Mapping the Abject Body
As I write this essay, South Korea is feeling the first tremors of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct perpetrated by several notable, powerful men. Among the most egregious offenders is Kim Ki-duk, one of the most globally recognized South Korean auteurs. Kim has won top awards at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin; he remains the only Korean filmmaker to have done so. His victims report that he has sexually assaulted female actors and staff over the years, a campaign of terror that has caused some women to abandon their acting careers.
Kim's films often dare to confront the obscene underside of modern South Korea's bourgeois society, its violent patriarchal foundation. In doing so, Kim creates female characters who, much like Antigone when she defies Creon's injunction not to bury her treasonous brother, confront the Law of the Father in pursuit of their own ethical principles and imperatives. Like Antigone, female characters in Kim's films, such as those in The Isle (2000) and Pieta (2012), choose to occupy the "no-man's land" outside the symbolic order that binds the patriarchal nation. And they do so despite understanding that this entails, not only what Lacan calls the second death, loss of the comforts and protections that the symbolic order provides (Lacan 1997, 270-283), but also likely destruction of the biological body itself. In the second death, however, biological death is not the focus. It primarily references the symbolic death that places the subject in what Lacan calls the Real. While the symbolic order constructs "reality," the Real remains invisible, yet investigating it can reveal the way things really are (Zizek 2006). I am reminded of how a student once described, during a class discussion, his own encounter with the Real of capitalism. He had just unboxed his brand new iPhone, and opened the battery/sim card cover. On it, he saw a smudged fingerprint, most likely belonging to a Chinese factory worker. This hidden sign of the labor used to create the phone serves as evidence of the Real of capitalism: The accumulation of surplus value through the exploitation of labor. The Real erupts onto the shiny surface of the commodity, and disrupts the smooth functioning of capitalism by conveying the inherent contradiction in capitalist accumulation. The exploitation of a heretofore invisible subject, the poorly compensated labor force, disrupts the myth of infinite gratification through unchecked acquisition.
Like a fingerprint that ruptures the fabricated "reality" of capitalism, female characters in Kim's films figure as the subject of the Real, who disrupt the smooth surface of the symbolic order of patriarchy. They superimpose their own ethical position onto it. and define their relationship to the Other on moral principles other than those that the law of the patriarchal nation prescribes. Representing the destruction of middle class social mores, often through violent imagery, has made Kim unpopular among the most avid guardians of those social norms: the bourgeois itself, including many feminists, who are deeply invested in liberal values. Film scholars, however, read his films as feminist texts which open up a critical space for analysis of the violence done to the feminine body by the patriarchal nation. (Chung)
It is a brutal irony, then, that the filmmaker himself has staged the theatre of cruelty on the very film sets where he, in depicting the gendered, sexualized violence that the hypermasculine patriarchal nation imposes upon the feminine body, forces open the space of critical treatment of that very violence. The film set becomes a space where the female subject is thoroughly objectified and rendered abject. It is a scene of obscene enjoyment, in which Kim plays the role of progenitor and sovereign masculine subject, and his female staff and actors play the abject feminine.
Giorgio Agamben puts forth the notion of the camp as the space where the sovereign power of the nation-state inscribes itself in the body politic (Agamben 1998). It is a region, defined by the nation state, within which the normal functioning of the Law is suspended or altered, in order to allow this violent, defining inscription to happen without disturbing those whom the law is intended to benefit. Bio-power of the sovereign renders life within the camp stripped of the rights and political meaning that the proper citizen of the nation state enjoys. The abject subject embodies that bare life. Kim's sexual violence has a performative dimension, in that he impersonates the bio-power of the patriarchal nation. The bare life of the abject body emerges along gender lines to the powerful gaze of the sovereign figure, ironically coinciding with the filmmaker's gaze.
Abjection, however, does not only refer to life that is the simple object of the sovereign gaze. An example of this complexity is the Foucauldian "'medical gaze" that "sees death everywhere immanent in life" (Copjec 2002, 27). For Foucault. death is a means to subject life to sovereign power, because "[to] the extent that life becomes defined by death, is permeated by death, it becomes permeated by power" (Copjec 2002, 27). At this juncture, Joan Copjec draws our attention to Lacan's notion of second death. Lacan's reading of Antigone demonstrates that symbolic death that the subject of abjection undergoes, allows us to rethink abjection as a possible means of subversion. Antigone's tomb does not merely enclose her corpse, it is also the locus where the subject of the Real breaks down the law of the state.
Walter Benjamin's notion of bare life also resonates in our thinking of the abject body. Benjamin refers to "bodily life" as "that which is "vulnerable to injury' by processes of disease as well as by our fellow men" (Copjec 2002, 27). In order to see the emancipatory possibility inherent in the position of the abject, I suggest that we combine this notion of bare life, which emphasizes physical injury, with Agamben's idea of the camp as the locus for that violence, and Julia Kristeva's notion of emancipation through abjection. Looking at them through Lacan's notion of symbolic death, we arrive at the abject body as that which undergoes the symbolic death, in order to open up the Real and subvert the sovereign power, whether it is the power of the nation-state or of a social organization that overdetermines subjectivity.
The feminine body on Kim Ki-duk's film set is, like the female characters in his movies, a metaphor for the abject body imprisoned in the camp. This abject, imprisoned, physical form is, in Agamben's terms, homo sacer, a being whose life may be taken by the state with impunity. The abject body of homo sacer is not simply available to be punished and injured by the law. It is excluded from juridical thinking and practice, which exist to protect the civic body of the nation state and its subjects. However, because the difference between homo sacer and the proper national subject marks the contour of the state, the abject body also delineates the limit of the nation-state, and thus, is never outside its national, geographic and ideological boundaries. The camp is a spatial organization within the nation state of this paradoxical co-existence of juridical and extra-juridical spheres of being. Bare life is banned from the juridical space: it is life that lacks civic and political right (Agamben 1998). And as such, it can be sequestered, imprisoned, even killed, but not with the goal of destroying it utterly. The juridical order needs bare life to delineate and clarify the limit of law. It defines itself against the body that carries bare life. What emerges is the contour of the civic and politically meaningful body. The women on Kim's film sets, though not exemplars of bare life that can be killed with impunity, demonstrate the limits of women's full recognition as civic subjects who are protected by the law. These limitations are not, however, confined within the camp, as the body of homo sacer is more widely required by society to fill the purpose of providing definition, by way of contrast, of the proper subject. This is why. in light of Agamben's logic, we can draw the conclusion that we are all homines sacri (Agamben 1998, 71-115).
Similarly, the Jews who were held in Nazi concentration camps in World War Two were, though confined within a space where the regular juridical order was suspended, never outside the physical and conceptual boundaries of the German nation state. Their meaning spread beyond the camp that housed them to be exterminated. As Agamben makes clear, as long as there is a mapping of the extermination camps, denoting the exception to the national civic body, that national civic body itself remains part of the nation-state's understanding of the camp. The national subject's body is the surface upon which sovereign power writes itself. The biopolitics inscribed on the Jewish body in World War II also defined the German body. The map of biopolitics overlaps with the space of the nation-state, and the underlying implication is that if sovereign power can destroy Jewish body, the same technology can be carried out upon the German body. If Jewish body is homo sacer as such, then the German body is also homo sacer, the body upon which sovereign power can inscribe itself should the need arise. The biopolitical borders demarcate the line of the politically meaningful life of the citizens and their identitarian properties: "Organisms belong to the public power: the body is nationalized" (Agamben 1998, 165). Inside the camp, power is permitted to intervene without any reservation.
This boundary thinking creates a cartography of the nation-state, which maps out the locations of both the proper civic body, and the abject body that houses bare life. We imagine our place within the nation-state through this cognitive mapping: we know where we are, and how to behave in the space we inhabit...