Kong’s Fantasy, or Kong as the Fantasy? 

Kong’s Fantasy, or Kong as the Fantasy? 


In King Kong (1933), Kong is an ambiguous creature. It is neither human nor beast. “It is monstrous, all powerful,” says Carl Denham, the filmmaker character who initiates the trip to the “island.” Kong is simply introduced as a fear of the “natives,” and as a foreign, bizarre, all powerful uncivilized creature that is to be captured through the camera lens, defeated by gas bombs, and finally to be dominated and put on display as a spectacle. The ambiguity of Kong doesn’t come from the complexity of his character, but rather from his nature as abstraction. Kong is reduced to an abstraction, a silent image in the world order of white supremacy where Kong as a signifier is only a “bearer of meaning, not the maker of the meaning,” a category Laura Mulvey suggests in her observation of the roles of women on screen in the patriarchal culture.1 This is the first layer of abstraction: Kong as a symbolic abstraction. Kong’s vitality of life is reduced into a signifier, an image, and ultimately a spectacle. The problem of Kong concerns the violence of a homogenized system of signification where stories can’t be told and interpreted otherwise, and the film’s subject can’t gain agency for themselves. Such  abstraction and representation directly make the second layer of abstraction—psychic abstraction—possible. However, this is not to suggest a linear temporality or a unilateral causal link between the two layers of abstraction. These two mechanisms of abstraction are intermingled and are always reinforcing one another. This essay, partly entitled “Kong’s Fantasy,” is dedicated to showing the impossibility of Kong having his own fantasies, and the hollowness and emptiness behind the suggested intense desires, violence, and romance in this melodramatic adventure film. For the love and death in the film are nothing but fantasies; yet they are not Kong’s fantasies. They remain the fantasies of the audience.

In King Kong, Kong is constructed as a signifier that only gains meaning in relation to other characters. It’s worth noting that all the characters in this film are empty, and each only exists in relation to the others. Kong is both the fear and the cult of the “natives”—and a power that the backward “natives” themselves couldn’t conquer and control. Both the “natives” and Kong exist for one another in order to sustain and justify the colonial imagination of the inferiority of the colonized. Kong, feared and worshiped by the “natives,” could only be conquered by the white colonists who are equipped with gas bombs and cameras. For the white colonists, Kong is also a fearsome creature, but the monstrosity and power of Kong only intensifies the desire to subjugate him and the pleasure in doing so—a subjugation that affirms the supremacy and power of technocratic white coloniality.

The relationships between Kong and Anne are a bit more complicated. Kong, the empty signifier, is without history, without past, yet he is not a creature without desire. Kong is equipped with a specific desire whose force is conceived of as “monstrous” and “fearful,” although in truth it is simply normative. A large portion of the film is mobilized by Kong’s desire for this young blonde white girl, Anne, who is yet another empty signifier constructed for the male other in the patriarchal order. When the film director in the film Carl Denham refers to Kong as a creature that is “neither beast, nor human,” he is precisely referring to Kong’s desire for the white blonde girl—the desire that separates Kong from beasts. “It was the beauty that killed the beast.”2 Such is the very last remark in the film. Here, the beauty and the beast are signifiers whose meanings only come into being through one another. The beast refers to the inferior monster who is doomed to fall in love with the beauty, and the beauty stands for the ideal, pure, holy object of desire who is both seductive and unapproachable and who would ultimately condemn the profane and desirous subject to death. The condemnation, however, is carried out by a series of patriarchal symbols. In the death scene of Kong, Kong climbs up the empire state building—a phallic symbol that stands in for American imperial power. Here, he is constructed as an intruder, an enemy, a profane yet inferior beast who wants to challenge the world order of white patriarchy, but whose act of challenging is doomed to fail. Thus the film ends with Kong falling off of the Empire State Building as he is hit by planes, yet another phallic symbol of white imperialism.

In analyzing Kong, what interests me is the question of whether Kong’s desire and his monstrosity could deconstruct the empty signifier and accord him a real being, an agency, an ontology. In other words, does the film leave spaces to interpret Kong as a transgressive force, where the transgression is  to free himself from representation?  Can we know who Kong really is besides the symbolic meanings attributed to him? Could we construct a real Kong behind the colonial representations? Yet it seems that within the narrative framework of the film, there is no possibility of freeing Kong from webs of representations and restore to him a real-life force of his own. This is the limitation of the film. Its construction leaves no space for imagining any otherwise. The tale is told in a completely homogenized language. Kong, now an all-too-well-known cultural symbol, remains a monster who is so omnipresent, and yet so empty. He is everywhere, known by many, and yet is completely non-existent.

Both James Baldwin and Donald Moss help to make clear the process of psychic abstraction that sustains the very limited relations between the audiences and the visuals in popular culture. James Baldwin’s critique of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sentimentality, that “the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart,” complements Moss’s account of his own “raw and hungry fascination” while  watching the war footage of Nazi concentration camps.3,4 According to Baldwin, the sentimentality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin does not merely show our wish to evade experience or our ignorance of experience; he chooses a much more violent word: “aversion.” The word suggests something more explicit and aggressive than mere avoidance. “Aversion” conveys hatred, negation, the desire to devour and if possible annihilate the hated objects.  It echoes directly Moss’s word choices—“raw,” “hungry”—a psychic cannibalism.  Behind the tears there lies cruelty, as Baldwin writes, “Sentimentality . . . the mask of cruelty.”5 The reason why I compare Baldwin’s critique of sentimentality in mass culture and Moss’s self-analysis of his fascination with footage of Nazi concentration camps is not only because of the similar psychic intensity in the mind and body of the audience but also because Baldwin’s observation of “aversion” suggests an intense psychic pleasure at work that blocks the path to experience, encounter, let alone to embrace and accept pain and bafflement. It seems that what operates in psychic abstractions enabled by the audience’s proximity to images is the pleasure principle alone and nothing beyond. Anything that suggests frustrations and discordances with expectations and fantasies are something to be aggressively rejected, to be averted and annihilated. Therefore, Baldwin writes in “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist” that “we do not seem to want to know that we are in the world, that we are subject to the same catastrophes, vices, joys, and follis which have baffled and afflicted mankind for ages.”6

Both Baldwin and Moss suggest that the problem with film spectacles is not that the audience is interpellated by the spectacle, and we lose our agency. The problem is quite the opposite. There is actually too much agency and power on the side of the audience, and it is precisely the figures on screen who lose their agency as beings are turned into the fantasies of the audience. This psychic process is accurately captured in Moss’s analysis of the “raw and hungry fascination” of seeing as “the power of unconscious fantasy.”7 It is a cinematic experience where the audience can “do with them [the photos] whatever my eyes and I might want to do.”8 This “unlimited license,” Moss recounts, is a license that “alone with my eyes, and with the rest of my body, in contact with no one but the figures on the screen.”9 It is while being situated in this proximity with images and nothing else that “my body and I felt also without any obligations.”10 In other words, this “unlimited license” of the eye and the body is enabled by the full presence of images and the complete absence of contact with real beings. The presence of spectacles and the absence of real intersubjective contact keep intensifying one another and thus further displaces the audience from real experiences and proper understandings of humanity and desire. Moss further analyzes that “Homophobia, racism, and misogyny construct the other as a transparent object. . . . No sustained contact is necessary.”11 Here, he suggests that it is through abstracting the other as transparent that the other remains an image that can be “repeated at will,” the viewer free “to do with them whatever my eyes want to do.”12 In the case of King Kong, the love and death of the other, of Kong, is thus never transmitted as real love and death, but as mere fantasies and as cathartic objects.

Therefore, we might even be able to draw the conclusion that the best way to watch a spectacle like King Kong is precisely to not be affected by it. Baldwin and Donald Moss remind us of the ethics of seeing—that the state of being fascinated, fulfilled, and affected might not be a desirable state of seeing, let alone an ethical one. In the case of King Kong, both the sentimental empathy and pity that emerge while seeing the not-beastly-enough creature die of his “love,” and a cathartic as well as reassuring joy of seeing the monstrous, powerful, yet inherently inferior enemy being crushed would be equally horrifying reactions from the audience. What Moss and Baldwin share in common in their critique of abstraction are their emphases on a humanity that is based on complexity, and their rejection of what Moss terms as “epistemological immediacy.”13 Moss writes that there is stark epistemological difference between “Homophobia, racism, misogyny” and psychoanalysis as the former constructs the other “as a transparent object,” whereas the latter “constructs its object as opaque.”14 What is probably even more important is that “the other” and the “I” are inherently related, and to a certain extent “subject” and “object” are the very epistemological categories that need to be challenged. To reduce “the other” to transparency not only impoverishes “the other” but also impoverishes the “I.” In other words, when we fail to realize the opacity of the other, we also fail to realize the opacity of ourselves. This is why in a 1964 interview, “The Negro Problem,” Baldwin keeps emphasizing that “there is no prospect of setting Negroes free, unless one is prepared to set the white people in America free.”15 It is thus not about exerting actions towards an alterity, but instead about reversing the direction of actions inward. The hollowness of the linguistic signifiers, the homogeneity of ways of signification, the abstraction of life into images, the abstraction of “the other” into a transparent object that could be immediately known—these mechanisms of abstraction are not only abstractions of the other, of the “Negro,” of Kong, but also the abstraction of that psyche which devours the vast number of bodies on screen with fascination. When one watches with fascination as Kong, the monster, falls off the empire state building, it is precisely this person who sees with hungry fascination that regresses to beastiality. This spectator—hungry, wet eyed, secretly fulfilled—is the one who truly falls.

  1. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema,” Visual and Other Pleasures (Palgrave Macmillan, 1989), 15.
  2. King Kong, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack (Radio Pictures, 1933).
  3. James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” The Collected Essays Of James Baldwin (Library of America, 1998), 12.
  4. Donald Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, Psychoanalytic Essays On Racism, Homophobia, Misogyny, And Terror (Other Press, 2003), xxii.
  5. Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” 12.
  6. James Baldwin, “Mass Culture and the Creative Artist,” The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Vintage International, 2010), 3.
  7. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxiv.
  8. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxii.
  9. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxii.
  10. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxii.
  11. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxvi.
  12. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxii.
  13. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxvi.
  14. Moss, Hating in the First Person Plural, xxvi.
  15. James Baldwin in conversation with François Bondy, Transition, no. 12 (1964):  12-19. doi:10.2307/2934484.
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