Sunday, August 29, 2010

Political Space and the Korean Thermidor

[Update: This paper was finally published, in an extended and revised form, in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. You can find a copy of it here]

Lately, I've been making short presentations based on a long essay I wrote called A Korean Thermidor? Essentially, I've been drawing out different parts of the argument, trying to understand how we might interpret conservative reaction in South Korea in an expansive conceptual and empirical sense. Anyways, the essay itself probably won't come out for a long time, due to the slow pace of academic publishing, but in the meantime here is the rough script I used for my last presentation, part of the panel Critical Geographical Readings on Post-Colonial Korea at this year's Kyujanggak Korean Studies Symposium, with diagrams! Further, it is a timely topic given the continued targeting of reformers, even centrist ones, by the Korean right, who seem to embrace the same analytical obfuscations that the American right uphold and use to obscure any Keynesian, social democratic, or socialist criticism or policy as a chimera, a fictional monster, rather than acknowledging these competing positions for what they are: rational prescriptions for social equality, political space, and economic reform.

On Political Space: Democratization and the Korean Thermidor

My presentation today has developed accidentally. My doctoral work was concerned with understanding economic reform in South Korea from the perspective of how it was influenced by the nexus between the state and social movements that came out of the democracy movement. I was very critical of many of the coordination problems between reform groups as well as the role of nationalism and neoliberalism amongst some reformers. However, since the election of Lee Myung Bak this very space has been targeted by the state, with the consequence that, for the last few years I’ve been trying to keep track of the many changes to the policies of the reform government and the way in which the political spaces of the reform bloc have been target by conservative forces.

Pursuing this line of inquiry has caused me to look for theories that can better explain the politics of reaction. This has led me to the work of Alain Badiou and others. Badiou’s understanding of politics, political sequences, and reactions against them (what he calls thermidorian politics), I think, can provide some provocative insights into geographical inquiry. However, I claim, they need to be anchored to an expansive conception of political space. So what I am going to do here is to attempt to explain a little bit about what this notion of political space might look like and discuss it in light of Badiou’s notion of the thermidor and the politics of conservative reaction in South Kore – which, I argue, is a reaction aimed at making the sense of popular agency associated with democratization illegible; the sources of which exist both inside and outside the reform bloc itself.

I’ll start them by reviewing some of the politics of reaction before jumping into the theoretical interpretation. Since the election of Lee Myung Bak there has been a severing of the institutional nexus between the Korean state and reform-oriented civil society that was established by the Korean democracy movement and reform governments of Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun (from roughly late 1997- early 2008). The Ministry of Gender Equality, which expanded under the reform period, has lost most of its budget and mandate; the National Human Rights Commission has been restructured and its powers decreased; the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, largely defunded. Parachute appointments and political dismissals have taken place across arts and culture as well as state broadcasters and communications commissions. The National Security Law has been used to intimidate social movements for reunification and social equality, and state funding for NGOs has been denied to any NGO taking part in “illegal” public demonstrations, meaning the candlelight demonstrations in 2008: over 1842 social and civic organizations in this category, from Women’s help lines to economic policy NGOs.

This reaction has been articulated as an attempt to cleanse the state of the ‘leftist’ legacy of reform governments. The term ‘leftist’ here is obscure. The conservative political bloc around Lee Myung Bak have created a chimera (or fictional monster) of what they see as the Korean liberal-left: the reform bloc that emerged from the democracy movement. This monster considers both reunification and neoliberal reform as excesses of left-nationalism. I want to argue that this material and symbolic obstruction of democratic politics constitutes an example of what Alain Badiou has called Thermidorean politics: that is, a determined effort to end or obstruct a political sequence by obscuring it or making its demands, broad principles, or historical trajectory illegible, preventing lessons from being abstracted from it, good or bad. As Badiou states,
To make a period illegible is much more than to simply condemn it. One of the effects of illegibility is to make it impossible to find in the period in question the very principles capable of remedying its impasses. If the period is declared to be pathological, nothing can be extracted from it for the sake of orientation, and the conclusion, whose pernicious effects confront us every day, is that one must resign oneself to disorientation as a lesser evil. Let us therefore pose, with regard to a previous and visibly closed sequence of the politics of emancipation, that it must remain legible for us, independently of the final judgement about it.
~Alain Badiou, The Courage of the Present. Le Monde. February 2010

So, in Badiou’s understanding, there is something to be learned from a hard analysis of political sequences, of both right and left, and that the legibility of their political demands is part of political struggle.

Historically, the Thermidor denotes the reaction against the radical phase of Jacobin rule during the French Revolution. This reaction, which was actually carried out by former Jacobites themselves, was aimed at diluting, through force and through rendering illegible, many of the egalitarian demands of the Jacobite and popular movements. This reaction was based on transforming revolutionary ‘virtue’ to loyalty to the state, paving the way for more hierarchical social divisions to be implemented. Badiou calls this the statification of the French revolution. Badiou is not necessarily endorsing the revolutionary violence of the Jacobin revolution, here; rather, he argues that politics always involves a disruption of social space and that it is important to learn from the demands and prescriptions the inform this disruption. The notion of the thermidor then, is an generic attempt to understand moments in which popular ‘virtue’ become transformed from a sense of radical popular participation to a more confined sense of patriotic loyalty.

I would say that a geographical conception of political space needs to include some of the temporal aspects of politics that we see here in the concept of the Thermidor. However, in geography, the term political space is more often used as a short-hand for the state, or territorial politics than it is for the kind of disruptive and strategic challenge to social space that one finds in popular social movements such as the Korean democracy movement. While Lefebvre, whose work is foundational for much of critical geography, argued that “Space is political” – I quote: “Space is not a scientific object removed from ideology or politics; it has always been political and strategic,” he claims – in political geography lefebvre’s understanding of the political here is often simply used to connote state space. However, Lefebvre’s interest in popular forms of political agency in everyday life and everyday space, so I think a more expansive definition is necessary.

This critique of political geography is also in keeping, also, with calls for a more flexible understanding of political society in East Asia. Kuan-Hsing Chen (Civil Society and Min-Jian), for example, argued in a recent essay in Cultural Studies that the distinction between state and civil society is too simplistic. He sees the Gramscian notion of bloc politics as an improvement, but argues that the notion of ‘blocs’ can lose site of other social struggles that exist independently of state power or are not co-articulated with a hegemonic bloc. In the East Asian context, Chen thus speaks of an additional sphere of min-jian or people’s sphere as the space of political society, which is both articulated with and autonomous from hegemonic politics [see diagram]. One sees a similar logic in the work of Cho Hee Yeon and other Korean scholars interested in conceptualizing both everyday social regimentation and general state-society relations. I support this interpretation, but I think a problem here is that one can fall a little too easily into a binary contrast between the ‘people’s sphere’ and the sphere of the state and civil society, so a more general definition of political space is necessary.

The Chinese New Left intellectual Wang Hui, provides a clearer definition of the political as concerning ‘power and interest’ and ‘active subjectivity and human agency.’ One can easily spatialize this definition to talk about spaces of power and interest, and spaces of human agency and active subjectivity. To understand a political sequence as a spatial process involves an effort to think of the spatial practices whereby spaces become political --that is, to think how particular spaces are brought into relations of power and interest or are challenged and reconfigured by practices of human agency and active subjectivity. It is through a dialectical tension between both senses here – a tension that is realized in relations of conflict, coordination, mobilization, resistance, representation -- that space becomes political.

The temporal aspect, the focus on sequences of politics, is the element that I think geographers can best learn from – as long, I suppose, as historians don’t object to such annexation of time. So, in the remainder of my presentation I’m going to be focusing on the temporal aspects of Badiou’s understanding of political sequences. For Badiou, a political sequence emerges from an event that disrupts a social situation in terms of its ordering of space. Badiou regards politics as a procedure suited to understanding the latent possibilities of an event: and a political sequence is thus a series of attempts to understand the event and to reshape the political situation based on this understanding. In other words, for Badiou events are constitutive of political subjectivity. A key virtue of politics, then, is fidelity to the logical consequences of an event. In Badiou’s terminology, fidelity is a relation that binds a subject to an event, and thus to other subjects. It is a virtue that is all too easily corrupted.

While Badiou’s personal fidelity may be to understanding the ‘postevental’ consequences of the event of 1968, for the Korean left it is the events of 1980s that constitutes their current practice. The spaces they disrupted were none other than the state’s developmentalist policies and the conservative hegemony of the old regime. It was the spaces of exportist industrialization, Cold War anticommunism, and militarized masculinity that were temporarily broken. In the events of the 1980s, a feeling of rupture was experienced, one that opened politics, and pointed to the possible. Democratic events such as May 68, or the June Uprising reveal the gerneric potential for political participation. They expand prevailing conceptions of political space: thus, their potential lies in a truth or a feeling of generic equality – the sense that a wide amount of people have the potential to participate in politics. It is this sense of equality that politics, in the Badiouvian sense, interrogates and uses to create new political spaces or challenge existing ones. In this sense, politics, for Badiou, is always based on the (eternal) truth of an event (all have a capacity to participate), and a procedure based on verifying how it might be materialized in the current situation. One can see similar themes in recent work by Korean intellectuals such as Joe Jeong Hwan who looks at the way in which new senses of commonality are created in events such as the Kwangju Uprising and the Candlelight protests of 2008.

This is relatively new terrain for critical geography, but similar understandings of political space have applied by spatial scholars in other disciplines. For example, Kristen Ross (2002) has dealt at length with the effects of events such as mass uprisings on social space. She describes how events such as uprisings and general strikes allow, “if only for an instant, the exploration of other possible lives, a vast unexplored area of possibility.” Ross’s understanding of politics here is not simply confined to actually-exisiting democratic processes but is an attempt to show how politics is constituted by a rupture or a gap within the power to rule. This resonates with the work of both Badiou but especially Jacques Rancierre who argues that politics does “not simply presuppose the rupture of the 'normal' distribution of positions between the one who exercises power and the one subject to it. It also requires a rupture in the idea that there are dispositions 'proper' to such classifications” (Rancierre 2001 Thesis 3). For Ranciere, this notion of politics is specifically opposed to what he calls the police. “The police is a 'partition of the sensible' [le partage du sensible] whose principle is the absence of a void and of a supplement” [thesis 7, Rancierre 2001], whereas democratics politics is a process of naming this void and challenging its exclusion.Thus democracy for these scholars is a dialectical sequence not only of governance but also of resistance to forms of rule that partition social space into set orders – which is similar to my defintion of political space above.

The last point I’d like to make is that this partition of the political space, to which democratic politics is constituted, is a feature both internal and external to political sequences undertaken by social movements. The failure of social cooperation policies under DJ and Roh Moo Hyun, as well as a number of their neoliberal policies could be regarded as part of the thermidor in that they also create partitions in political space. The Thermidor is also a major strategic problem for the internal coordination of reform forces.

I’d like to conclude then by advocating for continued engagement between critical geography and political events in South Korea such as the 1987 protests. These are themes that were of interest to an earlier generation of Korean studies scholars like Nancy Abelmann and Kenneth Wells, and, hopefully, with the expansive notion of political space that I’ve articulated here, I think there is room for a new round of critical work that interprets the democratic events and their effects on the current conjuncture.

Copyleft, Jamie Doucette 2010

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