Alexa Climaldi

Art by Richard Barnes

In this vital commemorative portfolio “The Muse: Dictee at 40,” edited by Porochista Khakpour and Jee Leong Koh, 12 writers, scholars, and artists respond to the continuing influence of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s groundbreaking work. Read Porochista Khakpour’s introduction here. For the full portfolio, click here.



You are holding it in your hands. The first image on the right page depicts Saint Thérèse de Lisieux dressed as her patron saint, Saint Joan of Arc, wearing a black wig over her toque and paper fleur-de-lis sewn into her habit next to a well. Sword in hand, the image of Saint Thérèse has the grain of a photo scanned and re-scanned, reproduced and somewhat blurred over time. The image comes from January 21, 1895, from a production of Joan of Arc that she wrote, titled The Mission of Joan of Arc, or The Shepherdess of Domremy Listening to Her Voices. The left page is left empty, void. In Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s DICTEE, the “ERATO/LOVE POETRY” section opens with a woman who at first is not recognizable brushing up, erotically, page to page, against complete emptiness.

Cha’s DICTEE insists on its materiality as a book through the way that it works as a diptych, as an object that folds. The work itself annihilates the reader through its fragmentation, as there is no straightforward narrative to make the process of reading seamless and uninterrupted. Cha herself was an artist who worked across many mediums, from performance art to film to mail art, but her preoccupation with language and the transfiguration of the self that occurs when participating in the art of Others haunts the majority of her body of work.1

To be enclosed, to be held: two hands held together mimicking the movement of a book and diptych. Transformed in their movement, the diptych, not unlike the book, demonstrates a folding that simultaneously divides and unites.2 These two panels, held together by their hinges, are deceptively simple: the diptych changes form as it transubstantiates. It doubles and mirrors, existing paradoxically as it opens and closes, folding in on itself.3 As a precursor to the book and to the codex, the diptych’s history as wax tablet and notebook of the ancient world demonstrates this flexibility and multiplicity of form-object impermanence across both time and non–time based visual arts. The diptych’s translation ability as a medium-as-object opens itself up to a wide array of possibilities, materializing in duality and unity with a variety of mediums beyond just the book, into film, design, architecture, and philosophical thought.

In DICTEE, the process of identification with the elusive reader occurs with contact of the page. The reader is confronted with the fragmented edges of language and history, both calcified into silence through the alchemy of text. The book presents itself in bound pages and inked words that communicate a fragmented story through a variety of styles and images, dissolving its meaning while remaining impossibly intact. Reading these fractals makes it possible for the reader to become someone else, “someone from a far.”4

DICTEE shares a formal kinship with the diptych that is exemplified through the way that the layout demands a consideration of both pages as bound together and tethered in their meaning. The text itself, speaking in the tongue of devotional language and the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, folds and unites the two facing pages into one uniform object. The unity, then, that Cha finds in the materiality of the book is perhaps one of many answers to the fragmentation and glossolalia that the text presents, as it opens and closes, an apparatus that mimics the movement of devotional diptychs of the Christian tradition, as it does in “ERATO/LOVE POETRY.”

The book and the diptych navigate the complexities of the public and the private through the mechanism of the fold, between what is visible and what is cloistered, sacred, sacer, set aside. When a diptych moves, it works by the mechanism of the fold, pleating in on itself and brushing up against the faces of its leaves. Deleuze’s concept of the fold is instrumental here, as the fold, Le Pli, transforms and invokes an attention to the interior-exteriority of both the movement of the book and the movement of approaching a text: “Folding-unfolding no longer simply means tension-release, contraction-dilation, but enveloping-developing, involution-evolution” (Deleuze 8).5 The sacred is protected by this folding, hidden in secret until opened for viewing.

[1] Although Cha produced several artist’s books in her lifetime, DICTEE was the only work that she completed as a work of literature. Her other works, such as Presence/Absence and Pomegranate Offering are much more image based, focusing instead on the decay and mimetic quality of memory, image, and time.

[2] Etymology: < Latin diptycha (plural), < late Greek δίπτυχα pair of writing-tablets, neuter plural of δίπτυχος double-folded, < δι-, δίς twice + πτυχή fold. From the Online Etymology Dictionary.

[3] The movement of the diptych with its opening and closing resembles that of Theresa Cha’s use of the Korean word MAH-EUM, meaning “heart,” or better “the seat of one’s emotions” and “the will to feel” throughout DICTEE, specifically the way that the mouth opens and closes to produce the word. Just as the heart too opens and closes, pumping blood by this mechanism, the mouth and its wordless opening (void) and closing are aspects of language and embodiment that are ever-present in DICTEE as a text and DICTEE as an object.

[4] Cha writes that “The artist, like the alchemist, establishes a ‘covenant’ with his elements, as well as with each member of the viewer. The artists becoming object for the viewer, the viewer as subject, the artist as subject, and viewer as object. The necessary covenant, ‘interfusion of subject and object’ is then, finalized.” In Cha’s work, the viewer/reader is always deeply implied in the work in a way that is generous, an extension of the feelings of displacement and muteness, a way for being nothing together.

[5] In this part of the chapter “The Pleats of Matter,” Deleuze is also thinking through the difference between organic and inorganic matter: “We might say that between organic and inorganic things there exits a difference of vector, the latter going toward increasingly greater masses in which statistical mechanisms are operating, the former toward increasingly smaller, statistical mechanisms are operating, the former toward increasingly smaller, polarized masses in which the force of an individuating machinery, an internal individuation, is applied” (8).


Held in one’s palms, a book, bound together, the spread held in two parts becomes a devotional object in our careful participatory reading of the text. Devotional objects, particularly in the form of the diptych, are both precious objects and precious to themselves. In many portraits of diptychs being read, women are shown veiled, contemplating their texts with minimal scenery or background adornment. The book is always shown open, but often not enough for the viewer to see what it contains, demonstrating its viewability for the reader, but not for the person outside the painting. The book, the diptych: always in two halves, held together by a hinge and made to open and close, to be viewed and placed away, the images in their own sweet proximity.6


The layout of “ERATO/LOVE POETRY” at first glance is full of void space, as many scholars have commented, either through the use of the void as a kind of performance space for the reader to become a participant, or as a way of channeling the silence of exile and colonized language.7 What is striking, however, is the lack of attention to the way that these pages work together through their folding. Each void is only empty through the way that the text is laid out on the facing page. The page is both completely empty and completely full when the book is closed—its division, visually and textually. When opened, the pieces separate, photographic negatives of each side. What this mechanism achieves, to bring Deleuze back into the fold, is an explicit correspondence between the two facing pages. The two stories of the section are set in contact, folded and folding together as the chapter narrates an anonymous marriage on the left pages and gives voice to Therese on the right side, often using Therese of Liseaux’s quotes from her autobiography, Story of a Soul (Fig 1). Within this dyad unfolds another: the unconditional love for Jesus that Therese and Joan of Arc shared becomes a contact zone that demonstrates the limits of language when faced with martyrdom, passion, and the divine.8

[6] Many large-scale altarpieces are triptychs, containing three panels, while diptychs are often smaller and for private rather than public use, as exemplified by devotional diptychs. Devotional diptychs could be opened to create instant altars. See Laura D. Gelfand, “The Devotional Portrait Diptych and the Manuscript Tradition” in Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych, 46-59.

[7] Hagood comments on this aspect of featuring a female film spectator that posits the reader as being able to enter the text through the white spaces and gaps “thus empower[ing] her female reader to be actor rather than merely acted upon, seer rather than merely seen” (1).

[8] “Martyrdom was the dream of my youth…I feel that my dream is a folly, for I cannot confine myself to desiring one kind of martyrdom. To satisfy me I need all. Like You, my Adorable Spouse, I would be scourged and crucified… I would undergo all the tortures inflicted upon the martyrs. With Saint Agnes and Saint Cecelia, I would present my neck to the sword, and like Joan of Arc, my dear sister, I would whisper at the stake Your Name, O Jesus” (117).


As readers of the text, the dyad unfolds that platonic love to us as well, as Denis de Rougemont in Love in the Western World defines as “divine delirium,” “a transport of the soul,” that is “therefore to be called enthusiasm, a word which actually means ‘possessed by a god’ ” (51-2). The chapter ends with an image still of Renee Falconeti playing the role of Saint Joan in Carl Theodor Dryer’s silent film La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), her mouth slightly open, eyes half closed, suggesting a moment of “divine delirium.” If, as readers, we are put in the strange position of both speaking in the voice of the text by way of being told what it is that we are seeing and hearing, the movement between pages in this section implies a reading practice that approaches the point of articulation and circles the drain of interpretation, while still holding its secret closed within its folds. What this section asks most crucially is what it means for a work to only be complete when the book itself is closed, sealed off from our curious eyes and wandering imaginations.9 If this union is only visually found on the page when the pages themselves are closed, touching, kissing one another, what might it mean for a reader that belongs outside of this surface-to-surface relationship?

[9] Giorgio Agamben’s “Idea of Love” exemplifies love as a kind of mutual contamination and mutual speciation: “To live in intimacy with a stranger, not in order to draw him closest, or to make him known, but rather to keep him strange, remote… And, even in discomfort, to be nothing else, day after day, than the ever open place, the unwaning light in which that one being, that thing, remains forever exposed and sealed off.”



DICTEE, like the diptych, opens and closes itself physically and hermeneutically. The work is built around this opening and closing, through physical form and reinforced through the various ways that the reader opens and closes their mouth as they approach the precipice of language, the way the body moves opening and closing without language.10 Cha’s work, notoriously opaque and fragmented to the point of near incommunicability for some, is noted by Elaine Kim who writes: “The first time I glanced at DICTEE, I was put off by the book. I thought that Theresa Cha was talking not to me, but rather to someone so remote from myself that I could not recognize ‘him’ ” (“Poised on the In-Between” 3). Shu Mei Shih also shares this frustration: “the text often seems to drown in its own fragmentation, refusing to make any straightforward, easily communicable signification” (194). Further, Li Hyun Yi Kang writes that “I found myself literally yelling at the book...It angered me that the text was not always accessible, that it seemed to speak to a highly literate, theoretically sophisticated audience that I did not identify with. Most of all, Cha herself remained elusive” (75-76). In this collage of responses to Cha’s work, the problem stems from the idea that the book itself is open but remains hermeneutically closed in some ways. The text itself is physically open, pages spread and yet it remains closed off in some capacities. It is worth noting that many, if not all of these scholars, are reading from the vantage point of both Asian American literature as well as feminist and (post)colonial studies, and while all of these essays do move past their initial confession of frustration and difficulty, the resistance that is felt in these responses serves as a point of reference of how the text does not perform what it is they want it to do; to deliver a narrative that is legible as immigrant.

Conversely, Trinh T. Minh Ha articulates clarity and narrative as such: “Nothing could be more normative, more logical, and more authoritarian than, for example, the (politically) revolutionary poetry or prose that speaks of revolution in the form of commands or in the well-behaved, steeped-in-convention-language of ‘clarity’ ” (16).11 Functional text, and by extension, functional books are the object of literary criticism. Without function, without its object, the work cannot “work,” as critics and readers who perhaps were hoping to “find” something indicative of its origin or source, author or story, whirl themselves about the vast abyss of nothingness to hopefully pin something down, like trying to pin down waves on the beach with hammer and nails in an attempt to make meaning.12

DICTEE cannot be divorced from its historical context. Instead, in paying close attention to the ways that DICTEE works through its muteness, through the way that the text makes us participate in its silence, we might begin to enter into a reading that locates history as not just linguistically fraught but also within a fold. For Cha, there is a quiet violence in the transmission and transmutation of history that both precedes and exceeds language and written word. There is a discomfort and difficulty then, when a text that is steeped in its historicity does not work, or speak, as a singular narrative in the same way that other texts work to weave themselves into the fabric of dominant (or visible, spoken, defined) historical records. DICTEE in many ways is built around this discomfort in its refusal to accommodate an easily reduced narrative, down to the syntactic level.

Against a theory of history that is built around objective truths, understandable tragedies, and privileged narratives, DICTEE often gives false information in its various references to Sappho and classical muses. The quote, “May I write words more naked than flesh, stronger than bone, more resilient than sinew, sensitive than nerve,” that opens the text on the first page is not attributed to Sappho at all, and Elitere is named as the muse of poetry instead of Euterpe. This willingness to be both “wrong” and difficult, deceptive and elusive, secretive and obscured, demonstrates, at least in the context of Asian American literature and feminist readings, a book that resists typical modes of reading that are excavatory or violent. It is difficult to contain under these paradigms of reading. The methods that a reader trained in a literary criticism that understands the page as speaking for a subject, or representing an unmediated narrative in history place, seem to produce readings that aim to find something representable when confronted with what they cannot excavate.

Cha points towards this species of literary criticism in “CLIO/HISTORY” where the apparatus of the message and the word as it relates to criticism and history is depicted as a passive ventriloquism, a banal correspondence: “This document transmitted through, by the same means, the same channel without distinction the content is delivered in the same style: the word. The image. To appeal to the masses to congeal the information to make bland, mundane, no longer able to transcend their own conspirator method, no matter how alluring their presentation. The response is precoded to perform predictably however passively possible. Neutralized to achieve the no-response, to make absorb, to submit to the uni-directional correspondence” (33). Here, History is a text that shuts you up. Instead, we open the book to see what history makes mute, what becomes visible to us through the transfiguration of word into imagination, vision into inquiry.

Through cinematic fragmentation, language dictation forcing language and glossolalia into the reader’s mind as a subject that is hailed by and hails the text, and collage-like structure, Cha offers the reader a transformation of sorts. The reader of DICTEE is one that holds the text, its pages like rosary beads between the tips of the fingers, mouthing the words, transformed and illuminated by the book itself.

[10] “She takes my left arm, tells me to make a fist, then open. Make a fist then open again, make the vein appear through the skin blue-green-purple tint to the translucent surface. Pump them open and close.”

[11] Echoed by Michel Beaujour in “Flight out of Time” from Literature and Revolution: “A wholesome, clear, and direct language is said to be the fulcrum to move the mass or to sanctify it” (138). To be “clear,” in Cha’s language, would mean to write “uni-directional correspondence” (33).

[12] From The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche: “The subject—the striving individual bent on furthering his egoistic purposes—can be thought of only as the enemy of art, never as its source.”


it is you standing there, waiting for the screen. her image arrived (arrive) too soon. it will not begin for some time. you wait. for time intransitive.

the image of. mouth on a screen, opening and closing. echolocations of silence between. you open and close your mouth and (no) sound comes out. a dream once, lips folding, pleated dark. (some) thing is said. you hear her voice and you never knew her. not even to know (what) that is said.

and always you will return to this. opening and closing. where did you learn to take the fold. to make the sound of reading into her voice. to hear the habit to hear the words. to open to the smallest act of (pure love). to read to intimate.
it is a dead woman who speaks.
our fall into this encounter of this work is both impossible and inevitable. the paths cross resolving a debt from the past. a comment-taire on the closing end credits.


Alexa Climaldi

Alexa is an adjunct and artist in Brooklyn interested in the occult, mysticism, Korean shamanism, the gelatinous, and sound (or) screaming with little regard for disciplinary borders. She has written on the impossibility of language in Asian American literature and late-Medieval mystical texts and continues this work refracted through a variety of sonic and textual approaches.

Richard Barnes

Richard Barnes is a New York–based artist and photographer. For his series “Murmur,” which he produced over the course of two years, he photographed hundreds of thousands of migrating starlings in the skies above Rome as they coalesced in formations known as murmurations. Barnes’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions that include the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego; the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh; Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, MI; and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. His photographs are held in numerous public and private collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Whitney Museum in New York; SFMOMA; LACMA; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. Barnes was the recipient of the Rome Prize in 2005, and in 2006 his work was featured in the Whitney Biennial and awarded the Alfred Eisenstadt Award for Photography. His monograph, Animal Logic, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2009.

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