... from myself means that I am not i, am within and without i ...
I am not i can be you and me
... I/i can be I or i, you and me both involved. You and I are close, we intertwine ...

Originally defined by the filmmaker/composer/theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha in her 1989 book Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality, and Feminism, infinite layers is a postmodernist concept dealing with the nature of identity. She critiques the notions of "self" as a defined idea as risen from an absolute, objective reality.

Like others in the postmodern tradition, Minh-ha is seeking here to break down traditional borders and boundries that seperate ideas. Conceptual categories aren't fixed; they are fluid. She states in her work that there is often a polarity between "I" and "Not-I," a division which, according to her, can't fully exist without overlap:

Whether I accept it or not, the natures of I, i, you, s/he, We, we, they and wo/man constantly overlap. They all display a necessary ambivalence, for the line dividing I and Not-I, us and them, or him and her is not (cannot) always (be) as clear as we would like it to be. Despite our desperate, eternal attempt to separate, contain, and mend, categories always leak.

It seems that Minh-ha is attempting here to bring down the typical distinctions that are made when thinking of oneself. Often times, when I am walking around during a given day, I will suddenly become acutely aware of my body's parameters and that it is me seeing all of this stuff. Me. I. Singular. That's all folks. Recently, I've disliked such a concentrated feeling and have tried to disperse it somehow. Usually, I do so by staring at a tree or a building or a pile of mud and projecting myself at it. Reading Minh-ha has made me understand a bit more about why I go through such processes. I do so in order to understand the intersection, the overlap of identities, experiences, and ideas. It is a very interesting concept to study in terms of the connections between things. Minh-ha uses the concept of the "Other" as stated by thinkers like Stuart Hall and others in order to show that A/not-A is not always a valuable method of thinking in terms of absolutes.

Another particularly interesting point in regards to the theory of infinite layers is the desperate need, according to Minh-ha, that some people have to maintain their authenticity as individuals. It is now popular to attempt to do things like "reconnect" with your "true self" and find out what your "identity" is. Says Minh-ha on the subject:

"It is probably difficult for a 'normal,' probing mind to recognize that to seek is to lose, for seeking presupposes a separation between the seeker and the sought, the continuing me and the changes it undergoes."

Minh-ha continues to say that since individuals are a part of the process of change, it is unproductive for them to imagine themselves separate from it by "seeking" an identity that they are already a part of. There is no place "outside" of identity in Minh-ha's conception. She quotes from the Cheng-tao-ke:

You cannot take hold of it,
But you cannot lose it.
In not being able to get it, you get it.
When you are silent, it speaks;
When you speak, it is silent.

Minh-ha's theory of infinite layers leads into her theory of the "Third World" as a postmodern concept. She deals with issues of the oppressed/oppressor and how ideas of identity fit into political and social spheres. She defined the "Third World" to be countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America that are "non-aligned," which, according to her, means that they don't ally themselves with "Western capitalist" or "Eastern communist" power blocs. Minh-ha sees these nations as part of a set of voices that are recently becoming more heard in politics recently, and have in the past had their national identity imposed upon them by outside forces.

Here is where I was finally able to condense Minh-ha's theory of oppression: she sees it as the attempt of any individual or group of individuals to attempt to place boundries and limitations on another individual or group of individual's constantly fluid identity.

I think that such a notion of national and individual identity is interesting given recent developments in political situations, and particularly, the responses to those developments. A popular critique of Minh-ha's theory of infinite layers and its implications is that order is a necessary element in an evaluation of the functioning of a society. A proponent of this angle, Robert Cooper, foreign policy advisor to Tony Blair, states in his controversial essay in the April 7, 2002 edition of London's The Guardian:

"European states are not the only members of the postmodern world. Outside Europe, Canada is certainly a postmodern state; Japan is by inclination a postmodern state, but its location prevents it developing more fully in this direction. The USA is the more doubtful case since it is not clear that the US government or Congress accepts either the necessity or desirability of interdependence, or its corollaries of openness, mutual surveillance and mutual interference, to the same extent as most European governments now do.


"The postmodern EU offers a vision of cooperative empire, a common liberty and a common security without the ethnic domination and centralised absolutism to which past empires have been subject, but also without the ethnic exclusiveness that is the hallmark of the nation state - inappropriate in an era without borders and unworkable in regions such as the Balkans. A cooperative empire might be the domestic political framework that best matches the altered substance of the postmodern state: a framework in which each has a share in the government, in which no single country dominates and in which the governing principles are not ethnic but legal. The lightest of touches will be required from the centre; the 'imperial bureaucracy' must be under control, accountable, and the servant, not the master, of the commonwealth. Such an institution must be as dedicated to liberty and democracy as its constituent parts. Like Rome, this commonwealth would provide its citizens with some of its laws, some coins and the occasional road."

Cooper takes Minh-ha's "Third World" and makes of it what he calls a "pre-modern world," a collection of failed states that had previously been part of an empire. Empires that, according to Cooper, failed because the unifying notion of a monopoly on the use of force was not enough to unite them. He states that what was missing was an inclusion of "the voluntary principle," a notion that some sort of collective cooperation can be attained which will assure the success of such an operation.

A tall order, which Cooper himself concedes. What does this mean for the theory of infinite layers? Minh-ha would perhaps argue that any attempt at "order" is necessarily an attempt to draw lines and create boundries where there aren't any. A system of authority based on "a common security," even if it is not designed to assimilate identities, will do so by virtue of the assignment of members of the "empire" vs. "not-empire" assignments which have no basis in the real, according to Minh-ha.


All quotations from Minh-ha's work from: Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other: Writing, Postcoloniality, and Feminism. © 1989.
Quotation from Cooper's article from: http://www.observer.co.uk/worldview/story/0,11581,680095,00.html or from http://observer.co.uk/worldview/story/0,11581,680117,00.html — same article, different versions.

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