“Once you are with us, you will come back for more” (Hanoi ad). When I started writing Perl (Larry Wall), I’d actually been steeped in enough postmodernism to know that that’s what I wanted to do. “Perfume Pagoda” (another ad). Because you can’t actually do something postmodern. “New Style, 40 Hang Bac Street.” You can only do something cool. A red flag, a large yellow star at its center. Something that turns out to be postmodern. “Long (Dragon) Gallery.” Hmm. Do I really believe that? “Export—tous pays.” I dunno. “Fred Souvenir.” You may find this hard to believe. “Vietnam Railway.” But I didn’t actually set out to write a postmodern talk. “Et-Pumpkin.” I was just going to say how postmodern Perl is. “Prince 79 Hotel.” Anyway, thanks to you all for coming. “Prince” in green, “79” in red. I was hoping that the title of my talk. “Bamboo Hotel.” Would scare away. “Vietcombank ATM.” Anyone who shouldn’t be here. Its metallic, yellow face intaglioed into a wicker screen beside the hotel’s entrance.
We have reached the corner of Ta Hien Street. At “World Music CD Shop” a black saxophonist leans backwards in silhouette against a large pale yellow sun. “Golden Buffalo Travel.” In the act of writing author is offered a half-peeled orange that is sitting atop a basketful of unpeeled oranges. The Modern period. By a woman in conical straw hat who is balancing two baskets suspended by twine from her don ganh (shoulder pole). Is the period that refuses to die. A second woman offers you-tiao (oil fried bread sticks), both vendeuses smiling but both also disappointed that author is working, not relaxing as tourists should. He has started his day early: it’s not yet 7:00 o’clock. Today’s world is a rather odd mix of the Modern and the postmodern. On the sidewalk, at an intersection, a professional bicycle repairman scrapes at an inner tube preparatory to patching it. Oddly, this is not just because the Modern refuses to die. His customer’s bike laying on its side atop the oil-soaked paving stones. But also because the postmodern refuses to kill the Modern.
Hanoi seems to have all but relinquished its anti-American sentiment. But then the postmodern refuses to kill anything completely. Author’s reception thus far has been uniformly polite, often friendly. Deconstruction, you see, is simultaneously Modern and postmodern. We turn in the direction of the lake. Being both reductionistic and holistic. Café Sinh To Hoa Qua has just opened its tiny single room for business. Be that as it may. Holding her hands between her legs against the chill, seated on a small maroon plastic stool at its entrance. In religious terms. Is a pretty girl of 20, in pink sweater and elegant openwork leather shoes. Modernism may be viewed as a series of cults. From within the café’s darkened interior the tip of a lighted cig glows bright red as an almost invisible man drags on it. One way to define “postmodernism” is. A bead curtain swaying in the breeze. That it tries to escape from those cults. Along the curb are ranged plastic stools alternating maroon and baby blue. It’s a kind of deprogramming, if you will. Red crates of empty Coke bottles are stacked atop blue crates of empty Pepsi bottles, Heinekens atop Tiger Beer.
At Gia Ngu a street market is lazily opening. Before the French invasion. The street itself thereby rendered impassible by all but motorbikes. Earlier Viet Nam has a self-sufficient, agricultural economy. Cut cabbages, kale, onions, mint, more mysterious, unnamable produce. In which animal husbandry was not yet separated from growing. Cucumbers, carrots, lettuce, legumes. Handicrafts were not yet a specialized industry. Behind the stalls of produce are storefronts advertising ceramics, metal wares, fabrics. Many trades existed only when there were farm slacks. The prices of different agricultural products have been magic-markered in light blue on a whiteboard.
In 1884 the French completed their annexation of Viet Nam and began to impose their colonization. A boy steps up in black sandals, black shorts and a black-armed shirt, its white front reading in bold black letters:
A B C
D E F G H I
J K L M N O P
Q R S T U V
W X Y Z
Their policy was to turn Viet Nam into a market for France. Behind this scene crouch three older women leaning over their bowls of noodles, one with her chopsticks suspended in mid-air as she vociferates. They tried to make it entirely dependent upon the mother country. Meanwhile a beautiful younger woman lounges to one side, her bare foot dangling above a sandal deposited on the parterre, a street sign above her head reading “Pho Gia Ngu.” So that France could exploit cheap labor and other resources from its colony. As she eats her noodles. Meanwhile imposing an absurdly heavy system of taxation. A rose merchant in rose-patterned smock unbundles her flowers. Between 1897 and 1914.
Snipping the straws that bind together individual stalks. She carried out her first colonial exploitation policy. Now she removes the small damp pieces of newsprint in which the individual blossoms have been wrapped. Between 1919 and 1929 she implemented her second policy of exploitation. With her shears she removes unwanted leaves. These policies drained Viet Nam and caused resentment among the people. Next she stacks the pink roses on top of the red roses, offering author a sample of each, for sale. And brought about violent socio-economic changes. The petals outlined on her smock are salmon-colored, the leaves attached to them pale turquoise; the blouse beneath has a lacy collar.
New economic structures came into being: Next to her stall is the stall of an old man, his liver-spotted pate tufted in white. Industry. He is tending three varieties of eggs: Mining. Duck (in off-white). Transportation. Chicken (in beige). And foreign trade. Quail (spotted). Capitalists appeared in the agricultural sector. Above plastic basins of peanuts, beans and pancakes. I.e., plantations managed by French or indigenous landowners. Sit glass and plastic containers of condiments, all labeled in red, yellow and black. Accordingly, by the beginning of the 20th century Viet Nam no longer could boast a self-sufficient, agricultural economy but instead had separate, dependent industries and new social classes.
Unix is really simultaneously Modern and postmodern. Standing behind an empty case, a bright inner-illuminated sign above it, a man encourages author to describe a woman seated across the narrow passageway. Unix philosophy is supposed to be reductionistic and minimalistic. She is scraping at her black wok to keep roasting chestnuts from burning. But instead of being Modernistic, Unix is actually deconstructionistic. There follow stalls of chicken butchers. The saving grace of deconstructionism. Pork butchers. Is that it’s also reconstructionism. Calf and beef butchers. When you’ve broken everything down into bits, you have to put them all back together again.
Followed by stalls for fruit and for large-scale produce. On 2 September 1945. Followed by cooking oil and cooking utensils for sale. President Ho Chi Minh. Half way down Gia Ngu author makes a U-turn. Read aloud his Declaration of Independence. And continues, past sellers of tubers, onions and garlic. The next day the provisional government convened for the first time. Sellers of carrots, limes and peppers. At Bac Bo Palace. Across from a stall offering the inner organs of beasts a shop purveys hand-painted tea pots in the shape of birds, miniature tea sets in blue and white, porcelain canisters, chopstick rests, sauce bowls. Where it set “urgent tasks” to resolve the problems of illiteracy and hunger.
Larger bowls and platters too, all sizes and shapes, some in pale orange and light green. Postmodernism isn’t afraid of ornamentation. Wooden chopsticks and plastic spoons are also for sale. Because postmodernism retreats from classicism to romanticism. On the rain-dampened surface of the curb, part of a deck of cards has been scattered, most of them face down. The Classical and Modern Periods identified beauty with simplicity. Only five have fallen with their faces up: The Baroque and Romantic Periods identified beauty with complexity. The jack of diamonds, the nine of clubs, the two of spades, the three of diamonds, the nine of hearts, the last of these lying in the gutter.
In his letter to the people Ho Chi Minh proposed: Live crabs in a basin scurrying atop one another. “Let us forego one meal every ten days.” A man in a black leather fedora parks his black Suzuki motorcycle before the entrance to his shop. The rice saved will be collected. Parting the black beads in his doorway, he enters. Then dispensed to poverty-stricken people. Once inside he is visible through the window as he tends a black bird in a cage. “A piece of land is a tael of gold,” he said. Beside the cage is a clock with black hands indicating 7:30. He stirred the country with such movements as “pushing up production.” We pass a woman making salad by grating carrots into already grated radishes and cucumbers.
The country reclaimed land, restored mines and started factories. Our detour complete, we rejoin the main road, at the entrance to which, in a tie-less uniform, his arms folded, stands a soldier. You know, Modernism tried hard, it really, really tried to get rid of conventions. Two women, one pretty, one not so pretty, stroll past, arm in arm. It thought it got rid of conventions, but all it really did was make its conventions invisible. A young girl in an “AK-23” tee shirt enters the market, as author prepares to leave it. Though two million people had died of hunger, by early 1946 Ho Chi Minh managed to stem the famine. A woman touches author on the arm as she offers him a bottle of water.
Reentering the main street (Pho Dinh Liet), we arrive at a larger avenue that leads into a traffic circle. “Sapa bathed in clouds”: Rooftops of the village tiled in orange, gentle hills rising into mountains behind them, the misty clouds barely covering the spires of conifers. Parked at the corner is a tiny red car, a sign across its windshield reading, “Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.” Of the 54 ethnic groups living in Vietnam some are indigenous while others immigrated from neighboring countries. A red-roofed farmhouse sits high above terraced rice fields. Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic, Malayo-Polynesian. With author’s arrival, the red car makes a U-turn and departs through the traffic circle.
Three beautiful girls of fifteen, sixteen, seventeen in elaborate red headdress, bamboo stalks held in their right hands, look down in modesty. The Kinh people account for 86.2% of the total population, the other 53 groups, called “ethnic minorities,” range from one million to just over 300 people. Yes, Modernism created a lot of dysfunction: nobody disputes that. Mothers in green headdress. We were encouraged to revolt, deconstruct, cut apart our papers, run away from home, and take drugs. Their daughters in pink and green, red and green (“Market Day in Bac Ha”). Not to get married, and so on. The Kinh live mostly near the rivers, where historically they created the wet-rice civilization.
Modernism tore a lot of things apart, but especially the household. A toothless old man on a bicycle stops to sell a map of Hanoi to author, who is looking for the city’s lake. The interesting thing to me is that postmodernism is propagating the dysfunction. Red Dzao people in their brilliant blue robes at the marketplace. Because it actually finds its meaning in dysfunction. Almost all minority groups (except the Hoa and the Khmer) live in midland and mountainous regions. As the toothless old man points, author turns to glimpse the lake itself. Postmodernism is really a result of Modernism. Author takes seat on bench at lakeside only to be accosted by a postcard seller with overpriced wares.
Reductionists often feel as though they are being objective. The Constitution ensures equality in all respects among ethnic groups. But the problem with reductionism is that, once you’ve divided your universe into enough pieces. “H’mong girls in springtime,” delicate cherry branches blossoming behind them. You can’t keep track of them any more. “H’mong girls at the Love Market.” To get a fair price author must bargain for fifteen minutes. The human mind can only keep track of seven objects at a time. “Black H’mong youngsters” in their black leggings and huge silver earrings. The Modernists lost track of something: they forgot what’s important about Literature.
Each of the 54 ethnic minorities in Viet Nam has its own language. The word that’s sweeping U.S. high-school playgrounds and college campuses is “crunk,” a blend of “crazy” and “drunk.” Up to 24 ethnic groups have their own scripts. A hard drinker, loud but not yet a “crunk,” is a “daunch.” Including the Thai, Mong, Tay and Nung. “Wheels,” as they were once called, are now “whips.” Of which eight are used in daily life and taught at schools. An ordinary car is a “ride,” while a large passenger car out of style is not a “whip” but a “scraper.” Namely the Thai, Hoa, Khmer, Cham, Ede, Tay-Nung, Co Ho and Lao scripts. “Good-looking,” male or female, is “bangin’” and the latest term for “cool” is “tight.”
From 111 BC till 938 AD, when Ngo Quyen wrested back national independence, the Vietnamese refused to be daunted and continually stood up against their oppressors, the Han aggressors. Though the popularity of smoking pot seems to be getting stale, the lingo of aging Mary Jane maintains its freshness: Throughout an entire millennium of Chinese domination the ideographic script was used in administrative documentation and so served as the tool of the ruling class. “Dank,” which in Standard English means, “disagreeably damp,” in current slang describes the high-grade illegal product (marijuana), and the adjective’s meaning accordingly can be extended to anything highly rated.
In 1077 the Ly Dynasty fought against the foreign aggressors, sending an army of 10,000 cavalry to defeat 100,000 troops of the Song at a front on the Cau River. On the other hand, the Standard English noun “stress” is used as a synonym for the cheaper variety of weed. In terms of spiritual and educational policy, the dynasty promoted and upheld Confucianism, constructed the Temple of Literature and the Imperial College, taught the classics, held examinations to find the best pupils in the country, and reconciled the three religions (Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism). “I’m not gonna smoke this stress.” The succeeding Tran Dynasty three times defeated the Mongol-Yuan invaders.
What is the latest term for the old “cool”? Though his reign was short, the broad-minded Ho Quy Ly issued a fourteen-chapter criticism of the Song-Confucian ideology, set limits on land ownership and serfdom, put paper money into circulation, adapted the taxation system, diminished clerical powers and restrained feudal aristocrats in order to increase the social labor force. Instead of “cool,” try “tight.” Land was redistributed, surveys of the population and their assets conducted, the exam system reformed and education improved. “Did you see his pimped-out ride? Hospitals were set up, law and order maintained, irrigation and transportation developed. “It was tight.”
Though the ideographic script of the Chinese was taught at schools to train local mandarins and was used in literature and art for about twenty centuries, nevertheless Vietnamese intellectuals devised the Nom script, derived from Chinese, in order to record the actual sound of Vietnamese. The meaning is extended to innocent intimacy with someone: “Charlie’s my boy. We’re tight.” Nom was commonly used from the 15th to the 19th centuries, particularly in literature. The antonym for “tight” is not “loose” but “janky.” Beginning in this period the centralized feudal power of Viet Nam fell into crisis, and the country experienced over two centuries of turmoil. Also spelled “jinky” or “jainky.”
Levinas contends that western philosophy exhibits an often horrific propensity to reduce everything enigmatic, fortuitous or foreign to conditions of intelligibility. This slow developer (it started at least a decade ago) has picked up meanings that range from: Recoiling at the obliterated secrets of the past, the unpredictable events of the future and anything that cannot be rationally ordered and manipulated. “Substandard” to “weird.” Everything must be understood, synthesized, analyzed, utilized. An expurgated citation goes: If something cannot be grasped by the rational mind, then it’s either extraneous or portentous. “That janky camo boy got some stuff on the side of my ride.”
Ten postcard views: Given its perfectionistic drive to impose rationalist categories upon the world so as to realize a state of perfect intelligibility. (1) Two women in conical hats, caught as they stride, each on her left foot, across an intersection filled with passing motorbikes, other women in conical hats. Du XVIIe au XXe siècle, la ville comprenait tout un réseau de marchés spécialisés. Nothing seemingly can resist the rational order of science, the technological order of utility and the political order of justice. (2) A woman has descended from her bike, yellow chrysanthemums in hand, to converse with two other women, one bearing chrysanthemums, the other with a basket of roses at her feet.
À l’Est se trouvait le quartier populaire, la cité marchande, où se concentraient les corporations d’artisans. (3) A rickshaw overtakes two girls, one with her arm about the other’s neck, while just ahead stroll two older women, caught in identical postures, as a woman with a basket of green fruit approaches them from around the corner. Among the many entities that western rationality inexorably seeks to render intelligible are: On y fabriquait des articles de luxe et le commerce y était prospère. God, the individual agent, the historical past, the progressive future, non-western cultures and anything superstitious. (4) The back of a red rickshaw in front of a yellow and white colonial office building.
Au Nord et à l’Ouest se trouvaient les villages artisanaux où l’on fabriquait les marchandises d’usage courant ainsi que les villages d’agriculture spécialisée. Western thought seeks to rationalize the being of God in such a way that it is just a being among beings. (5) Two rickshaw drivers cycle past, each with his head turned to the left, probably to observe approaching traffic. Le quartier s’est développé dans un environment parsemé de nombreux lacs et étangs. It strips individual persons of all the facets of their unique existences. (6) A woman walks by, heavily burdened with a shoulder bar, from which two full baskets of fruit are suspended, as two more women walk their bicycles together.
Il était cerné par la rivière To Lich au Nord, par le fleuve rouge à l’Est et par le lac de l’Épée restituée au Sud. It endeavors to expand memory so that nothing past is forgotten and to thrust itself into the future so that nothing is undivinable. (7) Beneath sunlit mimosas two women, each bearing a basket on her head, turn to address one another. Le premier marché ainsi que le premier noyau d’habitations étaient situés au croisement de la rivière et du fleuve. (8) A westerner in black shoes and black shorts, a bottle of water carried in his right hand by its orange handle, picks his nose with a finger of his left hand, while, in a red tee shirt with a large yellow star, he passes a café surmounted by a Tiger Beer ad.
Finally, foreign traditions that might not contribute to the perpetual march of rational success are either crushed, distorted or ignored. (9) A woman in grey pants suit passes a street sign reading “Pho Cau Ge” as she approaches an orange-shirted woman bearing baskets of green oranges. L’embouchure de la rivière To Lich servait de port et plusieurs petits canaux parsemaient le quartier. (10) A girl in black pants, red jacket, her two pole-suspended baskets lidded, strides by with a plastic bag of oranges in her hand. As the Cold War attested, and several “terroristic” or “rogue” nations have recently discovered (to describe this perfectionistic urge Levinas uses the term “being’s move”).
Random street elevation. The dignity of being the ultimate and royal discourse belongs to western philosophy because of the strict coincidence of thought in which philosophy resides. Hanoi Old Quarter. And the ideas of reality that this thought thinks.
(1) “Com Bia Ha San,” the restaurant’s interior revealed. Les maisons du quartier sont caractérisées par leur façade étroite et leur longueur considérable, d’où l’appellation est “maison-tube.” Beside a glass case filled with bowls and plates, atop which a tea pot and a green scale, is the menu, each item indicated with a red bullet and descending as a vertical list: “Com Bia, Com Dia, Com Bat, Com Hop, Com Chay.” For thought, this coincidence means not having to think beyond what mediates a previous belongingness to “being’s move.” “Lau Ram, Lau Chay, Lau Hai San, Lau Thap Cam, each item indicated with a red flower before it. Above the restaurant rises a corrugated roof.
(2) In letters reading from top to bottom: “Internet” (on the left), “Netzone” (on the right). Leurs façades varient en moyenne entre 2m et 4m, tandis que la longueur se situe entre 20m et 100m, pouvant atteindre dans certains cas 150m. Within the doorway an inner-lit sign reads: “ADSL, Service, Print, Scanner, Burning CD, Internet font.” Or at least not beyond what modifies a previous belongingness to “being’s move.” Above the shop’s sign (“Vittel Internet S@i Gòn”) rises a second story, doubtless the famous “sleeping room”; above it, a third story, balconied, with large luxurious pots on the railing, within whose exterior wall niche sits the Bodhisattva. Such as formal and ideal notions.
(3) The adjacent house to the east is dressed on its lowest floor in wooden planks, long ago painted rust-red. Dès le début du XXe siècle, l’architecture des bâtiments du quartier s’est mise à se modifier en adoptant des éléments d’architecture occidentale. Above the doorway a talisman, a wide roof extending well out over the sidewalk. Tels les balcons et corniches, baies en arcades, baies rectangulaires, etc. Instead of an “intermediate” story this house has a story of normal height, shuttered in wood once painted pastel green. For the being of reality, this coinciding means in itself to be illuminated, is just what having meaning is, what having intelligibility par excellence is. The roof was once red.
(4) “Tropical Tours,” read the bright carmine letters of the next building’s first-floor sign (against a rolling green surf), which completely covers the building’s “intermediate” story. That is, the intelligibility underlying every modification of meaning. Les toits en pente sont, quant à eux, disparus derrière des façades-écrans. On the third floor rises the “Moonlight” (vertically lettered, in white on blue) “Hotel” (horizontally lettered, in white-outlined red on the same blue ground). Les maisons comprennent maintenant 2 étages, le commerce se trouve au rez-de-chaussée et le second, désormais accessible par un escalier en bois ou brique, sert de pièce d’habitation. A guest’s yellow shirt and white socks hang on the window grate.
Rationality has to be understood as the incessant emergence of thought from the energy of “being’s move” or its modification, and reason has to be understood within the context of this rationality.
MM: I have been writing about modern Vietnam, about life on the streets of Hanoi. Now I would like to learn more about the history of your capital, so I have come to visit your “historical house.” Please tell me your name first. (It might be well to discuss “being’s move” in more generally Levinasian terms.)
Thieu: My name is Thieu. The “ontology of power” is the grandiloquent term that Levinas assigns to this salient aspect of western metaphysics.
MM: You must know a lot about Vietnamese history. And there is some urgency to his claim that metaphysics has been interested primarily in totalization. What do you think is most important for me to know? The reduction of any form of difference to sameness.
Thieu: I don’t know. For the purpose of enhancing the powers of rationalization.
MM: Tell me something that you yourself find interesting about Vietnamese history. Under ideal conditions knowledge is perfectly adequate to reality.
Minh: I know a little, and I like the history of Vietnam! The totalizing tendency of western metaphysics. It’s very important for the pupils in the school. Comes in the form of a dual aspect theory of power.
MM: Could you tell me a little, then, about the period when the Chinese were in Vietnam, for 1000 years? On the one hand, when our knowledge is adequate to reality. How do you feel about the Chinese occupation? Then everything is reduced to sameness.
Minh: I don’t know much about it. Which gives an epistemological mission to reality.
MM: Please tell me your name. On the other hand.
Minh: My name is Minh. It is when we discover the metaphysical principle of difference that we are able to comprehend the uncomprehended.
MM: Tell me something about what the Chinese did in Vietnam. It is then we can reduce difference to sameness by other means.
Minh: [In Vietnamese Minh consults with Thieu.] This itself facilitates principles of knowledge, which in turn give a purpose to metaphysics.
MM: Minh, you cannot answer in Vietnamese! Epistemology and metaphysics. You must speak English or French or Mandarin! Are enfolded, then, in the very conditions. You know, I cannot understand Vietnamese. Of the ineluctable progress of totalization.
Minh: OK, when the Chinese stay here, about 1000 year ago [sic], they want to have the country, and the people in Vietnam, um, belonged . . . Selfhood precipitates the power to become through the effects of totalization.
MM: To China. The more adequate its knowledge. At that time did everyone have to write in Chinese characters? The more reduced the differences of reality. Did everyone have to speak Chinese? Then the more power over reality it has. The Chinese, I know, instructed the Vietnamese in the teachings of Confucius. And therefore the more perfect it becomes.
Minh: Yes, when the Chinese were stay here [sic], the Vietnamese people, they speak Chinese. The self comes to be at once detached from and empowered over the reality that it has reduced and adequated in its pursuit of unmitigated knowledge.
MM: And what about the French people? When they came to Vietnam, did they make the Vietnamese people speak French? Self-sufficient autonomy is achieved when the self is distanced from the world, empowered over it and masterfully subordinated to universal laws that give it purpose and justification.
Minh: French people? Um.
MM: The French people made everyone in Vietnam speak French, didn’t they? Hence, not only has selfhood advanced its means of access to reality, it has also transformed its status in that reality as well.
Minh: OK, in late 19th century and early 20th century a lot of people in the Vietnam, they speak French. Of course, here is no rational guarantee that reduction and adequation will leave selfhood detached and empowered. And they build hou[ses] the similar architect in France, in the Old Quarter. If only because this totalizing process has effects upon the self as well as its reality. Has some theater and cinema and building like in French [sic]. In its ability to rise above its existence through conscious activity, its own individuation is reduced and adequated as well.
MM: Let me change the subject for a moment. Who do you think is more beautiful, French girl or Vietnamese girl?
Minh: [Laughter.] Vietnamese girl!
MM: Of course! [Laughter.]
Minh: [More laughter.] This is tantamount to the claim that the more human subjectivity knows of its reality and assumes power over it, the less it retains its uniqueness and the less power it has over it own determination.
MM: And what about food? The self loses itself, when it progressively disappears into the totality that it has created for itself. Do you like French food or Vietnamese food?
Minh: Some time I like, uh, French food. But I [also] like Vietnamese food, because I eat all the time! We speak of the self as if we were speaking of a unique individual, when in fact we are referring to a principle that renders uniqueness intelligible.
MM: But you are so thin! . . . Anyway, after 1954 the French left Vietnam, and then Vietnam became Vietnamese again. Totalization entails that there be nothing to the self that could remain unreduced and non-adequated: It was at this time that people began to speak Vietnamese again instead of French. There is no aspect of the self’s “interiority” that has not been reduced to the totality of rationalism. Is that right?
Minh: After 1954, the French, they left here. Emotions, religious beliefs, sexual pleasure and any other intimate aspect of the self is part of the technical economy of rationalization. The Vietnamese, they speak Vietnamese. [Laughter.] Nothing being outside. And, uh . . . Or inside this totality. But, uh . . . That is not interpreted. Some people, they like architect in French [sic]. Through the values of rational reduction.
MM: So in certain ways, might we say, Vietnam is better off because of the introduction of Chinese culture and French culture? No individuality or specificity. Since, as a consequence, the Vietnamese have three different cultures. No enigma or pure transcendence.
Minh: Yes. Could possibly sustain itself. In Hanoi, some people like the French, but in the South they like the Chinese. If the ideal, then, of modern western rationalism, of the “ontology of power,” were to obtain.
MM: How interesting! Now I notice that you are not speaking Chinese or French or Vietnamese, but instead English! The potential of anything specific being subversive or disruptive of this ideal is eradicated. Why are you speaking English?
Minh: [Laughter.] Because now English is, uh . . . One might say that life, then, would lack the poignancy that makes it worth living . . . uh . . .
MM: An international language?
Minh: Yes, an international language. So, as many many country they speak English, I have study English, because I want to understand about the country in the world. However, Emmanuel Levinas is not exclusively a critic of modern western rationality.
MM: Then, after the period of French colonialism came the “American War.” What can you tell me about the American War? He is more widely esteemed as a visionary thinker who explores the neglected status of ethics.
Minh: When the American, they stay here, they has many bomb in Hanoi, and many many building and pagoda and cinema is ruined. He contends that his is no mere ethics among competing ethics.
MM: Yes, this was a great tragedy. But rather an “ethics of ethics.”
Minh: And the people, they have terrible life. Roughly speaking, the study of the manner in which foreignness, inexplicability and unpredictability shape the human condition.
MM: Which was an even greater tragedy, wasn’t it? Despite the often arrogant demands of our vaunted rationalism.
Minh: And the economic in Vietnam is slow slow. Cannot develop . . . For Levinas, the human condition is indeed shaped by rationality, preeminently in the forms of technology and politics.
MM: So all Vietnam history is very bad. But it is most radically dependent upon the very foreign elements that this rationality strives to render intelligible. Much of Vietnam history is about war and tragedy and colonial domination. What about today? How do you like living in Vietnam today?
Minh: [Laughter.] Yes!!! I love Vietnam today! The self is torn by an irresolvable and irresistible strife between the order of the “Same.”
MM: So do I! Which strives to totalize everything under the illumination of reason.
Minh: But I think in the future, the government, they have some program. And the order of the Other. They can change some streets in the Old Quarter. In which vital parts of human existence remain necessarily unillumined. Maybe no car and motorbike in the Old Quarter!
MM: That would be very nice, wouldn’t it? The self and the self’s word are determined by enigmatic phenomena. What about your own motorbike? That remain unknown to us and irreducible to rational criteria in the totalizing project.
Minh: But if in the future, the government law about motorbike, I cannot ride. In a sense, they are aspects of human existence that can never be known.
MM: Maybe it would be better just to walk in the street. And indeed, it is best for us that these things continue to keep their secrets.
Minh: I can go by bus. [Laughter.] That is what Levinas means when he iterates that infinity always resists totality.
MM: Now tell me, Minh, when are you going to get married? When the “other” always “overflows” the “same”:
Minh: [Laughter.] Why?!? No matter how much we come to know. Why do you want to know? It is always something resisting.
MM: I want to know about your family! Or disrupting the perimeters of the known.
Minh: [Laughter.] Now, my parents, they want me to get married.
MM: Does your mother tell you this every week?
Minh: Yes, but now I don’t find a good man. Only through an exploration of this over-flowing, this resistance and disruption.
MM: Well, I wish you luck! Can the ultimate principle of ethics be articulated:
Minh: [Laughter.] That is to say, responsibility.
MM: I think it should be very easy for you to find a good man. Isn’t this like the “meaning of meaning”?
Minh: Why do you think so? Or the “emptiness of emptiness”?
MM: Because you are so beautiful! And so smart! And so lovely! Perhaps a common translation of his idea will sober the cynic’s smug incredulity:
Minh: [Laughter.] Thank you . . . but I don’t think so. I think in my life to find good man is very difficult. [Phone rings.] “The ethics of responsibility.”
MM: Now, you must answer the phone! (Maybe he is calling.)
The Van Mieu, established in 1070 AD, is a monument to Confucius. Second random street elevation, non-touristic neighborhood, Hanoi. While scholarly culture flourished in the cities, popular culture, with its nationalist calling, often despised by a westernized elite, took refuge and was perpetuated in the countryside. Similar to the mieu, or Confucian temple, found both then and now in villages throughout Viet Nam. A motorcycle (“Dylan 150”) pulls up to a professional cell phone op seated on a black plastic sidewalk stool, while adjacent seller of coffee beans prepares for author a cup of java. In 1075 the Royal College opened on the same site to prepare princes for the governance of the country. Spirituality was guarded by ancient popular beliefs and the unified triple cult of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Having finished his call, the guy on the Dylan departs, his girlfriend seated behind him, her arms circling his waist. This explains why Christianity had difficulty implanting itself in Viet Nam. A year later the college was renamed School for the Sons of the Nation.
Across-street view into pharmacy/clinic, its sign above a white circle on a blue ground, within which an orthodox red cross, beneath which, in green, the word “Yersin.” Gaining a foothold in the 17th century, Catholicism, unlike Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism (other imported religions) was unable to clothe itself in the national character. To the clinic’s right, a paint store, its sign, not surprisingly, all in Vietnamese. For 700 years, until the Nguyen dynasty moved the capital and the university to Hué, the school fostered some of Viet Nam’s greatest statesmen and men of letters. To the left, “Yen Nhi / Collection,” a fashion outlet, its window filled with silver Christmas ornaments, a green wreath hung half over the window, half above the open door. The principle reason for this was intransigence. In its present form the Van Mieu is modeled after the Temple of Confucius at Qu Fu in China, with the five courtyards representing the five essential elements of nature. Christianity allows no other divinities than its own and bans the cult of ancestors.
To the left of the fashion boutique is a store selling cookies, crackers, cigarettes, soft drinks, candy, wine and bottled water. A visitor’s walk through the temple grounds provides an introduction to the history of the country, to Confucianism and to the special place that education and literature have long held in Vietnamese culture. To the right of the paint store, another paint store. In addition, Vietnamese Catholicism is marked by its “original sin”: The complex began as a temple to both Confucius and the Duke of Zhou, a member in the 11th century of the Chinese royal family. It appears anti-nationalist, because from the time of the French conquest the cross has served the sword. (The Duke of Zhou is credited with originating the teachings that Confucius developed 500 years later.) The second stories are all different: During the colonial period and the two national wars the church sided with the foreigners. A bricked wall into which sliding glass doors have been fitted; a dilapidated house front, boarded up; an elegant balcony; a facade of French windows and shutters.
Vietnamese-ness in brief: Pedestrians must use the street, for in this neighborhood the sidewalks are all blocked. Five courtyards separated by brick walls comprise the interior. (1) The predominance of the Vietnamese ethnic majority, which inhabits the lowlands. A convoy of rickshaw-driven Korean tourists passes, four vehicles followed by another four, an older Korean man fanning himself with a Hangeul newspaper. In Confucian as well as Buddhist numerology the number five has a special place. (2) The Southeast Asian substratum in Vietnamese culture, onto which foreign cultural elements, Asian as well as western, have been grafted. A guy scoots by with two girls on the back of his motorbike, followed by another girl in a pink sweater on her own motorbike, an expensive handbag nestled between her feet. There are five essential elements, five basic virtues, five commandments, five sorrows, five cardinal relationships and five classics. (3) The principle of repulsion / attraction governing the Vietnamese assimilation of foreign cultures.
Walking up the street in the opposite direction a woman in her thirties, dressed in conical hat and black super sleeves, pushes on by in rhythmic motion, as she bears on her shoulder pole the burden of two baskets, one filled with oranges, one with apples. A central pathway divides the complex into symmetrical halves as it leads the visitor through the different courtyards to the temple altar. In the period from 179 BC to the mid 19th century Chinese acculturation demonstrates this principle. (In the shoulder pole with its inseparable baskets, the doi quang, has been seen the image of conjugal fidelity.) Each courtyard is connected to the next by three parallel gates that bear names symbolic of advancing wisdom. In the period from the mid 19th century to 1945 French acculturation again demonstrates the principle. Three motorcycles arrive, each with a large cargo of several boxes. Parallel Chinese couplets are inscribed on the side columns of these gates. Resistance to the Americans and the subsequent absorption of American culture also demonstrate the principle.
A white man, wearing a tie, a black daypack strapped to his back, walks by on his way to lunch. A walk through the courtyards of the Van Mieu recalls the Confucian scholar’s progress in following the path to knowledge. The great national upheavals of revolution, war and their aftermath. Author passes through the gateway, pleasantly illuminated by the mid-day sun. Including the drama of integration into the world community. We have left behind in the outer courtyard five recently planted palm trees, on either side of the path. Has turned the cultural setting of Viet Nam upside down. As author enters the second courtyard, a woman wearing a tiger striped top exits through the portal. In a world full of movement and transformation. We traverse the first courtyard (“The Entrance to the Way”), bordered on each side by five clumps of poinsettias. Viet Nam. The sound of vehicular traffic has diminished. Subjected to a wide range of influences. A girl with a dragon on her tee shirt takes out her cell phone. Is searching to redefine, without repudiating, its identity.
The journey begins with respect. Inside the second portal a plaque explains the program of instruction at the National College. Each of the two tallest pillars is topped with a mythic beast, the Ly, which has the power to distinguish right from wrong, good from evil. They paid special attention to “the Four Books,” it says (the Da Xue, the Zhong Yong, the Lun Yu, the Meng-zi). For Derrida the phenomenon is the question, for there is no phenomenon without at least the possibility of the question, the possibility of posing questions about the phenomenon, including the phenomenon of the question, in a philosophical language with all the terms of opposition and logical constraint. But they were also examined on the five pre-Confucian classics (the Odes, the Annals, the Rites, the Book of Spring and Autumn, the Book of Changes), as well as ancient poetry and Chinese history. I thus propose to follow here what to my eyes is Derrida’s unfailing fidelity to the question, a fidelity that can never be reduced to the question and yet cannot be expressed without it.
We have passed into the Great Courtyard, where a child’s plastic ball, striped red and white, has been left behind on the scruffy St. Augustine’s grass. I will follow this fidelity to the question by asking about the way Derrida himself follows the question in another, that is, by following Derrida questioning Levinas on the role of the question and its relation to the phenomenon. Author peers into one of the two symmetrically designed lotus ponds, over which a large central banyan is branching out. We shall see that from beginning to end it is the question of the phenomenon and the phenomenon of the question that ceaselessly returns. A mother, ethnically Vietnamese, explains in English to her ten-year-old daughter, whose long dress in black and red is cut from the same piece of cloth as the mother’s, what the guide has just conveyed to the mother at great length in Vietnamese. “Among the doctrines of the world, ours is the best and is revered by all culture-starved lands,” says an inscription, “Of all temples devoted to literature, this is the head.”
A Vietnamese guide, in black sandals, black pants, black shirt and black jacket is lecturing to three French tourists on the temple’s architectural design (we have reached the “Puits de la Clarté Céleste,” he tells them). Oriented or driven each time by a new concern within the work of Levinas, the question of the question always returns, the question of the relationship of philosophy as the realm or regimen of the question to that which exceeds philosophy, the relationship of ontology, if not phenomenology, to ethics. Virtue and talent are the keys to passage from the first to the second courtyard. Inside the third portal two Vietnamese college students are mechanically copying its bas-relief designs. Each time it is a question of the same and of something that resists both the question of the same, the possibility of philosophical language to receive or welcome what precedes or exceeds it. Author turns toward a portico filled with turtles bearing large plaques on their backs, heedful of a sign that reads, “Do not write, draw, step or sit on the Doctor’s Stelae.”
Cautiously he takes a seat, cheered by a smile from an eighteen-year-old Vietnamese girl in bright yellow sandals, who is seated with two of her fellow students, as a fourth girl with red daypack joins them for lively conversation. Two carp atop the simple gate symbolize students on their way to becoming mandarins. Meanwhile a rough French woman of 65 in grey and white basketball shoes takes a seat with her 70-year-old husband to flip the pages of their guide. From the publication of “Violence and Metaphysics” to his final Adieu it is a question of the necessary violence of ontogeny, a question of the inevitable and perhaps salutary interruption of the ethical relation, a question of the hospitality that can ever be offered to the Other once this relation is interrupted, a question of the welcome that can ever be reserved for it. A heavy-set Korean woman helps her pudgy daughter unfurl a bright green vinyl hammock only to watch as the daughter repacks it in its black plastic case, their Korean-speaking Vietnamese guide all the while keeping a respectful distance.
Entrance to “The Courtyard of the Sages” is through the Dai Than Mon, or Gate of the great Synthesis, which may also be translated the Gate of Great Success. At last the remainder of the Korean tour group catches up and draws the pair into their collective progress. The elements of the Confucian doctrine, the learning of the past and knowledge of Buddhism and Taoism are brought together here to complete a scholar’s erudition. Another of the eighteen-year-old Vietnamese girls turns about to reveal a sunflower hair catch holding her ponytail together, its five yellow plastic petals surrounding an orange center. Reading Derrida over the course of the last three decades, today, in the light of Adieu, we may begin to understand “Violence and Metaphysics” as a great text on hospitality, on a hospitality that is always granted by means of the question but can never be reduced to it. While the second eighteen-year-old student, she too seated, is turning to smile at author, a schoolmate appropriates one of her sandals to serve as her own improvised seat on the terrace.
Ahead lie the Gate of the Golden Sound and the Gate of the Jade Resonance. As we enter the Courtyard of the Sages, two middle-aged Vietnamese women dressed entirely in black make their appearance, one in an appliquéd blouse with transparent gauze sleeves. Yes, thirty years before Adieu, “Violence and Metaphysics” was, or will have been, a great text on hospitality, just as Adieu, as we shall see, can be read as a great text on the relationship between violence and metaphysical language, metaphysical understood here in both its Levinasian and its more traditional sense. Next appears a three-person group consisting of (1) an overweight 60-year-old Caucasian woman in short grey hair, (2) a Vietnamese woman of 30 in tight black pants and a sexy top, violet-and-black, (3) an eight-year-old blond girl in a lavender “I Wanna Dance” tee shirt, a yellow smiley face at its center. Historically the fifth courtyard served as a university, equipped with student classrooms, dormitories and cooking facilities, along with a print shop for school textbooks.
Today the courtyard is adorned with scraggly topiary sculptures resting uneasily in three urns at its entranceway, where a German-speaking Vietnamese guide in authentic accent has taken up his station to lecture on what he is calling the “Platz der Ceremonie.” “Violence and Metaphysics” can today be read as a series of reservations or questions posed to Levinas concerning the relationship between philosophical language, the language in which Levinas never ceased to write, and its ability to accept, receive or—and I’m now citing Derrida from 1964—“welcome” that which is wholly “other” within it. Meanwhile an English-speaking guide identifies the frangipani leaves and branches overhead, as sunlight fills the courtyard and tourists of many nationalities approach the altar to Confucius to practice their amateur photographic art. How, Derrida was asking more than thirty years ago, can Levinas’s language be hospitable to that which is foreign to it without posing serious questions, that is, without posing serious questions to this “other” . . .
. . . without therefore requiring an answer that would translate the language of the foreigner or stranger—the question that is the stranger—into the language of the host, that would transform into a phenomenon that which exceeds and resists all light? In traditional ao dai—pink, yellow, magenta, salmon—a passel of four Vietnamese girls materializes from nowhere. Modern Vietnamese critics of this form of education. A tiny fly settles on author’s pant leg. Object to its focus on memorization, its lack of attention to practical learning, its neglect of Vietnamese history in favor of foreign (Chinese) history and culture. Two Japanese girls in jeans and black tee shirts—one reading “A Fire Within,” the other, “Striving Towards Altruistic Realm”—are joined by two more girls, in green and white tee shirts, who photograph them. They speak of its irrelevance, of “sitting on the bridge in Do and talking of the land of Moc.” Author, leaving behind this photographic frenzy, strolls toward the sanctuary of Confucius, who, on a plaque, is described as follows:
“Intelligent, calme, passionné d’études, il était célèbre pour son érudition avant l’âge de trente ans.” To circumscribe these questions of language and hospitality, Derrida spoke, already in 1964, of the relationship between inside and out. We have stepped out of the sunlight and into the temple. “Des élèves venaient de partout pour suivre son enseignement.” Celebrant-worshippers bow in reverence. “À partir de 54 ans, avec des disciples, il voyagea dans pleusieurs principautés pour parfaire ses connaissances et propager son savoir.” “Will a non-Greek,” he asked, “ever succeed in doing what a Greek could not do, except by disguising himself as a Greek?” To reach the image of Confucius we must cross a very narrow courtyard; stepping over a lintel, we confront the porcelain image. “À 68 ans il retourna à Lo pour écrire et enseigner à près de 3000 disciples.” Two red candles burn before the red-robed sage. “Il mourut à 73 ans.” Two bouquets of roses have been inserted into two bronze vases atop the modest altar, beside which rise two red columns.
MM: Tell me about your personal background. When were you born, and where?
LTV: I was born in 1956 in a small city on the outskirts of Saigon.
MM: And what sort of artistic education did you have?
LTV: Till the age of thirteen or so I studied art in provincial schools and then enrolled in the École des Beaux Arts Nationale in Saigon.
MM: And when did you finish your studies there?
LTV: In 1970.
MM: This must have been a difficult time to be in Vietnam? When were you able to leave?
LTV: I left Vietnam for Canada in 1980.
MM: How did you support yourself financially during the early years of your career as an artist in Canada?
LTV: The first job that I found was in a silk-screen workshop, where I used skills that I’d acquired in Vietnam.
MM: And did you continue your formal education in Canada?
LTV: Yes, I enrolled at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
MM: When did you graduate?
LTV: I finished school there in 1987.
MM: Having studied art in both Saigon and Montreal gives you a double perspective on the emerging global art scene. We know that you’ve worked as a painter and performance artist and that you’re part of the mail art network. Have you practiced other forms of art?
LTV: I’ve worked in mixed media, and I’ve done a good many installation pieces.
MM: How did you become involved with mail art?
LTV: In New York City I met Ray Johnson, the founder of what at the time was called The School of Correspondence. Shortly thereafter I began corresponding and exchanging works of art with him. This led to further contacts around the world. Through networking I have collaborated, exchanged ideas and implemented these ideas as works of art.
MM: What other art movements were influential in your development?
LTV: Among the historical movements Dada and Surrealism were the most influential.
MM: What did you find most useful about the tradition of Dada-Surrealism?
LTV: That’s a good question. I would say that Dada-Surrealism was perhaps most influential in my conception of performance art. But I was also influenced by Dada poetry and by the Dada artists’ use of collage, a medium that they shared of course with the Cubists and the early Surrealists and one that has subsequently been widespread.
MM: You’ve operated, now, for many years as an artist based in Montreal. To what extent have you maintained your early contacts in Vietnam, and how have you managed to stay in touch with people in Vietnam while living in Canada?
LTV: Over the years I’ve kept in touch with classmates from art school, mostly by mail. We’ve also exchanged works of art, along with information about how our careers were developing. We talked about whom we’d met, what we were doing, and so on. More recently the Internet has made it easier to maintain this sort of contact.
MM: As you’ve returned to Vietnam from time to time what changes have you observed in the recent cultural development of your native country?
LTV: During my first trip back I was amazed at the changes that had taken place, mainly because Vietnam had been transformed from a country at war to a country at peace.
Everything was new. My family had changed their activity, my friends were all doing something new. Moreover, the country itself had changed and begun to develop in unpredictable ways. Vietnam has become much more international and has now begun to cultivate contact with the outside world. With new commercial relations has come a new interest in commercial art, both from abroad and within Vietnam. International relations, first with the French, and now with the Americans have been restored.
MM: Throughout the course of your life in Canada, then, you’ve maintained a parallel interest in the development of Vietnamese art. You must have noticed tremendous changes over the past thirty years. Tell us something about this.
LTV: When I attended the School of Fine Arts, the faculty was heavily influenced by the French, especially by work being done in Paris in the post-war period. Many of my teachers had gone to Paris to study, and they’d returned with images of contemporary French art along with books about the Impressionists, the Cubists, the École de Paris, and so on. After Vietnam’s victory in the American War all this gave way to a new interest in social realism, and the new emphasis on politics controlled art schools and to a large extent the whole production of art from 1975 to about 1990. Gradually, however, in the ’90s réalisme socialiste gave way in turn to a more liberal approach. Vietnam opened the window, if not the door, to western countries and became again receptive to western aesthetics. After the renewal of French influence came the American influence, beginning with Pop Art.
MM: So we might say that since 1990 Vietnamese art has generally been open to new art from the West, especially so for you, since you’ve been actually living in the West. How, as a Vietnamese artist, have you responded to western influence? Has it been a problem for you, gradually becoming so westernized, to maintain your identity as a Vietnamese artist? In short, how can one continue to be a “Vietnamese artist,” if one lives in Canada?
LTV: Well, during this period, over the past fifteen years, as an artist I’ve really been neither Canadian nor Vietnamese, because I’ve concentrated so much on networking with artists all over the world. These include people in Italy and France, in the USA and Japan. So, though I live in Canada and return to Vietnam, my range of contacts is much broader. In time I hope that artists in Vietnam can participate in the same sort of networking. Art in the world of the 21st century really has no borders.
MM: I agree that art has become internationalized, but not all artists are as literally international in their activity as you are. By traveling back and forth between Vietnam and Canada you are different from, say, a Canadian who’s grown up in Canada and practices his art in Canada, or a Vietnamese who’s stayed in Vietnam. In addition to your Vietnamese training, you have family and artistic colleagues in Vietnam. But you live in Canada. You have cultural roots and national ties in one place but operate as an artist in an entirely different place. What can you tell us about the continuing influence on your work of Vietnam, of your early life, of your education, of your native cultural tradition?
LTV: When I began to study in Vietnam I practiced traditional Vietnamese arts, such as wood-block printing and lacquer painting. But when I arrived in Canada I was cut of from these sources of inspiration and had no ready access to such materials and traditions. So at first I gave up these techniques. Later on, however, I began to reintroduce traditional Asian motifs into my work. I began, for example, to give a lot of thought to the Chinese tradition of the five elements, to the tradition of Yin and Yang; and I returned to my earlier Buddhist practice. From these sources I drew inspiration, and I began to get new ideas, but I developed the form of the resulting expression in essentially western ways.
MM: We’ve been talking about you as a Vietnamese artist, as a Canadian artist, as a Canadian who often returns to Vietnam, and as a Vietnamese who lives in Canada. In a way you’re a model of the contemporary world artist, the artist who through networking and travel cultivates and maintains a global consciousness. How, do you think, has this sort of activity changed the nature of art itself in the late 20th and early 21st centuries?
LTV: Let me return to the subject of my formal education. When I began to study in Vietnam with people who had just returned from France, Paris was still a lively source of inspiration, and I profited from working with people who’d received French influence and were able to transmit it. But as time’s gone by I’ve been eager to enlarge my exposure to influences, and networking has enormously facilitated this. The teachers that I had in Vietnam are now unknown in Paris, and as Vietnamese artists they have relatively small reputations. If one aspires to a larger international reputation, one must take measures to escape from this earlier model, it seems to me. Once my Vietnamese teachers had established their initial contact with another world, they allowed it to lapse; they failed to maintain it, or were forced into isolation. It’s important to refresh one’s contacts and constantly expand one’s horizons.
MM: Might we not also say that the work of art no longer exists within a merely local or national context but rather in the 21st century must establish itself with an audience that’s developed a more international conception of things, acquired on a daily basis, if only through contact with the media? Perhaps the contact with French art that was once so valuable, with the great movements of the later nineteenth and earlier 20th centuries, is no longer so valuable. Ironically, the French, who earlier had been such internationalists and who in turn had achieved such international recognition, have now become much more provincial, in their politics, in their social and cultural assumptions. It’s hard to think of many people in the early 21st century who are greatly influenced by contemporary French art, though of course French ideas continue to have their appeal for many.
LTV: Yes, I think that for many practitioners of the arts the Americans have replaced the French as a source of inspiration.
MM: So you’re saying perhaps that in recent decades the center of the western art world has shifted from Paris to New York and perhaps from New York to L.A. or to more diversified centers in the USA. Many of course feel that America is no longer the center of advanced artistic activity, if it remains a culturally dominant force. Others feel that the center of the art world has now moved all the way across the Pacific, so that today Tokyo or Osaka or perhaps even other Asian centers are providing the kind of inspiration that was once identified with Paris or New York. What do you think of the new art that you see coming out of Japan?
LTV: Well, when I think of Japan I think of individual artists and individual movements, such as Gutai (or concrete art) in the mid fifties. The first performance art at this early period originated in Japan. Since that time there’s been a great originality in Japanese thinking, especially in avant-garde artistic circles.
MM: Yes, the contemporary Japanese are very original. But I’m thinking not so much of individual Japanese artists or movements but rather of Japan as a center of culture, as a place where fashion and personal style are important, where money is available for all sorts of activity. If one lives in Asia, as I do, every place that one visits has a lot of people in their twenties who are listening to Japanese music or reading Japanese comic books, usually in preference to American music and popular entertainment. When you go to a beauty parlor in Thailand or Taiwan, for example, you find that people are having their hair done according to Japanese trends, or in department stores and fashion shops are buying clothes being worn in Tokyo or Osaka rather than Paris or Milan or New York.
LTV: The Japanese are also very influenced by western style.
MM: Yes, this is true. The last time that I was in Tokyo I happened to see on TV a learned panel discussing the American Western (Cowboy) Movie of the 1950s, for which experts from all over Japan had been convened. But what I’m thinking of is somewhat different. With all its wealth (despite what we hear of financial crisis), the Japanese have become the new patrons of art, of collecting and distributing modern and contemporary art. This, in combination with their more popular influence in matters of taste has made the Japanese the style setters that nineteenth century Parisians and 20th century New Yorkers once were. Only Hollywood has a comparable or greater influence worldwide.
LTV: Yes, I see what you’re saying.
MM: Now this is only my second trip to Vietnam, but earlier in Saigon, and now in Hanoi, I’ve noticed new Vietnamese painting of a sort that I’d not seen in art magazines, even those devoted to contemporary Asian art. This expressionist, symbolic art is like nothing else in the several dozen countries around the world that I’ve visited over the past few years. Tell me, where does this new painting come from, these pictures with red skies and yellow houses and blue streets? Is this an indigenous art, for it doesn’t seem to me dependent upon American, much less European models?
LTV: This new painting is primarily a commercial art.
MM: Yes, I notice that it’s selling well in Saigon and Hanoi. But its commercial success seems to me a function of its originality. These Vietnamese painters have gone beyond any French or American models, or at last have fully assimilated them, and are now creating something new. What are the Vietnamese, or more generally Asian, roots of such strong primary colors, for example, of this new expressionism?
LTV: When you talk about the use of primary colors, this comes from a very traditional source, the five-element theory of Chinese tradition and its corresponding colors: yellow, red, blue, black and white.
MM: I’m aware of the five-element system, and I’m also familiar with five colors as one sees them, for example, in the street signs of Taipei. But what I’m trying to get at is the original character of this new Vietnamese work. What is it for you that makes this painting Vietnamese? And what is causing such a great burst of originality in Vietnam?
LTV: Well, the same color sense we can also observe in contemporary Korean painting. Again, I think the phenomenon has no borders, is not local or national. The Vietnam painters in a sense are leaping over a common Chinese influence or boundary and bonding with Korean painters in this use of color.
MM: Very interesting. You know, it seems to me that here we have an analogy between the artistic activity of Europe in the nineteenth and early 20th centuries and the artistic activity of Asia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The center of artistic vitality in the world may be shifting. What do you see on the horizon for the 21st century, in Asia, in Southeast Asia and more particularly in Vietnam?
LTV: I think things will improve in Southeast Asia.
MM: I’m also very struck by what I understand to be a lively culture developing in such a hard-line Communist country as Vietnam. This of course is not the case in North Korea, or Cuba, and artistic expression in China is still limited. But here in Vietnam, fashion and entertainment and even high art seem to be on an upward curve. How can one explain this?
LTV: I think the explanation lies in the two Vietnams, North and South. The South, the center of artistic vitality, was not originally Communist, and though it’s now technically so, the South has remained the center of an artistic vitality that the whole country wants. So the North once again has begun to adopt the fashion and art of the South as its model.
MM: Well, our time’s up, and I’d like to thank you for your insights into Vietnamese art.
LTV: It’s been a pleasure.
“Ladies and Gentlemens [sic], thank you for choosing Odyssey Tours.” Hanoi travaille à limiter le taux de natalité (Le Courrier de Vietnam, Mardi 29 décembre 2004). “From Ha (river) Noi (city) to Ha Long (dragon), 160 kilometers.” Alerte. We have boarded a second bus and are still awaiting our departure. La ville de Hanoi connaît une forte croissance démographique. “If you wonder something or don’t understand anything, just ax me.” Ansi, elle figure parmi les 38 villes et provinces du pays, dans lesquelles le taux de naissance, et en particulier, le nombre de couples avec trois enfants est en hausse. At last we are off, exiting Hanoi by way of a major artery in the direction of the Haiphong Expressway.
I began, while he watched me intently like a prize pupil, by explaining the situation in the north, in Tonkin. Urban imagery still prevailing: “Samsung,” “Esso, “Computer Games.” Where the French in those days were hanging on to the delta of the Red River, which contained Hanoi and the only northern port, Haiphong (Graham Greene, The Quiet American). But giving way to narrow three-story suburban houses in lime, cream, citron and maroon, in mauve, grey and ocher. En 2004 la ville devrait compter 50.000 nouveau-nés dont 2.500 seront le troisième enfant. Here most of the rice was grown. Soit une augmentation de 0,38 %. And when it was ready the battle began.
Four blue-suited workmen in yellow hard hats stand together in a green field to inspect a tall pole strung with electric lines. Narrow gauge train tracks have begun to parallel our course. Banana trees, planted beneath the railway embankment are leafing out at track level. We pass a commercial lot filled with backhoes in orange, blue, white and yellow. Tel était le bilan présenté lors de la réunion, organisée à Hanoi par le Comité de la population, de la famille et des enfants à l’occasion de la Journée de la population du Vietnam, le 26 décembre. Roadside buildings are growing sparser, vegetable patches are turning into fields, factories are being constructed. A sign for LG Electronics Vietnam reads “Life’s Good!”
“That’s the north,” I said. Having napped through our passage across the most rural portions of the landscape, author awakens to witness the route’s reurbanization, which recommences after a rest stop. “The French may hold, poor devils, if the Chinese don’t come to help the Vietminh.” (We have paused in a courtyard filled with many other buses, scruffy European tourists cutting in line to buy coffee, to stock up on souvenirs.) “A war of jungle and mountain and marsh.” Back on the road pre-construction is taking place in the countryside: asphalt factory, cement production, the fabrication of bricks. “Paddy fields where you wade shoulder-high, and the enemy simply disappears.” Stacked beside huts.
“But you can rot in the damp of Hanoi.” Gradually the frequency of roadside houses increases, these new residences interspersed among flat fields of vegetables, brown clods being broken up for planting, paddies already irrigated. “They don’t throw bombs there.” Bicycles cross the four-lane expressway to get from one side to the other in villages divided in half by the otherwise inaccessible expressway. “God knows why.” A train heading for Hanoi approaches and passes. “You could call it a regular war.” Its boxcars in unpredictable colors. “And here in the South?” he asked. Its engine in red, white and blue, as we in turn pass a road marker reading “Haiphong / 22 km.”
“The French control the main roads until seven in the evening,” I replied. Au niveau national, le taux de croissance démographique enregistre cette année, une hausse visible. Villages are becoming more frequent. En 2003 de 1,47 %, soit 0,15 % de plus que par rapport à 2002. “Welcome to Hai Phong,” says a large blue billboard, though we are still “18 km” from the city, another marker reports. “After sunset they maintain control of the watch towers.” We pass a huge corrugated building with letters proclaiming it a “Joint Venture Steel Plant.” “Along with the towns—or parts of them.” “Hoguam Fabric Manufacturing,” “Nomura-Haiphong Industrial Zone,” “Taiwan Taifong Paper Company.”
“This doesn’t mean you’re safe.” At the outskirts of Hai Phong the expressway ends. We turn north onto a two-lane road, heading toward Ha Long City. Internet cafés, tea stalls, motorbike repair shops, beauty parlors line the way. Schools begin to appear. Then suddenly all gives way once more to open fields, many occupied with already-walled-in construction sites, others being bulldozed flat. Isolated new houses have been freshly painted cream and chocolate; green, blue and turquoise; rouge, rust and yellow. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be iron grilles in front of the restaurants.” We mount a high bridge for an overview of a landscape of water buffalo, women in conical hats, rice paddies, a cemetery.
Ce phénomène résulte de causes naturelles. Quickly we traverse several villages. In the marketplace of one, women wearing dark blue jackets and black pants huddle to converse, their wide straw hats almost touching one another. As we returned the sun had begun to decline. Before long the scene fills with tiny mountains, arranged as if for a class in oriental landscape painting, the various geological types all represented: The geographer’s moment had passed. Flat-topped hills; high spires; rises with undulant valleys; craggy outcrops. The Black River was no longer black. A long, continuous range in the distance. The Red River, only gold. An interrupted string of mountains, some of them precipitously shorn off.
Down we went again, away from the gnarled and fissured forest toward the river, flattening out over the neglected rice fields, aimed like a bullet at one small sampan on the yellow stream. At all their rocky feet lie paddies, some smoke-filled, as farmers clear and burn debris. The cannon gave a single burst of tracer. A woman in a white smock and a red woolen cap is breaking up clods with a hoe. The sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks. Behind her rises a miniature mountain like a rocky loaf of bread in a painting by the Yuan literatus Chao Meng-fu. We didn’t even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climbed and made for home. Some of the mountains are being quarried.
Ces femmes sont nées pour l’essentiel après les années de la guerre. We pass a fourteen-year-old boy on a bicycle, a pig strapped on behind its seat, slaughtered, singed and cut open. I thought again as I had thought when I saw the dead child at Phat Diem, “I hate war.” As we swerve across the centerline to pass them—pig and boy—an oncoming orange truck flashes its lights at us. There’d been something so shocking in our sudden fortuitous choice of a prey—we’d just happened to be passing, only one burst was required. A woman in a red hat and black leather jacket crosses the road on her bike. There was no one to return our fire. Turns and heads in the same direction that we are headed.
Museum of The Vietnamese Revolution, Hanoi, late afternoon visit. In his 1949 “Existentialisme et matérialisme dialectique” Tran Duc Thao advocates a concrete philosophy in opposition to the prevalent existentialist philosophy of his time. Having purchased our tickets from a very beautiful woman. Abstraction, according to Tran, dominates existentialist philosophy, because it adheres to phenomenological theory. We mount black steps to the second floor, where the exhibition, or so a sign tells us, begins. The epoché, or cornerstone, of Husserl’s philosophy. According to an attendant’s instructions we continue down a broad, cream-tiled corridor bordered with black baseboards.
Allows Husserl to posit a transcendental ego “outside the world.” Author takes seat opposite a black painting in four panels as a black-jacketed youth ambles past. While Heidegger, in turn, progresses beyond Husserl by recognizing that the latter’s transcendental ego is “a concrete and temporal self.” In the black painting a pagoda is depicted surrounded by trees of different species. According to Tran, he accomplishes this by recognizing that being-in-the-world must be analyzed in terms of “human reality.” Two red fire extinguishers stand on the floor at ready, their pincer-like handles facing in opposite directions. For Tran Duc Thao, however, Heidegger does not go far enough.
The black-jacketed youth returns only to exit at the end of the corridor through a glass door marked with a wide green horizontal stripe. Although identified with human reality, Heidegger’s being-in-the-world is still subjective. The museum is sparsely attended. Rather than a world that would ground the real human subject, Dasein merely grounds the world. Of the two electric “lanterns” above the black picture only one is illuminated. It is the subjectivism of phenomenology that causes existentialism to conceive of human existence as “a nothingness.” The black-jacketed youth, clearly an attendant himself, returns, attempting as he ducks past a second time to grasp the nature of author’s activity.
By contrast however, with explicit phenomenological doctrine. The first exhibition room represents “The Vietnamese People’s Resistance War against the French Invasion in the Second Half of the 19th Century.” Phenomenological practice, according to Tran Duc Thao, can provide results that improve upon subjectivism. It is filled with rather predicable black-and-white photos, along with almost random pieces of military armament: If pursued, such analyses, more faithful to phenomenology than to its theory. Sabre, rifle, cannon, etc. Would show that every human life, “my life,” as Tran Duc Thao says. A black map of Vietnam, Laos and Kampuchea. Was conditioned by “a certain milieu.”
It has had the names of its towns inlaid with mother-of-pearl. By certain social structures. Many animals in mother-of-pearl cover the country from North to South. By a certain material organization. Sailing vessels stand off the coast in mother-of-pearl. And that “my life” becomes meaningful only under these conditions. In a case hangs the black shirt “worn by Doan Hung, a miner at Hon Gai Colliery (Quang Ninh) during the time of the French Domination.” That I must protect such conditions if I want my life to retain this meaning. In the second room are exhibited more b/w photos, plus “the gun barrel used by Hoang Dinh Kinh (of Tay ethnic people) to fight the French in Lang Son, 1914.”
These conditions are not of my choosing. In another case are displayed a black scimitar and a black trident. The arbitrariness of subjective decisions does not account for them. Both weapons were employed against the French. Thus they are “objective,” but not in the sense of a world of ideas existing “in-itself.” Hanging on the wall is an umbrella that belonged to “one of the leaders of the National Party.” Rather, these structures belong to this world. It has no cloth. What, according to Tran Duc Thao, one must therefore investigate is “a material world.” Instead, only the metal stanchion that once supported it. As Tran says, “material being envelops the signification of life, as life in this world.”
The third room documents “The Founding of The Vietnamese Communist Party (1930).” The moment of materiality constitutes the infrastructure of human life as the last foundation of every properly human meaning. It includes a wooden map of the world, onto which the continents, cut out of plywood, have been glued, their major cities lit by tiny bulbs, so as to indicate “the countries where President Ho Chi Minh sojourned from 1911-1941.” For Tran Duc Thao only dialectical materialism is capable of analyzing these real infrastructures. In a well-known Soviet Realist scene V.I. Lenin, wearing his trademark goatee, gesticulates toward a rowdy crowd as he directs the October Revolution.
One exhibition room attracts attention because of its video display. Carrying out what was only programmatically described in “Existentialisme et matérialisme dialectique.” Stepping inside to observe its contents. Phénoménologie et matérialisme dialectique presents a reading of Husserl’s then-known works, both published and unpublished. Author discovers that the “video display” is merely an ordinary television set. For Tran everything turns on Husserl’s Third Investigation. Tuned to a current soap opera. The concept of the foundation in Husserl is not a matter of deriving the intelligible from the sensible, since it is of the essence of “founded” acts to “intend” radically new objects.
“Vietnamese rifles used at Dien Bien Phu” have been lined up vertically in a case by themselves.” Nevertheless, the Third Investigation, taken in conjunction with Husserl’s Sixth Investigation’s notion of “categorical intuition.” Nguyen Tin’s bicycle (“used to transport food to the battle at Dien Bien Phu, 1954”). Shows how it is impossible to separate essences entirely from sensuous kernels. Is displayed as a freestanding exhibit, the bicycle supported by its own kickstand. On the basis of this inseparability. Its seat is black, but its struts and wheels have been repainted a dark green. Tran Duc Thao isolates three “ambiguities” in Husserl’s phenomenological theory.
A separate room houses “The Guillotine placed by the French Colonialists at Hoa Lo Prison (Hanoi).” The first, according to Tran, is to be located in Husserl’s notion of consciousness. “The machine was used on many different occasions,” says the plaque. Husserl’s presentation of this notion, he emphasizes, “combines both Kantian language (conditions for the possibility of experience) and Cartesian language (the cogito).” “To behead a great number of Revolutionary Fighters for the Independence of the Fatherland.” The second ambiguity for Tran Duc Thao lies in Husserl’s notion of constitution. All traces of blood have been carefully removed from the instrument of death.
Already predicted by the first two ambiguities, the third represents the most basic, an ambiguity in Husserl’s very notion of “an object.” Having reviewed the first floor exhibits, author takes a seat at the “Ticket Desk” to complete his final page of observation. Traditional philosophy, according to Tran, establishes an opposition between the object of perception and the object of judgment. Through the open, maroon-and-white wooden doors of the museum’s entrance one looks out into a courtyard. The object of judgment remains the same for everyone at all times. It is universal and eternal. It does not vary according to the situation of the self which posits it. In short it is an ideal object. The skies are cloudy.
By contrast, the object of perception is real. It is a singular object possessing a unique existence. The perceptual object is “what I perceive and whose singularity refers, in the final analysis, to my actual singularity. It exists contemporaneously with my existence.” In black high heels a Vietnamese girl clomps down the black staircase from the second floor, her luxuriant black hair falling over the back of a stylish, military-green jacket. Despite the temporal nature of consciousness, and in particular despite the role of memory, the “issue,” according to Tran Duc Thao, “is this singular existence, which, once past, can no longer be perceived but only remembered.”
The beautiful ticket seller has returned to the ticket desk. With regard to such traditional opposition, Husserl’s originality is based “on a radically new conception of the relations of knowledge and (even more generally) of the relation of thought to being. What Husserl shows,” according to Tran Duc Thao, “is that the object of judgment is a claim that refers back to its founding intentionality. Because the founding act is the sensible intuition of a thing, universality must refer back to this singularity and eternity to what takes place in a moment.” Instead of taking a seat, however, and though it is twenty minutes till closing time, she zips up a white parka over her black blouse and prepares to depart.
As Tran Duc Thao says, and this is almost a rallying cry for him (one that he has adopted from Experience and Judgment), “omni-temporality is itself but a mode of temporality.” Taking out a comb, she runs it through her long, luxuriant black hair, then opens her makeup kit to outline her lips in maroon lipstick, touching up her eyebrows with a tiny black mascara roller. Returning the kit to her purse, she strides toward the doorway, her heels clicking. The perceptual object, according to Tran Duc Thao, is “an actuality . . . irreducibly opposed to the ideality of the object of judgment,” but judgment, he concludes, is nevertheless constituted only “on the basis of perception’s original structure.”
As she does so, a pair of tourists walks through the door. For Tran Duc Thao the ineradicable relation to sensation described by Husserl implies that the ideal, abstract or intelligible arises in a linear fashion from the sensible, concrete or actual. Approaching them, the gorgeous ticket taker tells them to “come back tomorrow,” then proceeds to exit through the maroon-and-white doors. As Tran Duc Thao says, “in the final analysis, it is always in the real sensible world that our most elevated notions find the ultimate foundation of their intelligible meaning and their truth value.” As author observes them, two more museum personnel cut out early, mount a single black bike and drive off.
After two weeks in the capital, having scarcely ventured out of the Old Quarter, author, before early evening departure for Hué, takes a long stroll with two new Canadian friends in search of genuine Vietnamese cuisine, his first experience of the city’s broad avenues filled with remnants of colonial architecture. Its streets are all but free of any vehicular traffic except for motorbikes. On this cool early January afternoon sellers of wares huddle about on the sidewalks in woolen caps and fashionable parkas. Pedestrians are polite and helpful to the foreigners, with their tiny maps, their unfamiliarity with the city streets. Hanoi is a happy place if poor, resourceful in its continuing renovation, a city of the future.
By 6:30 pm, along with two other companions, author arrives at Ga (Gare) Ha Noi, its name in red neon burning into the chilly night air. Descended from taxi-van, luggage hoisted onto trolley, we reach the entrance to the platform only to find its gate chained and locked. Before long, though, an appropriate official appears. We struggle through narrow train car corridor, wrestling suitcase, backpack and briefcase into a compartment for six, onto bunk beds where there is barely room for our bags, let alone us. Viet music adds a festive spirit. Outside it is now pitch black. There will be no landscapes to describe till dawn. Due to depart at 7:00 pm, we will reach the ancient capital at 8:30 tomorrow morning.
After interminable rehearsal of the night’s itinerary, replete with Communist propaganda, first in Vietnamese, then in heavily accented English, at last we are off. “Our train is now leaving Hanoi,” says the helpful voice. The lit stalls of the platform flicker past. “Forever remember Hanoi, the heart of the country.” And at once we are out of the station, hurtling into the night. Quickly the darkened scene, however, is interrupted by dusky trackside glimpses of night market, traffic intersection, shop interior, neon-lit platform, furniture store, family at dinner table, bedroom television screen, the back room of an appliance store, where refrigerators still in their cartons have been stacked atop one another.
We pause at a suburban station. A single white bulb lights the doorway of a concrete hut. A yellow signal flashes. Far ahead of our car a train horn sounds. We begin to creep forward again, past a pile of sand still bearing the imprint of the truck bed that had once borne it, past an intersecting street still blocked by our passage, the headlamps of vehicles irregularly spaced, different in intensity, as bicycles, motorcycles, a car patiently wait for the train to clear. “Transeco,” reads an orange neon sign, the company’s logo in blue above. The cityscape darkens further as we approach its limits. We pick up speed. Lights near the track flash past in blurs of yellow, pink and orange; of red, blue and white.
No architectural form is fully defined. Occasionally a glimmer appears in the distance, but in such solitary fashion that its source cannot be guessed at. We pass a train stationed on a sidetrack where a string of bulbs illuminates it, this moment followed by a moment of total blackness, followed in turn by two pinpricks of light, their source indeterminable. Then more blackness. Black, it would seem, is the favorite color of night, and the night has only begun. For long stretches, under a moonless sky, it seems as though all light has been extinguished. A shift of focus returns the images before one to the car’s interior. At last there is nothing more to watch, as we jolt and shunt and run on into the abyss.
6:00 am. It is easy to see. First light of dawn. That the reading of Husserl produced by Tran Duc Thao anticipated that produced by Derrida. Progressive shades of grey give way to washes of greyish green. Most obviously, since Tran Duc Thao establishes genesis as an unavoidable phenomenological issue. It is hard to tell exactly where we are. This issue will dominate Derrida’s reading of Husserl. Though clearly we must be not too far from Hué. From his Memoire to “Form and Meaning.” Given the time of day and present space.
6:10 am. In Derrida’s Le Problème de la genèse, in the Introduction, and in Voice and Phenomenon, the author persistently adopts Tran Duc Thao’s rallying cry: We have slowed to a standstill. Which is to say, omni-temporality is but a mode of temporality. Mist envelopes a murky river. (And not only for Tran Duc Thao is Husserlian temporalization centered on the actuality of the present time-space.) Over whose bridge we crawl, carefully. (Itself an abstraction from the world of reality.)
6:15. The red earth has emerged as a presence to be reckoned with. Recognizing the irreducibility of the sensuous, Derrida focuses on the passage from the sensible to the intelligible. In the early morning light the dew-soaked green of the vegetation seems almost subsumed into it, the two colors, red and green as though chosen for their complementarity. A less obvious debt of Derrida’s to Tran Duc Thao is his focus upon the sign. Now silver paddies begin to appear, reflecting the mist that envelops them.
6:20. Tran Duc Thao shows that the essential possibility of symbolic representation makes error contemporaneous with truth. A square white farmhouse appears, its triangular peak demonstrating a fortiori a human presence in the landscape. Tran Duc Thao, though, never draws this conclusion himself (the claim that error is contemporaneous with truth implies that absence always already contaminates presence). A single motorcyclist’s headlamp gleams, its beam suffused with/suffusing into a not-yet-dissipated fog.
6:25. For Derrida the difficulty lies with Tran Duc Thao’s particular brand of dialectic. The landscape assumes a shapeliness. For in the Vietnamese philosopher the problem of genesis entails the problem of how to describe the passage from sensible to intelligible. As foliage recedes from the trackside and vistas fleetingly open out. Tran Duc Thao uses all Hegel’s well-known terminology: Small lake, village, low hill, a farmer on the margin of a rain-soaked field. The Aufhebung as elevation, suppression and conservation.
6:30. A becoming conscious (une prise de conscience). Suddenly a more fully developed scene emerges (or is it that we have merely moved in space and time and therefore ourselves emerged before the scene?): A movement from reality’s “in-itself” to reality’s “for-itself” (or “truth”). Beast of burden, domestic plot, schoolyard, temple. For Tran Duc Thao this dialectical terminology is supposed to avoid the problem of conceiving the genesis of knowledge in terms of either abstract possibility or psychological construct.
6:35. The terrain has become intermittently riverrine. Nevertheless, when he defines dialectical materialism (or Marxism, as he calls it), Tran denies himself “the ideal dialectic that we find in Hegel.” As many streams flow beneath us into the sea. Instead, the dialectic of his dialectical materialism is “the dialectic of scientific thought,” which nonetheless in no way implies in Tran the rejection or criticism of those positivistic sciences which provide an account of life strictly in terms of its biological characteristics.
6:40. The cultivated plain rises and falls, mounding up toward the tracks, only to recede into sloping perspectives. In other words, dialectical materialism “defines the truth of scientific concepts, insofar as it reproduces in consciousness the real processes by which life constitutes itself in the general movement of material structures.” After experiencing several minutes of varied arboreal vegetation we traverse a uniformly replanted forest, its individual tree trunks unfolding before us in coordinated, geometrical rhythms.
6:45. The difficulty is. Graveyards scattered throughout the landscape are unfailingly simple. As Derrida says in Le Problème de la genèse. The abodes of the living are simpler still. That Tran Duc Thao’s dialectical materialism “presupposes the problematic defined and resolved by Husserl.” The landscape itself is “homely”: all in proportion, rarely dramatic (save for the unexpected flight of a bird), only intermittently narrative (as when a pair of cyclists pauses before the railway trestle, their destination, though determined, still unclear).
6:50. Since Tran Duc Thao rejects Hegelianism and transcendental philosophy. We are passing through Dong Ha. And does not provide a more thorough explanation of his dialectical materialism. Her houses in pale turquoise, cream, moldy green and white. It is hard to know how he can account for objective knowledge. The train station is painted an unprecedented smoky blue, in front of which read ladies dressed in full coats and caps, as they debark past sidetracked cars full of logs cut into smaller sections.
6:55. On the other hand, as Derrida suggests, it is possible that Tran Duc Thao is actually grounding objectivity in some sort of metaphysics of matter. Once more we are under way, past shanty, shack and concrete box, past larger house, past school and church, past shop-lined avenue. A case can be made for this interpretation since, by having rejected phenomenology’s subjectivism, Tran Duc Thao seems to appeal again to some sort of thing-in-itself. Once out of the city, we pass three water buffalos.
7:30. If this interpretation is correct, then Tran Duc Thao, we might say, has relapsed into dogmatism. Fog cleared at last, field and furrow emerge into greater clarity. But, on the other hand, if Tran Duc Thao is not presupposing some sort of materialist metaphysics. Though remnants of mist remain, seeping here through a cemetery devoted to the war-fallen dead. Then it must be that for him the natural sciences remain entirely ungrounded. Our tracks have been joined by a parallel red-dirt road.
8:00. Basing their priority on real time, he fails to provide the conditions for the possibility of the sciences. White sand infiltrates embankment and forest alike, as we begin our final approach to Hué. And without such a grounding, Tran’s dialectic, as Derrida himself says, would be “a purely ‘worldly’ dialectic.” Under brightening but still cool skies the sign for “Ga Hué” appears at last. If so, Tran’s dialectical materialism is subject to the same criticism that Husserl had leveled against Dilthey’s historicism.
8:15. We have arrived early, are met by a van, pile in to head for the center of town. Indeed, if the real and the ideal coincide “in a strict manner,” then, as Derrida says, “nothing would allow us to distinguish between lived experience and natural facticity.” Past the Truong Tien Bridge we encounter two military vehicles parked in the boulevard. Without valid evidence, we would then have a “science of nature,” but one whose meaning, whose very condition of possibility would escape us. Soldiers are sitting along the curb.
Hué midafternoon outing. Lockheed Martin. We are leaving the ghat behind. The top recipient of Pentagon contracts. For a boat ride on the Perfume River. Has branched out far beyond making state-of-the-art fighter jets. With Thao (our guide). (Headline.) Sister Luyen (along for the ride). Lockheed Martin (text). Brother Tham (at the helm). Doesn’t run the U.S. We are leaving the Truong Tien Bridge on our left. But it does help run a breathtakingly big part of it. Heading up the Song Huong, as Thao prefers to call it.
Over the last decade, Lockheed, the nation’s largest military contractor. We are skirting Lang Chai, she tells us, the river’s “market street.” Has built a formidable information-technology empire that stretches from the Pentagon to the post office. The surface of the river is bluish-green. It sorts your mail and totals your taxes. The blue reflected from hazy skies. It cuts Social Security checks and counts the U.S. census. The green apparently its native element.
To make all this happen, Lockheed writes more computer code than Microsoft. We are passing three ducks. Based in Bethesda, Maryland, the company is of course best known for its weapons, which are the heart of the American arsenal. Thao has taken a seat at author’s side to offer advice and transcribe the Vietnamese names for things. It builds most of the nation’s warplanes. Meanwhile, on the riverbank, a woman in a red dress is doing her laundry, scrubbing away with her daughter, one garment at a time.
It creates rockets for nuclear missiles. The name of our boat is “Thuyen.” Sensors for spy satellites. We approach a second bridge. Along with scores of other military and intelligence systems. (“Bai Dao,” says Thao.) The Pentagon and the CIA might have difficulty functioning without the contractor’s expertise. To one side of which an industrial site is emitting white smoke. But in the post-9/11 world Lockheed has become more than just the biggest corporate cog in the military-industrial complex.
On the left bank rises a two-story yellow-stucco colonial house with red-orange roof tiles. Increasingly it is putting its stamp on the nation’s military policies too. Before we have reached the second bridge, we turn about to skirt the opposite bank. “Lockheed stands at the intersection of policy and technology,” and that is really a very interesting place to me,” said its new chief executive, Robert Stevens, a tightly wound former marine. It is a muddy flat, filled here with tall grass, an occasional palm tree.
“We are deployed entirely in developing daunting technology,” said Stevens. Along with other less distinguished trees. And that requires “thinking through the policy dimensions of national security as well as various technological dimensions.” In a coconut grove nestles a house with concrete foundation and superstructure, whose enormous front door has been newly rebuilt with fresh-cut planks. To critics, however, Lockheed’s deep ties with the Pentagon raise some puzzling questions.
Before the house a line of laundry has been hung out to dry. “It is impossible to tell where the government ends and Lockheed begins.” The outlines of the house itself are shrouded in unruly foliage. Said Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington group that monitors government contracts. It is hard to tell who might inhabit the house. “The fox isn’t guarding the henhouse.” The clothes on the clothesline do not identify the occupants’ age(s) or gender(s). “He lives there.”
As we continue to skirt the shore many such dwellings emerge, all shrouded in trees that bend in the water’s direction. No contractor is in a better position than Lockheed to do business in Washington, for nearly 80 per cent of its revenue comes from the U.S. government. Sampans have docked along the riverside before some of the houses. Most of the rest comes from foreign military sales, many financed with tax dollars. At author’s foot, Thao’s dog, Bi, has lain down for a nap.
And former Lockheed executives, lobbyists and lawyers hold crucial posts at the White House and the Pentagon, picking weapons and setting policies. The doors of our ship’s cabin have been thrown open, so that the breeze may mitigate the mid-afternoon warmth. Obviously, war and crisis have been good for business. We are passing a pagoda, the Avalokiteshvara standing serenely in its forecourt. Over the past three years the Pentagon’s budget for new weapons has risen by about a third.
Before too long we reach a Catholic church. In the same period Lockheed’s sales also rose by about a third, to nearly US$32 billion last year. Its Greek cross, in neon, is fitted to a concrete support. It was the # 1 recipient of Pentagon primary contracts, well ahead of Boeing and Grummond. We approach at close quarters a woman in a flat boat rowing her way to market. Lockheed also has many tens of billions of dollars in future orders on its books, and its stock has tripled over the past four years.
The market now appears, on our right. “It used to be just an airplane company,” said John Pike, a long-time military analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research organization in Alexandria, Virginia. As the river widens we pass two large hotels, the “Huong Gang” and the “Century.” “Now it’s a warfare company.” We have left behind the Bai Dao and prepare to pass under the Truong Tien. “It’s an integrated solution provider, a one-stop shop, where they’ll sell you anything you need to kill the enemy.”
But abruptly we turn about instead to head back upriver. This melding of military and intelligence programs began after the recent attacks on the USA. Thao shades her face against the sun, explaining that Vietnamese girls do “not like to have a tan.” Lockheed was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the shift. Maneuvering us past the Citadel. When the U.S. government decided to let corporate America handle federal information technology. He brings us back to the ghat. Lockheed leapt at the opportunity.
Hué continuation, late afternoon, ordinary street scene, Hotel Cau under reconstruction. Lockheed is also the strongest corporate force driving the Pentagon’s plans for “net-centric warfare”: We begin with a pile of gravel and a pile of sand. The big idea of fusing military, intelligence and weapons programs through a new military Internet, called the Global Information Grid. The latter in beige, half the size of the former, in grey. To give American soldiers an instant worldwide picture of the battlefield around them. Together they completely block the entrance from street into hotel courtyard. “We want to know what’s going on anytime, anyplace on the planet,” said Lorraine Martin, the company’s Joint Command Control and Communications Systems division manager. Which, this afternoon, is aswarm with activity: Lockheed’s global reach is also growing. Cement mixer, three men shoveling into it the combination of already dampened gravel, sand and cement, whose preparation has been assigned to two women in conical hats.
Its “critical mass” of salesmanship lets it “produce global products for a global marketplace,” said Robert Trice, Jr., the senior vice president for corporate business development. Beside it bags of cement have been stacked to Viet shoulder height. With its dominant position in fighter jets, missiles and rockets, Lockheed’s technology will drive the security spending for many U.S. allies in coming decades. Meanwhile, two more women in conical hats shovel from the common fund, depositing their stocks into two separate wheelbarrows. Lockheed sells aircraft and weapons to more than 40 countries. Above these workers flutter two flags, one pale citron, one pale blue. In the U.S., where national security spending has surpassed US$500 billion a year, Lockheed’s dominance is growing. Above their heads labor a dozen more workers, all equipped with shovels. Its own executives say the concentration of power among military contractors is more intense than in any other sector of business outside banking.
The task: to raise the mixed concrete to the designated level of construction, a story above ground. After 9/11, cost is hardly the most important variable. First, two men shovel it to a level just above the mixer, where two other men have deposited their fund. Lockheed has won approval to build as many F-22 fighter jets as possible at US$252 million apiece. Then three more men raise it to a yet higher level. Stevens, whose compensation as CEO is US$9.5 million, says that cost is essentially irrelevant, when national security is at stake. Finally, two more men shovel the concrete into a wheelbarrow, as a supervisor, seated on the floor above, observes them. “Some folks might think, well, here’s a fighter that costs a lot,” he said. Meanwhile a sub-foreman oversees the work of four men each with a hoe, as they distribute the heavy mixture into wooden forms. “This is not a business where in the pure economical sense there’s a broad market of supply and demand, where value can be determined in that exchange.” Behind the hotel the sun has begun to set.
Phu Xuan Bookstore, early morning, doors just opened, two grey-clad monks studying collection of post cards, turning rotary rack as author steps forward to inspect the selection, two students behind us stowing their daypacks in blue, numbered lockers. The new books table includes Chu Yen Co Tich Viet Nam (The Beautiful in the Fruit and other Stories: Vietnam Folk Tales). Author opts instead for a copy of Dang Nhu Tung’s Contes et légendes du Vietnam. Amidst the collections of books on display, all in Vietnamese, hang two wall posters, one, “Balzac, 1977-1850,” in black-and-white, the other, “Albert Einstein, 1879-1965,” in color. On a low shelf sits a twelve-volume chronicle of the life of Ho Chi Minh, the boxed books in ocher dust jackets. Having crossed the Truong Tien Bridge in a cyclo rented for they day, author and driver continue along a four-lane avenue toward the Citadel.
In an unexpected bonus for Vietnamese literature, students and general readers. We enter through its large, attractive portal, pass four cannons and turn right. The Vietnamese translation of the complete Comédie Humaine has begun. Turning right again, we reach a café within the palatial grounds. Its publication marks not only the 200th birth anniversary of one of the greatest novelists of all time. Between two of four massive urns we take our seats in plastic chairs before a low table. But also a new development in Franco-Vietnamese cultural relations. The waiter, at this most central of tourist destinations, cannot handle author’s request, in English, for “coffee with cream.” Let us recall that La Comédie humaine is the title of a projected collection of a hundred novels (of which forty were completed at the time of the author’s death, at the age of forty). By other means he manages to communicate.
Honoré de Balzac presented scenes from provincial as well as Parisian life, from pastoral as well as political life, and, had he not drunk 40 cups of coffee a day, he might have completed his oeuvre. The open-air café is sympathetic. In a work designed to rival Dante’s Commedia Divina. From large black speakers issue the strains of heart-felt Viet lyrics. Philosophical commentaries complete this immense edifice. Red imitation crepe lanterns have been hung at intervals amidst draped skeins of reticulated plastic. André Rouveyre was right when he said: The clientele is sparse at this early hour of a dank, misty winter’s day. “Balzac is not the precursor but the creator of the modern world.” A woman in beige slacks hunches, with her mother, over coffee. He is not unknown in Viet Nam. While a more vocal group of men, seated under a high pavilion, smoke cigarettes and drink tea.
In the French colonial days his works were included in junior high school and secondary education curricula. As we reach the royal palace it has begun to drizzle. I myself remember having read a translation of La Peau de chagrin. Quickly author enters through a portal, strides past a lotus pool and on under the beautifully decorated entrance of the main “palace.” In a collection of very low priced pocket books. At whose center sits a golden throne. Called Pensée de l’occident. Through the portal at the rear of the building he sights the next stage of the royal grounds. I was thirteen or fourteen at the time. The rain increasing, we return inside to examine an enormous model of the palatial precinct, which in minute detail represents its condition before the destruction brought about by the American War. A dozen or so Balzac novels were translated in the period before and after the 1945 Revolution.
There must be a hundred former buildings represented. My old friend Le Hong Sam, who supervised this massive translation, lectured on Balzac for forty years at the Ha Noi University. The hall in which we stand has been painted maroon and gold. Her first experience of teaching his texts seems baffling today. We return to view in greater detail the golden throne, which sits on a golden pedestal. She once told me: Atop two more gilt platforms. “The society and people depicted by the great master of realism hold a merely historical interest for me and my students.” All beneath a golden canopy. “They do not touch us, even indirectly.” Before the throne stands a modest altar. “Their problems are totally alien to us.” Behind which, a bronze globe decorated with the mythical Ly. “For the Viet Nam of that epoch was preoccupied with concerns very different from those of Balzac.”
The object of our present study and experience is called “The Thai Hoa Palace” (or “The Palace of Supreme Harmony”). “There was nothing in common between the Spartan society of northern Viet Nam and the Balzacian society made up of ambitious persons, imposters and rogues, the stock exchange, power and love.” Looking out its front portals one observes, flying about the entranceway to the grounds, an enormous red flag with a yellow star at its center. “Enormous changes in the country have occurred, however, since the end of the war and the pullout of American forces in 1975.” “Constructed in 1805,” says a bronze plaque, “renovated in 1833, and again in 1923, the hall functioned as a place where grand bi-monthly audiences of the Nguyen court were convened.” But most remarkable have been the changes since the adoption of the doi moi (renewal) policy in 1986.
“The emperor, escorted by male members of the royal family, presided over ceremonies from his throne.” This reform process has basically two parts: “Civil Mandarins stood on the left, whereas military mandarins stood on the right.” (1) Adopting a market economy in place of the strictly planned State economy and (2) Opening our doors to all countries of the world. As author is transcribing the text on the plaque, a guard causes a German tourist to desist from photographing the room. “The Mandarins stood facing the palace in lines arranged according to their rank.” “Without ze flash?” the German inquires. “Which was designated by the stelae on both sides of the courtyard.” “No photo,” the guard replies abruptly. But every rose has its thorn. Returning to his desk the guard/ticket checker lights up a cigarette. “The palace’s 90 gilded columns and roof dragons symbolize the emperor.”
Individualism, let loose by the free market, and the opening of doors to negative foreign influence, such as sexuality, violence and drugs. We have left the grounds of the Citadel to cycle about its vast perimeter, author re-enthroned in the cyclo. Have ravaged the social fabric of the nation. Ordinary shops line the way: A largely puritan society until yesterday. Motorbike repair, beauty parlor, a string of pool halls. Vietnam today is witnessing rampant corruption, a frantic scramble after money, unprecedented family dramas, and the widespread growth of social vices. From larger streets we enter into smaller, from smaller into alleyways, until we find ourselves amidst a passage of rural scenery along a dirt path. Says Le Hong Sam: Before long we come full circle and return across the Truong Tien Bridge. “With these social changes, I think that Balzac has finally become a topical subject in Viet Nam.”
The skies are still grey. “Balzac,” she says, “might help us calm human passions, check our selfishness and restrain our immoral individualism.” Since the morning rush hour motorcycle and bicycle traffic has scarcely abated. “Viet Nam must try to achieve a balance between economic and cultural development.” Having reached the Hotel Saigon Morin, we turn downriver, past Vietnam Airlines, to retrace our original entrance route into Hué. It has always intrigued me that Anatole France is listed among the favorite authors of Ho Chi Minh. Past French colonial mansions of some distinction. During the period when he lived in France, that is, from 1918 to 1923. Past Hué University. Under the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc. Past the agencies that organize the city’s cultural festivals. What could Asia’s anti-colonialist, revolutionary militant have in common with a dilettante, Epicurean French writer?
Again we pause for coffee. I believe their first link would have been of a practical kind. From the balcony of a purely Vietnamese emporium we view a triangular intersection. In the 1939-1945 period Cao Xuan Huy, the Taoist philosopher, taught French at the Viet Anh High School in Hué. At whose center is a triangular park. As a left-wing journalist starting his career in Paris, Ho Chi Minh might have taken the clear, sober, elegant style of Anatole France as a model. Curbs and new sidewalks are being added to the streets in this official neighborhood, which includes a local Ho Chi Minh Museum. On the philosophical plane, Huy condemned the western principle of identity, the basis of formal logic and the factor which has caused tragedy to human thought with its contradictions. A ballet of motorbike and motorcycle traffic unfolds before our eyes.
Moreover, imbued as he was with Sino-Vietnamese humanities, Ho Chi Minh might well have felt a close affinity with the author of The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard, which is steeped in Graeco-Roman humanities. These motorized dance sequences are endlessly varied. Causality, space and time, as Einstein well knew, are all fraught with their own contradictions. At various speeds, on different sized vehicles, their drivers dressed in unexpected combinations of colors. He might too have found in Anatole France’s defense of social justice and tolerance a continuation of the ideas of Enlightenment thinkers from Crainquebille to Dreyfuss. Transcending materialism as well as idealism, Cao Xuan Huy attacked the discursive thought that he has called chu biet (“based on differentiation”), according to which parts shall decide the whole, the sum of the parts.
A woman in a maroon rain parka, its white shoulders bearing a black advertisement, is strolling down the busy street in her plasticized conical hat, eschewing both vehicle and sidewalk. During the first two decades of the 20th century Anatole France enjoyed high prestige, but he has practically ceased to exert any influence at all over French literature. Instead, Cao Xuan Huy advocated “integral thought,” which he calls chu tuan. Since we are also in the neighborhood of Hué’s most famous pagoda, we decide to make a stop at the Truong Tran Cap Phat Hoc. During my own French sojourn I met very few admirers of Anatole France. As author mounts its steep steps, he notices that kids have numbered them backwards, in chalk: Having memorized passages from his work during my school days, this reversed my fond expectations. 16 - 15 - 14 - 13 - 12 - 11 - 10 - 9 - 8 - 7 - 6 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1 - 000.
For many Vietnamese of my generation Anatole France remains a profoundly humane narrator. As author stands to record their work, three kids materialize. Full of irony and compassion. They seem to belong to the pagoda complex, for nearby, at the top of the next rank of stairs, sits their mother, smiling. According to Huy’s chu tuan it is rather the whole that determines the parts, thus leading to “finality,” a basis of the functionalism that is indispensable, for example, to biology. In this elegant pagoda one again is treated to a synthesis of architectural splendor, good taste and originality. The doctrine of Cao Xuan Huy, which drew Taoist thought and modern physics into the same compass. Author mounts the final steps to view the shrine’s magnificent interior. Reminds us of the holism of Smuts, which of course belongs to an altogether different tradition.
For this reason I often enjoy flipping through the pages of Anatole France’s thoughts, if only to recall some text with emotion, like seeking a forgotten scent in old paths. As he returns to the central stair for his descent and subsequent exit from the grounds of the pagoda, author smiles at the mother, who smiles back. At the time, in the domain of literature, Hué had many private school teachers. From the pagoda we return in the direction of the café. Such as Che Lan Vien, Te Hanh and Than Thin. For, when we were leaving it behind, author had noticed an attractive beauty parlor. Nguyen Van Bong, Hoai Thanh and Vu Tuan San. Its gorgeous proprietress asleep in a barber’s chair. Dao Dang Vy, Duan Phu Tu and Phan Khac Koan. Recalling it, author encourages cyclo driver to retrace our course. Che Lan Vien and Thanh Thin taught at Viet Anh; Te Hanh, at Thanh Hoa School.
Having stopped the cyclo and descended (so as to approach the beauty parlor on foot), author enters and negotiates with the proprietress a shampoo for US$1. They were the best known of the New Poetry Movement in the ’30s. She smiles at his knowledge of the going rates. Che Lan Vien won acclaim at the age of sixteen for his collection titled Ruins. She is sleepy-eyed (and accordingly all the more gorgeous), for she has just arisen from her nap. “The more I think of human life,” said Anatole France, “the more I believe in the necessity for it to have irony and pity as witnesses and judges.” Before long she is joined by two lovely colleagues, who offer manicure and massage respectively. “Irony and pity are two good counselors.” Che’s poetry is marked by lyricism and philosophical digression. None of the three women speaks a word of English, French or Mandarin.
“The first smiles to make life more amiable, the second weeps to make it more sacred.” Though full of laughter over how to communicate with the foreigner. Te Hanh is the poet of tenderness. All nonetheless talk to him freely, naturally and lovingly, in Vietnamese. His verses are simple and are graced with a sweet sense of music. As every possible difference—cultural, social, anatomical—is explored, analyzed and interpreted. “The irony which I invoke is not in the least cruel.” Shampoo, manicure and massage complete, author is required to pay only Vietnamese prices. “It mocks neither love nor beauty.” Thanh Thin, a connoisseur of Hué, who lived on the banks of the Perfume River, distinguished himself with velvety poetry and moving stories. “But rather those fools whom we might otherwise be so weak as to hate.” As author departs, the manicurist blows him a kiss.
During this second, syncretistic phase. Le Dieu de la mer, arrivé en retard, ne voyant plus la princesse, entra en colère et lanca ses troupes à la poursuite de son rival. Another subtle shift began to take place in “postmodernism.” Il appelle la pluie et le vent qui, faisant trembler le ciel et la terre, élèvent le niveau d’eau des fleuves pour faire la guerre au Dieu des montagnes. The word became a name not only for the way in which new attitudes and practices had evolved, in particular with regard to society and culture. L’eau inonde les plaines. To architecture and to literature. Les habitations. To patterns of economic and political organization. Et arrive jusqu’aux versants des collines et des montagnes de l’enceinte de Phong Chau. But also for the characteristic discourse in which such things were discussed. Qui se trouve submergée comme sous l’eau d’une veritable mer.
“Postmodernism” named all those writers who gave houseroom to the postmodern hypothesis and all the writing they did about it. Le Dieu des montagnes ne se déclare pas forfait. In this period it did not seem possible even to discuss the existence of the postmodern without being drawn into its discourse. Comme par miracle, il amoncelle des collines et les montagnes en un rempart de terre pour arrêter l’eau. Genealogies of specific postmodernisms in politics, society and the arts were followed by genealogies of the discourse of postmodernism, such as Hans Bertens’ The Idea of the Postmodern (1995). We have entered Danang. Plus l’eau monte, plus la terre des collines et des montagnes s’élève. The descent from on high to where the mountains meet the sea, has transformed a chilly, lucid ether into a tepid, hazy atmosphere, as we turn toward the beach.
Enfin, le Dieu des montagnes tenant bon, le Dieu de la mer à qui la force manquait, se résigna à se replier. By the middle of the 1990s a third stage had evolved, as the “post-” idea had achieved a kind of autonomy from its objects. We follow a yellow bus, whose red upper reaches are labeled “Aero Space.” At this point the argument about whether there really was such a thing as postmodernism, which had driven earlier discussions of the subject, started to evaporate. All has turned flat, as we pursue the coastal road between a beach and a plain. Since the mere fact that there was discourse at all about the subject was now sufficient proof for many of the existence of postmodernism. A row of casuarinas ahead seems to threaten our progress. But as idiom rather than actuality. Though the road soon bends around, or cuts through, them. La lutte durait plusiers mois.
Postmodernism became the name for the very activity of writing about postmodernism. The mountains have receded into the distance. De cette grande querelle, chaque année, le Dieu de la mer déchaine la pluie et le vent pour livrer bataille au Dieu des montagnes. A smoky grey cloud cover smothers sea and plain alike. In 1997 John Frow declared roundly that the word “postmodern” “can be taken as nothing more and nothing less than a genre of theoretical writing.” The coastal highway seems to be skirting the city proper in favor of poor seaside dwellings, their backs to the bay for the sake, it is said, of feng shui. The postmodern became a kind of data-cloud, a fog of discourse that showed up on the radar even more conspicuously than what it was supposed to be about. Mais, après maintes reprises, il doit se retirer. We are nearing the entrance into the city center.
In search of lodging for the night we traverse many of Danang’s downtown streets. Thus postmodernism had passed from the stage of accumulation. Turning inland, we proceed for half a dozen blocks at right angles to the new coastal road (which is named for Ho Chi Minh). Into its more autonomous phase. Most major streets—wide and undeveloped, as in a provincial Texas town—run parallel to it. No longer a form of cultural barometer. Despite its elaborate history, Danang seems to have no center, to be the center of nothing, to represent nothing in particular. Postmodernism had itself become a climate. We must return to the coastal road, along which new hotels have sprouted, to find one that is more or less satisfactory. (Incidentally, how one capitalized or hyphenated — “post-modern,” “Post-Modern,” “postmodern,” or “Postmodern” — seemed to matter a great deal.)
From one’s hotel window one looks out over the coastal road, with its landscaped median, over piles of landfill on to land’s end. Having expanded its range and dominion hugely during the first period of separate accumulation in the 1970s and the syncretistic period of the 1980s, in the 1990s the postmodern began to slow its rate of expansion. The narrow beach is filled with black-hulled fishing dinghies. During this decade, slowly but inexorably, postmodernism ceased to be a condition of things in the world. Near the shoreline the waters of the bay are green, but farther out they cede to grey. Whether in the world of art, culture, economics, politics, religion or war. Under a grey cloud cover. It became instead a philosophical disposition, an all-too-recognizable (and increasingly dismissible) style of thought and talk, scorned by people of common sense.
Having settled in, feasted at a seaside restaurant (on shrimp and squid), then returned to recover from our tiring journey, at 9:00 pm we venture out again, to a Danang disco. By this time “postmodernism” had also entered the popular lexicon to signify a loose, sometimes dangerously loose, relativism. Located one block down from a hotel whose sign reads (vertically) “Danang Ho[tel],” the neon lights of the “tel” blackened. Now, its dominant associations were with postcolonialism, multiculturalism and identity politics. We are seated, the three of us, at a table, alongside which stand three girls, opening wet napkins, selling us fruit by offering us pieces of it on toothpicks, constantly replenishing our glasses. So, whereas postmodernism had expanded its reach in academic discussion, in popular discourse it had shrunk to a casual term of abuse.
Garish spotlights in red, green, blue and magenta crisscross the stage. Postmodernism had become autonomous from its objects. Meanwhile Vy presses her crotch against author’s knee, while she inserts many peeled pistachios into his mouth. So far I have been discussing postmodernism as though it were a merely descriptive project. Jen, her colleague, steps up to observe his activity. An attempt simply to take the measure of the new prevailing conditions in art, society and culture. As the next singer begins a romantic ballad the lights dim so that author can no longer see to write. But, from the beginning, it has always been more than a merely cartographic enterprise. Accordingly Vy and Jen now vie with one another to illuminate. Postmodernism is also. With their tiny flashlights. A project, an effort at renewal and transformation. His notebook page of in situ description.
We continue south from Danang. The country was first cut in two by the Nguyen and Trinh seigneurs. But our schedule will not permit a stop in Hoi An. Who, under the pretext of serving the Le dynasty, waged a war that lasted nearly a century and a half, from 1627 to 1772. Since one of our company has business that he must attend to in Saigon. The demarcation line was the Gianh River in Quang Binh province north of Hué. We have already been held back several days in Hanoi awaiting his mishandled luggage. Foreigners called the northern part Tong King and the southern part Cochinchina.
Our party has swollen to six. Under the colonial regime the country was divided into three parts. Accordingly, we reserve an entire train compartment with three bunks to each side. The North, which was referred to as Tonkin, the Centre, called Annam, and the South, referred to as Cochinchina. It requires two small vans to transport all six people and their luggage from hotel to station plus two porters to get us stowed in our cramped space for the sixteen-hour trip from Danang to Saigon. Finally, in 1945 the independent People’s Republic, proclaimed by Ho Chi Minh, restored to the country its unity.
Heading south from Danang, we move inland, skirting the ancient port of Hoi An. In the 17th century Hoi An, as a center of international trade, was the rival of Pho Hien, a port in the North. Though we will see nothing, then, of the more southerly port, author has taken precautions against such an eventuality. Subsequently Vietnam was divided into two parts: By purchasing a packet of post cards titled “Ancient Hoian Vietnam.” Duong Trong (the Outer Region), with Than Long (Hanoi) its capital, and Duong Trong (the Inner Region), with Thanh Hoa (Hué) its capital. Including views of its tombs and temples.
Economic development in the South profited from an open-door policy, which led to Hoi An’s growth. In the wake of geographical discoveries in the late 15th century, European vessels—first Portuguese, then Dutch, British and French—called at Hoi An. Moreover, China and Japan’s foreign trade policies had an impact on the city, direct or indirect (the shogunate, for example, starting in 1593, issued special permits for Japanese traders to purchase Chinese goods in Hoi An). Later the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty unleashed waves of emigration to Southeast Asia.
The first post card shows an ancient street in the Chinese trading district of the port city. According to historical documents, Hoi An in the 17th century had a Japanese as well as a Chinese quarter. The second shows the Pagoda Bridge, the pagoda in question Japanese. Toward the middle of the century, because of barriers set up by the Japanese administration, predominance in commerce fell into the hands of the Chinese. The third shows a view of a Chinese pagoda. Who set up the village of Minh Huong (people ruled by the Ming), with streets, pagodas, temples and seats of congregation.
Nor has our schedule permitted a visit to Danang’s museum of Champa culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries Hoi An suffered gradual recession to the advantage of Da Nang, which had been its outpost. Against this eventuality, on his last visit to Bangkok author had purchased a study of Champa culture. The Champa was strongly influenced by Hinduism, and beginning in the 7th century it adopted Sanskrit and practiced Brahmanism and Islam along with Buddhism. Suffice it to say that the Champa, roughly speaking, is Vietnam’s lesser counterpart to the Angkor civilization of Cambodia.
As we head farther south we skirt the coast of the South China Sea, though it is rarely visible from the train. Our Rice Bowl. Lush green fields, against a background of steep hills, follow endlessly upon one another. Viet Nam belongs to a larger rice civilization. The eye lingers over such beauty. In his well documented La terre et l’homme en l’Extrême Orient French geographer Pierre Gourou analyses the characteristic traits of rice-planting people in East Asia between the Mekong River and the confluence of the Amour and Oussouri rivers. In each paddy labors some cultivator, male or female. They belong to a vegetal civilization founded on cultivation rather than animal husbandry and marked by a monsoon climate, an advanced agricultural technique, a great rural population, an aspiration for sobriety and a communal spirit required by the village cell.
The general thought to which the observer may be inclined is that postmodernity—and the observer now imagines that he or she is somehow part of it and so does not know any longer whether it can be hedged off in quotation marks or not—is somehow deeply about something like our (his or her) non-nativity, about a presence or a present that never quite happens. The landscape opens, unfolds, and closes behind us. The first traces of rice cultivation in Viet Nam date back to the Mesolithic culture of Hoa Binh-Bac Son, 10,000-8000 years before the Christian era. The term “postmodernism” would, then, have as its main job to remark our incapacity at addressing our present from within itself, which would constitute its true radicalism with respect to all things modern and modernist, as it also would to the ground of its own elusive and peculiar grammar.
During the Bronze Age, rice cultivation developed to a high level, which led to a surge in Vietnamese civilization. One might then find oneself—observer, observed, postmodern—saying something like this: Viet Nam is marked by traits common to other rice-growing countries in Southeast Asia. The problem with modernism lay in the assumption of universality and presence that accompanied its claims to some kind of purity or absoluteness. The consumption of betel, the house on stilts, the lacquering of teeth, tattooing, aquatic games, kite flying, the water-wheel, the bronze drum. The postmodern difference lies precisely in its refusal of such universality. One dozes off. And it is this refusal that underlies both its radical critique of the modern and its inability to establish itself with the kinds of authority that characterize claims to modernism.
In the train’s corridor rice is being served. The word “rice” may be misleading, because in Vietnamese it can be lua (rice plant), thoc (paddy), gao (husked rice), com (cooked rice) or xoi (steamed glutinous rice). Postmodernism is just the collapse of universals, and so it can only ever be local and strategic, announcing itself only in order to disqualify all those terms that would allow it to mean and to matter like “modern” and “modernist.” Innumerable are the rice-inspired stories and proverbs. Once spoken, “postmodernism” gives way to a dispersion of terms that no longer play the games of history and universality. “You who taste a bowl of rice, / Do you feel in the fragrant grains, / All the pains that I’ve taken to grow them?” That have been the warp and weft of our culture. “Let’s till the land and replant the seedlings. / Today’s pains will pay in tomorrow’s wealth.”
Saigon, Sunday afternoon, café interior, American music on muted MTV, loud popular Viet music issuing from CD speakers. Undeniably there are satisfactions in coming round to such a formulation: Black-dressed hostesses introducing themselves, in Vietnamese. Which has a pleasing symmetry, a gratifying reflexivity, a seeming ability to account for itself, wholly and without remainder. To whom author responds by offering his card, with his name in Chinese and English. An appropriate philosophic and implicitly social or political weight. These girls speak not a word of English and cannot read Chinese. Above all it holds perhaps the promise of a release into ourselves. But they are extravagantly pretty. A freedom from burdens (of the past, of communality, of imagining larger futures). One of them takes it upon herself to instruct author as to how he should ask for café au lait in Vietnamese. That we no longer have the strength to bear. In the event the “café au lait” arrives without cream, the girls approaching ever more closely to correct his pronunciation. These very satisfactions, however, are also exactly those once promised by the modern. At last his glass returns, its sweetened cream in the process of being stirred.
But as we contemplate them. To be placed in a rose-decorated porcelain bowl of water, for cooling. We may feel ourselves tumbling into a kind of black hole. Set atop a small, Parisian-style café table, onto whose surface has been laminated a “Scandal’Us” poster featuring two male and three female singers. One in which postmodernism suddenly appears as Modernism collapsed upon itself. The first of the guys, in black tank top and spiked hair, stands next to a beautiful, seated girl in white-striped blue bustier, her (longer) hair also spiked. A universe turned inside out. Next to her stands the beret-clad, second girl in long frizzy locks, maroon strapless top and tight jeans skirt. In the process we have managed to render ourselves strangers to one another. Seated below is the third girl, in an off-shoulder, black nightgown. Equipped with nothing more than a language that we cannot believe our own. While “Lin” and “Nhung” take seats on either side of author, “Xuan” checks out his activity, indicating to him that he should drink his coffee instead of writing, folding her arms to scowl. A language that we can no longer image as shared or sharable, as if a certain solipsism had been revealed at the heart of the modern. Author scowls back.
The café’s ceiling has been decorated in spray-painted papier-mâché to resemble the stalactite-dripping upper surface of a cave. Pulled up short by this thought. Nhung and Lin examine the endpapers of author’s notebook. We find ourselves returning to the opening question: Where two four-year-old lovers are depicted, a girl in a calico dress with a white collar and apron, two daisies in her hand. Is this the postmodern? A boy with a picnic basket, a third daisy inserted in his straw hat, atop which a butterfly has settled. Or its failure? As they stroll off together, the little girl glances backwards at the little boy. If we take it as failure. On the small bar, before a huge photographic poster of a hawk. We should need to know enough about what the postmodern was, or might have been, to show what it means for it to fail. Are lined up bottles of white soymilk, red and green Fanta. We should also be able to say. In the doorway, against the encroaching dusk, has been lit a line of Christmas-tree-like lights, flickering, fading, brightening, sparkling: Something about why it should have failed in the way that it evidently has. Turning red, turning blue; stopping at red and green; half flashing, half still; along with more computer-driven variations.
After the rain the garden puts on an emerald robe,
And dusk is now troubled only by the song of cidadas.
Spacious private balcony of Hotel Hong Vuong. That was summer in the 13th century to King Tran Thanh Ton. Less hotel than home of a friend. To pupils of today, however. A modest mansion in an upmarket alley off Le Van Sy Street. The song of the cicada. Author has taken a seat in a small wooden chair. Together with the first flamboyant blooms. Leaving the door to his room ajar. Bring to them both worries about their examinations and the joy of summer holidays. This pleasant patio is filled with tubs of flowers. Children are simply crazy about cicadas. And shrubs in large earthenware planters. With a long stick, one end covered with gum. Some decorated in the Chinese manner. They will hunt for the beguiling insects. Others in yet more elegant Vietnamese designs. Hidden among flamboyant trees. A stand of bamboo masks the view of a four-story house across the way, its multiple roofs tiled in orange, its awnings striped in green and white. Jealously they will keep their captives in a matchbox. Against our balustrade a gaunt woman in stone. From time to time taking them out to feast their eyes. All but nude. Or to make them sing. As she combs at the long hair that hides half of her moderne body. By pressing slightly on the cicada’s stout body. Her face partly obscured by the leafy branches of a tree planted in a large ceramic vessel bearing the character for good fortune.
To poets the cicada’s song suggests sadness. The floor of the balcony is tiled in tiny brown squares bordered with beige rectangles, smaller sienna squares at each corner. Like the forlorn cry of monkeys from the depths of the jungle. The plants have been watered recently, for the tiles are damp. Nguyen Du (late 18th century) felt that the music played by Kieu on her guitar was like the cicada’s song. A rampant, if rather comical, lion, its head raised in a gesture of surprise, presides over the courtyard. “But it is more nostalgic,” he said, “than the complaints of both cicada and monkey combined.” Now rain begins to sprinkle through a white concrete sun baffle. A story very popular among the Thai of Thuan Cahu tells how the cicada came into being: The air-conditioner, projecting from author’s room, hums in the background. A poor widow went into the jungle to gather edible roots so as to feed her only daughter. The rhythm of a single hammer fills the street with staccato, randomly intervallic notes. Exhausted from digging, she collapsed into a large hole and died. Below, an unmufflered motorcycle passes. Searching for her mother, the daughter found her body and buried it. Tiny raindrops begin to dot author’s ThinkPad screen. She cried so much that she too died beside her mother’s grave. Bringing this session to an end. By morning she had become a cicada, singing plaintively.
Mid-morning traffic circle observation, author’s notebook resting on a two-foot square table covered with nubby red-maroon cloth, atop which: desiccated marigold in ceramic vase; green ad for Aloe Vera Gel; Marlboro ashtray; teapot with glass-handled tea glass; Nestea coffee glass and white coffee cup. Atop a silver sugar packet he has rested his spoon.
If there is a single point of purchase for discussing postmodernism in the visual arts, it is Douglas Crimp’s 1979 exhibition “Pictures” and the texts that quickly came to surround it, most notably Craig Owens’ “The Allegorical Impulse.” I shall start from the work of one of the less well-known artists in the “Pictures” group, Robert Longo.
The copper-colored window frame, inset from mauve wall, gives way to a complexly baffled view of sidewalk, street and circle. Clearview panel at bottom interrupted by in-/out-of-focus bright green appliquéd eighth note, reversed; above which, columns of white rectangular bars interspersed with clearview; above which, sunscreen, plastic branches.
Among the works by Longo that were shown are a number of drawings, largely made by studio assistants after photographs taken by him. The drawings are very large—8 feet by 5 feet—making the single figure represented in each somewhat larger than life. The figures are caught in a moment of some extremity—twisting, turning, bending.
To author’s left, on a plastic pedestal, the white plaster statue of a goddess, half nude.
Traffic circulation report: grey Festival 2 taxi pauses to penetrate scooter flow. Kem Vita Milk truck hugs the red-and-white-painted curb of the inner circle. Bicycle, motorbike, three-wheeled rickshaw, push truck, white Mercedes, green minicab: some left-circulating, some through-pushing to enter another spoke, others arriving in the wrong direction.
Their clothing is hard to place—somewhat formal, office wear perhaps, but also slightly “retro,” possibly closer to “costume” than to “clothing”; and it too is caught up in whatever the action rendered is—ties whirling away from the body, straps slipping off shoulders. Modeling within the rendered figure frequently vanishes into black.
Café reverse shot, view within: three-masted frigate in mahogany atop wood-runged newspaper rack, on whose shelf is perched an antlered deer’s head. To its left begins a mural that extends the length of the restaurant: skies (overhead) in orange, in violet (at horizon), rising over undulant silhouetted black hills; peasants, wildlife in the valleys.
Although the figures feel “theatrical” in some way, it is less clear that they can be described as “dramatic,” because it’s not at all certain whether the action one sees is to be grasped as a salient moment with some larger narrative possessed of something like a plot, or if one is simply witnessing a single, not particularly privileged moment.
The ceiling is filled with acoustical tile cutouts of stars, sun, moon, planets.
Pale blue background, dark blue stenciled dial phone, sign lettered “Đien Thoai Cong Cong”
Water cascade down face of mirror, on it in black a tower, inscribed “Eiffel / PARIS-FRANCE”
Disks of rice bread set out to dry atop three pink plastic tables ranged along the sidewalk
A woman sprawls on a green day bed, the Chinese ba gua suspended above her doorway
In identical red tubs, different varieties of rice for sale, their prices: 3800, 4600, 5500, 3400, 6000
The red flag, a yellow five-pointed star at its center, hangs from a rusted telephone pole
A lamp store is showing shades, in lemony light green, in pale magenta, in red, in whitish blue
A black manikin, its head severed above the nose; black shirt, black pants, beneath which black toes
A pharmacy is advertising Tiffy, Necta, Panadol, Queen Bee, Collomac, Renova
A movie theater banner: “Visionnet / Tricor USA, Vua Noi Doi,” the “o” in “Noi” laughing
In the book store: Tu điên Pháp-Viêt, Tu điên Viêt-Han, Tu điên Anh-Viêt
Batteries: Solite, Yuasa, Tokyo Super Charging, one salesman asleep, another reading the paper
At the coffee store: Arabica, Culi, BMT, Thuong Hang, Cam, Lai, Sen
Bridal gowns: in white with blue lace; in pink; in white with gold roses
Three metal workers: one grinding an el-brace, one drilling a strip, one smiling a toothless smile
Wedding decorations: red paper lanterns, yellow cloth roses with plastic water drops
Thrown atop a Suzuki motorcycle: a green curtain; over a Honda Future: a pattern of pink roses
At the jeweler’s: a laughing Buddha in gold, an emerald dolphin, a glass pig, its interior blood red
By the same token, one is unsure whether one is witnessing an action (dancing, jumping, playing air guitar) or a reaction to (being repulsed by, recoiling from, falling backward in front of ) something being done or something being imposed.
The clinging theatricality of the images is likewise ambiguous as between action and something closer to reenactment or performance. One does not know what sense would be discovered in the image, were the background, so apparently cut away, restored.
One is simply left before the image, remarking upon its striking salience, its opposed and undecidable readings. These various features are all closely related in the account that Crimp and Owens offer of this and the other work in the “Pictures” show.
Three old girls squat on the sidewalk to chop and shred vegetables into three plastic tubs, pink, blue and turquoise. As author passes they hail him, offer mock prices with five fingers raised. Number four arrives to seat him in a small blue plastic chair. Lively repartee continues. At the center of the three tubs sits a smaller fourth in purple, filled with as-yet-unchopped/unshredded produce.
Now more old girls arrive to join the party. People from adjoining shops lean backwards out of their chairs to listen, comment, laugh. Two of the three squatting women are dressed in pajama pants and tops; all four principals are adorned with floral designs. The “madam” engages author in marriage talk, recounting her previous experience, her present condition, her aspirations.
All the while the chopping and shredding continues. In the street a gorgeous girl in a flat broad-brimmed hat, bandit’s kerchief about her face, stoops to sweep detritus from the gutter.
The most embracing claim made for the work of Longo and the others associated with Metro Pictures is that, in some special sense, it was “allegorical.” Before turning to that special sense, it is useful to take note of the rough historical scope of this claim.
The rejection of allegory as a way of making or receiving visual art is one of the foundations of the practices we call “modernist.” To claim that the work of the postmodern is allegorical suggests that visually it behaves more like the work of, say, Poussin.
One on side, allegory is a way a work means, and that seems to be at some odds with the strong tendency of modernism to refuse meaning in favor of something like the pure experience or sheer being of the work.
On the other side, allegory assumes a sharing of compositional means across diverse media, whereas modernist art, especially painting and sculpture, has insisted upon the separation and distinction of two mediums.
Throughview out past restaurant interior into lesser intersection, past two lounging men, their feet propped up on adjacent chairs. Across from them a foursome clinks their beer mugs. Meanwhile, a traffic-lightless contest continues for through-passage. Two longhaired girls on a bike surge past a red Johnny “Keep Walking” Walker van as a red taxi crosses their street behind them. It is cool and breezy in the open restaurant, warm and polluted in the traffic intersection. Cubes of beef arrive.
A three-wheeled rickshaw piled high with sugarcane, its stalks extending and bending out over the front compartment, bounces by as a white cab in pursuit makes a left turn. A woman in floppy hat, orange floral dress maneuvers her Honda Dream past a sign reading “Pepsi Café 302.” Four twenty-year-old waiters have gathered about to ask questions. Instead of answering, author asks the one who had recommended the delicious cubes of beef to write the dish’s name in his notebook.
Perhaps inspired by this, one of the two men described above removes his feet from the chair, arises, takes seat at author’s table and inscribes into his notebook a formal welcome to Vietnam.
With a flourish he signs his name.
For the traditional allegorist, allegory is a practice of continued metaphor: “the ship of state” is, by itself, a metaphor, but if we continue that metaphor across the entire surface of the canvas or the whole length of a poem so that the waves and storms, the lands and people, safe arrivals and shipwrecks all count in making out the fate of the state we shall have an allegory—a pictorial or poetic whole that everywhere and consistently means something other than its surface literally shows.
The postmodernist appears to be working with a different understanding of allegory, one ultimately rooted in a different vision of how signification works. One can get some feel for this by imagining allegory as equally driven not by metaphor but by a kind of continuous punning, each word or image opening explosively away from itself. Such allegory is wholly an effect of signification—of the working of words or images in relation to one another and apart from an underlying ground of meaning.
Our description of the work by the artists associated with Metro Pictures is thus tugged back toward elements of our definition of modernism: this work, too, does not go beyond itself; it instead reveals what it is, refusing to hand itself over to a meaning that exists prior to and outside of it, as we may be tempted to say Poussin’s painting does. This is perhaps enough to let one see that the claim to a certain postmodernism advanced here has some real historical bite, some relevance to the past.
The more one explores the immediate art-historical and critical context of the work in question, the more one sees how specific and precise the claims for it are, and so also how easily these can become blurred or lost. The claims for the preeminence of “medium” in modernism may not so much have gone away as become radically more specific, internal to the work as such. Whereas the earlier account imagined a process of ongoing self-criticism participating in a progressive revelation of the medium, this newer work pushes that self-criticism all the way through to the medium, making each work or body of work responsible for showing the medium whose internal division makes it possible.
Nighttime balcony situation, door again ajar, author writing by light of bedroom’s fluorescent bulb, sitting in the same wooden chair, beside a ceramic table of fantastic Chinese design. The little bamboo grove, which rises from a raised trough tiled on two sides (the pillar that supports sun baffle forming the third, the balcony’s outer wall, the fourth), reaches heavenward, its leaves now catching light from below. The brightest objects on the patio are white plastic pots for hanging plants.
In the dim light the rusty brown lion seems to be scowling with displeasure, or perhaps depression. The night is full of sounds more subtle than the sounds of day but more readily discernible. A motorcycle can be heard several streets away, a car along the Saigon River’s tributary, a truck crossing the next intersection with Le Van Sy Street. Nighttime construction activity provides a background too in this renovating district.
All hues have changed. The blue house opposite, with its white-bordered apertures, reads as charcoal. Its windows below, illuminated by yellow light from within, are scarcely visible from this perspective, blocked instead by the densest tree on the balcony. The orange tiles of the house farther down the alley read as somber brown, its green and white awnings as black and white.
A dog walks up the alley, the bell on its collar tinkling. A motorbike fills the narrow cavern between high houses with a quiet music in a lower register. At this hour the angular nude woman can scarcely be identified. Except for the trees, the largest plant on the porch is a robust succulent, whose three-foot leaves spread staunchly up and out. Author’s own form now shadows the tiles.
The air conditioner no longer hums, for the nighttime room is cool enough not to require it. Directly overhead the sky is black. The white of streetlights, the orange-yellow of private beacons guard the scene like solitary sentries. A haloed Kuan Yin standing atop a house is lit by a single bulb. Suddenly lights go on in the windows of another house across the street, but their curtains veil whatever is taking place within. Not much of Saigon divulges itself, at midnight, from this perspective.
My account clearly touches on a number of elements that enter into the general sense of “postmodernism” outlined in the first part of this essay: such practices as quotation or appropriation are central to much of the work; there is a certain placing of the subject, both authorial and represented, in question; there is a studied distance from such terms as “originality” and “genius” in favor of a practice oriented to mediation and repetition; there is a marked interest in rhetorical or signifying excess and an equally marked engagement with discursive structures that function not simply in art and in visual culture but also more broadly in literature and the other arts.
Tran Chau Gallery. Syrup Ice Cream. Le Thanh Ton Street: Cocoa Ice Cream. Contemporary Vietnamese paintings. Fruit Ice Cream. Palettes in mauve, citron, pale green, pink. Four Flavors Ice Cream. A tree whose fragrant petals have fallen into the street. Dalat Strawberry Ice Cream. Onto the cover of a rickshaw. Orange Ice Cream. Onto the sidewalk. Ice Cream in Coconut. The skies are placid but incomprehensibly brown. Chocolate Covered Ice Cream.
Against a red sky, a yellow sun, ethereal strokes of bamboo veiling the heavens. Foot Massage. Beneath: Thai Style Body Massage. Red and yellow flowers. Cherry and Lemon Milk Shake. Beyond a lotus-filled lake four hills like haystacks: in yellow, in tan, in blue, in green. Lime, Orange, Pineapple, Sapodilla Shake. The roofs of the village house are venous red and eye shadow blue. In a green field that extends from the bottom of the canvas to its very top, from one side to the other. For Lady and for Man.
Girls bearing flowers have assembled in a park, all in their long white traditional tunics. (Savico Kinh Do Shopping Center.) Girls, the same girls perhaps, have now, in another painting, mounted their bicycles, two per bike. Avocado Fruit Shake, Coconut Shake. So as to create shadows of themselves in the silver-white rainslick streets of a town whose houses recede behind them, whose rust-red roofs hang menacingly above them. (Kem Bach Dang Ice Cream Parlor.)
Thanh Hoa Art Gallery: “Specializing in oil paintings, silk paintings, embroidered paintings and frames.” 88 Nguyen Hue Street.
MM: Would you describe for me the paintings that the gallery is exhibiting?
Long Phung Tu: Our gallery has many kinds of painting and in the different styles.
MM: For example?
LPT: Classical Vietnamese style. TNK Nhà May (couture): Áo Đài.
MM: And? Closed for lunch.
LPT: Classical foreign painting. Four manikins in a window:
MM: For example? (1) A silver ground behind blue roses.
LPT: Guardi. With pale silvery violet undergarments.
MM: And? (2) Yellow roses on ochre vestment, a dragon wound about the breast.
LPT: Michelangelo. Beneath which descend progressively smaller dragons.
MM: And? The belly in brown, silver-encircled.
LPT: (3) A blood-maroon number: Leonardo da Vinci. Beneath a brocade belt.
MM: Any others? Heavenly stars grow progressively sparser as we descend to the ankles.
LPT: I love Leonardo. Where the Milky Way in a burst makes its appearance.
MM: I find him rather melodramatic. Each breast is covered with an abstract star.
LPT: You do? Two more stars beneath them, trefoils lining the area between the breasts.
MM: Any others? (4) In a separate vitrine.
LPT: Botticelli. A modern asymmetrical gown in light and darker mauve.
MM: And what do you have besides classical painting? A collier hanging above the breast.
LPT: Oh, many things.
MM: Such as?
LPT: Objective painting, by Kandinsky and Picasso.
LPT: Surrealist painting, by Salvador Dali.
LPT: Modern style. We pause to examine a tree in the shape of an inverted yellow pear, a yellow crescent moon bending toward it; on a yellow mound of earth: a blue stripe beneath the “pear” tree, a house with a red roof. Next we turn to a blue vagueness of sea and land, impossible to differentiate but for the boat on the blue sea, the house on a blue hill. Finally, an all-red composition.
MM: Why is the painting of the tree all yellow?
LPT: The tree is not real, it is just in his mind. Yellow on top of the tree means sunshine.
MM: What is the blue stripe underneath the tree?
LPT: It is the street of the village. Blue is the color of sky on river.
MM: What is the meaning of red?
LPT: Red is the happy color, everything is red.
Vision seems to adapt itself to its object, as with the images that one has of a town, when one contemplates it from the height of a tower. Hearing is analogous to a view taken from outside and on the same level as the town. Touch relates to (the understanding of) someone who comes in contact with a town from close up by wandering through its streets.
Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum as seen. The collapse of perspectival distance is perhaps the most dominant visual theme of Benjamin’s Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street). (1) From a brochure describing the collection. As Aby Warburg viewed with phobic horror the implosion that destroyed the space of judgment or reflection. And (2) From an experience of the Museum itself. The reduction of the Denkraum. We enter the former mansion by way of its circuitous staircase. Under the assault of rapid communications and technological invention. As author does so, he is accosted by a private gallery owner importuning him to visit her collections. So Benjamin sees the erosion of the space for criticism. Author smiles politely. Indeed its space, he has informed us, “is for rent”: The museum is musty, dusty and without air conditioning.
Criticism . . . Renovation is also in progress here. Was at home in a world where perspectives and prospects counted and where it was still possible to assume a point of view. Plaster scrapings cover every surface. Now things press too closely on human society. The elevator not working. The advertisement . . . Author mounts to the high second floor landing to take a seat on a traditional piece of furniture. Abolishes the space where contemplation moved and all but hits us between the eyes. To contemplate a brochure describing the collection. As a car, growing to gigantic proportions, careens at us from a film screen. The museum is located near the marketplace called Ben Thanh. As film does not present its furniture in completed forms for critical inspection, their insistent, jerky nearness instead sensational. Which the French call “Les Halles Centrales.” So the advertisement hurtles things at us with the tempo of a film.
“After the Mopping Up Operation,” reads the title of a modern work. Likewise, the intrusion of large-scale urban construction projects into the heart of the traditional city has removed the distance that once separated center from periphery. “A Guerrilla Girl in Ben The Province,” another. A distance confirmed by the sight of the horizon—the view of nature beyond the walls—from inside the city to outside. “The Stubborn Struggle,” a third.And that was reassuring to the dweller enclosed “in the peace of the fortress” as the elemental forces of nature were held back from contact but revealed to view; now, a modern process of “mingling and contamination” has produced ambiguities where clarity once reigned:
Great cities . . . are seen to be breached at all points by the invading countryside. From one’s perch atop a too-high, traditional bench. Not by the landscape but by what in untrammeled nature is the most bitter: Very little of the collection is visible: Ploughed land, highways, night sky that the veil of vibrant lights no longer conceals. A few half- filled cases of derivative porcelains. The insecurity of even the busy areas puts the city-dweller in the opaque and truly dreadful situation in which he must assimilate. Author ventures into a room filled with propaganda woodcuts. Along with isolated monstrosities from the open country. Colorful views of Resistance Soldiers. The abortions of urban architectonics. All are well armed but not equally well delineated.
Between the clarity of the Renaissance Spielraum, that space of free play for both bodies and thoughts, and the ambiguity of modern urban space, between deep perspectives and prospects, and the opaque, flat, impacted surfaces where the subject is rendered blind, so to speak, dependent on habit and custom to feel its way around and through “dark Space,” there occurs a transformation, one of precisely the same order that Benjamin described in his characterization of the Renaissance invention of Spielraum: an historical change, calculated, according to Riegl’s theory of Kunstwollen, in the process of vision itself. At the end of the dingy room, on a pedestal, within a sandy wasteland cordoned off with chain, sit five dusty helmets, stacked atop one another.
Most commentators, reading Benjamin’s Baudelaire essays or taking their cue from the message of the late essay “Work of Art,” have assumed that the German critic construed this change as both cause and effect of the growth of the industrial metropolis. Alongside them, stuck in the ground, is the barrel of a gun, to which has been affixed a bayonet. Certainly all the characteristics of modernity are to be found exacerbated in the sites of the Passagen-Werk. Bent out of shape, presumably by having been used on the enemy. But in a recent rereading, Samuel Weber has discovered intriguing intimations of modern visuality and the notion of the distracted subject in Benjamin’s earlier work on baroque tragedy. The gun barrel has been casually wrapped about with barbed wire. Developing the statement by Benjamin that The Confused Court (the title of a Spanish Trauerspiel) could be taken as a model for allegory, as “subject to the law of ‘dispersal’ and ‘collectedness’” (Zerstreung and Sammlung), Weber then proceeds to extend Benjamin’s statement that “things are brought together according to their meaning.” In the gravel beneath the helmets and the rifle. “Indifference to their being Being (Dasein) disperses them once again.” Lay spent bullets. Weber points out that
the tendency toward dispersion that Benjamin discerns in the collective structure specific to the 19th century metropolis no longer appears to originate with the emergence of urban masses but is rather traceable as far back as the 17th century in Germany. In amongst which is a canteen, its water spent. Second, the dispersed, centrifugal structure of mass phenomena shows itself bound up with articulatory processes at work long before Baudelaire “fenced with the ghostly crowd of words.”
We continue on along one of the avenues leading into/out of the central marketplace. Weber goes on to develop the notion of “distraction,” or “dispersion” (picking up on Benjamin’s tell-tale use of the word Dasein), in terms of a comparative axis that might see a more Heideggerian connotation in the word Zerstreuung than hitherto allowed by a strict late Marxist reading of Benjamin. At a moderately priced hotel author pauses, as respite from the heat, to sit in its air-conditioned lobby. Weber points to Derrida’s examination of the notion of dispersion in Heidegger. On its cream colored walls have been hung contemporary views of village life, of farmers at work in fields. And to its intimate, almost bodily, connection with the spatiality of Dasein . Couch, easy chairs and the stools that sit among them have been upholstered in maroon with, silver, diamond-shaped lozenges. Here we might note in passing that a cursory examination of Heidegger’s own deployment of the term in Being and Time points to two related meanings: “Welcome to Que Hong / Liberty 2,” reads a golden message within a maroon, gold-framed stanchion. The first is linked to the “existential spatiality” of Dasein and its characteristic form of Being-in-the-World as zerstreut, dispersed. Two men stand waiting before the elevator. The other employs “distraction” as an attribute of curiosity and its propensity for “not tarrying”: One some distance from it. “Curiosity is everywhere and nowhere” and therefore “never dwells anywhere.” When the elevator at last reaches the lobby, it disgorges eight passengers.
(1) Viet Nam’s electronics industry plans to look for new export markets and to diversify its products so as to reach its 2005 export target of US$1.4 billion. In Vietnamese popular sayings the number nine is used to express tolerance and reconciliation.
(2) The plan was devised following the industry’s success in 2004, when it earned a record US$1 billion in export. “Everywhere” is expressed by the phrase, “The nine directions of Heaven and the ten directions of Buddha.”
(3) To achieve the current target, the industry will focus on subcontracting orders to produce components for major manufacturers. Both of these senses of dispersion and distraction intersect seamlessly with Benjamin’s use of Zerstreuung.
(4) Domestic enterprises are interested in making inroads into other markets by re-exporting electronic components to such Asian countries as Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. The “Nine tiers of clouds” designates the sky (Heaven).
(5) Or, if not intersect (since Benjamin was resistant to any comparison between his thought and that of Heidegger), then they certainly alert us to the constantly shifting meaning of “distraction” in 1920s discourse.
(6) The industry will also make further investments to upgrade technology and diversify products, especially those suited to local enterprises and technology. The Mekong River is often referred to as “the nine Dragons.”
(7) To meet the world market’s increasing demand, the local industry will expand production of components for household electronics and high-tech industry. In the old imperial capital of Hué one may admire nine dynastic urns cast in bronze.
(8) According to the Viet Nam Association of Electronics Enterprises this is an effective way to develop the industry, given its currently limited capital and technology. Which are symbols of the Nguyen dynasty and stand in The Royal Citadel.
(9) Due to rapid changes in technology, and quickly outdated products, the association has urged domestic enterprises to concentrate on advertising and promotion. And whose engraved figures represent the universe and the natural resources of the country.
(10) The association organizes market survey tours for electronics companies and advises them on how to take advantage of small markets ignored by big foreign firms. In a visit to the altar of a Vietnamese pagoda, one often sees the statue of the Nine Dragons.
(“When there are only nine,” as a popular Vietnamese proverb has it, “Let’s say that there are really ten.” Or as another proverb has it, “He who already owns nine granaries will covet another, so that he may call himself the owner of ten.”)
Author has wandered into a neighborhood where many practical things are for sale. Socrates’ teaching, Levinas argues, centered on the “primacy of the same”: “to receive nothing of the Other but what is in me.” Hardware, paint, motorbikes. (We think, for example, of Socrates’ proof of recollection in the Meno.) On a street corner, in open air, a woman has ranged an enormous display of paints and paint-related products. This is the “mediation characteristic of western philosophy,” which involves somewhere a great ‘betrayal’” of “the Other” into “the same.” ND-Col Spray, in a dozen colors; Expo High Gloss Enamel; Durotex Wall Paint, in plastic buckets. For things the betrayal represents a “surrender” into use by human beings (the rock becomes a useful site to extract ore, the tree a source of timber). Bottles of thinner, half full, a third full, two-thirds full.
For people, this betrayal is “the terror that brings a free man under the domination of another.” ATM Spray Acrylic Lacquer; Super Maxilite Wall Cover; Dulux Weathershield Plus. (We think of Fanon on “this Europe where they are never done talking of Man yet murder men everywhere they find them.”) Small cans of paint for touch-up jobs have had their tops turned upside down, so that a prospective purchaser may match their colors with his or her sample. Truth and universality thus become “impersonal” third terms (“and this is another inhumanity”). Scrapers, brushes, edgers, all in different sizes. Other examples of the “middle and neutral term” are “Hegel’s universal, Durkheim’s social, the statistical laws that govern our freedom, Freud’s unconscious” and, as I have suggested, Heidegger’s “Being.” Super Emulsion, in two-gallon cans and five-gallon buckets.
The work of ontology, then, “consists of apprehending the individual (which alone exists) not in its individuality but in its generality (of which alone there is a science). Rollers—salmon, yellow, beige—have been piled, still in their plastic covers, atop the Emulsion cans. Ontology, the comprehension of the Other by the same, “promotes freedom,” because otherness, mediated by the third term, does not impede the subject. Products from Japan, from Thailand, from the USA. If there is nothing outside me, I am free and without limits. A huge barrel of “Grease,” labeled “Litol3.” But the assumption that “there is nothing outside me,” nothing other, stems from the form of western thought as that ontology which takes the “I” as its starting point. At the display’s other end sits the woman’s sixteen-year-old son, his centrally parted hair died reddish orange.
Freedom rooted in the “I” opposes that justice which takes the “other person” as the starting point. He is holding a tiny new cell phone in both hands. This is clearest in Levinas’ critique of Heidegger: To key in a number.
To affirm the priority of Being in relation to the existent is to already decide the essence of philosophy: Meanwhile, the woman’s daughter supervises an adjacent display that includes screws, nuts and bolts. It is to subordinate the relation with someone who is an existent (the ethical relationship) to a relation with the being of the existent. Screwdrivers and wrenches. Which, impersonal, permits the seizure, the domination of the existent (a relationship of knowledge) and subordinates justice to freedom. Nails and iron pins. If freedom denotes the mode of staying [in the sense of both remaining and delaying], the same in the midst of the other, knowledge (where the existent hands itself over through the medium of impersonal being) contains the ultimate sense of freedom. Claw hammers, ball-peen hammers, sledge hammers. It would be opposed to justice, which involves obligations with regard to an existent that refuses to give itself, the Other. L-braces, metal rings and hinges, plastic grommets, wooden drawer knobs. In subordinating every relation with existents to the relation with Being, Heidegger affirms the primacy of freedom over ethics.
More screwdrivers, these with red handles, green handles, black-and-taffy-colored handles. Once a philosophy of Being has established itself, implicitly or explicitly, an existent can appear only in, or as a part of, that philosophy.
A man in a black baseball cap, black pants and a white, loose-fitting shirt steps into the store, causing the fourteen-year-old daughter to get up off her paint can and produce a display of color samples. This means that the “I” thinks that it is not delimited in any way, insofar as everything it knows is part of itself. So as to help him to locate the color of paint that he is looking for. It is totally free. The merchandise on offer continues: Knowledge is freedom. Plastering hods, saw blades, wire brushes. Moreover, this leads to what Levinas calls the “thematization and conceptualization of the other.” Large and small spatulas; a drill with a set of bits. That is the “suppression or possession of the Other.” Plastic wheels, in yellow, in black, for large pieces of furniture. This means that western thought, which begins with ontology, is a “philosophy of power . . . a philosophy of injustice.”
We pass a cabinet-maker’s shop; a store filled with Buddhist images, ceramics and other ornaments; a shop selling metal sinks and other commercial cooking equipment; a store next to it full of metal hat racks, grates and baffles; a shop selling tape measures and sandpaper, rollers to perforate a surface, band saws and files. Deleuze and Guattari. Two pretty girls. Opposed to Levinas in many ways. Sit at its entrance, both atop upturned paint buckets. Are “participants in what might be described as the advent of a ‘postmodern ethics.’” One is leafing through a slick newspaper-size fashion magazine. “Posed in the light of the dissolution of both the rational, judging subject and the contract-based, liberal accounts of the individual’s allegiance to the social community.” The other, along with their younger brother, stands to examine, silently, the contents of author’s notebook.
Here, both the “rational, judging subject” and the contract-based community partake of the metaphysics of comprehension that reduces otherness to a third term established by that same metaphysics. The two sisters, their brother and a friend smile at author, laugh at him, leave and return, as he continues to write. And its “dissolution” (if too hopeful) certainly reflects a disruption. We pass a store selling hoses, in green, in blue, in colorless plastic. Foucault shows the ways in which western thought turned forms of otherness (which it now calls “madness,” “homosexuality,” “criminality”) into third terms (madness, homosexuality, criminality) and so stripped their otherness from them and incorporated them within the system itself. Stacked within a bin, lengths of plastic pipe have been sorted by size and housed within one another.
In the darkness that is our closest approximation to pure black, the darkness of an unlit alley or of a forest on a starless night, we sense more than is there. Black is the color of unfettered imagination or unmitigated fear or the end of all things as we know them. Predators are born in the mind and released to snap twigs behind us with their paws, or crackle wind-blown week-old newspaper with their boots. Threat after threat hurtles across the edge of eyesight, as one fragment of the unconscious and then another seizes its chance to escape. But in the sunlit snow that is our closest natural approximation to pure white, the danger is blindness. White is where we began, in the possibility of all things. But with white we sense less than is there. In the snow one senses hardly more than oneself: the movement of one’s shadow, the delicate crunch of the crust beneath one’s feet.
Adorno argues that we have the obligation to “think at the same time dialectally and undialectically.” A glass case of metal faucets stands at the entrance to a shop selling both locks and plumbing parts. That it is simultaneously necessary to use reason and not to use it. The owner has chained to a concrete public light pole an assortment of padlocks and combination locks. As Derrida points out, “an ethics without law and without concept, which maintains its non-violent purity only before being determined as concepts and laws.” A sign advertises a “Glass Sliding Show-Case Lock.” Could not become a law or a series of moral axioms. At the next shop many sizes of chain are displayed, along with the tools for cutting their links. For this would mean that it was complicit with, rather than interrupting, the metaphysics of comprehension and would become blind to some Other.
“Young Sax Player Performs to Make VN Love Jazz.” “The sublime offering.” Last night Saxophonist Quyen Thien Dac marked his return to Viet Nam after three years of study at the Berklee College of Music. When it presents itself in philosophy. With his first ever solo concert. Or rather, when it anticipates itself in philosophy. At the Ha Noi Opera House. (Anticipating, in Kant’s time, the essentially technical and artificial character of modern reason.) Dac, 26, son of meritorious artist Quyen Van Minh. Aesthetics is suppressed twice in a single instant. Is devoting two consecutive nights. Once in the end of art and once in the enjoyment of imaginative reason. To classical compositions for saxophone and to jazz. The two are the same, as one can clearly see. By himself and others. Art meets its end, for it consists in the enjoyment with which it achieves itself.
Last night’s concert opened with Jacques Ibert’s “Concertino da Camera.” Kant is not in this the other of Hegel: Other works included: In both, what is at stake in the aesthetic is presentation. “A Little Shepherd” (Claude Debussy). The presentation of truth rests on the truth of presentation. “Scaramouche” (Darius Milhaud). Which is the enjoyment of prefigured unity. “Peace” (Horace Silver). The Hegelian spirit does not enjoy itself in any other way: “Groovin’ High” (Dizzy Gillespie). The Kantian imagination is what it enjoys. “Pavane” (Maurice Ravel). Or again, the Hegelian spirit is itself the final self-appropriating enjoyment of the Kantian Imagination. Sun Hong (Red River) Jazz Band and several guest musicians from Southern and Northern Viet Nam performed with Dac. Philosophy gets off on art, makes of art and the beautiful its own enjoyment.
Tomorrow night Dac will perform his own jazz compositions. We might say that it suppresses them as simple pleasures and preserves them as the pure self-enjoyment of Reason. Along with compositions by other Vietnamese musicians, including those of his father. The Aufhebung of art in philosophy has the structure of enjoyment. A man, bare-waisted, who has probably tired of watching TV and stepped to his balcony, now watches the street instead. And in this infinite structure, art in its turn enjoys itself. Soon he will doubtless tire of watching the street and return into his room to watch TV instead. It can become, as philosophic art. Meanwhile, however, he observes the bike and motorbike traffic in this neighborhood of bike and motorbike repair. The technique of philosophical presentation. The bike repair shops are not busy this bright day. The orgiastic self-enjoyment of Spirit itself.
As always, however, the motorbike repair shops are busy. The first Introduction to the Critique of Judgment is concerned. For there is more to repair on a Yamaha or Suzuki than on a bicycle. More or less entirely with the notion of “system.” A woman in white hat and white sneakers, dressed from chin to heel in a two-piece blue uniform. The system of “philosophy,” of the “powers of the human mind.” Stops her wheeled trash bin to sweep the gutter with a long broom. And its experience. Motorcycles pass in a constant, if not regular, rhythm. It is these “powers” that make it possible to think of experience as a “system.” A girl in a tailored white blouse, her schoolbag slung about her shoulder, stands beside her Honda Dream II. That is, to confer on it the kind of purposive organization that is lacking in the mere knowledge of objects as Kant defined it in his Critique of Pure Reason.
She has parked her motorbike on the sidewalk to wait for her boyfriend. It will, moreover, ensure a systematic correlation between “theoretical philosophy,” which posits objects without purpose or ends, and “practical philosophy,” which posits unconditioned purposes or ends without objects. Along the sidewalk another woman, slightly taller than her mother, strolls past, her hand about her mother’s neck. The systematic knot, then, must secure the ends of philosophy itself, as “the system of rational cognition through concepts.” The mother is dressed in a white-polkadotted blue pajama suit. By tying together ends in general with experience in general. The daughter, in a white-polkadotted green suit. Kant’s second Critique has merely established the conditions for such a system by bringing out and delimiting against each other the central concepts of “nature” and “freedom.”
In a pink pajama suit a younger woman has arrived to take over from her mother in the restaurant where author sits to write. A ten-year-old girl rides past on the back of her father’s motorbike, her long black hair streaming in the breeze, her red shirt indicating happiness. A twelve-year-old girl, daughter of the woman in pink pajamas, glances at author and smiles. Only “purposiveness” assures a connection between the two. The pink-pajama-clad mother opens a silver-topped table and sets it on the sidewalk. Without overstepping their strict reciprocal demarcation. As she does so, its flat polished surface reflects the image of author writing in his red polo shirt. The sixteen-year-old girl in the tailored white shirt still stands beside the motorbike, awaiting her boyfriend, who now arrives, not to kiss her, but to back out the Honda into the street, where the girl climbs on behind him.
Cholon (Chinatown), cool mid-morning temperature, author seated on traffic island before Cho Binh Tay. The festival that epitomizes the Vietnamese cultural identity is indisputably Tet. A huge, indoor market, adorned with Chinese roof tiles, dragon finials, a blue and white ceramic mural set within the architrave of the tower. Although this lunar New Year is observed in the whole of East Asia, under the influenced of Chinese custom. The motorcycle taxiests arrive burdened with boxes. Each country in the region (China, Japan, Korea, Viet Nam). And leave burdened with purchased merchandise: Has institutionalized it in a way peculiar to itself. Envelopes; large plastic sacks stuffed with candies; rolls of fabric; general comestibles; clothing; women’s accessories; miscellaneous plastic items. Making it conform to its own psyche and practice. A girl in a “One Way” orange tee shirt pulls a hand truck past. The Vietnamese Tet is but a distant variant of the Chinese model. A man arrives on a Honda Super Cub piled high with brown sacks, his grey tee shirt reading “Boston.” For its original creations hark back to myths, legends and usages of the pre-Chinese period. There is not any noticeable Chinese ethnicity, either among the customers or the shopkeepers, nor any shop signs in Chinese characters.
The Vietnamese New Year is called Nam Moi, just as the Chinese is called Xin Nian. Across the street from the market rises the Incombank, its upper stories densely baffled with concrete ribs. However, it is popularly called Tet. A “C” in yellow atop the bank is centered within a red diamond. A phonetic deformation of the Sino-Vietnamese Tiet. Centered in turn within a sketchy blue globe. Which designates the joints of the bamboo. All against a white quadrangular ground that has been rotated 90 degrees so as to rest on one of its corners. And also a meteorological period of the year. A bus in three hues of green makes a left turn past the bank, while on the opposite corner rises the image of Colonel Sanders, the blue and white portrait reading against a red background, large white letters in a band beneath him spelling out “KFC.” The passage from one period to the next may cause meteorological disturbances such as heat, rain and mist. Author enters the restaurant to observe from a second floor window both its interior and the street below. These are exorcised by means of ritual sacrifices and festivities. Hanging from the restaurant’s acoustical-tiled ceiling are two sets of advertisements asway in its gentle air-conditioned breeze for two different tortilla-like chicken concoctions, one called “Caesar,” the other, “Dragon.”
Each year there are several Tet celebrations. We have arrived by motorcycle in Cholon, a distant district of Saigon, riding side by side in rush hour traffic with Suzuki Best, Yamaha Jupiter, Honda Spacy, through avenues lined with progressively prosperous emporia. (For example, The Tet of Cold Food, the Mid-Autumn Tet). Bridal shop, beauty parlor, Internet Café; bookstore, boutique and bank. The one with pride of place is the Tet Ca, which marks the New Year. High rise residential towers and well kept parks are other features of this newly emerged metropolis. I have never seen another festival as popular as the Vietnamese Tet, nor any with a more humanistic character. Though Vietnam may be industrially undeveloped, its rural income minimal, Saigon is nonetheless flourishing. For a nation of farmers attached to their rice fields, it expresses the communion of man with nature. Granted, there are still children begging on the street, the illiterate are hard pressed to earn a living, and pockets of urban poverty persist, but the city is entering the 21st century. It seals the union of the living and the dead. At the table next to author a boy of ten, having stopped on his way to school, sits in a red Nike shirt with white swooshes reviewing his homework as he waits for his take-out order of fried chicken.
During Tet, ancestors are invited to return and spend time at the family homestead. Soon a sixteen-year-old waitress in grey uniform, a red-billed blue cap on her head, arrives with his order. Together the living pay visits to the family graves. Having paid, the boy stands and prepares to leave. Adults and children alike. “Jordan,” reads the back of his shirt above an enormous “23.” On the tiled tabletop sit two plastic bottles of ketchup (“Tuong Ca”). The festival also brings together members of the extended family. His cup of coffee finished, author is up and out for further inspection of a neighborhood. And those who live in distant places do all they can to return. Whose Chinese store signs have finally appeared from the second floor of KFC. Tet makes for reconciliation, between, for example, estranged mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. We come at once upon a candy store, its packages in Chinese red and yellow, its loosely assorted candies in yellow, yellow-orange and red; white, lemon and pink; burnt sienna, tan and beige. Likewise it can lead to détente, for example to fence mending by neighbors who had been on bad terms. Over a bowl of noodles the proprietor expresses amusement at author’s activity as meanwhile a delivery boy hefts large boxes up over the counter and into the store.
The whole village shares in the spring festival, which may be celebrated as late as the third moon. Next door the second-floor glass front of a toy store is filled with cheap stuffed animals. Children are careful to behave themselves. On its first floor are displayed Chinese lanterns in red and gold, Chinese sages and gods. Alms are given to beggars, and everything is aimed at a renewal of the spirit. Key rings have been attached to plastic replicas of baseballs and tennis balls, of bananas and carrots, of smiley-faced light bulbs. Each act performed during Tet. To large dice, in red, white and blue. Has consequences for the following twelve moons. The store’s interior is crammed with clocks, hair catches and lamps, artificial bouquets, costume jewelry and glass knickknacks. Hence a series of “opening” ceremonies: The next store is offering incense in triangular bunches of red. A farmer turns the first furrow in his field. Cylindrical bunches of yellow, with green and gold dragons. The scholar writes his first ideogram. Adjacent boxes of red, blue, yellow, green and orange, each color stick embossed with gold. The mandarin official stamps his first seal. Black sticks have been bundled with a picture of a young girl riding a fish, her breasts not fully developed, holding a golden armature with a ruby at its center.
The new spring that arrives brings with it a life of love, hope and confidence. Author crosses the street to view fancy foods. New Year woodblock prints express popular wishes for happiness and prosperity: “Coffee G7,” reads one label; “Lotus Root Drink,” another, “Bird’s Nest,” a third. Plump children, longevity, and fruit. Next to the special food store fancy liquor and tea are for sale, the former display consisting of clear canisters, the latter of closed boxes and of bottles already removed from their packages. In Vietnam, these woodcuts also depict topics that are not at all Confucian: The boxed spirits include. Erotic scenes such as “Jealously” and “Coconut Picking.” “King’s Champagne Mekong,” “Paloma,” “Grammy’s,” “Yesterday,” “Boulevard,” “Tiffany Brut.” Or patriotic scenes of heroes struggling against past Chinese invaders. The unboxed include “Nep Moi,” “Vang Dalat,” “Al Champa.” The most popular food eaten at Tet is undoubtedly the ban chung, a square cake (the shape of the earth in popular imagination). We pass a shop purveying mother-of-pearl-inlayed plaques of animals and birds. Made of glutinous rice stuffed with pork, beans and shallots. A poster shows two pretty girls in magenta and sea-blue ao dai, beneath which, in alphabetic calligraphy, a scroll reads, “Happy New Year.”
Late each evening the official Vietnamese television channel shows a series of videos, performances of popular songs, presented as attractively as possible on a small budget. The human body contains approximately 100 trillion cells. Featuring, that is, competent and attractive, but not star-quality vocalists. Inside each cell there is a black blob called a nucleus. This evening the first video has been choreographed along a river: Inside the nucleus are two complete sets of the human genome. With willowy branches, bamboo sampan and Champa columns. One set of the genome comes from the mother, one from the father. A female actress and a male singer perform for the bedtime audience.
In principle, each set includes the same 30,000-80,000 genes on the same 23 chromosomes. The actress plays a modest girl, who pauses along her bankside stroll, so that the camera may study her serene face, framed in a purple headband. In practice, there are often small and subtle differences between paternal and maternal versions of each gene, differences that account for blue eyes or brown, for example. Like the viewer, the male singer stands atop an embankment to observe the beautiful girl from some distance. When we breed, we pass on one complete set, but only after swapping bits of the paternal and maternal chromosomes, in a procedure known as recombination.
Imagine that the genome is a book: Now the camera pulls back, so that we may study her costumed elegance. That the chromosomes constitute 23 chapters. Her dress begins with a rose collar and bodice, continues with yellow waist and thighs and ends in an emerald band above the ankle. Each chapter contains several thousand stories, called genes. The male singer wears a pure white, three-button suit. Each story is made up of paragraphs, called exons, which are interrupted by advertisements called introns. Beneath which he has chosen an indigo button-down shirt. Each paragraph is made up of words, called codons. His voice is rather saccharine. Each word is written in letters called bases.
There are one billion words in the book, which makes it longer than 800 bibles. In the next song-video a man in a brown shirt and yellow tie courts another rare beauty. If I read the genome out to you at the rate of one word per second for eight hours a day, it would take me a century. She is posing as a peasant girl. If I wrote out the human genome, one letter per millimeter, my text would be as long as the Mekong River. In a long pink robe. It is a gigantic document, an immense book, a recipe of extravagant length. On her arm she carries a pannier of grain. And it all fits inside the microscopic nucleus of a tiny cell that in turn could fit easily upon the head of a pin.
The third segment of today’s program is equally sensuous. The human brain is a far more impressive machine than the genome. But it shows us architectural facades instead of attractive faces. If you like quantitative measurement, it has trillions of synapses instead of billions of bases. The buildings in question are all residential, not official. And it weighs kilograms instead of micrograms. A tracking camera, mounted no doubt on a truck, studies these five-story houses, probably in an upper-middle-class Saigon neighborhood. Or if you prefer geometry, it is an analogue, three-dimensional (rather than a digital, one-dimensional) machine. Cream on yellow; rust and ocher; pink, brown and white.
If you prefer thermodynamics, it generates large quantities of heat as it works, like a steam engine. This musical video, devoted to colorful exteriors, gives way to another with a single, colorful interior. For biochemists, it requires many thousands of different proteins, neurotransmitters and other chemicals, not just the four nucleotides of DNA. A guy in grey jacket, over black tee shirt, sings to a girl in a blouse striped horizontally with the colors of the rainbow. For the impatient, it literally changes while you watch, as synapses are altered to create memories. The set consists of modern decorative panels in green, orange and magenta. Whereas the genome changes more slowly than a glacier.
Three girls in long, formal pink dresses, daisies in their hair, stroll through a field of daisies, bearing shallow, rectangular baskets, which they fill with daisies as they sing. This causes them to lean over one by one, thereby emphasizing the fullness of their breasts. But there is little in this scenario that one might call “sensual.” In the next video a field of flowers again serves as setting. In a long, orange, traditional dress, a large cloth leaf attached at the bosom, a moderately pretty girl sings a slow melodic song. We cut to a view of her standing up to her waist in a flowery field. At the conclusion of the video three young men walk in single file through the field bearing tree branches that are taller than they.
For the lover of free will, the pruning of the neural networks in our brains, by the ruthless gardener called Experience, is vital to the proper functioning of the organ. Three girls, who are neither beautiful nor otherwise seductive. Whereas genomes play their messages in a predetermined way with comparatively little flexibility. Nonetheless excite the sexual impulse by dancing as they sing in sheer green pants and orange, winged, loose-fitting blouses. In every way, it seems, conscious, willed life has advantages over automatic gene-determined life. There is nothing explicitly erotic in their gestures, their attire, or the melody and rhythm of the song, which is, however, obsessive.
As James Mark Baldwin realized, and as modern Artificial Intelligence nerds appreciate, this dichotomy, however, is false. The next singer is a rather plain woman in ao dai, black pants beneath her pink tunic. The brain is created by genes. Pink flowers are photographed in close up, their stamens and pistils vividly displayed. It is only as good as its innate design. The woman waves a long, silken banner the color of her outer vestment. The very fact that the gene is a machine designed to be modified by Experience is written into it. Her pentatonic song has about it a hypnotic quality, though it is also somewhat irritating. The mystery of how is one of the great challenges of modern biology.
Nonetheless, this song, like the others, if it be not too analytical to say so. There can be no doubt that the human brain is the finest monument to the capacities of genes. Serves a very public, very deliberate function in Vietnamese culture and civilization. It is the mark of a great leader that he knows when to delegate. Perhaps as a way of stimulating and controlling eroticism within the largely domestic context of bedtime TV programming. A genome too knows when to delegate. The vigor of a society must not be diminished, and Vietnam, unlike more highly developed, industrialized countries (one thinks of Japan and Italy), cannot afford to have its birthrate decline, for life must go on.
Illustrations by La Toan Vinh
Copyright © Madison Morrison 2005
The Working Week Press