The Conditions of Responsibilities for a Lost Time | Haewoong Harry Jang

by Critical Asia

by Haewoong Harry Jang, Dec. 2021】

The Pandemic and Theoretic Interventions

The global pandemic crisis has become an apocalypse of this new era. An apocalypse (uncovering in Ancient Greek) often reveals something or truth once hidden in ordinary times. We are not allowed to touch, meet suffering others as in usual times and in this sense we are lost with life-in-death and death-in-life situation in apocalypitic time. The apocalyptic/catastrophic aspects of the pandemic has led to theoretical interventions. Among others Žižek and Agamben both focused on the matter of taking responsibilities for a lost time while contradicting each other. To take responsibilities means that we ought to make commitment to what is revealed or disclosed. Žižek makes his demand for co-operation and col-laboration on a global scale whereas Agamben takes issue with increased control of sovereign power.[1] Despite their different standpoints, they urge us to take responsibilities for the possibilities of global communism or vigilance to soverign power. Then what it means to take responsibilities under these difficult times and what should be considered before taking actions? In other words, the conditions of taking responsibilities should be explored in the first place.

The matters of temporality and violence in Derrida’s philosophy comes to the fore when considering the conditions of taking responsibilities. For Derrida hospitality, responsibilities and justice are temporally finite and potentially violent in structure. Thus it is possible to examine the conditions of responsibilities encouraged by Žižek and Agamben through the lens of Derrida. More than anything Derridian reading can deconstruct any demand for now and trace the starting block or the conditions. Martin Hägglund’s reading[2] helps to bring in Derridian logic of time and violence when it comes to responsibilities. Hägglund presents two intriguing fragments before discussing Derridian version of justice. He writes “there must be exposition to an unpredictable future, there must be finitude and vulnerability, there must be openness to whatever or whoever comes.”[3] Here, the very emphasis that any thing must be open to temporality opens up the possibilities of becoming violent at any point of time. Hägglund adds, in this vein, that “justice requires an incalculable temporality in which the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.”[4] It is in this logic any gift can be given at the risk of being a poison (Gift in German).

The matter of taking responsibilities is explored by Derrida with his two notions in late works: hospitality and justice. Hägglund does justice to implications of Derrida’s thinking by giving a succint account for those two notions. It is made clear that hospitality and justice are not of ideal but are open to temporal vulnerability.

When Derrida invokes an “unconditional” hospitality or an “undestructible” justice, it may indeed seem as if he invokes the ideal of something that would be good in itself. I have argued, however, that the unconditional and the undestructible are the disjointure of time and make it impossible for anything to be good in itself. Even the most ideal hospitality or justice must be open to the corruption of evil, since the undecidable coming of time is inscribed in the very idea of hospitality or justice. (Radical Atheism, 105)

Derridian notions such as hospitality and justice does not guarantee any goodness or ideality in advance but always carry in itself the possibilities of being corrupted or becoming evil. Only through time, it is possible to see what will be unfurled from hospitality or justice. This temporal finitude unlike immortal ideality allows “the concern for or the committment to justice”(Radical Atheism, 168) while at the same time leaving room for being corrupted. Hägglund further explains the risk of going rotten or being corrupted under democracy in the political sphere.

Hence, it becomes intriguing to see Žižek and Agamben’s appeal for taking responsibilities are met with a Derridian interjection. Taking responsibilities for a lost time doesn’t necessarily trigger revolutionary change on political and social dimensions. An apocalyptic emergency in recent years have disclosed that modus operandi of global capitalism and ecological crisis are so intertwined that the global pandemic is awaiting for justice. Indeed, waht have been disclosed by the pandemic need to be addressed and demand us to take responsibilties and action. However, bearing responsibility for justice have no choice but always to risk possibilities of being corrupted, turning into a dystopian future. In the context of Korea, it seems undeniable that the social and political unconscious are not so favorable to taking responsibilities for a better future to come. The recent two Korean movies (Burning and Parasite) reveal social anxiety and antagonism of Korea only to provide us with grim portrayals of future.             

Burning and Parasite: theKorean Unconscious on Screen

Burning and Parasite can both be considered as social thriller in that the two movies capture the social unconscious such as anxiety, unrest, and antagonism. Further, the two demonstrate the conflicts between the precariat and the bourgeoisie. Jongsu, Haemi and Kitaek and Geunse’s families are placed against Ben and Bak Dongik’s family. It is out of this antagonistic relation that the bourgeois characters are murdered at the end of each movie. Thus, these two movies presents the social unconscious exploding at the very last minute and grim versions of future where responsibility and justice are ahead of us with uncertainties. The act of taking responsibilities is inscribed in unpredictable and undecidable coming of time of this era and the very results of contradiction/tension might not allow for easy answers or moves for an action. To clarify this point, the endings of the two movies will be briefly analyzed.

Jongsu, protagonist of Burning, inherited his father’s precariat social position and is forced to deal with it. In place of his absent father Jongsu takes care of a small farm in Paju in contrast with Ben’s living environment in Seoul. Haemi is also in precariat social position but her sudden missing gives Jonsu a basis for murdering Ben. Ben represents hegemonic masculinity of this era which can be characterized by entrepreneurship, confidence, well-cared external appearance. For him Jongsu and Haemi are just interesting examples coming from explicitly different social positions. The sudden missing of Haemi light the fuse of Jongsu’s suspicion. Marginalized masculinity represented by Jongsu is exploded with what he inherited from his father: social anger, traumatic impulse(trieb). Whether his muder was fictional or in real life, it seems quite clear that his traumatic outburst has nowhere to go. As phantasmagoria created by Jongsu and Haemi show, the repressed burst out of socially traumatic subjects in this movie. It is in this sense, the title of this movie also signifies the burning precariat in face of neo-liberal order.

Kitaek’s murder of Dongik has also a lot to do with social positions and class. His family infiltrates into Dongik’s house as teachers, house keeper and driver. Allegorically seen, it can be understood that the entanglement of three families (including Geunse’s one) efficiently represent once again the relationship between the precariat and the bourgeoisie. What happens after Kitaek’s murder portrays the social outburst mentioned earlier in a much more graphic way. Kitaek’s anger is immediately to be repressed and he manages to live as if being a parasite. Replacing Geunse’s position, Kitaek tries his futile attempts by sending signals of Morse code only to be witnessed by his son from a safe distance. This safe distance functions as a warning sign that the outburst of the repressed have to be concealed from the symbolic order. Hence this movie aptly describes two kinds of impossibility: the impossibility of harmonic relationship and the impossibility of something radical to happen.

It does come into view that South Korea’s social development and modernization has its own outcomes. The two murders cannot be separated from these outcomes and in this sense they are socially significant and symptomatic. During the period of industrialization which is from 60s to 80s, there was prevalent social desire to go up the ladder and faith in the trickle-down effect. Since 90s, people have started to lose faith and hope due to economic crises, increasing disparity between classes and. Thus, it is no coincidence that descriptions of the movies point to the social unrest, unconscious even before covid-19. The pandemic situation exacerbates the existing contradictions of global capitalism.[5] Two murders raise the social alarm that there is no easy solution to contradictions and class struggle. Revealed and inherited social antagonism may lead to gloomy versions of future as the endings of the movies imply.

Now, these two movies testify to the fact that the global pandemic is not predetermined to be ameliorated. Although Žižek and Agamben’s theoretical interventions urge us to take responsibilities under cruel circumstances, any attempt to take action is open to the finitude of time which always carries the risk of turning into a better or worse future. The outburst of the socially and politically repressed from the two movies calls the affirmative meanings of responsibility and justice into question. The apocalyptic/catastrophic disclosure can work as a catalyst for social anger and call for action. However, the possibility of taking responsibilities is as always inscribed into undecidable coming of time. The grim descriptions of realities from the two movies make a point that the ourburst or the moment of political disruption doesn’t guarantee any easy answer to our current situation. The emergency called pandemic for sure demands us to seek for emergency exits. Once getting out of emergency exits, one is confronted with what should be done to the place left behind.

However, although two movies provide with uncertainties of revealed social contradictions in apocalyptic times, some issues remain problemtic. In what way does Burning and Parasite represent social realities of Korea? And more importantly, can the recent Korean political and social genre open up the possibilities for a different time and future? How could we understand the spectatorship of exploded violence out of political and social antagonism? All of these questions converge on the logic and structure of cultural circulation based on global capitalism. The intricate remains of the recent Korean social genre can be explored from a critical perspective. And that attempt should be one way of reading post-apocalyptic temporality coming after disclosure and (im)possible conditions of taking responsibilties or action.[6]

The outburst of the repressed has to deal with the symbolic order disturbed by any apocalyptic disclosure. Apocalypse is in intself not predetermined but provides with tendencies of reverting back to the old system and changing the status quo at the same time. In either case, uncertainties of future haunt us in the wake of the pandemic era. Burning and Parasite‘s probable scenarios are worth noticing and remarkable since coming of time doesn’t necessarily get integrated into the necessity of taking action and responsibility and justice. Any ideal or theoretical intervention cannot subsume the unconditional conditions of responsibility, justice and change. It is necessary that global collaboration beyond nations and soverign power’s scapegoating of homo sacer should be considered with unperdictable and finite temporality. Only when focusing on how the precariat are placed or inscribed in the conditions of moving forward, it becomes possible to try to open up the apocalyptic crack and experiment in the future to come. At least, that must be a starting point of taking responsibilities for a lost and apocalyptic time.

The pandemic crisis/apocalypse revealed political and social contradictions. Žižek and Agamben demand us to make commitment to what is revealed or disclosed by taking responsibilities in a lost time. However, the conditions of taking responsibilities can be re-examined when having recourse to Derridian lines of thought. Further, Burning and Parasite work as referential texts for taking a look at the social unconscious of Korea and grim scenarios of future. In summary, the very conditions of taking responsibilities for a lost and apocalyptic time are discussed in this essay.

Haewoong Harry Jang, Seoul National University, South Korea


[1] For their theoretical attempts and claims, refer to Pandemic!: Covid-19 Shakes the World, Pandemic! 2: Chronicles of a Lost Time,

[2] Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life

[3] Ibid., pp.31

[4] Ibid., pp.41

[5] It’s quite noticeable that the pandemic sitaution intensified political controversies in Korea and all over the world. Especially in Korea the social unrest and desire to revert to the past time have formed complicated stalemate which can be seen from the movies.

[6] It is my plan to take a critical approach regarding the recent Korean cultural boom in more detail. 

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