Ekphrasis and Multimediality: De-stabilizing History and Subjectivity in Theresa Cha's Dictee

Cristina Galu

[1] In the long tradition of hermeneutics, texts have two faces: the exoteric meaning — the one open to the masses, the surface one, and the esoteric one — the dark side of the moon, the deeper sense, confined to an inner circle of disciples. A dichotomy that did not overshadow its hierarchy: axiologically, the latter term carried all the weight as any expert reading was a probe into the depths of a text in order to illuminate obscure meanings, unavailable to profane eyes. Thus, surface and depth are loaded with intrinsic value judgments.

[2] This essay is a test in reading differently. Inherently, it must be a playful text, a "what if" text: what if the terms were inverted, what if the electrodes were swapped and the negative should become positive? Why not privilege a neutral, third term of interpretation. Derrida warns us in Positions that binomial thinking is not a peaceful system, but the two terms are in a hierarchical, violent conflict, as one of the terms always has the upper hand. In order to deconstruct this hierarchy it is not sufficient to hastily neutralize the two terms and settle for an unchanged third. This might disguise, says Derrida, the same status quo of an untouched master field and, also, it would smooth the violent opposition, preventing any efficient intervention (41). What Derrida suggests is a phase (not temporal) of overturning the hierarchy, in which the previously devalued field acquires ascendancy over the other. This is a necessary and ongoing project, warns Derrida, as "the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself" (42).

[3] Therefore, the leading idea of my project will be a reading that tries to overturn the hierarchical dichotomy surface/depth by favoring surface. This reading is indebted to Elspeth Probyn's Outside Belongings, where the author takes up the same project of working against the temporal, in-depth model and argues for a new — spatial — epistemological model. "Against a vertical mode of ascending depths, it strikes me that we are currently imbricated in a surface model: knowledges, ideas no longer drip or trickle down (if they ever did); rather, they translate, move and creep across, are creased and folded into other shapes" (130).

[4] A reading of the surface will be thus an attempt to refrain from grounding and anchoring meaning in greater narratives, a reading sensitive to the movements, to the displacements of the text and to its gaps. A reading of the text conceived as a body with its fluids running through, with surfaces touching each other and carrying over their meaning. Theresa Cha's Dictee is a text that allows and welcomes such a reading as the textual body of the book is made of a mixture of cultural productions: photographs, maps, official documents and letters, Western and Eastern anatomical charts, French-English translations and Chinese script fragments. A concoction of 'texts', in the larger sense of the word, that draws the reader into a swirl of translation, pointing at the loose hinges our cultural assumptions are fixed into. By drawing attention towards these points of confluence where cultures and languages meet, Cha also makes the movement towards the surface: texts and histories physically meet and touch each other, languages crisscross and clash in their interweaving. This surface model makes of the text a fragmented body with its pains and pleasures, with it knobs and cavities, smooth narratives and gasping breaths.

[5] The opening of such a body/text is crucial: with what eye does one probe the paratext — the cover, the title, the first pages? We can try to repeat the automatic gestures that traditionally accompany first contact with a book: we look at the cover, then at the first pages, at the table of contents if it exists, and finally we leaf over its pages in search of images — photos/reproductions of paintings etc., or just the font and the structuring of its chapters. I am aware that such an automatic and common process would seem too obvious to be worth a second thought. Yet, being puzzled and confused by such a decentered body, and finding it difficult to know where to start my consultation, I retraced these movements. I opened the book slowly, I leafed over faster, though allowing the time to glimpse several black and white images and a mass of discontinuous writing; and I finally slowly closed the book. And I realized this movement took me out of the usual reading habit: I had looked at the book. I was all of a sudden aware of my senses, of my eyes.

[6] This movement of coming to the surface (the surface of the text and the surface of my body — the eyes) was not a fortuitous one, I believe: the book opens with a black and white image of a stony semi-desert, with black upper and lower margins and it closes with a similarly framed photo of a group of Korean girls. This black framing gives the reader the feeling of entering a cinematographic space and the text itself performs like a cinematic text (referring to the larger understanding of the notion of text) — i.e. it tries to act upon the reader just like a film, with all that this implies.

[7] The association was far from coincidental as Cha was deeply immersed in filmmaking and the cinematographic milieu. I was tempted initially to say that Cha was primarily a filmmaker. However, she was primarily one who tried to blur these delineations, mixing the languages of sculpture, speech, textures and image. Therefore, what will be interesting in the analysis of this film-like text is the way in which the visual, surface methods of the cinematographic medium are being transposed into the written medium and what effects this has on writing and reading. My analysis will try to inhabit this interstice — the place where mediums meet and blur their borders. I believe such readings, placed at the crossroads of inherited discourses are essential, as they allow perceiving the continuum and the play between different, but not separate, epistemological fields. Griselda Pallock, analyzing the possibilities of feminism within modernism calls the dominant pattern of art learning and criticism "curatorial." She explains: "The histories of modern art were primarily shaped by the museum, and its categories continue to define what is studied and how it is studied in colleges, universities and art publications" (71).

[8] Under this model, what is left outside the predetermined categories, the works that refuse to fit the box, are doomed to be silenced or seen as marginal, and gratuitously experimental, Theresa Cha's protean works had the same fate —for a long time her oeuvre was received with suspecting silence, both by the Korean diaspora for not telling the 'true' story of their homeland and their history, and by the mainstream artistic milieu who found it difficult to come to terms with the versatile mixture of genres and forms of expression. After 1994, when Third Woman Press of Berkeley published Writing Self, Writing Nation, a collection of articles dedicated to Theresa Cha, the artist's works seemed to slowly come to light. Yet, these critical essays favor unilaterally either her work within the visual arts or her literary productions, mentioning only incidentally, as secondary artistic technique, her cross-medium work.

[9] Yet, Cha's artistic placement in-between is a focal point that illuminates her physical, historical, and linguistic in-betweenness. Therefore we should get beyond simply acknowledging Cha's use of intermediality, and seek the points of confluence of the two surfaces —the visual and the written. My attempt here is limited in the sense that it is focused on a single chapter of Dictee, Cha's only (mainly) literary work. While narrowing the scope of the investigation I hope to place myself more precisely at the confluence between vision and writing, which appears explicitly in Dictee's chapter "Erato/Love Poetry."

[10] Apart from the numerous photographs in Dictee, there are two other visual art forms that play an important role in the narrative communication: motion pictures (and cinematographic metaphors) and representations of handwriting. However, the most interesting of these in the economy of Cha's writing is the play with cinematographic representations, as this alternative system of representation is 'translated' into verbal discourse, creating the illusion of the narrative's being set at two removes from the mediated 'reality' or 'story'. Such verbal representations of a 'text' (I use the term in its general, semiotic sense) originally pertaining to the visual arts will henceforth be referred to as "ekphrasis". There is still little agreement on the definition and attributes of ekphrasis, as both mediums of transfer can take a variety of configurations. There can be ekphrasis implying paintings, sculptures, architecture, film or even music, to name only the broader categories. On the other hand, the medium of transference can be literary or not, a poem or a narration, and so on. Therefore finding an all-encompassing definition of ekphrasis is a strenuous effort, implying an accord between all these differences, which can change all the theoretical constructions. These variations and this extreme complexity make the unifying effort laborious, if not impossible. Therefore maybe a more fruitful approach would be a more narrowed and focused one, an attempt to work the theoretical discourse along with a minute analysis of the text in question and the intentions of such interart poetics. They will give a genus proximus to other inquiries approaching similar mediums, which, in turn, might yield an overarching theory of the intentions and effects of such a figure.

[11] Therefore, before we can proceed to an investigation of the inner resorts of Cha's use of ekphrasis in "Erato/ Love Poetry," we need to start from the general and broad constraints of the mediums of contact. Göran Sonesson retakes Wellbery's analysis concerning visual and verbal semiosis, reformulating some of the latter's terms: instead of dealing with material, substance and form, he suggests focusing the attention of the two domains' resources, units and constraints (247). This analysis will prove very useful for our investigation so I will reproduce it verbatim:




  Pictures Literature Pictures Literature


static visibility linguistic system everything visual everything imaginable


any resource whole texts "bodies" "actions"


spatial deployment, dense syntax temporal deployment, discrete syntax entended chunks, contiguous chunks, one ontological region minimal chunks, abstracted attributes, many ontological regions

[12] I am more interested in the case of ekphrasis in the limitations each domain is bound to by the resources available to it. As observable in the table, static visual representations, like pictures, paintings or sculptures rely mainly on the spatial axis, while verbal representations — because of the sequence involved in utterance — are primarily temporal representations, best shown by their potential narrative character. While Lessing, and more recently Genette posit that narrativity is predominantly verbal, there are critics who associated visual representations with narrativity (Postman) or who assert that any semiotic system is capable of producing it. Lessing also was distinguishing pictures from theatre by the fact that theater, in his opinion, contrary to pictures, could convey narration. Later, to this distinction, critics like Bayer extended their analysis to film. Therefore film and theater, because their verbal and non-static character, were clearly associated with narrativity.

[13] Taking also a detour through narratology, one can notice that the definitions of "narration" are not quite clear-cut. The classical structuralist narratology of Prince and Adams connected narration to the presence of a "temporal link" on the content side (without any condition imposed on the expression side). Examples following this definition abound in the visual field: most movies and sometimes television programs produce what Sonesson calls "temporal series," "the continuous sequence of moving pictures, as in a film, and, sometimes, on television" (244). In such cases narration is complete, having temporal links both on the content side and on the expression side. On the other hand, there are visual productions that trouble the transitivity of this definition: for example, there are static pictures (non-narrative by definition) that are connected among themselves by a common theme (like comic strips), in which the reader partially remakes the temporal scheme.

[14] Moreover, the study of narratology tried to identify more precisely what makes a simple story become a good story, a literary story. For Lévy-Strauss and Greimas this comes with a change of values. Similarly, Todorov defines narration as a broken and reestablished equilibrium. In conclusion, for an action to gain the status of narration (narrativehood vs. narrativity, in Sonesson's terms), there must be a fracture, something unexpected must happen, implying a moment of dramatism.

[15] From the very beginning the ekphrastic narration in Dictee seems to refuse all these narrative characteristics: there is little happening and there is neither climax nor resolution. The temporal link is continuously broken by the interpolation of other small narrations, and the overly detailed descriptions overwhelm the narrative coherence. We will return to these points each at its time.

[16] In "Erato/ Love Poetry," Cha seems to render verbally a cinematographic fragment. The narrative sequence of this fragment can be described in just a few words: a woman (of unspecified identity) is humiliated by her husband, but she remains docile in front of his tyranny because this is the culturally pre-established behavior for a wife. On further taking apart the narrative thread, the above fragment is mis en abyme, the frame consisting of a detailed description of two women watching this film in a cinema hall. Thus, taking into consideration this complex structure, it would be interesting to investigate the ontological status of each level of narration. First of all, the level of ekphrasis incorporates a peculiar relation between its domains of representation. Both represented (the film fragment here) and the representing (Cha's verbal description) represent another, 'real' object: the condition of many women as docile and abused wives. By appealing to Meir Stenberg's theory of quotation one can re-trace the mimetic levels of ekphrasis: the film, both in the verbal and in the cinematic forms re-present, cite, allude to a 'real' situation. Therefore, Tamar Yacobi concludes that "like all quotation, (...) ekphrasis bundles together no less than three, rather than two, domains: one first-order, strictly 'represented'; one second-order, which is 'representational' in the visual mode; one third-order, which is 're-presentational' in the linguistic discourse" (22). Therefore Cha's verbal re-presentation of the film comes to the reader at two removes from the original one.

[17] Moreover, the description of the film does not come to the imaginative eyes of the reader through Cha's/ the narrator's direct description, but is mediated through the eyes of the women watching the movie (note the fact that there are two unnamed women who are differentiated only by the seat they occupy in the cinema hall). This further mediation is meant to break down even further the ontological character of reality of the film. The pre-emptying of reality by the cinematic medium and by the successive mises en abyme, thematize the "procession of the simulacra", and the abolition of the real as stable referential basis. Without attempting to impose a Baudrillardian conceptual apparatus on Cha's work, I must concede that the cinematographic ekphrasis could be best described as the third phase of the image, namely, that which "masks the absence of reality" (Baudrillard 13) although in our case the 'masking' calls attention to itself, and consequently to the 'absence' as well. To put it in a more simple way, Cha resorts to cinematic discourse because the history she wants to recuperate is impossible to fully recover and narrative reality is simply an artifact.

[18] The narrative constraints that we described above seem to be continuously hampered by the narrative voice as the descriptive flow keeps being slowed down by numerous technical interventions: "Extreme Close Up shot of her face. Medium Long shot of two out of the five white columns from the street. She enters from the left side, and camera begins to pan on movement as she enters between the two columns, the camera stop at the door and she enters" (96). What this verbal technical description does is to break the natural course of the movement so that the action is almost turned into a series of stills. Through this effect Cha parallels the technique of the Athena projector, a projector that can slow a film to a single frame, which she learned in the class of Bertrand Augst. This frame-by-frame study influenced Cha, who constructed almost all her films and videos as a series of stills. The effect of such fragmentation is the break of discursiveness and narrativity as the temporal flow is interrupted. Thus, just like the unidentified photos scattered around the volume, the verbal stills produce events that cannot be inserted into the mainstream, narrative history because they refuse historicity (narrativity in the conventional understanding). They can also be seen as fragments of lost narratives, fragments that memory cannot recover into history, shards of potential narratives.

[19] Finally, the de-narrativization that Cha accomplishes in Dictee leads to a spatialization of her writing as her characters, non-individualized, are frozen into a series of static pictures. Further, the slow action that still is described on the left pages of the volume, is focused into static impressions of colors, feelings or bits of action frozen out of the time of the whole narrative. For example Cha opens the chapter with the following two pages:

[20] Later on this symmetry dissolves and the right page takes a pace of its own, hardly correlated anymore with the left one. This way, the spatial sensation created by the simultaneous reading suggests a filmic collage, where every voice has its own autonomy. Instead of enriching the meaning of the narratives, such a simultaneous visual display creates a cacophony of intermixed voices that breaks down the reader's attempt at a linear reading. Thus, again, interart techniques are not used to enhance language and help it render meanings and objects more present, but, rather serve to create a cacophonous and fragmentary reading experience. Such a reading counters the comfort of believing in a linear, coherent and transparent history, in a unitary and graspable subjectivity. Cha's visual writing of Dictee thus disrupts the western (Hollywood) tradition of the Bildung historical narratives and offers instead shards of memory, impressions, feelings and silence.

[21] Alexander Gelley assets that pictorial representational practices (mediated via ekphrasis) 'supplement' the "incapacity of language to make referents visible," drawing on Derrida's "sense of supplement as a substitutive practice, a gesture that once marks a blind spot within the representational system and moves to overcome it" (5). Therefore, ekphrasis would serve to make for the partial intransitivity of language and would successfully complement the narrativity of language. However, as we have seen, Cha methodically disrupts narrativity, and by spatializing her writing, she creates during the ekphrasitic moment we analyzed, a kaleidoscope of coexisting images that blur the coherence of the story. Using these techniques, Cha's characters are depthless, fragments of individualities as their actions do not bring about a resolution. Even her historic figures, like Jeanne of Arc or the Korean revolutionary woman Guan Soon appear fugitively, and their presence functions more as a flat emblem of a historic moment. Hence, a surface approach, one that is attentive to the effects of the expressive side of discourse (as opposed to the content one), can help to uncover in Dictee a conscious demonstration of the fractures coming to the surface after the erosion of such grand narratives as 'History' and 'Subjectivity'.

Works Cited

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. New York: Tanam Press, 1982; reprint, Berkley: Third Woman Press, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981.

Gelley, Alexander. Narrative Crossings: Theory and Pragmatics of Prose Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Pallock, Griselda. "Inscriptions in the feminine". Inside the Visible: An Elliptical Traverse of the Twentieth Century Art, in, of and from the Feminine. Ed. Catherine de Zegher, MIT, 1996.

Probyn, Elspeth. Outside Belongings. New York and London: Routledge, 1996.

Stenberg, Meir. "Polylingualism as Reality and Translation as Mimesis". Poetics Today, vol. 2, no. 4., 1991.

Sonesson, Göran. "Mute Narratives. New Issues in the Study of Pictorial Texts". In Interart Poetics: Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and Media. edited by Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, Hans Lund, Erik Hedling. Amsterdam ; Atlanta, GA : Rodopi, 1997.

Yacobi, Tamar. "The Ekphrastic Model: Forms and Functions". Pictures into Words: Theoretical and Descriptive Approaches to Ekphrasis. Ed. by Valerie Robillard and Els Jongeneels. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1998.