Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Constructions of Transcultural Subjectivity: Going beyond Nationalism and Ethnicity in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

Constructions of Transcultural Subjectivity: Going beyond Nationalism and Ethnicity in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

Article excerpt

PUBLISHED SIXTEEN YEARS after the end of the Vietnam War, Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer-winning short-story cycle A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992) is an imaginative attempt by a EuroAmerican writer to come to terms with the consequences of the armed conflict for the many thousands of Vietnamese refugees who emigrated to, and settled in, the USA during and after the conflict. The stories dramatize the internal and external conflicts that the predominantly Vietnamese-American protagonists experience owing to their cultural and national relocation as firstgeneration immigrants, or due to their cultural and ethnic hybridity as secondgeneration immigrants. This essay aims to show how both the form and central theme of the volume can be understood not only as a negotiation between American and Vietnamese identities, but also as going beyond the compulsion to identify self and other along national and ethnic lines. It will argue that Butler's text transcends national and ethnic determinations by imagining a transcultural subjectivity, according to which characters can enjoy something close to mutual understanding. As will be shown, this transcultural transcendence takes place on different levels in the text: on the level of the characters, on the level of the narrators, and on the level of the author. Thus, the text itself can be seen as an example of transculturality in the sense that the author crosses cultural boundaries in order to imagine and narrate his stories from a Vietnamese-American perspective.1

By using the genre of the short-story cycle, Butler also stresses the volume's affinities with other cycles dealing with similar themes of ethnic and national border-crossings in contemporary American fiction.2 However, as I will argue, his stories not only depict characters who manage to cross these borders in order to construct new hybrid identities; they can also be seen as questioning the very idea of fixed identity-formations based on nationalism and ethnicity. In other words, the concept of transcultural subjectivity can be understood as going beyond, or transcending, the idea of subjectivity constructed along cultural, ethnic, and national lines. Butler allows his narrators and characters the agency to transcend fixed subject-positions by imagining, and identifying with, a cultural "other."3 In this way, the author shifts his focus from the otherwise so dominant theme of individualism and selfexploration in American fiction to what I will argue can be described, drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, as a kind of "humanism of the other human being."4 Whereas most American fiction dealing with the Vietnam War tends to explore its effects on the American individual, as well as internal conflicts caused by a growing incredulity toward the grand American narrative of freedom and democracy,5 Butler's stories constantly focus on the "other."

In my analysis of what I see as the main theme and ethical message in Butler's short-story cycle, I will apply some of Levinas's ideas, primarily those articulated in his response to the poststructuralist and anti-humanist critique of subjectivity in Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence. My reading of Levinas is also influenced by Simon Critchley's post-deconstructive understanding of Levinas's humanist ideas in the light of contemporary critical theory. I aim to show that Butler's narrators and characters are at odds with their own culturally given identity, and that, instead, they identify with the "other" as a human being, rather than as an ethnocultural subject. Although they remain subjected as 'Vietnamese' or 'American' on an epistemological level, they manage to transcend this subjection on the ontological level; that is, these national and ethnic determinations cease to define their 'being'. They show a sensibility and proximity to the "other," which can be explained by the Levinasian concept of substitution, whereby the subject's ethical subjectivity is characterized by a corporeal obligation to the "other. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.