Shifting The Borders of The Other

An Interview With Trinh T. Minh-ha

Trinh T. Minh-ha, the Vietnamese-American filmmaker and feminist theorist, is currently living in Tokyo, teaching as Visiting Professor at the Institute for Gender Studies at Ochanomizu University, Tokyo. Trinh T. Minh-ha's personal history as a filmmaker, writer and composer includes, films as Surname Viet Given Name Nam /1989/ and A Tale of Love /1995/, and books as Framer Framed /1992/ and When the Moon Waxes Red /1991/. She was born in Hanoi in 1953 and brought up in Saigon. At the age of 17 she went to the USA for her university education and majored in Music Composition and Comparative Literature. Trinh T. Minh-ha is Professor of Women's Studies and Film at the University of California, Berkeley.

I talked with her about an hour on June, 2, 1998 at her temporal office at Ochanomizu University, and I realised I could keep asking her questions and exchange thoughts and doubts for hours. Her precise process of selecting terms, expressions, of defining theoretical tools and clarifying words, statements, thoughts proves, again and again, her enormous intellectual, artistical and leftist background and working directions.

I would like to start the interview with questioning the paradigm, the notion of the "inappropriate/d other" that you conceived in the mid eighties. Is this paradigm still effective, still workable today, and, if not, in which way can we grasp the politcs of the Other, and who is the Other today?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: We can read the term "inappropriate/d other" in both ways, as someone whom you cannot appropriate, and as someone who is inappropriate. Not quite other, not quite the same. Of course, there are many other terms which I've handled similarly in my writings, such as "the moon" or the colors "red" and "gray" for example. Depending on the context, one term may prove to be more relevant than the other. In response to your question, I would say certainly, for how can a notion like "the inappropriate/d other" be subjected to the times for its effectiveness, when its very function is to resist appropriation? All depends on how the notion is lived and carried on. Since inappropriate(d)ness does not refer to a fixed location, but is constantly changing with the specific circumstances of each person, event or struggle, it works differently according to the moment and the forces at work.

To relate this situation in which one is always slightly off, and yet not entirely outside, I've also used the term "elsewhere," to which I've often added "within here"-an elsewhere within here. That is, while one is entirely involved with the now-and-here, one is also elsewhere, exceeding one's limits even as one works intimately with them. This is a dimension that one develops simultaneously, not something that happens linearly and successively in two time-phases, with one coming before the other.

So one can say that within the Inappropriate/d Other are the many different possibilities of Other or of otherness I 've elaborated in my work. One can never be exhaustive as to whom or what the other is. If one tries to speak for everybody, what one has to say runs the risk of becoming a mere decoration. To give an example, when Desmond Tutu was visiting the States in the mid-eighties, before he gave his speech to a packed audience at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, an entertainer who was trying her best to do something appropriate to Tutu's politics and to fill in the gaps while the audience was waiting, asked the audience to sing along with her the refrain of the song 'We Are The World.' Each time the refrain came back, it was comfortably adapted to address, for example, African Americans the first time, Native Americans the next time, and Asian Americans the time after, and so on, until we covered all the 'minorities' groups. Imagine such a chorus. This is decoration. This is how difference becomes harmlessly decorative and how the media conveniently understands political correctness, using it in the name of multiculturalism to degrade multiculturalism.

For me, the question is not to be exhaustive in what one does-this is a mere illusion, because one can never be exhaustive enough-but to provide tools workable across struggles. So that when I use the notion of "the inappropriate/d other" in the very specific contexts of the West's Other, and of Man's or man's Other, I am exploring the question of gender and ethnicity with an eye and an ear that, while not naming all, also takes into consideration, for example, the struggle of sexuality. The tools offered can be taken up and used in their own terms, by gays and lesbians, and by those whom society's standards of 'normalcy' have marginalised. One cannot cover all areas, one can only speak in certain specific areas, but one can listen with ears of other marginalised groups. This is for me infinitely more challenging and important than speaking for everyone or mentioning everyone at the same time. Hence I do not always know who this Other is or to whom the term can be fully applied, but the tool provided should be such that it can reach a wider range of peoples whose struggles link them with other struggles of liberation.

The term can be used therefore in poetical and political way?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: Certainly.

How much it can be used as a political tool between East and West, Asian and American territory today is a tendency to surpass the gap between these disparate territories, to blur the differences?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: When you mentioned East and West, as you are from Slovenia, I immediately think of the difference between Eastern and Western Europe.

I am using the notion of inappropriate/d other in my work for such a distinction, but I would like rather to rethink it in the direction of the difference between Asian and North American spaces, as you were born in Vietnam, but you live in the USA and we are now discussing the inappropriate/d other here in Tokyo.

Trinh T. Minh-ha: I would say that even though I come from Vietnam-and whether I wanted it or not, I certainly do belong to this whole context of Asia whose cultural heritages cut across national bordelines-I don't see my location as being primarily Asian or American. There are so many ways to situate oneself and to determine our alliances. I spent some of the most important years of my life in West Africa, for example, and I was strongly politicized by African and North African contexts. Living in the States has also, from the very beginning, sensitized me to the struggles of Black people and of Native Americans. So when I speak of the Other of the West, it is never only Asia. Within the Asian communities, if you speak to Chinese or to Japanese people, for example, what they know of Vietnamese culture is likely to be less widespread than, let's say, what the Vietnamese know of Chinese and Japanese cultures. The "minorities" are always socialized to see from more than one points of views. So my positioning in relation to Asia and within the Asian community is already slightly off and different. The tendency to locate me within a geographically specific fight-whether in Vietnam, in Asia or in the States-can be very confining and reductive. Even when I was directly asked by some governmental representatives of Vietnam in international events, "how do you think you can be useful to your country?" I could only reply by saying I hoped I could be useful, not merely to the Vietnamese community-even though I would be most happy if the tools I devised could serve this community-but to a larger context of Third World non-aligment or of hybridity in the diaspora. This is just a clarification that is not meant to take away what you have asked.

How does one situate politically and culturally Vietnam, China or Japan, for example? Japan is certainly not a country that fits in the general definition of the Third World, even though in certain situations in the West, the Japanese have been treated as members of the Third World. No doubt, what has historically happened to the Japanese immigrants in the States shows that through racial discrimination, they belong among all the other Third World peoples, even though economically they stand apart from the block of Third World nations. This is already one example of inappropriateness.

Vietnam, on the other hand, has also historically undergone a short period of Japanese take-over. And yet, to a certain extent Japanese, unlike Chinese people, have always stood out in our eyes as the people whose work ethics and discipline we praise. What I 've heard during my childhood in relation to the Japanese, aside from the war barbarities, often concerns their ability to appropriate masterfully the tools of the dominant and to combine German discipline and precision with family work ethics. Japanese products have been highly rated all over the world. This is something that many of us Vietnamese speak about admiringly at the same time as we tend to resist, precisely because of the disciplinary aspect involved.

Here, rather than simply condemn or admire such a discipline, one can also see Japan strategically in the terms of its slight "inappropriate(d)ness" with regards to the divide between First World and Third World, or between tradition and modernity. Certainly, the other aspect of Japanese culture that seems to stand out most prominently for outsiders is the persistent perpetuation of certain traditional cultural aspects in the midst of high technology. This can be another form of inappropriate(d)ness. I am not talking here about the imitation or simple preservation of an objectified past reality but rather, about something that goes on living both in straight traditional appearances and in modulated transformations. Such a practice which China, for example, has somehow attempted to readapt, not without great difficulty, in the aftermath of the Cultural revolution, is usually carried out in all discrepancies and inconsistencies in other non-Western contexts.

Whereas in Japan that spirit of "coexistence" seems to circulate in the details of everyday life, even if these details may be today emptied of spiritual dimension. What I first saw on the TV monitor of the airplane when landing in Japan is the ground traffic controller who directs with precise gestures the plane to its assigned place, and who bows to the plane as he completes his job. Such a bow may appear utterly banal to the insider, but for me it is a sign that remains telling as to one's attitude in the world. The sense of interbeing and of transience in this human, animal and mineral world is very much alive. Foreigners overwhelmed by the abundance of street activities and displays in Tokyo have also time and again spoken of the Edo spirit breathing on in modern times. What I've just said in relation to Vietnam, China and Japan are mere generalities that can always be contested in the details. But, what is suggested is that the relation to tradition needs not be one of mere imitation or appropriation, it can be one of transformation and of creativity. One always have to walk this precarious line of difference and of inappropriate(d)ness if one is to avoid merely retrieving or rejecting the past.

Although I would like to continue to talk about Japan, let's reflect a little bit more this difference between us and the Other. Which are the strategies to locate the difference/s?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: One strategical definition of "the Inappropriate/d Other" I gave in my book, in the context of gender and ethnicity, is that one always fares with at least four simultaneous gestures: that of affirming "I am like you" while persisting in one's difference; and that of insisting "I am different" while unsettling all definitions and practices of otherness arrived at. This is where inappropriate(d)ness takes form. Because when you talk about difference, there are many ways to receive it; if one simply understands it as a division between culture, between people, between entities, one can't go very far with it. But when that difference between entities is being worked out as a difference also within, things start opening up. Inside and outside are both expanded. Within each entity, there is a vast field and within each self is a multiplicity.

How much modern technology and cyberspace as a corporate constructed elsewhere, along with the myth of globalization are today contributing to the construction of this difference or in blurring its boundaries?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: It all depends on how technology is being developed and in what direction it is being geared. I've written at length about the aesthetic of objectivity and the pursuit of naturalism in the development of a media technology that promotes increasing unmediated access to reality. The aim is naively to render the tools and relations of production more and more transparent, or to come closer to truth with each step acquired by limiting reality to what is immediately visible while making the recording devices as invisible as possible.

Today's computer technology may be more "realistic" in its challenge of the "real" but we can say with Paul Virilio that what we are facing in cyberworld is a different kind of colonization. Instead of colonizing by force territories exterior to one's own, we are now colonizing and being colonized through monitors and passwords within our own territories. The technology that is being perfected continues to be geared toward economic ends and to serve the marketing mind that controls today's societies. If technology is in the hands of philosophers, activists or artists, for example, its function and direction can be very different. It can be another creative tool rather than being a coded and coding tool through which the standardization of communication (with ever greater speed and accessibility) is maximized despite the impressive proliferation of choices devised.

I am glad you mentioned the blurring of boundaries and differences in relation to cyberspace. Yes, there's a lot of talks about blurred boundaries that seem to partake in such a corporate mentality. For me, the question of hybridity or of cultural difference has never been a question of blurred boundaries. We constantly devise boundaries, but these boundaries, which are political, strategical or tactical-whatever the circumstance requires, and each circumstance generates a different kind of boundary-need not be taken as an end in itself. The notion of the migrant self, which has taken on a new lease in our times, is very relevant here. The self-in-displacement or the self-in-creation is one through which changes and discontinuities are accounted for in the making and unmaking of identity, and for which one needs specific, but mobile boundaries. For example, when do you call yourself a feminist, when you do not call yourself a feminist, when do you see yourself as part of the East, and when do you when you tell people the West is also in me? When I am speaking about the West I am not speaking about a reality outside myself. It is not a question of blurring boundaries or of rendering them invisible. It is a question of shifting them as soon as they tend to become ending lines.

How much we as artists using technology and producing film's, photograph's or digital's images, are part of the system of corporate production of the myth of total visibility?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: Producing from these different areas of image-making means that what we come up with remains specific to each of our locations and of the media at work. So what I do may not fully apply to other people's contexts. As you've said, we are part of this whole system of media production and media visibility, and in the films I have made, there are many ways to work creatively with it and despite it when one walks the edge of not quite staying inside it and not quite standing outside it. There's no "pure" ground from which I can voice criticisms of the media, even if I resists the marketing mind and operate in a venue that is not commercial.

With the tools available, one can create different time-spaces that expose or turn to advantage the fissures, gaps and lapses of the system. We're coming back here to the notion of inappropriate(d)ness as linked to the notion of boundary event, which I've been elaborating in my more recent works. The challenge is not to fall prey to the dominant process of totalization: rather than working at bringing, through gradual acquisition, what has been kept invisible into visibility, one would have to break with such a system of dualities and show, for example, what constitutes invisibility itself as well as what exceeds mere visibility.

So it is a matter of constant positioning and this is thoroughly an artificial process. Moreover, we can also see that today the mainstream is using similar strategies as the one used by experimental productions?

Trinh T. Minh-ha: I will take a detour here to respond to the term "artificial." In certain intellectual milieus it is very difficult to talk about the "spiritual" without immediately raising suspicion. But since I work with resonances in displacement, I would ask, for example, what is artificiality in the context of spirituality? When you mentioned positioning as an artificial process, I immediately say yes, not because "artifice" connotes something not true or not real, but because the world caught in its life and death processes can be seen entirely in term of artifice and artificiality. In other words, the world is a "radical illusion"-to use a term that artificially links Baudrillard to Buddhist thought. When one says man-made is all artificial, one is not necessarily implying that nature is truer. For ultimately, it is in producing the artificial that one manifest "truth" and gives shapes to one's situation.

You also mentioned the tendency of the mainstream to appropriate experimental tools. In fact, what they can appropriate is only an instrument or a technique. I am making here a difference between "tool" and "instrument." Let's say that the function of an instrument is to serve-a message, an idea, an activity, a purpose-, whereas the function of a tool is to give form, de-form and trans-form. We don't even know what idea that creative tool will lead to. And ideas may serve but they also act on material and mental realities. If the mainstream uses strategies similar to those of experimental productions, it uses them towards totally different ends. Its aim is to reify for consumerist purposes, so it reproduces what at first sight may appear similar; but missing the spirit of "purposefully purposeless" experimentation, it turns everything into a matter of techniques in the process of totalizing meaning. Such an artificiality is to be distinguished from the artificiality I elaborate ealier, in which everything caught in the cycle of visibility and invisibility or of life and death is artificial, including our own bodies, our existences. Nothing is "natural" in the usual sense of the term. Perhaps the only "natural" element or event is this energy, this force that exists in no single material form, but thank to which things materialize, take form, mutate and disintegrate. (Marina Grzinic)