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The Work of Being Human: Transnational Labor in Contemporary South Korean Film and Literature


Engaging with texts that center tropes of the nonhuman and monstrous, this dissertation explores representations of the laboring human subject in twenty-first century South Korean literature and film. The project frames South Korea as a transnational state shaped by global circulations of capital and labor that are tied to histories of colonialism, war, national development, and immigration. It analyzes cultural productions, tracing how national and non-national Korean subjects are formed through gender, ethnicity, race, and labor. Arguing that humanism has been the primary mode through which the nation-state manages subjects, the dissertation analyzes literary and cinematic texts through the framework of antihumanism to explore alternate modes of understanding subjectivity.

The introduction uses Kang Kyŏng-ae’s proletarian novel, In’gan munje to examine how the imperial state deployed humanism to dictate exploitive forms of selfhood and otherness. The analysis reveals a tradition of non-or-antihumanist thought that challenges binaries of subjectivity. From here, the first chapter focuses on selfhood through the lens of sexual difference, masculinity, and labor in P’yŏn Hye-yŏng’s short fiction. P’yŏn’s masculine subjects and animal others situate labor as a gendered process that simultaneously humanizes and dehumanizes. This focus on sexual difference and labor is prominent in the second chapter, which examines Han Kang’s Ch’aeshikchuŭija. Contextualizing the novel’s publication and controversial translation within the 2008 movements against the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, I argue that Han connects histories of state gendered violence to the contemporary position of women as domestic national subjects under global and local circulations of labor and culture. In the final chapter, I examine Park Chan-wook’s film Thirst. Here, in the context of South Korean neoliberalization, vampirism represents the monstrosity of global capitalism. Spectrality, in the figure of the migrant worker, arises to posit forms of ethical consideration of the other.

Throughout, the dissertation examines how the transnational state—historically shaped through uneven modes of exchange and circulation—carves national human subjects. In each chapter, the monstrous, spectral, or animal emerge as ways in which to explore these uneven formations through articulations of nonhuman subjectivity.

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