Interview with Maxi Kim

Editor JL interviews (& converses with) OON #0 Contributor Maxi Kim:

JL: I’ll start by asking you to talk a little bit about the projects you’re currently working on, writing-wise, art-wise, curating-wise.

MK: Right now I’m just focusing on my book about North Korea. It’s really about how one can use theory to explore a lot of the issues surrounding North Korea, mainly, once North and South Korea reunify, there are going to be a lot of psychological problems, lots of issues having to do with acculturation for the North Koreans. I mean there’s lots of ways to talk about it.

JL: So what’s your investment in this, besides your ethnic affiliation, what draws you to North Korea especially as a topic to write about and make art about?

MK: Well, generally, if you’re South Korean, you don’t have an interest in North Korea. That’s what I’ve found interesting. Generally, like my dad, my mom, they don’t really have an opinion about North Korea, which is kind of amazing if you think about it. You can see other examples like West and East German. Even though people didn’t necessarily think of the East Germans in the West, there was this constant specter, people kind of knew that one day they would get together, but in Korea, most people don’t necessarily have that feeling. Generally people don’t want the two Koreas to reunify. But in terms of why I got interested in North Korea, I guess mainly it was from frustration. A lot of the books on North Korea have to do with economic policy and, going back to the whole East/West Germany example, you can find lots of books on the philosophical dimension of what it means to reunify and there’s lots of historical takes on how will the Germans ever de-Nazi-fy themselves, psychologically speaking, how will they ever reclaim what it was like before Hitler, there’s lots of interesting takes, but you hardly ever see anything like that for North Korea so I thought I would do that.

JL: Do you feel like you’re maybe accounting for some kind of gap? You mentioned that many Koreans won’t really say outright if they’re pro or against reunification, but if you do ask them, they might have an opinion, but it’s not something that gets talked about out in the open. Different, but maybe similar to the revolutions in the Middle East, that everyone was talking about the fact that it was happening, but not wanting to publicly announce their pro-revolution feelings or discuss the possible ramifications of such an event.

MK: The day after North and South Korea reunify, generally it’s thought that the North will simply mimic the South, economically and socially speaking, but I think the one big difference between North Korea and what’s happening in the Middle East and North Africa right now, is the fact that just before the Egyptian uprising you had all that activity on Facebook and Twitter and of course you have nothing comparable in North Korea, they don’t even have the Internet. There it’s more difficult to see how revolution might happen. There’s daily acts of rebelling but it’s not a mass uprising.

JL: And do you think this is cultural, the way the government is organized, how they’ve been situated historically, or – ?

MK: Yea, all of the above. They’re in a really shitty situation because they have these superpowers surrounding them. You know, Japan, China, Russia. One way to look at North Korea is just to see them as a symptom of globalization. On the other hand, you can’t account for what’s going on in North Korea strictly in terms of what China’s doing or what Japan’s doing. But I think one thing that should be pointed out more is how North Korea has a racial ideology, very close to South Korea’s racial ideology, and it’s rarely talked about among South Koreans, our feelings and emotions about race, but it’s there, there have been lots of studies on it. For instance, it’s generally thought that Asians are family-centered, that this is a common East Asian trait, but there was a recent study – and I thought you would be interested in this too because we both have some of the same concerns – so they looked at the ten most popular dramas in China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand, and Korea’s dramas were the most family-centered and there was always an emphasis on blood relations, whereas in Japanese dramas there was a loose affinity to blood, by comparing these dramas you can clearly see that in Korea there’s much more of an emphasis on the bloodline and how that’s connected to family and ethics and a whole realm of things that’s not in China and other places.

JL: You mention this racial ideology, do you want to talk more about how this is all connected?

MK: What I didn’t know before until I started getting into it was that before the 19th century Korea didn’t have this racial ideology. As a lot of people call it, it is a hermit kingdom, but they had a pretty loose border in the North, and there was nothing like today’s nationalism. But it was only when the Japanese invaded Korea in the early 20th century, that, essentially their nationalism was imported from the Japanese. So the Japanese were afraid of the Chinese invading Korea so they really manufactured this Korean nationalism and the Koreans took to it. And now, it’s become strange because Kim Jung Il has really run with it and it’s his source of legitimacy, this idea that the Koreans are the most virtuous and the most pure-blooded and the most homogenous, more than the Chinese, more than the Japanese, so you look at that, and for me, I immediately think of Hitler’s National Socialism. And there’s a lot of similarities there, but the one big difference I guess is that North Koreas don’t make claims about themselves, they don’t claim that they’re stronger than the South Koreans or that they’re smarter than Americans, they don’t do anything of that sort. All they claim is that they’re the most pure-blooded, therefore the most naive and innocent and that’s why we need a great leader like Kim Jung Il, because’re so innocent. For them there’s no way of surviving a multi-ethnic society or global environment.

JL: Do you think reunification is a viable possibility in the near future, and what do you think the consequences would be?

MK: It’s one of those situations where the alternative would be nightmarish, for the status quo to go on, and I don’t have to cite the statistics about how the average North Korean is 6 inches shorter than the average South Korean. I mean just from a humanitarian perspective it seems slightly evil to say “Let’s just keep the status quo,” so I’m definitely on the affirmative side, I’m definitely for reunification. But in terms of how to do that I guess my perspective is slightly different from a lot of people in terms the emphasis I place on art. You probably know that at this moment from the South Korean side they’re sending in balloons with dollar bills and little notes about how great South Korea is, that they should defect, and they’re also sending little USB drives, and if you open it up there’s images of what’s happening in North Africa right now, to show them they’re not alone. I don’t know how effective those types of things might be, but it’s gradually changing. But I think that’s the hope of a lot of people. And you probably know more and more South Korean DVDs are getting into North Korea, like a lot of the South Korean dramas, so there I agree with them, art is the solution, but I don’t think what’s happening right now is helping to build a new uprising in North Korea because a lot of the ideologies in South Korean dramas don’t really contest the idea of Koreans as uniquely family-centered, so in a weird way South Korean dramas go really well with North Korean stereotypes.

JL: What do you think needs to happen for reunification to take place? I think one thing that people point to is that if this happens, is it ethical, because much of the burden is going to be placed on South Korea to have to support this new population, and that there’s no guarantee that the UN or the US or whoever will give support so that what may end up happening is that the burden is going to be placed solely on South Korea’s government, so what do you think has to happen for there to be the smoothest possible transition?

MK: If you’re looking at it historically, not only are the South Koreans responsible but the United States too, because they’re the ones who drew that border. Historically it’s not a real border, it doesn’t come from anywhere, it’s just a line drawn in the sand. And of course one would hope China would help, because they’re the ones economically fueling North Korea, they’re the principal reason why there still is a North Korea, and of course since the Japanese are the ones who bred this weird nationalism in the weird place, one would hope that they would bring in resources. But okay, that probably won’t happen right? But in terms of the sorts of counter-propaganda that might work, I think that Mother was actually – have you seen that movie? – by the same guy who did Host, the South Korean director – I think if North Koreans saw that, because there, it explicitly debunks and complicates this idea of Koreans as the most family-centered and the most innocent and so on, so if you could do that, if you could get more radical art, if there was like a South Korean avant-garde making North Korean movies, not South Korean movies about South Koreans, but South Korean movies about North Koreans, and showing them in a positive light but also complicating their ideology, that would go a long way. That would really be subversive.

JL: So how do you describe the role of the art you’re making over here? How would you contextualize your work in relation to all this: your essays and manifestoes, and your book for example?

MK: Specifically, in One Break, I really focus in on art school, and for me, that’s really the institution to look at. If you know anything about Kim Jong Il’s biography, when he turned 30 he began to make movies and he’s really just a big movie buff, so he knows a lot about Hollywood ideology and how productive it is to work in that arena. In terms of art school if you could get South Korean art schools and Chinese art schools to begin to think about totalitarianism and how to really complicate what’s going on in North Korea, I think that would be a big step. I have a really weird relationship with art school too because I feel like it’s the one institution that’s too often looked over. Generally people who know about art school think it’s just a playground for rich kids, but things like learning about semiology and reading advertisements and asking “What is this advertisement really telling me?”, that’s one thing that art school can really do.

JL: So you went through art school and you got your MFA at CalArts and I think CalArts is kind of a notorious art school, there’s its uniqueness with the conceptual art movement that happened there, but it still is an art school like other art schools… So, what are your hopes of what might come out of a place like CalArts?

MK: Well, first off, lately I’ve been reading a lot of Boris Groys, this Russian philosopher, and for him, the museum is a real event, a place people can go to emancipate themselves. So for him, art is this thing to really be taken seriously. I kind of agree with him, but for me the emphasis is really art school. Honestly, having gone to museum, have I ever had en experience of sublime emancipation in a museum? The answer is no, not really. But I think art school is a place that can contain that sort of desire for emancipation and if you look throughout the history of fascism for example, Hitler’s biography is interesting because he applied to art school twice and got rejected. And maybe because of my art school background I ask myself, “What if he had been accepted, then you don’t see National Socialism, then you don’t see WWII. I mean it’s slightly fantastical, but had there had been what the Sociologist Albert Meister calls a beaubourg, not necessarily an art school but a place with multiple levels where people can gather and work on creative activities and so on, there might not have been a guy like Hitler, or a guy like Hitler would have had an institution to go to. You can find the same kind of thing in Russia. Like early on, there was a huge interest in proletarian culture, where these little beaubourg-type groups or these art school-type situations where workers would come and make music and that sort of thing, and of course Stalin came and decided that this was counter-revolutionary and he got rid of all these spots where this type of culture was taking place. But think about what if Trotsky had come to power? He probably would have been more open to this idea of a beaubourg-type art school and the Russian Revolution would have gone in a completely different direction had a guy like Trotsky come into power. And that flows into China’s cultural revolution, like had Mao seen Trotsky implement these types of art institutions, Chinese reeducation camps could have been really different. The whole idea of reeducation is a sort of art school idea, and had he had that example, it would have led to a very different direction for Communism in China.

JL: Is this beaubourg-type art school the inspiration behind the project you and Gina have, Beaubourg 268? Do you want to talk a little bit about that? It seems like that’s bringing together some of the ideal kinds of events that happen at an art school on a small scale.

MK: Right. The one distinction I would make is the idea of an ideal beaubourg-art school and the actuality. I mean we all sort of know what actually happens at an art school. Some of it’s really profound. Then there’s student loans and other things. But I still sort of feel like it’s an ideal institution. There’s this great essay by Freud where he talks about social formations and he brings up the church and the army. And the art school sort of resolves all those antagonisms that you find in both institutions. But Beaubourg 268’s name itself came out of Albert Meister’s The So-Called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg and there he describes this vision of a space in France, where there’s 50 underground levels and his vision was to have French workers from all corners of the country come and gather. That’s part of the CalArts myth I think. On one hand CalArts is really fractured, like a lot of the animation people just do their own thing. So the school is fractured but there’s the whole idea of having all the arts under one roof. For me that’s what’s really worth preserving. Reading the literature I don’t really see anyone sort of advocating for art schools.

JL: Do you feel like art school is a worthwhile investment? In terms of getting an MFA, that’s one of the things that gets talked about a lot. It’s really expensive, and sometimes even gets referred to as a “rich kids’ playground.” How do you feel about this? Financially speaking, do you feel like it’s a worthwhile investment?

MK: Hm, I haven’t really thought about that.

JL: Or maybe in addition to think about, we both went to CalArts which is an art school, but we were in the writing program. This is a pretty rare phenomenon right, that creative writing gets put under the arts in art schools. There’s only a few art schools that employ this and for the most part, creative writing programs are grouped into English or literature departments, or with the humanities. So there’s also that different experience.

MK: Yeah, I think that really goes back to – and I think this is conscious on the part of CalArts, the administrators at least – I think they want to model themselves after the Black Mountain College experience. But I don’t know what to say about MFAs exactly. I really liked the experience I had. I went to CalArts twice. Once when I was 18 for their summer program. And there I had a really intense, positive experience. The MFA is of course more complicated because of the greater investment. But I liked the whole experience of being around artists. I had no intention of going to a – I had that experience at UC Riverside where you’re just hanging out with English majors. It’s a totally different experience. It was worth it to me. 

And this is a little unrelated, but for me art school as an idea is, that for all the historical reasons I just gave you, which may sound strange or speculative, to defend arts, to really promote arts is crucial. But a lot of writers who come out of art school, I don’t know why they don’t do that. A lot of the people who are working on theory generally give their talks in art school, people like Badiou and Zizek, but they hardly every talk about the institutions themselves. For me it’s like everything begins and starts with art school. For me it’s like the closest thing to communism, really. Do you want to talk about communism?

JL: Yea we can talk about communism.

MK: Well I’ve actually sort of wondered about you. On your Facebook for a time, you had that communist propaganda, of that woman’s face? And I think one of your friends wanted to know like “Is this communist?” And they had questions about that. Of course people are really sensitive about that. Am I right to assume that you self-identity as a communist?

JL: Well for me, I don’t know if I would self-identity as a communist but I think it’s a sensitive subject for a lot of people because it’s so hard to separate the ideology of communism with the practice. For example, I have a friend, he grew up in Cuba and grew up under the communist regime there and had a very different experience of the oppression that communism can create. So for him it was impossible to separate the ideology and all the ideals that communism could possibly represent because he lived under it and it meant something very concrete and physical for him. Which is why when I think people see a lot of communist propaganda they immediately identity it with a certain kind of oppression or a certain historical period. And I wouldn’t say I identity as a communist but I definitely sympathize with the ideologies and the ideal kind of environment it was trying to create. So I think it’s interesting that you’re saying that art school is the closest thing you can imagine to communism. Can you talk a little more about that? And about your relationship to communism?

MK: Well the way I got into communism in a positive way is through Badiou and Zizek. They talk about it positively and initially, like a lot of people, you scratch your head and think like “Are they blind to Stalin’s Gulag?” And you get into their essays and you find that that’s not what they’re talking about. They will totally agree with you. Stalinism was in a lot of ways worse than fascism. And they will say, “Of course it was nightmarish, the Gulag.” So they won’t defend Stalin or anything like that. But what they’re defending and what they’re really advocating for is the idea of communism. And the word itself has a long history that goes back to the monastery. It has a really rich and multilayered meaning so that for them, we shouldn’t let the Chinese communists or the Soviet Union claim communism, we can take it back. And part of taking it back is, for them, to say that communism in the state form doesn’t work. Where they get really vague is when someone really presses them on, “Okay, so what does this future of communism really look like?” And they can’t really tell you. They’ll say stuff like it’s about political emancipation and so on and so on, but you won’t really get a sense of it. If communism isn’t in a state form, what exactly are you talking about? I wish one of them would just say, well art school is an example. They won’t really give you anything concrete. I feel like that’s the one big flaw in their defense of communism, that they’re so vague. There’s lot of areas where they could be a lot more concrete.

Lately I’ve begun to get more and more interested in this idea of communism as something that hasn’t yet happened. I’m gravitating more and more towards that. I know you’re interested in the singularity — what might come in the future technology-wise that might totally change the way we experience consciousness and everything else, and for me insofar as communism is an actuality beyond what we’re doing in art school, that’s what communism is. It’s something in the future that will happen with the arrival of a technology. Some people think the singularity has already happened with the internet. I don’t quite buy that. I don’t see where the internet’s potential to emancipate people really lies. I know people sort of point to, well they’re using Twitter to gather in Egypt. Well ok, they’re using cellphones. But it’s still too weak of an argument for me. So that’s another interesting thing that maybe we can talk about. You’re interested in the singularity, and is it related to this idea of communism?

JL: I haven’t thought of it that way. My interest in the singularity isn’t about whether it exists, but the belief that it exists, and the possibility that might be such a moment in time that isn’t gradual. I’m interested in the areas around it, but I’m also interested in it the same way that I’m interested in the Rapture and I’m sort of seeing these as two sides of the same coin, that there are very specific moments where there’s going to be huge rupture and huge change in consciousness and the world and whatever, whether that’s really possible, what the repercussions of such a thing might be. That’s my interest in it. You talk about how some people are pointing to the internet as evidence of this, and I think I agree with you. I don’t think the internet is it, if there is an “it” at all. But what are your thoughts about the internet, or in terms of technologies, how might the internet be connected to the future of writing, or the future of art in general?

MK: The one problem I have, I know this isn’t totally related to what you’re asking me, but I think one interesting point of argument is that the whole singularity/internet argument doesn’t quite work because the internet is still physical. It’s still grounded on this planet. It’s still bound to the laws of physics as we know it today. Like anything else, it can be destroyed with an earthquake or tsunami. Related to what you were talking about in the restaurant, you know about futurology people who sort of predict, there’s a lot of them who will say that in the future the United Sates will break up into four parts. One area where I’m interested is where a scientist like Michio Kaku, who’s considered a really knowledgeable and mainstream guy, when these other guys start talking about the future, for Michio Kaku, we’re still in a type zero civilization. So in a weird way, for him, modernity has yet to begin. We’re sort of still stuck in pre-modernity, even with the internet. Even with all this fancy philosophy, for him, we’re still creatures on a planet and from time to time there’s a tsunami or an earthquake. We’re still very fragile. So for him, it’s when we reach the singularity that we turn into a type one civilization and then we can consider ourselves modern and we can actually not be victims of tsunamis and earthquakes and so on.

Hearing something like that, for me, it’s not totally analogous to the Christian experience. I don’t see this as another example of hoping for a utopia sometime in the future, which communism and Christianity both do. It’s fantastical, but hearing something like that, it’s another psychic scaffold that helps me survive. But it’s not necessarily a reality. I’m kind of hoping that it’s real. Maybe we can talk a little about nihilism. Because I think that was my first way into writing…

JL: When I first met you, you were all about nihilism.

MK: I remember feeling it in high school too. You read about the past, you know: prehistory, dinosaurs, and then you read about what will probably happen: humans will die and then another ice age will come and another level of evolution. I find that incredibly depressing. You know that old cliché saying that if you’re truly nihilistic, you’re bound to do anything like kill or murder or rape or whatever. I feel like that’s sort of true. And of course Christianity and these other belief systems sort of mitigate that. But I sort of feel like there’s more and more nihilism and if we don’t buy into this idea of the singularity, it is all a kind of big waste. I can’t get into that whole thing about, “Well, we’re here and let’s just enjoy the time that we have, so what if man isn’t immortal.?” I feel like I can’t totally buy into that.

JL: Do you feel like there’s an equivalent in writing and art? Like the singularity is really centered around the relationship we’re going to have with technology and how that’s going to change everything else. Do you feel like there’s some kind of hope or some kind of equivalent in writing?

MK: No, no. That’s the thing. I’m a bit more cynical than you. I feel like once the singularity happens, writing will go away. Once we have the designer drugs to actually internalize someone’s subjectivity, writing will be like some pre-modern toy we get rid of. I think writing is one of the best things out there at the moment, but I don’t know how long it will last. I don’t think the internet will kill it, but I don’t know, we’ll see in fifty years.

JL: When you say that you think writing’s going to disappear, what exactly are you referring to? We’ll still have language, so will written language disappear?

MK: I’m just speculating. Who knows what the singularity will bring. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the singularity will just intensify language. That’s probably more likely. It’s hard to write about the singularity, because all the books I’ve been reading, like science fiction writers who try to imagine it, it’s often just talking about the present. Like reading a Philip K. Dick book, it’s funny how he’s trying to imagine the future yet he doesn’t know about the internet or he doesn’t know about iPads. So a science fiction book made in the 70’s is actually about the 70’s. It has nothing to do with the future. It would be impossible for anyone to speculate as to the singularity, so it’s probably not even worth talking about. But then again, there’s that whole nihilism thing. Especially in anthropology, it’s likely that we’re going to die off… And I’m wondering, do you ever feel that nihilism, or that crushing weight of “Wow, this is all meaningless.”

JL: Yea, I think I do, but I don’t think I label it as such. So I’ve probably experienced it more often than I think and attributed it to something else.

MK: Does your interest in Christianity alleviate your sense of doom?

JL: No, because I don’t believe in the dogma. I look at it as another system of viewing the world. We talked about this earlier right. Religion and fiction, the paranormal and philosophy and psychology, they’re not really separate. They’re just different ways of looking at the world. They’re all just different subjective visions that sometimes overlap and sometimes don’t. I don’t necessarily see one as better or more correct than others. I wonder, if we backtrack a little bit. I think you’re right. It’s impossible to speculate on what might happen with this technological singularity, which might happen five years from now or a million years from now. But in terms of the role that technology is playing now, in the present time, I wonder if you have any thoughts on that. Like [out of nothing], we obviously have some kind of investment in the digital and in the internet, and this idea of how people are experiencing writing and art digitally versus print. I wonder if you have any thoughts about that.

MK: No, I don’t have any thoughts about that. I know people who have lots to say about that. It’s not my g-spot. It’s weird. I know a lot of new media professors who like to talk about how we’re living in a utopia today, with our iPods and all that. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’re living it that I don’t quite see how revolutionary it is.

JL: Not even in terms of it being revolutionary, but it’s a different medium that’s being used right. Scott McCloud will often talk about how we had comics in print, and then we had the internet, and comics didn’t adapt to fit this new format. It’s just another example of putting something into a different container, just changing the shape, so we had the same panels on the screen that we had on the page, but nothing else was done with it. It was just copying and pasting one content to fit the shape of another. So I think people are trying to get past that. Because when that happens, you ask the question, “Well what’s the point? Why not just have read it in the original form? Now it’s just harder to read.” So I feel like that’s one of the things that [out of nothing] is trying to do, whether it succeeds or not. But like as you know, we have a different design for every issue and we try to link the theme with the design and the content. Normally you just have a list of names and then you click on a name and you scroll down and read the text and you press back and so on. It’s like you’re reading a print book but it’s just been copied and pasted on to the internet.

MK: I like hearing about all the negative consequences of new technology. Like in South Korea, for example, hundreds of thousands of people are addicted, so they say, to social media sites. And they spend days upon days just looking at the screen. Or in Japan, like otakus, or people who suffer from hikikomori, basically young people who are essentially nerds whose only access to the outside world often is the internet. In the 90s, I recall people talking about how, “It’s going to be great with the internet. People won’t have to move into larger cities, everyone will scatter. No one will have to travel so we’re going to get rid of cars and planes. Everyone can just stay where they are and interact with everyone else.” But that didn’t happen. Generally, it seems like my friends are either using the internet for porn, or all these other things. But sometimes for useful things too, like making movies, and stuff like that. I do like that about it. I feel like I have a better sense for what they’re doing in movies now that I’ve sort of played around with it.

I think what’s really with [out of nothing] is that is really plays around with the medium. It’s almost like depending on which issue, they’re often meta-commentaries on what a site is.

JL: Do you have an opinion on the possible disappearance of books?

MK: Hm. Tell me your opinion. I mean, with a lot of issues, I feel like that’s someone else’s problem. I just doubt it. That’s my opinion. I doubt that books are disappearing.

JL: I would agree with you. I don’t think print is going to disappear. I just think that it’s going to play a different role and that e-literature is going to play a more significant role in the coming years, but I don’t think print’s going to disappear. I think it has a different function, and that’s what people have to search for, what the function of print is versus digital.

MK: The one thing I do like about e-readers is the weight. When you’re traveling, you really become aware of how heavy books are. When I had to leave London, I was at the airport and my bag was a couple pounds overweight so I had to get rid some of the books. I actually got rid of the Badiou book, Being and Event. Because it was a big book and I didn’t get much out of it, so I just threw it out. It really forces you to choose. I still feel like there’s lots of things you can’t do with e-readers. Like what we’re doing now [looking around the books in the library], it’s nice to sort of see everything out there.

JL: I wonder if we should switch gears and talk about Derrida. You’re sort of a scholar of Derrida and French theory. What first drew you to Derrida?

MK: There’s lots of ways to talk about him. I didn’t grow up reading French theory. Up until high school, I didn’t grow up in an environment with books, so my first introduction to Derrida was in college, like a lot of people. At first, I really struggled with it. For me, I got into the late Derrida, because then he talks about things that are more related to political and social issues. And that’s when he gets into mourning and forgiveness. Which is also related to the whole North Korea thing. So for me, if I wanted to introduce Derrida to someone, or if Derrida’s ghost was here with us, I’d ask Derrida something like, “With all the problems that are going on on the planet, what can deconstruction do to alleviate or solve these problems?” I can imagine Derrida saying that deconstruction has nothing to do with solving these problems. Of course deconstruction can’t actually solve what’s happening in Japan or North Africa. Deconstruction doesn’t have that sort of potential. On the other hand though, especially if you read his later work, it’s clear that he does sort of see this role for deconstruction. And a lot of his students, like Avital Ronell, people who practice deconstruction, will often say something to the effect of deconstruction begins where Marxism ends. So for me, that’s when my Spidey Sense goes off. I don’t quite buy that. In terms of the true potential for emancipation in deconstruction, I’m more along the lines of a guy like Richard Rorty. He’s a pragmatist, and he’s really tough on Derrida, because for him, books like On Grammatology, they’re almost like a private vice. They’re all well and good but they don’t really have anything to offer democracy. Derrida doesn’t exist in a private space. He’s wholly private. And that’s how I perceive Derrida, and a lot of his followers. And this is just a general point to be made about people who follow French theory, is that they believe they’re doing something much bigger than they’re actually doing. That’s my big critique of Derrida. I have a lot of pet peeves about him. Like there’s this great clip of him on YouTube where someone’s asking him about Seinfeld, and how Seinfeld might be related to deconstruction, and he totally dismisses the person, says, “That’s stupid, deconstruction has nothing to do with Seinfeld.” Now if you were to ask that same question to a guy like Zizek, he would respond and make something with that question, but I find Derrida to be very dismissive. And the theory itself prides itself on doing more than it actually is. How did you get into deconstruction?

JL: I first read Derrida in undergrad too. And I read that part in On Grammatology where he talks about the “blind spot” and that was really interesting to me at the time. And then I didn’t read him again until CalArts.

MK: So the blind spot is one of the Derrida concepts that you use?

JL: I don’t know if I “use” it but it’s an interesting way to conceptualize a text, that every text circles around a “blind spot.” We were talking about Badiou’s event before, and I think that the two are linked. What do you think Derrida would say about Badiou’s notion of the event?

MK: I think he would probably pull it apart. And that’s the other thing about deconstruction. It doesn’t have a positive program. So I don’t see how deconstruction begins where Marxism ends. Much of what Marx wrote about was about capitalism, he had very little to say about the communist utopia. After a critique of the world, where do you go from there? What’s the positive? For me it’s the singularity. Deconstruction, like most French theory, like Foucault, is very much into critiquing and very much into deconstructing narratives. But in terms of the positive force, I don’t see how deconstruction becomes political. Well one reaction might be, “That’s a tall order. That’s not a fair question.” But Marx did it. All around the world, he had a huge influence. So it’s not such a tall order. So for me, the typical deconstructionist is just in a room reading and writing, and for me, it’s just that. Deconstruction can’t really mobilize people.

JL: It seems like you sort of have a love/hate relationship with French theory in general.

MK: My big thing is that you can just get by with Marx. I’m not just picking on French theory, but just in general, feminism, multiculturalism, etc. They all, depending on who you ask, make that claim about themselves: “We begin where Marxism ended.” Often I put myself through that whole process. After I critique everything, this is phallocentric, this film is anti-feminist, etc. I ask myself, “What’s the positive aim?” And I don’t see it in these things.

JL: So what do you think is the value of reading theory or philosophy in general? Why do you think it’s important for a writer to read theory?

MK: I think it’s crucial to be a citizen of the world. You can’t be stupid. You can’t always buy what you read in the newspaper. That in of itself is of value. The ability to see through propaganda. And philosophy gives you the language to do that. This is a little unrelated, but I was reading Badiou’s book the other night and looking at how he defines philosophy. And it’s really interesting. For him, philosophy is about manipulating. There’s often that crazy, two-dimensional image of Hegel amassing information and synthesizing everything. And for Badiou, what a philosopher does is manipulate questions. So in a way, it’s about asking the right questions. The philosopher doesn’t have answers. So if you were to ask a philosopher, “How can we mitigate what’s happening in Japan?” For Badiou, a philosopher wouldn’t really have an answer. What does a philosopher know about tsunamis? So for him, it’s about framing questions, and to the degree that a person is interested in doing that, philosophy might be of some use. So philosophy is a violent thing. Typically it’s an egocentric thing. It’s about emphasizing things. It’s not necessarily about revealing truth.

JL: Do you think that’s true about writing in general?

MK: Isn’t the cliché that we lie but then there’s a deeper truth under that, or that we lie to get at the truth beneath? But our work, the work we do, is so atypical from what like people do in the Iowa Workshop. But that’s an interesting question, what does fiction do. Generally it should entertain. And that’s what philosophy does too. They’re just entertaining themselves. Don’t you get that sense when you’re reading Deleuze and Guattari? I feel like they’re really having fun.

And another thing I like about philosophers is their ability to connect disparate elements, and that’s something that’s never really taught in school. In school you have science class and everything is separate. It’s amazing to see a person connect disparate elements and see how things are connected. Even though it’s not necessarily the truth, it’s still a more interesting way of looking at the world.

JL: I don’t think I have any more questions for you, unless you have something else you want to mention.

MK: When you see that there is a negative side to philosophy, that is in egocentric and all of that, how do you deal with that?

JL: I think all writing is egocentric. My number one reason for reading anything is the ideas and concepts. And that goes for both fiction and theory, but also science and anthropology. And second it the language. I’m more forgiving about the language when I’m reading anthropology than when I’m reading fiction of course, but I think I read all texts with a similar lens. It’s a biased lens, but when I read fiction too, I read it for the ideas. So I get tired very quickly with fiction or poetry that don’t have any good ideas. I feel like I want to be learning something or having it affect me somehow or further my thinking. It’s very hard for me to read something that’s just there. You already know this about me, I love to watch bad action movies, but obviously I’m not watching these with the same expectations. I am watching those for pure entertainment, I separate the two. But if something is purporting to be literary or smart, I want it to be those things. And if it’s not, I have a really low tolerance.

MK: Well that’s another thing: the whole idea of literariness and what qualifies and what doesn’t. For me, another pet peeve of mine, with a lot of Derrida’s work, is that he’ll critique a lot of the early Greek myths but I’m not sure he’s doing anything subversive. In a way, by critiquing it, he’s still part of the canon. He’s still linking himself with the tradition. So lately I’ve been thinking about the degree that any writing is subversive.

JL: Right. A lot of writing that claims to be subversive isn’t. Or it’s trying to be subversive and that’s it, which is always going to fail. In which case, you’re not really subverting anything if the goal is simply to be subversive.

MK: I do want to hear about your flagpoles for philosophers who have really made an impact on you. Who are they?

JL: I don’t know if I can point to one in particular. It depends on the point in time. For awhile I was looking at Kierkegaard a lot, Nietzsche…

MK: I remember you talking about a project on Julian Jaynes. Are you done with that?

JL: Well, I still look at him, but he’s not really a philosopher. He’s a psychologist. But then there are those who don’t take him seriously as a psychologist either. In a way, he’s sort of a Freud figure. Freud is still really respected, but in a way he has these ideas that can’t necessarily be disproved or proved scientifically. And Jaynes’s theories are like that. So they sort make up another system of looking at the world.

MK: And you don’t have to record this, but it would just be nice to talk about…

 

 Interview conducted 4/5/11.

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Maxi Kim is the author of One Break, A Thousand Blows!.



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