Towards Rupturing the Symbolic Order

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byRyoo Bo Sun

Korean Fiction After the Mid-90s

Korean literature underwent significant change in the mid-1990s. With the cessation of the Cold War, which had sharply polarized the world after the Second World War, South Korean society was freed from the anxiety of being stuck in a quasi-state of war. Moreover, the South was formally released from a “state of exception,” as postulated by Giorgio Agamben, in which a state power can arbitrarily suspend the rule of law. With the transition from analog to digital, Korean society also underwent a great upheaval. In sum, post mid-1990s, Korean literature moved on from the issue of national division that had preoccupied it for such a long time and started confronting the problems of being a post-industrial society.

Yet, the epistemic topography of literature does not change simply due to changes in the times. Someone has to bring about that change. Kim Young-ha was this agent of change in post mid-90s literature. In his debut novel, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, Kim presents a so-called “suicide advisor” as his narrator. The narrator contends that in this (post)modern age in which only a life controlled by the big Other is possible, the only autonomous action that humans can take is voluntary death. Kim’s narrator assists in the suicide of those who lack the courage to take their own lives. His shocking, contradictory protagonist signals the passing of Korean society into a new dimension.

In a similar vein, Black Flower, also by Kim, uses magic realism to portray the peculiarity of Korean modernization through the perspective of Korean laborers who immigrated to Mexico, representing how Korea assimilated unilaterally into Western universalism without inheriting almost any of the uniqueness of Korean culture. In another novel, Your Republic Is Calling You, Kim chronicles a day in the life of a North Korean spy who, after sneaking into the South decades prior, has turned into another docile body obedient to the South’s symbolic order. The protagonist is left in a daze after receiving a sudden directive from the North. It is a gripping account of the exhaustion and suppression of Korean people’s freedom on account of the state of exception due to the division of the peninsula. How a Murderer Remembers presents a serial killer battling Alzheimer’s disease, who, while sensitive to the gaze of others, feels no guilt about the murders he has committed. Through the murderer’s “way of remembering,” Kim gives us a surprising portrayal of how modern man’s compulsion to simply survive in a society of endless competition turns him into a monster.

Another representative author of post mid-90s work is Park Min-gyu, by far the most exotic among the current crop of Korean writers. Park is a sort of mutant. Influenced by foreign pop culture while growing up, he syncretizes Korea’s age-old ethos with the soul of foreign pop culture in an entirely new way. In stories like “Near,” “Yellow River and a Boat,” and “Nap,” he paints the pathos of the lonesome declining years of the elderly who die after having lived without resistance to a traditional way of life. Years ahead of the Avengers movies, Park gathered the icons of American popular culture together and novelized their stories in Legends of the World's Heroes. Then, by transposing the hero of martial arts novels to the modern age in “Jeol,” he symbolically showed how modern society enervates all human beings. Park painted a frightening picture of modern man, already turned into a monster by endless competition, using the road movie genre à la Mad Max. By using such kitschy imagination and subculture tropes, Park’s novels criticize the winner-take-all jungle that modern society has become. However, in Sammi Superstars’ Last Fan Club, he maintains that we should lead a pleasant life in which people “don’t strive to hit a ball that is hard to hit or catch a ball that is hard to catch.”

Lee Kiho, is a writer with a unique perspective about (post)modern society. He presents thugs as the protagonists of his stories as an alternative to the problematic individuals that typically appear in novels. The thugs that appear in “Birney” and “Confession in Profile” are imprisoned twice over. One day, they are expelled to the fringes of the symbolic order because of an accident. Unable to utter a word in their own defense, they are branded as public enemies. While they cannot possibly be good, turning evil proves to be even more challenging. His novels define modern society as a one-sided battle between petty criminals and plain-faced evil. He rereads the world through the eyes of the thugs who suffer unilateral defeat. His latest work based on this perspective, The World History of Second Sons, a rereading of not just Korean history but also world history, is being hailed as one of the greatest Korean novels of the 21st century.

Writer Cheon Myeong-kwan is a writer who criticizes modern political structures through unusual yarns. His breakthrough work, Whale, shows how modern governments reduce humanity from wild, superhuman beings into cowardly, calculating beings through the story of three generations. Confrontational scenes between characters saddened by their lot in life and cold, calculating characters appear repeatedly in Cheon’s novel. The characters saddened by their lot in life stand up to the colossal order of capitalism and inflame its epic primitiveness, and yet are unable to defeat it. The novel’s comic tragedy and tragic comedy become elevated in this process. Whale presents an animated portrayal of how thoroughly modern governmentality reduces human beings to docile bodies. On the other hand, Modern Family presents a cheerful and elaborate portrayal of how modern man has gained many things (that is, being calculative) but has also lost many things (such as the communal bond) through events that befall a dysfunctional family.

Post mid-90s, Korean fiction encountered the sudden advent of neoliberalism. This abrupt encounter changed the entire topography of Korean fiction. It has also given rise to valuable accomplishments in the development of the novel. Works like Black Flower propose that one way forward for modern society is towards a “small community that does not try to be something” instead of a community that aspires to be something (compelled by the big Other). Only this can rupture the current symbolic order, and only by rupturing the current symbolic order can upcoming communities be realized. This falls in line with the suggestions of Giorgio Agamben and Slavoj Žižek to a large extent, and while not an exact parallel to their ideas, it is a significant result of Korean literature’s reflection on modernity. 


by Ryoo Bo Sun
Literary Critic and Professor of Korean Literature
Kunsan National University