Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Minjung debates

There has been a bit of discussion over our last article, The New Minjung posted below, so I've decided to collect the comments and publish them here as a seperate posting for easier reading and to perhaps give a chance for our other readers to join in. Just click on the view full posting button and all will be revealed, but I suggest reading the original article first.

kotaji said...
Enjoyed the article a lot. The linking of the minjung movement with the contemporary migrant workers' movement is interesting. Although you have to be careful, I think, not to give the impression that the struggles of Korean workers are over and they're all now living the life of Riley (it would clearly be wrong to give this impression about Britain or Canada too). Obviously, though, some sites of struggle are more acute or urgent than others.

Although I haven't looked at the history of the minjung movement closely, I have seen 'minjungism' from the perspective of Korean historiography. To me it represents an attempt to 'fudge' class relations that comes from a number of factors. Perhaps the most obvious are the influence of Stalinism on the Korean left and the perceived need to form a popular front against the military dictatorships; the strong nationalist tinge to the Korean left, dating back to the colonial period and reinforced by division; and the relatively large peasantry. All this led to the creation of an amorphous social category - not a social class in the sense of a Marxist analytical category, but rather an ideological concept that could be used in opposition to the ruling class's 'minjok'. I know that's a bit of a dry theoretical view - there's much more to it than that - minjung theology etc. One interesting thing I do know is that one of the originators of the concept was the anarchist Sin Ch'ae-ho (there's something on this in the book 'Colonial Modernity in Korea').

I must admit that contemporary Korea is not my area of research at all. Hence the need to blog about it really. My 'real' work is on 19th century Korean economic history.

I wonder if you're familiar with Kevin Gray's research? He's at Newcastle University and he's working on migrant workers' unions and the Korean labour movement in general. He made a very interesting presentation at the recent Korean Studies conference we held at SOAS.

3:56 AM
Antti Leppänen said...
I enjoyed the article as well. It surely makes sense to apply minjung to the emerging migrant workers' movement and consciousness. For I've always seen the consciousness of one's position in history and potentiality for change as the defining characteristic of minjung, as opposed to seomin, the term for "people" that I've been dealing with more in my own research (on keepers of small businesses in a Seoul neighborhood) and which I also discuss in it at length and compare the two concepts a bit. Partly also due to the sphere of my own interest in Korea, I've for a longer time been of the opinion that the importance of minjung (as a concept) has been a bit overemphasized, and especially now it doesn't have the power it once had in certain circles. Actually, Kim Dae-jung who's been said to have used the minjung rhetoric earlier in his political career is I think mainly responsible for the current popularity of seomin as a political term...
(I just read an entry at the Jinbonuri board which told that books with minjung in its title were strictly censored by jail authorities in the 1980s while "philosophy" (ch'ôrhak) books with a much more subversive contents easily passed.)

By the way, it makes an interesting case to compare the Korean minjung to the same word in Japan (minchô); the social and political connotations of the word are similar, and its relation to the "sister concept" of sômin (Jap. shomin) as well – not surprising in the light of the Korean contemporary history. I've seen only English-language work on that though, Monumentalizing the Everyday: The Edo-Tokyo Museum by Jordan Sand in Critical Asian Studies 33:3 (2001). (I have it as pdf, in case.)

4:58 AM
Jamie said...

I agree with Kotaji in exercising caution in what one considers to be minjung or not. Hagen Koo considers it something as a proto-class identity used to unite disparate segments faciing similar oppressions during the military period and this kind of works because, in my view, legally speaking, these groups did form something of 'multitude' or a coherent groups of disparate actors in that they were excluded from proper legal recourse and where often easily killed or injured by the authorities in an anonymous kind of way. Beyond that, and after the military period, I think that more class specific language and identities as well as the language of rights and citizenship (simin) has replaced it as a better understanding of oppression, nonetheless when I think of the plight of irregular workers, migrant workers, sex workers, and other marginalized people, the minjung comparision still seems to unite them in that they are often excluded from both rights as labourers or citizens.

Coincidentally, what I find in some interpretations of the minjung, and I may be going out on shaky ground here, is something similar to Giogio Agamben's Homo Sacer -- a difficult but usefull notion. Homo Sacer is a form of 'bare life' basically a living thing that can be 'killed but not murdered' as there ceases to be a form of taboo or law prohibiting it. Homo Sacer is 'sacred' in the sense of being simultaeniously outside and inside the law in the form of being an exception to the law. Agamben uses this for his own purposes to advance some thoughts on modern sovereign power but I won't go into that except to say that this 'sacredness' of homo sacer confuses some of our everyday associations with the word sacred. In my essay I actually get it wrong when I say that migrants and the minjung took refuge in the church because they ceased to be 'sacred' but what I really should have said was that they took refuge because they were 'sacred' in the sense of being easily subjected to arbitrary force without any form of recourse to the law. Sacred in that they were given over to be able to be sacrificed, killed but not murdered in the sense of it being a legal act of murder.

Agamben uses the concept with examples from the holocaust to contemporary brain death (the schiavo case may be a good example here), as a similar legal form of exception -- deciding what is bare life and what isn't -- governs them both. This may raise some eyebrows here, but the same form of exception could be expanded to our understandings of any kind of life, from fetuses to kidneys, to animals, in that there is a threshold where force against them as a form of life is prohibitied or subject to conditions and where these forms of life are made political in terms of being subject to rights with a threshold established where force is allowed without the threat someone being charged with a violation. This exception has operated in the law and is a defining feature of sovereignty, who or what has rights and what doesn't ---the really 'political' aspect of it though is a what point the threshold is drawn, to mark a living, thinking, breathing being as bare life instead of a subject of rights is what really is at stake here when we look at victims of massacre, war, and overwhelming oppression. The fact that due to racism, xenophobia, or otherwise, in history someone can kill a whole person and not think of it as a 'person' in the sense of a murder but as bare life in the sense of the removal of a kidney or a toenail is, well, freaky. Nonetheless, in the case of brain death, abortion, assisted suicide, some form of exception is considered legitimate, but the threshold of which the exception is applied is something that still causes a great deal of controversy and rightfully so.

The only example of this idea of homo sacer being applied to Korean history that I know is by Sonia Ryang when she describes the murder of Koreans after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Japan where some 10,000 koreans where killed afterwords by the police and other citizens, and she gets into some grisely comparisions in the manner that this happened as compared to the 5000 leftists that were actually 'murdered,' not simply killed as were the Koreans. I can't do the article justice here, so you look for it for further reference. Nonetheless, it may be the case that the Korean Paekjeong (outcastes) faced similar conditions as outsiders in Korean history, and some of the minjung at various moments in Korean history as well.

For me, there are some correspondences that make migrants and the minjung almost like the homo sacer's in that they have no labor or civil rights, and it is very easy for them be abused, exploited, and sometimes killed without it appearing as such, they are kind of de facto homo sacer's but maybe not complete ones, so I may be guilty of exaggerating a bit, in that I don’t think that the above description of homo sacer can completely double with minjung, but definitely the fear and anxiety of an utterly nameless death, of becoming homo sacer, is a factor that seems to unite various descriptions of the minjung throughout Korean history, coupled, of course, with an understanding of the physical toil and oppression from overwork and other pressures of external force. This description of the minjung, once again, is very general, and I think that is why is has had so much currency in those periods when indeed these conditions approached the general experience of the popular masses: backwards from Kwangju, to the Yushin period of rapid industrialization, division, occupation, Dong Hak, and back even further if you consult some of the historical scholary sources.

1:18 PM
Jamie said...
Oh, kotaji, I've seen some of Kevin Gray's work online, well just one paper on social unionism. I didn't know he was working on something about migrant worker's unions. Definitely someone to check out some more.

Oh, as for influence of stalinism and popular fronts. I'd say that that minjungism predates stalinism and other forms of class understanding as an indeginous understanding of oppression and I still agree with Koo's analysis that it helped form some early understanding of class oppression by industrial workers and became an influential part of protest culture and tactics, however, its use as a protest tactic, especially in the eighties and even now if you think of the ubiquitous use peasant dance at rallies and demos, was certainly selected as a strategic tool by activists informed by a variety of political perspectives, from NL and PD (and they variant forms of marxism, marxist leninism, and maybe an occasional quasi-stalinism) to forms of populism, neo-populism, rightist anti-imperialism and so on...

Thus, building on Antti's comment, the overemphasization of the category of the minjung may also be due to the influence of some of these perspectives in ways that may be a little out of date... who knows?

No comments:

Post a Comment