The escalation, not only in Korea but globally, of capitalism-backed development and the pursuit of materialism has exacerbated environmental pollution and the degradation of the ecosystem, thereby posing a serious threat to life and humanity. “Life” is something that directly concerns all life forms on our planet. Realizing the threat to life engendered by the ecological crisis and taking steps to check it are the sine qua non for preserving the sanctity of all life on Earth.
Since the nineties, Korean poets have started paying attention to the dehumanizing effects of consumer capitalism and the ecological crisis triggered by development. Ko Hyeong-ryeol, Lee Moon-jae, Ra Heeduk, and Kim Ki-taek display in their poems a reflective introspection about the global mechanism of capitalism and desire. These poets strive to redirect our lives so that we can coexist with nature by reinvigorating our awareness of the environment.1
Capitalist desire and alienation of life
These poets claim that the progress of modern capitalism, which develops and exploits nature, and the resultant excess of desires are the root causes of the destruction of the ecosystem and an environment that is anti-life. Lee Moon-jae says, “Something exists between the hand and the world./ That something betrays the hand and the world./ It keeps them ignorant of each other” (“The Capitalism I Know”). He is critical of capitalism’s power that does not move the world in the autonomous and harmonious manner wished for by humans. He emphasizes that capitalism should be rejected by summoning the lost “past, and this whole body” to reality. With the conditions of our life and bodies enslaved to our appetite for development, we are now continually “under construction.” Kim Ki-taek likens this reality to excavators and backhoes invading even our bodies. He describes the noise of construction that swallows up the quivering screams of vegetation, crying out, “My body, which takes in that noise fretfully and infuses it as is in my heart, lungs, nervous system, neurons, and bodily waste, is also under construction” (“Under Construction”). Urban life is reproduced as “a parched, hideous Earth brimming with desires and products of steel, glass, and cement” in Ko Hyeong-ryeol’s “Giant Ulcer.” Ko wants to remember 21st-century capitalism’s glittering city as “a lump of darkness.”
Such critical observations of the poets allude to a new awareness of “Earth-nature” that, after modernization and capitalism, refuses to be reduced to a tool to be used. After being recognized as an object of conquest for progress and development, nature, once regarded as an organic life form, has lost its value as “life” because humans, even as they share the phenomenon of life, have split off from nature, in which they once circulated, and have become alienated from life’s value.
If we do not pay attention to Earth and nature’s ongoing barrenness, we might end up facing a bleak future where the earth is bereft of all life like an “Earth with bare eyes, legs, and chest” (Ko Hyeong-ryeol, “Death of a Blue Fish”). As we rush hastily to the future brimming with overconfidence, our fetishistic desires do not stop even in the face of death as Kim Ki-taek wrote in “Highway 4.” Despite witnessing the suffering of Earth, a planet that is one of a kind, we are unable to stop overburdening it with our desires or put into prac...