Digital Inscription: Rendering the Visible in Tran T. Kim-Trang’s EpilogueGabrielle A. Hezekiah
I’d like to speak today about presence, absence and death – and strategies for engaging with immaterial presence in the work of Tran T. Kim-Trang. I shall do this through a reflection on the use of writing in Epilogue: The Palpable Invisibility of Life (2006).
Epilogue is a poetic and experimental video about life, death, deferral and becoming. It is the final instalment in Tran’s Blindness Series which draws inspiration from an exhibition curated by Jacques Derrida (Memoirs of the Blind). Tran has identified three areas of rumination in this video: 1) the “visible and invisible traces one leaves behind”; 2) the cycle of life and death; and 3) the imaging technologies that allowed her to see her unborn son. Each of these areas seems connected by an underlying impetus: to chronicle Tran’s journey towards motherhood; to voice her own mother’s unfulfilled desire to have a grandchild (Tran’s child) before she dies; and to forge a connection between her mother and child.
In this work, Tran’s mother appears as voice, her child as ultrasound image. It is the voice of a mother now dead and the image of an unborn child now living. Yet the connection is one of palpable presence – and connection – and of coming-into-the-world. It is the connection between writing – as “trace” – and the cycle of life and death, that concerns me here.
There are several points of interest for me in this work. First, because my research and writing are grounded in phenomenology and cinema, I was interested in the notion of an underlying presence which seemed to permeate the video – and in Tran’s attempt to bring that presence to visibility. I was also taken by the sublimation of the artist’s body – the only “live” body to appear onscreen – to the bodies of the others who do not appear. Finally, the layering of text, voice and image seemed to suggest that reiteration – always with a slight delay – was a strategy for inscribing and insisting gently upon a certain materiality that Tran was struggling to bring into existence. I shall touch briefly on the first and third of these points.
Writing and the Trace
Tran has indicated that her work in the Blindness Series took a different turn after the death of Derrida. Derrida’s death led to reflection on the death of her own mother – and on being the last female in her mother’s line. Derrida had become, through his work, her “conceptual mother” – her other (m)other. The final instalment, Epilogue, became a more intimate and personal piece and she began to search for what I would call “indications” of Derrida. What traces did he leave behind? “What would be Derrida’s prosthesis?” she asked. Settling on the notion of Derrida’s infamous handwriting, Tran conducted research in the Derrida archives at the University of California at Irvine where she could view, but not copy or photograph, Derrida’s notes and writing. She therefore copied his handwriting, by hand, in her notebook. This copy was then scanned and converted to font, with additional input from existing examples of Derrida’s handwriting on the internet, creating a digital trace of Derrida, inscribed throughout the video.
This digital inscription was a re-creation of Derrida’s hand – a trace produced almost literally by tracing the original, by following the movement of the hand. There are some letters of the alphabet that are missing – traces that could not be found – and the trace is therefore incomplete. But it exists as a stand-in for Derrida – exists in his absence and in his death – perhaps as the most appropriate trace because of its lack of completion.
Derrida himself, Tran’s mother and her child never “appear” in this video. Using interviews from the film Derrida (2002) by Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring Kofman – and images of Derrida’s family from the film and from the book Counterpath (2004) by Derrida and Catherine Malabou – Tran presents “Derrida at a distance”. These are images of Derrida’s family before he was born, of Derrida as a small child, almost always an image around Derrida rather than of him. Derrida, as he appears in the film by Dick and Kofman, is never shown. We hear his voice from his interviews with Kirby Dick.
We hear Tran’s mother in interviews also. Her voice comes to us from a screen of blackness. She never appears – neither live nor in photographs. Her presence and absence are both palpable. She recounts to Tran her own grandmother’s instructions to her – instructions to determine when she was dying and what to do in the event of her death. We hear stories of Tran’s birth and Tran’s mother’s request that Tran should have a child herself. Tran’s mother exists, along with Derrida, as a voice which permeates the video – her voice, in particular, shaping the images of Tran. The voice resonates.
The voice is complemented by Derrida’s handwriting. It is the hand that writes Derrida’s words, the hand that writes Tran’s thoughts, the hand that writes her mother’s voice, transcribing but never fully. This hand stands sometimes in contrast to the typewritten text – but at times the type merely gives us captions. In other instances, the type seems to clarify the hand, to emphasize or underscore. In each case, the writing – hand or type – never completely coincides, coming, for example, just before or just after the voice. Adding what might be called another layer of meaning – or another way of entry into what Tran is attempting to convey. The delay is purposeful, it gives us pause, inserts a level of difference between the seen and the unseen.
Notions of writing and delay are, of course, key to much of Derrida’s work. The fact that they are employed in the context of Derrida’s death and the death of Tran’s mother – and that they reference the impending birth of a child – suggests a deep and productive connection to questions of death and life, presence and absence. This digital writing comes to stand in for Derrida, Tran’s mother and Tran’s child. It is repeated to inscribe – though not to represent – the present absence of all three of Tran’s proximate others. It is their trace.
Derrida writes of the repetition of the trace – of the infinite reproducibility of it. He suggests that the trace, in its most universal sense, is the “possibility of re-petition”.
... the trace is the intimate relation of the living present with its outside, the openness upon exteriority in general, upon the sphere of what is not ‘one’s own’....
The trace as “intimate relation of the living present with its outside” – this “openness…upon the sphere of what is not ‘one’s own’” – raises the question of alterity, of the other. One writes to call into presence that which is absent – the “other than oneself”.Tran’s delay inserts a level of difference between the seen and the unseen. Derrida explains, as I’m sure most of you know, that différance is a way of articulating or gesturing towards two possible meanings of the French verb “différer”: distinction as in difference, differentiation, non-sameness; and delay in the sense of deferral (as Derrida puts it: “the interval of a spacing and temporalization that puts off until ‘later’ what is presently denied, the possible that is presently impossible”).
The sense of delay is structured into Epilogue both as motivation and as mode of being. Epilogue is, in part, the story of Tran’s own deferral – her mother asks when she will have a child. And Tran tells her, laughing, that she must wait – wait five years. Her mother cries. She says she cannot wait five years – in five years, she will be dead. In fact, Tran’s mother does die before Tran’s first child is born – on the same date, several years earlier. The video ruminates on Tran “willing” a child “to come” – “When will you come?”; Let me see you” – and striving to make that connection between her mother and child – to connect them across death and the not yet living. She attempts to bring a child into the world through conventional Western and traditional Asian medicine – she is the last female in her mother’s line. Her deferral of childbearing structures the mother’s physical absence in the tape, as well as the anxiety to move towards a future. I am suggesting that Tran attempts to write these “others” – her mother and child – into existence, repeating the differential as the imperfect trace, Derrida’s “possible that is presently impossible”. Deferral, anticipation and delay are prime motivators and aesthetic strategies in Epilogue.
Derrida suggests that we consider différance – “as the strategic note or connection – relatively or provisionally privileged – which indicates the closure of presence, together with the closure of the conceptual order and denomination, a closure that is effected in the functioning of traces.”
I would argue that there is no closure of presence in this video. And that Derrida’s failure to attend to the presence of immaterial beings is complicated by Tran’s use of writing and trace to produce connection across the material and the immaterial – by Tran’s recognition of presence as permanent, if not immediately accessible.
I am interested in what philosopher Françoise Dastur calls Derrida’s “specific manner of uniting the question of the disruption of presence to the question of writing”. Dastur questions Derrida’s emphasis on death which he sees “as the very condition of possibility of language and writing”. She suggests that Derrida opposes presence and absence, life and death, in too radical a manner and that he is unable to see the condition of language as, “not so much the death of the subject as the being toward death and the finitude of the Dasein.”
Dastur’s careful consideration of Derrida’s contribution in Speech and Phenomena examines the evolution of Derrida’s thought and leads to some comparison with Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Dastur reflects on the notion of “presence” in Heidegger and Derrida. For Derrida, she suggests, presence always means “full presence” and is opposed to absence. Death is that which “breaks time and disrupts presence”. Writing is seen as a means of supplementing, or making up for, the rupture in presence. Heidegger views presence as “permanent presence”, opposed to the “inapparent event of the coming into presence of what comes into presence”. For Heidegger, death is seen as the “limit that grants us our temporal presence in the world.”
The quote from Derrida on the “closure of presence” is in keeping with his more general critique of the “metaphysics of presence”. For Derrida, presence does not pervade. It exists, in life, or it does not. It is not an undergirding or underlying condition or state of being, accessible through intuition. Both Derrida and Heidegger are concerned with what might be seen in phenomenology to be a refusal of death – and a certain trend in phenomenology towards pure presence. Yet Heidegger and Derrida in their interpretation of death – and of temporality in particular – present us with different possibilities for thinking through the question of access to the immaterial.
Time, for Derrida, is not unified or continuous. Time can be broken. Death is that which breaks time and disrupts presence. Temporality, for Derrida, is tied to the future – to what is to come. And, in writing, Derrida sees the “temporalization of time as a ‘spacing’”. This is writing as delay, in absence or death, made present as spatial rendering. But this temporalization of time – this presentation to us of time as time – is not what I believe to be the most salient feature of writing. Physical writing, I believe, offers us the trace as spatialization. The act of inscribing creates a spatial difference and this difference creates meaning. It does not close presence.
Heidegger’s notion of presence supports the existence of three levels of being: the physical embodied being in the world as material object; the being of that being, which is presence; and Being which undergirds existence. Derrida seems to attend to “the present” in terms of the material presence of the object – and only marginally to Heidegger’s being of the object’s being, to that notion of presence which is tied to primordial Being. Temporality, for Heidegger, incorporates past, present and future. Openness-to-Being (the Dasein) is a condition wherein time exists outside of itself, and moves towards itself as towards a future – but past and present do not, in this framework cease to exist, and the present is but one element of this enduring Temporality.
Writing, I am suggesting, is spatialized. It creates difference and distinction in its physical irruption through time. Death returns us to time. Death de-spatializes. The coming into presence of the physical object – the object’s materialization – is a break from the continuous flow of time – a differentiation or departure that does not sever but distances itself from itself. Distance is spatialized.
Tran attempts, in this video, to re-spatialize, to bring her mother into visible existence as physical trace, as writing. She can intuit her mother’s presence, and her intention is to bring that experience to visibility – to confer upon it a certain physicality – through writing as trace. Death returns us to a primordial time and to the negation, not of life, but of différance. The delay that we find in différance is not essentially about time. It is not a true temporal lag but an adjustment within the spatial to accommodate new forms of presence. In writing, it is space, rather than time, that is broken – that breaks, that materialises and dematerialises, that makes matter meaningful.
Death is ‘a spacing’, an interval, not of time, but of distance between objects, where writing cannot readily bridge the abyss but where writing can try – through difference, repetition and deferral – to extend the call to separate itself from itself. Derrida does not subscribe to the notion of fundamental time (and primordial presence) so crucial to much phenomenological insight. But in this video, it is clear that Tran’s mother and child are both present though not visible; they exist as part of the living present but cannot be seen. I see writing, in its physical sense, as offering the space needed for materialization.
I am suggesting that Tran’s writing is not writing to supplement the breakup of presence but writing to bring into the present. To bring presence (of her mother) into the present. Tran’s efforts can be seen as an attempt to rejoin both forms of Heideggerian presence – the permanent and its opposite, “the inapparent event of coming into presence” of that which comes into presence.
Writing, as an intentional act, inscribes. Tran attempts to raise, through writing, the visibility of the other – to give it visibility and presence in the present, to re-fuse intention and intuition. Writing creates differentiation and delay. As trace, it is spatial; it enacts différance – to differ, to defer the coming of Tran’s mother and child. Death gives us palpability and trace; it returns us to primordial time where “othering” is not possible – where the absence of spatialization renders wholeness – and implies the other in the self.
Inscription exists beyond death and because of death, in the possibility of a “coming into presence”. Tran’s writing produces a spatalizing effect – and gestures towards the ability of a being to individuate, to differentiate itself from the stream of presence, opening us up to the possibility of a “coming into presence” of the absent subject. The tactility of the handwriting, the act of inscribing, give us palpability as a thread, a filament, a form of continuity in which death might be a reminder of our enduring temporal presence in the world.
Gabrielle A. Hezekiah is a writer and scholar who works on philosophy, visual art and theories of the moving image. She is the author of Phenomenology’s Material Presence (2010). She is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Cultural Studies at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.