How the Pandemic Made Us a Minority

Suh-Reen Han, Seoul National University

 

My sister lives in LA, and our weekly Facetime chats across the Pacific have lately turned into outbursts of grievances about the prolonged pandemic crisis. My sister’s tirades against government incompetence and apathy have been escalating, and I have come to share her worry about raising two children amidst a growing environment of intolerance. Despite our common distress and outrage, however, I have to be honest in acknowledging that my pandemic experience comes with mixed feelings. On the day that the news of the first COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea appeared, I remember Director Bong Joon Ho and his cast having a celebratory lunch at the presidential residence after Parasite had won four Oscars. News of quick and innovative containment of the virus followed the initial chaos, and soon South Korea was globally hailed as the forerunner of successful disease control. The Korean Baseball Organization was one of the first professional baseball leagues to start its 2020 season last summer, and the games were aired daily on ESPN for those thirsting for live sports. Just recently, the K-pop group BTS topped the Billboard 100 chart with their first English single, which they released in the hope of “revitalizing” their global audiences “in this very difficult time.”

Koreans still stand in awe of the global attention they have garnered during these strange times. I say “global” not because America is the world, but because America is usually the last to open up to foreign cultures. This global recognition, however, has proven to be a double-edged sword since it drew attention to our racial difference and instigated old and new racial prejudices. Hate crimes and derogatory remarks made against Asians also became part of our news. We were suddenly a racial minority.

When did we become a minority? How did we become a minority? Of course, Korea is no exception to social divides and inequalities along gender, class, and political lines. Even if race may not be a particularly dominant part of our domestic discourse, encounters with other races and ethnicities, on both individual and national levels, do let us know of our place in racial politics. And we, too, use racial politics to our advantage or disadvantage. However, something feels different this time. Our reduction to a racial minority feels, not necessarily unjust, but perceptually jarring. The discrepancy between the racial discourse generated around us under global scrutiny and our experience of representing our own culture on the global stage is baffling. Most cultures do not set out to represent a race but rather a lived experience and a heritage, and the idea of racial representation does not sit well with the experience of life and culture. No person “represents” a race unless she or he is forced to by political ideology or systematic discrimination.

It may be time to rethink the minority question. The “minority” has been a politically valuable and often ethically imperative concept in a world where not all groups get equal political representation. And we certainly need it now more than ever. However, the minority cannot adequately remain a political category when it comes to cultural representation. To expand the minority question from the political to the cultural, I call forth Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of minor literature from their Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Minor literature is defined less by the minor status of its maker or language than by the more radical dynamic of its “becoming-minority” in relation to major literature. Major languages become deterritorialized when minor uses make them strange and intense: Deleuze and Guattari’s examples are Kafka’s Prague German, Beckett’s English and French, and Black authors’ American English. While individual concerns merely connect with other individual concerns in major literatures, the individual connects immediately with politics in minor literatures, producing “collective assemblages of enunciation.” The individual in minor literatures is not a subject speaking for oneself or a group, but a solitary being opening up to everything that occurs in history and thus meeting one’s limiting boundary in the form of politics.

Today’s world is virtually connected, all the more so because of the pandemic. The becoming-minority of cultures is not confined to regional politics or colonial relations anymore. Non-English content on the Internet now comes with auto-generated captions or subtitles provided by streaming services; if not, devoted fans are more than willing to translate content into multiple languages and share. Minor cultures even in foreign form have the platform to gain global recognition and deterritorialize major cultures. Deleuze and Guattari refer to the minor author’s deterritorialization of language through its intensive, creative, escapist use as “pop”—as in pop music or pop writing. Perhaps it is not surprising that the truly political becoming-minority is starting with pop culture today.

The globalization of becoming-minority could also have implications for literary studies. Last semester, my graduate seminar read the Seventh Book of Wordsworth’s Prelude alongside the London poems of Park Tae-Jin, a Korean poet and foreign correspondent who also wrote of metropolitan wonderment a century and a half after Wordsworth. Our comparison of the two poets ended with the recognition that Wordsworth’s ability to textualize and read the metropolis comes from his uniquely earthly vision—one that allows him to imagine a nature greater than any human empire and thus boldly reduce London into a scale model of the British Empire. Park also wanders about London’s streets but thoroughly embodies the urban experience through sensory imagery and movement, only to wonder about the power of the imagination that took the West to the moon in the twentieth century. Against Wordsworth’s imperial vision, Park’s refusal to see beyond what meets the eye makes him a minor author. Against Park’s bodily vision, however, the “Earth” that opens Wordsworth’s “Composed upon Westminster Bridge” becomes a particularly Western vision. In this global context, Wordsworth also becomes a minor author. For me, this year will be remembered as the year I started contemplating the becoming-minority of British Romanticism.