The Political Unconscious of Park Chan-Wook: The Logic of Revenge and the Structures of Global Capitalism (1)

By Tomkins, Joseph; Wilson, Julie A. | Post Script, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Political Unconscious of Park Chan-Wook: The Logic of Revenge and the Structures of Global Capitalism (1)


Tomkins, Joseph, Wilson, Julie A., Post Script


INTRODUCTION:

PARK AND THE LOGIC OF REVENGE

Upon superficial viewing, the films of South Korean director Park Chan-wook appear to be little more than slick, stylized, testosterone-driven narratives doggedly pursuing the roots of aggression and violence between men.

Joint Security Area (JSA) (2000) chronicles the affectionate development and murderous demise of friendship between North and South Korean border guards. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) follows the escalating and interlocking revenge efforts of two men bent on avenging the contingent deaths of loved ones. Old Boy (2003) recounts one man's frenetic investigation into the cause of his fifteen-year quarantine that climaxes in a maniacal showdown with his elusive tormentor. In each of these films, Park sadistically drags his spectators into a blood-thirsty world where unspeakable acts and invisible assailants an nounce a near total experience of existential and environmental alienation. (2)

Drawing on the hermeneutic framework of Fredric Jameson, this essay examines the political unconscious of Park Chan-wook (3): the dialectics of ideology and utopia at work in each of Park's three aforementioned films. More specifically, we argue that Park's political unconscious is constituted in an overarching commitment to the concept of revenge and, what's more, that Park's preoccupation with revenge indicates a logic beyond its merely diegetic functions. What is unmasked in our readings of JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Old Boy is how the concept of revenge serves not only as a determination of narrative form, but also--and crucially--as the unconscious socio-historical logic corresponding to life in global capitalism. Revenge, as it emerges in Park's work, provides a representational site that intimates the very essence of historical struggle in the face of global capitalism.

THE POLITICAL UNCONSCIOUS

For Jameson, the political unconscious designates the social, historical, and political parameters that circumscribe textual production and find their articulation in a cultural object. Jameson's use of the term "unconscious" differs fundamentally from its circulation in psychoanalytic discourse where it refers primarily to individual psychological processes that remain concealed or hidden from the subject's conscious awareness and are there to be revealed during the course of analysis. By contrast, the political unconscious is a social, rather than individual, category that refers to collective, structural dynamics that encompass interpersonal relations. Jameson retains the hermeneutic orientation given this term, enlisting it for the purposes of ideological analysis whereby formal, stylistic, and narrative traits are decoded in terms of their political, social, and historical functions. Accordingly, narrative is valued as a "socially symbolic act"--at once ideological and utopian--that marks a specific mode of conceptualizing the world, one that not only seeks to articulate, but also engage with and ultimately transform, the socio-historical conditions of its production. (4)

Aiming to uncover those cultural and historical processes that condition a text's production (and which are themselves deeply political), Jameson's methodology revolves around a particular understanding of History. For Jameson, History is not simply reducible to historical contextualization, i.e. the empirical history of the South Korea as it relates to "official" narratives of political and economic development that both constrain and exceed filmic production (e.g. the on-going debates surrounding "cultural diversity" and the Screen Quota system). Rather, History exists in those cultural and historical processes conditioning a text's production yet escaping the purview of direct representation, depiction, and intellection. Hence, History, as Jameson understands it, can never be totally accounted for, only approximated in the ways it is perpetually (re)constructed in cultural texts.

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