[Editorial] Our Common Life-Which Does Not Fear Discord

 

The Quarterly Changbi 177, Autumn 2017

 

The Moon Jae-in government has named the five years of his term “The Age of the People.” The phrase implies the Moon government’s belief that the candlelight revolution, which filled public squares and streets last winter, worked toward recovering people’s sovereignty as well as its will to follow in the footsteps of this process. Nevertheless, we cannot expect this process to be easy, and it is possible that some people will feel left out of this new definition of the “people.” Indeed, already we hear scattered voices of dissatisfaction with and concerns about the current government’s policies.

The creative works of our times have not failed to notice fractures and cracks within our common life. For example, the documentary film The Remnants, directed by Kim Il-rhan and Lee Hyuk-sang, features interviews with the five survivors of the 2009 Yongsan Disaster.1 As is well known, some protesters of this disastrous eviction escaped the burning watchtower, while others perished in it. The survivors, who have already suffered the guilt of surviving when their fellow protestors could not escape, have been unfairly judged as “joint principal offenders,” for their violation of the existing law at the court. Surprisingly, in this situation, the survivors, who one might expect would comfort one another, were split. Former colleagues turned against one another. When they returned to their individual lives, harboring guilty feelings, resentment, and anger, their lives were upended with doubts, suspicions, and dissatisfaction that had been buried during their fight for a common cause.

However, the documentary neither presents this fracture as the whole truth nor conveniently glosses over it. Instead, it follows the process in which the protagonists confront facets of this rift as it emerges amongst themselves, and, doing so, are helped not to ignore it. As a result, although they experience serious pain, they gradually recover an understanding for one another and their common sensibilities in the process of confronting this fracture. While they reveal their most vulnerable wounds and weak sides and exchange wary glances, they began to respond to one another’s pains and engage in dialogue.

A good work of art not only tells us who we are, but also offers us a clue to a better world by opening up a new space of life through its expressiveness. The Remnants lets us know that our acquired identities are not absolute, and suggests there are commonalities beyond them. Although the recognition of differences and diversity is a basic condition for democracy, we cannot remain in these differences if we want to be reborn as subjects in a common life. To speak of differences and commonality at the same time may look contradictory and illogical, at first glance, yet real-life events that happen outside of our own thinking, at critical moments, can dissolve this contradiction, in the process of forming new subjects.

The candlelight movement on the streets last winter does not belong to one individual. Even during the protests, there were at times tensions among the participants, tensions that emerged as differences and conflicts. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to say there was no grand and common direction. Included in the rhetorical question asked by many protesters: “Is this even a country?” were ones about individual Korean lives, and about the lives of neighbors. Thanks to this common sensibility, we could establish a new government. And new emotions and ideas sprang up from the inner worlds of the protest participants. We might also call them common aspirations. Or we could say that during the protest, persistent thoughts and intense yearnings coalesced and formed a vibrant center.

Today, in the period after the candlelight revolution and when the Moon Jae-in government is in its early phase, it is important for us to create a common space, while also not denying or avoiding inner fractures amongst ourselves. For example, we cannot easily dismiss the conflicts and rifts in our society regarding the THAAD deployment and the suspension of the construction of the two new Gori nuclear power plants. These matters are intimately connected to much larger political, economic, and social tasks, such as the inter-Korean relationship, our diplomatic relationships with the U.S. and China, justice in the distribution and social well-being, and the transformation into an ecology-friendly energy system. We tentatively expect an extended period when we, who gathered with candles in our hands last winter, examine and question one another’s differing wishes. Until now, the voices welcoming and cheering the steps taken by the new government and President Moon Jae-in are louder than those against them. We should not make the mistake, however, of perceiving this applauding as a state in which inconveniences and deficiencies in our society no longer exist. We hope that the current government will not misinterpret their high approval ratings as unilateral approval of all the present policies. We should remember that the realization of the candlelight democracy becomes problematic if and when the government neglects efforts to understand and materialize the common aspirations of Korean citizens.

Candlelight citizens also need to show more initiative than before, as holders of our democratic government’s sovereignty. It is meaningful that the present government decided to give de facto power of decision-making to a committee for gathering public opinion and a group of “citizen jurors,” as this decision respects and furthers the aspirations of the candlelight citizens. Through these measures, citizens can participate in the key task of our times: the mission of securing a common ground and sensibility-without hastily glossing over our society’s inner differences and divisions. This attempt to create a common life while also respecting and addressing various differences within the society is an experiment of participation-based democracy.

In the process of this experiment, although candlelight citizens should not give diversity an absolute value, we should be sensitive to differences among ourselves. At the same time, we should flexibly and independently confront the practical tasks that will decide our lives. At the same time, we need to stop distancing ourselves from people with whom we live and interact just because they have different opinions. Expressing different ideas and having conflicts in opinions can function as seeds for the common good. To borrow a phrase from a poem by the legendary Korean poet Yun Dong-ju, written during the Japanese colonial period, we are “all benign when we hold hands.”

 

The feature of this issue, “the commons and publicness”, considers “the commons” or new communities based on common property and publicness as a way to cope with the social polarization and the crisis of care accelerated during neoliberal capitalism. It also tries to examine the theoretical debate and practical issues regarding how to create such a commons in our society. Paik Young-Gyung points out that the serious issues of a chronically low birth rate and ageing society are intrinsically connected with the crisis of care and social reproduction caused by financial capitalism, and that the burden of care labor is shifted onto the lower class, and women in particular. She examines the main arguments on commons as alternative discourses to overcome those crises’ discourses; for the commons can provide crucial clues to solving today’s crisis and welfare problems by letting us imagine new social relations based on ‘care’ and making communal life possible.

In his discussion about gentrification, Chun Eun-ho attributes the phenomenon to “the reality in which the value of space created ‘together’ is now being distributed without being ‘shared'”. In order to correct distorted ownership and power relations monopolizing the space values, it is essential to form a new sense of subjectivity and community in terms of the technology to create sharing structures. David Harvey gives his critical survey on diverse discussions regarding the commons, focusing on the concept of “private property” discussed in “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin. What attracts our special attention is his interpretation of Marx’s views refuting Locke’s argument of property rights from the modern perspective; it is not the state, but collective labor, who has the legitimate ownership, and the solution to the tragedy caused by capital’s exploitation of land rent is, he continues to assure, the establishment of a new commonality of wealth.

Dialogue covers the evaluation of the Moon Jae-in Administration for the last 100 days. Presided by Kim Yeon-chul, professor at Inje University, three participants, Kang Moon-dae, secretary general of Minbyun (Lawyers for a Democratic Society), Lee Chul-hee, congressman, and Jang Yoon-sun, reporter for Oh My News, discussed the following topics: the epochal tasks for the new government to carry out, the meaning of a record-high approval rating for the president Moon, issues around THAAD and other foreign affairs, nuclear phase-out policy, raising the minimum wage, and a tax increase. This discussion will hopefully spark the interest of readers and get them to speculate about how the Moon administration will resolve all these complicated problems.

The Articles corner includes four essays. Suh Dong-jin, with characteristic acuity, analyzes some dangerous aspects of Techno-Utopia and then delves into the ideological narrative behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution. He, ultimately, asks what the picture of the future will look like, which we should rescue from the fantasy of Techno-Utopia. William Davis seeks to draw the epochal distinction among the three phases of neoliberalism: ‘combative neoliberalism: 1979-89’, ‘normative neoliberalism: 1989-2008’, and ‘punitive neoliberalism: 2008- present’. His persuasive argument confirms that the trend of contemporary neoliberalism, or the Schmittian worldview which gives an impetus to the ideology, has mutated into something equally paranoid and simplistic, that is now self-destructive.

Huh Zaoten refutes the argument that “the New Epoch” in China, which means the epoch of opening and reforms after the Cultural Revolution, has sufficiently executed “the Right Reform by Conquering a Chaotic World” for the policy line at that time based on the full reflection of the regime of Mao Zedong. Furthermore, he points out the undue emphasis on ‘the party’s initiative’ and the self-assured reform policy executed by Xi Jinping, general secretary of the communist party of China, equally overlook the importance of “a deliberate and open attitude toward the complexity of the current situation”.

In memory of Byuksa Lee Woo-sung (1925-2017), who passed away last May, Im Hyung-taek looks back upon his exceptional life and learning as a historian. This tribute essay not only honors Byuksa’s scholarly accomplishments, but also depicts his upright and practical way of life and integrity as a founder of modern Korean history. From his example, researchers today could realize the significance of the practical scholar more than ever.

On the Scene, Oh Hyun-chul argues the need for a civil congress in order to compensate for the demerits of representative democracy. This article puts emphasis on the importance of citizens’ collective decision-making process and its theoretical grounds, in addition to the process of institutionalization, with some relevant examples from foreign countries. The civil congress and its decision-making process, assumedly drawing more reasonable and sensible conclusions than those in the National Assembly, are expected to help resolve conflicts of interest, such as the nuclear phase-out policy or removing the weirs of the Four-Major-Rivers Project.

In Focus on Author, Ha Sung-ran, the novelist, has an interview with Jo Kap-sang, who recently published A Brief Compilation History of Byungsan-eup Genealogy. The collection of short stories does not avoid facing The Bodo League massacre, the tragic incident which resulted from our reality of being a divided nation. It was a massacre and war crime against communists and suspected sympathizers that occurred in the summer of 1950, where several tens of thousands of people were executed. The realistic depiction of the hardships of the characters, without any hasty judgement, is highly appreciated by the interviewer.

In Literary Criticism, Kang Kyung-seok explores the inherent potential of apocalyptic narratives through his analysis of Paik Min-seok’s The Century of Fear and Choi Jin-young’s Toward the Sunset. Unlike other tendencies in that genre assuming there is no alternative to the state of the world, these two novels, the one by ferociously capturing “the affects of violent people” and the other by “pursuing the potential for us to exist at different to extremes”, manage to reveal what we are now and where we will be in the future. Kim Young-hee’s criticism of modern Korean poetry is a continuation of the feature of the last issue: “Reading Literature from the Perspective of Feminism”. After trying to find an appropriate approach to the poetry of Kim Soo-young, which was occasionally questioned from the feminist perspective, but evaded any prompt answer, she in turn asks whether recent poems have overcome fixed gender-frames and started to move toward building new sensibilities.

In the corner of Creation, our readers will surely find some special names. First of all, the 2017 Changbi New Writers Awards are given to Choi Ji-eun, the poet, and Im Gook-young, the novelist. To our regret, the winner in the category of criticism could not be selected. With a deeply saddened heart, we include the memorial poem for Han Jihyun, the great supporter of Changbi as well as the female leader of Won-buddhism, which was recited at the funeral by Kim Hyung-soo, the poet himself. We extend our condolences once again and appreciate the poet for allowing the publication. Poems by twelve poets, Suh Jung-choon and others, included in the current issue, will validate the present state of our poetry to the readers. The novelists, Paik Min-seok, Choi Min-woo, and Han Eun-hyung, have made the corner of short stories flourish. In addition to that, the third contribution of Kim Geum-Hee’s novel deserves our continuous attention. We hear quite a few of readers are fascinated by “Kyung-ae”, the female character in the novel.

From the current issue, Han Young-in, the critic, and Park So-ran, the poet, will lead the corner of Literary Focus. Together with them, Ha Jae-yeun, the poet, is invited as a special guest, and the three of them share a fruitful discussion on the remarkable poems and stories published for the season.

Eight books are discussed in Book Reviews. As always, they will be our guide to reading the world and offer much food for thought. In Reader Reviews, Kim Nyung, the literary critic, and Yi Go-oun, the schoolteacher, contributed their meticulous and affectionate reviews to our journal.

The 35th SHIN DONG-YUP Literary Awards went to Im Sol-a, the poet, and Kim Jung-a, the novelist. We congratulate the two authors who have inherited the spirit of Shin Dong-yup, each in their own respective way. On top of that, the list of nominees for the MANHAE Literary Awards and the reviews for each work are also included. The winners will be announced in the Winter issue, so our readers’ continued support is expected as ever.

Song Jong-won

 

 

  1. On January 20, 2009, some 40 tenants who had occupied a watchtower on the rooftop of a four-story building in Yongsan, in central Seoul, to protest insufficient compensation for the redevelopment of the neighborhood, clashed with riot police. In a pre-dawn raid, a fire broke out and five evictees and one policeman were killed in the blaze.