– Spring 2010

Trinh T. Minh-ha Essaying Ethics

Joshua Fausty

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Reassemblage, 1982, 16mm film, 40min, stills. Courtesy Moongift Films

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Reassemblage, 1982, 16mm film, 40min, stills. 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 creates contexts - 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.1

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, intransitively. Not when writing adopts established keynotes or policy, but when it traces for itself lines of evasion. Can any one

  1. Trinh's books include The Digital Film Event (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), Cinema Interval (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), Drawn from African Dwellings (with Jean-Paul Bourdier, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), Framer Framed (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), Out There: Marginalisation in Contemporary Culture (co-edited with Cornel West, Russell Ferguson and Martha Gever, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1990), Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989), En Minuscules (Paris: Le Meridien Éditeur, 1987), African Spaces: Designs for Living in Upper Volta (with Jean-Paul Bourdier, Teaneck: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1985) and Un Art sans oeuvre (Lathrup Village, MI: International Book Publishers, 1981). Her films include Night Passage (2004), The Fourth Dimension (2001), A Tale of Love (1995), Shoot for the Contents (1991), Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989), Naked Spaces - Living is Round (1985) and Reassemblage (1982).

  2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, 'Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box', Woman, Native, Other, op. cit., pp.18-19.

  3. Ibid., p.36.

  4. Trinh T.M., 'The Other Censorship', When the Moon Waxes Red, op.cit., p.229.

  5. Ibid., pp.229-30.

  6. Ibid., p.230.

  7. See Derek Attridge, 'Literary Form and the Demands of Politics: Otherness in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron,' in George Levine (ed.), Aesthetics and Ideology, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994.

  8. Ibid., p.246.

  9. D. Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 2004, p.111.

  10. Michel Foucault, The Uses of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality, vol.2 (1984, trans. Robert Hurley), New York: Random House, 1985, p.9.

  11. Ibid., pp.8 -9.

  12. Ibid., p.9.

  13. See Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

  14. Ibid., p.8.

  15. Ibid., p.16.

  16. Ibid., pp.31-32.

  17. Trinh T.M., 'The Other Censorship', op. cit., p.226.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid., p.232.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid., p.228.

  22. Ibid., pp.228-29.

  23. Ibid., p.229.

  24. Trinh T.M., 'The Other Censorship', op. cit., p.234.

  25. Numerous writers have drawn on and acknowledged Trinh's ideas in their own scholarship. AnaLouise Keating's study of Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde, for example, includes numerous references to Trinh. However, these references consist either of quotations from Trinh's work that serve as epigraphs to several chapters in Keating's own book (pp.1, 81, 134 and 164), or quotations from Trinh's work used to shed light on the three authors who are the focus of Keating's study. For example: 'As Trinh T. Minh-ha explains…' (p.128); 'As Trinh T. Minh-ha asserts…' (p.64); 'Each writer exhibits what Trinh T. Minh-ha describes as…' (p.90); and 'Anzaldúa positions herself at what Trinh describes as…' (p.142). Like many critics who find Trinh's work helpful and even groundbreaking, Keating unequivocally acknowledges the importance of Trinh to her own reading of the subjects of her study, although she does not comment on Trinh's writing as writing. See AnaLouise Keating, Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

  26. In Otherwise than Being: or, Beyond Essence (1974), Levinas writes that 'Saying states and thematises the said, but signifies it to the other, a neighbour, with a signification that has to be distinguished from that borne by words in the said.' Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being: or, Beyond Essence (trans. Alphonso Lingis), Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1998, p.46.

  27. D. Attridge, The Singularity of Literature, op. cit., p.xx.