Reading Michael Cimino's the Deer Hunter: Interpretation as Melting Pot

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Race, gender, and ethnicity often tend to function in contrasting modes within a postmodern/poststructuralist climate. On the one hand, marginalized groups seeking cultural definition and political power focus on things such as finding out who they are, defining themselves apart from dominant culture, forming a single, coherent sociocultural (hence political) unit. These are relatively essentialist activities, presuming the possibility of stable and fixed entities or conditions (self, dominant culture, unity, coherence, singularity, and so on). On the other hand, analyses of race, gender, and ethnicity-especially from a poststructuralist perspective-tend to emphasize the instability of all three terms and of any essences to which the terms presumably relate.1 Bridging and, at the same time, distinguishing both modes is the notion of "difference." Cultural definition demands that the formation, traditions, and needs of one race, gender, or ethnic group be perceived as "different" and unique-and be acknowledged as such by other groups, dominant culture, the political system, etc. This kind of "difference" is, however, designed to affirm a kind of foundational "identity"-a self-sameness within a group which grounds it and makes it what it is. Poststructuralist analysis emphasizes a "difference" that is beyond identity, beyond grounding, because it results from a dynamic cultural and political process of signification and resignification-a ceaseless play of "differing" and "deferring." For Henry Louis Gates. Jr., "Race" is a term always in quotation marks-"a trope of ultimate, irreducible difference between cultures, linguistic groups, or adherents of specific belief systems which-more often than not-also have fundamentally opposed economic interests. Race is the ultimate trope of difference because it is so very arbitrary in its application."2 As Susan Bordo notes, "for some feminist literary theorists, gender has become a 'discursive formation,' inherently unstable and continually self-deconstructing. The meaning of gender is constantly 'deferred,' endlessly multiple."3 Anthony Julian Tamburri notes that "pertinent to a recent discourse on ethnic recovery ... is the notion that ethnicity is not a fixed essence passed down from one generation to the next,"4 and Michael M.J. Fischer claims that "ethnicity is something reinvented and reinterpreted in each generation by each individual."5

The "difference" in these "differences" is fundamental to discussions of the politics of race, gender, and ethnicity, particularly in poststructuralist discourse. If everything exists solely in an endless system of play or signification, where does political agency come in? How do subjects-whether individual or collective-bring about change? And, if power itself is just an effect of signification and difference, how do subjects access power or alter the relations of power in society? There seems to be the need for some essentializing activity, provisional though it may be: the consolidation, on a site- and issue-specific basis, of definitive (albeit quasi-fictional) unities-e.g., interest groups-as sources of political agency and efficacy. Identity (individual or group) can itself be seen as precisely this kind of provisional, ceaseless, quasi-fictional process of consolidation (and dissolution) which at moments approximates-yet in the long run radically differs from-essentialist forms of selfhood.

While the politics of difference is a crucial contemporary issue, it is not the focal point of this essay. Rather, I am concerned with the way in which narrative and/or conventional forms of narrative criticism can efface both types of difference discussed above: fixing the play of meanings so that interpretation settles on a single, totalizing, and abstract interpretation to a text. In the case of The Deer Hunter, this process of abstraction deprives an ethnic group of its cultural difference. In the parlance of American culture, we might term this the "melting pot" approach to meaning. …


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