LOVE - BLACK FUNGUS
WAR - RATS
SELF - RICE
I Eternal Winter of Festivity
As an American diplomat in Seoul once described it, North Korea constitutes a ‘black hole’ (Breen, 2012: xi). While in scientific terms a ‘black hole’ designates a region of space having a gravitational field so intense that no matter or radiation can escape it, in terms of International Relations, it constitutes a region or place where information and mobility are so restricted that citizens don’t know what is going on outside and no-one knows what is going on inside (Breen, 2012: xiv). It follows that most people’s knowledge of North Korea is purely speculative.2
Speculation demands ‘respect,’ from Latin re-specere, intending ‘to look back at, or to look again.’ In her ethnological enquiry, Reading North Korea (2012), Sonia Ryang emphasizes this aspect of speculation in her reading of North Korean literary texts. Moreover, she suggests that this respectful act of looking back at, or of looking again, is owed not simply to persons, but very precisely ‘to those who are always in danger of being cast outside the system of protection that personhood brings’ (Ryang, 2012: 9). Thus, ethically speaking, respect qua re-speculation [or ‘re-specere’] can be a concept that ‘not only makes interpersonal human relations viable, but also renders different societies and cultures as counterparts…’ (Ryang, 2012: 9).
Our contribution to ‘The Other North Symposium’ sought culinary inspiration from Ryang’s reading of North Korea, and in particular from her evocative description of the condition of North Korea following the death of Kim Il-sung. North Korea’s Great Leader died in 1994, but four years after his death the People’s Supreme Assembly decided to name him President ‘for all eternity.’ North Korean life, already suspended in the martial law of an unfinished war with America and the South, became entirely structured by rituals of festive mourning for the un-dead President. After the death of Kim Il-sung, ‘national defense and security came to be perceived in tandem with celebrations of Kim Il-sung’s eternal life’ (2012:133). Ritual intensified the identity, established in love, between self-sacrifice and a nation perpetually at war, in an ‘eternal winter of festivity’ (Ryang, 2012: 17-37; 190-197).
Ryang’s book and Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (2005) offer means for speculating on North Korea: the structure of its social bond, the function of knowledge, the state of the self or individual, and the fate of the body, its hunger and desire, its objects, in a regime that has, as Ryang emphasises, entirely politicised all aspects of life. In North Korea, ‘everything – including life, death, love, body, and the person – is political’ (Ryang, 2012: 4).
II Two Badgers from the Same Hill
In the English translation of his polemic The Meaning of Sarkozy (2008), Alain Badiou defends his use of the term ‘rat’ that he uses to abuse both Nicola Sarkozy, ‘the Rat Man,’ and the ‘rats,’ French socialists who followed him into government, just as the Pied Piper led the vermin from Hamelin. ‘Rat’ is of course a very familiar term of disgust and hatred used in political propaganda to designate not just betrayal but also a particular form of in-humanity that characterises the ‘other’ as parasites, pestilence, filth and so on; in very many cultures the rat has long been an object of revulsion and fear. Given that the most notable twentieth-century example of such use is the Nazi characterisation of the Jews, Sarkozy’s Jewish background raised suspicions in some quarters about the full extent of Badiou’s motives in his use of the term. Badiou dismisses the implicit racism of the term, suggesting that the rat is just one animal among others, like the pig. ‘Every Anti-Communist is a swine’ is another slogan that Badiou likes to use and here the importance of the use of the names of animals to dehumanise people is actually essential because ‘anyone who does not illuminate the coming-to-be of humanity with the communist hypothesis … reduces humanity … to animality’ (2008: 100). So they deserve to be called swine and rats.3
In the menagerie of insults that Badiou summons in his defence, he cites Chairman Mao’s phrase ‘two badgers from the same hill’ ‘to denote two apparent enemies who are really complicit with one another’ (2008: 6). It was the mighty military presence of both China and the USA, of course, that initially rendered the Korean War a stalemate and they have remained impassable barriers to any possibility of reunification subsequently. Following Deng Xiaoping’s decision to allow the economic liberalisation of China, its wealth and power has increased almost exponentially, in the process developing an effective mode of authoritarian capitalism that has left in its wake the austerities of the Cultural Revolution, at least in its urban areas, to become an economic power to rival the US. Effectively, then, the current state of North Korea can be seen to have a geopolitical function that is advantageous to both China and the USA. The apparently anomalous presence of North Korea as an isolated and impoverished totalitarian regime, a kind of Stalinist heritage site, serves as a ‘warning from history’ against any resistance to political (neo)liberalisation in the name of politics. Alberto Toscano makes a similar point in his Preface to the Korean edition of Fanaticism (2013), where the battle against the ‘political religion’ of communism supposed to characterise North Korea, ‘portrayed as a fanatical and abstract creed, serves to shore up the ongoing attempt to neutralise any oppositional, emancipatory energies’ (Toscano, 2013). Indeed ‘Politics’ as such, it could be argued, is sealed-off in North Korea in the face of neoliberal and authoritarian capitalist states for whom economic (authoritarian) managerialism is the primary mode of government. So while North Korea may have virtually no economic relation with the international community, it does have a political relation (a relation of non-relation) that understands politics as a kind of war. In this way, North Korea marks a certain survival of politics and political war, just as Iran perhaps marks the effective survival of religious or holy war. As such it offers a highly problematic model whose wreckage blocks the road of the future for the communist left in politics, a blockage that nevertheless needs to be negotiated.
It is curious that the response of the radical left to the collapse of the world banking system in 2008 has not for the most part been concerned to emphasise or reconfigure Marxist economics, but to return to an Althusserian emphasis on the political. The drive of Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek to found ‘a new political universality’ is exemplary in this regard. It necessarily requires not just a rejection of the economic basis of liberal democracy, but also that the critical point of attack is the latter. As Badiou has emphasised many times, it is even more important to be anti-democratic as anti-capitalist, since capitalism defines the horizon of liberal democracy and serves as its alibi. Accordingly, Žižek writes, ‘the only “realistic” prospect is to ground a new political universality by opting for the impossible, fully assuming the place of the exception, with no taboos, no a priori norms (“human rights,” “democracy”), respect for which would prevent us from “re-signifying” terror, the ruthless exercise of power, the spirit of sacrifice . . . if this radical choice is decried by some bleeding-heart liberals as Linksfaschismus [left-wing fascism], so be it!’ (cited in Johnson, 2012).
It is then all the more important to look at a nation like North Korea that has universalised politics into every domain especially the most personal, and the structure of its entirely political social bond. In geopolitical terms, North Korea clearly occupies the place of the ‘exception’ or the ‘part of no part’ in Badiouian set theory that for Žižek both defines and justifies ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ which is: ‘the direct empowerment of universality, so that those who are “part of no-part” determine the tone … as part of no part, they lack the particular features that would legitimate their place within the social body – they belong to the set of society without belonging to any of its sub-sets; as such, their belonging is directly universal’ (Žižek, 2006).
North Korea is, in its isolation and exclusion from the capitalist international community of nations, the ‘part of no part’ and thus not only ‘belongs without belonging’ but provides a model for this political universality. Indeed, Ryang notes at the end of her book, that this exclusion is itself the effect of the pursuit of an Althusserian-style emphasis on politics to the exclusion of all else. ‘By the 1980s … economic plans became quite irrelevant in North Korea … because politics became prioritised over economics’ (Ryang, 2012: 200). She notes that it was ‘as if Kim was putting into practice the Althusserian neo-Marxist notion of overdetermination between the base and superstructure on the national level, prioritising the superstructure (ideology, politics, and culture) over bread and butter’(Ryang, 2012: 200). There is of course, a ‘part of no part’ in North Korea itself that tends to subsist, where it can, at the level of ‘animality,’ of a pure competition for resources, but this does not necessarily foreclose a political or social dimension because it is an effect rather than a mode of government.
III Love, war and the self
Sonia Ryang’s book is divided into three subsections, Love, War and the Self. Of the three, love is by far the most important. Love for the Great Leader defines the meaning of self that is given to the Leader in ritual acts of self-sacrifice and selflessness that define the eternal winter of festivity. Ryang notes that the death of Kim Il-sung only intensified the requirement that the supreme social bond in society be established in the passion of personal love for the Great Leader that must necessarily transcend the grounds of everyday life and affections since this love should ultimately be directed towards the benevolent, regulatory Ideal encapsulated in his eternal name. The primary social bond with the Great Leader, or Our Beloved Number One (Chol-Hwan, 2001: 1), is defined by a love that is based in the same kind of love one would have for a parent or partner, but that must transcend such a personal love, even to the point of its sacrifice. Ryang writes, ‘the pursuit of ordinary happiness in a world reserved for only two lovers is a kind of blasphemy in North Korea’ (2012: 65). Similarly, while ‘the self plays a crucial role in North Korea … it is an entity that needs to be killed through sacrifice for the Great Leader, but it needs to be identified before it can be killed’ (2012: 140). Both these elements Ryang finds in the fiction she reads.
Žižek, whom Ryang also quotes on the political importance of this transcendent love, describes this movement of affirming the self only to sacrifice it for a higher political calling. Furthermore, he suggests that it is precisely the emergence of such a great leader that Western capitalist countries need in order for people to rise above the threshold of self-interest and selfishness that characterizes liberal democracy. Žižek writes,
In democracy, individuals DO tend to remain stuck at the level of ‘servicing the goods’ – often, one DOES need a Leader in order to be able to ‘do the impossible’. The authentic Leader is literally the One who enables me to effectively choose myself – the subordination to him is the highest act of freedom (Žižek, 2000: 72).
The passion of love is necessary for any progressive or revolutionary politics, necessary to justify the violence implied in any radical transformation of social relations (see Žižek Violence, 2009). Love for the sovereign that borders on the divine love of God is required to empower and endorse the ‘divine violence’ of sovereign decision. The decision to kill, to risk or lose one’s own life, to compel others to risk or lose their lives can only be made in absolute solitude, by the sovereign or in his name, ultimately in excess of any rationale or accountability.
A particular form of social bond is evident in the fiction described in Ryang’s Reading North Korea, especially three popular novels from the early 1980s: Meon Kil [Long Road] (1983) by Jeong Chang-yun, Yonghaegongdeul (The Ironworkers] (1982) by Li Taek-jin and a Seongjangui (A Spring of Growth) (1982) by Kim Sam-bok. The stories have scientific, industrial and agricultural settings and involve personal rivalry and romance where the willingness to sacrifice individual love and material happiness for the love of the Great Leader is affirmed and rewarded by a personal appearance from Kim Il-sung himself in an emotional climax to the novel. They all concern some scientific, engineering or agricultural problem to do with production that is resolved by the hero of the novel through ingenious means by way of a strange or problematic object by the hero of the novel whose truth, dedication and loyalty is thus rewarded.
The social bond that structures these novels can be expressed through the loose application of Jacques Lacan’s Four Discourses from Seminar XVII that occupy, variously, four positions of
in these positions, the following figures are placed
where S1 = the Great Leader; S2 = knowledge; $ = the self whose sacrifice supports the leader; a = the problematic/excessive object that enables production.
In the position of ‘agent,’ ‘S1’ can be taken to signify the name of the Great Leader, ‘Our Beloved Number One,’ who universalises the social field in the truth and fidelity of absolute love. In this position ‘$’ denotes the self that is established in relations of individual love that must be overcome through sacrifice so that they may be transferred to the Great Leader. In Meon Kil [Long Road], for example, Jung-Yeol, a metallurgist, rejects the advances of his sweetheart, who wants them to live a ‘mundane’ but happy life of personal contentment, to do his duty working in applied scientific research. He is to replace his predecessor who has shamefully eloped with a young woman, abandoning his position in the August factory research facility founded by his mentor Professor Pak Si-bong in Kim Il-sung University after the Korean War. The addressee and support of the Great Leader is always designated under the sign of productive knowledge (‘S2’) that is, respectively in the novels: metallurgy, engineering and agriculture. However, narrative tension is also established through the disclosure of some problem or lack that afflicts this knowledge, a lack that can only be filled by some ambivalent object that operates as both a poison and a cure (a). In Meon Kil this is literally a ‘black fungus,’ keomeun peoseot, known to contain a lethal poison that is required to produce something called ‘Teu-13’ which will enhance the production of metal. Regarded, because of its poisonous nature as impossible to transport, Jung-Yeol nevertheless sets off on a heroic mission to find some fungus from a remote mountainous place. He suffers trials, injury and tribulations, but manages to walk the ‘long road’ of the title dozens of miles carrying the poisonous substance in his backpack. On hearing of his feats that result in the ‘path-breaking improvement’ necessary to metal production, he is rewarded with further adoration from his former girlfriend, awestruck at his willingness to risk his life for the Great Leader, and the honour of a private meeting with the Great Leader himself when he pays a visit to the August factory.
This climactic meeting repeats the chronologically earlier story of Professor Pak who encountered the then General Kim Il-sung in the early days of the guerrilla wars. Scientists were arrested and sentenced to death if they were suspected of travelling, assumed to be smuggling scientific secrets to the South. Pak complains that ‘Pyongyang has declared a death sentence for scientists like myself.’ Kim Il-sung says he wants Pak to start a research university and persuades him to stay. As General Kim speaks, his words ‘grab’ Pak’s ‘heart and conquer all his organs and cells that constituted his body … he did not realize he could cry this much’ (as cited in Ryang, 2012: 75). The metaphor is clear and a connection established between the action and effect of Kim’s words and the fungal poison.
Yonghaegongdeul [The Ironworkers] is a story in which paternal father and son affection is tested, conserved and transcended through mutual dedication to loyalty and service for the Great Leader. The expectation at the ironworks is that workers need to be continually re-educated and re-skilled in order to improve themselves and their efficiency. The father does this dutifully, but does not want to move up the managerial ladder because he prefers the shop floor to the office. His son approves of this decision because he is concerned that the extra stress associated with managerial responsibility will affect his father’s health. A problem arises with an old ventilator that means that the factory can no longer operate at full capacity. The father offers to help with the repair because he is familiar with the ventilator (in the symbolism of the novel the old ventilator is clearly meant to be associated with the body of the father). The son refuses to allow his father’s involvement, but later discovers while his father is asleep, exhausted, detailed notes and engineering sketches that he takes and implements with great success. The ventilator is fixed, the iron works are successful in producing 27 tons of iron using facilities designated for the production of only 19 (154). Father and son see the wisdom of the personal development plan at the factory. The son enjoys the reward of a meeting with the Great Leader and is even invited to a great ‘feast’ held for dignitaries.
Words from MOUTH, view original text here.