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Aesthetic Interrogation of Refugeeism, Migration and a Post-September 11 World by Trinh Minh-ha

Shinhyung Choi | Journal: General Issue [7] | Issues | Reviews | Dec 2011

Review of: Trinh Minh-ha (2010) Elsewhere, Within Here:Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. Routledge.

Trinh Minh-ha’s latest book Elsewhere, Within Here is best read as a collection of pensive images in the way that Roland Barthes lovingly complained about photography that contains the accidental punctum.  Barthes uses the term punctum to refer to the thing in the image that moves, punctuates and disturbs the viewing of a photograph in a deeply personal way. Like Barthes’ photographic image containing accidental punctum, the texts and the pictures in Elsewhere, Within Here work to startle, wound and move us into thinking. It contains “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)”.[1] An example is the line, “Meeting and parting at crossroads, we each walk our own path” that startled and continues to startle me when it occurs in a discussion of refugeeism[2]. Trinh describes refugeeism as a product of “border wars” that reflects “a profound crisis of major powers” and presents the issue as an urgent and passionate political issue of our day that requires unwavering commitment.[3]  Trinh begins by likening the commitment to the state of being a prisoner and of being in love and carefully undoes our common (mis)conceptions about refugeeism, political commitment, action, and even love by honing in on the centrality of seeing misery plain and in a way that is self-exposing and unsettling. The image of meeting and parting occurs towards the end of the essay that expresses Minh-ha’s main thesis that to act on the issue of refugeeism is to “[t]o develop the ability to receive with more than one’s eyes or ears.”[4] In other words, Trinh draws attention to how political action is crucially acts of receiving and being a receptacle to the fullness and plainness of other rather than conspicuous actions of feigned togetherness, aid and kindness. The sentence ‘Meeting and parting at crossroads, we each walk our own path’ acts as a prickling detail that invites the reader to engage with the essay’s wide-reaching and some might say tenuous presentation of the issue.[5]  In some ways, the line might pique our curiosity because it does not completely make sense and sits slightly inappropriately in the text. By being slightly out of place, it acts as an invitation to more attentively engage with what the essay attempts to present and how and why it does what it does. This could mean re-reading the essay to understand it better but it could also simply mean reading the subsequent pages more quizzically or with an increased sense of investment.

The latter strategy is just as good as the former in this latest collection of Trinh’s writings from mid-1990s to early 2000s. It is because the arguments, unlike in most other academic books, occur in repetition that privilege resonance rather than progression of ideas. Ideas and arguments recur to stretch, tug at and puzzle us and our desire to encounter clarifying and coherence-privileging analyses. The book seems most concerned with using various ideas and material from art and from nature, from the discipline of performance art, and more importantly by performing acts/art of itself to de-familiarise the dominant aesthetics through which we see and make our world(s). As in her previous books, what Trinh does is foreground aesthetics in politics and theory by what she discusses and how these discussions are allowed to unfold. Aesthetics is foregrounded in the sense that Trinh highlights how what we say about the problems of the world (supposedly ‘out there’) is inescapably a form of self-expression shaped by our perception. Knowledge is never simply a body of pronouncements of what is or what must be done but it is also our aesthetic creation in the sense that how we describe, think, make pronouncements about _________ (fill in this blank with your research topic) are ultimately our artistic and subjective decisions. Our artistry (read: creative decisions in constructing analysis or diagnosis) is involved in how we go about utilising our cultural resources and our positions of authority and seeing. The essays present repetitively and in a slightly different articulation at each ‘return’, examples of ‘better’ artistic and subjective decisions namely, decisions that reflect, play with, dwell on in-betweeness, an inescapable condition in any encounter but for which we must slow down enough to take note. Moreover, Trinh foregrounds aesthetics by actually bringing in ‘the arts’ into political theory as complex inductive tools that help us think, make sense of and conceive the world and the political. Art helps us slow down and take note of the in-betweeness that results in any given encounter. Important to remember here is that Trinh is not telling us which art is good or bad but about her aesthetic experiences that certain art made possible. The choice of art is more reflective of her positionality than of some generalisable political value inherent to a particular art form. Thus, rather than making a coherent summary of what she says about art and mimic her thoughts on art and art forms, the task at hand is that of learning the art of “speak[ing] near by or together” (not about or for) political problems and the subjects entangled in them in our own practices[6].  It is, to return to the first point, a way of attending to the in-betweeness in knowledge practices.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I “Home: The Travelling Source” is composed of two essays that problematise as well as reconceptualise and redeploy the idea of ‘home’ as a source of identity. The first essay does this through the example of Vietnam, but not without beginning with a pointed complaint that this is her topic and her home only because the invitation for her to speak is extended as a narrow demand to “tell us about Vietnam, be woman, talk Asian, stay within the Third World.”[7] It is a demand that constrains the idea of home as well as identity; however, it is also a demand that cannot simply be ignored because these markers cannot be shaken off at will and more importantly, because Vietnam, woman, Asian, Third World need sustained, creative elaboration in the Eurocentric, male-dominated, masculinist. capitalist world we (Trinh and her readers) belong. The second essay re-considers the idea of home/identity through the idea of travel. It discusses how home is a product of our travels and in telling tales of our homes, we translate our ‘old’ homes to create not only a new dwelling but a new way of dwelling.  In this sense, home travels with us and we understand home and away, travel and staying put, source and product to be complementary rather than contradictory differences.  Resounding in this section is the role storytelling plays in the way we dwell differently and be at home without drawing new boundaries, erecting higher walls, and seeking redemption in the idea of home. Part II “Boundary Event: Refuse and Refuge” includes multiple ways and registers this idea of homing differently could be put in practice. The question is not about breaking down walls or transcending boundaries but, to borrow Gloria Anzaldua’s words, being home in “this thin edge of barbwire”.[8] It is about becoming a boundary event, the in-betweeness that lies between any twos whether it be between two countries, two moments in time (e.g. night and day) or two musical notes. These intervals wherein in-betweeness becomes attenuated can also be conceptualised in infinitely variable ways – as a musical swoon rather than a pause or a gap, as a non-knowing becoming of no-thing in the art of movement in Merce Cunningham’s dance, Basho’s poetry or Zeami on Noh theatre.

For those that are wondering what good all this talk of alterity and of foregrounding aesthetics in politics does, Part III “No End in Sight” can be read as a direct response to this question. Sceptics are right. It’s no good. There is no end, no redemption, no liberation in alternatives and aesthetics. “Mother’s Talk” can be read as an elaboration of this scepticism as it illustrates how alternative visions, dwellings and sources of creation have politics of their own. The piece discusses how wisdoms of folktales, wise as they are, are gendered in the sense that they serve particular purposes linked to the male storytellers’ gender. Thus, to talk about mother’s tales is to bring this male privilege into view and moreover to expose motherhood and women (talking) “in all its ambivalences.”[9] But the larger point is that sceptics are wrong to seek ‘good’ in redemptive endings and pure liberation. The second essay, “White Spring” illustrates a non-redemptive and unending struggle for liberation which is impure and always contingent. It discusses Theresa Hak-kyung Cha, a woman/artist in the (inter)national space by laying out the difficulties involved in telling a story between languages and the importance of visual imagery and blankness in expressing and keeping alive these difficulties. These difficulties must be kept alive since they cannot be simply overcome or resolved if impurity and contingency of liberation is to be respected. The third essay, “The Crisis in Urban America” echoes this need to continue the struggle in the context of education of urban youths in a post-September 11 environment. The takeaway message in this final section of the book is that the recurring politics along gender, race, religious, inside-outside and us-them lines do not mean we can be sceptics of change. Instead, the recurrence requires that we remember “words, language are not just an exercise of power or resistance but also in an infinite act of creativity.”[10] Trinh’s point is that we must create anew, and that this creation is a passive-active act of dwelling in the interval, becoming no-thing, responding non-knowingly and being receptive moulds that “see what the eye hears, and hear what the eye see.”[11]

The third and final text, “The Crisis in Urban America” can also be read as a companion piece to the introduction essay, “Foreignness and the New Color of Fear”. The introduction, which is the only piece written specifically for this book in the collection, frames the collected pieces in the context of our world after ‘September Eleven’. It reminds us that the events of September 11, 2001 is a crisis that has been ongoing before the events in 2001 and continues on after the events in 2001 with increasing equivocation of immigration with security and the ‘other’ with evil that is inducing terror and fear in all quarters. Trinh writes, “At a time when the rhetoric of blurred boundaries and of boundless access is at its most impressive flourish, the most regressive walls of separation and racial discrimination, of hatred and fear, of humiliation and powerlessness continue to be erected around the world to divide and conquer”.[12] The final piece written in 2002 as a speech in an educational summit returns to this framing but by a more specific social context of Detroit and urban America. The speech deplores the treatment of the disfranchised, marginal, abnormal ‘others’ within a ‘just society’ as social problems that can be worked on to disappear. What is interesting here is how Trinh then moves on to assert that “[t]here is a link between the way we define our elusive enemy abroad and the way we deal with our ‘others’ at home, and certainly, there is a deep link between the way we identify our enemy and the way we define ourselves.”[13] Together, the bookend essays ask, what is September 11/September Eleven? They in short invite us to read the pages in between – pages written before September 11, 2001 – to explore this question.

But reading Elsewhere, Within Here in this way is to read it for its theoretical contributions, which is but one way to read this book.   Another is to read it in small bits in moments when concepts such as hybridity, alternatives, resistance, borderlands, reflexivity, or our engagements with them feel familiar, rote, or inert (but we are too pressed for time to look anew or seek out inspirations). In other words, we can also read Trinh for an aesthetic experience and create a space for contemplation. We can read to be perplexed by the ‘digressions’ of the essays that for me are reflections of the author’s effort to make strange for herself her subject matter. We can read to wonder about the meaning of the sentence, “Every voyage is the unfolding of a poetic” or “[T]o let one’s breath find its rhythm, to let one’s voice find its way. Powerful in its vulnerability. Magical in its simplicity.”[14] Approaching it as art means lingering around the pages long enough to let lines, images and ideas perplex us and in these fleeting moments of perplexity let them revitalise or de-familiarise our own engagements with refugeeism, migration and boundary event. For sure, Elsewhere, Within Here as art is not for everyone but even if this is more commonly the case, the mere recognition of it as art could act as a catalyst for a search for an aesthetic experience that does meet one’s needs. In other words, this latest instalment could act as a reminder that we need art and aesthetic experiences to keep the question marks alive in what we do, how we dwell, breath and question. We need them so that our knowledge practices do not become “an idle talk between kinsmen” and “a conversation of ‘us’ with ‘us’ about ‘them’.”[15] To return to an earlier point, we need art and aesthetic experiences to sustain the art of speaking near by or together.

My only complaint about the book is the unexplained absence of Trinh’s collage work that had been a steady presence in her previous publications. I especially wondered this when I found myself giving a quick glance and failing to engage the small and delicate paintings by Trinh’s long time collaborator, Jean-Paul Bourdier. In her previous collages, Trinh played with images on the page juxtaposing different still images from her various films and at times even lifting out pointed excerpts from the text pages and placing amongst pictures. They not only allowed a sustained engagement with the pictures but also lead to interesting interplay between the collage pages and the progression of her essays. The collages, in short, pre-empted relegation of images by readers and added layers to the images that created new possibilities for the pictorial images as well as the essays. However, in this latest publication, I cannot help but feel that the reproductions of the photographs and paintings are just that, reproductions of visual art that would feel more alive when seen in the places and physicality they were intended for. Re-appropriation of these images in collages could have engaged with my longing for the original art works and put to question this longing for a more authentic experience. More pointedly, it could have engaged with the desire for the original and a more authentic experience that relegates the experience and response one has as a failure that blames the producers. In short, the collage of pictorial images that plays the book form and with the images on the page could have added another layer of possibilities for both the book and the individual images. It is quite plausible that my complaint arises from the fact that the collages are missing in this book but were still present in her last, The Digital Film Event (2005). Perhaps, but I hope they return in her next book.


1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage Books, 2000), 27. [↑]

2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Elsewhere, Within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 56, original emphasis. [↑]

3. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 46. [↑]

4. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 56. [↑]

5. Roughly put, the essay begins by asking us to see that refugeeism, unlike voluntary immigration, “does not have a future orientation – the utopia of material, social or religious betterment” (Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 47, original emphases). Moreover, the essay presents refugeeism not just as a reference to the human costs in territorial border wars but in all forms of conflict that arise when borders, walls and boundaries are constructed to contain, keep out and become secure. The essay insists that the only way to survive as refugees (and stay true to the idea of refugeeism) is to refuse the official naming but that this is not to deny the need for a refuge. The essay is an exploration of the question, what is involved in maintaining this balance between refuse and refuge? [↑]

6. Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Difference: ‘A Special Third World Women Issue’,” Discourse 8 (1986-87): 33, my emphasis. [↑]

7. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 13. [↑]

8. Gloria Anzaldua in Trinh Elsewhere, Within Here, 1. [↑]

9. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 102. [↑]

10. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 2. [↑]

11. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 125. [↑]

12. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 5. [↑]

13. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 124. [↑]

14. Trinh, Elsewhere, Within Here, 40, 83. [↑]

15. Trinh deploys these statements against anthropology’s attempt to be humanist and scientific but I think they are important phrasings in thinking about all productions of reality especially in the academic genre. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989) 68, 67. [↑]

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