Media & Feminist Theory: Strategy: Figuring Otherwise

And yet…

Krista Geneviève Lynes

“The leaves have not fallen yet nor will they fall for some days” — Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée

Today should have been our last class together in our Media & Feminist Theory course. I had intended to end on a hopeful note, with a gesture towards ‘figuring otherwise’, toward committed strategies—in creative engagements, theoretical questions and political praxes—that a semester’s labour in media and feminism might provide. The dispersal of the space of the classroom through the last five weeks of the semester means that we too, as a tentative collectivity, have had to figure otherwise. This has meant drawing from a fount of imagination and flexibility, from the histories of protest, the language of manifestos, and practices of radical pedagogy, including a vacillation between the roles of teacher and student described in Paulo Friere’s terms as ‘teacher-students’ and ‘student-teachers’: “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is [her]self taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach”.[1]

Our guides for this last class: Gayatri Spivak and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Both of these guides navigate the terrain of the figurative, a set of practices which have, from the outset, been central to feminist inquiry. We began in January, after all, with the figure of Woman, a chimera, a “volatile collectivity” in Denise Riley’s terms.[2]  Figuration may consolidate itself in the iconic, just as it might vear, turn, in Roland Barthes’s terms ‘as milk does’. Our focus on figuration meant to richly unpack the join between ‘media’ and ‘feminist theory’, unrepresented by the & in the course’s title. We did this by thinking about subjective processes, about the question of collectivity, about the material, social and semiotic dimensions of subject-formation, and about the forms of feminist praxis which seek to be complex and emancipatory.

Spivak teaches us that figuration itself might provide a guide for the work of feminism. The figure, after all, is undecidable, fundamentally a metaphor, and thus stands in the place of another meaning to which it refers poetically. It’s in this vein that she discusses the ‘idiomaticity of non-hegemonic languages’, the complexity of the forms of expression which are often, violently, read literally. She argues, “All around us is the clamor for the rational destruction of the figure, the demand not for clarity but immediate comprehensibility by the ideological average”.[3]   We see this in the demand, within academia, political movements, social life, and even our intimate relations, for calculation, rationalization, austerity, level-headedness, comprehensibility and access. Instead, Spivak argues that the task of the literary scholar is not to translate literary language into a more transparent academic text, but rather, in her terms, “to dis-figure the undecidable figure into a responsible literality, again and again”. This she calls “cultural explanation” as well as “training of the imagination”.

The task of the feminist scholar is not simply to transcode cultural production, nor to describe social reality, but in her terms to ‘draw a response’.  According to Spivak, the feminist reader must view experience not as a source of authority, but rather as a “text to be read in the interest of agency”. What she means by this, I think, is that the skills of literary training be mobilized to understand that forms of self-representation are figurative, idiomatic, poetic, metaphorical. Experience should not be reduced to evidence, but should be read as a complex cultural practice, which demands literary, historical, sociological and political training.

She cautions however that such efforts not be aimed at resolving social and cultural life, but rather that such efforts be interrupted with what she calls an “inter-dictive ‘and yet’” (76).  We strive to elucidate, to attend rigorously to our object of analysis, and yet… Cultural products, forms of expression remain in certain respects stubbornly obdurate.  She proposes that, rather than translating from language to language (and this may be literally across language systems, or may involve translating actions, material artefacts, artworks or visual culture)  one must read with “the most intimate access to the rules of representation and permissible narratives which make up the substance of a culture” (14). This is true at the level of cultural expression but also within the subjective negotiation between inner and outer, between self and world that forms what Spivak calls ‘ethical semiosis’ (13).

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is our guide for what this work might look like. Her moving oeuvre Dictée is a contradictory text, a partial autobiography, mythology, set of love poems with hints of Mallarmé and Beckett, photographs, cinematic mise-en-scènes, dictations and translations. Constance Lewellen argues that the text’s paradoxes are “rooted in Cha’s location in the interstital outlaw spaces between Korea and America, North and South, inside and outside […] For her, the in-between is a personal dwelling place that makes survival possible”.[4]

The preface begins not in the first person singular (‘I’) but the second (‘you’). This function conditions its whole structure, the mode of address, and the aesthetic involvement of the reader. The reader must work between citations, dictations, grammatical instructions, the erosion of punctuation, or its splintering of meaning. Her committed figuration of the interstitial space Lewellen described is bound by the specificity of her historical examples (personal, political) and the contradictory presence of those sites where language fails, where representation becomes impossible. An example of such enigmatic signifers in the text emerges even in the Preface where a figure emerges from a series of questions:

From A Far
What nationality
or what kindred and relation
what blood relation
what blood ties of blood
what ancestry
what race generation
what house clan tribe stock strain
what lineage extraction
what breed sect gender denomination caste
what stray ejection misplaced
Tertium Quid neither one thing nor the other
Tombe des nues de naturalized
what transplant to dispel upon[5]

This short poem enacts a series of transcodings (from adverb to noun in the first sentence, between French and English, between the idiomatic and the literal, through reversals and neologisms). The reader must work to understand the grounds of meaning referred to here (the list of questions grounded in a desire to locate identity genealogically, racially, phyllogenetically or ontogenetically) even as the work of figuration undermines the claims proposed. The final two lines especially figure for the reader the idiomatic structure of the work as a whole. The French expression ‘tombe des nues’ is itself unclear, referencing both the act of being surprised and the join between falling and death. The word ‘de’ can be a French preposition or a negation of the following English word (hence ‘de-naturalized’). The final sentence wrenches structure in the service of a series of evocations: the ambiguity of dispelling, making disappear, or misspelling; the lack of an object on which something is dispelled and, fundamentally, the lack of a subject. This subject figured at a site of absence, in the form of a question, opens the reader to the imaginative work of the text as a whole, and to the moving and agile engagements with a series of chapters which name and subvert the conventions of genre: history, epic, lyric, sacred and love poetry, astronomy, tragedy, comedy and the choral dance.

Dictée ends in a reversal of its beginning, with three mythical figures, a narrator now named ‘She’ and two figures (a young girl and a woman) who emerge in a landscape where “the dust haze lingers between earth and sky and forms an opaque screen” (167). In this cinematic space, She recounts a sensual memory of women drawing water from a well. As the book ends, blank pages overtake written text, and emerge also as ‘opaque screens’ in which a set of propositions emerge tentatively. And then, a paragraph of unending words, the punctuated fragments from the text’s Preface vanished, just a rush of words:

Lift me up mom to the window the child looking above too high above her view the glass between some image a blur now darks and greys mere shadows lingering above her vision her head tilted back as far as it can go. Lift me up to the window the white frame and the glass between, early dusk or dawn when light is muted, lines yield to shades, houses cast shadow pools in the passing light (179)

Cha herself has argued that her “video, film and performance work are explorations of language structures inherent in written and spoken material, photographic and film images—the creation of new relationships and meanings in the simultaneity of these forms”.[6] It’s this work of figuration—which dis-figures even as it fiercely seeks to articulate a speaking position—which I would argue serves as an exemplary model of the emancipatory strategies of feminism, and of feminist mediation.

Spivak uses the formulation ‘and yet’ again to describe what she calls ‘planetarity’, an imaginary collectivity which is not global, continental or worldly. She is not simply trying to invoke current models of environmentalism (which, she argues, are tied to the global and to abstraction) but rather to conceive of the planet “in the species of alterity, belonging to another system; and yet we inhabit it, on loan” (72). She states, “When I invoke the planet, I think of the effort required to figure the (im)possibility of this underived intuition” (72).

We remember to read the poetic in Spivak also. The term ‘and yet’ emerges throughout this text, the form of an argument that refuses closure, transcoding into the dominant. The work of the scholar, trained in the imagination, is to render sites of inhabitation uncanny, unheimlich, to resist the tendancy of globalization to impose the same system of exchange everywhere (72). We saw this two weeks ago in Spivak’s vision of collectivity, of Woolf’s appeal that we summon the ghost of Shakespeare’s sister and work towards a collectivity ‘to come’.

The student actions that have reinvented the space of pedagogy over the last several months also direct themselves towards multiple processes of figuration (chalk outlines, bike rides, masquerades, even the colour red, but also grassroots political movements in targeted ridings, fierce negotiations and the work of coalition). The work of the classroom comes to a temporary end, and yet the classroom itself has become undecidable, a ‘changeful site’. To come…


[1] Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1993 (2nd ed.): 61.

[2] Denise Riley, Am I that Name? Feminism and the Category of Women in History. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

[3] Gayatri Spivak, Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003: 71.

[4] Constance Lewellen, The Dream of the Audience: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Berkeley: University of California Berkeley Art Museum: University of California Press, 2001: 11.

[5] Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée. New York: Tanam Press, 1982: 20.

[6] In Lewellen, 9.

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