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Václav Janoščík on Korean TV, discussing 5 philosophical concepts and 5 big South Korean Shows.

In the beginning of 2021, Netflix announced its intention to spend $500 million on South Korean productions. Netflix intends to upscale in the Asia/Pacific region, and Korea provides a well developed infrastructure and a strong internal market. But what are the content related, political or cultural grounds for this investment?

The Psychotic Real: Squid Game

Dad, you can be in all of the fights that you want, but don’t get hurt too bad.

I’m sorry, sweetie. I really am. You know, I wanted to buy you a nicer dinner than this.

It’s okay.

Squid Game (2021, s01e01)

The critical and international reception focused mainly on Squid Game, which still is the most watched show on the platform. So what is it about the Squid Game that is not only acute and popular, but persistent and critical? Is it it’s grim blueprint of gore-capitalism and the spectacle of suffering, the gamification of life, allusion to child-like and primeval principles, portrayal of dire condition of the working class, the slippery slope of action under financial pressure, its anatomy of violence, or the nostalgic inner search for nothing less than a better self and a meaningful life worth living? I tend to think more in terms of the prototypical components of current South Korean TV narration. That is: a sense of shame and integrity, a stark divide between success and failure, the destruction of family ties and the rapid reorientation of these values into capitalist horizons of money, the corporate environment and survivalist everyday life.

As in any other story, the motivation of the main character is instrumental. First of all he wants to give his daughter a better dinner and a better gift for her birthday. This simple and understandable desire immediately gets enveloped by the social and economic conditions, muggers and loan sharks. Then the late capitalist subject undergoes an encounter with his (lacanian) imaginary (solution), very appropriately in the form of a game. And as a result his motivation paradoxically shifts from the self centerer economic reasons via the fight for life to a search for deeper understanding of his situation and self, moral integrity and human care.

It is far too easy to see the famous hegelian master-slave dialectic here. Where the master aims at power (fun-money couple), the slave (literally refusing to fight for life) encouters the real (violence-money) and is transformed (no matter what we think of the actual ending). If this is really so, does this mean we can change (from a state of unhappy consciousness) only through the loophole of money-violence? Is it an actual money-for-violence coupling or just the realization of the violent extraction of them? Is capitalism a system for anger control? Perhaps a serious Hegelian analysis can help here.

Maybe we can invest in a Freudian reading of the series, helping ourselves with the famous psychosis/neurosis distinction. While being neurotic means to approach the conflict between desire and reality by holding out against the unpleasant real world, the psychotic follows his self (Id) against reality. Squid Game is pertinent precisely because it embodies the daring psychotic take on the real. Players refuse to go back to their mundane debt-ridden reality, instead they continue in the cruel. unreal game of the fantasy (of getting the money). Maybe it is time when we need to free ourselves from the neurotic criticism of the contemporary (capitalism) in order to crash into the current condition in a more psychotic, confrontational or affective way (that is pertinent in Korean perspective with its sharper manifestation of capitalism and its conflicts).

Trauma of Signification: Hellbound

I just feel like the world I used to know is falling apart.

Hellbound (2021, s01e03)

The next Korean show on the platform was Hellbound, premiering in November. The premise of the series is quite simple. People are “decreed” to die at a precise time in the near future at which point they are killed or taken by three golem-like demons. The show observes how people both individually and collectively deal with the lack of meaning behind the killing. Are we able to face the meaninglessness of it all? Ultimately it suggests that our current dystopian air is the occasion to finally admit that there is no hidden meaning waiting for us to unravel, no transcendental plane, nothing truly religious or metaphysical, that we live in coincidental universe, utterly disinterested in us.

It is the “end of the world as we know it”. But what if the knowing part is as much or even more important than the worlding and ending part of such an equation. What ends is the meaning of the world, its coherence, the symbolic order, obviously. But what sort of order is in crises? Due to what problems?

It is the “end of the world as we know it”. But what if the knowing part is more important than the worlding and ending part of such an equation.

Rosalind Krauss developed the concept of trauma of signification in her famous article Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America when trying to describe new and prototypical practice of contemporary art in the 70s. When she asks what connects various “new” media – from sculpture to land art, or from performance to video art – she finds the semiotic concept of index as an answer. It stands here mainly for an empty sign, physical presence of the signified, freedom from the obligation to represent and mean something directly. She speaks of trauma of signification when describing historical dynamism that informed Marcel Duchamp’s work, namely establishment of abstract art and rise of photography as an artistic medium. These subvert the traditional signification (this means that) with its potentially empty presence (this is it). With huge simplification (and a bit of support from Krauss) we can claim that the art we call modern originates precisely at the point when the representation mechanism is taken into account and contemporary art is founded on a new regime of such representation.

Our current attention economy and general culture are in particular relation to all this. From the supply side there is immense pressure to mean something in a condensed and unequivocal way. On the other hand there is an inflation of meaning, where any signifier can easily be a sliding one, which can be memefied, turned around and twisted, where (populist) politics can mean anything to aptly suit to anyone.

There is an inflation of meaning, where any signifier can easily be a sliding one, which can be memefied, turned around and twisted, where (populist) politics can mean anything to aptly suit to anyone.

While in the 70s art such as this may have been refreshing and critical to point to indexes, physical presence, shifters or sliding signifiers, today we live in the dark utopia of their free circulation. It is by no coincidence that fantasy, emo-romanticism or sincerity are usually thought to be in forefront of the actual contemporary art with all its affect, fantasy setting, knights or demons and other ingredients. These fantasy themed approaches, be it in contemporary art or pop culture, can force us to rethink the neurotic unhappy consciousness confronted by the psychotic real. They might even help us to see in perspective our constant self-management (anger or damage control), overflow of problems and apocalyptic air confronted with head-on clash against the tenets of current (political) reality.

The Fantasy of Action: Silent Sea

I thought it was something I had to do…

for the sake of everyone’s future.

Silent Sea (S01E08)

While the fantasy genre is often aligned with inward “fantasy” of past, essence or humanism, sci-fi narration aims at modernist and productivist thrust to progress and the outside. In this respect Silent Sea aired on Netflix from December 2021 is symbolic. The show skilfully intertwines traditional sci-fi plots. It begins with a rescue mission that gets into crisis from the very first scene; the storyline revolves around survival of mankind, resource scarcity and its dangerous and scientific solution; the rescue team gets into mutual suspicion and collision of interest; the main character is deeply personally invested and her individual past connects with the mission and macro political future. Action that takes place somehow embodies the essence of humans, struggling in between pragmatism of survival and humanist sentiment, between blood and water.

At least on the level of the fantasy (the imaginary) to restore our ability to act upon the world, overcome the crisis, find water, find the heroic selves back again. But what is it that can be considered new or Korean about this otherwise very traditional sci-fi narration? Silent Sea features a South Korea that not only has an extremely extensive space program but also hides in front of the entire world a solution to the apocalypse. One rather subliminal thing might be the lack of claustrophobia that we know from similar sci-fi stories like Sunshine (2007), Moon (2009), High Life (2018). Much is borrowed from western topes in the history of film.

We could frame virtually all other Korean Netflix shows from 2021 in this way. Popular Vincenzo is explicitly an homage to Hollywood gangster movies. The King’s Affection rephrases many of the western tropes of historical cinema. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha or Love Marriage Divorce – as other traditional k-dramas – reinstalls countless romantic TV products. More watchable for a critical audience is definitely the show My Name, which nonetheless still falls pretty much into the blueprint for action packed revenge movies. Even more interesting is D.P. (Deserter Pursuit) that moves an army-environment drama to more civic space by hunting deserters. This is a sensitive and particular topic for Korea where, military service is one of the most socially tangible things about the effect of geopolitics on its subjects.

It would be naive to believe we can get to some essence of Korean TV, if there even were such a thing, and even if we were to consider far more than a year of production of one streaming platform. I am very hesitant to make any similar generalization so as to delve to an explicitly postcolonial or (de)orientalizing perspective. But the question surrounding Netflix’s strategic investment and the attractivity of Korean topos persists.

Beyond Capitalist Realism: The Myth

Is something wrong?


Sisyphus: The Myth

In the first scene of The Myth, a father wakes his daughter in an underground post-apocalyptic and crowded facility. Before sending her from the future back to present day Korea he insists on three things. Start running. Don’t trust anyone. And lastly, stay away from Han Tae-sul at all costs. This alone already gives us a strong political message. The present time is a dangerous, contested place, one has to be quick, effective, self reliant and resilient. Hence the complex time-traveling slash conspiracy plot is an allegory (most likely an unconscious one) from current economico-political conditions. But maybe even more importantly, the future takes revenge on the present for causing the apocalypse (plot that we are familiar with from Tenet (2020)). In the next scene Gang Seo-hae arrives in pre-apocalyptic Seoul and she must immediately run from a crowd of soldiers equipped with miniguns and scientists with chemical suits. What comes from the future must be subjugated and put into sterile distance.

In the third scene, Han Tae-sul is returning to Seoul. He is a young and handsome owner and director of a huge technological corporation that he established in his hut as a prodigious inventor. Suddenly an unidentified object penetrates the cockpit window, kills the captain, and breaks one of the engines. In a moment Tea-sul is at the helm, saving the second pilot and fixing the window (with duct tape obviously). He takes control of the descending plane and repairs the control panel. But before he can land it, he gets a phone call from the board of his corporation waiting for him. He manages to dictate his last will into the phone covering his extensive fortune and among few other things he also recalls childhood with his brother. Such exuberant nonchalance basically defines this musk-macgyver-wahlbergian character who eventually manages not only to save the plane, but also invent time-travel, uncover vast conspiracy, fight the future, get back from a metaphysical underworld and last but not least fall in love with Gang Seo-hae, who was supposed to avoid him at all costs.

Upto this point the show encapsulates the most optimistic capitalist realism. There is always a solution based on science, heroic entrepreneurs that unleash its power and of course also on the capital. Beyond this neoliberal horizon there is only post-apocalyptic survival of the fittest. But there are many interesting points about this particular k-drama. Not only the implantation of the myth of the genius self-made inventor billionaire saving the day, lurking geopolitical trauma behind an a-bomb war on Korean penninsula, the corporate and luxury setting, or even hyper-complex time-travel plot through which basically all the main characters appear twice in three different competing time-lines.

Beyond this neoliberal horizon there is only post-apocalyptic survival of the fittest.

Last but not least, art plays a naive but significant role here. The main villain Sigma is a tormented child who spends years in his studio plotting his revenge on Han Tae-sul and on the entire world. His approach to reality is psychotic not only in figurative but also in the aforementioned Freudian way. Out of his trauma Sigma wants to not justneurotically live in the pressing conditions but change and destroy them. One has to see for herself whether Han Tae-sul, as the neurotic subject, will succeed in saving the world as it is, or at what cost.

Corporate Realism: My Mister

People live their lives in fear because they’re afraid that they might become a failure. At least, that’s how I lived. (…) I learned that it’s okay to fail and that it’s not a big deal. I learned that I could still be happy even after I fail.

He put my mind at ease. This neighborhood seems broken, and so do the people who live in it. But no one here looks unhappy. I swear. That’s why I like you. You comfort me.

My Mister (s01e07)

Maybe this is the K thing, the condensed neurotic way in which all issues are redeemed and put back in place to work. Maybe this is how to think of corporate realism, not (only) in terms of an actual open office environment, managerial discourse or climbing the corporate ladder. The corporate here stands for certain intricate regime of recuperation, a balance that we find in between work and private life (Silent Sea; Severance, 2022), between capital a catastrophe (Sisyphus: The Myth; Westworld 2016-2022), between despair and humor (After Life, 2019-2022), rich and the working class (Squid Game; White Lotus 2021) or even transcendence and immanence (Hellbound). Realism then stands for a reflection (no matter if conscious or not) on how reality is established with particular interest in conflicts that try to contest and disrupt such reality.

With that in mind let me side step from the Netflix of 2021 to another Korean show, My Mister, which premiered on tvN in 2018. The main axis of the show is a platonic relationship between an structural-engineering manager Park Dong-Hoon and a part time worker, orphaned and extorted girl Lee Ji-An. The series mixes the at first cheesy emplotment with corporate ladder and spying, wiring and blackmailing, touching friendships and familial ties surrounding fictional neighborhood Huyge in Seoul. Each character here is driven by trauma, most often from a life failure that is overcomed only in the caring company of others.

A significant portion of the affective depth of the series comes from the fact that Lee Ji-An wired Park Dong-Hoon and listens to virtually everything he does and says for a big part of the entire first season. This alone brings up intriguing questions. Can we understand each other when there is a brutal imbalance in communication and control? Can we feel love or sympathy while being in power over the other? What if they realize? Can we relate with somebody who is spying on us? Can they listen to us further if they discover that we knew?

These are not issues pertinent only to psychology of the character or ourselves, but they (again rather unconsciously) capture the politics of the particular, corporate space. What if our work is predicated on the basis of all knowing employer? Can I love my job when I know I am being effectively controlled? Or from the opposite direction, isn’t this precisely the utopia of the big other? Big other here consists not only of some imaginary and ideological constructions but actual tangible places and people. Maybe it is precisely the corporate space where I can get the “perverse” lacanian satisfaction to seamlessly identify with the desire of the other.

Dong-Hoon wanted to be a decent person, an obedient employee (after all he is a structural engineer with the sole goal of supporting the static and stable, and banishing the cracks and fissures). Ji-An wants Dong-Hoon to be happy (as all his friends and subordinates). Basically all other characters besides the central non-couple can be divided into two groups. The employees and managers of the corporation, at times ruthlessly, climb the ladder and reinforce their positions, and the rest, who explicitly just wanted to not to mess their lives up. This alone can get us to a very brutal and reductionist ground to think of corporate realism. Where the inherent set of values, corporate life and wellbeing supplant and absorb the exterior and the possible of the people working there. It is a very cliched conclusion, but so is our mundane reality.

Nonetheless, the underlying humanist message of My Mister rests on all of the characters. At one point they need to realize and fully admit, that despite all the social expectation, the failures, miscommings, and self remorse, they also very dearly want to be happy. It is hard to identify or castigate such a drive as psychotic, so as claiming this the “healthy” resolution for individuation of oneself. But surely it contravenes the neurotic deal with the real, the corporate unhappy consciousness, or maybe even the neuroticism of critical theory (despite all its flirtation with libidinal economies). Hence, the K thing here navigates not only between Korean and corporate, but also critical and capital, kink and care.

It contravenes the neurotic deal with the real, the corporate unhappy consciousness, or maybe even the neuroticism of critical theory (despite all its flirtation with libidinal economies)

Of course there is still a serious need for critical theory, for instance in terms of ideological critique of our culture, including the influential concept of capitalist realism. But it should be clear now we are in demand of something more. Something that can bring us closer not only to critical understanding of the contemporary but invent new ways of inhabiting it particular to various contexts, ontologies and regimes of affective recuperation.

The K-thing can be the paradoxical drive to follow the psychotic self against reality (Squid Game); the affirmation of our groundlessness (Hellbound); to get a fantasy of action beyond the global americanized heroism (The Silent Sea); or at least to think about the neoliberal and conservative tropes so prevalent in mainstream culture (Sisyphus: The Myth); but mostly it can be to take a lesson in affectivity, sharing, care and happiness (My Mister). In terms of theory of (pop) culture and critique we can invest in the concepts of corporate finance or dystopian realism in hopes of getting at odds not only with dominant narrative forms of today but also with ourselves, addressing the constitutive paradoxes of today, “de-proletarianize” ourselves against the backdrop of corporate thrust (of not only our work and economy, but our world-setting and identity building) finding concrete solidarity and maybe even being happy, however regressively it may sound.

If I ever get to be born again, I want to be born in this neighborhood.

Good idea. Let’s meet again in our next lives. Just the thought of it alone

makes me happy.

My Mister (s01e15)