What’s to Be Done with Critical Theory? | Woosung Kang

by Critical Asia

by Woosung Kang, June 2021】

Pandemic arrived as an uninvited guest, instantly taking over our household economy and totally devastating the normal way of life. It seemed to alter everything around us, but there are plenty of things that remain unchanged at all. Racial discrimination and hatred against social minorities are widespread like a social virus which additionally plagues us. Especially in South Korea, social antagonism against women and sexual minorities still continues, let alone the intensified exploitation of medical workers and lower class laborers.

Marxist theory has been a strong weapon for analyzing social issues and a provider of resistant politics in South Korea. But in the post-pandemic era, class politics visibly recedes into public oblivion while identity struggles of various minority groups are on the rise. As South Korea advances on to the affluent society, the typical form of class struggle declines, only to be mediated by identity politics and even liberal stance of Political Correctness. The cry for fairness takes the place of the idea of social justice and equality for all. Younger generations demand the fair share of opportunity and social wealth, asking the fairness of the rule.

Critical theories in South Korea struggle to cope with this change of social interest. The focus of the politics of theory moves into the micropolitical realms of cultural confrontation. While the logic of capitalist neoliberalism spreads, like a fatal virus, into almost every field of our social life, we take it for granted that social injustice is no longer a matter of life and death. What matters right now is to normalize the abnormal reality that causes various social evils.

One of the symptomatic theoretical tendencies in recent critical terrain is the rise of interest in the post-human discourses, including post-feminism, the Anthropocene, artificial intelligence, and New Materialism. As is well-known, the so-called “post-humanism” emerges as the critical reflection on the belief in modern human (=masculine) subjectivity and works to promote the critique of anthropocentrism, but what it actually carries out appears to be the denigration of social politics and the disintegration of subjectivity itself. I am not here arguing for the return to old macropolitics for the systematic reform, only to suggest that the micropolitical change of interest showcases the general decline of theory in the South Korean intellectual field.

In the recent South Korean cinema, the decline of class politics is most conspicuous. From Burning and Parasite to Minari, characters do not have clear class consciousness: they rather represent the prevalent fetishistic desire for social mobility. It seems like there is only one class—middle class—and class confrontation becomes an intra-class competition in Parasite; what must have been class antagonism turns into class envy and the pervert hatred against social minors in Burning; the patriarchal desire for social success violently overtakes the respect for human dignity in Minari. Everyone appears up against everyone else individually and the prospect of social change submerges under the strong impulse for survival. It seems like a Hobbesian scene of global pandemonium returns with a vengeance.

What then is to be done? What would be the role of critical theory in the face of this upsurge of micropolitics and the post-viral pandemic? To keep sending warning signals to the public and to demand macropolitical systematic change are lame. Politics as we know it could not be divided between two different levels. And the task of critical theory is precisely to mediate and link the two seemingly bifurcated realms. Without enhancing the macropolitical dimension of our daily micropolitical struggles, no affordable vision of post-neoliberal, post-human society can certainly be possible.

What we are witnessing now in the neoliberalism society of global capitalism as the viral pandemic drags on is not the disappearance of the normal but the continuation of our social malady. And the South Korean society is no exception. Quarantine measures like social distancing, self-isolation, and even lockdown require the tremendous sacrifice of workers; the fear of the state-driven authoritarian policies becomes a reality; racial discrimination and populism are on the rise; the so-called “vaccine nationalism” preoccupies the global politics. At a time when the survival of the human as a species is in critical crisis, we seem to still desire the impossible return to the normal. Utterly divided, we feed on the fantasy.

Indeed, the prolonged viral pandemic severely damages our already-disheveled mentality. Our sense of reality tremendously suffers from the discrepancy between what we hope for and what is happening, like Neo who is in front of the vulnerable choice of the red pill or blue pill in Matrix. As Slavoj Žižek succinctly put it, despite the overwhelming fear of total collapse, “nothing has really changed; the pandemic only brought out more clearly what was already there” (Pandmic!2). Everything we have enjoyed so far becomes suddenly suspended, but nothing has really changed. Despite our ardent desire for the return to the normal, the very normality is nothing other than the abnormal we have constantly struggled against. We are in a debacle without having any other choice than a psychotic delirium.

But what can awaken us from this delirium? Can critical theory save us from this delirious confusion of reality? Can “post-humanism,” as the red pill that will lead us to the true state of things, deliver us from the seductive fantasy of the return to normality? Deleuze’s argument for the aesthetic power of deliverance can be the crucial guidance of critical theory in the future: inventing a new people who are missing, who are suffering under the populist fascism and pandemic capitalism. Critical theory has to revive the people’s dormant urge for politics and resists the dominant form of social fetishism. Its claim should be: that the gene of self-destruction is not coded into us; that virus is not the other of humanity; that the enemy is not virus itself but those who reduce fellow humans into a social virus.

This explains why the state of emergency and exception is not the viral pandemic. The real state of emergency is our “post-human” idea of the Anthropocene itself: what has been exceptional is the anthropocentrism itself. And that’s why we are now witnessing the aggravated revival of the social hatred against minorities in the era of pandemic capitalism. The racial discrimination against Asians and Blacks in the Western countries, the hatred against social minorities and refugees, the intensified class exploitation under disaster capitalism, the technical development of surveillance politics, and the national or ethnic populist antagonism in the name of quarantine are the very symptom of this anthropocentric delirium.

The task of critical theory, therefore, is to reformulate a radically new politics for the future to come. Despite the illusion of overcoming the viral outbreak, the return to the normal is already out of the question. Red pill or bleu pill, pandemic teaches us that human beings will possibly confront the total annihilation in the future unless we start to think otherwise. From the reality of anthropocentric delirium, from the micropolitical struggles of our daily life, and from the possibility of impending total annihilation, critical theory should devise the prospect of new world where the human cooperation for systematic change is the primary task. In South Korea, this task has to begin with the fierce intellectual confrontation with the logic of delirious micropolitics in post-humanism and the practical resistance against pandemic neoliberal capitalism.

Woosung Kang, Seoul National University, South Korea

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