[Editorial] Beyond Both Flowery Rhetoric and Indifference

The Quarterly Changbi 192, Summer 2021

 

Immediately after April 19th, the poet Kim Su-yeong wrote, “I know quite a few people who are indifferent to April 19th and April 26th among those who are supposed to write poems. Hearing them, I can barely manage to control myself—I am so angry I feel like smacking them in the face (even more so than those who are jumping up and down with excitement undeservedly).” He went on to claim that “poets who do not accurately understand and appreciate [the meanings of those events] “don’t, I’m sorry to say, deserve to be called poets.” (From Kim Su-yeong, “Poems Hanging from the Chaekhyeongdae,” Collected Writings of Kim Su-yeon 2: Prose). By a poet, Kim meant “naturally, not just people whose poems are published regularly in newspapers or magazines,” indicating instead that being a poet deserving of the title does not just concern writers. Although I know that there are many differences between his time and ours, I am reminded of the importance of the task of living as agents of a revolution, who deserve it, after an event like the April 19th one, the response to which caused the anger Kim Su-yeong felt during his time.

These days, the primary target for criticism regarding “deservedness” is the current government and ruling party. And the recent special election result led to the expression of that criticism, revealed through this particular form of indignation. In response to this criticism of the current government and ruling party, though, we can counter with some of their important achievements, which cannot be ignored within the usual institutional politics: from the successful response to the Covid-19 pandemic (it is scary even to imagine what would have happened during the previous regime), to much-improved current economic indices. That must be why this election result, equivalent to the ruling party “being smacked in the face,” was followed by much analysis and bemoaning.

However, as most of these reactions overlooked that this result was related to the current government’s self-proclaimed role as the “Candlelight government,” we feel heavier, like the poet who said, “Although I know I’m getting more and more foul-tempered, I cannot help it.” As Lee Nam Ju wrote recently, “It is difficult to find the proper attitude for reflecting deeply on [the ruling party’s own] faults according to the spirit of the Candlelight Revolution,” and this attitude retrospectively justifies the dispute over the qualification of the current government and ruling party. (Lee Nam Ju, “The Crushing Defeat of the Democratic Party Began with Its Abandoning of the Spirit of the Candlelight Revolution,” Changbi Weekly Commentary, April 21, 2021).

A serious reflection on the significance of an event as the agent of its continuation, above all, begins with not forgetting that there was the event whose significances are worthy of such an in-depth reflection. Only when one cherishes the experience of the Candlelight Revolution can one find it difficult to endure not going toward the life it shows—let alone betraying it. As for the pandemic, only when one remembers that it is not just an epidemic on a larger scale, but evidence that the “normal” way of the world is, in fact, a derailment on an enormous scale, can one realize that a grand civilizational transformation should be our urgent agenda. If one continues to remember the weight of these twofold opportunities, the Candlelight and the pandemic, one can understand how absurd it is for us to dawdle over lax reforms—when we should be thinking long and hard to come up with epoch-making ideas. The lessons of this recent election results include the fact that currently we need, above all, inspiration for another kind of world, and that civilization begins to change the moment we place that inspiration—even if it cannot be put into practice immediately—into the center of our lives.

Although I mentioned “epoch-making ideas,” they might not be unexpected, un-heard-of, un-seen plans, but rather the embodiment of commonsense about how our world should be. In this juncture, though, it is inevitable for us to feel frustration, because commonsense has indeed been abundantly avowed. A firm promise was made for the continuation of the Candlelight Revolution, people-first approach, and the lessening of inequality, by the turning of crises into opportunities. These phrases, which moved us deeply at one point, now remind us of “beautiful bad poems,” that is, ones full of flowery rhetoric. Unfortunately, we cannot easily scoff at those poems, because we instinctively know, even without a detailed examination, that they are considerably related to our own “beautiful bad” tastes. Whether the current government can be called the Candlelight government or not, we painfully realize how serious is this situation when we remember that its lack of inspiration and ability reflect, to a degree, our own ability as a citizenry.

Here I cannot help remembering that Kim Su-yeong’s main target for criticism was his fellow poets. It is also worth noting that their attitude was “indifference.” The contrast between then and now is that the indifference in our times is enacted in the name of revolution, that is, those who are indifferent claim that, from the perspective of revolution, there was no revolution to begin with. With this attitude, the inspiration for another kind of world is again buried. According to them, the qualification for a poet is fulfilled by criticizing current politics, and they consider that the more indifferent this criticism is, the more poetic they are. However, Kim Su-yeong did not get angry because he naively believed that the world had completely changed or would soon change. We know that he was a poet worthy of the title because he continued to think fiercely and poetically about the meaning of a revolutionary event.

The language of flowery rhetoric and the language of indifference are two sides of the same coin. Flowery rhetoric does not believe itself; for example, when it mentions “people first,” it hides implications between its lines, so that corporations, the logic of economy, and fiscal health should also be considered. On the other hand, the language of indifference claims that it can believe only in itself as continuing to uncover falsehoods, that a claim to the complexity of our situation is false, and that a people-first approach is false. The languages of flowery rhetoric and indifference do not express an awareness that the opposition between considering the people-first principle and the complexity of situations is only a practice continuing to exist because of the limitations of our imaginations. Nor do they express that it is our task to break through these limitations, through our imagination, and to prove the possibility of carrying out important principles based on this awareness. Then, nothing other than belief might have to be our starting point—the belief that answers to our problems exist, that we can create these answers, and that people will recognize these answers once they are presented. We might even be able to say that the Candlelight Revolution happened in order to confirm this belief. In this sense, the liquidation of deep-rooted evils is a work crucially necessary, more for the future than the past. It is the work of liquidating mainstream prejudgments about our future and the work of restoring what was given up as being impossible and turning it into a possible future.

The frequent delaying of or glossing over reforms, with the excuse of avoiding social division, was related to the lack of liquidation of deep-rooted evils. In retrospect, this was true of the current government’s and the ruling party’s attitudes toward the minimum wage and real estate policies, reform of the prosecution, and legislation for accident prevention, anti-discrimination, and compensation for loss. The same is true of the fact that the government and ruling party have refrained from taking bolder measures for fellow citizens suffering extreme pain due to both continuing inequality and the pandemic. We can begin to find a solution only when we shake off our lingering attachment to customary practices, while unreservedly acknowledging the inevitability of more fundamental change. It is now time for us—the government with less than a year remaining and citizens who need to secure their long-time future—to think hard and deeply about how to aesthetically sublimate the “beautiful bad poems” that each has written, rather than irresponsibly abandoning them.

 

The feature of this issue, “Imagining Transformation—Beyond Disaster and Isolation,” explores where the imaginative ability of literature during our pandemic era should be directed. While confirming that care as relational labor is crucial for a great transformation, a keyword of our time, Baik Ji-yeon pays attention to the stories of women and families as narrative resources that explore this topic from various points of view. Carefully analyzing how the reality of gender inequality and the care crisis, captured in Hwang Jung-eun’s Year After Year and Lee Ju-Hye’s Plum, inevitably calls for radical change in our way of life, Baik’s article investigates the topic of care as a transformative imagination necessary for our literature today.

Kim Tae-seon emphasizes how important it is to look directly at the fissures that divide us and to listen to voices of pain nowadays, when it is urgent to reorganize the common areas of our society. Carefully reading poems about the process of listening together, Kim’s article examines how a first-person utterance can be a movement toward others rather than withdrawing into oneself, and how poems, speaking while listening together to others’ pain, are related to the work of newly building the commons.

Jung Ju-a’s article reads the socio-cultural significance of the recent essay craze as an expression of young people’s agonized responses to their need to answer the question of “how to live.” At the same time, it examines the new challenge that the era of first-person narratives, which intentionally choose self-centeredness despite its limitation in perspective, raise for the fictional genre. In dealing with this topic, related to sensitive matters, such as concerned parties and political correctness, Jung explores through fictional works by Park Solmay, Kim Keum Hee, and Choi Eun-young how the two worlds of objectified universalism and fidelity to one’s principles are related to ethical influences on fictional representation.

This issue’s “Dialogue” begins our serial reflections on the 2022 presidential election and “the task of great transformation.” We planned this series in order to consider in what sort of concrete agenda our time’s demand for a great transformation should be materialized and to present those agenda as issues for the 2022 presidential election. We chose the problem of a regional gap as our first topic, because it is a serious enough problem to warrant the phrase “the extinction of the countryside,” and because it is related to other problems, such as inequality, growth, environment, energy, and population, and thus is essential to the transformation of our entire society and the rearrangement of our values. Moderated by Lee Nam Ju, this noteworthy dialogue among Kim Yuwha, Lee Kwan Hu, and Jung Jun-Ho searches for new solutions, going beyond the familiar argument for balanced development, while comprehensively examining major issues, such as the paradigm or cognitive sensibility about the countryside, self-sufficient settlement conditions, decentralization and self-government capabilities, plans for super-regional zones and integration, and region-centered inter-Korean interchanges.

“Articles” features three pieces dealing with important contemporary issues. Jeon Gang Su discusses real estate from various angles, an issue considered to have played an essential role in the recent special election, from its history and reality, to solutions to its problems. A fundamental way to eradicate speculation in real estate—the greatest cause of asset inequality, which threatens even the long-term existence of our country—is an introduction of measures to block unearned income that causes speculation. Proposing a new form of possession tax that retrieves unearned income while minimizing tax resistance, the article emphasizes how policy philosophy is most important in this matter, and it requests that we restore a society of equal land rights, materialized through farmland reform in the past, by establishing the public concept of land.

Choi Yong Sub’s article presents a new mode of inter-Korean economic cooperation, based on a B2B (Business-to-Business) platform, as having strong potential for South-North economic cooperation, currently in a stalemate. He explains how, by maximizing the ripple effect of this project, which utilizes information and communication technology through the advantages of the market, we can organically connect economic cooperation with the development of South and North Korea. This novel proposal, which turns the differences in industrial structures and developmental stages in South and North Korea into an instrument for the promotion of cooperation, offers an important reference point for all those exploring a way for inter-Korean economic cooperation.

Nancy Fraser’s interview discusses American politics at a time when the old is dying but the new is yet to be born. Emphasizing that the crisis in care, worsened by the pandemic, is rooted in ecological and racial crises, Fraser points out that the Biden administration, formed through an alliance between progressive populists like Bernie Sanders and progressive neoliberals, is an unstable compromise that can easily collapse if it does not offer policies that practically improve people’s lives. Should this happen, the left’s alternative is a new, anti-capitalist coalition committed to “a deep-structural transformation of our whole social system,” and “something more like democratic eco-socialism.”

Two articles “on the scene” examine the significance of two historical events still happening in and outside Korea. As the amendment to the Jeju April 3rd Special Act passed in the National Assembly, and the missing “convicts” were found “innocent” 73 years after the event, Heo Young-Sun assesses the present significance of the incident. Explaining why we are still left with an “unspeakably empty feeling,” reminding us of every miserable emotion endured throughout the 73 years, Heo reminds us how struggles with memory should continue for the April 3rd Incident.

Jang Jun Young discusses the ongoing, life-and-death struggle for democracy in Myanmar. This article first examines not only the background of the recent coup but also the character of Myanmar’s military, which has led the country into a predatory state, and to become one of the world’s poorest countries, with a closed economy. Then it explains how today’s struggle, originating from the situation in which people moved forward while the military remains stalled, is rooted in the fierce spirit of the current generation, which does not want to hand down the legacy of a military regime to the next generation.

Creative writings in this issue offer works awakening new thoughts and our imagination. In poetry, new works by 13 poets, from Kang Duk Hwan to Jin Eun-young, open their own worlds for us. In fiction, not only the second installment of the novel by Choi Eunmi, but also short stories by Kim Yuna, Kim Yu-dam, Cho Kap-sang, and Pyun Hye Young deeply explore various aspects of our lives today.

“Focus on Author” investigates the significance of the solidarity work that Kim Jung-mi has long carried out in connection with her recent novel To Be Together. While the author’s perspective, which carefully represents a community as an ecosystem in its current living state, teaches us what it means “to be together,” literary scholar Lee Jung-suk guides us through its various aspects by drawing our attention to its intertextual relationship with The Dwarf by Cho Se-hui.

In “Literary Focus,” poet Shin Cheolgyu converses with two guests, novelist Kim Jeong-a and literary critic Seonu Eunsil, about six notable new books of poetry and fiction published this season. Their respective opinions and responses to them are woven together as “rotation” and “revolution,” creating currents of thoughtful and rich discussions.

“Essays” mourn and commemorate two legends of our time. Yom Mu-woong’s essay remembers the late Mr. Chae Hyun Gook, well known as “the elder of our times” among young people. Traces of Mr. Chae’s life, in which he crossed various social borders freely enough that it would be difficult to imagine nowadays, including his special relationship with Changbi, remains an inspiration. Lim Jin-taek reflects on the life of the late Mr. Paik Ki-whan, superbly befitting the title “revolutionary.” This essay traces his life, works, and language, which overcame the limits of harsh times through extraordinary spirit and insight, since childhood, during which time he was nicknamed and defined as “Busimi (the dazzling).” It is filled with a lively spirit he left with us.

“Book Reviews” offers succinct and careful examinations of various topics worthy of our attention, too numerous to introduce individually. We sincerely thank the reviewers who took upon themselves the role of considerate guides to these select books.

Lastly, we announce the news that Kim Sang-Hyun, a specialist in science, technology, and the environment, has joined our editorial board from this issue. We look forward to his contributions in these fields, the importance of which have been heightened.

 

On the 41st anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, we are reminded of the continuous flow of our democratization movement, from then until the ongoing Candlelight Revolution, since 2016. The crushing defeat of the ruling party in the recent special elections does not mean the abandonment of the Candlelight Revolution, but rather the wish and demand of Korean citizens for the revival of its true spirit. We at Changbi promise to actively participate in the work of preserving and carrying out this wish, together with our readers.

 

Hwang Jung-a