4 Chapters
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II. The Language of Nativism: Anthropology as a Scientific Conversation of Man with Man

Trinh T. Minh-Ha Indiana University Press ePub

faculty once asked me, “why are you in Anthopology?” I replied, “because its so much easier to love all of Mankind than one solitary man”

—Barbara San Severina, “A Grass Model” in Stalking the Evil That’s Been Giving Darkness a Bad Name

That the birds of

Worry and care

Fly about your

Head, this you

Cannot change,

But that they build

Nests in your hair,

This you can prevent

—Chinese proverb

In sight of every reader-by, let him run naked. Here, where she lives, each door revolves like a mirror of his mirror, and repression takes on the forms of both suppressed and forced speech. If she does not ravel and unravel his universe, she will then remain silent, looking at him looking at her. Or she will, with the enthusiasm of the blind leading the blind, walk in his footsteps chanting R-adical-evolution. He belongs to that fraction of humanity which for centuries has made other fractions the objects of contempt and exploitation, then, when it saw the handwriting on the wall, set about to give them back their humanity. In view of such eternal recuperation, she can no longer align any trace on the page without at the same time recognizing the trace of his traces. Drifting from one (shore) to another, she therefore steps into his universe, wavering between the will to release and the desire to hold back. Sometimes she takes pleasure in wearing shoes three sizes bigger than her feet and coats so large as to turn herself to a mere hanger. Other times she realizes she is the proverbial toad striving for the impressive capaciousness of the cow and puffing itself up to the point of bursting. We set out here, she and I, to undo an anonymous, all-male, and predominantly white collective entity named he, and we wish to freeze him once in a while in his hegemonic variants. Knowledge requires a certain dialectic of information and control, and I think it may help to reverse our roles once in a while, more for the emergence of a certain awareness than for the gratification of aping. I have wondered time and again about my reading myself as I feel he reads me and my false encounter with the other in me whose non-being/being he claims to have captured, solidified, and pinned to a butterfly board. Like any common living thing, I fear and reprove classification and the death it entails, and I will not allow its clutches to lock down on me, although I realize I can never lure myself into simply escaping it. The difference, as I sense it, is: naming, like a cast of the die, is just one step toward unnaming, a tool to render visible what he has carefully kept invisible in his manipulative blindness. I never really start or end the trial process; I persist. Constantly changing my point of departure or arrival, I trace, void, retrace with the desire to baffle rather than bring out contours. Some lines, some curves may emerge, whose totality will always differ. The further I persevere, the more liable I am to let myself be riddled by doubts. On one plane, we, I and he, may speak the same language and even act alike; yet, on the other, we stand miles apart, irreducibly foreign to each other. This is partly due to our distinct actualities and our definite history of involvement and power relationship. What I resent most, however, is not his inheritance of a power he so often disclaims, disengaging himself from a system he carries with him, but his ear, eye, and pen, which record in his language while pretending to speak through mine, on my behalf. I thereby do not oppose to eliminate. I’d rather make of writing a site where opposites lose their essential differences and are restored to the void by their own interchangeability. Thus, I see no interest in adopting a progression that systematically proceeds from generalities to specificities, from outlines to fillings, from diachronic to synchronic, or vice versa. And I am profoundly indifferent to his old way of theorizing—of piercing, as he often claims, through the sediments of psychological and epistemological “depths.” I may stubbornly turn around a foreign thing or turn it around to play with it, but I respect its realms of opaqueness. Seeking to perforate meaning by forcing my entry or breaking it open to dissipate what is thought to be its secrets seems to me as crippled an act as verifying the sex of an unborn child by ripping open the mother’s womb. It is typical of a mentality that proves incapable of touching the living thing without crushing its delicateness. I undeniably prefer the heterogeneity of free play in a dice game to the unity and uniformity of dissection, classification, and synthesis toward a higher truth. It is with and within the reign of worn codes or, perhaps more precisely, here within the boundaries of what he says he is or does that I intend to play and spin. I am temporarily referring to him in the third person, the pronoun of the non-person, since he claims to be the spokesman for the entire human race—never hesitating to speak about and for a vague entity named man whose putative universality no longer fools anyone. I will further delete all proper names and use representative stereotyped appellations to refer to the famed individuals of his objectively impersonal world. Omnipresent even in his absent being, he has invaded the homes of the wise and left his rottenness in every piece of land he set foot on. I shall never catch enough of him, for my human language-net excludes totalization, and my gesture is a continuation striving for continuation. One of the rules of my game is to echo back his words to an unexpected din or simply let them bounce around to yield most of what is being and has been said through them and despite them. I am therefore not concerned with judging the veracity of his discourse in relation to some original truth—a veracity he always implies through his scientism, professionalism, or “scholarism.” Perhaps by dint of persisting in this net play, I shall succeed in reproducing a few traits of the numbness of a tradition which he happily spreads about, often “without his being aware of it.” Perhaps also, I shall succeed in exposing some of the premises of oppression and hegemony I and you often accept into our discourse the very moment we apply ourselves to denouncing them. (By hegemony, I am referring to the authority of certain states over others, of one sex over the other, and to the form of cultural and sexual ascendency that once worked through direct domination but now often operates via consent—hence its pernicious, long-lasting, and binding strength.) I thus thread my way into the snares of his universe, borrowing this first observation: “All that the action of love obtains from me is merely this wisdom: that the other is not to be known; [her or] his opacity is not the screen around a secret, but, instead, a kind of evidence in which the game of reality and appearance is done away with.”1

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III. Difference: “A Special Third World Women Issue”

Trinh T. Minh-Ha Indiana University Press ePub

It is thrilling to think—to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame. It is quite exciting to hold the center of the national stage, with the spectators not knowing whether to laugh or to weep

—Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

It must be odd

to be a minority

he was saying.

I looked around

and didn’t see any.

So I said

Yeah

it must be.

—Mitsuye Yamada,
“Looking Out” in Camp Notes

Words empty out with age. Die and rise again, accordingly invested with new meanings, and always equipped with a secondhand memory. In trying to tell something, a woman is told, shredding herself into opaque words while her voice dissolves on the walls of silence. Writing: a commitment of language. The web of her gestures, like all modes of writing, denotes a historical solidarity (on the understanding that her story remains inseparable from history). She has been warned of the risk she incurs by letting words run off the rails, time and again tempted by the desire to gear herself to the accepted norms. But where has obedience led her? At best, to the satisfaction of a “made-woman,” capable of achieving as high a mastery of discourse as that of the male establishment in power. Immediately gratified, she will, as years go by, sink into oblivion, a fate she inescapably shares with her foresisters. How many, already, have been condemned to premature deaths for having borrowed the master’s tools and thereby played into his hands? Solitude is a common prerequisite, even though this may only mean solitude in the immediate surroundings. Elsewhere, in every corner of the world, there exist women who, despite the threat of rejection, resolutely work toward the unlearning of institutionalized language, while staying alert to every deflection of their body compass needles. Survival, as Audre Lorde comments, “is not an academic skill. … It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”1 The more one depends on the master’s house for support, the less one hears what he doesn’t want to hear. Difference is not difference to some ears, but awkwardness or incompleteness. Aphasia. Unable or unwilling? Many have come to tolerate this dissimilarity and have decided to suspend their judgments (only) whenever the other is concerned. Such an attitude is a step forward; at least the danger of speaking for the other has emerged into consciousness. But it is a very small step indeed, since it serves as an excuse for their complacent ignorance and their reluctance to involve themselves in the issue. You who understand the dehumanization of forced removal-relocation-reeducation-redefinition, the humiliation of having to falsify your own reality, your voice—you know. And often cannot say it. You try and keep on trying to unsay it, for if you don’t, they will not fail to fill in the blanks on your behalf, and you will be said.

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I. Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box

Trinh T. Minh-Ha Indiana University Press ePub

A grain of sand contains all land and sea

—Zen saying

“poetic language” … is an unsettling process—when not an outright destruction—of the identity of meaning and speaking subject, and consequently, of transcendence or, by derivation, of “religious sensitivity.”

—Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language

i was made to believe

we who write also dance

yet no dancer writes

(the way we write)

no writer ever dances

(the way they dance)

while writing we bend

and bend over

stoop sit and squat

and can neither stand erect

nor lie flat on our back

whoever pretends to feed

walk skip run while writing

must be flying free

as free as a cage-bird

seeing not lines as lines

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IV. Grandma’s Story

Trinh T. Minh-Ha Indiana University Press ePub

See all things howsoever they flourish

Return to the root from which they grew

This return to the root is called Quietness

—Lao Tzu, Tao-te-ching, 16 (tr. A. Waley)

Let me tell you a story. For all I have is a story. Story passed on from generation to generation, named Joy. Told for the joy it gives the storyteller and the listener. Joy inherent in the process of storytelling. Whoever understands it also understands that a story, as distressing as it can be in its joy, never takes anything away from anybody. Its name, remember, is Joy. Its double, Woe Morrow Show.

Let the one who is diseuse, one who is mother who waits nine days and nine nights be found. Restore memory. Let the one who is diseuse, one who is daughter restore spring with her each appearance from beneath the earth. The ink spills thickest before it runs dry before it stops writing at all. (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha)1

Something must be said. Must be said that has not been and has been said before. “It will take a long time, but the story must be told. There must not be any lies” (Leslie Marmon Silko). It will take a long time for living cannot be told, not merely told: living is not livable. Understanding, however, is creating, and living, such an immense gift that thousands of people benefit from each past or present life being lived. The story depends upon every one of us to come into being. It needs us all, needs our remembering, understanding, and creating what we have heard together to keep on coming into being. The story of a people. Of us, peoples. Story, history, literature (or religion, philosophy, natural science, ethics)—all in one. They call it the tool of primitive man, the simplest vehicle of truth. When history separated itself from story, it started indulging in accumulation and facts. Or it thought it could. It thought it could build up to History because the Past, unrelated to the Present and the Future, is lying there in its entirety, waiting to be revealed and related. The act of revealing bears in itself a magical (not factual) quality—inherited undoubtedly from “primitive” storytelling—for the Past perceived as such is a well-organized past whose organization is already given. Managing to identify with History, history (with a small letter h) thus manages to oppose the factual to the fictional (turning a blind eye to the “magicality” of its claims); the story-writer—the historian—to the story-teller. As long as the transformation, manipulations, or redistributions inherent in the collecting of events are overlooked, the division continues its course, as sure of its itinerary as it certainly dreams to be. Story-writing becomes history-writing, and history quickly sets itself apart, consigning story to the realm of tale, legend, myth, fiction, literature. Then, since fictional and factual have come to a point where they mutually exclude each other, fiction, not infrequently, means lies, and fact, truth. DID IT REALLY HAPPEN? IS IT A TRUE STORY?

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