Monday, 31 May 2010

North Wind in the West

I sometimes think it’d make a great board game, a sort of extended Scrabble for politicos. Everyone gets a tray of words, say:

Enigmatic, isolated, madman, mystery, nuclear threat, provocation, pygmy, reclusive dictator, reclusive, regime, state terror, unprovoked

The first player to produce an accurate copy of a recent news article on the Korean peninsula would then be announced winner. This game – as well as testing your wits with combinations – would save you the bother of having to read whatever article is was you’d managed to copy that round.

Either way, you’d be unlikely to come out any more ignorant of the situation than you were when you went in. Recent events remind us yet again how uninformed most commentary on Korea is, how warped and distorted by the needs and viewpoint of the US, hardly a neutral player in the region, and by its interests.

That’s an old gripe, though, and one for which there’s no easy remedy. Amidst all the tough talk from Clinton, Obama and Hatoyama, it’s easy for small facts to get missed: the sinking of the Cheonan led to more pointless and tragic loss of life as a result of the division of the peninsula. This isn’t mysterious loss, though; it’s connected to the history of that division, and the US and its imperial interests’ role in that division. History is a submerged and denied zone in almost all commentary on Korea. As Bruce Cummings comments:

And this particular incident is just ripped out of context, the context of a continuing war that has never ended. Just an armistice holds the peace. But in the case of this particular incident, which happened very close to the North Korean border, we’ve had incidents like this, somewhat different ones, but with large loss of life, going back more than ten years. In 1999, a North Korean ship went down with thirty sailors lost and maybe seventy wounded. That’s a larger total of casualties than this one. And last November, a North Korean ship went down in flames.

I often hear journalists refer to the two Koreas as ‘technically’ still at war, as if this were a mere detail standing in the way of real life’s realities. But it’s hard to see technicalities in divided families, lost lives, and occupying forces.

So far, so familiar, though, yes? The mainstream media occludes history and narratives of power; one can always look elsewhere. What this latest episode in Korea’s long unhappiness illuminates, though, are more widespread blockages to thought. Reports from the surface and analyses of the depths throw certainties back and forth between each other, and these certainties stop more difficult questions getting asked.

Heart of Darkness on the Taedong…

Mention the term imperialism in some well-educated quarters and – even given the events of the last decade and the revival of anti-imperialist scholarship provoked by them – you’re likely to encounter rolled eyes and polite silences. What the term names, for all that, is an attempt at understanding the dynamics of this current system, its needs, where they came from, what their trajectory might be. Attending to that reality involves grappling with complexity, and real historical difficulty; substitutes for that difficulty are alternate reductionisms in the search for a regime’s ‘essence’ or the political theology of totalitarianism.

Guy Delisle’s acclaimed graphic novel Pyongyang sets itself the task of studying “one of the most secretive and mysterious nations in the world today.” Delisle spent some time in Pyongyang working for a French animation company and Pyongyang is a memoir of that time. The personal narrative is illuminating in its way, but Delisle provides his study of “the surreal showcase city” with an interpretive frame that offers pre-prepared answers to his questions:

He arrives with a copy of Orwell’s 1984 – excerpts from which provide commentary through the novel – and, in doing so, inserts his own work into that longer story of Cold War readings and (mis)uses of Orwell’s text for political purposes quite foreign to its author’s own anti-imperialist vision. Pyongyang’s North Korea, then, isn’t investigation but illustration: the ‘totalitarian’ thesis provides a ready-made vessel in which to contain the text’s narrative. The wider question – whether the story of one personal and atypical experience can take the strain of the peninsula’s historical and political complexity – is never asked, so confident is the text in its assumption (signaled by Orwell’s arrival on only the second page) that the white, Western subject’s putatively non-ideological ‘experience’ will convey the truth with which it arrived pre-prepared.

Mads Brügger’s Red Chapel, a documentary in the tradition of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, uses a similar ‘totalitarian’ frame. For Brügger the DPRK was one example among many of the species dictatorship, and his film would demonstrate its typicality. “I knew that I had to offer them comedy, because dictatorships are really bad at handling comedy,” he told an interviewer. “All dictators are basically laughable, especially Kim-Jong Il.” Not only is its leader “laughable”, its people aren’t fully human: “it’s very difficult for them to handle human emotions.” Perry Anderson’s comment that “self-satisfaction is scarcely unfamiliar in Europe” has rarely felt more pertinent.
Brügger laces his film with inanities and commonplaces (this is “the most evil regime on earth”, the “heart of darkness”) and strange historical assertion: the heart of the regime’s lie, he informs at one point, is that it claims the US started the Korean war when in fact it was itself responsible.

The audience I saw The Red Chapel with during Wellington’s International Film Festival loved it. They laughed uproariously at all the moments of absurdity, and film and audience matched each other in a perfect fit of call and response. Look for a laughable country and you’re bound to find one.

It was that laughter that’s stuck in my mind in the months since seeing Brügger’s film, and a sense that it is the connection between Delisle and Brügger’s work and the superficial mainstream media accounts they claim to go beyond. What’s remarkable about both works is that, for all their claims to unique and privileged access to Truth (“one of the few Westerners to witness…”), they both show us what is already on display. The Red Chapel’s ‘exposure’ of the Juche idea recounts what anyone who reads the North Korean press or other publications can find for themselves. And are these sights – mass rallies, eerily empty streets, propaganda posters and pollution – really able to stand in as revelations of the place’s essence? Rather, it seems to me, these are the stock images of the North, produced as much by mainstream media as, from time to time, by the DPRK itself. Without some attempt to consider how the area got into the situation it is in now – without, in other words, a project to make sense of his material – Brügger’s ‘answer’ that things are laughable can offer no more than empty gestures and shrill moralism. Besides, if that surreality is so often on display, it might be worth pondering something that never occurs to Brügger, whether there’s a logic to the material before us, reasons which might demand reflection. Against Brügger’s claim to have found the ‘laughable’ heart of the regime, consider Slavoj Zizek’s comments on the Marx Brothers’ masterpiece Duck Soup. Against readings of Duck Soup that inscribe it as ridiculing totalitarian state rituals, exposing their fear of laughter, Zizek contends:

The powerful effect of Duck Soup does not reside in its mockery of the totalitarian state’s machinery and parephenalia, but in openly displaying the madness, the ‘fun’, the cruel irony, which are already present in the totalitarian state. The Marx brothers’ ‘carnival’ is the carnival of totalitarianism itself.

The ‘secret’ or hidden story of the DPRK The Red Chapel brings back, in this logic, is the state’s very self-presentation, images anyone can find if they turn their attention that way.

History is what hurts…

None of this is to meant to lead to my own substitute single- or simple answer (there’s not one; it isn’t). Nor am I engaging in apologetics for Pyongyang. Why Brügger and Delisle’s works are missed opportunities – and, I suggest, representative missed opportunities – is because they refuse history, the historical development and context that has led to the situation of today. Hidden truths found through so-called ‘direct’ experience are a false promise, because we’re all always already interpreting that experience through our own ideological perspectives, backgrounds and political frames.

Some urgent realities are being missed, both by mainstream journalism and by artists and thinkers looking in on this world. This latest ‘incident’ did not occur outside of a context. The Korean War has not ended. US troops, bases, and machinery of occupation and militarization still structure the lived reality of the Korean peninsula. Regional interests, power struggles and rivalries still, as so often before, shape the conflicts of the area.

Colonialism, occupation, war, division, Cold War: these are ‘live’ terms. What seems bizarre or surreal from the outside is certainly unusual – often awful, often tragic – but it is never without reasons, without causes.

Learning to talk about Korea means learning to ask hard questions, and to expect harder answers. Pre-prepared answers and imagery of totalitarianism and laughable evil without context don’t help us there.


The Zizek quote is from In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), p. 342.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

De-Coding Geass

What to make of Code Geass? Easiest perhaps to start with what’s unlikely to be disputed: Code Geass, Lelouch of the Rebellion (コードギアス 反逆のルルーシュ) is fabulous. Imagery from the collective genius of Clamp (クランプ), conceits that seem baroque and excessive even amidst Tokyo’s own baroque excess – think mind control, giant fighting robots which sprint around and leap gracefully, plenty of conspiracies at the highest level – and richly detailed fantasy all help. It’s an anime phenomenon.

It’s also – and this becomes clear within a few minutes of your first viewing – a frighteningly eloquent addition to the imaginative armory of Japan’s nationalist ultra-right. What’s out of the ordinary in Code Geass, though, is just how matter-of-factly this ultra-rightist strain is incorporated and presented. If, like me, you’ve been trained in literary criticism, your whole schooling and educational formation primes you to look for subtexts, gaps, deeper meanings and allusions. Watching this anime is bewildering, then, for how little that kind of training matters. It’d be impossible to produce a Marxist reading here because there’s no textual ideology to be uncovered, no political unconscious to be recreated. There’s little to be gained from those instruments which might “force a given interpretive practice to stand and yield up its name, to blurt out its master code and thereby reveal its metaphysical and ideological underpinnings” (The Political Unconscious, 43), : the text marks its own origin and trajectory with signals and traces left behind like guides. Precious little critical work to do, in other words, apart from noting that curious fact itself: for the creators of Code Geass, it matters that the subtext isn’t a subtext. It is politically and aesthetically central to this work that its ‘hidden’ material is on display. That marks a worrying new development in rightist discourse but might have uses of its own.

The plot, minus spoilers, should make this clear: it’s the future, and The Holy Empire of Buritania (神聖ブリタニア帝国) now control Japan, having renamed it Area 11. The Britannians ruthlessly suppress Japanese culture and language, forcing people to take on new names, and work to eradicate all traces of Japanese autonomy and history. Racist and convinced of their own superiority, the Brittanians see themselves as the natural rulers of the ‘lower’ 11s (their name for the Japanese). The population is oppressed – some of the most powerful scenes document what occupying forces do, and what occupations look like – and resistance groups face annihilation by ace commanders piloting agile and well-armed robots. It’s a grim situation.

Where things gets going is around Lelouch Lamperouge, something of a class traitor figure with family motives for hating Brittania and wanting to see its rule end. I won’t give away any more there in case you haven’t seen or read the series.

You don’t have to know the work to see where this is going. Take out the robots and the absurdly named hero, substitute ‘Japan’ for ‘Britannia’ and ‘Korea’ for ‘Japan’, and what you have is the outline for a well-nigh naturalist representation of Japan’s imperial past.

This is what I’ve been pondering, and I had hoped to find some answers over the months drafts of this post have seen themselves reduced from proto-essays into lists of puzzled questions. Why revive that story now? Why re-produce the taboo of the right-wing nationalist myth? What purpose does this serve? Code Geass’ odd realism is all the stranger for appearing in an historical moment when discourses around Japan’s imperial legacy are at their least clear, when nationalist-driven confusion and disinformation has started to have lasting and damaging effects, when, as Alexis Dudden argues in an extremely useful and reflective recent essay, “Japan's place in Asia's twentieth century has come to be nationally remembered, rather than historically learned”. What’s going on?

Two provisional and inadequate answers. One is familiar and suitable for almost any discussion of the ultra-right: we’ve good reason to be afraid. Code Geass is an index of the confidence of those pushing the nationalist agenda and all that goes with it. The dystopia of a conquered Japan is one that plays on a strain of rightist rhetoric ‘hailing’ the Japanese as aggrieved yet aggressive victims, wronged and needing to do wrong. You could do worse than find that rhetoric personified in Tokyo’s odious Shintaro Ishihara.

My second answer is a utopian one. Whatever its nationalist aims, Code Geass revives historical memory in a country where there has been a sustained, and often successful, effort at erasing that historical memory, amongst young people in particular. Code Geass appears, then, in a political space particularly sensitive to its own mediated memories and ways of forgetting, to so-called ‘post-memory,’ and to the vexed relations between memory, amnesia, and politics. In representing imperialism – not so much ‘naming the system’ this time as recalling, and then not quite in tranquility - Code Geass confronts the imagination with history for the first time in a long while. It reintroduces the repressed memories of the colonial legacy into Japan’s mass-cultural world. That is bound to destabilize the current methods of exclusion, and who knows what kinds of questions it might produce.

In Late Marxism, Fredric Jameson makes a rather gloomy proposition:

Our historical metabolism has undergone a serious mutation; the organs with which we register time can handle only smaller and smaller and more and more immediate, empirical segments; the schematisation of our transcendental historical imagination encompasses less and less material, and can process only stories short enough to be verifiable via television. The larger, more abstract thoughts…fall outside the apparatus; they may be true but are no longer representable.

Fitting, then, that it’s via television that these organs might be rebuilt. Code Geass sends out the sparks of meaning and insight and suggestion far further than its creators may have hoped. For whatever reason, Code Geass has broken with the official strategy of forgetting: it might just, and despite itself, help along the project of remembering, of the historical imagination.


Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism, or, Adorno: the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990; London: Verso, 2007), p. 91.

In case you missed it in the links, I do recommend Alexis Dudden’s essay. It’s what good academic writing should be: scholarly, engaged, accessible, and challenging. She’s an important thinker.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

One-Dimensional Woman

Nina Power admits that One-Dimensional Woman is “not a cheerful book”, but the experience of reading over the weekend was enormously cheering, in the spirit of Brecht’s bad new days or Adorno’s salutary negativity. It has been a long while since I’ve read a book which has been at once theoretically stimulating while at the same time offering a vivid and immediately useful re-orientation of my view of the social world. No paralysis of criticism here! Power, in her manifesto for a feminism that “takes the opportunity to shake off its current imperialist and consumerist sheen” and “once against place its vital transformative political demands centre-stage,” produces just that combination of thrilled theoretical challenge and recognition.

One-Dimensional Woman covers a lot of the ground of the contemporary in a very short time; what’s stuck in my mind is Power’s dissection of the ideology and gender politics of temping agencies and ‘feminine’ work. Power is fascinating on how

Young, single women are a key factor in the proliferation and success of job agencies, turning precarity into a virtue. One does not need to be an essentialist about traditionally ‘female’ traits (for example, loquacity, caring, relationality, empathy) to think that there is something notable going on here: women are encouraged to regard themselves as good communicators, the kind of person who’d be ‘ideal’ for agency or call-centre work. The professional woman needs no skills as she is simply professional, that is to say, perfect for the kind of work that deals with communication in its purest sense.

The demands of temping work and its carefully planned humiliations of interview and application – are you someone who likes to have fun at work? Are you ready to be a temping ‘angel’? do you give 110%? Are you looking for flexibility and focus? – will never feel the same again. It’s not a case of feeling better, as ‘consumerist feminism’ would have it, but of recognizing limits and loss. Negativity (“As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form”) offers more chances for real power than ‘empowerment’ ever will.

What oppresses women as women - and the forces with an interest in that oppression - ends up affecting all of us workers, too, which is why men have an interest in taking interest in – and fighting – these developments, and Power has a keen sense of how the war on women has wider uses for our rulers. She’s a careful reader of ideology:

The discourse of work as pure emancipation depends on blocking out class and age constantly. The menopausal unconscious comes back to haunt the perky young professional; the specter of the ex-worker at home looking after her kids angers the market even as it depends on biological reproduction to sustain its own future.

The wit, savagery and sophistication of One-Dimensional Woman’s negative and polemical sections help set up more utopian reflections on how feminism might renew itself, and proposes against the joyless, manipulative commodification and nastiness of the multi-billion dollar pornography industry lost histories of sexuality and sexual expression emphasizing human fallibility, bodily humour and openness, sweetness, relaxation and transformation.

On sexism and sexual exploitation, Power offers a richly suggestive aside: one of the problems with the idea of objectification is that it

“implies that there is something left over in the subject that resists such a capture, that we might protest if we thought someone was trying to deny such interiority, but it’s not clear that contemporary work allows anyone to have an inner life in the way we might once have understood it.

The blurring of work, social, personal and physical life is almost total. If feminism is to have a future, it has to recognize the new ways in which life and existence are colonized by new forms of domination that go far beyond objectification as it used to be understood.”

Standing in for a lost legacy of transformative politics and utopian imagination – and initiating a renewal of that kind of thinking – this is a powerful manifesto for fighting these squalid times.

Zer0 Books

By the way, if you can at all afford it I think you should buy One-Dimensional Woman instead of getting a library copy: the work Zer0 Books are doing, and their commitment to work which is “intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist” is important.

Monday, 3 May 2010

May Day in Tokyo

Some photos from our Tokyo correspondent. See also mrzine's piece on the Zenroren May Day in Yoyogi Park.

Shorten working hours - Don't touch the constitution - Increase public services (Tokyo Cleaners Union)

81st May Day: Get the U.S base out of Futenma! Oppose reinforcing U.S. bases (Water works Union, Tokyo)

No War! No revision of the Constitution! (Womens branch of the Tokyo Cleaners Union)

Celebrating the 81st May Day at Hibiya: Win better wages and improve life by shortening work hours!