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  • The Ends of Identity Politics and the Case of King Kong
  • Michael Millner (bio)

Dramas of Distribution and Dramas of Difference

The many versions of king kong—from the three major Hollywood films of 1933, 1976, and 2005 to the endless iterations in B-movies, comic books, and other pop-culture productions around the world—offer multiple interpretive opportunities for those working in the field of American Studies. King Kong is more like a cultural form or cultural ritual than an independent textual event, and as such it perennially repeats many of the themes that have animated American Studies and cultural studies in recent years: from the racial politics of sentimentalism to the dynamics of transnational contact zones, from the critique of heteronormativity to the questioning of the exceptionalism granted state violence, to name only a few charged areas. It might well seem that King Kong returns—often at moments of socioeconomic crisis like the Great Depression in 1933, the (first) Great Recession of the 1970s, globalization and the purported clash of civilizations after 9/11—to provide audiences with ways of participating in these old dilemmas in new historical contexts. In this fashion, it is possible to understand King Kong as one of the great cultural rituals of the "American Century."

This essay is interested in one small part of this repeated, ritualistic performance: namely, the way the Hollywood versions of the film re-enact the transformation of economic inequality into cultural difference. This central structure of the Hollywood King Kongs is almost immediately recognizable. All the films begin with economic depression or recession and end with questions of identity differences. Economic [End Page 11] conflicts are turned into conflicts between sites of cultural identity formation: between west and non-west, between white and black, between citizen and alien. The '33 and '05 versions are set in motion by the Depression, scenes of breadlines, shantytowns, Fay Wray / Naomi Watts pilfering food, and the question of how a society distributes its resources; each version ends with Kong dead on a New York street and the question of how a species that prides itself on its humanity can tolerate the wanton destruction of a sensitive but inconvenient being. The '76 version offers a contemporary 1970s setting but operates in exactly the same way, beginning as a drama about capitalist malfeasance (big oil company corruption), and ending as a drama of recognition and misrecognition (is Kong's love, and thus Kong himself, humane or monstrous?). In the beginning the films imagine the root of social problems to be economic, while by the end they imagine those problems to lie with identity and cultural difference.

The transfiguration of political economy into identity politics is no new story; indeed, it's one of the oldest in the twentieth-century American imaginative canon as well as one of the oldest complaints among a collection of politically Left culture critics. Those working in critical traditions ranging from old-school liberal-consensus building to various kinds of Marxism have long protested forms of culture and politics that seem to value recognition over redistribution and seem to seduce us into worrying about identity and difference rather than economics and consensus.1 Typically, most working in American Studies and the academy more generally today respond to such critics with the assumption that maldistribution cannot be separated from misrecognition; one is always implicated with the other. Stuart Hall's well-known formula—"race is the modality in which class is lived" (394)—has become the conventional wisdom, even if it is not precisely clear what this means. Hall put forward this famous equation in 1978, but twenty-five years later the political theorist Nancy Fraser could convincingly assert that we still do not have a very good idea of what it means for race to be a modality of class (or class a modality of race). "If recognition's [or identity's] salience is undisputed," Fraser writes in 2003, "its relation to 'redistribution' remains undertheorized" (Fraser and Honneth 1).

A better understanding of the relationship between recognition and distribution is particularly relevant at the present moment for any number of reasons, not least of which is the collection of...


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