The Digital as Salvation: A Digital Poetry after the Sewol Ferry Disaster

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“Oh, my God…”

You mumble to yourself.

Several rescue ships are floating around a big ferry capsized, but you see no actual activities. The ship, which has been sinking slowly over three days, has completely sunk and is no longer visible. Your eyes are fixed on the screens of your laptop and smartphone mediating the horrifying scene. On the screen, only a small headline is floating in silence informing you that there are hundreds of passengers including around 300 high school students inside the ferry. There is nothing you can do, however, except gazing at the cold screen which shows the ship disappearing into the colder sea.

You have watched the ferry sinking live for three days. That is, you have witnessed the people dying over days without any significant help in real time. It means not only that your expectation of the rescue of the passengers by the government has been miserably destroyed, but that you may be part of the collective failure and the helplessness. In front of the screen mediating the sea without the ferry, some horrible images keep coming up abruptly about the people inside of ship full of sea water, you cannot dare to face them. Your body is shuddering with the mixed sentiments of perplexity, fear, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, and self-contempt.

The above narrative is what I experienced from April 16-18, 2014, mainly drawing on digital media, the only medium that enabled me to keep connected to the event (The complete failure in the operation of the State has defined it not as an accident but an event). And many other Korean people have their own story about the so-called Sewol ferry disaster. As people in the United States are living in “the post-9/11,” South Koreans are living in a world of “after the Sewol Ferry disaster.” In this irreversible world,  people no longer naively believe that their government will protect and be honest with them. The social bond between the people has severely weakened. And a modern belief that their world and history will keep progressing is completely broken. After witnessing the evil intention of the state seemingly try not to save its people or its pitiable incompetence to save them, Korean youth have called their native country “Hell-Joseon.” Korea is imagined to remain in, or regress to, the alleged pre-modern stage of Joseon dynasty, like hell, which had ruled Korea from the late 14th to the end of the 19th century.

Though about two and a half years have passed, the truth about the failed rescue is still unclear. The Korean government and the Blue House still do not give enough answers on why President Park did not show up to perform her public power and duty in front of people and what she did during the 7 hours of her absence which became the golden time of rescue. And, by the trinity of the government, ruling party, and the mainline conservative media, the public and personal efforts to clarify the truth of the disaster by the families and friends of the disaster victims, have been framed as a waste of national taxes and a dangerous threat to the political stability of South Korea against North Korea. The mainline conservative media, in particular, successfully manipulated and isolated the public voice asking for the truth into a mere political attack on the ruling party and a dangerous demagoguery benefiting North Korea.

In and with the hegemonic control of public opinion by the state, Korean civil society has had a hard time expressing the collective condolence for the disaster and political voices against the government in public space(The national uprising of Korean people caused by Park Geun-Hye’s corruption scandal is quite recent). Many art projects and protests, denouncing the Park Geun-Hye government for concealing the truth, were violently restrained by the police, and protesters were ordered to pay huge fines. Some celebrities who publicly criticized the Park administration were visibly disadvantaged regarding their broadcasting and fame. The Sewol ferry disaster and its victims were slowly forgotten at least in the so-called offline social spaces and popular culture. The public lament and condolence for the victims was suppressed and their existence (or absence) reified into a mere number of casualties so often and quickly.

In the hegemonic political landscape of the Park regime, ‘the digital’ has been desperately asked to be a salvational space for political lament, anger, condolence, consolation, humor, and hope surrounding the Sewol ferry disaster. Facing the relentless efforts of the Korean government to block and isolate the politicization of public space (including Gwanghwamoon Square the most popular location for civil demonstration), not only the families and friend of the victims but those who cannot forget the disaster have found and appropriated ‘digital space’ as more or less liberating space from the control by the government. The below video clip shared on Facebook is an instantiation of such space. Please watch it.

 

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In the clip, each anonymous civilian coming from different regions, occupations, and ages shows up one by one and is asked to speak a victim’s name. In this way, all the discrete names of the 304 victims are sincerely pronounced by 304 civilians for about 15 minutes. Only the first minute focuses on showing how the civilians come to encounter the unexpectedly emotional moment of calling the names of the victims. By starting with the anonymous civilians’ emotional response uncontrollably bursting out in tears in front of the camera, the video clip alludes to the fact that this act of calling their forgotten and uncalled names is not only about them but about “us” who failed to save them while helplessly witnessing their tragic death and our miserable incompetence. Given the political oppression of the collective expression of lament, guilt, and condolence surrounding the disaster, I think, the digital object of the Facebook video clip has some significant implications to contemplate and further examine.

First, what this Facebook video clip does in the socio-political context of “after the Sewol ferry disaster,” can better be discussed when it is understood as a Deleuzian assemblage which “refers to the dynamic collection or arrangement of heterogeneous elements (structures, practices, materials, affects, and enunciations) that expresses a character or identity and asserts a territory” (Slack, 2012, p. 152). That is, rather than approaching the video clip as having an already-fixed message or content, it is better to focus on the relations, connections, and arrangements which the video clip enables and affords and to assume that meanings of the clip are produced in the encounters and connections enabled by the clip.

What makes the video clip important and fascinating is its location on a salvational platform which enables, affords, and materializes the connections and relations between bodies, affects, and practices of lament which have been critically supervised and suppressed by the Korean government. That is, this video clip offers a digitally-mediated social space for the collective and quasi-public lament for the victims of the disaster which inevitably requires and invites the dynamic connections and relations between people, practices, and affects.

To just mention the potentiality, capability, and tendency of the clip to enable the relations of individuals that would have been hardly possible without it. It generates the encounters between the victims of the disaster, the civilians who call the victims’ discrete names, and audiences watching their faces and hearing their voices calling the names. In this way, the relationships between the victims and those who feel guilty for their death, between those who share the feeling of guilt and lament, that have been oppressed and hardly possible in the public space of Korean society, are enabled and materialized. 

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Second, like reciting poetic words, the civilians’ act of calling of the discrete name of individual victims in the clip, materializes their forgotten existence (and absence) into a being in our world of imagination, perception and recognition. The connection formed between the civilians, who gaze straight into the camera (practice), and the medium close-up frame to focus on their facial expressions (structure of mediation), produces the social meaning of the act of calling the victims’ names in the video clip. That is, the relation between the two demonstrates that the producers and participants of the video clip all recognize and intend the act of calling the victims’ names to be a public memorial performance which will be shown to and affect others. Between those who call their names and those who listen to them through the mediation of the clip, the voices of the civilians, making the phonetic sounds of the names, vibrate the air and then the bodies of the audiences who watch the clip. Thus, they materialize the immaterial and imaginary existence (and absence) of the victims into something to be corporeally felt and experienced by the bodies of the audiences. The victims enter into our world of perception, recognition, and remembrance. The vibrations of the civilians’ voices, calling the victims’ names, are enough to make themselves and others, who listen to the names, tremble, shed tears, and sometimes emotionally collapse.

Given the political landscape of Korean society, the act of calling the individual victims’ names one by one is arguably ethical, political, and aesthetic. It is an ethical act in that to call one’s name is one of the most fundamental ways of perceiving, remembering, and recognizing one’s existence and absence. In particular, given the reification of the victims into a mere number of casualties, often insensitively repeated by the government and the mainline press, the act of calling their names is, in a sense, to recognize and remember that they are distinct individuals who have their own names, histories, and families. It recovers the singularity and humanity of the individual victims. The reason why so many audiences testify that they could not turn the clip off in the middle lies in the ethical characteristics of such act of calling the victims’ names. Meanwhile, it is also a political act given that the Park regime has consistently been hostile to such acts of remembering and lamenting the Sewol ferry disaster victims whose deaths inevitably reflect the complete failure of the government and thus cannot but demand its legal and political responsibility for the victims. Given the political situation of Korean society, to call and recall the names of the individual victims comes to be a political act which immediately counteracts the government’s political efforts to hide the truth about the disaster and to avoid its legal and political responsibility for the victims. Thus, for Korean people living in a world “after the Sewol ferry disaster,” to be ethical means to be political. Lastly, it is an aesthetic act. As poem has rhythm and rhyme in the repetitions of phoneme, word, and image and the variation of the repeated patterns, the act of calling the names in the video clip is performed and mediated in repeated forms and patterns that endow rhythm. The clip also shows variations, within the forms and patterns, in that the civilians express their personal and authentic ways of encountering and mourning the victims through their distinct pauses, voices, facial expressions, and body movements. In this respect, the Facebook video clip can arguably be understood as an aestheticization of the political act of remembering and lamenting the victims.

Third, the practice of watching the video clip is likely to strengthen connectedness with the victims, the civilians who call their names, and others who also watch it. In this respect, to watch (“like,” “share” and/or “comment” on) the video clip in Facebook is not merely a discrete act or series of actions. Rather, it can be understood as an event in and through which different time dimensions of the victims, the civilians who call their names, and the audiences who watch the civilians calling the names, fold into each other. Those who watch (share, and/or comment on) the clip get more entangled with the disaster, the victims, and others who lament them. That is, their bodies’ relation to the disaster is intensified. Quoting a sentence in Zizi Papacharissi’s article (2015) about online news sharing on Twitter, the Facebook video clip serves as poetic “storytelling structures that sustain the modality of engagement that is primarily affective” (p. 310).

In this way, as an assemblage which affords the dynamic connections and relations between bodies, affects, and practices of lament that would have been hardly possible without it, the Facebook video clip connects the victims whose names are called, the civilians who called their names, and the audiences who listen to the names. It likely enables the formation of what Papacharissi (2015) calls ‘affective publics’ among those who watched the video clip and feel strongly connected to the victims and the civilians who lament their deaths. Affective publics are “networked publics that are mobilized and connected, identified, and potentially disconnected through expressions of sentiment” (p. 311). And, when it comes to the Facebook video clip, the core sentiments whose expression generates the feelings of belonging and solidarity would be guilt and lament.

“To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Adorno said in Cultural Criticism and Society (1983, p.34). After Auschwitz, as the utmost instantiation of barbarism of Western civilization, culture, and philosophy of Enlightenment, “any single word” of poetry is “a confirmation that life can go on after,” which makes the very being and acting of people in the era of post-Auschwitz barbaric (Anna-Verena Nosthoff, Barbarism: Notes on the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno). The event of Auschwitz is ungraspable. It fearfully reveals the “radical chasm between the object and the concept” and between the signifier and the signified. After Auschwitz, the position to take to write poetry, the one that “deems itself superior to what it attempts to grasp” is barbaric in that it reiterates the mode of thinking and positioning which caused the tragedy of Auschwitz (Ibid.).

Would it be barbaric to write poetry after the Sewol Ferry disaster? Yes, in some cases. Aligning with the reification of the humanity and personality of the individual victims of the disaster, some humanities in Korean society, have reified and reproduced the realities of ‘the Sewol ferry disaster’ by not reflecting how their ways of thinking and doing philosophy are part of the conditions caused the disaster or by not struggling with the irreversible realities of the disaster and its aftermath. However, in other cases, to write poetry after the Sewol Ferry disaster could be salvational, rather than barbaric. I would like to say that the Facebook video clip, as a new form of engagement with the ungraspable realities of the Sewol ferry disaster, is one of them. It might be the new form of poetry (and art), that “absolute reification” cannot seize, which Adorno (1983) aspired to find.

The video clip as a form of digital media technology renders something transcendent and sacred in the sense that it enables and affords the encounters and connections between individuals, affects, and desires which have not been fulfilled and realized in the offline world of “after the Sewol ferry disaster.” In and through the assemblage of the video clip inviting and connecting the victims and those who feel guilty for their death, the world of encounter, forgiveness, condolence, and comfort, that is ethically and historically requested but unfilled in the present of Korean society, comes into tangible being which affects the perception, imagination, bodies, and sensorial experiences of those who watch it.

The Facebook video clip gives birth to a salvational space and moment in which the suppressed and unfulfilled relations, sentiments, and desires come to be liberated and accomplished. For those who feel guilty for the disaster and victims including me, the video clip is felt like a poem, coming from the future, which renders and materializes the world that is forgotten and suppressed but desired and requested. It is a digital poem which mediates, enables, affords, and materializes the transcendence from the oppressed present, the one which recovers the feelings of social bonds and sacredness which have critically diluted after the symbolic death of God, the state, and humanity in the disaster that is still going on.

By Seung Soo Kim

 

Reference:
Adorno, T. (1983). Cultural criticism and society. In Prisms, 17–34. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Nosthoff, Anna-Verena. (2014). Barbarism: Notes on the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno.

Slack, J. D. (2012). Beyond transmission, modes, and media. In J. Packer & S. B. C. Wiley(Eds.), Communication matters: Materialist approaches to media, mobility, and networks (pp. 143 -158). New York, NY: Routledge.

Papacharissi, Z. (2016). Affective publics and structures of storytelling: Sentiment, events and mediality. Information, Communication & Society, 19(3), 307-324, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2015.1109697

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