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Cristiana Baik reviews
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
University of California Press, 2001. 179pp. ISBN 0520231120. First published by Tanam Press, 1982. Re-released by Third Woman Press, 1995.

This review is about 4 printed pages long. It is copyright © Cristiana Baik and Jacket magazine 2007.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE:

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By now, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE has become a postmodern classic. What makes DICTEE idiosyncratic, unforgettable,is its variance, its slipperiness. It has the acute proclivity to dissipate, both physically on the page, as well as connotatively. At times, the text acts as both prose and poetry; its liminality becomes interwoven into a book that functions like the structuralist films[1] Cha was influenced by. Physically thumb thru DICTEE and it even looks like a structuralist film. The length of text varies, with interjected moments of white (blank pages) and images (photographs, documents, diagrams). A fragmented jaggedness makes the book a visceral experience.


The use of space is important in Cha’s work: blank pages in DICTEE deliberate, as they often act as the moment of transition. A blank page separates each section of the antinovella — named after eight Greek muses and one fabricated muse — “Ellitere” — which Cha translates as “lyric poetry”.


Space is indelibly a part of written language–it’s place/moment on the page creates a turn, where at first a word is referential, then transforms into an object, a reproduction, as words often do in a poem: “...the poem, like every other form of art, is an object, an object that in itself formally presents its case and its meaning by the very form it assumes.”[2] It’s no surprise that Stephen Mallarmé was an early influence on Cha’s work:


It is conceivable that her introduction to unconventional typographic

design which becomes a constant in her work, was through Mallarmé’s

long poem “Un Coup de Des.” [3]


Cha was a filmmaker by training.[4] I believe she was interested in the work of structuralist filmmakers because their films were grounded on using disruptions as moments that made the film’s process of making visible–that is, structuralism was interested in examining the very nature of film and the aesthetics, at times, the very tools, that went into making a film. Christian Metz, a pioneer of structuralist film theory wrote, “...Cinema has a certain configuration, certain fixed structures and figures, which deserve to be studied directly.” [5] The dismantling of a film, then, was important because films gave the “...impression of reality...They spontaneously appeal to [one’s] sense of belief...They speak to us with the accents of true evidence...”[6] To structuralists, the purpose of a film is not to create a suspension of disbelief through seamlessly fabricated narratives. Instead, it is possible to create meaning by revealing a film’s mode of production. No doubt, this curiosity and responsibility as an artist to distinguish production from product displays a strong Marxist tenet.


In the early nineties, when DICTEE became established as a familiar text on syllabi for courses (post-colonialism, feminism, poetry, art, philosophy, film), the tendency was for literary critics to understand the text as strongly autobiographical. For critics like Elaine Kim,[7] it was a definitive text that articulated unknown, marginalized identities. Kim’s essay regarding Cha’s work focused on Cha’s personal disruptive history as making possible the creation DICTEE. It’s easy to see how critique regarding DICTEE might veer this way. The University of California Press, which recently relaunched DICTEE, replaced the original cover of an ambiguous landscape (which Cha, most likely, had meticulously planned) with the photograph of Cha’s mother in her youth (which was also originally, and still is, reproduced in the text). The book also includes individual identities–Cha’s mother, Jeanne d’Arc (a photograph of Renee Falconetti from Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc), and Yu Guan Soon (a young Korean revolutionary).


Yet Cha was not invested in particular identities: she was interested in how identities were created. Her general interest in process, rather than product/being, contextualizes her interest in structuralism films. Identities are also configurations. To understand DICTEE as strictly autobiography is too simple; it undermines Cha’s intentions and overshadows her training as a structuralist film maker. If films were illusionary and could at best, represent an impression of reality, couldn’t the written word behave the same? DICTEE tends to reject symbolic representations and strikes up a similar sense of seeing as Objectivist poetry:


[Objectivist poetry] entail[ed] the construction of aesthetic objects in such a way

that the conditions of desire are themselves dramatized and forced to take

responsibility for their productions.[8]


Which brings me back to DICTEE’’s proclivity to dissipate. Part of its slippery variance comes from the text’s dissociative nature: once words articulate something–the validity of an identity, for example–the following text contradicts the certainty of this representation. Any description is merely simulacrum, yet Cha strays away from the nihilism that defines post-modern art. A reader/viewer finds meaning in the simulacrum by investigating how the simulacrum is reproduced. In this way, Cha was also interested in articulating the trace: “The content of my work has been the realization of the imprint, the inscription etched from the experience of leaving.”[9] Structuralism’s tendency to reveal process, then, could be interpreted as the studying of a trace: trace means to etch, but it also means to investigate development to the point of origin.


Cha includes a section of the book describing the actions of a young Korean revolutionary by the name of Yu Guan Soon. The text’s function as “history” is emphasized as it is included in the section “Clio” (history). Yet the following text simultaneously illuminates other functions of the text, which then problematizes the meaning of essentialist history:


This document is transmitted through, by the same

means, the same channel without distinction the

content is delivered in the same style: the word. The



There is an implied disparity between the word and what it represents. One way that Cha might have sought to relieve this disparity was to display that the ultimate “truth” of the word could only be taken for value thru its appearance - the word as a physical presentation (rather than representation). The value of the word is in its identification, rather than its identity. Cha, then, does not disparage one’s desire to document (the subjects she chose to write about says a great deal about her own politics and what were important to her). Rather, she chooses to shift the reader’s focus towards another way of seeing:


Why resurrect it all now... To extract each

fragment by each fragment from the word from the

image another word another image the reply that will

not repeat history in oblivion.


DICTEE’s variance illuminates the problems of categorizing text by rejecting categorization (Is it autobiography or critique of autobiography? Does it, at times, function as language poetry or is it experimental prose? What of its documentary proclivities?). Its rejection of categorization also places significance in the lens/framework/assumptions of the reader/viewer, and its variance is suggestive of how intersections could also act definitively.


[1] Theresa Hak Kyung Cha worked as an usher for the Pacific Film Archive from 1974-1977, where she viewed nightly screenings of foreign and experimental structuralist films.

[2] Williams, William Carlos. Autobiography. New York: New Directions, 1951. p.264

[3] Lewallen, Constance D. “Introduction: Theresa Hak Kyung Cha – Her Time and Place.” pg. 2

[4] Cha received a MA in Art and an MFA (University of California, Berkeley)

[5] Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. p.3

[6] Ibid. p.6

[7] Elaine Kim’s essay on T.H.K. Cha’s work was included in Writing Self, Writing Nation, which was arguably the most widely read critique of Cha’s work when it was published.

[8] Altieri, Charles. “The Objectivist Tradition.” The Objectivist Nexus. Tuscaloosa, London: University of Alabama Press, 1999. p.30

[9] Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. “Personal Statement and Outline of Postdoctoral Project,” 1978, 2, Cha Archive

Cristiana Baik

Cristiana Baik

Cristiana Baik is currently finishing her MFA degree in Poetry in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She, along with Sara Wintz, edits and letterprints small editions via ::: the press gang :::. She’s been previously published in RealPoetik, Black Dress Press, and Little Red Leaves.

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