1984), in which he links his own philosophical practice to the essay as a self-transformative strategy. The essay, he argues, ‘should be understood as the assay or test by which, in the game of truth, one undergoes changes, and not as the simplistic appropriation of others for the purpose of communication – [it] is the living substance of philosophy, at least if we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an “ascesis” […] an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought’. 13 Foucault’s conception of essay writing as ‘philosophical’ self-activity closely resembles Trinh’s ethical approach in her essayistic theor-etical writings: ‘For what is philosophy today – philosophical activity’, Foucault asks, ‘if it is not the critical work that thought brings to bear on itself? In what does it consist, if not in the endeavour to know how and to what extent it might be possible to think differently, instead of legitimating what is already known?’ 14 The ‘object’ of his studies, he writes, ‘was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently’. 15Trinh’s theoretical work similarly explores and seeks to transform – often from the inside out – the writing self’s relations to language, power, thought and meaning.

Stanley Cavell’s reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay ‘History’ (1841) offers another entry point into Trinh’s performance of essayistic ethics. Cavell identifies the recognition and assertion of partiality in Emerson’s essay as relating to Emerson’s theory of the self as being always already in the process of becoming. 16Cavell highlights Emerson’s efforts as ‘the modern essayist’ to effect change in the reader by modelling or performing the processes of subjective becoming one undergoes through thinking and writing. 17 Emerson’s prose is at once self-referential and directed towards the other, a written invitation or call to another – the unknown reader – who invests attention in the written text. In his effort to position himself as an actor who performs the processes about which he writes, Emerson dramatises the possibility of adopting an attitude of partiality focussed on the future, on what comes next, and reveals the ways in which a subject can achieve a state of ‘becoming’ through writing.

The notion that selves or subjects ‘become’ – that we are constituted by a collection or series of ‘nexts’ – captures the attitude of partiality central to Trinh’s essayistic ethics. Cavell’s point that the self ‘becomes’ clarifies the relationship between Emerson’s style and his emphasis on partiality, and reveals the deep connection between the exercise of self-reliance and a notion of ‘nextness’ that makes it possible to avoid or overcome the habit of conformity. Cavell reads Emerson as representing, through his writing, ‘the urgency of the need for transformative social change and the resistance to internal change, to transformative nextness’: 18

Emerson’s turn is to make my partiality itself the sign and incentive of my siding with the next or further self, which means siding against my attained perfection (or conformity), sidings which require the recognition of an other – the acknow-ledgement of a relationship – in which this sign is manifest. Emerson does not much attempt to depict such a relation-ship […] but the sense I seek to clarify is that Emerson offers his writing as representing this other for his reader.19

It is in this sense that I want to argue that writing is an ‘other’ in the ethical encounter that is reading. Emerson’s writing sets out to produce a relationship of alterity in an attempt to encourage his reader to realise the potential one has, in Emerson’s words, as an ‘attained’ self, to become a ‘next’ self – or to work towards such a becoming. Trinh’s essayistic writing, too, draws the reader into the processes it performs, and offers an experience of alterity that allows the enactment of ethics and ethical relationships. She offers her work as a representation of an ‘other’ for her readers, and embraces the partiality of her perspectives, asserting through her essayistic performances that self-writing need not – or must not – pretend either impartiality or completeness.