A DIFFÉRANCE NOT DIFFERENT: ASIAN FETISH, BLACK SUBVERSION AND WHITE SUPREMACY IN POSTMODERNIST FILM: A CRITIQUE OF DERRIDA, GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI, & KILL BILL
Much has been said in the past three decades about an emerging movement within the arts that has been shaking the foundations of modern conceptions and theories of literature, film, visual arts and theatre. Dr. Brendan Sweetman of Rockhurst University, in his essayPostmodernism, Derrida and Différance: A Critique, defines postmodernism as a critical praxis, “a movement whose central theme is the critique of objective rationality and identity, and a working out of the implications of this critique for central questions in philosophy, literature and culture.” (Sweetman, 1) Postmodernism emerged to challenge the presuppositions and a priori assumptions about the possibility for art to elucidate the nature of human understanding—it is fundamentally skeptical, even cynical. Sweetman’s definition of postmodernism, however, is only meaningful within an historical context. Professor of Communication, Culture, and Technological Programs at Georgetown University, Martin Irvine, claims postmodernism is only legible insofar as it “presupposes there is/was something known as “modernism” from which, or against which, something can be ‘post.’” (Irvine, The Postmodern) Characterized by an overt skepticism to the formalist ideals, ideologies and presuppositions characterizing “modernity,” postmodernism functions first and foremost as a critical methodology challenging the past. It is only from within these overlapping yet dual understandings of postmodernism that the genre gains its import as a social movement and critique: one analysis by Irvine, who claims postmodernism’s development was abetted by a historically developed need for self-reflexive criticism; and another by Sweetman, who defines postmodernism in relation to that which precedes it, and sees its predecessor as the necessary foundation of its critique—as that which it supposedly fundamentally rejects. A stable definition of knowledge becomes a luxury; one constantly under attack by the skepticism induced by an ever-dissolving investment in morality, ethics, and the logics underlying social relations, created by particular and agential historial and discursive interests. Elucidated by these very same tensions, post-modernism’s central questions become: “how much can we know?” “What becomes of what we thought we knew?” and “what, if anything, is the import of art?”
It’s this skepticism that postmodernism brings to the question of art and its ability to provide answers about humanity that facilitates my examination of postmodernist film’s incorporation of race and racial issues into its narratives and thematic modalities. Particularly, it’s what guides and motivates my desire to explicate the relationship between Asian Identity, Black Identity, and white supremacy in the works of Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, two of the leading pioneers of postmodernist film, and their films Ghost Dog and Kill Bill respectively. In order to explicate both of their configurations of race within the postmodernist genre, it is necessary to have a more thorough understanding of postmodernism and its trajectory, particularly the theoretical origins from which the development of postmodernism gained its legibility and social influence. French philosopher Jacques Derrida is often attributed as the spearheading figure of postmodern thought, as his theory of “deconstruction” has been confirmed as the ideological basis of postmodernism. Sweetman validates Derrida’s basic premise, outlined in his Margins on Philosophy, in which he postulates that “all identities, presences, predications, etc., depend for their existence on something outside themselves, something which is absent and different from themselves,” resolving in the claim that “all identities involve their differences and relations; these differences and relations are aspects or features outside of the object different from it, yet related to it, yet they are never fully present.” (Sweetman, 2)
The realm of reality (differance) and the realm of identity (presence) cannot exist within the same temporal, or spatial context. Derrida’s thesis, explicated by Sweetman, is that difference—or rather, reality—is non-agential: “It governs nothing, reigns over nothing, and nowhere exercises any authority,” (Sweetman, 2) precisely because, in being the essence of reality, it is constituted by nothing other than itself—it has no references. Identity, or presence, on the other hand, is agential, because it does not have an essence in itself: its purpose is to explain that which is external to it. “Our contact with [identity],” as Sweetman postulates, “in human experience, our involvement with it through language, always takes place by means of concepts, or predication.” (Sweetman, 3) Reality, Derrida argues, prefigures language, and, subsequently, prefigures meaning. This is because it is only through non-primary methods that reality can come to exist and be a site of knowledge. As such, the deconstructionist asserts identity’s dependent relationship to its context in order to attain value, and as such, its meaning is always changing, never stable, subject to discursive influence and distortion. Through his explication of Derrida, Sweetman resolves “[identities] [are] what [they] [are] not and [are] not what [they] [are].” (Sweetman, 3) Under postmodernism’s adjudication, “identity” is a concept comprised of nothing other than hot air.
This becomes the theoretical point of reference for my deconstruction of both Jarmusch and Tarantino, who take the basic postulations of Derrida, and execute them—aesthetically and in their narratives—to create visions for race’s literal, as well as contextual function in the universes of their films, as well as the outside world. Through the primary thesis of postmodernists—“that no particular worldview can claim to have truth” (Sweetman, 3)—they assert a bizarre, and ultimately contradictory vision of race and its import, which betrays their ultimate investment in race as a meaningful social category. It’s this contradictory vision that I critique and posit to be the foundation, or motivation, for white supremacist, neo-colonial navel-gazing, which goes against the supposed function of postmodernism as an anti-hegemonic aestheto-critical technical framework and critical praxis. Therefore, Sweetman contends, postmodernity and its aesthetic, artistic, and ideological concomitants quickly “[lend] themselves to a political agenda” unmasking a post-racial, post-structural ideological investment, “in the sense that worldviews are almost by definition oppressive since they privilege some (literal) meanings and marginalize others.” (Sweetman, 3) As Sweetman maintains, “deconstruction thus becomes the method for rejecting and debunking worldviews” (Sweetman, 3) insofar as no identity can be seen to exist while not, to some extent, reaffirming paradigmatic hegemonies within any cultural history. Postmodernism’s skepticism can at its best be seen as a healthy skepticism to categorical imperatives, and at its worst become a call for apathy and irremediable nihilism.
Both Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino toe the line between skepticism and nihilism, evinced through both of their seminal artistic works. Their differentiations, however, play out most notably when incorporating issues of race. Jim Jarmusch, born of Ohio, gained clout and prominence when his first major release, Stranger Than Paradise, gained mainstream success in 1984. The film is noted for its unusual narrative structure, absurdist humor, and cynical worldview. Jarmusch shot the film in black and white, giving each of the scenes a feeling of hollowness that pervades throughout each element of the film: the main character, a young man named Willie, who self-identifies as a “hipster,” lives in a worn-down New York City neighborhood riddled with poverty, detritus, and broken souls; the interior of his apartment is no better, its walls shabby and mostly unadorned, the aged and decrepit hardwood floors creak with each step taken atop them. Paradise’s universe contains essentials, nothing more. (Jarmusch, Paradise) The context in which these characters live their lives is characteristic of the plot of the movie itself: Willie is abruptly greeted by his cousin Eva from Hungary, who’s forced to stay move to America while her aunt, with whom she lives, is in the hospital and no longer able to care for her. Hardly able to speak a word of English, and stuck in New York City for an indefinite period of time—perhaps months—Eva tries unsuccessfully to befriend Willie, who repeatedly dismisses her very existence. This bizarre treatment of family under the most dire of circumstances becomes the comedic engine of Stranger Than Paradise, and the definitive feature of its absurdist humor and postmodern ethos—things are not as they should be, but are taken for what they are. As film critic Roger Ebert said of the Paradise’s distinct brand of humor, it’s the off-beatness of the characters in relation to their surroundings that gives the film its fresh brand of levity. The title cards that frame each new scene, Ebert mentions, are funny in how “momentous” they are “in a movie where who even knows what day it is.” (Ebert, Paradise) Paradise’s humor, as well as its narration, is postmodernism’s formative ware. As Sweetman’s analysis of the genre aptly articulates, since all postmodernist products assert “knowledge is contextual,” for the postmodernist, influenced “by culture, tradition, language, prejudices, background beliefs,” knowledge is “therefore, in some very important sense, relative to these phenomena,” (Sweetman, 3) and through its framing as such, can be exposed in its eccentricity, for its artificiality—for being manufactured—thus becoming a site of humor and absurdity.
Jim Jarmusch established his creative and postmodernist wares in Stranger Than Paradise, and reconfigured these aesthetic and ideological sensibilities Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch’s greatest commercial and mainstream success, and focused on race, politics, and the philosophies of “East” and “West.” Ghost Dog begins with an epigraph, similar to those of the title cards found throughout Stranger Than Paradise, taken from Hagakure, a compilation of sayings from Ancient Japanese Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo, and read by the title character Ghost Dog, played by Forrest Whitaker. The first line betrays Jarmusch’s fascination with nihilism, which he resolves, immediately, with death: “The way of the samurai is found in death.” (Jarmusch, Ghost Dog) Ghost Dog continues, declaring, “Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate on being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords,” his words overlaid by images of pistols, rifles, and guns. From the onset of this philosophical composition, Jarmusch explicitly makes visual parallels and relationships between the ancient Japanese philosophies of Tsunetomo, and modern, urban class warfare. The regality of the swords, and their entrenchment in noble Japanese samurai warfare, are made analogous to, while being framed as in contrast with, the guns lying on Ghost Dog’s table. Ghost Dog as a character, with his cornrows, heavy, oversized black sweater, baggy jeans and muffled, husky voice, is, by all aesthetic descriptions, a “gangster,” yet his concern with ancient philosophy disrupts all possible inclinations of the viewer to stereotype him as a thuggish trope. This is given all the more resonance, and made all the more clear, when contrasted with the white, Italian mob bosses who will later in the film try to kill him, who prove to be nothing more than incompetent, racist fools. While on the hunt for Ghost dog, they startle, and kill multiple people who either vaguely resemble, or happen to be in the same location as Ghost Dog. In one stint they run into a fair-skinned, stocky brown man on the roof where Ghost Dog used to live, and once they realize he isn’t Ghost Dog, berate him with racial slurs, calling him a “Puerto-Rican, Indian Nigger.” They attempt to shoot him, missing by a near foot and killing a nearby pigeon, to which the man replies “Stupid looking white man.” They run off, and the scene fades to black. Clearly, a joke is being made, run throughout the course of the film, that the “traditional” Italian Mob Boss, characterized by or in service to a white supremacist racial hierarchy, is being over turned. In order to engage with the film we are required to suspend our preconceived judgments about thugs and gang violence, and come to see Ghost Dog as ultimately nobler.
The relationship between Ghost Dog, his devotion to ancient samurai code, and his relationship with racism and white supremacy, thus come to have a complicated and nuanced series of connections. Jarmusch takes stereotypes about Ghost Dog’s blackness, tempers them with tropes of “Asianness,” and uses their synthetic fusion as a critique of white supremacy. This revisionist characterization of race is expressly postmodern, as Derrida’s proposition “that there are no fixed meanings present in the text, despite any appearance to the contrary” (Sweetman, 4) takes literal representation in the contrast between the Japanese philosophy and the categorically “black” executions, crimes, and death and modern urban strife; between the guns and the samurai sword Ghost Dog weilds on his roof; between competency and race. The identities, both categorical and individual, “depend for their existence on something outside themselves, something which is absent and different from themselves,” (Sweetman, 4) they require a new reality, a new universe, a new différance. This is highlighted in the developing relationship between Ghost Dog and a young girl named Pearline, who, hardly older than ten years old, takes a fascination with Ghost Dog and his loner sensibilities. One day at the park, while Ghost dog sits quietly in isolation eating ice cream, Pearline approaches, sharing with him some of her favorite literature, which ranges from W.E.B DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, and a pornography, which Pearline has no interest in reading, but appreciates for the cover art. After getting acquainted, Ghost Dog introduces Pearline to his “best friend” Raymond, the Haitian operator of the park’s ice cream truck, who incidentally can only speak French. As they converse, Jarmusch clearly frames the relationship between the three characters as a characteristic portrayal of postmodernist dialogue—one that defies the confines of reality: Ghost Dog and Pearline shouldn’t be able to talk because he is a hitman and she is a young, clearly precocious and studious girl (this is even hinted at when Ghost Dog asks Pearline to come with him to the ice cream truck, and she shrewdly retorts that she is “knows better,” despite ultimately obliging him); Ghost Dog and Raymond shouldn’t be friends because they can not understand each other’s languages; Pearline and Raymond should not form a bond through their relationship with Ghost Dog because, as we’ve already been told, his story will end with an untimely death. However decontextualized these relationships are able to be, they are nonetheless facilitated by real social categorization: Ghost Dog is only non-threatening insofar as the violence he commits is performed through a lens of Asian, Japanese Samurai aesthetics, mitigating the threat Ghost Dog would exude were he simply black. That this is only done within the context of white supremacist notions denigrating blacks does little to actually change racial relations—or create a new différance—insofar as it simply disguises these relations under modulated categorical terms.
That reality is distorted in the interests of a postmodern, postracial, and post structural différance is not an artistic device belonging solely to Jarmusch. more egregious exploiter and abuser of the critical framework, Quentin Tarantino showcases a more explicit use of this critical framework to facilitate white supremacy. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, released in 2003, also begins with an epigraph, this time by Chinese warrior and philosopher Sun Tzu, which reads: “Revenge is a Dish Best serve cold.” (Tarantino, Kill Bill) After it fades to black, the film begins with a close-up shot of the character “The Bride,” played by Uma Thurman, bloody and lying on the floor at her wedding. As she lies on the floor, bloodied and crying, she tells the unseen man (who is Bill of the film’s title) that she is carrying his unseen child, when suddenly, Bill shoots her in the head. The Bride survives, though her unborn child wasn’t so lucky, and we find out in the following scene that she has been lying comatose in the hospital for the past four years. This infanticide is the basic engine of the film, as The Bride makes it her mission from the time she awakes to avenge her unborn child by killing everyone who had a hand in betraying her.
Kill Bill’s storyline, while driven by motherhood and gender, is facilitated primarily by race. Once Bride escapes from the hospital, she makes her way to the quiet suburban home of Vivica A. Fox’s character Vernita Green, one of the accomplices in Bride’s hospitalization and the murder of her child. They begin to fight, in a cartoonish, “kung-fu” style manner—what with all the sound effects of karate chops, kicks, and contact hits—which is supposed to be a point of humor, spawned by the absurdity of a white and black woman fighting with traditionally Asian techniques. There is, throughout Bride and Vernita’s interactions, then a very deliberate provocation of racial symbols and tensions, which come out when Vernita’s daughter, Nikki, returns home from school in the midst of their fight. We are made to realize that Vernita is more than just a ruthless backstabber—that she is also a mother—and it appears as though she and Bride will attempt to reconcile their animosity for one another, for the sake of Nikki. There is a moral connection shared between Vernita and Bride understood between their gender and domestic occupations as mothers (both actual and potential), which seems to extend beyond their mob allegiances. But this potential reconciliation is shattered when Bride says that there is no “getting even” for infanticide, and that Jeanine will eventually have to pay the price. She agrees, however, to not kill Vernita in front of her child. “No one deserves that,” she says. (Tarantino, Kill Bill)
When it seems like Jeanine capitulates and accepts that the two won’t make peace but that they can still be civil, she begins to prepare breakfast for the two and then shoots a gun through a box of kaboom cereal (ha! the irony). When she misses, Bride throws a knife at Jeanine, killing her. The camera zooms out and we see Nikki, who has been watching the scene from the doorway leading into the kitchen. Bride tells Nikki that her mother deserved her death, but that if she “still feels raw about it” in the future that the Bride will accept whatever vengeance comes her way—murder becomes a commodity of exchange, a token of retribution and reconciliation, which has no moral telos. However, the characters invest in their nihilism, as their vengeance is made central, and deemed necessary for the plot.
Kill Bill posits a nihilistic take on ethics and morality, seeing the dismantling of moral code as a necessary and fulfilling entryway into the world—or différance—of revenge and redemption. Tarantino implores us to exploit this différance because it is supposedly an “equal opportunity employer”: anyone who breaks the rules is subject, so the mandate goes, to the same rules and regulations as everyone else. However, this view is challenged when you look at the specific instrumentation of race and its function within the film. Cultural critic and author bell hooks, in her review of Tarantino and his film Pulp Fiction, his claim to fame, and cited by film critics as one—if not the—defining cinematic work of postmodern times, claims “Tarantino has the real nihilism of our times down.” (hooks, 47) She alleges “[Tarantino] represents the ultimate in ‘white cool’: a hard-core cynical vision that would have everyone see racism, sexism, homophobia but behave as though none of that shit really matters, or if it does it means nothing ‘cause none of it’s gonna change, ‘cause the real deal is that domination is here to stay—going nowhere, and everybody is in on the act.” (hooks, 47) She reminds us, however, that “domination is always and only patriarchal—a dick thing,” which can give us necessary insight into Kill Bill’s usage of race, which I claim it subverts, exploits, and fetishizes in the interest of preserving white supremacist ideals of masculinity.
I’d even go a step further than hooks and say that Tarantino’s postmodern nihilism is necessarily a white supremacist “dick thing,” advanced by the appropriation of tropes of Asianness that is instrumented into white supremacist myths about the relationship between blacks and whites. Bride is able to claim revenge on Jeanine—a mythicized, historical revenge—for being a Jezebel; her crime, symbolically as a “patriarchal” function, equivalent to a rape scorning Bride and killing her innocent child. In Pulp Fiction, hooks notes, black folks, “personified simply and solely by black men, are just into a dick thing, wanting to be right there in the mix [of violence], doing the right thing in the dance hall of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” (Hooks, 48) In Kill Bill, I argue, Black Women take the place of black men in the farce, as Kill Bill is a story of matricide, revenge between women. Somehow, the voyeuristic, visceral pleasure the audience is supposed to feel when seeing Bride trump her transgressors, from Fox’s character, to Lucy Liu’s, to Darryl Hannah’s who tries to rape her, yet somehow women of color are not figured into the equation, nor deserving of the same empathy. Supposedly just a function of nihilism, of this postmodern rejection of morality where all belief is suspended, “Folks be laughing at the absurdity and clinging to it nevertheless….” (hooks, 48) Yes there’s absurdity and fiction, a distortion of presences and identities, but the “duel” between Bride and Vernita, and later between Bride and an army of Asian samurai women led by Lucy Liu, is really a battle over who gets to be the real woman—and that woman, we know, will always be white. “Tarantino’s films are the ultimate in sexy cover-ups of very unsexy mind-fuck”; they present twists and distortions to the structure within which his characters exist, “but then everything kinda comes right back to normal. And normal is finally a multicultural world”—one that deals “justice” evenly—”with white supremacy still intact.’” (hooks, 50)
Violence as a motivating force in Kill Bill, and throughout postmodern film, is always facilitated by the categorical order that the genre claims to fundamentally repudiate and shame. It’s why violence in Ghost Dog always come at the expense of one’s masculinity; and why violence in Kill Bill becomes a contest for who will have, as hooks calls it, “the bigger dick.” In the way bell hooks implores us to question how in Pulp Fiction, Butch and Marcellus “boy-bond” over their “shared fear of homosexual rape,” and to think, “Doesn’t Tarantino just name the homophobia of our times—calling out the way patriarchal homosocial bonding mediates racism?” (hooks, 50) an analysis of Kill Bill, from within the same postmodern, deconstructionist critical framework, betrays the question of how Kill Bill postulates that white femininity is mediated by a fear of racial upheaval by minority onslaughts. After all, isn’t that why Bride fights alone while her competitors move in packs?
It’s for these reasons that I find postmodernism to be an ultimately unreliable and unhelpful critical framework and artistic genre for providing substantive alternatives to racial dilemmas. These films’ constant configurations of race, gender, and constraints, supposedly modified within new universes and realities, merely mask their primary investment in these categories to facilitate their drama, anxiety, and narrative. They are self-contradictory at heart. They are, as Sweetman finds in critiquing Derrida, “assertions without argument:” they make “metaphysical claim about the nature of language and meaning: that there are no transhistorical meanings or essences, and that all texts can be deconstructed,” without arguing for why that is the case; they merely, instead, “[assert] [the same claim] over and over again.” (Sweetman, 9) For these reasons I conclude that the genre as a whole is ultimately inefficient as a revolutionary measure to deconstruct hegemonic modalities and hierarchical paradigmatic relationships. As hook resolves, a cynical read on life can be compelling, entertaining, and downright satisfying—so much so that everyone will come back for more.” (Hooks, 51) But as, she reminds us in citing scholar and poet Amiri Baraka: “’Cynicism is not revolutionary.’” (hooks, 51)