Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Embodying the In-Between: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Embodying the In-Between: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee

Article excerpt

Emotion is a certain way of apprehending the world.

--Jean-Paul Sartre, The Emotions

For over a decade after its initial publication in 1982, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee languished in cultural obscurity. With its violations of English grammar, use of mixed media, multiple languages, and other seemingly random elements, Dictee's radically disjointed poetics resisted easy identification. It was not until the publication of Writing Self, Writing Nation in 1994, a collection of scholarly essays devoted entirely to Dictee, that Cha's text began to receive critical attention. An oft-quoted passage from Elaine Kim's contribution to that influential collection of essays provides a pointed illustration of Dictee's elusiveness: "The first time I glanced at Dictee, I was put off by the book. I thought that Theresa Cha was talking not to me but rather to someone so remote from myself that I could not recognize 'him.' [...] Its references to Greek mythology, and its French grammar exercises, seemed far afield from the identity I was after: a congealed essence" (3-4). While Kim eventually learns to appreciate Dictee's unusual formal features as extending out of Cha's "location in the interstitial outlaw spaces between Korea and America, North and South, inside and outside," she does not entirely abandon her desire for "identity," claiming that Dictee "insists on the specificity of her Korean American identity" (21). Yet the question of how the "specificity of [Cha's] Korean American identity" operates and becomes legible in "outlaw spaces" that seem to be at odds with the social remains largely unanswered. Moreover, the problem of aligning Cha and Dictee with "Korean American identity" is further complicated by Sue Kim's recent observation that "nowhere in the novel are we told that the 'narrator' is named Theresa or that there is even a singular narrator" (164). I point to this tension in Elaine Kim's reading of Dictee not to unravel the paradox but to recast it in the context of an under-theorized feature of Cha's text--namely, how the text experiments with the connection between body and language. Critics often allude to but have yet to foreground this dimension of Dictee as being important to its overall poetics. As Walter Lew notes in his moving tribute to Cha's work, "Dictee [is] concern[ed] with not only the structuration of language and memory, but their human physicality--the tissue and action of the very organs and pressures that produce them." (1) In brief, this essay argues that Dictee's poetics ultimately challenges the legitimacy of such binary pairings by embodying the relation between language, culture, and self, thereby anticipating Rey Chow's recent observation that "When politically progressive intellectuals think the democratization [...] in a kind of conceptual fluidity between art and every-day, [...] between the West and the non-West, [...] they typically run up against some populations' embodied states of captivity [...] [which] demand engagement in their antagonistic materiality as much as in their open-ended ideality" (11-12).

Dictee's implicit model of an embodied self articulates to recent scholarship that reminds us that it is by holding on to such disembodied configurations of the self that vast terrains of embodied realities are displaced as cultural evidence. The emergent field of "anthropology of the senses," for instance, calls for a more expansive understanding of culture that does not require the programmatic displacement and marginalization of sensuous aspects of lived experience. As one of its leading scholars, Martin F. Manalansan IV, contends, "works in the emergent field of 'anthropology of the senses' articulate issues of sensuous experiences in the world as crucial topics of research. These works acknowledge that the senses are always culturally mediated and therefore subject to the forces of history, political power, and ideology" (182). Still, the underlying argument against introducing bodily, sensuous realities into the understanding of self and cultural belonging is the unfounded assertion that embodying social identity would automatically lead to the essentialization of identity. …

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