Thursday, April 22, 2010

Korean Autonomism and Poststructuralism

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[Note: this is an older post that I've migrated from my other blog]

After the 1980s in South Korea in general and after the democratic uprising of 1987 and the fall of the Soviet Union in particular, the Korean Left underwent radical changes. One consequence of this transition is that a number of theorists from both the 80s movements and early 90s student movement began to move towards different heretical, anti-authoritarian traditions of social thought. Some embraced more Deleuzian/Foucauldian/Lacanian trajectories while others sketched out a more Autonomia-style form of thought. Of course, there are theorists of many other stripes as well, from Athussarians to Trotskyists, but I'd like to focus on two of these currents here and highlight some of their publications in English.

The Suyu + Trans Research Machine is an intellectual commune led by a number of poststructural thinkers. It is a pretty amazing place. They have managed to run a collective cafe, restaurant, seminar schedule and research institute through membership fees and individual donations. They are also involved in general anti-neoliberal activism emphasizing support for environment and peace campaigns, and support for irregular and migrant workers. They have also translated a lot of poststructuralist thought into Korean and written quite an amount on their own. Here is a article about the establishment of the commune after the political sequence of the 1980s movements began to transform: What do Commune-ists think? Unfortunately you'll need a library proxy to access it, I think.

The Twilight of Empire was a manifesto put out by the Suyu folks around the time of the negotiation of the Korea-US free trade agreement and has political mix of tones from Agamben, Negri, and Deleuze to it. There is criticism of the sovereign exception used in Neoliberalism, and it endorses a political project of mobilizing the multitude, and of minorities widely construed, instead of left nationalism (the dominant left position in South Korea).

Another problem with interpellating nation as the subject of struggle is that it may conceal the disastrous effects of the FTA that is “yet to come,” effects which diverse minority groups in our society are “already” experiencing. The U.S.-South Korea FTA, which seems to have taken us by surprise, has been tailing the young, the disabled, women, migrant workers, non-regular workers, and all the creatures of the tidal flats for a much longer time, under the guise of GDP, market competition, neo-liberalism, and the calculation of economic profits. We must realize that our society has encouraged or neglected the exploitation of these minorities. The unimaginable scale and intensity of disaster that the U.S.-South Korea FTA entails will be the messenger that will inform us that the pain of those minorities that we have overlooked can become our own. Hence, the struggle against the FTA should start not from the nation, but from the minorities, the masses, and the multitude.

A more recent work on a similar theme and written by Goh Byeon-Gwon, a founding member of the commune, is Marginalization vs minoritization: expulsion by the state and flight of the masses. It is also worth a read.

Outside of Suyu, Joe Jeong Hwan and the multitude network center seem to embrace a more classical autonomist perspective and focus on issues of class composition. Joe Jeong-Hwan's article Class Composition in South Korea Since the Neoliberal Economic Crisis (the 1997 one, not the current crisis) was published a few years back in Multitudes Journal, which is open access. Here is an excerpt:

Significantly, the citizen’s movement is having difficulty to define the concept of a ’citizen’. Recently the main current tends to define the citizen as a non-class subject. In contrast, I propose that the ’citizen’ needs to be defined in the context of recomposition of working class accomplished by the industrial restructuring of capital since the 1980s. The industrial restructuration centered upon high-tech and informational industries since the 1980s have figured a different form of labor power. This different form of labor power has acquired a more scientific-technological character and, as a result of it, the school, home, and society have all been transformed into factories of reproduction. We should consider the weakening of the traditional labor movement as the effect of this process. The relative ratio of industrial laborers has been reduced as a result of the diversification of the working class. Therefore, ’citizen’ is but an old label to which have been attached new labor subjects composed of plural and heterogeneous multitudes.

Joe J-H also has a blog in Korean, with some English and Esperanto posts (yes, Esperanto). He has translated a number of Negri's books and has a new book of his own, Literature of Kairos, out now. Too bad these aren't translated into English.

Anyways, if you are curious about different non-nationalist left trajectories of Korean thought, this post should get you started. I might also post in the future about art collectives in South Korea that use situationist or autonomia style tactics, which is a topic I'm planning to write more about some day. Perhaps through a review of the book that came out of this exhibition.


  1. Thank you so much for this fascinating website. Wish I'd found it sooner.

    Are you Jamie, or Matt? Might either of you possess surnames?

    Best wishes from grey England,


    Aidan Foster-Carter
    Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University, UK

    E: W:
    Flat 1, 40 Magdalen Road, Exeter, Devon, EX2 4TE, England, UK
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    Skype: Aidan.Foster.Carter Twitter: fcaidan

  2. Dear Aiden,

    This blog is mainly me (Jamie). Matt does the stellar Gusts of Popular Feeling blog. We started this blog together, however, some 5 years ago and he has a number of posts here as well. Of course, I've just resurrected the project due to a busy year with no posting. You probably know me from elsewhere as Jamie Doucette.