The Cartography of the Abject Nation in Thirst and Still Life.
As I write this essay, South Korea is feeling the first tremors of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct perpetrated by several notable, powerful men. Among the most egregious offenders is Kim Ki-duk, one of the most globally recognized South Korean auteurs. Kim has won top awards at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin; he remains the only Korean filmmaker to have done so. His victims report that he has sexually assaulted female actors and staff over the years, a campaign of terror that has caused some women to abandon their acting careers.
Kim's films often dare to confront the obscene underside of modern South Korea's bourgeois society, its violent patriarchal foundation. In doing so, Kim creates female characters who, much like Antigone when she defies Creon's injunction not to bury her treasonous brother, confront the Law of the Father in pursuit of their own ethical principles and imperatives. Like Antigone, female characters in Kim's films, such as those in The Isle (2000) and Pieta (2012), choose to occupy the "no-man's land" outside the symbolic order that binds the patriarchal nation. And they do so despite understanding that this entails, not only what Lacan calls the second death, loss of the comforts and protections that the symbolic order provides (Lacan 1997, 270-283), but also likely destruction of the biological body itself. In the second death, however, biological death is not the focus. It primarily references the symbolic death that places the subject in what Lacan calls the Real. While the symbolic order constructs "reality," the Real remains invisible, yet investigating it can reveal the way things really are (Zizek 2006). I am reminded of how a student once described, during a class discussion, his own encounter with the Real of capitalism. He had just unboxed his brand new iPhone, and opened the battery/sim card cover. On it, he saw a smudged fingerprint, most likely belonging to a Chinese factory worker. This hidden sign of the labor used to create the phone serves as evidence of the Real of capitalism: The accumulation of surplus value through the exploitation of labor. The Real erupts onto the shiny surface of the commodity, and disrupts the smooth functioning of capitalism by conveying the inherent contradiction in capitalist accumulation. The exploitation of a heretofore invisible subject, the poorly compensated labor force, disrupts the myth of infinite gratification through unchecked acquisition.
Like a fingerprint that ruptures the fabricated "reality" of capitalism, female characters in Kim's films figure as the subject of the Real, who disrupt the smooth surface of the symbolic order of patriarchy. They superimpose their own ethical position onto it. and define their relationship to the Other on moral principles other than those that the law of the patriarchal nation prescribes. Representing the destruction of middle class social mores, often through violent imagery, has made Kim unpopular among the most avid guardians of those social norms: the bourgeois itself, including many feminists, who are deeply invested in liberal values. Film scholars, however, read his films as feminist texts which open up a critical space for analysis of the violence done to the feminine body by the patriarchal nation. (Chung)
It is a brutal irony, then, that the filmmaker himself has staged the theatre of cruelty on the very film sets where he, in depicting the gendered, sexualized violence that the hypermasculine patriarchal nation imposes upon the feminine body, forces open the space of critical treatment of that very violence. The film set becomes a space where the female subject is thoroughly objectified and rendered abject. It is a scene of obscene enjoyment, in which Kim plays the role of progenitor and sovereign masculine subject, and his female staff and actors play the abject feminine.
Giorgio Agamben puts forth the notion of the camp as the space where the sovereign power of the nation-state inscribes itself in the body politic (Agamben 1998). It is a region, defined by the nation state, within which the normal functioning of the Law is suspended or altered, in order to allow this violent, defining inscription to happen without disturbing those whom the law is intended to benefit. Bio-power of the sovereign renders life within the camp stripped of the rights and political meaning that the proper citizen of the nation state enjoys. The abject subject embodies that bare life. Kim's sexual violence has a performative dimension, in that he impersonates the bio-power of the patriarchal nation. The bare life of the abject body emerges along gender lines to the powerful gaze of the sovereign figure, ironically coinciding with the filmmaker's gaze.
Abjection, however, does not only refer to life that is the simple object of the sovereign gaze. An example of this complexity is the Foucauldian "'medical gaze" that "sees death everywhere immanent in life" (Copjec 2002, 27). For Foucault. death is a means to subject life to sovereign power, because "[to] the extent that life becomes defined by death, is permeated by death, it becomes permeated by power" (Copjec 2002, 27). At this juncture, Joan Copjec draws our attention to Lacan's notion of second death. Lacan's reading of Antigone demonstrates that symbolic death that the subject of abjection undergoes, allows us to rethink abjection as a possible means of subversion. Antigone's tomb does not merely enclose her corpse, it is also the locus where the subject of the Real breaks down the law of the state.
Walter Benjamin's notion of bare life also resonates in our thinking of the abject body. Benjamin refers to "bodily life" as "that which is "vulnerable to injury' by processes of disease as well as by our fellow men" (Copjec 2002, 27). In order to see the emancipatory possibility inherent in the position of the abject, I suggest that we combine this notion of bare life, which emphasizes physical injury, with Agamben's idea of the camp as the locus for that violence, and Julia Kristeva's notion of emancipation through abjection. Looking at them through Lacan's notion of symbolic death, we arrive at the abject body as that which undergoes the symbolic death, in order to open up the Real and subvert the sovereign power, whether it is the power of the nation-state or of a social organization that overdetermines subjectivity.
The feminine body on Kim Ki-duk's film set is, like the female characters in his movies, a metaphor for the abject body imprisoned in the camp. This abject, imprisoned, physical form is, in Agamben's terms, homo sacer, a being whose life may be taken by the state with impunity. The abject body of homo sacer is not simply available to be punished and injured by the law. It is excluded from juridical thinking and practice, which exist to protect the civic body of the nation state and its subjects. However, because the difference between homo sacer and the proper national subject marks the contour of the state, the abject body also delineates the limit of the nation-state, and thus, is never outside its national, geographic and ideological boundaries. The camp is a spatial organization within the nation state of this paradoxical co-existence of juridical and extra-juridical spheres of being. Bare life is banned from the juridical space: it is life that lacks civic and political right (Agamben 1998). And as such, it can be sequestered, imprisoned, even killed, but not with the goal of destroying it utterly. The juridical order needs bare life to delineate and clarify the limit of law. It defines itself against the body that carries bare life. What emerges is the contour of the civic and politically meaningful body. The women on Kim's film sets, though not exemplars of bare life that can be killed with impunity, demonstrate the limits of women's full recognition as civic subjects who are protected by the law. These limitations are not, however, confined within the camp, as the body of homo sacer is more widely required by society to fill the purpose of providing definition, by way of contrast, of the proper subject. This is why. in light of Agamben's logic, we can draw the conclusion that we are all homines sacri (Agamben 1998, 71-115).
Similarly, the Jews who were held in Nazi concentration camps in World War Two were, though confined within a space where the regular juridical order was suspended, never outside the physical and conceptual boundaries of the German nation state. Their meaning spread beyond the camp that housed them to be exterminated. As Agamben makes clear, as long as there is a mapping of the extermination camps, denoting the exception to the national civic body, that national civic body itself remains part of the nation-state's understanding of the camp. The national subject's body is the surface upon which sovereign power writes itself. The biopolitics inscribed on the Jewish body in World War II also defined the German body. The map of biopolitics overlaps with the space of the nation-state, and the underlying implication is that if sovereign power can destroy Jewish body, the same technology can be carried out upon the German body. If Jewish body is homo sacer as such, then the German body is also homo sacer, the body upon which sovereign power can inscribe itself should the need arise. The biopolitical borders demarcate the line of the politically meaningful life of the citizens and their identitarian properties: "Organisms belong to the public power: the body is nationalized" (Agamben 1998, 165). Inside the camp, power is permitted to intervene without any reservation.
This boundary thinking creates a cartography of the nation-state, which maps out the locations of both the proper civic body, and the abject body that houses bare life. We imagine our place within the nation-state through this cognitive mapping: we know where we are, and how to behave in the space we inhabit. The space of the nation-state is conveniently organized around the ideals of, for example, modern capitalism, and supported by the social, political and judicial apparatuses that sustain life. Proper gendered and sexual subjects also occupy this space as national subjects. In analyzing this mapping, we can also locate space that Agamben describes as coinciding "neither with any of the homogeneous national territories nor with their topographical sum, but would rather act on them by articulating and perforating them topologically as in the Klein bottle or in the Mobius strip, where exterior and interior in- determine each other" (Agamben 2000, 25). Here. Agamben is conceptualizing extraterritoriality that counters a strictly cartographical delimitation of the territory of the modern nation-state as something structurally inherent in the territory.
In the following analysis of Thirst, directed by Park Chan-wook. and Still Life, directed by Jia Zhangke 1 posit that the nation-state opens up space that can be understood as the Agambenian camp, and that the abject body emerging within it holds the possibility of emancipation, as described by Kristeva. Both films problematize the boundaries of the proper nation-state and its symbolic order through the abject bodies upon whom their borders are inscribed. I compare these films to explore how comparable social subjects, particularly, the subject of abjection, might find filmic expressions across different film forms and nationalities. Although it is beyond the scope of this essay, we can further explore such comparisons as a way to articulate a new regional paradigm of cultural critique. In light of this, Naoki Sakai and I propose the establishment of Trans-Pacific studies as a new discipline, one that can overcome institutional limitations and biases of ethnic and area studies in U.S. academia. We envision this new discipline as a source of new paradigms that address modernity, nation, and subjectivity in the historical and social contexts that comprise East Asia (Sakai & Yoo 2012). Such comparative thinking would keep the contradictions that emerge across the region central to academic and analytic focus, as the region participates in shared geopolitical and geocultural realities.
Abject physical forms appear in both Thirst and Still Life, though in very different ways. In Thirst, as I will elaborate later, it is through the graphic disintegration of the vampires' bodies. In Still life it is through an eliptical depiction of the uprooted lives of those displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project, rather than any violence meted out on their bodies, though exclusion and abjection are expressed more literally, as when a UFO momentarily shatters the film's sense of realism. While Thirst's abjection pivots around the feminine body, in Still Life, the landscape itself is the abject body. In Still Life, territoriality is expressed by the violent rewriting of the cognitive map of the displaced people, which renders the body politic abject by violently altering its cartographical coordinates. The experience of modernity literally demolishes all signs and sites of the pre-modern, which the film depicts as muted images of people weeping, watching the destruction of their habitus on a TV screen. We sense the effect of the abjection obliquely, for example, in the form of an unnamed young boy who has no distinct place in the narrative, but appears twice in the film. First, he slips into a room with the main character, who sits watching silently as he takes a cigarette out of a pack that happens to be lying around, lights it, and walks out smoking. Second, we see him sitting on a boat full of migrants crossing the Yangzi River, belting out, with crude, pre-pubescent eagerness, a popular love song. It is as if he breaks into the narrative only to draw our attention to the lacuna that unrepresentable trauma leaves behind. Because there's no proper language to describe it, it will erupt in some paradoxical place and form. Thirst shows the visceral expression of traumatic abjection as I elaborate below.
Monstrosity of the Abject Feminine
We can draw a cartography of abjection along the lines of gender and sexuality. In Thirst, two vampires overwrite the grid of the modern nation-state, with bodies in the thrall of desire that those grids cannot contain. Sang-hyun, a priest, becomes a vampire through the transfusion of tainted blood, after contracting a painful, fatal disease while ministering to the sick. The vampire blood resurrects him from death, but locks him into a cycle of morbidity and murder. Tae-ju, his "chosen one," is an orphan who grew up to become a good wife and a daughter-in- law, but stages a mock escape every night by running barefoot around the neighborhood. Once the priest turns her into a vampire, she flies across the cityscape with an exhilarating sense of freedom and agency. Here, the very abjection that relegates her to the liminal space of bare life also carries with it the means for subversion, and thus the possibility of emancipation. In Kristeva's terms, the abject body criss-crosses the borders between the safety of the symbolic order and its monstrous other side. This destabilizes all the boundaries and borders of the symbolic order, and thus disturbs, as noted by Barbara Creed, "identity, system, order," (Creed, 252) and ultimately reveals that these categories cannot be successfully contained. "Abjection," according to Creed" as a source of horror, works within patriarchal societies, as a means of separating the human from the non-human and the fully constituted subject from the partially formed subject" (252).
The abject, thus, becomes identified with the monstrous, and vise-versa. Both represent the non-human and the partially formed, as opposed to the fully formed civic body of the rightful human. This, in turn, connects to what Lacan calls feminine jouissance. Feminine jouissance does not refer to the biological or sexual satisfaction of the feminine subject. Rather, feminine jouissance is the manner in which the feminine subject positions herself in relation to the master-signifier in the patriarchal symbolic order, the phallic signifier. and the mode of enjoyment that it fosters, phallic jouissance (Lacan 1998, 71 -77). In Thirst, Tae-ju embodies feminine jouissance, not simply because she is identifiably woman, but because of her relationship to the phallic signifier. Her abjection and monstrosity pave the way for the monstrous enjoyment of feminine jouissance. It is monstrous because, like Antigone's act of defiance, it collides with the patriarchal principles that aim to imprison the feminine body within the norms that dictate gender identity. Therein lies the possibility of emancipation.
Copjec argues that Antigone's choice to walk into the tomb demonstrates the act of transformation through which the social subject prevails against the law of the state that draws the boundary lines dictated by the Law of the Father (Copjec 2002). Antigone inaugurates her own law against the law of the state. Tae-ju, though longing for emancipation from the suffocating law of the family, was only able to run barefoot in the middle of the night only to return in the morning until, through the monstrous transformation of abjection, she liberates herself. Her ruthless pursuit of blood is an expression of that radical transformation. She desires freedom; she reaches the limit of that desire within the family law. and must therefore transform from human to monster to transcend that limit. Her hardened feet, calloused by her nocturnal perambulations, testify to her bondage. After her transformation, the healthy sheen of the renewed skin on the soles of her feet is the embodied evidence of her liberation. The fact that her monstrosity is enigmatically combined with increased pulchritude, as opposed to a more conventional physical monstrosity, shows that her transformation extends far beyond her newfound prowess. The priest's agony over her bloodlust (and his own) shows that he, never having been as thoroughly excluded from the law of the father, never achieves full abjection, and thus, is never fully liberated.
In the end, however, all jouissance is paltry; there is no such thing as complete and full enjoyment (Fink, 34). Although it might seem that, freed from conventional notions of morality, her jouissance is without a hindrance, Tae-ju continues to suffer. The sun is always around the corner, threatening to destroy her. The pleasure she takes in killing never quenches her perpetual thirst for blood. The priest, by contrast, is always plagued by ethical misgivings; he tries his best to avoid actually killing people. He concocts schemes to obtain blood that clash less harmfully with the symbolic order, and provide relief to his parishioners that defined his pre-monstrous incarnation, while also engaging in acts that are truly monstrous. As a priest, he understands that enjoyment is paltry and pleasure is inadequate. As a monster, he must succumb to the pressures placed upon him by life. The film shows his ambivalence about his own enjoyment through deadpan comic delivery, as if the pressure of abjection bursts the seams of the horror genre.
The origin of our enjoyment (a term interchangeably used with jouissance) is a wounding that we undergo in the process of becoming a speaking subject, initially, because our becoming a subject is the result of signification. Our relationship to and experience of the world is mediated by the language (the system of signification) as we lose our direct relationship to the Thing-in- itself. When we become speaking subjects, we enter the prison of signifiers that displace the Real. This wounding, the act of being cut off from the Thing-in-itself, propels us to locate that proper object, which will heal the wound. Thus the wounding allows a speaking subject to nominate our own object cause of desire: some signified object whose tangible loss wounds us and thus creates a desire that holds promise, though ultimately false, of actual fulfillment. In doing so, we sublimate an ordinary object into the object that we fantasize completes us, healing our originary wound. This sets the stage for our experience of perpetual loss, of the sense of community, of spiritual belonging, or of national identity through modernization. Nationalism, even fanaticism, has elements of this psychic process, although its phenomenal manifestation is historically determined. So does the sexuation process, in which we are forced to abandon desires that are not appropriate in the patriarchal order. In this sense, we may understand jouissance as the pursuit of that which we believe may heal that wound. This wound suggests the cut that separates us from what we believe we once had, namely, the originary plentitude. Bruce Fink states that we respond to the loss that results from wounding--our realization of what we don't have--by choosing one of the two different forms of jouissance: phallic jouissance and feminine jouissance (34-38). But each includes our furtive, unspoken understanding that the symbolic order will not be able to provide an authentic healing. The Big Other holds no object of desire, only the vague promise of its ability to deliver.
Phallic jouissance involves belief in a phallic signifier, an object that we fantasize can deliver final satisfaction. The subject of the phallic jouissance fantasizes that it can obtain the very singular object of desire, and put an end to the perpetual longing left by the wound received upon entering the symbolic order. The Wizard ofOz can produce the one thing needed to make you complete. Willie Wonka has the Everlasting Gobstoper. a candy that never diminishes no matter how long you enjoy it. Within this fantasy, the consumer always gets what he wants; the hero arrives at his goal time and time again. Capitalist modernity promises this path. Cyber consumerism is a perfect manifestation of phallic enjoyment. It creates a new experience of time and space, by shrinking the temporal and spatial barriers between the subject and its object of desire. El Dorado is perpetually here and now. For a salient example of how this economy of desire is played out, I return to a scene from Still Life. In it, local thugs stage a show. They present a sleight of hand trick in which a charlatan turns Chinese Renminbi into a U.S. dollar, instantly fulfilling a promise to "make" money, in a parody of the promise to deliver that underpins modern capitalism. The two central characters, however, turn up empty. After an arduous pursuit of the objects of their desire, the restoration of their spouses and. by extension a restoration of their presumed place within the symbolic order, they go back to their hometowns without regaining what they have lost, their desire unfulfilled and therefore, still felt.
Feminine jouissance, on the other hand, begins with the recognition that all objects, no matter how strongly desired, will fail to provide relief from wounding and loss. The subject of feminine jouissance accepts that all objects only affirm a fundamental lack that cannot be mended. Objects are always a metonymic displacement of the thing itself. Behind the enlarged shadow of the object of desire that phallic jouissance pursues, there is nothing. Feminine jouissance, therefore, organizes itself around this lack. The wound itself is central to enjoyment.
The feminine is the historical truth of the masculine, as it supports the historical formation of masculine subjectivity in a specific historical context. The feminine subject, however, can also disavow and resist the regime of the phallic jouissance in which desirable objects are continuously produced and nominated. Joan Copjec implies that we must place the antagonism between the two kinds of jouissance in a historical context. Unpacking Lacan's statement that woman doesn't exist, Copjec posits: "Lacan is undoubtedly arguing that a concept of woman cannot be constructed because the task of fully unfolding her conditions is one that cannot, in actuality, be carried out. Since we are finite beings, bound by space and time, our knowledge is subject to historical conditions. Our conception of woman cannot "run ahead' of these limits and thus cannot construct a concept of the whole of woman" (Copjec 1994, 222). In Thirst, Tae-ju's designated place in the home is a placeholder for all other social and sexual identities that the family and the state comprise. Woman is at the center of the historiography of the modern nation-state. Modeling her mother-in-law's creation, a traditional Korean dress, occupying the shop in a mise-en-scene that emphasizes the separation between her and the outside world, are ways in which the film shows such a social location, one that Tae-ju occupies. Although one might argue that the nation-state is absent in a film in which the major catastrophe comes from Africa in the form of an incurable virus, I argue the patriarchal nation-state always functions as an absent cause in the national cinema. Affect and artifacts that underpin social relationships in the film draw from the political and cultural unconscious, hence enabling the cathectic relationship between the local audience and the film text.
When her feminine desire turns monstrous, rendering her abject, the symbolic order that depends on her becomes destabilized. The feminine subject can eradicate that which makes it a social subject, that is, those historically contingent (not essential) features of identity. In refusing to accept the identarian properties that impose a social identity, a new, unconfined subjectivity may emerge. This new subject that fails to conform to any signifier finds its identity as the monstrous, uncanny being that defies categorization.
Abjection and Emancipation
The vampires, their abject, monstrous forms thus liberated, pursue their perverse enjoyment and paint Agamben's camp red. However, the destruction of those abject bodies in the end might suggest the defeat of the abject, its failure to claim victory over the symbolic order of the modern nation-state where they have momentarily injected their enjoyment, overriding the proper way of enjoyment, phallic jouissance. The film shows the terrifying nature of abject desubjectihcation (becoming non-human) in the gory depiction of the destruction of bodies of their victims, in stark contrast to vampires' miraculous faculty to heal and recover the facade of beauty and completeness.
Park sees his films as depicting problems that are fundamentally Korean (Kim 201). His Vengeance trilogy undertakes the problematizing of the modern Korean nation, in which the utter destruction of the body represents the destruction of modern subjectivity that sovereign power seeks to inscribe on the body politic. South Korea as a nation seems absent from this trilogy. The fact that the monstrous characters do not appeal to the law. but take vengeance outside the proper legal boundary might support this notion. However, the context of trauma that these characters suffer is history- and locality-specific. I have argued elsewhere that the visceral violence in these films--which is contained under the rubric of "Asia extreme." and also infuriates some film critics as simply gratuitous--is a symptom of the national trauma that cannot provide cognitive mapping for the global audience (Garden and Yoo). In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, we see the body politic, as defined by capitalism, as a place where life itself becomes a spectacular commodity where the medical-industrial complex thrives by imposing the modern injunction that life must be healthy to be productive, and must therefore commoditize human organs to achieve that aim. Oldboy dismantles the Law of the Father by breaking the incest taboo and undoing the Oedipal achievement that established the Law of the Father, by upholding the Big Other's prerogative to guarantee gender and sexual identity of its subjects through an injunction to properly desire. Sexual objects signify the proper way of desiring. The modern nation-state seeks to convince its subjects that the Big Other guarantees for the continuity of prosperous society by aligning gender and sexuality as the fulcrum of the proliferating modern body to the patriarchal Law. Oldhoy reveals abject desire to transgress the B ig Other's injunction on the body. A historical and local contingency shapes the universal dimension of the patriarchal injunction into a particular dimension. In this context, Oldboy's Big Other is a historical figure--South Korean modern patriarchal nation--and its injunction reflects the nation's social need.
In Lady Vengeance, the hypermasculine patriarchal order is shown to be founded upon the Big Other's obscene enjoyment, which hypersexual male violence represents. The abject, monstrous feminine subject strives to comprise her own ethical position against that order. The modern nation-state responds by scrambling to reproduce the proper social body's participation in ever increasing surplus value production, which re-asserts established gender norms. Park's films show the underside of modernity in a South Korean context.
In Thirst, the subject claims agency over their bodies through jouissance that destroys the proper patriarchal social order. With such exhilaration they have rewritten the cartography of bodily movement over the nation-scape. They fly unbound over the city. They have also rewritten the meaning of blood, which is the foundation of the homogenous nation of South Korea and its patrilineal ideology, turning it into a gushing flow of enjoyment that is not beholden to patriarchy. Even the priest's prayer for a total abjection of the body seems to be an expression of desire to transgress the bodily grounding, and experience the kind of jouissance that is not permitted to a proper social body. The prayer's expression of longing for annihilation harkens not to spiritual transcendence, but rather to the obtaining of an abject body, such as we see in horror genre films, where subjects turn monstrous in order to signify and embody the unspeakable pleasure of being beyond human ontology.
Thus, abjection makes possible emancipatory moments in which Tae-ju is able to escape the inscription of the family, and Sang-hyun is able to escape instrumental reason of religious institutions. Religion, no longer a mediaeval institution based upon the mythos of soul, has entered into an unholy union with medical institutions. By foregrounding the body and embodied-ness of human subjects, religion now imposes a Foucauldian site of life wherein the sovereign power seeks to extend its power, and foster productivity within the boundary of the symbolic order. It is life that finds the normative form in gender and sexuality. Vampirism extends the body beyond the medical-sovereign logic. In this new locus, the body transforms into the indestructible physical manifestation of the jouissance machine which, unshackled, discards and replaces norms of gender and sexuality
Tae-joo might seem to straddle recognizable boundaries of gender, usurping typically masculine characteristics. However, instead of achieving a fluid gender binary, she personifies the terror of feminine jouissance by forcing upon us the fearful sight of the destruction of the symbolic order. She walks between legible gender lines. Her visage turns radiant white, a sign of an ideal feminine beauty in Korea, but exhibits physical prowess and hunts, typically masculine traits. Her jouissance, however, is feminine, in that there is no ultimate object of desire she hopes to obtain. For her, the hunt itself is the thing. The terrifying image of hunting, however, also reflects the limitation (or even impossibility) of the film medium to imagine feminine jouissance. This is probably why horror genre films represent one of the few venues in which culture at large explores jouissance. It also reflects the film medium's limitation in imagining what Agamben calls whatever singularity.
We can see Tae-ju as a whatever singularity: a being capable of joining what he calls the non-state, an accidental community whose political project is to counter the sovereign state. She dwells "'Among beings... who would always already be this or that thing, this or that identity, and who would have entirely exhausted their power in these things and identities--among such beings there could not be any community but only coincidences and factual partitions. We can communicate with others only through what in us... has remained potential..." (Agamben 2000, 10). This "potential" being is opposed to the universalization of the populace, under the ideology and apparatus of developmentalist nation-state, where all subjects must serve a useful purpose. In fact, the "potential" exists only when there is always a certain remainder that cannot be potentialized in the sovereign state. As Agamben points out (Agamben 1998, 175), if the structure of developmental nation-state is defined by "land, order, birth." then whatever singularities rupture the boundaries of those three elements.
Genre films, as modern cultural texts, offer different ways in which the body is related to the elements of land, order and birth. Westerns depict the nation-state as built on the land and order. In noir films, the urban landscape is an elaborately surveilled prison for the criminal body, the landscape of confinement in which order surrounds the individual. In Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967). the map of the city superimposes grids of order on the urban space which a criminal male body must traverse. In melodrama, we often see how the question of the birth/family and order/patriarchal law defines and confines individuals within a set of identities. In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974), all three elements are the origin of individual and collective trauma. Traumatic events evolve around a migrant black African man of Moroccan origin who marries a much older white German woman. This act simultaneously ruptures the order of family and the state through racial otherness that has no legitimate territorial belonging. The question of birth invoked here is not just about the origin of eugenic racism. It is also the source of civic rights for national subjects, as opposed to bare life that lacks those rights, and therefore, the foundation of the social order. In Singin'in the Rain (Stanley Donen, 1952) Gene Kelly's character transgresses the boundary of the social space. His enjoyment spills over the properly demarcated sidewalk into the street, until a police man arrives to remind him of his spatial transgression, and re-establish the proper space for movement.
In Thirst, the abject monsters rupture all three elements. They trespass the cartography of the nation-scape, as their bodily movement does not follow the proper lines that law and norm prescribe. Thirst's vampires violently transgress those lines of demarcation. A "body genre" film. Thirst elicits a corporeal response to the spectacle of violence, allowing us to imagine what it feels like to be whatever singularities that rupture the elements that bind the nation-state and the body politic together. Whatever singularities place themselves against all these elements, and in doing so, they become abject. Their liberated agency lies in the act of choosing. What they withhold from society, that which has remained "potential," approaches a state of non-belonging. Feminine jouissance doesn't belonging to the phallic order. It refers to something im-potential, which continues to leave an element that is not productive of ideologemes of the existing social order. It is that which a sovereign state cannot subjugate, a hard kernel of being that the nation-state cannot swallow and make part of itself. 1 note here that masculine jouissance and feminine jouissance do not form a neat binary along the lines of gender and sexuality. The point is that masculine jouissance refers to the kind of enjoyment that is bound to fail. Feminine jouissance refers to the Real of enjoyment that we fantasize, and it is not a Utopian alternative to the masculine.
By reasserting a Levinasian boundary between the self and the other, and preserving the possibility of a social relationship within the given order, the priest draws the line at which the ferocious flow of feminine jouissance must stop. The film visualizes that boundary as a mythic horizon in the ending scene: As the two vampires die, the sea turns to blood and a Ievaithans leap over the sanguinary waves. It becomes unimaginable for the flow of uncontrolled jouissance to continue to inundate social space. The destruction of the abject could be understood as a Jamesonian negative dialectic, where Utopian solutions are fundamentally impossible. In his critique of the "extreme imagination of catastrophe prevalent in global cinema," Seung-Hoon Jeong posits "the end of imagination, the failure of imagining a new better community" (Jeong, 370). However, he also points out Fredric Jameson's position in which "negativity of our imprisonment in a non-utopian present teaches us 'negative politics.'" That is, "the negation of the negative status quo does not necessarily lead to a positive synthesis, but rather serves as a warning criticism for all different alternatives... debunking any imagined solution for all- encompassing systems as ideological illusion" (Jeong 370). Jameson's notion of the Utopian impulse in cultural texts is a means to reveal irresoluble contradictions, not identify solutions (See Jameson, 1971 & 1981). The ending of the film comes from a Jamesonian impulse to mark the impossibility of easy solutions to the problems of capitalist modernity, from which the vampiric desire to transgress emerges.
Crossing the Generic Terrain of Abjection
Thirst illustrates the jouissance that emerges from abjection, with its visceral rendition of monstrosity as the expression of that abject jouissance. The film owes this effectiveness to the genre formula that trades in the abjection of the gendered subject, particularly the feminine subject. Horror is a genre that organizes itself around frequent border crossings of the monstrous body that positions itself on the feminine side of jouissance. Other genres convey abjection through different means, though still represent the wounding of the modern subject, which renders the subject abject.
Like Park Chan-wook, Jia Zhangke's films deal with society's fraught relationship to modernity, and abjection of the social subject that results from it. In Still Life, the abject body belongs to the modern nation-state, but perilously. A woman is multiply trafficked from one family to another, and her husband is a migrant laborer whose life remain precarious in the modern nation. The trafficked woman, whose visage we see mainly through medium or long shots, meets with her husband who had bought her decades ago. She has been traded off yet again to repay her brother's debt, and he pledges to bring her back to his hometown after he has earned enough to buy her back working on the site of a building demolition. The structure is being torn down brick by brick, bare handed by migrant laborers in a town about to be submerged under new Three Gorges dam. The shattered landscape represents the unsettled ground that these figures stand on. Another woman comes to town searching for the husband who has abandoned her in exchange for a secure position in the booming developmental state.
After dozing off in a friend's run-down apartment, she hangs a shirt on the laundry line in the early morning hours. Behind the humble image of hung clothes we see a monument that commemorates the Three Gorges Dam. In a very surreal rendition, the monument takes off like a rocket ship. This scene tears the fabric of the film's pervasive, somewhat banal realism.
As Zizek argues "there is no a priori formal structural scheme exempted from historical contingencies--there are only contingent, fragile, inconsistent configurations" (Zizek 2002. 72). This applies to the most foundational theoretical schemes I use here including the Big Other and feminine jouissance. Thus, in order to understand the application of theoretical schemes such as the Big Other and feminine jouissance. we must look into the historical circumstances of their particular shape. In comparing Thirst and Still Life, we recognize that these films capture historical contingencies which define the precise nature of abjection for that time and place. Modernity and global capitalism's universal principles find different paths and practices across the globe. This is the context in which the local particularities of modern capitalism appear. Hence, contingencies are specific to local histories. The way in which these films imagine abjection reflect different responses to the Big Other, which is itself consolidated through historical contingencies. We can therefore observe the different phenomena of abjection (presence and absence of feminine jouissance, for example), and their respective locality-specific social and historical contexts.
In this larger context, the space of abjection opens up everywhere, even at the heart of family, as the ground for disciplining and punishing modern social subjects. Thirst is aware of this and renders that opening to be a window into possibility of imagining an emancipatory figure of abjection, who expresses her agency through subversion of the familial and social boundaries of the norm. In Still Life, it seems difficult to imagine such a possibility. This might be the limit of its realist aesthetics, which refrain from excessive representations of monstrous jouissance. In this film, social subjects do not possess the agency to impose a new set of ethics on the national cartography. They are merely able to move to next location of exploitation of labor. If vampires are a spectacular metaphor for anti-humanism as the philosophical foundation of modern subject, Jia's worldview is perhaps that his subjects are not anti-human enough for them to escape. Victor Fan posits that Jia's work seeks to replicate the Western humanistic paradigm regarding modernization and its concomitant desubjectivization. In China's transition from socialism, for example, the humanistic paradigm fails to show individuals the way to resubjectify as modern national subjects. Fan states: "What many of Jia's characters negotiate with themselves is the intricate relationship between individuation and deindividuation, subjectivization and desubjectivization. These individuals become aware of their subjectivities, yet they find themselves unable to make any personal decision (autonomy)..... the transition from socialism to free market capitalism activated an awareness of one's subjectivity, as neither the state nor the party played the role of its symbolic substitute (for an individual's lack) any longer" (Fan, 330 & 332). Jia's characters fail to abide by Cartesian humanism, and yet, they are unable to find a new positionality outside of it.
However, Still Life creates "an aesthetic rupture" that counters the cinema's hegemonic demand for "mimetic responsibility" (Chow, 678). It ruptures what the hegemonic rule of the national cinema demands: to create a moral universe through the representation of humanity on the path of national teleology. The rupture that the film thrusts into the cinematic space could be a site where we witness abjection as Otherness that runs contrary the modern nation-state, without ever successfully disrupting it. A coalminer searches for the wife and child who left him 16 years ago, a nurse follows the trail of a husband who abandoned her two years earlier in the ancient Chinese city of Fengjie, a city that is gradually submerging as the building of Three Gorges Dam progresses. They never find what they are looking for, nor do they ever meet or pass by each other as they traverse the streets of Fengjie. What connects their disparate trajectories is their encounter with the disappearing physical and social landscape, signified by the ruins of thousand-year-old homes, and the rusted skeletons of the dismantled factories from an era before global capitalism. In this disappearing landscape, social subjects' spatial and temporal bearings are tenuous. The film's predominantly realistic tenor collapses as a UFO flies across two characters' disparate spaces, but their paths remain disjointed. Here, actions and events that drive these characters forward never coincide with each other. The characters' trajectories across the cinematic space do not follow a common teleological goal, because the formation of such goals relies on the subjective position that these characters have lost.
The camera captures the disappearing landscape, symbolic of the destruction of the social and historical space as the Three Gorges Dam's waterline encroaches. However, the trauma of that destruction is beyond the possibility of accurate representation, and so the film abandons the implied responsibility for realism. The ensuing disruption in the spatial cohesiveness. disappointing our generic expectation for realistic representation, highlights the ideological nature of realism. The film also inserts objects that are not anchored in the narrative convention, although these objects have meaning for the ethical framework of the film. These objects--cigarettes, liquor, tea, and toffee--are exchanged between characters as a gesture for connectivity between people at the margin of the developmental state, but they can not mend the fracture in the film's realism. They are floating signifiers, unmoored from a disjointed narrative that cannot make them historically and geographically meaningful. These objects are an empty signifier that doesn't function as a point in which an action emerges in the narrative development.
In this manner, Jia destabilizes realism, where the primary function of objects lies in their usefulness in rendering coherent a narrative's teleology. Consider pawn shop sequence from Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948). When the main character and his wife bring their bed sheets to pawn we see, through the pawn broker's narrow window, shelves from wall to wall, stacked with bed sheets. Unlike Jia's objects, this spectacle situates the viewing subject and characters securely within the logic of narrative, and therefore maintains the narrative's mechanism rather than fissuring it. Objects in Still Life, in contrast collapse the stylistic cohesion of realism.
In the closing sequence of Still Life, the film's final image is an extreme long shot of a tightrope walker. He walks between two buildings that are being demolished, barely standing in the midst of the wasteland of ruins, indifferent mountains, and water. Here again, the image fails to conform to the regime of realistic representation. The film goes beyond allegory by writing the sense of crumbling time and space directly on the surface of the image. Likewise, as the ancient city is demolished and submerged underwater, any sense of continuum and comprehensibility of materiality of time and space is erased. Walking a tightrope depends on a sense of material confidence in the environment with which the tightrope walker is interacting. It is an ideological gesture that asserts a subject-object relation that sustains the sense of unified space. In tightrope walking between the two towers of the World Trade Center, (Latson) Philippe Petit asserted the certainty of its formidable materiality. The towers stand for that which is utterly guaranteed to continue in a reliable fashion. And through that act of certification, he emerges as a subject who is capable of controlling the material world. By certifying materiality of things, the subject who masters it is thereby rendered that much more real. In Still Life, the tightrope walker's action, walking between the buildings soon to be destroyed and in the midst of the vast landscape of ruins, reveals that a concrete grasp of materiality, and therefore certainty of temporal and spatial structure, is impossible.
Michel de Certeau, emphasizing the centrality of the space in the cultural signification, states that there are "three distinct (but connected) functions of the relations between spatial and signifying practices [namely] the believable, the memorable, and the primitive. They designate what 'authorizes' (or make possible or credible) spatial appropriation, what is repeated in them (or is recalled in them) from a silent and withdrawn memory, and what is structured in them and continues to be signed by an infantile (in-fans) origin" (de Certeau, 105). Jia's tightrope walking, in making those functions untenable, introduces a spatial otherness that unravels the ideological assertion that expresses the modern national subject's position. It is a "landscape of abject experience" (Geyer-Ryan, 511).
Film can stage an encounter with the Otherness of abjection. Doing so brings to light the violence inherent in the regime of representation. Across a significant generic divide, both Thirst and Still Life take on this challenge: Thirst by sticking to the genre as a fulcrum of the abject, and Still Life by rupturing the generic. Despite differences in the way they articulate abjection, they both reveal the most subversive possibility of abjection: the destruction of any material or symbolic guarantee for the national subject that the modern sovereign state advertises. A comparative study of these films opens a new framework of analyses for national cinemas, a framework that reckons with social contradictions shared by the region as it participates in the global geopolitical and geocultrual dynamics of modernity and global capitalism.
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|Title Annotation:||Park Chan-wook, Jia Zhangke; Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency|
|Author:||Yoo, Hyon Joo|
|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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