Nonhumans under the Power of the Company

  • onSeptember 4, 2018
  • Vol.41 Autumn 2018
  • byLee Seung-U

Seo Yoo Mi recognizes the usefulness of fables in raising awareness about contradictions in the world and the wretchedness of civilization. In a way, a fable functions like a loudspeaker in the hands of someone who speaks up in order to make indifferent passers-by stop and listen. Who takes to the streets with a loudspeaker? Those with something to say. Those who have seen or heard something that others have missed. Or those who cannot pretend not to have seen or heard what they’ve seen or heard, unlike others who put on a pretense because they are shrewd or simply lazy or for some other reason altogether. To someone holding a loudspeaker, the reenactment of the truth feels so slow and diffuse that it becomes inefficient. That all prophecies and revelations omit realism is not unrelated to this.

Seo ruminates like Franz Kafka and prophesizes like George Orwell. Kafka and Orwell serve as useful points of reference in the following aspects: a) Seo’s work reminds us of the overwhelming power that the world order exerts on the anonymous individual whose existence has grown negligible; b) it reveals that the pre-existing world order never changes but tries to change people instead; and c) it warns us that people will diminish to become only temporarily human (“Temporarily Human”) until they’re replaced by nonhuman entities and turn into nonhumans themselves (“That’s Not Even Human”).

Those who do not avert their eyes from reality get to behold the future. Those who peer closely into reality observe the future in detail. The future is like a bear curled up in hibernation. It is bound to wake. The overpowering world order, alluded to by a number of twentieth-century writers through images like the huge mysterious castle, the bureau, or Big Brother, turns humans into nonhumans. Seo, a writer of the twenty-first century, calls this world order by its true name: “the company.” Under the capitalist system, the company is omnipotent and omniscient. It is at once the basis for judgment, the center of thought, and the purpose and cause of action. It is the only power that has a firm grip on all other powers. The company gives orders, summons, monitors, evaluates, and adjudicates. If God or some dictators of the past with absolute power come to mind, you can’t avoid the criticism that you’ve failed to notice the curled up hibernating bear in real life. The company has inherited the attributes previously given to God and dictators.

“Snowman” features a company employee who must get to work despite the roads having disappeared under the previous night’s heavy snowfall. Attendance at work is a categorical imperative. If you’re a company employee, you must punch in for work even when the roads are buried in snow. You must plow your way to the office through the snow with a shovel in your hand. The company’s orders can never be retracted and the employees can never disobey them. Impossibilities must be achieved. Such impossibilities include natural disasters. There are no exceptions. Not even the work of Mother Nature can offer an alibi. People are subordinate to the state, and so too are the employees to the company. Just as citizens belong to the nation, employees belong to the company. They make up the company but can never lead it, in much the same way that components form a machine but can never command it.

The significance or purpose of what people do in Seo’s stories (e.g., going to work in “Snowman,” digging or filling holes in the ground in “The Shovel’s Career,” or monitoring others in “Other People’s Lives”) is left unsaid. Nor do the characters reflect on the significance or purpose of their work, because there’s no need for it. Rather than doing the company’s work, the protagonist of “Snowman” merely follows the company’s orders. What’s required of employees is not fulfilling tasks assigned to them according to their positions (there is no such thing) but blind obedience. This is the only job that requires neither meaning nor purpose. Both the tainted concept of work under the dominance of capitalism and the loss of human(ness) thereof are characteristic of Seo’s writing.

An employee in the story meets his death after struggling to plow through the snow in order to comply with the categorical imperative of getting to work. The death of an individual is buried in the snow and concealed. With regards to this death that takes on the appearance of martyrdom or patriotism, should we say he dies in the line of duty? If we fail to notice the curled up hibernating bear in real life within this apocalyptic fable, we cannot claim to have read Seo Yoo Mi’s work carefully. If we do not stop and listen to the cries of those holding a loudspeaker, we can only be said to be foolish, insensitive, or shrewd.

Translated by Helen Cho


Author's Profile

Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).