Criticism 34.3 (1992): 438-441.
When the Moon Waxes Red. Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics, by Trinh T. Minh-ha. New York & London: Routledge, 1991. Pp. 252.
[Reprinted with the editorial permission of Criticism]
The title and subtitle of Trinh T. Minh-ha's first collection of essays cry out for explication, together suggesting the divergent, yet finally supportive approaches to critical analysis that enhance the author's thought. On one hand, the title's poetic imagery refers to the definition in the introduction, "Yellow Sprouts," of the moon as "both the time when no thought arises and the time when the primal energy stirs into motion" (1). This "process of infinite beginnings" and its waxing red relates to the paradoxical act of "naming critically," i.e. "to dive headlong into the abyss of un-naming," toward those necessarily positional, transitional "moments when things take on a proper name" (2). On the other hand, the terms of the subtitle function together to depict the "struggle . . . to recompose subjectivity and praxis while displacing the way cultural strategies relate to one another in the constitution of social and political life" (2). Hence the collection's discordance of "varying tones and modes of address," the context-bound "irregularities of [the quoted materials'] treatment" that Trinh underscores as "both functionally and strategically necessary to the non-univocal nature of the texts, whose meanings are not only verbal but also visual" (ix), referring thereby to the film stills printed opposite each essay's title page.
However sympathetic the reader may be to Trinh's project, she/he recognizes this opening acknowledgment as a deliberate move to un-reconcile, as it were, the juxtaposition of texts published over a decade while clarifying, if not justifying, the difficulties inherent to this strategy. To emphasize further such strategies, Trinh explains in "Yellow Sprouts" the concepts that form the titles of the section divisions. "No Master Territories" (section I) refers to the shifting terms and moments of discursive, representational and cultural relations: "In the renewed terrain of struggle and of deterritorialized subjectivities, no moon-lover can really claim possession of the soft light that illuminates towns, villages, forests and fields" (3). Just as this struggle is ever "in-between," the figurations of woman ("She, of the Interval," section II) crisscross "more than one territory at a time, . . . her (un)location is necessarily the shifting and contextual interval between arrested boundaries" (4). This "heterogeneity of feminist struggles and its plurivocal projects" rejects monolithic constructs in a quest for non-closure, for "the Third Scenario: No Light No Shade" (section III) "where she is born anew" (6-7). Trinh seeks, then, the third term, the interval "between rational and irrational enslavement," not only for the critical and political, but also the professional tasks at hand. For, "in the existing regime of frenzied 'disciplinarization,' such breach in the regularity of the system constitutes the critical moment of disequilibrium and dis/illumination when Buddha may be defined as 'a cactus in the moonlight'" (8).
This quoted material suggests ways in which Trinh's essays provoke the reader to make connections, to draw conclusions, in a non-closural process of reading that is also writing, a strategy "in-between" that reveals Trinh's affinities to Barthes, to his/her "notion of the Void" celebrated in essay 13 ("The Plural Void: Barthes and Asia," 1982). This concept of "a text in which the (named) Void moves beneath multiple forms, showing us at each pause in its displacement, a new face" (209), defines well Trinh's own work. For the reader understands quickly that Trinh engages the topics of "representation, gender, and cultural politics" as "the mediator-storyteller" described in essay 1 ("Cotton and Iron," 1990), "at once a creator, a delighter, and a teacher,' 'through whom truth is summoned to unwind itself to the audience' (13). The concern that recurs in each essay and that resonates with the terms valorized in the section subtitles, is the 'challenge,' 'how can one re-create without re-circulating domination?' (15). We can then understand each text/section as a necessarily partial, non-closural essai: 'This shuttling in-between frontiers is a working out of and an appeal to another sensibility, another consciousness of the condition of marginality: that in which marginality is the condition of the center' (18).
Shuttling in-between, 'displacing is a way of surviving ... an impossible, truthful story of living in-between regimens of truth' (21). This overarching project of unsettling, un-locating territories and binaries underlies Trinh's reflections in the opening section on the documentary tradition and ethno-graphical filmmaking (essays 2, 3 & 4), and in the second section, the 'interval' of which 'she' is part appears in essays on political and gender implications of Western/male-dominated reading/viewing standards and of multiculturalism vis-à-vis artistic (filmic) creation (essays 5, 6 & 8). The collection's numerically central text (7) is also the one that best reveals Trinh's concerns and critical strategies of displacement towards/through feminist consciousness. The title page of 'L'Innécriture: UnWriting/Inmost Writing' (1983) faces six stills from Trinh's film Surname Viet Given Name Nam that show hands in various states of motion, expression and rest, emerging from white sleeves before a white-clad torso. Like this gestural in-most/un-writing, the feminist project has been forced/is forced to reject labels, even the term 'feminist,' while seeking expressive vocabulary within a language inadequate to the tasks of writing and reading.
As a demonstration of responses by several French women writers (notably, Marie Cardinal and Hélène Cixous) to the writing/reading predicament, this essay is most recognizably targeted to a 'scholarly' audience. Yet, preceded and followed by essays 6 & 8, in which Trinh directly addresses different aspects of her own artistic activities, 'inmost/un-writing' serves as a strategic locus of displacement, of the interval and of the quest for 'the Third Scenario' (section III). Responding to remarks of two visiting writers from Martinique and Guadeloupe, Trinh begins this section in essay 9 ('Bold Omissions and Minute Depictions,' 1991) by raising, on one hand, the question of identity, her own perplexed situation between 'they' ('trendy Euro-American intellectuals eager to recycle strains of subversion') and 'us' (Third World women/migrants, objects of trendy scrutiny); on the other hand, the questions of 'marginality,' where the 'challenge of the hyphenated reality lies in the hyphen itself: the becoming Asian-American; the realm in-between, where predetermined rules cannot fully apply' (157). Trinh concludes this essay by examining the difficulties of this mode of existence 'in-between,' suggesting artistic possibilities for transformation beyond the vexed problem of 'otherness,' and pursues further creative alternatives in the other essays of "the Third Scenario," with reference to the African novel, the filmic soundtrack, Barthes's writings, and tensions between art, theory and modes of censorship (essays 10, 12, 13 & 14).
It is, however, essay II ('The World as Foreign Land,' 1989) that draws attention to the collection itself as an act of representation and cultural politics. In Woman, Native, Other (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), Trinh briefly referred to audiences' demands for her to "express my difference," that "voice of difference likely to bring us what we can't have and to divert us from the monotony of sameness' (88, Trinh's emphasis). Recently, 'intense skepticism,' incited by the conversation between two Third World writers with which Trinh begins essay 9, 'assaulted [her] as I realized the intricacy of my own participation in what had been indirectly pointed to here as a spurious, fashionable preoccupation of the West raised up for the sake of Western vanguardism and its desire to conserve itself as sovereign Subject of radical knowledge' (156). This assumption of "the dubious role of the Real Other to speak the 'truth' on otherness' is the starting point for essay 11, inspired by Trinh's no doubt exhausting participation in public events and publications on 'the question of representation of the Other' (185). Trinh understands clearly that as an other being privileged, she 'cannot speak and participate in the production of theories of resistance without bearing in mind she is among those who have been provided with the opportunity to speak her condition.' Acknowledging that this postcolonialist other is "caught in the regime of visibility as deployed by the West,' Trinh maintains that 'in designating herself as one of the designated others ... / it is also necessary that she actively maintains the dialectical relation between acceptance and refusal, between reversing and displacing that makes possible the ceaseless questioning of this regime' (186). She then pursues reflections on strategies for creatively employing this space offered to the privileged other as well as risks involved in this undertaking.
However, in each example cited in the preceding paragraph, Trinh turns away at a crucial moment from exploring deeply, directly, her privileged position that provides, in fact, the opportunity for publishing these essays, a position described with the disciplinary bluntness of our profession on the volume's back cover: 'Trinh Minh-ha is Chancellor's Distinguished Professor in Women's Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Associate Professor of Cinema at San Francisco State University.' By citing this, I do not begrudge Trinh her professional advancement, but do wonder at the 'bold omission' of this ascension within Western academic institutions as a subject of her own 'working out of another sensibility.' What is 'the Third Scenario' for someone titularly possessed by the Chancellor at Berkeley (in the Women's Studies program, no less) while shuttling across the Bay, in constant displacement in-between sites of expression, creation and employment? As she states in essay 14, 'In a world of reification, of fixed disciplined and refined compartmentalizations, to affirm that 'I am a critic, not an artist,' or vice-versa, is to resort to a classification and a professional standard that ultimately serve to preserve the status quo' (226). As both critic and artist whose written critical works refer intertextually to her artistic projects, Trinh seeks to maintain actively the interval in-between master territories. Yet, even the very collection of these disparate essays, reprinted to allow their irregularities' and 'differences' to stand forth, implies a form of professional territorialization and privilege that cannot remain unexamined. Given the author's own explicit challenge, to "re-create without re-circulating domination,' and her project of self-designation within the 'regime of visibility,' Trinh must proceed further in her efforts of self-scrutiny, to provide for her readers/writers a more complete, if never closed, understanding of the cultural politics of her negotiation 'in-between.'
Charles J. Stivale
Wayne State University