On dignity and society

Haejoang Chohan, a feminist scholar friend of mine at Yonsei University, gave me a copy of her book “Talking on the Edge” a couple of years ago that I still haven’t read more than ten pages of. It’s a collection of letters published in Japanese and English between her and Japanese feminist intellectual Chizuko Ueno. I tried translating some of it as an exercise, but never got very far.

Anyway, watching the movie last week, this one piece seemed to be very relevant. I’m including two paragraphs I translated last year (assuming she won’t sue me — we’re pretty good friends):

As before, my mother cannot get up from her bed and she looks like she would rather give up food. A blood pressure and sugar level check every hour, the morning’s insulin injection, eight pills of medicine, my mother’s condition is based upon these indignities. My mother who asks: “It’s not death and it’s not life, what is this?” In the middle of that, there’s not much I can do. That there are old songs from my childhood we used to sing together joyfully at ancestor worship is fortunate. That those songs have been released as they were on CD is also lucky. Because of that, it’s fortunate that we can listen to those songs as I massage my mother’s hands and feet and tell old stories. Yesterday, on Child’s Day [a Korean holiday], recalling how every year she would take us all to the bakery “New York Bread,” she seems happy. When we share stories like this, her spirit seems to return to her.

Have you ever read Phillip Aries’ book “L’homme Devant la Mort (Man in Front of Death)”? On the first page of that book the 15th century painting “The Last Supper” is reprinted with the caption: “Even until the beginning of the 19th century, at a person’s last meal not only the family but even people with no acquaintance could enter the dying person’s room. A person would die in the midst of so many people.” Birth, love, and death were are jumbled together in such a way. “There was a time when there was another life after death. In modern times, people try to completely ignore death, and agency in matters of death rests not with the person concerned, but has rather been transferred to the authority of the hospital system and HMOs,” writes Aries. ‘The age of tubes sticking from bodies like hedgehog spines and waiting for death,’ how difficult it is not to enter the circumstance of relinquishing one’s control of one’s own fate and to live with dignity……. When you wonder whether you might have escaped, again you find yourself sliding back into that elaborate net, that sort of system makes my desire to escape it grow all the greater. (초한혜정, 경계에서 말한다, pp. 12-13)

When I think of the reality we are living with today — in Rokkasho, Iraq, Washington, Utah, Hiroshima, and all over the world in terms of environmental contamination and diseases such as HIV/AIDS and cancer — I think of how life in the modern age has been sharply separated from any sense of human subjectivity. Just as Aries points out how agency has “been transferred to the authority of the hospital system and HMOs” in the case of disease, the agency of life in Rokkasho has been transferred to Nihon Gennen and the electric consumers in Tokyo high rises, whose agency has in turn been transferred to an economic system of human material exploitation. To live is no longer an option, only to “make the most” of what human society has constructed out of life. Society can no longer be romanticized and partitioned as a set of mutual obligations and promises, entered into or exited from. If nothing else, the nuclear issue has proven the contingency of life in society.

It is also important, however, as director Kamanaka points out, not to romanticize the individual as a subject of good or evil forces. The laundry owner and construction workers, whether or not they try to escape these systems, it is not possible to ignore these processes. The plant will be built… people with nothing will come and work on it, because society dictates inequalities. On Thursday in my ethnography class, one group was presenting an ethnography of the Ukraine post-Chernobyl. They mentions how people working within Chernobyl are paid easily thrice as much as normal workers, and that this, paired with a social imperative (based on social services) to be sick for recognition as a citizen of the state, will always bring workers to these sites of destruction and disease. When I think about Rokkasho, I think about how the plant will slowly deteriorate the population of the village, both inside and out, and when it’s done with those workers, others will come. Rokkasho is the exhaust pipe of the social net that we all yearn to escape, but is becoming increasingly impossible to separate ourselves from.

Where do we cross from Aries’ description of society as open doors at birth and death — embeddedness in a human mass — to the society of global capitalism — that “circumstance of relinquishing one’s control of one’s own fate”? I wonder what dignity is in the modern age.

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