- As a Translator and Reader of Judith Butler in Korea
I became a Korean translator of Judith Butler's works purely by chance. In 2006, I taught a newly created lecture on feminist aesthetics and art at the Department of Aesthetics, Seoul National University. Having just finished my doctoral dissertation on Baudelaire's modernity, I had to study feminist methodologies day and night to meet SNU's smart feminist students in that class. At the end of the first semester, the students suggested reading Judith Butler together, which was my first introduction to her and her work. Because I was familiar with the discourses of poststructuralism, I was easily drawn into Butler's sophisticated and sincere ways of thinking. First "we" read that (in)famous book, Gender Trouble, and several essays from the Judith Butler Reader edited by Sara Salih. After that, we chose to read Precarious Life, which I then translated and published in Korean in 2008. Thus far, I have translated three books, and I am now translating a fourth, Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly.
After countless readings alone or together with students, I have come to memorize her sentences. I even speak as if I am Judith Butler. In particular, I have embodied some parts of Precarious Life and Giving an Account of Oneself. Her writing style and ways of thinking have become parts of my own writing, especially when I write about artists' exhibitions.
As "we" all know and will agree, Judith Butler's deconstructive thoughts are primarily critical of the modern subject and power in the regime of representation. Thus her texts are very difficult to read and understand, even for [End Page 135] those who majored in philosophy. They require meticulous and concentrated readings. At the same time, her texts—classified as ethics and political philosophy—are poetic. They trace human sorrow and suffering in the ruins of humanism. During my lectures, I teach students how to read her texts in the context of poststructuralism, while at the same time listening to their feelings about her peculiar "figure" of writing. Her texts are not only about undoing the logic of identity, but also about making us crying animals. So, we read her texts as an elegy. Even while translating, I sometimes fall into a sorrow and have even cried. Many readers have told me they also cry in reading her texts. Some read her texts as philosophy and others read them as prose. I translated Butler's texts word for word with prudence because I believe what is most important when we read Butler is to follow the "play" of her disjunctive logic. Her writing is not for the majority nor for knowledge-power/pleasure. Women, queers, artists, and wounded people—in other words the marginal (in Butler's words, the human?)—have reacted enthusiastically to her key words, such as dispossession, passivity, exposure, susceptibility, and livability.
When reading Giving an Account of Oneself, I ask my students why there appears to be almost no example or illustration making her ethical claim "clear" and concrete. Although they can't articulate in clear language, they explain why the book, in distancing from abstract and "universal" thoughts, has almost no concrete examples based on actual violence. If I can translate their feelings faithfully but obliquely, it is that her writing touches their singular wounds and solitudes resisting symbolic language. When I read in front of them, I stumble and sometimes fall into silence because I can't translate her sentences properly in common symbolic languages. We share silence and that silence makes us what we are, both individually and in common, or both singular and plural. Often I read her lines without any explanation, fearing I might distort the message.
On September 21, 2018, I gave a lecture at the Refugee Human Rights Center in Seoul. Previously, refugee problems in Korea had not been discussed. But around June of this year, hundreds of refugees came to Korea from Yemen, and Korean hatred of Islam had emerged and become a social issue. At the end of the two-hour lecture, I read part of chapter 6 of Notes Toward...